A/N: My sincerest apology for the delay! A sincere 'thank you' to all of you lovely readers for being so patient and for all the incredibly beautiful and supportive reviews from the previous chapter. Lots of love to you all & Happy Reading :)


"There I was, way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute, and all of a sudden I didn't care."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

The long night had proven both exhausting and fruitless, as Hermione greeted the dawn from a table in the library, taking notes on magical transference between humans and objects, stifling her fourth yawn in as many minutes. As she scanned the same page once more, she gave a heavy sigh as she realized she hadn't actually read a single word contained therein; her eyes, bloodshot and aching from a lack of sleep, were no longer taking in new information for she was simply too exhausted.

After arriving back at the castle near midnight, Severus and Hermione immediately went to the library, and despite the late hour, delved straight into the arduous task of researching a variety of topics that were new to both of them.

The creation of magical bonds or seals, how said bonds could be broken or compromised, any history of Hogwarts that was not commonly known or published, any tidbit or scrap of information to support the idea that the castle had any kind of magical bond and that this bond could prove problematic to its inhabitants, if damaged.

Their challenging task was made doubly difficult by the decimated state of the beloved library. Although Narcissa and Poppy had made some headway in organizing and recovering some of the books, over half the texts had been burnt, waterlogged or outright destroyed, leaving their avenues of research substantially stunted. Hermione already had a list a foot long full of texts she would need to owl for from foreign magical libraries to help aid their work. And those texts that were viable, were completely out of order, with most usable books stacked haphazardly atop the circulation desk, with the floor length, dusty shelves mostly bare. And thus the tired pair spent the night wading through ruined texts, at candle lit table in the far corner of the darkened, cavernous room.

Hours spent frantically and thoroughly scouring the school library for scraps of useful information, however, resulted in almost no new insight into their worrisome predicament. Any information she could find on magical bonds centered around romantic bonds between people rather than bonds pertaining to objects or structures. And absolutely no information about objects drawing from humans for magical sustenance was to be found. She was slowly coming to realize that the information she needed either wasn't in their library or didn't even exist to begin with.

Hermione hadn't slept in a full day and she truly longed for sleep, desperate for the weightless reprieve it bought, but she fought the urge with what little strength she had left. Her body, aching, sore and close to all-out collapse, might've wanted to quit, but her mind would not hear of it. She needed answers and she needed them yesterday. She couldn't give up, not yet.

The dawn was just starting to break, slowly filling the darkened room with soft, morning light and still she poured over texts, searching, hunting, her mind screaming for answers that simply wouldn't come.

Across the table from her, and hunched over a thick tome of his own, sat Severus. But given his particular posture at the moment, 'lay' would have been a more accurate way of describing him; for sometime deep in the night, his own exhaustion won out and his head slid to a graceless heap atop the text before him, not even waking when his skull hit the desk with a dull 'thud'. The gentle sound of soft snoring soon followed.

She merely chuckled at the sight and continued on with her own work, knowing how precious little sleep he had managed in the last week. Rather than risk waking him by moving him into a more comfortable position, she merely transfigured a pillow and blanket for him from two ruined texts and made him as comfortable as she could before returning to her own work, a silent yet steadfast dedication to her work pulling sharply at her.

As she opened her ninth book on blood seals, she paused a moment to sit up properly and stretch the terrible ache in her lower back, wincing at how tight her muscles felt from sitting so long. As she did so, she noticed the sun, shining in through a tall window, fell upon her sleeping friend just so and cast him in a wave of soft, golden light.

As much as she hated to stop working, even for a moment, she found her longing beat out her zeal for research and she did stop, to simply watch the man she had loved so well and for so long. Foolish as it was to do so, she simply couldn't look away.

He was beautiful when he slept. Hell, she thought him handsome all of the time, but when he slept, it was as if the very best parts of him shone so brightly she could hardly stand to look away and miss even a single moment. Long, dark eyelashes resting against pale cheeks. Full, ruddy lips quirked into a peaceful smile. Delicate hands curled gracefully around a book, and for once, completely at rest.

He looked so thoroughly peaceful and calm that this rare tranquility seemed to fill the air around them and imbue her with an equal sense of calm, although she had no reason to feel as such. And yet, all the frantic thoughts and worries spinning through her mind suddenly quieted as she watched him.

The usual lines that framed his brow and thin lips were gone as his face betrayed a youthful innocence she rarely saw from him. She could almost imagine what he looked like as a child, serious and quiet, to be sure, but also pure and earnest.

He gave a deep sigh of contentment from his sleep and this slight shift caused a thick strand of hair to fall right before his eyes. Without hesitation, she leaned across the cluttered table and gently swept the lock back in place, her fingertips grazing his soft skin as she carefully tucked it behind his ear.

Pulling back to regain her seat, she saw his palm laying open atop the desk. Like a child drawn to a fluttering butterfly, she couldn't stop herself from reaching out to touch it, it looked too delicate and beautiful not to. The palm of his hand was so surprisingly soft and smooth, delicate even, save for the scar that ran the length of his thumb clear to his wrist. Her fingers traced the scar, the warmth there undeniable.

Pushing her luck a bit more, she gently slipped her hand into his, and felt his large hand cup hers, almost instinctively, as he held on surprisingly tight while sound asleep.

