A/N: As ever, thanks for sticking with me through my busy days. This story is never out of mind, just some days out of sight. Love you all!


Bound to Him

Chapter 85

Hermione felt as though all the oxygen had escaped the room. Seconds seemed to stretch into minutes as ten shocked pairs of eyes bore into the Headmistress.

"Potter is…" Kingsley began but could not bring himself to finish.

"We're afraid so," Minerva replied. "Hermione was the one who pieced it together –"

The girl held her breath as the questioning stares turned her way. She had not expected to receive credit for her discovery, and frankly she was not sure she wanted it.

"—and I had Severus confirm it with Dumbledore."

"How can we be certain he's been truthful about –"

"You had best be referring to Albus, Alastor," the Headmistress snapped, though she knew otherwise. "Regardless of whom you did mean, I know it true because that was the confrontation in which Albus forced Severus to make an oath of silence to prevent this revelation from ever being made. Until now, I was unaware as to what leverage he actually used."

Severus averted his eyes to the wall when she glanced his direction.

"We've all interacted with the boy without noticing anything Dark," Kingsley said, receiving nods from Hestia and Bill. "How did you determine he was affected?"

"The attack on Thomas!" Tonks grabbed her head. "Potter wasn't bewitched, was he?"

"No. We believe he was affected by the shard of Riddle's soul embedded within him. It caused him to lash out in such a fashion without having any recollection of it." Minerva then smiled politely at the young witch on the sofa. "Hermione, would you care to answer Kingsley's question?"

Hermione startled but relaxed upon seeing the elder witch's reassuring nod. "After what happened to Dean, I tried to figure out how Harry could have done that. Months ago, Ron heard Harry mumbling about horcruxes in his sleep, so I started to read anything I could find about the soul. It all just came together – why Harry could see and feel things that You-Know-Who did, why he knew Mr. Weasley had been attacked, why he would suddenly change his demeanor without remembering, why he could speak Parseltongue. I… I didn't want to believe it, I wanted it to just be a horrible thought that came into my head, but…"

"That was why you came charging into Snape's office." Tonks let out a short breath of relief as more pieces fell into place in her head. "It had nothing to do with Draco, did it?"

Hermione shook her head.

"You went to Snape?" Mad-Eye snarled.

Sensing the girl's inward panic, Severus huffed and folded his arms. "Her question had to do with the Darkest of magics, and since she thought me the most knowledgeable in that particular subject matter…"

"Wasn't wrong on that score, was she?" the grizzled ex-Auror taunted.

Snape rolled his shoulders nonchalantly.

"Severus came to me with Hermione's concerns, and then I sent him to Albus," Minerva fibbed. "When he returned to me unable to speak of the matter, I considered it confirmed. Given the fact Albus kept us all away from Potter until he came to Hogwarts, I suspect he knew exactly what happened to the boy from the very start."

Aberforth hung his head wearily. "I would concur. My brother was obsessed with soul magics in his youth. I imagine he must have an entire library on the subject."

Neck tingling, Hermione flicked her eyes to Severus.

He was listening to the conversation she was no longer attending to, but his gaze drifted when her mental Patronus brushed up against his thoughts. Almost immediately his eyes returned to Kingsley. 'Yes?'

'You don't think Dumbledore created any Horcruxes?'

'Fuck.' Grimacing, Snape dropped his hands back to the edge of the window seat. After a moment, he gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. 'No. Creating a Horcrux would have required him to get his own hands dirty. He couldn't manipulate anyone into crafting it for him, so I highly doubt it.'

'Okay.' Hermione relaxed somewhat against the sofa.

"What's to be done about Potter, then?" Hestia asked nervously. "If he's a horcrux…"

"The only way to destroy Voldemort for good is to destroy all of his bits, or he'll just be back again."

"We have to kill Harry?" Fred gasped, looking to a very solemn Bill, who could not tell him otherwise.

George sighed mournfully and slipped a comforting arm around Hermione. Though she had several weeks to consider the ugly truth, the witch appreciated the chance to share her grief. She placed her head on George's shoulder and squeezed Fred's hand.

Minerva waited until everyone appeared ready to hear her answer. "Based upon the full prophecy, Dumbledore believed Riddle must be the one the kill Potter. I do not yet know of an alternative that may keep the boy alive."

