A/N: I originally meant to have this posted over the holidays, but technological issues made that impossible. However, I think posting on the anniversary of Alan's passing is just as well. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Bound to Him

Chapter 81

The acid green light of the Killing Curse was blindingly bright. Burning onto his retinas, it pulled forth a sense of confidence far stronger than Severus had ever felt in his 37 years. Dumbledore, who had never respected nor cared about him, was dead, and his era of manipulation was over.

As the light faded into darkness, Snape again became aware of the other occupants of the Astronomy Tower. The men gaped in shock, while Bellatrix – looking like a child on Christmas - excitedly rushed over to the edge to watch Dumbledore's lifeless body plummet to the ground.

"Time to go!" Severus grabbed Draco's elbow and yanked him downstairs.

He could hear shouts and spells being cast in the distance, which suggested either Greyback or Dolohov – likely both – had found themselves a fight. Minerva was meant to summon the Order; thus, he and Draco needed to put as much distance between themselves and the Death Eaters if they wished to avoid being caught in the cross-fire. He lamented having to leave Bellatrix and the others unsupervised in the school he had helped protect for half his life, but it was necessary he escape unscathed. Hermione, Draco, and Potter – though the latter was entirely oblivious to it – were depending upon him. He had to trust in Minerva to expel the interlopers from her castle with all expediency.

"Professor!"

Snape's stomach dropped as Tonks rushed toward them with Lupin at her heels. He pinched Draco's arm in a command to remain quiet.

"What's happening, Severus?" Remus asked.

"Death Eaters in the castle," he replied honestly. "I counted at least six, including the werewolf Greyback."

"What?!" The witch hastily scanned the area.

Severus pulled on Draco. "Forgive us, but we cannot take part in this fight."

Tonks nodded. "Right, your cover. We'll handle this, Professor. Stay safe."

She hopped to rush off after Remus, but Snape snatched her wrist. "Potter. You'll find him behind the bust of Sir Abernathy of Loraine, under the Pakastekupla and a Disillusionment charm. Don't let him out unless you're prepared to keep him from doing anything stupid. He was about to take on all three Lestranges when I caught him."

The Auror grimaced, but thanked him.

"Watch your back!" Draco exclaimed, drawing everyone's attention. "Aunt Bella wants to permanently remove you from the Tree."

"Thanks, cuz." Tonks gave him a crooked grin before darting down the corridor.

"Go. Go now!" Severus pushed his student in the opposite direction. They sprinted down a small set of steps and around a corner, where a spell exploded over their heads.

"You there!" An Auror shouted, raising his wand. "Stop! Expelliarmus!"

Snape deflected the spell with a nonverbal shield charm. Before the Auror cast again, Draco tossed out a handful of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder, plunging the area into inky blackness. A stray hex tore through the darkness and glanced off Severus's shoulder. He hissed in pain, but refused to return fire. He was adamant Dumbledore would be the only one he harmed during the endeavor.

Keeping a tight grip on Draco's arm, he felt his way along the wall until reaching their intended destination – an unused office with a functional Floo. After arriving in Hooch's third floor office, the wizard again consulted the map and growled upon seeing Thorfin Rowle emerge from the tunnel.

"What?" Draco panted.

I should have known he'd lie to me. Snape shoved the map back into his pocket and made for the door. "The Dark Lord sent more than he said he would."

"Why?"

"Because it's what he does," he snarled. "Don't dawdle. It's clear to the tunnel, but we're not stopping until Hogsmeade, understood?"

Draco nodded and fell into place behind him. On Snape's instruction, the two sprinted the remainder of the distance to the One-Eyed Witch. They kept a nervous eye on the corridor while the statue slowly ground open, then tumbled down the slide with decidedly less grace than Severus had done on his previous excursion.

"Bloody hell," Malfoy hissed, disentangling himself from Snape at the bottom of the slide.

The Potions Master hauled himself to his feet, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. He helped right the boy, then nudged him forward. "Those fuckwits could lead the Aurors here any moment now, and it's a long way to the village. Keep your pace and watch your step."

Without wasting any energy on lighting their way, the pair ran as fast as they dared through the dark, stumbling at times over the uneven ground.

"Merlin," Draco wheezed, clutching his side. "How much farther?"

Severus ignored the question for answering was not worth the breath he needed to conserve. He pressed on and, a few minutes later, caught the boy by the elbows when he fell.

"Fuck," the blond whispered, getting back to his feet. "Sorry."

"Nearly there," the man begrudged as they continued jogging.

Finally reaching the Honeydukes basement, they spent a moment to catch their breath, then Disillusioned themselves and crept up to the main floor. Though it was the middle of the night, the two wizards were mindful of the tracks they would leave in the snow. Thus, they chose to avoid High Street, instead slipping out the back door and making their way through one of the narrow lanes between homes. At the edge of the village, they slid down the embankment toward the wooded area near Hogsmeade Station.

Confident they would avoid detection for now, Severus finally removed their charms and pressed his wand into his Mark. Waiting for the Dark Lord's response, he sagged against a tree and closed his eyes.

"Ho… fuck."

Snape glanced at Draco and followed his gaze back in the direction of Hogwarts. The sight of the Dark Mark floating sickly green above the castle towers felt like a blade piercing his chest. Unconsciously, he rubbed at his sternum before touching his student's arm. "Whatever happens, Draco, I need you to trust me. You have my word: I will do everything I can."

The wide-eyed boy nodded. "What should I do?"

"Appear contrite, desperate to prove yourself worthy of redemption, and…" He trailed off, distracted by the memory of his own defection from the Death Eaters— kneeling before Dumbledore, pleading with him to save Lily, promising to give anything and everything in return. Never before had Snape allowed himself to be so vulnerable in front of anyone as he had the Headmaster.

"You disgust me."

Whatever remained of his soul after becoming a Death Eater he had entrusted to Dumbledore, who merely mangled it whichever way he saw fit. And now with Dumbledore dead, murdered by his hand, one had to ask whether there was anything left of his soul which could still be redeemed.

