Self-Writing Parchment

First week of the new school term, and the students are back at Hogwarts. They hear some bad news, see a few new faces, and someone has some new obligations to carry out.

~o43o~

Herewith Draconis

Hermione hated being cooped up in the Headmaster's Tower all day, but until Cillian or her friends arrived, it was for the best. Severus was out, again, where she had no idea, so she had decided to remain in their sitting room, as he'd asked, and read. However, since he was out, it allowed her the opportunity to look through the books on the bookshelves he'd forbidden her to read. Hermione had quickly discovered that if she reached out with her left hand, the magic on the self didn't affect her as much as if she tried to grasp anything with her right. She assumed it was due to the Dark Mark on her arm.

Peren had been hovering about, pretending to dust and straighten everything on the shelves and then whisked the rugs and all the cushions just in case one of the books hurt her.

Hermione nearly finished perusing the books on one of the shelves, but so far, she hadn't found anything on Horcruxes. Severus had many books on the detection of the curses or types of magic used on a person, place or thing, how to discern which spells, and how to deconstruct or break the curse or curses. His books had many small slips of parchment with spells or counter spells written on them, or his own variations. Hermione was amazed at the complexity of Severus' notes and was once again in awe of his brilliance on the subject.

She looked up upon hearing the soft thuds of footsteps on the stairs, expecting to see Cillian and hoping not to be caught reading the forbidden book by Severus. She sighed as Draco strolled in, excusing herself to get "something" from her trunk. When she'd returned, he was sitting on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table. "I bought you this for Christmas, but with everything, it's a bit late," she said, handing him the small package.

He eyed the small gift suspiciously. He unwrapped it and unsnapped the men's leather coin purse to look inside. "What is it?" he asked as he stuck his finger into the small pouch.

"A gentlemen's coin holder," she said while picking up her book and sitting down. "When you tip it, the coins slide out onto the flap. I put an extension charm on it and one to make it lighter in your pocket."

"Thank you," he replied, closing it and putting it in his pocket.

"Did you have a nice week?" she asked as she turned the page where she'd left off.

"No," he replied sullenly as he rested his head on the back of the sofa.

She turned to face him, taking in his appearance. He was as immaculately groomed as he normally was, but he seemed wan and weary.

"Like what you see?" he asked snidely.

She tilted her head slightly. "No, you look like you've had a very rough week."

He barked a laugh. "You do have a knack for stating the obvious," he said, closing his eyes.

"Draco...?" Hermione leaned forward and placed her hand on his arm, but he immediately yanked his left arm away from her hand with a loud hiss.

"Not that arm," he snapped.

She sank back onto her part of the sofa. "I'm sorry," she said, looking at her own left arm, lying across the book on her lap. "Does yours bother you, too?"

He looked at her, his grey eyes scrutinizing her.

"Your Mark. Does it irritate you all the time as well?"

He closed his eyes as he turned his head and then stared at the bookshelves across the room.

With a mental shrug, she resumed reading, well scanning the pages for any mention of Horcruxes. When she finished the book she got up, walked casually over to the bookshelf and exchanged it for another.

His eyes followed her as she walked back and sat down. "What are you reading?" he asked.

She shrugged. "Something that may be helpful at some point," she said offhandedly, hoping he didn't know she wasn't supposed to be reading the books on those shelves.

"Is that...?" He sat up straighter and tipped the book up to see the title. "Why are you reading about Dark Arts applications? Since when are you interested in the Dark Arts?"

"Ever since I got this," she snapped, holding up her left forearm.

He shook his head as he said, "You can't remove it – it's permanent."

"I already assumed that much," she replied with a heavy sigh. She stared at the book in her hands.

"Then why...?" he asked, his eyes narrowing. "Unless, you...?"

She looked up at him. "Unless I what?"

He stared at her, his grey eyes boring into hers as if he were trying to do Legilimency on her.

She stared back, daring him to try.

"That, the stuff in there, won't help you here," he said, his gaze locked on hers. The pause stretched into a weighty silence.

Hermione held her ground, keeping eye contact, knowing he'd not see anything she didn't want him to.

His face began to soften as his eyes widened slightly. "You've spoken to Potter, haven't you?"

She didn't move. He couldn't have seen that!She hadn't felt his intrusion. But then Cillian had assumed the same thing. She forced herself to relax, waiting to see what Draco would do.

"You have, haven't you? You and he – you're...," Draco stammered and his eyes widened again. "But you came back?"

"Yes I did," she admitted, recalling telling him that during their conversation in his dining room.

"Why?" he asked in total disbelief.

"Why?" she almost shrieked. "I told you – for my friends. For Severus. For you."

"For me?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes, for you – and everyone else I care about," she stated firmly. "What do you think would have happened if I hadn't?"

"Severus and Cillian would have been punished," Draco stated.

"Punished? Severus could have been killed, and then Alecto would've been made Headmistress," she pointed out. "She would make her vile brother Deputy Headmaster, and she'd do away with Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid would be sacked or imprisoned, along with any professor that stood up against the Carrows and the Dark Lord. Not to mention what would happen to Ginny, Neville and Seamus, you—"

"She can't do anything to me," Draco sneered.

"Except make your life hell for befriending me," she countered. She remembered what Severus said about him, he was wavering as well.

"I befriended you because I was supposed to and she knows that," Draco snapped.

He's becoming defensive. Not good. She knew Severus wanted him brought to their side. If she was going to reach him, make him see reason, she had to try another tactic. "But I didn't befriend you – not at first," she said, touching him gently on the upper arm, "but I grew to like you." His eyes narrowed, and she smiled at him. "You were pretty tough to take at first, but we have become friends, haven't we? Real friends?"

"Real friends don't run away and put you in danger," he said accusingly, his feet dropping to the floor.

"I told you," she stated, trying not to sound defensive. "I was placed under the Imperius and given the impression I was in grave danger. Had I seen you, I would have run over to you so you could protect me. Or I'd have gone to Cillian or Severus. But I couldn't see you – any of you. I think it was either your aunt or Cillian's sister who put me under the Imperius."

"Aunt Bella wouldn't have done it," he said with a shake of his head.

"That leaves Cillian's sister, Belinda," Hermione said with a minute nod. That makes sense; she has a thing for Severus. I know it. She pushed all thoughts of Belinda and Severus and her fear that she might have been the woman Severus had been with at the revel out of her mind.

Draco leaned forward with his arms resting on his legs and clasped his hands together. "She and Severus had an affair for a while," he stated softly.

"I know, but I think Severus ended it last summer. Well, before he was landed with me," she replied, hating the confirmation they'd been a couple. But that was before her relationship with him, and he hadn't been friendly toward her since, and he frequently rebuffed her advances as well – at least when she'd been with him.