Eyeing their hands entwined, she felt a lightening in her chest, one that made her breath seize with surprise, although it really shouldn't have.

She let a true smile spread across her face at the sight as she carefully rubbed her thumb across his fingers. With the library perfectly empty and blissfully silent, she lingered in the moment as long as she dared, the beautiful quietude surrounding them in a world all their own.

Of all the silly, schoolgirl fantasies of him she had nursed over the years, this moment, him just holding her hand, this left her breathless. Where their hands met felt like a slow crackling fire, traveling through her whole body, both achingly slow and yet somehow racing at top speed. Her exhaustion, her ansxity suddenly didn't seem quite so sharp. If anything, she felt the stress and pressure of their mounting concerns lessen somehow and seem more manageable, a gentle sense of peace filling her as her eyes swept across his pale, luminous face. Just being near him felt like healing, in and of itself.

How he held her the previous night, how he touched her now, even deep in his sleep, she knew.

She knew, with absolute certainty, that he did indeed care for her.

Her affection for him clearly wasn't one-sided, as she had so thoroughly convinced herself. He tried to hide it, just as she did, probably for the exact same reason as she did, too; out of fear, insecurity and self-doubt. But she knew, that what she felt wasn't such a silly notion, that in some shape or form, he too, cared for her. And that maybe, if given time, the tenderness and concern he showed for her could grow and blossom into something true and genuine for him. Maybe one day he could truly love her, just as she loved him.

That thought alone gave her not only hope for her heart, but hope for the castle as well. For nothing sowed and grown with love could be broken beyond repair, love would always be the answer.

His brow furrowed then and he stretched slightly, just beginning to stir from his slumber. Feeling buoyed, both in mind and body, she gently squeezed his hand before pulling it away, picking up her quill and resuming her notes, schooling her features to hide the hope that dwelled and burned so brightly in her chest.

His eyes slowly fluttered open and a look of confusion crossed his face as he glanced down at his hand, he could've sworn he was holding something just a moment ago.

The curious absence caused him to look up suddenly, his eyes taking a moment to focus upon his rather peculiar surroundings.

He found himself in the library, slumped forward in a reading chair at a long table full of opened books, the cheery sunshine and smell of charred and mildewy books assaulting his weary senses. Another oddity were the tartan blanket covering his back and thick pillow tucked beneath his head, making his odd choice of a bed if not comfortable, at least tolerable. He smiled inwardly at how thoughtful the young woman who sat across from him could be. Looking up he finally saw her, and in truth, he was hard-pressed to think of a more beautiful vision to awaken to.

She smiled at him and for a moment he forgot to breathe, his eyes caught on how her hair, tumbling loose from her bun in soft tendrils, fell just so. The morning light pouring in through a window behind her cast her in the softest shades of buttery and bright lemon light and surrounded her with a glorious glow that felt so very befitting, as if she were the sun and effortlessly lit the whole world around her. She looked just like an angel he had once seen on a prayer book when he was a child; warm, lovely, golden, the very essence of light.

She momentarily halted her writing to gaze at him, the smile on her face genuine as it spread to her warm, honey-colored eyes.

"Good morning," she quietly murmured, as she bowed her head once more, resuming her notes, a small smile pulling at her lips.

"Good morning," he replied, sitting up and wincing slightly at the bright, cheery sun.

"How long have I been asleep?" he asked, rubbing at a slight kink in his neck.

"About four hours now," she responded without looking up.

He sighed deeply as he rubbed at the bridge of his nose, feeling a bit exposed and awkward at having fallen asleep in front of her.

"My apologies," he offered, his voice heavy and deeply soft from the sleep. "I don't even remember falling asleep. I did not intend to leave you with so much work."

"It's quiet alright," she answered, chuckling lightly at the cowlick that had formed on the side of his head where he had slept. "You were clearly exhausted, you needed the rest. You've been running on empty for days now."

"Well, thank you," he offered sincerely, blushing slightly, "for allowing me to rest and for the blanket and pillow, it was unnecessary."

"How many things have you done for me that were unnecessary?" she asked, her eyes never straying from her book. "Besides which, it was nothing."

"It's not nothing," he countered, looking at her intently, "thank you for taking care of me," he said sincerely. "You seem to be making a curious habit of it," he smirked.

"Well then, I suppose I'm taking after you," she quipped, smiling at him at she reached for another book.

His heart seized at the way she looked at him, so warm and happy to be in his company, something he was so unaccustomed to experiencing.

"You look tired," he noted with some worry creeping into his usually smooth voice, "did you manage any sleep at all?"

"No," she shook her head, the darkened circles beneath her eyes telling him as such. "I couldn't, my mind wouldn't shut off."

"Did you find anything?" he asked, motioning to the tall stack of books to her right and the long list of carefully-written notes before her.

She pursed her lips slightly, the smile fading fast at the mention of her research and she shook her head sadly.

"Nothing of note. Even if every text here were organized and in useable condition, I doubt we could find the information we need," she admitted, scanning the decimated library with an equal mixture of sadness and frustration.

