Disclaimer and A/N: Anything recognizable, especially those paragraphs ending in "++", belong to JKR. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed so far! Your messages make my day. And thank you again to my wonderful beta, Ivy Amelia!
Thank you to everyone who has reviewed so far! Your messages make my day. And thank you again to my wonderful beta, Ivy Amelia!
Severus was invited to Malfoy Manor to ring in the new year. He had been dreading a summons for some time, and now it had come he felt rather numb, his fingers stiff as they fastened the closures on his dress robes. His pendant had burned only a few moments earlier, as he was getting out of the bath: Here's hoping for a happy new year, it read, and then, Have you read Dumbledore's biography yet? It's interesting reading, even if it is Skeeter's work.
He felt ridiculously shy and foolish as he put his wand to the notebook and muttered, "Happy New Year. And no, to your question. I don't know that I'm ready to bear any more of the old codger's secrets yet."
He wondered how she, Potter and Weasley were spending the evening, and found he could only hope they were spending it in their dismal, chilly tent rather than out of it, doing something foolish.
A House-elf took Severus' cloak in the Manor's entry, and Severus took a moment to square his shoulders and steady his Shields before facing the rest of the party. Sequestered as he tended to be, he had little idea, beyond what few things he gleaned from Potterwatch, what the Dark Lord had his minions doing in the wider world, and he found he truly had no wish to find out.
The sound of a throat clearing behind him made Severus turn to find Narcissa waiting to greet him.
"Severus," she said, her voice warm despite the lines of strain around her eyes.
"Narcissa." He nodded to her, and let a small, sardonic smile lift the corners of his mouth. "Happy New Year."
She gave a small, bitter laugh. "Oh, yes," she said, and gestured to the doorway behind them. "We should join the others."
"Of course." He offered her his arm. "How is Draco enjoying his holiday?"
Narcissa glanced at him. "Very much," she said, in a tone that said, Not at all. A pause, and then, in a low tone she asked, "How - how is he doing at school, truly? He is… reticent now. I can't get him to tell me anything at all."
"Just as I could not last year," Severus said, remembering the utter frustration of trying to get past the boy's insistence that he needed no one's help.
"I do not interact as much with the students now, in my capacity as Headmaster, as I did when I was a teacher," he said slowly. "But I have tried to keep an eye on Draco, as much as possible. He is doing well academically, but…" He paused, trying to phrase his next words properly. Narcissa's fingers tightened anxiously against his forearm.
"But what?" she whispered.
"The more… recalcitrant among the students still attempt to make life difficult for those who are most loyal to the Dark Lord. There have been a few - a very few - incidents."
"Incidents?" she asked quickly.
"Pranks, mostly. Jinxes and such. It is mean-spirited, certainly, but not unduly harmful, and the Carrows' form of discipline when the perpetrators are caught is… harsh."
"Oh." At his side, Narcissa let out a relieved breath.
Though this was all true, he Severus chose not to mention that, from what he could tell, the term had been a difficult one for Draco. At meals, he sat huddled with his fellow Slytherins, but still somehow seemed apart from them, his shoulders hunched defensively and his eyes shadowed. On the rare occasions that Severus passed him in the hallways, the boy gave him the barest of nods. Severus had considered summoning Draco to his office, just to see how he was up close, but decided against it; he didn't want to make things harder on Draco, if he were seen associating closely with the Headmaster.
"How is his Lordship?" Severus murmured as they neared the drawing room door.
Narcissa twitched subtly at his side. "He is… upset. Potter and his friends evaded us once again."
Severus' heart began pounding, and he closed his eyes for a moment, strengthening his Shields. "Oh?" he said.
"At Xenophilius Lovegood's," Narcissa said, the curl of her lip betraying her opinion of the Quibbler publisher.
Lovegood? What the bloody hell were they doing there?
But they had reached the door, and there was no time to ask questions. Narcissa shot him a nervous look before pulling it open.