"Nah," he said as he shook his head. "He ended it when the Dark Lord told him to make me his apprentice." He looked up at her. "You told me you tried to find Snape, but you were gone for two days! Two days! Where did you go?" he demanded. "I know you told me the places you went to, but you were not at any of them for very long, were you? Did you find Potter? Were you with him?"

"Yes, I was," she admitted. She pushed her nagging suspicions out of her mind.

Draco placed his hand on his knee as he turned to face her. "Then why come back? Why not stay and help your friends?"

"Who is to say that I'm not helping them?" she said with a lift of her brow, but he cocked his eyebrow, looking at her with skepticism. "My strengths in all of the things that we did here at school relied on my ability to find out what we needed in the library. Books and cleverness – not fighting." She scooted closer to him. "I know you have beliefs that I don't necessarily agree with, Draco, but you're not a bad guy. Well, you haven't been quite the bully you had been before. You're prejudiced, yes, sometimes a git, but really, this year you've been a good friend."

"But you still side with Potter and Longbottom?" he asked.

She nodded. "Of course I do. I want Harry to win. I need him to win. When it comes down to the final standoff between the Dark Lord and Harry, I will stand by Harry."

He looked away, but she touched his shoulder to make him look at her. "It's why I'm here – why the Dark Lord didn't kill me that night, why he marked me. The Dark Lord is using me to try and get to Harry. He hopes that by using me, making everyone think I've come around to his side, it will shake Harry up, hurt his resolve. Weaken him. I know it hasn't worked. Harry is as determined as ever," she said, hoping that Draco wouldn't tell the Dark Lord, but then even if he did, or the Dark Lord summoned her to make her tell him where Harry was it wouldn't do him any good. She knew they moved frequently and to remote places. "Draco, I've told you – the prophecy – I know about it, and I know that in the end, Harry will defeat him."

"How can you be so bloody certain as to believe that," he said, his eyes once again narrowing. "I remember what you said in the dining room, but my dad said you can't put any faith in prophecies."

She huffed softly at that, that his dad didn't believe the prophecy was real; Mr. Malfoy wanted it too ardently, so she knew he was lying. "Then why does the Dark Lord want it know what it said so badly? Why did Dumbledore put so much faith into the prophecy that he made sure it would come true." His eyes widened in shock so she set the book aside and told him about Ron's theory. Draco sat in silence as he listened to her, nodding his head, his eyes widening or clenching his fist a few times as he took it all in.

"Bloody hell," he swore when she was finished. "But I thought that you liked Dumbledore?"

"I do – did, but that didn't mean he wouldn't do what was necessary to get rid of Tom Riddle for good," she replied. "Think about it; he was like a general – the leader of the group that stood up to the Dark Lord the first time, and he pulled everyone together again when the Dark Lord came back. He is the only wizard the Dark Lord ever feared – except for Harry." She held up a hand to forestall his comment. "No, he doesn't fear Harry in the same way that he feared Dumbledore, but he's tried to kill Harry a few times now, hasn't he – and he keeps failing to do so. For whatever reason, call it luck if you want to, but the Dark Lord hasn't been able to kill Harry. There was always something that prevented him from doing it. And he gets into a rage each time, doesn't he?"

Draco nodded slowly, his haunted eyes darting away from her, and she wondered how much or what he'd witnessed.

"Now the prophecy said 'the one with the power to defeat the Dark Lord' – that's a quote – to defeat him, and the Dark Lord keeps trying. But he can't. Your father said he doesn't believe in the prophecy? Then why does he want to know what it said so badly? I mentioned some of it to him at the party, and I saw it in his expression, I know he wants to know it, but so far he hasn't come here to ask me."

Draco turned his head. "No, he wants me to get it out of you."

"Draco, answer me this truthfully, who do you want to win, Harry or the Dark Lord?" she asked. "Given a real choice, as if saying it will make it so, who do you want to win?"

He hung his head.

"If you can tell me honestly it's Harry, then I will tell you what you want to know," she offered, knowing he could just lie to her, but trust had to start somewhere.

His head snapped up sharply as his eyes met hers. "You'd tell me – if I betray him?"

"I'm not asking you to betray him. All I'm asking is that you allow me to help Harry, if I can: information, spells, answers, tell me what you know, help me. I know you're clever, but I don't know if you're cunning. I know you're intelligent, but are you quick-witted and can you be sly? Can you occlude your mind? I can." She could almost see the thoughts turning in his head, and she hoped Severus was right about him. "And I'm not asking for you to openly defy him – that would be a death sentence, and I don't want you to die. But I will be looking for something – information for Harry and Ron – something that will help them. Help me, and in the end if Harry wins, I will vouch for you. You will not go to Azkaban for being Marked."

He stood up. "No... I can't..." He moved to walk away. "He'll know! It's too dangerous."

"All I ask is to let me look stuff up in the library and don't turn me in for it," she said, knowing this would be a safe place for him to start coming over to their side. "Is that too much to ask?"

"Let me think about it?" he said, rubbing his hands on his face.

"Okay," she replied, picking up the Dark Arts book. It was a start.

He paced the room as she read, well scanned through the book. When she got up to get another, he watched her but made no comment about it. Finally, after the longest time, he picked up a book for himself and sat in the chair by the window, staring outside with the book on his lap.

She searched through six more books before she heard Severus moving about downstairs. She set the book back and turned to look at Draco. Up until that moment, he hadn't moved. "I suspect it's almost dinner," she stated.

He rose. "I bet you'll be glad to see your friends," he replied as he walked to the self to put his book away.

"I have already spent the afternoon with one friend," she said, smiling at his surprised look. "But you're right, yes, it will be nice to see my other friends."

~T~

He wore his hair long for a reason, his fringe falling over his eyes and his hair covering his ears, even though his mum always wanted him to trim it. His light brown eyes were usually downcast, although he hardly missed anything going on around him. He was tall and thin, "weedy-looking" as his father put it, though not meant as a compliment. That suited him; it meant he was usually overlooked in favor of his older brothers. But Nicholas died in a fight with a werewolf last year, and Franklin now worked in the Ministry under Runcorn in the Aurory, so his father's attention had turned to him in hopes that by becoming a Death Eater he would bring further glory to his family. Not that he agreed.

He looked up when the carriage jolted and cringed at the sight of the winged creature pulling them. He normally avoided looking at them by burying his nose in a book on the ride up to the castle. Seeing them always reminded him of his mother's death at the hand of a wizard in black robes and a half-skull mask, something he'd never admitted seeing to his father.

