This is one of those chapters where I am giving my readers fair warning on disturbing scene(s).
Enormous gratitude to my wonderful beta, SSB!
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
The Yule holidays were upon them soon enough. On the last day of classes, Severus had requested that Hermione stop by the potions classroom just before lunch. Hermione had a free period, given that her students were in the library doing an in-class research project, supervised by Madam Pince, and Severus had decided to take advantage of it.
This was why she found herself sitting on his desk, naked except for her shirt which had been unbuttoned, and shivering slightly due to the fact that the air in the dungeon was freezing cold. She was still not entirely clear on how he had managed to convince her to do this; for some reason, the details were a bit fuzzy. One moment, she was walking into the empty classroom and being greeted with a kiss by her lover, and then the next…
"Severus…" Hermione moaned.
"Shh." He teased himself against her folds, leaning forward to take a pert nipple into his mouth.
"This isn't a good idea…" Hermione tried, but failed when he slowly pushed himself into her, forcing her to tighten her grip around his neck and bury her face in his shoulder. "Students come in… any moment…"
"Door's closed," Severus responded shortly as he gripped her hips and began thrusting in earnest. "Locked. Class doesn't start for another ten minutes, and I have not seen you all day."
Hermione shuddered, lifted her head and biting his neck to keep herself from crying out too loudly as he stroked her in all the right spots, adding the grinding of his pelvis against her clitoris into the mix. Hermione shook her head as she tried to regain her wits. He was the single most randy man she had ever met, though she had heard Lily complain more than once about the lip-locked couples she had been duty-bound to separate and send away in the halls. Unfortunately, he was also quite likely the only one who could ever seduce her into doing something that, in Hermione's mind, had the words bad idea scrawled across it. In his very own spiky handwriting, no less.
"Y-you saw me this morning," Hermione moaned, pressing her lips against his neck and squeezing her eyes shut as he began to move faster, his hips jerking. She was having difficulty stringing her words together. "And—and it's just—just four more hours until class ends… one hour until l-lunch…"
"Don't care," Severus growled. "Now hush."
Hermione did not exactly have a choice in the matter. She certainly stopped protesting then, as her words became unintelligible, but quiet she was not. She buried her face against his neck again, trying to muffle her moans and cries, with little success. When she finally spiraled down from her high, feeling rather lightheaded, Severus pressed a kiss to her forehead and then pulled away.
"Get dressed, love," he said, smirking at the dazed look on her face. "You have three minutes to get out of here before the students see you in this state."
"You are an arse," Hermione muttered unconvincingly as she slid off the desk on unsteady legs. "I'll have my revenge, just you wait."
Severus's responding sneer was her only reply, and Hermione knew she was going to have to find the actions to back up the words at a later date.
Once classes were over, however, the two of them lay sated on the threadbare rug in front of the fire in their quarters, discussing the possibilities for the holiday.
"The Dark Lord expects me to be available," Severus told her seriously, resting his head on her shoulder even as he braced most of his weight on his elbows. "We either must stay here or go to Spinner's End if we are not staying with the Malfoys."
"Well," Hermione responded slowly, tracing circles on his back with her fingers. "I was thinking that it's possible the Order might be holding a Christmas Party at Headquarters. If that's the case, I might go to that."
"If nothing else," Severus said, expression turning to distaste, "I will most certainly be spending a great deal of time at Malfoy Manor, if I don't end up staying there for the duration."
Hermione grimaced. "We need to have a way to remain in touch in case you're summoned."
"It would seem suspicious if I refused the invitation," Severus pointed out.
"I am not staying at Malfoy Manor for Christmas," Hermione snapped.
"This isn't an issue of our own comfort anymore," Severus pointed out sourly. "This is us doing our jobs. Until the Dark Lord is gone, we have very little to ourselves."
Hermione shut her eyes. "I doubt doing my job includes placing myself in unnecessary danger," she responded flatly.
"You're under the Dark Lord's protection," Severus reminded her. "The Malfoys will not ignore that."
Hermione forced herself to set aside her own repulsion and the instinct to keep herself as far away from the Malfoys as possible as she considered the situation from all angles. "The Dark Lord could visit Malfoy Manor," she pointed out at last.
"It's a risk, and a distinct possibility," Severus conceded.
Hermione shook her head. "I can't come in direct contact with him," she said firmly. "It's far too risky, and not enough gain."
"In that case," Severus stated, "any information I receive in that time will have to wait until the holidays are over for you to record and report."
Hermione bit her lower lip. "Tell me right now—is the Dark Lord planning any… festivities? I recall your last report indicating it was a probability, but you had nothing solid."
"There is still nothing solid on that," Severus said, frustrated. "I cannot turn down the Malfoys or I put myself and my position at risk, both in their good graces as Draco's godfather and in the Dark Lord's as a loyal Death Eater. Separation is also not an option in this case, due to the complicated issue of the Dark Lord's expectations concerning my handling of you, and Dumbledore's expectations in regards to your handling of me."
"The irony," Hermione said dryly. "We're each others' handlers."
Severus snorted with amusement, and then his expression turned serious once more. "You will have to come to Malfoy Manor with me."
Hermione closed her eyes. "Bad idea," she said.
"At this point, everything short of cutting off my left arm and running away to Australia seems like a bad idea," Severus sneered disparagingly.
Hermione opened one eye to look at him consideringly. "I happen to think that's a bad idea, too."
"Then let's stick to this one," Severus said, rolling over onto his side so that his back was to the fire. Hermione could see his face clearly now, and it showed a tired, if slightly pained expression. "It's a week—I'm not expected to arrive for four days, and we're only expected to remain until three days before term resumes. A week at Malfoy Manor isn't too terrible."
