Disclaimer: I do NOT own these characters or the world they live in. I make no money from this story.

a/n - This is the first chapter of a long fic. If the plot is any indication, it will be novel length. Whether it's novel worthy, I'll leave at your discretion. This is a slow building romance, and I mean slow. I hope you enjoy the latest saga in the unpredictable world of SS/HG.

Thanks to Rhiannon for looking over this chapter.

Huge, gigantic, massive thanks go to Michelle for betaing the tar out of this chapter. She pulls no punches, and I adore her for it.

And Shanastay, since she's been kind enough to read as I write, gets a pair of chaps, but just this once. After that, there will be no chaps for her.


Chapter 1

With a sudden and violent start, Hermione regained consciousness. Unfortunately, she could not recall exactly how she had come to be unconscious in the first place.

Although awake, she remained sightless, her eyes closed beneath the weight of some yet intangible thing. Bewildered, and dreadfully cold, she began to shiver involuntarily. Wherever she was, it felt remarkably similar to an icebox, though it smelled more like soggy earth and mildewed concrete.

After a moment to gather her bearings, she attempted to persuade her limbs to function properly. She felt encumbered, her legs too heavy to move and her arms too weak to lift. Her eyes would not open as she wished. Her legs would not walk when she tried. Her mind seemed disengaged from her body, save for the ability to feel.

When her repeated attempts to move failed to achieve any acceptable results, frustration at her circumstances began to overpower her fear of them. Though immobile, she acknowledged that she was standing, for the most part. She was certain that she was not lying down, but strangely, she perceived no burden on either of her legs. It was then that she tried to move her hands to her face, if only to see if she had sustained some injury to her eyes. Unfortunately, this endeavor only alerted her to the true extent of her predicament.

Her hands, bound above her head, were going to be of little help to her. She appeared tethered to the ceiling, or some such place, suspended by her wrists alone.

No wonder her arms would not move, she recognized with alarming clarity. Every ounce of blood had drained from them while she had hung there, insensible.

Proving only to discourage her further, her movement had strained her bindings. She assumed then that they were rope, since the burning in her wrists suggested such. They steadily constricted around her wrists, rasping her skin and leaving a searing pain in their wake.

In order to relieve the tension on her wrists, she attempted to set her feet against the ground. However, the ropes only cinched tighter as she shuffled her toes against the infuriatingly nearby floor. Though it was not the first time, nor would it be the last, she wished for longer legs and cursed her luck.

Along with her emerging consciousness, and growing frustration, came an indistinct pain. As the soreness emerged, it stung at her shoulders and surged within her skull. With each breath, she discovered a fresh, stabbing pain that emanated from her back while the ropes continued their assault on her wrists.

Within seconds, her stomach lurched as the certainty of her circumstances claimed her mind in full. Something terrible had happened; she knew that much. Otherwise, she would have been somewhere else, where it was warmer, and less painful. Otherwise, she would have been able to open her eyes and see what in the hell was going on.

Praying that she was wrong about some or all of her circumstances, she forced her eyes open. She succeeded. Although, save for a thin line of light down by her nose, the darkness remained unchanged.

The weight she had sensed against her face was a blindfold. That information added strength to the surplus of evidence that already pointed to the fact that something dreadful had happened. She quickly reconsidered her assessment. Dreadful may well have been an understatement.

Panic and sheer horror waged war for precedence as she accepted the complete scope of her limitations. She was unable to reach her wand, if she still had it on her person, which she highly doubted. She was defenseless, in every sense of the word. She possessed no means to perform magic. Never before had she been in quite so much danger.

Even as those thoughts barreled through her head, Hermione had the sense, via mindless self-preservation, to stay calm. She understood that if she stayed calm, she would likely stay alive. As an alternative to her disturbing thoughts, she fixed her mind upon deducing where she was, and perhaps why she was there.

Grimmauld Place was the first detail she brought to mind. Her last vivid memory was of an impromptu gathering of the Order of the Phoenix in the dingy kitchen of the house that had been her home for nearly six months.

While the meeting seemed like a recent memory, she could not be sure exactly when it had taken place. The meeting concerned a tip the Order had received, via Floo network, in an unmarked envelope addressed to Headmistress McGonagall.

