Author's Notes: Thanks as always to my lovely beta, Bean. Slow and steady wins the race; the end is in sight.

Chapter 20

Hermione woke up to the sound of pounding on the door. Her eyes stared blankly up at the ceiling, momentarily confused as it was not the ceiling she was used to. The night before did not come back to her in a rush but in a slow trickle of memory, memory that made her cold and hot in turns. Voldemort lay still as the dead where she had left him, his head resting against the rise and fall of her stomach. When she gently lifted the covers, there he was like an ashen marble statue. His cheek was cool on her skin. She reached down to press on his neck under his jaw, stifling a twinge of panic, but she felt his pulse steady under her fingers.

For a while, she simply stayed there with her head on Voldemort's pillows, swallowed up in Voldemort's covers, his head smooth on her stomach. His hand was loosely wrapped around her calf. When she finally moved, she was able to pull herself out of his grasp without protest. In fact, he barely responded to her sliding away. She eased his head onto the mattress and stepped out of the bed. She shivered as she retrieved her robes and slipped them on. As warm as Voldemort kept his rooms, the fire had gone down and the heating spell had faded. She fought not to groan as muscles she had not used in years protested every movement.

Conscientious, she picked up Voldemort's robes from their heap on the floor near hers and set them out on the foot of the bed. She lifted the covers where he slept in the dark and slid his wand into his hand. After last night, she thought he might not want to be without it when he woke.

She also thought that when he woke, he would not want her to be there. His mind would be clear, clear enough for him to feel the full weight of their actions, and he would not want her to bear witness to that. Even if she did not believe it was humiliating for him, even if she believed it was supposed to be more humiliating for her.

After all, in spite of Voldemort's philosophy that considered sex weakness, both sides of the war would view any sexual interaction between them as a victory for Voldemort – the final act that would make her his, when he had owned her in all other ways. Harry would say she was brainwashed, that after becoming Voldemort's Medicus and eventually fighting by his side, screwing Voldemort was the last in a long effort to break Hermione to Voldemort's will. He would say that Hermione's duties as a Medicus – duties that she now saw as a necessity – had made her Voldemort's servant. More than that, maybe it even made her Voldemort's proverbial right hand man. And perhaps there had been a time when she would have thought that as well.

But something in her, in the way she saw her position with Voldemort, had changed. Hermione was not sure when it had started. Was it last night and her decision to let Voldemort slake his need with her? Was it when she agreed to protect him even in a battlefield of war? Was it when she agreed to be his Medicus? Or was it even further back, when she had slept at the foot of this very bed or when Voldemort once slept in her school bed with her, albeit in a very different form? She did not know if the change was new or whether the revelation of it was new. All she knew was that she should be humiliated, that the people she once called her friends would expect her to be humiliated. But she wasn't.

Hermione was uncertain how what they had done would affect Voldemort and how he might retaliate. However, she felt nothing but … a strange sort of peace. None of her old friends would have understood, but she thought Remus and Severus might. No matter how terrible, she was sure – sure – that she had done the right thing.

She passed through his bathroom, then hers, adjusting her hair and her robes as she went. She heard the pounding on Voldemort's door again and wondered how long the person on the other side of that door had been there. Hermione planned to emerge through her chambers to see who was knocking and stave them off. Voldemort obviously needed the rest, not to mention additional time for his inevitable mortification.

A shriek caught in her throat as she opened the door to her chambers and saw Wormtail creeping toward her. She drew her wand and pointed it straight at him. At the doorway, Wormtail, too, reeled back in shock.

"Merlin, you scared me to death! What the hell are you doing here?" she snapped. "How did you even get in?"

"You must not have l-locked your door, otherwise the wards would have kept me out, I'm sh-sure," Wormtail said, bending down in a subservient position that looked half like a bow and half like he was afraid she was going to throw an Unforgivable at him. "The Dark Lord wasn't answering his door, and I th-thought, maybe you knew where he is or what he's doing."

"So you thought that my bath was the logical place to look next?" Hermione asked.