Hermione sat up and curled her arms around her knees, her curly hair obscuring her face as she fell deep into thought.
"Seven days," she finally repeated, her face weary. "We need to speak to the Headmaster."
Hermione closed her eyes as she found herself standing in the courtyard of Malfoy Manor, surrounded by strutting white peacocks and willing herself not to do something stupid like running—or in her case, Apparating—away.
The courtyard was blanketed by snow, yet somehow the peacocks appeared to be unaffected. It mattered very little to her either way. Hermione was waiting out in the cold, wearing a black woolen hat with her gloved hands stuffed in her pockets, while Severus and Lucius had gone inside, probably to sit in front of a fire in some fancy armchairs for an even fancier Malfoy glass of wine. Or something of the sort.
Hermione knew Narcissa's eyes were glued on her, and she was alert, but did part particularly fear the woman. She did, however, know that her statue-still presence was putting the woman on edge. People simply did not stand in the snow, still as a stone, and remain unmoving for such a long amount of time.
Seven-month-old Draco Malfoy was sitting on a part of the cobblestone courtyard that had been cleared of snow, bundled up and playing with what looked like a three-tailed jack russel terrier, though Hermione knew it to be a crup. His mother stood less than three feet away from him, smiling thinly as she watched. Hermione knew she was the reason for the blond-haired woman's sour expression, and she did not comment.
Hermione was standing ten meters away from them, perpendicular and only able to see them out of the corner of her eyes.
When the crup bounded over to sniff at her feet, Hermione didn't respond. It let out a low whine, but Hermione merely glanced down at it with such a cold look that the animal eventually slunk away, looking quite hurt by its less-than-warm reception.
The hour grew dark very quickly, and Hermione saw Narcissa pick Draco up—and then, to her surprise and dread, walk over to her. Hermione turned her head only a fraction of an inch to look at the woman once she had approached.
"You should come inside," Narcissa said, sneering, her expression disdainful, as though Hermione were dung under her nose. "It's not wise to stay outside for too long."
Hermione did not respond, but merely turned around, hands still stuffed into her pockets, and walked back to the house. The less said, the better. Narcissa followed a moment later, the crup padding loyally at her feet.
When the door closed behind her, Hermione felt as though she was a rat that had been shut up in a prison maze.
Hermione found herself to be grateful that the Malfoys rarely spoke or addressed her. In return, Hermione was quiet, near dead-silent for the first three days she was there. She did not return to the courtyard, but instead followed Severus like a quiet shadow, untalkative and uncommunicative. The two of them had agreed that the less she said, the better. Lucius made a pointed barb at her once or twice about her being submissive now that she was not directly under Dumbledore's protection, but Hermione did not rise to the bait, merely turned away and directed her attention to the nearest window or bookshelf, appearing mute and bored.
Severus's entire demeanor, the moment they arrived at Malfoy Manor, changed distinctly. His expression was often blank, cold, sour, or disinterested—though Hermione did see his expression soften somewhat toward Draco, which she knew went a long way with Narcissa, and by extension, her husband. Lucius, who was under the impression that Severus had Hermione tamed to his hand, seemed to think that it was therefore safe for Hermione to be overseen by his wife, as though she were a tamed lion that needed someone to watch her, and prevent her from attacking his prized peacocks.
In a way, she was. Hermione knew that deep down, Lucius feared her. He had nothing to fear from Severus, whom he knew to be superior in magical prowess but inferior in status—but Hermione was neither his friend nor did she ever acknowledge his idea of status quo. Thus, without any hand of control over her other than his own proficiency at magic and his faith in Severus's ability to keep her in check, she was a threat to him.
On the third evening of their stay, Hermione found herself in the east wing, staring out at the courtyard and wondering if she could sneak out for some fresh air, while Narcissa sat on a nearby armchair with her son. Her musings were interrupted when Narcissa broke the silence for nearly the first time since Hermione had arrived for another reason other than to direct her to do something.
"Why do you hide your pureblood heritage?"
Hermione did not turn around to reply, and her response was expressionless and blank. "What makes you think I'm a pureblood?"
"You have obvious magical talent," Narcissa responded archly. "Exceptional, according to Severus."
"Lily Potter is a Muggleborn witch with more power in her than some of your husband's associates have combined," Hermione replied coolly.
"Accident of nature," Narcissa stated, lowering the temperature in the room with the coldness in her tone. "Abominations happen."
"Then perhaps," Hermione responded with a mirthless laugh, "I am just another abomination, as you put it."
"I find that unlikely," the other woman countered.
"Why?" Hermione asked, finally turning around to look at her companion.
"Because no Mudblood would ever admit such a thing in this house," Narcissa responded with a tight smile.
Hermione smiled thinly in response, and then turned away, gazing back out the window. "That does hold some measure of logic."
They lapsed into silence for several minutes, before Narcissa opened the conversation up again with a statement that took Hermione slightly off guard.
"You have proved to be far less troublesome than I would have believed."
"How so?" Hermione queried, her attention still on the courtyard where she watched someone lead out a great, Aethonan horse for a turn around the courtyard. Its wings were pinned to its sides with a harness.
"You have been rather… quiescent."
"Did you expect me to be noisy?" Hermione quipped half-heartedly as she watched the chestnut horse toss its head, jerking his groom forward and literally pulling the man off his feet for a moment.
"I expected you to be a Gryffindor," Narcissa stated calmly.