"Does it hurt?" Felicia asked, laying her small hand across his arm. Across from them, Glenwynn and Adriana looked upon him with sympathetic eyes. At least they knew how he truly felt.

It hurt, the pressure of Felicia's hand, but he didn't shrug her off. "Not so much," he lied, but she removed her hand as if she knew the truth anyway. He looked now at his left arm as if he could see the hated symbol burned into his flesh through his sleeve. He hadn't been given the choice, it had been assumed he'd want it, would be proud to join. At least his had the dark bronze lion trapped in the twisted coils of the snake. He could pretend it meant something, that lion, that it could mean he protected her, not that he was a prejudiced miscreant.

But as he'd knelt to receive his Mark, his indoctrination into the Knighthood, he'd said softly, "I have the same lessons the Mudblood has," as the Dark Lord aimed his wand. He didn't know what made him so daring to have spoken, but at that moment he'd recalled what his father had said about the Dark Lord connecting Headmaster Snape's, Cillian Gwynek's and Draco's Marks to Hermione's. He remembered it vividly:

The Dark Lord paused, his wand tip barely touching his skin. "Yes, you do, don't you," the Dark Lord said sibilantly. The fearsome wizard looked up at Draco Malfoy standing to the side with his mother, then over at Goyle, who was kneeling beside Theo, waiting to receive his Mark next, and the thin lips curved into the semblance of a smile on the grotesque face. "Ones that Draco does not?"

It was a question, one that made Theo smile inwardly. "Yes," he replied softly, keeping his head low in a differential pose.

"So Severus would have the three of you," the Dark Lord said, looking at Goyle again.

Goyle's eyes shifted warily to the side quickly and then back down, but Theo didn't move a muscle.

The Dark Lord had looked down at Theo, smiling again as he'd pressed his wand down into his forearm and said the incantation that would seal his fate to a life he never wanted.

Although he was considered to be 'rabbity' to some of his housemates, he was not fearful or timid or bucktoothed. He was simply a quiet person who preferred to be in the background; a clever loner who never felt the need to fit in with the crowd at school. But considering whom he shared a dorm room with that was a good thing, since he didn't hold to their beliefs. The thing was, he wasn't as sure about Malfoy's beliefs anymore; Malfoy wasn't as much of an arrogant, pretentious boaster like he used to be, and there was a strained, haunted look about Malfoy that he'd noticed for last year. It was as if Malfoy was finally beginning to see the truth, but felt trapped.

Of course, the Dark Lord had commandeered not only Malfoy's home and everything his family possessed, but the Dark Lord was using Mrs. and Mr. Malfoy like his personal slaves. That alone would open up anyone's eyes, well, any normal person's eyes.

And he knew that Goyle was also having difficulty finding his 'place' this year. With a little more persuasion, Goyle would finally come around, he knew it.

He jumped down as the carriage came to a stop and held his hand out to assist Adriana. He turned to see Crabbe jumping down from his carriage as Zabini, Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bulstrode stood up to disembark. Naturally, Crabbe walked away, leaving, the cad. Zambini, behaving the gentleman he was expected to be, offered his hand to assist the girls down.

As the next carriage arrived, he saw his dorm mate, Markus Schlinder, with sixth-years, Dwayne Hardgrave, Miles Coughtery and William Pritchard. Theo jutted his chin up at Markus, and Markus nodded in return.

"How was your holiday?" Markus asked, his German accent evident again in his speech.

"Fine," Theo said, helping Felicia disembark. "Yours?"

"Went to Germany to see my family," Markus said, holding his hand for Glenwynn.

Theo nodded, not surprised. Markus' family had fled to Germany in 1981, and then had moved back to England in 1990, thinking that the Dark Lord was long gone and the tribulations of the trials were over, only to feel trapped again in 1995 when the Dark Lord returned. At least Markus hadn't been around to be Marked, his family always spent their holidays in the homeland as he called it. They walked into the castle, talking about their summer in hushed tones. Theo saw the seventh-year Gryffindors disembark their carriage when he turned to answer Glenwynn. As usual the Gryffindors were laughing and talking happily. He knew they would quiet down as soon as they entered the Great Hall.

He and Markus followed the girls to their house table. Theo slyly glanced at the Gryffindor table and noticed that Hermione's bodyguard was not with her. Shite! He wondered what happened and what it meant for her. He liked Hermione. She was nice to everyone, smart and, yes, a bossy, walking encyclopedia, but not really a braggart, just always trying to prove herself. He assumed it was because she was Muggle-born – she wanted to prove she belonged.

He looked up at the end of his table at the four men sitting there: his father, Mr. Avery, Mr. Rosier and Mr. Baddock. His father thankfully was engaged in conversation with the other Death Eaters. That was fine with him. Theo looked up at staff table as he sat down and scowled. Mr. Lestrange was sitting between Alecto and Amycus Carrow. Theo wasn't sure what to make of that.

Headmaster Snape stood and gave a brief and to the point welcome, announcing Rabastan Lestrange as the new Dark Arts assistant professor, then outlined the changes being implemented. There were protests at the announcement of walking in lines, no lingering in corridors, earlier curfews and shortened hours for the library. He wondered what his father was doing at the school, but if Mr. Avery and Mr. Rosier were here too, it couldn't be good.

He looked up at Felicia, Adriana and Glenwynn, but they shrugged. No, not good.

Dinner progressed, and Theo and Markus talked softly, careful to stick to benign topics. There would be time later to discuss more serious matters. Across the table, the girls spoke about things girls were supposed to engage in, all carefully played out for the others in the house. He looked up at Hermione again, wondering how much of the rumors he'd heard were true: he'd heard that she had run away, joined Potter and Weasely, and then returned. It was unfathomable in his mind, to have gained her freedom and willingly return. Unless there was more to the story than he knew of, circumstances he hadn't considered yet.

When the plates cleared, he felt relieved. Headmaster Snape ordered the prefects to escort all the students to their dorm in an orderly fashion. There were protests, looks of surprise, but everyone complied. Somewhat.

As he and his friends walked into the Entrance Hall, Theo frowned. There on the wall were the words:

Welcome back!

Dumbledore's Army is as strong as ever!

Join Us. Fight for what is Right!

Theo shook his head. They had no subtlety. He heard Crabbe swear and complain to Pansy about the graffiti, and Theo looked around as Seamus Finnigan commented about the writing. Others were making comments, some in anger, some confused and a few in support.

"Move along," VanHalal shouted, and Theo could see Travers and MacCavish shoving the students to move toward the stairs. "Stop gawking. Get moving."

Theo wondered how the words got there, but shrugged. It didn't matter. They never figured out who actually did it anyway, but the same twelve students would get the blame.