The burning of his forearm forced Severus from contemplation. He quickly finished his statement before preparing to disapparate. "…and I will ensure the Dark Lord knows you were successful in disarming the Headmaster."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Having knelt for what seemed like hours, Snape's knees, shoulder, back, and neck were killing him. Draco anxiously knelt beside him, while the elder Malfoys stood to the side of the drawing room; their eyes locked upon their son. Voldemort, meanwhile, paced in front of them, impatiently awaiting the arrival of at least one witness. No one was allowed to speak until then.

Finally, the Dark Lord came to a stop and snapped at Lucius to step forward. The aristocrat quickly rolled up his cuff, extended his arm, and bit back a pained groan as the Dark Lord pressed hard against his Mark to summon the others. Another moment passed in deathly silence before the boisterous Death Eaters began to arrive.

Draco fidgeted, but Severus remained motionless as Voldemort approached them.

"Roldolphus," the Dark Lord addressed the newcomer. "What news?"

The man beamed. "Dumbledore is dead, my Lord! Snape killed him."

"Rabastan! How was it done?"

"Killing Curse, my Lord."

Eyes flashing, Voldemort spun to the right. "Is this so, Yaxley?"

"Indeed, my Lord. I must admit it was more impressive than I thought Snape capable of casting."

"Bella! What have you to show me, my pet?"

The witch giggled as he stroked her face. The force of his Legillimens nearly brought her to her knees, but she eagerly clutched onto his robes and fed him the memory he wanted to see.

With a joyous laugh, Voldemort released her and pranced to the center of the room. "Rise, Severus."

The Dark Lord placed his hands on the man's arms, guiding him to his feet. Severus barely managed to hold back a squawk when he found himself awkwardly pressed against the tyrant's chest in what he presumed was meant to be a hug. Voldemort then touched the spy's cheeks and smiled. "You've done well, my son."

Snape's knees nearly gave out, and he swallowed back bile as the Dark Lord turned about and threw his arms wide.

"Albus Dumbledore is DEAD!"

As everyone – save Severus and the Malfoys – cheered, Voldemort scanned the room. "Tell me, why have not all of your bretheren returned?"

Curious, Snape also glanced about those gathered. The Lestranges, Yaxley, Dolohov, Rowle, and Greyback were all unfortunately present and accounted for. Thus, he could not discern who was among the missing.

Rowle hesitantly stepped forward. "Gibbons is dead, my Lord. I cannot say for Travers."

"Last I saw, he was trading curses with that Auror cunt," Dolohov supplied, prompting a snarl from Bellatrix.

"He'd better be dead, then." With a dramatic sigh, Voldemort finally swung his attention to the blond kneeling at his feet. "Get up, boy."

Draco unsteadily stood and fought to keep composure while being slowly circled by the Dark Lord.

"Severus, you deemed it necessary to step in."

"I did, my Lord," Snape nodded. "In the interest of time, I thought it best. The boy had already disarmed him, however."

"So I've seen," Voldemort murmured. "Such a daunting task, disarming frail, old men."

As Draco tightened in fear, Snape cleared his throat. "Forgive me, my Lord, but I do not believe that goat has ever been as frail as he portrayed."

The reptilian wizard contemplated the statement for a moment and then smiled. "Of course. By no means did I mean to belittle your accomplishment, my son."

Nor did you mean to imply you yourself were intimidated by a frail, old man. Severus exhaled slowly and forced himself to dip his head in appreciation. "Young Mr. Malfoy also contributed to our escape, preventing the possibility of capture by Aurors."

Had the Dark Lord possessed any eyebrows, they would have been raised as he spun around. "Bellatrix! Severus seems to think your nephew is still of some use. What say you? Shall we give little Draco another chance to bring your family honor?"

The witch's smile faltered a bit, and Severus could see how little she wished to answer the question. Not only did she hate having to agree with the Potions Master, she also secretly sought to ruin the Malfoy family. However, since the question had been phrased the way it had, admitting Draco was a failure would forever tarnish her own reputation. As such, she tried to skirt the matter by responding, "If you think it wise, my Lord."

Voldemort completed one more circle, then came to stand in front of Draco. "Dumbledore is dead, the Order has been decapitated, and I find myself in a generous mood. But do not take me for a fool, boy. I will not allow anyone who has been corrupted by that old man's rhetoric into my favor. We will stay the discussion of your usefulness until I can be certain as to where your loyalties lie."

He snatched the boy's wrist, shoved up his sleeve, and eyed the angry flesh of the Mark. With a malicious smirk, he pushed his thumb into the Mark, causing Draco to scream in agony and drop to his knees. After a brief period of Legilimency yielded no sign of falsity, Voldemort called forth the boy's mother.

Narcissa avoided looking at her son, but strategically placed herself so that her fingertips surreptitiously brushed his shoulder.

"When exactly did you expel this sniveling whelp from that disappointing womb of yours?"

As her sister cackled, Narcissa raised her chin. "The fifth of June, my Lord. At midday."

"Well, we shall have to celebrate the occasion of his majority!" Voldemort exclaimed. "A spot of cake, some champagne, and then we determine your fate. Until then, however, children should neither be heard nor seen."

As the dark wizard gestured to Greyback, Narcissa quickly gathered Draco into an embrace and whispered, "I love you, darling, and am so very proud of you. Stay strong, my love."

Snarling, Voldemort yanked Narcissa back by her hair, while Severus seized the opportunity to grab her son.

"Remember our practice," the spy murmured. With a reassuring squeeze, he handed Draco over to the werewolf, who dragged him in the direction of the dungeons.

"Lucius," Voldemort spat before throwing the quivering witch at her husband's feet. "I suggest you make whatever use you can of your wife while you still possess her."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, willing sleep to come to her. Unfortunately, it proved as elusive tonight as it had the previous nights. She was exhausted, having been unable to sleep more than an hour here or there since Severus left. Two entire days had come and gone since the assassination was to have taken place, yet she had not heard a peep from either Severus or McGonagall.

