A/N: Wow. I did not mean to leave you all for such an extensive time. I appreciated all of the daily notes of encouragement that you sent and greatly wish that there were far more hours in the day. This summer has just flown by, and I haven't had a chance to catch my breath. Thank you to everyone who expressed concern and well wishes for my grampa. He is doing well now and is living with his wife in their new apartment. It just so happened that as soon as one grampa got out of the hospital, the other one went in. Though he is home, too, now, any spare weekends that I would have used for writing were spent driving home and helping around his house. I don't really get a chance to work on my stories until after everyone else has gone to bed, so that is why it has taken so long. Even now, it's 3 AM as I finish typing this up.

Thank you all for loving this so much. It may have been 3 months since last I posted, but I shall not abandon this. I haven't had many chances to check out the story stats lately, so I was absolutely blown away this afternoon when I noticed that this story has received more than a million views! You all are lovely. Please keep reading.


Bound to Him

Chapter 65

"Good morning, everyone!" Dumbledore declared loudly. After receiving a chorus of muffled, half-hearted greetings in return, he turned to smile at his Deputy. "Minerva, the tea?"

With a stiff nod, the witch stepped away from the table and headed over to the fireplace to place the order with the kitchens. By the time she had reclaimed her seat, the service popped into place just in front of her. When no one made motions to serve it, she sighed and reached for the silver tea pot.

"Thank you, Minerva," the Headmaster stated as she sent a cup floating his way. "However, I think a bit of sugar is in order. Severus, would you mind terribly?"

Rolling his eyes, Snape sat forward and reached across the table for the small sugar canister. He quickly deposited a small scoop into the waiting teacup and attempted to send it back.

"Another scoop perhaps."

McGonagall snorted disdainfully at the request while she sent two teacups down the length of the table. "Too much of that will kill you, you know."

His eyes twinkled as he watched another spoonful being dumped into his tea. "Oh, I am fully aware of that, Minerva… but what is life without a bit of danger? Oh, and give it a bit of a stir if you would."

"Here, Severus," the woman mumbled, handing him a spoon along with his own cup of tea.

The Slytherin gave an acknowledging grunt as he accepted it. As he set down his tea, he subtly tucked the spoon into his cuff and withdrew an identical one from within a small pocket within his sleeve. Dropping it into the Headmaster's tea, he sent it back to him with a grumble. "You're quite capable of stirring things up yourself, Albus."

A quiet round of snickers erupted from the staff as the elderly wizard again grabbed hold of his teacup. "Oh, most assuredly, but every now and then I think it only polite to allow others the thrill of it."

"Oh, I assure you, Albus," he sneered, leaning back in his chair, "you have granted me far too many thrills as it is."

Minerva cracked a large smile as she sent the last cup to Remus, who had just dropped into the empty seat beside Severus.

"My apologies, everyone," the Defense Instructor murmured. "I was waylaid by a pair of quarreling students. Filius, I've informed Miss Baumett and Mr. Moorhouse that I would discuss their detentions with you."

The diminutive wizard let out a soft sigh and shook his head. "Ended things again, have they?"

"It appears so."

"That must be the third time this year," Pomona exclaimed.

"Oh, the fourth at least," Septima added. "They just broke up last month in a wildly dramatic fashion outside of my office."

"Well, they certainly were quite together on Valentine's Day," McGonagall chuckled. "There was no mistaking that."

"If we're simply here to discuss the relationship status of our students," Snape sighed, "there are more pressing matters that require my attention."

"Yes, of course," Dumbledore chuckled, setting down his teacup. "Onto business then, I suppose. The Ministry will be sending their annual checklists for…"

Severus stopped paying full attention soon after they had settled into the standard humdrum of the meeting. His eyes were automatically drawn to the Headmaster whenever the man took a sip of his tea. Though he was rather confident that he had diluted the poison to a non-lethal toxicity, there still remained a niggling doubt at the back of his mind. He thus far had been unable to identify the exact curse that had been cast upon the ring, and therefore could not accurately determine the effect it could have had on the man's immune system. He knew it was incredibly unlikely that the wizard would suddenly keel over within the next day or two – even if it had been a lethal dose – yet his stomach was twisting itself into far more knots than he had initially considered it would.

Every decision he had ever made in his life had come with risk attached. Even as a young child, he had fully understood that his actions had both cost and consequences. But this risk went beyond the threat of a beating from his father, or a hex in the back from a Marauder or two, or even a bout of Cruciatus from the Dark Lord. If he made one wrong step here, he could seriously cripple the Order and all but hand victory to the Dark Lord.

If there was anything he knew, though, it was that it never hurt to prepare for the worst. Pressing his lips into a thin line, he shifted his attention to the witch sitting across the table from him. He had been working with her on Occlumency for six weeks now, and for half that time she had been making relatively steady progress in tossing him out of her head. Since she was competent in that aspect, the next task would be to improve her ability to detect nonverbal entrances into her mind.

No time like the present. While the witch took a small sip of tea, Snape wordlessly attempted to penetrate her mind. Finding virtually no resistance to his intrusion, he felt mildly disappointed, though not at all surprised. All of the previous work with her had been blatantly apparent, and it would undoubtedly take time and practice for her to recognize the subtle signs of Legilimency. As such, he decided to passively remain in her head, tapping into surface memories until either she discovered him or he grew tired of it.

As Dumbledore continued discussing the preparations for the upcoming OWLs and NEWTs, several decades' worth of memories were dredged up to the surface of her mindscape. Without exerting much effort, the spy reached for one floating nearby and flicked it open. Immediately, he was pulled into the Great Hall in the midst of an examination. When a cursory scan of the room did not reveal the witch as the school representative assisting the Ministry officials in proctoring, he frowned and looked to the front of the room to see that it was the written portion of the Transfiguration OWL in progress.

Knowing that Minerva could not be anywhere near an examination covering material that she had taught, the wizard turned his attention instead to the field of students with their heads bent over their desks. As a sense of confidence and superiority began to sink in, he strode toward a young witch with dark hair spilling out of the bun at the nape of her neck. While watching her furiously scratch away at her parchment, he could not help but be reminded of another know-it-all Gryffindor witch.