"Severus!" the Dark Lord said upon seeing them enter. He was seated near the fire, Nagini coiled up beside his feet, which were bare despite the season. Severus bowed low, noting which members of the Inner Circle were present and which were absent. The Carrows had been left behind to mind the school in his absence, which would act as a test of his authority over them.
"It is good to see you," the Dark Lord said peevishly as Severus straightened. "It has been far too long, has it not?" "It has indeed, My Lord," Severus said. The Dark Lord indicated the chair to his right, and Severus settled into it, accepting a goblet of mulled wine from a House-elf. He ignored Bellatrix, who was seated to the other side of the Dark Lord, and only glanced at Lucius, seated far enough away to make his place in the pecking order clear to anyone who cared to notice. Draco sat beside him, looking tense.
"I apologize for my rudeness in not inviting you to the Manor for Christmas, Severus," the Dark Lord said. "But I fear I have had rather a lot to do, and the festivities were rather subdued." He crossed his feet at the ankle. "I do believe young Draco enjoyed his present, however," the Dark Lord continued. His slit of a mouth turned up ghoulishly at the corners.
"Oh?" Severus steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair, trying to project an image of calm, even pleasure, in his Master's company. He glanced at Draco, whose expression had shifted to one of carefully maintained blankness.
"Yes. I obtained a new… guest… to join Olivander during his visit with the Malfoys. He did so well with the wand-maker that I thought Draco ought to have the honor of… welcoming her."
It was only through years of practice that Severus' Shields did not shatter then and there. Her, he thought. Her, who? He exhaled very slowly through his nose and took what he hoped was a casual sip of his wine before responding.
"Quite the Christmas treat for the boy, I'm sure," he said blandly. He knew enough not to ask further questions, however desperately they scrabbled for release behind his tongue.
The Dark Lord cackled for a moment, before his expression grew discontented. "Sentimental weakness," he muttered.
Severus cupped both palms around his goblet, relishing the warmth. "My Lord?"
"Sentimentality," the Dark Lord said. He rose from his chair and began to pace before the fire. "It is a weakness, and easy to exploit." His red eyes flashed dangerously. "As I did, to great effect, when I removed that treacherous newsman's daughter from his care."
Severus flicked his gaze to the other members of the room, but could discern nothing of the Dark Lord's meaning from their faces. Nagini uncoiled herself slightly, raising her head and flicking her tongue at Severus' boot; he resisted the urge to kick her.
"Which is why," the Dark Lord said, his sibilants growing more pronounced, "I cannot understand how we have lost Harry Potter… again!" He pounded his fist against the mantel; several of the assembled Death Eaters jumped in their seats, and Lucius closed his eyes for a moment as a - no doubt priceless - porcelain figurine rattled on its base.
The Dark Lord whirled on Bellatrix. "How?" he bellowed.
The dark-haired witch's mouth dropped open. "I- I don't know, My Lord," she said.
"And yet your husband was among those who ruined things so magnificently," the Dark Lord hissed. "Three teenagers, trapped upstairs in that doddering fool's house, and somehow they escaped." He clapped his hands. "Draco!" he said. "Bring up your latest prisoner."
Draco bowed his head and hurried off, but not before Severus saw the look in his eyes, bleak and terrified. He felt his gut clench in apprehension, and then Draco returned, his wand trained on a dirty, bruised Luna Lovegood. Severus set his goblet carefully on the table beside his elbow and curled his fingers around the arms of his chair.
Miss Lovegood looked around her with admirable calm, only the careful working of her throat betraying her fear. Her gaze rested for a moment upon Severus, and she gave him a nearly imperceptible nod. His eyes widened.
"Miss Lovegood," the Dark Lord said. "How nice of you to join us. Tell me - have you, by chance, remembered anything that might explain why Harry Potter visited your father three days ago?"
"No, I haven't," she said.
The Dark Lord's eyes narrowed, boring into hers; when he retreated from her mind, Miss Lovegood sagged, looking shaken and lost, raising one hand to her head.
