Big thanks goes out to my fantastic beta, SSB!
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
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The students returned from their holiday, some looking faintly refreshed and relieved, others seeming quite somber. Tension had been high among them before the holidays, and grisly news had marred their vacations thanks to Voldemort's constant presence in the newspapers, adding constant stress to what was supposed to be an opportunity for them to take a break from school work and see how their families were faring. Some of them lived in London, and the news about the Muggles, as well as the Bones family, had shaken them badly.
The first week of January was peppered with news of more murders and disappearances. A wizard family in Dorset was brutally slaughtered, their eight and nine-year-old sons abducted after the attack—which had led the Order to suspect that, given the fullness of the moon, they had become werewolf recruits. Fenrir Greyback was well-known for his tendency to attack young children and take them away to be raised by other, more socially-ostracized werewolves, and it was this fate, Hermione realized, Remus had narrowly escaped.
Severus's birthday arrived, and though Hogsmeade visits were still on hold due to the presence of Death Eaters, Hermione and Severus nevertheless left the castle for a visit to Diagon Alley. They stopped by Fortescue's Ice Cream parlor, before climbing up to the bricked-in balcony over Flourish and Blotts. They sat together, shoulder to shoulder, and ate their ice cream in the below-freezing temperature amid snow that floated into the street.
"They don't let the owls out anymore," Severus pointed out sometime later that night. This remark was made two hours after the time the owls were usually released for a bit of fresh air; at the moment, the air was filled only with snow and the occasional bird which ventured from house to house to deliver letters. "They're afraid that if there's an attack elsewhere in Diagon Alley, the owls might get hit in the crossfire—they don't want to risk them."
Hermione winced. "That's horrible. They don't they ever let them out?"
"I've heard they'll let small groups of them fly around the shop during the daytime," Severus mused. "But that's about it."
Hermione rested her head on his shoulder. "Do you think they'll let them out again…?"
She knew Severus understood what she meant. They were outside the safety and security of the castle, which therefore meant that anyone could be watching them. It was best to keep their vocabulary as neutral as possible.
"I hope so," Severus responded quietly. He glanced up at the sky, filled with the full moon that had begun to wane. Fat, fluffy white flakes swirled down from the sky, landing on his nose, and he shook them off, bending over his ice cream so that his hair hid his face. "It suddenly occurred to me that I missed your birthday—it was back in September."
"I had other things on my mind," Hermione pointed out reasonably. "I think we all forgot about it, really, what with everything that's been going on."
"And here we are, back to sitting on a bricked-in balcony over Flourish and Blott's to eat ice cream on my birthday, in the dead of winter," Severus returned dryly.
Hermione grinned at him. "Well, it is your birthday," she deadpanned, resting her head against his shoulder.
She finished her cone, and the two of them stood up to leave.
Hermione turned to glance down once at Fortescue's parlor, where the shop owner himself was standing outside, emptying a pair of rubbish bins before he closed for the night. He waved up at them with a smile, giving them both a salute before the two of them Apparated away.
Severus's Death Eater summons became a regular, scheduled, expected thing.
Once a week, usually on a Friday afternoon, he would be called away. Voldemort held regular meetings, and now that Severus had proven his worth to his master, he was a regular participant. The Dark Lord considered him too important to send out on raids on a regular basis like the rest of his colleagues. For one, he had information that Voldemort did not want to risk the Aurors getting wind of—the Prophecy, namely—should Severus be captured. Secondly, though Voldemort also acknowledged Severus's inherent skill and fascination with the Dark Arts, he thought Severus more useful as a private potioneer. Additionally, Severus was the only solid link he had to Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix, and Voldemort decided that he was far more useful as a spy than he would in any other active capacity.
Hermione found the meetings to be disturbing. They largely took place at Malfoy Manor, and the topics—as well as the language used—were vile, to say the least. On occasion, she would look through Severus's mind if she felt he had not given her enough detail for her report. The horrors she encountered there discouraged her from doing it regularly.
Severus participated in the murders of people, Magic and Muggle alike, who were brought in for execution or entertainment. Truth to be told, Severus did not simply murder—he killed with quick, sharp efficiency that both earned Voldemort's interest as well as consternation; such a cold attitude toward his victims was to be admired, compared to the hot-blooded response of his fellows, but the fact that he did not drag it out did not suit the Dark Lord's tastes. Voldemort was not particularly picky about how his followers killed, as long as they got the job done and displayed no remorse, but he remarked upon Severus's particular style once or twice.
But he did not actively seek out victims, and his behavior when he did kill made Voldemort reticent about giving him a go, for the Dark Lord thought his systematic methods were a perfect waste of good wand practice.
"You might as well practice on a rag," Voldemort had remarked drolly to him one day, and Hermione suspected he must have been bored out of his mind to stoop to such conversation. "For all the good your tactics do."
Severus managed his duties as a spy very well, and he and Hermione developed their partnership further as the semester progressed. There was no denying, however, that his deeds took a toll on his sense of self—and by Hermione's estimation, quite possibly his soul, though she never brought up such a suspicion to him. There were occasions when he would come back, unable to speak; those were the worst, for they were the times Hermione would be forced to use Legilimency on him in order to get her report to the Headmaster promptly. There were also days when he would simply slump down in front of the fire, against the side of the couch, and stare morosely into the flames, unspeaking; at those moments, it was as though the weight of the realization of his actions finally hit him, and he was too overcome by it to do anything but hide behind the cold, smooth, and indifferent mask he displayed to the world.
Hermione learned not to make decisions for him concerning when he needed her and when he wanted to be alone. She respected his need for the latter; not everything could be solved by talking it out, and letting Severus stew through it on his own terms before discussing it seemed to be the best option at times. When he did need her presence, however, Hermione gave it wholeheartedly, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tightly to her while he sat in silence, finding comfort only in her presence.
Severus Snape was very human. And it seemed to Hermione that sometimes, even he forgot that.
For Valentine's Day, the two of them retreated from the rest of the school for an afternoon. Severus gave her a single red rose that he had nicked from one of the Herbology greenhouses, and Hermione knew that it was the very fact that he had stolen it that made him give it to her in the first place. She had found it both sweet and amusing, and she had summoned a glass vase to place it in before turning to give him the kiss that she felt was his due.
Professor Sprout had later confronted him and crossly demanded to know why he had felt the need to mangle her wards. He had merely smirked and side-stepped her without a word, striding off looking both unconcerned and very self-satisfied.
Despite the heavy burden of their responsibilities, both to the school and to the Order, the two of them were still very much a young couple in love. The war was taking an exorbitant toll on their lives, but it did not prevent them from enjoying what they could have, merely restricted and occasionally tainted it with fears and interruptions.
Sometime in mid-May, Hermione happened to flip through her notebook, examining the entries past, and was astonished to realize that she had filled in over two-hundred pages. And as she scanned through them, a feeling of great disturbance filled her as she realized that entries—entries that had caused her so much emotional distress—no longer affected her. Reports of werewolf attacks, deaths, abductions, tortures—she read and absorbed them, but found that she was numb to them. At that moment, and only for a single moment, she felt as though she had lost her humanity.