"How could we be certain it worked if you did?"

"Potter can't know, can he?" Tonks moved to stand behind Remus's chair, placing her hand on his shoulder. "He can't know without risking that You-Know-Who knows, and if You-Know-Who knows…"

"He'll stop trying to kill Potter and start protecting him," Aberforth finished.

"Strange turn of events, that'd be," Fred mumbled.

"Along with the rest of his horcruxes," Minerva nodded. "Potter will need to know eventually, but we need to ensure Riddle hasn't time to discover it. We must destroy the other horcruxes first."

"Slow the thestrals a moment," Moody huffed, folding his arms. "If there's such a great risk of Voldemort seeing –"

"Alastor, I will not permit the use of that name in these meetings," McGonagall stated.

"Why? Because it makes Snape uncomfortable?"

"Because sooner or later, the Dark Lord will successfully implement the Taboo curse," Severus growled.

"If you choose to risk it on your own, it's your life," Minerva added, "but you will not jeopardize the security of the Order."

Moody rolled his eyes. "Fine. If there's such a great risk of Riddle seeing into Potter's head, why in the blazes was Potter told of horcruxes?"

"Because Dumbledore was using Potter to find the horcruxes," Minerva explained. "Apparently he thought it worth the risk. I, however, am not comfortable holding onto that risk any longer than absolutely necessary."

Agreement rumbled through the room.

"But… a more pressing matter is: what do we do with Potter in the meantime?"

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Nymphadora Tonks stood motionless in the center of the sitting room. Her gaze burned a hole through the Headmistress, while her hands crinkled the edges of the parchment she had been given. A deep scarlet crept up from the ends of her dark brown curls, inching its way toward her scalp.

The other five occupants of the room held their breath as they awaited her response. Minerva and Poppy sat stoically on either end of the sofa, betraying no sign of physical discomfort as Hermione, seated between them, squeezed their hands tightly. Severus and Remus, having relinquished the furniture to the four witches, stood to the side of the fireplace. The latter eyed his girlfriend in concern, while the former kept his eyes trained on the carpet.

Stomach in knots, Hermione stared wide-eyed at the deathly silent Auror. With every passing second, she became less confident that revealing their terrible secret was the right decision.

"Dora?" Remus finally dared to take a step forward. "Are you alright?"

Tonks turned her head slowly, nostrils flaring. "I'm fine, Remus. I'm just trying to come to terms with the fact that every single person in this room lied to me."

Hermione shrunk down and closed her eyes, while Minerva and Poppy exchanged hesitant glances over her head. Remus hung his head in shame and mumbled a quiet apology. Only Severus failed to react to the statement; he had not so much as twitched since the Headmistress started describing the truth of his relationship with Hermione.

"It was not as though we wanted to lie to you, Tonks." Minerva extracted her hand from Hermione's grip and placed it instead on the girl's knee. "We were trying to protect Herm –"

Without warning, Tonks spun and silently released a Stunner from her extended wand. It collided into Snape's chest, throwing him backward into the bookshelf. Remus grabbed for the man, uselessly clutching at black robes as he sank to the floor amidst the displaced books.

"Nymphadora!" Minerva lurched out of her seat, wand raised, while Poppy hustled to Snape's unconscious form.

"No!" Tonks shouted, snatching Hermione about the waist when she attempted to follow the matron nurse. "Leave him be! Don't wake him!"

"Nymphadora, stand down."

"Just give me fifteen minutes," Tonks growled as the girl struggled to escape her hold. "Please, Professor. Fifteen minutes, then you can rouse the bastard if he hasn't roused on his own. In the meantime, Hermione and I are going to have a little chat, and the rest of you are going to leave us be while we do. Alright?"

Minerva gave a begrudging sigh and waved off Poppy, who sputtered under her breath but likewise stowed her wand.

"Thank you," the Auror muttered, hauling Hermione up the shallow steps.

Hermione stared guiltily at Snape's crumpled form until she was dragged into the bathroom. Upon being released, she whirled about angrily and shoved at the woman. "Why did you do that?! It wasn't his fault! He didn't do –"

"Oi!" Tonks latched the door, then grabbed hold of Hermione's forearms and pinned the young witch gently against the vanity. "Calm down, yeah?"