"You mistake courageousness for a lack of common sense," Hermione responded, folding her arms across her chest and pressing the side of her body against the window as she watched the man pull the horse back under control. It was clearly far stronger than its handler, but it obeyed almost meekly at the sight of a drawn wand. Subdued once more, it shook its sides and then plodded forward. "I consider myself brave, but not stupid."
"You should have been sorted into Slytherin," Narcissa observed, adjusting her hold on Draco.
"Would it have made any difference?"
"Perhaps your capabilities for success might not have been so repressed," Narcissa suggested airly. "You could have been great in Slytherin, with talent, intelligence, and discpline like yours."
Hermione laughed coldly. "I'm afraid it took a long time for me to develop much of the latter."
"Still," Narcissa pointed out, her posture regally relaxed as she leaned back in her chair, "You could have enjoyed the benefits of being a pureblood, had you embraced them."
Hermione made a sound in the back of her throat. "I don't judge people based on their parentage."
"Parentage tells a lot about the person," Narcissa said warningly.
Hermione glanced down once at Draco, before looking back at the window. "Of course, parents who are immensely rich may bring up a spoiled and undisciplined child," she said casually. "But there are also children who come from wealthy families who turn into discplined, hardworking, and generous members of society."
Narcissa raised an eyebrow at this. Hermione continued:
"A person whose parents are Muggles may very well turn out to be a Muggle themselves, but there is also a chance that they will not. On the corollary, there are children whose parents are magical, but turn out to be less than half as magically powerful as either parent—or even squibs." Hermione watched as the winged horse in the courtyard was led away, and then finished: "Parentage does not necessarily guarantee the magical prowess or temperament of offspring."
"So what would you have us witches and wizards do?" Narcissa asked icily.
Hermione shrugged. "Diversify. That doesn't necessarily mean marrying Muggles, but it does include Muggle-borns and half-bloods who show an aptitude for magic that would help strengthen the bloodline."
"Powerfully magical Muggle-borns don't exist," Narcissa said dismissively.
"Lily Potter," Hermione said.
"Abominations of nature," Narcissa insisted coldly.
Hermione cracked a smile, even as she knew the conversation was over. That's what you think.
Hermione managed to sneak a visit out to the courtyard two days later, where she stood in the snow, watching the peacocks fluff themselves up and strut about. Twice, the groom returned, with a different horse each time. Lucius apparently kept quite a collection, for next two horses to be taken around the courtyard were large, wild-eyed Abraxans. Hermione did not speak to the man, nor did she make any move to indicate that she was watching the horses for their workout, other than when they passed her line of sight.
The crup came out a few moments later to sniff at her feet before wandering off to chase one of the peacocks, causing the groom to let out a curse as the birds began panicking. His reaction startled his charge who began galloping around the courtyard, rope flying after him as the groom tried to chase the three-tailed dog back inside.
"Catch him, girl!" The man ordered as he grabbed the crup and locked him behind one of the gates leading to the stable. The crup yipped excitedly at this. "For Merlin's sake, grab him!"
Hermione turned to look at him coldly, before glancing back at the horse, who was now bucking, trying to rid himself of the harness pinning his wings.
"I don't know," Hermione said after a moment, cupping her cheek with one hand, trying to look thoughtful. "I think that's your job."
With another curse, the man ran after the Abraxan, and did not manage to get it back under control until twenty minutes later. As he led the horse away, Hermione heard footsteps behind her, and saw three men approaching—one of them Severus, standing on the left. Lucius was on the right. Hermione did not know the man in the middle.
She and Severus shared the same room, but in this house, Hermione was as cold to him as was to their hosts. She slept curled up next to him, kissed him and allowed him to kiss her—but no further. It frustrated Severus that she had become so unreceptive, and he had even accused her of trying to punish him for bringing her here until Hermione, it a fit of pent-up anger and frustration, told him that it wasn't so. When he understood that it was not him, but the Malfoys, he relented, though he was still somewhat sullen about it. He did not, however, press her now that he knew her reasons, for which Hermione was grateful.
Still, while they were at the manor, Hermione kept her distance from him, allowing him to spend more time with Lucius. When Narcissa brought Draco to see her husband and his best friend, Hermione would retire to the quarters they had been given until a house-elf informed her that her presence was asked for. Hermione had said and spoken very little to Severus over the last seven days, and was greatly looking forward to going home.
She turned away from the three approaching men and resumed staring at the peacocks like a barely-sentient gargoyle.
When Severus laid a hand on her shoulder, Hermione turned to face him before she leaned against his arm, looking up at the two men with a silent, baleful stare that was most unlike her normal personality. It was her job to be cold, submissive, and subdued while at Malfoy Manor. Severus had not initially realized what such an act would entail—namely, cut-off access to intimacy—but the two of them had eventually agreed that it was the best impression for her to give.
The third man, who looked to be in his late forties, was tall with short, sleek dark hair and a dark, piercing stare. His skin was so pale that it was almost translucent. His face was long and his gaze unfriendly, but he smiled down at her in a way that reminded Hermione distinctly of a snake. And then, quite alarmingly, he laughed.
"I quite see what you mean, Lucius," the man said mirthlessly as he looked down at Hermione. "She is rather quiet."
Hermione blinked disbelievingly when she saw a flicker of red behind the man's otherwise dark eyes, and then it suddenly dawned on her. She tightened her grip on Severus's arm.
For some reason, she had been expecting Voldemort to look much as Harry had described in her fifth year—bald, grey, with a slit for nose and snake-like eyes. She had almost forgotten that the man had, at one point, looked human—and that his overall serpentine appearance was attributed to his resurrection, not his original body. Thus, this was a bit of a shock.
