A/N: Welcome back, lovely readers! Sorry for the crazy-long delay. Thank you all for the support and encouragement during the unexpected hiatus, your reviews have been a joy to read. Massive hugs to Marcella Dix, DutchGirl, Fas IkbenVanEyck, and Crystal Violet for keeping me motivated with lovely notes. Love you, ladies!

Quick recap: When last we left off, Hermione, Severus and a few others were told by Dumbledore that the castle's magical wards are held in place by a single object that protects the castle itself and harnesses and sustains the castle's magic. This object is a mystery they must uncover before it threatens to compromise the magical energy of those residing in the castle. Although a search has begun, the object has not been found. After a long day of looking, Hermione fell asleep while researching with Severus in his quarters. He carried her to his bed, where she asked him to stay with her. He agreed and they fell asleep together, holding hands. We now rejoin them the following morning.


You have a place in my heart no one else ever could have.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

This bed. This small room, prone to water beetles, cold and dank even in the dead of summer, depressing and dark even against the strongest Lumos, had never once been a joy to awaken in.

Severus could recall the first morning he awoke in this room, twenty years back, as he traversed the painful and heartbreaking metamorphosis from student to criminal to spy, and finally, laughably, to teacher. Lily had been buried less than a fortnight when Dumbledore had officially hired him to replace Slughorn and installed him in what would become his gloomy quarters, the only space he could count as his own.

That first morning he had awoken here had been nearly unbearable. How he listlessly stared at the ceiling, horrible, wretched guilt and sorrow crushing his slight frame into the thin, hard mattress. The mere thought of dragging himself upright and out of bed to go and teach children only a few years his junior made his acute sorrow all the more sharp. How he longed for a quick death that sunrise, and for so many mornings after it.

This stiff bed, this bleak, mournful room, was his prison cell and he had always viewed it as such. A sanctuary of sorts from annoying colleagues and demanding students, but it never once felt like a comfort, merely a space to sit and gather his strength to go out and face the world again and its many cruelties.

A shelter, no more, no less. The bare minimum.

And he never desired it to be anything else, for this was all he deserved. He merely hoped to survive long enough to avenge Lily's death, and this room helped afford him that chance. The notion that he might one day awaken in these cramped, dark quarters and feel happiness was about as preposterous a notion as he could fathom. Men like him didn't hope for happiness, but merely hoped to see another day to fight.

And yet, as the sun broke fresh and new, spreading light to the verdant valley around the castle, Severus began to emerge from the deep, thick fog of sleep, and this bed and this room suddenly felt undeniably different and so, he found, did he.

Eyes still closed, he drew a deep breath and pondered from afar all the different sensations greeting him this morning making him feel so strange, so very peculiar.

A soothing warmth surrounded him, as if he had awoken in a long, lost paradise rather than a cold dungeon. Something feathery tickled his chin, he caught a hint of a sweet note of fall clinging to his clothes and a comforting weight nestled atop him, putting him at ease. Normally, such oddities would immediately cause him to panic and awake with alarm, but not today. Something about this made him feel safe and so he lay still, the valley between awake and asleep stretching on before him like a deep ocean, himself merely a swimmer, floating peacefully on its gentle waves.

Luxuriating in this strange comfort for several beats, he suddenly thought he must have died in his sleep, slipping away with a whimper. Perhaps this wasn't his bedroom at all but heaven, for it felt far too good to be real.

As he made the long, slow swim back to shore, his feet finally touching the firm ground of consciousness, his eyes finally fluttered opened and he realized that he was not only alive but he also discovered the rather lovely and thoroughly surprising reason for his new sense of well-being and serenity.

Hermione was no longer asleep beside him. At some point during the restful night, she had somehow moved from simply lying next to him to a far more intimate position. She was now draped across his body, completely limp and relaxed as their limbs tangled as one. Her head resting on his shoulder, her feathery curls tickling his chin, her arms wrapped tight around him, his arms wrapped equally tight around her, her long legs tangled between his own, lying chest to chest.

Awaking to such an intimate and luscious sight would normally put a man at ease, but Severus was no ordinary man and the sight nearly caused his heart to stop all together.