Wormtail shrugged and muttered too low for her to hear well, but she thought she heard "seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Oh, never mind," Hermione said, lowering her wand while still training the tip on him as she made him back away toward the door to the corridor. "Get out of here. Never, never enter my chambers again, unless I let you in. Understood?"

"I'm s-sorry, I'm sorry." His hand fumbled at the knob when his back hit the door and he stumbled into the hall. Hermione followed him and pointedly locked her chambers with a wave of her wand.

A glance down the hall revealed a frowning Carmen, clearly thrilled with his companion.

"I told you that was a terrible idea," Carmen said, floating away from Voldemort's door, where he had been the one knocking. "Go on. I will handle it from here."

With a few more mumbled apologies, Wormtail slunk past Carmen's flying carpet and scurried down the hall and around a corner.

"Miserable little rodent, insisted on joining me to find the Dark Lord," Carmen explained. "When Lord Voldemort is thirty minutes late for a Death Eater meeting, we wait patiently. When he is an hour late … well, he has never been so late, and I feared the worst."

"The Dark Lord is sleeping after an extended healing session last night. He will rise when he's ready," Hermione replied. "I did not know he had a meeting this morning."

"Morning? Lady, it is afternoon," Carmen said. "And you look as though you only just woke up yourself. Come with me." He put a hand on her shoulder. "I'll put in an order to the house elves for breakfast, and you can tidy yourself up a bit before you venture out into these halls. You and I both know they probably won't mock you to your face, but there is no need to give them fodder to disparage you behind your back."

"Do they do that?" Hermione asked. She let Carmen lead her back to her rooms, and she unlocked the door and politely let him in first before closing the door behind her. Carmen charmed a piece of paper with the order for the kitchen elves and sent it under the door before turning his attention back to Hermione. "I don't particularly care if they do, since they said worse about me when I was Voldemort's pet, and the rest of the wizarding world said even worse. But I'm curious."

"Not as much as they used to," Carmen replied, joining her at her desk and hovering next to her. "I cannot say they never speak of you, but there have been other things to occupy their gossip."

"Anything I need to know?"

Carmen looked down for a brief moment, and Hermione's stomach twisted a little. "I don't think so. The Dark Lord is aware of certain factions of his followers who are not, shall we say, as devoted as he would like. Lord Voldemort manages them well, even distracted as he is."

Hermione glanced at him sharply. "You've noticed that he's been distracted."

A small platter with breakfast appeared on her desk next to her notebook. Upon seeing and smelling it, her stomach gave a resounding growl of approval. Hermione sighed at Carmen's smile and began to eat.

"Whatever ails him so much that he needs you, I suppose," Carmen said, shrugging. "He has been distracted for a while now, longer than I think even most of the Death Eaters know. But I suppose if he needs late night healing sessions, he has good reason to be distracted. And this one did not even accompany a terrible battle."

He cocked his head and took in her still somewhat mussed hair and formal Medicus dress robes – she was overdressed for just waking up, and certainly overdressed for a healing session.

"In theory, that is," he added.

Hermione continued eating and did not respond to his comment. Carmen bent down to peer at her face and the determined way she was not looking at him, then reached out with his wand to push her hair away from her neck. Her robes could hide most of any visible consequences of last night's encounter, and she could make herself move as though her muscles did not ache. But she left her rooms too hastily in order to see who was at Voldemort's door, and Wormtail in her rooms had not helped her presence of mind to hide any other results of Voldemort's attention.

Carmen's wand, thick and roughly hewn, traced the marks on her neck, bringing back the memory of Voldemort's mouth there. Hermione closed her eyes against the brief jolt of unfettered, startlingly physical arousal that accompanied the memory. Voldemort was unconscious and his desires were sated, at least for now. She could not blame the reaction on her empathic Medicus link to him.

As the tip of Carmen's wand followed the line of faint bruises down her neck to the collar of her satin Medicus robes, she felt the first flashes of shame. It was one thing to consent to sex with Voldemort when it was her duty, to want him because he needed her; it was entirely another to want him now, even when he did not need her.