She was still alive, though, so he must still be alive. Unsure of what they might be dealing with, she had not braved sending either her mental Patronus or Dobby for fear of interrupting at an inopportune moment. As such, she had spent her days worrying and waiting. She had been unable to focus on reading without her thoughts wandering – which became worse the longer she went without decent sleep – so she had instead cleaned every surface in the cabin.

Apparently I'm more like mum than I thought. Hermione snuggled closer to Crookshanks. She had no idea of what time it was – she could cast a Tempus charm, of course, if she really cared to – but it was dark, and she knew she should be sleeping. If she kept her eyes closed long enough, perhaps she could trick her body into falling asleep.

The witch startled awake sometime later, and cursed under her breath. She had actually drifted off, but failed to stay that way. It took her mind a moment to register it had heard something. Holding her breath, she listened.

Footsteps. There were footsteps downstairs.

Immediately, Hermione was out of bed, wand in hand, and creeping toward the stairs. Bending down, she made out a dark-robed figure moving below. Crookshanks calmly sauntered down the steps in front of her, so she presumed it must be Snape.

"Severus!" She hastened down the twisted stair, but slowed when she received no acknowledgement. "Severus?"

Snape was seated in the wicker chair; his eyes closed and brow furled. He looked miserable, but she was afraid to disturb him. Uncertain as to what to do, Hermione perched on the end of the sofa nearest him.

Crooks looked equally perturbed as he leaped upon the armrest of the sofa. Questioningly, he touched the arm of the chair with his front paw, before hopping onto it. The half-kneazle looked at the wizard's lap, but eventually rearranged himself to lay along the armrest, draping his tail down to touch Snape's arm.

Petting her familiar, Hermione leaned against the sofa arm and watched the man. She could tell he was not asleep, but neither did he seem entirely awake. At least he was safe. Exhaling deeply, the young witch slid further down the length of the sofa, closed her eyes, and drifted back to sleep.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Hermione had finished eating lunch when Severus emerged from the loo, freshly bathed. He sank into the nearest dining chair and rested his head on his hands.

"Are you hungry yet?" she asked, since he had refused any breakfast. When he shook his head, she frowned and folded her arms. "Severus."

His eyes opened to her.

"You didn't eat anything the last time I saw you, which was four days ago. Have you eaten since then?" At his nod, she narrowed her eyes. "How much have you eaten?"

"The Dark Lord demanded celebratory feasts," Snape sputtered. "One has to feast at said feasts."

Given he avoided looking at her, she suspected it was an incomplete answer. "And how much of that feast did you vomit up as soon as you were alone?"

Now his eyes flashed to hers, indicating she was correct. Hermione set her jaw, pushed away from the table, and examined the contents of the pantry. After a minute's deliberation, she set about preparing oatmeal, then sliced the last remaining banana – she would have to ask Dobby for more fresh produce soon - to place atop the oatmeal.

When she set the bowl in front of Severus, he began to protest. The witch sat down in the chair next to him and cleared her throat. "Severus, you need to eat. Look at me. I need you to eat. Do you understand?"

Guilt appeared in his eyes as he picked up his spoon. Hermione felt terrible for having manipulated him, but the feeling eased with each bite he took. She wondered if this was how he felt whenever he had forced her to eat.

Though hundreds of questions were piling up in her head, the girl remained quiet until he finished. She would not give him an excuse to stop eating.

"Did everything go to plan?" she finally asked.

Severus sighed and rubbed his face. "More or less."

She frowned. "What went wrong?"

"There were more Death Eaters there than should have been," he finally answered. "The Headmaster had Potter with him when he shouldn't have."

"Harry?" Hermione quickly sat forward. "Is Harry alright?"

"As far as I know."

"How's Draco?"

Snape grimaced. "He and his mother are alive for now. He'll be imprisoned until he reaches his majority."

"You said that was in June?" she pressed.

He gave one nod. "The fifth."

"Six weeks?" she gasped after doing the calculation in her head. "Merlin. At least they're alive. Will he be alright come June?"

"Christ," he hissed, launching out of his chair. "I don't fucking know."

The witch stiffened in her seat and watched him pace twice across the kitchen space.

He covered his face with his hands and then stared at the ceiling. Breathing heavily, he shook his head. "I'm going upstairs to rest."

Once he was above stairs, Hermione let out the breath she was holding and laid her head on her arms. She knew what it felt like to use the Cruciatus and to hate oneself afterward. She had tried to push Severus away, afraid of how she wanted to use him, but he had been what she needed. He was the one who pulled her through, put her pieces back together.

Severus had used the Killing Curse, and he obviously was negatively affected by it. She owed it to him to return the favor, to help him through it. More than that, she wanted to help him. She just did not entirely know how to go about it.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Hermione quietly climbed the stairs, hoping not to wake the man if he was finally asleep. Upon reaching the main bedroom, however, she found the double bed empty. Confused, she faced the closed door of the second bedroom. She turned the knob slowly and inched open the door.

Severus was stretched out on one of the twin beds, but appeared too tense to be sleeping. Her observation was confirmed when his raspy voice asked, "Do you need something, Granger?"

The question set her teeth on edge, but she kept her tone soft. "I just wanted to check on you, to see if there was anything you needed."

"No."

Hermione hovered in the door, but the wizard said nothing further. "Alright, well… if you do think of something… anything at all, just give shout."

Snape did not bother responding – he did not even open his eyes – so the girl closed the door. Wrapping her arms around herself, she stood in the small space at the top of the stairs for a long moment, unsure of what to do. She glanced at the bed in her room. Though she wanted to curl up and pull the blankets over her head, it would remind her that Severus had purposely avoided sharing it with her.

With a deep sigh, Hermione slunk down to the kitchen to plan for supper, which he probably would refuse to eat.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

As the quiet crack of her apparition faded into the dark, Minerva steadied herself against a tree. Truly it was not the least bit advisable to apparate given the general lack of food and sleep she had consumed recently. In the wake of the battle – in which Dumbledore and a Death Eater had thankfully been the only casualties – she had faced an onslaught of attacks on every front.

