A/N: It's been a stressful summer thus far, but I've finally got an update finished. Not as far as I would like in the plot, of course, but some administrative things needed to dealt with ahead of time. That and a certain snout kept unexpectedly sticking itself in other characters' business.

Thank you for your patience, and I await your comments!


Bound to Him

Chapter 83

"Minerva."

The interim Headmistress sighed at the man's pleading tone. "I know you don't like the idea, Severus, but I think it has merit. If they're left in the dark, they will hunt you."

"They won't find me," he argued. "I will remain hidden until –"

"That's not the point!" Minerva snapped, startling both Hermione and Remus. "I know you can protect yourself, Severus. What I am concerned about are the time and resources that would be wasted on a manhunt when I know very well where you are and what you're doing. And if I discourage them from crusading for your head, they will want to know why. Alastor especially will mutiny, and Merlin only knows how many will follow his lead."

Frustrated, Snape moved toward the fireplace. "The more who know, the greater the risk of exposure. When it reaches the Dark Lord, Hermione and I won't be able to contribute anything further because we'll be dead!"

"What if I find a way to keep the information protected?"

"What, through a wand oath?" he scoffed. "An accomplished Legilimens, which the Dark Lord is, can still get around that. Besides which, might I remind you that you yourself are still subject to one? You can't even explain the blasted situation to them!"

Minerva held up a hand. "I have a plan for that."

Remus cleared his throat. "I could speak to it."

"You don't know enough to answer questions," Severus countered, "and while you might have been convinced by Miss Granger, Moody and Shacklebolt will not be. And how would it look for the Head of the Order to be unable to lead her own bloody meeting! If Moody perceives any weakness, he'll strike."

Determined, Minerva grabbed his arm. "You need to trust me, Severus. I will have control of that meeting, and I will find a way to protect you and Hermione."

"But –"

"Is it not my call to make?" she pressed.

Wincing, Severus returned to his seat.

"Remus, any qualms?"

After a moment's contemplation, Lupin shook his head. "It will likely be difficult, but I trust you."

"Anything worth doing usually is," Minerva muttered. "Hermione?"

Somewhat shocked at being asked her opinion, the girl flicked her eyes to Severus, which caused Remus to grit his teeth. "I… I agree that some of the Order, at least, should know Severus is working for us."

"But?"

Hermione glanced at Remus before meeting the witch's gaze. "I'm not exactly comfortable with them knowing why I need to meet Severus."

Though the werewolf again narrowed his eyes at Snape – who had been staring at his hands since being chastened – Minerva nodded in understanding. "Yes, that may be too much for them digest in one sitting. We can craft an alternative explanation."

She eyed the clock, then sighed. "I have to return to the Head Office, and Severus has to get back to brewing the Wolfsbane –"

"You're brewing…" Remus trailed off as Minerva glared at him for interrupting.

Severus raised his eyes and cleared his throat. "You require the first dose tomorrow, do you not?"

"Yes, but… I…" He shifted, uncertain as to what he meant to say.

"Can't have you nibbling the children, can we?"

"Severus," McGonagall warned before looking to Lupin. "Severus may be in hiding, but he isn't twiddling his thumbs."

She straightened her spine. "Now, we're not making final decisions based on what we've discussed here. We need to think through options and reconvene when we have a better handle on things. Remus, I realize you won't be in your best frame of mind this week, and we've dumped quite a load on you today, so I suggest we take the week. That'll give me time to strategize on how to protect information within the ranks. Alright?"

When they mumbled agreement, she nodded sharply. "Good. Hermione, Remus – if you wouldn't mind, I'd like a word with Severus before my next appointment. Oh, and Remus? Not a word of this leaves your mouth until I permit it, understood? And that includes Miss Tonks."

Lupin sighed but agreed. Seeing Hermione heading for the door instead of the fireplace, he switched directions and followed her.

When the door closed, Minerva turned to face the wizard sulking on her sofa. "I think that went well enough. Are you in need of a pain potion?"

"What?"

She arched an eyebrow at his confusion. "Angry Remus. Broken nose. Ring a bell?"

"No, I'm fine."

Minerva crossed her arms. "I don't believe for a second you're fine but will give you benefit of the doubt regarding a pain potion. I have to meet with the Board right now, but I think you and I need to have a private conversation soon."

Severus sighed but did not meet her eyes. "If you deem it necessary."

"I do."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Hermione, wait!" Remus hustled after her. "Please!"

Hermione pressed on, determined to avoid further conversation since her first attempt backfired spectacularly. Severus had not even looked at her after censuring her for getting between him and Remus. Admittedly, that had been stupid. Had Severus not forced her aside so quickly, she shuddered to think where the man's fist would have landed.

"Hermione, I need to speak with you."

"Unless it's to apologize, I'm not interested."

"Apologize?"

Angered by his apparent confusion, Hermione whirled around and cast a Muffliato. "You're as bad as Harry! Professor McGonagall tells you to keep quiet, yet you're determined to talk about it in the bloody corridor!"

Abashed, Remus gestured to the nearest door. When he attempted to physically guide her in that direction, however, the witch jerked out of his reach.

"Do not touch me," she snarled.

He held up his hands in surrender. "Please? Just a moment to speak."

Hermione, arms crossed, followed him into a small storage room. "Well?"

"Can he hear us?"

"He's not listening," she replied. Though, I wish he were. I have my own apology to make.

Remus took in a slow breath. "Hermione, I need to know… what you said in there – were those your true opinions?"

Her eyes hardened. "If you're insinuating Severus influenced my responses, you are dead wrong."

"I understand you may be afraid or ashamed to tell the Order what happened, but it might be for the best."

Hermione shook her head. "A few days ago, I may have believed you but not now. You were the person I thought would best understand what I've gone through, but if you distrust and ignore me to this extent… No, I've had enough pitying, disgusted, and suspicious looks because of my supposed relationship with Draco. I don't need any more."

"Hermione, I trust you. I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

"You trust me, but not what I say?"

Remus sighed. "I'm sorry but when what you say favors him or his stance, I can't help but be suspicious."

"Then try harder," she directed. "Severus and I have been working together, keeping ourselves and the Order's interests alive for the better part of a year. It started poorly, but we've learned to trust each other. So yes, when he says something, I listen; and vice versa. It's something you might try doing instead of bashing his head in all the time."

"I admit I overreacted –"

"And don't you dare try to dictate what is or isn't consensual in our relationship! I've had to do many things this year that I didn't want to do but sleeping with him isn't one of them!"

Remus grimaced. "Hermione, it's not… It's not a relationship. You don't have a choice in the matter, which means you cannot truly consent to anything that occurs between you. He holds all the power."