According to the message, Voldemort, Severus Snape, and Lucius Malfoy were to be alone at the Riddle house later that very evening. Operating under the semblance of invincibility, the three were to be unguarded, thus wholly unsuspecting of an ambush.

If valid, the tip provided the opportunity that the Order had so anxiously awaited. The Horcruxes had been gone for months. Unless the Order received an invitation to wherever Voldemort had been hiding of late, they needed some sort of push in the right direction.

Harry had paced bald places in the rugs at Headquarters in anticipation of the chance to have a go at the man who had killed his parents, his godfather and countless others. Furthermore, and perhaps even more so, Harry wanted more than ever to confront, and likely kill, Snape.

Harry had spent the year and a half following Dumbledore's death regaling Hermione and Ron with sensationalized, blow-by-blow accounts of what he intended to do to both Voldemort and Snape.

During these rants, Harry seemed more than prepared to fulfill the prophecy, which caused Hermione to question whether his enthusiasm simply masked his uncertainty on the matter. She assumed that these fictionalized tales were Harry's way of coping with the thought of committing murder, no matter the justification.

The anonymous tip had answered Harry's prayers. He would have the chance that he wanted.

More importantly, if the ambush proved successful, it would end the war. It all seemed so dreadfully anticlimactic. The Order needed only to sneak into the Riddle house and fell one of the most powerful, yet most evil wizards of all time.

Still, if the end arrived without the spectacular chaos that warfare required, Hermione was all for it. A simple, imperfect peace had long since replaced Voldemort's death as her prime objective.

She had realized long ago that a perfect world did not exist. All she had to cling to was her delusion of a world--one just as flawed and prejudiced as the current world--without the Death Eaters, the murders, or the sleepless nights. She could never understand why such a thing seemed so impossible to attain. She had never asked for miracles.

This thought and many others traveled through her mind during the particularly lengthy meeting to discuss the validity of the information contained in the message.

Once Mad-Eye Moody had returned with the reconnaissance team, he substantiated the note's claims. The Riddle house had proved to be deserted, and both he and Professor McGonagall seemed quite certain that the nameless messenger was not a Voldemort sympathizer who had merely attempted to lure the Order into a trap.

Hermione saw several uneasy glances pass between her fellow members, but no one posed an objection. When everyone's eyes had returned to the head of the table, Professor McGonagall recited the list of the eighteen members of the Order who had previously volunteered and qualified for such an assignment. She then separated those chosen members into two groups.

The first group consisted of Remus Lupin, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Professor McGonagall designated their group as the first to enter the house and passed along explicit instructions pertaining to their duty. Since the Riddle house was to be all but vacant, she feared that too many arriving at once would draw unwanted attention. She directed their group to explore the house, locate Voldemort, the bigot and the bastard, and then await support from the second group before engaging in combat.

The second group included Arthur Weasley, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Nymphadora Tonks, along with ten somewhat new recruits. This group was to secure the perimeter, take out any Death Eaters that made an appearance while the first group was inside the house, and wait for the summons from the first group, or some sign that the first group was in danger, before setting foot inside the building.

Professor McGonagall elected to stay behind to anticipate word of success, or to send reinforcements, if required. Even though she remained stoic, as always, her disgust at her decision was apparent.

Her confrontation with Umbridge's men years before had caused her permanent injury. Her back and legs possessed none of the stamina that she once had, which left her unable to participate in every mission the Order undertook. She had grown particularly impatient during the search for the Horcruxes. She had never been one to observe others complete, what she deemed to be, her work.

During the six months since graduation, Hermione had wondered often if Professor McGonagall lamented her appointment as Head of the Order of the Phoenix. Though she had taken over the role willingly, she rarely spoke of Professor Dumbledore, and typically changed the subject when his name arose in conversation.

Her grief presented as anger, which did not surprise Hermione. Professor McGonagall had managed to put the school back together before sending Lupin to search out the remaining Horcruxes with Harry, Ron and Hermione. Professor McGonagall had preserved the sanctity of Hogwarts and the reputation of the Order with all the flair of Professor Dumbledore. She had toiled ceaselessly since the day Dumbledore died, and she would not stop until Voldemort's defeat.

