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Pride of Time

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A/N: This story is complete. All the chapters have been written. It is being reposted from FFnet.

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own, make money off of, or profit from this story in any way. Please do remember that. All characters you see belong to JKR, and any quotes that from directly from any of her books belong to her, as well.


Hermione Granger had never given up the Time-Turner she acquired in third-year. She'd handed it to Minerva and then gone to see the Headmaster to ask for it back. Her friends and teachers had no idea that she was still in possession of such an artifact. Professor Dumbledore had been more than happy to give it back to her, reminding her once more of the rules regarding its use, and then sent her on her way.

Thus, she'd kept it hidden on her person in fourth year. She'd used it sparingly, usually to get more studying time in, but for all of the school year of 1994, she had probably used less than twenty-four hours of time. When Harry returned from the maze, clutching Cedric Diggory's dead body and the Tri-Wizard Cup, Hermione had been prepared to go back in time to stop him from going into the maze, to alert the past Dumbledore that the cup was a portkey, to do something to prevent Voldemort's return.

It was the Headmaster who stayed her hand, in the middle of all the chaos and confusion, when he saw her slipping away from the crowd.

"You cannot use time to erase all evil," he told her gravely.

"But sir—!"

"We always knew Voldemort would return," Dumbledore told her seriously. He wasn't smiling, with either his expression or his eyes. They were hard, yet there was an edge of resigned sadness to them. "Harry is still alive, Miss Granger. He will need your help and that of Mister Weasley to defeat him, but if you prevent Voldemort's return, he will still find a way to come back— one in which the outcome is less favorable than is now." Seeing the look of disbelief, he reiterated firmly, "Harry is alive, Miss Granger."

It had taken a full minute for Hermione to absorb and accept these words, and then her hand, which had been grasped tightly around the little hourglass around her neck, preparing to fiddle with the dials, slowly lowered.

"I understand, sir," she said dully.

Thus, time was not altered the night of Voldemort's rebirth, and come fifth year, they were dealing with the Terror of the Wizarding World along with one of the most incompetent, foul beings Hermione had yet encountered. The presence of Dolores Umbridge drove Hermione to convince Harry, with Ron's help, to start Dumbledore's Army.

But they had been betrayed, though Hermione didn't know who. Upon receiving Dobby's warning, she had fled down the corridor, escaping the Inquisitorial Squad, but from the racket following her footsteps, she knew Harry had not. She was certain he would be expelled, and given the name of their club, Professor Dumbledore would likely be accused of nothing less than treason. This was one instance where she was certain she was supposed to use her Time-Turner. Where it was justified to do so, for the sake of altering the outcome of certain events. Dumbledore had to remain at Hogwarts!

This was why Hermione found herself hurtling down the corridor, intending to reach her dormitory, where she could go back in time long enough to warn her past self of the impending betrayal. They could avoid this disaster, if they only put the meeting off another day and managed to weed out the informant and Obliviate them—

Just as she was descending the stairs leading to the fourth floor, the hands fiddling with the dials of the Time-Turner got caught in the chain, upsetting her balance. She tripped, hitting the hard stone stairs with enough force that the knock to her head made her see white-hot stars, and as she heard a quiet, foreboding crack

Time shattered around her.

~o~O~o~

To Hermione, it was like watching a kaleidoscope of colors. The red-orange-cream of the candlelight and the candlesticks on the wall mixed with the iron black of the holders; the grayish brown, illuminated stones of the wall, the faint blur of colors from the few portraits on the wall of this particular fourth-floor corridor, mixed with the searing pain in her forehead and the faint splotches of blood she was sure was coming from her nose from where she'd hit the stairs—

And then it thankfully stopped. Dizzy, Hermione brought a hand to her nose, trying to stem the trickle of blood and see straight, when it hurt her eyes just to look. She closed them and remained motionless for a moment, sprawled on the stairs as she was, and once she felt the majority of her dizziness subside, she slowly opened her eyes.

The corridor she was in was deserted. She slowly raised herself up on shaking elbows and brought her knees up, forcing herself on all fours. She closed her eyes as another wave of pain washed over her face, trickling through her bruised elbows, her knees, her ribs, and then realized a heavier, burning pain was searing through her hands and her chest—

She ripped the Time-Turner off her neck and dropped it to the ground before pressing a hand to her neck. It hurt, and badly. The place where the Time-Turner had rested against her had become charred, and sticky red blood was soaking through the crispy black skin. It was a small burn, but it was making breathing difficult, and it was all Hermione could do not to let out a little sob of pain. She scrambled for her wand, which was still in the pocket of her robes, and pulled it out with shaking fingers. She cast a trembling Cooling Charm on her chest, her hands, and the burning sensation slowly subsided, though the pain did not.

Her grip on the wand now sticky with blood that had welled up in her fingers, Hermione carefully turned it toward the Time-Turner, her expression fearful, as though afraid it might lash out at her. But the tiny hourglass lay on the ground, a white-hot luminous burn that instantly explained Hermione's injuries. The Time-Turner was burning up, and through the glare of its light, Hermione could see a faint crack along the glass.

Professor Dumbledore had told her that the reason one could not use a Time-Turner to safely go back in time by months or even years was because the farther in time you went, the more the hourglass would burn. It would take time for it to cool before it could be used again. As Hermione stared at the burning object lying on the ground, she realized that from the telltale burn, she must have gone back much, much farther than two hours. How far had she gone? Days? Weeks? Months?

She dared not even consider the idea that she might have gone back years. It was too incomprehensible.

She stood up slowly on shaky legs, and then pointed her wand at the burning hourglass on the ground. Focusing made her head throb, but she had to do it nonetheless.

"W-wingardium leviosa!" She gasped, and the Time-Turner slowly floated up off the ground. Staggering forward, Hermione stumbled through the empty, deserted corridors. It must be several hours past curfew, she thought, for there should have been students to run into by now. But thankfully, there were none. She didn't even see a single prefect doing rounds. And judging from the darkness outside, it must be very late indeed. The only risk she had was of running into patrolling teachers—

"Goodness gracious!"

Hermione spun around in time to see a very pale Professor McGongall rushing toward her, wearing a look of absolute shock; Hermione's shaky concentration finally broke, the throbbing in her head increasing to dizzying proportions, and as she saw the stone floor rush up at her, she heard the distinct sound of the Time-Turner landing on the floor with a faint but audible crack.

~o~O~o~

Hermione opened her eyes. Her vision was fuzzy, but she was warm, and she felt safe. Something glinted in the peripheral of her vision, and she slowly lifted her head to look, her eyes widening in surprise as she took in the plain white curtains and sheets of the Hospital Wing. She tried to move, and in response to this tentative request, her body screamed in protest. Yet, Hermione could not help it; she had to sit up. She slowly leaned forward, pulling herself up with help from her elbows, until she was no longer flat on her back. She blinked a bit more as her eyes adjusted to the gentle orange light of the candles lit along the wall, and felt a wash of relief as she realized her head was no longer trying to kill her with sheer pain. Her eyes flickered down at the sheets—soft, but white—and glanced down at her hands.

They were wrapped in bandages, stained by the ointment wrapped underneath them, and as she cautiously flexed her fingers, she realized that they were no longer covered in blood. That prompted her to bring her hand back up to her chest, feeling carefully for the painful burn that had had her struggling to hold back wracking sobs—

Another set of bandages were wrapped around her chest, and Hermione's fingers tentatively ran over the textured fabric, feeling nothing. Her body was extremely sore, and her eyes felt tired, but she otherwise seemed alright. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, trying to think clearly now that she was no longer covered in blood and dealing with the pain of fresh third-degree burns.

She was in the Hospital Wing. She must have gone back in time, where Professor McGonagall had found her, and brought her here and alerted the Headmaster. She would have to explain herself to them both, but she was certain now that things would be alright.

She was about to lean back and rest some more when Madam Pomfrey exited her office and, seeing that her patient was awake, immediately bustled over.

"Oh, good," she said, sounding relieved. She pressed a hand to Hermione's head, as though checking for temperature, and then summoned some water and a tray of food. "You're awake." She tsked. "We weren't sure whether you would be all right—you looked quite a fright when you appeared out of nowhere, covered in blood—"

"Madam Pomfrey, I was wearing a hourglass-shaped object around my neck when I came here," Hermione said, reaching for the cup of water and bringing it to her mouth with shaking fingers. "Do you know what happened to it?"

Madam Pomfrey paused.

"How do you know my name, dear?"

Hermione pulled the cup from her lips to look up at the matron, now wearing the look of a timid animal caught at wandpoint. How far back had she gone?

"Could I…" Good gods, was Professor Dumbledore even still here? She was certain he was, but— "Is… if Professor Dumbledore is still here, could I please see him?"

"Of course," Madam Pomfrey said, stirring the bowl of oatmeal on the tray. "He said he would stop by to check on you regardless, but now that you're awake, there is no point in waiting. Eat up," she said firmly as she turned to leave. "Professor Dumbledore will be along shortly to sort out this mess."

"I would appreciate that," Hermione said politely as she reached to take a bite of the oatmeal. Having had nothing to eat for goodness knows how long, she was positively starved. "Thank you," she added.

Looking rather pleased that Hermione was being so cordial, compared to the usual complaints and grunts the matron usually had to endure from her unruly charges, Madam Pomfrey seemed content to let the mystery surrounding Hermione's knowledge of her name rest. She made to return to her office, no doubt to get some work done, to leave Hermione alone with her thoughts.

"Madam Pomfrey, wait!" she suddenly called. The matron paused. "Could you tell me what year it is?"

Madam Pomfrey turned to give her an odd look, but was kind enough to answer nevertheless.

"The first of April, 1977," the matron answered simply.

Hermione's eyes practically bugged out of her skull. 1977. She had been sent back in time by nearly twenty years! That shouldn't even be possible, unless it had something to do with the crack the Time-Turner had received when she'd fallen. Perhaps a few grains had moved out of place with the dials, a few years had been taken, and instead of going back two hours, two months, or even two years, she'd gone back by nearly two decades.

For a moment, she was hoping someone would jump out and shout, "April Fools!" but the stern, concerned expression on the matron's face remained unchanging. She was serious.

Madam Pomfrey was waiting for an answer, and Hermione managed to swallow down the scream that threatened to rise up in her throat, and merely croaked out, "Thank you, Madam Pomfrey."

Satisfied, the matron left, leaving Hermione to stew in a maelstrom of thoughts.

Was Professor Dumbledore still Headmaster then? She was certain he was— he'd been Headmaster of Hogwarts for at least forty years, if he started teaching in 1956. That was, if her recollection of Hogwarts, A History, was correct. Besides, Madam Pomfrey had already referred to him as the Headmaster…

She needed to find a way to fit into this time period until she had a solution to return to 1996. She needed to speak with Dumbledore, but not reveal the extent of her situation to anyone, not even the Headmaster. Chewing on her oatmeal, she considered the story she would come up with to convince the Headmaster to allow her to transfer in this late in the year, nevermind how she had arrived.

Decision made, she set aside her food and, wishing she had her wand so that she could summon a book to read, sat back and waited, fear roiling in her belly.

~o~O~o~

The Headmaster arrived two hours later.

He entered quietly, closing the door behind him, and as he turned around to face Hermione, the first thing she could think of was that he looked no different than she remembered. Madam Pomfrey—well, in the last two hours, it had finally dawned on Hermione that Madam Pomfrey's hair still had a great deal more brown to it than her older self did. The lines on her face were softer, too, as was the shape, and she looked only slightly less careworn now than she did in twenty years. If Hermione had not been convinced before, she was now.

The Headmaster, however, looked almost unchanged, and Hermione found it to be a surprising relief; to feel as though she were talking to a familiar face was greatly appreciated right now. Blue eyes looked at her benignly from half-moon spectacles, and as Hermione opened her mouth to speak, he raised up a hand to quiet her.

"Have no fear, Miss Granger." Hermione's mouth clicked shut at this, and she stared as he continued, "I have the Time-Turner you arrived with. Madam Pomfrey told me you were concerned about such an object earlier. Minerva was the one who brought it to me—I must say you certainly gave her quite a fright. She was quite concerned about you."

"May I see it, sir?" Hermione asked desperately.

"Unfortunately, it is too hot to be handled as of right now," Dumbledore continued, as he pulled out a chair for himself and took a seat, crossing one leg and folding his hands into his lap. "I have locked it away while it cools."

"Too hot…?" Hermione was disturbed by this news. "Sir? You can't cool it?"

"Not by any magical means I know of," Dumbledore responded, now twiddling his thumbs. "I do not know how long it will take for it to be cool enough to be repaired. And even then," he added calmly, "I am not certain if there is a way to send someone forward in time. That would take quite a bit of fiddling, I might add, and knowledge that I do not have."

"But you're Albus Dumbledore," Hermione could not help but hear herself utter, even as she felt a detached sense of horror at the implication of his words. If she didn't wake up from this nightmare soon, she was going to have a mental breakdown. She had been thrown back nearly twenty years in time, and was being told that there was no way to rectify it. "You're the greatest wizard of the century! There must be something you can do!"

"Am I?" Professor Dumbledore asked, now smiling. But behind the smile, his demeanor was still quite serious. "I am afraid, Hermione, that I am quite incapable of returning you to your time at this current point in—well—time. Quick fickle, isn't it?" he added, almost as an afterthought. Seeing the baffled look, he elaborated, "How fickle time is. You can only hope to get nowhere but backwards when you play with it, when all we ever do in life is to look forward."

Hermione buried her face in her hands and tried not to let out the strangled sob threatening to burst unbidden from her throat.

"Oh gods," she moaned. "What am I going to do now?"

"You will create a new life here," Dumbledore said cheerfully, sliding out his wand and flicking it once. A scroll of paper appeared in his hands, and he held it out to her. "I will speak to the teachers here—I'm certain you know them all already?" Hermione nodded, swallowing hard to keep from crying. "If your memory serves the both of us correctly, you were in the middle of your fifth year when you made your unfortunate—er—trip." Hermione gingerly took the scroll from him and unrolled it. It was a schedule, with the name Hermione Grangerprinted neatly at the top.

Hermione was wiping her eyes now, trying to erase all traces of the tears threatening to spill over. Her voice cracked slightly as she spoke. "Professor, I'll need an alias—I, I can't very well go by my real name—"

"It matters not in the long run, Hermione," Professor Dumbledore interrupted, his voice was firm. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Twenty years from now, it will make no difference. Either you will have returned to your time, where your name will have been long forgotten by the time you arrive as a first year, or you will have made a life here for yourself."

Hermione nodded, and couldn't help sniffling as she rolled up the scroll and tucked it under her arm. Well, at the very least, she would have the comfort of using her own name. "Thank you, sir," she said in a small voice. Sooner or later, she was going to break down in mass hysteria. This was too unreal. She was normally extremely calm and collected—she prided herself on it, in fact, that she could think rationally when all logic had fled the situation—but right now, very much like the time she'd been confronted with Devil's Snare and had wailed that there was no wood… she felt as though she had lost her tenuous grip on the situation.

"I do, however, recommend you not reveal the true nature of how you came to be here," Professor Dumbledore informed her as he pushed back his chair and stood up. "That would not be wise to bandy about."

"I understand, sir."

"Very well, then," Professor Dumbledore said, clasping his hands together the way he did when things appeared to be final. He reached into the left pocket of his star-spangled purple robes, and pulled out a chocolate frog and set it down on her nightstand. "I find sweets often help in cheering up, no matter how onerous the situation. You certainly look as though you could use it. And on a final note," he mused, "I believe you were sorted into Gryffindor. In that case, I believe this week's password is 'Chocolate Frog.' You know your way to the tower, I presume?"

Hermione nodded and glanced at the chocolate frog, hesitating only for a moment before she reached to unwrap it. She could certainly use something to cheer her up now.

"Thank you, Professor."

~o~O~o~

Hermione's first order of business, once she had been discharged by Madam Pomfrey, was to take inventory of herself, and realize that she had nothing. Nothing except for the book bag Professor McGonagall had found at the place where Hermione he first landed—which contained her name and the homework assignments and dated notes, which neatly explained in her mind how Professor Dumbledore had learned her name and origin—and her books. Or rather, she only had her planner, some ink bottles and quills, and the week's notes with her; her books were still on her nightstand in her dorm, left behind in 1996.

Professor McGongall was waiting for her the moment she left the Hospital Wing, and after nervously shaking her hand, found herself being marched down to her office. Once inside, she was invited to have a seat. The tea which Hermione was so used to being offered by her head of house back in her own time was noticeably absent. Instead, she felt once again like an errant first year, consumed with the feeling that she would somehow have to prove that she had a right to be here.

"Professor Dumbledore has informed me that you will be staying in Gryffindor," she said starchly, stirring herself a cup of tea. "He has also informed me that you are already aware of our point system and house rules— I trust that I need not repeat them for you?"

"No, Professor," Hermione said, trying not to wring her hands in her lap. She felt so out of place, and vaguely nauseous with homesickness. She was in the right place at the wrong time and it was disorienting, to say the least. She was used to a friendly face and an understanding mein from her head of house; yet, this McGonagall did not know her.

She must have looked like she was about to cry, for McGonagall's strict demeanor instantly softened just a fraction. It was enough to put Hermione faintly at ease. "Miss Granger, my understanding is that you will be here for a very long time—if not forever, at least until the Headmaster finds a suitable way to return you to your time. Until then, you will simply have to fit in."

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, trying to stem the flow of snot that was threatening to drip from her nose, even though she'd managed to hold back the tears. "It's just—this is a lot to take in."

To her surprise, given how stiff McGonagall had been just moments ago, the Transfiguration Professor's next words were reassuring. "It's quite alright. I imagine you miss home terribly."

Hermione could only nod.

There was a pause, and then a weary sigh as McGonagall took a sip of her tea and then set it aside.

"Miss Granger, I don't know how well you've read up on history," she said briskly, "but we—that is to say, everyone at this school, staff and students alike—are all under an enormous amount of stress. We are on the brink of war, and there is a level of inter-house warfare right now that is eating away at the safety the school would otherwise offer." She looked at Hermione sternly. "I do not know what Hogwarts is like in your time—no, do not tell me!" she said, raising her hand to stop Hermione from speaking. "I do not want to know. But whatever Hogwarts is like in your time, Miss Granger, you must set that aside and be on your guard. Do you understand?"

Hermione nodded slowly.

"The students who are most likely to be targeted are the ones without friends," McGonagall said, stirring her tea slowly, the spoon clinking against the side of the mug. "And as of right now, you are alone and friendless, a new transferal near the end of the year." She looked up at Hermione now, locking eyes with her. "Do you understand what I am telling you, Miss Granger?"

Hermione swallowed; for some reason, she was unable to reply. Somehow, her nod was not sufficient enough for McGonagall, for she continued, "Frankly, Miss Granger, I believe that it will be a long time, if ever, before you are returned to your time. Until that happens, you cannot recluse yourself from the world."

Hermione felt as though she finally understood. "You don't think I'll ever get to go back," she whispered, more to herself than her audience, but McGonagall nodded briskly in reply. She hesitated, and then swallowed: "So I should just… make myself a part of this timeline?"

"That is correct."

Hermione closed her eyes.

I may never see Harry or Ron again.

Resigning herself to this possibility, she sat up straighter and ceased her fidgeting with her hands. "Very well, Professor."

"Good," McGonagall said, looking rather relieved that the conversation had finished with minimum hysteria. "And now, I believe, you are in need of supplies?"

~o~O~o~

On Monday morning, Hermione walked into Herbology and took an empty seat at the end of the table next to a girl she didn't know. They were all wearing dragon-hide gloves and warily eyeing the Fanged Geraniums waiting to be transplanted. Hermione tried to resist the urge to flex her gloves, but it was nearly impossible not to; the worn pair McGonagall had collected for her felt so stiff, it was a wonder it didn't classify as petrified. It made her feel clumsy, but there was no taking them off for this class. She would have to buy herself a new pair, next Hogsmeade visit permitting.

Normally, she would have found a seat between Harry and Ron. But as this was not the case, she found herself sitting beside a slight, plain girl with mousy looks and a demeanor that reminded her slightly of Neville Longbottom. The witch next to her was of the subdued sort, but Hermione nevertheless struggled to find the words to introduce herself.

She had finally resigned herself to the fact that she would probably never make it back to her own timeline. Upon coming to this realization, and internalizing McGonagall's words, she understood what she needed to do if she were to ever manage to fit in.

The girl next to her blinked in surprise, eyes widening when Hermione thrust her hand forward.

"I'm Hermione Granger," she said, smiling nervously. "I'm your new classmate."

The girl hesitated for all of one moment before grasping Hermione's hand and shaking it, though her grip was gentle. "I'm Mary MacDonald. It's nice to meet you. You're the new fifth-year Professor McGonagall told us about, right?" For the first time since Hermione had arrived, she was treated to a friendly, open smile. "Welcome to Hogwarts."

Professor Sprout's sharp, brisk voice broke through the greenhouse. "Partner up! Two to a plant, let's go!"

"Do you want to partner up with me?" Mary asked, sounding just a bit hopeful.

Hermione gratefully seized the invitation. "Yes, please."

They immediately set to work, Hermione holding the fanged flower's bud still between her fingers—which didn't require as much flexibility— as Mary set to work carefully uprooting it.

"Have you met the Gryffindor prefects yet?" Mary asked, wiping a streak of dirt from her cheek with her arm as she set the geranium down in the pot intended for its transferral. "I think you'd really like one of them— Lily, at least. She's quite kind, and really smart—she tutors the younger years in her free time. If you need any help catching up with classes, I think she'd be happy to help."

"I think I'd like that," Hermione responded honestly, wondering if she could ask the Head Girl for a copy of all her notes from fifth year and below. Her own notes were irretrievably stuck in her own timeline, and they would be starting OWL review soon. She needed those notes. "What did you say her name was?"

"Lily Evans," Mary replied, slicing a bag of soil open and helping Hermione to hoist it over the snarling and snapping flower.

The name was familiar to Hermione, and it took several minutes for it to finally hit her. And when it did, she nearly dropped the half-empty bag in her arms.

She had gone back almost twenty years in time—when Harry's parents were still in school.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: All right. This is today's chapter.

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.


To Hermione's great relief, she shared nearly every single class with Mary. Professor Dumbledore had put her in the same courses she'd taken in her own timeline, which meant that since Mary was in her year, they shared all five of the same core classes. The only class she was on her own in was Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, and she was quite used to not attending it with her friends; Harry and Ron had never taken Ancient Runes, nor had they ever had the slightest interest in Arithmancy; she was as much on her own here as she had been in her own timeline. In a way, that consistency was comforting.

There were so few students in those two classes that, unlike in Hermione's time where it was sorted by year, the third and fourth years were placed together, as were the fifth and sixth years. The seventh years were on their own, in their own exclusive NEWT-level course. There just weren't enough students to warrant separating each class, and Hermione discovered Professors Vector and Babbling essentially taught two separate lessons in the same classroom and the same period. Even with two years combined across the board, there were roughly a total of fifteen students in each class. It was disconcerting how small it was, given Hermione was used to a class of roughly twice this size.

Mary helped her get settled from class to class, helping her find a seat that was not relegated to the very back of the room nor too far to either side, and introducing her to the people she usually sat with. Mary, Hermione soon discovered, was neither a very powerful witch nor a particularly strong-willed one, but she was friendly and personable enough that she had friends in class who were happy to meet Hermione.

At the end of the day, she brought Hermione to Gryffindor Tower, where they found Lily Evans sitting at one of the tables—in fact, one of the very tables Hermione usually sat at—helping one of the third-years with his Transfiguration assignment. She looked up at Mary and Hermione's approach, and gave a friendly smile.

"Mary! I haven't seen you all day." She sat up straight, and the third year she'd been helping thanked her quickly and left; Hermione had the vague suspicion that the boy would be dashing back down the stairs soon enough, with a broomstick over his shoulder. "How can I help you?"

"Hermione, this is Lily," Mary said, by way of introduction. "She's one of the Gryffindor prefects. Lily, Hermione was wondering if she could have copies of your notes from first through fifth year. She doesn't have any, and we're starting our OWL review soon…"

Hermione wasn't listening, nor paying that much attention, even as Lily stood up and bade them to wait a moment while she went to retrieve the notes. Harry's mother had hair that was brighter than Ginny's and just as long, with sparkling green eyes that reminded Hermione so much of Harry. She watched as Lily's hair was swept back as she disappeared from the room, and didn't realize Mary was talking to her until the girl timidly patted her on the shoulder.

"Lily's the one we all go to when the Slytherins start picking on us," she said, her eyes on the floor. Hermione was instantly struck with the suspicion that Mary had had to go to Lily more than once for such a reason. She hated to think of it, but poor Mary was such a weak and easy target. "Don't be afraid to ask her for help." She scuffed her foot on the rug, at this, and then asked, "Are you any good at defensive spells?"

Hermione's mind immediately flew to her sessions at the D.A. "Passably," she lied, knowing she was more than just passably good at defense. Harry was the best among them, but Hermione had absorbed all of his lessons—excluding the last—with her usual lightning-quick talent and studiousness. "Why?"

"We have Potions tomorrow," Mary said by way of explanation. "Would you mind walking down there with me in the morning?"

Hermoine's expression instantly softened. Mary was asking for help, and whether or not she was grateful to the girl for making her feel welcome, she felt almost obliged to help a fellow Gryffindor in need. "Of course."

Mary brightened visibly at this, and Lily returned almost a moment later with several years' worth of notes, neatly put together, and held them out to Hermione, who took them gratefully.

A voice interrupted from the other side of the room. "Oi! Why are you giving her notes when you wouldn't even share Binn's History notes from last week?"

Hermione whipped around in time to see a familiar face lounging on one of the couches in front of the fire, as Lily haughtily replied, "That's because you fell asleep! You don't even bother to take notes!"

Sirius gave her a roguish grin. His hair was black and curly, draped around his shoulders, and his face was bright and lively, something Hermione had never seen in him during her time at Grimmauld Place. Where she remembered him as gaunt and pale, he now looked young and healthy, nearing his prime, and if she looked closely, it seemed he was already starting to grow the faintest stubble of a beard.

"Come on, Lily," he weedled, sitting up. "Just this once. I normally manage to stay awake long enough to write down what he's saying."

"You always say that," Lily said, turning away from him with a sigh. "If you want notes so badly, go ask Remus. They're just as good as mine."

"You have nice script."

"You deserve it if you can't read Remus's chicken scratch," Lily countered, flouncing back off to her table, where she straightened out her papers and began putting them back in her bag. "Come on, Mary. Are you coming, Hermione?"

Hermione was nearly astonished by Lily's almost dictatorial tone, but she acquiesced immediately. Dashing up the stairs to put her newly-acquired notes away, she grabbed her bag and followed Lily and Mary out the portrait hole, throwing Sirius one last look over her shoulder as he did.

The boy was scowling, but it quickly slid from his face as he leaned down to pick up his Defense Against the Dark Arts text book, picked up some parchment that had slid off his lap, and propping it on his book, resumed writing.

~o~O~o~

Hermione sat on the couch in the common room that night, scribbling away at her essay due tomorrow while several other students, including Mary, went up to bed. Rain pattered against the window in a steady beat, and it was pitch black outside. The common room was surprisingly quiet, until Sirius stormed in, soaking wet and tracking mud. Hermione nearly shrieked at this, and scrambled to her feet in time to see two more familiar faces follow suit, their shoes thick with mud and leaving a mess that would likely cause Argus Filch to have an apoplectic fit.

Remembering the crabby old caretaker's aiding and abetting of Umbridge, she actually didn't pity him one bit if he had to clean this up. But his jobs were restricted largely to the halls; he wouldn't be called in for dormitories. It would be the elves who would have to clean those messes.

The boy who could have passed for a slightly-older Harry, minus the scar and hazel eyes, was grinning with amusement at the horrified look on her face. The fair-haired boy standing behind him, however, looked somewhat abashed, and pulled out his wand to try and undo some of the mess.

"You're tracking mud into the common room!" Hermione almost howled. "For Merlin's sake, can't you do a simple Cleaning Charm?"

Sirius shrugged, but pulled out his wand to scourgify his robes clean. "More work for Filch." He eyed Hermione's hair warily, watching as it began to frizz slightly in her agitation. "Please don't have a heart attack. McGonagall will put us in detention for the rest our lives if you die on us first-day in."

James Potter was staring at Hermione curiously, and it was Remus who had to scourgify his mud-soaked Quidditch robes for him, since it seemed he wasn't going to do so himself. "You're the new girl, aren't you?"

Hermione paled. For a moment, she had a sense of extremely disconcerting vertigo, and she closed her eyes for a moment to will it away before she felt steady enough to speak. James Potter was not Harry. She could not pull him into a hug and cry her eyes out with relief at a familiar face. Instead, she took a calming breath, and answered as evenly as she could, "Yes, I am. And for future reference, if you could please keep your mud-tracking activities restricted to the halls, I would be much obliged not to have you sent to detention for the rest of your life."

"Just got back from Quidditch practice," James said by way of explanation, ruffling the back of his head. "We haven't had a chance to clean up."

"Are you a wizard or not?" Hermione snapped. It was the only way she felt she could cope; either she was going to break down crying or she was going to snap at them to get their act together. It was too confusing for her. Right now, she just wanted to storm off and go to sleep and try to prepare herself for the day ahead. "Lily told me at dinner that you're one of the best in your class at Charms." Had bragged almost admiringly, actually. "Surely you could manage that much?"

James's attention immediately snapped to her. "Lily said that?" he asked, looking rather pleased with himself.

Oh gods. "Yes," Hermione answered, sounding uncertain, but she tried to roll with it. "And—you know—I think the rest of us would appreciate a clean common room. Including her."

James sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets, though Hermione could tell that inside, he was grinning from ear to ear. "Alright. Can we go now?"

"Yes, go," Hermione snapped, waving them away and sliding back down to the floor, pulling her Transfiguration essay closer and re-inking her quill. "Have a good night."

They tramped past her and up the stairs, and the minute they were gone, Hermione shoved her essay aside, curled up into a ball, and wrapped her arms around her knees, burying her face in them. Gods, she just wanted to go home. She would do anything to be home now. Back home and in the right timeline. She didn't belong here.

She was surprised when a hand gently patted her shoulder, and her head shot up. Remus was kneeling beside her, looking uncertain, but concerned.

Hermione didn't want to deal with this. "Go away, please," she croaked, turning her head away. Tears were threatening to pour again, but by now, she knew they needed to stop. Crying wouldn't help, and never helped, but she couldn't stop the sense of helplessness threatening to engulf her in salty tears.

"Are you all right?" Remus asked gently.

"I'm fine," Hermione muttered, still refusing to look at him. A dam had finally broken, and the tears were starting to trickle down her cheeks. "Go away."

"No." Hermione turned to look at him, surprised. He amended, "I'm a prefect. It's my job to look after you, and you're obviously not fine." He scooted until he was sitting next to her, and crossed his arms across his chest. "I'm here to listen, if you need me."

Hermione swallowed, feeling both grateful and annoyed beyond all comprehension. She couldn't tell him the truth, but she settled on a vague version of it. "I miss home," she whimpered quietly.

She felt Remus shift, uncrossing his arms, and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze. Hermione continued, "I miss my friends, and I miss my family. I even miss my teachers. And now I'm here, and it's just…" she shook, her body wracking with barely-contained sobs as she struggled not to let it all out. "I'm alone. I am completely alone."

"No, you're not," Remus responded gently, but his voice was firm. "You have us. Everyone in Gryffindor will be your friend if you let them. And you can always owl your friends back at home."

"I can't," Hermione said with a sobbed hiccup. She buried her face in her arms, and brokenly repeated, "I can't."

Remus seemed to absorb this with a transforming look of horror and then pity and sympathy. "You-Know-Who?" he asked, not daring to be more specific.

Hermione nodded. Because in a way, indirectly, Voldemort had taken everything away from her. His influence at the Ministry had translated to influence at Hogwarts, which had led to this—

Remus wrapped his arms around her shoulders and gave her a friendly squeeze. "We'll be your family, Hermione. Some of us have lost friends and family because of him—you're not alone."

Hermione looked blearily at him, remembering that it was because of Voldemort that he was a werewolf. Of course he would understand loss—for him, he had lost any chance of a normal, unafflicted life. She buried her tear-stained face in his chest and let it all out, crying and shaking uncontrollably. She couldn't go back. She couldn't go home. She was stuck here, probably for the rest of her life, and every time she tried to stop, a new wave of pain crushed her will and wracked another broken moan from her.

Remus—gentle, understanding Remus—simply held her. He held this strange new girl he knew next to nothing about and comforted her as she cried over the loss of her life as she knew it. And when she finally pulled away with a sniffle, trying to wipe her face with her sleeve, he summoned a handkerchief for her and pressed it into her hands.

"Here—blow." Hermione did, and then wiped her face with the part that was not covered with copious amounts of snot. Her cheeks were still stained, but she had finally stopped crying. Remus took a moment to scourgify the handkerchief, and pocketed it. "I know things won't be the same for you ever again—they never are—but you're surrounded by great people, Hermione. We're happy to have you here." He gave her a small smile. "You're one of us."

She gave a small nod, and hiccuped, unable to speak.

"It will be okay," Remus said, stressing the words. "We'll be here for you. I promise."

Hermione nodded again, and Remus patted her arm. "Do you want to finish up here or go to bed? I'm sure McGonagall will forgive you for turning the essay a bit late—it's due tomorrow, and if I remember right, she assigned it to the fifth years last week. You've only been here a day."

Hermione shook her head. "No, I—I need to get it done," she croaked, reaching for the paper.

"Would you like me to stay here with you?"

Hermione hesitated, and then nodded. "I'd—I'd like that. I'd be grateful for the company."

Remus patted her arm once more, and then re-inked her quill for her and handed it over. Hermione took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to calm herself down enough to write comprehendingly, and then resumed writing.

Remus sat there the entire time, silently watching her fingers become ink-stained as they scribbled across the parchment. And when she finally finished an hour later, he helped her pull her stuff together and sent her off to bed.

~o~O~o~

Two important things occurred as a result of Hermione's breakdown. For one, Remus was now her friend. Secondly, she no longer felt the urge to break down in tears. She had kept it all bottled up for several days, and having finally let it out, it no longer felt as though it was building up inside, waiting to pour out. She still felt a heavy kind of pain in her chest, where she felt heartsore and homesick, but she no longer felt snappy and explosive.

Remus and Mary were both waiting for her in the common room the next morning, and the three of them walked down to the Great Hall together. James and Sirius had clearly gone ahead, probably with Peter (Hermione's stomach churned at this), leaving Remus to take care of the new fifth-year girl. Hermione was grateful for their companionship, and they made small talk as they walked down for breakfast.

They found seats at the Gryffindor table, where Hermione ended up sitting between Mary and Remus, grouped with the Marauders. James was sitting next to Lily, who seemed to be studiously ignoring him, with Sirius on his left. On the other side of Remus was Peter, who was sloppily trying to eat breakfast and finish last night's Charms homework, which he had apparently neglected to do. Hermione felt bile rise up in her throat when she saw the squat, watery-eyed boy sitting at the table, and tried not to look at him. He wasn't the same person he was now, just as James, Sirius, and Remus had all changed. Right now, he was just a pale, weak boy who hung out with the other three Marauders for protection and friendship.

Mary was shy at the table, and kept to small talk and timid looks. She spoke quietly as a general rule, and in the bustling noise of the Great Hall, nearly everything she said was drowned out. In between answering Peter's questions about locking charms and refusing to give Sirius his history notes, he and Hermione talked. It was clear to Hermione that he was pleasantly surprised at Hermione's knowledged and interest in academics, and they spent a good portion of the breakfast hour discussing the influence of Alchemy in Transfiguration and Potions. Sirius spent the morning glaring at Remus, which the prefect tried to ignore, but Hermione had an inkling that by the end of the day, Sirius would have his way.

They bade goodbye at the breakfast table, and Hermione and Mary set off down for potions.

~o~O~o~

"Splendid!" Slughorn beamed, as he looked down at Hermione's finished potion. "Absolutely splendid! You have quite some talent at Potions, Miss Granger, some talent indeed! Ten points to Gryffindor." He peered up at her, a sudden spark of interest lighting his eyes. "Granger… are you possible related to Hector Dagworth-Granger?"

Hermione opened her mouth to say no, but then paused. There were Slytherins in this room. Slytherins who didn't know her parentage, but who would make an instant target out of her if she revealed she was Muggle-born. She took a split second to consider it; if she denied any relation, they could still assume she was Muggle-born. It was best to play this opportunity to her advantage to afford her a possible spark of protection.

"It's possible," she said, trying to look modest.

She didn't really pay attention to Slughorn's response; out of the corner of her eye, she saw some of the Slytherins looking at her with renewed interest. One of them sniggered, and turned to his table partner to whisper something behind his hand. Hermione suddenly wondered if she'd made a calculated mistake; she might have just saved herself from automatically being presumed a Muggle-born, but claiming possible relation to a famous wizard, however distant, might have also just made herself an even larger probable target.

Ducking her head, she gathered her stuff and left as quickly as possible, waiting just a moment longer at the door for Mary to catch up, and the two headed down the dungeon corridor for their next class.

"Are you really related to Dagworth-Granger?" Mary asked meekly as they walked quickly through the hall. They reached the stairs leading up, and walked out into the cheery brightness of the Entrance Hall.

Hermione was about to reply when Mary let out a sudden squeal of surprise and tripped, dropping her bag and spilling its contents across the floor. Hermione whipped around in time to see three older boys advancing on them, wands out and wearing near-identical looks of glee.

Hermione's wand was out in an instant. "Protego!" she shouted, slashing her wand in their direction. The next spells thrown promptly bounced off, and one of the slower boys stumbled backwards and fell as his face erupted into a mass of boils. He let out a howl of rage that Hermione thought was completely uncalled for, and she sent a Petrificus Totalus his way before pulling back into a defensive stance, putting herself between Mary and the other two boys.

They weren't done. The taller—and meaner looking of the two—sent a nasty hex in Hermione's direction, which she promptly deflected and returned the favor with a Stunner. Harry had more than just taught them the spells; he had taught them how to really use them, how to attack and defend in one-on-one duels, and when she used those skills in a three-on-one battle, they still served her well. The third boy tried to hit her with a Slicing Hex and a Trip-Jinx in quick succession, dodging her second Stunner. She was about to throw another spell at him when her hair suddenly ruffled as four different spells flew past her head, one missing by nearly an inch, and two of them hit the boy squarely in the chest. One knocked him out; the other gave him an eight-point rack of antlers.

Hermione whipped around again, in time to see all four of the Marauders standing together, wands out, wearing identical expressions of fury. She saw Peter duck forward to help Mary to her feet, and Remus approached first, clasping a hand on her shoulder.

"Are you alright, Hermione? Did they get you?"

"No, I got them first," Hermione said, glancing back at the three unconscious Slytherins. She was about to elaborate when she was, again, interrupted.

"Hold it right there!" Two more Slytherins had appeared, wands out, and Hermione watched as James and Sirius's hackles raised at their approach. The one on the right had light brown hair and was the shorter of the two. The one on the right was a tall, gangly figure with greasy hair and a hooked nose, whose face Hermione could not quite instantly place—

"Your Slytherins attacked our friends," Sirius growled. Hermione wanted to ask him when she had suddenly been promoted from 'new acquaintance to annoy' to 'friend', but kept silent. "They were coming back from class."

"And what would you have brought your pack of Gryffindor dogs down for, if it wasn't to start trouble?" The brown-haired boy's eyes narrowed calculatingly. "Seems a bit much for a mid-morning stroll, don't you think?"

"We have Potions next, you slimy git," James said.

"So you do. I seem to have forgotten that little detail," the Slytherin responded, mouth curving upwards into a supercilious smile. "After all, we share the same class. And here I was hoping you'd finally been kicked out for Gryffindor incompetence." He gave a long-suffering sigh. "And it was such a nice dream, too."

"Just get out of here before we decide to hex you too, Avery," Sirius snarled. "And take Snivellus with you." He gestured at the greasy black-haired Slytherin, whose black eyes widened with badly-concealed rage. "He looks a little lost."

At that moment, Mary tugged on Hermione's arm. "Let's get out of here," she begged plaintively.

Hermione couldn't see how that was going to happen. If she turned her back, she would be an instant target. They were at a standstill, all seven of them with their wands out. Any moment now, they were either going to put their wands away and stomp off, or start hexing each other blindly—the latter of which seemed more likely—

"That's enough!" Hermione turned around in time to see Professor McGonagall striding down the corridor, looking quite furious. Hermione didn't know why she was here, but she was grateful—until McGonagall's next words hit her. "Fighting in the corridors! Ten points apiece and detention, all of you!"

"That's not fair!" James said angrily, turning around to face his Head of House. "They attacked Mary and Hermione first!"

The Slytherin sporting the rather impressive rack of antlers stirred feebly.

McGonagall peered down at Mary, who looked as though she were about to faint. "Miss MacDonald, I can certainly believe. Run along," she snapped, though not unkindly, and Mary took one last look at Hermione, gathered her bags, and fled down the corridor. Minerva turned her attention back to them. "Avery, take those three up with you to the Hospital Wing, and report to Mr. Filch for detention tonight at eight. You and Pettigrew will be helping him clean up the mud someone—" she sniffed, "tracked in last night."

Without a word, and a meaningful glance at the pale, hook-nosed boy—who now looked as though he wished he were anywhere else but here—Avery helped his antlered classmate to his feet and a moment later, the two of them were each dragging an unconscious body between them down the corridor. McGonagall then turned her very potent fury on the yet unpunished.

"I didn't do anything!" The black-haired boy suddenly snapped, taking a step backwards. "I didn't do a single thing—"

"Be that as it may, Mr. Snape, I have no doubt that had I waited to arrive just a bit longer, you would have done quite a bit worse than simply being here," McGongall said in a tone that could have passed for dryness, but was what Hermione recognized as irate fury. Behind the professor's back, Hermione saw James and Sirius share identical smirks at this. "The same goes for you, Miss Granger." Hermione didn't even try to protest. "Both of you will serve detention with Professor Slughorn on Friday, eight o'clock. "

She saw her future Potions professor give her a murderous glare, as though his detention were somehow her fault, and resisted the urge to swallow hard. Right now, she felt as though she'd just fallen down the rabbit hole; her best friends had been replaced with youthened versions of the people Hermione considered mentors and trusted adults. And to top it off, she was now back in school with one of her least favorite professors. At the very least, someone who she was quite certain was not about to take her sudden arrival with a welcome and a smile.

What she wanted to do was curl up right now, take several deep breaths, and find a way to sleep the time lag off. She just needed more time to come to terms with the realities of this timeline. As it was, it seemed the only way she was going to get through everything would be to have it come at her all at once.

Steeling herself, she looked Severus Snape in the eye and returned his glare with equal venom.

"Run along now," McGonagall said sharply, startling Hermione out of her thoughts. She grabbed her bag, which had fallen to the ground, and made to leave. "And don't let me catch you fighting in the corridors again!"

She wondered how it was possible for her to have gotten a detention on her second day of school when it had taken nearly an entire year in her timeline.

She left the dungeons, huffing angrily at the fact that in this instance, it had been entirely the Slytherins' faults. She made it to Ancient Runes five minutes late, and slumped into her seat, still fuming about what rotten, misbegotten gits they were.

She was glad that she'd heeded Professor McGonagall's warning. And she was even more grateful that the Marauders had shown up when they had, though she wished they had not been punished for their intervention. She recalled Sirius admitting that they had been a bunch of arrogant berks back in school, but in this case, their readiness to fight was much appreciated. She would have to thank them later.

~o~O~o~

"I don't believe this!" James fumed, taking a seat on the couch as Hermione got to work on her Charms essay. "We have Quidditch practice on Saturday, and instead of being out there on the pitch with the team, I'm going to be stuck inside! Writing lines!"

"Bad luck, Prongs," Sirius said moodily, tossing spare bits of parchment into the common room fire, where they disintegrated into flakes of ash on the rug. "I'll be writing lines in Flitwick's classroom." He stopped throwing parchment into the fire long enough to mime writing, pulling his face in a thuggishly confused, brow-scrunched expression. "I… will… not… hex… Slytherins…in…the…corridors…"

"I will not give them a rack of antlers."

"I will not cover their face in tentacles, no matter how much I think it improves their looks."

"I will not hang Sniv—"

"Will you two please quit it?" Remus snapped, lowering his book. "Some of us are trying to work. And I do not appreciate being pulled into detention because of you," he added, glowering at Sirius.

"Look mate, for once, it wasn't my fault!"

"If you would learn to disengage from a fight, we might not have been there long enough for McGonagall to have to come down on us," Remus said, returning to his book.

"If you want to call being hexed in the back by Snivellus 'disengaging', by all means, Moony—"

Hermione had had enough. She looked up from her essay and threw both boys each a dirty look. "As much as I appreciate your intervention earlier today, I would appreciate it even more if you would be quiet long enough for others to get their homework done!"

Sirius elbowed James. "Let's go, Prongs. I can see we're not wanted here."

"Where's Peter?" James wanted to know.

"Still in detention with Avery. C'mon." Sirius stood up and headed for the portrait hole. "We'll be practicing on the Quidditch Pitch if you need us," he called over his shoulder, before he and James shut the portrait behind them. Hermione let out a sigh of relief, and bent back over her essay.

The room was quiet for several minutes, save for the crackling fire, before Remus broke the relative silence. "You know, they're really not so bad, once you get to know them."

"I know," Hermione said, scribbling the last line of her current paragraph. She paused to look up at him, and gave him a small smile. "I can tell."

Before she bent her head again, she happened to glance out the window, where the moon shone brightly across the cloudless sky.

It was waning.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: Whew! Uploading fifty chapters is going to be a pain!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.


The rest of the week progressed much better than the first two days had. By Friday, Hermione had become a part of the Marauders' routine, and they waited for her at the bottom of the girls' staircase every morning, where the four of them would then walk down to breakfast. Mary would sometimes be ready in time to join Hermione, and the six of them would trudge down to the Great Hall. Hermione would sit between Mary and Remus, and somehow, some way, James would find a way to cajole Lily into sitting beside him.

Classes went well; it was only when Hermione had taken her seat in Arithmancy that afternoon after lunch that trouble arose once again.

It had to be a cruel joke of Fate, Hermione thought wildly, as she realized that the boy sitting next to her was the same one who she would be serving detention with that night. It wasn't her fault; Hermione had been forced to find a seat near the front that wasn't taken, and this was the closest she could find. She hadn't realized that the empty chair next to it, the last on its row, was already occupied. There was simply no way she could have known. But when Snape had finished explaining his previous absence to the teacher—Professor Vector merely nodded and waved him to his seat—he shot her a glare before he slumped into the seat next to her.

"What are you doing here?" he hissed out of the corner of his mouth as he reached into his bag to pull out some parchment and quills, his eyes locked on Professor Vector as she began writing a complex Arithmantic equation on the board.

Hermione gritted her teeth. "I'm not here for the express purpose of being a thorn in your side. I assure you, I had no idea you were in this class or I might have possibly reconsidered signing up for it."

He slammed his quill onto the desk, shot her a final glare, and began copying down the notes Professor Vector was now explaining on the blackboard. "Just don't bother me," he hissed, and then proceeded to ignore her entirely.

That suited Hermione just fine. Once Professor Vector had finished her explanation, she moved to the other side of the blackboard and began the fifth-year lesson while the sixth-years in the room began copying down the problems she'd written underneath the equation she'd written down at the start of class. Hermione couldn't help noting that Snape was working on the sixth-year problems—which meant that, conclusively, Snape was only one year ahead of her in this timeline.

It was a bizarre revelation.

Hermione did not speak to him throughout class, and she did not bother him. He, in turn, studiously acted as though she did not exist. As soon as Vector had finished the fifth-year lecture and assigned the problems, she bent her head down to work, and didn't stop until the bell rang to signal the end of class.

"See you in detention," she told him as she hoisted her bag over her shoulder.

He snarled something at her under his breath that she pretended not to hear, and left.

~o~O~o~

The common room was rather boistrous that evening. Alice—one of Hermione's new dormmates— managed to convince Hermione and Mary to join her for a game of Gobstones, while the Marauders enjoyed a game of Exploding Snap. Several other students were lounging around, laughing and talking, and Hermione might have felt it was a normal day if it were not for the fact that she knew less than half these people.

And there was a distinct lack of fireworks and Canary Creams. They had become quite commonplace in Hogwarts as of late, as far as Hermione's timeline was concerned. The Weasley twins had seen to that.

Hermione was in the middle of her third game of gobstones when she checked her watch, and apologized to her friends, explaining she had a detention to keep.

"Detention?" Alice asked, bewildered. "Whatever for?"

Hermione winced. "Mary and I were ambushed in the dungeons by a couple of Slytherins, and we all wound up in detention."

"Shoot. Go on, then. I'll get Frank to take your stones." Alice leaned back in the direction of a boy with short, curly brown hair was sitting on the couch and called, "Frank!" The boy's head whipped around in her direction. "You're up!"

Frank Longbottom immediately threw the book he'd been reading to the ground and was in Hermione's seat in an instant, flashing her an apologetic grin as she stood up to leave.

Hermione grabbed her bag and departed.

She arrived at the Potions classroom and was bid to enter by Professor Slughorn, who happily invited her in.

"Good evening, Miss Granger," he said genially, bustling over to one of the tables where he had set an array of ingredients out. "You'll be brewing some potions for Madam Pomfrey this evening. Severus should be here any moment now—ah, speak of the devil!" Slughorn said, laughing and wagging his finger as the hook-nosed sixth-year slipped inside, shutting the door behind him. He clapped his hands together as Snape slipped into one of the seats at the table, and Hermione had no choice but to take the one next to him, though she scooted it away from him as far as possible without it being blatantly obvious. "Now that you're both here, we can get right down to work. Which one of you has ever successfully brewed a draught of Dreamless Sleep?"

Snape sighed and half-heartedly raised a hand. Hermione did the same.

"Excellent! That is what you will be doing tonight." Slughorn gestured at the ingredients laid out. "I've set up everything you will need. I just need a set of talented hands and watchful eyes to do the job. I trust you two will work together just fine?" Hermione and Snape gave him identical looks of disbelief which Slughorn mistakenly interpreted for acquiscence, for he clapped his hands together and exclaimed, "Splendid! Well then, I shall be in my office if you need anything."

As soon as the door shut behind him, Hermione glanced down at the table, and then at Snape.

"He doesn't supervise detentions personally?" She had to ask. She was just about ready to explode with curiosity. She had never met a teacher who left the students to their own devices in such a manner.

"If he doesn't think they'll destroy the classroom," Snape replied shortly, standing up and reaching for the silver knife at his end of the table. He summoned his copy of Advanced Potion-Making in one hand and began chopping up dandelion roots with the other in precise, quick strokes.

Hermione hesitated, watching him work, and then asked timidly, "Do you mind sharing your book while we work? I haven't got a copy of the instructions in front of me."

Snape turned to glare at her. "Why not?"

"Because even though I've made Dreamless Sleep before, I don't have the instructions in front of me, and I don't have it memorized," Hermione responded, just a bit testily.

Snape shoved the book in her direction, and Hermione skimmed the first sentence over quickly before she pulled out her wand. She filled her cauldron with water and lit a fire underneath it and then set to work chopping dandelion roots in silence. She poured them in, and then returned to the instructions, only to find that they were barely legible; the margins were almost completely filled with ink. It was her turn to glare at him.

"What's this stuff you've written in here?" she said, trying to make out the printed text amidst the spiky black scrawl doing it's damndest to obscure it. "I can't even read it."

"If you don't want it, give it back," Snape said nastily.

"Why are you so difficult?" Hermione snapped back, slamming her hand down on the table. "I haven't done a single thing to you, and the first time I laid my eyes on you, you had your wand drawn on me. You're so bloody damn difficult—hell, even your bloody potions book is damned difficult! I can't even read it!"

She must have looked on the verge of emotional breakdown, for Snape seemed to take enough pity on her to answer.

"Seven drops of foxglove extract," Snape said tersely, his eyes focused solely on his cauldron. He didn't look at her. "Stir until the potion turns milk-white, and then add crushed aconite petals."

Hermione eyed him suspiciously, but vaguely remembered the instructions he had just rattled off, and moved to do as he had said. She highly doubted he would trick her into exploding or ruining her potion; he was right next to her, which meant any explosion would likely reach him, and any retaliation could be done the instant the manipulation was realized. She added the crushed aconite petals, and then threw him a dirty look before she squinted at the instructions in the book, trying to make sense of them.

Snape sighed; it was one of long-suffering, and it irritated Hermione to no end. "You add the fluxweed next, and then bank the fire to let it cool—stir counter-clockwise while you wait for it to stop simmering."

"That's not what's written here," Hermione said slowly.

Snape grunted. "If you have a problem with the way I do things, you can try to follow the instructions of that grossly-outdated textbook and see where that gets you."

He sounded so much like Professor Snape, it was alarming. The dictatorial tone was unmistakable. Nevertheless, Hermione's gut feeling told her to listen to him, and she did as he instructed.

It continued on that vein for quite some time; Snape would recite the instructions for her, and Hermione would follow them to the letter. Little else passed between them. Hermione was not inclined to poke a sleeping dragon more than was strictly necessary while she was fussed with something else. It was only when she finally took a step back to let her potion cool down before being decanted that she found an opportunity for actual conversation.

She could have said any number of things. She could have made a crack about his nose, commented on his greasy hair, or an unwelcome observation about his personality.

Instead, in an attempt to extend an olive branch to him, she said, "You're really good at potions."

He gave her a disdainful sneer. "I'm not going to do your homework for you."

There was little else he could have said that would have had Hermione so outraged. She gaped at him for a moment, before her hands fisted themselves at her sides, clenching so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. "That's something I would never ask," she gritted.

He looked at her through narrowed eyes. "Everyone wants something, Granger."

"I would never allow anyone else to do my work for me!" Hermione cried, slamming her hands on the desk. "Everything I do is solely by my own effort!"

"Doubtful," Snape said, twirling his wand between his fingers. "As I said, everyone wants something— power, prestige, or adulation. You are no exception."

Hermione's hands gripped the jar of leeches sitting on the table.

"For Merlin's sake!" Hermione was ready to explode. This was just too much to take. "All I did was compliment you! I told you that you were good at potions, because it's true! Not because I wanted you to start doing my Potions homework for me!"

"Naturally, you'd say that—"

Hermione at once considered chucking the jar of leeches at him, irritated beyond measure by the sneering drawl in his voice, but before she could convince herself to rethink such thoughts, her hand had left the jar and in a moment of anger and impulse, she hit him.

There was a moment of stunned silence; Snape brought a hand up to feel his cheek, which had been left with a reddened imprint of Hermione's hand, and then his gaze turned murderous. He opened his mouth to speak, possibly even to retaliate in kind, but Hermione beat him to it.

"You are an utter git." Hermione pulled her bag onto her shoulder, not even bothering to decant her potion first. "An utter, slimy git, and I wonder why I even tried."

She was out the door before he could issue a response. Which was probably a good thing; as soon as the door shut behind her, the jar of leeches hurtled through the air and shattered; the remains of pickled leeches dribbled down the wood, and was summarily scourgified before it reached the floor.

~o~O~o~

Hermione commiserated over the results of her detention with Remus the next day, who was rather sympathetic. His detention, which involved the boring and unproductive task of writing lines, was much more uneventful, and he was much more interested in listening to Hermione's complaints about her detention. James and Sirius were sniggering over breakfast about the auto-writing charms they had applied to their chalk so that they could sneak notes to each other through the Floo, and Hermione could only wonder how long it would take for the teachers to figure out this bit of mischief and they would be forced to come up with another.

She privately wondered just how badly she was going to pay for hitting Snape. Was he going to have his revenge now, possibly even enlist the help of his housemates, or was he going to enact his revenge when her eleven-year-old self showed up in his classroom for the first time? She actually felt guilty for doing it, but at the same time, it had been oddly satisfying. But now there was the real possibility that she might have just painted a red target on herself.

Harry and Ron would have been proud, she was sorry to say.

The next Monday, teachers finally began to assign review work, and Hermione could be found in the library at a table with her notes and several books spread out. A table for four was completely taken up by the sheer mass of papers Hermione was trying to study at once. Neither the Marauders nor any of her newfound friends were capable of dislodging her, and Sirius snuck food into the library for her. She took bites of ham sandwich when Madam Pince wasn't lurking about, and cleaned up the crumbs before she left.

She had Arithmancy again that evening, and it was with an air of resignation that she took her seat and pulled out parchment for note-taking. Snape passed by her without a word, and Hermione might have thought he was planning on ignoring her entirely if it weren't for the odd looks he sent her way when he thought she wasn't paying attention.

Hermione found his behavior entirely unnerving. She'd been expecting to be hit in the back with a jinx over the weekend, or to be called in by one of the professors for striking another student, and neither had happened. When class was over and she began packing up her bags, she wondered if Snape was planning on ambushing her. They were usually the last ones out, and there would be nothing to stop him from hexing her on the way to dinner.

She waited for him to leave first, and then followed him. She made the trip down to the Great Hall rather uneventfully, and once again took her seat between Mary and Remus. She was halfway through dinner when Sirius, sitting across from Hermione, set down his forkfull of shepherd pie to glare at the space above her shoulder.

"Greasy git," he said, before stuffing the food into his mouth. Hermione was distinctly reminded of Ron as he spoke without swallowing first. "What's Snivellus staring at you for, Hermione?"

James, Remus, and Peter all lifted their heads to look up at her.

Hermione slowly turned around and scanned the Slytherin table. It took a moment for her to identify Snape among the crowd of green and black-clad students, but sure enough, when her eyes landed on him, it was clear he was watching her. When their eyes locked, though, he glared at her just a moment longer and then quickly looked away.

"Detention went badly," she replied honestly. "He was being a git. Don't worry about it."

Sirius was pointing his fork at the Slytherin table. "Want us to hex him for you?"

"Please don't," Hermione said, turning back to her food. "I'd rather you didn't. It won't help anything, and it was partly my fault to begin with."

"I can get him tomorrow, we have Potions together and I can hex him while his back is turned—"

"No, Sirius."

"You are no fun," Sirius said, giving her a dirty look that Hermione knew was only in jest. He elbowed James and pointed at Remus. "Look at the goody-two shoes here. See what happens when you leave them alone for too long? They multiply like rabbit slippers left under the bed."

James nearly choked on his pumpkin juice.

Hermione and Remus rolled their eyes, exchanged glances of amusement and mild annoyance, and resumed eating. As soon as Hermione was done, she excused herself, begging off to the library for more review.

"Don't stay there for too long," Sirius called to her retreating back. "You'll rot your brains."

The table errupted with laughter, and finding something oddly funny about Sirius's remark—perhaps because it was something that sounded so very much like Ron, which seemed to ease the pain in her chest—Hermione left the Great Hall smiling.

~o~O~o~

For the rest of the week, she could be found studying herself into a stupor in the library after dinner. There would be a trip to Hogsmeade that weekend, which Hermione had manage to procure permission to visit on the basis that she was an orphan and therefore had no guardians to speak of to sign a permision slip—followed by the argument that she had already been given permission in her own timeline. McGonagall relented, signing the permission slip herself, and Hermione now had plans to join the Marauders on the trip to Hogsmeade. It was possibly the only time in living memory that Professor McGonagall would have bent the rules for a student.

Until then, she was hunched over the notes she had borrowed, studying in the library until Madam Pince informed her that it was time to leave.

By now, Hermione was started to get irritated with fate. Fate had been playing quite a few cruel jokes on her over the last two weeks, and by the end of her second Friday in this new timeline, she was getting quite fed up with it. She was not the only student who used the library, by far. She was not even the only student who sat in this area of the library to do work. And she was not the only student who made use of the library after dinner.

Why, then, was Snape always sitting in one of the chairs in her line of sight? He appeared to be studying, and perhaps he was, but Hermione felt like a mouse waiting to be swooped upon by a hawk. She was still waiting for him to enact some form of revenge, and as none had come her way quite yet, she was on her guard. He had not said a single word to her all week. Not even in Arithmancy; though Hermione had done her best to appear as though she were ignoring him, it was impossible not to pay attention to someone you were expecting payback from. It followed then that it was also impossible to not notice the covert, sullen looks in your direction.

Bending her head back down over her book, she didn't look up again until a shadow cast itself over her book, and she turned around and looked up. Snape was towering over her, something that Hermione found both intimidating and annoying, and they stared at each other for a single long moment before Snape broke the silence.

"Are you ever going to return any of those books before exams start?" he asked stiffly, gesturing at the library books Hermione had stacked at one corner of the table.

Hermione opened her mouth, and then shut it, unsure of what to say. She had been on edge all week, thinking he was waiting for an opportunity for an ambush, and all he wanted were her books?

She found her voice a moment later.

"I don't plan to," she replied honestly. "Which one do you need?"

"Advanced Transfiguration of Transition Metals," he said, glancing over at the book in question. "I haven't a clue why you'd have it out to begin with; you're not in the class for that."

"It's much more thorough about the theories behind why certain objects are comparatively more easily transfigured than any year-assigned alternatives I can find," Hermione replied, pulling the book in question out of the stack and thumbing through it. She stopped flipping the pages, and looked up at him, her expression wary. "I need it."

It was odd how little difference there seemed to be between Snape as a teenager and a Snape as an adult, despite a roughly twenty-year age difference. His nostrils flared at this, a sure sign of brewing anger, and Hermione recognized the curling of his lip as an additional omen of ill-ease.

"Why do you need it?" Hermione pressed, setting the book back down. "McGonagall tells you everything you need in class. Why don't you have your notes?"

Snape visible stiffened, and he gave her a glare that Hermione felt was rather undeserved, and she told him so. "Don't look at me like that! I haven't done anything!"

"Your friend," Snape sneered, "saw fit to steal my Transfiguration notes last week. I haven't found anyone willing to let me copy their notes for free."

"Sirius?" Hermione asked, a sinking feeling in her stomach as she realized she might have an idea of exactly what had happened to Snape's Transfiguration notes. A trip into the common room fire on a moody Tuesday night was her best guess.

"Right in one."

Hermione glanced down at the book in her hands. "Give me until tomorrow to see if I can dig up the notes you need. Otherwise, we'll have to share it."

"Where do you expect to find a complete set of last week's advanced Transfiguration notes?"

"I'll ask one of my housemates," Hermione said, instantly thinking of Lily. "They might be willing to give me a copy."

"Fine." It was a sullen concession. "Until then, let me borrow it so that I can actually get my homework done."

"You'll give it back to me by tomorrow?" Hermione pressed, standing up with the book held closely to her chest.

He glared at her, and then looked away and sighed. "Yes."

"Here." Hermione thrust the book at him. He looked at her in surprise and took it. "And next time you need to borrow a book, don't spend a week stalking me to see if I return it on my own. Chances are I probably won't."

He gave her an odd look, glanced down at the mess of notes taking over her table, and then silently left with his prize.

When Hermione sat back down in her seat, it was accompanied with a sigh of relief.

~o~O~o~

"Advanced Transfiguration notes from last week?" Lily repeated, looking surprised. "Whatever do you need them for?"

"A friend of mine lost his," Hermione replied vaguely, trying to scourgify the ink off her fingers. She looked up at the Head Girl, trying to ignore the fact that her eyes were green—the exact same shade of green as Harry's. "Please, Lily. I just need a copy."

To her surprise, Lily laughed and simply pulled out her Transfiguration notes from her bag. "Alright, Hermione. If you insist." A tap of her wand, and a double was made. She held them out to Hermione, who took them, flashing her a thankful smile before sticking them into her bag.

"By the way," Lily said, stopping Hermione before she could leave. "I notice you've been hanging out quite a bit with James and his friends."

Hermione paused. Was Lily jealous? James hardly ever paid any attention to her; he only ever had eyes for Lily. Even a blind fool could see that.

But Lily was smiling. "I know I'm not around often enough, but does James ever talk about me?"

Hermione almost burst into laughter. "Lily, you're all James ever talks about." Seeing the gratified look on Lily's face, she elaborated, "When it's not Quidditch, it's you, and you're the subject of conversation more often than not. He is utterly besotted with you."

Lily was practically preening. "Thank you, Hermione." Hermione was about to leave, when she heard Lily sigh. "You know," she mused, setting down her quill. "I could take him up on his offer if he would just stop hexing people at random in the corridors. He's a handsome boy, but he is such an arrogant toerag! I can't understand it." She glanced sideways at Hermione. "I know he's your friend, but honestly, you wouldn't believe just how trigger-happy he is with that wand."

"Oh, I know," Hermione agreed with a nod, recalling just how quick James and Sirius had been at pulling their wands out in the dungeon, when Hermione and Mary had been ambushed. "Self-defense is one thing, but just hexing people for the fun of it…"

"Exactly!"

Hermione left, feeling much lighter on her feet. It was only once she had left the common room that she realized she had absolutely no idea where Snape was. She checked the library first, and then trudged down to the Great Hall to see if he was still at lunch. Finding him absent still, she let out a sigh and grugingly began making her way down to the dungeons.

She passed the Potions classroom, poking her head in for just a moment to see if he was perhaps using the classroom, and then wavered for a moment, torn between going down to the dungeons to knock on the Slytherin common room door or find the Head of House, before making the decision to tread safely and knocked on Slughorn's office door.

There was a moment of silence, and then Slughorn called, "Come in!"

Hermione stepped in and closed the door behind her. She took a moment to take Slughorn's office in; this was the same office Snape himself would preside over one day, but it was much more colorful than she remembered. It was almost cozy, with the touches Slughorn had put in. It was clear to Hermione that the wizard enjoyed luxury, for the walls were covered in purple and silver hangings, and he had fashioned a rug to the floor that Hermione suspected he either took with him when he retired or Snape later removed. On the shelf that Hermione had last seen stacked with bottles of preserved and pickled creatures, it was instead decorated with picture frames. On the corner of one self, she saw several boxes of crystalized pineapple.

"Good afternoon, Professor," she said, setting her bag down on his desk. "I was wondering if I could ask a favor?"

"Of course, of course…" Slughorn set aside the grading he'd been doing to give her his full attention. "How can I help you, Miss Granger?"

"I have some notes for Severus Snape," Hermione explained, pulling out the notes Lily had copied for her. She set it down on Slughorn's desk. "I haven't been able to find him, and until I could get him the notes, he was borrowing one of my library books. Could you give this to him the next time you see him and tell him I want my book back?"

"Of course," Slughorn beamed, taking a look at the notes. He scanned them. "Ah, this is Miss Evans' handwriting, if I'm not mistaken. Severus told me Sirius Black had stolen his notes, but alas, as I could not prove it, there was nothing to be done for it. Miss Evans takes excellent notes. I'm sure Severus will be quite pleased to return your book."

Hermione considered confessing to him that she had seen what had happened to the notes, but decided against it. Snape had the notes he needed, and putting Sirius in detention, while he would most certainly deserve it, would probably just antagonize him into having another go at the Slytherin. Not to mention that she was not all that sympathetic toward Snape to begin with; he was a complete and utter git, in her opinion, and she had no intention of risking her friendship with the Marauders for him any more than she would have risked her friendship with Harry and Ron for Draco Malfoy.

"Thank you, sir," she replied graciously.

"On another note, Miss Granger," Slughorn said genially, "I have been meaning to ask you if you are free this evening. I hold little informal suppers for my star students every now and then, and we're having another tonight at six o'clock. It would please me very much if you were to attend."

Hermione blinked in surprise at this, but smiled nonetheless. An opportunity to meet Slughorn's best students was a good one to make friends with people who shared common academic interests with her. She actually thought it was quite a brilliant idea, really.

She had discovered quickly enough that Slughorn was a teacher she could genuinely grow to like. He was the Head of Slytherin, that was true, but Hermione suspected he was in Slytherin because he was ambitious and had a burning desire to be well-connected, rather than because he was a power-hungry toerag. He was the kind of person Hermione thought could organize an entire community into action without having to do the manual labor himself. She had pegged him as the kind of person who liked to give others leg-ups in life and then reap small rewards in return.

The boxes of crystalized pineapple on his shelf suggested this rather strongly.

"I'd love to, sir."

"Excellent!" Slughorn beamed. "In that case, Miss Granger, I look forward to seeing you next Saturday." He patted the notes Hermione had given him. "And I'll be sure to give these to Severus with special note of your book."

"Thank you, Professor," Hermione said, smiling happily now as she picked up her bag to leave.

~o~O~o~

Hermione walked down to Hogsmeade with Mary and the Marauders, determined to get some new clothes and supplies. She had asked James if he would be willing to loan her some money, intending to pay him back by getting a summer job, only to have him wave it off and tell her to keep it.

"Look, you need some new robes," he said, glancing at Hermione's, which she had been forced to clean every other day because she didn't have a spare set. She looked rather shabby, not unlike the way Remus had as a professor in her third year. "And some new school stuff. Weren't you telling Moony earlier that you were almost out of quills?"

Hermione nodded.

"Then what are friends for?" he asked, giving Hermione a look that reminded her so much of Harry. He held out a bag of galleons that he had previously kept stashed under his bed. "Take it."

Peter and Mary begged off from the group to go to Madam Puddifoots, and James and Sirius made an immediate beeline to Zonko's, waving at Remus and Hermione to catch up with them at the Three Broomsticks later. Remus offered to accompany her, and the two set off down the street, chattering amiably.

Hermione stopped by Madam Malkin's, and Remus helped her pick out two new sets of robes for school. He laughed as Hermione twirled about in one of them, relishing in the comfort the new robes afforded, and Hermione also bought a pair of jeans and a red jumper that she could wear on the weekeneds while her robes were being cleaned. It was a rather Mugglish thing to do, since most of the students in this time period preferred to simply wear an extra set of robes, but Hermione wanted to go with what was familiar. She was actually quite lucky that the clothing store in Hogsmeade even catered to Muggle-borns. She was used to wearing Muggle clothes on the weekend, and old habits died hard. She bought an extra pair of undergarments to go along with it, stuffing them at the bottom of her bag, and the two stopped by Scrivenshafts for additional parchment, ink, and quills before heading off to the Three Broomsticks.

Hermione felt radiant and lighthearted. The fresh air and a few hours outside of the castle was doing her a world of good. She was surrounded by people who included her in a circle of close friends, and school would soon be over for the summer, giving Hermione time to scratch out a position in this new world that she could fit in.

Her joyous excitement seemed to be contagious; Remus looked carefree and had a new spring in his step. When she asked about what was making him so happy, he pointedly replied, "You." Seeing the look on her face—caught unawares and unsure of what to say—he elaborated quickly, and with sincerity, "You were so unhappy when you first arrived, and it's nice to see that you know how to smile."

Hermione flashed a brilliant smile at him, as she inwardly agreed with his sentiments. It was difficult to forget her breakdown, and she now felt rather distantly removed from the conditions that had caused it. She was still stuck in this timeline—and truth to be told, she probably would be for a good, long while. But she no longer felt completely lost; she had a better understanding of this strange new world she was in now, and seeing people from her future no longer caused her to feel hopelessly confunded. There was still that place in her heart that made her nauseaus with homesickness, but the pain was beginning to fade.

Hermione and Remus joined everyone else at The Three Broomsticks, where she discovered that while Madam Rosmerta had been quite pretty in Hermione's time, she was a dashingly beautiful barmaid in the Marauders'; young and with intelligent eyes on a handsome face. Judging her to be in her mid-twenties, Hermione nevertheless placed an order of butterbeer with the rest and sat back to listen to the chatter.

"I saw Snivellus in the corridors earlier today," Sirius said in between sips of his firewhiskey. "I tried to hex him while his back was turn, but the git must have known I was there—"

Hermione couldn't take it any longer. She slammed her butterbeer down on the table.

"For gods' sake, Sirius!" she exclaimed. "Can't you go one day without trying to hex someone?"

"No," Sirius said, utterly unapologetic.

"Snivellus's a special case," James said with a sagely nod, taking another sip of his drink.

"About that," Hermione said with a frown, "I have reason to believe one of you stole his Transfiguration notes."

Remus, who had been listening quietly, turned to give his two best friends a pointed stare. James and Sirius both instantly looked guilty, and the fact that they tried not to show it only made it more blatantly obvious. Sirius rallied first.

"Are you going to turn us in to McGonagall?"

"No," Hermione said, swirling her butterbeer around in her cup. Truth to be told, she didn't want either of them to end up in detention because of her. They both had so little time left that the thought of forcing them to waste precious hours in a classroom writing lines seemed horribly cruel to her. In twenty years, James and his wife would be long dead, their son an unwanted orphan, and Sirius would be stuck in a moldering old house, left to rot until the Ministry saw fit to exonerate him. "But I had to ask Lily for a copy of the notes you destroyed."

"Why'd you do that?" James demanded. "After we went through the trouble—"

"Because you shouldn't ruin others' academic futures with stupid pranks?" Hermione responded testily. "Possibly because if he didn't have those notes, I'd have to give him some of my library books."

"He could have gotten them somewhere else," Sirius said disgustedly.

"Not Advanced Transfiguration of Transition Metals," Hermione told him dryly. "There's only one copy in the Hogwarts Library, and up until yesterday, it was checked out in my name."

James and Sirius both looked mildly ashamed of themselves.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd stop antagonizing him so that he doesn't take it out on me, given that he knows you're my friends," Hermione said, taking a sip of her butterbeer. "But at the very least, please stop destroying his school things."

"Wait," James said, setting his butterbeer down. "Where did you say you got a copy of last week's NEWT Transfiguration notes?"

Hermione gave him a pointed look. "From Lily."

James' jaw dropped in horror. "No!"

"And that," Hermione said, leaning back in her chair, "is why it's to your advantage not to destroy his notes."

"No, no," James said, pulling his glasses off and rubbing his eyes with the heel of his palm. "You don't understand."

Sirius's face twisted into one of deep-seated disgust. "Snivellus and Lily were friends even before the got on the train, and they were best friends until last year, when she finally realized what an arse he was."

Hermione paused mid-way through her drink. Something about the information Sirius was telling her wasn't making sense. Professor Snape had been Lily Evan's best friend? The idea was grossly absurd. She tried to imagine what that would be like, and went further to try and imagine what Harry would say if someone told him that. The images her mind conjured were so ridiculous, she snorted, and sloshed her drink on herself. Coughing, she pulled out her wand to rid herself of the mess, and pushed her butterbeer aside.

"You're joking."

"I wish I were," James said, glaring down at his butterbeer as though it were somehow responsible for this mess. "I also happen to know he liked her."

"Still likes her, mate," Sirius told him. "He's heads over heels for her. Slimy git," he added.

Hermione was staring at the both of them, gaping. In a way, this completely explained it. No wonder Harry's father and godfather hated Snape so much; if he had been close to Lily, who was admittedly a very beautiful and vivacious girl, there was no question about how jealous a boy like James would have gotten. And Sirius would have jumped right in. And given what she knew of James Potter—that other than the fact that he was good to people he considered friends, he was nothing but a bully—it would have explained why Snape hated them—and by extension, Harry—so much. And yet, the whole notion was completely absurd. She could not imagine Lily, gentle, strong, considerate Lily, putting up with someone as snarky and ill-tempered as Snape. It all sounded completely absurd.

Goodness gracious, Hermione thought, still trying to wrap her mind around what her friends had just said. What on earth have I run into?

If what they were telling her was true, it rather did give Hermione a much better perspective on Snape. It also made Hermione feel just a twinge of compassion and pity for him. If she was right, if James had not been the least bit interested in Lily, he might have gone through his school years with only the occasional hexing from the Marauders rather than dealing with their almost compulsive need to make him suffer.

It also made her understand James' motives, even though it only made her angrier at him than she already was. She was more grateful to James and Sirius than she would ever be able to express, given how kind and welcoming they had been to her, but it didn't stop her from thinking that at the age of seventeen, they were both a pair of pillocks.

She took a deep breath. Losing her temper here would do very little good. But she needed them to see things as they were.

"James, if Lily isn't Snape's friend anymore, then why do you care?" Hermione pressed, taking a tiny sip of what was left of her drink. "It's not like he's any threat to you if she doesn't like him."

"It doesn't matter," James said fiercely. "You can see it in his eyes—he still likes her. I hate the idea that he thinks of her that way, that he even—that he even—" he seemed almost at loss for words.

"James, if I went around hexing anyone and everyone every time I thought they were staring at my chest, I'm pretty sure you'd tell me to lay off," Hermione told him dryly. "You can't keep hexing someone just because they like Lily. Even if it's Snape."

James sat up straight. "If it was me, I could handle it. But Lily—"

"Lily is a wicked smart, talented, and sensible girl," Hermione reminded him, "who isn't interested in Snape. She likes you, James. But if you keep hexing people in the corridors, she's going to keep turning you down."

"How do you know?" Sirius demanded.

Hermione turned to look at him, but her answer was directed at James. "She told me," she said simply.

James sighed and ruffled his hair, looking rather put out, but Hermione could see the spark of hope in his eyes. "D'you think she'd go out with me if I promised her I'd stop hexing people for the fun of it?"

"I don't know," Hermione said honestly, draining the last of her butterbeer, "but all I can say is that actions speak louder than words."


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: I have no new author's notes, at this point. I'm just uploading every chapter back up.

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.


Hermione got dressed that evening in her new Muggle jeans and jumper, tugging her new robes over it before skimming down the stairs into the common room. She grabbed a hairclip that she had left on one of the tables earlier that day, pulled her hair back so that it was swept out of her face, and then exited through the portrait hole.

"Going out for a bit, dearie?" The Fat Lady asked, swinging shut behind her. Hermione turned to smile at her, and gave a nod in reply. "Well! Have a lovely evening."

Hermione flew down the stairs in the direction of the dungeons, feeling inexplicably light-hearted. Perhaps it was because she'd been looking forward to this supper all evening, but in truth, since Hogsmeade, she had been feeling rather refreshed. For the first time in nearly a year, she wasn't being forced to walk around Hogwarts like a criminal under house arrest, under the beady eyes of Umbridge.

She entered the dungeons with her wand tucked up her sleeve, double-checked to make sure it was secure, and then trotted off in the direction of Slughorn's office. When she arrived, it was to find that the door to his office was propped open and, sometime between the hours Hermione had last been there, the office had been magically enlarged to hold a table big enough for at least twenty, and three large couches around the fireplace. Slughorn, who had been sitting near the door, immediately stood up and clapped his hands.

"Ah, Miss Granger! So good to see you're finally here! Please," he said, gesturing at the table, "do have a seat!"

Hermione scanned the table quickly, and her first thought was that there were was a disconcerting number of people wearing red and gold ties, here in this office belonging to the Head of Slytherin. But that thought was instantly banished as she recognized Lily—and then Alice, Frank, James, Sirius, and a sixth-year named Adrian who reminded Hermione of Colin Creevy due to his tendency to carry a camera about him. A sixth-year Gryffindor named Marlene McKinnon sat next to Sirius.

The next person to fall under her gaze was Severus Snape, who was sitting as far away from the cluster of Gryffindors as was possible. He sat next to another Slytherin Hermione recognized immediately as Avery, on whose right was a straw-haired fifth-year who Hermione shared Potions, Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, and Transfiguration with, but had never had a conversation. She thought him oddly familiar, but had not yet been able to place exactly who he was or where she might have seen him before. He had an odd habit of licking the side of his lips, which, combined with his overall insufferable and arrogant behavior in class, was sufficient to make Hermione avoid him where she could. Between the straw-haired boy and Avery was a handsome youth who Hermione immediately recognized, from the Black tapestry in Grimmauld Place, as Sirius's younger brother Regulus.

There were other students there, too. A fifth-year Ravenclaw named Dirk Cresswell, who was friendly and was in Hermione's Charms and Herbology class. A Hufflepuff named Dahlia Flemming, who Hermione recognized as a member of the Hogwarts Frog Choir, was seated next a seventh-year Ravenclaw Hermione immediately recognized as Hestia Jones. There were five other students whose faces Hermione knew from the halls, but whose names she either did not know or whose faces were completely unfamiliar to her.

Despite representatives from each house being present, the table was boistrous and full of chatter. Sirius and James were the life of the party at the Gryffindor end, where they had both the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws giggling with raucous laughter over their drinks. Regulus whispering excitedly to the straw-haired Slytherin next to him, who almost choked on his pumpkin juice at something the younger Black had said for his ears alone. Avery was leaning back in his chair and smugly surveying the entertainment of the room.