"You're wrong!"

"It's difficult to hear, Hermione, but that's the reality of the situation. I'm sorry to upset you."

The young witch fixed him with a measured glare. "I realize I cannot choose my sexual partner; I came to terms with that months ago. But in your estimation, your reality of the situation, I would spend the rest of my life being raped. Is that really more palatable to you than my enjoying sex with Severus? Is that how you would prefer to think of me? A perpetual victim?"

Remus blanched. "You are a victim, Hermione. Snape made you –"

"Severus did not make me a victim."

"You just sat in my office telling me every deplorable thing he did to you!"

"Everything he had to do," Hermione growled. "Stop accusing him of wanting to hurt me! If you blame Severus for the situation, you also have to blame me –"

"No."

" – and Harry –"

"What?"

" – and Dumbledore and the Order."

Remus shook his head. "Why would you blame –"

"My friendship with Harry made me a target, yet no one thought to protect me?" she questioned. "No one thought, 'Gee, Hermione nearly died fighting Death Eaters in the Ministry. She probably pissed them off by not dying, and those vindictive bastards might want to come back and finish the job'?"

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "We had no indication they would go after one of the students, let alone single you out from the others. We couldn't justify diverting resources to watching all of you when nothing suggested it was warranted."

"No indication," Hermione sneered. "Of the five of us stupid enough to follow Harry into that ambush, Ron and Ginny lived in a house full of Order members, Luna was just over the hill from them, and Neville had his grandmother. I, however, lived in a Muggle home in a Muggle neighborhood with Muggle parents. There were no wards on our house, and I wasn't allowed to use magic underaged. So, no, you didn't have to divert resources to protect all of us; you just had to protect me!"

Voice squeaking at the end of her pronouncement, she tried to escape the room only to have her wrist caught.

"Hermione, I am sorry," he said solemnly. "You're right; we should have protected you. I understand why you might want to blame us for what happened."

"I don't blame you any more than I blame Severus or Harry. I blame the Dark Lord." Hermione yanked back her arm. "And I don't need your protection. I can protect myself. Severus has seen to that."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Working in a makeshift lab set up in the kitchenette of the Headmaster's quarters, Severus sighed as the Patronus skulked across his thoughts. 'Yes, Hermione?'

'I'm sorry, Severus! I didn't mean to say everything I did to Remus. It just kept coming out as fast as I thought it, and I didn't know you were listening. Still, I shouldn't have said anything…'

The wizard sank onto a stool as her thoughts assailed him. 'Hermione, there's no need to apologize for how you feel.'

'But I don't feel that way now! It was only at the beginning.'

'Nevertheless, you should not apologize.' Snape stood to break up a clump of crushed wolfsbane. 'Is there anything you need at present?'

'No, I just needed to apologize. Even if you think it unnecessary.'

'I don't mean to be rude, but I do need to focus on not poisoning the werewolf.'

'Would that be the worst thing?'

The wizard raised both eyebrows as several violent thoughts about Remus came through their connection, followed by just as many guilty ones. 'Hermione, thinking ill of someone does not make you a terrible person.'

'It was still wrong to think such things. I know he means well but goes about it the wrong way. At least, he means well toward me. I don't know how well he means with Severus. Damn it, you're still listening. Sorry, I wouldn't have said that out loud. I hate not being able to censor my thoughts before you hear them!"

Severus grimaced. 'It's not news to me, Hermione, and you don't need to apologize. What I hear is my own fault for listening.'

'That's not fair, either.'

'Such is life. But I will bid you good evening.'

Silencing their connection, Severus felt bad for dismissing the girl, but he was distracted enough by his own thoughts without having to sort through hers as well. His hopes for brooding in solitude were dashed, however, when Minerva entered the room only minutes later.

"Stay over there." He pointed toward the ugly sofa. "I've already poisoned one Headmaster; let's not make it two."

The witch snorted but followed his instruction.

"What is it you wanted to discuss?"

Minerva settled into a seat. "I'd like to know what's troubling you."

Severus frowned, completing three crescent-shaped stirs. "It'd be quicker to list what isn't troubling me."

"Would there even be anything on that list?" she quipped.

He shrugged one shoulder. "I've no complaints about the potted shrimps I was served for lunch."

"I suppose that's something." Minerva paused before continuing. "Something happened while I was quarreling with the Ministry."

"I got hit with a faceful of werewolf."

"Besides that."

Tensing, Severus knew the witch would not let it go. "Suffice it to say eavesdroppers rarely hear good of themselves."

Minerva narrowed her brow. "Hermione's conversation with Remus? What bothered you in particular?"

Everything. Snape tidied his workspace, debating how much to confide. He was ashamed to admit how poorly he had handled both the situation and the aftermath. Minerva had said he would come to regret antagonizing Hermione, and he did. "I bollocksed it up just as you predicted."

"What do you mean?"

"I wanted her to hate me but never considered why she didn't." He took in a deep breath. "She thought it was her fault I had to hurt her."

"Of course, it wasn't!" McGonagall exclaimed, leaning over the arm of the sofa. "It wasn't your fault, either."

Tense silence filled the room.

"Severus, it wasn't."

"I made her suffer unnecessarily. That is my fault." When the witch stood from the sofa, Snape's eyes snapped to her. "Sit down."

Minerva grumbled under her breath but reclaimed her seat. "You had to make spur-of-the-moment decisions which had life-or-death consequences. It isn't as though you hurt her because you wanted to."

"I left her alone," he explained. "She was terrified, and I thought more about myself and the Order than I did her. I spoke privately with the Dark Lord, trying to glean more information and buy myself time, and left her there to be terrorized and tortured in our absence."

"Did you know she –"

"No, but I should have!" Severus tugged his hair in frustration. "I knew how eager Bellatrix is to use the Cruciatus. I knew of the depraved things Dolohov wanted to do to the girl. And yet, I still left her there. I should have just done what I was told to do…but I hesitated."

"Severus…"

"Even though I abandoned her, she still trusted me. Until I hurt her." The wizard rested his elbows on the counter. Hermione's admission she thought her fighting back was to blame for his having to exert more force choked him with guilt. That he had thought similarly while assaulting her made him want to crawl into a hole and die.

How could I have blamed her? She had every right to fight, to protect herself from the man forcing himself on her. I gave her no reason to trust I was anything but a sadistic -

Severus startled at the hand on his shoulder. "I told you –"

"Stuff it. I'll take my chances." Minerva ran a hand over his spine. "You are a good man, Severus."

