A/N: Hi...remember me? The delay was uncalled for, but I feel I'm finally settled in. Since the last time I updated, I moved 500 miles, got married, did some part time work, celebrated holidays with family across the country, found a real job as a school teacher, and had a million lesson plans to work on. I set some time aside today to work on this. I missed it. You can thank Pottermore for giving me the bug. :P Anyways, I hope I can keep up with this along with real life. And, for those people who are now first tuning in, welcome! I hope you've come here for the long ride. :) Let me know what you think.
CHAPTER 37: THE RUSE
To say Hermione was shocked at the story her fiancée told her about his run in with Sirius would have been an understatement. But from there on out, she could sense the change in the men's relationship. Usually, one would freely attack the other. But now, an invisible barrier sparked between them. She knew Severus still had the desire to destroy Sirius, but their 'treaty' of sorts finally restored the peace that was desperately needed over the past seven years.
The face that Severus was the one to awaken Sirius about the status of his relationship with Regulus warmed Hermione's heart. The one thing Hermione had always wanted from her own family was a sibling, but her parents could not have granted her such a request. To have Reg and Sirius on good terms again was an accomplishment one wouldn't have dreamed about a week ago. Still, something about Reg's behavior, even without the added stress of a broken family, made her feel like she was being secluded from the truth. Severus acted like he knew something about him that she did not.
Hermione knew Severus's motivation to patch things up between the Black brothers had nothing to do with Sirius's happiness. Severus looked out for Reg. Something about the younger Slytherin must have worried him enough to have the two brothers reconcile. Desperate measures like that could only mean a life was spiraling out of control. If Regulus was that far in, she dreaded to know how deep Severus's involvement was.
Nevertheless, it was a wonderful relief to not have to break up fights in the corridor. And to add to the beauty of it all, even Reg was amicable. In fact, Hermione found herself enjoying his company more and more. If Severus had to run off somewhere, Reg would offer to keep her company, and for once, no awkwardness ensued. He had a very similar disposition like his older brother. There were times that when Sirius came to visit, Hermione laughed herself hoarse. She almost forgot about the war and the fates of the two of them. Almost.
Severus was leaving the grounds more often, which only meant the war was escalating outside the castle walls. The tension and anxiety was evident in Severus. Always the pessimist, he couldn't trust Reg alone with Hermione. Something about the way he looked at her bothered him. Hermione assumed it was only Severus's possessive nature taking hold. But the way Reg and her settled into a comfortable friendship was too easy and too good to be true.
A few weeks before the end of term, Hermione and Severus were studying for their NEWT exams. Yet, despite the importance of the tests, Severus was extremely distracted, gazing distantly out the window, his jaw set and brow furrowed.
"Anything the matter?" Hermione asked with concern.
Severus didn't respond immediately. His gaze was still fixed outside, but finally he sighed. "Reg is up to something."
The tone of his pronouncement annoyed Hermione. Perhaps a few months ago his suspicions would have been warranted. But since Sirius and Reg reconciled their differences, he was a totally different person. In fact, if it weren't for her fiancée's cynical attitude, she would call Regulus a new friend.
"How do you know?" she asked carefully, not wanting to set off his short temper.
"Well, he's been disappearing more often than even I have. And I feel that he is trying to avoid me. Weeks ago, we used to travel together, but now he is insisting on traveling alone. That only indicates the Dark Lord is meeting with him privately."
Hermione barely suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Shaking her head, she returned to her Runes notes. "Sev, I think all the sneaking around you've been doing is making your paranoid."
"It's making me more observant of my surroundings. It is not paranoia," he spat harshly.
"Don't get so defensive with me," she retorted. "I understand that generally you don't easily trust your peers, but why do you assume anything Regulus is engaged with involves you in any way?"
The look Severus gave her showed he was unnerved she didn't seem to harbor the same sentiments about Reg that he did. "Call it a Death Eater's instinct."
Hermione stiffened immediately as his words hit her. "Reg is our friend!"