Snape was the only one who sat back in his chair, sulking. It looked as though he didn't want to be there, though Hermione could not figure out for the life of her why. He wasn't required to be here. Nevertheless, the only empty seat seemed to be the ones on either side of the Slytherin gang, who had apparently taken pains to put at least one seat between themselves and the others. This was probably one of the last suppers of the year, given how close they were to exams, and Hermione was a new arrival; it made sense that they were not expecting her, much less forewarned about putting out an extra chair between themselves and the undesirables cavorting at the other end of the table. Given the choices, Hermione rather decided it was best to sit between Snape and Hesita Jones, rather than between the straw-haired lip-licker and Dirk Cresswell. She pulled out her chair and sat down.

Snape's scowl, unsurprisingly, did not abate at this. His arms were crossed together as he leaned back in his seat, and he looked for all the world like petulant child forced to attend a dinner party. Hermione, however, chose to ignore him and instead turned to Hestia, introducing herself to her. The two immediately hit it right off with discussion of the upcoming exams, and Hermione—remembering that Hestia had been a part of Harry's Advance Guard—asked her what she was planning to do for her career.

"An Auror, definitely," Hestia said without preamble.

Slughorn presided over the many conversations taking place, popping in on one to ask or prod, to give advice or make suggestions about connections he might have, only to pop into the next conversation. Hermione was astounded at his ability to carry on and participate in so many different combinations at once; it was nearly ridiculous. She had a vivid image of a large spider sitting in the middle of a finely-spun web, tending to each fly and plucking at a strand or two here and there, or a jewel collector who took to polishing and cutting a gem and then moving on to another gem before returning to finish the product.

Dinner arrived roughly ten minutes after Hermione had, and she eagerly tucked into the steak and kidney pudding that appeared on the table. She chatted with Hestia in between bites, and soon learned that the girl was an enormous fan of Quidditch, who was promptly horrified upon learning that Hermione neither had any aptitude for flying nor any interest in the game. It was almost embarassing for Hermione to admit it, and she was rescued when Sirius made a wisecrack about Hermione not belonging on a broom because she was "too grounded" with books.

To her surprise, the dour companion on her right snorted in amusement.

"Speaking of which," Hermione said, turning to him, "I'm waiting for my book back."

She had not anticipated the reaction this would cause. Avery, Lip-licker, and Regulus' heads all snapped to attention in the direction of their housemate. James and Sirius didn't stop laughing at their own jokes, but Hermione could see that their eyes were now locked on Snape with ill-disguised hostility. Hestia looked on with curiosity, and Lily slowly set her glass down, her eyes traveling quickly between Hermione and the hook-nosed Slytherin, as though searching for something. Snape glared at his housemates, in a silent demand for them to bugger off, and reached one hand under his chair for his bookbag. He sat up a moment later, the book clutched firmly in his hands, and held it out to her.

Hermione didn't make a production of checking it over to make sure he hadn't damaged the book or cursed it to attack her. She gave him a quick, "Thank you," and then slipped it under her seat. Slughorn, sensing a break in the cadence of the conversation, immediately jumped in.

"Advanced Transfiguration, Miss Granger?" he queried jovially.

Hermione grinned sheepishly as she returned to her pudding, actually quite grateful for his intervention and interest. "Transfiguration was one of my favorite subjects back home," she said, recalling her superb grades in Professor McGonagall's class. Her grades were similarly high-end now, but in her own timeline, her good relationship with her Head of House as well as the extra time she was able to devote to asking questions and delving deeper into the subject had made it a favorite. Boasting just a little, she added, "I was the best in my class."

"You might consider going to Albus or Minerva for some book recommendations," Slughorn said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "The Headmaster used to teach Transfiguration, you know—this was a lifetime ago when his beard was still red and I wasn't quite so bald," he added, waggling a finger for emphasis. Several of the students, including Hermione, laughed good-naturedly at this. "Have you ever done experimentation with Transfiguration, Miss Granger?"

"A little," Hermione admitted, warming up to the subject. Now that they were talking academics again, the other students' interest had waned and the buoyancy of the table conversation started up again. "Although I mostly prefer to work with charms—I did a little experiment with objects under the Protean Charm."

"You can do a Protean Charm?" Hestia interjected, looking impressed. "That's NEWT-level work!"

Before Hermione could respond, Snape, who had been irritatingly silent throughout the evening, interjected sullenly, "What were you using it for?"

"Communication," Hermione responded briskly, picking at the remains of her pudding now. She had little compunction about telling him; he either would not remember this, or he would not make the connection between Dumbledore's Army and a bunch of students carrying around illicit Galleons. And after the remark he had made to her in detention, where he had called her sincerity and devotion to her work into question, she had no trouble throwing this in his face. "I charmed coins so that they would all change if someone altered one of them. It made arranging times and places easy." Seeing the look on his face, she added, "It was for a club. We all had so many different schedules to work around and this was the easiest way to arrange our meetings."

"That would have taken more work than just a Protean Charm," Lily interjected, looking straight at Hermione. "You would have had to arrange it so that more than one coin could be used to effect change in the other coins."

"That was the tricky part," Hermione agreed.

"I don't believe it," Snape muttered.

"I do," Slughorn beamed, looking at her appraisingly. "Why, Professor Flitwick told me that you are already amazingly proficient at casting Refilling Charms, and those aren't even taught until your sixth year!"

Snape turned to look at Hermione with something akin to curiosity now, though his demeanor was still rather brooding and subdued. "You already knew the Aguamenti Charm, when we were in detention," he said, his eyes flickering in Slughorn's direction. "That isn't taught until sixth year, either."

"There you have it!" Slughorn said, beaming at the two of them before helping himself to a rather large serving of black pudding.

Hermione looked rather satisfied with herself now, and helped herself to some more steak and kidney pudding. Her mind instantly returned to that moment in detention where she had hit him, and in an attempt to extend a tiny olive branch a second time, she responded, "But you're a good deal better at Potions than I am." He raised a single eyebrow at her, in a move that reminded her so much of his older self, and she elaborated, "You're very intuitive about what does and doesn't work."

"Indeed he is, Miss Granger," Slughorn said happily, leaning back in his chair. "Do you know, the first time I had him brew me a Draught of Living Death, it came out absolutely perfect. Not even a shade off what the book asked for. In all my years of teaching, I've never had another student else brew it so remarkably well."

Snape looked rather uncomfortable now, but he didn't contest the claim.

"As for you, Miss Evans…" and just like that, Slughorn had switched from Hermione, to Snape, and then to Lily. Hermione turned, first to Hestia, and then to Snape, both of whom were looking at her.

"What?" she asked.

Hestia was giggling, doing her best to hide it behind her hand, and failing spectacularly. "You got a detention? You haven't been here for more than two weeks!"

"I got put into detention on my second day here, actually," Hermione said, grinning sheepishly.

"That must be some kind of record—actually, no," she said, rethinking it. "I actually think James and Sirius over there already beat you to that. They had detention for a month after the Welcoming Feast in their third year."

"What did they do?" Hermione demanded, looking horrified. Behind her, Snape smirked.

"They bribed Peeves into causing mayhem in the kitchens," Hestia said with a conspiratorial grin. "According to Nearly-Headless Nick, the place was swimming in soup, and the house elves haven't been the same since."

"You weren't there?"

"I was in the Hospital Wing," she said. "Got knocked over by one of the carriages. Didn't even see it coming." She actually looked disappointed. "I missed the whole thing."

Hermione shook her head in disbelief as she recalled the very same thing happening in her fourth year.

'Oh the usual,' said Nearly Headless Nick, shrugging. 'Wreaked havoc and mayhem. Pots and pans everywhere. Place swimming in soup. Terrified the house-elves out of their wits –'

It rather made Hermione wonder if Peeves made a tradition of following the suggestions of the more talented student pranksters. The Gryffindor House Ghost had been so nonchalant about it, she had to suspect it so.

Hermione had, naturally, never been to one of Slughorn's suppers. Thus, she had no idea how they normally went. But an hour into the meal, after everyone was leaning back in their seat with a full stomach, the food disappeared, and people started to stand up. Slughorn moved comfortably to one of the armchairs closest to the fire, and Hermione, watching the other students find comfortable seats on the couch, followed suit. Some students didn't sit at all, but rather stood around or leaned against the wall. Given that the couches went rather quickly, Hermione ended up leaning on one of the couch arms.

New topics were brought up. Conversation resumed. Slughorn was in his element, on his velvet armchair of a throne.

Snape was one of ones standing, and he did so near the mantel. In the firelight, he was both shadowed and thrown into relief, and Hermione found it oddly intriguing. He towered over everyone else, easily the tallest person in the room, and with his hands stuffed in his pockets, he looked as though he were brooding. He stood as far away from the Gryffindors as possible, but now that they were all sitting in a semi-circle, Hermione was able to observe and see if she could confirm at least some of what James and Sirius had said.

She was shocked to find that was she saw verified their statements. Snapes eyes were locked on Lily, who was sitting on the edge of the couch closest to Slughorn, and debating the latest potion assignment Slughorn had given her in an animated manner. James had managed to grab the seat right next to her, and though Lily occasionally turned to him to argue a point the clever, bespectacled boy brought up, it was blatantly obvious that Lily made sure her eyes didn't fall anywhere near the hook-nosed Slytherin. She was avoiding him. But Snape's gaze never left her.

To Hermione, it was like falling into Wonderland and then being told that the rabbit hole was the real world, and everything else was the actual fantasy—and finding it to be true. Snape's focus never left Lily, and Lily was doing her absolute best to pretend as though she didn't know he was there—although Hermione knew she certainly must.

The longer she watched, the more it was confirmed in her mind that James and Sirius had been telling the truth.

As the night wore on, everyone else had divided themselves into their own little groups, to engage in private conversation, and Hermione found herself desiring something that was akin to poking a sleeping dragon; she walked over to him, where he had not moved an inch from where he had been standing all night, and sat down on the edge of the ottoman placed in front of the fire. If she could not stand even with him on her own, there was no point in not making use of a comfortable seat.

His eyes flickered from Lily, to her, and then back to Lily before he reluctantly pulled his eyes away from her and looked down at Hermione.

"You got the notes you needed?" It was a poor conversation starter by Hermione's estimate, but she threw it out nonetheless.

He sneered at her. "Obviously." A pause, and then he turned away to stare at the fire and then back at Lily before muttering, "Thank you."

Hermione stared up at her former and future Potions professor, trying to see if she could understand the enigma presented before her. As a teacher, she'd merely looked up to him as an authority figure, and then more recently, a trusted member of the Order. But her impression of him was so cold, so removed, and in this new here and now, she was finally beginning to understand some parts of him that had been as incomprehensible as a riddle. In fact, it was not unlike the riddle he had presented to guard the Philosopher's Stone in her first year; while it had stumped and frustrated Harry at first glance, had become clear to Hermione after she'd taken the time to try and figure it out.

She was about to open her mouth to speak, when he cut in.

"You're wearing Muggle clothes."

It was such a random topic of conversation that it momently threw Hermione for a loop, but she rallied at once. "Yes."

He looked her over once, his lips curling into a sneer, and then said, "You're a Muggle-born."

Hermione lifted her chin up to look at him squarely. "And you've come to this brilliant conclusion based on the fact that I wear jeans and a jumper underneath my robes?"

She wasn't offended all that much, really. Compared to how capricious and nasty he'd been to her as a professor, this was rather tame in comparison.

"Why else would you prefer to wear Muggle clothes?"

"Perhaps I grew up in a culture that was largely Muggle," Hermione said casually, crossing her legs. "It could be that I just find Muggle clothes more comfortable—personal preference. Or perhaps you're right and I am Muggle-born. Not that it makes any difference," Hermione added, looking up at him squarely. "My merits as a witch are contingent upon my own efforts, not my heritage."

Snape was smirking down at her now, wearing a vindictive sneer.

"Yes," he said, his tone snide. "Definitely Muggle-born, I think."

~o~O~o~

Hermione chewed on the end of her quill, stealing glances up at the board every now and then before staring back down at the review work Professor Flitwick had assigned. She was already familiar with Cheering Charms—she, like everyone else, had learned them in third year. She sighed, and began scribbling down the answer to the question concerning its wand movements.

She had returned from Slughorn's supper both refreshed and intrigued—but also with a heavy feeling of disturbance.

She had spent her entire life judging people. She had judged Harry and Ron to be trustworthy friends, only faulted through vices such as rashness, temper, and typical boy obliviousness. She had judged Professor Lupin to be trustworthy enough that, in her third year, she kept his secret—though she had feared, for a long, wild moment that night in the shack, that she might have been mistaken.

And she had made mistakes. She'd been mistaken about Lockhart—he had become Hermione's first learning example that one should never be so blinded by a shiny cover that they forget to scrutinize the substance underneath. She'd been mistaken about Moody in her fourth year— who she had trusted and allowed to slip under her radar because Dumbledore clearly trusted him. But Dumbledore had made a mistake, too, and because Hermione had not thought to be suspicious, she had made the exact same error.

Professor Snape had been the one constant under her gaze throughout her school years. He was an inexplicably nasty piece of work, yet he had gone out of his way on more than one occasion to save Harry—and, when applicable, other students. The bucking broomstick incident in her first year—which she had mistaken Snape for jinxing Harry rather than trying to save him, admittedly, stood out in her mind. In her second year, Snape was the one who had brewed the Restoration Draught for the petrified students. And in her third year, he had deliberately put himself between the three of them, a man he believed to be a murderer, and a werewolf out of control. And in her fourth year, he had gone with Dumbledore and McGonagall to rescue Harry, who had been a hair's breath away from being killed by the imposter. He had supplied the Veritaserum, according to Harry. He had revealed his Dark Mark in an attempt to sway the idiot Minister.

All of those things had served to reinforce in her mind that Snape, who not only had Dumbledore's trust to credit him, was trustworthy. She sincerely believed that he was working for the Order. And she had finally pieced together exactly what his reasons for agreeing to work with Dumbledore were: Lily. His interest in Lily now, followed by her inevitable and untimely death, would give him more reason to work with the side that would destroy her killer rather than willingly serve the madman who murdered her. There was probably more to it than she was aware of now, but she had put enough of it together that she felt she had the larger picture.

But here, last Saturday night, she had met a boy of seventeen who didn't have any such motivations. Her impression of him was that he was motivated by self-interest—and it both frightened and served to pique her interest further.

She turned her musings over in her head, trying to unearth the clues that had been liberally handed to her. She had intended to stay away from him as much as possible, but now she found she wasn't really as inclined to do so. He was a snarky, capricious and caustic git; but he was also unbelievably intelligent and cunning. Hermione was fascinated by the former and wary of the latter, and in this new time where she was his equal, she struggled to understand him.

But he was such a git!

The bell rang, and she packed her stuff up and prepared to head off to Arithmancy. She passed several students in the halls on her way up, students who were now familiar to her. Dirk Cresswell waved at her in greeting just before ducking down another corridor to get to Muggle Studies. Hestia Jones walked with her part-way, and they talked excitedly until she had to take a different staircase to reach her DADA class.

When Hermione reached the Arithmancy classroom, it was to discover that the desks had all been banished to the corner of the room, stacked atop one another, and Professor Vector was standing between the two boards she used for her separate-but-together lessons, arms crossed.

She waited until everyone had arrived, where the early arrivals either milled about the room or leaned against the wall, before she began.

"We're going to do some pairing-off today for exam revision," she told them loudly, making sure she had their attention. "Find someone you sit next to and partner up." Everyone in the room hurried to comply. Hermione found Snape and, ignoring the glare he threw her way, moved to stand next to him. "I will write the problems on the board for you. The pair that finishes them all first—correctly, mind you," she added, glaring at a pair whom Hermione recalled hearing had written gibberish on their assignment and turned it in. They sniggered. "—will leave class with fifty points to their house."

Hermione and Snape looked at each other, and then back at Vector.

"Find a seat on the floor away from everybody else and get out some spare parchment—" There was audible rustling and scraping as everyone sat down and began pulling out some scrap to work on. Hermione pulled out her Arithmancy book to use as a flat surface, and pulled out her quill, poised to begin. Vector tapped the board, and ten different problems instantly began writing themselves on the board. "Begin."

"Okay, look," Hermione said, jotting down the first problem, which asked to identify the magical numerical value of dragon heartstring and how that could be used to predict it's efficiency as a magical conduit when combined with other elements. "We know that dragon heartstring is assigned a value between three and four, depending on it's quality, making it one of the most commonly used wand cores, so if we—"

"I've already got it," Snape snapped at her, jotting down his answer on a separate sheet. "If you find a corresponding element with a number that, when added, gives it a total value of seven, you'd want to find a dragon heartstring with a value that compliments the value of the other element—such as wood."

"Yes, that's right…"

They went through the next four problems in a similar fashion. Problem five, however, Snape was unable to give an immediate answer. It was a question concerning the added numerical value of transfigured objects, snake specifically, and it took them a few extra moments to chart down the possible combination. And when they moved to reference it to the problem at hand, they came up with two distinctly different answers.

"Look, the problem is dealing with the added value of a transfigured snake as opposed to that of a real snake," Snape hissed at her, endeavoring to keep his voice down. "We don't care about the actual value of the real snake!"

"Yes we do!" Hermione hissed back. "You add the transfiguration value to the real one to get the combined and total value—in this case, it's a subtracted value, so a transfigured snake is arithmantically three less than a real one, which is why it goes from being seven to four!"

"It's eleven, Granger, not four! There are no negatives in this arithmantic equation!"

"And I'm telling you you're wrong!"

Snape lost his patience, or rather whatever tenuous grip he'd had on it, and slammed his hand down on the parchment Hermione had been working out the arithmantic values on. "You are an insufferable know-it-all!"

"And you are a stubborn, incomprehensible git!" Hermione cried, sitting up. "I'm telling you that I know I'm right, and I refuse to get this wrong just because you're an obstinate arse!"

"If we keep arguing over this, we're going to run out of time, you stupid girl—"

"I hardly see how I qualify as stupid when you're the one who nearly mixed up the values for maple and birch on the last problem!"

Snape's face turned purple with anger. Hermione's hair had begun to frizz around her face as her own frustration grew. They were pressed nose to nose now, and it was difficult to predict who would snap first. They were both so immovably determined that they were right that bickering alone would not allow one to win over the other.

Hermione was the first one to withdraw. Gritting her teeth, she stated as calmly as she could muster, "Snape, a transfigured snake has the original value of seven subtracted by three—and when you add it to the original value, which is seven…" she suddenly broke off. "Oh, shite."

Snape stared at her, his face contorted between incomprehension and bubbling fury. She continued, "We were both wrong. I got it mixed up. The snake's new value would be four, so when you subtract four from the original seven… I mixed it up. It's three, not four. That makes it a total of ten."

He leaned back, and stared down at the equation, and then up at her, before quickly moving to write down the correct number on the parchment they were using as their answer sheet.

She suddenly started laughing. It was near-hysterical, and she was surprised the rest of the class didn't stop to stare at her for it. Seeing the look on her partner's face, she choked out, "This is ridiculous. We almost got this wrong because of a little subtraction error, and we were both so bloody convinced we were right."

Snape wrote down the next problem and began lining up the required values. "If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that you are an insufferable know-it-all."

"Be grateful for it," Hermione snapped, reading the numbers he'd written upside-down and double-checking it. "At least half of being an insufferable know-it-all makes me useful. Being a stubborn arse is not."

"Granger, do you ever shut up?" Snape wrote down the answer, and then pulled out the final question.

"Do you ever wash your hair?" Hermione countered, eyeing his greasy black locks.

Snape looked up at her with a glare. "Yes. Not that it's any of your business." In a bid to distract her from replying, he turned his sheet around and shoved it under her nose. "Do those numbers look correct to you, or do you have a swotty complaint to add to it?"

Hermione's eyes skimmed through the numbers. "Albino animals are always given negative values. The porcupine should be a negative ten—"

"—so if you were to use an albino instead of a brown porcupine's quills in a Boil Cure Potion, you can count on either running for your life or ending up as a stain on the wall when it finally reacts to the crushed snake fangs. Thank you, Granger." Snape sat back on his haunches to write the answer down, and then stood up. "I believe we're finished."

"Hold on, I need to check them—" Hermione stood up with him and reached for the sheet, but he lifted it up out of her reach.

"Granger, we're almost out of time—"

"There is no way anyone else in the room is past problem eight by now, just let me double-check!" Hermione was struggling to grab the parchment from him, but he was simply too tall.

"Granger, no—get off me!"

"But if we've made a careless mistake like the one we almost did with problem five—!" Hermione had one hand on his shoulder and was straining to grab the answer sheet from him. She jumped, trying to reach it, and nearly choked him when she pulled down on his tie in an effort to bring him closer to her height.

"You are insane!"

"Give me—"

"That is quite enough!" Hermione and Snape turned around in time for Professor Vector to reach up and yank the answer sheet out of Snape's hand, and Snape had to grab Hermione by the elbow to keep her from launching herself at the Arithmancy teacher. "Miss Granger, control yourself! Mr. Snape, stop tormenting your partner! If you've made a mistake, it's not the end of the world." Judging by the look on Hermione's face, however, it was clear she didn't believer her. Vector quickly skimmed down the sheet, flipped it over to the other side where the last two problems had been worked out, and then handed it back to Snape.

"Excellent work. You both just made one mistake," she said, smiling grimly at the pair.

"No!" Hermione wailed.

"What was it?" Snape demanded, glaring down at the near-hysterical Gryffindor.

"You forgot to put your name on your work." Hermione's jaw dropped. Snape glared at the Arithmancy professor, who merely grinned back at him. "Fifty points to Slytherin and Gryffindor."

She returned to her desk, and Snape glanced down at Hermione again, who looked as though she were about to faint. He sighed. Bending down to pick up the parchment they'd used to work their problems out on, he glanced up at Hermione, who had still not moved a muscle.

"Breathe, Granger." Hermione obeyed and took in a huge gulp of air, gasping. Exasperated, he snapped, "And for Merlin's sake, stop hyperventilating!"

~o~O~o~

In the final week leading up to exams, Hermione could be found sequestered in the library. Snape had taken up residence at her table, and the two mostly ignored each other unless they needed to borrow materials. Hermione was forever wheedling for him to let her look at his potions book to cross-reference something or explain, in his own terms, the reasons for certain quantities and qualities in potions; she, in return, helped him understand some of the finer, more subtle points of Transfiguration that were not explicitly taught in class. Arithmancy was a point of contention between them; they shared their review work and argued over the answers loudly enough that the first time it happened they had had to be shushed by Madam Pince.

The second time, Snape cast a spell that seemed to do rather well at preventing others from overhearing their conversation. When he refused to share it with her, they ended up getting into another shouting match until Snape grudgingly taught her Muffliato with the caveat that she would teach him how to cast a Protean Charm. When they both left the library that night, they both felt rather satisfied with their new gains, and felt that they had gotten the better deal than the other.

In the course of that week, Hermione was set upon—twice—on her way to Potions. Getting to class required going through the dungeons, which was inarguably Slytherin territory, and it was clear that as friendly and well-liked she was in the other three houses, the Slytherins seemed to hold a particular antipathy toward her. Perhaps it was because they thought she was a Muggleborn who needed to be taken down a peg. Perhaps it was simply because she was a Gryffindor. And perhaps it was because they felt she was encroaching upon their territory by associating with Snape.

They might have been especially incensed at the latter. Tension between the Slytherins and Gryffindors were at an all-time high with the onslaught of exams, and it was a well-known fact that Severus Snape was mercilessly targeted by the Marauders. Indeed, it was difficult not to see; whenever Hermione turned around, it seemed they were always fighting. They fought in the corridors, and they fought in the courtyards. They fought on the lawn on the way from Care of Magical Creatures, and they fought between the Herbology greenhouses. It was always two to one, much to Hermione's disgust, and sometimes three if Peter jumped in. The Marauders would catch him when his back was turned if they could, and now Hermione understood why Snape was occasionally absent from Arithmancy. She went to visit him one afternoon in the Hospital Wing, where he was boasting a spectacular pair of bright-red devil horns, thanks to James.

"Why on earth can't you three just call a truce?" She'd all but yanked on her hair as she said this.

Snape had merely crossed his arms across his chest and scowled at her, which only served to make him look more mephistophelian with the added effects of the horns.

The next day, Sirius missed Charms, because he spent the entire period in the Hospital Wing as a penguin while Madam Pomfrey tried to undo Snape's handiwork. Hermione had the impression that the Marauders and Snape were rather familiar sights at the ward, and Madam Pomfrey had long since lost the will to try and chastise them each and every time they arrived with some new jinx for her to take care of.

From Hermione's perspective, it wasn't that Snape enjoyed the war he was waging against the Marauders. He certainly enjoyed hexing them in revenge, but he rarely seemed to be the instigator; the Marauders, on the other hand, went out of their way to seek him out and gleefully give him hell. Hermione rather suspected that if James and Sirius were to back off, Snape would eventually pretend they simply didn't exist. He wasn't interested in their quarrel, and he twitched with paranoia every time she saw him, but there was little he could do to stop it.

And the Marauders never seemed to let him go about peacefully unless he was with Hermione, seemingly as a favor to her, which only served to make him try to find routes between classes where he could walk part of the way with her.

When Hermione complained to Lily about it one night, while the Head Girl played chess with Alice, she didn't give Snape one lick of sympathy.

"They do it to each other," she said, capturing Alice's queen. There were boos and a hiss from the black pieces as Lily's white knight bodily dragged the kicking and struggling piece off the board. "James and Sirius never lay off him, but Severus gives just as good as he gets."

Nevertheless, Slytherin house was not happy, and they went out of their way to make it known.

The first time, her two would-be attackers ended up unconscious on the floor of the dungeons as two ducks. To add insult to injury, they had been charmed bright purple. The second time, three disoriented sixth-year Slytherins stumbled into the Hospital Wing wearing pumpkins for heads. James and Sirius roared with laughter at this, having passed by Hermione's handiwork on the way to class; Peter was visibly delighted at the humiliation dealt out, and even Remus cracked a broad smile when he heard about what James and Sirius dubbed, "The Pumpkinheads."

Remus had started growing paler as the month went on. Circles appeared under his eyes, and his face looked drawn. Hermione recognized these as signs of the impending full moon, and couldn't help but look on with pity and concern. He wasn't in the best condition to take his exams, yet he was studying and slogging through it anyway. He didn't have a choice. Hermione wished there were something she could do for him, something that would help alleviate his pain, but it was out of her hands.

At mealtimes, he would pick at his food, and Hermione would try to encourage him to eat.

"You need to keep up your strength for exams," she told him on Thursday, after he turned to her with weary, disinterested eyes. "I know you're working hard, but you can't run on an empty stomach."

Remus's condition had not gone unnoticed by Snape, and though he didn't say a word about it to her, Hermione could see his eyes following Remus with stubborn dislike.

Hermione went into her exams brimming to burst with nerves, and throughout the entire week, she was an utter wreck. Every single waking moment available to her was devoted to studying and review. Even Snape, who stayed late hours at night with her in the library, left one night with a snide remark about how she should have been put into Hufflepuff, given that the bags under her eyes made her look like a bushy-haired badger.

Hermione had whacked him on the arm with her planner. When he returned the next morning to get some more review done before his first exam, he found her passed out at the table, using her arms as a pillow. Snape was normally not inclined to be selfless, but he cornered Remus after their morning exam and after making a requisite remark about Remus's state of sleep deprivation, sneered at him to do something about Hermione's.

"Either recruit your cronies and make her get some sleep, or watch her self-destruct and start randomly hexing people," he told the werewolf, his voice snide. "I personally wouldn't mind witnessing the latter, but there's always the risk that she could go after me instead of you. And I must say, she's quite good with a wand."

James and Sirius forced Hermione to get to bed before ten o'clock that night. She went kicking, screaming, and cursing at them every step of the way. They stripped her of her wand and frog-marched her up to Gryffindor Tower, where they recruited Mary and Lily to make sure she didn't try to stay up later to study.

Hermione was nearly furious enough to hex them until she woke up the next morning for the first time in two weeks without feeling like she was going to fall dead asleep at the breakfast table. Nevertheless, they gave her wand back only after they'd fled the Great Hall and gotten a head-start.

When she found out it had been Snape's idea, she confronted him at lunchtime in the library.

"I don't recruit your housemates to bodily drag you away and forcefully shampoo your hair!" she fumed at him.

"No, but I wish I'd been there," Snape had smirked, unrepentant. "That would have been worth seeing."

"You," Hermione ground at him, "are a git!"

"And you are a bushy-haired, insufferable know-it-all," he jeered, and then drawled, "Now, are you going to rant and rage for the next hour or do you have a Transfiguration practical to study for?"

Hermione was diving for her book, notes flying around her head in a flurry of panic before he'd even finished speaking.

~o~O~o~

The second week of exams finally came and passed, and when she was faced with her final practical on Thursday morning, she was quite relieved. She left, and upon receiving commentary from her Marauder friends about the unholy mating of Medusa and a bird's nest that was her hair, she promptly departed from lunch to shower and take a nap.

She slept through the afternoon and late into the evening. She didn't wake up until someone was frantically shaking her awake, muttering, "Hermione, Hermione!"

Hermione's eyes opened, and she turned around to find herself staring into the worried hazel eyes of James Potter.

"How did you get in here?" she asked, sitting up quickly.

"Nevermind that!" James said quickly, grabbing her arm and dragging her out of bed. He looked frantic, and Hermione stumbled for a moment, landing on the floor before she got to her feet. "I need your help, and you're the only one here who can probably convince him—"

"Who—?"

"Snape!" James hissed, eyes wild with panic. "Sirius told him how to get into the Whomping Willow—I can't explain it all now, but there's a werewolf under there, and if Snape goes there—!"

Hermione's blood ran cold.

"It was just a prank, a stupid prank, Sirius swore it was a prank—!" James was pleading, trying to keep his voice down to stop Hermione's dormmates from waking up to their conversation. "Please, Hermione, you have to go out and stop him. If he manages to get into the Shrieking Shack, he'll be killed, and I can't stop him!"

Hermione was already moving, grabbing her wand and pulling one of her robes on over her sleepwear, not even bothering to button it, and was rushing to pull her sneakers on.

"James, go get the Headmaster!" she ordered, rushing for the door. "I'll go find Snape!"

She heard James's footsteps follow her down the stairs, and she ran for the portrait hole, not even stopping to answer the Fat Lady's startled cry of, "Wait! Where are you going at this time of night?"

She flew down the stairs, her robe flapping wildly behind her, and shoved open the doors to the Entrance Hall. She dashed out into the courtyard, where the light of the full moon hung overhead, reflecting clearly in the water fountain, and she ran toward the direction of the Whomping Willow.

Please let me be there on time… please let me get there on time… Snape, you idiot!

She watched the long, sweeping, club-like branches of the Whomping Willow come into view. Panting, she realized that Snape wasn't there—and that given how much longer it would have taken for James to find and alert her, Snape was probably already inside—

She pointed her wand at the knot at the base of the tree, and shouted, "Stupefy!"

A bolt of red light shot out toward it, and the tree shook in surprise and then grew still. Hermione ran out underneath the lightly-swaying branches, and without a second thought, ducked inside. It was dark, pitch black, and she didn't even take a moment to light her wand, shuffling through as quickly as her hands and knees would let her scoot. Time passed, though Hermione could not have judged how much, but what felt like an eventuality to her later, she saw a faint glow up ahead, and a little bit farther, the dim moon-lit entrance.

The bright light bobbed slowly, and Hermione quickened her pace. The light was nearing the end of the tunnel, which seemed to be disturbingly peaceful, but Hermione knew that at the end, there would be a werewolf, waiting, waiting…

There wasn't any way for her to reach the bobbing light on time. Pulling out her wand from her mouth, where she'd kept it while she crawled, she pointed it at the wandlight ahead of her.

"Accio Snape! "

There was a startled yelp, the audible sound of something scraping painfully against the claustrophobic tunnels of the wall, and a pair of legs kicked Hermione's arms out from underneath her, causing her to hit the ground in an undignified heap on top of Snape. His wand, still lit, lay twenty feet ahead and he rubbed the side of his head painfully.

"Ow—what the—who's there?" he demanded, trying to turn around, but unable to do so.

"Shh!" Hermione hissed. "It's me, you bloody idiot!"

"What the hell are you doing here, Gra—ow!"

"I've come to save your miserable arse!" Hermione snapped, reaching forward and grabbing his hair. He let out another yelp of pain as she yanked his head back. "There's a werewolf in there, you sod! This path leads directly to the Shrieking Shack—that's where Remus goes once a month for his werewolf transformations!"

"Let go of my hair—how do you know—ow!"

"Ask me later," Hermione growled. She smacked his shoulder, and pointed toward his lit wand. "Go grab your wand, and come back—be careful!"

Snape didn't protest. He crawled forward slowly, his movements awkward given the size of the tunnel, and reached for his wand. He was about to start crawling backwards when the moon-lit glow at the end of the tunnel suddenly disappeared; there was a whine, followed by a scratching noise, and Hermione's eyes widened as Snape scrambled backwards in time for a pair of yellow eyes to appear, glaring down at them from the gloom above.

A moment later, Hermione was backing away quickly as Snape let out a scream of terror that made her hair stand on end; there was a sudden snarl, and Hermione watched in horror as Remus began clawing his way in, too big to fit, but able to reach in half-way, scratching and snarling. He was able to scrape the spot Snape had been kneeling in just moments before, and Hermione gulped at the realization that had she not arrived when she did—no, had she not pulled Snape backwards with her spell—he would have been within reach of the werewolf. And he would have been dragged out like a dog pulling a rabbit from its warren and mauled to within an inch of his life.

She began backing away, scooting as quickly as she could, trying to silently drown out the terrible growling and snarling coming from the entrance ahead of them. She was able to move much more quickly than her companion, given her size, and she reached a junction where the tunnel allowed enough room for her to turn around. She twisted herself sideways, and pointed her wand at the ground.

"Glisseo!" The ground underneath Snape suddenly became slippery, and she snapped her wand in his direction and said, "Accio!"

He let out a stream of startled swearwords as he was dragged backwards across the now-slippery tunnel, and Hermione backed away so that he wouldn't collide with her as he had before. They were safe now, though she still saw the werewolf up ahead, scratching uselessly at the walls of the tunnel. She turned around, struggling to do so in the cramped space she was allowed, and began crawling toward the exit. Snape did the same, though she heard him utter a grunt of pain as his head scraped against the side of the tunnel.

"Let's get out of here," Hermione told him shakily, trying to calm the beating of her heart as Remus's enraged snarls echoed through the tunnel. The hair on the back of her neck—probably all over her body, in fact—was standing on end. Snape didn't say a word, but she heard him shuffling on his knees behind her as he followed.

The light at the end of the tunnel, this time at the base of the Whomping Willow, appeared. Gratefully, Hermione pulled herself out and quickly pressed the knot at the base of the tree to stop it from trying to club them to death upon their exit. She helped Snape out, pulling him up by his shoulders, and was surprised when he didn't protest. She chanced a look into his eyes, and saw that they were wide and dilated with terror. He didn't say a word, just sat there kneeling in the grass, staring at the ground, clutching it with bone-white fingers.

Hermione sat there, panting and trying to regather her wits. The tree shook in warning now, and she tugged at his sleeve to grab his attention.

"Come on," she said weakly, getting to her feet and helping him do the same. "We need to get out of here."

He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a whimper; instead of trying to fix his voice, he merely nodded instead, and she draped his arms over her shoulder and helped him stumbled back in the direction of the castle, the both of them badly scraped and covered with dirt and grass stains.

They staggered across the grounds until they reached the stone circle, where Hermione saw Professor Dumbledore standing. Squinting in the light afforded by the moon still shining hauntingly up in the sky, she saw that he was accompanied by Professor McGonagall, James Potter, and Sirius Black. They stumbled up the steps, and then Hermione helped Snape sink to the ground on his knees.

Then she rose and strode over to Sirius Black, who, for the first time since Hermione had arrived, was wearing a look of uncertainty on his face. He finally seemed to have realized the magnitude of his actions a bit too late for Hermione's liking, for when she was within range, she struck him. He fell backwards onto the ground, clutching the side of his face.

"You idiot!" she shrieked. James leaped forward to grab her arm to stop her from hitting him again, though his efforts were only half-hearted. "You utter and complete, total idiot!" Sirius looked at her, eyes widening in fear at her wild and bedraggled appearance. "He could have been killed! And all because of a stupid, stupid prank!"

"Hermione, that is quite enough!" The Headmaster said firmly. He had come to stand next to Snape, who looked quite unresponsive, staring at the ground in wide-eyed shock. Dumbledore leaned down and gently tilted Snape's chin up, taking in the contracted pupils and the drained color of his ghostly pale face.

"Minerva, please help Miss Granger and Mr. Snape up to the Hospital Wing," he said, straightening. "Messers Potter and Black, I would like to see you in my office first thing tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you will return to your common room." He glanced at them through his half-moon spectacles, and both boys nodded quickly. James helped Sirius to his feet, and Professor McGonagall, who had been staring at Hermione and Snape with an expression akin to horror, helped Hermione bring Snape back up to his feet. Hermione draped his arm across her shoulder, and silently followed her Head of House back up to the castle, where they were followed close behind by the two Marauders.

"I cannot believe you went off like that!" Minerva told her sternly as soon as they had made it inside. Her face was pale, and she looked as though she, too, were in shock. "I expected better sense from you! You should have come and gotten me first!"

"I had to," Hermione squeaked, her throat dry. Her voice didn't seem to be working properly anymore. "I was almost too late. I sent James to find Professor Dumbledore while I went to stop him." She looked up at Professor McGonagall beseechingly. "This isn't Remus's fault, Professor. Whatever happens, please don't expel him."

McGonagall gave her a startled look, and then seemed to regather her wits. "Of course not," she agreed, opening the door to the first floor corridor. Looking audibly shaken, she said, "He probably won't even remember tonight."

She heard Snape mumble something under his breath. She craned her neck to look at him.

"What did you say?"

She heard Snape swallow, and then he croaked, "This is Black's fault."

"Oh no you don't!" Hermione growled at him, readjusting her grip on his arm. "He might have set you up, but you took the bait! And if you have anyone to thank for still being alive, it's James Potter, so don't start blaming him, either!"

"Both of you, hush," McGonagall ordered sternly as they approached the Hospital Wing door. Hermione complied, ducking her head, and the Headmistress rapped twice, loudly on the door. "Poppy! I have two students here. Open up!"

The door opened, and Madam Pomfrey peered out. Her gaze went from Minerva to Snape to Hermione, and then she gave a long sigh at their rather scrapped-up appearance and opened the door further to allow them entrance.

"What on earth have you two been up to at this hour?" she demanded, as Hermione set Snape down at the edge of the nearest bed and then collapsed next to him.

McGonagall gave her a weary look.

"It's a long story, Poppy."


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own. Any quotes or references you see from any of the Harry Potter books belong exclusively to JKR.

Please review.


Madam Pomfrey had them both cleaned and patched up quickly, shaking her head at the multitude of scrapes and bruises made apparent once a Cleaning Charm had been cast. She frowned at the gashes on the side of Snape's head, from where he had hit and scraped it against the tunnel, but nevertheless had him fixed up in a trice. She did not insist on putting them in hospital gowns, but instead called for an elf to bring them both a spare change of clothes. Hermione took off her scrapped and torn sleepwear, which would need a Repairing Charm to be made wearable again, as well as her robes, and changed behind the curtain around another bed. She climbed in and slid under the covers, and found herself unable to sleep. She still had too much adrenaline pumping through her blood, and her heart was still fluttering in a panic at the memory of snaping and snarling jaws.

Instead, she watched Snape as the matron, having managed to spell new clothes onto him since he seemed to be in no condition to do it himself, examined his eyes, his pulse, his heartbeat, and alertness.

Hermione heard her sigh. "What have you gotten yourself into this time, Mr. Snape?"

The Slytherin's response was barely audible, but he only managed one croaked word: "Werewolf."

With another sigh, Madam Pomfrey left, only to return moments later with two gobletfuls of purple potion that Hermione recognized immediately. She set it down at Hermione's nightstand, and then went over to Snape to make sure he drank his. Hermione gulped down her potion without a second thought, set the goblet aside, and snuggled down under the covers.

Her last thought before she drifted off was that she was sure Snape was going to need it more than her.

~o~O~o~

Hermione was awoken the next morning, not from the sunlight streaming into the room, but by Snape's loud, insistent voice breaking into the rather pleasant thoughts that had been floating through her head that morning. It was followed by a female, but equally familiar voice.

"—I can't believe you did something so stupid, Sev!" Hermione's eyes flew open at this. Sev? "What Sirius did was petty and wrong, and it could have gotten you killed, but you should have known better!"

Snape's voice was bitter. "You haven't spoken to me for an entire year. You wouldn't forgive me for that slip up, wouldn't even listen to what I have to say, yet you come storming down here, ready to defend Potter's honor?"

Lily was indignant. "You should be grateful to James! From what I heard—"

"From his own mouth, no doubt," Snape sneered.

"—if it hadn't been for him, Hermione would never have known! She wouldn't have gone after you to save your miserable arse from becoming—becoming—" Lily couldn't seem to quite bring herself to admit what they all knew by now to be truth. "—Werewolf food! You could have been killed!"

Hermione slid the curtain back and threw her legs over the side of her bed, where she saw the entire scene unfolding in front of her in time to hear Snape's quite, barely-audible response.

"Why do you care?" He whispered.

Lily drew herself up, as though she'd been slapped.

"Because—because—" she said, rubbing her face. She seemed unable to formulate the right words to express herself. "Oh, damn it all."

Hermione heard the slightest edge of hope in Snape's voice. "Are you… can we… I know I completely bollocked things up last time, but can we be friends again?" Hermione was in a state of disbelief. He almost sounded pleading.

"No." Hermione watched Snape recoil, as though struck. "What you did was unforgivable. I don't wish you dead, Sev, never that—" Hermione could tell Snape wasn't listening. She'd lost him at the word 'unforgivable'. He was hunched over, knees drawn up, and his face hidden by a curtain of greasy black hair. "—but you and Avery and Mulciber… I can't, Sev. You made a choice to be a part of their gang of wannabe Death Eaters, you made the decision to lash out at me in the most hurtful way you knew possible, and I just…" she shook her head. "You're not the boy I remember any more. I can't do it."

Snape sounded almost desperate when he spoke. Hermione had never heard anything like it in his voice before. "I can change."

Lily gave him a sad, almost bitter smile. "I'm afraid that's the problem."

She saw Lily bend down to pick up her book bag, slinging it over her arm. She began striding toward the doors, stopping just as she placed her hand on the doorknob to look back at Snape.

"I just want you to remember, Severus, that it might have been Hermione who stopped you from getting yourself turned into a werewolf yourself, but it was James who sent her." She turned the handle and pulled the door open. "Remember that the next time you think about trying to hex him."

The door closed behind her. Hermione watched it click shut, and then turned her attention to Snape, who was doubled-over on the bed as though in pain. She was about to open her mouth to speak when he suddenly unfurled, throwing his legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, grabbing his wand and his robes. He tugged them on, jerkily pulling on his socks and shoes, and then stumbled toward the door.

Hermione was out of her bed in a flash. "Snape—!"

The door had already closed shut behind him. Hermione hedged, torn between staying and following him to stop him from doing something stupid, before she grabbed her own robes, dressed quickly, and went after his tail.

"Idiot," she muttered under her breath, as she ran out into the corridor, looking both ways to see where he'd gone. She made a wild guess and veered straight to the left, in the direction of library. It would be deserted now, with no more studying to be done, and it was the only place she could think of. She jogged down the halls, coming to a halt at the library doors, and slipped inside.

It appeared to be empty, at first glance.

She slowly wove through the bookcases. Sunlight streamed in through the stained glass windows, causing the room to dance with gentle colors. Madam Pince was nowhere to be found; she was likely still at breakfast. Hermione was about to leave, thinking she might have better luck trying to intercept him on the way to the Slytherin common room, when she heard a muffled sob. Her ears pricked, and she halted, trying to discern where it came from. It came again—quiet and strangled. She followed it, and slowed to a stop in front of the Reference Section, where she found him curled up against the far wall, his cheek pressed against the window.

Hermione hesitated, and then gathered up her courage and came over to kneel beside him. He didn't turn to look at her, but Hermione saw the surprise in his eyes mirror off the glass.

"Go away, Granger," he choked.

Hermione placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"I should never have done it, never…" he turned to look at her now, and she saw tears rolling down his cheeks. Remembering how Remus had comforted her when she had broken down crying in the middle of the common room for all and sundry to see, Hermione took out her wand and summoned a handkerchief, passing it to him. He stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, and then hesitantly took it. He blew his nose.

"What shouldn't you have done?" Hermione asked gently, sitting down next to him.

"It was an accident, I swore it was an accident…" His words came out choked, and Hermione felt as though she were watching his heart break right before her eyes. "Potter— it was fifth year, and Potter ambushed me by the lake, just after our exams—he hung me upside down in the air, humiliated me…" He blew on the handkerchief again, and then croaked, "Lily confronted him, told him to put me down—Potter started goading me, and I told Lily—I told Lily I didn't need help from a mu—a mudblood like her."

Hermione stared at him. "You called her a mudblood?"

He nodded miserably, and buried his face between his arms. He looked so desolate.

Hermione pursed her lips together, and then sidled up next to him and placed an arm around his shoulder, albeit with the hesitancy of a bowtruckle trying to comfort a smoking dragon.

"Severus, do you really believe that rubbish about Purebloods being better than Muggleborns?"

He didn't answer immediately, but Hermione waited patiently for a response.

When it came, it was a barely audible, "No."

Hermione did not leave. She sat with him, one arm around his shoulder, and waited in silence while he cried. Her gut twisted in pity and concern for him, but she also felt strangely detached; she was comforting someone who would one day do his absolute best to torture her as a student. She stuck by her decision to stay with him. No matter how nasty he had been, and no matter how cruel he would be, right now, he needed a friend.

He eventually stopped shaking; his sobs ceased. When all Hermione could hear from him was the steady rise and fall of his breath, and his slightly stuttered heartbeat, she queried, "Severus?"

"Is it true that Potter sent you?" His face was still buried in his arms, but his tone was both choked with emotion and cold.

"Yes."

The sneer in his voice was audible. It seemed that now that he was back in control of himself, his immediate instinct was to lash out at the nearest person. "So, you only came after me because Gryffindor's golden boy told you to."

Hermione grabbed his shoulders and shook him, forcing him to look up at her.

"James alerted me," she told him angrily, "but I could have refused. I could have told him to bugger off, to go after you himself, or to go find the headmaster and let me sleep."

He glared at her.

"But instead, I rushed out to find you—without even bothering to put on anything more than a robe and sneakers, mind you!" Hermione added fiercely. Her eyes narrowed at him. "I went into the tunnel under the Whomping Willow without knowing if you were there for sure, or even if you were still alive or human at that point. I went alone! And I went knowing that I could get bitten trying to save your miserable arse!"

He looked uncertain now.

"And when you left the Hospital Wing, I came after you to see if you were alright," Hermione continued. "I came because I care, Severus. Not because James Potter begged me to."

He stared at her for one, long moment, and then buried his head back in his arms. Hermione sat by him quietly as he curled up there on the floor, next to the library window, and tried to hide himself from the world. She sat there in silence for a long time, until she eventually broke it by gently pulling a lock of lanky hair behind his ear so that she could see the side of his face and then placed her hand on his shoulder.

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" she asked, her voice gentle.

For half a moment, she was certain he would send her away. After a long moment of hesitation, he said quietly, "Stay here. And… and don't tell anyone."

Hermione squeezed his shoulders, and pulled another lock of hair out of his face so that she could see his eyes.

"I won't," she told him. She meant it. "I promise."

~o~O~o~

When Hermione returned to Gryffindor Tower that night, she found the common room deserted except for James, Remus, and Sirius. Remus was sitting in front of the fire, wearing a stark and pained expression; he refused to look at Hermione, and she thought she detected shame in his eyes. She frowned. He was the last person in the room who should be feeling guilty. She turned her eyes on Sirius, who was twisting a scrap of parchment between his fingers and looking restless.

He looked up at her the minute she entered. "Hermione—"

"You deserve more than another slap for what you did," Hermione bit out, sitting down on one of the armchairs. "Honestly, Sirius! I know you hate him, but I didn't think you hated him enough to kill!"

"I wasn't trying to kill him!" Sirius protested, jumping out of his seat. "I just wanted him to get a good scare—I swear," he said, his expression both hurt and serious. "I never intended to kill him. It didn't even cross my mind!"

Hermione turned to look at James, who was nodding, his face white. She turned to look back at Sirius.

"You need to learn to think," she bit out. "Think about what the consequences of your actions might be. Had James not gone and fetched me last night, the best thing that might have happened would have been Severus bitten and turned into a werewolf himself. At worst, he would have been killed, and Remus exposed! This is the thing I least understand," she continued, her voice rising in fury. "I don't know how you could have done this to Remus!" She pointed her finger at the crouching werewolf—now human— in question, who was looking up at her with an expression of shock. "You used him! He would have had no control, no say in on it whatsoever! And if he had bitten or killed Severus, he would have not only been expelled, but probably locked up in Azkaban! What you did, Sirius, was not only selfish and petty, but you could have ended up ruining more than one life last night. You are goddamned lucky that James came and got me, because by the time I went out to stop Severus, he was a hair's breadth away from becoming a werewolf chew-toy!"

Her voice had risen to a shriek. Sirius had collapsed back down on the couch, his head buried in his hands. James got to his feet with his hands in the air, in an attempt to placate her.

"Hermione, I think Sirius has learned his lesson," he said, swallowing. "You've rather driven it home."

Hermione turned to glare at him. "In all honesty, I think he needs the point driven home a bit more," she said, drawing herself up, her voice shaking. "Do you know what it was like, crawling inside that tunnel and realizing Severus was just feet away from being within reach of a werewolf? I had to use a summoning spell to get him out of the way in time—and we were both terrified out of our wits when he realized that we were in the tunnel and started trying to claw his way in after us!" She did not see the look of horror on Remus's face as she spoke. Nevertheless, she took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Biting the inside of her cheek, she continued, "How do you think Remus would have felt, had he woken up the next morning to find one, possibly two bodies bloody and mangled on the floor of the Shrieking Shack—with no recollection whatsoever?"

James and Sirius turned to look at each other, dawning looks of utter horror finally making it across their face.

Remus swallowed and finally spoke. "Hermione—"

"I don't need an explanation from you, Remus." Hermione's voice came out terse, and seeing Remus flinch from her, she instantly gentled it. "I've known from the start that you were a werewolf. The signs were unmistakable—you became ill and drawn the closer it came to the full moon, and when I first arrived, the moon had only just begun to wane. You grew healthier and happier the longer I was here, and then it began to reverse." Seeing the look on his face, she continued, "I'm not angry that you didn't tell me, either." She gave him a wry smile. "I guess I was just observant enough to notice, and James had the good luck of thinking to ask me to help him rather than someone else."

Remus let out a sigh of relief, and leaned back against the couch. He closed his eyes. "Thank Merlin."

Hermione now turned to James and Sirius, who were staring at her with wide-eyed disbelief.

"The two of you have got to stop baiting Severus," she snapped. "If he hexes you, by all means, hex him back. But next time you pull something as stupid as this, I might not be able to help you fix it."

They were both nodding quickly.

She straightened up. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm rather tired from last night. I'm going to go take a nap." She gave James a direct look. "Unless it's another emergency, please don't disturb me."

James coughed, looking as though he would rather be anyone else right now. "Actually, the thing is—Professor Dumbledore wants you in his office." Hermione blinked at him owlishly. "Now, actually."

She sighed. She should have expected this. "Lovely."

~o~O~o~

Hermione leaned back in the cozy armchair in the Headmaster's circular office. His desk was as cluttered and full of whirling and spindly eccentricities as Hermione remembered in her time. She couldn't help staring at the dish under Fawkes' perch; right now, he sat in a pile of sooty ashes, looking rather ridiculous with black and pale pink and orange fluff on his body.

Burning Day must've just come and gone, Hermione thought, as the Phoenix let out a faint, chirping trill.

Severus was sitting in the armchair next to her, staring rather disinterestedly at an odd, three-legged contraption that was making faint whirring noises on the Headmaster's desk. The door quietly closed behind them, and they both turned around in time to see Professor Dumbledore appear.

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," he said pleasantly, circling around to his desk. "I had to reassure Madam Pomfrey that the two of you were quite all right—you both apparently took off without so much as a by-your-leave, according to her." He looked at them sternly over his half-moon glasses. Hermione had a sneaking suspicion he somehow knew exactly what had gone on in the library. He gave a heavy sigh, and sat down in his chair. "I wish to discuss the events of last night with you."

Hermione swallowed and glanced at Severus. She remembered last night only too well; it was still fresh in her mind. The darkness of the tunnel closing in on her; the gut-clenching fear she felt as Remus tried to claw his way inside, snapping and snarling savagely in a manner that was so polarly opposed to the gentle soul he was as a person; the shocked, wide-eyed terror that had overtaken Severus so completely that she had to practically half-drag half-carry him back to the castle because his legs couldn't do it for him. Last night was an experience that would affect him for the rest of his life—and her, too, come to that.

Severus shifted uncomfortably in his chair at this, and Dumbledore continued; "What happened last night cannot be allowed to be discussed with anyone who was not directly involved in it." Seeing Severus's outraged look at this, Dumbledore continued; "Remus's position at this school is precarious. If word got out that a student was placed at risk of being bitten by him, I would have no choice but to expel him."

"Surely you're not going to let Black get away with this…!"

"All detentions are recorded in detail at this school," Dumbledore said heavily. "There can be no trace of what happened last night. My concern for Remus's position, as well as the fact that you are quite luckily still here in one piece, means that I cannot justify putting him at further risk of exposure." Hermione swallowed at this. She understood the Headmaster's logic, but she still felt that Sirius should have faced some rather serious consequences for his actions. "I have spoken to the three of them. Sirius understands that if he ever pulls off another prank of this magnitude, I will have no recourse but to expel him, and he will have put one of his best friends at risk of being expelled as well. I rather think he has become quite subdued."

"Pardon me, Headmaster," Severus bit out. "You're telling me that out of concern for the werewolf, Sirius Black gets off nearly killing me scot free?"

Dumbledore sighed heavily, and Hermione felt inclined to speak up in his defense.

"This isn't Remus's fault, but if Sirius is punished, he's the one who will suffer the most," Hermione pointed out. "Sirius won't be expelled for this, and giving him detentions this late in the year—or even into next year—doesn't fix what happened, and it will only hurt Remus. He doesn't deserve that."

She saw Severus's nails dig into the arms of his chair. He looked ready to tear the fabric off. A moment of indecision, and he stood up.

"I can see where your priorities are, Headmaster," he sneered.

"You will not speak of this to anyone who has not already been made privy to it," Dumbledore said, eyeing him sternly.

"You have my word, Headmaster," Severus replied, giving him a sardonic half-bow. He cast one final glare at Dumbledore, and then left. Hermione waited until the door had closed behind him before she stood up.

"You have my word on that as well, sir," she said, giving Fawkes one final glance before she prepared to leave. "Although I would think, with a man of your intellect and skills, that assigning one boy a much-deserved detention without anyone else finding out wouldn't be entirely beyond your ability."

Dumbledore looked weary. "Miss Granger, what I am about to tell you, should you choose to listen, is in the strictest confidence."

Hermione nodded.

"The Wizarding World is on the cusp of war," Dumbledore told her. "The world is not safe right now, Miss Granger, and it is not kind. It is particularly difficult for those who are like Remus Lupin; afflicted, feared, and more often than not, alone and friendless. They are alienated and ostracized by society, and this is the unfortunate existence in which Remus will find himself when he graduates." He looked weary as he continued, "I do not wish to end what little happiness and security he has found here prematurely by putting him at risk of being sent away or having Sirius expelled. He has a future if he can remain here and complete his education, a future that relies heavily on his friends."

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but Dumbledore cut her short. "I will, however, take your words into account. I agree; Sirius should not walk away from this unpunished, although I quite feel he has learned his lesson. But it will not happen right now."

Hermione bowed her head. "I understand, sir."

Dumbledore stood up and came around his desk, stopping by the large window that allowed him to peer out over the grounds of Hogwarts. "There is another topic of concern that I must discuss with you. Do you have plans for this summer?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not specifically, no. I thought I might find a job in Hogsmeade and stay there, but I haven't worked out anything solid."

"The Board of Governors have finally reviewed your transfer papers and registered your status as an orphan," Dumbledore informed her, gazing out the window. "You are now officially a ward of the school, and are free to stay here if you wish."

Hermione had not realized she'd been holding her breath until she let it all out in a sigh of relief. "I would appreciate that very much, sir, although I would still like to get a job in Hogsmeade to earn a little money."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Dumbledore said, "although I have something else to add to that. You are aware of the existence of the Order of the Phoenix, I presume?"

"Of course," Hermione said, thinking of the hours she, Harry, and Ron had spent waging war against the age-old clutter and dust at Grimmauld Place, all in the name of cleaning.

"I had planned to send you to visit some of our members for training," Dumbledore told her seriously. "You are in possession of a great many secrets, Miss Granger, and you must learn to guard them."

Hermione simply stared at him.

"Tell me, Miss Granger, what do you know about Occlumency and Unforgivables?"

~o~O~o~

Hermione watched as everyone else boarded the Hogwarts Express, while she stood off to the side of the platform with Professor McGonagall, who was supervising their departure. She had already said good bye to the Marauders, promising that she'd see them at the start of term. The train gave a warning whistle, and at that moment, James leaned out of the compartment window and waved her over.

"Hey," he said with a grin, when she came to stand next to the window. "Look, I know you're going to be busy this summer, but when the owls come by with our school lists, what do you say we meet up at the Leaky Cauldron and we all get our stuff together?"

Hermione smiled. "I'd like that," she agreed. Behind him, she saw Remus and Peter peering over his shoulder, trying to listen in on their conversation. Sirius was with them, but Hermione could not see him through the window.

"Excellent," James said, leaning back into the compartment as the train gave a warning lurch before it started to move. "Have a good summer, Hermione!"

Hermione waved at them until the train disappeared around the corner, and then joined McGonagall in walking back to the castle.

She had not seen Severus since their meeting with the Headmaster in his office until the very last day. Hermione had predicted he was rather upset on many different levels right now, and she simply had not seen head nor hide of him for the remainder of their stay at Hogwarts until the Leaving Feast, when he intercepted her on her way out.

"I'm heading for a walk around the lake," he told her cordially, his tone neutral and expression disinterested. "Would you care to join me?"

Hermione had only glanced back into the Great Hall for a moment, where the Marauders were still eating and chattering away quite happily. Lily was with them, laughing with James over something he'd said while Sirius entertained the table by balancing a fork across his nose. She saw Remus's eyes lift up from his plate to look at her, his eyebrows raised in question. Hermione shook her head at him and smiled, and his eyes lowered again to his plate, satisfied. Hermione turned back to Severus.

"Let's go," she agreed.

They had walked down to the lake together, Hermione breathing in the fresh summer air that still had a slight taste of spring to it. Severus waited until they were quite a distance away from the castle before he spoke.

"Are you planning on coming back next year?" he asked casually, kicking a pebble out of his way.

"I plan to," Hermione responded honestly, picking up the pebble he'd kicked and tossing it over the water. It skipped once, twice, and then sank. She picked up another, flatter one and turned it over in her palm. "Do you realize we won't be sharing any classes anymore? You being a seventh year and all, I mean."

Severus sneered at her. "I should be relieved. I won't have you trying to climb me like a frightened monkey."

Hermione turned red. "I wasn't— I just wanted to double-check our answers!"

"I pity whoever has you for a partner next year."

"Oh, shut up." Hermione chucked her stone into the lake, where it skipped three times and sank with a ripple. She waited until it disappeared from view, before she reached down to search out another stone. "Severus, why do you hang out with Avery and Mulciber? I'm sorry to bring this up, but Lily had a point when she said that they're a part of a gang of Slytherins who are budding Death Eaters. It just doesn't make sense." She threw the rock into the water, where it sank instantly like the stone it was. "You're too good for that."

She turned around in time to see Severus draw himself up. His face was contorted into a sneer.

"The Dark Lord is powerful, Hermione." His eyes glittered strangely at this. "Intelligence isn't everything. There are some things you can only get when you have the ear of the most powerful wizard in the world."

Hermione couldn't help the mixture of horror and defiance that took up residence on her face. "Albus Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard in the world," she said, the stone she had been about to throw dropping heavily out of her hand. "What is it that Vol—You-know-who can offer you don't have?"

She saw him purse his lips, as though debating whether he should tell her, and then he turned away.

"It doesn't matter," he said sulkily.

"It does matter," Hermione said, following him. She grabbed his sleeve, and he whipped around, expression furious, and she spoke angrily, "You-Know-Who is a sick, twisted, sadistic bastard. He doesn't understand what's really important to people—love, family, friendship. Those are things he does not have, and cannot offer, and since material wealth can be amassed without having to sell your soul short to the devil, then tell me— try to make me understand—why do you want to serve him? What do you want so badly?"

Severus bared his teeth at her and pulled away. "I cannot tell you."

Hermione felt as though she had just found the person underneath the cold, hard exterior he presented to the world, just in time to see him start slipping away. She wanted to understand—gods, he was sixteen, no, seventeen now, and about to make the biggest mistake of his life and she wanted to know why.

"Cannot tell me or will not tell me?" she countered.

He glared balefully at her, and then turned away. Hermione sighed, and stared at the ground miserably, and then looked up at his retreating back.

"I don't understand how someone like you can be so eager to shackle yourself," she said quietly.

"I have my reasons," Severus responded, walking away from her. "You may understand them one day, but for now—they are my own."

"Then you should know," Hermione said bitterly, "that I am a Muggle-born, and if you follow Lord Voldemort—" she saw him flinch at the use of the Dark Lord's name. "—you consign yourself to helping him try to kill me—and Lily." She found herself choking on a near-hysterical laugh that was threatening to escape. "Is this some twisted idea of revenge?"

"This has nothing to do with revenge!" Severus bit out, stalking over to her now. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "This has absolutely nothing—nothing!—to do with getting any kind of payback on Lily. Not even close." Hermione looked up at him, eyes wide, and his expression grew thoughtful. "I'm doing this for Lily. For her. Everything I've ever done—whether it was when we were children and I nicked my mother's spellbooks for us to read or now, while I'm contemplating joining the Dark Lord—has always been for her. Always!"

"If you think Lily will be impressed by—"

"She doesn't—she won't know," Severus ground out. "She will never know. I'm doing this to protect her! I will ask the Dark Lord to spare her in return for my loyalty. He will not target her. That," he said, laughing bitterly, "is what only power can buy."

Hermione stared up at him, eyes wide in disbelief. His grip on her shoulder suddenly tightened painfully.

"And you will not tell her. Or anyone else, for that matter."

Hermione swallowed. "No," she said, "I won't. But I still think you're making the wrong choice."

"But you understand," he said, loosening his grip.

"Unfortunately, I do," Hermione said, looking up at him squarely. "There are some people in this world for whom I would do anything within my power to save them, help them, raise them. I know where you're coming from. But I also know you're going about it the wrong way."

"We both simply have different methodology," he sneered, releasing her shoulders entirely. "Besides, given that you are an orphan, I rather imagine your tactics, whatever they were, failed spectacularly."

Hermione closed her eyes and ground down on her back teeth, resisting the urge to lash out at him. When she opened her eyes, he was still standing there, wearing an infernal, offensive smirk that she wanted nothing more than to wipe off his face. He thought he had won. Only she knew what a horrible mistake he was making.

"Fine," she said bitterly. "Do it your way."

She saw a flicker of indecision in Severus's eyes, and his tone became bitter to match hers. "Would you turn your back on me if I became a Death Eater?"

Hermione gazed into his eyes, trying to find any trace of the man she remembered in her timeline and tried to reconcile it to the seventeen-year-old she had come to know over the last two months. A desperate, lonely boy who was now a legal adult by the Wizarding World's standards, and being pulled into making big choices before he was ready to by his peers and wizards he considered his superiors. She sighed.

"No," she said softly. She forced herself to remember that he was good enough that deep down, once he realized the Dark Lord could not—would not—give him what he wanted, that Lily would still be in danger, he would switch sides in order to protect her. "Not for the reasons you gave me."

Severus paused, and then said quietly, "You're the only person I know outside Slytherin who would have ever said such a thing to me."

"I don't agree with your choices," Hermione told him sadly, "but I don't hate you, and I don't condemn you for what you're doing, since I know I might very well have done the same if I were ever in your shoes."

Severus snorted. "Gryffindor is wasted on you, Hermione. You should have been sorted into Hufflepuff."

"I ought to slap you for that," Hermione sniffed at him, but she was smiling.

Severus gave her a tight smile. "On a completely different subject, what are you planning on doing this summer?"

"A job," Hermione told him shortly.

"No need to sound as though you're about to face a firing squad," he responded snidely. "Last I heard, a little hard work never killed anyone."

Hermione sighed and looked away, trying not to let her emotions get the best of her. "It's not that. I just... I miss my family and friends. I usually spent half my summers with my parents and then I'd stay with one of my friends and his family. Now that they're not here, and summer's literally just around the corner, I feel the loss a bit more keenly."

"You were an only child?"

"Well," Hermione said slowly, "my two best friends were like brothers to me. I suppose that must count for something."

Severus placed a cautious hand on her shoulder, and when she didn't pull away, he turned her around to face him.

"I'm sorry."

Hermione nodded, feeling a familiar, painful tightness in her throat, and tried to push it back. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve, and then said, "Thank you." She took a moment to collect herself, and then nodded toward the castle. "We should probably head back now. The train leaves soon. You don't want to miss it." Smiling fondly, as though lost in a memory, she said, "That happened to my two best friends when they were twelve. They solved it by stealing—excuse me, borrowing— their parents' flying car and flew it to school." She laughed, and wiped at her eyes one last time. "They got into so much trouble!"

Severus snorted at this, and then, unable to contain himself, he let out a bark of laughter.

They headed back up to the castle in good spirits, and Hermione tried not to think about how different things would be when he returned. Professor Dumbledore had arranged for her to take on training with several Order members in addition to the job she was planning on taking in Hogsmeade. Just before they'd reached the doors leading to the Entrance Hall, however, Hermione grabbed Severus's sleeve and turned him around to face her.

"Promise me just one thing," she said, almost desperately. "Promise me you'll hold off on taking the Dark Mark as long as possible."

He looked down at her for one long, eternal moment, and then inclined his head.

"Fine."

Hermione quickly pulled him into a hug and whispered her goodbye, in the face of unconvincingly spluttered protests of her treatment of his person, and then stood back to let him go. She did not—could not speak to him after that. She did not see him face-to-face again that day. He had his stuff delivered to the train just like every other student, and when he left, he did so in the company of the very same housemates who set Hermione's hair on end with the sadism and cruelty they exuded. It set her teeth on edge just to see him in their company.

Bellatrix, Avery, Mulciber. And, she'd only realized recently, the boy she'd previously dubbed lip-licker was Barty Crouch, Jr. He was in the company of students who not only went out of their way to taunt and attempt to hex her in the halls between classes when Severus was not around, but would also one day cause everyone she knew much grief. Neville's poor parents—who she knew now as Alice and Frank— stuck in St. Mungo's immediately cropped up horribly in Hermione's mind.

She could not help that she'd grown so terribly fond of Severus. He was a caustic and capricious git, but he had let her in just enough that she'd begun to see the beauty underneath. As soon as they had gotten past that awkward, volatile stage where they'd fought over every little thing, she felt as though she'd finally met someone with whom she was on equal terms in regards to intelligence and ability. It was both refreshing and exhilarating.

She would be spending her summer being trained on how to defend her mind from Legilimency and on how to defend and resist against Unforgivables. The Avada Kedavra excluded, of course. She simply knew far too many secrets to justify having such training to be held off any longer.

How different would things be when she saw him again?


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: This was posted in my author's notes the first time I posted it, and I thought it was sufficiently amusing enough to restate: " I would also like to unnecessarily state for the record that Severus Snape is not a bundle of cuddly joy."

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.


Hermione walked down to The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade the very next day to see Madam Rosmerta and ask for a part-time job. The barmaid was quite surprised, but nevertheless, she gave her the job.

"I'm afraid you'll be rather bored here," she said, pouring a glass of single-malt whisky and setting it on a tray with several other drinks. "But if you do the work and get here on time, you're on."

Hermione asked to work during the evening on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays—it was the schedule she had worked out with Professor Dumbledore, and though he was more than happy for her to take on a part-time job in Hogsmeade, he was adamant about the schedule. The Order members she would be working with only had so much time available, and their time was valuable. She presented Madam Rosmerta with a letter from the Headmaster, explaining her situation as an orphan and with limited hours available to work, and the barmaid graciously agreed to her request for the odd hours.

Rosmerta gave her a tour of the counter and the backroom, showed her the menu and a list of what went into each order, and where the keys for private rooms were stored. Since Hermione had offered to work the evening shifts three days a week, she was shown where Rosmerta kept the key, and what time she was expected to kick everyone out and close up shop.

"You job is to make and serve drinks," Rosmerta told her, "but if someone looks like they've had too much, refuse and suggest something non-alcoholic. I try to keep this place friendly and open to all customers, and the last thing I need is someone getting into a drunken barfight." She pointed to the door. "The regulars all know what time to leave. They shouldn't be a problem. If someone gives you any trouble, feel free to threaten to jinx their bollocks off. This rarely happens, but if someone starts stirring up trouble and they won't leave, you're allowed to hex them out the door."

This sounded both harsh and reasonable to Hermione, and she nodded in acceptance without protest.

"You're free to go," Rosmerta told her with a smile. "You start tomorrow. Be here at 6pm sharp."

The Order members were an entirely different matter.

Hermione had met Alastor Moody before, first as an imposter, then as himself at Grimmauld Place. The man looked very different than she remembered. He still had both his eyes and a whole nose. His face was lined and he had a grizzled look. But other than the fact that he not had parts of his face cut off in chunks yet, he looked remarkably the same.

The second was Kingsley Shacklebolt, who Hermione recognized from Grimmauld Place. He was still bald, with a gleaming white smile, and a friendly but serious demeanor. He was the epitome of steadiness and reliability, in Hermione's mind, and she considered him a fine Head of Magical Law Enforcement when he finally did get the job.

The third and final member was tiny Professor Flitwick, who had once been quite the dueler in his youth, and Hermione was quite certain that despite his diminutive, almost laughably short stature, he would be difficult opponent, if not a spectacular teacher. She was looking forward to her lessons with him; she got on very well with him as student and professor. More than once, he had suggested to her that she should have been sorted into Ravenclaw.

When Professor Dumbledore had set aside a pensieve for her, and after demonstrating how to use it, Hermione pulled out the memories that were of the most importance for her to hide. The Headmaster had given her a book on Occlumency to read the last time she left his office, and had a good solid understanding of it in theory as well as what she knew from Harry. Professor Dumbledore began her training in Occlumency in his office every morning, and Hermione took to it like a duck to water; organization and discpline came naturally to her, and it was simply a matter of time and practice for her to get the gist of it. She was soon able to collect her memories and smoothly push them away, hiding them behind a wall of irrelevant and inane thoughts that would quickly bore the looker into searching elsewhere.

Dumbledore praised her progress, and daily, after lunch in her dorm, she would go to the Great Hall, where the tables had been removed since the Leaving Feast, and wait for the Aurors to arrive. More often than not, no matter how early she arrived, they were there before she was, and Hermione suspected that they spent time in meeting with the Headmaster in conjunction to her training. There was simply no other explanation for them to be at the Great Hall half an hour early for her lesson.

The first lesson Hermione learned was that some things simply didn't change.

"Constant vigilance!" Moody had barked at her, not three minutes into her first session with him. Hermione had nearly jumped back a foot, and mentally berated herself for it, given that she should have seen it coming. He began pacing back and forth in front of her, his claw foot adding a clunk to each step he took. "You must never let your guard down. This," he said, pulling out a rolled up copy of The Daily Prophet and handing it to her, "is what happens to those caught unawares. And even to those who aren't. The world out there isn't pretty, girl, and there are Dark Wizards who want to kill you just because they can."

Hermione unfurled the paper and looked at the headlines, feeling her stomach drop sharply as it gruesomely described the murder of Donna Blythe-Williams, who had been a secretary for the Department of Magical Games and Sports at the Ministry of Magic. The newspaper was less than a day old.

"But you're a special case," Moody growled, watching her closely. "You've got secrets in your head that you can't allow anyone else to touch, and according to Dumbledore, you've gotten pretty good at keeping it that way. I've also heard from your teachers that you're a fair hand with a wand, and that you've put a couple of students in the Hospital Wing for trying to get the drop on you. Good, since it means you're not afraid to defend yourself. But you can't kid yourself into thinking that just because you can send a few clumsy Slytherins to see Madam Pomfrey, you're off the hook. That kind of thinking is what will get you killed—or worse, captured."

Hermione nodded stiffly and held the paper back to him. He waved it away.

"Keep it as a reminder of what's at stake," he said gruffly. "Don't ever forget it for a moment—constant vigilance!" He thundered, and this time, Hermione didn't startle. He resumed pacing. "I'm going to teach you how to defend yourself. I'm going to teach you how to go on the offensive, and I'm going to teach you how to resist the Imperius and Cruciatus. The former can be fought off—the latter can only be endured, but endure it you will. Constant vigilance," he repeated, stopping in front of her. "Constant vigilance and hard work is key."

"I understand," Hermione told him.

"Good." And without warning, Moody had his wand pointed straight between her eyes. "Imperio!"

And that was how Hermione's first lesson had begun.

By the middle of July, she had made many milestones of progress. If nothing else, Moody was an effective teacher, and his training methods were harsh and pushed limits. As soon as she was able to hold her own against the grizzled Auror without being blasted unconscious five minutes in, she was forced to duel Moody and Kingsley simultaneously, keeping her attention on both targets and trying to effectively defend and attack without leaving openings in between. The disparity between the levels of training Moody put her through on forced her to become more adaptable.

Kingsley attempted to attack her mind with legilimency throughout the entire duel, and when they had her trapped on either side, she was simultaneously hit with a Cruciatus and Imperius.

It was the single most difficult thing Hermione felt she had ever done in her life up to that point. Her entire body screamed in pain, while she forced herself to ignore the pain and instead focus on resisting the urge to obey Moody's command to drop her wand. To top it all off, she was attempting to defend her mind from Kingsley's intrusion, which was difficult enough to begin with. Dealing with the shattering pain of the Cruciatus shuddering throughout her body and Moody's Imperius-ladden commands bearing down on her mind in addition to that made it near-impossible.

Hermione gritted her teeth, and broke away from Moody's Imperius with a hard, mental shove. Her knees shook as she tried to remain standing despite the pain threatening to make her buckle, but despite this, she was able to slash her wand at them.

"Protego!" she shouted.

Moody and Kingsley were both thrown back by the force of her spell. She attempted a Disarming Spell on them both, but Moody was quick enough to defend himself, already back on his feet. She did, however, get Kingsley's wand, and as soon as it smacked into her hand, she stunned him. In her opinion, this was pure luck on her part, but she was pleased nevertheless. Whirling around on the spot, she threw up another Shield Charm to block Moody's Choking Spell, and resumed dueling, now able to focus one-on-one. Her fingers twitched in pain as an after-effect of the Cruciatus, and she swore that she would not let them hit it with her again. She needed to improve her dodging reflexes.

"Very good, Granger!" Moody roared approvingly as he sent a Stupefying Hex her way.

Flitwick taught her a number of good dueling spells, many of which Hermione was certain were never taught in the normal course of academics, and had her practice against him when she first tried them out. Some spells were meant to attack and defend; others were good to have up her sleeve if she ever needed to try and escape. He essentially gave her a more extensive repertoire of spells to choose from, while Moody and Kingsley made her work to stay on her feet.

With that kind of rigorous training on a daily basis, with not even Sunday off, it was no wonder that Hermione was relieved to spend three evenings a week serving drinks. Either she spent all day practicing and stumbled off to bed after a hasty dinner, or she was let off a five and came back to the castle at ten after working her shift at The Three Broomsticks. Rosmerta paid her ten galleons and seven sickles a week, and given that her job was to serve, mix drinks, keep the peace, and then kick everyone out at a quarter to ten, Hermione was rather content.

As Rosmerta had predicted, she got little to no trouble at all. Rosmerta would leave off her shift when Hermione arrived, and Hermione would take over with no trouble. The patrons, all of whom ranged from students Hermione knew and lived close by to travelers passing through, all got used to seeing her face in the evenings three times a week. One rising sixth-year tried to wheedle Hermione into giving him a free drink, and Hermione told him she would charge him double for it, which effectively caused the boy to desist immediately. One witch came in with foreign currency one Friday night, which had been a bit of a nightmare for Hermione to figure out. The owner of Honeydukes, who was sitting at a table with his wife and celebrating the end of the week, was kind enough to exchange currency with the witch so that she could buy her drink.

And when Hagrid came in one evening, Hermione's jaw dropped before she managed to gather her wits. She had not spoken to the half-giant even once while she was at Hogwarts, in this time period. Truth to be told, as much as she loved Hagrid, she knew that he was notoriously poor at keeping secrets—and seeing her now and in the future could jeopardize everything if he let his tongue slip. She served him quickly and with a friendly smile, praying that he wouldn't make the connection when 1991 rolled around.

Overall, there was next to no trouble for her at The Three Broomsticks. She got to listen in on everyone's conversation, which kept things interesting enough, and it was not particularly difficult work. But it was one evening, at the beginning of August, that trouble pushed its way through the door just moments before Hermione was about to close shop.

"We're closed for the night," she said without looking up from where she was wiping down the counter with a clean rag. "Come back tomorrow."

"Please," the man whispered hoarsely, and Hermione looked up. He was tall and emaciated, with dark hair that hung around his face in ragged clumps. He looked like a corpse, and when Hermione saw his eyes, she dropped the rag and immediately whipped out her wand. The vampire held up his hands to show he was unarmed, and immediately slunk behind one of the tables. "No—please—help me…"

"Get out!" Hermione thundered, her wand pointed straight at him. "I will not tell you again!"

"Please!" The vampire's voice was raspy and dry. "Hide me— I'm not here to harm you—I need help!" He had a frantic, hunted look in his eyes. "Please!"

Hermione saw a dark shape through the window, moving toward the door, and in a split-second, had made her decision. She pulled open the door to the back room, her wand still pointed at the vampire as he moved toward her.

"In here!" she hissed. "Now!"

The vampire slipped inside without another word or even so much as a second glance in her direction, and Hermione shut the door and locked it. She was back out at the counter, cleaning rag in hand, when the door to the establishment opened and another man entered, wand raised.

"A vampire just came through here," the man growled, kicking the door shut behind him with his boot. He looked young, perhaps in his late twenties. He was a huge man, with close-cropped blond hair, and a cocky, swaggering attitude that Hermione did not like. She was instantly on the defensive, the rag once again dropped from her hands and with her wand out and pointed at him. "Where did he go?"

"He ran," Hermione said, jerking her head in the direction of the stairs. "He's probably gone through one of the windows. We're closed now," she added angrily. "Leave!"

The man gave her a heavy-set glare, and then lowered his wand a fraction of an inch.

"If I find out you're lying, girl—" he pulled up the sleeve of his left arm. Hermione stared dumbly at the grotesque, entwined skull-and-snake figure on his arm, and then up at him. "This is who you'll have to answer to, so I'll give you one last chance to fix your story, if it needs fixing. Where did the son of a bitch go?"

Hermione affected fear in her voice, even as she seethed and silently debated whether or not she should try and get the drop on him. Only one thought went through her mind, repeating itself over and over like a mantra, interfering with her thought process: He's a Death Eater, he's a Death Eater, he's a Death Eater…

Her job right now wasn't to apprehend him. If she tried to take him on, and found out he was stronger, she could be killed, or worse—captured. She had confidence in her abilities, and even more faith in Alastor Moody's training, but she had absolutely no backup. That was one of the first things Moody had drilled into her head: Don't jump into a fight without a partner if you can help it. She didn't even have any kind of system set up to alert the castle if she was in trouble.

Idiot! Her mind screamed.

"I already told you, he ran upstairs," Hermione said, pretending to be cowed. She swallowed visibly. "I swear, he just ran through here… upstairs… like I said, probably the window…"

The Death Eater gave her a nasty grin, and then barreled up the stairs. Hermione heard his feet thudding against the wooden floorboards, and stood perfectly still, waiting for him to leave. She had her wand ready and her attention on the stairwell. If he came back down, she would attack him. But if she could get out of here without a confrontation that she wasn't sure she could win, she would do it.