Sure enough, as Hermione exited the Great Hall, Travers grabbed her arm. "And where do you think you are going?" Travers snarled at Hermione as MacCavish grabbed Finnigan's and Longbottom's arms and VanHalal grabbed two more Gryffindors.

"Up to—" she started to say but was cut off by Malfoy.

"Hand her over," Malfoy demanded. "I'll take her—"

"No. She and her friends did this," Travers said, indicating the wall, and Theo could see her wince as Travers jerked her arm.

"No, she did not," Malfoy said firmly, staring Travers down.

Theo cautiously moved closer, but not too close, just within wandshot.

"She was with me all afternoon until I walked her down here to dinner. So unless you think I would stop and allow her to do that," he pointed at the writing, "I suggest you let her go."

"You were at the Slytherin table all through dinner," Travers snapped, still holding onto Hermione's arm with a tight grip. "She could've done it when your back was turned. This happened while we were eating."

Malfoy drew his wand. "And MacCavish was sitting across the table from her. Professor Snape, the Carrows and Mr. Lestrange were sitting at the staff table," Malfoy pointed out as Travers pulled his wand out, and people began to move away. "If she'd tried to sneak out, one of them would have noticed, don't you think?"

"Unhand her," Professor Snape demanded. Theo turned to see Headmaster Snape walk forward, his face stony. "Hermione, come here," he snapped, ordering her as if she were his crup.

Travers released her, allowing Hermione to walk over to Professor Snape, and Theo saw the obedient puppy look on her face.

"Mr. Malfoy, take Hermione up to my office and wait for me there," Professor Snape said and turned to face the others.

As soon as Malfoy pulled Hermione's arm to make her go with him, Professor Snape asked, "Now, who did this?"

He's protecting her, Theo thought. Once again, the Headmaster separated Hermione from the scene before appointing punishments.

Longbottom stood taller, Finnigan had a stubborn look of defiance, the Weasley girl and the other girl were scared but stood their ground. The fools. Theo shook his head as he walked away. Like anyone would admit to doing that.

~H~

Hermione stirred, slowly coming awake as she felt herself being moved. "Go back to sleep, it's still early," Severus said as he extracted himself from her and threw back the covers on his side of the bed.

"Severus," she said groggily as she reached for him, but he shook his head.

"I didn't mean to wake you," he said, grabbing his pants and trousers from the foot of the bed.

"Don't—" she started to say, running her hand on his back, hoping to get him to lie back down with her for a while.

But he stood up, grabbing his shirt as he said, "I have a lot to do today. Go back to sleep."

She watched him dress with a sense of disappointment. Severus had been distant since New Year's, and as the start of the new term had approached, he'd become more and more irritable. She had tried to speak to him a few times about what had happened at the revel, but didn't know how to broach the subject with him when he was in such a mood. Not that she'd expected him to be the one to bring it up with her.

She'd asked Peren to take a letter to Dianne to ask her for advice. Dianne had written back to say that Severus and Cillian were very much alike, and that he might not be ready to discuss it. Apparently, Cillian had felt very guilty about the events of that night, and Hermione wondered if Severus did too. It would explain a lot regarding his attitude towards her.

She had tried to talk to him last night, but he had been busy in his office and had stayed up very late. He had woken her when he had finally come to bed, even though he had not intended to do so, and she had taken the opportunity to kiss and caress him, to try to reestablish intimacy between them. He had responded, but it seemed mechanical, perfunctory, more need and release then love making. It was like he was distracted, and she was concerned about the amount of stress he must be under. And his pulling away from her now didn't help matters either. "Did I…?" she started to ask, but faltered when and turned to face her.

"No, it's not you," he said flatly. She reached out to him, and he clasped her hand in his as he sat down on the bed. "Why would you think it's you?"

She shrugged, not wanting to voice her misgivings and add to his burden, and he sighed heavily.

"Hermione, I wish things could be better, but they aren't. I can't…" He looked away for a moment. "I have a lot to do before breakfast." He leaned forward and kissed her, and she felt relieved at the tenderness of his kiss. "Try to sleep. I'll be in my office when you get up."

He walked out of their bedroom, and Hermione fell back onto the pillow and covered her eyes. Something was wrong, and he was shutting her out. It could be the additional wizards she'd seen in the Great Hall last night. All of her friends had been far more subdued at dinner than normal, and no one talked to her since MacCavish had chosen to sit right in front of her, glaring at her the entire meal. Or it could be something more personal, but if they didn't talk about it, open up to each other, whatever it was, it would only get worse. She felt like a coward, not being able to talk about what she assumed had happened at the revel and with whom. She couldn't just forgive him, but she also knew she'd have to get past it if they were to remain together. She still loved him, and that hurt her, too.

She heard Peren return with a soft pop, having delivered all of her belated Christmas gifts to her friends. She smiled slightly at the thought before her thoughts turned back to her problem with Severus.

Sighing, Hermione finally gave up going back to sleep and opted to take a bath. When she had finally gotten herself ready for the day, she went downstairs, and stopped short. "Where's Cillian?"

Severus looked up and placed his quill in its holder. "Cillian still hasn't returned," he said as he dipped the tip of his quill in his inkwell.

She didn't know why Cillian was gone, or if anything had happened to him, but she suspected it was something to do with why he'd been so irritable and anxious the last time she'd seen him on the island. Hermione hoped he was all right, but when she asked Severus wouldn't say anything except that he had a family matter to attend to. She hoped things were well with him and Dianne. She'd mentioned in her letter that they had at least talked about it again, however briefly. If Dianne can forgive Cillian, I should be able to do so with Severus. Or at least accept it and put it behind us. She remembered her mum once saying that sometimes her father made her so angry at times. But then arguments between her parents had been few and usually handled in private.

Severus rose from his desk. "Ready?"

"Yes," she replied, giving him a weak smile. They would have to talk about it soon, but only when she was ready to brooch the subject, and he wasn't so unreceptive.

Severus escorted her down to breakfast and then strode purposefully up to the staff table as she sat in her usual place. Hermione ignored MacCavish's glares as she helped herself to cereal and sausages. Ginny, Jenny and Janilynn came down late, but with MacCavish sitting right across from Hermione, they didn't talk to her much except to exchange a few pleasantries and to thank her for their gifts. When the Daily Prophet arrived, Jenny scooted closer to Hermione and held the paper so she could read it, too.

Pictures of Harry and Ron were on the top of the page as usual, and the promise of two thousand Galleons reward for information on their whereabouts.Devon Yaxley, Head of the MLE and in charge of Muggle Infiltration Defense, and Morgund Runcorn, Head of the Aurors, were both quoted, regarding the search for the 'dastardly, dangerous and demented wizards.'

