A/N: All usual disclaimers apply. Back after an unplanned break, and hopefully back on track with this chapter.
It was truly strange riding down to the train with Ron and Harry, both boys had elected to stay behind over the Easter hols, Harry because he was actually trying to improve his grades and Ron because Lavender was staying and they were planning some 'quality time' together. Merlin, if those two ended up a permanent thing she was going to have to start brewing industrial strength anti-nausea potions. She was sharing a carriage with Neville, Luna, and Susan Bones.
"I think you'll have a lovely holiday, Hermione. Secrets are wonderful things sometimes, aren't they?" Luna said dreamily.
Hermione blinked, not for the first time wondering if Luna was some sort of closet Legillimens. "Sometimes they are, sometimes not. But it'll be nice to have a little break from studying though."
"Who are you, and what have you done with Hermione Granger?" Susan said in mock horror.
Hermione and the others all laughed too. "I've just been realizing there are more important things than writing the longest essay…that's all," she blushed a little. She'd actually had Professor Flitwick pull her aside last week to ask if she was all right after she'd handed in an essay only a foot longer than requested…rather than her usual three. She'd reassured him that she was fine, and simply devoting some time to a little bit of personal research.
"Thanks again for helping me with the outline for my defence essay," Neville said.
"You're welcome, I don't mind helping…I'm just sick of certain people thinking they're entitled to copy my work," she huffed, still angry at Ron.
"He really can't take a hint can he? Even Seamus tried talking some sense into him the other night," Neville said. "We all told him if he was so desperate for help, he should ask his girlfriend." His eyes danced with amusement.
Hermione snorted. "Only if he wants his grades to get worse."
Susan laughed. "Hermione!" The red-head looked torn between shock and amusement.
"Well it's true, she's the biggest air-head in Gryffindor Tower." Hermione sighed. "I mean…I'm happy for Ron, but I'll never like her."
"Everyone needs someone, but the right someone. You need to find the person that fits, and Ron was never going to…you knew it too." Luna said with a smile.
Hermione nodded, and just relaxed for the rest of the ride to Hogsmeade. The four of them headed on board, and Hermione left them to get a compartment together as she headed to the Prefect's carriage. There weren't many of them going back for the holiday, so they'd need to trade off patrols to keep everyone in order. She entered and nodded to Theo. "Nott," she said and sat down.
"Granger." Theo replied, a bit of a smirk on his lips.
"Congratulations on being made Prefect by the way." Hermione made herself say, not commenting that she thought he'd probably make a better prefect than Malfoy had ever been.
"Not sure I like how I got it, but I plan to make the best of it." He said wryly. "Big plans for the holidays?"
"Not really, I'm hoping for a nice quiet break. What about you?" She asked.
"I wanted to reference a few things for my arithmancy project in some texts at home." He had the grace to look a little embarrassed.
"What did you end up choosing for your year-end equation?" Hermione asked, and they spent the time waiting for the others to join them debating the relative merits of the two different schools of calculation theory. Once you got past the whole 'Slytherin' thing, Theo wasn't really all that bad. The trip to London was fairly uneventful, just keeping the first years from being pranked by older students, and reminded a few older students that the back compartments were not for making out in. Honestly.
Once they arrived in London she shrunk her trunk and slipped it into her pocket, heading out into the muggle side of the terminal. She slipped through the busy crowds at King's Cross, not wanting anyone to notice who she was meeting here. The streets outside were bustling today, and it was unseasonally chilly. Hermione turned her collar up a little and let her eyes search the crowd as her feet took her a little bit up the road. Sitting at a table in the café just up the street was a familiar figure, and a smile crossed her lips. A quick, and cautious dart across the road saw Hermione over to his side.
Severus smiled and motioned for her to join him. "I took the liberty of ordering you a cappuccino," He remembered from one of his many forays into her mind just how much she like the frothy concoction. The smile that lit her face up was more than enough to reward the awkward moments trying to figure out how to order the damned thing. How hard was it honestly to order a simple, bloody coffee? The answer was truly harder than one would expect.
"Thank you." She said, picking up the steaming mug. Clearly he had cast a warming charm on her drink to keep it piping hot. "Do you think we might be able to turn this next place into an adequate safe house?" She asked.