The upstairs suddenly became quiet. Hermione heard a quiet thwumph, and realized that the man must have gone out one of the second-floor windows. Hermione slowly, ever so slowly, lowered her wand and made her way toward the stairs. She cautiously climbed them, until she was faced with the empty hall, with doors on either side leading to private meeting rooms, and the window at the far end.

It was open. With a sigh of relief, trying not to focus too much on the pounding of her heart, Hermione pointed her wand at it, sliding it shut and magically locking it. She went back downstairs, locked the door to The Three Broomsticks to prevent any other unwanted patrons from coming in, and then went to the back room.

She rapped on the door, and unlocked it. Holding her wand steady, she backed away.

"It's all right, he's gone," she said, swallowing thickly. "Come on out."

There was a pause, and then the door slowly squeaked open, and the pale figure glided out, slinking over and pressing against the wall when he realized Hermione's wand was trained on him.

"Thank you," he breathed, slumping against the wall in relief. His dark, violet eyes were locked onto Hermione, both in fear and gratitude. He repeated, "Thank you."

"You're a vampire," Hermione said uncertainly.

"Do you think I would harm you after you so graciously saved my hide?" the vampire inquired hoarsely, straightening up.

"I don't know," Hermione said, lowering her wand just a fraction of an inch. "Do vampires bite the hands that feed them? Metaphorically speaking, of course."

"Not me," he rasped with a tight smile. Hermione saw his fangs poking out from beneath his upper lip. Slowly, ever so slowly, she lowered her wand, backing away as she did so. She waited tensely for him to attack, but when he did nothing more than shift uncomfortably against the wall and then scoot over to take a seat on a wooden crate full of Ogden's, she relaxed, but remained alert.

"What's your name?" Hermione asked, picking up the cleaning rag and moving to the other side of the counter to finish cleaning. Her compulsive need to question began to rise to the fore, even as she began to relax in the face of danger averted. "And why was that man after you? Because last time I looked, according to Paragraph Twelve of the Guidelines for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans, vampire hunting is illegal." She paused. "Not that Death Eaters care about what the Ministry says in the first place."

"Sanguini." He paused to look down at his fingers, which here bony, white, and stick thin, before he answered the other half of her question. "As for why… I believe I had something he wanted. I wouldn't give it. He gave into temper."

"What did he want?" Hermione asked, her voice casual as she set the rag aside.

"The location of a friend," Sanguini replied unhelpfully, still examining his fingers. His face, which had been taut with terror just minutes ago, was now one of deathly boredom, although he was starting to get edgy. It was clear he wanted to move, but was afraid to stand up for fear of being blasted into bits.

"Sanguini," Hermione mused, testing the name out loud. "The name rings a bell. You wouldn't happen to know Eldred Worple, would you? Author of Blood Brothers?"

Sanguini's lips curled into a corpulent smile. "That is my friend."

"Well," Hermione said, straightening up. Sanguini's actions made a bit more sense to her, and she was no longer truly afraid of him. "If you want to leave now, by all means, you're free to go. I rather imagine its safe now, since the man who was after you hasn't come back to knock down the door."

Sanguini slowly stood up. "I would appreciate that. Thank you."

Hermione walked him to the door and unlocked it, holding it open for him.

"I am grateful for your kindness," Sanguini told her before he left. "If I can repay you, I will."

"Let's work on keeping you alive long enough for that to happen, shall we?" Hermione asked, offering him a smile.

Sanguini gave her a pointy, thin-lipped grin, and then silently disappeared into the night.

As soon as Hermione shut the door behind her, making sure it was securely locked, she slumped against the nearest wall, slid down to the ground, and took in several deep gulps of air.

She'd looked a Death Eater in the eyes tonight. Alone, without Harry or Ron at her back. She had been alone with a Death Eater who might have very well tried to capture, kill, or rape her if it weren't for the fact that he had higher priorities at hand at the moment. He had certainly looked capable of it, and now that Hermione was alone and safe, she finally realized how shaken down to the core she was.

A moment later, she started laughing hysterically.

~o~O~o~

Dumbledore gravely absorbed Hermione's recounting of the night's events. When Hermione had finished, he leaned back in his chair, his hands folded on his desk, deep in thought. Hermione sat there in silence, tired and more than ready to crawl off to bed, but felt that she had not yet been dismissed, and that it would be quite rude to simply stand up and leave.

"What happened tonight night is certainly great cause for concern," Dumbledore finally said, steepling his fingertips together. "But there is little that can be done about it now. I will send Alastor to investigate, but I have little hope of him coming up with something that may change the nature of my suspicions."

"What do you think this is, sir?" Hermione asked wearily.

"Voldemort has been building himself an army," Dumbledore said, his expression somber. "He has already recruited the giants, and Fenrir Greyback is his most valuable asset in keeping control over the werewolves he has enlisted. It would appear that the vampire community is his next target. Fortunately," he added, giving Hermione a faint smile behind his snow-white beard, "vampires tend to keep mostly to themselves, and the largest community known to wizardkind is well-hidden. Their location is unknown, though there is much speculation that it is somewhere in Transylvania. It would make sense that Eldred Worple would know about their location, or at least have a good idea of where they could be found. That would explain why he has been in hiding," Dumbledore mused. "Horace has not heard a word from him in nearly a year."

"Voldemort is recruiting vampires, sir?" Hermione asked, her tired mind trying to make sense of this.

"That's what it looks like, yes," Dumbledore said with a sigh. "It is understandably quite difficult to recruit someone without negotiating with them first, and Sanguini and Worple are certainly a good place to start if one is interested in finding the vampire community." He gazed at Hermione thoughtfully for a moment. "In the natural order of things, in regards to your timeline, did Voldemort ever employ vampires?"

Hermione took a moment to think through all of the history she'd read on the subject.

"No," she said at last, shaking her head. "Not in large numbers."

Dumbledore smiled, and for the first time since she'd seen him tonight, he looked relaxed, even relieved.

"It is quite possible your actions tonight were significant in affecting the outcome of the coming war, but that they were equally instrumental in keeping consistencies in your own timeline," he mused.

"Or maybe Sanguini got away without my help in my time," Hermione responded with a weary sigh. "I also don't see how I can return to The Three Broomsticks now. The Death Eater—"

"What did he look like?"

"Big build, short blond hair, blue eyes…"

"Most likely Thorfinn Rowle," Dumbledore said with a nod.

"Well, Headmaster, it seems quite likely to me that Rowle could return when he realizes Sanguini got away, and decide to use me as his consolation prize," Hermione said, getting to her feet. "I don't much fancy another encounter with him."

"Naturally, and you are also probably quite right. I will speak to Rosmerta myself tomorrow to explain the situation."

"Thank you." Hermione turned to leave. "Good night, sir."

Fawkes let out a musical trill behind her as she closed the door behind her, and she felt the tension that had been building up in her veins slowly evaporate. With a sigh of something akin to boneless relief, she ambled off to Gryffindor Tower.

~o~O~o~

When Moody and Kingsley were briefed on the events that had occurred at Rosmerta's, their reactions were quite mixed. Kingsley congratulated Hermione on keeping a clear head and praised her for not attempting to take on a full-grown Death Eater when she had the preferable option of letting him get away.

"You made a good decision," he told her. "You're not an Auror; your job isn't to hunt down Death Eaters. There was no guarantee you would have gotten away from that fight alive, and made the smart choice to let him go off on a wild goose chase."

Moody, on the other hand, was berating Hermione, himself, and anyone else he could think of.

"We should have thought of an alert system!" he snarled, pacing in circles as he absorbed the situation. "You were alone and could have been abducted or killed right under our noses! That will have to be fixed."

"I've quit my job," Hermione told him, fiddling with her wand.

"Yes, but what about when you go down to Hogsmeade to do your shopping?" Moody snapped. "You could be attacked at any time, girl, and not just at your job! And that's another problem," he growled, whipping around to face her. "You're still too trusting."

"What?" Hermione screeched.

"You let a fucking vampire inside and hid him," Moody sneered. "What if he had attacked you?"

"I had my wand trained on him at all times!" Hermione snapped, fed up with the entire situation. "I locked the door behind me while dealing with Rowle. Rosmerta's lock is made to keep out anything that tries to get in, Magical or not, Moody—you know that! I would have heard him if he'd tried to get out. And what's more," she cried, "he was trying to hide! If he'd tried to get out to have a go at me, he knew the Death Eater would have immediately turned his attention onto him!"

"He could have been working with that very same Death Eater he claimed he was trying to hide from!" Moody snarled.

Hermione raised her chin up to him and looked at him squarely. "A man enters The Three Broomsticks just before closing time, looking for sanctuary. I have three seconds to make a decision. He looks absolutely desperate. I hide him in the back room, and then send the Death Eater off on a wild goose chase. And according to Dumbledore, I made a bloody good decision not to blast the first person I see into bits, because he is apparently an ally!"

"That was after the fact," the grizzled old auror growled. "But think, girl! What if he hadn't been? What if he was working for You-Know-Who? What if he had been too hungry to resist attacking you?"

"Then I would have blown up the room with a spell and gotten the hell out of there," Hermione snarled back. "But that didn't happen, and I had my wand trained on Sanguini the entire time he was not locked up until I had ascertained he was not a threat—and I had my wand pointed at Rowle, too, so I was prepared to defend myself at all times. I was in danger, Moody, but I wasn't careless!"

Moody stepped back and gave her an appraising look behind his glare. He looked about to speak, but Kingsley interrupted him.

"Let it go, Alastor. Hermione did the best she could in the situation she was in, and she handled herself admirably well," Kingsley said, his voice soothing. Moody relaxed a fraction of an inch; Hermione let out a complete sigh of relief. The auror went on, "Let's just review how the situation could have gone awry if things had turned out differently. Hermione," he said kindly, "what would you have done if you knew Sanguini was an ally, had hidden him, and the Death Eater refused to leave or tried to attack you?"

"I would have ducked behind the counter, because there's no protecting against Unforgivables, and you never know the measure of the person until they cast their first spell," Hermione replied calmly. "I would have blasted him backwards, quickly unlocked the door to the back room, and gotten the hell out of there—with or without Sanguini."

"Good. Let's practice that scenario, then." Kingsley gestured toward Moody. "I'll be Sanguini in the back room. Alastor, you're Rowle."

And with that, Hermione was off the hook from Moody's ranting and raving, though she was certainly not off the hook on the whole. If anything, her training grew more intense—Moody made sure of that. In addition to that, she no longer had her job at The Three Broomsticks, which meant that all her time during the day was spent ducking and hexing and trying not to get hit. Moody, it seemed, was never satisfied with her best, and Hermione frankly was not surprised. She used Moody as a measure of what was humanly possible, but turned to Kingsley for a better idea of how well she was actually doing.

Her training stopped abruptly a week later. It was one final training session, and then she was done, with three weeks before school.

"Keep improving, girl," Moody told her, giving her a grizzled smile. His sudden bark of, "Constant vigilance!" didn't startle Hermione, and he laughed before clunking away on his claw foot.

Kingsley praised her progress, and then reached into the pockets of his robes and, smiling, pulled out a watch. It had an amber tortoishell-patterned band with a gold rim and three delicate, spindle-like hands, a date face, and three tiny knobs on the side. It was quite a lovely piece. Kingsley handed it to her.

"Your seventeenth birthday is approaching soon, am I right?" he asked, as Hermione fixed the watch onto her right wrist.

"September the nineteenth," Hermione agreed.

"In the wizarding world, it is traditional to give young wizards a watch when they come of age," Kingsley told her, smiling. "I bought this at a Muggle shop, and with the help of a friend in the Order, we managed to place a few charms on it. You will recall our concern that you had no apparent way of discretely alerting Dumbledore if you were in danger after the near-fiasco of last week?"

Hermione nodded.

"See the little knobs on the side of the watch?" Hermione turned her wrist over to look at them. "The first two allow you to change the time and date, like any other timepiece. The third will activate the watch as a portkey. You will be taken to the Headmaster's office." He gave Hermione a stern look. "Need I tell you that this aspect of the watch should not be use to sneak into Professor Dumbledore's office?"

"I think you know me a bit better than that," Hermione said, but she was smiling sheepishly

Kingsley's deep voice reverberated with a chuckle. "There's also an Unbreakable and Anti-Theft Charm on it. The watch is a gift from us all for your hard work over the past few weeks, and even if Moody is being a grouchy old tosser about it, you've made impressive progress. I take my hat off to you."

Hermione was now out-and-out grinning. "Thank you, sir."

~o~O~o~

Hermione received several owls first thing the next morning. The first was a brown owl bearing a letter with the Hogwarts Crest on it. Hermione's knife and fork slipped from her hand as the owl landed on the table next to her bed, and she shoved her plate aside and tried to detach the owl's letter with shaking hands. The owl gave a sigh in resignation as he waited for Hermione to get her letter off his leg, and then with a hoot, he disappeared out the window.

The letter contained the list of school supplies she would need for the coming year, as well as her OWL scores. She unfolded that letter first with shaking hands, and stared down at it. Moments later, a smile flickered faintly across her face, and then she began grinning in earnest. She had passed all of her courses with an 'Outstanding' in every one—except for an 'Exceeds Expectations' in Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Well, Hermione thought, throwing the parchment down on her bed. If they tested me now, I'm fairly certain I would have gotten an 'Outstanding' in that, too. But at least I passed…

She examined the list of supplies she would need for school, tried to total it up as best she could, and was relieved to find that, more or less, she had earned enough money over the summer that she could buy her stuff for school and still have some left over.

A letter arrived from a tawny owl an hour later, sent by James Potter, but signed by all of the Marauders, suggesting she meet them at the Leaky Cauldron tomorrow at ten.

Hermione got off her bed, dressed, and headed down to see if she could find Dumbledore before he disappeared off on Order business to request permission to go to Diagon Alley.

~o~O~o~

"Hermione!" Hermione was pulled into a hug, first by James, then Sirius, and lastly Remus. Peter stood off to the side, watching but not participating. He didn't know Hermione all that well, and Hermione did her best to keep her distance from him. The other three, however, were on her like a litter of puppies. "How are you?"

"Good," Hermione gasped. "Except I can't—can't breathe."

They released her quickly, eyes shining brightly with amusement.

"We're going to get our books first," James told her, as they headed for the door. "Do you need any money?"

Hermione patted her pocket, glad she had taken on a summer job. She didn't like taking money from James, given that it would one day be Harry's, and she felt that it belonged to her bespectacled friend first before any of it went to her. "I got a job over the summer. I think I made enough. Shall we go?"

"We're meeting Lily at Flourish and Blotts," James told her as Remus and Sirius gentlemanly offered Hermione an arm each. Sirius was behaving surprisingly well, and Hermione wondered if something had happened over the summer. Perhaps James and Remus had simply given him a good talking-to, and he was trying to repair the gap between them. Grinning, she took them in each arm, and they headed off down the street. James gave her a playful grin. "I'm taking her to Fortescue's afterwards for ice cream, so you'll be the one making sure Sirius and Remus stay out of trouble."

"Hey!" Sirius complained half-heartedly. "Don't I get a say in this?"

"Nope," Hermione and James said in unison.

"So, Hermione," Remus said, changing the subject. "How was your summer?"

Hermione took a moment to recall the gist of it, and then let out a sigh.

"It was long," she said, smiling even though part of her didn't feel all that cheerful about it. "Very long."


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: Big thanks to my beta, Severus Snape's Beloved for her brilliant idea of "rock-cake, parchment, wand" in lieu of "rocks, paper, scissors".

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

 

Please be sure to review! ;)


Hermione and the boys met up with Lily at Flourish and Blotts, just as James had said they would, and after they paid for their things, the happy couple walked off together for some of Florean Fortescue's ice cream, leaving Hermione in the company of Sirius and Remus. Peter begged off, since he was planning on meeting Mary at The Magical Menagerie. They were all perfectly content with this, and they did a quick match of rock-cake, parchment, and wand to decide what to get next first. Remus won, and they strode off to Madam Malkin's for some new robes.

"You know," Sirius said loftily, turning around in front of the mirror to admire his reflection. His new robes now hung at the right height, which had not been the case toward the end of last year, when he had apparently gone through a growth spurt and not had the opportunity to take care of it in regards to his wardrobe. "I dare say I actually look quite handsome."

Hermione and Remus both made an enormous production of gagging at this.

Hermione, who had to spread her money thin, was prepared to buy second-hand robes when Sirius placed a hand on her shoulder.

"I thought you said you had enough money?"

"I earned enough over the summer to pay for everything," Hermione said, looking down at the price tag of the robes she was trying on. Now she had a distinct feeling of what it was like to be Ron. "But I have to conserve what I have, because it's all I've got."

Sirius folded his arms, his expression turned both serious and concerned. "Why are you so determined to do everything yourself?"

Hermione winced. "I don't want you guys to feel like you have to help me."

"Hermione, we don't have to help, we want to help," Sirius told her, taking the robes out of her hand and waving them away, where they floated themselves back on their rack. He took her arm and led her to the other side of the store, where Hermione had shopped often with her parents and two best friends for her robes in previous years. "D'you know that I live at James's place now? Ran away from home last year. I have enough money from my Uncle Alphard to buy a house, but James insists I live with him instead until we leave school and get a job."

Hermione bit her lower lip in indecision as Sirius waved Madam Malkin over to help her try on a fresh set of robes. The woman bustled over in their direction, and he continued;

"Just let us do nice stuff for you," he insisted, as Madam Malkin spelled the new robes onto Hermione's body and began magically adjusting them. "That's what friends do. Save the money you earned over the summer for emergencies and when you want to buy yourself something pretty. Or new quills," he added, laughing at the look on Hermione's face. "You're always running out of quills."

"You're sure?" Hermione asked, as Madam Malkin spelled the robes back off, replacing them with Hermione's old pair, and receiving a nod from Sirius, collected two sets and carried them off to the front to total them up.

"If it makes you feel better, you can pay us back later," Sirius said, holding a straight face. "We'll charge you interest, and ask for your arm, leg, and first born child."

Hermione grinned sheepishly, and unable to hold it back any further, broke into laughter. "Thank you, Sirius."

They paid for their things, and were about to leave when the door opened. Hermione stiffened when she saw two very familiar faces enter, one more a more welcome sight than the other. She had only ever seen Lucius Malfoy once, but even at the age of twenty-six, his appearance had changed little. The only noticable difference, other than the fact that he was missing a great deal of lines on his face, was the fact that he did not carry a cane. Hermione supposed that would come later.

Severus stood next to him, and he took in the scene in front of him, with Hermione preparing to leave with two of the Marauders at her side. His eyes flitted about the room, as though looking for a third, and then rested on Hermione.

Sirius and Remus both growled low in their throats, and Hermione was afraid that they were going to start fighting right here in the shop. Remus had little trouble with Severus, but even she had a hard time not whipping out her wand and hexing Malfoy's supercillious sneer off his pale, pointy face.

"Well, well," Malfoy drawled, "if it isn't Potter's dogs. Did he pick up a stray Mudblood cat, too?"

Hermione held her arms out on either side, lightly touching her companions on the arm to ask them to please keep their temper in check. No wands were pulled out, but the hostile glares remained in place. She stood up straight, nose in the air, and stepped up to Severus until she was almost nose to nose with him.

"How was your summer?" she asked, ignoring Malfoy entirely. She saw the blond man twitch at this, clearly incensed at the snub.

"Eventful," Severus responded, his tone neutral, perhaps even dismissive, but his eyes demanded to know what she thought she was doing. He was sneering at her, as though repulsed by her proximity to him, but nevertheless engaged in what could have passed for politeness. "Yours?"

Hermione suddenly felt a strange sort of proding against her consciousness, and it took only a split second for her to realize that it was Severus—attempting Legilimency on her. He slipped through for only a moment, because Hermione slammed her defenses down on him like a guillotine. Returning to the present, she saw the surprise and recoil in his eyes.

"Eventful," Hermione echoed in a similarly calm and uninflective tone, tilting her head to one side as she looked at him. "You've grown another inch. Lovely. That would explain why you'd need new robes, I think," she said, taking a step to the side. "Please, don't let my presence here stop you. I'll be a thorn in your side soon enough. Enjoy yourself," she added lightly, gesturing to Remus and Sirius to follow her as she slipped right past him. He stiffened as their shoulders brushed. "See you at the Welcoming Feast."

Remus and Sirius were out of the shop with her in a flash, and they turned around to watch the door close behind them. Malfoy was wearing an ugly sneer, and Severus looked oddly puzzled and bored. With a smug smile, Hermione grabbed Remus and Sirius by the arm and began dragging them off in the direction of the apothecary.

"Well, Hermione," Sirius said, once they were out of eavesdropping range of the shop, his tone faintly impressed, even admiring. "You sure know how to get under Malfoy's skin."

"It's a talent," Hermione said, now distracted as she consulted her list to see what ingredients they needed to stock up on.

"That was crazy, but brilliant," Sirius said, and he lowered his voice as they entered the shop. "And the look on Snape's face—the greasy git! You caught them both completely off-guard!"

"I thought Snape was your friend," Remus said, eyeing the aconite on the shelf with a wary eye before picking up a jar and reluctantly sniffing it.

"He is," Hermione said sardonically, double-checking her list before pulling a jar of lionfish spines off a shelf. "But you really can't expect us to go off and chat amiably when we've got you two and Lucius Malfoy to contend with. I rather imagine it would turn into a massacre."

Remus shrugged. "It's just that one would sort of expect the two of you to be—well—friendlier toward each other."

"The way Snivellus acted back there?" Sirius quipped. "That almost passed as gentlemanly for him."

Hermione shook her head, smiling, but didn't respond. She was too busy going over what had happened at Madam Malkin's in her head. Severus had used Legilimency on her—or had at least tried. She was certain that he had never done so before, and knew that he had seen absolutely nothing of any import. Hermione had already shoved all her thoughts and memories of her past life into the back of her mind; it would take some significant digging to come upon it.

But the look on his face when she had thrown him out had been one of complete shock—and possibly pain. Hermione had not been gentle. Her training with Moody and Kingsley had taught her not to be gentle. In truth, Hermione was not really angry at him for trying. He had probably wanted to know what she was doing, what her intentions were when she was putting him in such a precarious position in front of his friend, and he had decided to use a silent and—so he thought—undetectable and efficient way to do it.

That was another thing. Where had he learned that spell?

The answer that came was a sobering one for Hermione as she carried her stuff up to the front of the apothecary to pay for her things. She had always assumed that Professor Snape had learned Occlumency either on his own or had tutored under Professor Dumbledore. It had not occurred—no, she hadn't wanted to even think about it—but she hadn't truly given much thought to the idea that Voldemort would have taught him. She would have laughed it off; why would Voldemort teach his servants such complicated, delicate, discplined magic when he considered them all expendable pawns? But the truth was that Voldemort was more than capable of differentiating between thug-like pawns and versatile knights. They were all expendable to him, but some were more useful than others, and were thus more worthy of the time and energy it took into maximizing their potential for his benefit.

Severus was discplined. He was cunning and sharp. He excelled in dark magic in a way that made Hermione think he was practically born to do it. In a manner of speaking, this made him as much of a threat to Voldemort as he was useful, which was why Hermione would have thought that teaching Severus—or having a fellow Death Eater teach him—would have been something the Dark Lord would have had the brains to avoid for the sake of keeping Severus vulnerable enough to be kept under his thumb.

But Voldemort was clearly too prideful, too confident, too secure in his own prowess to think that Severus would ever become skilled enough at Occlumency to surpass his own Legilimency skills.

Hermione shook her head and sighed. She had no doubt that Severus would confront her about this incident when they met again at Hogwarts.

How would this continuing division of sides affect their fledgling friendship?

~o~O~o~

When Hermione said good-bye to her friends later that evening, after all seven of them—the four Marauders plus Mary, Hermione, and Lily—had eaten out at the Leaky Cauldron for dinner, she Flooed back to Hogwarts, directly into Professor McGonagall's office. The professor in question was in there, enjoying a book and a biscuit. She paid Hermione little attention as she swept in, only looking up to give her a tight smile in greeting before returning to her book.

Hermione promptly went to bed after setting her new purchases aside, and woke up the next morning to find that the house elves had put them all away. Only slightly annoyed with this, Hermione nevertheless summoned breakfast and then went down to the library with her new schoolbooks to get a head-start on reading.

Professor Dumbledore found her curled up between two bookcases in the corner of the library, next to a stained-glass window, that was so secluded that students rarely ever went there. It was the same place Hermione had gone to comfort Severus that morning after the incident with the Shrieking Shack. This spot was a quiet comfort to Hermione, and it was no surprise that she decided to do her reading there.

"I see you're getting ahead on your reading already," Dumbledore told her cheerfully as he summoned a chair for himself and sat down.

Hermione looked up, lowering The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 6 only slightly. "It's a good way to pass the time," she supplied.

"Have you been practicing your Occulumency lately?" Dumbledore inquired calmly. For all Hermione knew, he could have been talking about the weather or the latest news on Quidditch. Her eyebrows rose slightly at this, and then her eyes narrowed.

"Yes," she answered honestly, sitting up a little straighter and setting her book face down on her lap. "I had a run-in with Severus yesterday."

"I see." Dumbledore waited patiently for her to go on.

Hermione sighed, and let it all out in one breath. "Over the summer, someone's taught him legilimency. He… he tried to use it on me when I ran into him at Madam Malkin's, in Diagon Alley."

Dumbledore steepled his fingers together, his expression thoughtful. "How did that make you feel?"

Hermione gave the headmaster a wry smile. "Annoyed."

"You won't be sharing very many of your classes with Severus this year," Dumbledore observed.

"I won't be sharing any of them with him," Hermione corrected. "He's in seventh-year Arithmancy now. I'm stuck with the fifth and sixth years, I suppose," she finished, sounding rather unhappy at this prospect.

"That's quite a disappointment," the Headmaster mused. "The two of you worked so well together, and I rather think you helped ease the pain of his lonliness during those last two months." His eyes twinkled with merriment as he added, "Septima had quite a bit to say about your collaborative skills."

Hermione grinned sheepishly at this, but her smile subsided quickly. "I feel like I just found a friend in him—someone who's my intellectual equal, you see—and I feel as though I'm already losing him."

"We don't know what we have until it's gone," Dumbledore said simply, with a sad half-smile. "I'm certain, however, that Severus has come to value your friendship more than he lets on."

Hermione smiled faintly, not at all convinced. "I hope you're right, sir."

Dumbledore left shortly after, leaving Hermione to her thoughts and her book. She spent the next two weeks coming back to the library and reading, and then on the night of September 1st, she was startled by the sound of footsteps. She was still waiting for the train to arrive, and it seemed quite late already, but—

Severus Snape rounded the corner and stopped just outside the cozy cave of literature Hermione had esconced herself in for the last couple of days. His eyebrows rose when he saw her books stacked around her, and he frowned.

"You weren't at the Welcoming Feast," he said coolly. He picked his way through the mess until he was less than a foot away, towering over her in a manner that intimidatingly reminiscent of Professor Snape. "I wondered why—I should have guessed it would be books."

"I didn't hear the students come in," Hermione said, standing up slowly, her book sliding from her lap. "I take that to mean I missed the sorting?"

"I'm afraid so," Severus drawled.

"Oh, well," Hermione said with a sigh, pointing her wands at her books. A flick, and they all returned themselves neatly into her bookbag, which Hermione reached down to hoist over her shoulder. "I was rather hoping to hear the Sorting Hat's song."

"It was rubbish," Severus said dismissively, stepping back to allow Hermione to pass before following her. "It's the same stuff as always. I wouldn't be surprised if the hat sits atop a thesaurus all year, looking up new ways to say the same thing twice."

Hermione giggled at this, and they set off through the library.

"Regardless of the hat's feeble attempts at creativity, you missed dinner," Severus noted, sounding bored. "Are you going to starve for the rest of the night?"

"No, I'll summon some leftovers to my room," Hermione said with a shrug. "The elves are always willing to help."

"I'll walk you to Gryffindor Tower," Severus offered.

"Don't you need to head down to bed?" Hermione asked.

He gave a derisive snort. "We need to talk."

Hermione pursed her lips. "Do we?"

"I don't see how it can be avoided, Hermione," Severus said, grabbing her shoulder and turning her around on the spot. His demeanor was completely serious. "There are some things that need to be answered, in regards to your… actions."

"What about your own actions?" Hermione whispered, leaning forward until her face was less than an inch from his, her voice low so as to keep eavesdropping portraits from gathering fodder for gossip. "You had no right to probe into my mind. I was only defending myself."

"You were treading on thin ice," Severus said sharply, his voice lowered to match hers. "Provoking Lucius like that only makes things worse for you."

"Worse how?" Hermione demanded quietly.

She saw Severus's eyes flicker uncertainly over her face, and then he replied in as dispassionate a tone as he could muster, "You have caught the Dark Lord's attention."

"I don't believe I know what you're talking about." Hermione made to draw away, but Severus grabbed the neck of her robes and pulled her forward, until his mouth was level with her ear.

"Think, Hermione!" Severus hissed. "You're a Muggle-born, which instantly makes you a target. Furthermore, you are extremely talented, which makes you a threat. To top it off, you have drawn attention to yourself by your sudden appearance last April, as well as your orphan status. As if that was not enough, you have defied him twice—first, with that stunt you pulled at The Three Broomsticks, the second time with Lucius back in Diagon Alley."

"You heard about what happened in The Three Broomsticks?" Hermione repeated.

"Rowle was howling with fury," Severus said, releasing her. "After he realized he'd been tricked, he tried to find you again, but word was that you quit your job the next day."

"I did," Hermione told him archly. "I didn't fancy another run-in with him."

"You should have been sorted into Slytherin," Severus said, giving her a thin-lipped smile. "You know when to run and hide and when to stand your ground."

"You mistake common sense for cunning," Hermione told him, but she was smiling and relaxed now. Switching subjects, she added, "I've missed you, you know. I was quite bored without you to talk to. Are we still on for studying in the library in the evening?"

"Yes. It's a shame I won't have you in my Arithmancy class, though." They had resumed walking again, and left the library, heading down the corridor closest to the hall of staircases. "How many OWLs did you get?"

"Nine 'Outstandings' and one 'Exceeds Expectations,'" Hermione said, scowling.

"Merlin, you actually sound disappointed," he drawled.

Hermione glared at him, and then her expression softened with tiredness and she sighed. "I expected to do better in Defense Against the Dark Arts," she admitted, "but I guess it's always been my weakness. When I was fourteen, I failed the final part of my end-of-year exam when I ended up facing a boggart."

"Don't tell me you ran away screaming," Severus snorted.

Hermione's face turned red. "I did."

"What was it?"

"My… my Transfiguration teacher." Severus arched an eyebrow at her, and she elaborated resignedly, "She told me that I'd failed everything."

Severus stared at her for a moment in utter disbelief, and then crossed his arms over his chest, threw back his head, and laughed.

~o~O~o~

Hermione had already had her schedule taken care of, so while Professor McGonagall went down the Gryffindor Table to clear up everyone's schedules in conjunction to the NEWTs they wanted to take, Hermione ate her breakfast, bid good-bye to her friends, and trotted off to her first class.

Severus caught up with her, and the two began walked toward the third floor, where Hermione had Defense Against the Dark Arts first.

"I've been meaning to speak to you about this," he said in a low voice, not wanting to be overheard despite the fact that the corridors were nearly deserted, save for the portraits. But the portraits had open ears and working tongues, which Hermione supposed was reason enough. "I saw Lily with Potter back in Diagon Alley, at Fortescue's."

His tone demanded an answer. Hermione sighed, not wanting to be made the bearer of bad news, but knowing she was going to have to be the one to break it to him regardless. "They're together, yes."

Severus swore. "Damn him."

"You shouldn't worry about that right now," Hermione told him, stopping in front of the door to the classroom. "Focus on your classes. Worry about Lily later."

She saw Severus's face contort bitterly, and then he turned away to leave for his own classroom, which was on the next floor. Hermione shook her head, wishing there was something she could do for him to get his mind off of Lily. But there was really very little she could do for him; this was something he was going to have to work out on his own. She watched him disappear around the corner and then entered the classroom.

Last year's Defense teacher was absent, Hermione noted as she took her seat. Rumors in the Gryffindor Common Room last night claimed he had gone on a trip to Africa when term ended, and had been eaten by a nundu. Hermione winced at the thought, wondering if the Defense job was still jinxed, and looked over at the new teacher, who was sitting at his desk scribbling on a piece of parchment.

Class began, and he promptly stood up, flicking his wand toward the board. The name 'Gerard Faulkner' began to write itself on the board in a sharp, pointed scrawl. He appeared to be middle-aged, with dark hair and light grey eyes. He spoke softly, but authoritatively.

"My name is Professor Faulkner," he said, coming around to lean against the front of his desk to face the class. "I will be your new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. I do not expect to return next year." His voice was calm and matter-of-fact about this. "What you get out of this class depends entirely on how much you put into it. I will give you no quarter." He tapped his wand against the desk. "You have been warned."

It was a rather sobering statement to hear on the first day of class.

"You are now sixth-year students," Faulkner said steadily. "You will be expected to practice using non-verbal spells. Points will be given for success. They will be taken away for attempts to cheat. There is no negotiation with me on this. I have one year to teach you all to be proficient at defending yourself, and then I will be moving on to a new job in the Mariana Islands." He smiled faintly at this. "Part of defending yourself is knowing how to do it silently. It provides you a split-second of advantage over your opponent if they cannot discern what spell you are about to cast from verbalization alone, and every second counts."

The class shifted uneasily at this, some looking interested, others looking as though they wished they had dropped this class first chance they got.

"You will now divide yourself," Faulkner said evenly, "into pairs. One will be on the offensive, the other on the defensive. Both will participate in complete silence." He gestured at the class. "Begin."

I'll take him over Umbridge any day, Hermione thought as she got to her feet. The students in the class quickly divided themselves up into pairs, and Hermione found herself facing Barty Crouch. He gave her a nasty smirk, positioned himself several feet away from her, and leisurely aimed his wand.

Hermione had her wand up and at the ready. She stood there, waiting patiently for nearly twenty minutes for a spell that didn't seem as though it would be materializing. Crouch's face turned red with unrewarded effort. All around the room, some students were cheating by muttering the spell under their breath. Faulkner deducted points from the guilty pairs, gave them a few suggestions, and then moved on.

A flash of orange suddenly burst from the tip of Crouch's wand, and Hermione flicked her wand at him, silently repelling it with a Shield Charm.

"Excellent," Faulkner said, passing by them. "Fifteen points to Slytherin and Gryffindor, each. Carry on."

Incensed by the ease with which Hermione had silently repelled his jinx, Crouch began shooting at her rapidly, occasionally fumbling the spell, but otherwise managing to do admirably well for a first time. It was remarkable that as soon as he figured out how to do it once, he was now doing it with rapidly-climbing ease. He had apparently gotten the gist of it now, and was practicing in earnest. Hermione flicked his spells away with lazy, repetitive flicks of her wand. Eventually, tired of being nothing but the target, Hermione ducked his last spell and shot a Confundus Charm at him.

Crouch was woefully unprepared for this, and ended up being thrown back into the desks behind him. He struggled to stand, wearing a bemused and dizzy look, scrambling at the desks around him for purchase. Faulkner clapped appreciatively at this.

"Excellent," he repeated as before. "You caught your opponent unawares, and furthermore, silently. Another fifteen points to Gryffindor."

Crouch bared his teeth at her, and looked as though he were about to attempt to exact revenge when the bell rang, signalling that class was dismissed.

Saved by the bell, Hermione thought smugly as she packed her bags up and headed out.

~o~O~o~

Hermione's classes went smoothly, or as smoothly as could be expected. The workload had increased near-exponentially. The other teachers started off the year by reminding them that they were now NEWT students, and then assigning them a load of homework that Hermione overheard many students swearing was an inhumane and punishable amount. She ignored them. When she left dinner later that evening, she headed straight for the library, after James and Sirius had bid good-bye and gone off to the Quidditch Pitch for one-on-one practice.

She found her usual table, spread her stuff out, and began chipping away.

Severus joined her an hour later. Hermione greeted him with a smile—which he did not return— and returned to her work. They sat in utter and complete, somewhat sullen, silence until Hermione finally set her thirteen-inch Charms essay aside and leaned back in her chair to look at him.

"How much work do you have?" she asked, eyeing the papers scattered over at his end of the table.

He snorted. "A lot."

"Can you give me an estimate for when you'll be finished with it?"

"Some of it is due later this week," he said tightly. "I'm finishing it all now."

"Alright, then," Hermione said, standing up to gather her stuff. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Severus's head shot up. "No—wait," he said, setting his quill down. "Why are you leaving?"

"Because I've finished, and I have better things I can do with my time than sit here and watch you work and sulk," Hermione said stiffly.

Severus glared at her, and then subsided with a sigh and looked back down at his work. He brought a finger to his lips, tracing them the way he did when he was deep in thought.

"Give me fifteen minutes to finish this, and then we'll go down to the lake," he said, picking up his quill and resuming the paragraph he'd left off.

Hermione gathered her stuff up, and then wandered over to the closest bookshelf to find something to read. She browsed through for several minutes, before she heard the sound of shuffling papers, and turned around to find Severus putting his stuff away. He slung his book bag over his shoulder, indicated that Hermione should grab hers, and strode away.

Hermione followed him, jogging to catch up, and they walked through the corridors and down the stairs in complete silence until they reached the Entrance Hall. They pushed through the doors, and Severus began stiffly, "There's a lot you've been keeping to yourself since your arrival."

The door ground shut behind them, as they descended the steps into the courtyard. "We both have our fair share of secrets, Severus," Hermione responded calmly, adjusting her bag over her shoulder.

"No one knows a single thing about you," Severus said, his lips curling into a sneer. "You at first appear unremarkable, and then you pull off a stunt like the one in Diagon Alley."

Hermione whipped around to look at him. "What is your problem?" she demanded, starting to get fed up with his erratic, caustic behavior. She knew he was a temperamental git, but damn it, she didn't need this right now. "If you don't want to get burned, don't play with fire. It's that simple."

"My problem is that I don't know a single thing about you!" his voice was laced with pent-up frustration. "I've come to realize that even what I observe from you isn't the truth in its entirety—you claim Defense Against the Dark Arts to be your worst subject, yet you manage to knock Barty Crouch flat without breaking sweat!"

"Oh, he complained about that to you, did he?" Hermione asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

"He was just like Rowle," Severus snapped. "He complained to anyone who would listen. You just keep pulling this stuff from out of nowhere, and other than the fact that it's eventually going to get you killed, I am thoroughly fed up with being caught off guard."

Hermione stiffened, shored up her defenses, and gave him a look of icy calm.

"Anyone who tries to pull something over me is going to be caught off guard," she told him quietly. She turned away, looking out at the lake's glittering shore in the distance. "I don't want to lose you as a friend, Severus, particularly since I already feel like its happening. But if I have secrets of my own, I'll share them if and when I feel like it. Much like you, I suppose." She turned around again to face him. "Can't we just have what we had before?"

Severus was examining her face quietly, as though looking for something, but Hermione didn't feel him probing or poking at her mind with his. He was still keeping his distance on that one, though he looked like he desperately wanted to know what was going on inside her head. Finally, he relented with a sullen nod.

Hermione smiled faintly for a moment, and then it vanished as she brought up yet another unpleasant topic. "I know you have your own troubles to contend with. I don't doubt that your housemates in Slytherin are putting you in a difficult position, and I know that I probably only exacerbate the problem. And then there's Lily…" she trailed off.

Severus pursed his lips and moved to lean against one of the columns supporting the overhanging roof of the steps. "I know I will never get Lily back," he said finally, "but that doesn't make me care for her any less— and I can't help being infuriated by the fact that Potter never ceases to gloat at every chance he gets."

"James doesn't gloat," Hermione said, with a frown.

"Not in front of you, he doesn't," Severus sneered.

"Just ignore it, then," Hermione said with a sigh. She pressed her fingers against her forehead, willing the part of her brain that wanted to go out and just start hexing everyone silly until they learned to behave to subside. Unfortunately, the other side of her brain seemed to think that it had a valid point. "You're discplined enough to perform Legilimency, Severus. Surely you also possess the self-control to look as though you couldn't care less about James Potter."

Severus gave her a sullen glare.

"I know what's happened between the two of you," Hermione said tiredly. Glancing over at the lake, she could see that the tip of the sun was beginning to dip into the water, setting the lake alight with reddish-orange hues. The sun was starting to go down. "I know that the Marauders have made your life a living hell since they first laid eyes on you. It's also not difficult to see just how much you're still hurting from what happened with Lily. But Lily's made her own choices too," Hermione added softly. "She likes James, and my impression is that you broke her trust in you when you lost your temper. It's just how things happen sometimes. You can't control other peoples' actions just by your will alone."

"What would you have done?" Severus snapped.

"Well," Hermione said dryly, "I would have slapped you and then demanded an apology."

"I threatened to sleep outside Gryffindor Tower until she gave me a chance to apologize," Severus responded dully. "She wouldn't forgive me."

"Then that's just Lily," Hermione said firmly, and then sighed. "It's not what I would have done, mind, but…"

"I just want her to be safe," Severus said quietly, refusing to look at her. "She used to be my only friend, and even if she isn't now, I still want the best for her. Even if it's not me."

"I hate to tell you this, but James Potter is a strong wizard," Hermione pointed out, her voice gentle. "He's quite clever, and good with spells. He may be about as mature as his shoe size, but if anyone can protect Lily and make her happy at the same time, I think it's him."

"You would know," Severus responded bitterly.

Sadly enough, Hermione had to agree with him. Glancing back at the lake, where the sun was now drowning in the waters on the horizon, she gestured at it.

"Shall we go?"

~o~O~o~

Hermione took James aside that evening, after they'd returned to Gryffindor Tower from dinner. Hermione relayed her concerns to him, and James sighed and ruffled his hair, looking rather put-out.

"I don't mean to shove it in his face, I really don't," he said. "But Lily and I sit next to each other in nearly every class now, and I thought—what's the harm with being friendly?"

Hermione's lips twitched. She saw both sides of the issue rather clearly, but there was simply no real resolution. She sighed and ran a hand through her wild curls, trying to think of the most tactful way to say this.

"Severus," she began, "accepts that you and Lily are together. He's not happy with it, but he accepts it. But the breakup of their friendship still hurts, you know, and seeing her with you— well, let's face it, James. That's just pouring some very thick salt solution into the wound. You and Sirius go out of your way to make his life miserable, and now that you've won Lily's hand, I think it's fair to ask that you stop trying to jinx him every chance you get."

"I still don't get what you see in that git," James said, cracking a smile, "but I suppose that is a fair request, especially if it'll make things easier on you."

"Thank you, James," Hermione said, genuinely gratified.

"But I can't promise I won't hex him if he does first," James bargained.

"I'll pass on the message," Hermione promised. "And Sirius?"

"I'll make sure he behaves, too." James ruffled his hair once more, and then admitted, "not that he really needs me to, now. I think he's learned his lesson."

"He has?" Hermione asked, surprised.

"Well, he hasn't been hexing Snape, has he?" James pointed out. Hermione had to concede this was true; she had witnessed nothing, and there had been no complaints from Severus. "I promised Lily I'd stop hexing people for fun, and… well…"

He trailed off, but Hermione understood implicitly what he was saying. James and Sirius were no longer successfully egging each other on to have a go at Severus. Without that kind of motivation, and the disaster from the end of last year, there really was not much reason to continue picking on Severus Snape at all.

~o~O~o~

The first week of school came and went, and Hermione had settled into a comfortable routine, which was more than could be said for her fellow classmates, who were still struggling heavily with their new coursework. Many of them went to the Head Girl to get a copy of her old notes when their teachers' lessons had flown right over their heads, and Lily was forced to divide her time between walking around the Quidditch Pitch with James and supplying the younger students with notes and tutorial help.

For once in her life, Hermione was not inclined to take up the slack. She had her own heavy workload to contend with, along with Severus, who was quite enough to deal with on her own without adding moaning classmates who did not bother to go to their teachers for help into the mix. Eventually, Hermione thought, they were going to learn to actually make use of the teachers' office hours and stop relying on Lily Evans as a safety net.

True to James's word, he and Sirius stopped hexing Severus in the corridors on the way to class. Not that they had been hexing him much at all to begin with, just a few retaliatory scuffles in the first week between themselves and a few Slytherins Severus happened to keep company with. But now they actively avoided getting into direct conflict with them. Severus continued to walk with a jumpy twitch in his leg, as though expecting an attack, but James and Sirius simply began to ignore him. Hermione had explained her little agreement with James to her Slytherin companion, but it didn't erase the suspicion and paranoia from his demeanor. Hermione felt as through she were trying to re-train two fighting dogs: Sirius and Severus both looked as though they were itching for a fight, one because he enjoyed hexing, the other because he was convinced that a hex was already set to come his way. It was a tense situation for Hermione to be in, and she was just waiting for one of them to snap. The best that could be said was that it seemed that, as far as hexing went, James had retired from the ring.

Hermione and Severus continued to retreat in the library directly after dinner to get their work done. Sometimes she was done before curfew, and Hermione would pull out Severus's copy of Advanced Potion-Making for a bit of light reading. She was horrified at the degraded state of the book, but found his annotations and comments written in the margins interesting and helpful nonetheless. It took quite a bit of work to interpret his tiny, spiky scrawl, but the results were worth it. At this point, Severus no longer cared if she went through his books; as far as he was concerned, she was welcome to it, so long as she didn't disseminate her gleanings to her Gryffindor friends.

Hermione had no intention of doing so, and thus, spent some of her evenings perusing his book. She found the title at the front denoting the owner as 'The Half-Blood Prince', and she chewed on the question for quite awhile before asking him.

"I'm a half-blood," Severus had replied shortly, not looking up from the essay he was working on. "My mother was a pureblood witch whose maiden surname was 'Prince'. That makes me a half-blooded Prince."

"Your father was a Muggle?" Hermione asked, surprised.

"Not a very pleasant one." Severus turned the parchment over and continued writing on the back. His fingers were smudged black with ink, and the base of his quill was completely soaked. He used the opportunity to turn the question around on her. "What about your parents?"

"Both Muggles, as you very well know," Hermione said, chewing on the tip of her quill. "They were good parents. Sometimes, they didn't really seem to understand my passion for the magical world—it was all very foreign to them, you understand—but they were very supportive of me."

A half-smirk curled at the corner of Severus's lips, but he held his silence.

The weeks crawled by. Hermione excelled in all of her classes, though they became increasingly difficult. She even had to ask her teachers to repeat themselves more than once for the meaning of their words to start making sense. Nevertheless, she powered through, and became very popular in Gryffindor when it was clear that the daily amount of points earned were climbing at a quicker rate than the ones from Slytherin house.

She was invited to another Slug Club supper, which she declined due to her heavy workload. The first Quidditch match of the season was fast approaching, however, and it was all James and Sirius would ever talk about. When too much broomstick jargon entered the conversation, Hermione would retreat to talking to Remus about classes. After dinner, she always made a beeline for the library. When October 31st rolled around, it was no different; Hermione ate and left in a hurry, giving herself no time to spare to truly savor the good food.

James and Sirius claimed she was suffering from a bad case of "Overwork-itis," and joked that it was probably terminal, and that if that turned out to be the case, could they have all her stuff?

Hermione whacked them both over the head with her planner, which she had out for reference at that moment, and informed them that if their diagnosis was correct, she would come back to haunt them for all eternity.

"I don't think you'd want that," she said, smiling mischievously at James, who was rubbing the back of his head. "You'd never get shagged again in your life."

"Oi!" Sirius called, as she turned away to leave. "That was way below the belt! Literally!"

But when the Saturday Quidditch match arrived, Hermione poured out with all the other faculty and students, decked out in house colors in support of her team. The year had begun with a match between Gryffindor and Slytherin, as usual, and the game was as dirty as any other Slytherin-Gryffindor match Hermione had ever seen. Sirius was a beater for Gryffindor, and he had a tendency to stick by James for the sole purpose of hitting a Bludger away from the Gryffindor seeker. In the air or on the ground, it was clear just how close the two Marauders were. Like brothers, in fact, and it was a wonder to Hermione how anyone could have ever believed Sirius capable of betraying his friend; it would be comparable to Fred selling George out. Inconceivable was not sufficient to cover it. It was simply beyond the realm of all possibility.

She had looked over at Peter Pettigrew, who was sitting between Mary and Remus, clapping when Gryffindor scored, and felt momentarily ill.

The match concluded with a celebration in the Gryffindor Common Room. Someone had brought an old record player and charmed it so that it played popular disco music. Hermione was certain the room was loud enough that all of Hogwarts castle could hear them partying. Someone had spelled all the furniture away, probably somewhere upstairs, and Sirius had commandeered the center of the room with Marlene McKinnon, who was one of Gryffindor's chasers, and they were square dancing. All around them, people were laughing and cheering.

Hermione shook her head, unable to resist smiling. Gryffindor had never celebrated in any way remotely like this in her time. They had absolutely nothing on the organized, celebratory chaos taking place in this room.

She watched James take Lily's hand and lead her onto the floor with a happy grin on his face; a moment later, they were dancing and twirling with wild, juvenile steps. The cheering in the room grew louder at this by several octaves, and Hermione actually had to place her hands over her ears for fear that her eardrums would burst and bleed.

A few moments later, the volume died down to barely acceptable levels, and everyone had started clapping and cheering together as the rest of the Gryffindor Quidditch team hauled themselves and a dance partner in the center of the room. Hermione began clapping along with them in earnest, grinning broadly now as she watched them all dance, drunk with glory, adrenaline, and the loud, energetic beat of the music.

Tango music began to play, and Hermione covered her face with her hands as the entire Gryffindor team, complete with their dance partners, began to massacre the dance moves.

She wormed her way through the crowd over to where food and drinks had been imported from the kitchen, and got herself a butterbeer. She took a sip, and turned around in time to see James Potter grasp Lily Evans and lift her up, twirling her and causing her dark red hair to fly around them like a halo. She was laughing and smiling, eyes sparkling brightly, and when James set her down, she kissed him.

There was another roaring cheer as the music changed back to disco, with everyone jumping and clapping, screaming and wolf-whistling as the victorious lions had their victory celebration. Hermione found it almost unbelievable how revered Quidditch players were in this time; in Gryffindor, they were being treated like heroes and celebrities. They hadn't even won the Quidditch Cup, and they had everything. Nothing, absolutely nothing in Hermione's time could even remotely compare to this. Not even the celebration in Hermione's third year, which had been followed by Sirius sneaking into Gryffindor Tower to look for Scabbers, had reached anything of this magnitude. Neither had any of the celebrations during the Tri-Wizard tournament. This was simply an entirely different level of partying.

Professor McGonagall showed up around midnight to send them all off to bed. This required the daunting task of silencing the music, then silencing the crowd, and then struggling to be heard over the noise of people still clapping and stomping, untouched by the Silencing Spell, which required a third spell to be cast. Then it required ordering them all off to bed which, once the charms were removed, resulted in a series of loud groans, protests, and the music being turned back on.

It was not an easy task for the Gryffindor Head-of-House, but she managed it in the end. The room was cleaned up, people were sent up to bed, and the remaining food and drinks were fetched by the house elves.

Hermione saw several couples kissing each other good-night before they parted, James and Lily included.


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: Cheers!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review. ;)


"What the bloody hell do you Gryffindors do up there?" Severus growled tiredly at her, slumping against the wall. They were hanging out in one of the corridors that gave them a nice view of the lake, rather than going to the lake themselves, because it was raining extremely hard. "We could hear you all the way down in our common room!"

Hermione grinned unrepentantly. "Sorry."

"What do you do up there? Transfigure yourselves into trolls and have at it?"

"We turn on music," Hermione said, smiling broadly now, still drunk with giddiness from last night's memory. "It all goes downhill from there."

"Fuck you." Severus turned away to lean out the window, resting his chin on his arms, looking both tired and sullen. "Fuck you Gryffindors and your loud parties."

"Did we keep you guys up all night?" Hermione asked, giggling both at his frustration and slip of ineloquency.

"Yes," Severus growled.

"Silencing Spells didn't occur to you?"

"Silencing Spells didn't work. They only held for all of five minutes before they broke."

Hermione whistled. "Wow."

Rain pattered down against the roof, and Severus drew away and shut the window as the wind redirected the rain, causing it to pound against the panes. He sighed, and then let out a groan.

"How much sleep did you guys get?" Hermione asked, leaning against the window, where she looked into Severus's tired face. He almost looked like a regular sleep-deprived teen, from this angle.

"I honestly don't know. The music stopped at around twelve, but a little bit before then, some of the upperclassmen got into an argument with their wands. We couldn't sleep while they were fighting, and it took Slughorn a ridiculous amount of time to get down here to break them up—and then we all had to pitch in to repair the damage." Severus rubbed his face tiredly. "We probably didn't get to sleep until around four in the morning."

Hermione winced. "Do you mind if I ask what you lot were fighting about?"

"Quidditch."

"Unbelievable."

"I thought so, too."

~o~O~o~

Classes were steadily getting more and more difficult. They were becoming more advanced, more complex, and with heavier homework assignments in addition to difficult classwork. Potions was a near-disaster for Hermione at one point; Golpalott's third law of potions was easy to understand, but difficult to put into action.

She went to Severus for help. He listened patiently as she described the assignment with much frustration and rambling, and then cut her short with his response: "Just shove a bezoar down their throat."

Hermione was outraged. "That is the singularly most unhelpful thing I've ever heard!"

"Really? Even a dunderhead could follow those instructions." Severus was smirking at her now. "Sounds rather helpful to me, if you've been poisoned and are trying communicate to the idiot next to you that you need assistance."

"Yes, but what about when bezoars don't work?" Hermione demanded.

"You die," he responded simply.

"Severus!"

"Fine," the Slytherin grumbled, leaning back in his chair with a sigh. "Sit down and I'll show you."

Defense Against the Dark Arts, which had come quite easily at the beginning of the year, was now well on its way to becoming harrowingly difficult. There was an uneven ratio of Slytherins to all other houses in the class, which meant that more often than not, Hermione was paired up with a Slytherin who wanted to hex her brains out. They played dirty with spells Hermione thought were rather inappropriate for a classroom—such as the Entrail-Expelling Curse—and had begun paying them back in equal measure, not with dangerous spells, but in humiliation. This was usually in the form of jinxing them bald or transfiguring them.

Barty Crouch, Jr. spent a good five minutes of one lesson flapping around the classroom frantically as a yellow budgie while Hermione tried to hit him with a De-feathering Charm. Hermione was smugly satisfied with her work by the end of class, and had an additional thirty points added to the Gryffindor hourglass to show for it. In fact, Transfiguring the lip-licking Slytherin into a canary had become such a commonplace trick for Hermione that it had become her nickname for him.

But it wasn't all entertainment and amusement to Hermione. Faulkner brought in pictures of inferi, and assigned them a two-foot essay to be turned in the next day. That had honestly been a bit of a nightmare, especially given the speedy and gruesome research that had had to be done that evening. Looking up dead and reanimated corpses was not a pleasant activity to do before going to sleep. Then there were difficult spells they had to learn, ones that focused mostly on identifying already-existing dark magic within objects, with spells that were more complicated and less intrusive than a simple 'specialis revelio' would provide. They had to practice on crystal balls Faulkner had borrowed from the current divination teacher and imbued with a hex that would cause the ball to lash out at someone if the spell was done incorrectly. Hermione was not the only student who ended up with a gash on her face for her troubles.

All in all, it was not a picnic. Not by a long shot. But there were enjoyable moments to be had, whether it was Hermione playing Gobstones or Exploding Snap with her housemates, or spending time with Severus.

By early December, however, more disturbing reports had begun to leak into the papers. The Daily Prophet was reporting at least one death or disappearance a week, and Hermione was getting edgy and worried. Severus swore he didn't know a thing about it, but Hermione honestly was not sure if she could—or should—believe him. Professor Dumbledore was also missing from the High Table fairly often, which put Hremione into a state of unease. Hogwarts, at least, felt safe as long as the Headmaster was there. Without him, it felt vulnerable.

The day before Christmas break, she stopped Severus on the way to lunch and pulled him aside, shoving a copy of the Daily Prophet into his chest. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as Severus slowly opened the paper to the headlines, where it described the most gruesome and disturbing news yet: an entire wizarding family had been found dead in their home, two parents with four children. The bodies all showed signs of torture that had occurred before death and post-mortem desecration. The father had been a Ministry worker, and the mother a Muggle.

The article had disturbed Hermione enough that she finally broke.

"Is this really the madman you want to serve?" she cried.

Severus's face had been impassive, but his eyes were frightened. Knowing that there was no possible way the chasm-like divide between them could be resolved now, Hermione left Severus clutching the article and stormed off to Gryffindor Tower to be alone.

Hermione stayed at Hogwarts over the Yule holidays; Severus did not. She holed herself up in Gryffindor Tower or the library, and declined to attend the Slughorn's Christmas supper, telling the Potions Professor that she was feeling unwell. Slughorn, naturally, was very sympathetic and suggested she might see Madam Pomfrey if her bout of flu continued. It was probably for the best that Severus was not there, since Hermione was not feeling too charitable toward him at the moment. It was not that she was truly angry with him; it was the fact that she knew he was selfish enough to join the Death Eaters if it meant gaining protection for one person. Even if she knew he would come to regret and repent it later, right now, he apparently did not. At least not enough to back out. There was a part of Hermione's mind that recognized that despite the lack of a Dark Mark on his arm, Severus was already a part of the fold.

Well, you don't just hand in your resignation to Voldemort. It's a lifetime of service or death. That was part of a conversation between Harry and his godfather that her bespectacled friend had later relayed to her. Severus could not simply tell Voldemort or whoever was sponsoring him that he wanted to back out. He would be killed.

Thus, Hermione's main frustration was not truly at Severus, but the man he would soon work for who was behind this senseless cruelty and madness.

Hermione had bought several gifts for her friends over the holidays. Alice got a new chess set. Frank received a package of chocolate cauldrons, which Hermione saw him sharing with Alice in front of the Gryffindor fire later. Mary received an Appleby Arrow's poster, since she was so fond of the team. She got Lily a pair of lion-shaped earrings that really roared, and gave James a copy of Quidditch Through the Ages. Sirius received a pair of thick, woolen mittens Hermione had knitted herself that were charmed to keep snow from seeping through, and Remus received a newspaper clipping from Potions Monthly that described a miraculous and promising new potion called Wolfsbane attached to a copy of Dracula. Remus had grinned broadly at the irony, and given her an enormous bear hug before presenting her with her gift.

When Severus returned over the holidays, he seemed wary of approaching her. Hermione was feeling rather depressed at the moment and had thrown herself back into her books; Severus didn't seem to dare approach her until later that evening, after dinner, when she headed back to their usual spot at the library. He had watched her the entire time during meals, trying to gauge whether or not it was safe to talk to her, and had apparently made up his mind and decided to show up for their usual evening study session.

When Hermione looked up from her work at the sound of footsteps, she didn't get up and leave, nor did she tell him to. She didn't even glare at him. Instead, she merely looked resigned and tired as he came to stand beside her.

"How was your Christmas?" she asked dully.

"Hermione," Severus said quietly.

Hermione shook her head. "Look, just forget it," she said, indicating he should sit. "It's fine. I mean, it's not fine, but it's not your fault, and I—"

He placed a finger over her lips, effectively silencing her in a manner of surprise. He paused, and then withdrew his hand and spoke.

"I've known for a long time that you were right," he said softly, his voice barely audible even in the tangible silence of the library. "I've known for a long time that the Dark Lord is evil and mad, but there is very little I can do about it at this point. I have so much to lose if I try to run and hide."

Hermione nodded miserably.

"Hermione, I'm sorry."

Hermione stood up and swallowed thickly, trying to make her voice work, so that she could tell him she understood.

Instead, to her horror, she burst into tears. She tried to wipe them away with the back of her hand, miserable and upset at the weakness she was displaying, the fact that he probably thought her ridiculous for crying, that this shite was evening happening in the first place and why couldn't Voldemort just do them all a favor and choke on a piece of Christmas turkey and drop dead, and why couldn't she just return to her own time with Harry and Ron—

She was surprised when strong arms wrapped around her, holding her tight. She stiffened for a moment, and then capitulated and buried her face in his chest, registering his warm, comforting presence, and cried quietly.

"I want to go home," she choked, her voice reduced to a whimper.

She half-expected him to tell her that she was being silly and childish, or for him to push her away as soon as he had brought her close, but nothing of the sort came. As Hermione cried quietly, she couldn't help coming to the realization that she was being neither childish nor silly; she was nearing adulthood in a world where darkness was rising, and nothing about their situation was the least bit funny or frivolous. She was under an exorbitant amount of academic stress, afraid of the strange new world she had been thrust in, and Severus was a significant part of the terror she felt. She trusted him as a person, but feared the position he had trapped himself in. He could be killed. He could kill her. He could kill or be complicit in the murders of any number of people she knew, not because he wished them dead, but simply because there was one person who he did not feel he could afford to lose.

Severus spoke quietly. "There's always something we wish we had after we've lost it, and we never appreciated it until after it was gone."

"I always thought I'd have my friends with me," Hermione hiccuped, her voice bitter. "I was so sure that no matter what we faced, I'd always have them to count on—and just like that, one day, they're gone. Not even a chance to say goodbye." Harry and Ron were technically not dead, but they might as well have been to her; Hermione had little hope of ever seeing them again. "How long until that happens to someone else I know? To James? To Sirius or Remus? To you?"

Severus didn't respond. Hermione didn't blame him. No words were adequate.

~o~O~o~

After that, Hermione kept her back straight and her head high. The pain, guilt, and heaviness that had taken residence in her heart once more continued to weigh her down, but she masked it on the outside and bottled everything else up inside. Whenever she turned to Sirius, she couldn't help seeing him, gaunt and stir-crazy, as he would be in Hermione's time. It would be a momentary flash of memory overlapping the person she was seeing in front of her, but it was there. She saw Remus, careworn and tired. She saw Alice and Frank in St. Mungo's, unable to recognize their son. And she saw Harry whenever she turned to talk to James or Lily, and with a sinking feeling in her gut, realized that they had less than three years left to live.

She forced herself to come to terms with this. She could not save James and Lily. She could not stop Sirius from spending twelve long years in Azkaban. She had a chance of helping Remus, but really, what was there to be done? And Alice and Frank…

She was only able to turn to Severus for comfort. He was a bitter, caustic man in her time, but she rarely saw that in him anymore. Perhaps it was because she already saw traces of bitterness and anger in him as a teenager, but he was nearing manhood—though he was already eighteen, an adult by wizarding standards—and the separation between the two distinct impressions she had of him were less stark. He was as snarky, dictatorial, and exasperating as Hermione ever remembered him, but it was toned down around her. He had fewer of his defenses up around her. With Hermione, he was actually quite reasonable.

Hermione did not realize it was Severus's birthday until he did not arrive at the library at the usual time on Monday, in early January. Twenty minutes later than his usual arrival time, Bellatrix Black made an appearance, giving her a smug, twisted smile as she placed both hands on Hermione's desk, ensuring she had the Gryffindor's full attention.

"Snape won't be taking care of you this evening," she said, gesturing dismissively at the papers scattered around the table. "Pack up and crawl back to your tower where you belong, Mudblood."

Hermione gave her a glare worthy of Medusa. "Why not?"

"We're having a bit of a birthday celebration for him, you know," Bellatrix said, tracing her nails on the table, leaving faint scratches in the wood. Seeing the look of surprise on Hermione's face, her own lit up in delight. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Did he forget to tell you that?"

"It slipped my mind," Hermione lied coolly.

Bellatrix gave her a cruel little smile, and she leaned over until her mouth was level with Hermione's ear:

"Snape is one of the Dark Lord's most promising recruits, you see," she whispered. Hermione gave no indication that she had heard, and Bellatrix continued, "It's only fitting that his eighteenth birthday be celebrated properly with his brothers-in-arms. You know what that means, don't you?"

Hermione made no response. Her wand was up her sleeve, and she was more than prepared to hex Bellatrix if she gave any indication of being ready to harm her. But otherwise, she had nothing to say to the witch. Bellatrix answered her silence:

"It means that next summer, he'll take the Dark Mark," she whispered viciously, displeased with the lack of reaction she was getting out of Hermione. "There's only one thing he wants in exchange for his loyalty, and I'm afraid that as his pet Mudblood, you simply don't qualify."

"I have nothing to say to you," Hermione responded evenly, her fingernails digging into the table.

"You uppity—"

Bang!

Hermione flew out of her seat and was on her feet in a flash, wand out, and directed between the two bookcases where the spell had originated from. Bellatrix had been thrown off the table and crashed into the side of the bookcase behind her. She stood up a moment later, wand ready and raised, and Severus Snape stepped out of the gloom.

"You shouldn't be here, Bellatrix." His voice was dangerous and silky.

"You should be in the common room!" Bellatrix hissed. "I agreed to deliver your message to the Mudblood—" she spat the word at Hermione with as much disgust as she could muster, "—that you wouldn't be here this evening!"

"I changed my mind," Severus drawled. He looked bored with the proceedings and utterly unphased, but his wand was clenched tightly at his side. "I arrived at the common room and decided I had better things to do with my night than the debauchery that would surely occur in my honor."

"But—"

"It's Monday, Bellatrix. I know you haven't learned the inherent meaning of the word, but it implies that the following day is a working one," Severus snapped. "I have two tests tomorrow which need studying for and are, I think, a better use of my time."

Bellatrix threw Hermione a murderous glare, and then turned back to Severus.

"Have the night with your Gryffindor pet," she spat, adjusting her robes before turning away. "I will inform Avery of your insubordination."

"By all means," Severus said with false courtesy, gesturing at the library exit. "Complain to Avery. I have already made my excuses to him."

"Excuses, excuses," Bellatrix repeated, her voice pitched into a mocking coo. She cast them both a final glare, and then left. "You can't get away with making them forever, Snape."

Hermione waited until she was absolutely certain that the Slytherin witch was gone, and then turned to Severus.

"You didn't tell me that today was your birthday," she said.

"It slipped my mind."

"That's exactly the same thing I told her," Hermione said, cracking a faint smile. "You don't really have two tests tomorrow, do you?"

"I do, actually, but I am well prepared for them," Severus replied coolly, but he was smirking faintly. "What are you working on?"

"Homework due Friday," Hermione said decisively, flicking her wand at the mess on the table and sending everything back into her bag. She stood up. "It's your birthday. What do you want to do?"

Severus's smirk suddenly turned michievous and cunning. "Hogsmeade."

"Hogsmeade?" Hermione nearly shrieked, but given that she was trying to keep her voice down in the library, it came out as a kind of strangled squeak. "Now? At this time of night? It's not even a Hogsmeade Weekend—we'll be caught—you're mad!"

"I know how to sneak into Hogsmeade," Severus said, grinning broadly now. He was wearing a sneaky, self-satisfied look. "We won't get caught."

"But it's not safe!" Hermione said, feeling slightly frantic. "Death Eaters—"

"There are no Death Eaters in Hogsmeade tonight."

Well. He would know.

"Don't tell me you've never put a toe out of line," Severus said silkily.

Hermione couldn't help being reminded of when Harry had decided to sneak down into Hogsmeade in third year. The whole idea had the words bad idea scrawled all over it. And yet, Hermione couldn't help wondering if it was actually possible…

"Come on," he said, grabbing her wrist and leading her toward the library exit. Hermione dug her feet in, still undecided, and he sighed in exasperation and turned around to face her.

"Look, it's my birthday," he said. He was practically begging her except for the fact that he was using a soft, authoritative tone intermixed with one of boyish excitement, rather than the pleading one Hermione had heard him use with Lily. "I don't want to spend it studying, and there's no way I'm going down to the Slytherin Common Room to celebrate. I want to do something different than we usually do, so the lake is out."

"Go alone," Hermione said, swallowing. "You don't need me for this."

"I don't want to do it alone," Severus said. "Come on, Hermione. Indulge me."

Hermione wibbled for a moment, unsure, but Severus tugged on her arm once more—and made up her mind.

"Alright," she said, swayed but still rather unconvinced. "Let's go."

Severus led her out of the library, up two flights of stairs, through several corridors, until they halted at the third floor corridor; realization dawned on Hermione as he stopped them in front of the statue of the One-Eyed Witch. She knew this passageway, thanks to Harry, but she had no idea that Severus had known about it—or Professor Snape, for that matter. She had known that he had caught Harry after he was seen sneaking into Hogsmeade by Malfoy, but she had no idea that he was actually aware that the statue was a secret entrance.

He tapped it once with his wand, and muttered, "Dissendium."

The One-Eyed Witch's hump slowly slid to the side, and Severus prodded Hermione in the back.

"You first," he declared, looking as though he were getting far too much enjoyment out of this.

Without another word until she had gotten her footing, Hermione climbed into the hole and slid herself half-way in, feet first. "Severus, if this kills me, I'll—"

She never got a chance to finish her sentence. He pushed her, and Hermione let out a squeal of surprise as she lost her grip and started the long slide down. Severus gave her a full minute's head start, and then climbed in himself.

Hermione reached the end of the slide and hit the ground with an uncomfortable thump. She scrambled out of the way quickly, readjusting her robes, and her Slytherin partner-in-crime appeared a moment later. He had the good fortune to land on his feet and stood up nonchalantly, lighting his wand with a careless flick. He took in her disheveled appearance, grinned unrepentantly, and began walking. Hermione scrambled to catch up.

"I can't believe you pushed me!"

"You had it coming," he said, looking not the least bit sorry.

"You prat!"

"I've been called worse," Severus responded with a smirk.

Hermione huffed at him, but merely pulled out her wand to add an extra light to the tunnel and then followed without another word.

She simply could not understand how he had managed to talk her into doing this. This was absolutely insane. She could not believe she was being talked into juvenile delinquency by her Potions professor. This was something along the lines of what Harry and Ron would have done, or Fred and George. Probably even the Marauders. But she had never thought that the one person who would be capable of convincing her to sneak out into Hogsmeade in the dead of night for anything less than an emergency would be Severus.

Hermione had no idea how long they were in the tunnel, but when they reached the end, she checked her watch and saw that it was a quarter to eight. Curfew would be in effect in roughly an hour. There was no way she was going to get back to school without breaking curfew. Resigned to this fact, Hermione wordlessly followed Severus up the ladder leading to the cellar of Honeydukes. They left their school bags underneath the trap door, and Hermione fetched her gloves, winter cloak, and hat from her bag, and was ready to offer to spell a temporary duplicate for her companion, only to turn around and discover that he had done the exact same thing. He clearly had this planned out before ever leaving the Slytherin common room.

They slipped into the front of the store, and Hermione—thankful that the shop didn't close until midnight—followed Severus out into the night.

"This is great," he breathed, wearing an unsuppressed grin on his face. He looked boyish again, despite the fact that he already had adult features that would have begged to differ. He turned to give Hermione a smug, considering look. "Have you ever done anything as wicked as this?"

"Of course!" Hermione said, trying to look offended.

"Name it," he challenged as they walked up the high street.

Hermione was indignant. "I'm not going to name all my—my academic transgressions just to prove to you that I'm capable of breaking rules!"

"Clearly, if you were not capable of breaking rules, we wouldn't be having this discussion out here—I probably wouldn't be here either, for that matter."

"Why not?"

Severus glanced up at the sky, where the full moon sailed overhead, casting the street with a pale, shadowy glow.

"I expect I'd be with Lupin right now."

"Oh," Hermione said. For some reason, her cheeks turned red at this. "Right. I saved your arse."

"You broke curfew for that."

"I have a habit of breaking rules for emergencies," Hermione amended. "Otherwise, I try not to."

Severus smirked at her, and then led her down the alley between Scrivenshaft's and Gladrags.

"Severus, what—?"

"We're going somewhere where no one knows us," Severus told her decisively. "We can't go to the Hogs Head or the Three Broomsticks, and we've already been to every store here before. I can Apparate."

"But—"

"We'll be fine in Diagon Alley," Severus persisted, determined to squeeze the most out of tonight's occasion that he could. "We can come to Hogsmeade any old time—but I'll bet you've never been to the London Underground at night."

"No," Hermione admitted. "But Severus, Hogsmeade is one thing—Diagon Alley is an Apparation away! I'm not—the farther away we are from school, the less safe we are. I'm not sure if we should take this chance."

Severus gave her a searching look. "You always have a backup plan, don't you?"

"I—what?"

"Every time you've told me about when you and your friends got in trouble, you were always the one who got them out of it," Severus recalled confidently. "Don't you have any ideas about how we'd get out of trouble in London?"

Hermione took a second to think. She didn't really consider Portkeying to the Headmaster's office at night a suitable backup plan, but it was true that she knew a number of useful spells that would get them out of harm's way, if it came to such. "I—well, yes. Yes, I do."

"So do I. Let's go."

Hermione stood up to her full height and looked him squarely in the eye, thinking. He waited impatiently, though he did not rush her into a decision as he had before, and watched the indecision flicker across her face.

And then, quite at once, her mind was made. "Yes, let's go." Then for the first time that night, she gave him a broad smile. "I want to see what the London Underground is like at night."

With a victorious, near-jubilant smirk, Severus grasped hold of her arm tightly and with a loud crack, Apparated the two of them away.

~o~O~o~

They Apparated just outside of Knockturn Alley. The ground was knee-deep in snow, and although it had been mostly cleared off to the side, Hermione and Severus had the misfortune of landing directly on top of a snow drift. They'd pulled themselves free, laughing as they kicked snow off their boots and shook it out of their clothes, and then walked to Fortescue's Ice Cream parlor, where Hermione insisted on being the one to pay for both their orders. Ice cream in the middle of winter was a wild, rather pointless idea in some respects, but Hermione couldn't help loving it.

Instead of finding a bench to sit on, Severus led her over to one of the buildings, took her around, and then began to climb. Hermione followed, and the two sat on the railing over one of the bricked-in balconies atop Flourish and Blott's. They got comfortable, and then began to eat. He braced his legs against the railing and leaned back slightly, wearing a wry smile as he glanced upwards at the sky, his demeanor relaxed and carefree.

The ice cream was decadently delicious, and despite the shivers it sent down Hermione's spine, she enjoyed it immensely.

They had not been there for more than ten minutes when Severus pointed at the sky. Hermione looked up in time to see an owl swoop down from one roof to another—and then almost as though it had been cued, a flurry of owls began to appear, and when Hermione leaned over and squinted into the distance, she realized that they were all coming from Eyelopes Owl Emporium.

"The owner lets them all out at night," Severus explained, smirking at the look of wonder on her face before he took another bite of his ice cream sundae. "If you stay here long enough, eventually, it looks like its raining feathers."

"That's amazing," Hermione breathed, as she watched two snowy owls take flight before her eyes, circling each other playfully, diving and swooping as they rode the night wind, underneath the cloudless sky and the shimmering night stars, all haloed distinctly by the full moon. More owls took flight, gliding along the buildings and around each other in a lively and spirited manner. Two tawny owls came to perch on the windowsill above where Hermione and Severus were sitting, their round, black eyes peering at them, their heads cocking curiously to the side.

Hermione and Severus watched the owls dancing in the air, grins of genuine delight spreading across their faces as they finished up their ice cream. Hermione collected the last bit of her double chocolate scoop on a spoon, and in a fit of impulse, held it out to Severus.

"Happy Birthday, Severus," she said, her eyes shining with laughter. He gave her a grin, and then leaned forward and took the proffered scoop, his eyes lighting up as the new flavor spread over his tongue.

"I'd sing 'Happy Birthday' for you, but I'm afraid you'll hex me if I do," Hermione added, smiling broadly.

"I could do without the song," Severus agreed, tapping his empty cup to vanish it. Hermione held hers out to him, and he did the same. He tried to read her watch, but upside down and in the dark, it simply wasn't possible. "Hermione, what time is it?"

She checked her watch. "A quarter past ten. Think we'd better go?"

"Honeydukes closes at eleven, and it'll take us an hour to walk back up to the castle," Severus said, swinging his legs to the side and sliding off the railing and onto the balcony. He held out a hand to her. "We should go, yes."

Hermione took his hand, and with a loud crack amidst the snow that was just starting to fall, mixed in with few owl feathers that were swirling down to the ground, they whirled away.

~o~O~o~

"That was one of the most amazing experiences in my life," Hermione said, unable to quash the grin on her face as they made their way through the secret passageway leading back to the school.

"That was one of the best birthdays I've ever had," Severus declared, raising his wand up so that he could see the ceiling and duck down when it got too low. "Although next time, I'd much rather eat ice cream in July, when it's not snowing."

"What, did it give your digestive tract frostbite?" Hermione teased.

"Very funny," Severus said, standing up to his full height once again as they neared the end of the tunnel. A few more steps, and they reached the end of the slide. "Ah, we're here."

"We should Disillusion ourselves before we go up," Hermione reminded him. "Just in case there are any teachers patrolling about."

"Naturally. Hold on." She watched Severus turn his wand on himself, and a moment later, his form melted away. He moved toward her, and Hermione had the distinct impression of a six-foot human chameleon before she felt him rap his wand atop her head, sending a cold tricking sensation down her body. When she looked down, she realized her feet were now nearly invisible to her.

"Brilliant. Alright, here we go." Hermione stepped into the foot of the slide, and then tapped her leg. "Ascendare!"

She shot up, gliding against the walls of the tunnel as the force of her spell propelled her skyward. When she reached the top, she braced herself against the side of the slide and tapped the ceiling above her, muttering the password. The hump slid open, and she pulled herself out. A moment later, Severus followed, hauling himself out, and the hump slid shut once they were clear of it.

They began making their way down to the first floor, and when they reached the door leading to the staircases, they quietly slipped it open and shut it as noiselessly as possible behind them. They walked soundlessly down the stairs, and they were about to split up when something grey and furry rubbed against their legs. They looked down, and a pair of large, lamp-like eyes looked up at them pitilessly.

"Shite!" Severus hissed. "It's Mrs. Norris— Run!"

Hermione did run. They split up, Hermione dashing up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower, not caring how much noise she made, knowing that she could be seen in the darkness despite her disillusionment, and she was about to wake the Fat Lady when a gnarled hand grabbed her shoulder, yanking her back.

There was a nasty chuckle.

"Well, well, well," said Argus Filch. "We are in trouble now, aren't we?"


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: I think I'm going to like Ao3 more than FFnet. It's so much easier to edit stuff! I'll finally be able to go back and fix all those typos with ease. Squee~

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own! *swishes wand in a complicated sort of way and ends up poking self in eye* Ouch!

Please Review!


Detention. That was the first thing that registered in Hermione's mind when Filch brought her down to Professor McGonagall's office where, she discovered, Severus was waiting for her. Their Disillusionment charms were removed, and they both stared at the floor—one sullen, one shamefaced—while they waited for judgement to be pronounced. One excuse after another flitted through Hermione's mind, but all of them sounded pitifully transparent. They had been caught sneaking around the castle over three hours after curfew, while still wearing their winter cloaks, though they had the notion to stash their hats and gloves in their bags before heading off towards their common rooms. There was no talking their way out of this one.

Professor McGonagall left the moment Hermione entered, no doubt to double-check the halls for any other co-conspirators, during which time Severus had nudged her to grab her attention.

"How did you get caught?" he hissed under his breath.

"Filch," she muttered. "You?"

His face contorted into a sneer. "Our dear Head Boy was out patrolling the dungeons."

Hermione grimaced as she realized exactly who he was talking about. Damnit, James!

McGonagall returned moments later, and shut the door behind her with a click of almost sordid finality.

"I would never have believed any of this from either of you. Mr. Potter and Mr. Filch both say they caught you running back to your dormitories. It is twelve o'clock in the morning, and you are still wearing winter cloaks and warming charms! Where have you been?"

Hermione swallowed, unsure of how to reply, but Severus's reply was prompt. "The library. We were reading outside on one of the balconies—"

"I received a Floo call from Ambrosius Flume earlier this evening, informing me that he thought he saw two students in Hogsmeade earlier," McGonagall interrupted tightly. "Do not insult my intelligence, Mr. Snape. We checked the dormitories to see who was unaccounted for, and when we realized it was you two, the library was the first place we checked. Neither of you were anywhere to be found. What were you two doing in Hogsmeade?"

Severus's mouth clicked shut, and he fell silent, though his expression turned stony and unyielding.