Fractured pieces of Transfiguration theory and principles assaulted him until the proctors announced that time had been reached, and the quills disappeared out of the students' hands. The young McGonagall instantly sat tall in her seat and gave a small smile of satisfaction. Severus rolled his eyes at the expression on her face for he recognized that he had never felt so confident after any examination – his own area of expertise included. When he picked up on a strong sense of relief in her recollection, however, he pressed deeper upon the feeling and discovered with glee that while she was celebrating her performance on Transfiguration, she was dreading receiving her Potions score.

As he nudged upon the related thought, the scene before him shifted to the written examination in question. Unlike the previous environment, he was inundated by panic and frustration. He could see now why the prim witch had appeared so disheveled as she was all but pulling her hair out as she scowled at her parchment. Curious as to what could be upsetting the girl so much, he peered over her shoulder to read the prompt.

List Murgatroyd's Basic Principles and summarize, using real examples whenever possible, why they are of the utmost importance to potion-brewing.

Severus snorted under his breath at her continuing struggle. Murgatroyd gave you difficulty? They're basic principles for a reason, Minerva. Color, consistency, concentration, configuration, composition, character, and time – seven basic principles that can be used to classify a brew, evaluate relative complexity, and suggest substitutions when necessary.

'Pish,' the young witch whispered to herself. 'I know there are seven! Why can't I remember the last two?'

When the proctor announced there was less than a minute remaining, she audibly squealed and balled up her free hand into a fist. The intruding wizard leaned closer to watch her quickly pen 'taste' and 'odor' before her quill disappeared.

'Shite.'

The Potions Master snickered as he slipped out of the memory, earning himself a questioning glance from the witch herself. After a brief moment, she returned her attention to the Headmaster. The Slytherin waited several minutes before attempting to enter her head for the second time. Though he could still feel traces of suspicion trickling through her mind, her defenses had not yet been triggered.

"Excuse me, Headmaster –"

Snape grit his teeth as Vector leaned forward to address the group. He was somewhat mollified, however, when he recognized that McGonagall's thoughts had developed nearly as much of an edge as his own.

"—but I was wondering… since the violence has necessitated our cancelling the remaining Hogsmeade weekends, shall we be providing the students with alternative activities?"

'Oh, for the love of Merlin!'

"Is preventing their premature demise not suitable enough of an alternative for you?" the spy drawled with a roll of his eyes.

"We're hardly going out of our way to do so," Septima shrugged with a smile, "and I'm certain that even you, Severus, must understand that people tend to be disappointed when promised activities do not actually occur."

'I can just about imagine which activities she's referring to, the cheeky tart.'

Severus snorted softly at hearing the thought and folded his arms to his chest. Narrowing her eyes slightly, the elder witch scrutinized him while a few of their colleagues quietly brainstormed possible ideas for filling a few Quidditch-less, Apparition lesson-less Saturdays. When it became apparent to him that she was questioning his presence within her head, he cracked a small smirk.

Minerva's eyes widened as her mental shields slammed down immediately, forcing him fully out of her mind. With a pointed glare, she mouthed, "And stay out."

After fifteen minutes, he made another attempt only to find her fully prepared for it. Within seconds, she had thrown him out and delivered a hearty kick to his shin beneath the table, causing him to dribble hot tea down the side of his hand.

Clucking loudly, she shook her head. "Dear, dear, Severus. Do be careful."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"I don't recall giving you permission to go digging through my head at all hours of the day," Minerva snapped as soon they were alone in her office. "In fact, I believe I said quite the opposite."

"I do recall promising to train you in Occlumency, however," the Slytherin countered, "which includes training you to recognize intrusions… at all hours of the day."

The witch huffed, but was unable to find fault with his explanation. "Must you always be right?"

"Not always, I'm certain," he shrugged. "Though I do value consistency… and configuration."

Her eyes narrowed quickly as she took in his amused expression.

"Murgatroyd, Minerva?" he quipped.

Groaning, the woman dropped into her seat.

"You know," he continued, "had you not spent so much time dithering about with the two principles you couldn't remember, you would have had time to respond to the second part of the prompt. You would have earned a far higher –"

"Yes, I know!" McGonagall hissed. "Believe me, Severus – that idiotic mistake of mine has irked me several hundred times over the past forty-five years. I have forever regretted that 'E', so I would appreciate you not rubbing it in my face."

"An 'E'? You failed to provide the most basic idea in Potions – which is central to all else in the field – and they still gave you an 'E'?" the wizard scoffed.

"Oh, shut it," she sighed, folding her arms. "Are you quite done wasting the time we do have available for –"

"Who says I'm wasting it?"

"What? You…" The Deputy Headmistress frowned and stared at him incredulously. "How long?"

"About three minutes," he replied.

"Merlin." After taking in a deep breath, she shook her head. "Fine. Exactly what do you propose we do, then?"

Severus cleared his throat and finally claimed a chair. "You and I are going to sit here until you can tell with certainty that I am using Legilimency on you. As it would be nigh impossible for you to maintain your shields at all times, you are not to employ your shields now until you have detected a breach."

The witch stared at him incredulously. "So you're just randomly going to jump in and out of my head until I can guess –"

"No guessing," he interrupted. "And I will know if you are guessing."

Minerva exhaled slowly and dropped her arms to her sides.

"Hermione took twenty-five attempts before she was fully competent in detection," her colleague stated casually. "So far, you're at five."

"Five?" she gasped. "Since when?"

"Since we left the staffroom."

"You're kidd –"

"Six," he interrupted.

"Bugger."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Harry grunted loudly as he accidently walked into Ron, who had suddenly stopped short on the bottom step of the staircase.

Glancing at her friends, Hermione grew somewhat concerned upon noticing the expression frozen upon the redhead's face. "Ronald –"

"Tell me that one of you saw that," he mumbled, looking around at each of his companions.

The dark-haired boy rubbed his chin where it had smacked into the boy in front of him. "Saw what?"