No woman had ever slept in his bed, let alone willingly wrapped her perfect body around his, her soft, tempting curves molding to his sparse frame. The shock of it all quickly helped to banish any remnants of sleep and he laid perfectly still and very awake, simply watching her, holding her, trying to wrap his brain around this new reality. But seeing her did little to dispel his disbelief at having awoken in such a shocking, and downright delightful, position.

For how could he, he of all people, a louse, a criminal, a downright bastard, greet this with anything but disbelief?

Hermione Granger was asleep in his arms. This sublime, brilliant, gracious, exquisite woman had put her trust in him, for reasons that defied his comprehension and now laid atop him, seemingly content in her choice.

As the dwindling fire crackled softly in the hearth, casting their bed in a soft glow, she stretched slightly in her sleep, her slender arms, which had already ensnared him, clutched at him all the more tightly. She nestled her head against his chest and let out a deep, contented sigh. With his heart and breath matching her own in perfect harmony, he too, let out a deep sigh, one that seemed to bubble up from his very soul and with it went everything.

All of the doubt, the worry, the pain, the terrible weight and emptiness that had defined him for so long, it suddenly felt so foreign and unfathomable, as if it had plagued a different man all together.

And just like that, this bed, this room, suddenly felt as if it held all the light and warmth he could possibly imagine.

Time itself seemed to change then and slow to a mere trickle, as his eyes settled upon her, without fear or worry. For once, time seemed to be on his side and graciously stopped all together for the man who was unaccustomed to receiving many favors. He drank in her sleeping form, splendid and utterly perfect. The rosy hue coloring her pale cheeks, the buttery-lemon strands that suddenly shone so proud in her chestnut hair, the incredible beauty of the curve of her lips as she slept so peacefully.

He closed his eyes a moment to find his equilibrium and try to quiet his heart but the beats kept coming, fast and frantic and joyful and unstoppable.

He felt alive, not merely existing or subsisting as he had these many painful years but truly living, as all men are meant to. His heart beating so stubbornly and powerfully for another. Alive in a way he hadn't felt in many years, perhaps ever.

He felt at peace and he felt that peace stretch out and fill the room, like a wave crashing against the shore and spreading every which way until it filled everything, even himself, with joy and hope.

It was the purest, most perfect moment he had ever known.

A more fortunate man might not have relished this or appreciated it, but Severus was a man who knew want and loss all too well to not worship this moment, even if it wouldn't last. The feeling of her beautiful body atop his, her long legs clinging to his, being held by her, he may not have died in his sleep but he knew without reservation that this was indeed heaven.

Never, in twenty long, lonely years, had he ever awoken in this bed to this kind of bliss. And in a some impossible way, that made perfect sense to him. It felt right and good to share this only with her. As if every moment had been leading him by the hand to be right here and feel his heart finally beat. He wasn't meant to arrive here whole and perfect. He was meant to feel her and finally, at last, by her touch alone, know happiness.

All the pain he had quietly suffered, sacrifices made, the loss and loneliness, it had all prepared him to taste the sweetness of this, to truly know the unbridled, incomparable perfection of a good woman lying in your arms.

He laid perfectly still for a long time, listening to her breathe, completely content to have nothing else in the whole world to do but hold her and be held. But before long, she began to stir from her sleep and his new-found peace fled, his eyes going wide with panic at having to actually face her.

Unaccustomed to finding himself in such a precarious position as being entangled with a former student sleeping happily atop him in his bed, he did the only thing he could. He shut his eyes quick as a flash and pretended to be asleep.

It was beyond moronic but he saw no other option; playing possum would just have to do. He couldn't imagine how he could explain the position they found themselves in let alone just how much he was enjoying it. She may have consented to sharing a bed but she certainly hadn't given permission to be held or caressed. She would no doubt feel embarrassed, maybe even repulsed, about waking up in his arms and he wanted to give her the easiest way out possible. With him still asleep, she could slip away and spare them the awkwardness. It was best for them both, really.

Feigning a relaxed position, his heart pounded in his chest as he felt her slowly lift her head. He could not see, but he could feel her. She lifted her head a long moment, seemingly taking in her unusual surroundings. And then a pause. A pause so long that he thought his heart might implode in his chest from the nerves of it.

He waited for her to pull away and carefully relaxed his hold on her so as to make her departure easy. But still she didn't move.