"I think I've got a fairly good idea of what happened here," McGonagall said, her voice laced with cold fury. Hermione had only ever seen her in such a state twice in her life—the first time was when they had nearly been killed taking down a mountain troll. The second time was after they had been caught sneaking Norbert up to the Astronomy tower and lacked a satisfactory explanation for their actions. "Neither of you returned to your common rooms, but instead decided to sneak out of the school and pay Hogsmeade an unsupervised visit. I fail to understand how two perfectly capable and intelligent young people could do something so decisively foolhardy!"

Hermione gulped, and stared down at the ground, unable to look her professor in the eye. Severus was stone still, unmoving, as though he had been petrified into place.

"There is no excuse for this sort of behavior—you two may be of age, but while you are at Hogwarts, you will abide by the rules of this school just like every other student." Her lips pressed into a tight, white line and she took a moment to gather herself, before she continued icily, "A hundred points will be taken away from Slytherin and Gryffindor. And you will serve a month's detention, the both of you."

Hermione and Severus both stiffened, their backs ramrod straight. Hermione tried to quickly do the calculations in her head. Professor McGonagall had taken fifty points away from each Gryffindor involved in her first year due to the Astronomy incident, but they had still been on the grounds. Hermione and Severus had been caught sneaking out after curfew and, furthermore, had left the school grounds. An extra fifty points for that additional infraction was a horrorific one when she considered the impact it would have on the House Cup, but she could see how Professor McGonagall would find it a reasonable calculation. She knew better than to argue on this one. In fact, if McGonagall ever found out that they had not only gone to Hogsmeade, but to Diagon Alley, she wouldn't need to wonder if it would be another fifty points off just for that.

She felt her stomach drop at this. Severus didn't say a word. He, too, seemed to realize that arguing right now would garner no gain. They were both silent.

"Off to bed, both of you. Mr. Snape, I will inform Professor Slughorn of tonight's events, make no mistake. Miss Granger, a word before you go."

Severus gave Professor McGonagall a sardonic bow, working out a tic in his jaw before turning around to leave, Filch straight at his heels. The door opened and shut behind them, and Professor McGonagall took several deep breaths, her nostrils flaring angrily, before she spoke again.

"Miss Granger, I expected far better behavior from you. Albus always speaks highly of you, and I have watched your short academic career here at Hogwarts with interest. You are an exceptionally bright student, and I have only ever seen you break the rules either in self-defense or in the defense of another student. Your behavior and callous disregard for the rules could have cost you your lives tonight, if you had run into trouble. You-Know-Who is out there, Miss Granger—you are one of the few students at Hogwarts that are more keenly aware of this fact. Yet, you chose to ignore that tonight. The question I must ask is why?"

Hermione swallowed again, working her throat before she croaked, "I—I don't have a good answer for that, Professor."

"I can hardly conceive that this little escapade may have been your idea."

Hermione's throat tightened. Now was the moment when she either took the blame, remained silent and let McGonagall draw her own conclusions, or revealed Severus as the guilty party.

"It was my idea, Professor," she mumbled. Seeing the disbelieving look on Professor McGonagall's face, she added a bit more defiance into her tone. "It was entirely my idea. All of it. I take full responsibility."

Professor McGonagall gave her a piercing stare, and then stood up and opened the door for her. Hermione saw James standing against the wall, dozing off on his feet, and he jerked upright upon hearing the creaking of the door. His eyes met Hermione's, and she in turn stared at the ground.

"I have nothing more to say to you, Miss Granger, other than to tell you how entirely disappointed I am by your behavior," she said coldly. "You may go. Take Mr. Potter with you."

Without another word, she shut the door behind her. Hermione began walking back to Gryffindor Tower, with James in tow.

"Blimey, Hermione!" James said, adjusting his glasses. "What were you doing in there?"

"Got caught by Filch," Hermione mumbled, shamefaced.

"You've been missing from Gryffindor all night! You weren't even in the library—rumor has it that you snuck out to Hogsmeade—where were you?"

Hermione's mind immediately flew back to tonight's visit to Diagon Alley. The memory of cold snowflakes melting on her cheeks, ice cream melting on her tongue, owl feathers fluttering around them like soft down, and her taking the last scrape of her ice cream and holding it out to Severus…

"Hogsmeade," she confessed dully.

James stared at her. "You're joking." Seeing that the look on Hermione's face didn't change one whit, it suddenly dawned on him. "Merlin's saggy undershorts, you're serious."

Hermione nodded miserably.

"With that greasy git?" she didn't even have the energy to tell him off for insulting Severus, she just nodded. "Holy mother of Merlin. How many points did you guys lose?"

"A hundred," Hermione replied. "Each."

James was gobsmacked. They had just about reached the portrait of the Fat Lady now, and James took hold of Hermione's shoulder and turned her around to get her full attention.

"What were you two doing in Hogsmeade?"

Hermione swallowed, trying to get rid of the vicious frog that seemed to have taken up residence in her throat.

"Celebrating," she said tightly. Seeing the blank look on James's face, she finished, "Today's his birthday."

She woke up the Fat Lady, gave the disgruntled portrait the password, and then ambled off to bed. She no longer felt carefree and alive, simply tired and miserable as she climbed the stairs to the girls' dormitory and resigned herself to what was certain to be a rather disgruntled reaction from her housemates in the morning.

As it turned out, 'disgruntled' did not cover it. Not by a long shot.

"You lost a hundred points from Gryffindor?" Sirius bellowed, preventing her from leaving the common room for breakfast. James had clearly filled him in on last night, for there was simply no way he could have already seen the hourglass that morning. "What'd you do, murder someone?"

Hermione had been dreading this moment, but she knew she had to own up to it. "I—I snuck off the grounds and into Hogsmeade," she said, staring down at the carpet. "Filch caught me just as I was getting ready to wake up the Fat Lady."

The jaws of Sirius, Remus, Lily, Mary, and pretty much every Gryffindor in the vicinity dropped open at this. After a moment, Sirius shut his mouth, after managing to stutter out, "You snuck off the grounds? You? No way. That's not possible. You'd never do it, for one thing, and even if you were the type, you wouldn't know how—"

"Well, I did," Hermione said dully.

"I don't know whether to be impressed or angry," Sirius said, amazed. He looked dumbstruck. "It would have been worth the hundred point loss just to see you doing something worthy of it."

"Look at it this way," James said, clapping a hand on his friend's back. "Slytherin's down by about a hundred points, too. I took an extra fifteen when I caught him."

Remus was shaking his head, speechless. The other Gryffindors in the room demonstrated mixed reactions; the ones who knew Hermione well were flat-out shocked. The ones who didn't were either upset at the point loss or gleeful that Slytherin had suffered too. Others still looked as though they were not quite sure what to think.

"Well," Mary said, trying to break the tension. "I guess—I guess we had all better get down to breakfast?"

There was a sudden clamoring as the students rushed to be the first into the Great Hall. Hermione made to follow, her expression stony and shame-faced, but Sirius and James both grabbed hold of her arms.

"Don't worry about it," Sirius told her, giving her a slap on the back. "James and I've lost more points than that in a single night. And this time, Slytherin's lost points too. We'll build the points back up again—we're not even halfway through the year. We've got plenty of time."

Hermione gave him a weak smile. "Thanks, you guys."

"Just tell me this—was it worth it?"

Hermione was baffled by the question. "What?"

"Whatever your reason for sneaking out was—was it worth it?"

Hermione was once again recalled to the near-magical experience of last night. The release of pent-up tension, the moment when they'd managed to get out from under the house-rivalry that so choked the social situation at Hogwarts and simply enjoy being two teenagers out for a night. The ice cream, the owls, the snow, the laughing and joking they'd shared, the careless, free feeling that had enveloped her senses…

She must have gotten a faraway look in her eyes, for Sirius grinned at her and before she could speak, placed a fingertip on her mouth to silence her.

"If it was worth it, then that's all that matters," he said sagely.

Hermione took in a deep breath, gave them both a nervous smile, and confessed to the only four people still left in the room, "It was Severus's birthday."

Remus finally cracked a smile, and shook his head. Sirius's jaw dropped open for a moment, and then he shut his mouth. James was grinning, ruffling the back of his hair as he did so. Lily's face was a cortortion of surprise mixed with sudden rememberance and then stony realization.

"Well, as long as it was worth it to you, and you work to earn back the points, no one should have a problem with it," Remus said, patting her back and giving her a friendly smile. "We're all used to it by now." He cast his friends a half-hearted, scolding look. "That's what happens when you've lived with James and Sirius as your housemates for seven years."

The two boys had the grace to at least look slightly abashed.

Later, as she took her place next to the Marauders at the breakfast table, an owl fluttered down to her seat, bearing a note. It looked as though it had been waiting for quite awhile, as it wore an annoyed expression on her face. It kicked over her pumpkin juice before leaving, for good measure. Hermione cleaned up the mess with a sigh, and then unfolded the parchment. Glancing over at the Slytherin table, she saw that Severus was also opening up a similar slip of parchment under the watchful glares of his housemates, though he gave off the very convincing appearance of ignoring them.

It was from Professor McGonagall: You will serve your first week of detention with Mr. Filch. Meet him at the Entrance Hall at ten o'clock, starting this evening.

Hermione finished her breakfast quickly, and hurried off to her first class. Despite the Marauders' reassurances, she was feeling rather subdued, and only raised her hand to answer a question she knew would earn points for correctness. In class that day, she worked like an automaton; put in a set amount of energy, achieve result, earn points. By the end of the day, she'd received her usual thirty points from Faulkner, managed to squeeze ten from Sprout and Flitwich each, impressed a full fifteen from Slughorn, and somehow won five from Vector. No matter how hard she worked, however, she only managed to earn a terse 'Five points to Gryffindor' from McGonagall. It was still not enough to make up for the hundred-point deficiet, but it was an excellent start, and when she looked up at the hourglass, it seemed that her housemates had all pitched in to do some extra work, too, for they had jumped from third place in the running for the house cup and up to second, almost tied with Ravenclaw. It was heartening to see that her housemates were not particularly outraged by the point loss, as they had been in her first year. Instead, they were rather simply amazed that it had even happened and were willing to forgive her so long as she worked to make up for it. It was a distinct, notable difference; rather than being ostracized for her wrongdoing, she was instead being told that as long as she pulled her weight, all would be forgiven.

It was such a drastically different outlook than the one Hermione was used to in her time. It seemed that in the Marauders' era, Gryffindor House stuck together through thick and thin, uncaring of whether one of them blundered horribly. The message was clear: work hard to make up for it, and even if you fall short of making it up in the first day, everyone will still support and be happy to have you in Gryffindor. Hermione was certain that if she'd lost those hundred points and had slacked off or acted as though she couldn't care less about the points, her housemates would have been less forgiving. And yet, since Hermione was a hard worker by nature, and generally not prone to trouble, it seemed as though she had been fully forgiven not ten minutes into breakfast. She gratefully took advantage of this outlook, and did her absolute best to make up for the point loss she had caused.

She didn't know how Severus was faring. She somewhat doubted that Slytherin house had a similarly forgiving outlook. Or perhaps, at this juncture in time, the upperclassmen didn't care about points so much as they cared about their servitude to Voldemort. She didn't know, and while classes were in session, she didn't get a chance to ask him; everywhere she saw him, he was flanked by several Slytherins whose faces Hermione was disturbingly familiar with. Bellatrix Black, it seemed, took particular pleasure out of jeering something into his ear, and then turning to look at Hermione with a nasty, cruel smile.

Once classes were over, and after Hermione retired to Gryffindor Tower to get some work done before detention—she knew there was no way Severus would be in the Library tonight—Lily took Hermione aside.

"Did I hear you right? You went to Hogsmeade with Sev?"

Hermione could not help but feel a pang of anger at this. Lily had ended her friendship with Severus, made it clear that she would never forgive him for his slip-up, nor would she ever be willing to come to agreeable terms with him again, and yet she still called him by that childhood nickname as though they were best friends. It seemed insultingly incongruous.

"Yes," Hermione replied, her tone somewhat sullen.

"You shouldn't have done that, Hermione," Lily told her softly. "I know you and Sev are friends, but you shouldn't have let him talk you into going. He's a bad influence on you."

Hermione felt her blood boil ever so slightly at this. "How do you know it was his idea and not mine?"

Lily threw back her hair with a sigh. "Because yesterday was his birthday, and you've never been much inclined to rulebreaking. It's not difficult for me to put two and two together. What you did last night was dangerous and foolish."

"So I've been told," Hermione responded dryly. "I've already learned my lesson. I don't plan on doing something so risky without a very good reason again."

"I just don't think you should be spending so much time with him," Lily said uncertainly. "He's a part of a gang of Slytherins who go out of their way to attack Muggle-borns, and he can be quite nasty when things don't go his way. I'm just worried about you—you spend so much time with him, I'm afraid that when he leaves that you'll be… I'm afraid that you'll get hurt."

Hermione took a deep breath, and when she spoke, her voice came out gentle but firm. "I can take care of myself, Lily."

Lily closed her eyes for a moment, as though remembering something, and then opened them.

"Sev isn't the same person I knew when we were children," she said quietly. "He used to be sweet. Those boys in Slytherin House ruined him."

Hermione looked Lily squarely in the eyes. "You let it happen, Lily. You can't control what house Severus is in, but you can control how you treat him and how you choose to shape him outside of his house's influence. And my understanding is that when you decided you couldn't handle him anymore, you ended the friendship. And Lily, I do respect that you've ended things with him," she continued, her voice quiet, "but I can handle him. Perhaps you decided there was no point in hanging onto him because you thought he was too far gone, but deep down, he is a good person. Not always pleasant, not by a long shot, but his heart is in the right place. We understand each other well enough, and I value his friendship."

Lily was silent for one long, stony moment, and then she responded:

"When we were fifteen," she said softly, "Severus convinced me to sneak up to the Astronomy Tower to watch a meteor shower with him. We almost got caught. Sirius, James, Remus, and Peter—they all told me he was no good for me, but like the fool I was, I didn't listen to them. I was barely on speaking terms with them. A month and a half later, he called me a Mudblood, and I finally saw in him what everyone else did—and I ended the friendship. James was the one who came in to pick up the pieces. I was blind to Severus's faults, and I think you are too."

"He can be nasty, sarcastic, acerbic, caustic, and a git," Hermione said, enunciating each world carefully. "I'm not blind to his faults, Lily. I know very well that he has a temper, and that he can let it get away from him. But that doesn't stop me from seeing the good in him, too. That," she said firmly, "is why he's my friend."

Lily pursed her lips, and Hermione saw the anger rise in her cheeks, and she abruptly turned away.

"On your own head be it, Hermione, but I am certain that you will regret the day you ever laid your eyes on that boy."

As Lily left, Hermione couldn't help thinking that at this point, Severus really was not a boy anymore. She rather had the idea that Lily was still stuck seeing Severus as her childhood friend who got pulled along the wrong path, and was therefore unable to see past the prejudice clouding her opinion of him. She also suspected that, in a way, Lily would always see Severus as she saw him when they were children. In her eyes, Severus would never grow up.

And in some ways, Hermione was just the opposite. In her eyes, she already saw Severus grown up, aged beyond his years, aged far more than time had any right to make him.

She would also like to think that somewhere in her time, when Professor Snape sat at his desk grading papers and brooding sullenly, that he would have that memory of them in Diagon Alley at night eating Fortescue's Ice Cream and watching owls for his birthday to momentarily distract him.

Hermione left Gryffindor Tower an hour later to meet Filch in the Entrance Hall.

~o~O~o~

Hermione and Severus found themselves in the Trophy Room, with a rag and cleaning solution, polishing the plaques and plates and every other form awarded metals came in. Filch sat in the corner on a chair, petting Mrs. Norris and keeping his eyes locked suspiciously on the pair.

Despite the no-magic caveat, Severus still managed to cast a discrete Muffliato so that he and Hermione could talk undisturbed. They had absolutely nothing else to do but the mind-numbing work of polishing cups and shields, and when they had tried talking without the charm, Filch had snarled at them to be quiet.

"This isn't social hour!" the old caretaker had growled.

Severus had rolled his eyes and cast the charm regardless.

"So," he said coolly, "how did Gryffindor take the point loss?"

"Surprisingly well, actually," Hermione said, her rag making squeaking noises as she wiped it over a small cup. "They're apparently so used to James and Sirius losing points that they don't really mind it now."

Severus snorted. "It figures."

"What about your housemates in Slytherin?"

A small, wry smirk flitted across his face. "They were absolutely furious."

"That doesn't sound like laughing matter to me," Hermione said uncertainly.

"Oh, but it is. They wanted to know exactly what I was doing in Hogsmeade—and with you, no less—and I refused to tell them. It drove them mad," Severus added, a nasty glint in his eyes. "And there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. They all know I'm stronger than the lot of them put together."

"Really?" Hermione said, raising an eyebrow. "You?"

"You don't believe me?"

"You're a strong wizard, yes, but to boast about being capable of taking them all on at once when the Marauders have been able to send you to the Hospital Wing with just two or three of them…"

At this, Severus sneered. "That has only ever happened after they hexed me when my back was turned. But I can take them on in a fair fight." He set the cup he'd been polishing down with a little more force than necessary, and picked up the next one. "If you were to line them up against me in a duel, I'd have them cursed into writhing pieces on the floor."

Hermione nodded thoughtfully, her lip twitching at the description he used, but agreeing nevertheless. His assertion seemed accurate enough. "Yes, that sounds about right, I suppose."

Severus looked somewhat mollified at her capitulation.

"So your housemates daren't challenge you to a fight, because they know you'd mop the floor with them?" Hermione ventured, returning to the previous topic at hand. "I'm a little surprised—I would have thought they'd at least give it a try."

"They have before," Severus responded smugly. "I sent them all up to the Hospital Wing."

Hermione's eyebrows rose dangerously. "How did they react to that?"

"Avery made it clear I was welcome to join his group," Severus responded coolly. "None of them bothered me after that, much."

Hermione felt as though she had suddenly garnered a little more insight on how things worked in Slytherin—and how Severus fit into all of this. At this moment in time, her understanding had crystalized into clarity. He would have been ostracized and picked on for his friendship with a Muggleborn like Lily, as well as his poor background— and when confronted by his housemates, he would have wiped the floor with them in an attempt to discourage further attempts. After that, the Slytherins' attention would have turned from trying to keep their distance from him to trying to control him. It was startlingly clear and disturbing at the same time. He had gone from being looked down upon to being respected with his display of power— which came with a heavy price. A display of strength like the one she knew Severus was capable of would have caught the Dark Lord's attention.

"You know," Severus mused, dragging Hermione out of her thoughts, "I have never seen you duel."

"You saw me the day we met, remember?" Hermione reminded him, as she set her plaque aside and plucked up another.

"I saw what you'd done, not how you fought," Severus replied coolly.

"True enough," Hermione conceded.

"And I've seen what you've done to my other housemates subsequently. And you know Occlumency," he continued, as though she needed reminding. He gave her a curious glance, and Hermione could tell he was just dying to see what was going on in her head. "Just how strong are you?"

Hermione gave him a mysterious smile. "I'm just an insufferable, bushy-haired know-it-all," she said, grinning. "What do you expect?"

"I expect you're just like me," Severus responded, cocking his head at her. "Neither of us are the most handsome nor the most pecuniary people around, but we more than make up for it with raw magical talent."

"I can look nice when I want to," Hermione protested half-jokingly, running her fingers through her hair and then throwing it back over her shoulders. Her hair was neither sleek nor shiny, but it was all right. It had gotten somewhat more manageable as she grew older, but it had not lost its inherent bushiness. It still tended to frizz rather frighteningly when she was angry.

He raised his eyebrows at her, his voice teasing. "Really? You could have fooled me."

Hermione raised her chin up at him in mock-offense. "I'll have you know—"

Whatever she was about to say was suddenly interrupted by the craggy old caretaker's voice cutting through the room.

"Don't think I can't see your lips moving, you little buggers! Get back to work!"

With a sigh, Hermione bent her head back down over her work. Severus did the same. They continued to make conversation, moving their lips as little as possible, until Filch again threatened to extend their detention if they continued talking. With a sigh of resignation, they eventually fell into silence.

They were finally dismissed two hours later, their backs and necks terribly sore, and not one bit sorry.

~o~O~o~

Hermione and Severus's month-long detention varied in venue from week to week. The first week was spent cleaning up places in the castle, starting with the Trophy Room and ending with the dusting of the library shelves. The second week involved them helping Madam Pince organize and return books to their proper places; this had been a particularly trying week, as the librarian resembled nothing so much as a vulture waiting to swoop down and smack them over the head for a misplaced book or for getting distracted by reading. By the third week, Hermione and Severus were quite fed up with detention, but their punishment was not yet over—they spent the third portion of their detention scrubbing the underside of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom's desks, which had been a rather unpleasant task, given the nasty sort of things that had ended up stuck in the nooks and crevaces of the wood. Hermione had found the dried and gutted remains of a toad stuck underneath one desk, and had been forced to extract it by hand.

It was not a total loss, though; Severus found several knuts, two sickles, and a single Galleon stuck in one desk, which he eagerly pocketed. Hermione found an old copy of Jane Eyre, and managed to hide behind the desk she was supposed to be cleaning to read. Half-way through the book, she was forced to hastily put it away before Faulkner, who was supervising this detention, caught her. The man had eyes like an eagle, and when Hermione quickly stood up to turn the desk over to the other side, he gave a tiny jerk of his head, as though he knew what she had been doing. In all likelyhood, he probably did. They found a myriad of odd trinkets, and after each detention that week, they would meet up a few corridors down to trade and switch the stuff they didn't want. Anything they didn't care for and couldn't trade away was promptly thrown away—as was the case with a pair of screaming socks and a piece of gum that bubbled noxiously.

Their last week of detention was spent brewing potions for Slughorn, which was probably their best detention yet, as it was quite easy and even somewhat relaxing. They set up ten cauldrons on the same table, and took turns doing steps. Hermione spent a surprising amount of time with Severus standing over her shoulder, giving her instructions differing from the text and showing her better methods for preparing ingredients. He was rather pleased with how quickly she grasped onto a new technique, although she occasionally took a little longer to do so. Once or twice, he would grow impatient, and take her hand in his and demonstrate the movements using her fingers, which Hermione found extremely helpful—even if it made her slightly uneasy.

No. Uneasy was the wrong word. But she was at a loss as to what to call it: he would stand just behind her, towering over her by sheer height, and she would feel his warm breath crossing along the nape of her neck as he watched her work. It did not make her feel uneasy at all—rather, it made her feel safe. It set off a tingling sensation wherever he touched her. In this timeline, Severus was one of the people she trusted the most, and his presence was a comfort to her. It soothed her, put her at ease—and yet, it somehow made her even more aware of his presence, if that were possible.

Wednesday evening, a notice had gone up on all of the notice boards informing students that there would be a Valentine's Day celebration to be held on the fourteenth in Slughorn's office, courtesy of The Slug Club. Attendance by invitation only. There was no question about who James was going with, but Sirius finally worked up the courage during breakfast to saunter over to where Marlene McKinnon was sitting to ask her out.

The notice incited a flurry of excitement among the students. Members of the Slug Club who were not already taken had offers and requests to be taken along by the end of the day. To Hermione, it was like primary school all over again; the ones who were yet untaken were being passed chocolates, sweets, homework answers, and other sorts of bribes. She received no less than five chocolate frogs, two boxes of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, a packet of Fizzing Whizbees, some Chocoballs, and even a box of Sugar Quills from a shy third-year Gryffindor that Hermione felt incumbent to turn down. All before lunchtime.

Later, as she and Severus were in detention, he laughed near-uproariously when Hermione recounted the events of the day.

"You should have taken the quills, Hermione!" he said, smirking with amusement. "Then maybe you'd stop chewing on yours."

It was true; Hermione did chew on her quills. She chewed them down to stumps before she even realized what she had done.

"If I took it, I felt like I'd be obliged to at least consider the offer," Hermione said, pulling her hair back as she got to work on their brewing. "And I refuse to go just because someone had to bribe me into taking them. With sweets, no less."

"You're not going?" Severus inquired, looking mildly surprised.

"Of course not," Hermione huffed. "I haven't got anyone to go with, and I don't fancy standing around all night watching other people snogging."

Severus gave a non-committal grunt, and returned his focus back to his potions before pulling away and allowing Hermione to do the next few steps. She worked concentratedly for several minutes, moving from potion to potion to repeat each instruction, and then backed away and slumped in one of the stools. The potions all simmered peacefully, and would continue to do so for the next fifteen minutes. The two teens leaned back and waited.

"Well, I'm not going either, I suppose," Severus finally said, pulling out his copy of Advanced Potion-Making and pulling out a quill to make some additional annotations to it. "I haven't had a free evening for a month. My time could be better spent." He turned to look at Hermione thoughtfully. "You know, we could find an empty classroom and duel. I'd like to see how well you'd fare against me."

"That's not happening and you know it," Hermione told him sternly, peering over his shoulder as he flipped through the pages of his book.

"We'll see," he responded smugly, stopping at an undefiled page to pull out a quill and begin scribbling.

~o~O~o~

"I can't believe you're not going!" Alice exclaimed on Friday afternoon, after she had roped Hermione into a secretive girls-only discussion about the upcoming Valentine's Day Slug-Club supper with Mary, Marlene, and Lily. "This is a perfect chance to dress up!"

"I haven't got anyone to go with," Hermione replied reasonably. "What's the point?"

"The point? Hermione, the whole point is to make every wizard in the room's eyes bug out of their skull—regardless of whether you've got a damn date or not!"

"Well, I haven't got anything to wear," Hermione protested, her mouth twitching into a half-smile. "So even if I could go—what would be the point?"

"We have a Hogsmeade Weekend tomorrow," Mary suggested mildly.

"I'm banned from Hogsmeade for the rest of the year," Hermione said with a sigh. "Like Severus."

She saw Lily's lips twitch slightly at this, and Alice overrode her protests once again: "We can pick out something for you to wear!"

"You should try something in red," Marlene said, leaning back and looking at her thoughtfully. "Something tasteful and red. And you could put your hair up."

"Look," Lily said, interrupting Hermione's next protest. She gave Hermione a certain look that said 'don't argue with me.' "It doesn't matter whether you have a date or not. We can get you something to wear if you can give us a budget, and half the wizards going had to bribe their dates to take them. They're not taken."

Mary, Marlene, and Alice were all nodding in agreement at this.

Hermione could see quite plainly that she was horribly outnumbered on this.

"Oh, you know what?" Marlene added, leaning forward to pick out a lock of Hermione's hair. "We can show you some new charms. You pick up new spells like a toadstool does water—let's see if we can't do something about your hair."

She tried one more line of defense. "I don't want to go alone—"

"You can go with Remus," Lily interrupted, giving her a smile that Hermione thought was simply unforgivable in regards to the amount of smugness that laced it. "I'm sure he'll take you."

I'm doomed, Hermione thought inwardly as the four girls began to eagerly exchange ideas and spells to use on themselves, each other, and their bushy-haired victim.

When she saw Severus later that evening for their last detention and informed her that she was being forcefully dragged along to the supper, he couldn't help smirking in amusement at this.

"In that case, perhaps I should come," he drawled.

"I can't believe this," Hermione said, glaring at him. "I swear, I think Lily just tried to set me up with Remus."

Severus's mouth gave an unpleasant twitch. "Please tell me you said no."

Hermione stared up at the ceiling. "They made me ask. He said yes."

"Bloody hell."

"He's not a part of the Slug Club," Hermione pointed out reasonably. "I'm just bringing him along so that he can attend with his friends."

"Lovely. Well, I at least hope seeing what sort of disaster your housemates can turn you into will be worth it," Severus responded snarkily.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "If you can't stand being in the same room with them for a few hours, you're free to make your escape."

"Slughorn doesn't allow escapes," Severus responded sourly.

"I'll help you," Hermione said, giving him a conspiratorial smile.

"Deal."


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N: Big thanks to my amazing beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review.


When Hermione saw the robes her friends—a term she now used in the loosest sense of the word—had bought back from Hogsmeade, she was nearly ready to try to and escape out the window. They had hidden the robes the entire week after they bought them, and it was only when they all gathered upstairs to get ready that Hermione finally got to see what she would be wearing.

"You have got to be kidding me!"

"Nope!" Alice said cheerfully, laying out the deep, wine-red robes out.

It was nothing like what Hermione had worn in her fourth year. What she had worn then was what she (and, she was sure, every other sane person on the planet) would have considered a nice, tasteful, and appropriate set for a girl who had not quite yet reached her full maturity. The dress robes she was being helped into now were quite possibly the most provocative set Hermione had ever seen. It did not show a lot of skin, necessarily—quite the opposite, in fact— but it was clearly designed to hug her body in the right places. The sleeves were long and loose, but the back was laced up tightly in a way that made her curves stand out to their best advantage.

She did not feel entirely comfortable wearing this. It was just too adult for her. It made her feel like she was twenty, not seventeen. This was the stuff that young adult witches wore to fancy parties—and while this Slug Club supper certainly qualified, Hermione still quailed at the thought of what kind of impression she would be giving off. She was nearly eighteen in mind and body, given how much use she had put the time-turner through in her third year, and she was certainly an adult by both Wizarding and Muggle standards—but inside, deep down, she did not feel that way. She wanted to retain that sense of child-like security, and these robes completely destroyed that.

In the time Hermione had taken to register the horror in her mind, Alice and Marlene had gotten similarly undressed and were putting on their robes. The minute Hermione saw what they'd bought, she instantly felt better. Relieved, even. If she thought she stood out terribly, she was sadly—or, in this case, happily—mistaken. Marlene was wearing dark violet robes with black lace that made her look like a dark, graceful enchantress. Alice was wearing a luminous set of lacy gold, and she sat down on a chair in front of a mirror to allow Marlene to weave a shiny gold ribbon through her hair in a braid down her back.

If this was the way most of the girls were planning to dress up tonight, then by comparison, if Hermione had decided to wear something like her fourth-year periwinkle robes, she would have stood out by looking too plain, too childish, too incomplete. Juvenile, even. She would have been more embarrassed in that getup than in these robes. This way, she actually fit in—and now that she was getting used to the robes on her body, she began to feel more comfortable, more at ease wearing them. A sense of deep calm and relief settled through her—visions of a flashing nightmare no longer coursing through her mind, she glided over to help with Alice's hair and then assisted in holding Marlene's as Alice braided it back into an expertly-woven bun.

Then both girls had Hermione sit between them on a chair in front of the mirror, where she watched as they debated for a moment over what to do with her hair, before unanimously deciding to use a Curling Charm.

"Isn't that counterproductive?" Hermione asked as they divided her hair into sections and began curling it.

"Your hair is naturally curly," Alice explained, as Marlene tapped her hair with her wand. "You need to go with the flow, Hermione. You keep trying to straighten it, and it'll just come out bushy. And using a little bit of conditioner to keep it shiny wouldn't go amiss, but for now, a bit of Sleekeazy's will do."

Hermione watched them work, and with nothing else to do, she couldn't help watching in fascination as the change took place before her eyes. Nor could she keep her eyes from locking onto her robes, fascinated by the shimmer it produced whenever she moved, and she felt a bit of nervousness mixed in with newfound confidence as she realized how she looked. The front was perfectly fitted in a way that highlighted her cleavage as well as her neck. She was wary, since the woman wearing it was her, but she was also gratified that itwas her—that she actually looked this nice. That she was, dare she say it, capable of looking this alluring.

Alice and Marlene let go of her hair after a moment of rubbing some of the potion into it, and it fell in shiny, curled ringlets around her face. They gathered up her hair again, putting it up high in a ponytail, and let it waterfall around her neck and shoulders. They tied it back with a dark red thong, and stepped back to admire their handiwork.

"You two are really good at this," Hermione said, amazed. She craned her head up to look at Marlene. "Can you teach me that charm you used to make it curl?"

"Under one condition," Marlene said with a mischievous smile.

"What?"

"You have to stay until ten—and you have to give Remus a dance!"

"Why are you guys trying to set me up with Remus?" Hermione demanded plaintively. "I don't see him like that!"

"Oh, it's not you," Alice assured her. "But how would you feel if you went to a party and no one asked to dance with you?"

This made Hermione pause for a moment.

"We just want to make sure Remus has a good time. He's never been much of a party animal, but he wants to come along to this one," Marlene explained calmly. "It would be nice if you helped him get into it—pull him into the dancing until you get an opportunity to switch partners."

"So you're not trying to set me up with him?" Hermione asked, for clarification.

"Merlin's beard, no! Remus told us himself that he thinks of you like a little sister. We sort of imagine you feel the same way, too." Hermione nodded. "It's nothing like that."

"Alright," Hermione said leaning back in her chair with a smile. "In that case, I'm happy to."

"Excellent!" Alice bounded toward the door. "Let me go check on Lily and see if she needs any help, and then we'll go."

When Hermione stepped downstairs with Marlene, Alice, and Lily a short while later, she saw the boys waiting at the bottom of the stairs leading to the girls' dormitories with expectant looks.

They were all wearing robes that were very much like the ones Ron had worn to the Yule Ball with their fancy lace cuffs, but they were much more fashionable and looked quite new.

"Blimey," Sirius said with a grin, as he took Marlene's arm. "You look like a goddess!"

Frank could not help twirling Alice in his arms for a moment, before straightening his face and solemnly offering his arm to her. She did so and reached up to kiss him on the cheek, and then giggled as he leaned in to whisper a compliment into her ear.

Remus cleared his throat and pulled Hermione away from the group just as James took Lily's hand and moved to kiss and admire her spring-green robes.

"I just wanted to make sure you're comfortable doing this, since I know Marlene and Alice pretty much forced you to a—"

Hermione put a finger to his lips.

"I know you don't see me that way, and to be honest, I don't see you that way either," Hermione told him honestly. "But you're coming with me, and it's my job to make sure you have fun." She gave him a warm smile. "Have I missed anything?"

Remus looked simultaneously relieved and encouraged as he fiddled with the lacy cuffs of his robes. "No, that's it," he agreed. He tugged them down, rolled them back up quickly, finagled the buttons back into place, and then stood up straight.

"In that case," Hermione said, throwing him a playful grin and holding out her arm. "Are you going to escort me up to the party like a gentleman?"

Remus gave her an equally playful grin in return, and took her proffered arm before leaving Gryffindor Tower with the rest of the group.

~o~O~o~

They arrived at the party just as it was about to really get started.

The first thing that Hermione noticed was that Slughorn, at least, had far better taste than Gilderoy Lockhart and Albus Dumbledore when it came to holiday decorations. At the very least, the walls were not papered with hearts in varying shades of garish red and pink, and there were no annoying little dwarfs waiting to accost an unsuspecting recipient with sappy and badly-written love poems. If there was anything to be said, it was that he had that going in his favor.

Instead, his office had been greatly and magically enlarged. There were small tables adorned with black cloth, heaping with good food, scattered ever so often around the room. There were small, fist-sized cupids dancing on the tables and around the food, but they were hardly a bother, nor were they obnoxious; they were thankfully silent and merely visual decoration. The walls were decorated with hangings of pale red and white on the borders of the ceiling, and there were little white faeries flittering around the room unobtrusively. The center of the room was reserved for dancing, and though the lights were dim, tiny candles floated here and there about as high as the ceiling.

In fact, the whole room looked rather tasteful.

The only complaint Hermione had was in regards to the music. It would appear that twenty years ago, the Wizarding Wireless and a magicked Record Player were the only sources available for good music, and that depended entirely upon your definition of 'good'. The song currently playing was not at all unlike the music that Gryffindor Tower had been stamping, beating, and cheering to in celebration of the first-won first-played match of the year. It was music that people of good sense played when they wanted to start a mob riot.

In Hermione's opinion, twenty years ago, the Wizarding World's definition of good music was inhumane and perverse.

The fact that Alice, Marlene, and Lily all eagerly grabbed their dates' arms and dragged them to the dance floor after their requisite greetings to Slughorn and polite introductions to some of his other guests did not help Hermione's case at all. Nevertheless, she gave Remus a friendly smile, took his hand in hers, and led her out to the dance floor.

"I've never danced before," Remus said apologetically.

"Don't worry about it," Hermione advised, gesturing at the other dancers, all of whom who did not seem to be following any kind of coherent dance sequence. "Just do what feels natural."

Remus did. While the rest of the dancers moved quickly and wildly, he and Hermione slow danced until he had the hang of it, and then he tried twirling her the way he had seen Frank do to Alice earlier. When that worked, his smile and posture grew more confident, and with Hermione's help, he was soon quite good at dancing to the jaunty tune of the Wizarding Wireless booming in the background. When he slipped up, Hermione merely helped him get back on track, without stopping to complain about his lack of skill. Soon, he was completely at ease. Hermione grinned broadly at him when she saw that he was actually having fun, and when the music switched, he took Lily's hand while Hermione took Sirius's—with James taking Alice, and Frank taking Marlene—and tried out a new beat.

"Like the music?" James asked loudly, trying to be heard over the noise.

"It's loud," Hermione said, stating the obvious.

"That's the best kind of music there is!" Sirius shouted.

Hermione snorted. "Then you haven't heard anything yet!"

They both burst into laughter, and continued dancing until the room switched partners again.

When the song finally ended, and the volume lowered to rather acceptable levels with a softer, swaying beat, Hermione glanced around the room to see if she could spot Remus. Seeing him cheerfully dancing with one of the Ravenclaw girls, she turned around to grab a drink and abruptly bumped into a wall of solid black.

She quickly looked up, and sudden, smug satisfaction speared through her.

Severus's jaw had, indeed, dropped when he saw who it was. He took a step back, arms splayed slightly in silent apology to the girl he had just rudely stonewalled, and his eyes were as wide as Hermione had ever seen them get. He closed his mouth after a moment of gaping, and he took another moment longer to look her up and down.

"Good gods, Hermione!" His voice came out slightly strangled. "I thought the girl dancing with Lupin was you, but I couldn't be sure—I didn't believe it!"

Hermione grinned triumphantly at him. "I'll take that as a compliment." She took a moment to look him up and down, as well, and was frankly surprised to see him wearing solid robes, forest green, with white cuffs that were thankfully not composed of lace—Hermione didn't think she'd have been able to rein in her laughter if he'd been wearing the same kind of fancy cuffs the Marauders were. She was surprised to see that he looked as though he had actually made an effort to wash his hair, for it did not look half as greasy as it usually did, though it was still lanky and had a bit of a greasy shine on it that was not caused by the use of good shampoo.

"You look rather nice yourself," Hermione said, done assessing him and liking what she saw. "Very striking."

He seemed slightly taken aback, and Hermione rather suspected he was still getting over the shock of seeing her. She gave his sleeve a gentle tug, and pulled him toward one of the tables, where chocolate strawberries were clustered around a small, silver fountain.

"Here, let's get out of the way before one of the dancers trample us." She turned back to give him a mischievous grin as she picked up a plain strawberry and took a bite out of it. "Mmm. So, I suppose my housemates didn't make too much of a disaster out of me?"

"Quite the contrary," he said, and it seemed as though he had finally regained control over his voice. "They appear to have made a miracle out of your hair."

Hermione was about to respond, when Slughorn clasped a hand on both hers and Severus's shoulders.

"Ah, Severus, Hermione!" Slughorn said, turning them around. "Just the two I'm looking for." He gestured at a pale blond man next to him, and the good feeling that had been coursing through Hermione earlier died a cold, sudden death. "Severus, you already know Mr. Malfoy, but I'm not sure Hermione has…?"

Hermione stared into the pale grey eyes, which were full of carefully disguised hate and disdain, and gathered the very same wits Mad-Eye Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt had so tenaciously drilled into her the summer before. Her expression grew calm, almost detachedly polite as she replied.

"No, I don't believe we've met before," she lied coolly. Severus turned to look at her in surprise, and a faint tic appeared in Lucius's cheek at this. She met the pale grey gaze with a polite, empty smile. "How very nice to meet you, Mr. Malfoy."

"Lucius here has just given St. Mungo's a donation, a very generous donation to help mitigate costs for medical research," Slughorn said, beaming. "He was my student almost five years ago."

"That's wonderful to hear," Hermione said with false enthusiasm. "I'd love to learn more about it, but Severus has promised me a dance, so—"

"Of course, of course!" Slughorn said, with a hiccup. "Go on, Severus, give the girl a dance."

"Yes, go on," Lucius mimicked, his voice soft and mocking.

Without another word, Hermione took Severus's hand and led him onto the dance floor.

"What did you think you were doing?" Severus hissed into her ear. "Why do you insist on provoking him like that?"

"We can have this conversation another time," Hermione told him firmly, placing her hands on his shoulders and nudging him to put his on her waist to that they could fall into the slow dance-steps that were now being traced across the floor. "For now, just pretend that you actually don't mind dancing with me until Slughorn passes Malfoy off to someone else."

"I don't mind dancing with you," Severus growled, taking her hand and beginning to lead as the song picked up a single notch. He fixed her with one of his glares. "But we will have a discussion about this later."

Hermione nodded, and they fell silent, instead focusing on the rhythm of the music and trying to keep in-sync. She felt secure in his arms, but she didn't have much focus on that as her mind once again replayed her encounter with Lucius Malfoy just moments before.

Slughorn invited a Death Eater to Hogwarts. A bloody Death Eater. How can Hogwarts be safe if they can get in this easily? Does Professor Dumbledore know? That last question was immediately thrown out by the voice of reason. Of course he knows. He knows practically everything that goes on in this school. I wouldn't be surprised if he's asked Slughorn to invite two or three guests who are Aurors at the Ministry… and the other teachers are probably on guard, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find McGonagall and Flitwick patrolling this early in the evening…

She glanced away from her partner to scan the room, and was relieved when it seemed as though her assumptions were validated: she recognized the relaxed yet alert stance of a man who she had never met, but given the way she watched Kingsley and Mad-Eye hold themselves—as well as the badge she saw tucked into the pocket of his robes—she was fairly sure he was an Auror. Only slightly appeased, though undeniably relieved, her eyes traveled across the room. They roved over the different couples now picking up the pace, including everyone from Remus with one of the older Ravenclaws to Barty Crouch Jr. dancing with a slight Slytherin sixth-year.

She finally turned to look back at her partner, satisfied with her level of awareness concerning the people around her, and realized that Severus's eyes were fixed lower than her face.

She let out a snort of amusement. Severus's head shot back up and his eyes were once again locked onto hers.

"Something amusing you?" he asked casually.

"Not at all," Hermione said, smiling wryly up at him. She saw his eyes flicker from her face to her chest and then back, and sighed. Truly, at this moment, she was both flattered and ready to hex him. He was doing an absurdly poor job of hiding what he was doing—his eyes appeared that firmly transfixed by her breasts. She blamed the robes. "I'm just counting down the minutes before I'm allowed to leave."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "Allowed?"

"Marlene and Alice only promised to show me how to use a Curling Charm—which, incidentally, is not taught in any of our textbooks—if I stayed until ten."

"You have another forty-five mintues to endure," he drawled.

"Yes, but I doubt it will go by faster if you spend it staring at my breasts," Hermione said, calmly calling him out right then and there. She saw the telltale signs of alarm freeze his features, and laughed. "Honestly, Severus. You were being so obvious that I had to wonder if you were even trying to hide it."

She saw Severus's features relax a fraction of an inch. "Your robes make it difficult to ignore," he said coolly, his lips twitching upward in a half-smile. "One would even suspect you were dressing to impress on that front."

Hermione looked up at him coolly, though inside, she was beyond giggling uncontrollably. "I dress to look nice because I can. Only my roommates will tell you that's what it's for, and that's because they took it too far when they decided to add their own touches to it."

He snorted. "Of course."

"Yes, of course. Are you planning on escaping anytime soon or are you staying for the duration of the party?"

"As soon as you can help me leave without being accosted by our dear professor for another round of chatting with his very important guests, I will take off."

"Another forty minutes to go, then."

"Indeed." He looked up, glancing over her head at something, and then stopped dancing. Hermione halted with him. "Lucius is waiting for me by the drinks—I must speak with him. Don't sneak out without me, or I'll be sure to thank you with a hex on Monday."

"It would be worth that hex to force you attend the entire night," Hermione riposted, casting him a grin, but she knew that he was well aware that she would not be leaving without him. "Go on. Have a chat with your Death Eater friend. I'm going to give those chocolate strawberries a try."

She heard Severus mutter a snarky reply under his breath as she left, but he nevertheless disengaged himself from the dance floor and strode over to where Lucius Malfoy was waiting, his entire demeanor cool as ice and thoroughly irate.

Hermione watched them talk from where she was dipping a strawberry into a fountain of melted chocolate. She saw Lucius hiss something low under his breath to Severus, who bravely did not flinch, but looked as though he wanted to. His reply looked stilted.

Then she saw Lucius's eyebrows raise in surprise before his lips curled into a curious smile and he placed an arm around Severus's shoulders.

Come on, he said, his lips moving enough for Hermione to read them. Let's take this outside, shall we?

She saw Severus cast a glance in her direction, and then steel himself to follow Lucius. Hermione deliberated for a moment, unsure of whether or not to follow, and in a moment of decisiveness, she did. She slipped through the crowd of couples still dancing on the floor, slinking toward the door without being seen, and slipped outside. Casting a Silencing and Disillusionment Charm on herself the minute she shut the door, she kept close to the wall, following the echoing footsteps of the two Slytherins as they disappeared down the other corridor.

She stopped at the edge of the corner in time to hear part of Lucius's words.

"…cannot back out of this, Severus, because if you do—"

"I have no intention of backing out, Lucius!" Severus snapped. "I have already sworn allegiance to the Dark Lord, and I will take the Mark this summer as planned. There is no cause for concern."

Lucius's voice carried an edge of relief, even as disdain, anger, and suspicion laced it. "Your relationship with the Mudblood Granger is suspect, Severus. I know you claim to only be friends—and for once, I actually believe you on the matter," he said, letting out a short, humorless laugh before he continued, "but the fact that you are so close to her, spend so much time with her—"

Severus interrupted him coldly. "The Dark Lord considers Granger to be a threat, Lucius. As do you. She defies you without a moment's hesitation, and the other Slytherins despise and fear her. She had landed them flat on their backs and sent them up to see Madam Pomfrey every time they've attempted to accost her—she is a formidable opponent, though I have never managed to convince her to partake in a duel with me. Surely you see the benefit in retaining her friendship despite my future among the fold?"

"You make a valid argument," Lucius responded smoothly, "but I think your role has become too… attached."

She saw a vein tighten and pulse in Severus's throat as he clenched his jaw. The response he murmured was too low for her to hear, but it seemed to be all Lucius needed to know, for he backed away from Severus and began walking in the direction from whence they had come, followed closely by his raven-haired companion. Hermione immediately pressed herself against the wall, as the two men passed, unaware of her presence. She had a split-second to register the look on Lucius's face: it was a mixture of satisfaction and relief, with just a hint of smugness. As soon as they were gone, Hermione slipped out from her hiding place and began making her way toward the girls' bathroom, to make her excuse for her absence and to clear her head.

~o~O~o~

The next morning, when Hermione got up and began brushing her hair out, she couldn't help just sitting there, staring aimlessly at the mirror as she tugged at the bushy birds nest that was her hair. Last night had been a confusing turn of events, and she was still trying to get a grasp on it.

Every time something like this happened over the past year, one thought speared Hermione's mind and made her heart sink: It's starting now.

When something like last night happened, she was waiting for the avalanche to come loose. But now she finally realized that everything up until now was simply throwing kindling on the fire, and that the match would not spark until something—probably something involving James, Lily, and their yet-unborn son—happened. Until then, everything that happened now was merely preparation for an out-of-control bonfire. It was not a reassuring assessment, but it was the most accurate one Hermione had come up with.

Severus would be taking the Dark Mark soon, probably as soon as school was over.

When that happened, would their friendship be over?

The thought worried at Hermione while she worried at her hair, and unable to come up with a satisfactory answer on her own—or fix up her hair, for that matter—she reluctantly set the brush down and set out to see whether Marlene had not yet gone down to breakfast.

A quick lesson on Curling Charms and a recommendation for hair conditioner later, Hermione had grabbed her things and headed down for the last lessons of the week. She had no more detentions to serve and no more festivities to be shanghaied into attending. NEWTs were four months away, and with that knowledge in mind, Hermione was planning on keeping her head down and her nose in her schoolbooks.

It wasn't until later that evening, after she had set herself up in the library with her homework that she discovered that all had not been concluded for the time being. She watched as Severus cast one of his spells—Muffliato—and then took a seat next to her, his face contorted into a scowl.

"We need to talk."

"About what?" Hermione inquired.

"Lucius," he responded tightly.

Hermione sighed and set down her book, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"I will be blunt and honest with you, Severus," she said coolly. "I find Lucius Malfoy to be a despicable man. He despises me for no other reason than the fact that I am Muggle-born. He would probably kill me, and enjoy it too, if he had the means." She flashed him an angry, defiant stare. "Why should I show him any respect, any hint of deference?"

Severus pursed his lips tightly, and she watched as he brought a finger to trace them, the way he did when he was deep in thought. "There are advantages to having a Slytherin mindset when dealing with people you don't like."

"Pardon me, Severus," Hermione said, giving him a cold smile, "but there is no way that giving him what he wants will somehow make him more kindly disposed toward me."

"It would be better than painting a target on yourself," he argued.

"I'm already a painted target because I'm a Muggle-born," Hermione snapped.

"You have called unnecessary attention to yourself—"

Hermione stood up, slamming her book down on the table with such force that her companion actually flinched. His finger stopped moving. Her patience had finally thrown its hands up and declared itself to be on an official vacation, and now all her pent-up frustration had collected into a veritable monster of suppressed, tightly-coiled anger.

"Lucius Malfoy is a monster," she hissed quietly, "whether or not I call attention to myself has no bearing on whether or not he would kill me. The mere fact that I am Muggle-born is cause and justification enough for his twisted ideology. I refuse to defer to him or give him any kind of respect or acknowledgement, and if that has the added bonus of infuriating him, then so much the better. Men make mistakes when fueled by rage rather than reason, and if the former is what drives your friend," she spat the word at him, "then he will make a fatal mistake if and when he decides to deal with me. I will never give him any satisfaction."

She saw Severus stiffen visibly, and then he too stood up, towering over her with a sneering, intimidating countenance.

"You are too prideful, too confident in your capabilities and your ability to save yourself," Severus snarled at her, his patience worn thin.

"And you're not, Severus?" Hermione countered.

She saw rage flare up in his eyes, darkened with fury. "This isn't about me," he ground out. "This is about you—"

"Yes, it is about me!" Hermione said with just a hint of shrillness in her voice, slamming her hand down on the table. "This is about me and the fact that you expect me to sit back and let pompous, twisted arseholes like Lucius Malfoy—"

"Lucius is my friend," Severus hissed at her, "and my status among the Dark Lord's inner circle is vitally important. The two go hand in hand, Hermione! You cannot be so patheticallystupid as to ignore that!"

Hermione swallowed, and turned away, looking as though he had just struck her.

"Fine," she said brokenly. She brought one hand to limply slide her books back into her bag, whereupon she hoisted it back over her shoulder. "He's your friend. I'm your friend, too, or at least I thought I was. Your friend wants me dead, and my only defense is to antagonize him in the hopes that it may keep him off-kilter. But naturally, if you take offense at that," she said bitterly. "I suppose the answer is fairly clear."

"Hermione…?" Severus looked eminently confused, even taken aback by her tone.

"I think we're done," she pronounced with difficulty. "You'll be graduating in less than four months, so you'll never have to deal with me again. Focus on getting into the Dark Lord's good graces—I'll just focus on getting through school alive. As pathetically stupid as you think I am."

With that said, she strode off, head bent as she left. Severus stood up quickly, one hand outstretched to halt her retreating back as the meaning of his words finally hit him.

"No—wait—"

But Hermione had either ignored or not heard him, for she left, footsteps fading in the distance, and she did not return.

~o~O~o~

Hermione went back to Gryffindor Tower that night and, when her friends saw the expression on her face and stood up to try and feel out what was wrong, she pulled away and stalked upstairs, leaving the boys hanging at the staircase and looking quite helpless while the girls tried to reassure them that they would take care of it. But Hermione went to her room and after a few flicks of her wand, changed into sleep attire and crawled into bed. She pulled the curtains around her and though she laid her school work out on the coverlet, she could only curl up and bury her face in her arms.

She had not wanted to imagine something like this could happen. She had always known that Severus would choose Lily over her, but she had at least thought she ranked higher than Lucius Malfoy—a man who treated Severus as his inferior rather than his equal and flaunted his wealth in his face, knowing he could use his status alone to buy favors. But perhaps that was it, really. She thought that Severus valued her intelligence and friendship over the fortune and prestige Malfoy offered, but really, who had she been kidding? Severus was a Slytherin. Right now, he cared only about a select few things: the safety of Lily Evans and his status among the people he perceived to be his superiors—and the people his superiors perceived to be his peers. Hermione did not fit into that list, unless she counted as both a source of knowledge and curiosity, something to keep him occupied until he graduated, and a way of raising status among his cohorts by keeping tabs on her. In short, an entertaining distraction.

A bitter feeling wormed through her chest at this thought.

Alice pulled back her curtains several minutes later to find Hermione still balled up on the bed, The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 6 opened up at her feet.

"Go away," Hermione said listlessly.

"Not until you tell us what's wrong," Alice said, slipping onto the bed and shutting the curtain behind her. "You're obviously upset."

"It's nothing you can help with," Hermione said, burying her face in her arms once more. "Just leave me be. I appreciate your concern, it's just not necessary."

"Hermione…" Alice paused. "James and Sirius are downstairs waiting to talk to you. They know you came back from the library, and now they're ready to go out and find Snape and hex him."

Hermione failed even to look up. "Tell them to not bother. It's not worth it."

"They said that unless you go downstairs to dissuade them otherwise, they're going," Alice said warningly. She paused. "And… Lily—Lily's telling James that she knew this would happen. I hate to say it, Hermione, because Lily's a really nice person, but—"

"She's gloating," Hermione responded dully, her voice muffled.

"I hate to say it, but yes."

"Go downstairs," Hermione instructed, looking up at Alice. Her eyes were rimmed red from quiet crying. "And tell James and Sirius that if they want to leave Hogwarts with their bollocks intact, they will not leave the common room tonight to go seek out Sev—Snape. And furthermore, please go tell Lily to stuff a sock in it."

Alice's mouth gaped open in a silent 'o' of surprise, and then she shut it. "Be right back, then," she said, slipping through the curtain and disappearing from sight.

Hermione buried her face in her arms once more, and cried.

When Alice returned a quarter of an hour later, she did not press or badger Hermione for more information. She pulled the distraught girl into her arms and held her, offering almost motherly comfort to her, until Hermione sniffled her way out of her tears and forced herself to finish up the homework due on Monday. Alice grabbed hers, and the two sat together on the bed and worked in relative silence for the rest of the night.

The next morning was thankfully a Saturday. Hermione didn't even bother leaving her dorm room: she ordered breakfast up with the elves and sat in her room all day, working. She didn't even venture downstairs. Marlene and Alice came in several times a day to try to coax her out with suggestions of a walk around the grounds or a trip to the library, but Hermione put them off. She didn't feel like dealing with the other students right now.

Lily came in some time after lunch to try and talk to her, but Hermione, in a fit of uncharacteristic temper, snarled at her to get out.

She did not feel like dealing with other people today. To make things worse, her period had just started, which meant she would riding an emotional rollercoaster for the next few days. The smallest things set her off, the tiniest problems made her depressed. Given what had just happened, it was hardly a wonder that she was feeling listless and despondent. And right now, all she wanted to do was get her work done. She had a massive amount of homework, and by shutting herself in, she isolated herself from any and all things not directly related to the completion of all known homework assignments due sometime within the next week.

Sunday evening, Alice forced her to get up and walk around the room a bit, opening a window to give her some fresh air, and then—with a meaningful look at her hair—suggested that she take a shower before tomorrow. Nearly complete with her work and with nothing better to do, Hermione obeyed, and felt a good deal better for it.

Monday morning, classes resumed as normal. Hermione went down to breakfast with everyone else, ate, and hurried off to class without a second glance. She saw Severus out of the corner of her eye several times throughout the day, but before he could get near her, she was gone. She was feeling poor enough as it was without having to confront him. She did not care to entertain any of his excuses, and she was afraid that if he did, she would be inclined to either hit him or forgive him.

She was successful in avoiding him until Thursday, by which time her period was over, and she was feeling normal again. It was also when James and Sirius cornered her in the common room and confessed that they had confronted Severus on Monday to find out what had happened.

"I hope you didn't hex him," Hermione said, eyeing them suspiciously.

James put his hands up placatingly. "We didn't send him to the Hospital Wing, if that's what you're asking."

Hermione sighed, and glanced back down at the Arithmancy problem she was working on. "James…"

Both boys sighed and exchanged glances, as though they still had not worked on how they were going to explain this to her. Sirius gave it a go.

"The greasy git wants to talk to you," he said, eyeing her hand just in case it twitched warningly toward her wand. "He says he's sorry, although he wouldn't tell us what for."

Hermione turned her attention back to her work. She swallowed. "Tell him that he's forgiven, but that what I told him still stands."

James and Sirius turned to look at each other, and shrugged. They did a quick game of rock-cake, parchment, wand, and then James ambled off, no doubt to deliver her message.

~o~O~o~

Hermione was returning from Astronomy that night, the last student descending down the stairs after she'd had an extended conversation with Professor Sinistra about the assignment due next Monday, when a dark shape slipped out of a hiding place in the wall. Hermione immediately dropped her bag, wand whipped out of her sleeve, and raised in defense.

A deep, silky voice snapped, "Expelliarmus!"

Hermione blocked the spell with a Shield Charm, and then—instinct taking her over, along with her summer training—she snapped her wand in his direction.

"Stupefy!"

There was a shattering flare of sparks as her spell crashed and rebounded off Severus' own Shield Charm, and Hermione ducked forward, on the offensive.

"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, slashing her wand in his direction. Severus dodged it by a hair, and stepped back into the safety of the darkness. The torches had been extinguished by the force of their spell work, and Hermione stood at the foot of the steps where there was just enough moonlight for her to see into the gloom ahead.

"I'm here to talk— damn it!" He let out an expletive as he was forced to block another shield-rattling hex. "Stop attacking me! I'm not here to hurt you!"

"You should know by now that I don't take kindly to being disarmed," Hermione snapped, sending another incapacitating spell his way. "Diffindo!" There was a crack, and a sudden yelp of pain, and Hermione backed away, trying to get a visual on her target in what little light there was. She couldn't be bothered to cast a Lumos when she might need her wand to cast a Shield Charm instead. She sent a flurry of several other hexes down the hallway, hoping to hit him, and trying to get a glimpse of where he might be. "Where the hell are you? Come on out!"

"Lower—lower your wand," Severus's voice demanded jerkily. Hermione's ears twitched, trying to feel him out. "Please—just lower your wand. I haven't cast anything more at you than a Disarming Charm. I'm only here to talk to you, since you've been avoiding me all week."

"If you were just here to talk," Hermione said, wordlessly sending another hex his way, "then you wouldn't have attacked me. Incarcerous!"

He blocked both spells, and after that, there was no talking. Hermione had ducked into the gloom, and spells began to fling back wildly between them, exploding into the walls and their enspelled shields like sparklers. Severus's spells all originated from the same location, and after a few moments, Hermione was able to identify his position.

She was about to retreat back to the lit base of the stairs where she could see properly when his strong arms suddenly wrapped around her, pinning her helplessly against his chest. She made to scream, but a Silencing Spell rendered her mute, and, cursing her idiocy, she flailed helplessly, trying to loosen his grip on her. She kicked his leg with the back of her heel, and to her surprise, he crumbled to the ground, though he still held on tightly. She heard him give a grunt of pain, and when she tried to jab him in the jugular with the handle of her wand, his chin knocked into her hand, sending her wand skidding across the floor.

"Damn it—stop—damn it, stop struggling—my leg!" Hermione rammed the back of her head into his face, and she felt him loosen her grip. She pulled away, feeling around wildly for her wand, and he grabbed her leg and dragged her backwards, causing her to scream silently in surprise and fury.

"You broke my ankle with your stupid spell—" He heaved himself up, maneuvering until he had her pinned down on the ground, her face pressed into the cold stone floor. His leg was splayed at an odd angle, and when he managed to wordlessly light his wand so that they could see, she saw that, indeed, his right ankle was resting on the ground at a twisted, sick angle. And it looked as though it were causing him a good deal of pain.

That must have been the Diffindo, Hermione thought. And then with a bit of sadistic satisfaction, added silently, Good. He deserves it, the bastard.

He was hovering over her now, she saw, his face inches from hers. It was pinched with pain and frustration, but for some odd reason, she truly was not all that afraid. He was panting hard, and she watched him take in a huge gulp of air before being able to speak. Up close, she did not fear him. He closed his eyes for a moment and gritted his teeth with pain, before opening them.

"If I let you go, will you sit quietly and let me talk?"

She stared up at him defiantly, which he took for a 'no.' She saw him raise his wand, and struggled futilely for a moment, unable to throw off his weight, before she felt her entire body freeze from his Petrificus Totalus. He let out a groan of pain, and moved to rest his weight entirely on his left side to spare his right ankle as much pain as possible.

"You've been avoiding me all week," he said, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve. "James Potter gave me your message, but he apparently didn't give you mine. No matter. Hermione, if you've forgiven me, why won't you talk to me?"

Hermione gave him a medusa-worthy glare, silently and impotently, and he sighed.

"Right—can't speak yet—but you never gave me a chance to explain…" He dug the fingers of one hand in his hair, as though trying to think about how to say something. "I didn't mean to call you pathetic or stupid. I shouldn't have disregarded the fact that you probably have a fairly good reason for hating Lucius, either…"

Hermione felt her jaw unfreeze just enough to work the saliva in her mouth, but she still couldn't speak.

"I should have apologized right away—I tried to, actually—but you'd already left, and you hadn't given me a chance to. Short of threatening to sleep outside Gryffindor Tower again—which, I might add, made me the laughingstock of Slytherin and Gryffindor for months to follow, and which I couldn't afford to do right now—" Funny, he almost sounded like he was rambling his words. "This was the only way I could think of getting you to let me talk." He looked down at her with a mixture of pain and something else, which probably had to do with his broken ankle. "I'm sorry, Hermione. That's what I've been trying to tell you."

Hermione worked her jaw, a moment longer, and then craned her neck up at him, glaring.

"And I'll try not to be such an arse next time, but can—"

Hermione worked her legs slightly, just to make sure they were working, and then in one swift moment, she connected her knee to his crotch with as much force as she could put behind it. She extracted herself out from underneath him while he doubled over in agony, his right ankle still twisted at an odd angle, and let out a very audible string of pained whimpers mixed in with cursing.

"You could have put all of that in a letter without making me think you were trying to kill me," Hermione told him coolly, brushing off her robes. A moan of pain was her only response, and she stretched out her limbs to check that they were in good working order before she bent down and pulled one of his arms free from where he was clutching his groin in pain, and pulled it around her shoulder, helping him to his feet. "We'll talk about it while Madam Pomfrey fixes you up."

Severus did not seem capable of speaking until they had managed to hobble down two floors in the direction of the Hospital Wing. "A letter… is so… impersonal… cold… not the right way to go about things…"

"So is hexing and wrestling someone to the ground," Hermione told him, feeling only slightly sorry for his pain. She knew she would probably feel exponentially worse than she did now once she had time to sit back and think on it, but at the moment, any regret was dulled by the adrenaline still coursing through her veins. Adrenaline and a good deal of pent-up anger.

"I tried finding a way to talk to you in-between classes…"

"I avoided you."

"…tried catching you just before… lunch…."

"I was probably a bit too quick for that."

"…and if I'd managed to disarm you… as planned… it would have been less of a wrestling match…"

"I don't make things easy for people who plan to disarm me," Hermione said, her voice cheerful for the first time that night. "You should have noticed that by now."

"I noticed," he said stiffly, paused, and then stumbled for a moment as Hermione helped him down another flight of stairs, before muttering distractedly, "Fuck. You're a good duelist."

"You already knew that," Hermione reminded him.

"Kindly remind me… not to try this again… any time in the near future…" He grimaced in pain, and then pronounced as clearly as he could, "I must have been insane to try."

Hermione gave him a half-smile. "I could have told you that from the start."

"So…" Severus paused for a moment as Hermione helped him down the last flight of stairs and helped him limp toward the Hospital Wing. "Does this mean you'll… ow…" he stumbled for a moment, his leg catching against the ground, causing his face to contort in pain. "Does this mean you'll meet me at the library again, tomorrow?"

"Let's talk it over while Madam Pomfrey fixes you up," Hermione said, adjusting her grip on him. "You've got your own problems to deal with without throwing me into the mix, and if I really cause that much trouble for you—well—" her tone turned uncertain, "—you graduate in four months, and then that's it. Shouldn't you be focusing on… well, on your future?"

Severus ground down on his teeth. "No." They hobbled the last few steps toward the door, and Hermione lowered Severus gently to the ground so that he could sit against the wall while she knocked on the door.

"I would think that would be more important," Hermione responded carefully, as she heard footsteps approaching the door.

"Not when you're my best friend," Severus replied, shifting into a more comfortable position as the matron opened the door and peered out.

The minute she saw Severus, she let out a sigh of long-suffering, and signaled Hermione to help him up and into the room. She shut the door behind them, and shook her head.

"What happened to you this time?"

Hermione watched Madam Pomfrey as she helped Severus onto one of the beds. Straight-faced, she replied, "We had a bit of a disagreement."

The matron's eyebrows merely rose to her hairline as she took in Severus's broken leg.

"I can see that," she said.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review.


"Looks like you made up with Snivellus," Sirius said with a nod at the Slytherin table the next morning as he stabbed his sausage with a fork.

Hermione glanced up from her own breakfast, eyeing him suspiciously. "How can you tell?"

Sirius grinned at her. "He's limping."

Hermione turned her gaze over to the Slytherin table, where Severus was picking up his bookbag and making his way toward the doors. Indeed, he was limping. Slightly. "How do you know I had anything to do with that?"

"Because if it wasn't us, it had to be you," James said, with an unsympathetic smirk in Severus's direction as he exited the hall. The smile suddenly slid off his face. "I suppose that means you're going back to spending time with him?"

"Inevitably," Hermione agreed.

"I think that's a bad decision," Lily said, glancing over at Hermione and letting out a sigh. "Next time—"

"Next time, I'll send him to the Hospital Wing and then we'll kiss and make up," Hermione responded sarcastically, taking a stab at her eggs. "Business as usual."

The boys visibly gagged at this.

Lily let out another sigh, and then seemed to drop the matter. Hermione couldn't tell if she was genuinely concerned about her, still angry with Severus for the incident that had caused their breakup, or a mixture of both. She suspected the lattermost possibility.

"I suppose this means they're not allowed to hex him," Remus said mildly, looking up from his book, which he had propped up against his goblet of pumpkin juice.

James and Sirius glared at him good-naturedly, if such a thing were at all possible.

~o~O~o~

"You're still limping, I see," Hermione said, nodding at Severus's leg as he made his way over to their table later that evening. He slid his bag off his shoulder and onto the table where it landed with a heavy thud, and pulled out his Arithmancy text.

He scowled at her. "Thanks to you, I might add."

"You deserved it," Hermione said, grinning up sheepishly at him.

"Not that I'll ever admit it," he muttered, before sliding into the seat next to her.

And just like that, it was as though nothing had happened. They worked on Arithmancy together, arguing over the petty details, before diverting their attention to separate assignments. It was not until Hermione began working on her Defense Against the Dark Arts homework that she realized something was amiss.

"This may sound slightly paranoid," she said, examining her assignment, "but it seems to me as though Faulkner is assigning us more dueling spells. I feel like he's preparing us for something."

Severus gave her a nasty, superior grin. "So what if he is?"

Hermione gave him a suspicious stare.

"You know something," she stated.

He leaned back in his chair, gingerly crossing his legs, and gave her a smug, self-satisfied sneer. "So what if I do?"

Hermione studied his face for a moment, and then with a complacent smile, turned away to resume her work. "Then I suppose I'll just have to wait to find out."

He stared at Hermione for a full minute, as though he could scarcely believe what she had said, and turned around in his chair to face her. "You're not going to impersonate the bloody Spanish inquisition and interrogate me for hints?"

"Of course not," Hermione said with a huff, frowning down at her assignment. "You probably wouldn't tell me even if I asked, and I don't need garbled hints in order to do well in my classes."

"You are a dry, withered-up bookworm," Severus muttered sourly, glaring down at his Transfiguration essay. "You lack that necessary bit of humanity that allows for entertainment."

Hermione turned to give him an exasperated look. "Begging you for hints would hardly be fun for me!"

"So was being kicked in the bollocks, but that didn't seem to stop you," Severus said, re-inking his quill and starting a new paragraph of his essay. "I'm sure you enjoyed that."

"As a matter of fact, I did not!"

"Of course you would say that, in the interest of resuming diplomatic international relationships—"

Hermione groaned and buried her face in her hands. "You are never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"Probably not." Severus peered down at her face, which was now suitably smudged with ink. "And I do believe you've just decorated your face with your fingerprints."

Hermione looked down at her hands, the tips of which were smeared with ink, and groaned.

The rest of February passed quite uneventfully. March was interrupted mid-way by a ridiculously heavy snowstorm, landing the school in over three feet of snow. Severus actually stood back to watch with sneering amusement as Hermione helped pull a first-year Hufflepuff out of a snowdrift he had fallen into; the poor boy was so short that when he had tried to step into it, he had sunk in over his chest, lost his balance, and landed face-first into the snow, flailing helplessly. It was somewhat absurd to witness. Nevertheless, that day, he had a very good excuse for being fifteen minutes late to Herbology.

By the end of March, the incident that had driven Hermione and Severus apart during February had fairly blown over and been delegated to the back of their minds with all the other fuzzy memories they had of earlier school years. Hermione had tucked it away with her memories concerning the time Harry and Ron had not been on speaking terms early on in fourth year.

Ironically, on April 1st, panic concerning the upcoming exams actually began to settle into the students when Professor Faulkner, in a joke that involved the rest of the staff, informed the students that they would be taking their exams in early May rather than the middle of June.

The flurry this caused in the Great Hall had been utterly absurd. There were several screams, two fainting students who had to be carried up to see Madam Pomfrey, and a flurry of papers as the students all dug into their bags to check that they actually had their notes. Those who did not quite literally tripped over their seats trying to find the housemates who they knew actually took comprehensive notes. It was very nearly raw chaos, and Hermione had not been apart from it. She was among the students who had been frantically checking her notebook and the lesson syllabi that the teachers had passed out earlier that year, and had nearly lost it when the full implication hit her that she would only have one full week to study before her exams.

It took three sharp bangs from Faulkner's wand to regain the students' attention long enough to inform them that it had been nothing more than a joke. The normally strict and austere Defense professor's eyes were crinkled with laughter, and he received a chaos-strewn hall full of glares for his trouble.

But if Faulkner's desired outcome of the prank was to raise the students' awareness that their finals were not as far off as they would like to imagine, it worked spectacularly well. Exam fever had gripped the students, and in the upcoming weeks, Hermione helped Lily, James, and Remus crack down on the illicit trade that had sprung up among the students. Students claiming to have magical objects of great value in regards to boosting testing performance had their would-be miracle ingredients confiscated and, if Hermione was able to report them to the prefects, detention. Students were now bargaining copies of notes as though they were money—which Lily put a stop to by making free copies of her own meticulous notes and passing them around—and they could be more often found studying than slacking off.

Exams began looming over their heads like an oncoming stormcloud, and by May, amid the thunderstorms that raged against the castle walls, it had the motif to match. Between reviewing the year's notes and taking turns questioning each other during their evenings in the library, Hermione could not help feeling a pit of dread welling up in her gut whenever she look at Severus. In less than two months, he would be gone. Graduated. As would Lily, James, Sirius, Remus, Frank, Alice, Marlene, and all the other seventh years. This thankfully incuded Pettigrew, who Hermione had never really learned to like (much to the confusion of the other Marauders, and it was a secret that she kept painfully locked away) but it meant that all of her friends would be gone, too.

Already, she felt piteously alone.

What would happen to Severus once he left? Would he take the Dark Mark immediately? Was he planning on pursuing further study in the art of Potions on his own time? Where would he go? Did he even consider keeping in touch with her while she completed her seventh year? What would happen to her?

She kept her worries bottled tightly in her heart, and instead poured her efforts into spending as much time with her friends as possible while also studying for the ever-nearing exams. By this time, she had resumed being on good terms with Lily: the green-eyed girl never brought Severus up in conversation unless in passing, and they worked well together when it came to reviewing and sniffing out students who were trying to dupe their fellows into buying useless junk that allegedly produced miracles.

She also discovered that James and Lily were planning to marry in a quiet ceremony sometime within the year, as soon as they had graduated. Sirius and Pettigrew were, of course, invited. James personally took Hermione aside to ask if she would do them the honor of attending.

Hermione had mixed feelings on the matter. Their wedding was planned during the following school year, which was a good excuse in of itself, but the fact of the matter was that she simply didn't feel it was her place to be in those memories. Pictures would be taken. Harry would get the remains of those memories from Hagrid, and they would be all he would have left of his parents. But James and Lily were her good friends, and if nothing else, she felt she should be there for them at this special moment in their lives. James was inviting his very closest friends, and Hermione was truly honored to be considered among them.

She therefore accepted—only to be pulled into a bear-hug by James, and then later informed by Lily that she would like Hermione to be her Maid of Honor.

"I know we haven't always seen eye to eye," the woman admitted sheepishly, smiling warmly, "but you've been an incredibly good friend to us, and I would like you to be there in that stead."

"Of course," Hermione answered with genuine enthusiasm.

"Oh, Hermione!" Lily pulled her into a hug and kissed her cheek. "You don't know how much that means to us. Thank you."

Severus's face became almost disturbingly blank when he heard the news. Hermione stared into his expressionless countenance as his eyes took on a far-away look, suggesting that he was still absorbing the news, and he shortly came back to himself.

"I see," he muttered, his demeanor closed, sullen even.

Exams finally arrived. If Hogwarts had been in an uproar earlier, what had passed for pure chaos earlier was now simply raw, unadulterated, unleashed, near-explosive pandemonium. Even the teachers looked a little taken aback by the students' frantic and harried behavior, and Hermione heard McGonagall remark to Flitwick that perhaps they could try this in another decade or so, once they had an opportunity to invest in some anti-riot equipment.

Hermione was kept studying until the very last possible moment. But when exams finally arrived, and it was time to set her notes and books aside and begin the written portion of her Charms exam, she did it with the mixed attitude of a prisoner approaching the guillotine and a race horse chomping at the bit. All throughout the week, stress levels achieved an all-new high. Madam Pomfrey was passing out Calming Draughts to the students like pumpkin juice, and she ran low very quickly, forcing her to request more from Slughorn, who was only too happy to provide her with a regular supply.

"You know how it is, Poppy," he told her with a genial sigh as he delivered two cratefuls of the stuff to the Hospital Wing. "They go through it like butterbeer."

Hermione's day fell into a regular pattern during the two weeks that encompassed testing. Study, take her exams, eat, sleep, and flip a knut to see if she would remember to shower. Severus followed similarly, and the two of them often ended up kipping in the library, much to Madam Pince's self-righteous disgust. Exceptions were made during exam week, and it was not uncommon to see a student passed out over their books in the morning when the library re-opened, but the librarian clearly did not like it.

The Defense Against the Dark Arts exam was undeniably the most interesting, if not harrowing, one. Professor Faulkner had set up a bit of a challenge course using what had been the Forbidden Corridor in Hermione's first year for his sixth-year students, where they had to deal with a wide manner of dangerous magical beasts that were not even covered in Care of Magical Creatures beyond being assigned as an essay: the Defense teacher had somehow managed to get ahold of a Quintuped, which had to be quickly Stupefied and bound before the student could continue. Boggarts, too, were present, which Hermione was able to take down with sufficient skill. Voldemort, scaley and grey, with red eyes, appeared before her, but he was so different from how he appeared now, given that he still had a fairly human-like form, that it was easy for others to assume that the boggart had turned into a personal, nightmarish creation.

A firebreathing chicken running amok, a demon-possessed book that chased after the students with papery teeth, and a Sphinx were all part of the exam. Students who were unable to solve the lattermost's riddle had to be quick on their feet to incapacitate it long enough to escape.

Doxies had to be watched out for, since there were some hidden behind innocent-looking obstacles such as trees or logs. A chameleon ghoul had been set loose and, enraged, was a formidable thing that had to be quickly subdued. Faulkner had even managed to acquire a five-foot tall Acromantula, likely from the Forbidden Forest and with Hagrid's help, and Hermione was one of the few students who managed to get past it relatively unscathed; knowing that the eyes and underbelly were the weakest, softest spots, she had magically bound it up with rope to distract it long enough to slide underneath its belly and aim a series of stunners at it. It crumpled over to the side, and she left that particular room feeling quite relieved.

Ron would have had a heart attack, Hermione was sure.

But when she got to the second-to-last part of the exam, she discovered that she was not just dealing with dark creatures anymore. Professor Faulkner, standing against the far wall, informed the students who made it this far that they would be dueling people.

Seventh-year students, to be exact. Hermione only later discovered that the students in question got to choose which sixth-years they wanted to duel, for she was very surprised at the time to find that Severus was to be her opponent. There were only about ten seventh-year students in the class, and nearly twice as many sixth-years, which meant that they would have to duel two sixth-years each.

Severus's words several weeks ago finally made sense to her. Faulker had probably prepared them to make them as difficult to defeat as possible, and she gathered that this was just as much a test for the seventh-years as it was for the sixths. Of course, the seventh-years were taking their NEWTs, but Severus later told her that whether or not Faulker wrote a recommendation for them rested largely on their success in dueling his sixth-years.

Faulkner's instructions were very clear as Hermione and Severus strode to the center of the room, wands raised and waiting for the signal. He was smirking at her as they readied themselves.

"You may use whatever magical means you have at your disposal to win," he told them seriously. "You may not resort to purely physical means—this is a test of your magical prowess, not your bar-fighting skills. Unforgivables are, as they would be anywhere else, off-limits." His eyes narrowed dangerously at this, and Hermione suspected that there must have been some kind of incident in his seventh-year class to cause him to issue such a stark warning. "This is not maypole dancing. You are fighting to win, and that means getting dirty, then so be it. Am I understood?"

Both participants nodded.

"Begin."

They were in a clearly-lit room. Unlike their last fight, they could see each other clearly. They both entered the duel ready to throw more than just a disarming or momentarily crippling spell; they were working to solidly incapacitate. Severus's movements were practiced and swift, and Hermione suspected that if she had not caught him off-guard with a diffindo up at the Astronomy tower, she would have lost the battle quite spectacularly. She had not been in the mode for all-out fighting. Now, however, she was and she never stayed in one spot long enough for her raven-haired opponent to take aim.

Spells flew across the room, bouncing off of walls, shields, and even the ward that Faulker had erected protectively around himself. Hermione was completely in her element and, with all senses alert and her visuals well-supplied, she soon had Severus dancing on the edge of having just enough time to defend himself. She didn't give him an opening, not even a split second to attack or retaliate once she had him off-kilter.

But she couldn't land a solid hex on him. Neither could he on her. It became a game of either putting up shields or dodging before commencing an attack. They were both advantaged and disadvantaged by not being able to edge close enough to the other to body slam them off balance or use some other form of physical incapacitation.

Hermione did not know how long their duel took, but they were still fighting, sweat pouring down the side of their faces and their brows pinched in frustration and concentration, when the next seventh-year poked his head into the door to check if it was his turn to come in. A similar thing occurred with one of the sixth-years, and he ducked back from whence he had come, slamming the door shut, when a snarled 'Incendio!' exploded inches away from his face.

Hermione was holding her own with admirable skill and tenacious determination, and by now she would have successfully disarmed any ordinary Death Eater, but Severus was amazingly good. Mad-Eye told her that most of Voldemort's followers fought in the style of 'stand-and-attack'. That meant they moved little and defended minimally, often preferring to take their chances with loud, powerful hexes. Severus was quite the opposite, moving gracefully and supinely, and preferring to use spells whose effects were surgically precise rather than raw explosions, and shielding at every turn.

This was not the kind of battle-style Hermione was accustomed to dealing with, and had this been anyone else, she might have still won easily. But she had not been training to the same strenuous extent that she had been put through that summer, and though she remembered every word her mentors had taught her, and the instincts were still there, her reflexes were a bit out of shape.