"What did you see, Ronnie?" Lavender asked, leaning into her boyfriend and resting her head on his shoulder.

When Hermione only quizzically stared at her wide-eyed friend, Ron slowly returned his gaze to the seemingly empty corridor and shook his head. "I must be seeing things."

"Ronnie, you're scaring me," the blonde cooed. "What's wrong, love?"

The boy let out a slow puff of air and gestured down the hall. "Snape was just there… only… I could have sworn he had a tail."

"A tail?" Hermione gasped.

"Yeah," Ron nodded, looking to her. "Like a horse's tail."

"Well, wouldn't that be silly? Could you imagine what he would've done to anyone who dared to do such a thing?" his girlfriend giggled before tugging on his arm and sending her former roommate an angry glare. "Come along, Ronnie – you're probably just hungry."

"Yeah, I probably am," he smiled, slipping his arm about her waist. "Lucky it's time for dinner, aren't I?"

"Yes, lucky you," Lavender replied while casting a smug look over her shoulder as they strode down the final flight of stairs to the ground floor. "And maybe after we eat, we can take a bit of a nap."

"Well, I am a bit tired."

Ignoring the other girl's antics, Hermione focused instead on sending a mental Patronus.

"Well, at least she's stopped calling him Won-won," Harry muttered quietly.

She flashed a brief grin as they continued walking down the steps.

'What do you need?'

'Erm… this may sound a bit odd, but do you… you don't, by chance, have a tail right now, do you?' The witch felt like a complete idiot for having entertained the notion and, as such, readily prepared herself to be mocked. When several seconds passed without an irritable reply, however, she began to grow suspicious. 'Severus?'

'If Weasley breathes a word…'

'He won't. Lavvy-poo's already chasing the memory out of his head.' She paused briefly at the bottom of the stairs. 'Do you need help, or can you remove it yourself?'

'I plan on remaining out of sight until the situation resolves itself.'

Hermione snorted under her breath. "Harry, I'm just going to check the infirmary to see if Madam Pomfrey needs my help tonight. I'll see you later."

"Oh," the boy murmured in surprise. "Alright, then. Can I ask you some Potions questions later?"

"Sure," she nodded. After parting ways, she rolled her eyes and set off at a brisk pace. 'A tail can take hours to fade on its own, you know.'

'I do not require your assistance.'

'Fine. Do you plan on standing or on lying on your stomach for the next four hours?'

'Don't be ridiculous, Granger.'

'And just how do you propose you'll manage to sit down?' As silence met her, the witch quirked her lip as she played the winning card. 'It would be rather unfortunate, you know, if you were to be summoned in the –'

'Fine! But you had better know what you're doing!'

Feeling victorious, the girl hustled up the eastern staircases and through the corridors until she reached the portrait door leading to his quarters. With hardly a second's delay, she took in a deep breath and pushed into his sitting room.

"So much as one giggle leaves your mouth, and I will toss you out on your backside with your own extra appendage."

Hermione had to bite down on her lip to keep a laugh from escaping, but one look at the murderous expression quickly sobered her mood. Clearing her throat, she risked a few steps forward. "Well, turn about then."

Glaring, Severus folded his arms.

"In order to get rid of it," she argued, "I have to be able to see it."

"You're certain you know how to do this?"

"I am."

The wizard eyed her critically. "You've done it before?"

"I have," she nodded. "As I am not the School Matron and you are not the individual's Head of House, I am not allowed to give you a name, but suffice it to say that I have had sufficient practice."

"You and I appear to have different definitions of the word 'sufficient'."

"Fine," she sighed, stepping toward the fireplace. "Shall I Floo Madam Pomfrey, then?"

"Don't you dare," he growled.

A slow smile spread across her face as she looked to him. At her pointed stare, the man huffed and begrudgingly turned his back to her. Her hand instantly flew to her mouth at the sight of the long, chestnut colored hairs lifting up and protruding from beneath his frock coat. As she stared at the appendage for several seconds, it swished with unmistakable irritation, and she had to pinch her lips together to keep from laughing.

"If you've finished gaping…"

"Alright," the girl murmured, withdrawing her wand. "It would be easier if you could remove your coat."

Muttering under his breath, Snape began undoing his buttons.

"You know… if you had been wearing your teaching robes, no one would have –"

"Yes, I know! And that's exactly why that bloody harridan removed them first."

"Professor McGonagall?" Hermione cocked her head. "Severus, what did you –"

"I was merely demonstrating the need for her to be more rigorous in her Occlumency practice," he interrupted grumpily.

"Occlumency," she repeated softly. "You're teaching her?"

At the change in her tone, the wizard briefly glanced over his shoulder and then dipped his head. "Someone has to be ready to lead."

The young woman nodded solemnly as she withdrew her wand. "Erm, this is probably going to sting a bit."

"I can manage, I'm sure."

"Okay," she whispered. After taking in a few deep breaths, she scrunched up her nose in focus as she cleanly executed the necessary procedure. When she had finished, she stared at him in moderate disbelief for he had betrayed no signs of discomfort. She had not expected anything near the level of waterworks that Marcus Turpin had showcased during his tail removal, of course, but a wince or twitch had not been out of the question. While part of her was in awe of his high tolerance for pain, the remainder lamented that he had had so many opportunities to develop such a tolerance.

"Are you quite finished?"

The witch snapped out of her thoughts and finally dropped her wand hand. When she gave a quiet affirmative, he grunted and immediately swung his frock coat across his shoulders. Watching him re-dress, she cleared her throat. "Does everything feel alright?"

"Yes, its fine," he snapped as he worked on the first button. After a second, he thought better of his shortness. Sighing, he turned enough to look at her. "Thank you."

Hermione offered him a brief smile before sheathing her wand and crossing her arms. "How long have you been teaching her?"

"Six weeks."

"Ah," she murmured, looking to the floor. She knew how impatient and demanding he could be in that situation, and he was likely worse given that there was the risk that Dumbledore's poisoning would go awry. If he was feeling pressured to get McGonagall prepared before the poison took effect, she could fully believe that he might raise the woman's ire to such a point. Raising her eyes, she noticed that the man had stalled in the midst of buttoning and was staring sullenly at the fireplace.

