A/N: Uff da. I know it's been a heck of a long time since the last update, and I apologize. Thank you for all of you expressing concerns or waiting patiently. And for those of you jumping to my defense, you definitely made my day. I have been running around like a chicken with her head cut off this past semester and haven't had a ton of brain power left when I do get a moment to myself. Even now, I really should be packing up my apartment since I'm moving in a few weeks, but alas! I'd rather work on my stories.

A lot of you wished good thoughts toward my grandpa, so thank you very much! It has been incredible to see him over these last few weeks as he suddenly seems five or ten years younger. His mental fog is gone; he's 40 pounds lighter; he can see better; he can hear without either of his hearing aids; his blood sugar levels are regulating themselves; he's been zipping about the nursing home with his walker ("only because it's the law" there); and his doctors cleared him to go home. He was definitely given a second chance at life and he seems determined to make the most of it. So he's requested open heart surgery to alleviate as much of the damage as they can. He's tentatively scheduled for the 20th, so if you would like to send more positive thoughts over the next fortnight, I would be entirely grateful.

Anyway... onto what you've all been waiting for...


Bound to Him

Chapter 64

"Where is he, Hermione?" Harry snapped, folding his arms.

The witch looked up from her book and raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"I know you're hiding him!" he hissed. "Now tell me where he is!"

"Who?" she asked. "I don't know what you're –"

"Your stupid cat!"

"Crooks? Why do you –"

"I need to find him!" the boy declared as he began tearing through her wardrobe. "He's working for Voldemort!"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Hermione shouted, snatching up clothes that he had tossed to the floor. "Harry! Harry, stop! Leave my things alone! Please –"

Her words died in her throat when he threw her up against the wall without warning. His eyes were frightfully dark as he growled in her face. "You're working for him, too. I know it."

"No," she whispered, shaking her head. "You don't understand. I'm not –"

"You're a liar, Hermione," Harry snarled. "Did you think I wouldn't figure it out? Do you think I'm stupid? You must if you thought I would never notice you spying on me… or notice you sneaking off to let Snape fuck you. I never would have pegged you for a Death Eater's whore!"

"He's not a Death Eater!" the witch hissed as she pushed him away. "And you have no right to say –"

"I can say whatever I want," he replied, grabbing hold of her arm. "I'm the Chosen One."

"Harry, please! You're hurting me!"

"Good."

"Harry!"

He leaned in close to whisper in her ear. "I'm going to find Crooks, and when I do, it's the end for him. And then I'll find your ferret-faced friend… and then the Greasy Git… and then I'll enjoy tearing out your heart!"

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"No!"

Hermione startled awake at the sound of her own voice. Breathing heavily, she glanced around the darkened room and at her two sleeping roommates. As her heart raced, she rubbed her face with both hands and then let out a deep sigh.

It was just a dream. A horrible dream. Harry doesn't know anything about the bond. He doesn't know. He wouldn't hurt me. He'd listen to me, because he's my friend.

"Merlin," she whispered before rolling onto her side. She stared at the rumpled ball of fur beside her pillow and then rested her hand atop it. When two green eyes blinked open, she cleared her throat gently. "You're not working for Dark Lord, are you?"

Crookshanks flicked his tail in response and then closed his eyes.

The witch snorted tiredly as she stroked her hand over his side. "I didn't think you were, you know. I just wanted to… to make sure."

The half-Kneazle purred quietly and nestled deeper against her arm.

"Well, at least one of us will get some sleep," she muttered bitterly.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"You appear quite comfortable up there."

Hermione snorted loudly and peered down from where she was hovering ten feet above the ground. "I have the distinct impression that will change rather shortly."

"Indeed," the wizard sneered. "Perhaps another turn about the room?"

She pinched her lips together as she eyed his form. "You're going to hex me, aren't you?"

A smile appeared on his face before he shook his head. "I have no intention of hexing you."

"Why don't I believe you?" the girl muttered while pushing forward. As she adopted a gentle pace, she flicked her eyes back to him. "What is the lesson today?"

Severus cleared his throat. "The most important aspect of flying."

The witch rolled her eyes. "You've said that about every factor we've discussed so far. Falling… control… focus… awareness… defense… reaction time… They were all the most important aspects."

"I do not deny my claims," he shrugged. "Consider a situation in which you need but lack the knowledge or skills relevant to a particular factor. Suddenly, that's the most important one. When considered all together, they are of equal importance, but should the knowledge of one be what determines life or death…"

"Point taken," she sighed. "So… what is the important factor of the day?"

"Balance."

Hermione blanched as images of Quidditch players standing on or hanging from their brooms entered her head.

"What keeps you and the broom airborne is the balance you manage to achieve with it," the professor explained, ignoring her subtle display of fear. "If you were to move forward a few inches, the broom would wobble. Likewise if you were to move backward a similar distance. To fly successfully, you must find the balance prior to take-off. The more experienced a flyer, the less time it takes to find it. Based upon my observation, I would assume you didn't have to spare it a moment's thought this evening."

The witch tilted her head as she considered the statement. Startlingly enough, he was correct. She had not given it any consideration before rising into the sky. Does that mean I'm an experienced flyer? I would love to see the looks on Harry's and Ron's faces if I were to ask them that question.

"That being said," Severus murmured as he withdrew his wand. "Sometimes things occur mid-flight which require a bit of readjusting."