Hermione was caught off guard by the sudden tell-tale crack of Apparition. Her eyes widened in shock as she realized that the Anti-Disapparition wards on the school had been lifted from this particular room. She had known that was possible, given that she took her Apparition lessons in the Great Hall with all the other sixth-years earlier in January, completing the twelve-week course and earning her license along with the majority of the class, but she had not known that it applied in this particular instance.

Shite!

Her response was too slow. Severus was mere feet away from her, and he triumphantly flicked his wand upward in her direction.

Hermione yelped and suddenly found herself hoisted into the air by her ankle. Her robes dropped around her, and it was at this moment that Hermione was fervently grateful that she had thought to wear jeans today, since she had also taken her Herbology practical earlier and had thought them a prudent addition. She had not, unfortunately, thought to put on her Muggle jumper—it was far too hot for that, and as Hermione writhed in the air, trying to get free, she wished she had. Her arms were tangled up by the sleeves of her robes now, and she wriggled around, trying to dislodge the obstruction before Severus could disarm her.

"Stu—"

"Protego!" Hermione gasped, just barely managing to block the spell. She cast a charm on her robes that caused them to tear off, and trying to ignore the humiliating fact that she was now danging upside down in the air in nothing but a bra and jeans, she snapped her wand in his direction. Now was not the moment to worry about feminine modesty—she had found herself in a similar situation in more than one duel with Alastor and Kingsley, who had shown her no mercy, and knew there would be time to be properly mortified later.

"Relashio!"

Severus was thrown backwards, his wand almost exploding out of his hands and skidding off to the side. Hermione's head pounded, the blood rushing to it almost dizzyingly, and she twisted around as she spun slowly in the air by her ankle, trying to get a reasonable shot at him.

"Conjunctivitus!" She snapped her wand at his neck. "Confundo— Carpe Retractum!"

The first spell hit his eyes, as intended, causing him to let out a yell not unlike the one Hermione had heard from the dragon Viktor Krum had used the very same spell on in her fourth year. It was one of surprise, rage, and excruciating pain. The second stopped him cold from scrambling about for his wand, whereupon he fell to his knees, swaying and gripping the floor, trying to regain his wits. The third had snapped a rope around his neck, attached to her wand, and was dragging him toward her on the floor.

He struggled, hands clawing at the rope uselessly, and flailed about, temporarily blinded and quite helpless. Gritting her teeth, Hermione pointed her wand at herself, and cast the countercurse to the spell keeping herself levitated. She dropped with a loud 'oomph!' right on top of her opponent, using him as a cushion so that she did not crack her skull on the hard stone floor. He let out a grunt of pain, and she rolled off quickly, adjusting her bra which had come loose, and grappled for her torn robes, pulling them on to cover what she could.

Severus was letting out a garbled stream of swear words, mostly unintelligible since the rope around his throat was still choking him. Hermione disengaged the spell, causing the end of the rope to drop from her wand and go slack, and she watched Severus let out a gasping cough, his fingers scrabbling against the noose around his neck to try and remove it. He managed to roll to his knees, searching around blindly, desperately for his wand.

Hermione summoned the stick of ebony to her hands and, satisfied that she had well and truly won, reversed the damage to his eyes. He stopped to blink and rub them, and when he could see clearly again, looked up at her, wearing the most furious, snarling scowl she had seen yet. His eyes were rimmed red, he had rope burns on his neck, and his hands were slashed from the Releasing Charm.

She had her wand pointed at him.

"I win," she said, breasts heaving as she used the opportunity to catch her breath. "Bastard."

"My eyes, you bitch," Severus growled, slowly bringing himself to his feet.

Professor Faulkner chose to intervene at that moment, stepping in and plucking Severus's wand from Hermione's hand and tossing it back to its owner, who quickly snatched it out of the air.

"Excellent work," he said. He was smiling fixedly, but his eyes were lit up with laughter. "I dare say Miss Granger is undisputably the winner. Go on, then," he said, pointing to the door. "Fix up your robes and head on to the next part of the challenge."

Hermione's jaw dropped. "There's more?"

"Of course. Surely you didn't think this was the end?"

Muttering mutinously under her breath, Hermione repaired her robes and stalked off to the next room.

When the exams were finally over, the guillotine fell, and the chains were broken. Two very different feelings warred within Hermione. She had survived her sixth year, and was well on her way to taking her NEWTs next year. Exams were over. Summer had arrived. On the other hand… even though she would be keeping in touch with all of her Gryffindor friends who were soon to become Hogwarts Alumnae, there was one person whose future she was uncertain about.

She certainly had it out with him once the exam was over.

"I can't believe you did that!" Hermione raged at him, having cornered him in their usual spot in the library. She watched him discretely cast Muffliato and a Notice-Me-Not spell when her tone rose above acceptable indoor decibels. "If I hadn't just come back from my Herbology exam, I wouldn't have been wearing anything!"

"It was fair game," Severus responded silkily, giving her an infuriating, slight curl of a smile. "I was rather hoping you would switch your focus from me to protecting your modesty." He placed delicate emphasis on the last word, and then frowned. "I have to admit that I was rather unpleasantly surprised on that front."

"It was still a dirty trick," Hermione snapped, glaring at him.

"You were warned. Besides," Severus added, scowling, "I'm beginning to wonder if you don't get off on causing me pain." He rubbed his neck, where Madam Pomfrey had had to heal the rope marks Hermione's spell had left behind. "You certainly fit the profile for a sadist. Using one of your imobilizing spells would have sufficed—instead, you had to blind, strangle, and Confund me."

Hermione sniffed at him. "You deserved it."

His scowl deepened, but Hermione couldn't help wondering if the glitter of amusement she thought she saw in his eyes was not just her imagination.

The lazy summer days strolled over Hogwarts, encouraging the students to go outside for a walk or to play games with the Giant Squid now that the stress of exams was over. Some remained inside to read or wander the halls. Hermione found the weather too hot for her liking, and instead retreated to the library, where she curled up in that special corner between two bookcases and a stained glass window and tried to set aside the worries that could not be immediately helped by delving into the pages of a book.

The days flew by. The Leaving Feast approached. Hermione left it early after saying good-bye to her friends, and slowly returned to the library, with a sense of foreboding and depression. She slumped down in her usual seat and pulled out a book. She tried to read, but she simply didn't have the energy to do so. Resigned, she leaned back against the shelf, crouched down on the floor as she was, and peered at the shadows that flitted across the colors on the window.

She was distracted from the quiet solace she had found by familiar footsteps. Only one person would know to look for her here, and sure enough, when she turned around, there was Severus Snape, wearing all-black and quite full grown. There was not a trace of boyish features left in him; over the last year, he had finally reached the last half-inch of his full height, and he did indeed look like the Professor Snape she remembered; just younger, decades less careworn, and decidedly healthier—and a good deal happier and more relaxed.

She watched him walk toward her, her eyes glued to his boots—when had he traded his trainers in for them?—and slowly stood up, brushing off her robes.

She took in his face, trying to commit it to memory, knowing that it would change a great deal in the coming years. But right now, he looked human, very much a young man anticipating a future ahead of him.

"You didn't stay at the Leaving Feast for very long," Severus observed, gracing her with a faint half-smile. In this moment in time, everything seemed absolutely serene, perfect even. Sunlight streamed in through the window, the library was mercifully quiet, far quieter than it had been in weeks, and she felt quite at peace without the stress of homework as an added burden. "You seem somewhat upset."

"I just needed some peace and silence," she said calmly, with a slight smile.

"Something's been on your mind a lot over the past few months," Severus told her, moving to lean against the window. There was no bite to his words: to Hermione, it felt as though neither of them simply had the emotional energy or inclination to snark at each other right now, even in good jest. "Indulge me."

Hermione closed her eyes. "You won't be here next year."

He seemed gratuitously surprised by this statement. "You'll miss me?"

"Of course," Hermione replied softly, pressing her cheek against the window. "You're my best friend. We've had our disagreements, and I suspect we always will, but—that's how it is."

He examined her face closely. "Is that all?"

Hermione shook her head. "What will happen when you're gone?" she whispered, the thoughts that had plagued her over the past few weeks slowly simmering to the surface. "Will you still be my friend? Will I ever see you again as such, even as we take opposite sides of the upcoming war?" She closed her eyes, willing the tears prickling at the corners to go away. "Will you even bother to keep in touch?"

There was a long silence that stretched between them at this revelation, and then to her surprise, his hands slowly came to cup her face, tilting it up to look at him. He used the heel of his palm to wipe away the faint trail of tears curling down the corners of her cheeks, and rather than scoff at her, his expression had turned soft and considerate, if somewhat brooding.

"I will write, when and what I can," he promised, giving her one of the rare half-smiles that were of genuine affection. "As for your other concerns—you know where I will be, but I am certain that there will be times and places we can and will meet again, not under the banner of our respective sides, but as just—friends." There was a faint trace of uncertainty in his voice. "That's what we've been doing all along, haven't we?"

"True enough," Hermione replied, feeling relieved and slightly light-headed at his reassurance. She smiled up at him, a gentle smile of real warmth, and then glanced down at her watch.

"You have to leave in five minutes," she said sadly, staring back out the window. The feel of his hands, which had dropped to her shoulders, were calloused and warm on her face and oddly soothing. "The Leaving Feast is over by now. You had better hurry."

He did not pull away immediately, and when she glanced back up at him, she saw several expressions warring across his face. He seemed to be debating something within himself, as though he had already convinced himself to do it, and was trying to convince himself to actually go through with it. A moment later, his expression solidified into one of determination, and he leaned forward. He did not hesitate, cupping her face in one hand as he kissed her.

Hermione's eyes widened in surprise as his mouth moved to cover hers, but she did not make to protest or pull away. His lips slid cautiously against hers, and when faced with a distinct lack of resistance he moved to explore her mouth, tasting it. Hermione finally registered what was happening, feeling a faint flutter in her stomach as she did so, and in a decision to not overanalyze that moment, she responded wholeheartedly. He had caught her into a slow, drugging kiss, and her eyes fluttered shut. His lips were thin but soft, and he suckled on her tongue, giving the impression that he was quite enjoying himself as a man who would never get a chance to sample a delicacy enjoyed his one opportunity to have it.

He pulled away a moment later, staring down at her with an expression she could not yet quantify, though it seemed akin to a combination of lust and regret. She stared up at him, unconciously licking her lips to draw out the sensation, and then closed her eyes for just an insant to savor the moment.

"I was right," she heard Severus murmur close to her ear, his thumb and forefinger stroking her cheek gently just before he withdrew. "The taste of your lips…"

Hermione opened her eyes, quite unable to think of anything safe to say, but wracking her brain for something. He stepped away, and then his expression grew shuttered and closed, carefully masked once more.

"I have to go," he said, turning to leave abruptly.

Hermione stood there and watched him leave, her legs unresponsive, trying to pull her wits together. When she finally managed to unglue her feet from the floor and force herself to move, she ran quickly, ducking out into the hallway and running for the nearest corridor that had a window view of the lake.

The horseless carriages had begun to roll. Turning her gaze onto the lake, she saw the seventh years gliding across it, making their final journey from Hogwarts.


Please Review!

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~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Big thanks goes out to my wonderful beta, SSB!

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Hermione continued to replay the kiss in her mind again and again, for lack of anything better to occupy her time. She had no responsibilities, no obligations of any sort to distract her from otherwise mulling over the last few moments she'd had with the Slytherin.

It had been a sudden, unanticipated move, but once it had happened, it had been absolutely delightful. However, she had no opportunity to pursue an explanation or—which was what she would like to do, should she get a chance to see him in person—experience it again. The memory alone had her tingling with pleasure. She had not even thought to compare it to her previous experiences which, in retrospect, simply did not measure up. Trying to quantify how he had tasted so that she could imprint each aspect of the moment in her mind, she nevertheless found herself obsessing over it with nothing to distract her from it.

It was a kiss. A simple kiss that changed everything. At one point, she felt angry that he had put it off for so long and only done it moments before he was about to leave. Another time, she wondered if she had been used, though she discarded the thought rather quickly. Again, she wondered what underlying implications it gave face to. Their relationship had been strictly platonic up until the point—that very point just before he left—and now she was working on uneven, uncharted ground.

Did she like him that way? Given the way that single kiss had made her feel, she had to answer with a resounding 'yes'.

It was aggravating beyond measure that she could not go and find him so that she could get the answers to her questions. If she could have that, then she could sort out what had happened and what would happen next. But she simply could not. For one, she had no idea where he was right now. At Malfoy Manor? Some obscure location on the British Isles? Was he even in the country? He probably wasn't even in any position to owl her, given that she had not yet received any kind of post. He always kept his promises, and he had promised to write. She would hold him to that.

Yet, despite the pleasure and confusion dancing around each other in tandem in her head, her mood quickly sobbered when she looked at cold hard facts.

He had kissed her. She had enjoyed it immensely. It was very high on the list of things she wanted to repeat.

She had been kissed by a man who would soon have the Dark Mark branded on his forearm.

That was not a happy thought, and to prevent herself from going stir-crazy from attempting to overanalyze it, she tried to push the experience aside altogether and to not dwell on it too much. With the students gone, there was too little and yet so much to do. She spent a great deal of time in the library, and arranged to resume practicing Occlumency once a week with the Headmaster to make ensure her barriers remained strong, though she had consistently practiced exercises at night throughout the year for such reasons. Occasionally, Moody or Shacklebolt would drop by to see Dumbledore, and would stop to give her a bit of dueling practice.

Since she was now of legal age to Apparate and perform magic outside of school, she paid a visit to Diagon Alley and got a summer job working at Flourish and Blotts, where the pay was ten galleons a day, and since she worked five days a week, it was a total of fifty galleons added to her pocket at the end of each working week. On her lunch breaks, she would stop by Florean Fortescue's and—on impulse—she decided to eat her ice cream up on the balcony where she and Severus had celebrated his birthday. Passer-bys would wave up at her from their shopping, and she became a regular fixture there. She was simply known as the nice girl who worked at the bookstore and had ice cream at twelve forty-five Monday through Friday on the boarded-up railing above the establishment.

A month passed, and though Hermione kept up correspondence with many of her friends, there was not a single letter from Severus. James and Lily owled her to give her the exact date of the wedding, and Lily made note to tell Hermione to "please wear something ivory or off-white." James had recently inherited Godric's Hollow, and Lily had moved in with him, where they were settling down in their new lives quite happily while also working for the Order.

Alice and Frank were planning on getting married as well, though they were having a quiet, private ceremony with the family. Frank's mother was not at all happy with this, Alice wrote, for she felt that her son deserved a much more noteworthy event for his nupitals, but both Aurors—for the two had taken a position in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and were half-way through training—had argued her down. It had been a miraculous feat to do so, Alice claimed, but they had somehow managed to succeed.

Hermione remembered the one time she had met Augusta Longbottom, that day in St. Mungo's, and could quite agree.

Sirius and Marlene jointly penned a letter informing her that they were going steady now, and that Hermione was welcome to visit them at any time, given they were staying at the McKinnons'. Sirius said that he was concerned about her, and that if she needed anything—whether it be money or some human companionship ("You have to get away from those books sometime," Sirius's portion of the letter told her teasingly)—he would be happy to drop by. Hermione was warmed, moved even, and wrote back that she had a summer job and was still staying at Hogwarts, but was very grateful to have his support at hand.

Hermione was legally an adult, but the Headmaster insisted that she not be kept abreast of the Order until after she graduated. He was very firm on this matter, and thus, Hermione was left to fume impotently in the dark, ignorant of the Order's plans and information, and quite frustrated with the lot of them for it. She argued that she was capable of Occlumency and discretion, but the Headmaster's word was final.

What she wanted more than anything was to see Severus face-to-face—and to receive an explanation. Without the latter, she had difficulty resisting the urge to try and overanalyze. Whenever she had a reprieve during work—a brief space of time when no one was bugging her about where they could find a book or waiting in line to pay—she found herself thinking of him.

And even beyond that, she missed him. She missed his companionship. He was always ever so amusing in a witty, pedantic, and often sarcastic sort of way, and she missed being able to simply talk to him or even work in companionable silence.

Hermione received a list of school supplies, as well as her exam scores—and was extremely pleased that she had passed every class with all 'Outstandings', even Defense Against the Dark Arts—at the end of July. Counting out her accumulated wages, she found she had more than enough—she had a surplus even if she did not pay for second-hand articles. She planned on converting some of it into Muggle pound notes so that she could get a new pair of jeans and a jumper to wear on the weekends, but beyond that, she carefully hid all of her earnings away.

September 1st arrived, without a single piece of correspondence from Severus. Hermione had no idea where he was, and as she sat outside on the stone steps of the courtyard waiting for the train to arrive, she had her suspicions. She was a logical, rational thinker, and she knew what Severus's post-graduation plans involved. She was left with two ideas of why there was a distinct lack of word from him, the first implying that he had lied and broken off all communication, the second suggesting that he was not a safe position to pen a letter to her.

It was the start of the new school year now. Summer had passed. And Severus, she was sure, had taken the Dark Mark.

~o~O~o~

With classes acting as a suitable distraction, Hermione found the work to be almost therapeutic as she fell back into the routine of homework, note-taking, essay-writing, practicing, and the vivacious, inherent need to learn. She missed her friends dearly. Mary had not returned to Hogwarts this year, though Hermione and her other friends had sent out inquiries, and she was growing concerned for the witch when nothing turned up. She missed being able to sit and talk animatedly with her tablemates; she hardly knew the people in her year on a personal level. As a result, Hermione retreated from the student body and instead turned her focus almost entirely on studying.

That was not to say she did not remain in contact with her graduated friends. James and Sirius sent her a box of sugar quills along with their regular letters. Remus was working with the Order while still struggling to find a job that would be accepting of his condition, but he too sent cheerful, optimistic, and sometimes even entertaining correspondence. Alice, who had become Mrs. Longbottom in mid-August, eagerly detailed her work in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, though her letters had become intrinsically more serious as she began to detail what she could of the deaths and other disturbing reports that had begun popping up with more and more regularity.

It had not yet been leaked to the Prophet, Alice admitted, but many of the long-time Aurors were being called out on multiple cases before lunchtime, and that by the end of her training, she was already being told to do work that only senior and experienced Aurors had ever been expected to do. She had more than fifteen different cases to handle personally in one week, back in mid-August, and the Order was now actively putting forth military effort to stop Death Eaters from laying waste to Muggle structures and dwellings.

Hermione's birthday arrived with bad news from Alice. As soon as the congratulations and happy wishes for her birthday had been gotten through with, her letter went somberly straight to the point.

We believe we found Mary MacDonald's body last night, Alice's letter explained mournfully. We are still waiting for her relatives to confirm her identity—they're Muggles, you see, so that's a whole different procedure to go through, which takes longer—but I believe we now have an explanation for why she has not returned to school. She is one of three Muggle-born students to not return to Hogwarts via the train, and we're still trying to locate the other two.

Hermione had read the note, and swallowed hard, trying not to cry. Looking down the table at the other students, she realized she was not the only one. The Daily Prophet had reported several new deaths and abductions this morning, and Hermione watched as the Heads of House gathered up a total of six students, all of whom were led out of the hall to be informed that a parent, a family friend, an aunt or an uncle, had either been found dead or gone missing. Those students were not in class that day.

A kind of weary gloom began to settle over Hogwarts, followed shortly by panic and fear. It had finally, at long last, registered to everyone that the situation outside the walls of Hogwarts was growing serious. Many had not yet been affected by the war, which had been primarily targeting Muggles, and they had only registered the news as a dim, distant occurrence. Now that their families, friends, and wizarding proprietors in London were starting to go missing, understanding followed by real impact on their lives finally reached them. There was whispering during class, the exchange of news that was not printed in the Prophet, and those who had missing or dead relatives pressed those who knew members of the law enforcement department at the ministry for information on certain cases.

"Have you asked your aunt about what happened to my brother? Has her investigation found him yet?"

"Any news on my mother?"

"My father—my father—did your friend get back to you about him?"

"My uncle went missing last week—"

It was disturbing to realize just how untouched these peoples' lives had been until very recently. The deaths of other families, the mass-murder of Muggles, had left very little impression on them. But now that they were personally impacted—whether by way of their own family or by a classmate's tragedy—the war was quite suddenly the center of their lives. Sides were taken. A good deal of the students wanted to leave the school to hide or to fight. Others wanted to go into the Ministry as law enforcement to help apprehend Death Eaters, thereby seeking justice for themselves or their friends, and there were an extraordinary number of prospective applicants for the Auror Office.

Many of the Slytherins espoused pureblood supremacy, and if they were affected at all, it was to find that their families were profiting from the war in various ways. Barty Crouch's father was the Head of the Auror Department, and he often bragged about his father's accomplishments in public, though Hermione had heart him muttering mutinously and bitterly about what his father was really like—and made his disagreements with his father on ideology quite well-known in Slytherin House.

Worse still was when the students did get news. By late October, many of the half-blood students had lost at least one relative or someone close to them. Muggleborns were afforded a kind of twisted protection: by being Muggle-born, they were targeted as individuals, but their parents were not specifically targeted. Muggles were killed indiscriminately. Thus, many lost relatives, but some of them managed to acquire correspondence with their families to tell them to get out of the country. They would not be tracked down out of Britain. Some even managed to appeal to their Heads of House for an excused and accompanied visit to their families to have them secretly transported to another part of Europe.

Hermione took it upon herself to comfort the younger students when and where she could. And as she had a friend in Magical Law Enforcement, she was able to make discrete inquires on the state of several investigations into disappearances.

Visits to Hogsmeade were canceled when the owners of several establishments closed up shop and went on vacation for what they described as an indeterminate amount of time. In the face of the bleakness of the war, Hogsmeade had been one of the only things students had to look forward to, and with that gone, life in Hogwarts was a mixture of misery and fear drowned in hopelessness.

Some of the Slytherin students took it upon themselves to enforce their ideology in the school by ambushing and attacking Muggle-borns and half-bloods, and it was only when many of the younger students began to travel in groups together with some of the older students that the attacks lessened. At one point, Hermione lost all vestiges of restraint after the same Hufflepuff boy she'd helped out of a snowdrift last year ended up being transferred to St. Mungo's after being hit with an Entrail-Expelling Curse, and she stormed down to the dungeons where she sought out the entrance to the Slytherin Common Room.

It was a foolish, dangerous endeavor, but when they came out to confront her, she promptly thrashed them. She left them where they fell, after making several alterations to their face and limbs, and many were not seen in class for several weeks while Madam Pomfrey tried to reverse the damage done to them.

Hermione was rather under the impression that the Matron was not trying all that hard to begin with, for once. She was well aware of who was attacking her other, more vulnerable charges and seemed quite content to give the other students respite from the merciless bullying and harassment. No one could ever prove that it was Hermione, since she had asked everyone in Gryffindor Tower to swear that she had been working in the Common Room all evening. Her housemates all loyally and dutifully complied.

When the Slytherins returned to class, ambushes did not cease entirely, but they stopped becoming a regular, expected part of the daily routine. This became especially apparent after Hermione had gotten together with the other NEWT students in their Defense Against the Dark Arts class and arranged to teach the younger students some self-defense, trying to mimic the way Harry had taught the DA. This worked out rather soundly, for though not every student became adequately capable, a good enough number did so that when they all stuck together, they were well protected. It was not as absurdly easy for them to be attacked as it had been before.

It did nothing to curb the slurs and insults that were jeered at them in the halls, but at least the instances of physical injury had been lessened.

Faulkner had left as he said he would, leaving a new teacher in his place. His replacement was a thickly-built man with short, cropped hair and a squashed nose that looked as though it had been broken one too many times. His attitude towards the subject was that of a strong offense being the best defense. He was loud and belligerent—he preferred to shout, even when students were less than a foot away from him. The students disliked him almost immediately, not because he was ineffective as a teacher, but because the man was a callous sod and he ground on their already wrought nerves. When he heard that a particular student had lost a parent or a sibling, his response was to shrug and then belt out a command for them to stop acting like "a bunch of poncy nanny-boys."

The man knew his stuff, but he beat it into them with demonstrations and demands for them to practice on each other. If a student got injured and they asked to go to the Hospital Wing, he yelled at them. He insisted that the best way to learn was to work under duress, and that going to get fixed up after every little scrape only made them weak. Points and detentions meant nothing to him—he touched nothing of them, which was a small relief, but he did far more damage to their self-confidence and mindset than point loss or other punishment could have done. More than one student left his class in tears.

If a student got something right, he would roar at them in approval, causing them to shrink back in fear at the loud, overbearingness of his tone. He would sometimes clap them on the back with his large, meaty hands, which would literally knock the student forward from the sheer force. He rarely assigned essays on his topics, but no student dared to come to his class unprepared. His wrath was terrible. He never physically harmed a student, but being shouted at as though one were at a Muggle boot camp was near-horrifying.

Professor Jonas Welk was the single least favorite teacher in the entire school, and also the most feared. Many students left his class emotionally traumatized, and those who had Professor Sprout, Flitwick, or Slughorn next were lucky; they took pity on the students and began carrying little comforts with them, such as chocolate or sips of Calming Draught. Professor McGonagall ingeniously borrowed several pots of Wafting Hydrangeas from Professor Sprout and kept them in the classroom, where they released a soothing aroma that, five minutes into the lesson, did a sufficient enough job at putting the students at ease without disrupting her class.

Hermione knew that the four Heads of House had confronted Professor Welk more than once about his behavior, but he did not change his tactics one whit, and though the students learned, they suffered for it under his hands.

Hermione also learned very early on that the Divination teacher last year had retired. She was therefore surprised to discover that Professor Dumbledore had not scrapped the subject altogether, but was searching for a new Divination professor. Hermione, who had had stormed out of divination in her third year, had not bothered to return after being thrown back twenty years in time. But whether time progressed as it should was of great interest to her, and so she waited.

~o~O~o~

Mid-November arrived, and Hermione had already garnered permission from Professor Dumbledore to attend the Potters' wedding. On the Saturday morning of the wedding, accompanied by her Head of House, Hermione Flooed to Godric's Hollow. She was wearing a set of simple ivory robes, and wore her hair in a chignon, which was how she kept it well-managed these days. They Apparated from there to a nearby park, with the other guests, where a tent had been set up over a cobblestone dais. There were less than thirty guests to be counted, and they all found nice seats up front. Hermione went to meet with Lily, and pulled her into a gentle hug to avoid messing up her dress, and when the music began to play, Hermione moved to her position.

The ceremony was short. Hermione stood by Lily's side, and when the sermon was over ("You may kiss the bride") Hermione was there with the rest of them clapping and smiling as the newly-wed couple jogged down the aisle, laughing with delight.

Pictures were taken. Hermione, Remus, and Sirius were moved like decorative objects around James and Lily, to give the photographer the best possible angles and appearances. It was a bit tiring to say the least, to stand up there trying to keep smiling even after her cheeks had begun to hurt, but she did it for the Potters. As soon as that was done, she kissed Lily on the cheek and congratulated her before doing to same to James, accompanied by a bear hug.

But it was still a relatively quiet affair. Tables were set up around the dais, and they all ate and talked while gentle but jaunty music played in the background. A few inquiries were made to fellow guests on their state of health, but most of the conversation was focused upon childhood memories and the remininiscing of old times, as well as marriage advice and high hopes and dreams for happy couple.

The cake was summarily cut and even more pictures were taken (James, for once, managed to look dignified as he stared into the camera, grinning and holding his new wife with frosting on her lips.) Everyone took a slice, and sooner rather than later, Sirius tapped his spoon against his goblet, calling attention to himself. He stood up, glass raised to toast to his best friends.

"I wish I could have something serious to say on this occasion," he said, wearing a playful smile, "but I've never been good with the somber and serious, as James would know." He gave his best friend a wink, garnering some laughter from the thirty-or-so other guests, and continued. "All I can say is that when Lily first met James, if she had known the spell for it, she probably would have tried to hex his nose off. When James first met Lily, he told me, while we were in the compartment on the Hogwarts Express, waiting to arrive—'That's the girl I'm going to marry.' And Merlin, I thought he was joking with me." Sirius let out a bark of laughter. "But either he wasn't joking, or our dear friend Lily has just married a Seer. I'm inclined to lean toward the former, but hey, you never know." More laughter. "Nevertheless, their relationship at Hogwarts was rather rocky for the first few years, to say the least. James finally shrunk his head just a bit and took some advice out of Twelve Fail-Safe Way To Charm Witches," he said, with a conspiratorial wink at the groom, "and after that, they just clicked together. You never saw James without Lily or Lily without James. And that," Sirius said, raising his glass higher, "is how I hope it will be for the new Mr. and Mrs. Potter and their married life. May you have a long and happy marriage!"

Glasses clinked and cheers were raised. Hermione toasted the newly-weds as well, and mindful of the fact that she rarely held her liquor well, she drank to them. Professor McGonagall was dabbing at tears in her eyes.

They had just finished eating when James and Lily stood up and, trying to follow tradition as best as the could, separated to find different dance partners so that they could allow themselves to be given away in the second dance. Hermione gracefully stood up and took James's hand, leading him out to the dance floor, while Remus gentlemanly offered his arm to Lily, who smiled brilliantly at him before allowing herself to be led out as well. Sirius and Marlene took one look at each other and stood up, walking hand in hand onto the dais, where they began to dance as well. The rest of the table started spliting up to do the same.

Hermione had a sudden note of alarm in her eyes when she realized Peter Pettigrew was not among the guests. How had she missed that earlier? She turned her attention back to James and, allowing him to lead, posed the question: "Where's Peter?"

James suddenly grimaced. "He couldn't come," he said sorrowfully. "He—Mary—Mary MacDonald—he's still grieving."

Hermione's mouth suddenly opened in a moment of surprise and understanding, followed by even more confusion, which she kept to herself. She closed her mouth, and murmured sadly, "I see."

James nodded. "It's my wedding," he offered with a slight smile. "I'd like it if… you know… I know Mary was your friend, but I don't want this to be remembered as a depressing occasion—"

Hermione smiled at him, and nodded. "Of course. I'm sorry. How about this—whose idea was it to get a cat?"

Hermione was, of course, referring to the grey tabby that she had seen sitting atop the kitchen counter, licking his paws when she and Professor McGonagall had arrived. She had received an unblinking stare when they entered the kitchen.

James suddenly grinned. "I bought Charlie for Lily as a gift—I got him for her the week after I proposed, and introduced them as soon as school was out. She fell in love with him almost instantly. If it weren't for the fact that he's a cat, I might have been jealous!"

Hermione laughed. "I'm sure he'll have enough on his paws when the rest of the family comes along."

"All we have to do is wait for Sirius and Marlene to tie the knot, find Remus a nice girl to settle down with—"

"And then you'll have your own Marauder toddlers," Hermione replied dryly. "What a frightening thought."

He gave her a grin which, at that moment, reminded her of Harry. "Don't worry. We won't teach them how to take over the world until they're twenty."

A painful feeling settled in her gut, but Hermione managed to keep her smile bright even as the topic turned to a future that she knew they did not have. "And what will they do once they've taken over the world?"

"Construct a Quidditch Pitch the size of Hogwarts Castle," James said seriously.

"James!" Hermione chided.

"Really, Hermione," James said, chuckling. "I don't care what my kid would want to do if he actually took over the world. I'd only hope he'd want to improve it—do some good, you know. We'll need it, once You-Know-Who bites the dust."

For the first time since they started dancing, Hermione gave him a genuinely warm smile. She took the lead, and began dancing in Lily and Remus's direction, as the first song came to a close. "If it means anything at all, James, I approve."

"Glad to hear it," James said, grinning at her as the song ended. He released her, and Hermione took Remus as her next partner while James and Lily finally danced together.

"Take good care of him, Lily," Hermione said.

Lily flashed Hermione a brilliant smile. "You know I will."

Hermione beamed. "Then he's all yours."

James took Lily in hand, and without further preamble, they began dancing the night away.

~o~O~o~

As attacks outside of Hogwarts increased, whereupon the Daily Prophet began to report a growing number of werewolf attacks and giant upheavals in addition to the mix of murders and abductions, Slughorn managed to make things just a bit brighter by informing the students that he would be holding a New Years Party.

There was once again a flurry of excitement as every student involved in Slughorn's club was besieged with requests and subtle (or not so subtle) attempts at bribes and manipulations in order to be among the lucky invited. Even those who were not attending the party would not be entirely left out; Professor Flitwick had done a wonderful job decorating the halls to reflect a more festive spirit, and Hagrid had dragged in an enormous tree to be decorated. It was a real treat to see the grand pine tree decorated with bright bits and baubles and festive fairy lights. The star on top was replaced this year by a single tall candle meant to pay respects to the family and friends of students and staff alike who had suffered and lost loved ones. Many students stopped by the tree at least once to hang up an ornament of their own making with someone's name on it and to see the candle and appreciate the small comfort it gave, standing so very high on top of the tree.

Hermione put a pale pink bauble some seven feet up the tree with Mary MacDonald's name on it. She had been Hermione's first friend, the first person to reach out to her when she was alone and lost in a new time. They had grown somewhat distant as Hermione spent more time between Severus and the Marauders, but Hermione still felt the loss keenly. Mary had not been a particularly strong witch—quite the opposite, actually— nor had she typically been a social mover and shaker. But she had been a friendly and kind girl, shy and mild in temperament, and she certainly didn't deserve what she had gotten for it.

Hermione made plans to attend the New Years Party. There was no going to Hogsmeade to pick out a new set of dress robes, and even though the occasion called for nice evening wear, she decided to go in Muggle clothes. She just did not feel like dressing up in anything particularly fancy that night. There was no one to laugh with while getting dressed, no one to help her do her hair or return the favor to, and no one to help her figure out what kind of makeup would match her best. She did not want to alter the ones Alice and Marlene had bought and made their finishing touches on, but she felt suitably comfortable in transfiguring her Muggle clothes, so she went in jeans and Transfigured herself a plain white Muggle blouse that fit comfortably and decided to simply go with that.

She was not going to the party to dress up. She was going there to get a tiny break from studying by using one night of the Yule hols to relax and talk to people, to meet some of Slughorn's old favorites and enjoy some good food, maybe even a butterbeer or two. Thoughts of Severus, along with concerns about her other friends, often flitted through her mind during the day, and she was hoping for a pleasant distraction. She was asked by many if she would take them, and ended up flatly refusing all offers.

The holidays arrived, and on the last day of class, Slughorn asked Hermione to remain for a few minutes longer.

"Am I in trouble, sir?"

"Oh, no," Slughorn said, waving the question away. "Not at all, m'dear, not at all. I've just been meaning to ask you if you're showing up for my little supper on New Years Eve, since you're often so busy with work that I never know when you're actually going to come."

"I'm coming," Hermione said, suddenly standing up straight.

Slughorn beamed at her. A few more moments of idle chit-chat, and she was free to go.

A little over half the student body rode home on the train for Christmas to see their families, while the other half were sent gifts and letters accompanied by stern orders to remain safe, assurances that the family was fine, and instructions to stay over during the break for safety.

Hermione woke up on Christmas morning, heading downstairs to the common room to find the rug in front of the fire to be taken over with gifts. The Hogwarts Elves had apparently made their deliveries. Many of the younger years had already begun unwrapping presents while the upperclassmen sat on the cozy armchairs with hot chocolate. One second-year girl had received a quilted blanket from her mother, and was running around the common room with it tucked about her shoulders like a cape.

"Careful!" One of the sixth-years said, tucking his hot chocolate to his chest to protect it as she passed him. "And watch out for the fireplace!"

Laughing, the girl set her blanket down like a picnic cloth and curled up on it to open the rest of her gifts, inviting her yearmates to join her. They did, and resembled nothing so much as a group of bright-eyed birds tearing up colorful wrapping paper to build their nest.

Hermione took a spot on the floor and collected the wrapped gifts that were addressed to her, reading the cards that came with them first before opening them. Alice had given her a set of lovely ribbons for her hair. Lily gave her a book titled Transient Transfiguration Tips to accompany James's delivery of a Honeydukes Christmas Package. Sirius had given her a generous allowance of Galleons ("Since I know you probably spend every knut you've got on books!" his letter chided) along with a santa hat that, when Hermione put it on, charmed her hair green. From Marlene, she got a pair of tiny rose-shaped earrings that slowly bloomed open for several moments before closing up and starting the process all over again.

From Remus, Hermione received a stuffed wolf that made noises when squeezed and a heartwarming letter. He had finally found a job, though it was a Muggle one, and he only had to convert his wages into Wizarding currency. It cut into his earnings, but his employer was willing to give him a week off every month, though Remus indicated that his boss assumed it was to visit family. This was some of the best news Hermione had heard in months, and a grin stretched itself across her face as she finished reading the letter.

Hermione had ordered gifts for her friends by owl, but as she still had no idea where Severus was, nor whether it was a good idea to send him a gift, she had not bought him anything. She received nothing from him either, and felt only slightly disappointed. She didn't care about getting a solid gift from him, but she had been hoping for some contact, even just a note to tell her that he was alright. The silence from him was deafening to her mind. They had spent so much time together, had grown so close, that the idea that he simply did not care for her was easily dismissed. Whatever it was, it seemed he was simply not in any position to contact her.

She wrote thank-you letters to her friends while munching on some of the Honeydukes chocolate that had come in James's package, and then decided to go downstairs for breakfast, musing that perhaps she could spend the rest of the day relaxing with a book in the library.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Big thanks goes out to my beta, the lovely SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own!

Please review.


Hermione was accompanied by several Gryffindors as they made their way to Slughorn's office. It was down in the dungeons, which meant the possibility of aggression from the Slytherins, which was why they had all chosen to go together. No sense in getting ambushed alone if they could help it. It was a sad state of affairs when one had to travel in packs to avoid being sent to the Infirmary, but that was simply how it was. Hermione had the advantage of numbers with her as insurance for an alibi, and they had her dueling skills as security. It was a neat little arrangement.

Slughorn's office had once again been magically enlarged and now it appeared that it could hold some fifty-odd people. There was no dancing this time, but people were standing up and talking in little clusters. There were a few tables here and there along with a fireplace surrounded by cozy couches that one could sit on, but it seemed that to start with, everyone was inclined to stand. The Gryffindors immediately dispersed around the room, the excitement and merry festivity of the occasion affecting them almost immediately.

The tables were dressed with white tablecloths, and many were once again burdened with rich and delightful food. Hermione was immediately pulled into a conversation with a group of sixth and seventh years from Ravenclaw over by the fruit bowl, where they began to discuss the influence of Alchemy in different branches of magic. They were kind and gracious enough to include her in their discussion, and Hermione found that they were all quite interested in what she had to say. It was a far cry from the dull and glassy-eyed looks she sometimes received when she began postulating on a subject that genuinely interested her.

Hermione later excused herself to grab a butterbeer, and was about to do just that when she was intercepted by Professor Slughorn, who looked only slightly tipsy on his feet.

"Ah, Hermione," he beamed, "just the lady I was looking for."

"I'll be right back, sir, I'm just going to go grab a drink…"

"Nonsense! There will be time for that later. Right now, I have someone here who I'm certain you'd like to meet—ah, here he is!" He gestured at someone behind her, and Hermione turned around, about to make her excuses to extract herself from the situation when her protest promptly died on her lips.

Severus Snape was smirking down at her, his eyes glittering with amusement at her predicament. "Hello, Hermione."

Hermione gaped at him, completely caught off guard. At least a dozen different answers ran through her mind, and she picked what seemed to be the most urgent one at that moment.

"Am I imagining it or have you grown another inch?" She turned around to ask Slughorn to excuse them for a moment, only to find that the man had left on his own, his attention turned to two students whom he was introducing to another famous ex-pupil. She turned back around to look at him, and then her eyes narrowed in playful suspicion. "Have you been adding height to your boots?"

Severus scowled at her. "I grew another half inch, and the boots did the rest. Is that really the first thing on your mind?"

Hermione grinned at him, suddenly very happy, very delighted at seeing him. It had taken a moment for the shock to settle in, but now he was here again, and she felt lighter than she had in ages. "No, but it was certainly the safest." Her expression softened. "How have you been?"

Severus hesitated, and then placed a hand on her shoulder. "Let's find somewhere else to talk."

Hermione nodded, and they edged their way through the crowd until they found a spot near the corner. A few spells to ensure their privacy and to quiet the space around them so that they could hear each other above the noise in the background, and they settled down.

"To answer your question, I have been busy," Severus responded, folding his arms across his chest. "I took on a six-month arrangement with Arsenius Jigger, and earned money helping him gather ingredients. We went out of the country for a bit." He hesitated for a moment, and then continued. "In addition, I have been spending… a great deal of time in the Dark Lord's presence. He has found my skills as a brewer useful."

Hermione bit her lower lip, and glanced down at his left arm.

"As a result, I either simply did not have the opportunity to write or I was under too much supervision to safely send anything to you," Severus continued. "Or I would have certainly sent something." He looked hesitant for a moment, cautious even, before he added carefully, "I suppose you were not happy about that."

Hermione breathed in deeply. "I rather suspected that it was one of those reasons, yes, although I don't understand how being out of the country would preclude you from writing letters."

Severus's lips twisted into a self-deprecating smile. "Because our time was spent almost exclusively in the wilderness trying not to get killed." He pulled up his right sleeve, where Hermione could see a white bandaged wrapped around his forearm. "Searching for dragonsbane in Romania was more entertainment for the dragons than it was success for us. We tried to bring an owl, but the first time Master Jigger sent a letter, it never came back."

"That would explain it," Hermione agreed.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then she added, "My summer job was much less life-threatening. I worked at Flourish and Blotts, and the only risk there was of an aggressive book or a papercut."

Severus smirked. "I'm sure you enjoyed yourself thoroughly."

"Oh, yes. Endless access to books," Hermione joked. "Every bibliophile's dream."

Severus gave her a thin-lipped smile, and then there was a second awkward pause, before he finally addressed the metaphorical hippogriff in the room. Or rather, he tried. "Last year, just before I left… I… well…" he looked extremely uncertain, and it seemed to Hermione that his gaze was entirely on her, trying to gauge her reaction to the minutest detail. "I believe I left before anything could be explained or… or sorted out."

Hermione tilted her chin up to look at him squarely. "Why did you do it?" she asked simply.

In response, Severus slowly placed one hand on her cheek. When she did not pull away or protest, he leaned in slightly so that they were face to face. "Because since that time you and I ended up in that month-long detention, I realized just how much I liked you." This thumb traced the corner of her lips, and he continued, "And I started to notice you as more than just a friend. Everything about you simply… entrances me. But I was too scared—too shy—to say a word about it to you. Until the last minute, when I decided that I had nothing to lose in trying."

"Do you still like me that way?" It was a simple question.

"If anything, having not had a chance to see or talk to you in nearly half a year—gods, yes," he murmured. "But you haven't said a word about how you feel—although surely, at this point, if you haven't already pushed me away…"

On impulse, Hermione brought a finger to his lips to quietly shush him. He fell silent, and she pulled her hand away. And then she leaned in and kissed him.

He was surprised. There was no other word for it. She had taken him completely by shock. If he had been expecting some kind of response, this certainly wasn't it. But he certainly was not complaining—far from it. As soon as he registered what was happening, his hands came to rest on her waist, and he quickly responded, practically taking over in his eagerness. Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck and closed her eyes, as the pleasurable memory of their first and last kiss replayed in her mind, encouraging her to savor this one as well.

If Hermione had any doubts about whether Severus had been sincere, they promptly self-immolated. Passion of this kind could simply not be manufactured. The way he was kissing her, nipping and suckling in a manner that could only be described as him wanting more, and simply not being able to get enough, was self-evident. As soon as Hermione managed to regain her bearings, she responded in kind. That delightfully masculine taste she remembered from last time was still there, and while he snogged her thoroughly, she delighted herself with it.

When they finally pulled away, breathless, Severus gently rested his forehead against hers.

"I take that to mean you like it?" he whispered. His eyes were dark with what could only be described as lust, and Hermione could not help but feel the same titilating thrill that their slow and heavy kiss had left them with.

Something suddenly clicked in her mind, though, and she pulled away.

"Let's go," she said, gesturing at the door.

Severus's eyes flickered toward the others guests in the room, and then back at her. "No one will notice if we're missing," he agreed. "I'd rather find a more private venue for our… discussion."

Indeed, no one did notice them missing. They both slipped out of the office without another word to anyone, and given how preoccupied they all were with the other going-ons around them, it was hardly difficult. Nevertheless, Severus closed the door behind them as quietly as possible, and they walked a-ways down the hall until they were well out of sight of the door. They were in the dungeons still, but none of the Slytherins would be passing by Slughorn's office at this hour, especially during the event going on. Regardless, privacy charms were still cast, and they slipped within the shadow of the walls so that they would not be immediately seen, should someone happen to pass by.

As soon as they did so, Hermione turned around to face him. Two strides forward, and she caught hold of his left arm, and without a word of protest from him, yanked the sleeve up.

A grotesque-looking skull with a snake protruding from its mouth met her gaze. The black, vile thing seemed to writhe and move ever so slightly, as thought it were alive, the putrid thing that it was. Hermione swallowed, and allowed the sleeve to drop back over it.

"You're a Death Eater now," she said, gripping his hand tightly.

"You already knew that," he responded, a bit tersely.

Hermione closed her eyes and bit her lower lip, thinking. "What does this mean?"

"It means that we're trapped into taking opposite sides of this war," Severus told her, taking another step forward until he was towering over her, his presence as dark and intimidating as ever, though Hermione still found it strangely comforting. His intimidation had never been aimed at her in this timeline, and she had grown to see it as a wall of solid protection rather than a rearing threat to her. Others might fear it now, but she no longer did. "But it means little else. I don't give a damn about the Dark Lord other than what he can teach me and the protection he can afford people who are precious to me—and the war will be over soon, regardless."

Hermione gave him a wary look at this. He had spoken the last few words with such surety and confidence that she had to wonder how he knew. "How do you know?"

"The Dark Lord is growing paranoid, Hermione," Severus said silkily, gripping her shoulders. "He knows there is someone out there waiting to dethrone him. He has turned his focus from his followers to his enemies, and it has made their organization sloppy and ineffectual. He is spending his time and effort on discovering whoever is destined to overthrow him before they find him first."

"Yes," Hermione found herself agreeing, her mind wandering off down to another timeline, a timeline she existed in before, and one that had the information she needed to piece this revelation together.

"Our loyalties have never stopped us from being friends, Hermione." He said coaxingly. "What is to stop us from becoming—more?"

"Only the fact that this whole thing has bad idea scribbled all over it in your spiky handwriting," Hermione joked faintly.

He gave her one of those devilishly persuasive, mischievous grins that Hermione knew usually precluded trouble, and repeated, "Has that ever stopped us before?"

Hermione laughed. "It's not like I'm willing to start sneaking out of the school once a week to see you. I don't need to be given a lifelong detention extending Merlin-knows how many generations."

"I wouldn't ask that of you," Severus responded, smirking at the implication of detentions, "but there will be other opportunities to visit Hogwarts. I am loathe to admit it but Slughornis a creature of habit, and given his tendency to invite alumni to his inane suppers… I would be much obliged to thrust the entire holiday into a pit of poisonous vipers, but he always holds a party on Valentine's Day."

Hermione sorted with laughter at this. "I suppose that's not a bad idea."

There was a pause, and then Hermione regretfully steered the conversation into more dangerous waters.

"Don't do anything that will raise You-Know-Who's suspicions," she said, her tone both serious and quiet. "I care for you a great deal, Severus, and the last thing I want to do is to see you killed. Don't be reckless." It was odd, really, to be the one telling the future Head of Slytherin toNot Be Reckless, but she felt it necessary. Severus's behavior in the past made her feel it was distinctly necessary.

To her surprise, his face became smoothly blank.

"The Dark Lord has taught me well, Hermione. You need not worry." His eyes flickered over her face sharply, with the same kind of emotionlessness that she had once been accustomed to seeing on his adult face. "Followers who act rashly are punished quickly. That is, fortunately, a lesson I have only had to learn from observation. The Dark Lord does not suffer fools."

Hermione gazed into his eyes, realizing just how much Severus had changed in six months. Six months in Voldemort's service had brought out what Hermione deemed to be the roots of the Professor Snape persona: darker than ever, unforgiving, cold. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him, as though that alone could erase the alterations to his personality that she could see. It couldn't.

"You have my word that I will be cautious, Hermione," Severus said silkily. There was a pause, and he leaned forward to nuzzle her hair, his hands coming to rest on her sides. "Comunication by owl will not be possible until after April. Until then, I will be remaining at Malfoy Manor."

"Why is You-Know-Who keeping you there?" Hermione asked with a frown.

"Brewing. Lucius's place is secure from the interference of Aurors and has everything I require to work effectively. For him, it is the ideal place to keep me while he gauges my usefulness." He caught a lock of loose hair behind Hermione's back, and curled it between his fingers, his expression thoughtful and no longer shuttered. "In addition, I prefer Malfoy Manor to my home in Spinner's End. You've never heard of it, I'm sure, but it has fallen to ruin and I haven't had the time to clean it up. It hasn't been lived in since my parents died."

Hermione nodded, still processing the information he had just given her. "When are you going to fix it up?"

"This summer, in all likelyhood," Severus told her. "You could help me if you like."

"Under one condition," Hermione responded, liking the idea immensely of having both a place to stay, a means of spending time with him, and a project to keep her occupied while she figured out what to do with herself once she left school. "Will there be any of your Death Eater friends visiting?"

"None," Severus assured her.

"Then I'm all for it," Hermione said, smiling brilliantly at him.

His face brightened immensely, and the tension Hermione had not realized was coiled tightly in his body slowly relaxed. He ducked his head forward to steal another kiss and Hermione, laughing, complied.

~o~O~o~

The fact that Hermione could not post mail to Severus was frustrating, to say the least. But now that she had a solid, confirmed idea of what his position was, and the reasons behind it, she was at ease. It didn't make her happier about it, and she still found herself worrying about him, but with the understanding she had of where he was and what he was doing, she had easier ways of convincing herself that he was perfectly alright.

At times like these, she would play with the watch on her wrist, fiddling with the dials without changing the time or activating the portkey. It had become her alternative to biting her nails or chewing on her quills. Severus was not the only one she was concerned about: Alice and Frank were extremely busy, and on top of that, they were being put under enormous pressure. They were being thrust into life-threatening situations on a daily basis that were far more than the average bar brawls junior Aurors had to deal with in peacetime; they were working alongside Aurors who had been in the Ministry for years, fighting for their own lives in addition to those of who they were trying to save, and to top it all off, Alice suspected she was pregnant. She had not had a chance to visit a Healer yet to confirm it, but she wasn't the only one: in late January, just a week after she'd gotten the news about the possible pregnancy from Alice, James had sent her a letter too. At the very bottom was a post-script wherein James wrote down the confirmation that Lily, too, was pregnant.

The news caused Hermione to feel a myriad of things. She still missed Harry and Ron dearly, but she had done her best to move on, to stop feeding the heartache with grief. She could not mourn their loss forever. On the other hand, she was close to seeing her best friend again, but not as she last remembered them, and trying to contemplate it was dizzying. It gave her an uncomfortable sense of vertigo to digest it all at once.

James and Frank were both members of the Order, and from what Kingsley told her on one of his visits to the Headmaster, they had both turned into wrecks. To deal with an impending child while also trying to fight a mad psychopath was a lot of strain on them, and to hear tell, Frank had it the worst, trying to convince Alice to ask for extended leave. But Alice stubbornly refused to do so until she started showing.

I'm pregnant, not made of glass! She wrote in one of her more recent letters. I have a job to do. The war will not fight itself, and there are people whose lives depend on me. I risk my life every time I go out there—knowing that I'm pregnant will just make me fight harder to keep the baby safe. I've asked my boss for permission to take maternity leave in a week's time—I suppose that will make Frank happy. He can't do his best if he's focused on worrying about me.

Hermione wrote back saying that she approved of Alice's decision and understood how she felt. Alice was the kind of woman who didn't like to sit back and let others do the work—she had precisely the attitude and outlook that made valuable Aurors, the kind that made them eager and prepared to do their jobs. Hermione made a mental note to herself that if she ever got back to her own timeline, she would find a way to show Neville—perhaps by using the letters Alice had sent her and removing the name of the person they were addressed to—some insight on what his parents had been like before they were tortured to insanity. He was proud of his parents, she knew, and felt that he deserved some deeper insight on the people they'd been other than a laundry list of their accomplishments in the war.

Lily was still active in the Order, despite her condition. She carried the same sentiments as Alice, and refused to sit at home doing nothing. Instead, she was apparently staying at Headquarters and using her considerable knowledge and intellect to help figure out who was killed where and how, what their strategical weaknesses were, and—above all—try to weed out who was the leak.

Because indeed, there was a leak. Someone had begun leaking information to Voldemort since August, and this state of affairs put them all at risk. They confined their most important meetings to just a few of the most important movers and shakers in the Order, which had prevented some of their most important plans from being disseminated, but it still did not make them much more comfortable to know that someone among them was a traitor. In addition, some of the plans were not leaked immediately, but after the orders were given, long-term ones were most definitely being handed over to Voldemort.

This had made several people suspect. Hermione was sorry to hear that she had been one of the primary suspects-due to her constant contact with Order members despite her lack of official membership-but she was grateful that the suspicions had been immediately dismissed: she did not even know a quarter of their actual plans, nevermind enough to disseminate that amount that had been leaked thus far. In addition, Kingsley—who had been in her mind often enough during Occlumency practice—had vouched for her loyalty and deep-seated hatred of Voldemort, and even Moody had stood up and told them all, loudly, how absurd the idea was.

According to Lily, he had roared at them that "'Constant Vigilance!' does not mean turning on your friends like a pack of dogs!"

In addition, the only ones who had even considered the idea were those who did not know Hermione personally. James and Lily had been outraged at the very suggestion, and Marlene had reportedly been forced to bodily restrain Sirius from taking a swing at the Order members who had suggested it. As soon as they had calmed down, Lily wrote, they were able to rationally explain why it would simply be impossible on several levels for Hermione to be the leak.

There were other suspects, too, but they were either thrown out based on logistical impossibility or pushed aside due to an inability to confirm or deny the allegations. It created a degree of tension among the Order that made it difficult to foster trust.

Hermione was taken aside by Professor Slughorn a week before Valentine's Day to inform her that he had invited Severus, but that the other Slytherin had been forced to decline—and had asked Slughorn to relay that message to her. Hermione was severely disappointed. In the midst of all the bleak news that had overtaken her life, seeing Severus had been one of the few things she had truly had to look forward to. It also caused her no end of concern. Was there a meeting he had to attend? Appearances he was keeping up for safety's sake? Or had Voldemort's paranoia superceded the realities of Hermione's timeline causing him to decide to get rid of Severus?

It caused her no end of worry, and in desperation, she ended up sending a letter of subtle inquiry to Alice and Lily to ask if they knew about any Death Eater meetings that were known to take place on the 14th. Alice knew nothing; Lily wrote back about two weeks after Hermione's letter to say that yes, there was evidence that there had been a meeting, though it was an unusually quiet one. Only a few Death Eaters had apparently been present, and they were still trying to determine its purpose. Lily explained that the Order was confused about this particular meeting because the Death Eaters attending in question were all of different rank, which was very unusual for a closed meeting.

Hermione was much relieved by this. She didn't know why, but she was certain that Severus was among the mixed-rank gatherers at that meeting, although what for, she did not know. But without a means of communication, she remained uneasy. In addition to that, guilt had begun to worm its way into Hermione's mind, not because she was worrying over a Death Eater, but because she was also spending time thinking about kisses—and, more often than not, even more intimacies— from that very same Death Eater.

But she was always careful to keep things in perspective. Severus was her friend and not a true believer of the pureblood supremacy idealogue—and soon, she knew, he would defect altogether. She was not an official member of the Order, but she was loyal to the cause that would bring about Voldemort's downfall. Right now, her concentration was on helping the Order in any way she could while also trying to keep the younger students physically and psychologically intact where the teachers could not. Whatever time she had to herself that was not dedicated to the aforementioned, or had to do with academics, was when she allowed herself those moments of relaxation and musings—and this was usually right before bed.

Sometime around the middle of February, a few Slytherins in particular had become unbearable. It was as though the ones who were budding Death Eaters in waiting had received jubilant news of a sort, and it showed. What that news was, Hermione could not even begin to guess, until she found herself cornered in the library by two people she least wanted to see: Bellatrix Black and Barty Crouch Jr.

"Having fun, Mudblood?"

Hermione didn't even deign to glance up from her book, though she shook her sleeve slightly, wand at the ready to be pulled out from its hiding place. "Enjoying the inferiority of lacking genetic outcrossing?"

"Speak English, Mudblood, and be quick about it."

"Very well," Hermione said, snapping her book shut. "I just called you a bunch of inbred trolls. What do you want?"

She saw Bellatrix's face contort dangerously, but Crouch but up a hand as a subtle signal for her to contain herself. Barely. "Is that any way to thank your messengers, Granger?"

Hermione's face turned stony. "What's the message?"

Bellatrix's face suddenly transformed into a wide, cruel smile, but it was Crouch who replied. "You graduate in four months, Mudblood. As soon as you step foot outside of Hogwarts, you sign your death warrant."

Hermione felt her blood turn to ice, but merely raised an eyebrow in reply. "Is that all?"

The heavy-lidded girl's face, as terrible and expressive as ever, seemed to become almost enraged by this lack of reaction. Hermione was surprised she had not gone for her wand yet.

"The Dark Lord wanted you to be informed personally," Crouch told her nastily, "so that you can get your affairs in order, such as they may be. Unless…" his expression turned thoughtful, and his tone instantly became cordial, almost persuasive. "Unless you would like to offer your services to our side."

Hermione laughed. "I'm sure your lord would kill me on the spot for the insult of it."

"Not so, Granger, not so," Crouch said, waving a hand almost dismissively. "You claim to be Muggleborn, but we have not found any relatives of yours, Muggle or otherwise, to confirm such a story. You have no relatives to speak of, dead or alive. You are also a powerful witch—"

"As demonstrated by your continued adventures as a canary, I suppose?"

She saw a tick pulse in the side of his jaw, but the Slytherin went on talking smoothly. "—and given the possibility that you may, in fact, have some actual magical blood in you that is not merely the result of an abominable accident of nature, the Dark Lord would much rather have you as a friend than an enemy."

"The Dark Lord doesn't have friends," Hermione replied coldly. "He has slaves."

"The Dark Lord offers power beyond your wildest dreams," Bellatrix hissed. "Power lowly dirt like you should leap at the chance for!"

Hermione sighed and leaned back against the wall.

"I'm going to teach you a bit of Muggle history," she said, bringing a hand up to her hair and curling it between her fingers. Her entire body was stiff with a mixture of fear, anger, and confusion, but she disguised it admirably by taking a leaf out of Severus's book and merely looking bored, staring down at the cover of her book. "In the nineteen-forties, there was a mass Muggle-generated genocide. I'm not going to get into the details—you probably wouldn't understand half of what I told you. But suffice to say, an interesting phenomenon occurred where the Nazis would make exceptions for certain people they would otherwise kill. They hired Jewish practicioners into the business of killing and extorting their fellows in order to be spared the same fate, and sometimes gave Aryan-looking people papers that exempted them from being arrested and killed."

She looked up at them now, her eyes burning fiercely with disgust. "What you're asking me to do is pretty much the same thing. Give me an excuse not to be targeted by claiming I have non-Muggle relatives, making me a half-blood at best. Give me an opportunity to work for the Dark Lord in killing other Muggle-borns and so-called blood traitors, and in return I'll be spared." She was smiling now, but it was a stomach-churning one, cold and humorless. "Wonderful deal, isn't it? In short, because I'm deemed useful, excuses will be made for my heritage, and as long as I help murder other Muggle-borns, you'll keep me around like a pet."

The next moment, she was on her feet. She threw her book at Crouch, who was too slow to react, and he sank quickly to the floor when the full force of her five-pound book hit him square in the face. Her wand was pointed directly at Bellatrix, straight between her wide, hate-filled eyes.

"Only cowards throw others in the face of the killing machine to spare their own miserable lives!" she spat. Her wand slashed upward. "Get out!"

Her spell hit Bellatrix, who doubled over in pain for a moment as the muscles in her forehead and ears contracted painfully, and then hissed a string of curses at her as she made a hasty retreat. Hermione stepped over to Crouch's body, and she kicked him where her book had hit, smacking his nose and leaving a shoe-shaped bruise under his eye. Blood trickled down his nose, and his eyes fluttered open faintly as he tried to regain his bearings.

"Don't ever make such an offer to me again," Hermione told him, her voice tight with cold fury. "You can go tell Voldemort—" Crouch's entire body convulsed at the name. "—that he can go stick his offer up his arse. You are hereby warned—Unforgiveables are sanctioned by the Ministry under self-defense, but I don't need a Killing Curse to kill. Any Death Eater who tries to attack me will not be returning intact. Am I understood?"

She saw Crouch's eyes light up with fury, but he nodded faintly.

"Mudblood bitch," he spat, bloodied spittle mixing with the mess of his nose.

Without another word, Hermione retrieved her book and her bag and stormed off.

~o~O~o~

Hermione was called to Professor McGonagall's office later that evening. She knocked on the door, waited until she was bid to enter, and then took a seat on one of the armchairs. McGonagall was sitting at her desk, stirring her tea, and she took an extra moment to add lemon and sugar before moving to take a seat opposite of Hermione.

"Two students made it to the Hospital Wing today with a severe migraine caused by a Pressure Charm and a broken nose," McGonagall said shortly. "Both of them named you the culprit, and before assigning you detention and point loss, I should like to hear an explanation from you, if you care to give me one."

Hermione took a deep breath, letting out the tension in her mind and body, before she sighed.

"They approached me while I was studying," she said quietly.

Professor McGonagall waited patiently.

"They also had a message for me from V—from You-Know-Who," Hermione said, twisting the watch on her wrist.

The Transfiguration teacher's eyebrows rose dangerously at this, and her appearance suddenly became very hawk-like, much sterner than usual, if that were possible.

Hermione swallowed, and then spoke carefully. "You-Know-Who is apparently willing to make the very generous offer of overlooking the issues of my heritage if I would join his cause."

Hermione had never seen Professor McGonagall's jaw drop before, but it seemed there was a first time for everything. She covered her gasp with her hand, and was about to speak, when Hermione interrupted:

"I threw the book I was reading at Crouch and hexed Black," Hermione responded coolly. "I told them that only a coward would accept such an offer—and that they could tell You-Know-Who where he could stick it. In addition," she said, speaking loudly to cover over McGonagall's next attempt to stagger out some words, "before they got to the offer, they told me that the minute I set foot outside Hogwarts, I am dead. So my choice was thus—I either join or die." Her lips pressed into a grim smile. "I pretty much told them to bugger off."

She had never used such coarse language with a teacher, either, but she supposed there was always a first time for her, too. Professor McGonagall stood up for a moment, her hand over her heart, and shakily walked to the window to regain her bearings. Hermione waited there in silence for a moment, wondering what was going to happen next, certain that she had done the right thing. A few moments later, it seemed her Head of House had finally pulled herself back together enough to turn around and speak clearly.

"I must admit, Hermione," she said, addressing her by her first name for the first time Hermione had ever known her in this timeline, "that I always worried—what with the way you spent time with Mr. Snape—that you might be tempted by an offer to join…" she looked quite disturbed. "Albus was always concerned that an offer would be made—he was certain that it would—but now that you've rejected it in such a way that there is no conceivable possibility of it ever being made again…"

Hermione felt a deep pang of hurt in her chest at these words. "You thought—you seriously thought I might consider joining Vol—You-Know-Who?"

"It was a concern," McGonagall said, her hands shaking as she moved to refill her cup. She gave Hermione an odd look at the almost-usage of Voldemort's name. "I didn't believe you would, but it was always a possibility—I never thought you had it in you, but I also knew that with the way Mr. Snape was always able to persuade you into doing things you would otherwise never dream of… you might be lured in much in the same way he himself was."

Hermione suddenly understood where her Head of House was coming from. In a way, she could even sympathise. But it didn't take away the pain entirely.

"I got upset when I realized what they were asking of me," Hermione said quietly. "That's why I lashed out."

McGonagall nodded, and then resumed her seat across from Hermione.

"I need you to relay your conversation in full," she said, her voice soft but stern. She was looking at Hermione as though she had never properly seen the Gryffindor before. "Every detail. Don't leave a thing out, if you please."

Hermione did so. When she finished, the McGonagall sat back in her seat, deep in thought.

"The Headmaster will be informed of this," she said. "And I think… I don't think you will be leaving Hogwarts after graduation."

Hermione shook her head, but kept her mouth shut. She had her own plans, and the person to appeal to here was not her Head of House, but the Headmaster. And once she graduated, she would no longer be a ward of the school. He could do no more than advise her against it, and Hermione rather thought he might even approve of her choice. It would give them a free opening into seeing what was happening in Voldemort's camp, if she could get Severus to divulge to her. Dumbledore feared for her safety, but she also recognized him as a careful, manipulative chess player who took risks that might, in the end, pay off enormously.

She wondered, perhaps, if her stay at Spinner's End would be what caused his defection.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

Annoyed, Hermione buried her face deeper into the pillow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes. Please!"

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

"Hermione," he said hoarsely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermione swallowed.

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

Dumbledore nodded gravely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sir…?"

"Do you know how espionage works, Hermione?"

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

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

Hermione's eyes widened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I accept," she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Very well, sir," she replied stiffly.

Dumbledore's visible ease was little comfort to her.

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

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

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

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

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

"In my time—" one other headmaster rumbled.

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You're sure?" he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~o~O~o~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"After that?" Severus pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head no.

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

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

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


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Big thanks goes out to my wonderful beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

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Hermione leaned forward in her chair, fingers smeared with ink as she scribbled away in her notebook. Severus was standing over her shoulder, gripping the back of her chair as he watched her words disappear before his eyes almost as soon as they were written.

"The Edenburghs… E-D-E-N, not E-D-I-N… around noon, tomorrow," he finished smoothly, watching her tap what appeared to be an blank page with her finger to wandlessly fix her misspelling. A moment later, she resumed writing down his dictation. "They work for the Ministry in the Department of International Magical Cooperation. The Dark Lord wanted their assistance in raising support for anti-Muggle legislation, but they refused—twice, so…" he spread his hand to either side. "He's ordered them to be tortured and killed, and then dumped in front of the Ministry. It sends a message, you see."

Hermione finished scribbling the last entry down, and then leaned back in her chair, trying to work the kink out of her neck. "Is that all?"

"The Dark Lord is growing wary the longer the Potters and Longbottoms remain at large," Severus responded quietly. "Restless. I fear he will launch an attack soon. He is more paranoid than ever."

Hermione scribbled that down as well, and then with a nod from Severus, shut her notebook and slipped it back into an inside side-pocket of her robes. "Alright. I'll bring this to the Headmaster. You'd better return to the party—at least make a show of having stayed for a substantial amount of time before getting fed up and leaving."

Severus smirked, and bent down to kiss her neck before straightening up to leave. "Very well. Do you know when the next…gathering is to take place?" he asked, stressing the fifth-last word with a sneer.

Hermione smiled faintly at him. "May fifth. As the Headmaster so nicely put it, 'Happy Cinco de Mayo.'"

"That's a North American holiday," Severus responded, quirking his lips.

Hermione shrugged, grinning. "Any reason is a good reason, I suppose. You don't hear me complaining."

~o~O~o~

All throughout April, Hermione's focus was divided between two very important things. The first was her academic schedule, which was begininning to thicken with chaos at an alarming speed with the promise of NEWT exams in a month and a half's time. The second was her duty to the Order which involved reading out the information from her notebook to Dumbledore out loud, reporting on her progress on working with Severus on a personal and professional level ("Yes, sir, we're getting along fine.") followed by being kept up-to-date on the latest news from her friends still at Order Headquarters. It was an enormous workload, and Hermione felt like Atlas as she took her burden with a grain of salt.

April quickly turned to May, much to Hermione's simultaneous horror and relief. Exams were all that much closer, but it was another chance to see Severus as well as to update her notebook and deliver some more of the time-sensitive information to Dumbledore. She and Severus had a few intimate moments together in the comfort of the Room of Requirement before Hermione was forced to send him back to the party, where he was to look as though he was actually engaging with the other guests. Voldemort had approved his visits, sending Severus was an opportunity to observe and keep up-to-date on the going-ons at Hogwarts, particularly those within his own alma mater, and to see if he could detect trace of people who had otherwise been in hiding but were poking their heads out when they thought the chase had ended. The Dark Lord had finally discovered the value of using Severus as a spy, and it was to Hermione and the Order's advantage that Tom Riddle was so eager to push this usefulness: it made remaining in contact with him that much either.

Hermione began studying for her NEWTs with even more urgency and fervor than she had previously. She once again spent sleepless nights in the library, remaining awake until ungodly hours trying to forcefully re-cram ever factoid she had ever learned over the last two years, despite the fact that she already had a good deal memorized to begin with, and her stress levels began to bleed into her correspondence; Alice made a subtle suggestion that she spend some time reviewing the recipe for Calming Draughts, and Lily reminded Hermione that she had passed her OWLs with flying colors, and that she would do just as well without killing herself. Sirius, James, and Remus all sent her correspondence with varying suggestions on how to study without running herself into the ground, the first accompanied by a box of sugar quills to give her something to nibble on and keep her energy levels up while studying. Marlene jokingly suggested she go on a hexing spree to 'get rid of all that pent-up frustration.' Hermione appreciated their letters immensely, and the accompanying gifts, but she refused to slow down.

She was nearing the finish line of her career at Hogwarts. A finish line she had been looking forward to with wide, awe-struck eyes as a first-year, and now that it was so close, she refused to get anything less on it than an 'Outstanding' in every single subject. Even if it killed her, it seemed. The younger years, who had learned to rely on Hermione for psychological and academic support, quickly learned to part like the red sea on the few mornings that she did come down into the common room, and didn't squeak a single question her way as she rushed off to the library, her hair still an untangled bird's nest. Truth to be told, they were frightened enough of her at this point to believe the rumors that she was distantly related to Medusa.

The first week of exams arrived, and Hermione, a nervous but excited wreck with tangled hair and mind jumbled with memorized facts and wand-movements, threw herself into them with gusto. She slept the entire weekened, having crashed the minute her Friday exams were over, and was refreshed enough the next Monday to go through her second week of exams with similar, nerve-wracking enthusiasm.

During all this time, Hermione kept her notebook tucked securely somewhere on her. She never let it out of her presence except for when she showered which, during NEWT exams, was a sadly rare occurrence. Even then, her robes were in the bathroom with her, and her book was carefully kept within the inner pockets.

When exams were finally over, Hermione was able to take a nice, long, well-deserved bath, fix up her hair properly for the first time in nearly a month, and sleep well into the afternoon. The younger years were either goofing off or fussing over the exam scores they would not receive until later in the summer, the majority choosing to partake in the former, and as soon as Hermione felt refreshed enough to do so, she joined them.

She would be coming back next year as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Good riddance, she thought with annoyance as she saw Professor Welk limping up to the Hospital Wing one evening, after an unexplained visit to the Forbidden Forest that had unsurprisingly gone horribly wrong. He had been an awful teacher, and Hermione was glad to see him go, if only to then be concerned about whether she would be leaving quietly without a scratch or be sent to St. Mungo's after being driven mad. She was only planning on staying for a year; Professor Faulkner had left without one bit of fuss when he had declared his intention, and Hermione planned to do the same.

Professor Slughorn had announced his intent to retire some two months ago, which was a good excuse for the exorbitant number of parties he had sponsored that year, and Severus arrived the week after exams were concluded to presumably speak to the Headmaster about formally applying for the position. He had introduced the idea of becoming the new Head of Slytherin and Potions Professor to Voldemort with great success, who was eager to have a player close to his most ardent opposition, and Hermione caught up with him on the way to Dumbledore's office to talk.

"I'm finally finished with exams," she told him, tone laced with disbelief. "I can't believe it's all over." She paused for a moment, biting her lower lip, and then admitted, "It feels odd not to be graduating with my friends. I still miss them." Severus turned to listen to her as they walked, and she elaborated, "We always did everything together. Somehow, even after all that's happened…" she trailed off.

"I understand," Severus said, looking away as they ascended one of the staircases. "It will probably feel strange for a while."

Hermione nodded, and then geared up her courage and pushed the thought away. She couldn't dwell on Harry or Ron—especially Harry—right now. "Any news on your end?"

Severus smirked. "Lucius and Narcissa have a son named Draco—he was born earlier this week. He has a mop of hair that is just as blond as his parents'."

Hermione giggled. "I've had to wonder on more than one occasion if they charm their hair the minute they're born."

Severus snorted. "Amusing as it is, I'm afraid Lucius would be quite offended at the notion."

Hermione laughed in agreement.

There was a pause as they reached the landing, and then Severus said seriously, "I've been named as his godfather."

If Hermione had been eating or drinking something, she would have choked on it. As it was, her jaw dropped unflatteringly as she took this in. "You're joking."

"No," Severus responded silkily. "I'm afraid I'm not."

~o~O~o~

"In order to apply for the position, I would like some assurance that you know enough about your subject to teach it," Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling as he admitted them into his office. "Just a few questions, Severus. Very basic, very informal. Now," he said, clasping his hands together, "What is the difference between Monkshood and Wolfsbane?"

Hermione was about to respond from ingrained instinct, but Severus interrupted her first. Throwing the Headmaster a glare, he sneered, "Very simple. One is used to hood monks, and the other is to repel wolves."

Hermione nearly gagged in surprise at this. Dumbledore, however, looked rather amused.

"What is a single object that is often used as a quick solution to counteracting most poisons?"

Severus rolled his eyes into Hermione's direction, and at that moment, Hermione realized he was not taking the Headmaster's questions seriously. She giggled. "I'd pull out my seventh-year Potions book and find the answer scribbled in there somewhere. Most likely on the page concerning Golpalott's Law."

Hermione was unable to restrain a snort of amusement at this. When all else fails, she thought.

Dumbledore was smiling genially at him now. "And the powdered root of asphodel with an infusion of wormwood?"

Severus stared straight ahead at him, his expression dead-set. "I suggest you don't drink it."

At this point, Hermione was reduced to peals of laughter. Severus's expression broke as well, and he was grinning a very un-Snapelike grin.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Needless to say, I believe you failed my little pop-quiz spectacularly."

"As if you would dare refuse me a job on that alone," Severus drawled. "My Hogwarts transcript should be more than enough."

"So it seems," Dumbledore said, beaming at the both of them before he moved to take a seat behind his desk. "Now that we've sorted that out, I believe we have other matters to discuss. Your summer plans?"

"Still the same as before," Hermione told him, covering her mouth with her hand to try and regain her composure. Severus had deliberately made a joke out of the very same questions he would be grilling Harry on when he arrived as a first-year. Questions he would also be deliberately excluding her from answering, though she now suspected that it was a private moment of amusement for him. Sadistic bastard, she thought fondly. "I'll be staying at Spinner's End unless we have some unexpected guests—in which case, my visit will probably be cut short."

"That's not likely to happen, Headmaster," Severus responded smoothly.

"Your plans are perfectly acceptable to me but for one condition," Dumbledore said, steepling his fingers. "I would like Hermione to be officially inducted into the Order. This can be done before or after summer begins, although I rather imagine you would find it far more convenient to have that out of the way."

"That's an acceptable plan," Severus said, turning to look at Hermione.

"I'll go directly to Headquarters first," Hermione said, clasping her hands together, her expression thoughtful. "It will be nice to get a chance to see everyone again—then, of course, I'll come to Spinner's End."

"That's settled, then," Dumbledore said cheerfully, sitting up straight. "You're free to go now, if you wish."

Satisfied, and feeling oddly relaxed, Hermione left the office with Severus at her heels. They descended several flights of stairs down to the first floor, and then let themselves out into the courtyard, which was quite deserted as everyone else was down beside the lake, enjoying the lazy promise of summer. They came to stand under the shade of one of the pillars, watching as two very daring fourth-years played a game of poking the giant squid's tentacles with a stick off in the far distance. She saw Severus hesitate for a moment, before he geared up the courage to speak his mind.

"Will you check up on Lily for me when you see her?"

Hermione turned to look up at him, her expression narrowed in suspicion. "Severus," she began.

Severus shook his head quickly. "Don't go there, Hermione. My request has nothing to do with that."

"Then elaborate, if you please," Hermione said, crossing her arms. "I'm listening."

"Lily was my childhood friend," Severus said shortly, by way of explanation. "You already know this. I still feel responsible for her welfare, especially—particularly since the danger she's in now is largely because of me." He gave Hermione a pained look. "I just want to know how she's doing. I haven't entertained romantic notions of her since after that incident with the werewo—Lupin. She's married and pregnant," he finished, rubbing his face with his hand, and letting out a sigh of frustration. "We're not friends anymore, but I still care for her as one."

Hermione dithered for a moment, unsure of whether to take his words at face value. Because the truth was that she found it very hard to believe, at times that he inquired about Lily, if he was being honest. She didn't believe he would lie to her about this, but she had to wonder if he was lying to himself to begin with. In a moment of decision, she lifted her eyes to meet his, and silently commanded, Legilimens!

She felt Severus recoil in surprise, tightening his defense immediately, despite the fact that when she came up against his Occlumency shields, her request to enter was gentle. There was a moment of hesitation from him, and then some of the walls went down, and Hermione was allowed to slip into the surface of his mind. She didn't bother delving deep; that stuff was still private and still very much hidden. But he had taken down the barriers around his immediate thoughts and emotions, and was able to divine the truth of his words.

A moment later, she retreated.

"Are you satisfied now?" he asked, just a bit bitterly.

Hermione nodded. "Very," she promised. She paused, and then admitted, "You see her sort of in the same way one of my best friends used to see me. Ha—he treated me like a sister. Even when we were angry at each other, or had our fights and disagreements, it was really nothing more than a sibling squabble for us, really." She hesitated for a moment, and then confessed the final piece of the story. "Back in my fourth year, everyone thought we were dating. There were a lot of nasty rumors about it. It's a bit different than what happened with you and Lily, because I could never see my friend in any kind of romantic light, but I understand the type of feelings you have for her now."

"You couldn't take my words at face value?" Severus asked stiffly.

Hermione bit her lower lip. "Sometimes, we lie to ourselves," she admitted softly.

She felt Severus tense at this, his face becoming blank and unreadable. She waited, watching him worriedly, and then to her surprise and relief, he relaxed.

"Its part of human nature to lie to oneself at times," he agreed quietly.

"Over the next few years, you'll be doing a lot of lying to yourself," Hermione pointed out, with a reconcilatory smile. "You might not even be able to remember what's real and what's not, when you're trying to fool You-Know-Who."

"You underestimate me, my dear," Severus responded with a silky drawl, leaning forward so that his face was level with hers. "I shall maintain my distinctions, believe me."

She grinned at him. "If anyone else said that, I'd laugh at their naivety, but coming from you…"

"Glad to know you have faith in my abilities," Severus retorted, straightening. But the tension between them had broken now, and they were back to being at ease in conversation; Severus's words were more playful than retaliatory. Until he brought up a subject that, in hindsight, Hermione should have known might rear its head.

"Are you ever going to let me look inside your mind?"

Hermione squared her shoulders and looked up at him, still unable to wipe the grin off her face. "If you can catch me off guard— possibly. But I warn you that if you catch me at a bad time, I might not be gentle."

"I would know," he groused. "The first time I tried it, you came down on me like a bloody guillotine."

Hermione playfully stuck her tongue out at him, and squeaked in surprise when he took hold of her shoulders and pulled her to him, capturing her mouth with his, tongue and all. She laughed as he abandoned it for a moment to tickle the juncture of her neck with his lips, before returning to savor her taste.

They pulled away only for a moment, and in that time, Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck, while his had moved to encircle her waist and pull her closer to him so that when he straightened up, Hermione had to push herself up on her toes to reach him and continue their snog. Mouths mated, tongues licked and suckled with eagerness, and Hermione closed her eyes, thoroughly enjoying herself. She felt one hand slide downwards to graze her bum while the other moved to tangle in her hair, winding the curls around his fingers, and grinned wickedly as she retaliated by nipping lightly on his lower lip. He reclaimed full control over the kiss a moment later, covering her mouth entirely with his in a rather passionate and very heated kiss.

A stern, exasperated huff interrupted them. Both of their eyes flew open, and they pulled away quickly, faces flushed as they realized who had caught them.