To add salt to the wound, she did not feel as though she had the energy, the will, or even the means to try to feel something. She found herself greatly saddened by what happened, but she also found that the things she wrote, the reports she read—both in her notebook and in the newspapers—only elicited about as much emotion from her as someone might expect if they were thinking about a pet that had just died. She had become so used to the daily rigors of the war that she was now rather desensitized.
In a way, such an outlook quite possibly saved her sanity, for if she broke down in tears of sympathy for every victim and incident she was made aware of, she would not last long. Furthermore, she heard far more about the war than the Prophet granted its readers. She had not only heard it, she had felt, witnessed, and suffered under it first-hand. She had been toughened, hardened on the outside out of pure necessity, and she kept her feelings locked away. Eventually, it would all come out. Until such a time, it would be business as usual. It had to be.
She was not the only one, and now that she looked back on it, it was quite expected that Severus should suffer in such a similar fashion. The only area of their lives where their faces were not drawn tight, in cold masks meant to prevent something from breaking their façade of normalcy, was in the privacy of their quarters and with each other. Between them, there were few secrets, and absolutely none considering matters of their feelings for each other. While their emotional attachment to the outside world diminished through the pain of war, they clung to each other with such desperation that they might as well have cut their souls in two, switched halves, and then cast a definitive reparo on them.
That was not to say that Hermione did not care for the world beyond Severus, or even Hogwarts. She most certainly did, and with a fierceness that drove her to work hard and unrelentingly for the Order, taking on odd jobs within it to help where she could. But she felt numb, almost robotically programmed when she tried to examine her feelings for it, and felt that she could not have it both ways. If she broke down and let her emotions get the best of her, she could not do her job. If she did her job, she would have to remain distant and apart from the world, acting in its best interests while feeling aloof from it in the interim.
It was a state of conflict that Hermione had resigned herself to, so she pushed all of her concerns about it toward the back of her head as it neared the end of May. The students were taking their exams in a week's time, and Hermione assigned them review work that was meant to help them study. Despite what they knew about her, having had her teach them for all of nine months, the students still occasionally attempted to wheedle and whine their way out of being given extra work. Hermione had none of it, and coldly ordered them to either do the work assigned, or suffer the consequences of skipping it.
The students who had known Hermione when she had been an upperclassmen were no longer skeptical about her abilities as a teacher, but were rather frightened by the change they witnessed in her. She had been a helpful, protective, and sympathetic figure who had routinely gone out of her way to help her housemates. Now she treated them all as though she had never met them before, her demeanor formal, icy, and detached in the most disconcerting of ways.
As the year drew to a close, with the students finishing up their final exams, many of them wondered if Professor Granger would be returning. Nothing remotely ominous had happened to her during the time she had taught (as far as they knew), and it appeared as though she had every intention of staying on. Some of the students whispered that if nothing happened to her before the year ended, something would in the summer, and there were discreet arguments among the students, as well as circumspect bets and guesses placed on whether she would be following through with her words.
When exams did end, both teachers and students were almost equally relieved. Professor Sprout had already packed her bags, ready to join a summer expedition to the Amazons to examine magical plants, tagging along as an expert consultant. Flitwick had made reservations to participate in an exclusive wizard-dueling group, where he would be tutoring. The other teachers all had plans made—some equally exciting, others quite more mundane.
Hermione and Severus returned to Spinners End.
Moments after the two of them had returned to Severus's home, while they had barely started unpacking and were still checking to make sure the house was, indeed, intact, Severus received a summons. Hermione was left to unpack alone, and set the house back in order with a few cleaning and freshening charms. The place was still in good order, but it had been left uninhabited for several months, and as was expected, there was a little dust to be taken care of. She levitated their bags upstairs, unpacked and sorted through their things with ease by means of her wand, and returned downstairs to start dinner.
Hermione had few preferences in regards to making food. Sometimes, she chose to use her hands. Otherwise, usually when she was very busy, she preferred magic. Since she had time to kill, she set about preparing dinner manually. She finished within the hour, and had everything all set out on the table by the time Severus returned, Apparating into the kitchen as was his custom.
"Well?" Hermione asked with forced calm, as she set the boiled potatoes down on the table. This situation was almost a mockery of the life she and Severus wanted; he would come home from work to find his wife and food waiting on the table, after they both had a long day of doing something fullfilling, interesting, and engaging. Instead, she was the lover who could not yet allow herself to be his wife, who served food to her would-be husband after he returned from a meeting with a megalomaniac. And furthermore, she had to interrogate him about it. "Anything?"
Severus tore off his mask and snapped it between his fingers, vanishing it before making quick work of his robes. "Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom's first birthdays are fast approaching—in roughly two months' time. It has the Dark Lord on edge."
"Did he take it out on anyone?" Hermione inquired carefully.
"Not that I was present to account for," Severus returned, adjusting the cuffs on his sleeves so that he could roll them up, having disposed with his frock coat. "But I'm certain someone was punished for something. I'm lucky, I suppose," he mused after a moment, as he took his seat at the table. "I have yet to face anything more than his verbal displeasure, given that I've proven myself rather adequately, and have not yet presented him with any concrete form of failure."
Hermione nodded. "Essentially, there is nothing to report?"
"Nothing significant," Severus replied drolly. "Dumbledore has already increased the Potters' and Longbottoms' protection—this is not news to the Order."
Hermione actually felt quite relieved at this, for it would mean she would not be making a trip to see the Headmaster that night, in the middle of dinner. Business concluded, they sat down and ate, though the table was rather silent, as both of them had heavy things on their minds.
Severus eventually broke the silence, setting down his fork with a bit of a clatter.
"Would you like to go somewhere else tonight?" He asked, standing up to clear his plate.
Hermione blinked, standing up to take care of the rest of the table. "What do you mean? Where?"
"Anywhere." He swept his arm across the table. "We've been cooped up in the castle for too long, and now it feels like we've gone from one cell to another." He grimaced. "I'd just like to get out for a bit."
Hermione cleaned the dishes with a flick of her wand, and set them back into their cupboard, resting her hands on the counter for a moment as she took his words into consideration. Decision made, she strode forward, crossing over to where he stood, and then pulled him into a kiss.
He was surprised, for a moment, this was true. He had not been expecting it at that moment, for they were both too wound up, too tight, too stressed to give much consideration to such activities, particularly over the past few weeks when the tension had been running higher than ever. But they wanted to get out of the house to relax and de-stress, and he responded by pulling her closer to him, wrapping his arms around her, fingers skimming down to cup her bum.
And then they Apparated away.
"The nightlife of Diagon Alley is simply amazing," Hermione observed, as they walked along one side of the street. The daytime activity had petered out by late evening, but now that it was dark with the onset of night, the streets were once again busy and crawling with activity, particularly since it was no longer freezing cold as it had been during winter and spring. Bright lights lit up the street, making it an inviting place, though the mood seemed somewhat hampered by the fear of Death Eaters. "I mean, it's just so… you would think they would close down at night, but it only seems to get busier…"
"It's magic, Hermione," Severus said, striding forward with an air of confidence about him. "We can choose to flourish in the dark as well as the light—whatever our preference." He gave her a look that was, for a moment, like an empty, pitiless black tunnel that reminded Hermione horribly of Professor Snape as she had known him before. "Muggles have to restrict themselves to following the natural cycle of day and night, with the exception of the few who either do not fear it or find an alternate means of handling it."