"Hardly, Hermione. I almost fell for it myself, but he is still not as cunning as me. I don't want you spending any time alone with him."
"Are you really telling me who I can and cannot be friends with?" Hermione asked incredulously, her cheeks turning pink in anger.
"In this scenario, yes. It is for your own good."
Hermione slammed her book shut in disgust. "I may be marrying you, Severus, but that does not give you the right to control my relationships and ask permission to see others. I'm not the kind of woman who relinquishes the freedom to make my own choices, and that includes who I call my friends." She stood up and hastily stuffed her belongings into her bag. "Plus, I can look after myself pretty well. I'm not getting involved in any illegal activity, unlike some people I know."
"Are we back to this again?" an impatient Severus asked. "Don't be so dramatic. I'm not doing this for a power trip. I -"
"Shut up, Severus. If it weren't for you and your choices in political affiliation, I wouldn't even bee in this mess. And you have the indecency to try and control my life choices. I am not a child!"
The two of them glared angrily, Hermione still standing with her satchel draped haphazardly over her shoulder. She could see a tick in his jaw, as if he was trying to control his temper.
He let out a long sigh. "Hermione," he said, almost in a whisper, "Regulus has nothing to lose and a lot more to gain. Don't underestimate him."
Hermione didn't respond. She knew her fiancée meant well. It wasn't too long ago that Reg had tried to set her up for a heavy interrogation by Voldemort. Hermione had easily brushed that major indiscretion aside, but Severus was not quick to forget. He didn't want that to even happen again. So why was she taking it so personally?
Her independence was winning over. She had fought a war and survived. She could handle one scheming teenager if, in fact, Severus's instincts about Reg were valid. Staring at her fiancée with betrayal in her eyes, she wallowed thickly and left the table without another word.
Severus and Hermione never breached the subject again. It was awkward at first, but soon they settled for the 'agree-to-disagree' approach. Severus was constantly tense when Reg was around, but nothing amiss seemed to be occurring. In fact, Hermione could see that he was lowering his guard somewhat, especially after a rather enjoyable evening at Sirius and Regulus's flat they recently leased together in Hogsmeade. How could one be such a gracious host while all the while plotting the demise of a welcomed guest?
NEWTS were taken, trunks were packed, and graduation robes were fitted. It was the day of the Commencement Ceremony. The castle was fairly quiet, save for the minor preparations the staff was working on in the Great Hall. All that remained in the castle were the graduating 7th years and the siblings that were to attend the event. Regulus decided to stay behind last minute after he and his big brother reconciled. Hermione found him surrounded with trunks and objects of all sizes in the middle of the Entrance Hall, a perplexed expression on his face.
"Need help, Reg" Hermione asked politely.
Reg was shaken from his stupor as he finally noticed her standing there. He almost seemed to flinch at the sound of her voice. "Oh, hello Hermione." He took a look at the mess strewn around him. "I have a car waiting at the gate to take these things to our new flat. My dad would have helped, only mum demanded him to get rid of her spawned children's' belongings before she destroyed all of it herself. Apparently she's upset I'm moving in with her ostracized son."
She almost sympathized him, but remembered what type of woman Mrs. Black was: a bigoted, close-minded racist pureblood. Instead of responding in kind, she pulled out her want and levitated some of the boxes to stack on top of one another.
"I could get Severus to help us move all of this at once," she offered. "That way, it will save us extra trips back here."
"Two can handle it just fine, "he said automatically, then froze. "I—I mean," he added quickly, "I rather not wait for him. It's embarrassing enough to have people see me surrounded by all this junk. No, let's take care of it ourselves."
After their fourth trip, Hermione was getting tired and exasperated by the monotony of the chore. "Really, Reg. This is getting a bit tiresome."
"Well, you're halfway through it. Might as well finish the job."
"But I'm sure Severus would have figured out some sort of spell to send everything to the car at once by now."
"Listen, you offered to help me. It's a bit too late to back out now, lazy witch."
Hermione was startled by his sudden cruelness. "I beg your pardon?"