Lying there, heartbeat after painful, frantic heartbeat, he wondered what in the bloody hell was she waiting for? A handwritten invitation to flee not only his bed, but also his quarters? The castle? Scotland? The northern hemisphere?

Just when he thought his eyes might snap open from the torturous, never ending wait, that's when he felt it. Not her slipping away but rather her gentle finger tips touching his face, his forehead to be exact. Carefully touching him as though he were delicate and might break, as if he were worth such consideration. Smooth, delicate fingers sweeping across his brow with the lightest of touches as he felt her slowly smooth away the hair from his forehead. Her soft finger tips then traced the side of his face, lingering against his cool cheek before finally tucking a lock of his hair behind his ear.

He had always loathed his hair. Stringy and greasy, just like his father's. But the way she touched it, how tenderly she caressed it, made him suddenly hate it, just a tiny bit, less. After all, if it was worthy of her touch, perhaps it wasn't all bad.

Her fingers grew warmer as they traced a line down his jaw, her thumb finally stopping right beside his lips as she placed her warm palm right against his cheek, cupping his face.

Lying there, blind and clueless as to her next move, he wanted to open his eyes at the shock of her gentle touch but he fought the urge and just remained still and silent, letting her do whatever she so wished to him because anything she did felt too damn divine to refuse.

An eternity seemed to pass, her hand cupping his face so tenderly before finally her hand moved and she once more snaked her arms around his waist, even tighter than before as she gently laid her head atop his heart and gave a small sigh.

When her curls tickled his chin once more, he knew it was safe to open his eyes.

She hadn't pulled away, quite the opposite, actually. She really was here and so was he. Together. Each willingly, so very willingly, lying in each other's arms, almost as one.

This realization nearly knocked him out cold. He was properly stunned but even in his disbelief, he knew he was safe and that he could stop pretending, any and all masks could be laid to rest.

He let his ruse fall to the wayside as he reached up and gently stroked her arm, a small sigh escaping his lips as he basked in the limitless joy of holding a woman who not only wanted to hold him but also, clearly, relished his touch. Her head nuzzled against him ever so slightly, he could feel her smile into his chest.

"Good morning, Severus," she said softly. He couldn't ever remember someone saying his name with such tenderness.

"Good morning," he murmured, "we seem to be making a habit of waking up together."

"Sorry to steal your bed and hold you captive," she uttered, her head still resting atop his heart. "I didn't mean to force you into staying," she apologized, making to pull away but he only held on tighter and she, not ever wishing to leave, let him.

"You did no such thing. I was… happy to stay," he quietly admitted, his hand rubbing small, comforting circles on her back.

"I just…I didn't want to be alone. I'm sorry…that must make me sound so foolish," she blushed.

He could only smile in response, reaching up to stroke her hair, the silky strands feeling impossibly beautiful to caress.

"Of all the words that come to mind when I think of you, 'foolish' isn't one of them," he replied.

"You think of me?" she asked, lifting her head to finally look him in the eye, her face betraying not a small bit of surprise.

His breath seized at this but he somehow managed to slowly nod with his hand still splayed across her back.

"More than I should," he quietly admitted, his eyes slowly dancing across her face.

"And…what is it you…you think of me?" she asked, a slight quaver in her voice, her eyes wide with uncertainty.

He gave a small sigh, her eyes entrancing him, beckoning him to finally drop his guard.

"So many things, it's hard to know where to begin," he paused a moment, trying to summon the words to express just how much fire and life she seemed to possess, how easily it shone in every single thing she did.

"I believe you to be frighteningly brilliant," he began, watching with delight at how this simple fact made her smile. "You were one of the only students I've ever had whom I actually took pleasure in teaching, your thirst and respect for knowledge was truly…humbling. I may not have outwardly shown it, but you were a joy to teach."

She blushed at his praise and rested her head upon his chest, her eyes lit with unspoken happiness.

"However, I must say you are not without negative qualities," he gently teased, his rich, deep voice suddenly feeling more intimate rather than commanding. "Like most Gryffindors you have the unfortunate inclination to be foolishly fearless. But that reckless temerity to dive headlong into certain peril is generally used in the service of others, so I can hardly fault you for being selfless," he said with a small smirk, which caused her to chuckle, her head bowing slightly as she bit her bottom lip.