Hermione pursed her lip, stopping to look up at him squarely. "Do you fear the dark, Severus?"
"Do you?" he challenged, his tone almost playfully tenebrous.
"Yes, with good reason," Hermione sniffed.
"You shouldn't," he purred, as they entered a quieter part of the street. He slipped into the shadows near one of the buildings, blending into it in such a way that it emphasized his next words. "The dark can be your ally as well as your enemy."
Was that how he saw Dark Magic? With such respect, such deference, that it was nearly worshipful? Hermione sighed inwardly. This was one of the main differences between herself and Severus. Before she had come to this timeline, the Dark Arts—and protection from it—had never been her strong suit, as evidenced by her third-year exam and the fact that she had asked Harry to teach the DA, despite the fact that she came up with the concept in the first place. Now she excelled in it, though she was not fond of it—she performed Dark Magic and defended against it with the attitude of a respectful opponent, not as someone who took pleasure in battle. Her real talents lay in Transfiguration and Charms, formidable branches of magic in their own right that did not require ill intent to cast.
But where she merely respected and understood it, Severus both appreciated and reveled in it. It was an inherent, imbued part of his persona. He was not evil—whatever he was, it was not evil—but he was dark, and that occasionally frightened her. It was a side of him that would be forever mysterious and intangible to her, terrifying because she could not comprehend it. What made it even more terrifying than it had any right to be was the fact that she believed herself incapable of ever fully understanding it.
"You, perhaps," Hermione acknowledged, stepping out onto his other side, where lantern-light kept the street well-lit. "But not me."
He gave her an almost boyish grin that was quickly turned into a sneer. "You teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, Hermione, but you don't understand it the way I do."
"So teach it," Hermione joked.
"Perhaps I should," he countered.
Hermione laughed, and was about to pull him down a different lane when she stopped, taking a few steps back to take another look at the shop window they had just passed.
She ignored Severus's query, and came to stand full-stop in front of the imported furniture shop that had apparently just been opened less than a month ago. It was not very colorful on the shop front, but the lights were on inside, and if Hermione had to say so herself, the stuff currently displayed did look quite interesting—
"We already purchased new furniture," Severus groused, having not quite enjoyed the experience as much as Hermione, especially after dealing with the fiasco of the house elves when they had been setting up their new quarters at Hogwarts. It was something he attributed to their gender-differences; he merely wanted something functional that would not tempt him to blast it with a hex in temper. She wanted to make it look nice—'like a home', to use her own words. "We don't need anymore."
The fact that he had said 'we' rather than 'I' faintly registered in Hermione's brain, particularly as Spinner's End belonged to Severus, but she pushed it aside for a moment. "I'll be right back. I want to take a look."
The look on Severus's face was one of deep-seated distaste and disbelief, and it was not one Hermione was a stranger to. It was similar to the one Hermione had seen on Harry and Ron's faces, when they had been forced to come to face with something that was peculiarly offensive to their senses, such as when they had been discussing Polyjuice in their second year. Or perhaps when they had first seen Hagrid's newly-hatched Blast-Ended Skrewts.
Hermione pushed the door open and stepped inside to take a look. Severus waited for a moment, before glancing behind him, and then back at the selection of rugs she was examining, before quickly disappearing. Hermione was momentarily concerned by this, but she guessed that he was probably using the opportunity to get some personal errands done, so she returned her gaze to the one item that had caught her now-undivided attention.
An off-white sheepskin rug that was amazingly soft to the touch, thick enough that if Hermione dropped an earring on it, she wasn't certain she would be able to find it again without her wand. She could just imagine laying it out in front of the fireplace, stretching from one side of the hearth to the other. Most of the things they had were rather spartan—the bare essentials and necessities, comfortable enough to live with, but nothing particularly luxurious. And this rug definitely qualified—if there was one thing Hermione found to be good enough to spend this many galleons on, it would be this rug.
She spent a good twenty minutes standing there, twining the strands between her fingers and rubbing her hands through it, musing how she was going to convince Severus to let her buy this and place it in front of the fireplace. Severus eventually returned, bearing gifts of ice cream. He handed her cone to her, placing a kiss on her cheek, and turned to look at the object of her fascination for the last near-half hour.
"A rug?" he said, his voice suddenly flat.
"A very soft rug," Hermione corrected, licking her ice cream thoughtfully as she turned to glance back at it again.
"It's expensive," he said, staring disdainfully at the price tag.
"I've got a year's pay that's almost untouched," Hermione quipped. "This will hardly put a dent in it."
"It looks ridiculous," he sneered. A pause, and then he muttered, "I would never have been able to afford something like this as a student. This is exorbitant."
Hermione tilted her head up at him, enjoying the banter, finding herself decidedly unconcerned with his reticence. She gave him a wicked grin. "I can afford it, and frankly, I don't care how it looks. That's subjective. Think about how it feels."
He raised an eyebrow at her, and reached out a hand to run his fingers down the length of it. Hermione pressed her advantage, taking another lick of ice cream to stop it from dripping down her wrist before making the final point of her case.
"Imagine what we could do with it," she said suggestively.
His expression went slack, almost blank for a moment, and then he turned to stare at it, assessing it for a moment before an odd look came over his face. It was one that Hermione associated with him whenever she did something unexpected but pleasurable, when he was still taking a moment to register it, and then he smirked.
"We'll take it," he said smoothly.
Severus redirected the Floo in Spinner's End to the fireplace in the kitchen rather than the living room, for the obvious reason that he did not want some careless fool to have the misfortune of stepping on their new rug with soot-stained shoes. They made the decision to add a few bookshelves to the wall alongside the mantle, filling it up quickly due to their daily visits to Flourish and Blotts. They paid for their own books unless they both planned to share one, whereupon they would usually split the price between themselves. They were not particularly rich—well-off, but they had to conserve, and books were their mutual weakness. They reasoned that the way to stop themselves from book-buying themselves out of enough money for other necessities was to pay for what they bought individually, and for the most part, it worked.
Hermione set aside an over-estimate of how much she would need for the start of the school year, calculated how much they would need for groceries and emergencies, and finally came up with the amount she could set aside for books. Severus was a little less practical on this front, purchasing without much care given to how much he had left, but it worked for him; he spent more time at the bookshop reading rather than purchasing. The shelves in the living room filled up quickly through their combined efforts, and they ended up investing in yet another shelf.
Hermione decided to open an account for herself at Gringott's, finally legally old enough to do so, and with the time and means to get it done. She had spent a great deal of time planning how she wanted to manage her account before she went to the Goblins to start it up, and the minute she had the paperwork done and the key in her possession, she invested everything she had left to spare in the two most successful Wizarding businesses in her time—though they were small and cheap shares now—and was understandably grateful that she had paid attention to such things as stocks and investment in the magical and Muggle world in her own timeline. She had an edge in knowing where to put her money, and it would pay off in ten years, if not sooner. She borrowed enough money from Severus to invest in another fifty shares in her name, though they both knew that if it paid off, it would belong to him, and the two were rather satisfied with how she was operating. Severus trusted her judgement in business affairs, and Hermione trusted the future as she knew it would be.