"What?" she squeaked, looking up just in time to see a flash of light leave the tip of his wand. A second later, it hit her broom, slicing off the first half-inch of the stick. A panicked cry escaped her mouth as the broom began to wobble beneath her weight. Without warning, it bucked and caught her off balance. Falling to the ground, she barely managed to cast an Arresto Momentum, and as such, hit the cushioned floor with a fair amount of speed.

"You didn't adjust," he stated simply as he stood over her.

Hermione let out a groan and propped herself up on her elbows. "I think it's just a couple of bruises, but thank you so much for your concern."

The wizard raised one eyebrow in response. "You possess the ability to slow your fall. You could have prevented yourself from any injury. We may be focusing on balance this evening, but you should not neglect your prior lessons."

The girl made a show of casting a diagnostic charm, and when it revealed no injuries, she rolled her eyes. "You said you weren't going to hex me."

"I did not hex you. I hexed your broom," he argued, folding his arms. When she narrowed her eyes at him, he donned a small smirk. "You can glare at me just as well from the air."

"Fine," she snapped. After pushing up to her feet, she stalked over to where the broomstick had fallen and scooped it up.

"Before you ascend, can you feel a difference?"

The witch eyed him with confusion, but then closed her eyes and focused on the slight throbbing of magic coursing through the wooden handle. "I think so."

"What do you feel?"

"It's a… it's like it's humming. Not as much as the wards do, but… I think it's slightly more agitated than it was before." She snorted once and glanced at him. "Is it mad at you?"

"Don't be absurd, Granger," Severus sighed. "No, the higher thrum is due to the change in concentration. The broom is smaller than it was a moment ago, but still possesses the same amount of magical energy. That is partly why it becomes unruly. That, and the imbalance with your positioning."

"Huh," she grunted. After curiously examining the object, she let out a quick breath and remounted the broom. With intense focus, she kicked off of the ground.

The wizard watched until she had reestablished her earlier height and pace and then carefully aimed another slicing hex at the tip of the broom.

"Ohhhh!" Hermione cried as the vehicle once again became unsteady. "Oh god!"

"Panicking is not the solution," the man called. "You need to focus on the broom and find balance."

Biting down on her bottom lip, she gripped the handle so hard that her knuckles turned white. As she held her breath, she slowly slid backwards until the broom calmed again.

"Good!" Snape exclaimed after she gave a relieved cry. He allowed her a moment to enjoy her success before repeating the exercise.

As another inch disappeared from handle in front of her, the girl whimpered loudly. Though she attempted to respond in the same fashion she had previously, the broomstick bucked violently, causing her to slip sideways. Her heart leaped into her throat as the broom and gravity collaborated against her.

"Whoa-fuck!" she shouted as another hearty kick resulted in her being thrown into the air. As she came down, her legs missed the stick, but she managed to catch herself by the underarms. With her legs dangling in the air, Hermione grit her teeth and strengthened her hold on the broom. Digging deep into her determination to stay airborne, she groaned loudly as she gradually began pulling herself back onto the broomstick. Once she had succeeded, she lay panting along the length of the finally level broom.

"Holy fuck," she gasped.

The professor donned a smirk at her use of profanity and then cleared his throat. "You're doing well, Granger. Now, let's see if you can fly while it's damaged."

"Ohhhkay," the witch mumbled before slowly sitting upright. As she thrust forward, she could immediately feel the difference as it took far more focus to keep the broom steady. It took several minutes to get used to the feeling, but she did eventually relax.

Once he was certain that she had again become comfortable on the broom, Severus raised his wand and cast a different hex. A second later, the tail of her broom ignited.

"Oh god!" Hermione screamed as the vehicle began to spin while black smoke poured out of it. "Oh god, oh god!"

"How do you react, Granger?"

Hearing him yell, the girl pulled together her focus and withdrew her wand. With a shaking hand, she quickly turned her torso enough to cast an Aguamenti. Water blasted out of the tip of her wand, soaking the tail and extinguishing the flames. Though the smoke had turned to steam, the broom continued to spin. Gripping it again with two hands, she instinctively leaned her upper body in the opposite direction. The rotations immediately began to slow until the broom once again flew straight.

With a triumphant expression on her face, Hermione shot off in a brisk jaunt about the room.

"Excellent!"

Her eyes widened significantly at hearing his praise, and she could not keep a broad smile off of her face as she descended to the ground. Every limb was quivering with a mixture of adrenaline and exertion, and she sank to the floor the moment she dismounted the broom.

There was a grin on his face as he sheathed his wand and approached her. "You may take as much time as you need to recover."

Turning her head, the young witch glanced up at him. "Are you going to make me do that again?"

Snape shook his head. "I think you've had enough excitement for the evening."

"So we're done?"

"I said no such thing."

"Of course not," Hermione snorted softly and closed her eyes. Breathing deeply, she pushed herself up from the floor. "Alright, what's next? More balancing?"

The wizard gave a nod and wordlessly summoned a new broom. As he held it out, he explained the next task. "For the rest of the night, you are going to practice flying with a passenger."

"With you?" she gulped.

"Yes," he replied, noting her nervous expression. "You needn't fret, Granger. I am fully capable of catching us both if you lose control."

The girl gave him a weak smile as she accepted the object. Trying to push all thoughts of their previous flights together out of her head, she took in a steadying breath. "Well, obviously you can't sit in front of me because I wouldn't be able to see around you. So you'll have to sit behind me."