"So," Voldemort addressed her, his lips curling into a serpentine smile, "do you talk?"
Hermione cleared her throat, willing it to work. "Occasionally."
"She speaks incessantly, my lord," Severus said, glancing at her. "When she wants to. She can be quite impossible to silence at times."
Hermione turned to give him a glare. Voldemort laughed again; it was not as high as Hermione recalled from Harry's description, but it was certainly cold and unfriendly.
"I hope you are enjoying my hospitality," he said, dark eyes flickering red. "The festivities will begin soon."His eyes narrowed into half-slits as he stared at her. "Surely you will do us the honor of attending?"
Hermione swallowed. Her throat felt paralyzed with fear. Festivities? She was not certain that her ideas and the Dark Lord's tastes in festivities were the same.
But would he kill her for begging absence from the event? Would he actually turn his wand on her if she claimed she was too tired, or not feeling well and would very much rather go to bed early? Hermione tried to speak, but the animal in her throat seemed to have curled up into a tight, hedgehog-like ball, and refused to budge. Hermione could do nothing but nod shakily.
"Excellent," Voldemort said, clasping his hands together, his expression one of cruel delight before it turned bored and dismissive, signalling that he was clearly through with the proceedings. He had taken his fun in tormenting Hermione, and now had other things on his mind. "I look forward to your company tonight." Striding away, he called over his shoulder to Lucius, "Come—we have other things to discuss." Severus moved to follow him, but Voldemort laughed and sent him back. "No, no, Severus—stay and entertain her. I'm certain she won't mind."
Severus dipped his head, and as soon as Voldemort and Lucius had disappeared, he turned around to look at Hermione. Hermione stood stock-still, save for the trembling of her body. A moment later, her legs gave way, and she fell to her knees on the hard cobblestone, cushioned slightly by the snow.
"That was him?" she whispered as Severus knelt by her side, wrapping his arms around her shoulder.
Hermione closed her eyes.
"How do you return to him each time?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Severus stroked her hair, before moving to help lift her back to her feet.
"Because I must," he stated. Hermione's knees buckled underneath her again, and he hissed, "Get up!"
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force herself to obey.
You're Snape's handler, she could practically hear Moody growling into her ear. He's your spy, girl! Toughen up and get up! She steadied herself, as the voice continued to berate,Yes, the Dark Lord is terrifying—which means you need to apply constant vigilance, not fall to the ground trembling like a bloody kitten in his wake!
She could imagine Kingley's smooth, calming voice intervening. Take a deep breath, Hermione. Recall that you are on the job. Take inventory and then pull your act back together. You have to be strong for this. War is not pleasant. Being behind enemy lines is not fun. Knowing you could be killed at any moment will not let you sleep well at night—but you knew what you were signing up for. Remember what you're working for.
Hermione looked at Severus, her expression becoming smooth and mask-like once more. She got to her feet, brushing off her robes, and took in three deep gulps of air before pulling her act firmly back into place. She gazed at him. He was counting on her to pull her weight in their partnership, to be strong even when she wanted to collapse, shaking like a schizophrenic patient in the long-term ward at St. Mungo's.
"Let's return to our quarters before the festivities start," she said calmly. "A nap before then might not go amiss."
Severus's eyes looked her over carefully, silently trying to figure out what she was thinking, without invading her mind. Hermione took hold of his arm, and returned to staring at the ground in a façade of submissiveness, while allowing Severus to lead her back inside.
They returned to their rooms, which Hermione did not trust for its privacy despite being a floor and several halls away from where the Malfoys usually spent their time. There were perfectly subtle ways of spying and scrying someone if they had been set up beforehand, and neither Hermione nor Severus trusted that they were not being watched—another reason why Hermione had refused Severus intimacy while they were there.
Hermione retreated to the bed and curled up under the covers, closing her eyes. She felt Severus place a hand on her forehead, as though to check for temperature, and she wondered if perhaps the Dark Lord might simply forget her and let her sleep the evening away.
But she knew that wouldn't happen.
Besides, she had her job to do.
Hermione was shaken firmly awake several hours later. She took a moment to orient herself, closing her eyes to ascertain that her Occlumency barriers were secure and that she could play the part that she had been upholding all week—it was more imperative than ever that she not break character, specifically because of Voldemort's presence. She then got out of bed and changed into fresh clothes. Severus indicated she should wear something nice for a casual evening, though his expression twisted into something between distaste and disinterest at the notion. The two of them were walking down the halls to the dining room in short order, and in utter silence.
When they reached the dining room, Hermione stopped at the door. The room was massive, much larger than necessary for the dining table, and it was far from empty. The dining table was close to the wall near the door, but a far distance from the wall at the opposite end, thereby creating an open space.
An open space for what Hermione assumed was supposed to be tonight's entertainment. But as she took her seat, sitting at the end of the table between Severus and a man Hermione had never seen before in her life-unfortunately nowhere near as far from Voldemort as she would have liked—she realized that there was a row of empty chairs lined up against the other wall. Hermione stared at her plate ominously, wondering exactly what kind of meal this would be.
When the food appeared on her plate, she picked up her silverware and began to cut it, moving it around her plate to make it look like she was eating. She even took a few nibbles every now and then, but that was about it. She was not hungry, and despite the fact that her plate no longer quite looked so neatly arranged, she was certain anyone who looked would be able to tell that she had hardly touched it.