Summons from the Dark Lord surprisingly became fewer as the weeks wore on. Severus was called away only twice in the entire month of June, and neither expected it to suddenly increase without warning, and thus relaxed and enjoyed the free time that they had while they could. No students to teach, very little Order business to attend to—though Hermione visited Headquarters twice a week for updates and to help with organization and strategic decisions—and nearly all of their time to themselves.
It was unsurprising that a good majority of their time was now spent in front of the fireplace, banked for the summer due to the heat, lying on the new rug with a book. Severus had quickly come to concede that the rug had been a good idea, as Hermione knew he would, and it became a central part of their lives. It was the single most luxurious thing they had bought for themselves, to share with each other, and they got good use out of it in the way of comfort and mutual enjoyment.
That was not to say all was well, or that they were complete at ease—either of them. Severus still maintained regular contact with the Malfoys, oftentimes invited for tea, and was forced to continue playing his role as the loyal follower. And Hermione was haunted by thoughts and considerations of a future that was rushing up too quickly on her.
Lily and James Potter would be dead in less than five months. Sirius would be thrown into Azkaban for a crime he did not commit. Peter Pettigrew would be spending twelve years comfortably as the Weasleys' pet rat. Remus would be largely alone, ostracized even after all he had done to help protect the Wizarding community from Voldemort. Frank and Alice would be in St. Mungo's, unable to even recognize their son, a thought that brought tears to Hermione's eyes. She knew all of this would happen, and she felt like a coward for not trying to stop it.
But she knew she could not stop it. To stop it would be to alter time irreparably—and in a manner that would perhaps be for the worst. Surely the lives of a few dozen people closely affected were worth the hundreds of magical and Muggle lives that would otherwise be saved by their sacrifice?
It was all Hermione could to do coldly convince herself of this. It did not, however, put her at ease.
On Harry's birthday, Hermione went to visit. Her gift—and the other gifts that family friends had sent—went largely ignored in light of the tiny toy broomstick Sirius had sent, which one-year-old Harry zoomed around the house in with skill that, if Hermione had already not known he would be a Quidditch player, would have had her convinced of the fact. The family cat was nearly impaled twice, and finally hid under the couch, not to be seen for the rest of the evening. She had the opportunity that day to meet Bathilda Bagshot, who was an old but quiet, pleasant woman who Hermione found very interesting, even if some of the stories she told about Dumbledore made her think that the lady had gone a little senile in her dotage. Sirius himself had been unable to attend, but Hermione was certain Lily would be penning a letter to inform him of just how popular his gift had been with the birthday boy.
The smashed vase that Petunia Dursley had sent her sister was not missed.
She returned that evening to find that Severus had been summoned, and was alarmed when she found him sitting on a chair in the kitchen, nursing a bruise on his temple. The Dark Lord had demanded he find a way to track Hermione when she went to visit for Harry's birthday, and when he explained that she had already left, Voldemort had been enraged that he had let the opportunity slip between his fingers.
"But my lord," Severus had said, "I would not be able to find them even if I followed—the house is under protective wards, and I am not privy to them…"
Voldemort understandably did not take this as an appropriate excuse. His responding rant had included something about using Hermione's connection and trust with the Potters to get them to give her a note with the Secret written on it, which was arguably a possible plan, but one that was now rendered null and void. He had not injured Severus badly—conversely, he had gotten off quite easily, given that the Dark Lord had the sense become calm and suggest that such a plan would have been beyond Severus's means unless it had been planned in advance. And Voldemort had only suggested the idea the day he had tried to implement it, a self-admitted tactical error that left Severus with only a cut on his temple from where he had hit the ground after being bodily thrown by a hex.
Hermione recorded all of this, and moved to refresh the ice pack and see what she could do about reducing the swelling of the bruise before she took the notebook to see the Headmaster.
She was surprised to find that Dumbledore was more concerned about the fact that Severus had been physically punished rather than the subject of Voldemort's targets. Surprised, and somewhat gratified deep down because Albus seemed to care, while being concerned about graver things.
"It is a sign that Tom's patience is running thin," Dumbledore said pensively, as he came to stand by the window of his study. "His self-control—and sense of control that he has over other people—is waning. His is becoming more paranoid by the day, and I suspect he expected to finish off either young Harry or Neville on their birthday, and was furious when he could not."
Hermione nodded. This made sense. Suddenly reminded, however, she dug into the pocket of her robes and pulled out a tiny flitterbloom plant in a plastic Muggle terrarium, setting it down on the Headmaster's desk. It had already started to blossom tiny, swaying purple flowers on the tips of its tentacle-like appendages, and looked quite pretty. She dug around for another moment, before pulling out a package of Droobles Best Blowing Gum and setting it down alongside the plant.
"I have no means of contacting Alice or Frank," she said, referring to the fact that the two no longer appeared at Order meetings. Indeed, only Dumbledore knew where they were hiding. "But it's Neville's birthday, and—I was hoping you could give this to them. With my regards."
"Of course," Dumbledore said, taking a moment to examine the flitterbloom cutting before setting it back down. "I'll bring it to them, certainly."
"Thank you, Headmaster."
Hermione's stress and feeling of burden began to escalate over the next few days when she visited the Order headquarters for a meeting only to learn that Marlene and the rest of the McKinnons had been killed. At first, the shock had caused her to stand stock-still at the table in Tine Cottage as she realized why there were finally a few empty chairs. The Order had been decimated by the war, and this loss hit them hard in terms of advantage—but to Hermione, it hit her straight in the heart. Marlene had been her friend. A good friend. Her expression became frozen in a rictus of wide-eyed, cold-faced horror that gradually twitched down to merely looking icy and surprised. The shock hit her hard, and then she felt numb, as she dimly realized why Sirius was absent from this meeting. James and Lily were as well, and she had no doubt that they were trying to comfort him now.
She received her next orders with a sense of detached understanding, and left without another word. Her reaction had been quite contrary to the rest of the Orders'—many were in tears or sniffing quietly throughout the meeting.
It wasn't until Hermione got home that she sank to the floor, clutching her notebook and note-filled papers, and sobbing uncontrollably. It was where Severus found her, when he returned from an errand in Hogsmeade, and it took some time before she was able to convey to him the source of her distress. When she finally did manage to pull herself together, straightening up and pulling her face into an expression of forced calm and stony acceptance, it was shuttered. She looked quite lost and weary, and in her daze of pain, she did not seem to notice how it affected Severus to see her this way.
The following week was hell on earth. She mourned for Marlene even as she had a job to do, and her job came first. Mourning came second. Visiting Sirius at the Potters' seemed to be a part of that, and it was not difficult for anyone to see that Sirius was taking the loss of his lover the hardest. Whenever Hermione saw him, he was a wreck, and it did her no good to see that other people were suffering.
Severus was summoned. She had to organize who would be deployed in which areas of Diagon Alley and Muggle London, cross-reference her notes and ideas with the Headmaster and several other Order members, and even more painfully, she was the one who had to turn her heart to stone and, at the next meeting, demand everyone to buck up and get their act together unless they wanted to be Voldemort's next victim. It did not make her popular, but she was not out to win a popularity contest. Where she was not numb inside, she ached, and it was destroying her from within.