The Dark Lord waved a hand in Draco's direction.
"See if you can't jog her memory," he said, before sweeping out of the room, Nagini slithering after him.
Severus had to force himself not to look away from the twisted self-loathing on Draco's face; nor to clap his hands over his ears to shut out the girl's screams.
What the bloody hell were you doing the other day?
Hermione let out a breath, staring down at Severus' latest message. He had sent it while she and the boys were going over, yet again, Mr. Lovegood's story about the Hallows. The burning against her chest was distracting, and she desperately wanted to find out why he was contacting her, to make sure he was okay. Finally, she could stand it no longer and told Ron and Harry she had to relieve herself.
"I can't tell you," she whispered now. "I wish I'd asked you when I saw you but - I can't risk having it written here."
There was silence from Severus' end, and Hermione fidgeted, wondering how long she could feasibly stay in the loo before the boys started thinking there was something dreadfully wrong with her. Finally he sent, Very well. I must go. Take care.
"You too," she whispered, and returned the notebook to its pendant form. She held it in her palm for a second longer, inhaling deeply to steady herself. Then she squared her shoulders and opened the loo door.
Severus dropped into his desk chair and leaned his head against the back of it, closing his eyes. Five minutes, he told himself. Five minutes, and he would force himself to get up, go down the stairs, and join the rest of the school in the Great Hall for the evening meal.
Only a week into the new term, and he already felt as though he could take no more.
He clung with pathetic desperation to the thought of Hermione. Though it was difficult - when he was overseeing one of the Carrows' punishments, for instance, or when he sat in the Great Hall enduring the looks of loathing from students and staff alike - to convince himself that it had, truly, been joy he saw on her face when he arrived at her camp site, to remember her mouth opening against his or the way she clung to him afterward as though he were, just perhaps, at least a fraction as precious to her as she was to him. Her messages, sporadic though they were, kept him from going utterly mad, but as they were, by necessity, devoid of almost all reference to any more… tender… feelings, they did not keep him from fearing he had developed some sort of delusion. An adolescent part of him was still terrified of being made into a fool, unable to believe she wanted him as he did her.
He was growing increasingly frantic, too, regarding Potter. Even a trip to Borgin and Burkes for a few Darker texts before term began - where he experienced firsthand just how feared he had become since Albus' death - yielded nothing that gave him any hope of saving the boy. His despair, some nights, threatened to drown him, his dreams filled with Lily and Hermione, each woman alternately heartbroken and accusatory, their eyes filled with blame.
Now, he pressed the heels of his hands against his eye sockets and made to stand, though he had no appetite, his stomach a knot of constantly tightening anxiety. But he was forestalled by the sudden warming of his pendant against his chest.
He avoided looking in the direction of Dumbledore's portrait as he hurried through the door between his office and sitting room.
The message was brief, and Severus blinked at it. Happy Birthday, it read.
He shook his head, counting the days in his head, then cleared his throat. "How did you know?" He hadn't even known. His birthday had been the absolute last thing on his mind. Not that it was generally an occasion for much celebration, anyway.
I found your birth announcement in an old issue of the Prophet last year, she said.
Severus let out an amused huff. Only Hermione, he thought, and opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted when she sent another message.
I just… I really want you to know that I - that I'm glad you're alive, she said. I'm so glad you were born, and I'm glad you're still alive and - and - well, I suppose I should stop talking now, shouldn't I, before I say something best not committed to parchment. So… that's all, then. Good-night. I hope you are having a good… I hope today hasn't been too dreadful for you.
Severus clenched his teeth, willing the burning in his eyes to subside. "Thank you," he said when he could trust his voice again. "Good-night."
The next weeks were increasingly difficult as Hermione, Harry, and Ron continued to change locations almost every day, but had no more luck figuring out the locations of the other Horcruxes than they had before. Relief at having Ron back at least somewhat tempered their frustration as they talked in circles until Hermione, at least, felt ready to scream; but it wasn't enough, and the atmosphere in the tent grew tense and strained.