Professor McGonagall gave them both a frightful, hawk-like glare. They stared back at her like startled rabbits, and then relaxed slightly as they saw her sigh in an expression of mere disbelief. She brought a hand to her forehead, as though trying to ward off an impending headache, and then spoke.

"I came to inform Miss Granger that she would not be rowing back to the train with the other graduates," she said stiffly. "You will be flooing to Headquarters through my office tomorrow morning. I have informed the elves that you will take care of packing your stuff, since you undoubtedly have a good many things that need to be sorted through, given you've been living here uninterrupted for the past three years."

Hermione nodded, still blushing red. The Transfiguration teached sighed, and turned to leave.

"Miss Granger, Mr. Snape, you may no longer be students here, but it would be much appreciated if you would set a good example while you are on the grounds."

"There are no students here," Hermione pointed out. "They're all either inside or down by the lake."

"Fair point, I suppose," Professor McGonagall said, with just a hint of a tight smile. Hermione's relaxed with relief that she was off the hook. "I shall see you in my office tomorrow morning. Don't be late."

"Understood, Professor."

As soon as she had gone, Hermione turned to Severus.

"I suppose I'll see you next week?" she said, sounding regretful.

He nuzzled her nose with his, before straightening up and pulling his face back into the blank, stony expression that he presented to the rest of the world—and, most importantly, to Voldemort. "Yes."

One last longing look at him, and Hermione reluctantly allowed him to leave. She watched as he disappeared around the corner, heading in the direction of Hogsmeade, and then she turned away to return to her room. She had packing to do.

~o~O~o~

Hermione sat quietly in Professor McGonagall's office, her bags packed and being carried off by two men through the floo whom Hermione had only ever heard of, but had never met in person. Caradoc Dearborn and Edward McKinnon, Marlene's cousin, were transporting her luggage to Headquarters, and once they were done, McGonagall handed Hermione a small slip of paper.

"Take a moment to memorize it and then toss it into the fire," her Head of House instructed.

Hermione did so.

The Headquarters to the Order of the Phoenix can be found at Tine Cottage, Tinworth.

Hermione memorized the familiar, slanted handwriting of the Headmaster, and then tossed it into the flames. The note burned up into white ash, and then Dearborn indicated the Floo jar. Hermione took a pinch of powder, throwing it into the flames before she stepped inside.

"Tine Cottage," she enunciated clearly.

The world revolved around her, spinning so quickly that she was forced to shut her eyes to avoid becoming too dizzy, and then she stumbled out of the fireplace, stepping into a new, unfamiliar place. She took a moment to regain her senses, and then registered the place around her.

She had flooed into a rather large kitchen, with brickwork floor and wooden walls. There was a stove and a counter at one end of the room; the rest was taken up by a rather large table holding too many chairs for anyone to possibly sit with enough elbowspace to sneeze. There were several windows, each with a small fire-lit lamp hanging from the top of the frame, and peering outside, she could see that the dwelling was on a cliff overlooking the sea. The air smelled of salt and seaweed, and as Hermione cleansed the soot off her robes, it quickly became very apparent to her that the kitchen was not empty.

No, not by a long shot. In fact, it was quite closely packed. Every single chair was occupied, and some people were even sharing laps or standing up behind another chair. The minute Hermione appeared, however, several people got up to greet her amidst the clamor of those who were voicing their own greetings and opinions. Before she knew it, she was being passed around like a teddy bear in need of a hug.

"Hermione!" Sirius roared, pulling her into an embrace. "Good to see you!"

"Finally made it, I see," James joked.

"You're still covered in soot—here, let me take care of the back of your robes—" This was, naturally, Marlene.

"Goodness," Remus said, pulling her into a half-hug since Marlene was still trying to charm soot off of her and James and Sirius had a claim on a full three-quarters of her person. "You've certainly grown. How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," Hermione gasped, squeezing whatever air she had in her lungs out with those few words. "Just fine."

"Give her some room, you lot!" Alice's voice called from the other end of the room. The others obeyed, and then Remus pulled Hermione out of the way in time to avoid being knocked over by Dearborn and the other McKinnon as they flooed in within moments of each other.

Minerva's rapt, stern voice followed mere seconds later as she, too, flooed in—with much more elegance than Hermione had managed.

"That's quite enough!" she said, stepping out of the fireplace. "Caradoc, Edward, please take Hermione's things upstairs." The two hastened to obey, flicking their wands at the three trunks worth of stuff that had been set aside near the doorway, effectively blocking anyone else from entering or exiting without somehow stepping over them. "The rest of you, please find a seat—or stand, at any rate," she amended, glancing at the overcrowded table.

There were a number of jests made in response to this, and then they all did indeed settle down somewhat. Hermione managed to squeeze herself into a spot behind one of the chairs near the wall, by Alice and Lily, which was something of a feat given how much space they took up now. Molly Weasley she recognized immediately, and her eyes widened perceptibly when she saw Ron. He was less than three months old, with a mop of unruly red hair. Mrs. Weasley was not nearly as plump as Hermione remembered—in fact, she still looked to be quite young and in fairly good shape, and had long curly red hair that reached down past her shoulders. She was holding her youngest son, who was asleep in her arms. Hermione forced herself to look away, not quite able to handle the sight. It was a bit too bizarre for her right now— she'd known it would happen, but it would take some getting used to. Bill and Charlie were upstairs somewhere, no doubt being bossed around by a four-year-old Percy and esconced with the twins.

Hermione met five other people with the surname of McKinnon, all related to Marlene, and the rest were a varied lot. Moody gave her a nod and a grizzled smile from his end of the table, and Kingsley waved at her in greeting. There were an absurd number of people in the kitchen, and as they all took a moment to introduce themselves to Hermione and talk, she couldn't help but feel slightly taken aback as they all seemed to know her name and quite a great deal about her, but she didn't know a thing about them. Lily and Alice were now quite far along in their pregnancies, and were one of the lucky few who had not only been granted a chair to sit in, but were even given a bit more elbow room for comfort.

Hermione actually found herself grateful for the distraction in the form of the Headmaster's arrival, which was preceded by a flash of fire, whereupon Dumbledore appeared with Fawkes perched serenely on his shoulder.

The table fell respectfully quiet, and room was made for Dumbledore to get close enough to the table for everyone to see him properly.

"What's the news, eh?" Moody said, leaning forward in his chair. The room was now fully attentive, hanging onto the Headmaster's every word.

"The situation has not changed," Dumbledore stated clearly. "The Potters and Longbottoms are both quite at liberty to return to their homes at this time, should they wish to, though I would like to remind them to adhere to the new safety precautions," he said, looking at James carefully over his half-moon spectacles. James looked restless and dismayed by this, but made no word of protest. Lily placed a hand on his arm, which seemed to appease him only somewhat. "If anything does change, however, we will take appropriate measures."

There were nods around the table, a few whispers that Hermione was only able to vaguely catch, and then Dumbledore clasped his hands together, recapturing the room's undivided attention.

"On another note," he said, smiling genially, "I am pleased to introduce Hermione Granger as our newest member of the Order. Her duties will be largely behind the scenes, performing organizational and administrative tasks, though you may see her pop into Tine Cottage from time to time."

"You're putting her behind the scenes?" Sirius said with disbelief. "That's a mistake, Professor! Hermione's one of the best duelers I've ever seen. She should be on the front lines, like us!"

Hermione cleared her throat, knowing she would have to defend the cover for her handler duties. "There's more to a war than just fighting, Sirius. Things need to be thought through and strategized for them to work. Sending you lot rushing off without a plan is just asking to get you all killed. At least this way, you have an organizer who can't be kidnapped and interrogated for information easily."

"But still…" Sirius muttered.

"This matter is settled, Sirius," Dumbledore stated firmly. "Hermione may be given additional duties in the future, but for now, her talents and skills are being put where they are best suited."

"Is she staying here for the summer?" Remus spoke up with mild curiosity.

"I have other arrangements made, but as Professor Dumbledore said, I might drop by now and again," Hermione responded, trying not to fiddle with her watch.

"Where are you staying?" James pressed. "We can drop by a visit one of these days, to make sure that you're not holed up half-starved from reading books…"

Hermione giggled at this, along with several of her friends, but it was the Headmaster who answered.

"James," Dumbledore said warningly.

James stood up, his face an expression of frustration and irritation. "I feel like a prisoner in my own home, Dumbledore—not allowed to leave except for Order meetings and short walks as long as we have a guard with us! Can't we visit Hermione, at least? Even if you don't trust our skills, I know you trust hers. If we knew where she was staying, she'd just be a floo call or an Apparation away!"

Sirius leaned over to tug on James's arm. "Sit down!" he hissed.

"I don't think that's possible right now, James," Hermione said, trying to imagine just what Severus's reaction would be if James Potter knocked on his door. Trying to be as encouraging and logical as she could, she added, "You should listen to Dumbledore on this one. Besides, I can't imagine that flooing or Apparation will be safe for Lily much longer—she's only two months away from her due date. But I will try to drop by," she stressed.

James reluctantly allowed Sirius to pull him back into his chair. "As you say."

Lily raised her hand. "Not to change the subject, Headmaster, but will we be allowed to visit my parents? They're leaving for France in a few weeks to get out of the country, and I'd like a chance to see them before then. And my sister, if possible, though I'm not certain…" she trailed off, hesitant.

Dumbledore gave her a piercing, considering look.

"No," he said. "I'm afraid not."

~o~O~o~

The meeting broke up an hour later. A good number of them dispersed immediately, either through the floo or by stepping outside to Apparate, although two Order members had brought brooms. Molly went upstairs, no doubt to check on her children. Remus had to leave almost immediately to make it back to his job in time to take over the afternoon shift; Alice and Frank stopped by to chat with Hermione properly for a good ten minutes before making their way to the Floo.

Hermione managed to find a moment to catch James and Lily before they left.

"Just write me a letter, and I'll find a way to drop by," she said, knowing that this was just the beginning of the Potters' misery. They would continue to be restricted, and their leash would shorten as the threat of Voldemort escalated further. "I promise."

James and Lily both looked rather cheered up by this. Hermione pulled James into a hug, did the same to Lily as best as she could, and then watched them floo away. All too quickly, the room that had been so packed by people was now rather deserted, save for herself and Dumbledore.

"What is Tine Cottage, professor?" Hermione asked, walking over to examine one of the windows. The Order meeting had lasted several hours, and as such, the sky was now threatening dusk.

"I'm afraid that this place does not belong to me, but is actually a generous loan from my good friend Nicholas Flamel," Dumbledore stated, twiddling his thumbs absentmindedly. "He and his wife bought this place from a wizard some time ago. The young man had inherited the cottage from his uncle, who was from Ireland, and the Flamels liked the cottage so much that they bought it and turned it into a summer home."

"How long ago is 'some time ago' for Nicholas Flamel?" Hermione inquired.

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "I would hazard a guess of some three hundred years, give or take a decade."

Hermione was now quite curious as to why this place was not used as the Headquarters for the Order in her time, but she kept her mouth shut. No matter how she phrased such a question, no matter how subtly, she would either not get the answer she wanted or end up giving something from the future away. It was best left untouched. With a sigh of mild frustration at having such a burning question eating at her, she nevertheless turned away from the window to face the Headmaster.

"Am I free to leave, sir?"

"In just a moment, I think," Dumbledore said, pulling out a chair for himself. "I wish to briefly discuss your duties this summer."

Hermione slid into a seat next to the Headmaster, pulling it out so that she was sitting across from him. "Yes, sir."

"You are aware, I'm sure, of how the Dark Mark works," Dumbledore said calmly, folding his hands in his lap. "When it burns, Severus will be required to stop whatever it is he may be doing at the time and Apparate to the Dark Lord's side."

"I understand that, sir."

"When he returns, you are to take care of several things, in this order," the Headmaster told her. "Firstly, you will have him discuss the meeting and tell you what information he has learned. Secondly, you will take care of his injuries, if he has any. Much of Severus's information will likely be time-sensitive, which means that it is imperative that I receive it as quickly as possible." He gave this a moment to sink in, and then amended, "Although if he is too injured at the time to speak, I will of course understand. But right now, your duties as a handler are more important than your obligations to him as a friend or as a lover."

Hermione felt a blush suffuse her face at the last word, but she managed to keep her face straight. The Headmaster's words made sense, and though she did not particularly like the order of his priorities, she understood and agreed with his logic. "Yes, sir."

Dumbledore nodded, seemingly relieved that she did not argue the point. "When you are ready to hand in your reports, please simply pop into my office. The Floo into my office will not work, I'm afraid, but it will allow you to Floo out."

Hermione's brows furrowed. "Then how do you expect me to come in, sir?"

Dumbledore smiled and nodded at her wrist. "Your watch."

Hermione's mouth opened into an 'o' of understanding, and then she shut it. "Of course. Yes."

"If I am not there for some reason, please leave the report on my desk and help yourself to a lemon drop and a pinch of floo powder," Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling. "Fawkes will make sure I receive it."

Hermione smiled. "Understood. Is that all, sir?"

"Yes, I think so." Dumbledore gestured at the fireplace. "I suspect Severus is getting rather impatient waiting for you, so I'll let you go. I hope you enjoy your summer."

Hermione nodded her thanks and stood up. She shrunk her luggage enough so that they all fit into her pocket, and then tossed a pinch of floo power into the flames. They turned emerald, and she stepped inside the fireplace.

"Spinner's End," she directed.

The world spun green around her, and she disappeared from the fireplace of Tine Cottage.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Big, enormous thanks to my brilliant beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.


When she stumbled out of the floo yet again, coughing from the ash and soot that she'd inhaled-thinking that she needed to learn just how other people managed to do this without being reduced to a hacking cough-she found herself in a place that was just about as unfamiliar as it was dusty.

The floors and walls were covered in a fine layer of dust and cobwebs. There was a musty old couch in front of the fireplace that Hermione didn't even want to touch, for fear of breaking it and simultaneously setting off a dust storm. The room was incredibly sparse, and there was hardly any light to see by. Hermione managed to carefully walk across the room without disturbing anything with her touch, and slowly opened the door.

"Severus?" she called warily. The room she was peering into was as dusty and woebegone as the one she was standing in. A moment later, there was a flurry of dust and cobwebs and all manners of other things flying through the air and she let out a scream of surprise and stumbled into the door, smacking it open.

"I didn't think you would be flooing in—I was waiting in the living room for you to knock," Severus said, holding his hand over his mouth to avoid inhaling the dust swirling around them. "This place hasn't been lived in for nearly four years—Colligere!" he commanded. The cobwebs and dust in the room, whether they had remained untouched or had been disturbed moments before, suddenly pulled themselves to the tip of Severus's wand, collecting itself into a tightly packed ball. Hermione stood up and wrinkled her nose at it, and let out a sigh of relief when Severus promptly Vanished it. The room was now clean of the three-inch layer of dust and spidery designs that it had otherwise been encased in, and it looked better for it, though admittedly not by much.

A moment later, the couch suddenly let out a rattling shudder, gave way, and collapsed into a heap in the middle of the floor. A dozen doxies crawled out from holes in the fabric, and took to the air, angry at having their nest disturbed.

"Damn it. We'll deal with the little buggers later—come here," Severus said, pulling Hermione into the next room slamming the door shut. "Maybe I can collect their wings for potions ingredients."

He lazily flicked his wand again, collecting the dust that had been now twice-disturbed in the second room, collecting it into another compacted and enormous, gross-looking dust bunny before magicking it away. This room was thankfully free of any furniture, but for the wall which was lined completely with bookshelves.

"Please tell me you don't own a house elf," Hermione pleaded as she glanced around. "Last time I had to clean a place this filthy, we had to deal with a cranky old house elf, and as much as I have pity for them and their plight—"

"No, I don't," Severus sneered, looking around the room with distaste. A moment later, his expression dissolved into one of mild curiosity. "You've cleaned places like this before?"

"I'm fairly certain that it's safe to say that it was much worse than this place," Hermione said, grinning sheepishly at him now. "Things got a bit mad, really—it was more like waging war on the house than any sort of cleaning."

"And the house elf was no help, I suppose?" Severus enquired dryly.

"I'm afraid he did his best to make it known to us that we were not wanted," Hermione said with a sigh.

"In this case, I suppose I am for once grateful that I don't own an elf," Severus said, sounding amused. He strode over to one of the bookcases, running his finger alongside one of the shelves before he pulled out one of the books. A door slid open, and he gestured for Hermione to follow—who was then grateful that she had, for the room he led her into was far cleaner and more welcoming. Severus had clearly taken pains to rid it of dust and at make sure that the furniture was rendered serviceable. The bookcase slid closed behind them, and with a sigh of relief, Hermione took a seat on one of the armchairs.

"How big is this place?" she asked, pulling her bags out of her pocket and enlarging them at her feet, before using them as footstools.

"It's not all that grand, but it's comfortable enough—or will be, once it's livable again," Severus told her, taking a seat in the only other armchair in the room. He crossed his legs and leaned back, bracing his elbows on the side and proping his chin against one hand. "Three rooms downstairs and a kitchen. There's a basement that I dread having to confront, but I plan to use it as a potions lab, so that must be taken care of. There are three bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom, none of which have seen the light of day in several years and have undoubtedly collected all manners of obnoxious and mildly dangerous things."

"I guess the thing to do would be to go one room at a time," Hermione said, rolling up her sleeves. "We should probably start with the kitchen and then go back to the room with the bookshelves and doxies," she added thoughtfully, as she stood up. "I don't think some doxycide would go amiss, either."

Severus waved it off. "We don't need doxycide—Stunning Spells will do the trick."

Hermione raised an eyebrow at him. "Not if we're facing multiple doxies, and they are awfully small targets."

Severus lifted an eyebrow in return. "We're both quick with our wands. It should be fine."

"I disagree, but we'll go with your assumption for now," Hermione said. "Shall we begin?"

~o~O~o~

Taking care of the room with the bookshelves was rather easy. It required extensive cleaning, and Hermione had to get down on all fours at several points to poke her wand behind the bookcases, where she drove out several critters who had made their homes there. Bugs, mostly, were the culprit, although a lone doxy did worm its way out, followed closely by an enormous, two-foot long, flat centipede-like creature that Severus immediately shot dead. Some of the books had been nibbled on by mice, and Hermione helped Severus go through them all and figure out which ones were irreparable and needed to be disposed of.

Several of them contained Dark Magic. The books themselves did not appear to be dangerous, but the spells and instructions they held most certainly were. They numbered the minority amongst the other finds, however. Most of the finds were old textbooks and more benign spellbooks. Hermione chanced to open a few of the darker texts to have a look inside, and was met with instructions on how to liquefy a person's brain, how to apply deafening pressure on the eardrums, how to spell-cut a person's heart out, and a variety of other gruesome ways to maim or kill a person—some of which had notations that suggested that some of the methods were essential in the collection of ingredients needed for certain potions. Overall, it was more disturbing than the time Hermione had looked into Moste Potente Potions.

That single room took them nearly all day. By six o'clock, they were both quite hungry, so they took a break to visit Diagon Alley for some food. They returned an hour later, quite refreshed and in a much better mood than the cleaning had left them in, and got started on the room Hermione had flooed into. Hermione had to admit that Severus had had a fair point; while she, Harry, and the other Weasley kids had been unable to clean Grimmauld Place with only magic, she and Severus were perfectly capable of doing so. Stunning doxies was not an easy task at first, but it proved to be entertaining; they took down several within the first few seconds, and then threw up a Shield Charm that the remaining dozen or so promptly crashed into, and bounced off of, causing them to go spiraled dizzily to the floor. Stunning them after that was a piece of cake. Severus Conjured up a box to stuff them all into, and kicked it aside to deal with later.

The couch ended up being levitated through the now-clean library and the living room, and was then bodily tossed out to the curb. Hermione thought the room with the fireplace to be a second sitting room. The first one was rather small but serviceable; the only way into the rest of the house was to know how to open the bookcase in that room. It was almost like a cell for receiving guests rather than a proper living room, to be honest. The room that Hermione and Severus had just eradicated of doxies was a good deal larger and better-designed for the purpose. An old rug, the drapes, a collection of out-of-date copies of The Sunday Prophet, and a strange vase that made odd clicking noises when approached summarily joined the dilapidated, musty, broken-down couch on the corner of the street.

Without the drapes blocking it, the windows were able to let in some light, although by the time they got that far, the sun was going down and what light that did filter through was dim. They repaired the lighting on the old iron chandelier hanging over the room—which required a bit of pest removal, since a pair of juvenile lethifolds had made their home there. Hermione's silvery otter cornered them near the ceiling, and Severus made use of a rather handy spell that destroyed them both.

By the time they were done, and had turned on the lights in the room to examine their handiwork, it was past ten o'clock and they had not yet gotten to the kitchen. The two rooms they had cleaned were sparsely furnished and despite being quite thoroughly clean, they were almost depressingly spartan.

Severus retired to what Hermione now thought of as the entrance hall instead of a sitting room. She decided to sleep in the room with the fireplace, and she managed to transfigure a blanket and a pillow for herself. The hard wooden floor was distinctly uncomfortable, so Hermione gave up and moved to the room Severus was sleeping in.

He'd had the good sense to transfigure both of the armchairs into a single, comfortable mattress, and he raised an eyebrow at her when the bookcase slid open. He was lying on his side, reading, and seemed more amused than bothered by the fact that she'd disturbed him.

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, having thought that she might be able to borrow one of the armchairs for transfiguration purposes, but saw clearly at this point that that would not be possible. She tried to think of something to say, but Severus beat her to it.

"Hard wooden floor not doing it for you?" he asked dryly.

"Hardly," Hermione retorted. She was sleeping in her Muggle clothes, which had made her predicament more uncomfortable because of the way the waistband of her jeans dug into her sides when laying down. "I was actually going to ask if I could borrow an armchair, but seeing as you've used them both…"

"We could share," Severus suggested, sitting up a bit straighter. He was shirtless, though he had finally seemed to discover how useful comfortable muggle trousers could be; he was wearing a pair. The Dark Mark was visible on his arm from where Hermione stood.

"You must be joking," Hermione said, crossing over to examine the drapes that Severus was planning on throwing out last. He'd taken care of them before she had even arrived, and they were thus de-doxied, if still rather mangled, and they afforded a level of privacy from prying eyes. Still, they might be a temporary fix, if she could transfigure them into a thick enough mattress. "That's not happening."

"Why not?" Severus asked, setting his book aside. "It seems perfectly reasonable."

Hermione laughed. "To you, perhaps." She was feeling the curtain between her fingers now, trying to gauge its potential as a mattress, when she felt Severus's arms come to wrap around her waist. She twisted around enough to look at him, trying to suppress the flush of red that was rising across her face as he held her in place and nuzzled the back of her neck. "Severus!"

"I wouldn't do anything you didn't want me to," he purred.

"The fact that your hand is on my bum is not exactly encouraging on that front," Hermione pointed out wryly, sighing as she turned her attention back to the curtains. Really, they were bit too tattered and thin for her purpose, but they might still make it as a spring-less mattress…

"Look," Severus pointed out smoothly, the hand that had been resting on her backside now moving back across her belly, tracing ticklish, caressing circles underneath her shirt. "We're both adults now. You're not in school—we don't have to keep our activities… restrained." The way he said the last word, brushing his lips along the juncture of Hermione's ear now, made her shiver. Then his voice turned serious. "You trust me, Hermione. I know you do. Believe me when I say I won't do anything more than what we've already done unless you want me to."

"Oh, I trust you," Hermione responded, shifting slightly in his hold as the teasing of his fingers across her stomach finally got another reaction out of her; she was growing wet, though she hoped her face was not an instant giveaway of this fact. But what Hermione's fingers had managed to accomplish with a great deal of difficulty and the awkwardness of trying to silently frig oneself in bed had been sparked by just a few light touches of Severus's fingers elsewhere. It seemed her body was determined to side with him instead, even if her brain was recalcitrant. "But you're a Slytherin through and through, Severus—and when you want something, you're very good at finding loopholes."

Severus had the temerity to smirk at her. "So?"

Hermione managed to pull herself together enough to glare at him.

"No loopholes tonight," he promised silkily.

"You just wrote out a gaping loophole for yourself in that statement," Hermione remarked.

"But not for tonight," he countered. His hold around her tightened slightly, and he took a moment to suckle on the juncture of her neck and chin, causing Hermione to instinctively lift her head back to give him better access. "And I've wanted to do this for a long time—to just… hold you, while we sleep."

Hermione sighed, and glanced back at the drapes once more.

"You have a silver tongue, you know that?" she said, twisted around in his arms to face him.

"I do now," he purred as he dipped his head forward to kiss her thoroughly. Hermione let him, even responding playfully by dragging her fingers down his chest, before she pulled away.

"Not a chance," she told him, giving him a mischeivous smile. "But if you'd be a gentleman and give me something substantial to transfigure, I'd be quite appreciative."

He scowled blackly at her, but Hermione stood her ground as he reluctantly untransfigured his mattress back into two separate armchairs and then retransfigured his mattress, though it was noticeably smaller and less springy than the previous one. She knew that if she let him have his way, they would be having sex inside a week. Not tonight or the next night, perhaps; but they had not crossed certain lines while she was still in school, and Hermione had no intention of rushing into this and crossing them. They had not had any kind of romantic relationship while still in school together, and their interludes when they did see each other had been short. Hermione wanted to know if they could stand—if they could really stand—living with each other in such close quarters outside of school. They had barely been able to tolerate each other when they had first met; they would never have become friends had they not been very scholarly-oriented people.

Outside of that, what did they have other than their Order duties? If they could make this relationship work—and Hermione desperately wanted it to work—then she would be happy to take things to another level. But they were only just now spending time together like a real couple.

She thanked him with a kiss on his cheek, and though his scowl lessened slightly, he still watched her leave with her prize with a sullen expression on his face.

~o~O~o~

The next morning, Hermione woke up rather early and got dressed in a timely fashion. She slipped into the entrance room, and seeing Severus still asleep, quietly snuck up on him. She watched his brow furrow in his sleep as she approached, and she stood over him, silent and unmoving, until his senses finally got the message to his brain that there was someone else in the room, and his eyes snapped open.

Hermione couldn't help giggling at the startled look on his face. She bent down to kiss him, and then straightened up.

"Breakfast?" she asked, grinning at the bewildered look on his face. "We can Apparate to Diagon Alley and then tackle the kitchen."

His brows knit together into a glare, and then he sat up tiredly, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. His hair was mussed up and rumpled from sleep, and Hermione watched with something between surprise and amusement as he shook his head several times to get it out of his face.

"What time is it?" he growled.

"Seven," Hermione responded promptly.

He groaned and flopped back down on the bed. "Come back in an hour," he muttered, dragging the pillow over his face to block the sunlight streaming into the room.

Grasping both ends of the pillow, Hermione pulled it away. "We're starting work in an hour. Get dressed."

"Its summer," Severus snarled, yanking the pillow back and turning over on his side, his back to her. He was clearly not a morning person, with that attitude. "I'm sleeping in."

Hermione began wrestling the pillow from his grasp. "Severus Snape, just because the leaves are green doesn't mean you get to keep your lazy arse in bed until you feel like gracing the world with your presence. Get up!"

Severus let out a sound very much like that of an animal warning competitors off its territory, and yanked the pillow back. Hermione, who had not let go of the now much-abused pillow, tumbled forward on top of him, still clutching to object of their contention. They fought over the pillow for a moment, Severus sitting up to wrap his arms determinedly around it while Hermione straddled him in an effort to hold him down and get the upper hand.

"You—are most definitely—awake— by now—" Hermione ground out.

"I am not!" Severus gave the pillow another particularly hard yank, nearly ripping it out of Hermione's hands. He gave her a withering glare when she continued to hold onto it with determined tenacity, and then he stopped pulling; Hermione's only warning was the smug smirk curling up his lips, before he promptly let go of the pillow, causing Hermione to fall backwards onto the bed. He grimaced at this, wriggling his legs out from underneath her, before he attacked her throat with his lips.

And his fingers had gone directly to her stomach.

Hermione was then subjected to the experience of having the life snogged out of her while being tickled mercilessly.

"Oh god—Severus, stop—ah—stop this right—ah-haha—now—oh god, stop, stop stopstopstop—mrmmpf!"

She tried to push him away, but he was significantly stronger than her, and she was unable to muster up the energy when she could barely think straight. She was horribly ticklish, and Severus had her half-doubled over with laughter—laughter which was muffled by the fact that he was kissing her. He pulled away a moment later, and dragged her to him, spooning her back against his chest and locking her arms to her sides with his wrapped firmly around her.

"We've wasted fifteen minutes with our quarrel," he purred into her ear. "That means that you owe me the remaining forty-five minutes."

"Doing what?" Hermione countered.

"Snogging." He leaned back onto the bed, dragging her with him, and loosened his grip enough for her to twist around to face him. He reclaimed his pillow, and after a moment of fluffing it up, lay back comfortably with his hands buried in her hair, curling it around his fingers. He wearing an infernal, victorious smirk, and pulled her towards him, his mouth latching onto the base of her throat and suckling on it before moving up gradually to meet her lips. She folded her arms across his chest, laying half on him as she responded with eagerness, conceeding victory to him this round.

He kissed her lazily, enjoying the taste of her mouth, her neck, what little part of her shoulder was exposed, and even experimented in nibbling on her ear. Hermione returned the favor by dragging her nails lightly down his chest, curious as to what his reaction would be. His chest was only very sparsely covered in black hair, mostly centered in a thin treasure trail down his belly, and Hermione found she rather liked it.

What she liked even more, though, was his reaction. At first, it was minimal; he shivered a little underneath her touch, still nipping at the column of her neck. When she happened to drag it across the little coin-sized nipples, however, his head fell back and he bit his lower lip to bite back a moan. Mischievously pleased by this, Hermione continued to research, observing how his breathing quickened even as he regained enough control to drag her head down to his so that he could kiss her.

She felt something poking into her belly, and it grabbed her attention long enough for her to glance down at her watch to check the time. Seven fifty-seven. She gave Severus a smug, triumphant smirk of her own.

"Time to get up. Breakfast," she clarified.

He shifted underneath her, looking slightly uncomfortable for a moment before masking it with a scowl. "Fine. Leave for a few minutes, will you?"

Hermione slid off of the bed, and he winced at this momentarily before sitting up and throwing his legs over the other side. Hermione stumbled and shook the circulation back into her feet for a moment, and then left, the bookcase sliding shut behind her as Severus stood up to retrieve his clothes.

When she knocked again, and there was a muttered, "Come in," to let her know that he was decent, she saw he wasn't wearing robes.

"Good grief," she said, leaning against the doorway in a pair of Muggle jeans. "You penalize me for wearing Muggle clothes, and then wear them yourself? Hypocrite."

Severus gave her a withering look. "It's too hot for robes."

Hermione eyed the plain black cotton shirt he was wearing. One sleeve had been cut off at the shoulder, and it would have looked like a normal short-sleeved shirt if it were not for the fact that the other sleeve reached down just short of his left wrist, hiding the Dark Mark. He had changed into another pair of trousers, though these had been cut off just past his knees. He had no doubt gone out and found some Muggle clothing and altered it to his liking. For now, Hermione thought it looked ridiculous: all he needed to do was put on some metal and he would fit right in with an east coast rock band. It was completely absurd. It looked good on him, but was still eminently incongruous with his personality all the same.

To top it off, he was putting on a pair of black dragonhide boots. She placed a hand over her mouth and tried to refrain from giggling, but it was largely futile.

"Do control yourself," Severus snapped, not at all pleased with her amusement at his expense. He finished tying his boots, and straightened up. "Let's go."

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, sniggering behind her hand as they stepped toward the door, "But does it have to be black?"

~o~O~o~

"We shouldn't be doing this," Hermione told him unconvincingly as they stopped by Fortescue's for an after-breakfast treat. "It's not healthy."

"It won't kill you, either," Severus remarked, as Fortescue cheerfully handed Hermione a double-scoop of dark chocolate ice cream with a friendly, 'Here you are, Miss Hermione!' before turning around to take care of Severus's order.

If Hermione had thought Severus would stand out in Diagon Alley, she was quite mistaken. Some wizards who were most certainly strict, older-generation traditionalists insisted on wearing robes, but many were standing around in short-sleeves and pants. This month of June had hit one of those rare bursts of ninety-degree weather, and it was all anyone could do to stay cool. The only odd thing about his clothing, really, was that he was one of those mad nutters who insisted on wearing black.

When they returned to Spinner's End, they finished up their cold treats quickly and then ventured into the kitchen.

At first, its occupants seemed benign enough. There were several dead puffskeins that looked as though they had had an unfortunate encounter with the stove, and when one of the kitchen cabinets started rattling, Hermione and Severus had been forced to deal with a boggart. The boggart, confused by their double presence, and by their Occlumency shields, came out with the snarling jaws of a werewolf, its lower half fading away into a long sleeve of parchment, covered in exam questions, with a big fat 'T' at the end. It flopped and writhed on the floor, its canine head snapping impotently while the tail flipped and flapped uselessly. Hermione turned it into a stuffed toy, and banished it with little effort.

Severus had raised an eyebrow at this, but made no comment.

An infestation of chizpurfles was summarily purged by the rather unorthodox measure of summoning a horde of tiny splinters to stab and impale them all, but it got the job done. A dugbog had somehow gotten trapped in the oven, and Severus had wordlessly grabbed it by the tail and hauled it outside, tossing it toward the distant moor, where it scurried away. Flobberworms were extracted from the drain, along with an unholy amount of slime and gunk, and the rat and spider infestations were taken care of shortly after. A nest of yet more doxies had made themselves at home under the sink, and they joined their cousins in the box Severus had conjured earlier. The kitchen took longer than any of the rooms Hermione and Severus had previously cleaned, and they spent a good deal of time wrinkling their faces in disgust as they came across various problems.

Old food, or what was left of it, was thrown out. Broken shelves and termite-eaten wooden legs were repaired or thrown away. They stripped the place until it was completely spartan and bare, and then at long last stepped back to admire their work.

"Well," Hermione said, sitting down in one of the chairs that had survived the purging. "We could start stocking food here now, if you want. The entire downstairs is completely clean. "

~o~O~o~

Cleaning the four rooms upstairs took far longer than the first floor had. For one, there was more furniture, and secondly, the creatures that had fled the downstairs upon Hermione and Severus's arrival had set-up shop upstairs, and had made the decision to not go without a fight. The erklings roaming the upstairs bedrooms were a particular problem. It took them the rest of the month to get past the upstairs hallway, and in all that time, Severus was only summoned twice.

The first time was two weeks after they began their project, and he was gone for the entire day. Hermione had spent the time nervously milling around the kitchen, putting in new shelves and stocking up on food. When he was gone for more than four hours, she had begun to worry.

Please, she had thought as she turned and leaned against the pantry door. Please just let him come back in one piece. Why has he been called away for so long?

When he came back, he was perfectly fine, although he nearly cracked the back of his skull when Hermione turned her wand on him in surprise at his sudden appearance. He had Apparated directly into the kitchen, and was blown backwards with a reflexively-cast Blasting Hex.

"I'm sorry!" Hermione wailed, quickly moving to check that he was alright. He staggered to his feet, tearing off his mask and gritting his teeth in pain. "I'm sorry—you caught me completely by surprise—I thought you were a Death Eater!"

"I am a Death Eater!" he had snapped at her in irritation as she helped him into a chair. He brought his hand to the back of his head, and withdrew it, examing the sticky blood and hair clinging to his fingers. To be fair to her, he was dressed up in enemy garb, but he was still rather irate with the welcome he had received in his own home. "For Merlin's sake woman, pull yourself together and get me some ice. Fetch your notebook while you're at it—I'm fine!"

First day in, Hermione violated Professor Dumbledore's orders. She fetched his ice first and then collected her notebook to jot down his report, her justification being that his injury was technically her fault.

The second time was the morning of July first. Hermione had begun sleeping in the same room, their mattresses side-by-side, both because she wanted his company and because she was tired of being awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of laughing erklings. It was difficult to deal with their haunting cackles and attempts at luring her to follow them when one woke up alone, and if she was in the same room as Severus, his presence made her feel safe.

The previous night, the erklings' calls had gotten louder, more bold, and more disturbing, causing Hermione to sit up on her mattress and scream out a string of elaborate threats which all ended with their sticky, painful demise if they didn't fucking shut up. This quieted them for all of five long minutes before they started up again. Hermione rolled off her mattress and crawled onto Severus's, and after yanking his pillow out from underneath his head with a startled yelp of protest from him, she used both pillows to try and block out the sound. Silencing Charms only stayed in place for so long, and though they had placed strong wards to prevent anything from entering their room while they slept, they still did not want to risk allowing themselves to be snuck up upon in their sleep.

Instead of yanking his pillow back and lambasting her for weakness, Severus pulled her against him, rubbing soothing circles on her back and, pulling one pillow away from her ear so that she could hear him, promised that they would take care of the master bedroom where most of the maddening creatures were holing up tomorrow. Hermione snuggled against him gratefully, and that was how the next morning had found them.

But instead of their planned erkling extermination, Severus had leapt out of bed before Hermione was fully awake with an exclamation of, "Bloody hell!" as he rushed to get dressed, clutching the writhing snake and skull tattoo on his arm. He was gone in less than three minutes, leaving Hermione to make breakfast for herself, alone.

The erklings made themselves known all throughout the morning, cackling and taunting her, and Hermione nearly snapped and went after them. She refrained; if it had been just one or two, she would have been able to handle herself just fine. But there were nearly a dozen of them, judging from the noise they were making, and Moody and Kingsley had taught her a valuable lesson in not throwing herself into unnecessary danger without backup.

Tomorrow's tragic news, she thought dryly as she took a sip of her morning tea. Hermione Granger, duellist and spy handler, found half-eaten by a herd of rampant erklings. Investigation still pending on details concerning her demise…

When Severus returned, he Apparated into the kitchen with his hands in the air to show her he was unarmed, no trace of prestidigation in his demeanor. Hermione nearly tore his mask off to kiss him, had him out of his Death Eater robes in one minute flat, and was dragging him upstairs moments later, wand at the ready and a slightly wild look in her eyes. The room of erklings was as populated as they had suspected, and Hermione threw her sense of ethics aside and stood behind Severus to cast a Shield Charm around him as he promptly cast the Avada Kedavra curse on the whole lot.

Later, she would blame it on insanity caused by listening to the cacklings of the now-dead erklings, insanity that was not much different from extended exposure to Fwooper song. But as soon as they were done, she pulled Severus into a passionate snog and told him how much she loved him.

It was only afterwards that they sat down and actually discussed the details of the meeting he had been summoned to.

The rest of the day was spent exterminating the remaining creatures that had taken up residence in the master bedroom. Infestations of all kind were to be found in the bed, dresser, nightstand, picture frames, shelves, and even cracks in the wall. Every single piece of furniture was blown to bits in the process of the extermination, and Severus had the honor of setting the bed in flames before disposing of the ash while Hermione worked at repairing the floor. The drafts in the room were repaired after several parts of the wall were knocked down to extract creatures that had otherwise thought themselves safe from expulsion, and by the time they were finished, they had done a rather thorough job: the room was completely devoid of furniture or anything remotely alive other than themselves.

"You know," Hermione said with a sigh as she took a seat on the floor, "I swear that after this, I am never stepping in a haunted house ever again."

"Don't relax now," Severus told her, smirking. "We still have three more rooms to take care of. And then there's the basement."

With the absence of the erklings, they finally got a good night's sleep, and taking care of the remaining bedrooms was a comparatively painless task. The basement was another matter entirely, and to avoid being ambushed in the dark, Hermione had ingeniously thrown in several barrels of hay soaked in Muggle lighter fluid and set the entire room on fire.

They did receive a visit from the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes for this one. Hermione and Severus had waved off the officials who had stopped by to investigate, informing them that they were just "Spring cleaning." Raised eyebrows notwithstanding, they shut the door in the Ministry's face on this one.

They returned to the basement an hour later to find the walls scorched but otherwise undamaged and easily repaired. The room was beneath a single foot of ash, which was easily scourgified away, and as soon as they installed torch brackets on the side for lighting, it was quite useable. Severus made it his personal project to set up his own Potions lab, and Hermione nicked quite a few of his new tables from the Room of Requirement.

While in the end, their summer project of making the house safe to live in was not completed until after the first week of July, they were now only left with the much easier task of making it comfortable by adding furniture and amenities. In one of Hermione's visits to Dumbledore, he offered her two cozy red chintz armchairs for the living room, which she gratefully accepted.

Severus took one look at the armchairs and jabbed his wand at them, charming them dark green before he allowed Hermione to help him decide where to place them.

Lucius Malfoy, in a show of apparent goodwill, had two of his house-elves drop off a new kitchen table that he claimed he had found in the wine cellar of Malfoy Manor. It certainly smelled of wine, though it looked nice enough that Hermione made no protest when Severus replaced the old table with the new one. Hermione stopped by Diagon Alley several times to browse through new rugs for him, returning with one that was in dark jewel colors. They placed it on the floor of the living room, a blood-red and black diamond-patterned one that Severus allowed to remain since the colors were tasteful enough.

Cheap but comfortable four-poster beds were acquired, though Severus enlarged the one for the master bedroom into a double. New furniture was collected on a daily basis, and now that the house was clean and safe to roam around in alone, Hermione took what had been Severus's old room as a child while he took the master bedroom. She was finally able to fully unpack her trunks and store her clothes in a dresser and her odd ends and things in a closet, and was grateful for it.

The house was still sparse, but it was starting to feel more welcoming and more like a home than a dilapidated lair, though the color scheme was a bit dark. Still, there was plenty of light afforded in the bookcase-hidden rooms by lamps and windows with open drapes.

Hermione had spent the entire month and a half on good terms with Severus, becoming quite comfortable in their relationship. They rarely fought, if ever, though there were certainly a few near-disasters, such as the one wherein Hermione hexed Severus after the first time he had returned from being summoned. In fact, without schoolwork to dictate their lives, they actually got along with more ease, able to dedicate their time to the discussion of other topics of interest. In addition, while Hermione never tried to dictate Severus's choice in furnishing his home, he often listened to her suggestions, even if he did not admit it outright. It was astonishing how well they got along—where Hermione had been worried that they would be snapping at each other at every turn, much as she and Ron sometimes had, they rarely found themselves in serious disagreement.

Without the added stress of exterminating pests, and given the rarity of Severus's summonings, the two of them had a great deal of time to spend together. Often, to get out of the house, they would stop by Diagon Alley to visit the bookstore or Fortescue's. Other times, they would Apparate to Hogsmeade for a visit to The Three Broomsticks, where they would find a booth together, pull out whatever they had brought to read, and relax over a hot drink, despite the fact that it was still summer. Despite the season, the temperature had dropped one week into the mid-sixties; the English summer was fickle, and a spot of something warm at those times was much-warranted. Other times, Severus would shut himself up in his Potions lab to be alone, and Hermione would entertain herself with the newly-restored library.

Throughout their time together, Hermione had become more exploratory and certain in regards to their relationship. Thus, kissing had progressed to bouts of full-on snogging, with added instances of groping. Sometimes, Hermione would be standing in the library, browsing for a book, and Severus would come up from behind her and wrap his arms around her waist, pulling her to him and kissing her neck. On one particular, memorable instance, he had murmured things into her ear that had gone straight to her groin while his hand unzipped the front of her jeans enough to slip inside. He had tugged aside the crotch of her knickers, and drew a single finger along her seam in a way that had her moaning and panting rather wantonly before he went one step further and pressed a finger into her, while the other hand moved to cup her breasts, squeezing them through the fabric of her shirt.

He had never done anything quite like that before. There had been exploration, yes, but never anything so bold, and Hermione found she loved every minute of it. As soon as he had withdrawn his hand, examining the moisture on it and giving it a sniff before placing it in his mouth—and deciding he quite liked it—Hermione had turned around and grabbed the crotch of his trousers, where a slight bulge had already made itself visible. He nearly choked on his finger at that moment, and Hermione used the opportunity afforded by his surprise to return the favor and take apart the placket of his trousers.

They had not gotten further than that, for at that moment, there had been an untimely Floo-call from the living room. Swearing profusely, Severus had quickly pulled away, making himself presentable before striding out to see who had the audacity to disturb him. It was Lucius Malfoy, as it turned out, and as Hermione watched from behind the doorway, she could tell it was taking all of Severus's self-control not to hex the blond man.

His message, however, had been important.

"I just thought I should warn you that the Dark Lord is holding a gathering of the inner circle," Lucius had told him conversationally. "Make sure you have no plans for July 31st."

After that, Hermione had been busy bringing her record of their conversation to the Headmaster and discussing the implication of such a gathering. She did not return until very late, and she was too exhausted to do more than kiss him good-night.

"Sleep with me tonight," Severus coaxed her, running his hands along the curve of her shoulders as she undressed for bed. "Keep me company."

"Not tonight, Severus," Hermione said tiredly, thinking he would want more than just her company. She simply wasn't up for it tonight.

She was grateful when he did not argue, but slowly turned her around to face him and dropped a kiss on her forehead before leaving for his own room. The next morning, however, he woke her up with a kiss on the cheek, an uncomplimentary remark about the tangled mess that was her hair, and the suggestion of getting downstairs for breakfast before her toast turned cold.

As it turned out, her toast was cold by the time she got down; getting dressed had been quite difficult, thanks to the fact that Severus didn't seem to want her to. She was forced to laughingly bat his hands away as she tried to clip her bra on, and pulling on her shirt was quite difficult to do while trying to prevent his fingers from undoing her pants while his lips kissed her neck. He had even had the temerity to grind himself slightly against her hip, subtly dragging the waistband of her jeans down a bit. Smirking infernally with amusement at her predicament, he nevertheless allowed her to make it down eventually.

"You are an arse," she told him, laughing, as she took the stairs.

Later, she returned the favor by making lunch and then knocking on the door of the basement to let him know. He didn't come up until some ten minutes later, and when he finally emerged, she tackled him. He let out a grunt of surprise as his back hit the door, but was standing upright a moment later, running his hands under her shirt while she had her arms wrapped around his neck, suckling on his earlobe in a way that made him involuntarily groan.

Hermione pulled back to smirk up at him victoriously, and was about to pull away and return to the kitchen when she found herself being pinned to the floor, and peppered with kisses, with something familiarly hard pressing against her thigh. Not at all fussed by this turn of events, Hermione responded eagerly, burying her fingers in his hair and pulling his lips down to hers. His hands had begun working insistently on her shirt, and she let out of a muffled yelp of protest when she realized he had gotten impatient and was now tearing it off, ripping it in half with both hands in short, quick, jerks. He did the same to her sleeves, and then yanked the entire thing off of her.

Hermione beat him to her bra, pushing him off for a moment so that she could sit up and reach behind her back to undo the clasp. She slid it off, and he tossed it aside before turning his attention to her breasts, burying his face between them before taking the tip of one in his mouth. Hermione found herself squeezing her eyes shut and arching underneath him as he suckled, licked, and swirled. Her eyes snapped open when she felt him retreat, his hands moving down quickly, impatiently, eagerly toward the waistband of her jeans. Hermione allowed him to unzip them, wriggling out of them of her own accord before turning the tables on him and attacking his shirt. Eager to leave his clothing intact, at least, Severus pulled back and quickly shrugged out of his half-sleeve black cotton shirt, and then began working frantically at his trousers.

It was at that moment that Hermione realized how far he was planning to go. She watched him, using the brief interlude to ask herself if she really did want this—and when his hands returned their attention to her breasts, cupping and squeezing them, she decided that yes, she did. She most certainly wanted it. Satisfied with her choice, but now insistently eager to go through with it, she began pulling off her knickers, and let out a moue of surprise when he pushed her back down against the floor, attacking her neck with his lips. His hands were still at work stroking and pinching her breasts—she had long since pegged him as a breast man—and then her eyes opened in surprise when she felt him grinding against her.

It felt good, when he rubbed against her, but it did not last for very long. Without warning, he entered her, and Hermione's eyes flew open in surprise and she gasped for breath, trying to adjust to this new, foreign invasion. He stilled for all of one moment, his face curtained by his greasy black hair, and then he began thrusting.

It was as awkward as it was heated. Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his hips, trying to adjust to the new sensations while also trying to meet his movements so that she could garner more friction and pleasure for herself, but Severus could not seem to do it. He was too lost in his own haze of pleasure to notice that she did not seem to be getting quite as much out of it as he was. His eyes were closed as he panted hard, holding her to him, pounding into her with such force that he seemed to think it was the last thing he would ever do. He was insensate to everything but the feel of her around his cock.

Hermione felt him tremble over her, shuddering as though someone had poured ice water down his back. His hips jerked out of rhythm for a moment, and then he slumped over her, winded. His hips jerked again, and she felt him softening inside her before he braced himself partially on his elbows, resting his cheek on her shoulder. She twisted her head to the side to glance at him, and found herself confronted with a look of completion on his face. He looked so relaxed, so calm, so thoroughly satisfied. And there was an underlying layer of greedy appreciation, satiation, and awe in his eyes as they locked onto her.

Hermione found herself to be pleased, but also severely disappointed. After all those weeks of pleasurable foreplay and teasing leading up to this, it turned out that those instances had been far more enjoyable than this one moment. She sighed and leaned back, resting her head on the rug and wondering when he was going to get up, because the rolls were certainly getting cold now, although the bacon sandwiches were probably still salvageable…

Her thoughts were interrupted shortly when her lover lifted up his head to look down at her, and wearing one of those trouble-promising smirks that reminded her so much of the time he had convinced her to sneak out of the school for his birthday, he very deliberately began grinding into her again. He had hardened again somewhat, and now Hermione could feel it as he deliberately stroked in her, watching her face with concentration that had been sorely lacking not ten minutes ago.

She blinked when she saw his face pinch into a frown, and then one of distaste, and for one ridiculous moment thought that perhaps she had done something wrong until he pulled out and coaxed her to her hands and knees. He pressed her back to his chest, nibbling on the juncture between her neck and shoulders, while one hand came around her waist and slid down between her thighs, fumbling for a moment before he found what he was looking for. His other hand was busy stroking himself back to full hardness, and in the meantime—

Hermione let out the first real moan of pleasure of this encounter as his fingers began working on her clitoris, experimentally trying to find what got her off best. This seemed to please him, for though his expression became one of difficult, pleasure-distracted focus, the frown disappeared. He continued nibbling and suckling on her neck, before moving to the other side of her face to lick behind her ear, desperately trying to get another visible reaction out of her.

Hermione gratefully obliged, moaning and panting wantonly as sparks of pleasure that had only been random, chance encounters moments ago turned into a consistent build up, a cascade of lighting-shocked water waiting for enough momentum to break through the dam that held it back. He was grinding against her now, and then—

"Oh god," she moaned, when he entered her again, this time from behind. The angle felt quite good—different and new, though everything about this experience was new, really, but it touched more sensitive places inside her than—ohthat felt good… "Oh, yes, Severus, yes…"

His strokes this time were slower, and they hit deeper, and while the latter made little difference to Hermione, the fact was that now she could really feel him when he moved, truly enjoy the sensations, and coupled with the hand furiously playing with the tight bundle of nerves between her legs while the other was braced against the ground to keep himself balanced, she was just now getting an idea of how enjoyable sex could really be. The first time, it had been strange and new for both of them, neither quite knowing what exactly to expect, and it had been over too soon. Now, however, Hermione was doing a quick one-eighty on her opinion of it. Where some fifteen minutes ago she had thought sex would become a chore, she was now of quite the opposite opinion.

The build-up to climax was intense. Several times, Severus stopped moving, presumably to keep from coming early, while his fingers quickened and became more practiced and more knowledgeable about precisely what worked for her. Hermione found herself shuddering, squeezing him tightly within her walls in short, uncontrolled spasms, and just as she was teetering on the edge of something much bigger than before, something very promising, he would start moving again, changing the rhythm of his fingers and causing Hermione to cry out both in pleasure and protest. Eventually, his pace quickened, returning to the point where he was pounding near-insensate inside her, and this time, Hermione was the first to shudder and let go.

Light danced and pulled at her eyes, forcing her to squeeze them shut and clench her teeth together as her body shook and trembled with orgasm. Her arms and legs gave way, and she would have slid to the floor had Severus not held her up. He finished again moments after her, and this time, he pulled out almost immediately, rolling her over onto her back to examine her face closely. He seemed to like what he saw, for after satisfying himself that the expression on her face was one of lassitude and post-coital bliss, he flopped down to enjoy his own, eyes half-shut with lazy satiation.

Hermione felt her breathing slow gradually, and she moved her fingers to wrap in his hair as soon as she had gathered up the strength to move her arms. Despite the fact that they seemed to have the consistency of jelly, she was able to pull his head to hers so that she could angle her lips with his in a lethargic, indolent kiss. She let go after a moment, resting her head against the floor again, and sorely tempted to simply fall asleep there when she felt Severus drag himself away and stand, pulling her to her feet as well.

"I suppose lunch is ruined now," he murmured silkily.

"The rolls are probably a bit hard, but the bacon sandwiches…" Hermione swayed for a moment as she regained her balance, and then flushed red when she felt something warm, wet, and sticky leaking out of her and clinging to her thighs. "Why don't you check to see if you still find them edible while I go clean up?"

Severus gave her a leering smirk. "Don't clean up. Just get dressed."

Hermione swatted his rump, but reached for her clothes instead of seeking out her wand for a Cleaning Charm. "You are an arse."

Severus's expression twisted into one of smug, self-satisfaction.

~o~O~o~

It wasn't until an hour later that Hermione finally remembered to ask Severus to brew a Contraceptive Potion. When the idea had hit her that she had forgotten it, she spent all of three minutes in a panic attack before Severus lazily told her that he already had—and had taken it himself.

Hermione glared at him, secretly pleased and quite visibly irritated by this. "You planned this," she accused.

He raised a single eyebrow at her before returning to the potion he was brewing. His face had turned expressionlessly blank, as it always did when he was either attempting to hide his thoughts or shoring up his defenses. "Of course I did," he said smoothly, tapping his stirring rod on the side of the cauldron once to shake off drops of a thick orange brew before setting it down beside his other implements. "I started taking it before you arrived. Don't mistake common sense for cunning," he quipped back at her.

Hermione covered her eyes with her fingers, silently trying not to laugh, but failing to hide her smile with exasperation. "Unbelievable."

His lips curled into a smirk, and then he returned his attention to the potion. "I'm taking over Slughorn's teaching schedule. The Headmaster was kind enough to send me his notes, but the man was so ridiculously disorganized that he never wrote down his lesson plan for first-years." He peered down into his cauldron to examine the thick paste that was forming at the bottom, and then began scraping it out into a jar. "Do you reckon burn paste is too complicated for them?"

"You can hardly find a simpler potion," Hermione pointed out. "They have to start somewhere."

Severus grimaced. "They'll be melting cauldrons left and right, the little buggers."

Hermione gave him a wry smile, thinking of Neville. "You're probably right."

"I know I am. It was a constant occurrence until half the class was able to drop the subject." He sneered down at the burn paste, and then set the spatula he was using to scrape it out aside. "Potter and Black took great pleasure in sabotaging my potions at every opportunity. I might have failed the class if it weren't for the fact that they often did it right in front of Slughorn, so he'd give me another chance to finish the potion with full marks—though they did stop sometime around the end of sixth year," he muttered. "I suppose I should be grateful for that."

"At least they stopped after that time I had to help replace your Transfiguration notes," Hermione pointed out. "There's no point in dwelling on it anymore. James and Sirius are completely different people now than they were then—and so are you, I might add."

Severus snorted. "It doesn't change the fact that they made my life at Hogwarts a living hell."

"I won't contest that," Hermione said with a sigh.

"They may be your friends, Hermione, but they are not mine."

"I don't expect that to change, either," Hermione told him, "but I would like to remind you that James Potter did stop Sirius from letting his prank go too far—"

"By asking you to do his dirty work," Severus snapped. "Why do you keep defending them?"

"For the same reason I always defended you to them," Hermione responded coolly. "Because they're my friends, and perhaps it's a fault of mine, but I happen to see the good in them—and in you."

Severus muttered an oath under his breath, and sealed up the jar of burn paste, setting it aside. He was about to clean up his things when he suddenly gripped his arm, hissing in pain.

Hermione was on the ball in an instant. "Go," she ordered, collecting his knife and stirring rod and moving to put them away after casting a silent Cleaning Charm on them. "I'll take care of this."

Severus gave a stiff nod, and strode quickly up the stairs, still gripping his arm.

~o~O~o~

In the two weeks leading up to July 31st, Severus received an almost daily summons. It was then that Hermione began to adhere to Dumbledore's orders regarding such a routine, and had her notebook ready to take his post-summons report before leaving to notify the Headmaster. Severus always returned unhurt, but deeply disturbed. The Dark Lord spent the majority of his time ranting, and twice Severus had come face to face with a pair of cold red eyes snarling in his face. He was not the only one, however. Voldemort was still human, though there were changes that were distinctly noticeable and would later be exacerbated by his resurrection, and his appearance was frightening. He demanded information on the Potters and Longbottoms, information Severus did not have and that many of his followers simply did not know.

"Which one?" Voldemort would hiss, pacing, putting every present Death Eater's teeth on edge. "Which one is it?"

Severus began to distance himself from her at times, shutting himself up in the basement to do his private projects. Hermione gave him his space most of the time: he was carrying a lot of guilt, the majority of which was intensified by the increasing insanity and obsession Voldemort was displaying in regards to killing Lily's unborn son—as well as Alice's—not to mention the fact that when Hermione had the opportunity to check up on Lily a week before she was due, she did not look happy. She was cooped up in a safe house, and would not be going to St. Mungo's. She and Alice would only have an Order member on hand who was a certified healer, but that was not quite the same, or possibly enough. It was simply stressful, and Severus brooded silently in the basement about how it was all his fault—his fault.

When he emerged, Hermione would sit him down and force him to talk to her about it. He had his space, and now he needed to let her do her job and handle him—and his fragile psychological state. At first, he was largely uncooperative, and they would sit in long silences in front of the fire without a word being said between them. Then, eventually, he would talk. Short, to the point, and clearly, teeth-gnashingly irate. All of this had happened in the short space between when they had first been intimate and while they were waiting for the arrival of the yet-unborn but so very important little people. It meant that where Hermione might have otherwise joined Severus in bed and continued to engage in sexual activity with him, the two became too emotionally distant for that to happen.

He wanted to see Lily. He wanted to see her son, when he was born, and tell her that he was sorry. He wanted her forgiveness even at the risk of her forever condemning him instead. He wanted Hermione to let him stew in silence, and he wanted the Dark Lord to do them all a favor and go off himself.

Hermione spoke of the doable requests to the Headmaster, who sat quietly at his desk for a long time before he muttered thoughtfully that it, "Might be possible." These tidings cheered Severus up somewhat, and when the news arrived that Lily had given birth to a baby boy— quite soon after Alice gave birth—he was insistent.

To Hermione's surprise, the Headmaster allowed it. He himself Flooed to Spinner's End, and brought Hermione and Severus to the safe house where Lily was staying until she had recovered. James, who was sitting in the kitchen on a stool, staring into the fire, had jumped up in surprise—first when he saw Dumbledore, then when he saw Hermione, and then a third time when he saw his most hated schoolboy enemy.

"Professor—Hermione—Snape!" He had spluttered, his wand drawn, and uncertain of what to do. "What—?"

Hermione put her hands up. "Just so you know it's actually us and not a couple of imposters, my name is Hermione Jane Granger and I'm the one you came to when you realized that Sirius was pulling a fatal prank involving Severus and Remus." She smiled wryly at him. "You snuck into the girls' dormitory to do so, and practically dragged me out of bed while I was still half-asleep."

James lowered his wand a fraction of an inch. "Only you would know that," he admitted. But then his attention turned to Severus, and he threw the greasy-haired man a dirty, distrustful look. "But why is he here?"

Hermione and Dumbledore both turned to look at Severus. He took a deep breath, and then spoke.

"I'm here to see Lily," he said quietly.

James lost it.

"No you don't!" He roared, wand up again and ready to hex. "You bastard—I'm not letting you anywhere near her! Headmaster," he pleaded, turning to Dumbledore, "Why would you let him? He—"

"Severus has my full trust in this matter," Dumbledore interrupted, his voice calm. "He wishes to see how she is doing, and he has something to say to her. He has something to say to you, as well, but I think that he should speak to Lily first. That is," he continued cordially, "if she is awake?"

"It had better not be a love confession," James growled, but Hermione could see the fear and confusion in his eyes. "If he's got something to say, he can say it to me now, to my face."

Severus sneered at him, about to speak, when Hermione shushed him. She stepped forward to James, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"James, do you trust me?" she asked simply.

"Of course—"

"Then sit. Down."

James sank slowly back into his chair. Hermione pulled out a chair beside him, and took a seat.

"You trust Professor Dumbledore too, right?"

"Yes, but—"

"James, do you really think either of us would bring Severus here so that he could try to hurt or steal Lily from you?" Hermione asked carefully.

James threw one last glance at Severus, and then shook his head. "No," he admitted.

"Then please let him see her," Hermione said, taking his hand in hers and giving it a friendly squeeze. "I promise it's not a secret from you. You'll get to hear what he has to say from him, too. But let him have his moment with Lily."

"He still—"

Hermione cut him off with two quiet words in response: "He doesn't."

James gave her a long hard look, his face pale and drawn from stress and tension, and then he reluctantly turned to Dumbledore, refusing to look at Severus.

"Fine," he said tonelessly. "Go on up. She's awake with Harry—that's what we've named him," he said, his eyes flickering between the three of them. "Harry… Harry James Potter." He gave them a thin smile. "Lily got to pick out his name, since she's the one who had to carry him around for nine months."

Hermione was grateful that Severus merely disappeared through the door leading to the stairwell without another word, followed by Dumbledore. He had worn robes for this occasion, and when they flapped behind him, Hermione was momentarily reminded of him as her professor: tall, dark, intimidating, with his robes weaving dramatically behind him when he walked.

The door closed behind them, and as soon as their footsteps died down, James buried his face in his hands. Hermione grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to her in a comforting hug.

"I know you must be miserable, locked up every hour of the day," she said quietly, trying to be comforting. "I'm sorry that you have to deal with this—you and your family."

"Were you telling me the truth?" James croaked, without looking up. He rubbed at the stubble on his chin with one hand, looking tired and haggard. "He doesn't like her that way?"

Hermione considered best how to answer his question.

"James, how do you see me?" Hermione asked. "Did you ever like me?"

James's eyes flew open. "No! Well, I mean, when I first met you, I admit I thought you were cute—you were pretty, even when your hair was a bushy mess." He eyed her warily. "But I've never—I don't know. I've always thought of you as a little sister. I don't think I could ever see you as anything else."

"You nailed it," Hermione said, squeezing his shoulder. "That's how he thinks of Lily, too. They were friends for a long time, and even if she's not, he still cares for her like one. He doesn't have any interest in her. I certainly wouldn't bring him if I thought that were the case. Dumbledore wouldn't, either, and we both know how perceptive he is about other peoples' intentions."

James looked at her anxiously. "How do you know? Did you just take his word for it? Dumbledore's?"

Hermione cocked her head to the side for a moment to think. "Well," she began thoughtfully, twirling a lock of her hair between two fingers. "I suppose I know much in the same way you know how Lily feels about you."

James looked at her in confusion for a moment, and then it dawned on him. His expression turned into one of horror.

"No!"

"Keep your voice down!" Hermione hissed, glancing at the door.

"We're the only ones here—besides Snape and the Headmaster." James looked at her in distress. "Hermione, tell me you're joking—please. I don't—I can't imagine—Snivellus!"

Hermione smacked his shoulder playfully. "Get that image out of your head! I don't want you thinking about the two of us together. That's our business."

James gaped at her. "Oh, Merlin. I think I'm going to be sick."

Hermione glared at him. "I would think you would rather be relieved at the idea that his romantic interests are otherwise taken."

"Did he force you?" James demanded. "Did he slip you something? Blackmail? Did he… you know… come onto you, and you couldn't say no?"

"No, James!" Hermione snapped wearily. "We're together because we like each other. It's mutual." She raised an eyebrow at him. "That's how relationships work, you know."

"Still… I can't believe… Snape, of all people…" James stood up, still muttering under his breath. "I guess you're staying at his place, this summer? No wonder you didn't want us visiting…"

"Kindly keep this to yourself," Hermione warned, getting to her feet.

"I won't tell anyone else," James promised. He rubbed his face tiredly for a moment, and then headed for the door. "We can finish this conversation upstairs. I want to hear what they're saying."

"James—"

"He's talking with my wife, and you promised that I wouldn't be kept out of the loop. I won't interrupt," James said, stalking up the stairs to reach the second-floor hallway. "I just want to know what they're saying."

Hermione made no more protest, and followed him. They found Professor Dumbledore sitting quietly on a comfortable armchair at the far end of the hallway, reading a Muggle knitting magazine. He barely glanced up at them as they slipped quietly toward the door, where Lily and Severus's voices could be heard faintly.

"I can't believe she agreed to see him," James muttered as their conversation filtered through the door.

"…happy," Lily's voice concluded softly.

"That's good," Hermione heard Severus respond, his tone blank. "I'm… I confess that I still hate him, but if you're happy…" the last word was said with a slight sneer, but Hermione imagined Lily wasn't taking it at face value. "I suppose I'm thankful for it."

There was a pause, as though they were filling an awkward moment with something mundane to distract them from the topic at hand, and then inevitably returned to it.

"I know I never defended you enough in school," Lily responded thoughtfully, her words barely audible. She said something else, but it was unintelligible to the two eavesdroppers, and was promptly cut off.

"Potter and Black chose to make my life a living hell, Lily. Not you. You could hardly be expected to control them when you were barely on speaking terms with them."

"Even then—"

"No, Lily." Severus's voice was smooth, firm on this matter.

"I should have been a better friend." The red-haired woman sounded somewhat unhappy.

"Damn it," James hissed. "He's pulling her on a guilt trip, the bastard—"

"I said no," Severus snapped. "I'm the one who lost his temper. Don't forget it."

"Just because we weren't friends anymore was no excuse for how I treated you," Lily responded calmly. Hermione heard James breathe a sigh of relief, his fears from moments before alleviated by Severus's response. "I hate to admit it, but I spoke rather badly of you to the one person who showed you any kindness. It was Hermione who told James and Sirius to back off, not me."

"What reason would you have had for defending me after what I did?"

"Don't make excuses for me, Severus," Lily bit out. There was a pause, and then she responded quietly, "We both made mistakes. Grave ones, and for the ones I am responsible for, Iam sorry."

There was another pause, longer this time, and then Lily broke it. "I'm glad you have Hermione. She's always been there for you, even before you were friends—she's the kind of person who commits to something and sticks it out to the end. I'm thankful that even if we can't be friends again, we'll always have her as a sort of—connection. A reminder, I think."

"I'm afraid it's my turn to apologize and say friendship isn't possible," Severus responded darkly, "but I'm afraid that if the Dark Lord got wind of such a thing, he would use me—or Hermione, even—as a means of getting to you. Your son, particularly." Hermione heard the faint sound of a baby stirring, and heard Lily making soothing shushing sounds before Severus continued. "Not until the Dark Lord has fallen, at least."

"I understand." There was an audible sigh, and then— "Sometimes, I wonder why you give me so many chances to try and turn things right between us. I probably don't deserve them."

"Considering that it is my fault your family is currently at risk—"

"I've already absolved you of that," Lily argued. "You couldn't have known."

"I should have known to keep my mouth shut!"

"Wait," James said, unable to contain himself as he barged open the door. Severus was sitting on a hardwood chair next to Lily's bed, in a room that was rather sparse with bare walls and wooden floors. "Your fault? What do you meant this is your fault?"

Hermione grabbed James by the arm, holding him back. "Give us a chance to explain—"

"I want an explanation now, Hermione! I've waited long enough!"

"James," Lily said, her tone commanding and imperious. Hermione saw her shift Harry in her arms, who was otherwise sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a red baby blanket. "Sit down. We'll discuss this like rational people for once, and that can't happen if you're waiting for a chance to break his nose." James didn't move, and Lily repeated, "Sit!"

Reluctantly, James summoned himself a chair and took a seat on the other side of the bed, glaring murderously at Severus, who didn't seem at all inclined to defend himself. Hermione moved to stand next to him.

"I'll explain," Hermione began, but Severus cut her off.

"No. It's my story." He sat up a bit straighter, his young and otherwise unlined face looking a bit too weary and resigned for his age. "I'll tell it."

"Severus—" Lily began.

"As you have probably guessed, I work for the Dark Lord now," Severus said, rolling up his sleeve. She saw Lily flinch at the sight of the tattoo, and James looked as though he were about to fly out of his seat. Only the fact that he would have to plow through his wife, son, and her bed to reach his adversary seemed to be stopping him. "He knew that Professor Dumbledore would be visiting the Hogs Head for an interview, and ordered me to make use of the opportunity to prove myself.

"I eavesdropped on him. He was interviewing a prospective teacher for the subjet of Divination—and at one point, the old fraud actually made a real prediction." Severus shoved his sleeve back down. "It was an obscure reference to the Dark Lord's downfall, with constraints that two Order members, unfortunately, fit. Naturally, I reported my findings back to the Dark Lord, who spent many months placing his energy and focus into finding the person destined to dethrone him before his attention turned to your family and the Longbottoms'. This prediction was made before either of the children in question were even conceived, and thus, I had no inkling, absolutely none…" he trailed off, and glanced at Lily, who nodded, signalling for him to continue. "When I realized that the Dark Lord was planning on targeting your family, I… I defected."

For a moment, the room was dead silent, saved for the sound of tiny Harry snuffling in his sleep. Then James slowly stood up and walked toward the center of the room, shaking with rage.

"Let me get this straight," he said, removing his glasses and trying to polish them with the hem of his shirt. "You joined You-Know-Who and did his dirty work. You then heard a—a prophecy made by a batty old woman, and heedless of the fact that you were consigning the person mentioned in it to literal witch hunt by your master, you reported it to him. Andnow you come here to tell me that you're the reason You-Know-Who is out to kill us, the reason why he wants my son, the reason why my son will grow up with a madman's wand searching for his throat!"

Hermione saw Severus swallow visibly, as he got to his feet. "Yes," he responded blankly.

James froze for a moment, and then faster than Hermione would have believed, he took a single step forward, balled his hands into fists, and struck Severus across the face. Hermione lunged forward and grabbed the front of James's shirt, pulling him away before he could strike another blow.

Harry, disturbed by the commotion, had begun to wail. Lily tried to quiet him while also trying to entreat her husband to not go in for another punch, which was what he seemed to be trying to do, but could not for the moment as Hermione was clinging to him.

"James, stop!"

"Hermione, let go—that bastard—!"

"James—!" Hermione grunted, trying to hold him in place.

A strong, imperious voice suddenly cut across the room.

"Enough."

James stopped struggling. Hermione, who had been half-dragged off the floor trying to handicap him, scrambled to her feet. Lily immediately turned to Harry, who had gone very quiet at the command, but now looked ready to start up again. Severus, who was sitting up on the floor and cupping one side of his face with his hand, squinted up at the issuer of the order through a haze of pain. Albus Dumbledore strode into the room, his demeanor serious and—quite possibly, Hermione thought—disappointed.

"I brought Severus here tonight so that he could inform you in person," the Headmaster stated, summoning several chairs and placing them around the room with a single flick of his wand. "This was intended to be an adult discussion, James, not a bar fight." Hermione pulled Severus to his feet and helped him into the chair he previously occupied, and James slowly took a seat on the edge of Lily's bed. "Let us begin again, shall we?"

Hermione swallowed, unable to speak as she pulled out a chair for herself.

"James, because of the terrible mistake Severus has made, he opted to switch sides at a great personal risk," Dumbledore said, his voice restoring calm and order to the room. "He is now a spy for the Order, and Hermione is his handler."

James and Lily both turned to look at Hermione, their mouthes agape, but the Headmaster's next words returned their attention solely to him.

"Together, their work has saved the lives of a number of Muggle and wizarding families," Dumbledore continued, "Including your own. There is no guarantee that your family would have remained safe without the existence or report of the prophecy, but it is guaranteed now that you and your son are well-protected. I think it rather poor repayment to hit the man who has worked so hard to repair his error of judgement."

"Don't make excuses for me, Albus," Severus snarled, drawing his hand away from his face. Hermione saw a trickle of blood running down the side of his face from where James had struck him, and a purplish bruise was darkening just above his left brow. "I bloody well deserved what I got."

Hermione saw James staring at Severus as though he had never seen him properly before. Lily looked as though she wanted to speak, but Harry had begun to fuss again and looked on the verge of screaming. As though by some hitertho-unrecognized instinct, Hermione found herself standing up and walking over to the bed, holding out her hands to Lily.

"May I?" she asked.

Wordlessly, Lily handed Harry over. Hermione adjusted him into her arms and peered down into his green eyes, noting the lack of a lightning-bolt scar, and ran her fingers gently through his black, downy hair before reaching for one of her own curls and offering it to him. Now diverted by something rather more exciting and less disturbing than the yelling that had been going on earlier, Harry grabbed the curl in a tiny fist, no longer interested in wailing. Satisfied, Hermione slowly began to walk around the room, giving Lily the window she needed to lean forward and speak her mind.

"James, Severus and Hermione have been working together to help us," Lily said, placing a hand on her husband's arm. "They're entrusting us with the knowledge of what they're doing—if You-Know-Who found out, they would both be killed. Can't you see what they're doing for us—for everyone else they've helped?"

James gave her a weary, anxious look. "I just don't understand it," he said. "Hermione, I could understand—she's our friend, and she's always stuck by our side, but—Snivellus?"

"Believe me when I say I am not doing this out of the goodness of my heart for you," Severus sneered, glaring down at the bit of blood clinging to his fingers from where he'd held them against his face.

"Then tell me," James demanded, almost desperately. "Why?"

"For Lily," Severus snapped.

"But you don't—Hermione—"

"If you believe for one moment that the only reason I would try to save someone—"

"You and Lily haven't even been on speaking terms for the last four years!"

"James, I already explained this to you downstairs," Hermione said testily, turning around to face him.

"I need to hear it from him!"

"I have the perfect corollary for this," Severus sneered, getting to his feet. "Imagine you said something to Hermione that made her decide to cut off her association with you. Would you still stand by and watch her die if you knew she would be killed because of you?"

James gaped at him. "But…"

"I think James is working under the delusion that anything Severus does it purely in self-interest," Hermione observed dryly. Dumbledore nodded sagely at this.

"Of course—he's a Slytherin!" James protested weakly. He looked tired and drawn, and it seemed to Hermione that to James, the very idea that the person whom he had always hated, and who hated him back with equal vitriol, was capable of human decency had shaken him.

"And of course, you're a Gryffindor," Severus drawled bitterly. "I must automatically assume you will stick your neck out and get yourself killed every time you step outside to buy groceries. However, if that were true, I would most fortunately be rid of you by now."

"Severus, you're not helping," Hermione snapped. Lily had placed one hand on her face in exasperation, and Hermione could quite keenly feel her pain. They were dealing with two wizards who were as different as night and day—one reveled in the dark arts, the other despised it—and were very powerful in their own right, with quite a number of attitude problems to boot. And, Hermione thought dryly, a little too much testosterone.

James's behavior was understandably predicated by his protective instincts and possessiveness toward Lily as his wife and the mother of his week-old son. As was his former prejudice and discrimination against the raven-haired Slytherin. Severus's behavior was based on protectiveness and a desire for acceptance from a person who he felt responsible for, and who he felt his relationship with was, now and in the past, being threatened by the Gryffindor standing in front of him. They seemed quite ready to go for each others' throats.

"Look," Lily said, pinching the bridge of her nose, eyes closed and one hand in her lap as she tried to be the one more calm and rational person in the room, in addition to Hermione and the Headmaster. "James, Severus cares for me because we were childhood friends. He's doing this for us because he cares. And even if you don't trust his intentions, I do. Hermione and Dumbledore both trust him, and if we can't trust them, then who else can we trust?"

That seemed to stop James cold. He had been standing nose to nose with Severus, both of them looking as though they were quite ready to bite each others' face off, and at this stark statement, he withdrew. His shoulders slumped, and he returned to his seat. Severus hesitated for a moment, until a tug on his sleeve from Hermione made him do the same.

"Now that we've come to an understanding on the matter," Dumbledore stated matter-of-factly, "I would like to discuss what is expected of you—all of you—after the fact."

They all turned to give the Headmaster their undivided attention.

"James, Lily, you will not speak of anything that was spoken here tonight to anyone else," Dumbledore said warningly. "Not even to your friends. Not even Sirius," he clarified, seeing the despondent look on James's face, and continued upon seeing the questioning one on Lily's: "Nor Alice Longbottom or Marlene McKinnon. I have no doubt as to their loyalty and trustworthiness, but it is Hermione and Severus's decision to decide who to reveal themselves to. The more people who know, the more they are put at risk of being discovered and killed. If that happens, we lose our only spy and two valuable Order members."

James sighed, and slumped onto the bed. "I understand, sir."

"Severus will not be able to visit again," Dumbledore continued, addressing Lily in particular, "for the reason he explained earlier. Hermione, however, is free to come and go as you wish her to. You mustn't forget that she is your friend."

James nodded, and then swallowed hard. He did not seem capable of speaking; at the moment, he looked rather exhausted. He didn't look like the James Potter Hermione remembered from school; in fact, he reminded Hermione quite a bit of Harry, when she first saw him after he had come out of the maze clutching Cedric's dead body. Hermione carefully walked up to him and held eight-day-old Harry out to him. James took him with care, looking down at his son's face, and Hermione place a hand on his arm.

"I know you and Severus will never get along unless you have a common enemy," she began quietly.

Severus snorted.

"Not helpful, Severus," Hermione sighed without turning around to look at him. James cracked a smile—the faintest of smiles—at this, and Hermione continued. "But the two of you have a common enemy now, and even if you never become friends, I think you should recognize that you're on the same side." Not unlike when Severus had to shake hands with Sirius, back in the Hospital Wing at the end of fourth year, she thought. "Even if you still doubt his intentions, at least remember what you know of what you know of his past actions, and remember that until You-Know-Who is dead, you are both working to protect the same people. Remember that," she insisted.

James bowed his head. "Fine."

"Thank you," Hermione breathed.

"And—"

"Severus," Hermione said warningly, glancing back to give him a pointed stare.

With one hand pressed against his face, barely covering the purplish bruise that had formed there, it was astonishing how expressive he could be. Particularly when he raised an eyebrow at her. Hermione strode over to him and placed her hand on his arm, facing him so that she had to crane her neck around to look at the Potters once more.

"We'll be going now," she said, wrapping her arm around Severus's as she prepared to leave, so that she was resting her cheek against his chest. "But if you ever want me over, just send a message. I promise I'll make the time to see you, if you'll have me."

Knowing that Dumbledore undoubtedly had more to say to the couple, Hermione gave him a nod in farewell before Severus placed a hand on her shoulder. He glanced down at her once, before lifting his eyes to meet James Potter's as if in a silent challenge—and then with a loud crack, the two of them Apparated away.

~o~O~o~

They landed in the kitchen, where Severus let go of her, pulled out a chair for himself, and took a seat. Hermione set about creating a temporary ice pack for him to help lessen the swelling. He extracted himself from his traveling cloak and set about pulling off his robes so that he was in nothing but his preferred black cotton half-sleeve shirt and trousers. Hermione was beside him a moment later, ice-pack in hand, and he silently accepted it.

"I'm going to see if we have anything down in the lab that might help that," Hermione said, summoning a towel to dab gently at the bit of blood that had caked itself around the part of the bruising that wasn't covered by the ice pack. James was a strong man, and he had hit Severus quite hard; Hermione was genuinely surprised that Severus had not ended up concussed. As it was, he had a thick bruise now well-formed over his left brow, and judging by the way he winced at her touch, she was certain it hurt quite a bit.

"Bring some Murtlap Essence," Severus muttered, leaning back in his seat. "A Headache Potion wouldn't go amiss, either."

Hermione frowned, pressing her hand to his forehead. "A headache could be a sign of concussion," she suggested.

"You're a witch," Severus snapped irritably. "You do something."

Hermione ran a list of spells through her head, and pulled out her wand, running the charm through her head once more before tapping the side of his head with the tip of the vinewood. He flinched from the touch, and then his eyes crossed together in a dizzying manner, before he blinked, restoring his eye positions to normal.

"How do you feel?"

"The Headache Potion may no longer be necessary," Severus allowed, glancing at her wand.