"Severus?" When his gaze slowly travelled to her face, she stepped closer. "Did everything go alright yesterday?"

Snape exhaled loudly and rubbed his forehead. "All according to plan."

"But you're worried?" she pressed.

The man snorted under his breath as he met her eyes. "If I were certain of outcomes, Granger, we wouldn't presently be in this situation."

"I know," the witch whispered, touching his arm, "but I have faith in you. I mean, you're brilliant – if anyone could manage it, it would be you."

Though the corners of his lips turned upward, the attempt to smile did not quite reach his eyes. "Only time will tell, I suppose."

Hermione nodded and squeezed his forearm. "Any guess as to how long –"

A strong knock on the door interrupted her, and the pair froze in fear.

"Shit, Granger," he hissed. "You shouldn't be here."

"Everyone's at supper," she frantically whispered back. "I thought it would be okay!"

"Fuck!" he groaned, wiping his hands over his face as the knock repeated. Grabbing hold of her elbow, he tugged her toward his bedroom. "If it's Lupin, we may already be screwed, but on the off-chance it isn't, we'll go down to the office where you will be consulting me on how to improve your brewing for the –"

The click of the door swinging open caused him to stop suddenly in his tracks. Pushing the girl out of sight, he spun on his heel and peered around the door jamb of his bedroom door.

"Severus!" Minerva called as she shut the door behind her. "I know you're hiding in here."

"You had better be alone, woman!" he snarled.

The Deputy Headmistress chuckled softly as she made her way through the sitting room, depositing his teaching robes on the back of the sofa. "Of course, I am."

As Hermione gave a loud sigh of relief, the wizard straightened to his full height and folded his arms to his chest. "If you've come to admire your handiwork –"

"Nonsense," McGonagall interrupted with a wave of her hand. "Even I would not be so cruel as to leave you like that for any significant length of time."

"Yet cruel enough to do it in the first place," he retorted, stepping out into the sitting room.

"Don't take that tone with me, young man," the witch chastised, wagging her finger. "Your behavior was abominable. Now, I've come to undo it, so –"

"Your aid is entirely unnecessary."

"What do you mean, unnecessary?" she scoffed. Her eyes widened when he turned about just long enough to display his backside. "But how did you… I mean, that's not something you can do yourself, and Poppy said she hadn't seen you since yesterday, so how – Oh, Miss Granger."

Hermione gave a small smile as she stepped around the scowling man. "Hello, Professor."

"He asked for your help, did he?" the woman asked; her eyes suddenly alight.

"I did nothing of the sort," Snape sneered.

The young Gryffindor blushed and shook her head. "Erm, Ron happened to catch a glimpse… and well, I sort of forced my help on him."

"I see," Minerva smirked, glancing between the two of them. "Well, it looks like you've done a remarkable job of it at any rate. Poppy shall be quite pleased to hear –"

"Don't you even think of it, witch!" the Slytherin threatened.

"Well, I don't think you have any say in my past discussions," she stated calmly. "I assure you, though, Poppy found it a rather amusing tale."

With an exasperated groan, he rolled his eyes. While her Head of House chuckled at her own joke, Hermione glanced uncertainly at her partner. He did not seem as angry or melancholy as she had seen him at times, but neither did he appear the least bit amused. Mostly, he just looked tired.

If he's allowed himself to appear tired, he must be exhausted.

'Five points to Gryffindor.'

The girl bit down on her lip. 'I didn't realize you were still listening.'

'My apologies.'

'No, no! It's alright. Really, it is,' she reassured him. 'Have you slept at all lately?'

He sighed out loud and pinched the bridge of his nose. 'I'm fine, Granger.'

'You don't look fine.'

When he dropped his hand and fixed her with a dark stare, McGonagall cleared her throat and reached for the girl's elbow. "Come along, Miss Granger. I think we ought to walk down to nab a bite to eat and allow someone to get some rest."

"What?" Severus grumbled. "Sending me to bed without supper, are we?"

"You're far too cranky for polite company," the elder witch replied. "Get some sleep, Severus. We'll see you in the morning."

"I have rounds," he protested.

Minerva shook her head. "I'll do them. You sleep now because I really don't want to deal with crying children tomorrow. Go on now."

Though he snarled bitterly under his breath, the wizard turned on his heel and stalked into his bedroom. As the door slammed shut behind him, the Deputy Headmistress let out a slow sigh and shook her head. "What are we going to do with him?"

Hermione snorted softly before glancing up at her favorite instructor. "Well, he probably wouldn't be so temperamental if you hadn't given him a tail."

"Oh, I don't believe that for a second," the woman disagreed as they headed toward the door. "He was just as bad before that. He was obnoxious yesterday, but today was… uff."

She paused while opening the door, but spoke again as soon as they were outside of his quarters. "And before you judge me too harshly for punishing him in such a manner, I would like to explain that he has been warned on several occasions that he ought to behave himself or suffer the consequences."

"But a tail?" the young witch asked skeptically.

Her Head of House quirked her lips into a self-satisfied smirk. "Well, he was acting like a horse's arse, so I thought it relatively fitting."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Hermione took in a deep breath, pausing with her hand on the door knob of the Room of Requirement. It had been two days since Dumbledore had been poisoned, and as of yet, there had been no signs of it taking effect. There was, however, a noticeable cloud of tension hanging over the school. Though there were very few individuals – Dumbledore, Snape, and Draco – in addition to herself who knew of its cause, many other students and members of staff had commented that they could feel that there was something ill lurking on the horizon.

She also found it concerning to note the extent to which it seemed to be affecting Severus. While he did not appear any different when instructing, the same could not be said outside of the classroom. He had not sat for an entire meal period since Friday noon, and when he was in the Great Hall, her subtle scrutiny had revealed that he had done little more than pick at his food. She had rarely managed to catch a glimpse of him in the corridors, which was out of the ordinary, and due to the continuing presence of dark circles beneath his eyes, she did not believe that he was spending the time catching up on sleep.