The fork-tailed crup came nosing up to her half-way through the meal, and Hermione managed to slip a few tidbits of chicken underneath the table, to help the food on her plate disappear faster. Severus hardly threw her a glance at this, his attention duly focused on the tall, authoritative figure of Tom Riddle, who had taken his place at the head of the table. Bellatrix Lestrange sat opposite of Severus, and opposite of Hermione, was Barty Crouch. He looked up from his food every once in awhile to grin nastily at her discomfort before ripping a bit of chicken into his mouth, and if Hermione had had any appetite before then, it quite quickly withered and died.
Rowle was three or four seats away from Hermione, and she could feel the dirty looks he sent her, could practically feel his desire to grab her in those thick, body-building hands of his, and smash her through the table to exact his revenge on her. The man next to her had dark, slightly curly hair, with grey eyes and pale skin, who Hermione believed was named Antonin Dolohov, if what his fellows called him at the table was anything to go by. It was at this point, that Hermione realized everyone in the room was pale-skinned. When she glanced down at her own fingers, in the sharp torchlight offered by the walls, they seemed bone-white.
Dinner progressed. Voldemort paid more attention to his followers than he did her, for which Hermione was grateful. In fact, he had not spoken a single word to her since the meal had started. It seemed that being a blood-traitor in percieved status, however useful her blood might be, still ranked her as the lowest of the low among them.
The meal was nearing its end when the crup, who had been nosing about for food scraps, suddenly became alert, cocking his head in the direction of the chairs. He sniffed the air with curiosity, and then innocently padded over to them, pausing to sniff at the wooden legs. There was a sudden yelp and a slight flash of shimmering movement, whereupon the dog jumped back in surprise, having been kicked in the nose by something that was very much occupying the chair.
Hermione saw Narcissa whisper something into her husband's ear and then stand up to leave, taking Draco with her. She gave Voldemort a deferrential nod and a bow, making her excuse that it was past her son's bedtime, and that he needed to be fed and put to sleep. The Dark Lord lazily waved her off, and Hermione watched her go, wishing she had some kind of excuse to follow and not have to witness what would surely be coming next.
The crup let out a rumbling snarl, a high-yipped bark, and then began tearing at an invisible leg.
"Lucius, remove your dog from tonight's entertainment," Voldemort ordered lazily.
"Certainly, my lord," Lucius said, turning his chair around slightly so that he could glance back at the crup. "Colonel, come!"
The dog let out a whine, wagging his forked tail, and padded away. The chair he had been fussing at let out a thud, as though someone had kicked the chair leg in a desperate attempt to make some noise, and the crup, unable to contain himself, whipped around and reattached himself to it.
Voldemort stood up, pointing his wand at the dog.
Hermione let out a gasp of horror as she watched the hapless crup keel over, legs splayed on the ground, jaws still limply attached to the invisible limb that he had been playing with. Hermione swallowed with difficulty; Tom Riddle had just killed an innocent animal for not obeying his master the first time around. She saw Lucius stiffen visibly at this, his eyes widened near-imperceptibly as he finally registered the death of his pet, and then to add to her horror and rising nausea, he sat back, looking quite unconcerned.
"Dobby!" he snapped, summoning the much-abused house-elf. Hermione turned her eyes to her plate, not daring to move a muscle as the poor, pencil-nosed creature was ordered to remove the body.
The dead crup was taken from the room, and then everyone stood up, Hermione following suit when she realized that it was what was expected. Voldemort lazily flicked his wand at the chairs, and to Hermione's horror, twelve bodies that had otherwise been invisible were suddenly revealed, bound tightly with painfully thin, whip-like steel cords. They were all women—Muggle women, Hermione guessed—who looked like college students who had been plucked off the street.
Hermione, who had not been feeling well that evening to begin with, tried to suppress the wave of disgust and nausea twisting and roiling threateninginly in her belly.
"Tonight's entertainment, gentlemen," Voldemort said, his eyes shadowed with flickering red as he gave them all a cruel, mirthless, snake-like smile. "Filthy Muggles that Rowle and Dolohov graciously picked up off the streets of London for us tonight." His face was alight with calm, sadistic delight, though his attitude was one of grandeur. "Get a bit of wandwork done, if you will."
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut as she watched everyone—everyone but her—approach the bound Muggles. Suddenly, however, the man next to her—Dolohov—grabbed her arm, pulled her roughly out of her seat, and took hold of her chair. Hermione moved to yank away from him, but Severus had reached out, grabbing the man's wrist in a tight, claw-like grip.
"She's mine," Severus drawled.
With a nasty smirk, Dolohov shoved Hermione at him, and a moment later, she found herself and her chair being dragged a few feet in front of the table, into the middle of the room. The chair was placed first, and then she was forced firmly into her seat, where she now had a completely unobstructed view of the entire proceedings. Severus's eyes stared pitilessly into hers as he turned away, striding toward the one Muggle woman who had not been taken yet. Hermione watched as the woman—a brunette, probably no older than Hermione herself, with pale bluish-green eyes—stared up at him with fear and horror, tears running down her face, silently wording pleas at him.
This was not rape. No, the Death Eaters apparently considered themselves too good for the likes of consorting with Muggles in such an orgy-like fashion, even if they planned to use and dispose of them afterward. No; they were unbound and thrown to the floor, to be used as target practice and torture, purely entertainment. Hermione gazed, petrified with horror, at the sight that unfolded before her. Blood—so much blood appeared, and moments later, the Silencing Charms were removed, and the screams could be heard, so loud and so pained that Hermione thought her ears would bleed. Her nails dug into the sides of her chair.