However, Professor McGonagall seemed oblivious to her shifting moods and irritable disposition. Although she had never been outwardly affectionate, she had never been quite so openly snappish. Her short temper had grown even shorter since the destruction of the most elusive Horcrux, Merope Gaunt's locket.

Such was her mood at the most recent meeting. Professor McGonagall seemed preoccupied, much more so than usual. She stumbled fretfully over several sentences while Mad-Eye spread the diagram of the Riddle property across the table. She rebuked every attempted interruption to her speech, even Arthur Weasley's, when he had tried to tell her that the teakettle was boiling over.

Hermione understood that Professor McGonagall was fearful for the fate of the mission. The Order had never before gone into such dangerous territory without Dumbledore. Hermione had a feeling that his absence had inspired more courage than fear in all those involved on the side of the light, though she had seen fear present as courage more than once in her lifetime.

With the strategy in place, and the lectures about safety measures sufficiently exhausted, Professor McGonagall closed the meeting. In an excited air, much like that preceding a major sporting event, the selected members of the Order mingled about the kitchen while they readied themselves to embark upon the mission.

Although she realized the dangerousness of the assignment, Hermione gave herself permission to feel ecstatic about the prospect of the coming evening. The premise of victory, and the notion of a real life, provided a fleeting glimpse into a future that she had nearly abandoned hope of ever realizing.

In the time before departure, Hermione moved to the edge of the chattering crowd to find a cup of tea to sip before her nerves got the better of her. Once there, she settled her hands around the steaming cup and felt more like an outsider than anything.

The others milled about the room, seemingly oblivious to the implications of the forthcoming mission. Some shook hands, others clapped each other on the arm. Most exhibited testosterone driven displays of male dominance, but some were worth paying attention to.

Moody stood off to the right, uninvolved in the anticipatory gossip, as he secured his wand in a specially made scabbard on his hip. Strapped to his belt was a leather contraption that featured individual compartments for potion vials and a variety of pointy equipment that he had retrieved from his room upstairs. When he tapped the front of each pouch, the contents soared up into his waiting hand. He practiced the exercise time after time, in a near meditative repetition.

Ron and Harry seemed outsiders as well. They remained sitting, side by side, in the very chairs that they had occupied during the meeting. A very somber looking Ron appeared busy advising a contemplative Harry. Harry nodded in turn to several of Ron's points before he suddenly stood from the table.

He wore a dour face, his brows so drawn that they disappeared behind his glasses. No matter his resolve, Hermione could see his fear.

Harry had held the future of the Wizarding World in his hands ever since Dumbledore had relayed the prophecy. The burden of that responsibility had owned Harry's every thought during the preceding months. Without school, or the hunt for the Horcruxes to occupy him, he had concentrated on nothing but the duty he had yet to fulfill. The prophecy had assigned him that duty before he had ever taken his first breath, and he was prepared to give his last to satisfy that duty, Hermione was sure of it.

However, she realized that Harry's fear had little to do with the mission itself, the fight, or even his potential death. He feared the outcome should he fail, which represented no less than the downfall of civilized Wizarding society and the collapse of the very culture that Dumbledore had given his life to save.

All that set aside, Harry's show of readiness signified that the time to depart had arrived. Hermione joined Ron and Harry as they filed with the others onto the street in front of the house and into the frigid December cold.

Once they had all assembled, Mad-Eye counted down with a show of fingers. When he reached one, they Apparated as a group to the Eastern edge of the Riddle property.

They arrived silently in the stand of trees bordering the house. The benign ambiance of the night left Hermione baffled. She had expected the air to reek of evil, for the moon to shine down blood red to denote the wickedness that awaited them inside. However, she saw only the pristine snowdrifts that dotted the side yard of the very ordinary looking house before Lupin signaled for her to follow.

Hermione, Harry and Ron took care to step in Lupin's tracks as he struck a fresh path through the snow. He led them to the front of the house where a flickering, amber-yellow glow lit the center window of the second floor.

On the other side of that window stood the reason for all the suffering Hermione had ever witnessed in her lifetime. Waiting inside that house was the conclusion that she had desired for so long.

With that rationalization, she suppressed her natural anxiety and replaced it with confidence. In a few hours, she told herself, an entire generation of injustices would be set right. The next few hours, she reminded herself, would forever change her life.