Delighting in her lovely laugh and emboldened to hear more, he continued on, his voice dropping.

"You're also exceptionally kind…kind to the deserving and those, like myself, who are less so. You're generous, with your knowledge and time, your patience and friendship."

He paused, watching the fire dance in her amber-colored eyes and her smile, so welcome and sincere, spurring him to speak his mind.

"You're also beautiful," he boldly admitted, "stunningly so."

"Severus," she whispered, her smile fading slightly as her heart thundered beneath her breast, pounding so hard against his own heart that he could hardly tell one from another.

"Not that my opinion matters at all," he continued on, his voice softer, gentle even, "I just happen to think that…you're…quite perfect."

"Me?" she quietly quipped, trying to play it off. "The insufferable know-it-all?"

He reached up then to take hold of her chin, the soft caress of his fingers tilting her head up, their eyes locked.

"Yes, you," he quietly declared, as if evidence of her perfection were a universally recognized fact. "You were always perfect, I just never had the courage to tell you," he said adamantly, his hand slipping from her chin to gently cup her cheek, his fingers grazing her silken curls at the nape of her neck.

"Thank you," she whispered, her brown eyes holding his, all of her efforts to pretend that this was some simple conversation abandoned.

Her molten eyes locked onto his and the raw, intensity of her gaze felt like a wave of fire crashing over his body, his skin tingling and his heartbeat pounding through his ears.

Her lips were a divine bow, a cherry-red that beckoned him to taste and find out just how sweet they truly were. Her shirt, lifted in the back just so, allowed his fingers to graze her hot, soft skin. Her leg draped across his, her denim-clad knee pressing into his inner thigh. It was all too much, he couldn't look away and pretend any more that she wasn't everything he had always wanted.

Choose that happiness when it comes.

There they were, the six little words that kept coming back to him. Taunting him, holding him accountable, never letting him rest. Hermione was his happiness and a small part of him had known it from the moment she had saved his life, maybe even longer than that.

A smarter man would've chosen her long ago and he couldn't in his right mind continue to ignore the only person who had ever brought him real happiness.

Looking into her eyes and seeing only trust and devotion, that was the moment he jumped without nary a thought about the consequences and chased his own happiness, for once.

Never taking his eyes from hers, he gently pulled her forward, his whole body and soul wanting to touch and taste her more than anything he had ever desired.

She closed her eyes, leaning in with all her heart and as his lips were about to touch hers, the dwindling hearth flames roared to life and the most unwelcome of visitors made their presence known.

"Severus!" barked Minerva from the hearth, her shrill voice filling the bedroom and causing the pair to immediately jump apart, each quickly extricating themselves from their embrace in a vain attempt to maintain some kind of propriety.

Breathing fast, their eyes quickly darted around the room, looking for the headmistress. A glance to the hearth revealed blue flames, meaning that Minerva was only floo-calling and thus couldn't see them.

"Severus, damnit! Are you there?!" Minerva snapped once more, already in a seemingly foul mood despite the early hour.

"Yes, Minerva," he finally uttered, sitting up in bed, trying to catch his breath.

"Are you just now getting up?" came Minerva's sharp reply. "It's already half-past five."

"No, I've been up. Just stepping out of the shower now," he finally answered, trying to shake the passion from his voice and recover his usual crisp aplomb, but he failed miserably and Minerva took notice.

"Severus, are you alright? You sound strange," she noted with some concern.

"Yes, I'm fine, just fine. Do you need something?" he asked rather sharply, desperately hoping the old woman would kindly bugger off and leave him to the heavenly lips that awaited him.

"Yes, forgive my early call," she offered a bit more tactfully, "but we can't seem to find Hermione. I tried floocalling her rooms late last night and again just now but she didn't answer. I'm worried she, too, may have fallen ill."

Hermione's eyes went wide at this and Severus found himself momentarily stumped. It was a situation he was finding himself in more and more as of late.

"I'm sure she's fine, probably just sound asleep," he bluffed, hoping it was enough to placate the headmistress.

"Perhaps, but still, I'm worried. I'm going to floo there now and check on her," Minerva offered.

"No, don't! I'll go!" he yelled.

"Nonsense," chastised Minerva. "I'm up and dressed, I'll go now and call you again should she not be there."