She wanted to stand up, whip her wand out, and kill them all. She had never felt such sickening, murderous rage in her life, and it was all she could do to keep herself in her seat— as the Dark Lord apparently intended her to do— and not test out whether she had enough hate in her heart to cast strong enough Killing Curses.
But she couldn't. She could not afford to be the Gryffindor right now, to jump in and try to save these Muggle women—most of whom were by now so badly injured that even if she had the means to save them, they would be dead before she could heal them. Her eyes flickered between them all—the petite blond who screamed as her chest was cut open, the curly black-haired woman with tanned skin who was thrown onto her stomach and pinned with invisible bonds as she writhed in pain before having her spine sliced into—
Focus on your job, girl! Moody's voice roared in her mind. Remember why you're here!
She tore her eyes away, turning to look at Severus, and her eyes widened imperceptibly as she realized that the woman he was torturing—or supposed to be torturing—was already dead, no longer aware of or able to respond to the ghastly marks his spells left on her body. He must have killed her before or just after he began. A mercy killing, Hermione's mind razed through frantically, as she tried to keep her expression under control. He killed her quickly out of mercy—look at the rest of them, saving the vital bits for last—gods, I'm going to be sick…
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, her fingers biting into the wood of her chair even harder; there was an inaudible crack as a nail broke. The screams and cries rang through her head like torturous, moaning bells being rung. Each new scream was a sharp, high-pitched, announcement of pain, though they were gradually reduced to incoherent and unintelligible moans, pleas for death, for mercy, for it to stop…
Hermione kept her face frozen in a rictus of horror, pale as death with eyes shut tight with barely-perceptible emotion; she was otherwise unmoving. When the last gurgling moans died away, Hermione realized that she was not breathing—that she could not breath—and with a cry of desperation, she gasped for air, nearly breaking the cold mask she had worn throughout the grisly performance. Beads of sweat she had not been aware of dribbled down the side of her face, slipping into her eyes and stinging them.
A familiar hand placed itself on her shoulder.
"I think she's seen enough," Severus sneered, pulling her to her feet. "If you'll excuse me, my lord, the hour grows late, and I think we had best be getting back to Hogwarts…"
Hermione did not hear the rest of it. As though in a dream, or a nightmare for that matter, she felt herself being led away. She could not remember much of what happened after that, only that out of the corner of her eye, as they ascended the stairs, she saw Narcissa's pale, frozen face as they passed her.
Hermione managed to hold it in until they had flooed to their quarters at Hogwarts, she herself barely conscious. She was dizzy with nausea and, she vaguely heard Severus mutter into her ear, fever. Her face was sweaty and pale, and it wasn't until Severus coaxed a Wit-Sharpening Potion down her throat that she was coherent enough to pull away from him, stumbling toward their bathroom, where she bent over the sink and vomited. She had eaten practically nothing, and what she had eaten came up immediately—everything else was stomach acid, dribbling down the corner of her mouth as she tried to expel it, feeling as though she was trying to force her guts out.
Severus stood by her, holding her hair out of her face while trying to soothe her, but to no avail. As soon as Hermione could speak, wiping vomit off the corner of her mouth, she croaked, "Get away from me."
Severus gripped her arm, holding her in place. "Hermione, listen to me—"
"I said get away!" Hermione yanked herself away from him, stumbling, leaning onto the bathroom counter for support. Severus's expression revealed one of hurt and pain, before melting into mask of smooth, imperceptible blankness. He took a single step back, and Hermione dove for the sink, turning on the water to rinse the acrid taste from her mouth.
Her mind was like a jigsaw puzzle that had fallen apart. It was all over the place, and it felt as though it were a potion—no, several potions—that had spilled all over the floor, swirling with undissolved ingredients, and she needed to put it back together. An utter, incomprehensible mess. But by the time she did, she might have forgotten the important stuff, and it would be too late…
The notebook! Hermione lurched away from the sink, and ignoring Severus's exclamation of surprise, disappeared through the door and staggered her way over to the desk—their desk—and went through her bottom drawer, retrieving the object in question a moment later. She fished around for a quill, slid to the floor, and opened up to a blank page. She ignored the sound of Severus's boots as he walked toward her, focused only on writing down what she vaguely knew had to be put into her report. Her handwriting was shaky, some of her words disjointed by the flashes of memories of what had happened earlier that night—those Muggles—that crup—Dobby— the brunette her mind pieced together a memory on, of Severus grabbing her by the throat and jabbing his wand at her heart, his expression blank…
Severus's hand came to grip the wrist holding the quill. "Hermione, stop."
"Let go—I have to write—"
"I know you do, but you'll end up writing nothing but nonsense if you don't get a grip on yourself," he said, rubbing his thumb soothingly over the pulse point on her wrist. "Take a moment to compose your thoughts. Twelve Muggles dead, all female." Grasping for the lifeline he had just given her, Hermione started a new line and began writing, her hand still shaking. "According to the Dark Lord, they were picked up by Rowle and Dolohov in London. They were tortured before they died." A second, sudden wave of nausea rose in Hermione's throat, and she lurched to the side, away from him. Severus let go of the loose hold he had taken on her wrist, instead moving to grab her shoulders and keep her upright.
"You… I saw… you…"
Severus grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. Her eyes were wild, the pupils dilated, and he examined her for a moment before he said, "I killed her instantly, Hermione. Whether or not I had been there—whether or not you had been there—those women would have all died."
"They picked twelve—they picked twelve—" If they had only needed eleven, one more life would have been spared, her mind thought frantically.