Huddled together in a tight circle, their backs to one another, Lupin, Harry, Ron and Hermione entered the startlingly unguarded house. Dismissing the ease with which they entered, which should have been a glaring warning, they began a very deliberate assessment of the darkened foyer.

They had been inside the house mere seconds when it became clear that they were in danger. A vibrant array of spells rained down upon them. There looked to be several Death Eaters on the second floor landing who were sending the offensive spells.

Lupin directed the group behind a wardrobe just off the stairs. Hermione grappled with her ruined sense of security as the group frantically took cover. Once there, they aimed cautiously at the places where the Death Eaters seemed to have positioned themselves.

Hermione believed that the Death Eaters were still outnumbered. She sent her Patronus out the open front doors to alert the second team. She knew that the Death Eaters were innately cowards who would surrender or retreat should they realize that theirs was a losing battle.

Before the second team could arrive, the deluge of curses abruptly stopped. Harry and Ron attempted to rush the stairs, but Lupin held them back. Just as he did so, a surging thunder filled Hermione's ears. She had no way to know that the sound belonged to the dozens upon dozens of Death Eaters descending the stairs.

When Lupin motioned for them to abandon cover, Hermione did not know to stop him. Instead, she followed, as did Ron and Harry. They maintained their circle, backs pressed together, and entered into the fight for their lives.

The second team soon joined the all-out combat. However, they were little aid to Hermione and the others as they cast spell after spell from their circle in the midst of that growing sea of Death Eaters.

The Order was dreadfully outnumbered. Though they had trained extensively for such an occasion, they possessed no means by which to utilize the training. They could not stop fighting to summon backup. They could not Apparate inside the House. The Death Eaters had them cornered until Professor McGonagall grew suspicious of their failure to report in. Until then, they had to attempt to survive, and attempt to complete the mission.

Lupin began to move their group toward the stairs instead of the still open front doors. He, too, must have had the mission at the forefront of his mind. They were within yards of the first step when Lupin collapsed to the floor.

The flash of green struck his shoulder. Hermione recognized it as a killing curse. She wasted a second in hesitation as she stared at his crumpled form on the floor, but there was no time to mourn the fallen. The objective had always been to protect Harry, to get him to Voldemort so that this whole mess could end. Lupin had known as much.

The three that remained continued the laborious trek toward the staircase that still swarmed with Death Eaters. Mad-Eye and Shacklebolt reached the trio. They added themselves to the circle just as Ron was lost from it.

Along with this memory, a single, stinging tear slid down her cheek. That had been when she had gone numb.

She continued fighting to protect Harry. She had to deliver him to his fate. She could not pause to consider what had just happened. She had to stay alive for Harry.

Hermione screamed every curse she had ever learned as the group made an arduous climb to the top of the stairs. Once there, she chanced a glance down to the floor. The eerie glow of curses swallowed up the remaining Order members. She could not know how many of them remained.

Hermione and the others had barely reached the landing when Shacklebolt took a bright green curse in the side. Again, their number reduced to three.

Mad-Eye led them on toward the door that the Death Eaters had been so enthusiastically defending. When they were within eyeshot of the door, Mad-Eye made a valiant stand. He flung himself into the crowd of masked adversaries.

The crowd dispersed when confronted with Mad-Eye's deranged curse throwing. Before the crowd had a chance to regroup, Harry and Hermione sprinted toward the door. They sent spells, but the spells merely bounced back.

With no other option, they used the momentum they had amassed as they ran and threw themselves against the door. It slammed open upon impact and sent Harry and Hermione stumbling into the room.

Hermione found her footing before she tumbled headfirst into the hearth. She was sure by means of the ferocious pain that her shoulder was dislocated. She would have screamed if not for the sight she saw before her.

Voldemort stood only a few yards away, a smile on his face that displayed every pointed tooth. Lucius Malfoy hovered nearby, his patent smugness unchanged. Peter Pettigrew was barely visible as he cowered behind Voldemort's flamboyant robes.

Harry stepped toward Voldemort so bravely. Both raised their wands at one another. Hermione looked on, petrified. There was nothing for her to do now but pray.