When she opened her eyes again, she felt Carmen's whispered words brush against her exposed skin and felt a simple Concealment Charm cover the faint bruises. She paused there with her fork halfway to her mouth and waited for Carmen to say something, to smirk, to needle, anything the incorrigible flirt and matchmaker had done so many times before. Finally, she set her fork down and faced him.

Carmen's scarred and pocked face was a mix of thoughtfulness and vindication, with a touch of confusion. He put his wand back in its sheath on his belt and just sat there, his elbow on his knee as he considered her.

"Did he hurt you?" he asked.

"It wasn't against my will, if that's what you really mean to ask," Hermione replied.

Carmen ran a hand over his widow's peak. "You know, I always knew he was obsessed with you, the way he can be obsessed about people, people and power. And I ribbed him about admitting his love for you. But that was – that was just play. Now that … I find myself conflicted. For you, my dear. You were always subject to the worst of him."

"Stop," Hermione said, holding up her hand against his concern. "This was not the worst of him. Not by a long shot. It was barely even him. I did what I did to fulfill my duty as a Medicus."

"I know the Medicus reputation, but what could possibly…?"

"I can't discuss that with you. You shouldn't even know that we had sex, much less the reason," Hermione said. "The knocking caught me off guard."

"You mean," he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "you were in his rooms when I was knocking?"

"Stop sounding like a first-year," Hermione said. "I'm his Healer. I'm often in his rooms for reasons that have nothing to do with anything like that."

"Wait. What do you mean that this was not the worst of him by a long shot?" Carmen's carpet swept around her, and he peered at her from a new angle, his dark eyes keen and almost giddy. "This was more than just not against your will, wasn't it? You liked it. It was good."

"Not now, Carmen," Hermione said. Although she could not help the blush high on her cheeks, she was not feeling playful, nor was she feeling as excited as Carmen seemed to become. If anything, she began to feel nauseous.

"The two of you have been fighting each other every step of the way when the gods seem to demand your entwined fates. I do not care if he couched it in healing terms, and I do not care if you excused it as part of your duty. You have both wanted it for close to ten years now. You wanted…"

"Enough!" she shouted, drawing her wand and temporarily paralyzing his flying carpet with the force of her frustration. Not all of it was directed at Carmen, but he certainly was not helping. "You may think you know what you're talking about, but you don't. You don't have a clue what catalyzed the events of last night, nor should you, so I'll thank you to keep your mindless speculation to yourself. And just yourself. I don't want you gloating to Voldemort about how you told him so, because you didn't, and I don't want another word of it shared with anyone else. Or me. Understand?"

She kept her wand trained at his chest until his expression sobered from glee into something more contemplative.

"I will be as quiet as quiet mice," Carmen said, relenting. "Who else would I tell such things to anyway? I am no gossip. Whatever happened would only bolster the ill whispers against the Dark Lord. They may not understand his position on such things, but they do have an opinion on his position with you. I don't think they would accept or appreciate the 'medical' explanation as I do."

"What are they saying against Voldemort, exactly?" Hermione asked, lowering her wand. His carpet shivered as she restored its movement, and he settled down next to her again. She forced herself to return to eating, even if her stomach had not quite settled.

"If you're worried about a coup and for his safety, the Dark Lord is well aware of what they are saying against him, and who's saying it," Carmen said. "A certain amount of distrust and discontent from his unnamed ranks or from the Black Dogs or Cat's Paws is expected. However, the lower ranked followers joined him because they believed in his cause or because they did not believe in Dumbledore's or – Circe forbid – the Ministry's cause. It's the dissention from his Death Eaters on which the Dark Lord keeps his watchful eye."

"So Lucius is still grumbling, just not as directly," Hermione sighed. "You'd think he would learn."

"He's the most vocal of that faction. The Death Eaters did not just join a cause; they joined Voldemort himself. A cause lives on after the man, but if the man's power is perceived to wane…"

"Then so does the devotion," Hermione finished for him. "And that's partially why the Death Eaters scattered after Voldemort's first fall."