"If I had not been there, the Dark Lord would have taken my place," Severus snapped. "Those womens' deaths are not our fault. There is nothing we could have done—nothing I could have done, except for give her a quick death before making it look like I was enjoying the torture as much as the rest of them. You could not have saved them, Hermione! I spent the whole time praying you wouldn't try!"
But it was no use. Hermione was doubled over now, the quill dropped from her fingers, the book sliding off her lap. Painful flashes of memory—of frantic hands clawing for freedom, blood spurting from wounds on their bodies, one of them held upside-down before being subjected to the Cruciatus, of them all pleading silently for mercy until the torture began, and then their Silencing Charms had been removed, and all that had happened next was screaming and crying—
"You should go see Poppy," Severus suggested, his voice low.
"No," Hermione said, her voice coming out as a near-pitiful moan.
"You should go to bed then," Severus said, taking hold of her arm, and looking relieved when she did not pull away. "You need to sleep."
"I won't be able to sleep… nightmares…"
"I can procure some Dreamless Sleep for you—"
"I don't want it."
"I will see that you take it," Severus snapped, hauling her to her feet. "You cannot—"
At that moment, Hermione yanked her arm away, leaning back against the wood. "I'm in charge here, Severus. My word is final!"
"Then act like it!" Severus hissed, slamming his fist on the desk behind her, causing her to flinch. "If you are not acting like a handler, then I cannot trust you to do what is necessary! Breaking down after returning will neither help nor change what happened, and that seems to be all you're capable of!"
"I just watched twelve kidnapped women be tortured and killed in the most painful, terrifying way possible all because your Dark Lord wanted entertainment!" she shrieked, getting to her feet. "I sat there unable to do a thing to help them—I sat there and listened to their screams!" Tears were rolling down her face. "I listened to them screaming, begging for help, for mercy, in pain, and I—I heard their last gurgling cries… and I heard your cohorts laughing!" She turned around and slammed both her hands down on the table, letting out a whimper when the impact cracked her knuckles. Stunned, she lifted her hands up to her face for inspection, and her voice cracked with the shock of the pain and the memories she was still trying to process in her mind. "I couldn't do a thing to help them… I was just as helpless as they were… I sat there and watched them—these Muggle women I'd never met before, but I could have easily been one of them—and I was just as bad as the Death Eaters who were torturing them!"
She turned to glare at him, her eyes wet with tears. "So forgive me, Severus, if I'm—if I'm—" she turned away and stared down at the table, her breathing coming out in uneven gasps. "Oh, god… I'm just as bad as they are…"
"Hermione," Severus breathed, taking hold of her cheek and turning it so that she was facing him. His tone then turned flat, serious. "You are not. That's what the Dark Lord hoped you would believe—that's what he wants you to think. Why else would have he forced you to sit there and watch?" Hermione stared at him, wide-eyed and silent, and he continued more forcefully, "Your presence as my handler is supposed to be an invisible one, Hermione. You are not supposed to be the brave Gryffindor charging in to save everyone, risking your neck to do so. You're supposed to be the one brave enough to sit through it all and come out stronger for it, to find a way to get justice for those you couldn't save—that's why you're my handler. Because you're smart and courageous enough to do what needs to be done, no matter how abhorrent you find it. You don't—you rarely let your emotions control your actions when they count the most, like they did tonight."
Hermione let out a shuddering breath, steadying herself on her feet, becoming more and more aware of the pain in her knuckles by the minute. She could practically hear Moody's voice in her head again, mentoring her, chastising her for her weakness—if, in fact, anything Moody did could be called mere 'chastising.'
Get a grip on yourself! He roared in her head. Constant Vigilance! Wibbling like an injured kitten when you've got work to do isn't helping anyone, and it sure as hell isn't doing a thing for those Muggle women you watched die! Remember your job, and don't forget how you must act—and don't lose yourself to the acting, either! You are neither weak nor stupid, and you had bloody better remember that!
She took a deep breath, closing her eyes, recollecting her Occlumency walls and forcing the night's events behind them. It was painful, and she knew there would be backlash later for bottling it up and putting it aside, but it had to be done now. She opened her eyes, and stoically turned to look at her parnter.
"I need to see the Headmaster," she stated calmly, as she stared down at her hands. Too calmly. "And then ask Poppy to fix my fingers—I— I think I fractured them."
After Hermione had delivered her report to Albus and visited Poppy briefly to repair her knuckles, she headed back down to the dungeons with Severus and went to bed. The Headmaster had had the nerve to remark upon her state of mind, and Poppy had wanted to keep her overnight when she saw just how jittery and shaken Hermione was, but Hermione had cut them both off, keeping her visits short and pointed.
Severus slid into bed after her, his belly pressed against her back. Hermione was curled up and staring blankly at the opposite wall, finally able to lose herself in her thoughts and the jumbled, toxic mess of negative and horrible emotions that were coursing through her like poison. When Severus wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close to him and attempting to whisper something into her ear that was clearly meant to comfort, she hardly registered it.
She woke Severus up several times that night, thrashing in her sleep and crying out, trapped as she was in nightmares; when she finally did awaken on those instances, she either could not recall the specifics of what she had dreamed or did not want to discuss them. After, she would fall silent again. Severus had expected to be awoken several more times that night, given the pattern that had begun to appear, but he found her still, silent, pale form to be just as disconcerting, if not more. When he awoke the next morning he found her body rigid and tense, her face and back burning with fever from a cold she must have contracted from standing out in the snow for so bloody long at each opportunity, and he could not shake her awake.