"Location-wise it is the very best of the three options. It would be very simple to reach from anywhere in London, and with the population as it is here not many would notice your coming and goings. Hopefully the wards are sufficient, but if not we can see about working on making it unplottable or even consider casting a fidelius over it." He mused.
Hermione nodded, aware that no one was looking in their direction at all. "Notice-me-not charm?" She asked.
He chuckled and inclined his head. "Adjusted slightly so you would notice me, but no one else would. Easiest way to remain unremarked in the muggle world. I can teach you my variation on the charm." He promised.
"I suppose I should have asked this earlier, but what happens if you're summoned while we're at my home?"
"I have an emergency potions kit with me, and I will leave it in your care in the unlikely event of my summoning. I will return to you first, and then if necessary go and update the Headmaster." Severus said, pleased that she had remembered her duties, even if somewhat belatedly.
"Ok." She said, still somewhat nervous about being responsible for healing him. So far he hadn't required any of the care she'd been trained in, but she feared that it was only a matter of time before her skills were put to the test.
"It will be fine, Hermione." His dark eyes met her, able to sense her unease. After his reassurance they finished their drinks and Severus left a decent tip on the table before ushering her out of the café, and over to a cab. The trip to Chelsea was spent in companionable silence and he was forever grateful that she was not nervously trying to create conversation where none was needed. He was highly aware of just how utterly inappropriate this was, but a small part of him wanted to tell propriety to go and fuck itself. The girl was being all but thrown at him by both of his masters, and far more innocently by the young woman herself. He seemed to be the lone voice of sanity screaming in the darkness that this was absolutely NOT right. Maybe it was time for him to just give in and take the offered prize.
He paid the driver once they arrived at the right address, and together they headed for the white fronted townhome. Like the house in Bath, it seemed as if time had simply halted. The gate was a little rusty and weathered, but opened smoothly at Hermione's light touch. She went to the front door and walked inside.
The décor was rather stuffy, and dark and reminded Hermione instantly of Grimmauld Place…and not in a good way. She made a bit of a face. "Well…it could use some cheering up." She muttered, and nearly jumped out of her skin as a little pop announced the appearance of a House Elf.
"Mistress?" The little creature said hopefully.
"Yes, what's your name?" Hermione said, taking charge.
"Mips, Mistress….I am Mips. How may Mips serve you?" She asked.
"I need to be shown the ward stone for this house." She said, and together she and Professor Snape followed the elf down into the cellar. The room looked like it had at one point been a potions lab but had long been packed away and forgotten. The elf pointed out a very specific brick.
"Will Miss require anything else?"
"Yes, I'll be staying over the holiday and Professor Snape will need a guest room prepared for his use as well." Hermione said.
"Yes Mistress! Right away!" The little elf all but danced before disappearing with a loud crack.
Severus chuckled a little. "They are eager to please…that's for certain. You remember what you need to do?" He asked her.
Hermione nodded and used a mild cutting hex to slice into her palm, she hissed a little at the sharp pain but pressed her palm against the rough brick. She felt Severus come to stand behind her, steadying her body as the wards drew from her, awake now and hungry. They felt different than the ones at Bathhampton House, these were greedier and pulled harder on her. She felt blackness eating at the edge of her vision, and then she was being pulled back from the wall.
"Hermione?" Severus' fingers searched her throat and let out a relieved breath as he found her pulse fluttering there. It was weaker than he liked, but there and steady. He could feel the strength of these wards and knew that they had to be much more intricate than the other home had been. He shifted his grip and picked her up, carrying her unconscious form upstairs. This was becoming something of a habit, and he couldn't help but be slightly amused. "Mips?" He called as he reached the main floor.
"Yes, friend of Mistress?" The elf looked at her unconscious Mistress with worry.
"Lead the way to your Mistress' bedroom. She is in need of rest after feeding the wards." He said, reassuring the creature as it pulled on its ears.