"That and they were cowards, of course," Carmen said, and Hermione gave a small grin as she ate the last bit of her breakfast. "That's why the same old guard that deserted him when they thought he was dead now wishes to desert him when they think he is dying. But they don't dare just yet. They have seen what Voldemort is still capable of. And more than that, I think they have seen what he is capable of with you at his side, as much as it galls them to admit that they fear you almost as much as him."

"You keep saying 'they,'" Hermione said, shifting in her seat to converse more comfortably with him. "But you have a Dark Mark on your forearm, by choice. You're a Death Eater, too. Are you afraid of me, too, then?"

"I would be bloody terrified, my dear, if I thought you believed me a threat," Carmen replied. Hermione noticed that his left arm twitched when she mentioned the Dark Mark. She recognized the gesture, the impulse to hide her forearm against her stomach. "Fortunately, you find me too charming to attack. With any alacrity, anyway."

Hermione smiled and looked down at her robes. She saw the wrinkles on the skirts. Marks on her neck aside – hidden marks, not healed marks – she bet she looked a state. Hermione walked to her wardrobe and opened the door so she could use the inside mirror. She assessed the damage. Her hair was not too bad, no worse than it usually was, although she should probably cut it again soon. All she needed to do was pull it back in a tail for now. She needed to change her robes, though.

"Stay over there," she ordered from behind the mirror. She began to unfasten the robes so she could change into something plainer and more comfortable, something that seemed less like she was dressing for someone. Especially when there was only one person in the entire fortress who she could possibly care to impress.

"Are you going to get naked again so soon?" Carmen asked. "I know I am just that appealing, but I long suspected your immunity."

"I'm just changing. Don't look."

"I'm a Death Eater, remember? Of course I'm going to look," Carmen said.

"No, you won't," Hermione replied quietly. She did not doubt that Carmen would look if she felt like showing. She also knew that Carmen wouldn't look now.

Hermione dressed efficiently, wrapped up in a more practical set of Medicus robes in a little over a minute. She closed the wardrobe as she tied her hair back away from her face. Carmen, gentleman that he was, had not moved from where she left him floating. His gaze drifted over her, as though he wondered what he had missed, but she did not feel self-conscious under his scrutiny.

"Carmen, why on earth did you become a Death Eater?" Hermione said, shaking her head.

"The Dark Lord didn't give you my origin story? Well, it is a harrowing tale of dastardly deeds and rakish exploits, and there's some bodice ripping somewhere in the middle…" Carmen said. He leaned back and smiled, his teeth bright against his leathered, scarred skin.

"Voldemort told me you joined him because Dumbledore wouldn't cure you of your impotence," Hermione said.

Carmen's smile faltered a bit. "He did not see it as important enough for his notice. Lord Voldemort only needed a day's worth of research before he managed to cure me."

Hermione went over to her laboratory area and started boiling water for tea. She lifted a teacup in a silent query; Carmen shook his head no.

"Come on, Carmen," Hermione said, digging in a drawer for a teabag. "You're a smart man. Voldemort would not confide in you if you weren't. You are not the kind of man who uses his dick as a political compass, pardon the crudity."

"No pardon necessary, I find it refreshing."

"I guess you went to St. Mungo's to get yourself checked, and that came up dry. But you could have hired a temporary Medicus. If it took Voldemort only a day to find an answer, a Medicus would not take much longer," Hermione said. "I think you even said you've had one before."

"I never had a Medicus for the impotency, no," Carmen said. "I had one back in the '40s, when I lost my leg. Auror Moody gets by on a wooden stump, but I suffered a cursed amputation. The carpet was her idea – this was back before they became so regulated. But no, it has been decades since I last had the pleasure of hiring a Medicus."

"So you hadn't exhausted all Healing possibilities," Hermione replied, "and you go to Dumbledore of all people to cure you? Ithink your problem was a pretense." She brought the steeping cup to her nightstand and sat on the still-made bed. Carmen joined her, floating near her knees.