"An astute observation," the man commented while watching her mount the broom. When she looked to him pointedly, he resisted the urge to give her instruction and simply climbed on behind her.

Hermione narrowed her eyes as she instantly felt how much more unsteady the broom was. Attempting to think positively, she pushed off only to have the broom immediately fall back to the ground.

"Not as easy as it looks," the professor quipped as he prevented them from tipping over.

"Nothing about flying has ever looked easy to me," she sighed sadly.

Squeezing her shoulder, Severus spoke quietly. "You're doing remarkably well. You just need to find the balance."

"Find the balance," the girl repeated under her breath. Pinching her lips together, she moved backwards until she could feel the heat from his body radiating against her spine. Swallowing slowly, she was hesitant to press back against him, but she could tell that the broom had evened out somewhat. "Erm… can I ask you to slide back a bit?"

With a nod, he did as she requested.

"Nope!" she exclaimed as the broom shook beneath them. "Back to where you were."

Sensing the smirk on his face as he returned to his original spot, the witch inhaled slowly. In her mind, she pictured how Snape had tested his broom prior to their flight to the cottage. "Is it better to spread the weight out, or to make it as compact a weight as possible?"

"Which do you think?"

Hermione shook her head in frustration. "Logically, I would say to spread out the weight, but when has anything been logical lately?"

"Well," he sighed. "You must keep in mind that I do weigh at least three stone more than you."

"True. Okay, so… it probably would be better to make it one weight that could be spread out if necessary." Closing her eyes for a moment, she slid back on the broom until her backside was pressed firmly against his chest. Though the broom had evened out, the girl found herself becoming slightly disconcerted. Her body was already on high alert due to the significant amount of adrenaline coursing through her system, and she was well aware that it had been nearly two weeks since Valentine's Day.

As he again placed his hands on her shoulders, the girl forced herself to focus on the task at hand. As they slowly ascended from the ground, she initially struggled to keep the broomstick steady but gradually overcame it. As she commanded the vehicle about the room a number of times, she realized that flying with a passenger required wider turns and slower maneuvers.

And with every passing moment, Hermione became increasingly aware of the intimacy of their positioning. Though she was grateful that his hands had remained cemented on her shoulders, a treacherous voice at the back of her head lamented that they were not at her hips, or wrapped around her waist… or even cupping her breasts.

"Mmph." The witch stifled a moan as her momentary inattention resulted in a slight dip of the broom, which caused their bodies to jar together. Damn it, Granger! Pay attention! Stop thinking about him… doing amazing things to you. No, stop it!

Her hands were becoming stiff as she continuously tightened her grip on the broom. Her eyes gradually began fluttering shut as she absently concentrated on the feeling of his hot breath on the back of her neck. Unconsciously, she leaned farther into his chest and silently willed him to replace his breath with his lips.

"Granger!" Snape hissed as the broom made another jump, slamming him into her shoulders.

"Oh gods," she groaned, throwing open her eyes and refocusing on the flight. Tears of frustration were beginning to form, however, as she realized that every slight fluctuation of the broom or movement of his sent a stab of pleasure straight to her core. She bit down on her bottom lip in an effort to fight the urges, but when she tasted a hint of copper, she let out a soft cry. "I can't! I can't do this!"

His eyebrows narrowed in confusion at her sudden panic. "Granger, you're doing fine."

The girl shook her head as his voice rumbled against her spine. "No… no… I have to stop! I have to –"

"Hermione, you need to calm down and –"

"Down!" she hissed, attempting to draw away from him. "I need down."

"Granger!" the man shouted as the broom suddenly began dropping at a fair rate of speed. With a grunt, he quickly wrapped his arms around her waist to grab hold of the handle. Closing his eyes, he managed to slow their descent until they came to a nearly gentle landing.

With a startled gasp, Hermione attempted to leap off of the broom. His arm was still across her side, however, and she only succeeded in knocking them both to the ground. As her cheeks flushed in embarrassment, she rolled onto her stomach and covered her head with her hands.

Pushing her foot away from where it had collided with his kneecap, Severus grumbled under his breath and pulled himself into a seated position. He frowned as he took in her defensive position, and his eyes widened with concern after he touched her shoulder and realized that she was quivering. Sucking in a deep breath, he scooted closer to her side and attempted to turn her onto her side. "Hermione?"

"I didn't mean to," she mumbled.

He snorted softly and shook his head. "I've taken far worse tumbles than that, I assure you."

"No."

"No?" the wizard mouthed before pulling her against his chest and attempting to expose her face. "Hermione, please look at me. Te—Please tell me why you are so afraid."

Hermione pinched her eyes shut and buried her face into his robes. His scent was comforting and yet completely unsettling at the same time, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep herself from grinding against his thigh. If she looked into his eyes as he was asking her to do, she highly doubted she would refrain from bowling him over and straddling his waist.

Growing more unnerved by her silence as she clutched onto his clothing, the man leaned back just enough to slip his fingers beneath her jaw. He heard her whimper as he raised her chin, and he began another attempt to discern what was wrong. Before he could get out anything but the first two syllables of her name, however, he suddenly found his mouth assaulted by her abused lips.