Aurors had torn apart the castle, interrogating every member of staff and all students. Concerned parents had sent Howlers and even appeared at the gates demanding their children be released without academic penalty. The Board of Governors were insistent she return order to Hogwarts immediately, or risk the Ministry assuming full control. Beyond the concerns of Hogwarts, Alastor Moody was blatantly attempting to hijack control of the Order.

Minerva had not had a moment to spare on her own well-being, nor had she really been able to acknowledge the fact that Albus Dumbledore was dead. One might assume she was both satisfied and relieved by the bastard finally shuffling off the mortal coil, but she was neither of those. Instead, the event had only intensified her previous anger, fear, and grief.

She was thoroughly exhausted, but could not even entertain the notion of sleep without first checking in on Severus and Hermione. Though it was the middle of the night, dim light illuminating the curtained front window of the cabin suggested at least one of the occupants was awake. Fighting a yawn, she knocked on the door and cleared her throat. "It's Minerva."

The door cracked open to reveal a wand pointed between her eyes. Her heart thudded a few extra beats as she racked her tired brain to find something to prove her identity. "I gave you a feathered cat toy for Christmas; you gave me emerald earrings."

The wand faltered, and the door fell the rest of the way open. Minerva quickly closed it behind her and then turned to study the silent wizard. Even in the low lamplight, she could see his skin was paler than usual, and he kept his eyes trained on the floor.

"Hermione is upstairs?" she finally asked.

Snape nodded. "Sleeping."

"I'm glad one of us is, at least. Have you managed any since…" The witch left the rest of the question unspoken for they both knew what she meant.

He grimaced and shook his head.

"I was afraid of that," she murmured, touching his arm. The rigidness with which he held himself concerned her. "Severus, how are you doing?"

Snape ignored the question. "The students?"

"None of them were harmed, and there weren't any fatalities on our side. Pomona received a nasty burn, and one of the Aurors fractured his leg, but that was the worst of it."

"Potter?"

She sighed. "A walking, screeching ball of rage, but physically fine. Tonks retrieved him from where you stuffed him once the castle was secure."

"He wasn't supposed to be there," Severus whispered. "Dumbledore was supposed to –"

"I know," Minerva nodded, squeezing his arm. "But you kept him safe, Severus. You did well. I highly doubt things could have gone better."

The wizard slowly lifted his eyes to meet hers, and the anguish they held caused her breath to catch in her throat.

"Severus?"

He practically melted in front of her, tears slipping out of his eyes as he collapsed to his knees. With a soft exclamation of surprise, she grabbed hold of him.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, clutching her skirt as the woman pressed his head to her abdomen.

"Hush." Minerva closed her eyes, willing peace to come to him. When his hands fell to his slide, she released him to sit down, then brushed the hair out of his face. "Severus, what is it? Tell me what's wrong."

The man hung his head and heaved in a breath. "I murdered him, Minerva."

Her chest constricted at the whispered declaration. "It wasn't murder, Severus."

"It was! It wasn't supposed to be, but it was. It was supposed to be mercy. I tried, Minerva. I tried, but I lost control. He said…" Snape shook his head. "I cast the curse in anger. I wanted him dead because in that moment I hated him. I hated him; I murdered him; and I've ruined whatever shred of a soul I had left."

McGonagall inhaled deeply, stroking the side of his face while she watched him in concern. "Severus, what did he say?"

The wizard attempted to avoid answering, but finally confessed what the Headmaster had said prior to the Killing Curse.

Minerva bit down on her lip to prevent herself from shouting in anger. The notion that Albus Dumbledore had ever treated Severus like a son was not laughable; it was vomit-inducing. The proclamation had been an intentional manipulation, designed to goad Severus into a state of anger, which he would later regret. Albus had purposely hurt him, of that she was certain. What she could not fully understand was why.

Unless it was in retribution for Severus overstepping the bounds Albus set for him? For the hundredth time, Minerva wished she had been the one to kill the bastard. "He should never have said that, Severus. Anyone would have reacted as you did."

"I thought of him, Tobias... what he did to my mother. And Dumbledore… I just… I couldn't allow him to harm anyone else."

Minerva nodded and gently held his chin. "You didn't kill him out of hate, Severus. You did it to protect the rest of us, which means your intention was good. Your heart was in the right place."

At his disbelieving look, she touched his chest. "I cannot believe your soul has been mangled. If it were, you wouldn't feel this way."

"Please," he whispered, "forgive me."

Her hand returned to his cheek. She did not believe there was anything to forgive, but knew it was something he needed to hear. "Severus, I forgive you."

Severus gradually sank against her, pressing his forehead into her thigh. As he sighed, she gently ran her fingers through his hair.

"You are a good man, Severus. You have done so many difficult things so that others do not have to. We will never be able to repay you." She felt him shake his head against her leg, but she continued. "I am very proud of you, Severus. Very proud. And I will always be here for you when you need me."

After several minutes passed in silence, she patted his shoulder. "You should go upstairs, Severus, and try to sleep. Things will be better when you've rested."

Snape leaned away from her and wiped his face. His demeanor cooled suddenly. "No."

"It's at least worth a try," she encouraged.

He stared at the fabric of her skirt for a moment before shaking his head. "I'm not going upstairs."

Minerva frowned and glanced at the sofa. On its own, it did not look long enough to be comfortable for the tall man. Thus, she stood and carefully transfigured the chair and sofa together to form something suitable. "Come, come. Off the floor."

Finally relenting, Severus hauled himself onto the transfigured couch.

The witch watched him remove his boots and stretch out along the cushions. "Is there a particular reason you don't want to go upstairs? Did you and Hermione have a row?"

He grunted in frustration as she adjusted the sofa pillow beneath his head. A lengthy moment passed before he murmured, "I shouldn't be here, but there wasn't anywhere else I could go."

McGonagall paused in the midst of unfastening her traveling cloak. "What do you mean?"

His arms were rigid as he stared up at the ceiling. "I've never killed anyone before. I don't know what could happen… what I could do."

"You're afraid you might hurt Hermione?" Noticing his jaw twitch in response, she draped her cloak atop him and then perched beside him on the edge of the sofa. "Have you experienced urges to do so?"