"Clever girl," Carmen said, his eyes narrowed and glinting with a mischievous light. "My personal concerns were deadly important to me, of course. But more than that, even then I knew that they were forming sides. They had been covertly recruiting me; I saw merit in both. I see that disappoints you, but I do have my opinions on magical blood. What it came down to was that Dumbledore dismissed something that was important to me because it wasn't important to him; Voldemort helped me because he knew it was important to me."

"I think I understand that, but I don't know if I understand why Dumbledore's actions bothered you so much," Hermione said. "I assume that your personal concern was not as important to your decision as Dumbledore's and Voldemort's respective causes." She blew lightly on her tea and sipped from it.

"Yes and no, my dear," Carmen explained. "I am sure that you understand my deeper reasons for rejecting Dumbledore. He presents an image of a dotty old fool or a wise sage or a kindly gentleman – he is these things when it pleases him. But underneath it all is a keen, manipulative, power-hungry mind. He builds his trust on deceit. When he dismissed me, he pretended to be incapable of aiding me. He drank with me and offered a lemon sherbet and acted the benevolent leader… until I told him that I still needed to consider my allegiance. You have seen how he is when his mask slips."

"Yes," Hermione replied softly. "I know why he does what he does, but I think it hurts those who trust him the most." She knew there was no reason to bring up Harry's name. Or her own.

"Precisely. I respect Dumbledore's position and power," Carmen said. "However, Lord Voldemort was different. He put on a more charismatic face for the public while he gradually gained influence within the Ministry and among the elite of the European wizarding world. He had only just started showing his true intent when he approached me, first through other Death Eaters, and then himself. And he … he did not hide himself from me.

"There are things he keeps secret, of course – things that perhaps only you know, lady – but Lord Voldemort made no attempt to disguise his character from me into something more acceptable. When I told him I was reluctant to choose a side, he told me he could wait. And he could. He knew from the very beginning that I would be on his side even without the Dark Mark, because he would not force it upon me, because he did not hide himself from me, and because he made my concerns his concerns. These are things that Dumbledore would not do for me, and so I could not waste myself on him."

Hermione continued to drink her tea, lost in thought.

"I was reluctant to accept the Dark Mark and all that being a Death Eater entails," Carmen added. "I would have preferred to remain on the Dark Lord's side in my previous capacity. But I would rather wear the Dark Mark than shackle myself to the likes of Albus Dumbledore."

She cradled her teacup in her lap and sighed. "I can't say I feel the same, but then my loyalty wasn't to Dumbledore. I mean, it was to some degree, but mostly because he mattered to my friends."

"Perhaps my motives were selfish, but I think everyone is a little selfish when they choose a side," Carmen said.

"Maybe you're right. I soured on him when he denied me access to the Order, even though he let Ron and Harry in. The Order told me they wanted to protect me from the Dark Arts. They did a real bang-up job of it, too." She laughed wryly. "Still, no matter how much I disliked him then, and no matter how I grew to hate him, I don't think I ever would have joined Lord Voldemort. But then my motives would be selfish, as you said, given his position on people like me."

"His position on you has changed," Carmen said.

Hermione set the rest of her tea on the nightstand and lowered her eyes.

"In any case, my selfishness makes me a more loyal servant to him than most of the Death Eaters," Carmen said. "The ones that are still as loyal as they ever were, they joined for him as well as his politics, in equal measures. It's the ones that joined him for one or the other whose loyalty wanes now."

"And just what are the two of you discussing?" interrupted a cold voice from the side door.

"The potential threat of mutiny," Carmen replied. His expression was neutral with his usual touch of amusement, nothing to suggest that he knew what Voldemort and Hermione had done. "Your Medicus wanted to know if it was anything she needed to worry about."

"And you assured her that I was aware of the threat," Voldemort said, stepping into the room. His thick, high-collared robes hid any marks that might have marred his skin, if there were any. "What are you doing here?"

"The meeting, my lord. I worried when you were more than fashionably late, but Hermione tells me that a healing session caused you to oversleep."

"Tell them to wait a little longer," Voldemort said evenly. His expression, too, was unreadable. Hermione understood why they so enjoyed playing chess together. "I need to have a few words with my Medicus."