He shook his head, recalling Remus's claims. "A good man would not have been capable of everything I did."

"We're all shades of grey, Severus," Minerva sighed. "You had to harm her, yes, but you got out of there with your lives and your position intact. Can you say with certainty that would have been true had you been gentler with her?"

A shudder tore through him. "No, but I can't say it wouldn't have been true, either."

"What have we discussed about wallowing in what-ifs? You're both alive, and you have done everything you can to heal and protect Hermione. She's forgiven you, hasn't she?" When he nodded uncomfortably, the witch squeezed his shoulder. "Then it's time to start forgiving yourself, Severus."

As if such a thing is possible. Snape stood to judge the color of the Wolfsbane potion, sprinkled in the final ingredients, and stirred counterclockwise. When he was once again seated, Minerva rested her head on his shoulder. "Have you gone light-headed?"

She chuckled. "No."

"If you do, you should step back."

"I'm perfectly fine, you nag. A bit tired, perhaps, but that has more to do with the general lack of sleep I've had this month than with your potion."

"Perhaps you should sleep instead of pestering me."

Poking him in the side, Minerva returned to the sofa.

"I meant in your own quarters."

The woman quirked her lips. "I was officially named Headmistress by the Board this afternoon. Technically, these are my quarters."

"Congratulations," Severus muttered, watching her adjust the pillows. Before she closed her eyes, he cleared his throat. "Minerva?"

Her expression made it clear she had known there was something else he needed to get off his chest. "Yes?"

The wizard scratched at an imperfection on the countertop. "About Hermione… I believe her Patronus has changed."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

After waking to an empty room and taking a leisurely shower, Hermione braided her hair before it escaped into its typical frizzy mess.

'Hermione.'

She lowered her arms. 'Severus? Did you finish the Wolfsbane?'

'A short time ago, yes.'

'If you've been brewing all night, you need to sleep.'

'I intend to, but there's something I need to tell you.'

Hermione frowned at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. 'Is something wrong?'

'Not at present.' His voice paused. 'I don't wish to alarm you, but if you're alone I suggest casting your Patronus.'

Surprised, she looked about for her wand. 'What? Why?'

'Recently, your mental Patronus has altered in appearance. I wasn't certain you were aware.'

Hermione's eyes were wide as she snatched her wand out from beneath her discarded pajamas. "Expecto patronum!"

A shimmery mist left her wand and quickly evaporated.

'I need to rest now, but it might work better after you've taken a moment to calm down.'

The witch nodded and expelled a long breath. Taking a seat on the closed toilet lid, she cleared her mind before trying again. This time, a silver figure slunk out from the wand tip, padded along the length of the tub, then turned to face her.

That's not an otter. Hermione gaped at the feline form, observing the spotted markings, bobbed tail, ruffs of fur on its face, and its tufted ears.

A lynx? It was beautiful yet intimidating, and when it disappeared, she felt oddly bereft.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Hey, 'Mione."

Pausing in her perusal of the shelves, Hermione surreptitiously pulled up her sleeves. "Hello, Ronald… Harry."

Harry hung back, a bitter expression on his face, while Ron glanced between the two of them. When Hermione crossed her arms, both boys glanced at the dark bruises on her forearms.

"Did you need something?"

"Erm…" Ron scratched his head. "We wanted to see how you were doing?"

She touched the spine of a nearby book. "Well, I managed to get out of bed this morning."

"You haven't been around much since you came back," Harry stated accusingly.

"I didn't think you wanted me around," Hermione countered. "I've been helping Madam Pomfrey mostly. I've also met with Tonks, Remus, and Professor McGonagall to answer their questions."

"What did you tell them?"

"Nothing important because I didn't know anything important."

Harry did not look convinced. "And what are you doing now?"

"Research."

"On what?"

Hermione considered what to say, then settled on the truth. "The Patronus charm. Mine seems to have changed."

"Changed?" Ron repeated. "To what?"

Harry narrowed his eyes. "Is it a snake? Ferret, maybe? A giant, vampire bat?"

Why do you hate me so much? The girl tensed. "It looks like a lynx."

"Oh," Ron murmured. "Why'd—"

"How could you not see they were using you?" Harry interrupted, no longer interested in the subject. "I told you they were, and you didn't listen."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, dropping her eyes to keep from glaring. "I just… I really thought Draco cared for me. He was… He seemed different with me."

"He was acting, Hermione! He didn't care about you."

"I know that now!" she protested, feeling the sting of his words.

"And what about Snape?"

Hermione frowned. "What about him?"

"You fell for his act, too," Harry snarled. "For as smart as you claim to be, you seem pretty gullible."

I've certainly fallen for your bullshit time and again. Then again, you're one to talk, Harry James Potter. She swallowed back most of her anger. "He was a teacher and protected me on several occasions, so yes, I trusted him. How could I not? He saved my parents."

"AND KILLED MINE!"

Her wide eyes snapped up to meet her friend's angry gaze. "What?"

"Oh, didn't know that, either?" Harry sneered. "Snape's the one who told Voldemort about the prophecy. Because of him, Voldemort killed my parents."

Oh, fuck. Hermione sagged against a table. "How do you know that?"

"Dumbledore told me. Just hours before Snape murdered him," the boy replied. "He's Voldemort's man. Always was. Like I told you."

Why would he tell him that? The girl winced. "Stop saying his name. Please."

"It's just a name, Hermione. Voldemort. Only cowards or his followers refuse to use it."

"Better an alive coward than a dead fool, Mr. Potter," Minerva commented, appearing around the corner of the stacks. "You'll be the latter if you keep flouting common sense. Before he fell the first time, Riddle was close to creating a Taboo curse using his chosen name. It's only a matter of time before he succeeds."

"Is that what Snape claimed?"

McGonagall arched an eyebrow. "Are you naïve enough to think the Order collected information without verifying it? Your confidence in Professor Dumbledore must be astonishingly poor. Hermione, might I borrow you? I'm in need of a research assistant."

"Of course, Professor."

"Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley – I suggest finding something useful to do with your time. Perhaps you have an essay or five to work on? Or an underground dueling club to arrange?"

When the two boys shuffled away, Minerva led Hermione into a nook within the Restricted Section and cast silencing charms. "I've instructed Irma to allow you access whenever you need. Just you, not the boys."

"Okay," Hermione mumbled. "What are we looking for?"

"Something which will protect the information we share with Order members," the elder witch replied, pulling out a large tome. "We have a week to come up with something useful."

The girl plucked out a relatively innocuous-looking book. "Professor? Harry knows Severus was the one who revealed the prophecy to the Dark Lord. Dumbledore told him the night of the assassination."