Reg sighed, his shoulders slumped forward in fatigue. "Okay, I apologize. That was a bit uncalled for."
"It's just, well, I am perfectly capable of getting things done without Severus's assistance."
Hermione was a little uncomfortable with Reg's tone of voice. He was acting a bit peculiar, not making eye contact. She also was wondering if he was tense that usual. He would jump at any noise, and more than once she caught him peering over his shoulder, as if he was checking if anyone was following them.
"Reg, I only suggested it so we could finish quicker. It has nothing to do with your competence."
"Well, I still prefer to not have that half-blood touch my things," he said, picking up a few more bags and headed toward the doors again.
Hermione scoffed in disbelief and followed after him. "What is wrong with you, Reg?"
"Nothing," he replied without looking back at her.
"Don't lie to me! You never cared about Severus being a half-blood before."
Regulus dropped his parcels on the dirt path and turned to face her, fury raging in his eyes. "It was just a reference to his blood line. Not everything has to be a personal attack, Hermione. Figures, your precious fiancée has clouded your train of thought and made you just as paranoid as him."
"I don't understand why you are so angry with me," she stated emphatically. "I've been defending your arse anytime Severus gripes about you. Contrary to what he thinks, he can't control who I am friends with." She bent down to pick up the boxes Reg threw down. "However, I know you are keeping something from me, and believe me, if you don't fess up soon, it is going to be very hard to stay friends with you."
Hermione continued down the path toward the carriage carrying the boxes. Reg sighed and followed, doubling his pace to catch up with her.
"Why doesn't Severus trust me by now?" he asked as they reached the cart. There was a tone of sadness in his voice.
"Severus doesn't fully trust anyone," she replied, wiping the sweat off her forehead.
"But he trusts you, and you only met him, what, eight months ago?"
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "He trusts what he knows about me. I am ashamed to admit that I haven't told him the whole truth about me. But he knows that, and surprisingly he's not pushing me to divulge. Maybe eventually, but for now…" her voice faded as she thought of the implications.
"So, you're lying to him?"
"No, I'm not. Everything that I have admitted to him has been the truth. You know what an accomplished Legillimens he is. It would have been futile to even fib a little. All the things I have kept from him he is aware of existing. I suppose open secrets are better than outright lies."
Regulus was rummaging through the cart and pulled out a few bottles of butterbeer. "I guess I deserve his scrutiny. I did try to sabotage you and him that one night."
"You mean when you tried to corner Sev into taking me to your Master?" she said firmly, taking a bottle from his outstretched hand.
"You keep too many secrets," he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"Whatever happened to respecting one's privacy?"
Reg popped off the cap and took a drink. "One has to earn that respect, and you did not."
She scoffed. "Well, I hope by now your opinion has changed," she said, raising the bottle to her lips.
"Yeah…yeah it has…"
Hermione sat down on the edge of the open flat bed and stared inquisitively at him. His voice, his demeanor, they all betrayed his collective posture. In fact, he was behaving as though he was shameful of something. With his legs dangling over the edge of the cart, swinging precariously, it was like watching a child desperately trying not to confess to a wrongdoing.
She took another small sip. "Reg, what—"
"I'm sorry, Hermione," he blurted suddenly.
She blinked a few times. "Sorry for what?"
Reg opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He ran and hand through his hair, obviously fighting an internal battle with himself. Hermione swore she saw his lower lip tremble, but then again, everything in her line of vision was becoming hazy.
She blinked again, trying to get her surroundings in focus. The world around her began to spin, and she knew she was in deep waters. "What the hell did you do to me?" she cried, trying to get back on her feet, and far away from him as possible.
"You—you don't understand," Reg choked. "He put me in a corner. I didn't have any other choice."
"Who put you in a corner?"
"The Dark Lord," he whispered. "Please, please forgive me, Hermione. I promise nothing bad will happen to you. I –"
"Are you insane? No, no. Get the hell away from me, Reg." Hermione was beginning to panic. Whatever he had done to her made it impossible for her to escape. But she had to try.