"Very well," he conceded, standing from his seat and scanning his own notes with a critical eye. "We'll research more later," he announced. "For now, although we have little concrete information, we should inform Minerva of our visit with Firenze. She'll no doubt be dismissive, but she deserves to know where we stand."

Hermione gave a single nod as she stood and folded her notes. As they began stacking their books, a loud bang came from the front of the library, as the heavy doors flew open and cracked against the wall, pounding footsteps quickly following.

"Severus!? Hermione?! Are you in here!?" Sirius yelled as he burst into the cavernous room, out of breath and drenched in sweat.

"We're back here!" yelled Severus, looking alarmed as the pure-blood appeared before them, his face painted with a panicked expression.

"Oh, thank Merlin I found you two, come quick! It's Minerva! She fainted at breakfast," Sirius blurted out.

Hermione's stomach immediately dropped at his words, a sickening thud of worry working its way through her body.

"But…how? What exactly happened?" Hermione asked, trying to get Sirius to slow down but he seemed far too distraught to do so.

"I-I don't know," he uttered, "they're headed to the infirmary now, we need to go!" Sirius barked as he turned back for the door, not even breaking his run to wait for them.

Sharing wide-eyed worry for but a second, Severus and Hermione rushed out into the corridor to catch up with Sirius, their collective feet carrying them once more towards injury as a silent yet steady thrum of unease settle into their hearts.

~~~0000~~~

"Poppy, what's happened!?" Hermione shouted as the breathless group pushed through the heavy infirmary doors a few hurried minutes later.

They were met by the sight of both Neville and Draco, sweaty and breathing hard, having just arrived themselves, as they both helped carry a rather irate-looking Minerva, towards the nearest bed. Remus and Harry were just behind them, speaking softly to one another, both sharing a look of distress.

"Put me down this instant, do you hear me?!" Minerva barked as Neville and Draco, flanked on either side of the headmistress, gently set her down atop an empty bed.

"I told you I could walk!" Minerva snapped at the young men, who both looked on sheepishly. But for all her ire, it was a rather unconvincing performance, for her face was covered in sweat and her chest heaving from exertion although she hadn't walked an inch.

"Pomfrey told us to, besides...we were just trying to help, ma'am," Draco countered, looking both annoyed and concerned as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

"She's overreacting, as usual," scowled Minerva, trying to sound commanding but her voice caught as a terrible coughing fit shook her fragile frame.

"Like hell I am!" Poppy snapped, as she appeared from her office and bustled to her lover's bedside, with vials and potions in-hand, a frantic look on her tired face.

Glaring angrily at her lover, Poppy began assessing Minerva, her wand gliding across her weakened body, her frown growing tighter the longer she worked.

"Is someone going to tell us what happened?" Hermione frantically whispered, as Draco and Neville joined Sirius, Remus, Severus, Harry and herself off to the side.

"She fainted at breakfast," Harry softly replied, eyeing the headmistress sadly.

"She was out cold for a few minutes, when she finally did come around she couldn't even stand she was so weak. So we carried her here," Neville added as he nodded at Draco.

"Although she did mange to put up quite the fight," whispered Draco who rubbed at a bright red scratch mark that ran down the length of his long, pale neck.

"I can hear you!" snapped Minerva from across the room. "And I didn't faint! I was just slightly dizzy," she insisted, her body shaking slightly.

"You passed out cold!" hissed Poppy, her mouth set in a tight line.

"It's the exhaustion. I just need a bit more strengthening potion," Minerva grumbled, looking pale and worn out.

"Don't you dare start on me with that exhaustion nonsense!" Poppy yelled, slamming her wand down upon the bedside table. "We both know that you've been quite ill and it's not getting any better…something is wrong!" wailed Poppy, her temper finally flaring as she glared at Minerva.

"You're overreacting…again!" yelled Minerva.

"I don't think she is, Minerva," Hermione gently replied, stepping forward.

"What do you mean?!" Minerva snapped, eyeing Hermione sharply, turning her anger upon her.

"Hermione and I visited Firenze last night in the forest," Severus interjected, hoping to draw the headmistress' wrath away from the young Gryffindor, "and he gave us several reasons to believe that what we are all experiencing isn't simple exhaustion, that some other force might be at work here, pulling from our own magic."

"What proof of this did he offer?" Minerva demanded, looking highly critical and aggrieved.

"For one, he and the other centaurs have noticed a magical pull from the area surrounding castle, so much so that they retreated far into the forest to preserve their own magical essence," Severus began.

"And he also gave a reading of the stars. From what he could decipher, it would seem that a powerful bond of some kind has been broken, he foretold of great destruction and chaos as a result of this. Give our current situation, we believe this is related to the school," Severus offered, at which Minerva audibly scoffed.

"Oh, a reading of the stars, why didn't you say so? You sound as barmy as Sybil now," Minerva retorted as Poppy began plying her with potions.

"From what he suggested," Severus pressed on, choosing to ignore her vitriol, "we believe this destruction he spoke of, the magical pull the Centaurs have experienced and our own weakness is somehow related to this broken bond."

Minerva narrowed her eyes in confusion and redolent irritation.

"What exactly are you suggesting?" she demanded, her voice clipped and accusatory.

"We believe this broken bond pertains to castle itself and has been siphoning our magical energy, thus weakening us all," Hermione added, trying her best to hold her ground against her formidable mentor.

"You're trying to tell me that the castle itself is somehow pulling from our magic?" Minerva asked in disbelief as the others stood in perfect silence around her bed, grappling with the worrisome development.

"In a manner of speaking….yes," Severus carefully answered, holding his gaze steady against her incredulous look.

"Honestly, Severus…you believe this nonsense? From you of all people," Minerva tutted disapprovingly.

"Everyone's health has been improving since being evaluated, the healing potion is working, we're making genuine headway around the castle. This is utter rubbish, what proof do you even have that a bond exists in the first place?" she angrily demanded.