His brow furled. "No, but I haven't allowed…"

Minerva touched his face. "You've been Occluding this whole time? You just started again, didn't you?"

Snape hesitantly nodded. "When my shields start to slip, I've tried to remove myself until I can restore them."

"Christ alive, Severus," she exclaimed. "It's been days! You need to let them drop and leave them dropped. I know you know the cost of Occluding full time because you warned me strongly against it. Let go."

"But what if I…"

The woman grasped his hand in one of hers and smoothed her other thumb along his temple. "I'll be right here, Severus. I won't allow anything to happen."

"You're not staying here?"

"Until morning, I shall," she replied. "After that, you only have to send Dobby if either of you have need of me. Now, please. Let them fall."

His dark eyes locked onto her face for several seconds before they closed. When they finally opened again, she swore the edges of his irises had softened. As soon as the first tear fell, however, he hid them behind his hands.

Minerva, fighting her own tears, tried to comfort him as he cried. When he turned his body away from her, she briefly rested her forehead against his shoulder. "I know it's hard and it hurts, love, but letting it out is best. There's nothing to be ashamed of, but I promise you I will not breathe a word of this to anyone."

Eventually his sobs dissolved into sniffles, and his breathing steadied.

"Do you feel better?"

"Not in the least."

Minerva gave a strained smile and smoothed her hand over his hair. "Let's try for sleep, then. Close your eyes… breathe deep… think of something that makes you happy. Merlin, it pains me to say this, but picture Slytherin crushing Gryffindor on the pitch."

Severus snorted, but did not open his eyes. He jerked awake, however, when Crookshanks hopped onto his leg.

"Shhh, it's alright," the witch cooed. "Just your cat."

The man sank back into the pillow. "S'not mine."

Minerva smirked as she watched the half-kneazle knead the man's hip. "He might beg to differ."

Snape groaned in complaint, but did not verbalize anything further.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Feeling terribly conflicted and wishing to avoid detection, Hermione quietly crept back to bed. She was glad to see Severus was finally opening up, but could not quash the jealousy and disappointment she felt. He did not trust her; that much was clear. Two days she had spent trying to get him to eat, to sleep, to talk, to fuck, to do anything besides brood. He just pushed her away and shut her out, but literally fell all over himself to talk to McGonagall.

Gods, how can I think like this? Hermione groaned and buried her face in the pillow. Severus was going through something horrible, and she should be grateful that Minerva could help him.

"Hermione?"

She held her breath and remained still.

"I'm relatively certain you're not asleep."

Sighing, the girl turned over to face the door where Minerva stood.

"Do you want to talk?"

Hermione attempted to say no, but the traitorous tears welling up in her eyes prevented it. Embarrassed, she covered her face with her hands.

Taking in a fortifying breath, Minerva closed the door before perching on the bed and tugging down the girl's hands. "What is it, sweet?"

"What's wrong with me?" Hermione whispered.

The elder witch frowned. "Nothing is wrong with you, dear."

"Clearly, there's something."

"Why do you say that?"

The girl glared at the ceiling. "One lousy bowl of oatmeal is all I've managed in two days, and I had to guilt him into it."

"You've done well, Hermione."

"No. I tried, but he doesn't want me."

Minerva adjusted her position. "That isn't true."

"He's practically ignored me the entire time." Hermione sat up and pushed her hair out of her face. "Whenever I do get close to him, or try to talk to him, he looks like I'm causing him physical pain."

"You know, Severus is unfortunately very used to suffering on his own," her Head of House explained. "I think he's afraid to unload any of his burden on you."

"But not on you?" she blurted without thinking. "Sorry. I shouldn't have…"

Minerva glanced at the door briefly. "It's been a long process getting him to open up to me. And it probably would not have happened were it not for you."

Hermione raised her eyes. "What?"

"Severus and I have had, on the main, a decent working relationship. There have been trials, mind you, but we were not truly close until this year. Not until you were bound to him. He started coming to me whenever you were hurt or upset, or if he didn't know what to do, or when he was afraid. He's allowed me glimpses into his life, and has allowed himself to trust me because of that. Because of you."

As the young witch processed the information, McGonagall removed her shoes and settled more comfortably on the bed.

"He said he trusted me," Hermione finally murmured.

"And he does," Minerva assured her. "But I think it's harder for him to tell you some things because he feels, as your protector, that he needs to be strong. He doesn't want to lose your confidence, and he doesn't want to fail you. Believe me, Hermione – Severus is not aware of how he's made you feel recently because the last thing he wants to do is cause you any sort of pain."

"You're sure that's it?"

The woman nodded. "I think after he's had some genuine sleep, he'll be more likely to recognize what he's doing."

Hermione fiddled with the blanket, then sighed. "Whenever Harry would push us away, we'd give him space, and then he'd come around within a few days. But with Severus… I've been afraid if I give him space, he won't come back."

With quiet words of reassurance, McGonagall wrapped her arms about the girl and guided her back to the mattress. "Come, we all need some sleep. Things will be better tomorrow, I'm certain of it."

The young witch sighed and leaned her head on the woman's shoulder. "Yes, but for how long?"

"We'll take what we can while we have it," Minerva stated, pulling the quilt over them. After a moment, she tightened her hold on Hermione. "I promise you, no matter what happens, he will always come back to you."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Letting loose a deep sigh, Severus stood in front of the bathroom sink, a towel slung across his hips. His lip curled upward as he took in his reflection in the mirror that was speckled with tarnish. He doubted he could find a more apt metaphor, for he felt as though he would never be clean again. It would not matter how hard or how often he scrubbed; there were spots that would never come off.

The wizard leaned forward to better examine his shoulder where the hex that clipped him had left a jagged wound path. Had he cared to do so, he could have healed it well enough that it would not have scarred. He had not, however, having been too focused on keeping his thoughts and emotions tightly regulated. Subconsciously, he had probably left it to scar so it would permanently serve as a physical reminder of what he had done.