Hermione slept until the afternoon, unaware of the fact that Severus spent the day sitting on the bed next to her with a book, placing cool washcloths on her forehead when he felt they needed to be changed, and trying to coax some Calming Draught down her locked, unconsciously protesting throat. What did make it down worked; she relaxed gradually, her face becoming less pinched and tightened with fear and pain. He stroked her cheek and the curls of her hair, and she seemed to find relief in the contact, for she eventually let out a sound that was not, for once, one of agony or distress; it was rather a bit of a 'hmm,' followed by her twisting over on her side so that she could cushion her head on his leg.
When she finally did awaken, however, her eyes were dull and her appetite sorely lacking. She did sit up though, and he was able to coax some water and toast into her, but she spent her time awake lost in her thoughts, her eyes glazed over as the events of the previous night replayed themselves in her head like a twisted, kaleidoscopic renedition of a grisly horror film.
When Severus managed to get her attention, he said, in rather clipped tones, "I think that you should see the Headmaster."
Hermione, having no fight left in her, capitulated. She slid out of bed, stumbling from the lack of energy and will to move, and slowly, with cumbersome movements, pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater. Severus seemed relieved that she did not argue with him on that front.
When she Flooed into Dumbledore's office, it seemed that he had been waiting for her. He indicated that she should sit down, and after offering her tea—in lieu of a lemon drop, which would have likely motivated Hermione into gearing up the energy to strangle him with his own beard—took them straight to the point.
"Severus tells me that you are not handling the events of last night very well," he observed gently.
Hermione swallowed, staring down into her mug of tea before taking a tiny, morseful sip.
"I—I know that what—what happened last night was not my fault," she said slowly, her eyes heavy and her mind fuzzy with exhaustion and a hunger. As though the elves had been waiting for her mental acknowledgement of her lack of nutrition, a plate of sliced turkey sandwiches appeared, and Hermione reached out for one and began nibbling on it. "But… but I can't forget what I saw—I can't silence the screams in my head."
Dumbledore nodded understandingly. "Do you feel that you should not continue your job as handler?"
That sparked some life out of her, and she took a fierce bite out of her sandwich, chewing and swallowing before she spoke. "No. I—I have to do this. I knew what I was getting into—I just—I just have to—to get used to it."
"Your handler duties do not normally include going out into the field with your partner," Dumbledore pointed out. "I believe allowing you to go was a mistake. You are a strong, independent individual, Hermione, but requiring you to sit and watch the torture and murder of a dozen Muggles without taking action was, in my opinion, unnecessary and too far."
"Severus…" Hermione began.
"Severus was right when he knew that Tom Riddle would expect you to be present, or at least on hand," Dumbledore acknowledged, "and you have very probably helped him solidify his position among their ranks through the magnificent acting skills you employed while you were under Voldemort's watch. But I believe that we used you the wrong way, in this case."
Hermione closed her eyes. "Nothing done last night was magnificent," she whispered. "I just held on and tried—tried to stay where I was, hoping it would all end quickly."
"Nevertheless," the Headmaster stressed, "I am proud—and grateful—that you maintained your composure under such duress. You only broke down, according to Severus, once the two of you had returned to Hogwarts."
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut tighter. "Your accolades are appreciated, Headmaster, but they do not help me."
"If I may make a suggestion," Dumbledore said, standing up and circling around his desk until he was standing beside her, "I believe that perhaps altering your memories of last night may help."
Hermione's eyes flew wide open, and she gave him a wild, wary look. "No," she insisted.
"I am not planning on removing them," Dumbledore told her, placing a hand on her arm.
"I am only planning on taking the edge away," Dumbledore told her gently. "You will remember what happened, but the details will not be as clear."
Hermione swallowed. "You won't make me forget."
"No," Dumbledore said with a weary sigh. "I am afraid that making people forget things rarely helps them face it again in the long run. No," he repeated, "I'm afraid my intent is for you to remember it, but for the memories to be less, shall we say, vivid."
Hermione glanced up at him briefly, and then looked down at her hands. "Very well. Please, sir."
Dumbledore's wand was slipped out of his pocket, the tip placed just above the bridge of her nose, and Hermione closed her eyes.
When Hermione returned from the Headmaster's office, feeling significantly better, well-fed and well-watered, she returned to find Severus eyeing her warily, as though she were an experimental mental patient who had just come back from the doctor's office with new medication, and he was not certain whether the new dosage would help her or send her flying to pieces.
To his surprise, Hermione walked by him to find her notebook. She opened it up to a fresh page, and as he slipped behind her to watch over her shoulder, she wrote down the day's date—which slowly bled into the page, now invisible to his eyes—followed by a single line.
Albus took the edge off, she wrote. I can think again, without hearing screams echoing inside my head. That was all she wrote, setting the quill down and stretching her arms for a moment. Someday, when she read back over her log, she would remember this moment. She would reread the stuff she had written before Albus had gone through her mind, and would then read that simple sentence, and be glad for the difference. She looked it over once more before turning around in her chair to look at him.
He met her gaze silently, waiting.
She stood up, and to add to his already-existing surprise, pulled him into a hug.
"Thank you," she whispered.
He hesitated for a moment, his eyes glancing down at the words she had written, which were already nearly-faded to his eyes, and then without further restraint, wrapped his arms around her.
"Do I have you back?" he whispered.
Hermione nodded against his chest.
"Thank Merlin," he exclaimed before pulling her against him, burying his face in her hair. He inhaled deeply, and when Hermione craned her neck up to kiss his cheek in what was her turn to be calm, soothing, and reassuring, he repeated: "Thank Merlin."