As the dancing, blue flames began to dwindle, signaling that Minerva was closing the call, Hermione sat up and shouted, "Minerva, wait! I'm here and I'm fine."

"Oh….dearest, you're…you're with Severus?" came Minerva's clearly stunned reply.

"Um…yes, ma'am..I am," Hermione admitted, blushing as she eyed Severus with a small smile.

"In his bedroom? At this hour?" came Minerva's bemused reply.

"Yes, um, I, uh…I joined him early to keep researching," Hermione replied, earning her a quirked eyebrow from Severus, only causing her to blush even more fiercely than she already was.

Heavy silence filled the air a long moment, the pair staring at the fire, unsure of just how much wrath they were about to incur.

"Oh yes, of course!" Minerva finally uttered, the surprise quite clear in her voice. "Well…I didn't mean to interrupt your research," she emphasized. "We can speak in my office in a bit, dear," she replied, her voice nearly giddy. As the floo connection closed, Minerva could be heard calling out, "Poppy! You'll never believe it-"

At this, Hermione reclined once more and bowed her head against Severus' chest, softly laughing. Severus couldn't help but smile too, although begrudgingly so.

"Researching? At five in the morning? Very smooth," he deadpanned.

"Forgive me," she sighed, "I just didn't want her traipsing about the castle and worrying about me when I was perfectly fine. Merlin knows I've given her enough to worry about over the years."

He smiled ruefully as his arms wrapping around her once more, tucking one of her silky curls her behind her ear, "You always were a terrible liar."

"I am not!" she huffed, gently smacking his chest and looking mildly offended, although not really. "I'll have you know I'm an excellent liar when such a skill is needed."

"Oh really," he smirked, "so it wasn't you who set my robes on fire your first year?" he countered, his voice deepening and his eyebrow quirking in defiance, causing her stomach to tighten in a delicious pleasure.

"I…um…well," she stammered, only causing his smirk to widen.

"Hmmm, yes, excellent liar indeed."

"Alright, fine it was me, obviously. But in my defense, I thought you were hurting Harry."

"But I was protecting him," he countered, his lips twisting with barely contained mirth.

"Yes, I know that now. Give me a break, would you? I was only twelve," she smiled.

"I'll let it pass, so long as you think me honorable and worthy now," he teased, his dark eyes shining by the light of the fire.

"I do," she smiled, her fingers gently rubbing the buttons on his shirt, "you know I do."

He wanted to kiss her. Her lips, her fingertips, bury his face in her hair and hold her, never letting her go. But the moment had passed. He internally cursed Minerva and her supremely piss poor timing.

"We should really get going," he finally said, although letting her leave this room and take all the light with her was the very last thing he wanted.

"You're right," Hermione said with a heavy sigh, the weight of reality settling atop them once more. "Lots more to get done today. Wards to fix, mysterious objects to be found, castle to save," she quipped as she reluctantly pulled away and slid out from the black satin sheets, grabbing her wand and bending down to put on her trainers.

"Yes, and I'd like to head Minerva off at the pass before she has a chance to flap her gums to the whole faculty about your unfortunate whereabouts this morning," he scowled slightly as he, too, got out of bed to start the day.

"Not so unfortunate by me," she answered, slipping on her shoes with a smile as he offered her a hand to stand and they walked as one into his living room, the warmth of her hand against his feeling so natural and right.

As they reached the chamber door, she pulled him to a stop, one hand holding his and the other placed across his chest, holding him still better than any spell ever could have.

She paused a moment, feeling the beat of his heart against her palm.

"Thank you," she whispered, reaching up to lay a gentle kiss upon his cheek, her lips lingering on his skin, "for letting me stay."

"My pleasure," he answered, struggling to find his voice as he bowed his head at her touch, trying to be as close to her as possible.

"I'll meet you at Minerva's office in fifteen," she said with a smile, "lots to do today."

He nodded, giving her hand one last squeeze before she reluctantly turned to leave and prepare for another day of searching and, hopefully, finding the elusive object.

But as she pulled the chamber door open to the darkened dungeon hallway and stood upon the threshold, the weight of what still lay ahead resting heavily upon them both, she stopped and turned back to look at him one last time.