His mental missive to her which instructed her to meet him in the Room of Requirement for her training session was exceptionally clipped, and she doubted he had even waited for her affirmative response before silencing the connection. Because of this, she felt a great dose of nervous energy settling into her gut as she considered just what could be awaiting her on the other side of the door.

As chimes began to sound the hour, the young witch gathered up all of the courage she could muster and strode forcefully into the room. As the door clicked shut behind her, however, she felt all of the breath escape her body.

"Holy…" she murmured; her gaze sweeping slowly at the space around her. Gone were the massive cushioned mats that normally covered the floor, and instead, dozens of elements reminiscent of the Forbidden Forest were packed into the Room in such a way that there did not appear to be any clearly identifiably paths through it.

As the wizard was nowhere in her line of sight, she hesitantly stepped forward and cleared her throat. "Severus?"

"Up here."

Hermione frowned. "Up where?"

"To your right," he replied.

"Oh," she murmured upon seeing him leaning against the railing of what appeared to be a small balcony. Shifting her weight, she scratched the back of her neck. "Erm, what exactly is all of this?"

He smirked briefly and shrugged his shoulders. "Training."

The witch rolled her eyes and inhaled deeply. "I had realized that much, yes. I meant, what am I to be doing?"

With a small nod of his head, Snape straightened to his full height. "You have developed remarkable competence in dueling thus far, and though you have far more to learn, I would be doing you a disservice if I did not present you with opportunities to practice in more natural settings. The likelihood that you will solely encounter battle in a controlled environment is next to nil. You've already completed an obstacle course of sorts while flying, so tonight, you're going to do something similar on foot."

"With dueling?" the girl mumbled, glancing back at the nearest gap in the foliage.

"Correct," he responded, gesturing vaguely toward the interior of the room. "A dozen fighting dummies, a number of which have been charmed to attack you."

"A number of which," she repeated slowly. "What about the rest of them?"

"Bystanders, allies… think of them what you will."

Hermione let out a deep sigh. "And how exactly am I to know whether they're friend or foe without waiting for them to strike first?"

A tight grin spread across his face as he gripped the railing. "An excellent question, Granger."

"Fantastic," she muttered gloomily, withdrawing her wand and cautiously approaching the edge of the makeshift forest when it became clear that he was not going to answer. "Oh, this won't be difficult at all."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Oof," she grunted, slamming into the side of a tree after tripping over uneven ground. "Damn it."

Leaning against the tree, she wiped at her forehead where a bead of sweat was slowly trickling its way toward her nose. She had been picking her way through the mess for what had to have been more than half an hour, and had managed to fell four of the roving dummies. The first three had given her little challenge, though the fourth had managed to sneak up on her while she was attempting to beat her way out of the Wandering Vine which had grabbed hold of her ankle.

After catching her breath, Hermione pushed away from the tree and carefully slid down a small, rocky embankment. She continued on for several minutes until spotting movement in the corner of her eye. With hardly more than a second to react, she had not the time to duck out of sight before the wooden dummy raised its wand-wielding arm.

"Reducto!" she shouted, releasing a jet of light before one could be sent in her direction. The witch felt a mild spurt of relief as the object exploded into a hundred pieces, but when a high-pitched squeal erupted throughout the room, she dropped to her knees and rolled behind a large rock. Seconds ticked slowly past while she held her breath and warily scanned the area from her protected vantage. When nothing she saw could explain the continuous, obnoxious noise, she leaned against the cold stone. "What the hell is that?"

"That, Granger, is the sound of a set of wards which you just managed to activate."

As Snape's voice drifted toward her, the girl looked up toward the ceiling and frowned. "Activated them how?"

The wizard tiredly leaned against the railing. "By destroying a non-enemy combatant."

"A non-enemy combatant?" she repeated while slowly standing from her crouched position. "Are you kidding me? He raised his wand to attack me!"

"Raised its wand, yes," he murmured, "but to attack you, no."

"Then why –"

"If you were to come across someone by surprise while in a dangerous area, would you not raise your wand until you were certain of just who it is you have encountered?"

Hermione groaned and hung her head. "Yes… I would."

"Congratulations, Granger," he sneered. "You just fatally maimed one of your idiot friends. Longbottom, perhaps."

Her head snapped up in his direction while her stomach twisted. "I would have known it was Neville! I wouldn't have –"

"Would you have known?" he interrupted.

"Yes!" she hissed.

Severus scoffed in disbelief and then folded his arms. "Fine, then. For the sake of humoring you, it was an individual entirely unknown to you - perhaps an innocent fifteen year old boy, an expectant mother, or a father of four. Does that put you any more at ease?"

"Of course it doesn't!" the girl argued. "How could that possibly make me feel any better?"

"You should bear that in mind, then, henceforth."

Letting out a deep sigh, she wiped her face and shook her head. "I'm sorry, alright? I didn't mean to… I thought it was attacking me, so I reacted."

"I am certain that his widow and four fatherless children will be entirely sympathetic."

Hermione's jaw dropped at the coldness of his tone. She opened her mouth to protest the statement, but only managed a shriek when a painful stinging sensation suddenly engulfed her spine. With tears slipping out of her eyes, she spun around quickly, but failed to raise her wand before it was thrown out of her hand. A second Stinging Hex hit her midsection, causing her to stumble backwards and trip over a tree root. Before she could even think about crawling away, her entire body became paralyzed. There was nothing she could do when three fighting dummies circled into her limited line of sight and pointed their wands into her face.

"Enough!" The Slytherin Head barked as he appeared on the ground near her. With a wave of his hand, the three wooden dummies rolled away from her petrified body and innocuously parked a few meters away. "Finite incantatem."

As her body jerked back into animation and warmth again flooded her limbs, the witch slowly sat up and held her head in her hands.

"Well?" he asked impatiently.

"Well what?" she whispered.

"What have you learned?"

Hermione exhaled bitterly and dropped her hands to her lap. Fixing her gaze onto his face, she replied, "I suppose I learned to pay better attention to my surroundings."