"We've been researching all night and we don't have much information to support this notion of a seal or a bond just yet…but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist," piped up Hermione, standing right next to Severus.

"We just need a bit more time to research…we just need more information. I'm certain we will find it," Hermione tried but Minerva, stubborn as ever, angrily shook her head.

"You have no proof for this alleged bond and even if it does exist, no way of identifying such a thing and no evidence to suggest it could draw from of our magic. This is complete nonsense and a waste of time!" Minerva yelled.

"Why are you so sure we're wrong?" Severus challenged, eyeing her sharply.

At this, Minerva closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, trying to summon some much-needed strength and patience.

"I can't afford to waste time on this and go looking for trouble where none exists," she finally answered, looking completely exhausted by both her physical state and the current conversation. Her eyes suddenly filled with angry tears.

"The board is breathing down my neck, along with the Minister, the blood-thirsty press, and worried parents! All of them owling me day and night, demanding to know when the school will reopen. Add to that no substantive budget for renovations, an angry and exhausted faculty…I don't have time for this!" she wailed, the tears finally spilling down her cheeks and her head falling back against her pillow.

Sighing deeply, Poppy sat down beside her then, taking her hand in her own, the anger that had previously painted face now replaced with concern.

Severus looked around at the assembled group, all spent and unsure, frightened even, and he knew that panicking would do them no good.

"Then let's not waste time," countered Severus, looking firm and resolute.

"I know one source that could prove useful, and I, for one, am done waiting for answers," Severus announced as he turned from the anguished group and strode once more to stand beneath Albus' portrait above the floo.

Tapping his wand sharply against the wooden frame, he angrily called out, "Albus, you enter this portrait right this instant, you coward!"

The portrait of the plush wingback sat vacant and Severus glared at it but a moment before magically summoning a small ball of fire within his open palm.

"Severus! What are you doing?!" gasped Sirius, as the small group, equally perplexed, watched on in alarm.

Severus merely held the flame up to the corner of the portrait, the look on his face falling somewhere between determined and enraged.

"Albus, I'll burn every damn portrait in this castle, starting with yours, if you don't come and speak to us right fucking now!" Severus roared.

When Albus failed to immediately materialize, Severus merely narrowed his gaze and held the ball of dancing, magical flames close enough to the edge of the frame to catch fire, the corner of the canvas immediately curling and turning black.

"Uncle, you'll burn the whole place down!" Draco yelled, watching the spectacle wide-eyed with the rest of them but Severus merely stood before the portrait calmly and watched, knowing he wouldn't have to wait long.

A moment later, Albus rushed into the frame, taking care to first extinguish the growing flame at the bottom edge of the canvas by vigorously stamping out the flames with his silk slippers. The fire extinguished, Albus then seated himself in the leather wingback chair, smiling and adjusting his spectacles as he sat down, insouciant as ever.

"Ah, Severus," Albus intoned genially, "still have a flare for the dramatic, I see. Well, regardless of the circumstance, it's lovely as always to see you. To what do I owe this particular pleasure?"

Severus wordlessly vanished the flame in his palm and glared at his old friend.

"What do you know, Albus?" Severus pointedly asked, his arms crossed and his gaze unforgiving.

"Many things, my dear boy," Albus smiled, his eyes twinkling with mirth which only enraged Severus further.

"Albus, don't play games with me," Severus bit out, "we are all magically weakened, do you know anything that could be causing this?"

His genial smile faltered at this, and the twinkle momentarily faded as he looked down to adjust his regal blue robes rather than answer right away.

"I have a suspicion, but I am reticent to share it," he reluctantly admitted.

"If we're in danger, Albus, you need to tell us," Severus answered, his gaze piercing and resolute.

A heavy sigh escaped Albus' lips before shifting his gaze. "I fear that…the bond has been broken," he answered finally, his face taking on the rare appearance of seriousness.

Severus' head quickly turned and caught Hermione's shocked gaze across the room.

"Firenze offered us a reading the stars…he mentioned that a bond had been broken…those were his his exact words. So a bond does exist? What exactly is this bond?" Hermione asked, her voice betraying her growing sense of worry as she crossed the room to stand below the portrait.

"Yes, a bond does exist," nodded Albus, "and from my limited understanding, it's purpose is twofold. It first and foremost acts as a physical seal and protects the structure of the castle from harm and destruction. As you know, this building has stood for well over a thousand years and until recently has withstood that test of time with ease. It's secondary purpose is to act as a magical seal, so to speak, to contain and hold all the magic of the entire castle itself, much the same way a simple spell would, although on a much grander scale."

"And this is different from the wards that surround Hogwarts?" Harry asked.

"Yes, quite different," Albus responded. "The wards are like any commonly used spell, created by whomever currently runs the school to protect against unwanted visitors and curious muggles. But the bond of which I speak, it is the original seal that was created when the school was built, or at least, soon thereafter."

"Who created this bond?" Remus asked.

"It was created by one or perhaps even all of the founders, we aren't entirely sure," Albus answered.

Hermione frowned at this. "Magic that old and powerful can't be self-sustaining."

"It isn't. The bond is sustained and contained within an object housed here at the castle," Albus replied.

"What object?" asked Severus, the whole room deathly quiet as they listened with rapt attention.

Albus paused, frowning.

"That, I do not know, neither does anyone else," Albus answered. "The object was never identified, it was considered safer to not know the specific item in case the information were to fall into the wrong hands."