The next article focused on the Legal Guidelines for the Manufacture of Magical Apparatuses and Devises which had been amended, allowing the use of any magically altered Muggle 'convenience appliances and gadgets' within magical households. However, all such object had to be registered with both the Office for the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Magical Objects and the MRC.

"Another way for the MRC to find undesirables," Jenny said under her breath, and Hermione glanced sideways at her. "Otherwise, why would they have to be registered?" Jenny added. "I mean, most magical families are not familiar with miniwave cookers and blenders and such and wouldn't know what they are for, right?"

"You're familiar with them?' Hermione asked, keeping her voice as low as possible, surprised that Jenny knew about Muggle kitchen appliances.

Jenny's lips quirked slightly. "Yes, Mum loves the blender, but it makes a horrible mess." Hermione looked at her questioningly, and Jenny laughed softly. "If she is too enthusiastic with her wand to make the…" she made a few tiny circles with her finger, "you know, the spinny part spin, the top blows off."

Hermione stifled a laugh. "We always had to hold the top down when we…," she started to say, then felt a twang in her chest. She really did miss her parents. "Well, mum and I used to."

Jenny touched Hermione's arm. "Are they…?" she asked, but Hermione shrugged.

MacCavish was leaning forward, glaring at them. "What are you two talking about?"

"An article in the paper, obviously," Jenny replied and flicked the paper, holding it up a bit higher. "I'm sure they are fine or you would've heard."

Hermione wasn't so sure. She made a small smile at Jenny and looked at the paper again as Jenny gave Hermione's arm a slight squeeze. Hermione skipped to the next article in the paper.

Ministry of Magic has deemed it illegal to use any wizard property, including attics, kennels, stables, lofts, trailers, sheds or garages, etcetera, for the use of illegally housing Muggle-borns. Any knowledge of Muggle-borns known to be residing in or hiding in a magical or Muggle residence, please inform the MRC immediately. Information that leads to the captureand arrest of violators can earn up to a thousand Galleons...

Hermione smirked at the thought of anyone living in Mr. Weasley's shed. However, the idea also saddened her, since it reminded her of the destruction of his house.

"I could use that thousand Galleons," MacCavish said, shoving a sausage in his mouth.

"Except the MRC already knows she's here," Draco said, startling Hermione. "Aren't you done eating yet? I'm to walk you to our lesson, and I want to go to the library first."

"Right, okay," Hermione said and ate one last large mouthful of her cereal, washing it down with her milk. She clamored from the table and grabbed her bag. "See you later?" she asked her friends and walked out with Draco.

Once they were in the library, he shoved her toward the shelves and pulled her into a seldom-used section. "What things?"

She gapped at him in confusion. "I don't understand what you're—"

"You told me you were going to look stuff up," he hissed, bending slightly so they were face to face. "What stuff?"

Hermione shrugged. "It depends on what he needs," she replied.

"If I'm going to do this I want to know how you'll find out what he needs and how you'll send it to him?" Draco stated in low tones, barely above a whisper.

Either he's considering helping me – or he wants to turn my friends in, she thought, trying to discern his motives. Even to someone like Draco, two thousand Galleons was a lot of gold, and as much as she wanted to trust him, her trust would have to be earned. "Obviously we don't use owls. There are other magical ways to pass information," she watched his eyes for any hint what he was about, "but right now, it's complicated."

"You don't trust me," he stated as he stood straighter, sounding affronted by her reply. "All that talk about – but you don't trust me."

"Draco, how – it varies. We have means, sure, but depending which we use, they each have certain restrictions, complications, so it varies," she replied, hoping that would suffice.

He nodded, apparently satisfied for now. They left the library in silence and walked quickly to Alecto's classroom.

She knew he was watching her all through Muggle Studies, but when Alecto used her ruler on her hand, he didn't say anything. Like before, Alecto's mantra seemed to be, 'Muggles are like animals. Muggles are stupid and dirty. They drove wizards into hiding by torturing and killing them. And now the Dark Lord was finally going to reestablish the natural order of how it should be.'

Claudia and Geraldine tried to answer every question posed to Hermione or Lavender to distract Alecto, which only brought her ire down on them as well. Not that it stopped Alecto from punishing Hermione and Lavender anyway. Seamus tried to speak up about the abuse, but Alecto hit him with a Stinging Hex in the face, and when Neville protested, she Crucioed him. No one spoke up after that. By the end of the lesson, Hermione's, Claudia's, Geraldine's and Lavender's hands were bleeding, and Seamus' face was grotesquely swollen.

Parvati and Padma helped Seamus and Neville to the hospital wing after the lesson while Charlene and Breanna followed Hermione, Lavender, Claudia and Geraldine into the loo. Charlene pulled out a bottle of Dittany from her bag as Hermione held her hand under the cool water at the sink. The water made the cuts sting.

"I wanted to thank you for the earrings," Breanna said simply.

Hermione said, "You're welcome," and thanked her for the lovely gloves.

"I wanted to ask you…" Breanna started to say, interrupted when Charlene handed Hermione a handkerchief soaked with Dittany. Geraldine cast a sound dampening charm for privacy.

"Why did he Mark you? Did you want to…? I mean, he said you are now his," Breanna asked after Hermione thanked Charlene. All five girls looked at her expectantly.

Hermione shrugged, remembering that Breanna had been there that night. "To make Harry and Ron believe that I'd changed sides, I suppose." She must have told them, since all of them knew about the Mark, and since were in the DA, everyone else probably all knew about her Mark as well. "The Mark he gave me at the Winter Solstice Ball was only a brand – a type of magical tattoo with a snake coming out of a lion's mouth – similar to theirs, but different." She pulled up her sleeve, and all five girls leaned in to look. "But the Dark Lord changed the mark afterwards – he finished it – used the same spells he must've used on the Death Eater's Mark. The snake seems to undulate now, and I can feel it in my skin." Lavender, Claudia and Geraldine looked horrified, but both Charlene and Breanna looked sympathetic, and Hermione hoped the others would react as calmly. "He also connected Cillian's and Severus' to mine somehow, so I can't run away again."

"After you came back to Professor Snape?" Claudia asked, and Hermione nodded as she pulled down her sleeve. "Why would you do that? Come back?"

"So it's true, you left, only to come back? Are you crazy?" Charlene asked, her eyes wide.

"Yes, I came back," Hermione replied, checking her hand, dabbing at it one last time. The cuts were healed and the pain much less. "I had to. If I hadn't, things could have gotten bad here at school. I was worried that Severus would be killed for losing me and he'd replaced by Alecto Carrow as Headmistress. So far Severus has been able to keep control of her punishments, but with him gone…"

"Alecto in charge?" Claudia gasped as Lavender and Geraldine looked at their hands, and Breanna and Charlene both paled slightly.