Though the injury no longer hurt, Snape could not say the same for the rest of him. As it was the raw emotional ache he felt, there was no pain potion he could brew that would provide him relief. Occlumency would numb it, of course, but he had promised Minerva he would not employ it unless absolutely necessary. As embarrassing as it was to have blubbered into her skirts like a small child, he did recognize that it had been beneficial. She was his superior and needed an accurate depiction of his stability – or instability, as was the case – before relying on him in any capacity.

After dressing in shirt and trousers, Severus opened the door to find himself face-to-face with a pajama-clad witch.

"Oh, thank Merlin!" Hermione exclaimed. "I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold it."

Grimacing, the wizard relinquished the lavatory to her and peered into the pantry; his stomach rumbling for the first time in more than a week. It was past midday, but as neither he nor Hermione had eaten yet, he decided breakfast was still appropriate.

"What are you doing?" Hermione asked, reappearing.

Snape raised one eyebrow at her before glancing at the toaster. "It would appear I'm toasting bread."

Biting down on her smile, the girl shuffled closer and leaned against the counter. "So it appears. Would you like something with your toast?"

"Do we have any eggs?"

"We have a couple, yes." Unable to suppress her grin any longer, she quickly turned to fetch them.

Little else was said as they prepared the meal and sat down to eat. Once finished, Hermione collected their plates and began filling the sink with soapy water.

Severus sipped at his coffee while his eyes slowly trailed over her form. Before leaving that morning, Minerva had cautioned him to be more cognizant of Hermione than he had been the past few days. Admittedly, being more cognizant of the teen witch was exactly what Snape had sought to avoid. It was dangerous to pay her too much attention when he was uncertain of the effect that casting the Killing Curse would have on him.

He seriously doubted, though, that Minerva had intended for him to ogle her as he was at present. Her t-shirt was relatively fitted in contrast to her pajama bottoms, accentuating her curves, and the way her hair had been carelessly bunched into a loose bun at the base of her neck was rather appealing. His cock twitched as he imagined gripping it in his fist while pinning her against the counter and plundering her mouth.

Fuck. I can't think like this. Snape set down his mug and pressed his knuckles into his eyes. He needed to banish those thoughts because it was obvious he was not in control enough to get that close to her.

"Severus?"

Her voice practically washed over him, tingling down his spine until it reached the base of his tailbone and reverberated into his cock. With a groan, he opened his eyes to see her watching him in concern. Unable to think clearly, he continued staring at her until her lips parted and a blush stole over her cheeks.

Heart pounding in his ears, Snape pushed out of his chair and slowly approached her. He felt like the wolf advancing on the lamb nervously smiling at him as she leaned back against the counter. That thought spurred him to grab ahold of himself. "Hermione."

"Yes?" she breathed.

He grabbed the edge of the counter on either side of her and leaned down to nuzzle his head against hers. "I need you… to tell me to stop."

"And if I don't want you to stop?" she whispered.

Snape whimpered as he traced his fingers along her side. He breathed in her scent and wanted nothing more than to lose himself inside of her. "Please."

Her hand burned a trail up his chest to his jaw. "Severus, I want this. I don't want to stop. I just want you."

Any hold the wizard had on his reins vanished. His hands latched onto whatever they could as he sagged against her body, ensnaring her mouth with his own. He felt the blood rushing through his veins as he desperately sought to consume as much of her as he could. Without detaching from her mouth, he pushed down her bottoms and lifted her up onto the countertop.

Hermione gasped, breaking their liplock, when his fingers slipped inside her. Smirking, Severus gave her another brief kiss before lowering his mouth to explore her dripping folds. Her hands tangled in his hair, her eyes closed, and she tipped backward as he strove to devour every drop of her. When she finally exploded in orgasm, he hurriedly pushed his pants out of the way and had his cock sheathed inside of her before her walls even finished trembling.

The man gripped her hips as he pistoned into her. She fell forward, wrapping her arms about his neck and resting her head against his while he determinedly chased the bliss her body provided him. After he finally caught it with a primitive growl, they both breathlessly slumped against the other, supporting each other's weight though they were too shattered to even disentangle their arms.

Eventually, Hermione's head lolled onto his shoulder as she gave a pitiful laugh. "I'm going to have to clean the kitchen again."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

When she could no longer ignore the distress signals her bladder was sending, Hermione groaned. Still half-asleep, she slid ungracefully out of the bed, hoping not to disturb the lump beside her. She stumbled painfully out to the stairs, then stopped to blink herself further awake to avoid the risk of tumbling down in a heap of broken bones. Hissing at the burning in her muscles, she carefully picked her way down the twisted staircase to the main floor.

She was profoundly tempted to sleep on the sofa after weeing to avoid having to haul her aching body back upstairs. Though she was pleased Severus had needed her after all – once in the kitchen, and twice in the bedroom – her body seemed to have surpassed its quota for frantic, primal sex. Not that you didn't enjoy yourself immensely. Who knew you could orgasm that many times in one day?

Pushing open the bathroom door, Hermione hiked up the hem of Snape's shirt – it had been far easier to pull that on in the middle of the night than to locate her own clothing – and descended slowly onto the commode. She startled a second later, however, upon catching sight of the man in the tub. "Shi—Severus!"

Without opening his eyes or lifting his head from the end of the tub, the wizard murmured, "Morning."

"I thought you were still upstairs!" Now fully awake, the girl placed a hand against her pounding chest. "How… how long are you going to be, do you think?"

Snape frowned. "You may use the toilet."

"But…" She shifted nervously.

"Hermione."

The witch eyeballed him with uncertainty before letting out a loud sigh. "You won't look?"

"I won't look," he promised with a smirk.

"Don't listen either," she instructed.

Severus snorted. "My tongue has been over every inch of you down there, yet you –"

"Shut up," she blushed. "It's different."

Hermione hurriedly finished her business as quietly as possible. While washing her hands, she studied the wizard more carefully. Eyes still closed, his mouth was now set in a slight grimace. On the floor beside the tub were a few empty potions vials and the canister of bath crystals he had used for her migraines. "How bad is it?"

As he shrugged, the young witch perched on the side of the tub and touched his forehead. His eyes popped open momentarily, but he did not tell her to desist. Feeling determined, she shimmied out of his shirt and cautiously climbed into the tub.