"Nnnguh," he gasped ineloquently when she tore her mouth away from him just as quickly. With wide eyes, he took in her flushed cheeks, dilated pupils, and the feel of her hardened nipples through the fabric of his sleeve. "Hermione?"

The witch tried to duck her head, but was prevented from doing so. "I'm sorry. I tried to focus on –"

"That's what was wrong?" Severus exclaimed, brushing hair out of her face.

Feeling thoroughly mortified, she nodded.

"Merlin," he sighed. "I thought you were having a bloody anxiety attack."

"I was… just about that," the girl muttered before pinching her lips together to keep from forcing another kiss on him. The longer he held her, however, the harder it became to remain calm. What was really only seconds seemed to stretch on for hours until finally she could not bear the heat any longer. With a small squeak, her hands flew to the clasp of her school robes. Once she had the article of clothing unfastened, she slipped her arms out of the sleeves and then wrapped them about his neck. "Severus, I'm –"

"It's alright," the wizard assured after he had silenced her by pressing his thumb against her lips. Sucking in a small breath, he leaned down to replace his finger with his mouth.

Instantly, Hermione opened her mouth to him and let out a throaty groan. Placing one hand on the ground behind her, she raised herself up enough to wrap her legs about his waist. As she returned her arm to rest along the back of his neck and shoulders, she gave his lips several desperate pecks. "I didn't want… to interrupt… the lesson. I know you… don't like… to be interrupted."

An amused snort left him as he gently cupped the back of her head and shifted forward to lay her back against the cushioned floor. Kneeling over her, he briefly pressed his lips to hers and then shook his head. "This is one type of interruption that I find I don't mind all that much."

The girl giggled softly as she stared up at his face. Withdrawing her hands from behind his head, she placed them at his collar and worked to unfasten his robes. Before long, he captured her hands and leaned against her to kiss his way down the length of her throat. Writhing beneath him, she flexed her hands and groaned in frustration. "Severus… touch me. Please."

Snape inhaled sharply as her request caused an unmistakable throb in his cock. Rearing back onto his haunches, he slipped his fingers under the hem of her shirt and then pulled it over her head. Tossing it aside, he repeated the process with her jeans. While the visible wetness of her knickers gave him momentary pause, the witch wiggled about until she managed to remove her bra and then lifted her hips as he took off her underwear. After quickly stripping down to his trousers, the wizard returned to his earlier position.

Hermione raised her head to kiss him and then sank back against the ground as his lips migrated to her breast. Her eyes gradually closed and her mouth fell open while his fingers rubbed slow circles over the sensitive nub above her sex. Unconsciously, she began to thrust against him and cry out in pleasure. It did not take much time after he repeatedly pushed two fingers into her channel for her to come to a loud completion.

As she slowly came down from her high, the Slytherin watched her with unconcealed interest. While he was relatively certain that he would not have spared her a second glance had the Dark Lord not forced them together, he could not deny that she was a beautiful witch especially when falling to pieces in the throes of passion. He had never considered any student attractive during his tenure as a Hogwarts professor, yet she managed to arouse him more than any woman had ever done.

Frankly, he was relieved to know that he was not the only one struggling to keep his libido in check while in flight. They had not been in the air more than thirty seconds before he was cursing his own stupidity. Having her warm body pressed against his as they soared through the air certainly did little to dissuade his mind from supplying images of what had occurred following their last tandem flight. It had taken every ounce of self-control he possessed to keep his hands planted upon her shoulders and his focus solely on her flying technique.

"Mmm… Severus," the girl murmured, shifting slightly as she ran a hand along his arm. "I need you."

A smile spread across his face as the man magically divested himself of the remainder of his clothing. Nudging her thighs farther apart, he crawled forward until he was in position. While he rubbed the head of his hardened member against her opening, he returned his lips to hers. A moment later he swallowed her cry as he plunged into her wet heat. He paused for a moment while she wrapped her legs about him, and then began slowly thrusting.

"S-s-sev," she whined a few minutes later. "Faster."

Smirking, the wizard flattened himself against her body before increasing the pace with which he pushed into her. As the arms she threw about his neck clutched him as tightly as her thighs were, he grunted and turned his face into the side of her throat. Shortly after he began suckling at her pulse point, she shouted out in ecstasy.

As her second orgasm tore through her, Hermione felt her arms give out and fall uselessly to her sides. Unintelligible syllables spilled forth from her as his hips continued to piston against her pelvis. Though she could not manage to keep her eyes open, she could hear his breathing growing louder and more erratic with every thrust. The delicious burn again developed in her core and by the time grunts were beginning to punctuate his breaths, her fingers were fruitlessly attempting to seek purchase in the cushioned floor.

Recognizing that he had to be as close as she was, the witch matched his rhythm as she pressed back against him. In what seemed like no time at all, pinpricks of white light danced upon the back of her eyelids as she reached her final climax.

"Nnngods!" Severus gasped as her convulsing walls pulled him over the edge. Panting heavily, he managed a few more shallow thrusts while his seed exploded into her. When he had finally finished, he withdrew and then collapsed on his back beside her.

Minutes passed as they struggled to breathe. Eventually, the brunette swallowed loudly and turned her head towards him. "How can you do that?"

His eyebrows narrowed as he glanced at her in confusion. "Do what?"

"This," Hermione stated, rolling onto her side and lazily touching her hand to his chest. "I swear… it gets better every time. I don't understand how that's possible."