"This way." The elf led him up to the second floor and opened the door to a femininely appointed suite of rooms. The bedroom was decorated in pale peach, and he couldn't honestly imagine the girl in his arms being too terribly fond of it. He laid her down on the bed and checked her pulse again. It was stronger now. He had the Elf bring him some tea while he waited for her to wake back up. It was not a terribly long wait before her eyelashes started to flutter against her cheeks. He was still unsure about what he felt for this witch, and he'd always hated unknowns. There was a warmth that spread through his chest as her eyes met his, relief that she was unscathed.
"What happened?" She asked.
"The wards were more demanding than I anticipated." Severus said, and watched as she sat up against the headboard. "How do you feel?"
"Floaty." She decided on that word, feeling like she was in a dream. "It felt so different, almost sinister."
He nodded. "Wards are often coloured by the person who laid them in the first place, it's quite possible that there are some nastier aspects to these wards. Not necessarily a bad thing, but they will likely need a tad more attention than the ones in Bath." He prepared a cup of tea for her and once she seemed aware enough to hold it, he pressed it into her hand. "Drink, it'll help ground you."
"Where exactly am I?" She looked around in a bit of disgust at the very….pinky/peachy room.
"Your bedroom, apparently." A wicked little grin quirked his lips as she shuddered.
"The peach has to go…" She said decisively.
Severus took pity on her and lifted his wand. "What colour would you like?" He asked.
"Maybe something in a soft blue?" She asked.
Severus nodded and stood, going through the room and replacing the sickening shades of pink with blue, choosing a warmer colour closer to the green scale than she would have perhaps chosen herself. He accented it with simple white, and changed the bedding to a few shades deeper than the walls. "Better?"
"A vast improvement." She smiled, aware enough now to be a little uncomfortable as he sat down on the edge of her bed. Not that she was worried he'd do anything to her, more that she was ultra-aware of him now. Ever since that night in the potions lab, she'd been having intensely vivid dreams and now he was here…in her bedroom.
"Why don't you get a little more rest, and I'll have a look around and see if there's anything that passes for a reading room in this house." Severus suggested. "I'll have Mips wake you in time for dinner."
Hermione nodded. "Ok, I'm still feeling pretty spent."
Severus stood. "I'll see you in a little while then." He left the bedroom and shut the door gently behind him. He ended up leaning against the wall a little down from her room. He raked a hand through his hair and mentally swore. He couldn't do this, not without her knowing the truth. The simple truth was that he respected her, more than he respected just about anyone else. She was willing to risk her life for her friends, for her chosen side in the war. There were people on both sides that could claim the same, but she was different…a spark of light in a world that had grown too dark. When she spoke you could feel the belief behind her words, and she could be so compelling when she spoke about something that interested her.
He continued to walk down the hall, taking his time and exploring the house. There was a lovely reading room, again it would need some redecorating…but the books were a treasure trove. Perusing the titles was a welcome distraction from the enigma that was his feelings for the girl. If she were only a few years older, Severus knew he wouldn't have been nearly as torn. It was purely her age that tormented him, and the fact that like it or not he was her teacher, and in a position of authority over her. It was a wretched abuse of power, and he hated that he was being forced into this corner. He let out a harsh sigh and plucked a book from the shelf, going to sit in one of the chairs and read for a while.
"Friend of Mistress? Dinner is ready…Mips be getting Mistress now." The little elf disappeared.
Severus use a piece of ribbon to mark his spot, and reluctantly stood. He fully intended to return to it after they had eaten. He imagined that Hermione would be eager to explore the library herself, and reading would be an innocent enough diversion for them both tonight. The dining room had two places set.
Hermione came in, and she gave him a small smile.
"Feeling better?" He asked, moving to hold her chair for her as she sat down.
"I feel more in my own skin again. I can still feel the wards, but it's fading a bit now." She said, settling into her chair with a smile. "Is there a way to figure out which wards have been woven together on this property?" She asked, as their meal appeared on the table in front of them.
"In a couple of days, once you've recovered fully, I'll take you back down to the ward stone and show you how to examine the wards. There are spells that will reveal the different layers built into someone's protections, so you can alter them if you wish…though I would caution against it. For the time being, the more secure and aggressive your wards are…the better off you will be." He said quietly.
Hermione nodded. "You're right. Once the Ministry falls…what's going to happen?" She asked quietly.