She stumbled her way a few steps before tripping, but she managed to get back up, determined to return to the safe confines of the castle. But her vision was fading with each passing second, and it was getting more and more difficult for her to stand on her two feet.
Her legs crumpled beneath her. "What did you do to me?" she asked again.
Reg stooped down and help her back on her feet. "I laced your drink with a sleeping potion." He guided her back to the car, the gesture contrasting the fact that he had drugged her. "Mind your head as you get inside, and get comfortable. It will be at least a four hour trip."
"Where…where are you taking me?" she slurred, her eyes unfocused and glazed.
Regulus was tucking blankets around her lap gently. "Someplace private. But it will be clean and comfortable. He only wishes to speak to you. Nothing more."
Hermione shook her head. "Don't be fooled, Reg. He has a deeper motive than you know.
Reg left the cab and got into the driver side, locking up and gearing to leave. "Relax. If all goes as planned, you'll be back here with your lover by dawn."
Her surroundings were fading fast. "If anything happens to me, you're the only one to blame, and my death will be on your conscious for the rest of your miserable existence." Then, Hermione stopped fighting and lost consciousness.
The Commencement ceremony was dull, in Severus's point of view. Thankfully, it wasn't a long, drawn out affair. A few speeches from the Heads of Houses and Dumbledore, and then the Minister of Magic called out the names of the graduates by Houses. Diplomas and certificates would be delivered later that summer.
But because they had the seventh years sit with their own Housemates, Severus had a difficult time trying to find Hermione. He cursed himself earlier when he dawdled in the hospital wing with Trammell and Slughorn, for it wasted precious time he could have spent with Hermione. He assumed she'd come and find him later on, but she never showed up.
Of course, Severus understood that she had to say her farewells to her classmates. Who knew when she would see them next, especially since she was leaving the country with him. What bothered him was how she skipped the final rehearsal for the ceremony. Hermione would never skive off an event so important.
A sinking feeling was settling in his stomach with each passing minute. Being a Prefect, he was sitting with the other seven. Remus was only a few chairs away.
"Lupin, have you seen Hermione?" he whispered as the Minister continued to ramble out names of graduates.
Remus turned his head, frowning slightly. "Not since breakfast. I figured she was either with you or your family."
"She missed rehearsal. And there is no way she'd be with my mum. They never met."
Severus could detect a flicker of fear in Remus's face. "I'm sure she's here somewhere, Sev. Probably was running late or something…"
The ceremony dragged on slower than before, now that Severus was concerned about Hermione's absence. His legs jittered nervously and he could feel his palms clam up as he gripped the hem of his robes tightly. He couldn't stand up fast enough when the ceremony was complete. But now how was he to find her? Remus had no notion. Who else would know?
Adversaries didn't matter anymore. He was desperate to find Hermione.
The crowds were oppressive with smiling faces and embraces. Severus was now concerned whether he was going to find the Gryffindors before they left. But it was hard to miss Lily's flaming hair in a sea of black robes. He squeezed his way past the chaos and almost lost his footing as he stumbled over the remaining trunks and parcels. Finally, he reached Lily.
Despite their previous amicable meeting, Lily was surprised to hear him speak to her. She greeted him with a pleasant smile. "We finally did it! Seemed so quick, these past seven years, hasn't it, Sev?"
Severus nodded, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Lily's parents were already staring hesitantly at him. "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Evans," he said politely.
"Good evening to you, Severus," Lily's mother replied in kind, "and I suppose congratulations are in order. Lily mentioned your plans for this fall."
"Thank you, Mrs. Evans, but I'm sure Lily most likely overplayed it up slightly."
"Such modesty," she chuckled while her husband continued to scrutinize him stiffly. "You haven't changed at all, Severus."
"No. No he hasn't." Mr. Evans finally broke his silence. He placed two protective hands on his daughter's shoulders. "I'm sure you have heard the news of Lily's engagement."
"Daddy, please," Lily interrupted, turning a shade of red that rivaled her own hair color.