Disgusted, Minerva slammed her book – which growled in protest – onto the table. "I swear on my father's grave, when this is over, I will dig up that bawbag's bones and toss them into the lake for the Giant Squid to play with."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Severus kept his eyes trained on the cauldron he was scrubbing and tried to ignore the other wizard in the room. It was one thing to deliver a goblet of potion at nightfall, but an entirely different matter to play host to the idiot while he consumed it at a pace reminiscent of a child willing their vegetables to evaporate off the plate.

Good gods, man. Choke it down. Snape snatched a clean rag from the basket and channeled his irritation into wiping away all moisture from the cauldron. When the goblet was finally set on the end table, he waited for the sound of the Floo relieving him of his unwanted company.

Instead, he heard the clearing of a throat. Two nights had passed in awkward silence, but it seemed Lupin was unwilling to let the third go without comment.

Merlin knows it won't be one of apology or gratitude. Scowling, Severus tossed down the rag and faced the sanctimonious bastard.

"Did you know?" Remus asked.

"Did I know what?"

"That Hermione was to be targeted," he clarified.

Severus let out a long breath. "I thought it a possibility."

"Yet you did nothing."

The Slytherin folded his arms. "I shared my suspicions with the Headmaster but had no evidence beyond mutterings of those who'd been at the Department of Mysteries. Dumbledore determined the threat wasn't imminent and therefore not worth the Order's time."

"You should've brought it to us, let us decide for ourselves whether it was worth our time."

"My duties were to give the Headmaster any information I acquired, complete the tasks he deemed necessary, and deliver only the information he approved to either the Dark Lord or the Order. It was not my position to go behind his back, deliberately disregarding his instructions, to share a hunch!" Snape shook his head angrily. "Not to mention, had I shared it with you lot, you'd have either ignored it or thought it a bloody diversionary tactic on my part!"

"Bullshit!" Remus hissed.

"Is it?" Severus jeered. "How many times have I explained the danger associated with the Dark Lord's name, yet you fuckwits are still out there, 'Voldemort this, Voldemort that', like you're hoping he invites you over for afternoon tea!"

Lupin raised his eyebrows, then shook his head. "That's entirely different. You knew Hermione was in danger –"

"That you cannot see the similarity between the two situations only proves my point! You do not listen, you do not take my warnings seriously! A Taboo curse keyed to his name will go into effect before year's end, I guarantee it. How many of you are going to get yourselves killed because you thought me full of shit?"

Snape slammed his hand on the counter, rattling his brewing instruments. "I thought Hermione could be in danger, yes, but the same could apply to every single one of you, to every one of our Muggleborn students, to anyone who gets in their way or says the wrong thing. I didn't know what the Dark Lord was planning; I didn't know anything until he summoned me to that field and presented her to me. There was nothing I could do!"

Scowling, Remus shifted his stance. "Seems to have worked out well enough for you."

"I did not ask for this!" Severus snarled. "I didn't want this; I don't enjoy this; and I'd give anything to go back and prevent it ever occurring!"

"A beautiful, young witch at your beck and call, forced to submit to you sexually…and you expect me to believe you don't enjoy it?"

A dark glare settled on Snape's face. "I do not relish having power over her, no. And I've done everything I can to allow her to dictate what happens between us!"

"Do you?" Remus narrowed his eyes. "You've never used your authority to influence her actions? Never pressed her farther than she was comfortable or taken advantage of her inexperience? You haven't been grooming her to see to your needs?"

As the werewolf questioned him, Severus felt as though he were physically shrinking. In his head, he sifted through every intimate encounter he had had with Hermione, hoping to dispel the man's insinuations. A pit of fear lodged in his gut upon realizing he could not be certain he had not taken advantage of the situation. After all, the bond affected her in response to his desires, and he had not been controlling those as he should have been.

"Do you not have anything to say?" Remus pushed.

Pressing his thumb hard into the counter, the wizard walled off his anxiety and spoke in an emotionless tone. "Tomorrow night's dose will be ready by eight. I'll inform Minerva that you'll be taking it in her quarters. Have a pleasant rest of your evening."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

As the library doors locked behind her, Hermione walked toward the nearest windows. Working a crick out of her neck, she peered out at the dark sky. Clouds obscured the stars, and even the nearly full moon was barely visible.

Seems fitting since nothing is clear right now. The witch leaned her forehead against the cold glass and closed her eyes. She had spent the better part of five days poring through texts with little to show for it. Though Ron and Ginny now acknowledged her at mealtimes and in passing through the Common Room, Harry was actively avoiding her again.

Hermione pushed away from the window and aimlessly wandered down the corridor. She had no desire to return to her dormitory and, upon reaching the central staircases, she thought of Severus. Minerva had convinced him to remain in the Headmaster's quarters for the time being. Though brewing had no doubt kept him occupied, she wondered if he was as stir-crazy as she had been after a few days cooped up alone in the cabin.

Maybe if he's not busy, he might be willing to engage in some mutual stress relief. Smiling, the girl determinedly made her way up to the Headmaster's Office. When she arrived, the office was empty – McGonagall had likely flooed back to her rooms. Keeping her head down, Hermione avoided looking at the recently-installed portrait of Albus Dumbledore, who still appeared to be sleeping.

The door to the private rooms opened at her touch, and she crept softly up the stairs in case Severus was asleep. He was not, nor was he brewing. Instead she found him slouched on a garish, scarlet-and-gold-paisley sofa, staring at the fire with a tumbler in his hand.

"I thought you were going to bed," Severus mumbled groggily. "Or have you come bearing more booze?"

Hermione cleared her throat. "Neither actually."

The wizard immediately straightened. "Hermione, what are you doing here?"

"I'm too tired to keep reading but too anxious to sleep."

"If you've come seeking a sleeping draught, you'll have to obtain one from Madam Pomfrey."

Hermione nervously approached him. "It's not a potion I'm seeking but a Potions Master."

Severus grunted, dropping his head back against the sofa. "I'm not brewing again until I'm fully sober. And that will require a Sober-Up potion and a few hours' sleep."

"I don't need you to brew anything." She claimed the middle cushion. "How inebriated are you?"

"Enough that sharp objects and flames might be a poor idea, yet still sober enough to realize sharp objects and flames might be a poor idea."

Hermione giggled at his assessment, then slipped the tumbler from his hand and waited to see if he would protest. When he did not, she drained the remnants of his drink and coughed at the resulting burn in her throat.

Amused, Snape plucked the glass out of her hands and set it on the end table. "What is it you needed from me?"