Severus found her standing in front of the fire one evening in mid-August, sock-footed and wearing a shuttered, blank expression as she stared into the flames. She did not turn around at the sound of his footfalls, nor did she give any indication of awareness. She appeared to be deep in thought, trapped in her own mind—perhaps she was reviewing some plans she had been going over earlier, perhaps she was thinking about the leak in the Order that was becoming more of a threat with every passing day. Her body stood in front of the fireplace, warmed by the flames, but her mind was elsewhere.
"Hermione," Severus whispered, coming up behind her.
She jumped at the sound of his voice, and turned around to look at him.
He stared at her appearance, taking in the shadows under her eyes and the pale, lonely air about her, and placed his hands on her shoulders. He cocked his head at her for a moment, as though thinking something through, before he said quietly, "Sit."
Hermione blinked at this for a moment, surprised by the command. Severus rarely ordered her to do something—it was she who was in charge, she who gave the orders and directed his strategies and movements within the Death Eaters. She was the one always giving directions, the one always in control—
She sank to her knees on the rug, feeling an odd sense of relief that it didn't take much thought to obey. The sheepskin was gentle to her, and she brought her fingers down to run her hands through it in a way that was oddly—very oddly—soothing. A moment later, Severus was kneeling next to her, and Hermione found herself being pulled into an embrace against him. She closed her eyes and went limp, feeling a sense of calm that was not forced, but borne out of giving up a burden. With the fire at her back, and Severus's arms wrapped around her, and the thick sheepskin underneath her, she felt—warm. Warm and safe for the first time in months. Severus's presence was an added sense of security to her, one that she had been numb to and distanced from due to her need to be the one in control—and control meant being the strongest, the one most able to deal with a situation and protect everyone involved—and right now, Severus had just taken that role away from her.
All she could feel was an overwhelming, cathartic sense of relief and release. She found herself inhaling deeply, breathing in his scent, and letting it out slowly in a way that relaxed her in a manner she had not allowed herself nor experienced in a long time. A moment later, she found Severus easing her down onto the rug, and she rolled over onto her belly, pillowing her head on her arms. Her shirt was removed with a flick of his wand—Hermione didn't care in the least—and a moment later, his hands had sought out the tight, coiled knots in her back. A moment later, she let out a groan that was somewhere between pain and relief.
Her eyes suddenly flew open. "Severus, I can't—" She'd just remembered that Mad-Eye had requested she figure out who should work the Diagon Alley night shift, and she hadn't finished yet. "I have to…"
"Shh." His fingers continued kneading into the muscles on her back, trying to loosen the knots. "Whatever it is, it can wait until later." His voice was silky, but firm on this. "Your next Order meeting isn't until the end of this week. You can take some time for yourself."
Hermione swallowed as she absorbed this. She had responsibilities—heavy ones, come to that—and for the past year, her entire focus had been centered on her job as his handler and the Order's primary organizer. It required control of self, control of her spy, and control over the people she was organizing—she hadn't dared let her guard down long enough to let someone else decide things, for a change.
She warred with herself for five full minutes, trying to convince herself that this was a bad idea—that she needed to put her focus back on the war, rather than personal gratification, and that she needed to maintain things the way they were at all costs—but by the end of those five minutes, she found she simply couldn't care anymore. She wanted Severus—wanted his fingers working their magic on her stress-tightened body, wanted his reassurances that there were some urgent things that could be made to wait, just wanted to go limp and let him do whatever he had in mind.
Let him take control of this moment, let him decide upon priorities.
She let out a sigh and her eyes fluttered, then shut completely, and she relaxed visibly, snuggling into the rug. After a few moments, his hands stopped, and Hermione frowned and blinked back to awareness to look up at him.
The expression on hi s face was a considering one. It was blank, but Hermione had known Severus for too long to know that when he was expressionless, his thoughts were moving faster than she could hope track. Then to her surprise, his face morphed into one of curiosity, as though he had just found something interesting that he did not quite know what to do with.
Hermione glanced up at him. "Severus?"
He tilted his head at her thoughtfully for a moment, and then resumed his task. Hermione twisted her neck around to look at him, to inquire about what was on his mind, but one hand came to grasp the back of her head and press it back down against her arms.
"Relax," he said, stroking her hair before releasing it and returning to her shoulders. Hermione closed her eyes and obeyed, laying her head back down and allowing herself to go completely limp. His hands continued to rub and knead her muscles firmly, and though they hurt from being wound up so tight, the release of tension was wonderful, and Hermione found herself dozing off. Her mind, which was usually a swirling, jumbled chaos on the surface of the near-obsessive organization at the core of her thoughts, began to calm.
He took his time with her, and in Hermione's mind, it was glorious. Any sex they had managed to have in the past month had been a fast, furious affair, more for Severus's enjoyment than for hers. Stress made Hermione averse to intimacy, and neither of them had much time to spare in taking things slow and easy. Now his fingers were ghosting over her back, trailing down her spine, tugging her skirt down her legs a moment before his hands gripped the back of her thighs. She let out a contented little sigh and spread her legs a little wider, and he massaged her thighs for a moment before moving to squeeze her bum appreciatively.
For the first time in weeks, Hermione felt herself getting wet. She shifted where she lay, pressed against the sheepskin, and turned her head to the side to glance up at him with a warm smile.
"That feels good," she murmured, closing her eyes again.
Severus smirked, and then continued caressing her. His expression was smug, but there was a trace of softness in his features, as though Hermione's relaxed state of mind was the release he needed to drop his guard down, himself. He knelt by her feet, rubbing them, pressing his thumb into the arches before working his way back up. It was as if he had all the time in the world, and he chose to make use of it.
"You're too tense," he told her, skimming back up her body and returning to her shoulders. "Whenever I look at you, it's as if you're a tightly-wound coil, waiting to spring—and when you do, something's going to break."
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut tighter.
"Marlene," she whispered.
"Her death was not your fault," Severus told her seriously, pressing just a bit harder on her shoulders.
Hermione shook her head. "It's torn Sirius up—he's not the same." He voice suddenly turned sour. "I doubt you care but Marlene's death has just—it's changed him."
"I feel marginally sorry for the dog—"
"Don't," Hermione said bitterly, tears welling up in her eyes. "Just—don't. Don't go there. He's my friend, even if you hate him, and in addition to seeing him in pain, I lost friend when the McKinnons were murdered."
Severus was silent for a moment, and then she heard him sigh in complex mixture of frustration and capitulation. "I'm sorry. You're right—I shouldn't have said that." Hermione looked up at him in surprise, and he bent his head forward, curtaining his face as he spoke. "You don't need to deal with the—the issues Black and I have on top of everything else."
Hermione nodded miserably.
"You're under enough stress as it is," he added, helping her to her knees, and then pulling her to him. He was fully clothed, and she was not, but that didn't seem to particularly matter at the moment. "I'm concerned about you—you have more on your mind than just the war. What else is bothering you?"
Hermione shook her head. "I can't tell you."