"I'll be right back with the Murtlap Essence," Hermione said, satisfied with her work. She left the kitchen, stowing her wand in her pocket as she did so, and returned several moments later with jar of yellow liquid. She summoned a small wooden bowl, a second towel, and poured out the contents of the jar before dabbing the towel into it.

"You know," Hermione said as she lifted out the towel and gave it a squeeze before removing the ice pack from Severus's face to replace it with the Murtlap-dampened cloth. "You could have been a bit more helpful in there, when I was trying to talk to James."

"There's no point in reasoning with Gryffindors like him," Severus spat bitterly.

Hermione's eyes flashed at this, but her face merely turned taut as she responded. "You carry the same prejudice he does. He believes you incapable of human decency, just as you believe him incapable of common sense. Besides," she continued, as she pressed the Murtlap Essense onto his bruise, "If you truly believe that, why do you waste your time with me?"

"You should have been sorted into Ravenclaw," Severus responded, his tone slightly defensive.

"That doesn't exclude the fact that I am a Gryffindor," Hermione responded softly. "Do you think there's no point in reasoning with me?"

Severus fell silent. Hermione did not press the point, but merely continued dabbing at the bruise with the wet cloth. At last, he spoke:

"It's been stressful," he said, his eyes flickering across her face as she worked.

"That's a fair assessment," Hermione agreed.

"I apologize if I have been… precipitous as of late."

Hermione smiled at him as she pulled the cloth away to re-soak it. "Apology for undue crankiness accepted."

He snorted, but did not contest it.

Twenty minutes later, when Hermione had done all she could do and had put the excess Murtlap away, Severus slowly stood up and pulled her to him, pressing their foreheads together. They stood there quietly for several minutes, and Hermione realized, as she relaxed into him, that the effect of his presence as a means of making her feel secure and protected had not vanished even after their few weeks of deficient communication. They had not slept together, in the literal or metaphorical sense, since the day he had taken her virginity on the floor of the living room, just outside the door to his lab. Their intimacy had come to a halt as a result of the increasing summons and the escalating risk of Voldemort attacking the Potters and Longbottoms as Lily and Alice's due dates had approached, but now that it was over—now that things had returned to a kind of calm—they could reconnect.

"Come to bed," he suggested silkily, his hands sliding over her hips.

Hermione considered it. "Under one condition," she responded, pulling away slightly so that she could look up at him, certain that she had his full attention.

His eyes flickered uncertainly. "What?"

"Next time we run through difficulties—whether it's You-Know-Who or your concerns about Lily or something else—you don't push me away," Hermione told him firmly, pressing a finger to his lips so that he wouldn't interrupt her when he parted his mouth to speak. "You don't just withdraw and refuse to talk. There are times when you'll want to be alone and have some privacy, and I will most certainly grant you that— but you can't suddenly turn unresponsive and then expect me to be waiting here as though nothing has happened." She pulled her finger away, and slid it down his throat, stopping to splay her hand against his chest. "Are we agreed?"

She watched him work his jaw for a moment, and then he nodded.

"In that case," Hermione said, kissing him. "Let's go to bed."


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

A/N:  Credit goes to Hypnobarb for the brilliant and original idea concerning the Defense Against the Dark Arts and the jinx that goes along with the job.

Big thanks goes to my wonderful beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review!


Hermione spent the night in comfortable bliss. The summer was drawing to a close now that it was mid-August, and the weather had changed to allow for refreshingly cool nights. Cool enough that they could sleep together under the covers, with Hermione snuggled up against Severus's chest, preferring to bury her face in the crook of his neck while they slept. She awoke before he did, and simply lay there pressed against him while mentally going through a checklist of things she planned to do that day, enjoying the moment with him while she did so.

When he awoke, it was with the fluidity and determined focus of a panther. His arms, which had been wrapped around her in sleep, tightened in warning before he promptly flipped her over onto her back and, with her encouraging response, began laying a trail of kisses and nips down her neck. He had a morning erection, and chose to take care of it in the most convenient and enjoyable way possible.

"Oh, yes," Hermione found herself moaning as she arched into him. "Oh god—Severus…!"

"Hermione—yes, Hermione…"

The man had turned into a beast overnight, and Hermione absolutely loved it. He had taken double helpings on the first serving, and now that he had her back and in his bed—this time quite literally—he took and gave liberally. He had a voracious appetite and a lot of needs, and it seemed that he rather preferred to satisfy them before giving any consideration to more mundane things like breakfast.

When Hermione finally did make it downstairs to begin breakfast, she paradoxically felt as dry as a desert while also quite wet with her juices and his semen clinging to her legs, and there was nothing she could quite use to describe her state of being. She was completely satiated; sore, but refreshed and feeling quite remarkable. Severus had not allowed her to get dressed, insisting she go down in nothing but her bra and knickers if she had to wear something.

Severus came down a few moments after her, fully dressed, much to Hermione's consternation when she turned around to serve him toast—though she was quickly overcome with curiosity and then vague understanding when she saw he was wearing full-length black trousers and a white button-up shirt with cuffs.

"What's this?" she asked, setting his food on the table before checking their icebox for pumpkin juice.

"The weather's cooled a bit," Severus responded seriously, adjusting the cuffs one more time before taking his seat. "School will be starting up in two weeks, and I can't very well teach students while looking like one myself. Of course, I'll have to find something a bit more severe than this," he added, scowling at the thought. "You could probably help me."

Hermione placed a hand over her mouth.

Professor Snape.

"Well," she said, pretending to be thoughtful as she tried to recall what her Potions professor had looked like in her first to fifth years. "You could always wear a frock coat on top of what you've got now, and wear it all underneath your teaching robes."

She was almost sorry when she discovered he had actually taken her advisation under serious consideration.

~o~O~o~

The week before school began, Hermione and Severus took care of emptying the house of food and making sure the basement was warded securely and otherwise prepared to be left unattended for an extended period of time. It was possible they would be back for the holidays, but Hermione was not certain, and in the interim, it needed to be magically protected from becoming a shabby motel for magical pests. Hermione considered that they might send a Hogwarts house-elf to check in on it once or twice a year, just to ascertain it remained in good order. They had put a lot of hard work into it, and wanted to keep their efforts from being wasted.

Hermione also wondered how Professor Dumbledore was doing in regards to restoring her time-turner. She had never heard of someone using a time-turner to travel forward in time, but if it could take her back in time—by twenty years, in fact—she was certain it could be persuaded to send her at least as far forward in time as she herself had lived. She was in no hurry to leave Severus or abandon her friends, but her situation was not one that she could afford to ignore.

Thus, it was when they arrived at Hogwarts that Hermione requested a private audience with the Headmaster before anything was decided.

"I'm afraid that while I've done considerable research and pulled quite a few strings to find out how time-travel to the past is achievable, I'm afraid everything I've examined suggests that time-travel to the future is a logistical impossibility," Professor Dumbledore told her kindly as Hermione circled around his office, glancing out the window as she made a turn past it to see the lake and the Forbidden Forest in the distance. "I have not stopped searching, of course, and the faster we return you to your time, the less damage control we will have to do—but I'm afraid that as of right now, and perhaps never, there is no way to return you to your original timeline."

Hermione sighed. "I understand, sir."

"I have, however, begun devising a back-up plan, so to speak," Dumbledore told her thoughtfully as he came to stand by the window next to her. "I will not reveal the details just yet, but if we have no means of returning you to your proper time, there will be a way to mitigate things when the year of nineteen ninety-six rolls around naturally."

"Thank you," Hermione said, grateful that he had kept her situation in mind despite the other important events that were concurrently taking place. "I appreciate it."

That avenue of discussion closed for now, Professor Dumbledore led Hermione and Severus down to the dungeons, in the direction of his quarters.

"You will be teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, but of course, you are not required to take the quarters that go along with the post," Dumbledore told them as he revealed what had once been Slughorn's rooms. The furniture had been removed, and it was apparently up to the teachers to decide individually how to keep their quarters, for at the moment, there was nothing more in the single-bedroomed flat than an old, beaten desk.

"Hermione will be staying with me," Severus said, echoing a decision the two had unanimously made earlier.

"That's settled, then," Dumbledore said cheerfully, clapping his hands together. "If you are in need of anything, I am certain the house-elves will be more than willing to service you."

True to his word, they were. The elves, who the Weasley Twins once claimed would bring them a roast ox if they merely mentioned that they were a bit peckish, were almost overeager to bring in the requests for new furniture. The two professors found they had to be very specific in order to get what they were actually asking for, or they risked being handed overkill.

When they had asked for a bed, they did not mean a queen-sized bed with five layers of flowery quilts. They wanted a bed. A simple four-poster big enough for two people, and nothing more. Severus had been ready to strangle one of the little blighters when, having apparently not made himself clear enough, the elf in question had delivered a four-poster covered in a garish pattern of purple and orange stripes. Hermione had quickly charmed it a more tasteful color of dark green, double-checked that the sheets underneath it were plain white—they were not, and had to be changed as well—and then triple-checked that the mattress, too, was white. A third charm later, they were finally satisfied with that one piece of furniture.

Then came the replacement desks. The armchairs. A couch. The drapes for the enchanted windows that gave them an admittedly spectacular view of the lake. The rug for the living room. The absurd loveseat that Severus, nearly purple with rage, threatened to use as a means of playing whack-an-elf if it was not immediately removed.

The elves argued with them over everything. They had clearly enjoyed absurd tastes under Slughorn's lenient hands, and Severus—and Hermione too, at this point—would have none of it. They ended up with a single corner desk that they would share together, plain and functional with separate drawers for each of their purposes. The couch and armchairs were charmed dark green to Severus's tastes, and Hermione made the final decision on the drapes, choosing to make them ivory. They opted for a simple maroon rug for the area in front of the mantle, something Severus did not particularly mind, and which Hermione thought looked quite nice when the fire was lit.

They didn't even bother asking the elves for help in the bathroom. It was a large enough tub for four, sunk into the ground, and with a showerhead above the entire thing in case they should prefer that instead. They summoned and charmed their own color preference for towels, and Hermione spent several minutes setting up her things in there before joining Severus in the living room to have a last look-around.

"I'm satisfied," Severus rumbled, glancing into the fireplace as it sprung to life of its own accord.

Hermione wrapped her arms around him from behind. "I admit, it's actually quite nice."

One bedroom, one bathroom, and a living room. This would be their own, private living space for the entire year—and for at least one of them, a good time longer.

~o~O~o~

Hermione later sat in the Headmaster's office as they reviewed the teaching contract. Hermione had not signed hers when Severus had, and preferring to wait to do so at the last minute. When Professor Dumbledore pulled the DADA teaching contract out of his desk and placed it in front of her, Hermione took a moment to read it through carefully.

"Is this the same contract you use for all the other Defense teachers?" Hermione asked curiously as she examined it.

"Indeed," Dumbledore said with a nod.

A thought suddenly occurred to Hermione. "Professor—I mean, Albus," she said, correcting herself. Since she was now a teacher rather than simply a recent ex-graduate, she had been invited to call the Headmaster by his first name. "Do you just duplicate this every year for each teacher, or do you write up a new one?"

She saw Dumbledore's eyebrows contract for a moment, and then quickly rise up to his hairline. "Do go on," he prompted.

Hermione pushed the contract away.

"Sir, has it occurred to you that if the job is indeed jinxed, that it may be the contract?"

Dumbledore sat back in his chair, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Your theory makes a great deal of sense, but how would Tom Riddle have gotten his hands on it?" he murmured.

Hermione sat back in her seat, examining her flaw for a moment, before her eyes lit up with clarity. "This contract—each one you duplicate, you keep a copy for yourself and a copy for the teacher. But you also keep a Protean Charm on them so that it can't be altered without your knowledge— am I correct?" A nod from the man sitting across from her, and Hermione sat back in her seat triumphantly. "All Voldemort would have needed to do is drop by to see old Professor Merrythought right before he retired and somehow get his hands on the Professor's version of the contract. If he enspelled it, the jinx would have been transferred to the other copy—the very same one you keep duplicating and wiping blank for each new teacher."

Dumbledore leaned back in his chair as well, looking quite impressed. "I must say, Hermione, that in the last thirty-six years, I have never come across a theory quite as likely as yours. I have, of course, put much examination into the problem, and there have been multiple scourings of the classroom itself to see if an object had been cursed to carry the jinx—a vase or a book, perhaps, or even the door—but to think that it could have been the teaching contract itself…" he beamed at her. "That is an idea, Miss Granger."

"I don't know if that is it or not," Hermione said, folding her hands into her lap, "and in my own timeline, none of my Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers have ever lasted more than a year. My suggestion, sir, is that we test my theory by drawing up a separate contract, but if and when I retire from the post, you give the presumably jinxed contract to the next teacher."

Dumbledore nodded, pulling the old contract away and placing it back into the drawer of his desk before drawing out a new slip of parchment. "Let us see, shall we?" he asked, blue eyes twinkling.

~o~O~o~

Hermione received a letter from James and Lily, asking for her to visit the day before the students were to arrive. Hermione, who had been busy reviewing the lesson plan she had painstakingly written out for the year, was unable to visit immediately. She opted to exclude herself from attending the Welcoming Feast, instead leaving with Dumbledore's permission to pay a visit to Godric's Hollow. She Flooed in with little trouble, having finally mastered how to do so without getting dizzy enough to topple over, and stepped into their living room, brushing soot off her robes.

"Hey," James said, offering her a smile as she stood next to the couch. Hermione stepped forward to hug him, and then turned to Lily, who smiled up at her gratefully. "Glad you could come."

A voice broke through from the kitchen: "Oi, is that Hermione?"

"She's here," Lily called back as she held Harry closer to her chest.

Sirius appeared a moment later, wiping his hands with a dishrag. "So she is. How've you been?"

"Great," Hermione said, moving to hug him as well. "I'll be teaching at Hogwarts now. So," she said, stepping back and glancing around the room, "what are we here for? I assume this isn't just a friendly visit, or I would have brought butterbeer for the lot of you."

James chuckled, while Sirius barked with laughter. "No. We asked you here because we had something serious we wanted to ask you."

Lily took a deep breath. "We've already asked Sirius to be Harry's godfather. You've been such a good friend to us—more than we could ever possibly express—and we would like you to do us the honor of being our son's godmother."

Hermione's jaw nearly dropped. She spluttered for a moment, unsure of what to say, when Sirius placed a hand on her shoulder, having come to stand beside her.

"James already told me that things are complicated," he started.

Hermione whirled around to look at James. "You didn't!" she accused.

James threw his hands up quickly. "I haven't told him anything, Hermione! I swear!"

"But—"

"I only told him that things were complicated," James said hurriedly. "Lily was there when we had him over to talk."

Hermione turned to look at Lily, who was nodding firmly. "Sirius doesn't know anymore than he should, Hermione," she promised.

"Wait," Sirius said, his head whipping around to face Hermione. "What am I not supposed to know?"

Hermione smacked her face with her hand. "Nevermind," she stated.

"Hermione…" Sirius pressed.

"Just—just forget it, alright?" Hemione said, staring down at the floor. "I'm sorry—it's just, things have been busy, and…" she sighed, closing her eyes. "I'm sorry for going off on you like that. You were saying?"

James let out a snort of laughter, removing his glasses to rub at his eyes. "As we were saying," he said, "we want you to be Harry's godmother, and even if things are complicated in such a way that you might not always be around to fullfil you duties as one, we would still like you to."

Hermione bit her lower lip. "That's a big decision to make," she said carefully, trying to turn this around in her head in a way that made some sort of sense. "Especially since you don't know about all of the details of my—my situation."

"We know enough," Lily stated firmly. Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but Lily put up a hand. "We don't need to know everything about your situation, but we do know enough about who you are as a person. You're the only person we would ever ask, Hermione."

Hermione gazed into their faces, knowing that they were being completely honest with her. They had no inkling of the truth about her past, but they apparently did not care. If their only basis for asking her was their experience with her as a close family friend, then she felt comfortable in accepting their request, knowing that she was not obscuring some necessary fact from their decision-making—not directly…

"In that case," Hermione said slowly, curling a lock of hair between her fingers, as she smiled at them, "I would be honored to be Harry's godmother."

Lily beamed at her. Sirius pulled her into a bear-hug, before patting her on the back with enough force to send her stumbling in James's direction, who quickly pulled her into another hug.

"Thank you," he whispered into her ear.

Hermione smiled gently. "Anything for Prongs," she quipped.

~o~O~o~

Afterwards, when Hermione went to the kitchen to grab a fresh plate of crackers, Sirius followed her, questions brimming on his lips.

"Hermione, earlier you mentioned something about how your situation was complicated," he stated. "James and Lily obviously know."

Hermione turned around quickly from where she had been slicing some cheese to add to the plate, startled for a moment, before she returned to her task. "I can't tell you, Sirius," she responded simply.

He gave her a look of frustration and exasperation. "Why not?"

"Because it's dangerous," Hermione responded simply. "It's sensitive information in regards to this war, and the more people who know, the more it puts the people it concerns at risk."

Sirius examined her profile carefully. "What if I offered to take an Unbreakable Vow to hold my silence?" he asked.

Hermione turned to give him a curious look, appearing as though she were almost considering it for a moment, but then shook her head. She was Severus's handler, and therefore had seniority in deciding who could be allowed to know certain details about their operation, but it was Severus's life on the line more than hers—therefore, she felt, he should have an equal say in who to include in their circle of information.

"It's not just about me," she told him gently, willing him to understand. "There's someone else I'd have to discuss this with before I can tell anyone else."

Sirius gave her a deep, considering look, crossing his arms thoughtfully for a moment before he spoke again. "I always knew there was no way Dumbledore would just put you on organizational duty."

"I—what?" Hermione said, taken aback.

"You're simply too smart and too clever to ever just be delegated to making sure everyone's got their shoelaces tied and heads on straight," Sirius said seriously, leaning against the counter. Elaborating, he continued, "There are a few Order members who have family ties to Death Eaters and use them as a means of gathering intel for us. Naturally, no one in the Order knows who all of them are except for Dumbledore, and he's the one who makes decisions on who gets to know what. Am I right?"

Hermione simply gaped at him. He was too close to the truth, though still quite a ways off. Sirius put up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"I won't ask any more, I promise," he stated, lowering his hands. "But I just want you to know that if you ever need my help with something, you can always ask me. I'll try not to ask too many questions."

Hermione's fingers shook as she set the knife down. "Thank you," she said shakily, turning around to look at him, "but the best thing—the best thing you could possibly do is to either try to forget all you've said or—or swear to me that you will never tell anyone that you suspect my duties for the Order to be anything other than simply administrative, or whatever else we tell the others."

"I will," Sirius promised, stepping forward and grasping her shoulders with both hands to soothe her tremors. "I promise that I will never speak a word of this to anyone—except for James and Lily?"

Hermione took a shuddering breath. "No. Please—not even to them. They know everything—or mostly everything that can be said, but I don't…" she shook her head. "Just take it to your grave, Sirius, or wait until You-Know-Who meets his. Then you may talk freely."

"Alright," Sirius said, giving her a friendly, trusting smile before pulling her into a hug. "I promise. You have my word, Hermione."

"I know," Hermione said, closing her eyes gratefully. "I trust you."

He clapped his hand on her shoulder, and Hermione recomposed herself before gathering the tray of cheese and crackers and carrying it back out to the living room.

The rest of the evening was spent with them in front of the fire in the living room, talking animatedly. In fact, Hermione was wonderfully reminded of their conversations in front of the fire in the Gryffindor Common room, when they had all been students together. They all had their turns holding Harry, who Sirius joked was the man of the hour. The baby in question spent most of the time sleeping in his mother's arms, and Hermione knew that she would look back on this moment with fondness years from now.

Conversation drifted over to the welfare of the Longbottoms, who had gone into deeper hiding. Alice still wrote to Hermione once a week, but could neither tell them where they were nor any details about their surroundings or overall situation. Alice could only tell Hermione that Frank's mother—who she admitted was quite a formidable woman—was their secret keeper. Hermione burned that part of the letter as soon as she had read it, and assured Alice in her next correspondence that she had done so. But still it was a relief to know that someone trustworthy was taking care of them.

Conversation turned to other matters of interest. Sirius was considering asking Marlene to marry him. James wanted to know how Hermione planned to teach the upper years, and joked to Sirius that she was probably going to wipe the floor with them.

When the hour had begun to grow late, Hermione reluctantly made her departure, citing that she had classes to teach tomorrow. She was pulled into two separate, brotherly bear-hugs, laughing as she kissed them on each cheek before moving to do the same to Lily. Harry received a kiss on the forehead and a fond look, and then Hermione pinched some floo powder and, with a promise to visit when she could, left.

~o~O~o~

Severus was waiting for her when she arrived in their quarters, stretched over the length of the couch with a book. He looked up at her when she slipped into the room, and set his reading down.

"You're back," he stated, sitting up. "How was your visit?"

Hermione did not reply immediately, but tugged off her traveling cloak and kicked off her shoes, making short work of her robes before she moved to join him, sitting in what little space she was afforded when he drew up his knees to make room. "They asked me to be Harry's godmother."

Severus stared at her silently for a moment, and the leaned forward and pulled her over to him, and they shifted for a few seconds, adjusting themselves until Hermione was lying flat on her belly, on top of him. "And you accepted?"

Hermione closed her eyes, resting her cheek against his shoulder as his arms came to wrap around her, his hands sliding down to massage her bum appreciatively. "Yes."

She heard Severus exhale sharply. "I should have known you would."

"You didn't even know what they were asking me to visit for in the first place," Hermione retorted with a teasing smile. "But enough of that. What's done is done, and I've made my decision regarding the matter."

Severus brought one hand back to lift her chin up so that he could meet her eyes with his. Hermione found herself gazing into them, drawn into what seemed to be dark, black pools—and then a moment later, she found herself actually being drawn in as Severus slipped seamlessly into her mind. Hermione's Occlumency shields went up immediately, and Severus merely circled them for a moment, before pressing firmly against them. Hermione pushed back, determined to hold him out. Their minds remained locked, each trying to push and maneuver around the other, before Hermione's concentration was suddenly broken by Severus grinding his hips against hers.

She regained control quickly, pulling the pieces back together with lightning-quick speed even as she became aware of Severus standing up, holding her in his arms and still locking eyes almost commandingly with her. She felt her back being pressed into the rug in front of the fire, her clothes manually being divested even as Severus focused on slipping through the faint cracks that had appeared in her barriers.

Hermione quickly discovered that he was not searching for hidden information or important secrets, when the memory of them dancing together at one of Slughorn's suppers hazily swam into view—the one where she had worn the dark red dress robes Marlene and Alice had made for her. The one where he had spent a good deal of time staring at her breasts, quite fascinated by the way the fabric shimmered invitingly over them. But it was still a point of pride that she was able to keep him out, so she thus concentrated all her mental resources into doing so, even as he skillfully distracted her from succeeding. Her shirt had been removed, and her jeans were being pulled down her legs even as another memory sank into view, one of them dueling in the dark, spells flashing, before he managed to pin her to the ground. Just as he was now pinning her to the rug, in fact. Hermione struggled in response, her eyes still locked imperiously to his, and she suddenly became very aware that he had grabbed one of her hands and was pressing it to his groin, where she could feel the evidence of his growing erection.

"Get—out—" she panted, writhing underneath him even as she squeezed him gently in the way she knew he liked it. It was simply too much for her to focus on—the memories, the sensations of the fire dancing across her bared skin even as cool air brushed over other parts, the fact that he was now undressing… she couldn't hold it together. Her Occlumency was powerful enough to keep him out, and were she ever in such a similar position with someone else, she would have methods of holding her concentration together or even overpowering them. But in this moment of intimacy with the person she trusted most, it simply was not possible. She wasn't about to flip him over onto his back and hex him, despite the fact that more and more of her memories were beginning to bleed through. "Those aren't for you to see…"

Severus bent his face to hers, smirking as he undid the cuffs of his shirt and pulled his arms out of his sleeves. "But I want to."

Hermione shook her head slightly, still unable to pull her eyes away from his. They quite literally demanded her attention, and she didn't seem capable of gathering enough brain cells together to commence in pulling her gaze away. "What are you looking for?" she said, her breath hitching as she felt him press his clothed erection against her knickers.

"Something, something…" he responded with a silken purr, kissing her even whilst never taking his eyes off of hers. He had begun unbuttoning his trousers, wriggling them down to his hips before reaching for his wand to wordlessly magick them in a neat, folded pile with his shirt on one of the armchairs. "You'll see…"

More memories swam into view, but they were all sexual in nature, at least from Severus's perspective. He was not burying deeper for her other secrets. Her hanging upside-down, tearing her robes off so that she could hex him properly, revealing that she was lacking a shirt of any kind. Her responding to him as he kissed her for the first time. Her lying in her bed, the hangings closed despite the fact that she was alone, leaning back with her fingers working themselves furiously between her legs—just like his were now, pulling the crotch of her knickers aside and teasing the little nub of flesh that nearly shattered her concentration entirely.

And just like in the memory, Hermione found herself moaning his name. "Severus…"

She saw him grin wickedly, a victorious sneer. "I always thought you might have masturbated to thoughts to me…"

"Only after you kissed me," Hermione breathed in protest, even as she trembled in response to his fingers. She felt the tap of his wand against her hip, and knew that her knickers had been summarily taken hostage. "Don't try and tell me you didn't, either."

His fingers were replaced by him pressing his erection against her, hot and throbbing against her clit, and she ground herself against him helplessly, wanting more. "Of course I did. Even before I kissed you, I wanted you—I wanted you enough that after you nearly choked me during your final exam, I returned to my dorm and wanked myself to thoughts of you." He was panting now, trying to hold himself still as Hermione began working herself into a frenzy. "I fantasized that had it not been an exam, had we been alone, I could have seduced you and then taken you on the floor and had you…"

Hermione was barely cognizant of his words as more memories swam to the forefront of his mind, dragged along by his legilimencied probing. How he was managing to retain enough focus to control his search, she had no clue, but she still managed to string her words together. "Like you had me on the floor of the living room?" she quipped with vocal difficulty as his hands came to cup her breasts, squeezing them appreciatively.

"Yes…" He was trembling now with the effort of holding himself back as Hermione's hips grinding against his erection became more insistent. "And when I nearly convinced you, the first night you stayed at Spinner's End—gods, that had been so close… after you left, I masturbated to thoughts of taking you then, too…"

Hermione laughed weakly. "I knew that if I gave in to that, we would be having sex in less than a week."

"Would that have been such a bad thing?" he demanded, now grinding himself against her with more insistency.

"No—no, not at all," Hermione breathed, her words broken by an involuntary moan. "But—too fast, too soon… hadn't really seen you much before then…"

"Understandable," Severus muttered, finally pulling his gaze from hers, and though his legilimencied attack did not end, the strength of it was lessened by the lack of eye contact.

Hermione was finally able to squeeze her eyes shut, and she did so, arching and moaning into him as he began and nip and suckle at the column of her neck. Another memory swam into the front of her mind even as Hermione marshalled her forces to start pulling more of them behind her walls: her standing in front of a bookcase, her back to him, as he pressed himself against her and slipped a hand into her jeans and between her legs. The memory itself sent tremors of want through Hermione, and it was all she could do not to give out and let herself shatter.

Severus suddenly thrust into her, and Hermione did shatter right then. Her Occlumency walls broke shamefully, breaking like glass as Hermione pulsed around her lover, white-hot pleasure clenching in her belly and jerking her legs, sending terrible tremors through her body that she was helpless to suppress. That she didn't want to suppress. She let out a cry that was promptly muffled by Severus's lips covering hers, drinking them in, and she wrapped her hips around his as he set his pace, pounding into her through her orgasm.

She knew Severus could hear her thoughts even as he took her. They were hardly well-thought out, but they seemed to be what he was after, for he took them regardless of their incoherency. They were along the lines of Oh godSeverus!Sweet Merlin, and Fuck me, the latter seeming to be the one he took to heart the most, for he did exactly that.

He collapsed on top of her several moments later, spent, and Hermione found herself shaking slightly from the tremors of post-climatic bliss. Her eyes were closed, her hair a sweaty and wild mess around her head, as she found herself idly wondering once her braincells began functioning properly—as well as her Occlumency shields since Severus had not been able to hold onto his Legilimency throughout his own orgasm—if she would ever be able to walk again.

"I know your weakness now," Severus murmured into her ear, grinding his pelvis against hers for emphasis. "You will never be able to keep me out again."

"Fat chance," Hermione responded breathlessly. "I'll just get better."

"As will I," Severus purred, dipping his head to nuzzle her face. "You are mine, Hermione, and I will never let you go."

Hermione felt another trickle of warmth add itself to the mess of already-existing juices and his come. He had not left her yet—something that had become a trademark habit of his, to remain inside her even after he had softened until they absolutely had to pull apart—and she knew he would feel it, too. He had become too good at reading her body, her mind soon to be incuded at this point, for him to not know what kind of effect his words had on her.

"In that case," Hermione responded, dragging her hands up to his face so that she could pull him into a kiss, "I do believe I can now claim unlimited access to your heart."

"No complaints from me," Severus responded smoothly, moving to nibble on her ear.

"And your body, I suppose…"

"Quite," he agreed silkily, grinding himself against her again.

Hermione giggled, wrapping her arms around his neck. "And your library."

Severus's head shot up at this, and he gave her a pointed glare. "Don't be cruel, Hermione."

His lover underneath him grinned mercilessly at this, and then ground down against him in obvious emphasis of her own.

"It's cruel to deny a bibliophile," she purred, giving him a wanton look. "Now, are we done for the night, or was there something else you wanted to do?"

~o~O~o~

The first week of classes went about as well as Hermione could have expected. Remembering what she had liked and disliked about her last two teachers in this subject, she set about making it very clear to the students what kind of teacher she would be. Many of them knew her already, given that she had been a student less than a year ago, and it was clear that many of them initially expected some kind of leniency. Hermione had taken a leaf out of Severus's book in regards to attire, and wore a simple white button-up shirt underneath her robes, with a plain black knee-length skirt in lieu of trousers, her hair restrained in a chignon that gave her a very no-nonsense appearance despite her youth.

Hermione started off by assigning them all year-appropriate spells to practice after treating them to a lecture very similar to the one Harry had given the members of the D.A when they first congregated.

"Defending yourself against the Dark Arts isn't just memorizing a list of spells and knowing when to pull them out of your pocket," Hermione told her first class, striding up the rows of desks as she spoke. "Dealing with the dark arts requires creativity, innovation, and the need for you to be quick on your feet." She turned around and began walking back toward the front of the room, glancing out the window this time as she continued, "You all know that You-Know-Who is out there—and even if he weren't, there are others just like him, only less obvious. Some of you have friends and family who have been abducted or killed by them." There was a sniffle from the back of the classroom at this, and Hermione finished, "Spellwork alone won't save you if you don't use your head. Knowing when and how to use spells is just as necessary as knowing how to move, how to act, and most importantly, when to run and when to defend." She whipped around to face them. "That is what I'm going to be teaching you this year."

In some of the classes where the students were older, she had earned derisive laughs or disdainful stares. Some of them had known Hermione personally, though nowhere on the same level as she had the Marauders and future Order members, and knew how skilled she was, but thought she was still reaching rather high in her speech. She was only nineteen: exactly how much did she expect them to believe she had experienced in the three months since she had graduated?

As it turned out, quite a lot. In every class between fifth and seventh-year, where at least one person had expressed disbelief, Hermione had coldly ordered them all to stand and push their desks aside, stacking them against the wall at one end of the room. They stood awkwardly around the room, uncertain of what she was about to do, when she explained to them that if they had any doubts about her qualification to teach—something that had rarely, if ever, come up with any other teacher, and which she was only facing because she was a recent graduate—they were free to challenge her.

They all jumped in. Hexes, jinxes, and curses flew indiscriminately around the room, and Hermione found herself spending more time ducking than doing any sort of spellcasting: their aim was unpracticed, their movements slow and often clumsy, and many of them took down more of their fellow classmates than they ever managed to get anywhere near her. When Hermione did cast, she did so silently, wordlessly immobilizing them in some capacity. The few students who had not joined in stood off to the side, eyes wide as they watched Hermione engage their classmates with something akin to grim amusement.

As soon as the status quo had been set, Hermione had little problem keeping their attention. The sixth and seventh years were ordered to work with nonverbal spells, much to their consternation, and Hermione informed her fifth years that they would be practicing it as a preparatory lesson before their preceding years.

One sore fifth year, still on the floor and rubbing his neck from where Hermione's Choking Curse had gotten hold of him, snidely remarked that she sounded as though she actually expected to last the year.

"Don't be so surprised, Davis," Hermione told him lazily, flicking her wand at him and causing him to be hauled to his feet by an invisible force. "I very well might."

And with that, she set them to work. She knew what spells most of them already knew, and put them through their paces to check their capability in casting them before assigning a new spell. Those who did not succeed in casting it at the end of class had it assigned as homework. She received complaints and groans of protest at this from the classes in which it occured, which she silenced immediately by slamming her hand on her desk.

"If you lot can't cast a simple Stunning Spell by the beginning of next class, points will be taken off!" she snarled at her fourth years.

Hermione was not joking, and she was not lenient. She had no intention of abusing her students as Welk had done, but she had other burdens to carry on her back aside from listening to the complaints of whining students who were hoping for a bit of free time to goof off, and she was having none of it. She had been trained by two experienced Aurors, tricked a Death Eater into going on a wild goose chase, blatantly defied Voldemort, held her Occlumency barriers even against Unforgivables during intensive training, fought and watched her back while still a student at Hogwarts, and was the handler of the Order's most important spy. The Hermione of old would have been kinder, gentler, more understanding and sympathetic to the petty cares of her students—but she would have also been incompetent as a teacher, reduced to frustration and tears while trying to regain control of her class.

Hermione had not lost all of her touch as a sympathetic and caring person, but she was harder now out of pure necessity. Her students would not get unmitigated leeway from her, and the quicker they learned that, the better it would be for all of them. She had learned from Moody that mollycoddling led to poorly taught lessons, from Faulkner that a firm but fair attitude won good results, and from Welk that she should not be too heavy-handed. Thus, the culmination of those experiences was what guided her methods.

Severus's experience was similar to hers, though he had let his temper come through rather quickly, and he handled dissension differently. The students, particularly the Slytherins, expected leniency from him. They treated him like an old pal at first, and joked around in class at the start. Severus had glared at them coldly, snarled, ordered them to do their work, and made it abruptly clear that he didn't give a damn if he had been their former housemate. He was the Head of Slytherin, but he quickly shattered their illusion that he was their equal—or rather, that they were his.

Hermione had been surprised to hear this, wondering when his favoritism would start, but was at the same time not particularly shocked. Severus was a man who demanded respect, and when people he was supposed to have authority over began treating him as though he were their classmate and not their teacher, Hermione could very well imagine him losing his temper. Every class he had that week left looking somewhat shell-shocked, some students came close to tears. They had been used to Slughorn's genial behavior, his social and friendly demeanor as well as his willingness to allow students to chit-chat amongst themselves and with him, and Severus was a drastic change from that.

First week in, Hermione was grudgingly considered one of the most interesting teachers, given how alike her teaching style was to Professor Faulkner's, and Potions had become the most dreaded class in the castle. Even Professor Sprout's venomous tentacula and other unwieldy plants could not hope to hold a candle to how horrible Professor Snape was to the students.

To be fair, they had not taken him seriously at first. If they had, Hermione suspected he would have merely been strict, if somewhat snarky. But when they had not taken his warning signs, merely attributing it to him bluffing or even joking, he had gone from zero to sixty in the space of ten seconds, and had not gone back. He also did not care which class was responsible for his bad mood. Thus, they all suffered.

By the second week in, the students had settled into something of an understanding with the new teachers. Professor Granger expected the assigned work to be handed in, correctly and on-time, and for them to push themselves. When they did, they were rewarded with points and a nod or word of acknowledgement. When they missed their homework twice, or demonstrated blatant instances of disrespect to her, they were given detention or docked points. She was noted as being fair, and some of the students even came to enjoy her class, given that she soon warmed up to the subject and taught it with enthusiasm that was somewhat contagious.

They also learned that Professor Snape expected three things: Silence, obedience, and attentiveness. Those three virtues would get you through his class in one piece, perhaps even with a point increase for your house if your potion turned out well and you were not a Gryffindor. If you lacked one of those three things, points were taken liberally. Sometimes it seemed to them that he relished in every opportunity to torture to torture a student; he keep them on their toes, either by threatening detention if they missed a single homework assignment, or by deducting points if they were careless with their classwork.

The advent of his blatant favoritism, however, became clear to Hermione one evening when they received a floo call from none other than Lucius Malfoy, who strode into their quarters like he owned them. Previously, Severus had merely gone out of his way to pick on Gryffindors, out of sheer spite. The two of them had been sitting in their armchairs, focusing in grading the papers they had assigned when Malfoy had come in. He did not come without invitation, of course: the flames turned green, and Hermione had sat up quickly, torn between leaving and staying when she heard Lucius's disembodied voice request that Severus let him through. She exchanged glances with him, and then casually leaned back in her chair, sitting up straight before resuming her grading, making it clear that she would hold her ground.

"Good evening, Severus," Lucius said, greeting his friend as he wordlessly magicked soot off his robes. He had a cane now, a distinct change from before, and if anything, his demeanor had turned even more supercillious and aristocratically disdainful. "I hope you're not too terribly busy."

"You wouldn't care if I was," Severus snarked, setting his grading aside. "What do you want?"

"Just a little talk," Lucius said, eyeing Hermione with a sneer. When Hermione didn't respond, he prompted, "You're both teaching here, I see."

Hermione looked up from where she was marking an essay in red ink. "Defense Against the Dark Arts," she stated unnecessarily. "Severus is teaching Potions." Making her expression blank and her tone falsely cordial, she asked, "Is there anything we can help you with, Mr. Malfoy?"

"Ah, yes," Lucius said, stroking his chin as he moved to lean against the mantlepiece. "I believe there is something you can help us with, Severus. You see, word of your… teaching methods has gone around a bit."

"The students are irritating little blighters," Severus snapped, glaring down at an essay that appeared to be bleeding red ink from very orifice. "They are incompetent, lazy, and refuse to apply themselves unless I force them to."

"That's all very well," Lucius said, waving a hand dismissively, "but the Dark Lord is bit concerned about how you're handling your teaching and Head of Slytherin duties."

Severus's face became smooth and expressionless. "Do tell."

Lucius cast Hermione a supercilious look, and then turned back to Severus, who merely raised his eyebrow. "You are a Death Eater, Severus. Many of the Slytherin students here are the children of our brothers-in-arms, and how you treat them reflects upon the Dark Lord. He wants them well taught, but they should be raised above all others, as their parents would wish them to be in answer to their service. Does that not seem reasonable?"

It suddenly made sense to Hermione. Death Eaters expected preferential treatment from their lord and from their own, and their children were entitled to receive the same.

Severus leaned back in his chair, sneering. "Tell the Death Eaters who have complained that they are to send letters to their offspring ordering them to behave and apply themselves. In return, I will give all of Slytherin house my undivided care and preference."

Hermione sat frozen in her seat, unmoving. She might as well have been a statue. This was simply unbelievable—this was more of a business exchange between Slytherins, with her as a silent witness, than anything else.

Lucius raised an eyebrow at this, and then smirked. "Excellent. The Dark Lord will be pleased, and I will pass your message along." He glanced over at Hermione, who remained unmoving, and turned to give Severus an incomprehensible look before he collected a bit of floo powder from the mantel and took his leave.

The flames whooshed emerald green behind him, and then he was gone.

Hermione inhaled deeply before she spoke. "Severus, how did you explain my presence to the Dark Lord?"

Severus had returned to his work, and did not look up at he replied: "The Dark Lord had reason to believe that you are a pureblood pretending to be a Muggle-born, which is why he had shown you such leniency."

Hermione narrowed her eyes at this. "Why would he care about my heritage if at best it would make me a blood traitor?"

Severus crossed something out on the essay he was grading, and then flipped it over to the other side. "He does not care for most blood traitors, but you have shown exceptional magical skill and talent. He believes killing you to be too much of a waste, if you can otherwise be put to good use."

Hermione waited for him to continue, but he did not, and thus prompted, "Good use how?"

Severus sighed, and finally looked up at her.

"Breeding stock," he said shortly. Hermione gaped at him, and he held up a hand to silence her. "The Dark Lord believes you to be controllable, despite your open allegiance to the Order of the Phoenix. You have never participated on the front lines, and with you presumably under my constant supervision, he is content to let me keep you, so to speak."

Hermione leaned back in her chair with a sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Essentially, he has weighed the pros and cons of keeping me alive, and has decided that the benefits of having children he believes will be powerful three-quarter-bloods outweigh the risks of me trying to wring his scrawny neck?"

"Essentially," Severus responded carefully.

"Has he considered that I might not allow that?"

Severus leaned back in his chair, pausing to think. "He expects me to work it out with you, in some capacity. He knows that I have no interest in having children now, and I believe his plans are for him to take over the Ministry of Magic and institute his reforms before he insists that such a thing happen. We are not the only ones, Hermione," he cautioned. "His followers are encouraged to find worthy spouses for carrying on the next generation." A pause, before he continued, "You may remember Bellatrix Black—she's a good example of this rhetoric, given that she is now Bellatrix Lestrange. She only married to earn the Dark Lord's approval." His expression contorted into a sneer. "For now, I believe, he is content for me to restrain you—though the both of us know very well that that is not the case."

Hermione sighed, grateful that such a scenario would never occur before her timeline could be reached. "He is a bloody nutcase."

"Would you ever want children, Hermione?" Severus asked cautiously, not looking up at her as he skewered yet another essay.

Hermione measured her response carefully.

"Someday, yes," Hermione admitted, turning to look at him. "And with you—absolutely. But not right now."

Severus seemed more than satisfied with her response, and set his most recently graded work aside to move onto attacking the remaining essays with red ink. "In that case, it seems the situation is resolved."

Hermione nodded in agreement, but spent the rest of the evening turning over their conversation in her head while they worked, unable to help being insulted by the assumptions Voldemort had made about her, and in a state of mid-disbelief that Severus was not adverse to the prospect of a family.

Though they were certainly in agreement on one thing.

While Voldemort reigned, there would be no family.


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

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.

Please review.


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."

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

"Yes."

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

"Avada Kedavra!"

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.

~o~O~o~

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."

"Hermione—"

"Get away!"

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!"

Hermione broke.

"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."

~o~O~o~

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.

"But—"

"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.

~o~O~o~

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."


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Enormous thanks to my amazing beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own. -waves wand, and this time, manages to cast the charm without poking self in the eye-

Please review.


Three days later, Hermione woke up in Severus's arms, kissing him awake with soft, searching brushes of her lips against his before she sat up, intending to get dressed, when Severus pulled her back against him.

"Stay," he whispered, suckling on her neck before his head dipped lower to nuzzle at her breasts. Now that he finally had her back in his bed, after a near-torturous week—one that had ended in disaster—he was reluctant to let her leave.

Hermione knew there would be an Order meeting at Tine Cottage later, the attendees' absences from their normal walks of life explained by the fact that it was New Years Eve. Parties were expected. She glanced down at her watch, calculated how much time she had between now and noon, and shook her head.

"I need to get up," she stated, but then paused to give him a faintly mischievous smile. He raised an eyebrow expectantly, and she leaned forward until she was lying against his belly, nose-to-nose with him. "But I have a few minutes."

His eyes glittered strangely at this. "Only a few minutes? I'm certain I could persuade you to give me more."

Hermione's head dropped to his chest, and to his surprise, she began shaking with laughter. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid you're right. You've always been able to smooth-talk me into nearly anything." She looked up at him now, grinning. "Whether it's sneaking out to Diagon Alley for your birthday or convincing me to start seeing you at Slughorn's parties so that we could go off for a bit of a snog…"

Severus stroked her hair for a moment, curling it around his fingers as he gave her an inscrutable smirk; and then very deliberately, very insistently, ground his morning erection against her belly. "I don't suppose I could, to put it in your own words, 'smooth-talk'—"

Hermione was very tempted to smack him over the head with one of the nearby pillows for that, but when she found herself flipped over and pinned to the bed, she was far more inclined to dig her fingers into his greasy black locks and pull him into a kiss.

When she left the bed fifteen minutes later than she had ever intended to, there was no ignoring the smug, if sated, smirk that Severus wore even as his gaze followed her body with a rather appreciative eye as she dressed.

~o~O~o~

"Merlin's beard, Hermione, you look just like a teacher!"

Hermione smacked Sirius on the back of the head, even as his remark elicited laughter from the rest of the room. "That's because I am a teacher, you prat!"

"But still," Sirius said with mock-horror, gesturing at the white button-up shirt she wore tucked into her black trousers, which she had worn instead of a skirt because it was simply too cold. It was unreasonable to go walking about in the dead of winter in a skirt. She had done away with her robes the moment she had arrived at Tine Cottage, as the place was far too warm for her to endure the teaching robes and heavy winter cloak she had been wearing, and they were hung up on a peg near the door, along with her boots. "You look like—you look like a bloody— I don't even recognize you!" He placed one hand over his heart, grinning. "Are you certain you're Hermione Granger?"

"Would a second smack on the head confirm my identity for you?" Hermione asked him dryly.

"There a number of people who would probably love to smack me," Sirius reponded with a straight face.

Lily had placed one hand over her mouth and was laughing uncontrollably, even as she tried to break them apart. "Sirius, please…"

"You know," Frank quipped, "I heard Snape's gone to teach at Hogwarts, too. You look just like him now."

Hermione saw James and Lily suddenly stiffen, even as Sirius, Remus, and the rest of the table broke out with laughter.

"I do not!" Hermione straightened the collar of her shirt. Two spots of pink had appeared high on her cheeks. "How would you even know that?"

"His partner at the Ministry has a son who goes to Hogwarts," Alice said, grinning. "According to him, he complains quite a bit."

Sirius feigned outrage, though Hermione was not sure how much of it was play-acting and how much of it was genuine dislike. "Don't tell me you're still friends with the greasy git!"

"Of course I am!" Hermione said, her entire face flushing red. James and Lily were grinning now, against their wills, if still somewhat uncertainly. "We were friends in school, even if you never got along with him—what makes you think we'd stop now?"

"Because one can always hope you would develop better taste, I suppose."

Hermione affected an offended look reminiscent of McGonagall. Adjusting the collar of her shirt one more time, she said in rather clipped tones, "Now if you would kindly stop poking at my sartorial choices…"

Sirius choked.

"Remus, help me," he said. "She's even starting to talk like a professor!"

And for that, Hermione did smack him, and wrapped her arms around his neck in a mock-attempt to strangle him— just in time for Albus Dumbledore to enter the room, followed by Moody, Kingsley, and two red-haired men that Hermione almost mistook for the Weasley twins, but then came to recognize as Gideon and Fabian Prewett.

"Hermione, Sirius, act your age!" The Headmaster's voice was stern, but his blue eyes were twinkling with amusement. Hermione released Sirius, and the two immediately found a seat, leaning on the table so that they were practically sitting on it. Hermione noted that Molly was missing from the table, though she had caught a glimpse of the woman earlier, and knew that—combined with the absence of Harry and Neville— she must have volunteered to look after their younger charges upstairs while the meeting commenced.

Hermione did not know why Molly had never mentioned to any of them that she had known Harry as a baby, but she pushed the thought away for another time.

"—thank you," Dumbledore stated as the room settled down. "First off, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year. I have no doubt there will be celebrations later, and hope you all find the time to open a bottle of Ogden's Finest. I must say, it goes spectacularly well with Chocolate Frogs." His face then turned serious, unsmiling. "Secondly, we have some news, much of it somber, to share."

The Prewett brothers stood up together. Hermione could not tell which was Fabian and which was Gideon, but the one on the right spoke first. "Caradoc Dearborn has gone missing, and is presumed dead. We last had contact with him in Wiltshire county six days ago." He swallowed. "We think he was on his assignment in the area, and was discovered and killed."

Hermione's eyes widened. There were several gasps, tight-lipped murmurs, and the sound of grinding teeth as the rest of the Order took in the news. The Prewett brother on the left continued: "His body hasn't been found yet, but if you happen to see him walking around, check his identity first. We think it's possible that the Death Eaters might try polyjuicing him, to get the drop on us…" he shook his head. "We don't know. All signs point to him being dead. Just be careful if you see or hear anything from someone claiming to be him."

There was a sound similar to the honking of an enormous horn; in the corner of the room, Hagrid blew his nose.

"The usual precautions, then," Moody growled. "Constant vigilance, you lot! We still haven't found his sister's body, either. Be on the lookout for the two of 'em, and check that they're who they say they are if you do happen to come upon them." He harrumphed. "More than likely, they're a part of You-Know-Who's inferius army."

"Moody!" Lily protested. "That's a horrible thing to say!"

"It's probably the truth, though," the Prewett on the left agreed desolately. "If they haven't shown up yet, even in disguise, chances are they're either both dead or animated."

The room fell into a moment of silence at this, as though in mourning, and then Moody continued: "Pettigrew is still on his assignment in Diagon Alley, but when we last checked on him, he appeared to be fine. You all probably heard about what happened to the Bones family three days ago—Edgar and his family, all murdered in their homes."

"No!" Marlene said, covering her hand with her mouth. "Edgar and Nancy—they could have handled any number of Death Eaters! That's just not possible!"

"The bastards got them while they were asleep," Moody growled. "The attack was in the dead of night. And then shortly after, we got word that twelve Muggles were picked up in London—"

Hermione covered her hand with her mouth, not in shock, but to try and repress the sudden reappearance of nausea that had risen up again. Dumbledore had done exactly as he had promised, and she no longer staggered through the day, haunted every waking moment by a rendition of screams, but when recalled, the memory itself still triggered a powerful reaction. There was no forgetting what had happened that night, for the rest of her life. Over the past few days, she had tried to move on, to focus on her work, to move forward with her relationship with Severus- but some things were not easily set aside. It was not that Hermione wanted to forget the Muggles who had died, but that she could not afford to let it tear her life apart, and now— and now—

"—were taken to Malfoy Manor, probably what got Dearborn killed if he saw them and tried to rescue 'em—"

Hermione shut her eyes, which in hindsight probably only made it worse, as the image of the tortured and dying Muggles flashed across her memory again.

"—were all tortured and killed, according to our source—"

Hermione stood up, almost tripping over someone else's chair and knocking them over as she made a dash toward the sink. She lurched forward, having the presence of mind to be glad her hair was pulled back in its usual chignon so that she wasn't vomiting all over herself.

"—and their bodies were found dumped in front of the Muggle Ministry," Moody finished. "It's all over the Muggle papers."

Sirius and Remus had quickly disentanged themselves from the table, and were now on either side of her, clutching her shoulders and trying to get her to answer them. Dumbledore finished up the meeting with a quick word, though it was quite unnecessary; everyone who had cause to be concerned about Hermione was either up or asking about her. The meeting had effectively ended.

"Hermione, what's wrong?" Remus pressed.

Hermione shook her head, reaching for a paper towel to wipe her lips even as she turned the sink on to rinse her mouth. "Sorry—must've eaten something bad—for breakfast—"

"Please tell me you're not pregnant," James said, coming up behind her, his voice full of concern. "Because that's what it looks like…"

The memory of the dying Muggles, followed by the realization that, in following Severus's request that she not clean herself up after sex, she still had his semen coating her thighs—dry now though it was— that she had a Death Eater for a lover, a Death Eater who she had watched kill one of those women… another blur of thoughts made her slump against the counter, breathing heavily as she tried to shove it all away.

"Don't be ridiculous, James," Sirius snapped.

"I'm not pregnant," Hermione confirmed testily. She lurched back up, leaning against the counter with one hand. "But the idea of what happened to those Muggles—"

She saw James and Lily's mouths drop open in understanding, and then shut very quickly. This move, however, did not go unnoticed by the rest of her friends who had gathered around her.

"Hermione, did you see Dearborn get killed?" Alice asked gently, pulling her away from the counter and sitting her down in a chair, much to Hermione's relief.

"Does this have something to do with your—your assignments for the Order?" Remus asked carefully, as he went through the cabinents to fetch and glass and fill it with water for her.

"No—I didn't even know about Dearborn," she said weakly, reaching for the glass her werewolf friend offered her. She took a sip, relieved by the refreshing tastelessness. "But I saw—I know what happened to those Muggles. I had to watch it. Yes, it was a part of my assignment—"

"But that would have meant a Death Eater would have brought you to Malfoy Manor to watch it," Sirius exclaimed. And then, at once, something dawned on him. "Snape—Snape's a Death Eater, isn't he? You're still chummy with him—did he take you?"

Hermione shook her head quickly. "Severus isn't a Death Eater," she snapped, and at that moment, she knew it to be true. A suffocating burden suddenly lifted itself from her chest, and she was able to reply more calmly, "It was something else, but in the end, I had to watch those twelve women die."

Alice pulled her into a hug, squeezing her comfortingly. Marlene placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Hermione, I'm sorry."

"All right, that's enough," Moody's voice cut through. His claw foot clanked along the stone floor, growing louder as he approached. "Budge along, you lot—I need to have a word with Granger here."

"Right, of course," Hermione responded instinctively, setting her glass down. Of course Moody wanted a word with her. "I forgot you wanted to go over those plans…"

Moody looked faintly gratified, his grizzled face tensing less as he hauled her to her feet. "Thanks. Don't worry," he said, turning to her friends, who all seemed quite alarmed at the abrupt kidnapping occurring in their midst. "I'll bring her back in one piece."

They left the room, clanking along upstairs, and the sound of a heated discussion starting up echoed behind them.

"Nice maneuver there, Granger," Moody said as they made their way down the hall. He pushed open one of the doors, and they entered a bedroom that looked as though it were being shared by Gideon and Fabian, judging by the name PREWETT inscribed on their trunks. "Thanks for keeping this discreet. Wouldn't want you announcing to the world that I want a talk with you to check on your sanity."

Hermione snorted, one hand pressed to her right temple as she came in and sat on top of one of the trunks. "I suppose that would be a bit awkard."

"I imagine so." Moody took seat on the edge of the bed. "Did Albus modify your memories, Granger?"

"Yes, thankfully," Hermione said, leaning against the wall and crossing her legs. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh. "I'm certain that if he had not, I'd have gone rather mad by now."

"But you're still affected by what you saw, and in all honesty, I'm not that surprised," Moody stated. "You did well when you were at Malfoy Manor, Granger—better than anyone else here could have done, 'cept for me of course, but I'd never be invited there for anything else other than to lock 'em up—" Hermione let out a snort of amusement at this, and Moody's scarred face twisted into a kind of half-smile. "So I've got to hand it to you, Granger, but you did well. You handled yourself like a pro, and you didn't break down until after the act was done."

Hermione nodded.

"But once you break down, you've got to pull yourself together again quickly," Moody growled. "A breakdown after a harrowing experience is fine—I've done it myself—but it has to be the once, and then you got to get up and keep going. You're handling our most important spy, Granger—you have to learn to quickly stitch yourself back up after you fall apart so that you have enough time to do your job."

"I understand, sir," Hermione said, rubbing her feet, which were starting to get cold, despite the fact that she was wearing thick, black woolen socks.

"Granted, this was your first time, but you've got to make this first time count for something," Moody said roughly. "This hopefully won't be a regular occurrence for you, because you're not cut out for that, but when it does, you need to be able to handle yourself. Constant vigilance!" He barked, and laughed when Hermione didn't jump. "You did well, Granger. You did well. But your spy still needs you, and he can't be the one taking care of you when he needs you to do the same to him."

"Right," Hermione said, with a swift nod.

"That's it, then," Moody said, getting to his feet. He held out his hand to Hermione, who took it, and allowed him to pull her up. "Just don't forget that when you're in the field as his handler, you're acting, girl—and don't lose yourself to the acting. You're stronger than you look, but it can be tough to remember that if you have to play a weak part."

Hermione blinked. That was exactly what she would have imagined him to say, and now it solidified and internalized itself more clearly in her mind. She nodded again. "Thank you, sir."

"You're new to this," Moody said, as he clunked his way toward the door. "Being a handler is a difficult job, and you're liable to forget yourself sometimes." He gave her a grizzled grin. "We'll be here to remind you for as long as it takes."

He opened the door, and allowed Hermione to walk through first. "Now get on back downstairs, Granger, before your friends send up a rescue party."

Hermione gave him a quick salute, eliciting a bark of laughter from her mentor, and then turned and left to check that a fight had not broken out downstairs.

~o~O~o~

By the time Hermione had returned, most of the Order had left. Only her close friends—the Marauders, along with Lily, Marlene, and Alice, remained behind, clearly waiting to talk to her. Frank had gone upstairs to check on Neville and help Molly, leaving the seven of them with privacy and ample room to sit at the table. Hermione pulled out a chair, feeling much calmer and more relaxed, more in control and assured of herself, and took a seat between Alice and Marlene.

"I'm glad to see you didn't destroy the kitchen while I was gone," Hermione said, eyeing the walls. "That was quite an argument you started up just as I left."

Sirius was rubbing the back of his neck. "I know there are some things you can't tell us, but the only way James would even think to ask—"

Lily wrapped her arms around Sirius's neck and not so subtly clamped her hand over his mouth.

Hermione sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. "No, Sirius. I'm not pregnant, and if James had learned to prevent himself from asking the first thing that comes to mind without thinking about the bloody consequences…"Rather like Harry, to be honest. "Well, let's just say it's none of your business."

"Unfortunately," Marlene murmured into her ear, "now we're all damn curious about it."

Hermione glared at them. "You lot are unbelievable."

"It's Snape, isn't it?" Sirius said, his voice full of accusation. He did not sound particularly mad, really—more shocked and disbelieving, perhaps even a taste reviled at the thought, if anything. He had long since come to terms with Hermione's friendship with the Slytherin, even if his hatred of him had not abated. But his intense and ingrained dislike for him did not include taking it out on Hermione, as a general rule. "Even if he's not the one who took you to Malfoy Manor, you're still close to Snivellus, and—well, I hate to say it, but after he managed to convince you to sneak out to Hogsmeade in our seventh year…"

Hermione face turned slightly red at this, but she covered it quickly, and leaning back in her chair and trying to act casual. "Actually, we snuck out to Hogsmeade and went to Diagon Alley."

It was worth saying that just to see their jaws hit the table.

Hermione grinned, glad to find an opportunity to divert their attention. "It was his birthday, so we went to Fortescue's for ice cream."

"Merlin's beard, Hermione!" Remus's jaw dropped, if at all possible, even further. "How on earth did he manage to convince you to do that?"

Hermione started laughing. "I'll admit that it took some persuasion, but eventually, I was all for it. Fortescue's ice cream was worth the month of detentions."

"And now she's a teacher," Marlene moaned, pressing her fingers to her temple. "Unbelievable."

"So, that's it?" Sirius remarked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. His brow was furrowed into a frown, and Hermione had the sense that he was still digesting the situation. "You've been dating since our seventh year?"

"Actually, we didn't start until after he'd left school," Hermione said calmly, twisting her watch around her wrist. "And it wasn't a proper relationship until after I left, too."

"You could do much better," Sirius said disgustedly. "I'm sorry—I know you're chummy, and you've been friends since you arrived in fifth year from Merlin-knows-where, but I think your taste has fallen pretty far if you're going for the greasy oddball."

Hermione sighed. There was really no point in telling Sirius off for namecalling. It was the only way he managed to keep his temper in check, by feeling as though he was attacking Severus—who was not exactly present and aware at the moment—rather than verbally attacking Hermione herself. She had grown used to it, even if she never liked it.

"My taste is my own," she told him, reaching forward and nicking an orange from the fruitbowl at the center of the table, where she began peeling the skin off with her nails. "And if I want Severus Bloody Snape, I'll have him, whether you like or approve of it or not."

"I don't approve, but you're the girl that every guy with a pair of balls feared back in school," Sirius snorted. "It's not like I have much say in the matter."

"Thank you."

"It didn't take a lot of imagination to figure out why he was limping—"

"Thank you, Sirius."

Remus buried his face in his hands, though whether his shoulders were shaking from laughter or despair, Hermione was not certain. She suspected the former. James and Lily were silent, but they both actually seemed quite relieved that this discussion had not devolved into a brawl where they would both be forced to choose sides against their best friends. Alice and Marlene seemed to be taking all of this in rather calmly.

"To be honest," Alice said, as Hermione handed her a slice of orange, "I don't think it's that big of a deal. I certainly never liked Snape, but he's Hermione's friend, not mine, and it's not as though any of us have to deal with him on a regular basis."

"True enough," Marlene agreed, as Hermione handed her five slices, which she passed onto the rest of the table. Only Remus declined, given he was not particularly fond of fruit. "I agree with Sirius with the remark about your tastes, but if as Sirius put it, you want the greasy oddball…"

Hermione snorted. "Marlene, if you want the dog, you can have him— but I haven't made any remarks up until now about how much fur there must be on your couch, so I'd appreciate it if you extended the same courtesy."

The table exploded into giggles, and James almost choked on his slice of orange. Sirius placed his hand over his eyes, leaning back in his chair, as even he unwillingly smirked at this.

"I think this conversation is done now," Hermione said, grinning sheepishly. "So tell me—what have you lot been up to while I've been teaching?"

~o~O~o~

When Hermione returned home that evening, it was to find their quarters empty. Hermione knew it would be, when she saw his teaching robes tossed over the back of the couch, and when she walking into the bedroom and checked the wardrobe, she saw his Death Eater cloak and mask were missing. Soaking wet from melted snow, Hermione hung her winter cloak to dry near the door and then sat back on the couch in front of the fire. She let herself warm up for a few minutes, before bending down to unlace her boots and peel her icy wet socks off.

They had started a snowfight back in Tine Cottage, in the kitchen no less. As usual, it was Sirius's fault, and Hermione still had no idea what spell he had used to summon snowballs from the sink tap. Fabian had come down four minutes later, narrowly avoiding being smacked in the face with a ball of wet ice, to order them all outside.

Hermione had served Padfoot a faceful of cold revenge, and did not regret it one bit.

With a sigh of contentment, Hermione leaned back in her chair and swung her feet forward so that the warmth of the fire would dry them off faster.

The door slid open, and Hermione twisted around in her seat to see Severus's familiar face appear, Death Eater mask in hand. He tossed it aside, reaching for his robes to undo them, and then shrugging off the frock coat underneath.

"I don't think you'll be able to wear that coat come summer," Hermione noted, standing up as he set it aside on the back of the chair to his desk.

"I won't wear robes then," he returned, his face still blank as he knelt down to reach into Hermione's desk, withdrawing her notebook and a quill before handing it to her. Hermione resumed her seat, opening the notebook to a blank page as he made his verbal report. "The Dark Lord was pleased with the publicity his stunt four days ago elicited from Muggle and Wizarding newspapers—the one you were unfortunately made to watch. He also informed us that the reason Karkaroff was absent that night was because he had detected someone spying on the premises from a distance of about fifty meters from the Manor."

"Describe him," Hermione said in the calmest and most controlled voice she could muster, trying to ignore the clenching of her gut as she once again recalled the brutal murders. "Did Karkaroff kill him?"

"Tall, with rectangular wire glasses, short brown hair and grey eyes," Severus said, kneeling down to remove his boots. "No, Karkaroff did not kill him. He was brought to Malfoy Manor, and the Dark Lord dealt with him the next day."

"Do you have any word on Dearborn's sister— Caelia Dearborn?"

Severus worked his jaw for a moment. "Thin woman with curly brown hair and brown eyes?"

Hermione nodded.

"It turns out the Dark Lord ordered her to be kept prisoner in Malfoy Manor for two weeks," Severus responded shortly. "She was killed with her brother, when they brought him in."

"Did you find out about anyone else?" Hermione pressed, feeling a sense of rising dread at this news.

Severus shook his head. "I know for a fact that there must be more prisoners down there, in the cellar, and I may get a chance to see for myself—but I haven't got a clue as to whom or how many."

Hermione nodded, finished writing, and then set the quill aside.

"I'll be right back," she said, standing up. "I need to report to Albus."

Severus inclined his head, leaning back onto the couch, and Hermione fiddled with her watch for a moment before being Portkeyed away.

When she returned, it was to find him stretched over the couch, his head pillowed on his arm against the armrest, and the other pressed down on the cushion to keep him braced up. His eyes were closed, and he might have appeared to be sleeping if Hermione did not know him so well. She put her notebook away and walked over to him, hesitating for a moment before digging her fingers into his hair.

Truth to be told, it was greasy. She could see it, not to mention feel it on her fingers. Sirius and Marlene were right when they pointed that out, but to be honest, Hermione didn't care. It wasn't that she had never noticed, for it was very difficult not to, but it was simply that she paid it little to no mind. Marlene and Sirius were magically powerful, handsomely made, and naturally well-disposed people; Hermione could not find fault in them for that, except for the fact that she felt this made them somewhat shallow in regards to how they judged people.

Hermione was no beauty queen like Marlene. She knew that. She loved her skin for being smooth, not a trace of acne or blotchiness, but her face was plain, and she was well aware of it. Her hair had eased with age, and with Marlene and Alice's help in learning how to tame it—something Lavender and Parvati would never have succeeded in doing—and with it being pulled back in a loose, curly chignon, it had become far more manageable. And she certainly had not forgotten the buck teeth she had been forced to live with for fifteen years. She didn't have Lily's striking green eyes, or natural but exaggerated curves that had caused many boys, not just James and Severus, to look at her with lust.

In short, she liked who she was. Her body belonged to her, and it was comfortable and nice. She was pretty, pretty enough to have caught the eye of a famous Quidditch player in her fourth year—something she still took pride in, even if she and Victor had only ended up becoming very good penfriends—and even if she simply did not share some of the prominent features of allure that Lily and Marlene did, she was very pleased with what she had.

And who she had.

She had felt dirty, embarassed, and distinctly unclean when she had recalled his semen still sticking to her thighs back at Tine Cottage while listening to Moody rattle off the news. Severus played the role of a Death Eater, but he was certainly no Death Eater, and though they had to do and accept terrible things—the both of them—Hermione still loved him. She had to differentiate between when he was Severus and when he was Professor Snape—two very different people, playing two distinct roles—and learn to accept that the world was not entirely in black and white.

Satisfied with her thoughts for now, Hermione massaged his scalp for a moment, eliciting a groan of pleasure from him, his eyes fluttering for a moment before remaining closed. She worked her way down until she was at his neck, where she continued, smiling at the reaction she received from him. Moving away, she came to stand in front of the fire, her back to him, and began unbuttoning her shirt. It was a moment before he opened his eyes to see what she was doing, but by then she had undone most of the buttons, and had shrugged it halfway down her shoulders, moving to take care of the cuffs.

He let out a moan of appreciation at the sight she presented before him, and Hermione smiled, her face angled away so that he couldn't see. Oh, yes. This was the man she loved—who appreciated every inch and side of her. The man she felt comfortable and confident with.

Keeping her shirt as it was, still half-on, Hermione moved to take care of the buckle of her belt, sliding it off with a deliberate hiss that coincided with Severus's before fingering the buttons on her trousers, and for a moment, she wished she had worn a skirt. She shrugged them down her hips a few inches before turning around, arms tucked behind her back to look at him.

He was sitting up now, having hurriedly unbuttoned his shirt sometime within the last five minutes so that it hung open, and had one hand pressed to his groin, squeezing himself as he watched her.

"Hermione," he breathed.

Hermione merely grinned at him, before reaching back underneath her shirt to undo the clasp of her bra. It came loose, and Hermione had to shrug off her shirt in order to remove the second article of clothing. Focusing on the glazed, highly aroused look on his face, as well as the hand that was pleasuring himself, Hermione slowly, teasingly worked her pants down her legs. She stepped out of them, before disposing of her knickers in a similar manner, leaving her completely naked.

She took two steps forward, climbed onto the couch so that she was straddling him, and allowed him to twine his fingers into her hair and pull her down for a kiss.

"Seductress," he muttered into her ear, when they pulled away.

"Yours," she countered.

"Mmm. Yes."

Hermione leaned forward, brushing her lips teasingly against his. They lay there on the couch, Hermione resting against Severus's chest, kissing and nibbling until he pushed her away for a moment so that he could shift into a more comfortable sitting position.

"When… when all of this is over…" He struggled to sit up for a moment, shaking his head as though to clear it. "When the Dark Lord falls… will you marry me? Will you be my wife?"

Hermione folded her arms, her nose level with his. She was sorely tempted to make a joke about her earning a marriage proposal with a strip-tease and a snog, but let it slide—this simply did not feel like the right moment to make such a jest. Instead, she smiled warmly at him, her expression thoughtful. "You already call me that, when you think I'm not awake," she pointed out, referring to the moments when she would wake up to find him pleasuring her in the morning, murmuring things that he normally would not say were she fully conscious.

"Is there any reason for you to say no?" Severus pressed, visibly becoming more alert now.

Hermione shook her head quickly. "I don't have any doubts about how I feel about you," she responded honestly, her expression warm before it suddenly turned sad. She disentangled an arm from underneath her to stroke his cheek. "But there are some things about my circumstances that would mean thinking this through carefully before saying yes."

He looked at her consideringly. "You don't love someone else."

"Anything I feel for my friends is nothing compared to you," Hermione told him earnestly. "They're the people I feel loyalty to, but you're the one I'd want for a life partner, the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, the one I would want to start a family with—" she ducked her head at this, flushing. "Even though I know you're not particularly fond of children, you're the only one I'd ever consider…"

Severus brushed his lips against her neck. "I want a family," he said quietly. "Not while I serve the Dark Lord—not while he lives. I've seen what his presence has done to the Malfoys, even if Lucius is blind to it." He suddenly scowled. "And I absolutely despise the students I deal with on a day-to-day basis. Most of them don't have the aptitude for potions—but they could still keep from getting on my nerves if they put in a modicum of effort more than it takes to chop up a flobberworm."

Hermione snickered. "I think that if you had your way, you'd be teaching them to put in more effort by making them believe that you would poison them if they didn't."

"That is an idea," he drawled.

"I wasn't serious!"

"Too late, wife." He nuzzled her cheek. "If there are no objections other than some circumstantial issues that need to be dealt with once the Dark Lord is dead, I don't see the problem."

Hermione sighed and rested her head on his chest, afraid that he would feel quite differently once she told him. She would have to tell him about her time-traveling, she was sure; once Voldemort disappeared for the first time, if she wanted to take her relationship with Severus seriously enough for it to work. Sadly, she did not know quite how he would react when he discovered that she had known of the outcome of the first war all along— that she had known Lily was slated to die.

She knew she couldn't be allowed to stop this. If she did, time would certainly be altered drastically, and if it was... Hermione had no guarantee that time would move forward so that she would get the time-turner in third year, and retain it into fifth. If that changed, then the version of herself that had gotten thrown back in time would disappear, and the whole thing would simply circle and reset. What would happen if Harry still had parents? What would happen if Voldemort were not defeated by Harry as a toddler; would he find a way to end up killing all of the Potters properly if given a second chance, not just James and Lily? She did not know, and she could not afford to take such a risk.

Severus was certainly over Lily. She had no insecurities about that. But he cared about her, and Hermione refused to live out her life carrying the secret that she had known what would happen to the Potters and the Longbottoms from him. She imagined his reaction would be similar to hers if she had somehow found out that Harry had to die in order to destroy Voldemort, and no one who had been in a position to save him had even tried, but she staunchly maintained that in the end, she would give him her honesty.

"When the Dark Lord is gone, we'll sit down and discuss this," Hermione told him, willing him to understand that there was more to the future than met the eye. "If you still want me once we're done, then I will of course say yes. Quite thoroughly," she promised, kissing his cheek. "But I can't agree until that happens."

He stroked her hair. "Fair enough. But I can assure you—it would take a lot for me to change my mind."

Hermione snuggled against him.

That's what I'm afraid of.

"I love you," she told him quietly, sincerely. "Don't ever forget that."


Please review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Big thanks goes out to my fantastic beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Did you know that reviewers are awesome people?


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.

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

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.

~o~O~o~

"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.

"Hermione?"

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.

~o~O~o~

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."

~o~O~o~

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?"

"I—yes."

"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.

James… Lily…

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.

"Yes."

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."

~o~O~o~

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.

"Avada Kedav—"

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.

"—ra!"

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.

"Avada—"

"Stupe—"

"Cruc—"

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.

~o~O~o~

"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.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Enormous thanks goes out to my amazing beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own! I do not own! I do not ow— hey, something shiny!

Please review!


Molly's reaction to the news of her brothers' deaths was an expected one. She was shocked, terrified, tearful, and then when Hermione pressed Fabian's watch into her hands, overwrought.

Moody was as paranoid as ever about the reasons the Death Eaters had attacked, and he and Sirius had words, loudly, at the table with all the other Order members and Hermione present, about whether or not she should be sent out on such assignments again.

"She's the one doing the organizing, boy!" Moody snarled. "She can't just hand out fliers to everyone and ask 'em to pass them along!"

Sirius slammed his hand down on the table. His hair had grown longer, he was looking slightly unkempt, and he had been aged by grief. His eyes, which had once been full of easy laughter, were as pitiful and mournful as a basset hound's, shadowed by sleep deprivation and grief. "We keep losing people because you waste their lives by taking unnecessary risks! If Hermione's got a message to deliver, she can do it here at Headquarters!"

Their argument had lasted nearly half an hour, by which time Hermione had slipped away to return home, in no mood to involve herself in their debate. She found out later that the argument had been cut short by the arrival of Albus Dumbledore, whereupon he insisted that precautions would be taken, but that Hermione would not be removed from her current duties.

Severus was summoned two days later, and returned with his back covered in welts. Hermione emerged from the library to find him kneeling on the floor at the foot of the couch, clutching the wounds that trailed over onto his shoulders, and panting with pain. She took the liberty of transfiguring the couch into a low, wooden table, lifting him onto it and removing his shirt in order to see the extent of the damage. The bloody fabric had dried and turned into a crust atop of the wounds and had to be extracted carefully.

Severus talked to her while she worked to apply healing potions to the raised and bleeding skin on his back. "He was furious when he found out it was you," he muttered, wincing as a dollop of potion sizzled and burned before the skin began to close up, leaving a faint scar in its wake. "Enraged… said I was losing control over you… I wasn't the only one beaten, the dozen or so who arrived on the scene were struck multiple times with Crucio for not capturing you… but I got the worst of it."

Hermione stroked his newly healed back, kneeling beside him. "It'll be over soon," she whispered.

"How do you know?" He asked faintly.

"I just know," Hermione responded, her voice firm.

He let out a low, slightly hoarse chuckle. "Have you been a seer all this time?"

Hermione tapped him lightly on the side of the head. "Don't be ridiculous. Divination is still rubbish, if you ask me."

"I wasn't asking you."

"Prat."

He was up by Monday, teaching class with his usual acerbic intolerance, and Hermione took this as an indication that he was well again. His back was littered with the faintest of scars from where the cuts had run deepest, and they were barely noticeable. Yet, when they were intimate, and Hermione ran her hands down his back, she could feel them beneath her fingers, and knew that they were there.

After the incident that had given Severus his scars, he was rarely summoned. Voldemort had summoned him a week after the beating to inform him that his job would now involve keeping a closer eye on Hermione as well as continuing to spy on Dumbledore and report the on-goings at Hogwarts to him, which Severus was only too happy to do. In addition, Hermione was only called to Order meetings once a week, her workload having been reduced due to the fact that she was now back to a full-time teaching job. This meant that during the week, when their only obligation was grading and patrolling the halls at odd ours, their spare time was dedicated solely to each other. Something that Severus took shameless advantage of at every opportunity.

It was how Hermione found herself being yanked into a niche in a corridor on one of the evenings when both she and Severus had been assigned the patrol the sixth and seventh floors, on one of those rare occasions when their schedules happened to coincide. She let out a squeak of surprise, and promptly had the living daylights snogged out of her.

"Severus, we're supposed to be patrolling…"

Her protests died a quick, heated death, as Severus's hands proceeded to roam over her body, hiking up her skirt enough for him to slip a hand underneath so that he could tease her in her most sensitive spot while another hand began unbuttoning her shirt with only five fingers to do the job. Five very skilled, nimble fingers at that, for the job was soon done, and he was flicking and suckling her nipples even as he worked her core.

Hermione moaned and cried out as he had his way with her, responding with growing enthusiasm as he warmed her up before pulling away to undo the flak of his trousers. Hermione took the initiative to kneel down in front of him, pulling the waistband down and placing her mouth on him as soon as she could manage it. She teased him in turn, licking and nipping lightly at his shaft until he pulled her back up, yanked her skirt aside, and took her up against the wall.

This was not an isolated incident. It became a habit for them to request that they be partnered together for patrols, and on Hermione's birthday—which happened to roll around on a school night—they were wandering the library togther, splitting up periodically to check that the library was as empty as it should be before they ended up at the corner between two bookcases, in front of the stained glass window, where Severus had first kissed her.

He had kissed her then, too. And again. They had dragged each other to the floor, and then over to a nearby study table, where Severus proceeded to demonstrate exactly what else he had been on his mind when he had thrown caution into the wind that day. Hermione had received a thorough and very enjoyable birthday shag, one that had left her boneless and beyond satiated, and she didn't think she would quite see that particular section of the library the same way again.

With less stress concerning outside obligations, they had a good deal of time on their hands, and resorted to being the randy, young adults that they were.

This stretch of good fortune lasted until mid-October, when Severus was once again summoned—and whereupon he began to be summoned with upsetting regularity. In response, Hermione was again called to the Order with the news that the Potters would be going under deeper protection, and decisions concerning who the Secret Keeper should be as well as what additional wards and protections should be used were being discussed. James and Lily were present for these meetings, and they unanimously agreed that they wanted Sirius to be their Secret Keeper.

Hermione didn't like the look on Peter's face as they discussed additional protections. She was sorely tempted to hex him to the ground and choke the life out of him, the slimy worm-tailed creature that he was, but restrained herself.

Tensions grew high. Hermione and Severus spent every waking moment they had grading, which included bringing their work with them on patrols and using spare time to mark essays and tests. Severus had avoided the wrath of Voldemort's displeasure since the beating he had taken back in September, but it was clear that the Dark Lord was still not pleased with him. Hermione was busy discussing protection details with the Potters and the small circle of those involved, and in late October, the plans were finalized. On October 29th, Godric's Hollow was placed under the Fidelius Charm, and Sirius sent Hermione a letter indicating that he planned to go into hiding himself.

Hermione spent that half-week restless and frantic, on edge with near-hysteria as the hours and days slowly whittled by. She wanted to visit the Potters. She wanted to say goodbye. Would Harry survive in this new timeline she had altered? How was she going to be able to live with herself when all was said and done?

On the morning of October 31st, Hermione shakily got up and prepared for class. She was distracted and off-kilter all day, leaving her students feeling wrong-footed as they tried to deal with her snaps and barks of irritation when they did not do something exactly right. She barely ate at the Halloween feast. Severus had not managed to get an honest explanation out of her, and when the two were finally excused from patrol duty, they returned to their quarters in silence.

Hermione paced in her room, checking her watch every so often, and then eventually, she put her foot down. She pulled her robes back on over the sleepwear she had donned, and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" Severus demanded.

"Out," Hermione said sharply.

Her tone brooked no argument, and Severus stood there, his face pulled into a blank expression as he absorbed her odd behavior. And then she was gone.

~o~O~o~

Hermione strode down the street, her robes fluttering behind her, as she kept to the shadows afforded by the other homes in the vicinity. She had just thrown on her slippers, and if anyone saw her now, they would probably think she looked quite ridiculous, walking around at this odd hour of night in nothing but her pyjamas and a robe.

It was pitch black save for the streetlamps, and as Hermione walked, dread began to sink into her. At this point, she didn't know what she thought she was doing. Yet, she could not bring herself to simply go back home, pretend nothing happened, and sleep until the news broke that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was dead…

She stopped in front of the space where Godric's Hollow was. She was privy to the Fidelius Charm—Sirius had let her in on the Secret before keeper-duties were switched over to Pettigrew—and she waited.

She was one of James and Lily's closest friends. She was Harry's godmother, for Merlin's sake. Why wasn't she doing anything more to save them? She blinked for a moment, raising a hand to her mouth to chew on her fingernails. Everyone else could claim ignorance concerning Pettigrew's true loyalties—furthermore, none of them knew what would happen tonight. But what about her? She had no such excuse. She was in full understanding of what was going to happen here tonight, and furthermore, she was doing nothing to stop it.

She couldn't stop it. It had to happen. Lily, at least, had to die protecting her son so that he could live to destroy Voldemort through his mother's love. James had to die in order for Lily to be put in such a desperate situation. If she interfered, if she tried to stop it, time would be atltered with such severe repercussions that Hermione did not really want to contemplate it. But she wished there was another way, other than standing here waiting for them to die.