The witch stretched out her legs. "Company. I'd like to be around someone who actually likes me and thought you might be bored, being stuck here all day."

"I don't mind the solitude," he replied. "Besides, getting snarled at by Lupin, harassed by Minerva, and pestered by that obnoxious house elf breaks up the monotony."

"Mm." Hermione inhaled deeply and glanced about the room, noting its bare walls and relative lack of ornamentation. "Is this what it always looked like?"

Severus snorted darkly. "No. I had the rubbish cleared away."

"But not the hideous couch?"

He shrugged. "It's comfortable."

"True," she agreed. "You could've at least changed the color."

"I could have. You may recall, however, I promised not to use magic unnecessarily for the time being."

"I do recall." Pleased he was adhering to her request, Hermione shifted closer to the wizard. She laced her fingers through his and leaned her head against his shoulder. "You could've asked a house elf. Or Minerva."

"It's not important. No need to bother them."

Though soaking up his warmth and scent calmed her, the witch needed more from him. She needed not to think – not about Harry, or Remus, or Dumbledore, or the Order, or the Dark Lord, or what she had been through the past year. She needed it to be just the two of them. With that intent, she raised up and slipped her leg over his.

Severus sucked in a breath as she straddled him. "Hermione…"

"Please?" Hermione ground her pelvis against his and lowered her head to kiss him. When his lips remained motionless, however, she pulled back and searched his face. "Severus?"

"You shouldn't be here."

Confused, she touched his cheek only to have him stare back at her with mournful eyes.

"I don't want to hurt you," Snape murmured. "I never wanted to hurt you."

"I know that," she replied, her spirit sinking as he brought up exactly the subject she most desired to avoid.

"I wish we didn't have to keep doing this."

Feeling as though a heavy weight just slammed into her chest, Hermione shoved off his lap and tripped over his feet as she stood. There was scarcely any sound to her voice as she gasped, "What?"

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

Intense heat washed over her body, followed by an icy chill. Hands shaking, the witch was halfway down the spiral staircase before she even realized she had fled the room. Once past the gargoyle, she knew Severus could not risk discovery by following her, so she slowed down to catch her breath.

What the hell is wrong with me? Hermione pushed the hair back from her face and tried to calm her racing heart. Her mind was a jumbled mess of thoughts and feelings needing to be processed, and she knew she had to get far away from Snape to do so.

'Hermione –'

'GET OUT OF MY HEAD!' At the sound of his voice, rage and shame warred for control of her thoughts. She did not wish to hurt him but was afraid of what he might see. 'Please go away.'

There was no response, and Hermione desperately hoped he had respected her wish for solitude. Obviously, his overhearing her private thoughts had caused enough tension between them. They had made such progress over the months in establishing what she thought was a true relationship – they had grown comfortable with each other, at least – and now, because of what she had stupidly confessed to Remus, it was gone.

If it was even there to begin with.

Distracted, Hermione's foot slipped through a vanishing step. With a fearful squawk, she grabbed hold of the banister to keep from falling and heaved herself upward to solid ground. Adrenaline rushing in her ears, she sat down on the top step and hung her head. Pull it together, Hermione. You're better than this.

"Hermione?"

Whimpering at her name, she hid her face behind her hands. "Go away, Ginny."

The redhead walked away, then turned back. "'Mione are you –"

"Just leave me alone!" Hermione hissed, throwing down her hands.

Ginny hesitantly approached. "Hermione, I just –"

"Fuck off, Gin!"

Jaw dropped, the youngest Weasley stood frozen for several seconds. Eventually, she swallowed nervously and sat down beside Hermione. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Hermione raised her head to glare at her friend. "What, you want to hear about me fucking Death Eaters?"

Ginny winced. "I'm sorry I said that. I was… I'd just heard about you and…him, and I was angry and, you know, menstruating. But I still shouldn't have said it."

The brunette huffed and returned her eyes to her lap. "Only took you a week to apologize."

"I know." Ginny sighed and rested her chin on her knees. "I'm not good at admitting I'm wrong. You should know that by now."

"True," Hermione mumbled. "I've met your mother."

"Oi! That was… Okay, maybe that was fair." She blew out a breath and shook her head. "Merlin, I should work on that. I cannot turn into Mum. I don't think Dean would find that very attractive."

I don't bloody care what Dean finds attractive! I care what Severus finds attractive! Hermione groaned in frustration and pulled at her hair. And you fucked that up, didn't you? He doesn't want you. Not after what you said.

"Hermione? Hey." Ginny slipped her arm about the girl. "Talk to me."

"I can't," she whispered.

"You can. I won't be angry or judgey, I promise." Ginny waited a minute before moving closer. "Hermione, its not your fault. What happened was not your fault."

Hermione covered her face. "I know."

"Did you… You fell in love with him, didn't you?"

I did. Tears came to her eyes as everything she felt suddenly made sense.

"You were in love, but he wasn't."

Hermione raised her watery eyes to her friend. It was as if the other girl was in her head, and she did not know whether to be relieved or afraid. She searched Ginny's face but saw no falsity in the girl's concerned expression. "I thought… I thought there was more between us, but there wasn't. Or maybe there was. Maybe he got caught up in it for a bit before remembering or being reminded that I was … something he had to do. Sleeping with me was just an obligation. He'd never have had anything to do with me if they hadn't forced him to."

"Oh, Hermione." Ginny pulled her into a full embrace. "Gods, you know I've never liked Malfoy, and even if he hadn't helped murder Dumbledore, he's a twat-faced turd for putting you through this."

"I just feel so stupid."

"You're not stupid. You can't be stupid. If you're stupid… then the rest of us must be… a bunch of… I don't know, drooling ignoramuses."

With a quiet laugh, Hermione pulled back and wiped at her eyes. "Everyone either hates me or pities me, and if even he doesn't want me…"

"Then he's a fucking idiot," Ginny replied. "We're all idiots, alright? I should've apologized sooner. You were right about what you said. I did rely on you a lot this year without returning the favor. I know Ron and Harry did, too. They'd be dead seven times over without you. And it's not fair. We should've been there for you, too. I'm sorry we weren't."

Hermione sniffled and eyed her friend in shock.

"Before you give me too much credit, Dean had to yell at me first before I let myself see how selfish I'd been."

"What?"

"Honestly, I don't know why you're friends with us," Ginny muttered glumly. "Except Dean. You can be friends with Dean. He's probably the only one who deserves it."

Blinking away the remnants of her tears, Hermione let out a deep breath. "I'm sorry you and Dean fought."

"It's not your fault," she shrugged. "Besides we made up."