"Nothing good." He said and poured them both some of the wine on the table. "The Dark Lord will install a Minister, likely someone under the Imperius curse…and the Board will announce the dismissal of Albus from the school. It's likely he will also install one or two Death Eaters onto the staff once he appoints me as Headmaster, I only pray I have some manner of say who he chooses." He sighed sadly. "I will not have some of the more…sadistic creatures in the Dark Lord's service unleashed on children. I will not." He said firmly.
Hermione reached over, touching his hand to lend some silent support.
Severus turned his hand up and interlaced his fingers with hers, accepting it. "When everything happens, it will be chaos. I want you here, safe and protected, until we can be certain of the lay of the land. The Dark Lord has told the others to let you be, but I don't want to risk you falling into the hands of someone ignorant of that…or worse some overzealous Ministry employee who seeks to curry favour by causing you harm." He met her eyes. "Over the break…you should take a trip to Diagon Alley and purchase yourself an owl. You will need a reliable way to send and receive post, other than using the school owls."
Hermione nodded, trying not to feel the flutter of fear in her gut. "What about the other muggle-born students?" She asked quietly, guilt seizing her gut as she realized that she'd never asked about the others.
"Some have distant squib relatives, and have had their ancestry documented by the goblins. They should be safe enough. Those that do not…the Headmaster has been working with the other teachers to find safe places for them. It's not enough, but we've done what we can." Severus answered her.
Hermione nodded quietly. "So I got lucky."
"Depending on how you look at it, yes. Or very unlucky." Severus said. "If you'd had no magical ancestry, you would be going into hiding once the Ministry fell…whether you wanted to or not. For now all we can do is focus on our tasks, and perform our duties to the best of our abilities. If everyone does that, we will win. Right now that means eating your dinner, and regaining your strength." Severus said kindly.
Hermione nodded, giving his hand a last squeeze before releasing it to pick up her fork. Dinner was actually quite nice, and it distracted her from the worries about the months to come. Idly she wondered where House Elves got the food for their families from, and how it was all paid for. It was one of those things that sometimes made her pause and wonder, little things that she was certain someone raised in the wizarding world would know without ever needing to ask, and would just assume everyone else did too. She set those thoughts aside and enjoyed the light meal. Dessert was a light and airy chocolate mousse with whipped cream.
"During my exploration of the house, I found a small reading room. I imagine there are at least a few books there you haven't yet read." Severus said, rather enjoying watching her eat. She didn't rush through her meal like so many others did, and there was real pleasure on her face while she enjoyed the chocolate dessert. If someone had told him last year he'd be sharing a meal with the Gryffindor know-it-all, and enjoying it, he would have questioned their mental stability…and yet here they were. It was strangely reassuring to know that he wasn't entirely alone, that someone else saw the world in remotely the same way he did.
"Show me?" She asked.
Severus nodded and stood, waiting for her. He led her to the comfortable room, and returned to the sofa in front of the fire, picking up his book. "There's an impressive array of topics." He remarked, watching her perusing the shelves. He allowed himself to just watch her as she traced her finger along the spines of the books. It never failed to astound him that so much magic, and fire was contained in her petite form. She had slender, delicate hands…ideal for a potioneer, he noted idly. She plucked a book from the shelf and came over, sitting down beside him on the sofa. He blinked a little as it brought her well inside his comfort zone, but she seemed oblivious.
Trying to hide his discomfort, he turned back to his book and tried to give the century-old potion's journal its due attention. He nearly dropped his book as she shifted on the couch and settled against his side. He looked over at her and raised an eyebrow.
"Is there something wrong with your side of the sofa, Miss Granger?" He asked.
"No, there is not, Severus." She replied with a smirk, not looking up from her book. "I am merely making my interest known." With that her eyes flicked up to meet his, a little nervous but certain.
Severus looked down at her and felt guilt battle with desire, for the millionth time this year. He lifted a hand and brushed his thumb along her cheekbone. "Why would you ever choose me?"
Hermione blushed and looked down, but inclined her head very subtly into his touch. "Because you understand, and you care…even though you shouldn't." She swallowed. "When I'm close to you, I can't think about anything else, except how much I want to touch you. And how much I want you to touch me." She admitted, summoning her Gryffindor bravery. "The dream you dismissed as an aftereffect of Amortentia was actually from long before that lesson."