"A single item to hold this castle together? It could be anything! How can none of you know!?" Draco demanded, looking every bit as enraged as his godfather.

"This is not a willful ignorance, Mr. Malfoy, the founders chose to purposefully keep this object a secret. Believe me, knowing exactly what this object was would've made all of our lives much easier, I can assure you," Albus replied, his tone sharpening ever so slightly.

"Forgive us our impertinence, but it's not as if this is your first foray into willfully hoodwinking people, now is it, Albus?" Severus asked, his voice dripping with the same undisguised contempt as his godson's.

Ignoring the barb, Albus continued on, "I have conferred with the other headmasters and while we can not be sure this bond is related to your declining health, it is something you should look into."

"Should this bond be compromised, what will happen to the castle? Will it actually draw from our own magic to try and sustain itself?" Hermione asked, her heart pounding in her chest.

"It's possible, yes," Albus conceded, "magical siphoning from the nearest source, in this case, the inhabitants of the castle is possible. I must confess, we know so precious little about this bond, the total ramifications of its damage could vary and we have no way of knowing. It may begin and end with mild magical siphoning or it may cause outright collapse of the castle, or somewhere in between. Not having much information on the bond itself, we really can't know for sure what damage it will cause," Albus answered.

"Why have we never heard of this before and why exactly do you know about it?" Sirius interjected, his arms crossed tight.

Albus paused a moment, his cool countenance giving way to unease.

"All the headmasters and mistresses have known of its existence," Albus finally replied.

"I was never told," Severus interjected, his voice laced with venom and black eyes hard as he turned his accusatory gaze to Albus.

"Nor I," piped up Minerva, her voice brittle and full of hurt as the gravity of the situation slowly dawned upon her.

"Why weren't we informed?" Severus demanded, his mouth shut tight as anger bloomed hot in his jet-black eyes, narrowly pointed at his old predecessor.

Albus sighed and nodded gravely, seemingly prepared for this particular accusation.

"I purposefully chose to keep this to myself," he began. "We were in the middle of a war and I did not want to burden either of you with this information," he said eyeing Severus and Minerva with concern. "Should the need have arisen, I would've informed you."

"As in right now?!" Severus shouted, the sound reverberating around the quiet room.

"I should've mentioned it earlier, I simply did not think it was pertinent," Albus replied, a look of misgiving and guilt lining his face.

"You calculating son of a bitch. I've always given you the benefit of the doubt and time and time again you've disappointed me!" Severus shouted, banging his fist upon the wooden mantle and looking into the fire-filled hearth with disgust.

"I'm telling you now," Albus softly replied.

"But why wait?!" Severus demand. "Why didn't you mention this sooner? Hermione could've died the other day! We could've taken precautions, people could've been warned! You should've told me before you died!"

"My dear boy, what good would it have done?" Albus asked calmly. "You protected the castle to the best of your ability during a terrifying time. What else could you have done? Would it have been a help to you to know that a single object, one that was a mystery to you, held the castle's safety? That small piece of vague information would've helped you somehow? Or would it have just added to your considerable stress this past year?"

"What if Tom had heard whispers of such an item? He would've no doubt tortured you until you revealed it. Is that how you would've liked to die?" Albus angrily demanded.

Severus looked away rather than answer, his fists balled at his side, his expression stark and cold.

"I was trying to spare you the weight of keeping yet one more secret," he offered more softly. "One that could've cost you your life."

"How touching," Severus acidly replied. "You actually caring about whether I lived or died….I guess there's a first time for everything."

Albus gave a heavy sigh at this.

"I don't expect you to forgive my secretiveness but never doubt my intentions, Severus. I kept it a secret to protect you," Albus finished, his eyes suddenly filled with tears, he pointedly looked away.

"I don't give a damn about your intentions! We're in danger, you old fool!" Severus spat as he turned away from the mantle and walked to the nearest window, eyeing the destroyed grounds below rather than face Albus and show just how truly disappointed he was.

Sensing the growing tide of tension, Remus stepped forward and said, "Pointing fingers will do us little good now. What's done is done, we can't go back, only move forward."

"We now know the bond exists," he continued when no one objected, "and given the information we have from Albus and Firenze, it could potentially be broken or damaged and thus causing our weakness. We need to find thing and if it's compromised, fixed it," he offered succinctly.

"He's right," added Minerva who now was siting up in bed and looking, if not well at least no longer on the verge of passing out. "We'll find a way to fix this."

"The castle is still standing and we're all still mostly functional, this leads me to believe the object was only damaged or compromised in some way, rather than destroyed outright," Hermione offered, fighting against her own panic with reason.

"That seems an astute observation," Albus replied trying to offer some help.

"But how are we going to find it? In a castle this size, it could be any damn thing," pointed out Sirius who looked not a small bit concerned.

"It will be old since it would've been created by the founders. Could it have been one of the horcruxes? The diadem, the sword or locket?" Hermione speculated.

"I do not believe so," replied Remus, beginning to pace before Albus' portrait, his mind turning over the myriad possibilities. "Those articles were too well known …something tells me it would an item that isn't as well known or commonly associated with the founders."

"So we need to find the item and somehow restore the magical seal? And then the building will stop drawing from our energy?" Draco asked, looking unsure.

"But….how do you suppose we accomplish this?" asked Poppy.

"We'll begin searching immediately," Minerva said, the shock and fragility lessening in her voice as she fought hard to regain her composure.

"All right, we'll spread out and look but how will we know when we've found it?" Neville asked.