"Can't or won't?" he prodded, resting his chin on her shoulder as he stroked her back in small, soothing circles.
Hermione was silent for several moments, and he stated, "Won't, then. Why don't you try me?"
She opened her mouth to protest, but Severus cut her off. "What do you have to lose?"
Her mind went blank for a moment as she tried to absorb his question. She was feeling fuzzy and light-headed from the massage, far too relaxed for her own good, frankly; it was for this reason that she managed to cobble together an answer that was nothing but honest. "You."
He looked very surprised for a moment, pulling away to look at her contemplatively. "What do you mean?"
Hermione bit her lower lip, and squeezed her eyes shut, burying her face in his chest. "I—there are some things I'm concerned about—that I've been putting off—but if you knew…"
"There is very little you could do to make me not want you," Severus told her, his expression contorted into one of confusion. "It ought to be the other way around, truth to be told—"
"Look," Hermione said suddenly, sitting up straight. Her expression had become suffused with the same worried, shuttered look that had defined her features for the past few months, and the way she tensed up was unmistakable. "You can't understand—no one will know until after it happens—but I know it has to happen or something much worse will, and I just—" she made to stand up, but Severus grabbed her arms, pulling her back down. "It's driving me mad, I know it will, and I don't know how I'm going to live with myself…"
"Tell me," he insisted.
"I can't," Hermione whispered. Her eyes glazed over, and she looked down, lost in thought. Severus was sorely tempted to perform Legilimency on her, but feared that in this instance, it might do more harm than good, even if he got his answers. "It's just—I'm tired," she muttered. "I'm just so tired—so overworked—I can't think straight, and even though I know it will end soon, it feels like everything is just—just falling apart."
Severus pulled her back against him, insistently. She buried her face in his chest, gripping the shoulders of his shirt between her hands, and he uttered quietly, "Do you trust me?"
"Yes," she responded, her voice muffled. "More than anyone else."
"Remember your first Occlumency lesson—it was with Dumbledore, wasn't it?"
"Let your mind go blank," he instructed, caressing the sides of her arms in his hands. "Think about everything you've been keeping under wraps—let it out for a bit."
Hermione's eyes shot up to his. If she did that—if she took down her walls—he could simply ambush her and see whatever he wanted. It was too risky, far too risky, if he planned to take advantage of that vulnerability.
And yet—she did trust him.
Choice made to obey him, she pushed her misgivings aside and inhaled deeply, slowly lowering the protections she had placed around the thoughts, ideas, and memories that were too sensitive to allow anyone to see. Sub-thoughts and faint inklings followed moments later, and she allowed everything to come loose.
It was comparable to placing everything in a glass display case, and then removing the glass and knocking the shelf over—utter chaos. Hermione's eyes crossed and she moaned, burying her face deeper into the linen of Severus's shirt as pain laced through her. It was not physical pain, but emotional and psychological agony. Things she had kept bottled up for weeks, months, even years now, hit her like the Hogwarts Express, and she fought to push it aside, to bring everything back under control again.
Marlene was dead. Sirius was a wreck and would soon be in Azkaban for a crime he didn't commit. James and Lily would be dead. Alice and Frank were doomed to a life in St. Mungo's. Harry and Ron—what was it the Order was hiding from the three of them, that summer back at Grimmauld Place? What had they been keeping secret from them all? The memory of that meeting, before her fifth year, now pressed down on her with full force. The Marauders—she knew their fates, she knew the ruin they would fall into, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
And Severus would hate her when he found out that she had known, all along, that Lily was going to die. She was afraid to lose him. So afraid. She sometimes wondered what she would do if she had a choice of stopping herself from going back in time, saving herself from the burden, the pain, that she had not had to handle in her own timeline, and she knew that the only thing that would ever stop her from doing so would be Severus. He was the center of her world—her anchor in this timeline, her anchor in any timeline.
Severus's words broke into her thoughts. "You're tensing up. Relax."
Hermione did. She tried to register everything that was coming through in small pieces before putting them aside, but it was difficult. Her mind was a whirlwind of thoughts, relevant and otherwise, and it was difficult to absorb everything. Her emotions had been iced over for so long that when she let those through, it was overwhelming. Guilt, misery, hopelessness, and depression were the prime contenders in her mind, given the things she was forced to deal with on a daily basis.
"Sometimes," he murmured into her ear, stroking her hair soothingly as she shuddered, visibly affected by what was going on inside her head. "When I go to the lab to be alone—I do this. It helps me stay sane. Among other things. At the very least, look at this from a Muggle perspective— the more you build up the dam, the stronger the torrent when it comes out…"
Hermione shuddered unpleasantly again, and then stilled. Her breathing, which had been erratic and short, began to even out, and when Severus craned his neck to look at her, her expression was calm. Not the forced, icy calm that she wore like a mask, but an expression of ease and lassitude. The tension in her face had disappeared, and for the first time in nearly a year and a half, she looked much as she had before, when she was a student: strong, aware, and confident, lacking the visible strain that so often marred her features.
She suddenly jerked back, her eyes flying open, and then she grabbed him in turn, pulling him to her instead this time. She buried her face in the corner of his neck, wrapping her arms around him. She was silent for a moment, and then began laughing, albeit in a way that was slightly hysterical.
"I should be the spy and you the handler," she choked out. "I'm not made for this. You're the only thing stopping me from going mad— and here you are, telling me what to do, when it should be the other way around."
Severus shook his head, though his grip on her tightened. "You keep me focused on the task at hand every time I come back."
"By forcing you to look after me, you mean?" Hermione quipped tiredly.
Hermione blinked, having meant it entirely in jest. Severus saw the look of confusion on her face, and elaborated grugingly. "You keep me in line and make sure I divulge everything that happened—every last detail. You make the decisions on what I have to do next—and when it becomes too much for you to deal with, making certain that you're alright is the only thing stopping me from giving up entirely."
Hermione swallowed. "I don't understand. Breaking down—not being able to handle it—it's a weakness."
"It's your weakness," Severus agreed quietly, pulling her to her feet. "Not mine."
That was when Hermione understood.
She was in charge, entirely in control, when they were doing their jobs.
But when it came to surviving the aftermath, it was Severus who called the shots.
It was all strikingly clear to her now. It was ironic that they had uncovered such an odd coping system based on power exchange, but Hermione was relieved that she understood—that she finally understood. She could relax now, knowing that she could rely on him to take the lead when she needed a rest. When she needed to give up for a bit—to relinquish everything and sit back and let the world hang without actually tightening the noose. They were both carrying burdens, and Hermione had been carrying her share for too long.
"Alright," she said softly. She felt calm now. Not in control. Before, control had been everything Moody had taught her. His lessons had been valuable, but she couldn't function like the old Auror could, and she realized this now. Now she felt as though the situation could be well-managed without her maintaining the lead. "What do you want to do now?"
He sat there for a moment, tight-lipped and considering, before he began to unbutton his shirt and shrug it off.
"Kiss me," he commanded. "Give me your time."
Hermione smiled, stretching up to brush her lips against his, and then kissed him heatedly.
"All of it," she agreed. "Once this damn war is over—it's all yours."