"Indeed," he drawled, folding his arms to his chest. "Though, one would assume that after your unfortunate dip in the Black Lake, you would have already known better than to ignore the danger lurking right in front of your face."

"What?" she cried, launching up to her feet. "You were the one talking to me! You're the one commanding this whole little exercise, so excuse me for thinking that you wouldn't purposely distract me!"

He rolled his eyes. "If the Dark Lord offers a temporary truce in the middle of battle, are you so naïve that you might think it a good time to sit down to tea?"

"No!" she growled. "But you're on my side! You aren't supposed to –"

"Oh, because allies can never be distracting?" the wizard countered. "If that is your belief, then I was wholly mistaken in my initial assessment of your abilities. Clearly, you are not prepared to –"

"I know I'm not! You're the one who is supposed to prepare me!"

Snape shook his head. "I can only give you the tools and the opportunity. You are the one who must exert more effort to –"

"More effort?" she repeated in anger. "I'm fucking exhausted as it is! How the hell can I possibly exert any more effort? Do tell me! I'd love to hear it."

His dark eyes locked on to hers for several seconds before he finally answered. "Six months. That's how much time I've sunk into training you. And in that time, I have explicitly told you, at least once or twice per week, that you must be more cognizant of your surroundings. If you do not pay attention… if you do not think before acting… the consequences will be disastrous. This is not a game, Granger. This is not a classroom. We are at war, and if you think I'm going to hold your hand and pat you on the head every hour you manage to keep yourself alive, you had better start rethinking."

Hermione's expression was hard as she stared back at him. Her chest rose and fell angrily, and she balled her hands into fists at her sides. When he finished speaking, she slowly shook her head and pinched her mouth in disgust. "You know what, Severus? Fuck you."

With that utterance, she swiftly spun on her heel, snatched her wand from the ground, and took off in what she could only assume was the direction of the door. The Room, sensing her need for a quick escape, shed itself of the hazardous terrain and significantly shortened the distance between her and the exit.

When she finally burst through the door, she did not pause for any length of time in the corridor. She simply pressed on in her flight, walking faster and faster until she was practically running toward the Fat Lady's Portrait. Once in the common room, she spoke to no one, opting simply to rush up to the bathroom in her dormitory lest any delay cause her to break down in tears before reaching privacy.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Frowning, Hermione pushed half a dozen peas about her plate as she determinedly ignored the urge to look in the direction of the Head Table. It had been a day and a half since she had stormed out of her personal defense lesson, and neither she nor Severus had yet made any efforts to make peace. Two Potions brewing sessions had passed with each of them all but pretending that the other did not exist. She had offered no answers to his questions, and he had given no commentary – disparaging, or otherwise – on her technique or product.

Though she had no wish to apologize before he did, a small part of her was more than ready to cave. She was angry with him certainly, but she did not wish him ill especially considering the present situation. Frankly, she missed him, and because of that, was almost ready to tell him that she understood why he had said what he did. He really had instructed her repeatedly to be vigilant, yet she had so far failed to do so. She should have kept her wits about her while completing the course, should have thought more deeply before acting, and should have focused on the tasks before her instead of wasting time to argue with him. He had several good points…

… but he still had no right to speak to me like that. She had been trying so hard to accomplish so much in those six months he had spent training her, and to have him essentially declare her progress to be insignificant was a rather devastating blow to her self-confidence. Of course I realize he's under a heavy amount of stress, but, damn it, so am I! And he doesn't have to endure it all on top of uterine cramps. He's lucky I even showed up for lessons. I would have much preferred lying in bed, curled up with Crooks than traipsing about a fake forest, fighting fake Death Eaters.

Stop it, Granger. Do you think Vo—the Dark Lord is going to take into account your menstrual cycle when planning his attacks? Suck it up. The witch let out a frustrated breath and let her spoon drop against the porcelain plate. To use her monthly period as an excuse for her lackluster performance was rather pathetic given the situation. That being said, Snape had unfortunately picked the time of the month during which she was the least emotionally stable and the most self-conscious to behave like an arse.

And he did behave horribly! She could no longer find fault with Professor McGonagall's decision to temporarily bequeath him a tail. If he had spoken to the Gryffindor Head in a similar manner to which he had spoken to her, then Hermione truthfully admired the woman's restraint.

And because of that thought, she strengthened her resolve to not be the first to apologize. Yes, she had failed the task he set her, and yes, she had argued with and cursed at him, but that did not mean that he should have treated her as though she were completely incompetent and a colossal waste of his time. He had instructed her a month ago to confront him if ever he hurt her, but she reckoned that her angry words of parting should have been sufficient confrontation. Since he seemed content enough in ignoring her, then by gods, she would react in kind. Whenever he did manage to scrape together an apology for her, she would unquestioningly forgive him, but until then…

"Hermione, are you alright?"

Startling out of her thoughts, the young witch glanced across the table to see a friend giving her a concerned look. "I'm fine, Neville."

"Are you sure?" he asked. "I mean, you look –"

"Yes," she interrupted. "I'm just –"

"Oh, my gods!" Ginny exclaimed, dropping her entire forkload back to her plate.

As similar gasps erupted from each of the four student tables, Hermione whipped her head around to peer at the Head Table. Upon catching sight of the deathly-pale Headmaster clutching at his throat, her stomach dropped and she let out a panicked breath. Oh, fuck. It's really happening.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Albus?" McGonagall questioned, slowly lowering her utensil to the plate, as the man to her left suddenly began making odd gargling noises. When he grabbed at his throat and started tipping out of his chair, she launched to her feet in a panic. "Albus!"

The typical merry chatter of the Great Hall had completely fallen away at her outburst, and gradually students as well as staff began murmuring amongst themselves while rising to their feet in the hopes of catching a better view.

"Severus!" the Deputy Headmistress gasped upon grabbing hold of her superior's sagging shoulders. She opened her mouth to shout for him, but it fell back to a whisper when the younger wizard immediately appeared at her side. "Severus… help me… lie him down."