"Yes! She covets the Headmaster's position and is furious that she is not Deputy Headmistress. But so far the Dark Lord allows Professor McGonagall to keep her post," Hermione explained. "I think its Severus' doing, but if things were to get too bad, he could be replaced."

"And if she got the post…" Breanna's voice trailed off. "So, you came back to save Severus?"

"I came back for all of you!" Hermione replied, facing them. "If Alecto became Headmistress, she would make her brother Deputy Headmaster—"

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Aren't you done yet?" Draco snapped from the doorway.

"Soon. I need a few more minutes," Hermione said quickly. "Charlene gave me some Dittany for my hand."

"Well be quick about it, I didn't want to spend my revision time standing outside a girls' lavatory," Draco said impatiently, but he exited the loo.

"How are they, Harry and Ron?" Claudia asked. "We were supposed to use the Portkeys if there was a raid on the train and meet up with them… but no knows if those who escaped did."

Hermione told them what she knew, repeating the names she remembered, being careful to only designate the locations as Outpost I and II or Main camp. Charlene took a list of names from her pocket, marking the names that Hermione had mentioned. "I know they are struggling when it comes to food and supplies, but they haven't given up."

"These are the ones who are still missing," Charlene said, showing Hermione the list. "Do you know what has happened to them?"

"No," Hermione said with a shake of her head as she read the list. She was sad that Luna's, Megan's and Mandy'snames were on the list, as were Terry Boot and Stephen Cornfoot, but seeing Marietta Edgecombe's was a surprise as was fifth-years, Brianna Hamleton's and Margery Hopkirk's. Duane Saunders, Joaquin Schmidt, Wendell Walters, Wilberforce Wodehalle… she read silently. There were quite a few. Even some names she didn't readily recognize. "I'm still pretty isolated from things," she said sadly, handing the list back to Charlene. "I heard that you had been abducted from the train? What happened?"

Charlene sighed heavily. "My father had me abducted from the train," she said with a sense of rueful-resentment. "I was held in Malfoy Manor for a few days as punishments because I wrote to my parents that I didn't want to marry Egmont Bole and that I was seeing Gerald Summerby. Dad was furious with me, told me I'd put the family in jeopardy… But I hate Bole, there's no way I could marry him."

"I remember Bole, he played for Slytherin a few years back," Hermione said, remembering Harry and Ron complaining about him.

"Yeah, he played Beater, and he's not exactly a nice guy, either," Charlene stated. "My dad and Mr. Bole are friends though, but the Boles are in league with You-Know-Who. I thought my dad was simply a supporter, you know, doing what he had to so we would stay off the lists. Turns out I was wrong – he's Marked! Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Mordaunt were allowed to question me about my loyalty and informed me that I had a duty as a daughter of a loyal follower to marry someone proper and start producing babies – it was horrible. Apparently, Mum cried and refused to even look at my dad until I was brought home. Curity., my baby sister, told me mum locked herself in one of the guest suites until dad relented. When I was brought home, I was placed under house arrest. Not only that, but my dad had Egmont Bole over nearly every day so he could court me properly! It was sooo annoying. I'm just glad I was allowed to come back to school; Mum insisted and convinced dad to let me return."

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, knowing how hard that might be.

Charlene shrugged. "Old family, not bad off, it was destined we'd be sought out. I just thought Dad was trying to protect us, but he's one of them." She sighed heavily.

Draco pushed open the door again. "Hermione, isn't your hand healed by now? We have to get to Potions."

"All right, I'm coming," she said, and the girls all exited the loo.

To her surprise, Theodore Nott was leaning against the wall next to Draco. He had his hands in his pockets, his head down so his hair fell into his eyes, and he didn't look up when she started to walk off with Draco, but he followed them to class. In the classroom, Nott greeted Schlinder with a jut of his chin, and the two Slytherins took the worktable to Hermione's right.

Professor Slughorn drew everyone's attention to the potion on the board. "As you can see, this potion has fifty steps that have to be made in quick succession and many of the ingredient preparations are time consuming, so you'll work in pairs and coordinate your steps with each other to finish the potion in time. You may begin," he said.

Draco nudged her arm. "Stay put, I'll get the ingredients," he said, leaving her to set up their cauldron and begin the base. When Draco returned, Hermione had everything as neatly organized as she could. "Nice," he said, passing her the cavassa roots. "Dice."

They worked well together, and by the end of the lesson, they had a reasonable potion. They cleaned up quickly, and Hermione carried their sample up for marking. When she returned, Nott was waiting by her worktable. "Well, don't you have Transfiguration next?" Draco asked, thrusting her bag at her.

"We both do," she replied. As they left, Nott fell into place behind them again, and he followed Hermione and Draco all the way to the classroom, but he took his normal seat between Zabini and Schlinder.

Oddly, Nott waited after the lesson by the door, and he and Schlinder walked behind Draco and Hermione all the way to the Great Hall for lunch. Even more disturbing, Nott was waiting with Draco after lunch to escort her to Wizarding Language and Literature. She was even more surprised when Draco told Professor VanDerhauthe that he was to sit in on the lesson and took the seat directly behind Hermione next to Nott. Draco quietly worked on an essay, pointedly ignoring everyone in the room. After their lesson, Nott packed up quickly and followed Draco and Hermione out into the corridor. Although Nott kept a reasonable distance, he nonetheless followed Draco and Hermione to the Headmaster's Tower and waited with Draco until she could no longer see them as she rode the stairs up to Severus' office.

Unfortunately, Severus was busy with correspondence and refused to allow her to leave the tower for any reason, even to go to the library to work on her essays.

Hermione used her time searching through the books on the forbidden bookshelf until Peren told her that Severus was walking to the stairs. Hermione hid the book she'd been looking through under a cushion and picked up Silent Honor, pretending to have been engrossed in the novel, before Severus entered the room. He paused and looked at her. He said nothing, watching her intently before turning and pouring himself a drink. She wondered if he knew about the book hidden under the cushion and hoped not. However, he sat in his usual chair and began reading one of his periodicals, Theorem Alchemies.

After a half hour, she sighed. He still wasn't in the mood to talk, obviously since he hadn't glanced her way once. Sadly, she went upstairs to take a bath.