"There's just something about being here…with you. It makes me feel…safe and… hopeful. Like everything is going to be just fine. And I can't tell you how long it's been since I've felt that," she uttered, her eyes shining with gratitude.

She smiled then, almost to herself as she eyed the long, dark corridor before her. Standing tall, looking almost invincible, she left his room, her feet tapping out a loud, proud beat until she disappeared from the dungeons.

He stood there, leaning against his doorway a very long time before realizing he was smiling.

"That makes two of us," he murmured to himself as he turned and headed to dress for the day.

~~~000~~~

Freshly dressed and showered, Hermione quickly sprinted down the corridor toward Minerva's office a handful of minutes later, feeling buoyed, optimistic and ready to face the day. As she came to a halt at the stone griffin, she was met by Severus, heading from the opposite end of the hallway, also freshened up and walking quickly.

"Swizzle jellies," Severus intoned to the waiting griffin which caused Hermione to chuckle slightly as the steps began to swirl up from the stone floor.

"Something amusing?" he teased.

"I would've given all the gold in my Gringott's account to hear you say anything that silly while I was in school."

"Hmm, yes, you and all of Gryffindor, I'm sure," he smirked. "After you," he motioned and she proceeded ahead of him, following the stone griffin's ascent.

He noticed, not for the first time how she was dressed. Without the billowing effect of formal school robes to hide her very feminine form, Severus could see and appreciate just how lovely her body was. Petite and graceful, her full hips swaying with each step, and her backside. Dear Merlin, did she have to wear denim that fit her like a glove, or a thin t-shirt that revealed the perfect outline of her pert breasts and the pale blue bra she wore beneath?

For the second time in as many hours, Severus allowed himself to listen to his own wants and let his eyes linger upon her, his thoughts swirling with delicious images and his body approving wholeheartedly of the lovely view.

But as they ascended the winding stairs, muffled voices could be heard coming from the office above them and as they grew closer, the hushed tones grew louder, the unmistakable sound of shouting penetrating the thick, oaken door. Shaking the lusty thoughts forcefully away for now, he halted beside her at the top of the stairs to listen to the argument happening within the headmistress' office.

"Damnit, Pads! Why in the bloody hell are you so angry!?" came Remus' bellowing voice.

"I told you, I'm fine, Moony," came Sirius' acidic reply.

"You're clearly upset with me, you've been pissed since yesterday! What have I done?!"

"Nothing, now drop it," Sirius warned, his voice cold and sharp.

Remus let out a sigh, then a rueful laugh, "You're angry because I did something without asking you."

"Fuck you, Moony! It's about more than that!"

Remus sighed once more, "I wasn't trying to piss you off. I honestly thought it would've made you happy," he said in a beleaguered tone.

"Well, clearly you don't know me very well!" Sirius snapped.

The sound of smashing glass cut through the air. Hermione shared Severus' same worked look and the pair paused but a moment before throwing open the door and rushing into the room.

The large office was empty save for the two men. Remus was hunched over the mantle piece, turned away, broken glass lay at his feet in the hearth below. While Sirius stood before Minerva's desk, his face set in an angry, stony mask, his body heavy slightly.

"Are we interrupting?" Hermione asked carefully, Severus following her into the now silent room.

"No, love, not at all," Sirius said with a tight smile that did not reach his eyes. "Dropped a glass, is all."

Hermione turned her gaze to her old defense professor, "Are you alright, Remus?"

"Just fine," he replied, running a rough hand through his sand-colored hair, his voice tired and strained. "Glad you two could make it," he added, finally turning to greet them.

"It's only just six now, are we late?" Severus asked.

Remus nodded while Sirius just stared ahead in stony silence.

"Minerva and Poppy just left, so did Neville, Luna, Draco and Harry. They're all already spread out, looking for the object."

"We would've come sooner had we known we were meeting so early," Hermione offered apologetically.

"Don't sweat it, kitten. You two were obviously busy," Sirius chimed in, a thin, insincere smile twisting his mouth.

"Minerva wants us to spread out early and keep searching before the rest of the faculty begin working on repairs," Remus interjected with a slight smile, but anger still flushed his cheeks as Sirius wordlessly repaired the crystal goblet and it reformed, landing atop the desk as if it had always been there.