"Well…and granted I'm only speculating here, but the object would no doubt produce a strong magical pull, no?" Hermione postulated, her mind spinning with possibilities.

"Similar to a horcrux, when you touch it or even be near it, you'll feel it and know. It will also be damaged in some way," replied Hermione, gaining a stronger sense of purpose and clarity the longer she thought about it.

"Alright, spread out and begin searching," Minerva commanded from her bed. "Any object with a substantial magical pull, make a note of it and report back. Should you feel weakened by the object, do not attempt to touch or transport the object."

"Won't it also be broken somehow?" asked Harry.

"Most likely yes, but the damage might not manifest itself physically. So even if an object looks intact, don't discount it, it could have internal, magical damage," Hermione pointed out.

Given a new purpose and pressing task, the small group began making for the door, eager to begin the hunt for the unknown object.

"Wait," called Minerva, before anyone could leave.

Standing up with help from Poppy and leaning heavily upon her cane, her eyes swept across the room a long beat before she spoke.

"I know I've been…reluctant to accept this, and for that I ask your forgiveness. It seems that you've all been correct," she conceded, looking both ashamed and contrite.

"I'm sorry I doubted you…you especially, Severus. I was foolish to turn a deaf ear to your valid concerns," she offered but Severus didn't even turn at her words.

Sighing, she continued on. "For the sake of everyone's safety, I must ask that we keep this new development to ourselves and not tell the rest of the faculty until the object has been found and any potential danger directly identified."

At this, Severus finally turned away from the window and glared at Minerva, his eyes wide with shock.

"Minerva, you must tell the staff now," Severus retorted, no longer bothering to mask his rage and disbelief.

"Not yet," she firmly stated. "You will all search and find this object. Once we've identified it and discerned whether or not it can be fixed, then I shall tell them…but not a moment before. I can't have them panicking and running off to the press with this."

Harry, Sirius, Neville, Remus and Draco all shared the same incredulous look but didn't dare challenge her. Severus, however, had no such qualms.

"But if this is all true and they find out after the fact that the castle has been siphoning their magical energy…Minerva, think of how betrayed they'll feel? They must be told, now," Severus tried to reason.

"Severus, just…please," Minerva practically begged, a hint of panic creeping into her voice and her eyes betraying the same fear. "Search today and try and find whatever you can. Will you do that for me? Just give me a day or two to figure out how I'm supposed to handle this. And I promise, I will tell them... when the time is right."

All eyes were on him, waiting to follow his lead. Watching their expectant gaze, Severus knew fighting would only make matters worse and the last thing they needed was more conflict, not with what they were all facing. He merely sighed and have a curt nod.

"As you wish, headmistress," Severus dutifully complied, but his face betrayed his disappointment as he turned and stared out the window once more.

Eyeing his rigid posture, his slight frown and the coldness that now tainted his dark eyes, Hermione knew Severus was grappling with something stronger than worry and concern. And so, she stepped forward and helped quickly dispatch pairs to different areas of the castle to begin their covert search.

As everyone quickly left and split up to cover as much ground as possible in the search for the illusive and mysterious object, Poppy assisted Minerva back to her quarters, the pair slowly hobbling away.

The infirmary was once more empty, save for Hermione and Severus, who still stood rooted beside the window sill, and Albus, who watched Severus with a quiet, mournful look.

"Severus," Albus called out when he finally stood from his seat, his presence clearly no longer wanted or needed, "I am sorry, you know. I never meant to hurt you."

Severus didn't even turn at the words, but merely stared out the window, straight ahead, as if he hadn't heard anything at all.

Albus sighed and gave a small, polite nod to Hermione and then walked out of the frame.

Severus sighed at this and bowed his head, letting his shoulders finally sag ever so slightly.

Alone once more with him, Hermione crossed the small space and came to stand beside him. She quietly waited, eyeing the same decimated grounds below that seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see.

"It's quite horrible when the people we love the most disappoint us," she finally uttered, her voice soft and redolent with sadness.

"Yes…it certainly is," he quietly admitted.

After several long, quiet beats, Hermione sighed. "We should really get going. We've got a lot of ground to cover."

But Severus stood, seemingly unmovable.

"What if we can't find this object?" he finally asked, eyeing the deserted grounds below, his voice sounding so small, fragile even. "What if this truly is impossible?"

She didn't answer right away but rather silently slipped her hand into his, boldly holding on as tight and as close as she could manage until he finally peeled his sullen eyes from the courtyard below to meet her kind gaze.

"We will find this object, whatever it might be and we will fix this….you have done the impossible more times than I can count, why should this be any different?" she asked sincerely.

"What if I can't? What if I'm all out of magic tricks?" he replied, his heart and soul so very tired from putting up a fight.

"Who says you have to do it all? I'm here, we're all here. You're not alone, it's not like before. The fate of this school does not rest solely upon you," she noted, squeezing his hand tight.

"Funny how it feels that way," he noted, his shoulders sagging even more with the heavy weight of impossible responsibilities resting atop his weary frame.

"Nothing is broken that can not be made right. Trust me, we will find a way…together we will," she adamantly declared.

Her faith and trust in him, her belief that they could somehow solve this, was positively breathtaking.

He wasn't entirely sure what part of him believed her words, but some part of him must have because before he could register an objection he found himself offering a reluctant nod as he straightened up and together, they made for the door.

As they left the infirmary, he still clutched her hand. Drawing a deep breath, he squeezed it tight, not daring to let it slip away this time and together, the pair set off toward the eastern wing, her trust and belief in him giving him the strength and courage he so desperately needed to carry on.