~o0o~

Tuesday, Hermione saw Nott in the corridor as she and Draco walked to Charms, and he joined them as Draco escorted her to Arithmancy. After the lesson, Draco and Nott escorted her to the library, sitting at the same table she did during her revision break, and then Nott walked with Hermione and Draco to Greenhouse four, before taking off at a run for his own lesson. After lunch, Nott once again appeared, falling into step with Draco and the three of them went to Ancient Runes together, even though Draco didn't take the course and Nott did. Draco sat in the seat next to Nott and quietly read, while Professor Rosencruz lectured. Afterwards, both Draco and Nott hung around Hermione as she revised in the library until dinner. She'd tried to ask Draco about it as they walked to the Great Hall, but he simply told her to "leave off," and that it was what the Dark Lord wanted.

All through dinner, Hermione wondered if Nott had been told to befriend her as well, although Nott hadn't made any indication that he wanted to be friends.

Cillian returned on Wednesday, making what was normally her most hated day a whole lot more bearable, even though Alecto still tormented her, and Amycus allowed Crabbe to hex her in the corridor, giving him twenty House points.

When the seventh-years all arrived in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, Hermione was sickened by the new décor: spaced between each window were explicit images of someone being tortured by some curse or another. Mr. Lestrange seemed to spend his time at the back of the room, staring at the Slytherin girls and trying to engage Cillian in conversation.

Theodore Nott's conspicuous behavior seemed to stop, since the only times she saw him were the few times they crossed paths in the corridor on the way to the subjects they shared, but she still saw him in the library during her revision time, and he seemed to linger in the Entrance Hall before and after meals.

And she had another lesson with Professor McGonagall, practicing transforming into her Animagus form. Changing into the form of a ferret was defiantly easier for Hermione than returning to her human form, but she did manage it on her own four times, although the second time she still had the small pink nose. But she was getting more competent at it.

Although Cillian had refused to tell her what had happened or where he'd been, he definitely seemed more relaxed, although not at all his normal self. However, when Hermione asked if she could spend some time with her friends before curfew, he readily agreed, but he was pensive and moody as they walked up to Gryffindor Tower, so Hermione chose not to try and engaged him in conversation. Once in the Gryffindor common room, Hermione quickly walked over to her friends by the fire as Cillian magically commandeered a chair to wait for her by the portrait hole.

Breanna, Charlene, Ginny, Neville and Seamus were sitting in the chairs by the fireplace with Janilynn and Jenny sitting crossed-legged on the floor, facing them at the coffee table. "Hi," Hermione said as she approached.

Ginny looked up, eyeing Cillian nervously as she closed her revision guide. Hermione recognized it as the one she'd given Ginny her fourth year for Christmas. Neville made room for Hermione between him and Seamus on the sofa as Charlene moved to sit next to Jenny on the rug at the coffee table. "So how was your holiday?" Hermione asked.

"Not as exciting as yours," Ginny stated as Hermione sat down. "Breanna told us you were Marked, but Ron said it was different than the Death Eater's Marks. But then Charlene told us it looks like the real thing, so what gives?"

"Is it really a Dark Mark?" Neville asked.

"Breanna told us what you told her in the loo. What I want to know is why in Merlin's name did you return?" Jenny asked.

"Where to start?" Hermione asked. She told them what happened as quickly as possible. Most of her friends believed her, but Seamus, Charlene and Breanna still looked skeptical. She asked after their holidays.

Jenny and Janilynn told her about Christmas at Seamus', and Neville told her about the attempted attacks on his Gran's home. "But we were at her house in Bath. Nigel Wolpert liked the museums and the Roman Central Bath, and Jack Sloper and Ernie Coppersmith couldn't get enough of the Bath buns with crushed comfits."

"You went to the museums?" Hermione asked, both envious and confused. She loved the museums in Bath; she'd been there with her parents several times. "But wasn't that incredibly risky?"

"Nah," Neville said with a shake of his head. "They are Muggle museums, wizards don't go in there. But Gran said we'd been fed so much rubbish about Muggles, she wanted to take us so we'd have a better understanding about them."

"It's a novel idea, but… I'm glad you were all right. How's your Gran?" Hermione asked.

"She's well, thank you," Neville stated.

Hermione glanced down at Ginny's revision planner as she opened the book. "I got the idea from you," Ginny said, showing her the page. "We've coordinated all the schedules."

Hermione read over the chart. She was impressed; it was very well organized.

"Just like before, there are a number of sixth- and fifth-years who are in the DA, but thankfully, Neville kept the first meeting to just a few representatives from each house. You would've been included but… you weren't here."

Hermione saw herself on the list, and her 'house' was jokingly referred to as being the Snape Tower.

"That's if we'd be able to get her away from your bodyguard," Seamus scoffed.

Hermione smiled, making a quick glance back at Cillian. "You may be surprised there," she said softly, turning back to her friends. "He's… well, I'm working on it." she paused, not wanting to divulge things yet, "it's complicated." Ginny's eyes narrowed, but Seamus and Neville seemed to accept her answer. "I think you'll find that certain activities over the holiday have made some begin to question their stance in this war."

"Not likely," Breanna stated and then lowered her voice. "The Gwyneck's are all on You-Know-Who's side."

"I dunno, I think there are some people who are becoming disheartened with the Dark Lord's regime," Hermione stated. "For many, their life was better before the Dark Lord came back and started to take over. It's the ones who were considered, well, beneath the others, who had no respect, who didn't have a lot of money or high social standing even though they were from once prominent families – they're the ones who are happy because now they are respected and feared. Like the Carrows."

"Or those who have a dark, demented aspect to their personalities and like to cause trouble, steal, kill and break the law, like the Dolohov, Macnair and Gottfried– they would be drawn to him," Neville added.

"Look at the Malfoy's, they've lost so much," Charlene stated.

Seamus shrugged. "Still, once bad, always bad. Like the Lestranges and VanHalals."

But Charlene and Neville both looked very thoughtful as if they both knew exactly what she was saying.

Unfortunately, Cillian cut their enjoyment short by announcing it was time for her to leave.

When Hermione returned to the Headmaster's Tower, Severus was having drinks with Mr. Avery and Mr. Rosier. "…especially from her husband. You'd think that Belinda would be preening," Avery was saying conversationally, although his cold eyes followed Hermione as she entered the office. "But she's kept a low profile."

"Who could blame her after that show," Rosier said as he tipped his glass at Severus. Avery and Rosier both chuckled, but even though Severus smiled, Hermione could tell he was anything but pleased.

"Haven't seen the two of them all week, but then she's expecting now, isn't she?" Avery asked smugly, smirking at Hermione.