"I did, Mr. Evans, and I wish her all the luck and patience in the world."
"Daddy," Lily intervened, trying to get him to relax, "Severus is also getting married this summer before he moves North."
"Oh, how wonderful!" Mrs. Evans chimed in before her husband could make a scathing comment. "I daresay we'd love to meet the girl."
"Of course, Mrs. Evans. But first, could I have a word with your daughter in private?" Mrs. Evans furrowed her brow in confusion, but nodded. Lily's father reluctantly loosened his grip.
As soon as they were beyond ear-shot of the adults, Lily became concerned. "What's the matter, Severus?"
He finally lowered his guard. "I don't want to panic, but it seems as if Hermione's disappeared, and no one has a clue where she's gone."
Lily bit her lip. "I'm sorry, Sev. I haven't seen her since after breakfast. I assumed she was with you."
That was not what he hoped to hear. "Do you know if anyone else saw her?"
Lily sighed, slightly annoyed. "Is that your way of getting me to talk to James?" After the look Severus gave her, she shook her head in defeat. "Fine, I'll go ask him for you."
She crossed the crowd a few yards and found James with Sirius. Severus studied the couple from a far, watching the jovial expression on the vermin's face turn into worry, then disgust, then hatred when he turned and locked eyes on him. Suddenly, James stormed away from Lily, with the girl trying her best to calm him down before a full battle ensued.
"So, you finally did it," James spat as a greeting. "You got in so deep with whatever you'd been up to that you managed to harm her. This is the repercussions of your actions."
"Get a grip on yourself, Potter. Stop pretending that you care. If you did, you'd notice she was missing long before I had." He turned to face Lily. "And you wonder why I didn't want to ask him in the first place!"
She frowned sympathetically, glaring at her impatient fiancée. "I'm sorry, Sev. I didn't think he'd jump to these conclusions."
"Lily, stay out of this," James said angrily.
"Don't talk to her like that!"
"Boys, just stop this, for once! You're creating a scene."
"I don't care, Lily!" James exclaimed. "Hermione is missing and I know Snape is responsible. He's the only -"
"Save your conspiracy theories for someone who cares, Potter. Just tell me if you have seen her at all today so I can actually try and find her instead of running around in a dead circle!"
Sirius, who had stayed behind, was now drawn into the debacle by their loud shouts. He reached James's side as Severus was yelling. "You know," he threw in casually, "I bet my brother would know where she is."
Severus narrowed his eyes, not liking was Sirius was implying. "Why would you think that?" he asked dangerously.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I haven't seen him since my father left the castle earlier this afternoon. And…well…could you really blame the girl if she had a change of heart about you?"
That was a low blow to Severus. 'Say that again, Black, and I will tell you the real truth about your younger brother," he sneered, enjoying watching the amused gleam in his eyes fade as dread replaced it. Severus smirked. "That's what I thought. You really think a woman like Hermione would lower her standards to the level of the Noble House of Black? Would she trade it a man who's got everything going for him for a child who hasn't a prayer in the world for success unless he grovels to the Death Eaters?"
Sirius swallowed thickly. "You think you are better than Reg? I dare you to tell me that you aren't one of those Death Eaters he grovels to."
"That," he whispered, "is none of your business. Either way, I do not need the leverage of any person or group to make great achievements. Your brother, unfortunately, cannot say the same for himself. A name can only take you so far."
Sirius did not seem to have the words to fight back, which only elated Severus further. "I thank you, Black, for you input. Hermione is probably with your brother, but for reasons you are not aware of."
Severus turned swiftly on his heels toward the exit without another word. He did not want the Gryffindors to see the fear in his eyes at what he discovered. He hated to admit it, but Hermione was definitely with Regulus. But, unlike what Sirius implied, she was no willing consort.
He was running down the path toward the Apparition barrier, ignoring the looks from the families of his peers that were mingling about in the warm twilight evening. There could only be one place Reg could have take Hermione. He just hoped he wasn't too late.