After that, the dynamics of their relationship changed, not drastically, but in the manner of defining lines. Hermione continued her duties as Severus's handler, taking care of the strategic and business side of their combined efforts in the war. But as soon as their job could be set aside, it was Severus who dictated how things were to go, and Hermione followed quite happily.
'Happy' probably was not the best word to use. The world was still churning with the rages of war, and tidings were grave. But she was in a much better place than she had been for a long time, and when she and Severus were alone, she revelled in the peace he brought her.
Hermione traveled between two personalities—one where she was detached, aloof, and cold, the other where she was warm, loving, and very much concerned. The former was a mask she wore, much as Severus did. The second was the woman she had blossomed into underneath, and the side only Severus ever witnessed.
School resumed, much to Hermione's interest and Severus's displeasure. They fell back into their pattern of teaching, breaking in the first years and reacquainting themselves with the older years.
The students were quite frankly shocked to see her return, and Hermione took almost sadistic, very un-Hermione-like pleasure out of informing them that not only was she returning for another year, she was planning on staying for at least ten—and that they had therefore better get used to it, for now that they were familiar with her teaching methods, they would be expected to resume lessons with the same kind of ease and speed that the other teachers accomplished.
This was accompanied by groans, but they knew better by now than to argue.
Hogsmeade visits were still off. Newspapers were flown in daily by delivery owls to announce the latest grisly news. And in spite of all of this, the students were still expected to learn.
It seemed that very little had changed.
It was not until one late Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of September, that the routine changed. Hermione was called away to stop by the Prewett brothers' residence to make a delivery of sensitive information in person, via recital rather than letter by owl.
"The Headmaster says he'd like you two to take a look around the Department of Mysteries," Hermione said, taking off her traveling cloak and setting it aside on a chair before taking a seat at their kitchen table.
"Tea?" Fabian offered genially.
"Yes, please," Hermione said, reclining in her chair. In answer, Gideon began fussing with the teakettle. "He says there's a leak in the Department of Mysteries by one of the Unspeakables, although he hasn't figured out who it is yet. Whoever's spying on them has high-level clearance and access to a lot of sensitive information, so they probably work there." Hermione suddenly rememered something from her fourth year, and added, "They might also have multiple informants—a network. You need to roll those up, or You-Know-Who is going to destroy the Ministry from the inside-out."
"Any suggestions?" Gideon said, leaning against the counter to look at her. "We only work in the Department of Magical Games and Sports—we don't have access to that floor, so we'll have a difficult time getting around."
"In all honesty, my suggestion would be stealth," Hermione advised. "Find an excuse to go down there on inter-department business and get a feel for the layout, and then sneak back down there. James Potter has an invisibility cloak—I'm sure you could borrow that," she said thoughtfully. "Even if you can't, you could always Disillusion yourselves and cast Anti-Detection charms."
"Fair enough idea," Gideon said, with a nod to his brother. The teakettle began whistling, and he pulled it off the stove to pour. "What d'you reckon?"
"Its sound enough," Fabian agreed. "We could probably figure out the leak with the excuse of inter-departmental business alone—all we have to do is watch people and find anyone suspicious worth investigating."
"Be sure to report every leg of your investigation to Kingsley," Hermione reminded.
"Of course," Fabian said, with a wry smile. "Don't want to lose any of your precious paperwork. You'd go nuts."
Hermione laughed. "That's not too far off—"
Her words were suddenly drowned out by a loud, shuddering crash. They all jumped. Hermione's teacup fell to the floor and shattered, forgotten, and the teakettle was flung aside as wands were drawn. The wooden walls around them suddenly exploded, splintering, and Hermione recognized the hint of silver that preceded the grotesque mask of their enemies.
There was no time to talk. Hermione had her wand out, and before the first could appear, had fired off a hex in their direction.
"Duro!" The walls hardened into stone, and she snapped her wand at the ceiling. "Diffindo—Reducto!"
There was a sickening crunch as the wall broke and shattered, crashing down on them, and Hermione turned away to duck toward the fireplace, only to find that it had been blocked by a piece of fallen rubble. Shite. Moody and Shacklebolt's training jumped in at that moment, and Hermione was up in a flash, barking out orders.
"Gideon, clear one of the walls so we can get out!" she demanded as she ducked forward behind one of the stone-turned remains of the wall for cover. "Fabian, get over here and help me. Get cover!"
They moved quickly, as shouts from the other room grew louder. The walls blasted apart around them, and Hermione and Fabian quickly ducked out of the way, wands out, and ready to duel. Hermione assessed the situation quickly as she snapped a crippling spell at one of the intruders. There were three—four, no, five of them, all masked and robed and with their wands out.
What were they here for? Were they searching for something specific, or was this just a raid?
There was an explosion behind her, signaling the Gideon had just blasted a hole through what had been his kitchen window, and Hermione signalled for the two of them to get out while she handled them. Gideon was already out, pressed against the wall outside with his wand at the ready, but Fabian shook his head no urgently in response.
"You get out first," he hissed, sending out an array of stunners. The rubble around them was making it difficult for the Death Eaters to get into the kitchen, much less get a good shot at them, but they were certainly trying. "Go stand with Gideon, I'll lure them out—"
"Omnes Crux!" Hermione shouted. A series of pained screams followed her spell, and she quickly skittered backwards toward the exit, wand at the ready. She whipped around to duck behind the wall, standing on the opposite side next to Gideon. They exchanged glances, wands at the ready, and a moment later, when Fabian dove through with two Killing Curses flying over his head by a mere two inches, they both came around the side half-way with their spells already on their lips. They cast and then ducked back, Gideon helping his brother to his feet. Hermione summoned a pile of rubble to block the blasted exit, and the three of them turned to make a run toward the sparsely-wooded field of the back yard.
The sound of multiple Apparitions stopped them in their tracks. Two of the Death Eaters had mis-judged the location and ended up several feet from their intended targets, but the other three had them effectively surrounded until their cohorts could run into position.
They were outnumbered three to five, and all had their wands raised.
Hermione didn't wait for them to try negotiations. Her wand snaked out in the direction of the Death Eater in front of her.
"Sectumsempra!" she snarled. The spell cut across the Death Eater's face, slicing the lower half of his mask, causing it to sever and drop to the ground, revealing the bleeding, gurling wound high up on his throat. Hermione didn't wait to see what became of him, but whipped around to the one at her left as Gideon and Fabian took on the other three behind her. A hex cut across their circle, striking a glancing blow at Hermione on her hip and causing her to stumble for a moment in pain before she was up again.
Her next spell was flung silently at the man who had nicked her, causing him to be lifted up about a foot in the air. His wand dropped from his hands as they flew to his neck, trying to fight against the invisible force strangling the life out of him, clawing his mask aside to reveal his identity to try and gasp in some air— Dolohov. Hermione spared a glance down at his fallen comrade, who had collapsed on the ground and was clearly bleeding to death, even as she whipped around to help her two companions.
The other three were better prepared, as Hermione had caught the first two off guard, and the three-on-three duel became a game of dodging and defending against hexes and ducking Unforgivables. Hermione's reflexes were far too good to allow her to be caught easily; her movements were graceful, instinctive as they had been drilled into her after hours upon hours of reinforcement, and she shot back hexes that were as deadly as the Killing Curses that narrowly missed her feet.