~~~0000~~~

The long day had proven exhausting and fruitless as Severus sat down heavily in his desk chair in his private study with a weary sigh.

Although the small group had spent hours scouring countless rooms throughout the castle, not a single object was uncovered that seemed to possess an inordinate amount of magical energy. Countless broken objects, to be certain, but not the one they needed.

After a quick and mostly quiet dinner, everyone disbanded for the evening, with Harry heading back to the Burrow, Draco and Neville quietly discussing the day's events with Luna, and Remus and Sirius leaving earlier than usual for Grimmauld Place, the pair unusually withdrawn, even cold to one another, as they left via the old floo.

Minerva and Poppy had abstained from dinner in the kitchen which only seemed to add to the heavy cloud of worry that hung among those searching for the mysterious object and an acute, if unspoken suspicion, among the rest of the faculty as to the true nature of why Minerva had fainted. Tensions were running higher than usual which only added to Severus' tremendous sense of duty and responsibility.

Eyeing the hefty stack of books that now sat atop his desk, that had been delivered by Winky earlier in the evening, Severus silently wondered how in hell they were ever going to find a solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem.

Hermione was seated across from him on his worn leather couch as each dove head-long into more obscure texts from the library, each quiet and focused and desperately looking for a clue to help them.

His nose buried in a book for several hours, it was well past midnight when the peculiar sensation of perfect silence caught his attention. He glanced over at his couch to see his young friend had fallen asleep. A book on advanced magical infrastructure creation draped across her small lap. Her head resting against the seatback, her chest gently rising and falling with each relaxed breath.

He gazed at her for Merlin only knows how long, staring openly at her, as he was wont to do as of late.

Her pouted lips. Her lovely, pale skin, sprinkled liberally with freckles. Her wild, untamable hair.

He stood quietly from his chair and walked toward her. He carefully seated himself atop his coffee table so he might be closer to her without disturbing her.

Watching her finally rest, finally stop moving and worrying and being so damn strong for every single person around her, he felt the sharp ache of worry in the pit of his stomach dull slightly.

And that's when it hit him, hard as a smack to the mouth, as hard and as harsh as truth can possibly be.

Despite all the worry and uncertainty, beneath the crushing sense of duty and responsibilities, he felt the most peculiar serenity.

He couldn't be sure, due to the fact he had so rarely experienced it, but he could've sworn he actually felt….love.

Genuine, steadfast, unwavering love. And he immediately knew that this woman asleep before him was both the source and recipient of this unusual feeling.

She made him feel this strange joy, this weightlessness, this strength of heart.

Her…of all people.

The insufferable, know-it-all, princess of Gryffindor. She was the piece that had been missing from his life, the one person who could accept him and welcome him, just as he was, without pretense or self-interest.

Right here and right now, he felt that joy and peace. Had felt it for weeks, in fact, had he been paying any attention. He felt content to brew beside her, at peace to read with her, happy to watch her sleep now. This is what was different, this lightness that had emerged deep within him, she was the source of this peculiarity as sure as the sun caused the flowers to grow and bloom.

Lily's words rung again in his mind and he nearly gasped from the shock of it.

Happiness awaits you but you must choose it when it comes.

Noting the late hour, he acted out of instincts and this one was telling him, urging him, screaming at him, with every ounce of his soul, to take care of her, in any and every way he knew how. Somehow he knew that this true, young, beautiful soul was the key to the part of him that had been locked away for so long. But now the question was, could be brave enough and wise enough to not let her slip away? Could he chose this happiness even though he didn't truly deserve it?

Let her in, he thought…she's already found a way.