Harry's increasing obsession with the Deathly Hallows also put Hermione on edge; for all that she understood how worrisome it was that Voldemort was likely searching out an unbeatable wand, why couldn't Harry understand that the Hallows didn't bloody matter, not really? It made no difference if Voldemort had the Elder Wand or a twig he'd snapped off the nearest tree, not if they couldn't find and destroy the rest of the Horcruxes. He'd be unbeatable either way.
But then, of course, Harry didn't know everything. Every time he rubbed his scar, Hermione couldn't help but shudder.
She spent her night watches reading and re-reading her Horcrux books, trying very hard to quell her rising desperation as it became more and more obvious that she wasn't going to find the answers she sought in their pages.
In the evenings, they huddled together around the wireless, patiently trying to tune in to Potterwatch. The programs left Hermione feeling faintly hopeful, at least for a time; it made them seem less alone, somehow, knowing others were out there risking their lives and evading the Death Eaters, and the sound of all those familiar voices was far more warming than any charm. Though afterward, when the program ended and she, Ron and Harry were left in the chill and dark, it was hard to hold onto the warmth, the silence left in the wake of their comrades' banter deep and difficult to fill.
You never did explain to me how you… did that thing, the last time I saw you.
Severus leaned back in his armchair and stretched his feet out towards the fire, a small smile playing about his lips. With a cup of tea at his elbow, his sitting room lit by the cheerful dancing of the flames before him, and a new message from Hermione, it was almost possible, for a moment, to feel something like happiness creeping along under his breastbone. There were times when his feelings for Hermione - the depths of which he had not yet found the courage to examine too closely - made Severus' breath come too fast with fear that stress and relative isolation was affecting him so that he was building everything up in his mind. He was terrified of being made into a fool.
But then… then she would contact him again, and though nothing of what had passed between them at Christmas or the day after was ever committed to parchment, Severus would feel, at least for the duration of their 'conversations,' a tentative joy.
"To what 'thing' are you referring?" he asked now, then lifted his wand-tip from the notebook's pages and took a sip of tea.
A pause, and then she said, Your… unusual mode of transportation. In all the, er, fuss, I quite forgot about it. Though I can't believe I did, it was… extraordinary. Part of me still thinks I imagined it -
Severus chuckled, feeling improbably lighthearted. "You did not imagine it."
That's… unbelievable. You'll have to explain how you did it next time we… next time.
Her hesitation was not lost on Severus, and he swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment. Hermione was no fool; she knew as well as he that there was likely to be no 'next time' for them. He found himself reflexively rubbing at his Mark, remembering those terrifying moments standing upon his office windowsill as the Dark Lord imbued his body with… whatever the hell it was he had imbued it with.
Finally, aware that it had been too long since he ought to have responded, he touched his wand to the notebook once more.
"I don't know that I can explain it properly," he said. "But if you are amenable, I would like very much to show you, instead. Next time."
He waited a long time, but Hermione didn't say anything in return.
Ron poked his head through the tent flap, peering around to where Hermione was bent over her enlarged pendant, waiting for Severus to say something in response to her comment about his remarkable flying. Turning her shoulders to hide what she was doing, she hastily re-shrunk the notebook and enclosed the resulting pendant in her fist.
"Harry found Potterwatch," Ron said as Hermione turned at last to face him. He looked curious, but didn't ask what she was doing; he was still very careful, she had noticed, in his interactions with her. His hands were shoved in his pockets and he rocked back on his heels. "Come and have a listen with us?"
"Sure," Hermione said, forcing any reluctance from her voice, and stood to follow him. Ron held the tent flap open for her with an air of studied gallantry that felt bittersweet; she ducked under his arm, trying to force a smile.