Hermione eyed the girl's smirk. "Gin, did you and he…"

Ginny snorted. "No, but mainly because I didn't want our first time to be in a broom cupboard after a funeral."

"Understandable," she replied. Though I'd prefer that over an altar in front of Death Eaters after a few bouts of the Cruciatus.

"Plus, you know, it was that time of the month."

Fuck. Hermione grimaced as she realized hers was due next week.

"That being said," Ginny lowered her voice. "I may have, erm, given him head."

"What?"

"Merlin, I've been dying to tell someone that for six days!" The redhead blushed, then suddenly grimaced. "You didn't ever…"

Hermione jerkily shook her head. "No, I didn't, though he… never mind."

"Though he asked you to?"

"No."

Ginny frowned in contemplation before her eyes widened. She leaned forward, hissing, "You mean he went down on you?"

Groaning, Hermione hid her heated face.

"Hermione, answer me!" the girl demanded, tugging on her arm.

Eventually, she caved. "Yes, okay. He did that a few times."

"A few times! Without you reciprocating? No wonder you fell in love with him. Merlin, I'm so confused now. Most wizards won't even do that for girls they do like! If it was just… why would he… unless that's his secret fetish or something? But it's Malfoy. Pleasuring someone else does not seem his style."

Wishing the vanishing step had swallowed her whole, Hermione pulled herself to her feet.

Ginny scrambled after her roommate. "I tell you, Dean better not get uppity about returning the favor if even Malfoy –"

"Stop!" Hermione grabbed hold of her arm. "You can't tell anyone!"

"I know!" Ginny exclaimed. "I wasn't going to. It's just I'm going to have this in my head now."

The brunette huffed. "Yeah, well… welcome to my world."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Minerva glanced up from her page as Hermione joined her at a table in the Restricted Section. She noted the girl's glum expression and cast a Muffliato Charm. "Hermione, is something the matter?"

Hermione leaned against the table. "My Patronus changed."

"Mm, Severus mentioned it to me. This upsets you?"

The girl nodded. After a moment of silence, she chanced a look at the Headmistress. "Because it's him."

"Severus?" Surprised, Minerva set aside her book to focus full attention on the young witch. "Why do you say so?"

"It's the only thing that makes sense," Hermione answered. "I wasn't certain right away but after last night…"

"Last night?"

Hermione let out an uncomfortable sigh. "When Madam Pince kicked me out, I went to see Severus. He, however, was not as interested in seeing me."

Minerva pinched her lips together. "To be fair, I did ply him with a fair bit of firewhiskey last night. Could that have been the cause?"

"No, but perhaps it made him more, I don't know, open?" she replied, rubbing her arm. "It was fine for a bit but when I tried to kiss him, he told me I shouldn't be there. He said he didn't want to hurt me and wished we didn't have to be together. I couldn't… When he said that, I couldn't stand there any longer. I shouldn't have run, but I just felt so stupid for thinking we had more between us than we do."

Seeing the woman's frown, Hermione grimaced. "I'm sorry. There are more important things to focus on right now."

"No, no," Minerva exclaimed, standing. She moved around the table to claim the chair beside the girl. "I am sorry he upset you, Hermione, and guarantee he didn't mean to. Did he at least apologize?"

Hermione scowled. "I didn't want him to apologize! I want him to stop apologizing."

Minerva raised an eyebrow, then relaxed in understanding. "Because when he apologizes, you feel he sees you merely as someone he failed to protect."

"Yes! I just… I don't want to be that."

"I understand," the Headmistress nodded. "I know Severus cares for you a great deal, whether or not he has admitted it to himself. He's incredibly skilled at shutting away his feelings but does not know how to deal with them."

Hermione laughed sadly.

"You know, it does not necessarily follow that your Patronus changed because of your feelings for him. Many things can prompt a change. You've grown so much over the past year, Hermione, and have overcome so many challenges. I'm not surprised your Patronus might reflect that."

The girl frowned. "No, it has to be him. My otter Patronus made sense for me, but the lynx doesn't. It doesn't fit."

"What do you mean it doesn't fit?"

Hermione extracted a book from her bag and opened it to a marked page. "I looked up animal totems this morning."

"May I see?" Accepting the book, Minerva sat back farther in her chair to read.

An excellent hunter, the secretive Lynx knows the power of silence and has remarkable intuition, foresight, and awareness. The Lynx is said to possess the ability to see into others' souls, hear their thoughts, and read their intentions. Those with kinship to the Lynx place great value on their promises and are often trusted as a keeper of secrets. Their abilities, however, may provoke others to ostracize or cast blame upon them. Their secretive nature, learned through painful lessons in their youth, can cause withdrawal from others, aversion to communicating their feelings, and a fear of being proved wrong. Despite this, those associated with the Lynx may develop strong bonds with others through time and patience or perhaps an affinity of souls. They may be playful or seductive when they wish to be and are effective teachers to pupils willing to learn for themselves instead of relying on the words of others. Calling upon the spirit of the Lynx for guidance and protection is a difficult feat, for those sharing a kinship to the Lynx tend to view their own actions and emotions through a negative lens. Only when one concludes their quest for external validation and becomes comfortable with oneself may the Lynx respond to its summons.

Hermione nervously eyed the Headmistress. "I don't think it characterizes me well, but if you think it does…"

"There is no consensus that Patronus or Animagus forms align with the totems of Ancient Magic-Wielders," the elder witch murmured, "but I agree it is more characteristic of Severus than it is of you."

At hearing the girl's whimpering sigh, Minerva flipped to the other marked page.

The Otter, a symbol of feminine energy, is an innately curious and good-natured creature of great intelligence and adventurous spirit. Those with kinship to the Otter possess a caring and loyal heart, which leads them to work tirelessly to help others and remain constant in their nurturing attentiveness under even the harshest of conditions. They are driven by an almost insatiable desire to acquire new knowledge and skills, can quickly adapt to changing situations, and employ great ingenuity in devising solutions. At times, individuals associated with the Otter may be viewed as overbearing or patronizing due to the fearlessness and ferocity with which they seek to protect or help others. Those who call upon the Otter view past difficulties with a different perspective, which pushes them to look forward to a joyful future.

Well, that is rather fitting, isn't it? Minerva cast a worried glance at the girl, who had closed her eyes and slumped in her chair. "The memories you use to cast the Patronus, have those changed? You needn't tell me what they contain."

"It's alright," Hermione replied. "I used to think of the day you came to tell me about Hogwarts. I was happy because suddenly I understood why I never fit in, why I felt different, why strange things seemed to happen to me. I was excited to learn all about magic and have fun adventures but now…"

"You've experienced too many horrors on those adventures," Minerva surmised. "And now? Do you think of Severus?"