Without bothering to even nod, Snape took hold of the gasping man's shoulders and kicked the ornate chair out of the way with enough force that it tipped over and clattered loudly against the stone floor. The two professors worked together to guide Dumbledore to the ground, and then both sank to their knees beside him.

"Albus, can you hear me?" Minerva asked, taking up his hand with one of hers and touching his face with the other. When the old man's eyes rolled back in his head, she concernedly observed the bluish tint to his skin. "Is his airway blocked?"

Her Slytherin counterpart cast a quick charm and then shook his head.

"So he isn't choking?"

"No," the Potions Master stated before quickly fumbling with a pocket of his robes. After producing a bezoar, he pushed the stone into the Headmaster's throat and coaxed him to swallow it. "We need to relocate to somewhere more private."

"Infirmary?" she questioned.

He shook his head again. "Too exposed."

"His quarters, then. Can we levitate him?" At his responding grimace, Minerva nodded and began to rise. "Right. Hagrid, we'll need you to carry him. Remus, alert the Aurors and have them meet us in the Head Office. Pomona, Filius – take whomever you need, but make certain that all students are escorted back to and remain within their dormitories. Classes are cancelled for the remainder of the day. And for god's sake, will someone fetch Poppy?"

After rattling off her final instructions, the witch turned on her heel and ran to catch up with Snape and Hagrid, who had already made it to the staff exit. She touched the former's arm briefly as she brushed past them and then gestured to the small set of stairs leading to the first floor. "We'll go through my office and Floo in. It's faster."

Within a few moments, the half-giant stepped through the green flames into the Headmaster's office, followed closely by the two Heads of House. The portraits began tittering softly as McGonagall again took the lead as they made their way through the semi-camouflaged doorway and up the half-flight of stairs that led to Dumbledore's private living space.

By the time they managed to lay the unresponsive Headmaster onto his bed, the activation of the office Floo could be heard again. A harried looking Poppy Pomfrey appeared within the bedroom doorway less than a minute later, while several loud voices and footsteps could be heard as a number of Aurors arrived in the office below.

"What happened?" the mediwitch gasped, immediately casting diagnostic charms as she made her way to the bedside.

"Poison, most likely," Severus replied quietly.

"Poison!"

The three Hogwarts professors glanced up to see that Tonks had entered the room with Kingsley and two other Aurors hot on her heels. Madam Pomfrey, however, maintained sole focus on the Headmaster's condition. After finishing another sweep of her wand, she reached for a small sack tucked into the waistline of her apron. "Severus, did you –"

"I applied a bezoar, yes," he stated with a small nod. "It does not appear to have made any effect, however. I only had one stone on my person, or else I –"

"One is far better than none," Poppy replied curtly as she fished out a drab green potion. "And it could very well be that the bezoar is preventing the worsening of his symptoms."

"Minerva," Kingsley addressed the Deputy Headmistress calmly as he stepped further into the room. "If Albus has indeed been poisoned, we will need to collect any trace of the substance we can. The meal in the Great Hall must be preserved as best it –"

"Of course," she nodded, glancing briefly at the two conversing quietly over the patient. She then cleared her throat and called out, "Coggy!"

A pinkish elf in a flour-caked apron suddenly popped into the room. "Coggy's been being summoned, Madam?"

"We need the Great Hall to remain as it is for the time being," McGonagall informed him. "It is imperative that none of the dishes or food be cleared away until further notice. Is that understood?"

The little creature shifted uncomfortably, but nodded. "Yes, Madam. Coggy knows."

"Good. Make certain that the others do, too."

As the elf disappeared, Minerva stood tall and looked to the tall Auror. "Kingsley, what else do you need?"

"The castle will have to be thoroughly searched," he replied, crossing his arms to his chest. "Poppy, what type of poison do you suspect?"

The Healer frowned and flicked her gaze to her current assistant. "Severus?"

Snape shook his head with a sigh. "There is not enough evidence present to discern the exact cause. Choking, paleness, sweating, falling unconscious – these are all symptoms of any of a hundred substances."

"Well, it wasn't any of a hundred that poisoned him, was it?" Mad-Eye Moody snarled as he limped past the three junior Aurors and came to stand beside Shacklebolt. "It was one particular substance!"

"Obviously," the Slytherin muttered bitterly. "Without further analysis, however, identifying it will be –"

"Severus, stand back!" Poppy snapped as she propped Albus up on his side. The wizard took one long stride away from the bed, stopping just far enough that no droplets of bile landed on his boots when the emetic potion finally took effect. When she was certain that it was safe to do so, the mediwitch returned her patient to lie on his back and then gestured to the pile of partially digested food on the carpet. "There. If he was dosed recently, there ought to be traces of it in that."

Conjuring a sizeable flask, the Potions Master moved toward the mess only to be stopped by a firm hand on his elbow.

"If you don't mind," Moody murmured, "I'll be getting that."

"Oh, by all means," Snape returned with a roll of his eyes when the ex-Auror made a show of producing a new flask.

Once the vomit had been collected, Moody magically secured the flask and handed it over to a tall, dark-haired witch. "Jennings, see to it that Multane gets to work on this immediately. If he so much as takes a piss before delivering the analysis to me –"

"Got it, sir," Jennings stated quickly before turning on her heel and sprinting down the narrow staircase.

Kingsley cleared his throat. "Savage, summon the reserve staff. I want Proudfoot and Dawlish to remain at their posts, but they will need assistance as well in ascertaining that the grounds are fully secure."

"Alright," the fair-haired Auror nodded. "How many from the reserve?"

"All of them, you idiot!" Mad-Eye growled.

"All of them?" Savage repeated, swinging his gaze to Shacklebolt, who nodded. "Alright, sir. All of them, then."

"And keep it bloody quiet!" the grizzled wizard shouted after him. "Not a word of this until they are all present and can be privately informed!"

When it was only Order members remaining in the room, Moody quickly rounded on their spy. "Any information you care to share, Snape?"

"Alastor," McGonagall cautioned, placing a hand on his forearm.

"Well?" the retired Auror snapped.