He joined Harry eagerly beside the wireless, and while both their backs were turned, Hermione took the opportunity to do up the clasp of her chain under her hair and tuck the pendant away under her jumper. She joined the boys beside the table, leaning close to hear the other Order members' voices above the crackle of static - and oh, there was Kingsley, and now Fred and George, and it was so, so wonderful to hear them -
At that moment, her pendant burned and she touched a startled hand to her sternum, the tears that had prickled at her eyes upon hearing the program threatening to fall in earnest. The snatches of conversation that they managed every few days positively sustained her; they were… precious, as embarrassingly melodramatic as that sounded, and she wished she could have finished this one properly. She blinked hard and forced her attention back to the boys, only to discover that the program was over.
"Did you hear what Fred said?" Harry was saying. "He's abroad!" He looked eagerly at both Ron and Hermione, his eyes taking on an obsessive sheen behind his glasses. "He's still looking for the Wand, I knew it!" ++
"Harry -" Hermione began uneasily, but he cut her off. ++
"Come on, Hermione, why are you so determined not to admit it? Vol -" ++
"Harry, no!" she cried, feeling her stomach drop somewhere into the region of her toes. ++
"- demort's after the Elder Wand!" he finished insistently. ++
No, Hermione thought, panicked. And then, seconds later as their wards somehow buckled and fell, No, no, no, NO….
"The name's Taboo!" Ron said, an edge of hysteria to his tone. "I told you, Harry, I told you we can't say it anymore - we've got to put the protection back around us - quickly - it's how they find-" ++
He stopped abruptly when their Sneakoscope began whirring and whistling like mad and looked wildly back and forth between Hermione and Harry, whose expression was somehow both stricken and defiant. Ron yanked the Deluminator from his own pocket, his thumb slipping off it once, betraying his hands' shaking, before he managed to click it, shrouding the tent in darkness.
"Come out of there with your hands up!" someone ordered from just outside. "We know you're in there! You've got half a dozen wands pointing at you, and we don't care who we curse!" ++
Hermione was so terrified she could scarcely draw breath, but she looked at Harry and thought, desperately, They can't know it's him. If they know it's him -
Without thinking further, she aimed her wand at Harry's face, ignoring his startled exclamation, and send a Stinging Hex his way. He cried out, clutching at his face, and Hermione didn't even have time to feel relief when she saw that the hex was working, Harry's face swelling grotesquely, the scar growing stretched and distorted.
Please, she thought incoherently, pressing a palm to her breastbone, and as they exited the tent to find themselves, yes, surrounded by a contingent of Snatchers, she didn't know if she was beseeching a Muggle god or Severus himself, or just sending a plea out to the universe at large. Please.
Hermione stopped pleading after a time, after the pain became too much to allow for speech, after she voided her bladder all over her denims and vomited on the Mafloys' immaculate Oriental rug. She felt as though she has been flayed, or roasted, or crushed by some sort of heavy machinery; the pain was in her bones, her muscles, her nerve-endings. Dimly, she could still hear Ron screaming her name from somewhere below, but he sounded very far away. The edges of her vision were getting dark.
The one thing she was sure of, the one thing she clung to with what little mental energy she had left, was that she hadn't betrayed their secrets, hers or anyone else's, though Bellatrix had torn through her mind at the outset, crazed eyes boring into Hermione's, her rage at being unable to find what she was looking for palpable, manifesting itself in that first, shocking bout of Crucio. But Hermione's Occlumency Shields, slammed into place the moment she saw the gates of Malfoy Manor before her, had held, somehow, through it all, helped, she would realize later when she had leisure to think about it, by the focus provided by her pendant, still warm against her chest with Severus' latest message.
Perhaps, she thought with a strange, detached giddiness, her Shields might have even dulled the pain somewhat. Perhaps that was why she was not insensible as Neville's parents.
Dimly, Hermione realized she could hear Bellatrix's voice, but that it was neither speaking the words of a curse nor directed at her. She lay very still upon her back, eyes slitted, chest rising and falling with shallow panting breaths. She felt vaguely that she ought to be doing something, moving, attempting wandless magic - something - but she felt newborn-weak, and her limbs did not seem inclined to obey her brain's commands.