The Slytherin Head chuckled breathlessly and placed one hand atop hers. "I think that might be something neither of us truly understands."

Giggling, she shifted closer into his side. "If you need to summon Dobby, can you at least cover us first?"

Snape gave a frustrated huff as he realized that once again he had forgotten to fetch contraceptive before engaging in sexual relations. Catching hold of the corner of his teaching robes, he yanked them over the top of their naked bodies and then sent the house elf to fetch the potion.

After consuming the sickly sweet brew, the witch rested her head on his shoulder. Yawning, she pulled his robes up to her chin and closed her eyes. As she was starting to drift into sleep, her mind dredged up images from the nightmare she had had that morning.

"… or notice you sneaking off to let Snape fuck you. I never would have pegged you for a Death Eater's whore!"

When the wizard moved his left arm slightly, her eyes were automatically drawn to the Dark Mark on his forearm. She shivered slightly at the sight of it, but instantly felt more secure when he tightened his hold on her.

I'm not a whore. Hermione sucked in a deep breath as she mentally chased away the dream-Harry's accusation. As hard as she tried not to think about the nightmare any longer, she kept replaying the sight of Harry searching her room for Crookshanks. Frowning, she thought back to Ron's account the day before and then realized her curiosity was not going to allow her to rest. Clearing her throat, she blinked a few times. "Severus?"

"Hmmm?" he grunted softly without opening his eyes.

"Does the word 'Orcrooks' mean anything to you?"

"Orcrooks?" the wizard repeated, narrowing his brow. After a few seconds of tense silence, he asked, "May I know the context?"

Hermione let out a soft sigh and pulled herself into a seated position. Picking up her discarded bra, she began shrugging into it before responding. "Well, it's a bit of a story really. You see, Harry talks in his sleep sometimes."

She paused momentarily when he snorted and then pulled her shirt over her head. "Anyway, Ron found me in the library yesterday – you were right about him, by the way – and he told me that he tried to talk to Harry while he was sleeping. Harry said something about needing to find something, and when Ron asked what it was he was looking for, Harry mumbled something that sounded like 'Orcrooks'."

As the man mulled over the information, the girl slipped on her knickers and then reached for her jeans. "I mean, it could have just been an innocent dream… or some nonsense word…or… Ron suggested he could have been dreaming about Crookshanks. It's probably nothing, but I just thought I would ask you if it could –"

"Fuck," Severus hissed, launching to his feet and snatching up his trousers from the floor. "Fuck, fucking, fuck!"

The witch watched with wide eyes as he hurriedly pulled on his trousers without bothering to first put on his underwear. "I take it he wasn't looking for my cat?"

"He's not looking for a fucking cat," he snapped as he threw on his long-sleeved shirt. "He's looking for a horcrux. That's what Dumbledore has him doing, the fuckhead."

"But what… a horcrux?"

The man paused in the midst of buttoning his shirt and blew out a slow breath. "It's very Dark magic… the darkest of Dark magic. Basically it's an object in which a wizard has hidden a piece of his soul –"

"What?" she gasped.

"—and it is believed to make the wizard immortal for all intents and purposes," he continued. "Even if the body is destroyed, the soul is still tied to the Earth preventing the wizard from truly dying. I assume that that is how Dumbledore believes that the Dark Lord managed to return, and that he believes it's still out there."

"Still out there?" the witch repeated slowly, shaking her head in disbelief.

"That's the only reason they'd be looking for it," he shrugged, forgoing his frock coat as he pulled his slightly rumpled teaching robes on over his shoulders and stepped into his boots. "I need to talk to the Headmaster."

"But…" She had intended to remind him to avoid Remus since he had not showered, but something else seemed more pressing. Closing her eyes, she quickly ran through the conversation with Ron. A second later, her eyes popped open and snapped to the Slytherin's form. "Severus, wait!"

With one hand on the door knob, he faced her. "What?"

"He said them." Hermione scrambled to her feet and folded her arms over her stomach. "Harry said he had to find them."

"Them?" the man stated; his face becoming visibly ashen. "There's more than one? Oh, of course there fucking is."

"Severus," she called when he turned away again. "You didn't shower."

He took in a deep breath and nodded. "It will be alright. I don't have to walk any farther than you do. There's an unused office from where I can floo directly into the Headmaster's Office."

The witch nibbled on her lower lip as he disappeared into the corridor. After she finished re-dressing, she glanced at his remaining clothing and let out a sigh. "Dobby?"

With a pop, the elf appeared before her. "What can Dobby do for Hermione Granger?"

"Can you take Professor Snape's things back to his quarters?"

"Of course Dobby can!" he cried. With a clap of his hands, the man's frock coat, boxers, and pair of socks launched up from the floor and into the creature's arms. After flashing the girl a grin, Dobby disappeared again.

Hermione exhaled slowly as she pondered what to do. She had an urge to rush down to his quarters to wait for his return, but she did not know if that was wise. It would be just her luck to run into Remus while still smelling of sex.

Alright… Shower first; then think about sneaking out.

XxxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Oh, Severus!" Dumbledore called out as the man stepped out of his fireplace. "Minerva and I were just finishing our discussion."

The Deputy Headmistress pinched her mouth into a frown and leaned forward in her chair. She muttered something unintelligible beneath her breath as she began collecting a number of folders from his desk.

"Have a pleasant rest of your evening, Minerva," the elder smiled.