"Hermione, what –" Snape sat up straighter and stared at her. "Merlin's sake, witch."

Giving him a small smile, Hermione straddled his waist and pressed her fingertips into his cheekbones. "Trying to help. Is that allowed today?"

The man grimaced, but relaxed back against the tub.

I'll take that as a yes. Hermione monitored his expression while massaging his face and gently tugging on his hair, and soon noticed his mouth part. "Is this helping?"

Severus nodded, which encouraged her to redouble her efforts. Her fingers moved down to his shoulders, pulling forth a low a moan from the man.

"This doesn't hurt, does it?" she asked, frowning at the evidence of injury on his right shoulder. He had not mentioned to her that he had been hurt during the skirmish.

"No," he rumbled. "It's good."

Eventually, another aspect of his anatomy began to harden against her leg. Smirking, Hermione continued kneading down his arms, then picked up one of his hands to massage.

Severus opened his eyes to watch her, then raised his other hand to skim the side of her face. With a smile, the girl leaned forward to kiss him. He freed his hand from hers in order to grasp her head with both hands as he explored her mouth.

As much as she enjoyed snogging him, Hermione was sore and did not wish to take it any further. Their bond must be more than satisfied given all of their coupling the day prior, but she was also concerned that leaving him in an aroused state might make it all irrelevant. Mindful of that, she trailed one hand between their bodies to stroke him.

"Shhh," the witch whispered when he hissed in surprise, then returned to kissing him while pumping his erection. After a while, she leaned back a bit. "Show me what you like."

He stared at her.

"Please?"

Severus placed his hand over hers to guide her motion. As his pleasure built, his hand slipped away, and she continued on her own.

"Hermione –"

Though she suspected he was trying to warn her so that she would stop, Hermione leaned closer, whispering in his ear. "Come for me, Severus… come for me."

"Fffuck," he groaned, gripping the sides of the tub as his orgasm ripped through him.

Pleased by her success, Hermione rinsed her hands in the bathwater while he caught his breath. When his hand began to travel up her thigh, she caught hold of his wrist and shook her head. "Not now."

Snape narrowed his brow in question.

"Just a little tender," she explained.

Concerned, the man sat up quick enough that water sloshed over the side.

The witch winced while trying to still his motions, which only worried him further. "I'm okay, Severus! I swear I'm alright. It's nothing that a good soak can't fix."

Unconvinced by her assurances, Snape extracted himself from the tub and vanished the bathwater.

"Severus!" she shrieked, pulling her limbs close to her body to reduce exposure to the cooler air.

He said nothing, but handed her a vial of pain potion and then began drawing another bath.

"Shhhit, that's cold!" Hermione leaped up and grabbed hold of him. "Use a warming charm, you jerk."

Severus did as requested, but not before catching sight of the bruises on her body. As she settled back into the tub, he grabbed a tin of bruise paste. "I should never have touched you. I'm sorry."

Confused, the young woman looked up at him and then down at her body. She noticed a few faint marks where his fingers had dug into her hips and where the edge of the counter had pressed into her legs, but they were hardly significant. "Put that away. I am fine and don't want to be slathered in salve when it's completely unnecessary."

Sighing, he set down the canister and stared at her until she begrudgingly uncorked the vial in her hand. When she merely took a sip of the pain reliever before handing it back to him, he frowned and tipped the rest of it into the rising bathwater.

"Merlin's sake," she rolled her eyes. "Hey, where are you going?"

Snape, having wrapped himself in a towel, paused before the door.

"Is your headache gone?"

He shifted. "It's improved."

"But is it gone? No?" Leaning over the edge of the tub, Hermione grabbed a handful of crystals and sprinkled them in the water. "Now, get back in the bloody tub."

Grumbling, the wizard dropped his towel and carefully maneuvered in behind her.

"Thank you," she stated forcefully before turning off the faucet. While regaining her seat, she noticed him eyeing her hip with a sickened expression. "Severus, I'm serious. I've had worse after our defense lessons, and I promise you I do not enjoy those near as much as I did yesterday."

"It's not the same," Snape argued.

"Why not?"

"Because I raped you!" he exclaimed, flinching at his own words.

Hermione tensed, then slowly dragged her fingers through the placid water. Her voice was quiet when she finally dared to speak. "You did what you had to."

Severus shook his head in frustration. "No."

"Yes," she countered. Heaving in a breath, she turned enough to see his face. "What would have happened if you'd refused? He'd have killed you, and then Bellatrix and Dolohov and whoever else would have done whatever they wanted with me. We'd both be dead right now. My parents would be dead. And probably Narcissa Malfoy, too."

He squeezed his eyes shut. "That doesn't make it okay."

"No, it doesn't," Hermione whispered. "But it makes it forgivable."

His eyes slowly opened to meet hers.

Sighing, she took his hand. "Yesterday was… intense, but it wasn't anything I didn't want to do. I over-exerted myself a bit, yes, but it was worth it. You probably did as well, given your headache. You're probably dehydrated."

"Just a delayed consequence of occluding too long," he muttered. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know." One hand flattened itself over his shoulder. "I seem to recall biting you several weeks ago without meaning to. You keep insisting I'm not to blame for whatever I have to do to survive, so I have to insist that neither are you."

"But there's a difference, Hermione," Snape muttered, lifting his left arm. "I chose this; you did not."

Her eyes flicked to the Dark Mark. When he made to lower it, she grabbed onto his wrist. "How old were you when you received this?"

His mouth formed a thin line. "I was eighteen."

"And when did you decide you wanted it?"

Severus recalled how angry he had been after the episode with the werewolf and then losing Lily's friendship. He had considered the Dark Lord earlier – the propaganda had been so rampant in the Slytherin dormitory, it was impossible not to – but it was not until the summer after fifth year that he was certain. "When I was sixteen."

"So you weren't any older than Draco or I."

"But unlike the two of you, I was not forced into my bonds," he argued. "I freely chose them."

"Did you?" she parried, shaking his arm once. "If anyone had been there for you, would you have this?"