" - Is it the true sword?" the mad witch was saying; Hermione twitched, trying to see who she was talking to, and from the corner of her eye saw the goblin who had been snatched along with them, running one taloned finger along the sword's keen blade. ++
"No," he said, as Hermione's sluggish mind struggled to keep up. "It is a fake." ++
"Good," Bellatrix said, doing something that made the goblin cry out and fall to the ground. She kicked him viciously, shoving him aside with her foot, and he curled into himself somewhere near Hermione's feet. ++
"And now," Bellatrix said, "we call the Dark Lord!" She turned, flicking a casual glance at Hermione where she lay wracked with tremors and added, "And I think we can dispose of the Mudblood. Greyback, take her if you want her." ++
No, please, please, no, was the only coherent thought Hermione could manage before terror set her mind to gibbering. She made a great effort and managed to wrench herself over onto her side, shaking, the memory of the werewolf's rancid breath on her neck, his dirty fingers curled around her waist sending a brief surge of adrenaline through her system. The movement set shock waves of pain through her body and she gasped, tasting salt, tears streaming down her face, wetting strands of her hair to her cheeks. She would not let him touch her, she would not -
There was a bellow from somewhere outside the drawing room, and then suddenly Ron was there, face contorted into something fierce and frightening, and the next moments passed in a confused blur of soaring wands and shrieks and bright, hot spells whizzing past. Disoriented, Hermione tried desperately to cling to consciousness - and then, suddenly, she was being jerked upward, her back pressed against Bellatrix Lestrange's front, the other witch's left arm vice-like across Hermione's chest and her knife's wicked point digging into the soft flesh just below Hermione's jaw.
"Stop or she dies!" Bellatrix screeched - and then, after a brief suspended moment during which it felt as though the whole world was standing still, Hermione felt nothing more as she fell helplessly into unconsciousness.
Lucius' disembodied head appeared in Severus' fireplace just as Severus was shucking his robes in preparation for bed. The Hogwarts Floo had been disconnected from the general network, but remained connected at strategic locations among the Dark Lord's most loyal followers, and, despite Lucius' fall from grace, his home, as the Dark Lord's current headquarters, merited a connection. It was rare for the connection to be activated, however, except during set times when the Dark Lord required a report from Severus on his progress within the school; so now, when the fire flare green, Severus' heart began thumping with enough force to hurt.
"Severus," Lucius said. His voice crackled with urgency. "Severus!"
Severus moved so that he was within sight of the flames. "What is it?" he said, clutching at the back of the settee.
The relief on Lucius' face at the sight of him was worrisome in itself. "Quickly," he said. "Come through to the Manor - we need your help."
Suspicion stirred. "For what purpose?"
"We have him," Lucius said, and now he sounded just the slightest bit mad. "We have him, Severus! But he is - we need you to identify him and his little friends."
Severus went faint with fear. "Who?" he said. "You mean… Potter?"
"Yes!" Lucius cried. "Good gods, man, get through here, there isn't time - Draco - I don't know what's the matter with him, but he refused to say anything conclusive, and Potter - he has been disfigured somehow." Lucius stared at Severus through the flames for a second, then said, with a hint of his old familiar authority, "Severus - come through, now. This could be it, we could finish this thing -"
And that was, of course, what was of primary importance to Lucius, Severus thought. As much as he suspected the other man now regretted his allegiance to the Dark Lord, getting the madman out of his home and away from his wife and son would be at the forefront of Lucius' mind. The strain of the last months had, no doubt, made the long game something that was simply too risky to play.
No. Fuck. Severus could feel his lungs beginning to constrict with panic. If he refused to go, he would expose himself utterly. If he went, and Hermione was on the other side, he would expose himself utterly, for he was suddenly quite certain there was no way that he could stand by and watch something happen to her, the rest of the Wizarding world be damned. He could hear Albus' voice in his head thundering that this, this was precisely why he had forbidden continued contact between them, but Severus knew that by then, for him at least, it had already been too late for the order to do any good.