"A pleasant rest of my evening doing your job," she grumbled quietly after turning away from her employer. Pausing briefly on the way to the door, she eyed Snape's disheveled appearance with a bemused smirk. "And just what happened to you?"

When the dark-haired wizard simply glared at her, she tittered softly and shook her head. "Oh my my."

Rolling his eyes, the Slytherin crossed his arms and remained silent until she had reached the exit. Once the door had latched shut behind her, he fixed the Headmaster with a dangerous glare.

"I take it that you are not here to discuss the upcoming staff meeting," Dumbledore sighed, leaning back in his chair. "What is it that –"

"Horcruxes, Albus?" Severus all but shouted as he quickly approached the desk.

The glint in the Headmaster's eye cooled as his expression became rigid. "Pardon?"

"You heard me," the younger wizard snarled, slamming his finger into the desk. "Don't you dare deny it!"

Dumbledore shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. "Really, Severus… and where might you have gotten this idea?"

"Where did I get it?" he hissed. "Did you honestly think that hiding things from Potter's friends would dissuade them from asking? Did you think that Potter would be any better at keeping his mind closed while sleeping than he was last year?"

The old man pinched his lips together in anger but said nothing.

"Besides you and the Boy Wonder, does anyone in the Order know that the Dark Lord has taken up soul-splitting as a hobby?" the spy questioned. After another moment of silence, he shook his head in frustration. "I'll take that as a no. Unbelievable! You are actually sitting there, ready to risk your life in two days' time on the chance that the venom won't be lethal, yet think nothing of the fact that you could be taking critical information to your grave!"

"In that event, Harry would –"

"He would what? Announce it to the Order?" Snape scoffed. "Fat chance. You know as well as I do that the boy would hang on to your explicit demands for secrecy!"

"He would –"

"You would leave it to that immature twit to seek out and destroy every piece of the Dark Lord's soul on his own?" the man continued shouting. "Jesus Christ! Has the curse addled your brain that much, or are you just fucking senile?"

Albus swallowed back a surprised utterance while the younger man's eyes widened in sudden revelation.

"My gods," he stated softly. "The curse… the ring… it was a bloody horcrux, wasn't it?"

The Headmaster hesitated before giving a nod.

"Did you know it was one before you tried it on?" Severus hissed, knowing the answer. When no response came, he shook his head. "What the fuck were you thinking?"

"I have already admitted that I acted a fool," the elder replied.

Recognizing that shouting was not going to relieve him of any further anger, the Potions Master let out a deep sigh and wiped a hand over his face. "Did you at least manage to destroy the damn thing?"

"Of course," Dumbledore said in a clipped tone.

"And just how did you manage that particular feat?"

The bearded wizard cracked a small smile as he gestured to where the sword of Godric Gryffindor was prominently displayed. "It took surprisingly little effort."

"You hit it with a sword?" Snape asked, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "An object of the darkest origins, and all it takes to destroy it is one whack of a sword?"

"That would be rather anticlimactic, wouldn't it?" Albus quipped before leaning forward. "I do not believe that an ordinary sword would be successful. The sword of Gryffindor, however, is rather extraordinary."

"That's what you were doing with Potter then?" the spy questioned harshly. "You took him along on your little horcrux scavenger hunt?"

The Headmaster frowned as he responded. "It is not your place to disapprove, Severus. I did not intend for you to –"

"Oh, no… I fully realize you did not wish for me to know this," he interrupted. "Why trust sensitive information to someone who is entirely capable of protecting it from the Dark Lord?"

"Severus." Dumbledore exhaled slowly and then shook his head. "You have acquired far too much to protect. I did not wish to overburden you."

Oh, I'm sure. The Slytherin Head took in a steadying breath and placed one hand atop an armchair. "How many of them are out there?"

"I cannot be certain," the old man stated. After a moment's consideration, he cleared his throat. "I have reason to suspect that Riddle desired to create six of them."

"Six?" Snape gasped, gripping the back of the chair. "But that… he split his soul into seven pieces? How is that… how is that even possible?"

"I believe he felt that it would bring him further magical strength," Albus shrugged. "I do not imagine it has, however."

The younger wizard covered his mouth briefly before narrowing his eyes. "What reason do you have to suspect this?"

"A memory I extracted from your predecessor in which Riddle approached him with a question regarding the possibility of creating multiple horcruxes. It took a bit of finessing on my part to obtain an unaltered version, but he finally did relinquish it in exchange for my not revealing a bit of particularly sensitive information."

"Slughorn?" his subordinate murmured before folding his arms to his chest. "By sensitive information, I assume you're referring to his occasionally accepting sexual favors in exchange for favorable marks or recommendations."

"I do forget how perceptive you are at times."

Severus snorted and rolled his eyes. "Perceptiveness is not required when Bellatrix Lestrange drunkenly boasts of her exploits… in nauseating detail. How long have you known?"

"About Horace's extracurriculars?"

"I would say that your blatant inability to effectively administrate a school and supervise the staff is a conversation to be had another day," he sneered. "Wouldn't you?"

Dumbledore let out a quick sigh before straightening in his chair. "I had suspected that Riddle may have created a horcrux since his first rise to power. Had I known that Horace was hiding relevant information at the time, I would have addressed it far sooner. It was not until the summer before last that I considered he may know something. You see, Horace all but vanished after the Tri-Wizard Cup. I knew then that he thought himself in danger, and it took me the better part of a year to locate him. He did, of course, inquire as to how you were faring."