She excused herself politely and hurried upstairs to get away from the men. She decided to take a long bath and soak away all her aches and worries. As she reclined in the tub, Hermione wondered if Severus had been with Belinda at the revel, then dismissed the thought. It wasn't worth dwelling on. Besides, she told herself, Severus didn't have a choice: it had been a Dark Revel, the Dark Lord's party. And Severus had told her enough times that he played the part. Like an actor following a script, she justified, ignoring the sinking feeling in her gut. It was all for show, an act, meaningless, except to maintain his position – to keep in the Dark Lord's good graces. in her letters, Dianne had told Hermione that she'd forgiven Cillian, well, not exactly forgiven him, but they'd had an understanding, and she'd accepted his part in it all. Hermione knew that she could do the same, accept it and put it behind them.

She closed her eyes, forcing herself to think of something else, concentrating on Hertz Laws of Animate Transfiguration.

She stayed in the bath until the bubbles disappeared, then got out, dried off and wrapped herself in a huge towel. She paused in the doorway, seeing Severus disrobing in front of the wardrobe.

His dark hair obscured his face, but his movements were lithe and fluid as he unfastened his buttons and removed his shirt. She leaned against the doorframe, admiring his physique. His pale skin glowed in the candlelight. He was still as lean as ever with sinewy muscles that rippled as he moved. She smiled shyly at the patch of dark hair under his arms and the splattering of sparse hair on his chest as he turned to face her.

"I thought you'd be asleep by now?" he said tiredly as he toed off his boots.

"I was in the bath," she replied, then scoffed silently as she mentally chastised herself for stating the obvious. She moved a little more into the room and leaned against the wall.

He faced the wardrobe again as he unfastened his trousers, removed them and tossed them aside. She liked his legs, long and well built with somewhat lanky knees. She knew that he was stronger than he appeared; he could lift her easily and could carry her as if she'd weighted almost nothing.

"You're staring."

She looked up and met his gaze, surprised to see them so dark and intense – a look she'd missed seeing as of late. "Sorry, I didn't mean to stare, but…" she said. He looked away, and she felt bereft. He hasn't looked at me like that since… before New Year's, she realized. "Severus, have I done something wrong?"

"No," he replied promptly. "You haven't done anything wrong." He paused briefly as if self-conscious before he pushed his pants down and grabbed his pajama bottoms.

Her eyes followed him, blatantly watching his semi-erect penis as he pulled his pajamas on. "You've been avoiding me," she said, hating the hint of whining in her voice.

He visibly stiffened. "I have not," he said sharply, defensively if she judged his reaction right.

Could Dianne be right, he feels guilty? It would explain why… "We haven't been… together," she said, awkwardly stumbling on her words.

He looked up, still facing the wardrobe. "We've been together every day," he said dryly.

"Intimately. You haven't touched me…" she faltered as his head jerked in her direction, his eyes narrowing briefly. "Is it because of what Avery and Rosier were saying?"

"How much did you overhear," he asked accusingly, his suspicion roused.

"Not that much, only what – I didn't eavesdrop at the door before entering, I swear," she said, hoping to reassure him. "But they were talking about the revel, weren't they?"

His jaw clenched, making a tick show. "I don't want to talk about what happened at the revel," he said through clenched teeth.

"I don't need you to," she said quickly. "I understand, Severus. You did what you had to. It's all right – I understand."

His gaze became hard, sharply penetrating as he looked at her, as if confused. "You understand. Really? How can you…?" His eyes widened as his expression softened. "You forgive me, is that what you are saying?" he asked, challenging her.

She shrugged, holding the towel in place with one hand. "It's not… forgiveness, per se, more like… putting it behind us. I can accept why you… I'm assuming that the revel was like the one described in Schnitzler's novella, or why would you have told me to read it."

"I didn't!" He inhaled deeply. "I shouldn't have – that's not why—"

"Yes, you did," she said, not wanting him to lie to her. "That party was orchestrated by the Dark Lord, for his amusement, wasn't it?"

"No, not for his – for ours. The Death Eaters," he said defensively – defiantly, as if to put himself in their category by admitting such. "The Dark Lord wants followers, children to be raised under his ideals, his philosophy, to think the way he wants them to think."

It's what she'd thought – what she'd told Dianne. "But still, his expectations – at his orders," she persisted. He needed to understand her, and they needed to get this out in the open if there was to be anything between them.

His head dipped slightly, angled so that he could look at her, but not directly at her. "Yes."

Gods, she'd been right. He felt guilty, as guilty as she'd felt angry at him for doing it, even though she knew why he had, and that was why he had withdraw from her – to try to shut himself off emotionally. She hated the Dark Lord. "And if you hadn't, he – and some of the other Death Eaters – would have questioned your loyalty and put your actions to question."

He nodded once slowly, and she continued before he could respond. "I understand this, all of it. I don't like it any more than I think you liked it, well liked being forced into that… and I accept that – that you did what you had to. Not exactly the same thing as forgiveness, but I can put this behind us, to move on—"

"To move on?" he asked, interrupting her. "It's not over, Hermione, I'll be expected to do so again, to do things…"

"I know. I get it, and… well, it's okay," she said with a shrug, keeping her hand in place so the towel didn't come loose. "Not okay that part, but what you have to do to – you know – because he makes you. I'll have to deal with that. But it's okay in the sense that I'm not holding it against you." There she'd said it. She hoped it was enough, but it's all she was capable of.

He looked puzzled but also visibly relieved.

She changed the subject. "That potion – the grey one – it… was a contraception potion, wasn't it? I recognized some of the ingredients, and the color is similar to mine, just with a sea green tinge instead of a pearly sheen that mine has. You used sea urchin ovaries, Silphium, neem oil and wild carrot – you didn't use those in the Priapus Potion."

"No, I didn't," he said and sat on the edge of the bed. "Aren't you tired?" he asked, wearily.

She nodded. "A little," she admitted. She walked up to the wardrobe and withdrew her night slip. She let the towel drop as she raised her hands to let the silky garment slide down her body.

"You know that I'm just going to remove it, don't you?" he asked, right behind her, making her jump. His hands moved up her sides, bunching the slip under his fingers.

"I thought you were tired," she replied, closing her eyes to the prospect of making love to him.

"Not that tired," he said as he kissed her shoulder. "And you did mention that I've been negligent."

"I did, didn't I?" She turned around and wrapped her arms about his neck. "But I forgive you that," she said with a smile as he continued to pull the slip upward. "As long as you kiss me."

"Gladly," he said and captured her lips with his.

~~o0o~~

Author's notes:

Sorry to deprive you of a lemon, but the chapter was getting too long. I promise not to skimp on the lemonade next time.

A huge thank you to my alpha reader, Arabellabloodgood, for reading this over for me, Proulxes for the Britpick, and to Phoenix for combing through this and helping me clean up my many mistakes. I really appreciate the all the help. Thank you very much.