"I suppose so but not directly. I think more of our private lessons and accomplishing things I never thought I could."

Musing over her explanation, Minerva paged through the book. Upon reaching a particular passage, however, her lips quirked upward. "Hermione, would you mind casting your Patronus for me?"

Agreeing, Hermione straightened in her seat and performed the charm.

Minerva watched the silver feline prowl about the table, then met the young witch's frustrated face with a grin. She handed back the book. "It might help if you were searching the right creature."

"It's not a lynx?" the girl asked.

"Oh, it is. But more specifically, it's a –"

"Bobcat?" Hermione read from the page. "I… you're certain?"

Minerva nodded. "The size, the markings, the paws… It may come as a surprise to you, but I've always had an interest in creatures of the feline persuasion."

Smiling, Hermione lowered her eyes to read.

Though sharing similarities with other Lynxes – and even the powerful Puma – the Bobcat has distinctive characteristics. Those who call upon the spirit of the Bobcat for guidance and protection are those who take pride in their accomplishments and who possess knowledge and a soul beyond their years. The stealthy Bobcat requires strategy, flexibility and, above all, patience. Those guided by the Bobcat triumph over challenges through planning and adaptation, while demonstrating love and respect for others. Their high intellect can be isolating but drives them to enhance their abilities, see through veiled truths, think creatively, and trust their instincts. The Bobcat represents the precarious balance of playfulness and gaiety with wisdom, strategy, and awareness.

"Better, yes?" Minerva asked.

"Yeah," Hermione whispered. Setting the book aside, she leaned over to hug her Head of House. "Thank you."

Returning the embrace, the Headmistress stroked the girl's back. "There's no need to fret – your Patronus is your own."

"It's not that I don't think well of Severus..."

"I know. You were afraid of being entirely dependent on him, but you're still your own being. He doesn't define you."

Hermione pulled away with a smile. "Thank you. We can, erm, get back to work now."

Minerva snorted and gestured toward the table. "Go on. Cast it one more time, and then we'll get back to work. I know you want to."

Grinning, Hermione did just that.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Our resident werewolf still hasn't learned to tell time," Severus muttered, breaking the rigid silence that crept into the Headmaster's quarters after Minerva and Hermione arrived.

"Relax, Severus," Minerva admonished. "I have the evening free, and it isn't as if you have anywhere to be."

Scowling, the wizard sank back in his seat.

"Perhaps he thought we were meeting in your quarters again?" Hermione suggested.

"Then he's an idiot." Severus, still uncertain about what occurred a few nights prior, avoided looking in the girl's direction.

"Severus." Minerva shook her head. "He agreed these were the safest rooms in the castle. He'll be here."

Within a few minutes, the fireplace expelled a rather pale Defense Instructor.

"Remus, I trust you're feeling more yourself today?" Minerva sent a sharp look in Snape's direction to prevent additional remarks.

Oblivious to the annoyance displayed on Severus's and Hermione's faces, Remus claimed the end of the sofa. "A bit tired, Minerva, but to be expected."

Snape bristled at the comment but said nothing.

"First things first, I'd like to share with you gentlemen what Hermione and I have accomplished. After days combing through the library and Dumbledore's private collection, I think we've come across something useful." Minerva opened the tattered book in her lap and handed it to the Slytherin.

"Vocare Fiducia?" Severus shifted to make better use of the light while reading the faded script.

Remus craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the page. "I've never heard of it."

"Nor had I," Minerva replied. "Apparently, it was utilized for centuries by the Wizards' Council to keep the contents of their meetings private before it was disbanded in favor of the Ministry. From what we've determined, it resembles the Fidelius charm except it's a council being protected rather than a building. All members of the council make an oath as Secret-Keepers."

"All members?" Remus frowned. "If one member decides to defect, the protection is violated?"

Severus glared over the edge of the book, certain that he was the hypothetical member in question.

"No," Hermione snapped before the Headmistress could respond. "The point is no one can violate the protection, intentionally or otherwise, since the oaths are layered on top of each other."

"With the Fidelius, the primary Secret Keeper can share their secret with whomever they choose, while secondary Secret Keepers cannot reveal it," Minerva added. "With Vocare Fiducia, however, we each are primary Keepers when we make our oath, yet secondary Keepers to each other. Once the oaths have been set, protected information can only be revealed to outsiders should the council agree."

"And in the event someone dies?"

"The secrets remain protected among the survivors."

Noting the look of contemplation on the werewolf's face, Severus cleared his throat. "In your hypothetical universe, Lupin, I'd have to snuff out every member of the council before I could reveal so much as their identities."

"Severus," Minerva warned. "Does this satisfy the call for confidentiality?"

Hermione chewed her lip as she watched Severus begrudgingly hand the book to Remus.

"You don't seem convinced," the Headmistress sighed.

Snape frowned before meeting her eye. "It isn't that I don't believe this will protect the council. I am concerned about the amount of control you might be relinquishing, Headmistress."

Taken aback by his use of the honorific, Minerva tilted her head. "I appreciate the concern, but this doesn't preclude me from making decisions or giving orders. Contrary to what certain other individuals demonstrated, I believe it possible to lead without absolute control."

"We'll need a council large enough to survive the War," Remus stated, setting the book aside.

Perceiving an insult in the comment and irritated that Lupin had barely skimmed the page before closing the book, Severus snatched it up from the coffee table. "Yet small and sensible enough that you can manage them. You do have to convince them all to agree to this."

Meeting Hermione's eye, the Headmistress cleared her throat. "You're both agreed, then?"

When the two men nodded, Minerva clasped her hands together. "Alright. Now, to decide whom to include in this council beyond the four of us…"

"Obviously Dora," Remus responded. "Kingsley and Moody."

"Obviously," Severus muttered, though he internally winced at the thought of a closer connection with Mad-Eye Moody.

Minerva fixed him with a look. "Unless it's a meaningful contribution, I don't wish to hear it."

The wizard rolled his shoulders at the rebuke. "Moody not withstanding, how did the rest of the Order take to your appointment? I was not informed of a meeting after you were sworn in."

"Because there wasn't one."

Snape snorted in disdain. "Typical. Appoints you his replacement but tells no one."

Minerva started to reply but stopped upon seeing his sudden change in countenance. "Severus, what is it?"

"Beyond the seven of us we've already decided on, who knows you are the new Head of the Order?"

"Well, I cannot be certain the information has not spread without my knowledge," she responded, "but Bill Weasley. He happened to come within earshot of a disagreement I was having with Alastor."