"How touching." The Slytherin took in a deep breath. "I would find myself more moved by the interest in my well-being had the self-absorbed twat actually come forward with the information which could have been used to prevent the Dark Lord's fucking return."

The Headmaster nodded silently as he watched his spy sink into the chair.

Snape fixed his gaze onto one of the bookshelves. "So, you've destroyed one, leaving five more to find?"

"I do believe two have been destroyed."

"Two?"

Albus gave another nod. "The diary that Lucius slipped to Miss Weasley four years ago."

"Fucking hell," he sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Well, at least we know then that the Dark Lord is not aware of their destruction."

"I do not believe he is, no."

Severus shook his head and straightened his spine. "I assure you he isn't. If he were, Lucius and his family would not be presently breathing. The Dark Lord would not take too kindly to the knowledge that Lucius had allowed the destruction of his horcrux, regardless of whether or not there were five others in existence."

"That was my thought as well," Dumbledore agreed.

"Have you identified any of the –"

"Harry and I have been working to do just that," the elder interrupted. "At the present time, I would appreciate if you would step back from this avenue. You are needed to collect as broad an array of intelligence as possible, and I do not want you to become blinded to anything. Furthermore, asking pointed questions is far too dangerous. It would not do to raise further suspicion on your part."

As if I am more likely to jeopardize the information than Potter. Bristling, the spy squared his shoulders and stiffly rose from his seat. "I see."

Before the man could reach the fireplace, Albus called out. "About the staff meeting…"

Taking in a deep breath, Snape turned back to face him. "Everything shall proceed as planned. Your tea shall be extra special this week."

"Splendid," the old wizard smiled. "Oh, and Severus… I do value your contributions. I trust you know that."

After giving a blank stare for a handful of seconds, the younger man simply dipped his head once and reached for the floo powder.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Oh…" Hermione froze midway through the doorway when the pair of dark eyes suddenly locked onto her. As her face flushed slightly, she slipped fully into the sitting room and pushed the door shut. "Erm, hi. I didn't expect you to be back quite so soon."

"That is blatantly apparent," Severus sneered, raising a tumbler to his lips.

With a soft snort, the witch crept forward, depositing the large ginger-furred cat she had carried onto a chair. Folding her arms to her chest, she sank onto the center of the sofa. She bit down on her bottom lip with uncertainty as she watched him toss back his drink and then refill his glass from a bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhiskey. "You're drinking. Is that… I mean, it must be bad if you're drinking… but, well, you haven't destroyed anything, so –"

"Are you quite done with your analysis?" he asked.

"I've just never seen you drink before," she murmured quietly.

Snape raised one eyebrow as he moved away from the mantelpiece and claimed a seat beside her. "It is not a terribly rare occurrence, I assure you."

"Oh."

He flicked his gaze briefly to hers and then cleared his throat. "Nor is it a terribly frequent occurrence."

"I did not assume it was," Hermione replied. "I think if it were, I would have seen it before now."

"Yes, well… you weren't meant to see it this time, either," he sighed, leaning his head against the backrest. "Yet here you are again with your furry sidekick… breaking and entering."

A brief smile toyed at her lips as she moved a few inches closer to him. "If you wanted me to leave, you would have told me to… but you haven't."

"Glutton for punishment," Severus muttered under his breath before taking a small sip of firewhiskey. "At least you have the decency not to lick your arse on my favorite chair."

The girl giggled after following the wizard's gaze to where Crookshanks had paused mid-washing with his hind leg in the air. The cat gave them both a smug blink before returning to his task.

"At least it isn't your pillow?" she suggested.

"This time," he grumbled.

A moment passed in silence until the witch gathered the courage to ask him about his discussion with Dumbledore. A disgusted grimace settled onto his face as he considered his response. "He admitted to there being horcruxes. Apparently, that's what he and Potter have been up to this past year – trying to identify the objects that the Dark Lord would have considered worthy enough to house his soul. They believe two have been destroyed – the ring that the Headmaster stupidly put on and accidentally killed himself with and the diary that nearly killed your friend, Miss Weasley."

Hermione's eyes widened at the information. "If two are destroyed already, how many more need to be found?"

"Albus believes there are four still to be discovered."

"Four?" she gasped. After a few seconds, she sank against his shoulder. "I can see why you're drinking."

The man snorted sadly and peered down at his glass. "If you think that will earn you your own drink, think again."

"Oh ha ha," the witch sneered.

Severus paused momentarily before explaining further. "If he is correct, it would suggest that the Dark Lord split his soul into seven pieces in the hopes of attaining some increase in magical power."

"Did he attain it?"

He shook his head in frustration. "Just because the number seven is the magical number of the natural world does not mean that it will grant unnatural magical prowess. The soul is not meant to be split at all, let alone into seven pieces. Destroying one's soul does not make one more powerful; it only makes one more unstable."

"Are you certain?"

"Did I sound uncertain?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "If you were to break your arm into seven pieces, Granger, do you think it would suddenly become stronger as a whole? Or indestructible, for that matter?"

"Of course not," the girl replied. "But an arm and a soul are different."

The wizard sighed deeply and straightened in his seat. "Yes, but they are still a part of you. You cannot just tear a piece of yourself away and think the rest of you will remain unaffected. The more you tear away, the weaker you become, and the more likely you will fall apart."