Severus slid his fingers into her hair. "Everyone is throwing you at me like some kind of paltry reward, they have no idea what you really are." He said softly as her eyes lifted to meet his, burnt amber laced with gold. So beautiful. "You're far too good for me, Hermione. Unfortunately, I'm not a good enough man to tell you no." He leaned in and brushed his lips against hers, tasting them for the first time. When she gasped softly, he took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, pulling her closer. He felt her hand rest on his chest just in time for his arm to being to sear. He pulled back and swore under his breath.
"You have to go." She could feel her necklace heating up against her skin.
He nodded and raked a hand through his hair as he stood. "I'll be back when I can." A quick flick of his wand transfigured his robes and conjured his mask. He took a shrunken case from his pocket and tapped it. "My healer's kit, just in case." He quickly left, apparating once he was outside of the wards.
The clearing he arrived in overlooked a decrepit looking graveyard. He approached his Lord and fell to one knee before him. The wetness of the grass soaked into the knee of his trousers and helped to cool the ardor he'd been feeling in Miss Granger's embrace. It was a dangerous thing to let his thoughts linger on the young witch, especially here.
"Rise Severus, we have much to discuss and I am certain you will be wanting to return to your conquest without much delay." The dark lord said, voice caressing the word 'conquest' in a slightly obscene manner.
"Conquest, my Lord?" He arched an eyebrow at his Master questioningly. His cool tone, and indifferent expression betraying nothing.
"I assume that was the reason for your absence from the school, an illicit rendezvous with the young Miss Blishwick." The Dark Lord said pointedly.
"She requested my company, far be it from me to deny her." Severus said, inclining his head respectfully. The Dark Lord had eyes on him at the school, and the question over who it was itched at his brain like a sliver under his skin.
"How goes your attempts to turn her on the Headmaster?" He enquired, sharp crimson eyes fixed on Severus' face.
"Slowly, but I am making progress. In truth the old man's own actions are far more efficient at eroding her confidence in him than anything I could say or do. She's too clever to be drawn in by his wholesome façade, and she would easily see through any attempts to manipulate her perceptions. It will be an easy thing to support her own observations, and have her draw the desired conclusions." Severus said smoothly.
"Good. I have an additional task for you, in regards to the girl. I wish her to learn the Dark Arts, and this June, she will face a test far more taxing than her examinations. Be certain she is prepared to use the Unforgivables by then. I assure you that a failure on her part in this test will have deadly consequences…for the both of you. I require absolute proof of her loyalty to you, and subsequently to me," The Dark Lord said. "It is essential to my plans, and I will be most displeased should she have a crisis of conscience."
Severus felt cold, a shiver going down his spine. "What plans my Lord? If I were to…" His query was cut off by a scream as his master hit him with a vicious Crucio that left him writhing on the wet grass.
"Do not mistake my fondness for you, for weakness, Severus." He ceased the curse. "You will be told what I deem necessary for you to know, and no more. You will not QUESTION me." He flicked his wand, opening a nasty laceration across Severus' upper body. "Train the girl, and be certain she is prepared. That is all you need to know."
Severus fought the urge to curl in on himself. "Yes my Lord. Forgive my lapse, I truly meant no disrespect." He gasped, he could feel blood soaking into his robes and running down his skin.
"You are forgiven. Now go, return to your little pet and see to her preparation." The Dark Lord dismissed him, as a series of cracks broke the silence of the night…the others clearly having been summoned for something.
Severus knew lingering tonight would be very unwise. He swallowed and dragged himself up to his feet, apparating away and back to Hermione's home. He staggered into the reading room and was relieved when she rushed over and helped him over to sit.
"Oh my god…Severus!" She gasped her hands covered in blood from where she'd been supporting him. She opened the emergency kit and handed him a blood replenisher and she took a few steadying breaths while she opened his ruined shirt and saw the full extent of his wounds. Carefully, she began to chant a healing spell, watching as the skin slowly knit together, becoming whole under the persuasion of her magic. It had been a jagged, gaping wound that cut diagonally across his torso, from his navel up to his left shoulder. He'd only been gone for the span of a few minutes, but the damage was shocking.