He sighed deeply, knowing that his own inner self was right, as usual, and thus there was no point in arguing any longer against his own heart.

He reached forward then and pulled the heavy book from her lap and set it aside. He then stood and reached down to gently tuck his arms beneath her legs and snaking around her waist as he gingerly picked her up, cradling her sleeping form tight and protectively against his strong chest.

She felt the sudden movement and the act caused her to awaken ever so slightly to find herself being carried.

"What's happening? What are you doing?" she quietly murmured against his chest, her eyes still closed.

"Putting you to bed," he uttered softly against her hair.

"No…I must work," she muttered.

"No, you must sleep," he gently countered.

"I can sleep on…on the couch," she sleepily replied.

"No need. I have bed," he replied as he carried her down the narrow hallway that lead to his bedroom.

"No, no," she meekly protested, "you need your bed, I'll go," she offered as she fought to open her eyes, the sleep there so impossibly thick.

He merely smiled as she gave up just as quickly as she began and finally settled against him, her arms snaking around his neck as a deep contented sigh passed her beautiful, full lips.

She felt perfect in his arms, as if it were the only place in the whole world she belonged.

He entered his room and in several strides, reached the bed. He gently lowered her onto the mattress, a small frown passing her lips as he removed his arms from underneath her.

As she closed her eyes once more, he gently untied her red, worn sneakers and pulled each from her tired feet, setting them on the floor.

"Here, all settled," he whispered as she snuggled against the black satin pillow, his pillow. She breathed in his scent, ink and herbs, lemon and juniper and felt a wave of serenity wash over her, his lovely scent pulling her further into the comforting depths of sleep.

He shut off the small lamp atop his bedside table and turned around to see her, smiling at the way she snuggled deeper into his bed, looking quite at home.

He reached down and carefully pulled the emerald green duvet up to cover her.

As his hands tucked the blanket around her, her hand slowly reached forward and clasped his.

She opened her eyes slowly then and he knelt beside her. Holding his hand, she eyed him a long moment before speaking.

"Where will you sleep?" she asked, her eyes shining a burnt amber as the flames from the hearth danced within them.

"The couch…of course," he replied, blushing at her concern.

Her face crinkled then, worry passing across her tired, beautiful eyes.

His face only a few inches from hers, she was silent a long moment, watching him, holding his hand so tenderly. All the coldness, the fear she had grown so accustomed to pressed upon her in that moment, urging her to find a way, a way to her own happiness. As this incredible man knelt before her, wanting nothing more than to please her, she realized that all she wanted was his warm hand to stay nestled against hers, to push all the worry away. All she wanted was him. If only she could be brave enough to tell him.

"Is everything alright? Do you need something?" he softly asked.

"Yes," she breathed, drinking in his stunning eyes. "I need you. Stay with me...please," she whispered.

Her words stunned him although he tried his best not to show it. He swallowed hard at the look she gave him, one full of longing and genuine need. A look that no one had ever once given him.

He knew he shouldn't, it was wrong and inappropriate in a thousand different ways. But he couldn't find it in himself to refuse her. And truthfully he didn't even want to.

He gave a simple nod as he reluctantly released her hand and straightened up. He walked to the hearth and magically lowered the fire to a gentle crackle, darkening the room save for a soft orange glow. He then walked to the other side of the bed and carefully kicked off his boots, his heart thundering in his ears at the thought of laying next to her.

She was silent and watching his every movement. He could feel her eyes upon him.

Drawing a deep breath, he summoned his courage and turned to face her, she offered a warm smile in return.

The sight of her, smiling happily from beneath his covers left him dizzy with desire.

But instead of claiming her lips, as he so desperately wanted to, he pulled his wand from his shirtsleeve, and settled it upon the nightstand and wordlessly sat down on the bed. His heart pounding like a drum, he gently laid down atop the thick emerald green comforter, flat on his back, all the way on the very edge of his bed so as to leave her plenty of room.

The sight brought a smile to her lips.

She scooted across the narrow bed, edging closer towards him until she was finally right next to him, her warm body right against his, separated only by the covers. She then gently rested her hand atop his, her fingers threading through his like two halves to a whole.

"Goodnight Severus," she sleepily murmured as her eyes slowly shut, her head resting against his shoulder, drinking in the sight of him and feeling safe despite all the worry and fear.

It was only after several minutes had passed, and her breathing became deep and even, that he could finally find his voice and answer, "Good night, Hermione."

He let out a breath, one he had seemingly been holding since forever and felt an odd mixture of pure elation coupled with the most potent fear he had ever experienced. The urge to run from her pounded through his veins with every heartbeat.

Run, run, run.

But one glance at her, the way her head tucked against his shoulder, the way her small hand clutched his so tenderly, and he suddenly found it much easier to fight the fear back and banish his potent self-doubt for once in his life.

Listening to her steady, rhythmic breathing, he soon felt his own body and mind relax as peace finally took hold. The last thing he did before slipping into an effortless sleep, was to place a gentle kiss atop her head of unruly curls, relishing how perfect her warm body felt nestled against his. Closing his eyes, with her gentle scent surrounding him, he knew that this was what being home must have felt like. It was a feeling he never thought he deserved to experience but now that he had discovered it, he knew he would never want to let it go.