Snape pulled his arm out of her grasp. "Don't—"

"Don't you dare dismiss my question, Severus Snape," Hermione snapped. "I want you to answer me honestly. If anyone besides the Death Eaters and Dark Lord had shown they cared about you, cared about your future, your happiness, your well-being… would you have gone to him?"

Discomfited, Severus looked away. Part of him wished to claim he would have done the same. He certainly did not want to place the blame for his decisions on anyone else, but he knew he had been weak as a young man. He had been desperate to prove his worthiness, which meant he had fallen too easily to peer pressure. If someone else had offered an alternative, he would have at least been too confused to give the Dark Lord his full loyalty.

"Perhaps not."

"Then I see no difference between what's on your arm and what's on my back." Not allowing him to protest her statement, Hermione turned about, leaned back against his chest, and tugged his arms around her.

Uncertain as to what he felt, Snape sank down slightly and held the witch close. No one had ever trusted him to the extent she did, and the thought of ever losing that trust scared the daylights out of him. Hermione had asked him to choose Potter over her should the situation warrant it, and though he knew it was what he was supposed to do, it was becoming harder to even imagine doing so. It was selfish of him, he suspected, to go against her wishes just because he wanted to keep her alive and in his possession. He doubted Hermione would so easily forgive him if he intentionally abandoned Potter to do so. Not to mention he would be completely reneging on his promise to Lily.

Coveting what he could not have was practically a hobby of his, but he could not allow himself to lose focus on what he needed to do. And that included silencing the treacherous whisper suggesting the death wrought by his hand could be brought into balance by the propagation of new life within her womb. They were both fully aware of the dangers a pregnancy posed, so he could not allow that particular thought to take root.

"Severus?" Hermione tilted her head in response to his arms tightening. "Something wrong?"

"Did you take the contraceptive yesterday?"

"Yes. Right after the incident in the kitchen."

He exhaled in relief. "It would probably be best if you were to take over brewing it."

"Okay," Hermione yawned.

"Thank you." Severus closed his eyes and pressed his face into the girl's hair. While he would have to release her soon, it did not have to be immediately.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Having selected another book from Snape's collection, Hermione settled onto the sofa. She soon felt the weight of eyes upon her and glanced up at the wizard watching her from the chair. "You said I could read them."

"I recall," he nodded. "It's not about the book."

"Then what is it?"

Severus set aside his notebook. "If Minerva is available tomorrow, I think it's time you to return to Hogwarts."

"What?" she exclaimed, straightening in her seat.

"It's been a week since the assassination."

Hermione snapped her book shut. "But we've only had a few days together!"

"This isn't a bloody holiday," he chastised. "This arrangement was to protect you and the Order's interests, not so we could sit here and play house."

Is that what I've been doing? The girl had not forgotten about the looming war – or not so looming given that most would view the Headmaster's assassination as the first strike – but she had gotten used to the domesticity of the cabin. Even though the first few days after his return had been exceedingly frustrating, she had had a taste of what a somewhat normal life with Severus could be, and she was not quite ready to give it up.

"You've been here nearly three weeks," Snape added after her silence. "You need to return so you can begin ingratiating yourself with Potter again. No doubt it'll take him several days to cease being angry with you."

"No doubt," she sputtered, reclining against the armrest. "You're really selling me on this, you know."

Severus folded his arms. "You need to attend the funeral. I imagine it will be held this week, so we cannot delay any longer."

Hermione rubbed her face in exasperation. She had not considered there would be a funeral, but of course there would be. And of course she would be expected to attend. If she did not, questions would be raised, and Harry would be even less likely to forgive her. "Fine. I'll attend it, but I'm not sobbing over his body."

"No one is asking you to throw yourself into the grave with him," he sneered, "but you will have to mourn him. Potter needs to see how remorseful you are over trusting the Death Eaters who murdered the Bearer of the Light."

The witch flopped over to glare at him. "That's disgusting."

Snape scowled as Crookshanks hauled himself up into his lap by digging a few claws into his leg. "Nevertheless, you'll still have to do it. Without you, the idiot wouldn't be able to find his arse with either hand or his father's accursed map."

"And what will you be doing while I'm off attempting to convince Harry that I hate you?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "Whatever it is the Dark Lord or Minerva require of me."

Hermione adjusted the sofa pillow to better support her head. "Are we supposed to go back to sitting classes?"

"I rather doubt it. You'll have to ask Minerva what the Board decided."

She exhaled slowly and stared at the fireplace. "And what about us?"

"What about us?" he grumbled, attempting to shove the cat to the floor.

Pulling herself back into a seated position, the witch tossed him a frustrated look. "Am I just supposed to tell Harry that I have to go for a really long walk alone every two to three weeks? Or have you forgotten that particular aspect of our relationship?"

The wizard sighed and rubbed his forehead.

"It was one thing to sneak down to the dungeons on my rounds, but I can't do that now. And what if I get sent to The Burrow or Grimmauld Place or some other safe house?" she continued. "If you think I'm going to be able to sneak out of a house full of Weasleys or Order members, you need your head examined."

For several minutes, Crookshanks's throaty purr of success – for his wizard had ceased the foolish attempts to dislodge him – and the crackling of the fire were the only sounds in the room.

"You're going to brew the Wolfsbane," Snape finally stated.

Hermione's eyes widened. "What? But I've never done that before! I've barely even see you do any of it."

"I know –"

"What if I end up poisoning him?"

"Would you calm down, witch? If anyone is going to poison the ugly mutt, it will be me. I will do the actual brewing. Certain people are just going to think you are," he explained. "You'll escape Potter one night mid-moon cycle for prep, and then before the full moon for brewing. I'll send the completed potion back with you, and none will be the wiser."

Her breathing was heavy as she contemplated the suggestion. "You really think they'll believe that?"

"Potter and Weasley, yes. You brewed a NEWT-level potion as a second year; they'll believe you capable of brewing actual gold."

"And the rest of the Order?"

"Perhaps not." Absently, Severus ran his hand over the half-kneazle's fur. "Which means we'll need Lupin to sell it."