A frown was evident on her face as she took in his words. "But… you said that a horcrux would make him immortal, and six would –"

"Yes, because a horcrux creates a tie between the soul and the living realm. However, the soul and the body are not the same. The body is just… Merlin, I don't know enough about this to explain it." With a huff, he took a quick sip of firewhiskey and then shook his head. "I'm sure there's a book in the library that you could ingest."

"A book on horcruxes?"

"No. At least there had better not be. A book dark enough to contain information about horcruxes has no business being in a school library… not even in the Restricted Section." A scowl set onto his countenance as he considered that there could have perhaps been such a book there at one time, since it was the former Head of Slytherin House who had been aware of the Dark Lord's interest in soul-splitting. He did not doubt that Slughorn had kept communication with the young Tom Riddle after he left Hogwarts, but to respond to question about such a dark matter did not seem likely. A current student, however, coming to him with an academic curiosity was not out of the realm of possibilities. If that were the case, it was most likely that the Dark Lord had come across the mention of horcruxes in a library book, which meant that his ability to resurrect himself came about as a direct result of his Hogwarts education. If someone had just bloody paid attention

"Severus?"

At the hesitant tone in her voice, he returned his attention to the young witch sitting beside him. Clearing his throat, he mumbled, "I meant a book on the soul. I am certain there must be something about it if you're truly curious. I do not know much more than what I have researched in conjunction with Dark magic and the Unforgivables."

"The Unforgivables?"

"Have you ever considered why they are so unforgivable when there are other dark spells that can produce similar effects? The Killing Curse is not the only curse that kills. The Cruciatus is not the only curse that tortures. The Imperius is not the only curse that takes away free will."

Hermione stared at him oddly and shook her head. "No, I've never considered it."

"The Unforgivables are the most unforgivable because of the way in which they taint the soul of the caster. They are entirely unnatural. There are other dark curses that would accomplish the same means, yes, because the natural world includes darkness, suffering, and death… but always in balance, and always with chance. The Unforgivables shift the power balance entirely. The caster absorbs all control in the situation. To cause pain or death is one thing, but to control it another. With the Imperius, the caster controls another wizard's body – disconnecting their thoughts and actions. With the Cruciatus, the caster controls another's pain. With the Avada, the caster controls another's death. There is no chance involved, and nature thrives on chance occurrences. Similarly, a horcrux removes the chance of death… and to create one, the creator must remove another's chance of life."

"You mean murder."

Snape nodded once.

"With the Killing Curse?"

"Generally," he shrugged. "I would assume it possible through other means. As with everything magical, it is the intent which truly matters."

"My god," the young woman murmured, wiping her face. "What did you mean about the Dark Lord becoming weaker?"

"It's only a personal theory, of course," he explained, "but I believe that as he eats away at whatever remains of his soul, he weakens his physical being. He does not now have the power he once had."

"You mean he was worse?" she exclaimed.

"In a manner, yes. He did not used to delegate punishments or torture nearly as often as he does now."

She pinched her lips together and then let out a stiff sigh. "So the more horcruxes that are destroyed, the easier it will be to defeat him… but if he is physically removed before all of the horcruxes are, he can continue to return."

"Precisely."

"And we think there are four more to dispatch of… but really, we don't actually know if there are four left, or if there are actually more, and we don't where to find them, or what they actually are."

"Furthermore, you and I are technically not allowed to seek any information out regarding them for the Headmaster fears it would run the risk of tipping off the Dark Lord. As of now, he is unaware that any have been destroyed." When she glanced at him in uncertainty, the man let out a slow breath. "We would not presently be concerning ourselves with Draco and Narcissa Malfoy if the Dark Lord were aware of Lucius's carelessness with the diary."

"Oh," Hermione replied, turning to stare at the fireplace. After a long moment, she reached her hand toward his and plucked the tumbler from his grasp. Before he could utter a word of protest, she tossed the rest of it back. She coughed slightly at the burn in her throat and then raised her eyes to meet his glare.

"Granger."

She quirked a small smirk as she replaced the empty glass in his hand. "I guess you'll just have to learn how to better hold your liquor then."

Snape raised one eyebrow in response.

"Oh, come on," the witch teased. "Of all the forbidden things I've done this year, a stolen swig of booze is where you draw the line?"

Snorting under his breath, the Slytherin rolled his eyes. "Just don't tell Poppy."

"Okay?"

"Otherwise, I'll have no leg to stand on if she takes another shot at me regarding violations of Hogwarts policies."

A soft giggle escaped the girl as she rested her head against his shoulder. "Our secret, then."

"An ever-growing list," he mumbled before setting his empty tumbler on the end table. He then shifted in order to slip an arm about her midsection, which inspired her to nestle more securely into his chest.

"We aren't just going to ignore the horcrux issue, right?"

"No. It cannot be our primary focus at present, but it would not benefit us to not keep it in mind."

Hermione nodded against his shoulder and then gently draped one arm across his chest. "It just seems so hopeless sometimes…"

Instinctively, the wizard wrapped his other arm around her as well and pulled her closer to him.

"…but I know we still have a chance."

"Indeed," Severus agreed, pressing his nose into her freshly-washed curls. Inhaling the pleasant vanilla scent of her shampoo, he whispered, "It may appear small, but it's there."