She let out a sudden gasp of surprise as the upstairs window on the left suddenly burst and exploded, the glass shattering. A moment later, a series of explosions followed, and the entire house began to slowly shudder inwards on itself before Hermione's eyes. She let out a whimper as something whispy and white began to seep out of the cracks and breaks, the pallid and poisonous-looking entity let out a ghostly scream. It coalesced into some undefinable shape, and then vanished into the night air. Hermione took a step back as the house began to crash down on itself, and she looked around wildly, waiting for someone—anyone else—to appear.

The house let out a warning creak, on the verge of total collapse, and Hermione made her decision. She whipped out her wand, pointing it at the now-ruined structure.

"Fundamenta stabilis!"

The creaking stopped, just barely. Hermione ducked forward quickly, entering the front yard and skipping around the broken glass shattered around the ground, stopping in front of the front door, which was cracked in two and bent outwards, ready to snap at any moment. She couldn't get in. She didn't dare try a summoning charm—in a wreckage like this, Harry could run up against something sharp, and the spell might even go so far as to smash him through a wall to bring him to her.

A wailing sound caught her attention, and she looked up to the window just above her. Stowing her wand, she gritted her teeth, grabbed hold of the nearby window ledge and began to climb. It wasn't easy; glass was embedded everywhere, splinters dug into her hands at every opportunity, and when she made it half-way up there a few moments later, her leg got caught on the broken edges of the window, tearing into her skin.

Heavy footsteps suddenly caught Hermione's attention, and she glanced back at the yard, where the enormous form of Rubeus Hagrid making his way through caught her attention.

"Oi, what're yeh doin' there—?"

"It's me, Hagrid!" Hermione called back, twisting her neck around to look at him. Her grip slipped for a moment, and she struggled to hold herself in place. "Help me up—I've got to get to that room—"

Big, meaty hands grabbed her feet, lifting her upward, and Hermione stumbled into the room.

"Where's Harry?" Hagrid asked, peering into the room from his enormous height. "Can yeh see 'im?"

The walls looked ready to fall in on themselves, burnt black. Everything was in ruins. Laying on top of the wreckage that had been his cradle, was one-and-a-half-year-old Harry, crying loudly in a pitiful sound of fear, distress, and general upset. Hermione swallowed and knelt down next to him, lifting him up gently and trying to sooth him even as she stared down at the lightning-bolt scar freshly emblazoned on her best friend's forehead.

She glanced around at the room, which had been strewn into disarray. Part of the wall had been blasted off, including the door, and on the floor—on the floor…

Hermione's feet crumpled beneath her, and still gripping Harry tightly to her chest, she stared down at the still form of Lily. She heard shouting below, but did not register it as she carefully set Harry down and reached out a trembling hand to touch Lily's face. Her green eyes were open, glistening with unshed tears, and her body was lukewarm to the touch. Her hair spread around her face, like a burnished halo. A moment later, she whipped around in surprise as she felt familiar, long fingers grasp her shoulder.

"No…" she heard Severus whisper. Hermione scrambled to pick Harry up, holding him protectively as Severus fell to his knees beside Lily, pulling her into his arms to cradle her. He made a choking sound, and then a moment later, he was sobbing. Something snapped inside Hermione, and she broke down as well, crying bitterly as she finally registered the raw pain of the situation.

Lily was dead. James, too, though Hermione had not seen him yet.

Not wanting Harry to remain in here any longer than he had to, she approached the window, gingerly placing him in Hagrid's hand. The half-giant took him carefully, and then she turned away, kneeling beside Severus for a moment before she shakily stumbled off down the destroyed hall. She made it to the end, and down the stairs, where she saw the still body of James Potter lying feet away. She knew he was dead—she knew that this man she considered to be an older brother, a best friend, was dead—but still, like Severus, she could not help but get down on her knees next to him, pull him into her arms, and ascertain for herself that he was really, truly gone.

The pain wormed its way into her heart, brutally wrenching a hole in it. James's glasses had cracked and were askew on her face, and his eyes were empty, gazing off into the distance. She heard Hagrid call her name from above, but she ignore him, pulling James more tightly against her, and crying helplessly. She had thought that she could just stand by and let what needed to be done happen, but life was just not that easy. Tonight, she had lost someone important to her, just as Severus had, and he was gone—gone—

The sound of broken, choking, sniffling sobs drowned themselves in her ears, but they felt so far away that she could not tell whether they were hers, Severus', or both of them combined. All she knew was that when she eventually stood up, blinking more tears out of her eyes and pulling out her wand to try and lift James's body into the air, she realized that the crying had not stopped. In a daze, she staggered back up the stairs, where she saw Hagrid still peering in through the window, his expression worried.

Wordlessly, Hermione maneuvered James toward the window, where Hagrid took him and disappeared from sight for a moment to set him down on the ground. She came to kneel by Severus, who was still on his knees, his face pressed into Lily's arm even as his shoulders shook.

"We need to go," Hermione whispered, her voice cracked and wet from crying. "We c-can't—we can't stay here forever…"

With great effort, Severus stood up, lifting Lily into his arms. He refused to look at Hermione as he handed her to Hagrid, and then without another word, Apparated down to the ground with a loud crack. Hermione did not dare attempt Apparition at the moment, so Hagrid helped her back down. She landed on the ground with a soft 'oomph', and stumbled a few feet away from the house before pulling out her wand and pointing it behind her.

"I'm sorry," she whispered into the air, as she flicked her wand, ending her spell with a silently-cast Finite. The house let out a final warning creak, and then promptly began to fall in on itself, like a bunch of kapla blocks, with wood and bricks that were still intact and sticking out at odd, splintery angles as it came down, looking as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to it.

Hagrid was cradling Harry with all the care he might give a newborn kitten, who was still wailing loudly, plaintitively. Hermione held out her arms for him, and hesitating for a moment, Hagrid handed him to her. She hugged Harry to her chest, trying to soothe him.

"Shh," she whispered, glancing down the street as a few lights in the nearby houses came on. The Fidelius Charm on the house was slowly breaking apart by its destruction, but it would take several minutes for that to happen. Then the ruins would be visible for all to see. "It's alright, Harry, it's alright…"

She saw Severus walking away, and gathering up the strength, she called after him croakily, "Where are you going?"

Severus turned to look at her. His expression was partially hidden by his hair, which hung forward over his face, but the look of great, twisted pain on his face was unmistakable.

"I must speak with Albus."

There was a sudden rumbling sound, and Hermione and Hagrid's necks both swivelled to seek it out, caught like deer in the headlights as a huge motorcycle slammed down on the cobblestone, skidding to screeching halt just a few feet away from them. Another crack snapped across Hermione's hearing, and Severus was gone. Sirius leapt off of it, his eyes wide with shock, as he registered first the wailing baby in Hermione's arms and then the wreckage of his best friend's home that lay behind them. Beside them, on the street, James and Lily lay peacefully, eyes still open, gazing up at the stars.

"Hagrid—Hermione," he whispered, his voice cracking with disbelief. He was pale and shaking. "What happened—James, Lily…?"

Hagrid let out an enormous sob, pulling out a giant handkerchief from one of his enormous his pocket, and blew his nose with a honk. Hermione swallowed, glancing down once at Harry, who had turned quiet, and then back at Sirius.

"They're dead," Hermione said quietly.

Sirius let out a whimpering sound like a wounded animal, and then sank down to the ground with a loud, keening wail. Hermione handed Harry to Hagrid, and quickly moved to kneel next to him, wrapping her arm around him.

"I'm so sorry, Sirius," she choked, as the full force of tonight's event hit her, and she too broke down and began to sob once more. "I'm so sorry."

Something seemed to snap within Sirius, for in the next moment, he stood up shakily, wiping his eyes.

"Give Harry to me, Hagrid," he said, holding out his hands. He wore a look of scared determination, and Hermione rather thought that it was taking all of his willpower to stand strong in the face of his best friend's murder. "I'm his godfather. I'll look after him."

"No can do, Sirius," Hagrid said, holding Harry close. He looked genuinely sorry, and though he was firm, his voice was as soothing as it was hoarse. "I've got me orders from Dumbledore. I'm sorry."

"I'm his godfather," Sirius shot back, his expression dead-set. He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear them of the tears, but his face was now a blotchy mixture of red and white from crying. "Tell Dumbledore I'll take him. James would have wanted me to look after his son, Hagrid."

"I can't," the half-giant replied hoarsely. "Dumbledore's got his reasons fer wantin' him to go ter his aunt an' uncle's, an' I trust that he knows what he's doin'."

Hermione placed her arm on Sirius's shoulder. "Lily gave up her life defending Harry," she told him quietly. "The kind of love it takes for someone to do that is a powerful one. There is magic in love, Sirius, and Dumbledore of all people would know that. I'll bet that's what he's capitalizing on, trying to find protection for Harry until he's old enough to look after himself."

"But…" Sirius rasped.

"Even if V-Vol—even if Voldemort's gone," Hermione said, stumbling over the name. The monster's death seemed to have triggered the breaking of some kind of dam within her, for Hermione felt as though everything she had reined in so tightly, even the stuff she had let out occasionally, was threatening to escape into chaos within her. "His followers… they're still out there, Sirius, and neither of us are well-equipped enough to care for a baby. Dumbledore knows this, Sirius, and he's obviously made arrangements that he believes are in Harry's best interests." She swallowed. "We have to trust him."

Hagrid retrieved his handkerchief with one hand and blew his nose, the tangled brambles that were his beard turning damp from the enormous tears leaking out of his eyes. "Tha's right, Sirius. James an' Lily are dead, and now we have You-Know-Who's followers ter look out fer—it's not safe fer Harry, I reckon."

Sirius bowed his head, and then strode over to his bike. He placed a hand on it. "Alright," he whispered hoarsely. "Take—take Harry to Dumbledore. You can use my motorbike." His voice shook. "I won't need it anymore."

"Where are you going?" Hermione asked, as Sirius walked the bike over to Hagrid.

Sirius shook his head, refusing to respond. He hesitated, pulled Hermione into a startled hug, and then with a crack signifying Apparition, he disappeared.

Hermione stood still for a moment, her robes billowing faintly in the cold autumn wind, and then she slowly turned to look at Hagrid.

"I guess—I guess you'd better get going," she said thickly.

"Yeh're not coming with me?"

Hermione shook her head, staring down at her leg, which had begun to sting painfully. "I need to return to Hogwarts. You know where you're headed, right?"

"Dumbledore told me where ter go— his aunt an' uncle live in Little Whinging," Hagrid said, pulling out several blankets from the pocket that thankfully did not contain his stained handkerchief, and beginning to wrap little Harry up in them. "Yer sure yeh'll be alright?"

Hermione nodded tightly. "Yes. Little Whinging is a long way from here—you probably won't get there for a couple hours. Make sure to stay out of sight."

"O' course." Hagrid climbed onto the motorbike, tucking the bundle of blankets containing the Boy-Who-Lived in the crook of his arm. "Would yeh do me a bit o' a favor—cast a Disillusionment Charm on me?"

Hermione nodded, pulling out her wand. A tap on Hagrid, and then on the motorbike, and she stepped back as Hagrid, now shimmering, started the engine. The bike lurched forward, and Hermione bent down over her watch, twisting the third dial that would porkey her back to Hogwarts.

A yank behind her navel, and she left the scene of the ruins that she was certain would haunt her for the rest of her life.

~o~O~o~

The next day found the Wizarding world in an uproar. Classes had been cancelled, and owls were swooping in and out of the Great Hall in masses every few minutes. Groups of students had gone around the castle shooting up sparklers and fireworks with their wands in celebration, laughing and cheering and hugging each other. House rivalries were disbanded for all of twenty-four hours among the Hufflepuff, Gryffindors, and Ravenclaws, who all engaged in an exorbitant amount of celebratory crying, embracing, eating, dancing, and comforting. Dozens of students practically ran down to the kitchens, to request that fine food be brought up, and this kind of celebration was only a microcosm of the true extent of celebratory catharsis that had gripped the community.

In the distance, shooting stars could be seen coming up from Hogsmeade, and Hermione heard reports that Dedalus Diggle was responsible for a very noisy bunch of them down in Kent. It was like Guy Fawkes night, with lots of fireworks, only for a different cause. She heard rumors, tales, and gossip about the celebrations and parties that were taking place all over, and she could not help but smile faintly at this.

But that was the extent of her cheering. After working relentlessly for the past two years, she was very tired, and enormously relieved. Exhaustion and relief were the extent of her reaction, when she finally slumped against a wall, sank down, and registered that for the next decade, at least, Tom Riddle would be out of their hair. That, and a little bit of hysteria, for she was torn between sobbing and laughing, and it took her a good four hours to work it all out of her system.

Severus's reaction was one of stupefied shock and horror. Hermione didn't see him that night, and she knew he would be in the Headmaster's office. She was in just about the same state of mind as he was, to be frank, and while the world around them exploded with cheers, she curled up in their quarters, on the sheepskin in front of the fire, and cried.

She did not see Severus again until the next day, when he finally returned, staggering into their quarters. He looked terrible. His hair was unkempt, his face blotchy from crying, and he looked as though he had aged several years in the few hours that he had been shut up with Dumbledore. He took one look at her, letting out a sound like a wounded animal, very much like the one Sirius had made, and then collapsed onto the rug as Hermione quickly sat up to accommodate him.

They sat there, with Severus staring listlessly into the flames, as Hermione wrapped her arms around him, trying to provide what comfort she could. She cried, too, but it was in quiet, choked sobs. He did not speak for a long time. When he did, his voice was raspy and hoarse, and full of such pain that it nearly broke Hermione's heart.

"Lily," he whispered raggedly. "Lily's dead."

"James too," Hermione croaked. "I'm sorry."

"He said he would protect them. He said…" Severus trailed off, turning away. He took a deep breath, trying to continue, his voice cracking. "This is my fault, Hermione. All my fault…"

"No," Hermione retorted, and when he did not respond, repeated more loudly, "No!"

"I relayed the prophecy to Voldemort, I painted the target on them…"

"Severus," Hermione said firmly, painfully. "There are many people who are to blame for James and Lily's deaths. You are not one of them."

Severus choked on his next words. "There's only one thing I can do to honor her memory."

Hermione waited.

"I'll help protect her son, when he comes to Hogwarts," Severus whispered. "The Dark Lord won't be gone forever, Hermione, and when he returns—I'll be there to help her son."

Hermione nodded, burying her face in his shoulder.

"I'll be there too," she whispered. "I promise."

He tensed, and then one arm limply came around her, pulling her closer to him. They sat there for the rest of the night, with barely a word spoken between them, each mourning the loss of the Potters in their singular yet mutual way.

The Potters' remains were retrieved from the ruins of what had been their home in Godric's Hollow, and the funeral was planned to take place in two weeks' time. The Dursleys were not attending, a facet of news that had made Hermione tear up with fury at their coldness, but there was nothing she could do about it. Two days after the funeral plans were made, news broke out around the Wizarding World: Sirius Black had murdered twelve Muggles and blasted Peter Pettigrew to smithereens, and was awaiting sentencing in Azkaban.

"No!" Hermione had cried, against her better judgement, when she stood at Tine Cottage with the rest of the Order. Severus had finally been let in on the Secret, and was in attendance, standing by her side as the meeting commenced. "That's not—that's not possible! You know it isn't!"

Dumbledore looked grave. "He was the Potters' secret keeper, and in light of his recent actions, I'm afraid that not only is it possible, it is reality."

"No…" Hermione whimpered, before she managed to regain control over herself.

Everyone else looked grave. Severus was bitter. Alice, who was no longer in hiding, took Hermione's hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"I know Sirius was your friend," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

The Headmaster cleared his throat. "The next order of business, I believe, is that Milicent Bagnold is planning to retire. There has been lobbying to convince her to retain her position, at least for a bit, but she has made it clear that she will be leaving office soon."

"You've got plenty of votes to make it to Minister," Frank pointed out.

"I have said this before, and I will say this again," Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling slightly. "I have no interest in becoming the Minister of Magic. Who else would be at Hogwarts to offer everyone lemon drops?"

Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose at this. Several of the other Order members tittered.

Once that meeting was over, Severus pulled her aside, taking her to the small garden behind the house to stand in the brisk November air. His face was still pulled by the pain of his loss, but his expression was a mixture of determination and relief.

"Hermione, you said that as soon as the Dark Lord was gone, we could talk about—about circumstances being as they are, if you would marry me," Severus said slowly.

Hermione rubbed at her face with one hand, and then nodded. "Let's go see the Headmaster," she agreed miserably.

~o~O~o~

They sat together in Dumbledore's office, with the man himself sitting behind his desk, looking as old and weary as Hermione had ever seen him. The war had taken a heavy toll on them all, despite their relief that it was over—at least for now—nothing could erase the marks of their servitude. Hermione had filled Severus in on a few basic details as they had made their way to the office, and now they sat, waiting, as Dumbledore explained Hermione's tale.

He had pulled out the pieces of the broken Time-Turner, which still gave off heat, but no longer threatened to burn, and laid them out on his desk for Severus to examine.

"Miss Granger came to us quite by accident from her fifth year at Hogwarts in 1996," Dumbledore stated, as Severus poked the broken glass of the Time-Turner with his wand, an expression of curiosity and disbelief marring his features briefly before they turned stony. "There was no feasible way to return her to her own time, and I advised her to make a life for herself here until things could be rectified."

Severus's jaw tightened and he sat back in his chair. "She was a child," he said coldly. "She could have altered everyone's timelines—you couldn't have expected her to act with that constant threat in mind!"

Hermione shook her head. "I kept everything as it was supposed to be," she said, twisting her watch around her wrist with nervousness. "So far, everything is playing out as planned."

Severus turned to give her an odd, incomprehensible look.

"I have been working on a solution for Hermione that would allow her to resume her old life in 1996, but it will take a bit more time to make it work," Dumbledore continued smoothly.

Severus did no appear to be fully listening. His fingers dug into the side of his armchair, and his expression was contorted into one of anger—and fear.

"Tell me something, Hermione," he asked coolly. "When you were keeping everything in order, did that include knowing that the Dark Lord would kill Lily?"

Hermione swallowed. "I had to let things be."

Severus lurched out of his seat, twisting around to face her. "That's it? You just stood by and watched them die?"

Hermione stood up, anger—and something a bit like terror—rising in her chest. "I had too!" she responded quietly, willing him to understand. "I couldn't stand by and pretend nothing would happen, so I went to Godric's Hollow that night—but it was too late, and even if I had gotten there sooner, it would have been useless."

He bared his teeth. "You're a coward."

Rage flared in her eyes, and she took a menacing step forward. "If I had stopped Voldemort," she spat, enjoying the way her lover flinched at the use of the name, "he would have only found them again—and killed them, possibly in a way that would not have invoked Lily's protection. Harry would not have lived to see his next birthday, and hundreds, probably thousands of others, would have died!"

"You sold out people you professed to be your friends for a stint of peace," Severus said, his voice dangerously quiet. "What kind of friend does that?"

Tears prickled at Hermione's eyes, but she held them back. "You act as though this didn't affect me—but James and Lily were my friends, and in my own timeline, Harry is my best friend. How do you think I feel, knowing I watched this happen and could literally do nothing to save them?"

"Hermione, Severus," Dumbledore interrupted firmly, "This conversation is not productive. Kindly sit down and let us discuss this—"

"I think I'm done here, Headmaster," Severus sneered, turning away.

"Severus," Hermione bit out, "do you remember last December, when I had to sit by and watch a dozen Muggle women be killed and tortured before my eyes?"

"That was different," he roared, whipping around to face her. "You didn't know them! Your presence there was purely as an observer—there was nothing you could have done!"

"I see no difference!" Hermione yelled back at him, balling her hands into fists by her side. "It hurt me to see them die painful and useless deaths just to fulfill a madman's urge for entertainment, and it nearly kills me to know that I had to see the same thing happen to James and Lily! I was purely an observer then, too, because I can't change time no matter how much—" she broke off as her voice collapsed into a ragged sob, and she inhaled deeply, trying to get the rest of her words across. "No matter how much I want to, I can't save everyone… this situation was no different from all the other deaths I couldn't stop."

Severus stiffened for a moment, and then the doorhandle clicked underneath his fingers.

"This is why I told you to wait," Hermione said bitterly. "I knew this would happen. Everyone else—everyone else is absolved of guilt because they didn't know, but I did, and for that, I am to be condemned. At the very least," she added coldly, "you can thank me for not agreeing to marry you before you knew what you were getting into."

A vein pulsed along his jaw as he tightened it convulsively, but his next words were calm and controlled. "I thank you for your consideration."

He left, the door banging shut behind him.

Hermione sank back into her chair, feeling pain lace through her. She had known this would happen. She had known it would come. She had hoped, that somehow, he might be able to see past his own pain long enough to realize her own, and perhaps even forgive her, but…

She sniffled, wiping at her nose as the hot, wet tears began to pour down the sides of her cheeks, and then stumbled her way toward the floo.

"I'll—I'll come back later, Headmaster," she whimpered, reaching for the powder. "I need to be alone."

"My dear," Dumbledore said, rising out of his chair. "All is not lost. I am certain Severus will come around once he has had time to think—"

"He gave up his freedom and safety within Voldemort's ranks to spy for us—for her," Hermione sobbed, trying to suppress the hiccups that threatened to interrupt her speech. "Perhaps he didn't love her the way he loved me, but that doesn't mean she didn't matter more. And now he's found that it was all for naught—and the blame is being placed squarely on me for not preventing it. Do you really expect him to come around, Headmaster?"

With those final words, she stepped into the floo, and managed to stumble out the words to Tine Cottage.

~o~O~o~

School had been out for nearly three weeks now, and it was not expected to resume until December at the earliest, though it would most likely actually happen after New Years Eve. The entire country seemed to be on a national holiday. Many of the students had been sent home on impromptu vacations to reunite with their families, particularly those whose had gone into hiding. Several teachers had left as well, and many shop owners had closed their doors in lieu of hosting celebrations. Almost everyone had gotten the news by now, and anyone who had left the country in light of the war was returning home. People were reuniting with loved ones who were alive, and mourning and preparing proper funerals for those who were not.

Hermione had taken the loss of James and Lily, on top of Severus's abandonment, very hard. She spent her days moping around Tine Cottage, barely able to function. The only good James and Lily's deaths had achieved was to make Hermione abandon her previously-held notions that she should not deliberately change the time line, and had come clean to Dumbledore about the Longbottoms' fates in her time. She did not know when they were to be attacked, but she knew that with Dumbledore alert for it, they would be safe.

Hermione sat in the kitchen at Tine Cottage with a cup of tea and a book, watching rain pour outside, pattering loudly against the windows. She had not spoken to Severus for nearly a week now, and she had not gone back to fetch her things. She made do at Tine Cottage, staying with the written permission of Nicholas Flamel, and spent her time in a bit of an isolated retreat, trying to recover what bit of sanity and dignity she could.

She wished Harry and Ron were here. She could imagine the discussion they might be having now.

Blimey, Hermione, you've really gotten yourself into a mess this time. Ron.

Harry chimed in. I can't believe you were shacking up with the greasy git.

Don't call him that, Hermione found herself mentally chiding them.

Still, he shouldn't have blamed you for all of this, Harry stated pragmatically. It's not your fault.

He's hurting, Hermione pointed out reasonably. We all are.

Quidditch helps, Ron suggested unhelpfully.

Thank you, Ron.

Moody decided to interject himself into the conversation. Are you planning on sitting here for the rest of your life, girl?

"Of course not," Hermione said out loud.

She was startled when Moody's grizzled, ragged voice barked her out of her complacency. "Then get up and get ready!"

"I—what?" Hermione said, twisting around in her chair to find Mad-Eye Moody standing at the entrance to the kitchen, soaking wet, his electric-blue eye whizzing wildly, and his claw-foot braced against the doorway. He was wearing a pair of nice robes that were soaked all the way through, and quite honestly made him look like a mad pirate captain. All he needed was the parrot and the hat.

"The Potters' funeral is today, Granger! Or have you forgotten?" Moodly clunked his way into the kitchen, stopping next to the table, where Hermione's jaw was gaped open in horror. Seeing the expression on her face, he muttered, "It would appear you did."

"Shite," Hermione breathed, standing up quickly and shoving her things aside. "I forgot!"

"I thought so." Moody clunked over to a free chair and helped himself to it, eyeing her tea suspiciously. "You've got twenty minutes to make yourself presentable, Granger. Of course it's raining hard, so anything you wear is probably going to get ruined, but it's the thought that counts, eh?"

Hermione fled up the stairs, and came back down with barely five minutes to spare, tugging on her boots under the plain black work robes she had managed to throw on, and they were out the door and into the pouring rain in three.

~o~O~o~

They all stood in the little churchyard of Godric's Hollow in the rain, which had slowed to a thrumming drizzle. The Order—or what was left of the Order, such as it was—stood by the marker signifying James and Lily's grave, heads bowed. There were a few who were not members of the Order, and there would have probably been far more were it not for the fact that they had agreed unanimously that it would be a private ceremony. Without reporters. Without the fanfare of important figures who had not actually known the Potters, but wanted to get up and make fancy speeches anyway.

They made an odd picture, dressed in various odd non-Muggle things, except for Hagrid, who was wearing what looked like his best jacket. The bodies were finally laid to rest in front of the headstone, and amidst the pouring rain, they all had a chance to shovel in a bit of dirt—which was now mud—into it before Dumbledore raised the ground over their coffins, sealing them from the view of the world forever.

During the time that Dumbledore had been speaking, praising the lives of Lily and James Potter with an odd bit of honesty and frankness that most people did not receive at their funerals, Hermione saw Severus standing near the back of the group, soaked through to the bone and staring not at Dumbledore or the gravestone, but the ground. She did not try to catch his eye, nor give any signal that she was there.

Did she love him? Yes, still. She probably would for the rest of her miserable life. But it seemed clear to her that she had done something both irreparable and unforgivable in Severus's eyes, and as much as it made her heart break with anguish, she respected his feelings and gave him his distance.

People stopped by the freshly-packed, muddy earth to pay their private and personal respects, some charming grass to grow on the otherwise sodden earth, others conjuring flowers and wreaths to place on the grave. No one had bothered to cast any kind of rainproofing charm on themselves; they were all alive, James and Lily were dead for their sakes, and that kind of comfort seemed to go against the grain for all of them. Yet, soon enough, people began Apparating away, no doubt to return home to their own hearth-fires.

Alice, sopping wet, came to stop by where Hermione was standing and squeezed her hand while pulling her into a hug, telling her that she was free to pay them a visit anytime she liked, before she left with her husband, no doubt to rescue their son from his grandmother. Hermione watched her go, feeling at ease now that she was assured her friend would be all right. A few other Order members stopped by her—Hagrid to thank her for helping retrieve Harry from the wreckage of his home, Dumbledore to thank her gravely for the work she had done, and Moody and Kingsley to give her their regards for the efforts she had put in on the behalf of the Wizarding world. Remus was there to pull her into a hug and tell her that he would be spending some time trying to find a job in the Wizarding world, but that he would still be there if she ever needed him.

Hermione thanked each of them in turn, reminding them all as somberly as she could that it had been their combined efforts. She stopped to hug and thank Remus for being the good friend he was, before she turned to leave.

A pale hand reached out to grab her shoulder, turning her around. She stared into the dripping wet face of Severus Snape, and wondered if he was there to berate her for helping put James and Lily in their graves. She opened her mouth to prepare a retort, when she realized that the expression on his face was not one of anger, but rather a sad mixture of pain and resignation.

The first thing out of his mouth was entirely not what she had expected, however. "Hermione, I'm sorry."

Her jaw dropped for a moment, and then she shut it quickly.

He stooped down to lower his mouth to her ear, saving his words for her alone, despite the fact that the pounding of the rain and the fact that there were very few people left to witness them meant that hardly anyone was expected to eavesdrop on them.

"You were right," he said hoarsely. "I—I had time to think about it, while you were gone… you were right, when you said there was no difference."

Hermione swallowed. "You forgive me?" she whispered.

His hands came to grip her shoulders, pulling her close to him, an answer in of itself. The tears pouring down her face now were intermingled with the rain, which meant that they would not be noticed—but she buried her face in his chest nonetheless.

"Lily… she and Potter were never certain they would survive the war, but they—they spent every waking moment they had together," Severus admitted quietly. "It's given me time to think. I still love you, Hermione, and as much as I was angry when I heard about their deaths, it isn't your fault. It's the Dark Lord who has to pay for it, not you." He pulled away, cupping the side of her head with one hand, running his fingers through her damp, water-logged curls. "Yes, Hermione. When I think about it, I know I don't want to spend the rest of my life without you—I want to spend what time we do have together. However long that is."

Hermione stared at him, gaping in near-disbelief, and then her face broke out into a brilliant smile that was completely at odds to the miserable weather and the pain that still went bone-deep. His words had lifted her. "You still want me?"

"I want to marry you."

"Then yes, Severus." Hermione wrapped her arms around him, and pulled him into a wet, rain and tear-stained kiss. "Yes!"

They stood there, kissing, Severus's cloak coming to wrap around her shoulders as the rain began to come down harder. When they finally broke apart, turning to give the Potters' grave a final glance before they left, Hermione experienced a feeling of utter absolution.

~o~O~o~

Severus's trial in Courtroom Ten, in front of the Wizengamot, took place a week later. He might have had a rougher time of things had Dumbledore not been there to vouch for him. When he returned to her that night a free man, Hermione demonstrated how grateful she was to have him by peppering her lover's face with kisses. Other trials made the news—Igor Karkaroff, Walden Macnair, and most interestingly, Lucius Malfoy. The lattermost's excuse was the Imperius, and Hermione could not help but find herself frustrated with the predictability of his pardon.

It was not until the beginning of November that the trials for Barty Crouch Jr, Bellatrix Lestrange, and the two Lestrange brothers occurred. Hermione had nearly been knocked to the floor when she heard the news that Frank and Alice had just been admitted to St. Mungo's—the last time Hermione had seen them alive, happy, and very much sane, had been at James and Lily's funeral. At that moment, Hermione vaguely had an inkling of how Severus had felt, upon Lily's completely unexpected murder.

She had been counting on Dumbledore to protect them. He had assured her he would. Last she had seen, they had been making plans for the Longbottoms to go back into hiding again. But the day they were scheduled to be moved to their safe house was two weeks too late; Voldemort had not even been dead a month when Lestrange, her husband, and younger cohort had taken it upon themselves to attack Alice's family, drunk with the delusion that she and her husband knew where the Dark Lord was. Alice and Frank had wanted to stay out of hiding to be with their family until after Christmas, and now Hermione sank into despair once more: why hadn't she insisted that they go into hiding immediately? Why hadn't she demanded that Alice and Frank stay with them in Spinner's End until arrangements were made? Or Hogwarts? Why?

Dumbledore could not have forced them to go into hiding if they did not want to. They had agreed to do it, but had wanted to wait, to have a chance to spend the Yule holidays with the family they had not seen for months. And now… and now…

While Dumbledore attended the trial, and Severus tried to keep a low profile as a result of his, Hermione paid St. Mungo's a visit.

Guilt had become a familiar knife twisting in her gut, and she felt another jarring stab as she walked into the ward that Alice and her husband were in, on what the Healers hoped to be temporary basis, but what Hermione knew would be a permanent one. She came to stand by the bed Alice was sitting in, and after a cautious moment, she placed her hand over Alice's, giving it a gentle squeeze.

"Alice?" she said softly.

Alice's eyes grew wide, and the shadows underneath them became more prominent as she stared up at Hermione like a frightened animal. Hermione looked guiltily back at her, and then pulled out a bag of Droobles Best Blowing Gum and cautiously handed it to her. They had always been Alice's favorite sweets. The empty shell of her friend stared down at the bag uncomprehendingly for a moment, before she slowly pulled out a stick, fiddled with the wrapper as she tried to figure out how it worked, before she carefully extracted the piece of candy and lifted it to her mouth.

She chewed, her face blank and unexpressive for a moment, and then she pressed the wrapper into Hermione's hand.

Hermione wrapped her fingers around it, tucking it into her pocket. She sat down on the edge of Alice's bed, talking softly to her for a few minutes, before getting up to leave. She handed the bag of Droobles' to the healer currently checking in on patients at the ward.

"This is for Alice Longbottom," she told her.

"We can't give this stuff to patients," the healer said, shaking the sleeves of her lime green robes out of the way as she examined the bag. "They might choke."

Hermione jerked her thumb at Alice who was chewing her gum with a placid look on her face, very different from the expression she had worn when Hermione had first walked in.

"She seems to be doing fine," Hermione responded coolly.

The woman gave her an odd look, and then stuffed the bag in her robes. "I'll speak to the healer in charge and see if he'll allow sweets, provided we can ascertain she's able to feed herself, and if her relatives agree to allow it…"

Hermione's mind turned to her memory of Augusta Longbottom with her grandson, and felt the wrapper in her pocket, and was certain that yes, Alice's relatives such would allow her this small consolation.

She was finding it more and more difficult to live with her guilt. The war had ended for now, and the aftermath was terrible. It would take time for the ache to heal.

~o~O~o~

Christmas was spent at Spinner's End. Hermione managed to push her lingering depression aside and force herself to perk up for the season, hoping that a jolt of holiday cheer might help her. They had brought in a proper Christmas tree this year; Hermione had insisted on it. She decorated it with her wand, conjuring and transfiguring bits and bobbles and glittering strings, decorating the tree with such growing delight that Severus had snarked that he might have to exile himself from their living room lest it contaminate him.

"Don't be such a git," Hermione had teased him playfully, earning a sneer and a scowl from her lover before he retreated from the room—though not before charming several of the bright-red baubles Slytherin green.

For the first time, they had gone through the trouble of buying each other proper gifts. Hermione, knowing he was at perfect liberty to buy himself whatever books he liked, had taken her time in picking out a set of clear glass bell-jars for storing ingredients. The spells placed on them would keep them in suspended stasis until the tops were lifted, keeping them fresh until the minute they were needed. She received a kiss on the cheek for her efforts, and was then taken upstairs, to the room at the far end of the hall that she had only ever stepped foot in to clean.

What she saw made her jaw drop.

Severus had scoured it out completely—somehow managing to do so without catching her attention—and had placed in it several tables and a bookshelf, along with a row of cupboards along the far end of the wall, above a desk. As soon as the shock had finished registering, he informed her that it was her personal workspace—and a very comfortable and functional workspace it was. He explained that he had his private lab in the basement, and given that they were both living in this house—their house—it was only fair that she have a place to do her own work.

Hermione had her own research plans and ideas brewing in her mind, among other things. Ideas she had let slip to Severus to bounce off on him, and ideas she fully planned to see through, but she had not expected this—this gift of support, his confidence in her ability to succeed. That was truly a far greater gift than the actual workspace, but it was a two for one, and Severus found himself both extremely pleased yet slightly embarassed by her reaction, particularly when it ended up with him against the wall receiving a collection of very passionate, very heated kisses.

Hermione rarely went to Severus's private lab, and never without knocking first. The same privileges were afforded to her here, and while the rest of the house was free for them to roam, they each had a private retreat where they could unload. In Hermione's mind, it was glorious—and a very effective distraction from the guilt that occasionally reared its ugly head. She was able to push it aside when she focused instead on her work.

That was the better side of Christmas. The more grave event was them sitting down in the living room and discussing what they could of the future. Severus's expression had turned tight-lipped and ashen when Hermione admitted that he had indeed been her Potions professor, before calmly pointing out that it hardly mattered now. He was less than a year older than her in this timeline and they were both consenting adults of sound mind—he was hardly taking advantage of her as his student when she was his equal as a professor, had given authority over him as his handler, and was a good ten years away from having her counterpart as his student, not her as she currently was.

"I don't know what Albus has in mind, but I suspect it's along the lines of slotting me back in my timeline when it comes around," Hermione said smartly. "As soon as my sixteen-year-old self disappears in time, I can step in and take her place—at least," she added somberly, "I hope so."

Severus eyed her askance. "And what happens then?"

"The age of consent is sixteen," Hermione reminded him. "Up until then, assuming this scenario works out as imagined, I would have been living with you as your wife for fifteen years. I'd also be two years older than the rest of my classmates due to time-turner usage, as addition. I started my schooling just before turning twelve, not eleven, because my birthday is in late September." She paused, and then admitted, "I don't know what the future holds for us then."

Severus held her close to him, burying his face in her hair. "I confess there might be… difficulties with the situation," he murmured, "but I imagine they can be worked through, even if all it takes is waiting."

Hermione leaned her head back against his shoulder, closing her eyes in contentment. "I suppose that means we'll cross that bridge when we get to it?"

He nibbled at the side of her neck. "Indeed."

"Besides," she added in agreement, "I honestly have no idea what the Headmaster's plan is. He's kept it a bloody great secret up until now."

~o~O~o~

On New Years Eve, Hermione tried to coax Severus into going to Diagon Alley with her. He dug in his heels on the matter.

"Absolutely not!" he growled, when Hermione first brought the subject up. "We'll come back toting another bloody expensive rug!"

Hermione grinned mischeivously, cocking her head to the side as she assessed their positions—he was leaning against the front of the couch on the floor, she was standing—and gracefully slipped down to the floor, straddling him. He was hard before she began properly grinding herself against him, and the flaring of his nostrils and quickening of his breathing told her exactly what she needed to know.

"Witch," he hissed under his breath, though it came out as a distinct whimper, as she began peppering kisses along the column of his neck. "You can't get everything you want with that."

"Hmm," Hermione said, nibbling on his ear next. "With you, I think that might actually be possible."

"Witch."

"We can go to Fortescue's for ice cream," Hermione promised, running her hands across his chest, privately marveling as she always did about how he was hers—all hers—as she continued, "I'll bet they've started letting the owls out again—and there'll be fireworks…"

He gave her a heated glare. "We're not stopping for new furniture."

Hermione glanced back at the couch he was leaning against. "New books," she bargained.

He eyed her consideringly for a moment, and then promptly pushed her off his lap and backwards onto the rug, pinning her wrists down and straddling her with a victorious smirk.

"Only after I've made love to you," he purred, his voice a deliberately smooth and silky cadence that made Hermione shiver underneath him.

Hermione tapped him on the nose. "Absolutely not. We have all the time in the world, with the Dark Lord gone—that," she said, pushing him away, "can wait until after we've seen the fireworks."

He scowled at her, a look of supreme disappointment that conveyed just how much his libido had in making that decision, and that the postponing of sex was enough to ruin a possible good mood.

Hermione's next words seemed to make it up to him, however. She slipped her hand down his chest, taking a moment to pinch his nipple, before giving him a sensual, mischievous smile. "Which means that we have all… night… long."

He was sold. Pulling her to her feet, they fetched a bit of pin-money from a small tin they kept on top of the mantle, and a few moments later, they were Flooing to Diagon Alley. They skittered out of the fireplace in time to hear the crack of a loud firework going off, and Hermione stared up at the sparkling blue and green lights.

"They're setting fireworks off already?"

"A bit precipitous of them, but yes," Severus said, taking her arm firmly and pulling her along until they were two blocks down the street—and did not stop until they were at Fortescue's. Hermione noted that he had conveniently avoided leading them close to the shops Hermione liked to frequent, and couldn't help smiling as he placed their order. Or rather, tried to. The minute Florean had seen them approaching, he had already started scooping their ice cream, and had it almost ready to hand to them by the time they made it to the window.

"You're regulars," he told them with a wink, and was about to speak again when there was a boom of fireworks. He looked up, smiling. "I should have known you'd come, even with all the fireworks."

"The fireworks are sort of why we're here," Hermione said, licking her ice cream and letting the flavor melt over her tongue. She let out a happy sigh, and then her eyes widened as she saw the wingtip of an owl pass by. Taking a step back as Severus paid for the frozen treats, a wide grin spread across her face as, moments later, a flock of owls began swooping through the air, hooting delightedly, quite unafraid of the sparklers.

"And the owls," she said, pleased, as more fireworks began going off and feathers began to float down here and there. "What a beautiful sight."

Severus's lips tipped up in a controlled smile, visible more for her benefit than anything else. The streets were heavily crowded now, and she could already see shades of the intensely private, secretive man she remembered from her earlier school years; getting him to smile in public was so difficult when he continued to grow even more reserved. And yet, it was still a nice smile, one that encouraged Hermione to smile back in return, simply happy to see that he, too, was happy.

He let out a grunt of surprise when Hermione grabbed his hand and ran out toward the middle of the street for a better view of the fireworks, and then retailiated by pulling her to him so that she was tucked under his arm. Angling his head so that his face was not in her hair while he supped at the melting but otherwise frozen treat, he gave her a squeeze and then turned his gaze skyward.

It was only eleven-thirty. The real fireworks would not be for another hour. And yet, the view was still spectacular.

"This must be your birthday present," Hermione told him mischievously as they stood back, trying to find a spot that wouldn't have them being knocked into by the younger children running through the street waving charmed sparklers. Snow was still on the ground, but that hardly seemed to deter the troublemakers, despite the threat of slipping on ice.

Severus finished the last of his ice cream cone, taking a moment to chew it languidly before burying his face in his hair. "Absolutely not."

"What more could you get?" Hermione countered, twisting her head to look at him.

He gave her a smug, self-satisfied smile that was frankly on the dark side of lascivious.

"I can think of a few things," he said, stroking the under-curve of her cheek with two fingers as his other hand gripped her waist. "It's cold now, but once the fireworks have run their course, we can go home…"

Another firework went off and Hermione shivered, accentuating her reaction to his words.

"Have a seat on the rug in front of the fire…"

The fact that he could make a suggestion so simple and otherwise innocent into anything but was a talent Hermione was able to appreciate, but at this moment, all she wanted to do was to get him to shut up before the heat rising in her cheeks could bloom any further. The ruddy bastard! He knew exactly what got her attention.

Another loud firework caught her attention, and then within the crowd, Hermione could hear the murmurs of a countdown from ten rippling wildly. The bringing-in of the New Year, to be celebrated beyond all others because it was free of Voldemort—the excitement was contagious.

"Ten, nine, eight—!"

Hermione struggled to remain calm. "And what do you suggest we do with our lovely sheepskin rug?"

"…Five, four…!"

Severus smirked, and then spun her around so that he was facing her, stygian eyes flickering over her with a mixture of love and Slytherin appreciation.

The countdown reached one. There was an enormous crack, followed by a series of almighty booms, and light exploded into the sky, blinding them all. And instead of replying, he kissed her. Hermione let out a moue of surprise, but responded quite eagerly the next moment, wrapping her arms around his neck and deepening the kiss, tasting him as though she simply could not get enough. They stood there for several moments, surrounded by the cheering crowd and the roaring, multi-colored fireworks, wrapped up in each other, before they Disapparated away.

They landed in the living room, a few feet away from the rug, and they kicked off their boots and eagerly dragged each other down to the floor. Severus had her pinned down as before, her hair splayed around her like a curly halo, and snogged her thoroughly for a moment before pulling away.

"My love, we had better block the floo," he purred.

~o~O~o~

Hermione woke up the next morning to find that they had fallen asleep on the rug—unsurprising, to be frank—and furthermore, when she tried to shift so that she could sit up, Severus's arms pulled her tighter to him as he mumbled something in his sleep. Hermione tried to twist her neck around so that she could get a look at him, spooned against her, but the angle was too awkward, and frankly, she was too full of lassitude to try. She sighed and snuggled back down, pillowing her head on his shoulder, and ran through a mental list of things they had to do.

School would resume today, though admittedly not until the Welcoming Feast—or what would technically be the second Welcoming Feast of the year. They had several hours to spare until they were required to be in attendance. Until then, she marshalled her mental efforts into thinking through issues that, at the moment, required serious consideration.

Sirius was still in Azkaban. That, first and foremost, was her most pressing concern. He was innocent, and she needed to find a way to get him out.

What kind of friend does that? Frankly, Severus was right, even if he had been somewhat in the wrong with regards to throwing those words at her in that instance. And yet, it seemed very relevant here. Particularly since those words still bothered her deep down, even now.

Her hair had reverted back to its naturally bushy state, and Hermione shook her head and brought up a hand to try and trap it down under her cheek before pressing her face back down on her lover's arm. Her body rested placidly beside Severus's, but her mind was a whirling vortex of thoughts, ideas, Plans with a capital 'P' that needed to be made. There was no reason Sirius should spend twelve useless years in Azkaban. She certainly could not conceive of a way to get him out now, but it was now January of 1982. In eight years, Milicent Bagnold would retire, allowing Fudge to take her place—and Hermione knew first hand just how corrupt and easily blinded Fudge was.

Money. Money and support. He would need that in order to succeed in his run for Minister of Magic when the year of 1990 rolled around. Hermione turned over onto her back, thinking, turning over the tendrils of the idea in her head, weaving them together into a concrete, possible plan of action.

Money and power made the world turn. Hermione had learned that lesson well.

The question was—now that she had learned the lesson, and had knowledge of the future to apply them to, how should she put the two and two together?

She wriggled in Severus's grasp just a bit, trying to see if she could extract herself subtly enough so that she could escape to the kitchen and grab herself a cup of tea. He responded by wrapping his arms more securely around her waist, pulling her tighter, and burying his face in her neck in clear protest. Hermione writhed harder, trying to get loose, now quite determined to get herself a cup of tea to help her think things over—and a hand wickedly slipped down between her legs, giving her clit a warning stroke.

"Severus, much as I enjoy being here, we have only a few hours left before school starts and I have things to—ohh—ah!" Hermione threw her head back with a sudden jerk, letting out an unanticipated moan as her lover—damn him!—began to toy with her lazily. He knew her body so well by now, his ministrations such a far cry from the hesitant and then later almost frantic, if somewhat clumsy and untutored, attempts at the start of their relationship; he could pleasure her in his sleep if he wanted to. On occasion, he did, much to Hermione's mixed reaction of consternation and delight.

He ground his morning erection against her, in very clear demonstration of his intentions. In that damnable silky voice of his, in just the manner that he knew both made her melt and consequently stalk, gag, and throw her Good Judgement into a godforsaken closet, he gave her a look that defied description and murmured into her ear: "I want you here."

"You know," Hermione muttered, her tone mutinous even as all thoughts of grabbing herself a cuppa flew out the window, "You really can't just pin me to the rug and have your way with me every time."

"I don't see why not. That is clearly what this rug was designed for." He was stroking and caressing her now, one hand drifting up to squeeze her breast, demonstrating that he was now far more awake than he had been moments ago. And very much aroused, judging by the way he was now rubbing insistently against her. "Additionally, I don't believe I have ever actually pinned you, but if you would like to give it a try…"

Hermione let out a chortle of laughter, and twisted around so that she was on her back, looking up into his face, where he was smirking with unabashed smugness. "You would love that, I'm sure."

"You surely realize that you're not prepared to marry a nice man," Severus said, treating her to a morning sneer.

"I am fairly aware of the difference between niceness, moral repugnance, and simply being a bit dark," Hermione responded dryly, as Severus pulled himself onto his elbows and began suckling on one of her nipples. "You're the lattermost, I'm afraid."

"Understatement of the year, my dear. Now hush." Severus was like a needy cat with his movements; that was the only comparison that did him justice. He litterally slinked and slipped his way on top of her, much in the way a housecat might worm his way onto his favorite lap, without seeming too obtrusive, and yet reaching his goal in the end.

"I will not hush," Hermione defied him mockingly. "When is this marriage supposed to take place?"

"The first of April." He was sucking on her with more intensity now, both his hands now rather preoccupied with squeezing, toying, and caressing the mounds of flesh that fascinated him so.

"In that case, I vote February the fourteenth."

"Absolutely not." He pulled away to give her a sour look. "Furthermore, I was merely joking."

"Then let's pick something a tad more reasonable, shall we, husband?"

He tilted his head to the side for a moment, giving her an incomprehensibly scruitinizing look, before he pronounced, "June."

"The day you first kissed me?"

"Indeed."

"Severus Snape, you are a sentimental man!" Hermione teased.

"Where it counts. Now hush." He returned his attention to her body, slipping one leg over her so that he was straddling her, and then began to grind against her core with increasing, unrelenting persistence. "I'd prefer to spend my morning making love rather than considering wedding plans."

Hermione tried to mutter a witty response, but failed, throwing her head back before her voice cracked and gave way to a moan. Her lover—fiance—husband-to-be—gave her a victorious smirk, and took a moment to adjust himself before thrusting into her, letting out his own hissed epithet of appreciation before nudging her into wrapping her legs around his hips. A look of delightful wickedness stole across his face, mingling with the smirk he had worn moments before, as he took hold of her wrists, tugging them to lay on either side of her head, and held them down as he moved.

She moaned and bucked underneath him. Very often, she pushed away thoughts of the Professor Snape she knew from her original timeline, because she felt it was inappropriate to think of a teacher in such a manner. And yet he was fast becoming less her professor and more her lover, and she was able to allow herself to entertain certain notions without repulse, and she did so now as she registered how simply intense was. In her memories, he had a bottled passion for potions, visible self-restraint and discpline, and a dark, intense presence that had made controlling the classroom possible with a motion alone.

He was both intense and dominating. Those were the two words she could best come up with to describe him during their most intimate moments. He was not on such a power trip that he forgot to attend to her needs, but it was clear to her that he thoroughly enjoyed taking charge of their sexual encounters. He had been hesitant to be overt about it, but as time went on, his inclination to hold back on such urges was simply pushed aside in favor of trying them, in seeing how far he could push her, how much she would allow him. Because make no mistake, she was not a witch to be walked over, and he knew this all too well—and yet, somehow, he seemed to realize that it was different for her during sex.

She would certainly never let him decide what to do with her life or make the important decisions that were hers to make in regards to her duties as his handler, but when it came to moments like these it seemed to dawn on him that she enjoyed letting him have his way. That perhaps she even enjoyed provoking him into being just a bit more passionate, in allowing himself to do so.

But this morning, it seemed he was taking his testing of boundaries a few steps farther. With her hands pinned down, he was rendering her physically incapable of stopping him—and when his mouth came to cover hers, drinking in her moans and muffling her cries, he was also leaving her vocally unable to explicitly tell him to stop. He clearly did not expect to be told to stop. And with her held in a rather vulnerable position underneath him, he took her on the sheepskin rug that she had so determinedly talked him into buying.

He took her—no, possessed her—and when he was done, he still refused to let her go, instead rolling her over onto her belly and nibbling on her neck, tugging her hair to the side and curling it around one hand. Hermione had by then resigned herself to the fact that she was certainly not getting up and ready for the day—much less collecting herself a cup of tea—any time soon; that was now the least concern on her mind. She wanted this, and responded with sounds of encouragement, resting her chin on her arms and letting him have complete and pleasurably undisputed access to her body. She let him have his way with her delightfully.

It still amazed her that she fascinated him this much, that he found her so alluring that he simply had to be allowed to explore her. It both amazed her and warmed her deep down, to feel so lovely and appreciated under his gaze. He wanted her constantly and in what seemed to be as many ways as possible, the result of a mixture of his deep-seated love for her and his natural inclination to randiness.

Hermione despised the idea of thinking about another man—or boy, for this matter—while her husband-to-be was lavishing such attention on her, but she couldn't help taking in certain considerations. It had always been expected that she and Ron would at least make a go of things—they had been part of the trio for so long that it would simply have been impossible for them to not have at least tried it out when their hormones kicked in. And yet, she could not possibly imagine him being as considerate, as loving, as passionate as Severus.

He simply was not Severus—he shared very few interests with her, and had a tendency toward selfishness that Hermione did not think she would have tolerated. Severus was selfish, yes, but it was usually in regards to his personal space and his sexual wants—and largely limited to those. Hermione could not only live with them, she loved them, for she required a certain amount of personal space herself and Severus's wants did not push her own aside. Ron was selfish in regards to just about everything—Quidditch, food, and limelight were among the top contenders. He came first for himself, and though he was certainly loyal and a good friend, and often struggled to put others first as well—it was not something Hermione could have lived with. It would have been a fight with them every day, on everything, at every level.

They would have driven each other mad and then mutually arranged to have the other sent to a different ward of St. Mungo's.

Severus was merely driving her mad with lust, at the moment. At this point, she couldn't complain. He was being most thorough.

Their relationship was not an equal one, even if it was still an incongruously balanced one. Hermione was almost entirely in control of their life in professional and pecuniary matters, while Severus took charge of the intimate aspects of their relationship. It was not that Severus was incapable, or that Hermione never took initiative, but rather that Hermione was the better choice for managing their money because she was a person who thrived on keeping top of such organizational duties, and because she enjoyed the way Severus took the more sexual aspects of their relationship. Hermione and Severus were both control freaks—self-admittedly so—and they adjusted to this in different ways; Hermione by allowing Severus control in a situation where she could afford to do so, and Severus by taking control in the one situation where Hermione undisputedly did not have to—and often times, simply did not want to. It was an exchange of power, and though it was arguably unconventional, it not only worked for them, they thrived on it. It was their relationship—all theirs—and what was more, it worked far better than the prospect of dividing everything equally like a line drawn in the sand.

They took charge of what they had to and what they wanted to, and relinquished control in just the same way. Hermione simply, deliciously enjoyed everything Severus did to her, even when a good three-quarters of his attention was focused on self-gratification, and Severus truly did not relish the idea of making sense of bank statements and trying to organize their money for the year.

The only activities independent of this power exchange were their private projects. Hermione had the workroom Severus had gifted her, and Severus had the lab they had set up for him. Both areas were private and off-limits to the other unless they knocked and were explicitly invited in. They were their personal sanctuaries, their retreats, and neither were in charge of the others' individual pursuits. In fact, they largely left each other alone in such things, because they both preferred it that way. Severus did not want Hermione nosing about his potions, and Hermione wanted him going through her private charts and equations even less.

And yet Severus did take almost exclusive charge of their sexual encounters with the attitude of a dominant. He was always pushing her boundaries, something Hermione took great pleasure in—and made certain that he knew it, too—in ways that he had been hesitant to try at the beginning of their relationship.

But there was no Dark Lord hanging over their heads, and they knew each other well enough that Severus had grown bolder—and this morning was one of those instances where he decided to up the ante several notches, flipping her over onto her belly and massaging the curves of her buttocks, contemplating whether or not he ought to smack them.

When Hermione finally did get up that morning to prepare breakfast, it was with a reddened, rosy backside and a satiated, if slightly silly grin on her face.


Please Review!

~Anubis Ankh

Chapter Text

Big thanks goes out to my beta, the amazing SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review.


Term resumed at exactly five that afternoon, as the students proceeded to make their way from the Hogwarts Express to the castle. Hermione and Severus had returned an hour earlier, greeting their fellow colleagues and receiving cheerful, relaxed, even relieved welcomes in kind. Minerva and Pomona had taken a three-week vacation in Majorca which, in Hermione's humble opinion, had done both women a world of good. Dumbledore looked the same as ever, if a little less weary, as evidenced by the colorful decorations he had recruited Filius to assist him in charming around the Great Hall. In turn, Septima Vector remarked to the both of them that they 'looked well.'

Hermione supposed the extended vacation had done a good deal for their well-being. She not only looked it, she felt far more relaxed—and Severus, if that was at all possible, appeared a little less uptight in public. This new visage extended into her teaching the next day, and the days following. Hermione remained just as strict and demanding as ever, but her temper had lessened somewhat, and she was less harsh on the students. She spent the first week trying to find a balance that was efficient and easy to keep without giving the students so much leeway that they would attempt to break down her authority in the classroom.

Severus, however, changed very little. He had favored his Slytherins on the Dark Lord's orders, but now he did it both to remain in favor with Voldemort in the future and because it had become his natural inclination to do so. The other teachers and students treated Slytherins with suspicion, and having been treated very poorly by the other houses as a student himself, Severus was inclined to give them his favor and protection while striving to give the other houses hell. Hermione disagreed with this, given that she knew many of the Slytherins personally while she had been a student personally, and knew what a nasty, odious lot they were. But this was one instance where she left the choice entirely up to Severus; how he wanted to rule his classroom was entirely his choice, and even if she disagreed, she did not put her foot down and use her authority as his Handler to put a stop on it. Hermione rather felt that the other students' suspicion and general dislike of Slytherin house was well-founded, given the majority of them had been smug, supercilious bullies under Voldemort's reign.

She did not believe that Severus was blind to these faults, but was certain that he simply saw something else in them that others did not—could not—see. She couldn't see it, either, whatever it was, but Severus did, and as much as it pained her to do so, she accepted that.

Severus's birthday was spent on the bricked-off balcony over Flourish and Blott's, eating ice cream amidst the swirl of owl feathers and snow. It was also where Severus pressed a silvery round object into her hand—and was then bid to slip it onto her finger—before explaining that if it was still agreeable to her, he would like to go through with their plans to marry on the eleventh of June. He earned a cold but passionate, chocolate-flavored kiss for his efforts, and she in turn received a smug, thoroughly pleased smile of triumph.

In truth, none of the students noticed that their Defense Against the Dark Arts professor—the only one to have lasted more than a single year, mind—was wearing an engagement ring until the beginning of February. Truth to be told, it was not much of a fuss; it was the girls who were the main culprits of passing notes and whispering on the subject during class, and Hermione paid little attention to it other than to confiscate the notes and dock points for their distraction. Their reaction was understandable: they were teenage girls. They were also clearly very curious about who had given her that ring. Nevertheless, by the third day after the first observant student had noticed it, it was not much of a topic of interest.

Everyone was far more taken with the fact that Hogsmeade weekends were to resume, starting the weekend before Valentine's day. Anyone who had permission to attend (and some who didn't) signed up, and due to the exorbitant number of students who were attending, triple the number of chaperones were required. Dumbledore recruited the four Heads of House for the job ("Conscripted," Severus snarked) and found two more volunteers in the form of Professors Vector and Granger.

If Hermione had plans to do a bit of window shopping herself, such notions died a quick, embarrassed death; all of the shops were stocked to the brim, and fit to burst with the number of students packed into each one. Colorful, eye-catching advertisements for Valentine-themed products graced every window, and where the stores had previously had few, sparse supplies due to the lack of customers, their full stocks were quickly depleted.

Hermione knew Severus did not place all that much stock in Valentine's Day; in addition, they did not have money to spend frivolously on every occasion. Anything that was not set aside for bare necessities (they were of the unanimous agreement that Fortescue's ice cream qualified), books, and stocks had been spent on their Christmas gifts. They simply did not have the means to go out and buy an expensive box of chocolates, a bouquet of roses, and a card for each other. The only truly luxurious, expensive thing they had bought was their sheepskin rug, which they put to good use and quite often, and that had been a one-time special occasion. It was a long-term joint gift to each other.

These thoughts did, however, remind her to stop by the now-overcrowded Three Broomsticks to speak to Madam Rosmerta about resuming her part-time job during the summer. The proprietor was pleased to have her return now that the original reason for her leaving was gone, and they agreed that Hermione could work during the school year on Sunday evenings for six galleons a night, and that they would revisit the subject when the semester ended.

Hermione was, however, surprised when halfway through the afternoon, Severus stopped her mid-patrol through the street to slip a dark red rose into her hand.

"I stole it from Pomona's greenhouse earlier," he murmured into her ear. "I believe she noticed the theft, but if she confronts you, deny everything."

Hermione laughed, and kissed him before tucking the rose into her hair, at the base of the chignon so that it looked like a red, layered center of a secondary, shiny brown rose composed of her curls. "You are unbelievable."

He smirked into the kiss, before pulling away and moving to continue his own patrol before the students stopped to notice their two professors. "You already knew that, love."

On the walk back from Hogsmeade, Hermione took Severus aside for a few moments to explain her new arrangement with Madam Rosmerta, lagging behind the others and drawing up the rear for their conversation.

"A little extra income on the weekend wouldn't be a bad idea, I admit," Severus murmured, taking a moment to slip his fingers at the base of her hair to adjust the rose still tucked quite flatteringly in it. "But that leaves me less time to spend with you."

Hermione nodded. "I don't like it either, but it's one day a week, for six hours—and the truth it that we do need all the money we can get. Things will get a little easier without the problems that we had to deal with previously, but money is money, and a little side job couldn't hurt."

"What are you planning on doing for the summer?" Severus inquired silkily.

"Three days a week, for six hours, all in the evening," Hermione stated. He opened his mouth to protest, and she quickly pointed out, "You're usually in your lab during that time, working on your own projects."

"I still like knowing you're around," he muttered, scowling slightly. He turned to give her a considering look. "No—do two days a week, evenings only. I'll see if Slugs and Jiggers is hiring part-time, too. If we're both working at the same time, it shouldn't bother either of us that we're not in the house. And I'd really rather not force you to be the sole breadwinner," he added dryly. "We'll share the burden."

Hermione tilted her head to the side thoughtfully. "It didn't bother me, really, because I know you're planning on marketing a good deal of your research. But I like your idea," she clarified. "It'll make it a lot easier on us both, I think."

"It's a pity that a teacher's salary is so… pitiful," Severus drawled.

"We could always find something to blackmail the Headmaster with," Hermione teased.

"Don't blackmail someone whose power far outstrips your own, my dear," Severus muttered. "Dumbledore's power is so far above us that I would not ever truly contemplate the notion as more than a joke."

"It's a good thing I was joking, then."

"Indeed." Severus snorted. "Although I feel it incumbent to tell you that as far as persuasion methods go, blackmail is a short-term and very risky one."

The topic had gone from teasing to serious, and Hermione latched onto it immediately. "Blackmail is a quick and easy way to convince someone to do something, but you'll always have to watch your back around them because you know they'll forever be trying to find a way to get free of their obligation to you."

"That's what makes Dumbledore a far more effective leader than the Dark Lord," Severus confessed quietly. "The Dark Lord is ever impatient, and understands people very little; his only interest is in immediate control, and he banks on fear and bewitchment to keep them in line."

Hermione understood all too well. It had taken her months to realize this, but Voldemort had been hoping to exert more direct control over her through his bloody, nauseating stunt at Malfoy Manor. "Dumbledore looks for people who he can motivate to help him," she pointed out. "Everyone in the Order all has reasons to want the Dark Lord dead. They might not have been inclined to fight without a bit of pushing from Albus, and you wouldn't have been inclined to spy if he hadn't asked it of you, but no one there doesn't want to be there."

Severus nodded, lip curling in distaste.

"You know," Hermione continued, her tone thoughtful. "In the Muggle world, when people watch movies about spies, you see more dealings with blackmail than in any real motivational persuasion. If you can find what motivates someone, and make them an offer based on it, your job is already half-done because they'll do the rest talking themselves into it."

Severus raised an eyebrow at her. "I suppose that's how the Headmaster recruited you to be my—ah—handler?"

Hermione raised a brow right back at him, the deliberate stress he placed on the last word not lost on her. "I was half-talked into it by him, and did the rest of the job for him by talking myself into it."

"And to this day, we are both unerringly loyal to the Order," Severus muttered, his tone dark with amusement.

"The irony is still killing me that the Dark Lord is using techniques only ever shown to be effective in Muggle action movies—which are almost never accurate in regards to true espionage, I might add— and they're failing," Hermione said, snorting with barely-suppressed laughter.

Severus gave her a tight, curled-lip smile. "Yes, indeed. It is ever more amusing because it suggests he has actually lowered himself to watching Muggle cinema."

Hermione's mind suddenly turned to the Diary that had held, or rather, still held, a part of Voldemort's rotten, fetid soul, the one he had used to take possession of Ginny in her second year. It was a Muggle diary, enchanted though it was. It was a curious piece to add to the twisted puzzle that was Voldemort, and yet, Hermione felt that association between an anti-Muggle psychopath with clear Muggle roots was important.

Her nose twitched in distaste at the subject, and remembering that it was Valentine's Day, she abruptly decided to drop the subject. Tom Riddle would be gone from their lives for at least another ten years. They didn't need to bring the monster up while they were having a temporary respite from him. Hermione daringly slipped her hand into Severus's, holding it loosely for a moment before tightening her grip when she met no resistance. He stopped walking, halting her too, and took a moment to examine her face and seemingly dismiss some less-than-pleasant notions from his mind before bending down to kiss her.

And just like that, they pulled themselves away from their maudlin thoughts, and made the decision to enjoy the present.

~o~O~o~

Hermione began working down at the Three Broomsticks every Sunday afternoon for the rest of the school year. A tiff with Professor Trelawney one morning over a teacup was the extent of any problems in the timeframe preceding exams.

When exams did arrive, it was with the usual expected frantic, last-minute apocalyptical reception that had taken place every single year before it. Every student in their fifth and seventh year was certain that the world was going to end for them, personally, and Madam Pomfrey had her hands full trying to soothe the more overly-distraught students that were inevitably sent to see her.

The weeks flew by with surprising speed, and as soon as exams were over, Severus and Hermione left Hogwarts to return to Spinners End. They did not remain long enough to see the Leaving Feast, because on that very same evening, the two of them were wearing their dress robes— Hermione was wearing the ones Alice and Marlene had given her, after she had placed a temporary charm on them to make them white—and were in Diagon Alley with the few people and the minister they had shanghaied into attending.

It was a quick ceremony, and a small audience. They were right in front of Fortescue's, and the man himself was there with his ice-cream hat in his hands and a smile on his face, standing beside the other three people attending: Moody, still with his pirate-captain like dress robes, alongside Kingsley and Hagrid. There was nothing between Severus and the half-giant, though the two mutually respected each other, but since the incident where Hermione had helped rescue Harry from Godric's Hollow, the two had become fast friends—almost as good friends as they were in Hermione's own timeline. It was something she had tried to avoid for the sake of keeping her timeline intact, but a conversation between the two of them with Dumbledore had straightened it all out.

Mad-Eye Moody had frankly thought she was insane when she informed him a week prior to this day that she was getting married, but had gruffly agreed to attend. Kingsley had been a more cheerful response. Hagrid had nearly shed tears of happiness at the news. Glad that Diagon Alley was almost entirely deserted tonight, so that they had the relative privacy of having their marriage take place among people they considered friends—or at the very least, trustworthy.

The rings had been a generous gift on the Headmaster's part. Hermione and Severus had merely gone to his office to request permission to leave as soon as exams had been concluded, choosing to forewarn the Headmaster just before Easter, and left with more than they had expected to when Albus cheerfully told them that he would cover their payment, as his personal wedding gift to them.

They were both simple and silvery—one was actual silver, the other was white gold—with a set of symbols inscribed on the inside of both bands. The words were private, and were written using the Elder Futhark runic alphabet. Such glyphs were primarily used in Arithmancy, something that Severus and Hermione remembered taking together with fond amusement, and the meanings would not be immediately apparent to any ignorant layperson who happened to get a glimpse of the inscriptions.

It was not just that they had inscribed WunjoGeboEihwazEhwaz, and Kenaz onto their rings. They had over four months to work with them, and an Easter break in its entirety for her to keep the rings in her lab and charm them accordingly, tying the magic to each rune. On the outside, their rings were not particularly extraordinary; but on the inside of the band, and within each rune, Hermione imbued them with the magic, emotions, and meanings she wanted to make their marriage something unique and singularly important between the two of them.

Severus used the Easter break as an opportunity to brew two potions that, when Hermione finally handed the rings over to him, he dipped into them. The first made the rings lose the metallic properties that would cause them to react to other potions, which was necessary for Severus in particular. The second solidified the spells Hermione had cast on them, making them permanent.

Their rings were special and unique to them, gifted by an old friend, and made valuable by the energy and intent they poured into them. Severus added a Notice-Me-Not Charm to his ring, spelling it so that unless someone knew to look for it, their eyes would simply pass over it.

This was something that the two knew they would treasure the Headmaster for, his kind gift to them without insisting on attending what they wanted to be a very quick, low-key affair that was significant only in its sentimentality. The only thing Albus asked in return was that as soon as the honeymoon was over, they would to pay a visit to his office, as he had something important to show them—but it was something that could wait.

As planned, the ceremony itself was short. When the vicar uttered the final words—"You may kiss the bride"—Severus pulled her into a kiss that was deep, passionate, almost affirmative in its manner, yet surprisingly gentle. They nuzzled noses as they parted and then turned, both smiling, to face their witnesses. Ice cream cake, stacked three-layers high though it was only a foot-tall, was served courtesy of Florean Fortescue, and they all sat outside at one of the tables to eat it. It was the simplest wedding ceremony and reception Hermione had ever attended, and it was all hers—and she loved it. There was no pompous crowd, no hundred-fold hands to shake, no loud, raucous hoops to jump through.

They broke apart an hour and a half later, cheerful and happy, and Hermione personally thanked their other three guests while Moody took Severus aside, presumably to warn him to take good care of her. Hermione was not surprised, and frankly, she had no illusions that Severus would be at all intimidated. But Moody still had to have his say, and when Severus finally returned to her side, looking no worse for wear, Hermione hugged the grizzled old Auror in thanks—a feat that had taken years of trust to happen—and then left with her new husband. A single Apparition to Spinner's End, a few moments finagling with a tricky Muggle record player, and the two spent their wedding night dancing in each others' arms. A quiet, private ceremony, followed by a small and friendly reception, and closed with an intimate dance only between the two of them.

It was a far cry from the last time Hermione had listened to a Muggle recorder, which had been accompanied by cheering, stamping, screaming, and shouting. A very far cry from the tune of the Flamingo's much gentler song— I Only Have Eyes For You.

That night, as she turned slowly in her husband's arms, Hermione pushed away any and all thoughts of jealousy she might have ever had toward anyone else—Lily, specifically, setting such notions aside permanently. She and Severus had picked out the songs for tonight together, and she knew. Merlin, she knew. For her husband, for her lover, for her partner, for her Severus, she was the only one—and the same went for her. There was no one else for either of them. It was a simple, solid truth that was gloriously recognized on this night that was extraordinarily special for the both of them.

Their shoes came off first, so that they were circling slowly, their feet finding soothing purchase on the sheepskin rug. They were kicked away, and then Severus turned her around so that her back was to him. Resting his chin on her shoulder, both of them gazing into the flickering coals of the fireplace, he began to take apart the back of her robes, sliding them down her shoulders with care. Hermione returned the favor by silently twisting around to face him, her hands slipping each button of his own robes free, until she could pull them aside to reveal the pale expanse of his chest.

And that was how their dancing proceeded for the rest of the night. One piece at a time, one turn to each, they slowly undressed each other, taking their time to appreciate the sight before them, gently dragging each other down to the sheepskin rug that they so often found pleasure with each other with more often than their own bed. Lips slid across their necks, shoulders, arms, and the curves of their backs in a mutual quest to taste each other, to fully explore and absorb the person they had taken as their partner for life. It was like nothing that they had ever done before, and would probably never do again, and yet they both passed through the moments with lassitude and unhurried movements.

Eventually, as she knew he would, he pressed her down on her back with his weight. One finger slicing through the folds of her labia, smearing her wetness around before bringing his finger to his mouth to taste it, he bent down to nuzzle and lick at her neck before moving on to her lips, sliding them over hers in a kiss that was sensual and passionate, as he rocked himself into her with more gentleness, more care, something that was more explorative and considerably slower than any of their previous encounters had been.

Hermione was not a woman who particularly liked it slow—and Severus was not a man who preferred it that way, either—but for tonight, it was more about connection, about trulyfeeling the other person, than finding immediate, gratifying pleasure. It was about making the night memorable not because he had pounded her into a screaming orgasm, or because she had turned the occasion into a rare one by turning the tables on him and ambushing him with her mouth on his cock, but because they were simply being together. He was in her; she was around him. He felt her just as much as she was aware of him being inside her, on top of her, his hands pinning hers to either side of her head and twining their fingers together. It was about this moment where they were doing something that was utterly unique to them, that was special only in its sentimentality, that they would remember fondly for the singular fact that they were looking into each other's eyes. Sharing this moment.

That they were performing mutual, gentle legilimency on each other in a way that slowly absorbed the slow pleasure the other was experiencing and rebounded it upon itself, where they were taking in the others' thoughts and affectionately responding with their own.

Severus's lips attached themselves to the column of her neck, suckling as he rocked himself in her in a sensual grind, before slipping one hand down to where they were joined—a somewhat awkward move, in this position—to find her clitoris and roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He buried his face in her breasts, his breathing becoming heavier, as he struggled to continue this excruciating pace that was keeping him just barely on edge.

"I love you," he murmured, his voice slightly hoarse, as he continued to thrust in and out of her slowly. "Wife. My wife… it feels good to say it now, knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that it's true…"

Hermione arched underneath him, struggling to keep her eyes open as his fingers—ever talented—caused her to clench and spasm tightly around him in a way that made her feel every inch of the flesh that was thickly embedded in her.

"I… I can't tell you how long I've waited to hear you call me that, and know that it was true, too," Hermione whispered, stroking the back of his hands with her thumbs before reaching up to kiss his forehead. "Or to call you my husband."

"Mmh, good," Severus moaned, his eyes fluttering shut as she deliberately—very deliberately, this time—squeezed herself around him. "Oh, yes…"

They moved against each other with a little more force now, their moves still languid and decisive, their lips sliding against each other as they tasted. A few minutes later, Severus's hips bucked uncontrollably against her, his hands tightening their grip in hers, his face pulling into a grimace of pleasure, as he found release. He softened inside her, but didn't bother to pull out as he leaned over her, one hand still stroking against her clitoris, knowing she was moments away from reaching a small peak of pleasure herself.

"I love you," he told her lowly, his voice deep and sensuous as he bent down so that he could nuzzle her face even as she threw her head back, eyes squeezed tightly with pleasure. "I don't tell you often enough, but I try to make it known to you…"

"I know," Hermione gasped, grinding her hips slightly against him in response. "I know you do—trust me, I know…" he pulled away, slipping out of her, and pulled her to him as she began peppering his face with kisses. "And I love you too. Never forget that."

He shifted until he was lying on his side next to her, holding her in his arms, with more tenderness than he had ever done so before. This was not a suggestion of how the many nights they hoped would follow were expected to go, but this was the one night they had set aside in reserve to be gentle, to be kind, to open up and spill their guts in the privacy of their room, to share everything between the two of them. A moment to make themselves utterly and completely vulnerable to the other in a way that they do with no other.

"I love you."

"I love you…"

"I abhor redundancy," he muttered playfully, nuzzling her breasts.

"I think it's rather appropriate, in this case," Hermione murmured in response, smiling brightly at him as she stroked his hair.

"I will grant this is a special occasion for it."

"Well, so long as you say so…"

The tender moment was over, and they gave way to playfulness instead, nipping and laughing at each other, which eventually turned into tussling on the rug, which somehow ended with Hermione resting on top of Severus, nose-to-nose with him, looking happier than he remembered seeing her in a long time.

"We have the whole night to spend together," she murmured. "A whole uninterrupted night."

He gave her a wicked grin that reminded her so much of the time he had silver-tongued her into helping him sneak out of the castle for his birthday.

"I'm quite certain I know what you're thinking, Severus Snape—"

"Given that you're currently in my head, Mrs. Snape, I'd be rather surprised if you didn't—"

"Unfortunately, I didn't think to buy any whipped cream."

"Sod the whipped cream. We do have strawberries."

"Oh? Perhaps I should go check on that?"

"Please do. And bring some back with you."

"I love you."

"Mmmh, yes."

~o~O~o~

Their uninterrupted night of marital bliss extended into a honeymoon of three weeks, during which time they received several heartfelt gifts from the four people who had attended their wedding ceremony. Hagrid gave them a handkerchief—one that could have classified more as a blanket than a kerchief, according to Severus—that was hand-made, with stitching at the border that was apparently made of unicorn hair, and which Hermione folded neatly and kept at the foot of their bed. A book of advanced house-hold spells from Moody—a surprising gift, to say the least, until Hermione saw the annotation on the first page, warning her against complacency in upkeeping a house, that nearly had her in conniptions with laughter. A practical but lovely set of china from Kingsley, and a note from Florean Fortescue that the next time they stopped by for ice cream, it would be free.

Three days after they resignedly admitted that their three weeks of hedonism were over, they paid the Headmaster a visit, as requested, flooing into his office via invitation, and stepping out of the hearth shaking soot off their shoes.

"Ah, Hermione, Severus," Albus greeted them warmly, clasping his hands together. "Or should I say, the new Mrs. Snape with her husband." Hermione couldn't help grinning at this, but Severus managed to restrain his reaction to a smirk. "I hope you've enjoyed yourselves. Now, for the news you've been waiting for…"

The grin slid off Hermione's face. "Don't tell me you've found a way to send me back to my own timeline."

"Oh, I have," Dumbledore admitted, opening a drawer in his desk to search for something.

Hermione and Severus both stiffened.

"Although sending you 'back' to your own timeline is not quite the correct phrase—there is still no way to move forward in time that we are aware of, and given your recent marriage, I think it would be rather cruel to send you on your way," Dumbledore continued, setting a letter down on the desk. "No, indeed. Not in that manner. But when the year you left arrives, we'll have a way of slotting you back so that you may continue where you left off without anyone being the wiser."

Hermione's mouth opened for a moment, uncertain of what to say, and then shut it. Dumbledore seemed to understand that the two of them were at loss for words, for he slid the letter on his desk over to Hermione for her to peruse.

"My good friend Nicolas Flamel has generously agreed to help de-age you back to your sixteen-year-old self, once your fifth year arrives," Dumbledore explained kindly. "My idea, you see, is that you alone know when and where you will disappear exactly before you are thrown back in time. My advice is for you, as you are now—although with a minor appearance in terms of your age—to step in as soon as your former self disappears."

Comprehension dawned on Hermione—and, judging by the relieved expression of Severus's face, her husband as well. "I'll simply replace the version of me that first got thrown back in time—and then we'll be right back where I started, only I'll be continuing forward rather than going back in time—and without changing the fact that I went back in time, too."

"Precisely, my dear, precisely," Dumbledore said cheerfully.

"That's in nearly fourteen years," Hermione said softly. "That's a long time." She paused. "How am I supposed to go back to looking sixteen?"

"Nicolas Flamel stumbled upon something curious, very curious, on one of his travels," Dumbledore told her calmly. "He has a store of a liquid that is rather legendary, but can only be created under special circumstances— the means by which are nigh-impossible to recreate now. But he possesses a unique object called the Philosopher's Stone, which allows him to place the liquid in the right conditions upon which to be effective."

"Liquid…?" Hermione repeated.

"From what was formerly known as the fabled Fountain of Youth."

Hermione's jaw almost dropped. Severus was staring at the both of them, silently, his expression unreadable except for his eyes, which were flickering between them with a mixture of some undefinable emotions.

"I assume the plan is agreeable to you?" Dumbledore asked genially.

Hermione swallowed.

"Yes, sir."

The Headmaster clasped his hands together. "Excellent! I shall inform Nicholas, then."

Hermione nodded slowly, still trying to process what she had just been told—and what she had just agreed to.

"My god," she said aloud. "The fountain of youth."

"Wizards have spent their whole lives searching for such a thing," Severus murmured.

"Nicolas is over six hundred years old," Dumbledore informed them genially. "He has spent what I suppose translates into several lifetimes looking for it—and I must say he succeeded on the equivalent of a third."

"Is that how he has managed to stop himself from turning into a withered old walnut?" Severus drawled. "Keeping himself young for six-hundred years?"

"Indeed, although they have had to use it sparingly," Dumbledore responded, his tone musing. "Their supply is not unlimited."

At this, Hermione remained silent.

~o~O~o~

Hermione never took her wedding ring off. She kept the engagement ring in a box full of sentimentally significant objects—pictures of Lily, Alice, Marlene, James, Sirius, Remus, with their various letters and well-wishes. The engagement ring had been a promise of marriage, a promise that had been wonderfully, gloriously kept, and had been replaced with the wedding rings that Hermione and her husband had put so much into. It was neither charmed nor fixed in any way to make wearing it useful, and Hermione was not fond of wearing much jewelry, particularly on her hands. She was a small woman; there was no need for her to wear a lot of jewelry. Thus, she kept it safe, but rarely wore it.

The ring that Severus had slipped onto her finger during their ceremony, and had followed through on with a kiss, never left her hand. Not while she was working in her workroom, not while she showered, not while she slept, certainly not while she made love, and not when she was at work.

She had indeed taken a part-time job at Rosmerta's, going two days a week. She and Severus were gone from the house at the same time on Mondays and Wednesdays, spent their lunch breaks together, and the rest of the week in their respective labs or in each others' company. Severus was hitting on some valuable ideas that could turn out to revolutionize a small but nonetheless significant part of the Potions community. Hermione, meanw