However, before either could utter a curse, someone grabbed her by the arms and slammed her head into something very hard. The momentary stars that followed were her last inkling of events.

The fact that she was now in an unfamiliar place, in pain, and tied up gave her the unsettling feeling that whatever had happened hadn't been good. Her heart ached as she thought that her estimation was again, perhaps, an understatement.

Jarring Hermione from her thoughts, the rusty groan of a metal door echoed through her confines. Muted footsteps soon followed, which grew louder as they approached.

Terrified, she instinctively let her head droop forward. She thought that, if they believed her unconscious, they might leave her alone for a little while longer. As least, they might until they grew tired of waiting and merely killed her.

The footsteps paused as another metal door scraped. Her heart pounded mercilessly as she anticipated the approach. She yearned for the ability to see, if only to know who was coming after her. She wanted the knowledge to temper the fear that suddenly ran unbridled through her veins.

Hermione could smell whoever it was as they neared. The scent nauseated her. Although she could not place it, and perhaps it was her head injury, but it smelled like a perversion of sweet.

"Filthy Mudblood."

The hissed words resonated off the stone as Hermione placed the voice of Draco Malfoy.

"Strung up like a Christmas stocking, except not nearly as pretty."

Draco circled her as he spoke. He stalked her like prey, a callous snicker audible under his breath.

When his footsteps stopped, she could feel something touching her. It was a hand, laying flat against her stomach. His hand, her mind screamed.

It snaked under the front of her shirt. His fingertips grazed her skin as it traveled ever higher until it reached the bottom of her breast. She fought back the urge to vomit as her heart beat frantically in her chest.

"I am sorry you couldn't be awake for this," he said as he took her left breast in his hand.

Every fiber of her being remained focused on not screaming or kicking. She was keenly aware that any such protest would bring something much worse that she refused to imagine.

"Draco! What did your father have to say regarding that?"

The arrival of a new voice caused Hermione to flinch, but Draco seemed unaware of her twitch. He jerked his hand away, but she continued to panic.

Snape, that bastard, was still alive. Lucius Malfoy was as well, by the sounds of it. Had they accomplished nothing in the ambush?

"Father says to keep my hands to the Purebloods," Draco answered, apathetic as ever.

"Precisely," Snape stated pompously. "Perhaps you should find something else to molest while I question her."

Draco snorted before he replied, "I can question her."

"And you shall," Snape said softly. "However, for the time being, I suggest that you run along."

Hermione heard a pouted sigh before Draco's footsteps and the slam of a door.

Although relieved to be free of Draco, she was still painfully aware that Snape had lingered. His nearing footsteps and the torture that was surely about ensue sparked a surge of panic that made playing unconscious increasingly difficult.

"You are awake," he whispered into her ear.

Her sob at his closeness certainly confirmed his theory, she told herself.

"Remain silent," he instructed hurriedly. "Nod your answers. Do you understand?"

She nodded once.

"Excellent," he whispered while he paced to her other side. "Were any such hexes placed around the premises that might be undetectable?" he asked, again in whisper.

Although she shook her head no, she wanted tremendously to speak, or to scream. The suspense rattled her more than the punishment, which she wished he would just carry out and be done with.

"You are not badly injured. I assume you can walk." His voice was almost inaudible.

She nodded her head slowly. However, the reality that death would not find her straightaway actually horrified her even more.

"I shall return," he said before his footsteps signaled his departure.

The large metal door creaked again before she heard voices, one Snape's and the other unfamiliar.

"Did you find out anything from her?" the strange voice asked.

"Nothing," Snape asserted impatiently. "She remains unconscious. Perhaps the next time this happens you will make a concerted effort to refrain from inflicting such harm on the ones that we wish to hold captive. The word captive implies alive, Nott. I realize that may sound complicated to someone such as yourself, however…"

The door closed too soon. The metallic echo disrupted the rest of Snape's words, though Hermione knew that she would have found little solace in them.

Snape had a reason for lying. He probably needed an excuse to do whatever it was he planned to do to her when he returned. If she were lucky, he would kill her. She preferred that end to torture, or worse, enslavement.

Her own pessimism frightening her more than her predicament, she opted to ignore all else and concentrate on the Order, and her expected, yet unlikely, rescue.