One Death Eater's hex missed Fabian entirely and struck their house, setting it aflame; Hermione used the distraction as an opportunity to Apparate behind him, wand at the ready, and struck him with an Entrail-Expelling Curse.
The man's dying screams were broken by the sound of another Killing Curse being uttered; Hermione's eyes widened in horror as her vision was filled with a flash of green light, and then Gideon crumpled to the ground.
Rage—and fear, but mostly rage—boiled within her, and she struck the man in the back of the neck with a Severing Spell. He let out a choked, surprised sound and crumpled to the ground not six feet from the man he had just killed. Fabian's gaze flickered from his enemy to his brother, and then to Hermione; she wanted to scream at him to pay attention, tobloody pay attention, and not allow himself to be distracted—because that was the first rule Moody had taught, that distractions got you killed—
Fabian let out a soundless whimper, much like a sigh, when the flash of green struck him next.
"You bastard!" Hermione screamed, as the Death Eater whirled around to strike her next. "You fucking animal!"
"Blood traitor!" her enemy sneered back, his tone mocking. "Die!"
Hermione ducked the next hex. Eyes blazing, she faced him, her wand aimed between the eyeholes of the man's mask.
"You first," she snarled. "Sectumsempra!"
Blood splattered against her as her spell cut horizontally through the man's face, sliding through his mask, which tore off and slipped to the ground. Her enemy's eyes widened with horror as blood poured down his face, and then narrowed in pain as he realized that half his right eye had been ruined. He opened his mouth to speak, but Hermione didn't give him a chance. She took three leaping steps forward and kicked him backwards, grabbing the end of his wand and breaking it in half using his own hand for leverage, and pressed him down against the ground by his chest.
"What were you here for?" she demanded.
The man coughed, his injured eye rolling white and twitching as it bled. He fumbled for a moment for his broken wand, and then pointed it at Hermione.
There was a sudden sound of multiple, popping Apparitions. To Hermione's horror, she realized that she was now surrounded by at least a dozen masked and armed wizards.
There was a spluttering flash of green light, and Hermione leapt back, but she need not have worried; the broken wand shook and flashed for a moment, but did nothing more than let out a few sparks. The owner coughed in surprise at this, but Hermione paid no attention; instead, her fingers flew to her watch, pulling the third dial loose and twisting it hurridly as multiple voices fought to be heard as the prepared to hex her.
She slammed down on the dial, and a sudden tell-tale yank behind her navel told her that it worked, and she spun away. A sharp pain seared through her hip as she disappeared, and she let out a grunt of pain even as she struggled to hold onto the Portkey on her wrist.
She landed with a hard thud on the floor of the Headmaster's office, scrambling to her feet quickly and painfully, in time to hear the scrape of a chair being quickly pushed back. Dumbledore was out of his seat in a flash and standing at her side, pulling her up.
"What happened?" he demanded sharply. There was no trace of twinkling eyes or a friendly smile on his face. "Where are the Prewetts? Who did you kill?"
Something suddenly lodged itself in Hermione's throat.
Who did you kill?
"I—I don't know," she said, pulling herself together. She brought a hand to her cheek to wipe the blood away, and stared down at the red smearing on her fingers. "Fabian and Gideon are dead—they were both killed by Death Eaters." She took in a deep breath, and then continued with icy, detached calm. "I was in—I was in the middle of my report to them, when the house was broken into. Five of them came in. They're all dead now, but twelve more came, and I had to flee."
Dumbledore was moving quickly now, striding over to Fawkes, who let out a trill of alarm.
"Fawkes, send Alastor a message," Dumbledore intoned seriously. He turned around to look at Hermione, who had finally regained her wits and was now spelling blood off her clothes. "You had better let Poppy take a look at you, my dear—and then you had best go off and find Severus."
And just like that, after facing five murderous Death Eaters and coming back covered in blood, Hermione was dismissed.
"Stop being such a cantankerous git," Hermione snapped tiredly as Severus examined the cut across her hip where the matron had been forced to remove a chunk of skin that had been sliced into by a spell which had begun to ooze black pus amidst the blood. The skin had been regrown, and now looked quite healthy, but the scar where the original cut had been made was still visible. "I'm fine."
"The only one being a cantankerous git here is you," Severus retorted, as he traced his wand over the scar. The Dark Lord had not yet summoned him, but Severus had gone through her memories, and knew precisely which Death Eaters she had killed. They had to think of something that would convince the Dark Lord to overlook such a transgression. "I'm trying to help you. Your cooperation would be most appreciated."
"Severus, I just killed four men and watched two more die," Hermione snarled miserably. "I'm tired, and I want to go to bed and maybe drown myself with Dreamless Sleep before I have to get up for class tomorrow. The scar on my hip is the least of my worries."
"You still don't know what spell Dolohov used?"
"It was nonverbal, and you saw for yourself—I didn't get a good look at it."
Severus let out a rough sigh and stood up, allowing Hermione to push her chair back, away from the desk, and yank her skirt back up.
"I haven't detected any traces of Dark Magic still in it," he admitted crossly. "It could have been worse, I suppose. It seems that Poppy took care of it."
"I told you so," Hermione muttered, rubbing her face. "Now can I go?"
"No." Severus pulled her to him, and kissed her forehead. "You're angry with me now, but I'm only looking after you."
"I'm not angry," Hermione confessed, pressing her hand against her temple. "I'm just aggravated and—upset. I'll have to tell Molly that I watched her only two brothers die, and as if that isn't tragic enough, we'll need to find replacements for the assignment those two were being briefed on." She sighed, and then reached into the pocket of her robes, and pulled out a slightly dented watch. "I know I wasn't supposed to, but I went back before going to see Madam Pomfrey. I want to give Molly something of her brothers, and I managed to get Fabian's watch."
"Merlin's ruddy beard, Hermione!" Severus exploded. "That is one of the most dunderheaded things you could have done!"
"I had to," Hermione said, her voice surprisingly calm as she looked down at the watch. "I just—I had to. There are so many people I've lost, who I wish I had at least gotten the chance to get something to remember them by—once they're gone, I never had the chance to. The Death Eaters were desecrating the bodies—I had to summon the watch off of Fabian without being seen. They sacrificed themselves for the Order," Hermione continued softly. "Their sister deserves this much, at least, to remember them by."
Severus froze, staring down incomprehensibly into her face. His eyes flickered over her, as though trying to divine something from them, and then he let out a sigh of frustration.
"Gryffindors," he growled. "Over-sentimental to the point that they forget the concept of self-preservation."
"I'm sorry," Hermione responded wearily, slumping back into her chair.
Severus placed a hand on her shoulder, and then let out another sigh, calmer this time, more controlled.
"Let's go to bed," he said quietly. "We have class tomorrow."
Hermione stood up gratefully. When they went to sleep, neither looking forward to the next day, but relieved that they would both be there to see it, Hermione snuggled against Severus's chest, with his arms wrapped firmly around her.
Neither of them wanted to contemplate how close one of them had come to sleeping alone in this bed for the rest of his days.