"I assure you all – had I known anything of this, I would have immediately reported it to the Headmaster," Severus replied steadily while maintaining eye contact with the man.

"Alastor!" Minerva repeated in a harsher tone.

With a disgusted hiss, Moody turned his attention to the Deputy Headmistress. "The students need to be –"

"I have already instructed the staff that the students are to remain within their dormitories for the remainder of the day," she interrupted.

The man grunted and shifted his stance. "It had best be until further notice. And no outgoing post, either, until the entire castle has been searched."

"Alright," she replied. "I shall see to it that the Owlery is made inaccessible."

"Incoming post will be screened prior to dispersal," Alastor continued gruffly. "I want each dormitory entrance warded and watched by an Auror until they can be thoroughly searched."

McGonagall took in an uncomfortable breath, but gave a small noise of affirmation.

"We will start with the Great Hall and kitchens this afternoon before moving onto classrooms and staff quarters –"

"Surely you do not suspect that the staff is involved!" she declared, crossing her arms.

"Forgive me, Minerva, but I find certain individuals are not nearly as trustworthy as you seem to believe," Moody replied while blatantly looking toward the Potions Master. "I think the dungeons would be a sensible place to start, eh, Snape? And when we've finished with offices, we'll move onto the dormitories. Again, I think we ought to work our way up from the bottom."

"What a fascinating idea," the Slytherin Head drawled. "However did you come to it?"

"Experience… years of dealing with snakes."

While Tonks, Kingsley, and Hagrid shifted uncomfortably, McGonagall straightened to her full height and stepped between the two wizards.

"Just one thing, Alastor. While it appears that you believe yourself to be in charge of the investigation though no longer attached to the Aurory –" She cast a pointed look at Kingsley, who sheepishly shrugged his shoulders. "—this is my school for the time being. If you do not wish to find yourself forcibly expelled from the grounds, you will treat my staff and students with a certain level of respect. In addition, I insist that, at the very least, the Heads of House, or a designated member of staff, be present during the search of their respective dormitories. I will also personally supervise the search of any staff quarters that I feel is necessary. Is that understood?"

"Of course," he replied before leaning forward. "You are far too trusting, Minerva."

The witch shook her head slowly. "I simply know where my trust should be placed. If you think that Severus had anything to do with this, then you are a fool!"

The Slytherin felt his stomach twist with guilt at the pronouncement, but outwardly betrayed no sign of it.

"We shall see," Moody stated while glancing over her shoulder to Snape. "I shall give him the benefit of the doubt for now… but he is not to leave these rooms until we have completed the search of his quarters. And Poppy, if you need further assistance, I will fetch someone from St. Mungo's."

"Not a very extensive benefit of the doubt, is it?" the spy quipped.

The ex-Auror snorted and then turned to leave the room. "Tonks, keep your eye on him."

"But, Mad-Eye!" the pink-haired witch hissed. "I would be of more use –"

"I want to be absolutely certain that he is not involved," her mentor explained quietly. "You are the only one I trust to the task. If there is nothing to find - by end of day you shall be free to join the rest of us."

Tonks opened her mouth to protest, but remained silent in response to his intense stare. She gave one nod and glumly watched as he and Kingsley strode out of the room. As she moved closer to the foot of the bed, she cast an apologetic glance toward the two Heads of House.

"It isn't your fault, dear," Minerva sighed, wiping her face. "Hagrid, could you please wait for the Aurors in the Entrance Hall, and once sentries have been posted at the common room entrances, gather the staff in the staffroom?"

"O'course, Professor," the half-giant murmured before quietly taking his leave.

"How is he, Poppy?"

Madam Pomfrey exhaled deeply as she looked up from her post. "Stable, for now. I've given him a standard antidote, a strengthening potion, and a bit of the Angelaureus Elixir. It's about all anyone can do for the moment. It will simply be a matter of waiting, I'm afraid."

"Alright," the Gryffindor Head replied, smoothing her hands over her robes. "Tonks, if you don't mind waiting for us in the office, Severus and I will be down in just a quick moment."

"Sure thing, Professor."

When the pink-haired witch disappeared down the staircase, McGonagall dropped her voice and looked up at the wizard beside her. "Is there anything that needs to be removed?"

Snape took in a slow breath as he considered the question. "A document in the middle drawer… I am not certain if there is anything of hers."

Minerva gave a nod of understanding and then spoke crisply. "Dobby!"

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Oh, bloody… hell," Tonks muttered under her breath as she rubbed her shin.

Snape rolled his eyes and tapped his fingertips against the arm of his chair. "You do realize that that end table hasn't moved in the slightest since the last time you walked into it."

"Of course I know that!" she snapped.

The wizard watched her resume pacing for a moment. When he was certain she would not see him, he again stretched out his leg and pressed his boot against the end table. After silently sliding it another inch or so toward her designated path, he sat back in the armchair, crossed one leg over the other, and waited patiently for the impending yelp.

"Son of a bitch!" the young Auror shouted upon tripping over the piece of furniture a few minutes later.

Severus bit back a smile. "It generally helps if you look where you're going."

She let out a loud sigh and grabbed a fistful of her hair. "How much longer is this going to take? I feel so useless right now!"

"You need not tell me," he grumbled while glaring at the darkened window.

"This is utterly ridiculous," Tonks sputtered. "I just wish that –"

The statement died away in her throat when the Slytherin suddenly groaned and leaned forward.

"Fuck," Severus hissed, clutching his arm. Instead of the brief burning sensation that usually accompanied a summons, it felt as though his forearm had been doused in gasoline and set on fire. It was not difficult to discern that the Dark Lord was angry with him. Gritting his teeth through the pain, he slowly rose from the chair.

"Professor?" she asked, noticeably concerned.

"You ought to be able to join them in rifling through my unmentionables now," he mumbled while stepping past her to use the Floo.

"You're being summoned?"

Snape gave a stiff nod as he tossed in the Floo powder. "Tell Minerva where I've gone."

"Of course," Tonks replied, watching as he disappeared into the green flames. "Good luck… sir."