He readied his Shields, his breathing becoming less strained as the Occlumency did its work and dampened the effect of the adrenaline that had begun to surge through his bloodstream. He had no choice at all, really.
"All right," he said. "Stand back."
There was shouting coming from the drawing room when Severus stepped through the fireplace. Lucius had already begun to make his way in that direction, and Severus hurried to catch him up.
"What's happening?" he demanded.
"I don't know," Lucius said over his shoulder. "Bella did not want us to summon His Lordship. She has been trying to get information from Potter's Mudblood friend, but from the sound of things she wasn't having any success, but this - this doesn't sound…" He trailed off, turning, surprised, when Severus grabbed his arm.
"Why doesn't Bellatrix want the Dark Lord summoned?" Severus demanded. Bright starbursts of terror had started going off behind his eyes at the mention of Hermione, but his Occlumency remained strong enough that he was able to - mostly - ignore them.
"I don't know," Lucius said. He looked down to where Severus' fingers were crumpling the fabric of his sleeve, then back up at Severus' face. He wrenched his arm away. "She claimed our lives would all be forfeit, but would not explain why, and I believe that is because she has done something, or failed to do something. That she is the one whose life will be forfeit. And I don't care." He raised one pale brow. "Do you?"
"No," Severus said.
The ghost of a smile passed over Lucius' face, to be replaced by startlement when Bellatrix herself screamed, loudly enough to be heard down the hallway, "Stop or she dies!" ++
And then Severus was running, with no clear recollection of ordering himself to move, boots thudding as he dashed down the hall, Lucius close behind him. He reached the drawing room doors and shoved them open, then stopped, frozen, at the sight before him.
Bellatrix stood in the center of the room, one arm wrapped around Hermione, who was slumped against her, filthy and disheveled, the tip of a slim silver knife drawing droplets of blood from her exposed throat. For a horrific moment Severus thought Hermione was dead; he felt his Shields shudder as his vital organs fell away, leaving him hollow; then what little capacity for reason he had left asserted itself and he thought, with a sort of prayerful desperation, that Bellatrix would have no reason to hold Hermione as though she was leverage if the girl were already dead. With that thought, Severus forced his Shields back into place before the adrenaline-fueled fury that had begun to leech through their cracks became a torrent that made him do something rash. No one had noticed his appearance in the drawing room, all eyes riveted on the two witches at the center of the room.
And then - then - there was an ominous groan from above, and Severus tipped his head back, eyes widening in horrified comprehension as the chandelier suspended from the ceiling began to sway, and then, in a sudden rush, fall, far too quickly for Severus to have even the slightest hope of stopping it. At the last moment, Bellatrix dropped the captive girl in her arms and rolled aside. The chandelier crashed to the floor and Severus staggered, watching Hermione disappear from view under metal and crystal. His Shields slipped free of his hold, unnoticed.
The shouts of the other people in the room, the volley of spells and the cries of pain as several hit their marks - none of it registered with Severus, the entirety of his attention focused on the girl at the center of the room. He darted forward, his heartbeat impossibly loud in his ears, only to be jerked backward by Lucius, the other man's hands hard on his shoulders.
"Fuck," Severus gasped. "What the fuck did you do that for -"
A flicker of movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he turned in time to see Ron Weasley make a running dive, heave the broken mass of the chandelier off Hermione, and drag her from the wreckage. Severus' brief glimpse of her made him go cold, her form limp and bloodied. Then, quicker than thought, in the space between one breath and the next, she and the others were being Side-Alonged, a feat that ought to have been impossible except that the source of the Apparation seemed to be a House-elf with a familiar, distinctive pile of woolly hats perched precariously between his overlarge ears, and Bellatrix - Bellatrix let out an enraged cry and flung the knife she had held to Hermione's throat at the group. It arced through the air and then disappeared, along with Hermione and Potter and Severus' ability to breathe, from the room.