"Very well," said Severus, sharing a worried sideways glance with Hermione. "Where is everyone starting today?"

"Since our search yesterday of Gryffindor tower and the Slytherin quarters produced no new objects of interest, we're moving onto Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff," Remus explained, trying to regain his composure while Sirius stood off to the side, still silently fuming.

"We're also checking a few of the faculty quarters, surreptitiously, of course, on the off chance that this object is some antique furnishing or trinket. And we'll need to thoroughly search the Room of Requirement. It'll hopefully turn up something," Remus said, trying to project confidence.

"What about questioning the portraits of the founders?" Hermione interjected. "If they are the ones who created the seal then surely one of them must know something about the object."

"Minerva questioned all four late last night and couldn't find anything out," Remus replied.

"Nothing at all?" Hermione asked in disbelief.

Remus merely shook his head in resignation. "Minerva said they couldn't provide any information on the seal itself or the object used to maintain it."

"Quite the good job they did of keeping the damn thing a secret. They didn't even tell their own portraits," Severus noted with a scowl thrown to the seemingly sleeping portraits hanging aloft above the the desk.

"Well then, if they don't know anything, then we just keep searching. If we can hunt down seven horcruxes, surely we can find one more mystery item," Hermione said, trying to stay positive. "Where do you want Severus and I to start searching?" she asked.

"Well, Harry and Draco are off searching Minerva's old quarters in Gryffindor. Neville and Luna are in the Ravenclaw section, Sirius and I are to go and check Hufflepuff common room and Pomona's quarters. I guess that leaves you and Severus in the Room of Requirement, specifically the Room of Hidden Things. It's a large room, with extensive damage and countless items, do you think the two of you could handle it?" Remus asked.

"Of course we can," came Hermione's immediate reply, eyeing Severus with a slight smile.

Severus couldn't help the lightness that suffused his chest just then, though he worked hard to suppress an all-out smile.

"Excellent, we'll head there now. Should we find anything, we'll send a patronus," said Severus as he and Hermione turned to leave.

But before they could get far, Sirius suddenly said, "On second thought, how about you come with me, Hermione? I could use someone a bit stealthier to search Pomona's quarters and I'm afraid old Moony here never was any good at being inconspicuous," Sirius said a bit acidly, with a tight smile thrown at the werewolf who was looking more put out with each passing moment. "And I'm sure Remus wouldn't mind helping Severus for the day."

But Hermione looked unsure at the sudden switch, sharing a crestfallen look with Severus.

"Are you sure, Sirius?" she asked. "I could go with Severus now and then come help you later?" she tried offering.

"If you wouldn't mind, Hermione, it would probably be best to switch for today," Remus conceded a bit sadly, carefully avoiding even glancing in Sirius' direction.

"Great!" Sirius said with feigned cheer, "let's switch things up a bit, unless that's a problem for you, Severus?" Sirius asked.

"Not at all," Severus bit out sharply, his eyes narrowing slightly at the animagus. "Whatever Hermione would like is fine by me," he softened as he caught her eye.

"Very well," she replied, not wanting to admit just how much the very thought of leaving Severus' side suddenly felt like losing a limb.

Remus pulled Sirius aside and spoke once more, this time their voices hushed, while Severus relished his last few moments with Hermione.

"The Room of Requirement was engulfed in Fiendfyre during the final battle," Hermione softly uttered. "It will be an absolute disaster, so please…be careful," she gently pleaded staring up into his soot black eyes with worry.

"I will," he promised. "Promise me you'll be careful as well. Should we find this object there's no way of knowing what kind of damage it can cause. Besides which, Black seems a bit unhinged today, so be doubly careful," Severus said, eying the still-bickering pair with a good bit of wariness.

"I will," she smiled, slipping her hand into his for a brief moment, giving it a simple, yet reassuring squeeze.

Damnit, he thought, eyeing her pouted lips, I should've kissed her when I had the chance.

Sirius stepped forward then and gently took hold of her elbow and declared, "Excellent! We'll be off then! Let us know if you need anything…or not. I know Remus is quite good at handling everything all on his own!" Sirius called out as he bustled his new, reluctant partner out the door and down the staircase, a strange, sinking feeling filling Hermione's stomach as she left an angry werewolf and a suddenly melancholy professor in her wake.