"Yes, my lord." Carmen floated away without a comment or a pointed look, both of which Hermione knew would be so easy for him. She appreciated that he kept his word to her.

The second after the door latch clicked, Voldemort whirled on her with rage blazing in his red eyes.

"He knows," he hissed.

"How the—never mind. He won't tell." Hermione stood up from her bed and faced him squarely. It was hard to be intimidating when she was significantly shorter than Voldemort, but she would settle for not being intimidated.

"Of course he won't tell, because he knows what I would do to him. But he should not know what transpired to begin with, you insufferable wh—"

"Complete that insult, Voldemort," Hermione said icily. "I dare you."

He closed his mouth mid-epithet, but between the two of them, the temperature in the room dropped twenty degrees. They glared at each other, backs straight and bodies tense.

"We were speaking about your followers," Hermione explained. "I told him nothing. He deduced it for himself. Once we moved past the subject, we continued with the matter of your followers."

"That doesn't change that he shouldn't know, Medicus," Voldemort snapped.

"And that doesn't change that he does, Lord Voldemort," Hermione said. "You may think you'd tell Harry before you would tell Carmen, but after me, you confide in him the most. You do so to keep him loyal. It may bother you that he knows, but let's cut to the chase. Carmen is not the problem here. Of all the Death Eaters to know, he's the best one – he won't tell anyone, and he won't think less of you for it. So he is not the problem. We are the problem for you, aren't we?"

Voldemort stood there, his stillness belying the tempest of fury and humiliation buffeting behind his narrowed eyes. Just a day before, he could barely think for the strength of his physical desire. Now that the desire had been satisfied, his sexual distraction was replaced by the equally powerful distraction of shame. Voldemort had few rules for himself, but since he hired his Medicus, he had broken almost every single one of them, each more egregious than the last. He wondered whether she would cause him to break the rest of them as well.

"I understand that you are uncomfortable with last night's events," Hermione continued. She did not add that she shared that discomfort. "But it did help, didn't it? Do you feel more focused than yesterday?"

He stared down at her. He had not seen her last night, but he knew the robes that she had chosen, so he could imagine her with an exceptional degree of accuracy. But now she was there before him, dressed plainly and practically, her face a bit drawn, with light shadows under her eyes, still tired. And yet … his gaze was drawn to her as though no time had passed between the moment she confronted him about the girl he killed and when she returned to him to relieve those desires that had plagued him.

He woke up to a shivering body cocooned in darkness. He had crawled out of bed like a chastised dog to warm the room and rekindle the fire in the hearth. The persistent burning need had dissipated, but all was not well. Superficially, he felt better than after the other girls, more like his old self before this horrifying twist in his illness. At the same time, though, something was different. Perhaps part of it was the way he wished he could hide himself for succumbing to the consequences of the decay. Perhaps part of it was a sense of self-betrayal and the loathing that accompanied it, that he could not trust his magic, his mind, and now his body. He wished he could shed himself like a snakeskin for one he could use rather than one that used him.

But more than that, it was perhaps the strange feeling of paradox – as though someone crept into his chambers as he slept and moved all the furniture, then put it back right where he left it. Everything was almost exactly the same as it was before, and yet everything felt indeterminably and indelibly altered in its sameness.

She looked up at him, his Medicus, seemingly unaffected. But even so, when he stepped closer to her, he watched her fight not to back away. She could not go very far even if she tried – her bed was right behind her.

"The knowledge that Carmen realizes what we have done aside, I believe my condition has improved," Voldemort murmured, moving still closer until his outer robes brushed against her bare foot. He forced her to tilt her head to a more uncomfortable angle to maintain eye contact. "But you said you could feel it when the need began to overwhelm me. What do you sense now, Medicus?"