She also got him a pain relieving potion, and his anti-cruciatus draught. She banished his ruined clothing, leaving him in only his boxers. She summoned a blanket and draped it over his lap to preserve his modesty and called for Mips to bring a basin of warm water and some clean cloths so she would wash the blood off the sensitive, newly healed skin. Her focus was so complete that she didn't even notice him watching her intently, dark eyes speculative.
"I can tend to that myself," He said as she began to gently wash the drying blood off his chest.
"It's ok." She flicked her eyes up to meet his. "I want to." She insisted, and continued to clean his chest off with steady hands. It was the first time she'd seen him without his signature layers, and she was captivated by the lean lines of muscle, and the smattering of white and pink scars that littered his body. She noted the slight jump of his muscles as she cleaned off the smears of blood on his abdomen, clearly a ticklish spot for him. She resisted the urge to smile and tease him about it, quite sure that even with the potions he had to be sore. "Why did he do this to you?" she asked softly.
"I asked the wrong question." He said, his fingers reaching out to toy with her curls while she tended to him.
"He nearly cut you in half for a question?" She shuddered.
"It would not be the first time, Hermione." He said quietly. "What he asked of me, I cannot do…will not do…so it's very likely my life will soon be forfeit." There was a detachment to his tone, as if they were not casually discussing his torture and death.
"What did he want?" Her hands still on his chest.
"It doesn't matter, as I said…I won't do it." He shook his head, jaw tight.
"If it doesn't matter, then tell me." She insisted.
"I told you that he wanted me to turn you, now he wants to ensure that your corruption is complete. He wants your soul stained as dark as mine, so that there is no way out of this for you. And I will not destroy you, not by my hand." He closed his eyes, head falling back against the couch.
"Don't you think that's my choice? What did he ask you to do?"
"No, Hermione…it is not your choice, because you do NOT understand. You can't understand." He said softly. "Once you let the darkness in, you can NEVER get it out. It taints everything about you, and will mark you forever as one of us."
"The dark is already inside me, you didn't put it there; I did." Hermione said, a determined set to her face. "Or did you forget what I did to Marietta Edgecomb? Or what I did to Umbridge. That was all me, and I'd do it again. Whatever Dolohov did to me changed me too, I can still feel his magic, like ink spilled under my skin. Don't tell me I'm not tainted already."
"It's not the same thing. He wants you to be trained in the Unforgivables…he means for you to use them." Severus lifted his head and met her eyes. "Do you understand now? He means to use you to kill someone, and that's the very best case scenario I can imagine."
Hermione felt ill at the thought of it but didn't look away. "This is a war, and people are going to die. I don't have the luxury of believing that somehow I'll come out of this with my hands clean. You're too important to lose, so if I have to spill some blood, and darken my soul to make sure my friends survive this…I'll do it. I knew what I was agreeing to when this started, I'm not going to back out now."
"I won't do this to you." Severus refused again.
"Yes you will, or I'll try and figure it out myself." She warned him.
Severus swore under his breath. "No one can know. Do you understand that? If anyone even suspected what I was going to teach you, they'd turn on you faster than you could blink. All of your so-called friends, the entire Order…all of them." He half growled, hating that she was right. "You also need to understand that once you take a life, there is no going back. It changes you forever, in ways you can't anticipate or prepare for. It could break you in ways I won't be able to fix." His voice dropped to barely more than a whisper and he touched her face with his stained fingertips.
"I won't break." She whispered.
"Don't make promises you can't keep, Hermione." Severus said sadly. "Everyone breaks, it's just a matter of how badly, and if the pieces will fit together again. Leave me, I need some time to gather my thoughts, and if we are going to do this…you will need your rest." He dropped his hand, dismissing her.
For a moment it looked like she was going to argue with him, but she finally relented and moved back. She banished the bloody water and stained cloths, and closed his healing kit. "Goodnight then, Severus." She said and stood, eyes on the ground.
"I will see you in the morning. Try and get some sleep, Hermione." He said, his tone a bit softer.