"He would give us eyes in Gringotts," Remus stated, "and is a talented curse-breaker."

Severus shot him a passing glare. "Returning to the point of my question… What if you use the council to shield your identity as Head? If we're protecting information, why not protect command?"

"You're suggesting Alastor be the more public face of the Order, then?"

"The Dark Lord assumes he will be the one to take the role. Why disabuse him of that notion?"

Minerva smiled as she considered the suggestion. "It might soothe some of Alastor's rumpled feathers, yet still require him to answer to me. Remus?"

Though he was loathe to agree with the Slytherin, he bobbed his head. "It is a good idea."

"We'll pitch it at the first meeting, then. If Alastor agrees, we'll go forward with it." The witch took in a deep breath. "We have the Aurory and Gringotts covered. As for the Ministry-"

"Arthur Weasley," Remus said.

"Perhaps you might let the Headmistress finish a bloody sentence," Severus growled, "instead of wasting her time with useless suggestions."

"Mr. Weasley isn't useless," Hermione protested.

The wizard met her eyes for the first time. "What do you expect him to see stashed away in the basement closet they call the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office? The elder Weasleys are fiercely loyal to Dumbledore and will not bring a great deal to the table."

"Though I trust Arthur, I have to agree with Severus," Minerva stated. "He'll be the first cut when the Ministry shifts loyalties. I thought perhaps Hestia. She'd fly under the radar more and is employed in the Department of Magical Tracings."

Hermione's ears perked up. "She is? Then she would know when and how wands or Apparition could be traced."

"Indeed so," the Headmistress agreed. "Plus, she's the only member of the Advance Guard I'd care to work with closely. Doge has always been Dumbledore's man through and through, and Diggle never had any sense."

The two wizards made matching noises of amusement, then glanced at each other in discomfort.

"Aberforth would give us a man in Hogsmeade," Minerva continued, ignoring their antics. "I trust him far more than his brother, and he'd be a useful ally to have once you become Headmaster, Severus."

The Slytherin nodded uneasily while Remus visibly scowled.

"If you wanted eyes in Diagon Alley," Severus murmured a moment later, "there's Messrs. Weasley."

"You're proposing the Weasley twins? You?"

He shrugged. "I've never denied they're clever, inventive bastards. Given the havoc they've wrought upon these halls, I think you ought to harness that devious energy and put it to good use."

"That brings us up to twelve," Remus supplied. "Harry would make thirteen."

"No!" Severus and Hermione snapped in unison.

"Harry needs to be involved in this. If you're worried about his connection to Vol—You-Know-Who, wouldn't the spell keep it protected?"

Hermione shook her head but kept quiet when the Headmistress placed a hand on her knee.

"The Fidelius Charm and Vocare Fiducia work because they keep the secret hidden inside the soul," Minerva explained. "Including Potter would defeat the purpose of the protection spells."

"I don't understand."

"What Dumbledore failed to tell any of us until Hermione pieced it together last month is that a shard of Riddle's soul embedded itself within Potter when the Killing Curse rebounded."

"What!"

"He would be the one member who could bring down the entire council," Severus commented drily.

Paling further, Lupin gaped at the three of them in shock. "But… how… my gods."

Minerva waited before clearing her throat. "There is a great deal to discuss on that subject, but I'd rather hold off until we meet with the council and have enacted the Vocare Fiducia. It isn't that I don't trust you, Remus, but –"

"No, I understand." The man wiped his mouth and shook his head.

"It's another reason I would prefer to leave out Arthur and Molly," she stated. "He's as good as a son to them, and I cannot imagine them approaching the situation objectively. Even with the charm, I'd fear they might act differently around him and attract suspicion."

Remus nodded slowly, looking down to hide the moisture that had developed in his eyes. "We sit at twelve, then?"

Severus silently eyed Minerva as she contemplated the list. After a few seconds, she shook her head. "I want thirteen. Poppy."

"She's not an inducted member," Snape murmured.

"I'm Head of the Order," she returned. "Is that not what the Head of the Order does - induct people?"

Hermione hid her grin as the wizard relented the point. "Thirteen would stabilize things from an Arithmancy point."

"And ensure that you have the deciding voice should there be an even split in agreement," Severus added.

Having considered both of those aspects, Minerva smirked and sat back in her chair.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

After Minerva asked Remus to accompany her to original office, Hermione remained seated on the sofa. She sipped at her cooled tea, partly wishing she had followed them through the Floo. Awkward as it would be, she knew she needed to deal with Severus –at least for however long it took for him to renew their bond – before she retired for the night.

"Hermione?"

Setting down her teacup, she primly turned to face him. "It's been a fortnight since our last relations, and I'm due for my monthly this week. Since I'm already here, I thought perhaps we should get it out of the way."

Severus coughed quietly. "If that's what you think is best."

Irritated by the comment, Hermione pushed off the sofa. "Might I borrow the loo first?"

"Up the two steps and to the left," he replied, gathering the tea things.

The girl hustled into the bathroom and closed the door firmly. Under different circumstances she would have been in awe of the large room with its gleaming marble and glass mosaics. As it was, however, it made her feel cold and alone.

"Keep it together, Granger," Hermione whispered, leaning against the counter. Taking in several deep breaths, she closed her eyes and cleared her mind. Severus had previously chastised her for employing Occlumency during sex, but he had also sworn he did not see her merely as a responsibility. If he can go back on his word, then so can I.

With one last look in the mirror, the young witch opened a second door, which she correctly presumed led to the bedroom. Upon reaching the bed, she toed off her shoes, stripped out of her jeans and knickers, then slid atop the smooth bedcovers. She placed her hands on her stomach and stared up at the enchanted ceiling while waiting.

Severus frowned as he stepped across the threshold. "Hermione… what are you doing?"

Swallowing, Hermione briefly glanced at him. "You don't want to do this; I don't want to do this. So, let's just get this over with, shall we?"

The wizard winced and wiped his face. "Is that how you truly feel?"

Recalling a similar comment from Remus, she narrowed her gaze at him. "Does it even matter what I feel?"

Sighing, Snape approached the bed. As Hermione closed her eyes, he bent down to retrieve her knickers, then gently tugged on her ankle. At the feel of the fabric and his hands moving up her leg, she propped herself up on her elbows.

"What are you…"

Severus met her eyes. "We're not doing this now. Not like this."

The witch stared at him incredulously. "We need to."

He shook his head. "We need to talk."

Huffing, Hermione pulled her knickers up the rest of the way, then snagged a pillow to cover her lap. She crossed her arms and looked to him as he claimed the chair beside the bed. "Well, go on then. Talk."