His jaw was tight as he reached for her wrist, that vulnerable, sensitive place where he could feel her life pulsing through her and the delicate bones beneath, more invasive and intimate than holding a hand. He had always owned her those times before, and he wanted – needed – to feel the quickening of her heart in trepidation. He needed to reclaim his position over her. Medicus though she was, her slow submission to him had been so promising until she forced him to bring himself low in her presence, within her. He wanted the Darkness in her and her allegiance to him to make her squirm again, to make her lower her eyes in assent to him. Just as he always had.

But when he reached for her wrist, she stretched out her hand for him, to sense the state of his serpentine instincts. As before, she had felt his need from a distance when it was overwhelming, but closeness and contact facilitated a more thorough understanding of those particular needs. She reached for his wrist only as a subconscious mirror to his own action.

At the moment of contact, both of them realized from the spark and snap of current in the closed circuit of their flesh what they feared: that the desire was only at bay, not gone. Just because he had been able to satisfy that particular need with her in a way he had not managed with the other girls did not mean that he had eliminated a month's worth of sexual instinct in one night.

Hermione was the one who released him first. She did not look away from him, refusing to give him that satisfaction. But Voldemort was familiar with the way her pupils dilated and her pulse quickened under the long fingers still wrapped around her wrist. He had observed it in myriad others, sometimes directed at him. And he had observed it with her before. When she discovered the antidote to the Nightmare potion, when she trailed her fingers over the spines of the books of his personal library, when he wrenched himself away from kissing her.

He did not need to touch, did not need to feel himself over her skin, did not need her body.

He did not need her now, but he wanted her.

His stomach dropped and underneath his layers of clothing, his cold body warmed in a brief but intense wave of heat, a confusing flush of both humiliation and power. His grip on her tightened. She did not pull away, even as he leaned down and brushed his lips against her forehead. Yes, this was familiar. The thrill of owning her had not changed. But it was deeper, somehow, made more profound by the shudder inside of him that made him close his eyes.

"So the situation has not changed," Hermione said, breaking the deceptively languid flow of his thoughts. Her voice lacked some of the professional authority she wanted.

"It has improved," Voldemort conceded. "But it appears that improvement is only temporary, as it was before."

"It's only for a little while longer," she said quietly.

"Too long." But even as he said it, his mouth drifted down the side of her face to trail over her jaw, exploring the new layer of his regard for her. Her blood raced under his fingers, and she turned her head so that her mouth met his in a fleeting touch, not even a kiss. The stutter of her breath against his skin made him remember how he once reveled in the control he had over those with weaker resolve than he. He did still, even though his own breath came short and quick. He wanted to force her back onto the bed, slide one knee onto the mattress, and kiss her down, beneath him. He wanted her conquered again, even if doing so would mean that she conquered him as well. He hated the desire as much as it enticed him.

Hermione's fingers fluttered, found his wrist again, and her lips pressed more firmly against his, lingering. The pleasure she felt in doing so was undeniable. Voldemort stroked the line of marks that Carmen's spell concealed, as though he knew they were there and that they were his. When he pulled away, he used every ounce of control he had left not to make a sound.

He stepped back, not staggering or holding himself away from her. He did not need to, not yet, another reminder that what they had just done was not the result of a pressing symptom of a disease. Voldemort was again assaulted by the disconcerting sensation that everything and nothing had changed.

"The battle is in a few days, and I must prepare with my Death Eaters, while my mind is still with me," Voldemort said. As though nothing had happened, even though the air crackled in the gap between them. "You should join tomorrow's meeting to know our strategy and best assess how to help protect me."

"That sounds reasonable," Hermione replied. "You're already very late. You should go now."

Her hands smoothed over her robes, and she took a deep breath when he turned to leave. But before he reached the door, Hermione said, "Maybe you shouldn't wait for it to get so bad you can't think next time."

Voldemort paused, met her eyes. "Especially at this critical point in the war, I cannot afford to lose my head."

"My thoughts exactly."

"Your proposal is acceptable."

"If Carmen mocks you, you have my full permission to curse him within an inch of his life," Hermione said. "And then bring him to me."

Voldemort's mouth curved into a tight smile, and he pulled out his wand, fingers wrapping around it as delicately and possessively as her wrist. "My pleasure."