"You just attacked him!" Hermione's stomach threatened to expel her lunch as she realized the entire mess was her fault. She was the one who insisted they tell Tonks. She was the one who allowed Severus to be injured. "He wasn't doing anything, and you…"

"Settle down, love, settle down." Tonks kept her voice steady. "Snape's going to be fine."

"Why would you do that!?"

"Because I need to be absolutely certain you are the one talking to me."

"What?" Hermione snapped.

Tonks gestured sharply at the door. "Right now, Snape can't even control himself, let alone you. But that's going to change in about ten minutes given what I know of the man, so unless you want me to repeat –"

"No!"

"Then, please –"

"He wouldn't—"

"Hermione! Put yourself in my position, yeah? I've had enough of the bullshit, of not knowing who or what to trust anymore. Maybe he wouldn't manipulate your answers, but I need to know for myself," Tonks explained. "So, tell me."

"Minerva told you what happened."

"No! I don't want the party line, Hermione," Tonks interrupted, studying her face intently. "I want the truth. Tell me. What happened. To you."

Hermione held the witch's gaze before flagging against the vanity. "Everything?"

"Everything. I want to hear it from you."

With a shuddering sigh, Hermione lowered herself to the floor. She eyed the shower where she had thoroughly snogged Severus the morning prior and wished she could revisit that memory rather than the night he was forced to break her.

Tonks claimed a spot on the tile beside her and waited patiently.

"I fought with my parents that day. For a long time, I hated myself for that… for leaving them alone, for not telling them how much I loved them. I thought they died because of me. I wanted to die because of that." Hermione took in a deep breath and pulled her knees up to her chest. "But I found out later Severus saved them. He lied to the Dark Lord, showed him a false memory of their deaths, and hid them from everyone until he trusted my Occlumency enough to reveal their existence to me. Since then, I realized the only reason the Death Eaters hadn't killed them outright was because I fought with them and stormed off.

"After the Death Eaters found me, I don't remember anything else until I woke up… in a clearing. It was dark, and cold, and they were all there. The Death Eaters, the Dark Lord, Severus… all staring at me, surrounding me. I couldn't move, I was so afraid… I think I was naked… or maybe I just felt that way? I don't know, I guess. I just kept staring at Severus – I could hardly look away from him; I didn't want to look away from him. I wanted him to know I was scared, to know that I wanted to live. I needed him to save me, to do everything he could to protect me."

Hermione heaved in a breath and blinked at Tonks. "And he did. I know you might not think so – Remus certainly didn't – but I know Severus did everything he could that night. He tried to think of a way to prevent what happened, he stalled the Dark Lord, but there wasn't an alternative that would keep both of us alive. If Severus didn't hurt me, if he didn't do what they wanted, they would have killed him as a traitor and done whatever they wanted with me. What else was he supposed to do?"

"I don't know," Tonks whispered.

Emboldened by the woman's quiet response – as opposed to the argumentative approach Remus had taken – Hermione recounted everything again in even greater detail. Tonks listened attentively, donning a troubled expression at times, but did not interrupt.

When her brain finally caught up to the words spilling out of her mouth, however, Hermione recalled the woman sitting next to her was, in fact, an Auror. Logically, she knew the Vocare Fiducia should protect her secrets, but still she was frightened at what the woman might think of her. At what she might think of Severus.

Tears dribbling down her cheeks, the girl trailed off and looked away.

Tonks conjured a handkerchief and handed it to the crying witch. "Thank you for telling me."

Hermione shrugged, dabbing at her eyes with the soft cloth.

So… you and Draco were never…"

"No, never. Remus thought we were, and I thought it was a useful cover."

"It was," the older witch acknowledged. "We all bought it."

Hermione winced at her bitter tone.

"Draco is aware of your connection to Snape, then?"

She nodded. "I don't know if he was there that night or not… but he knew. He thought I was supposed to spy on him, not Harry. It took a while to get him to trust Severus enough to reveal his assignment."

"So, everything you told me about him—"

"Most of it was true," Hermione hastily interjected. "All of the relationship stuff obviously wasn't, but the things I told you about him and his mother were. Draco and I aren't friends, but we're not enemies any longer. I'm sure he only trusted me because he thought me under Severus's control, and he was so afraid and in pain that he just needed someone to tell. The Dark Lord ordered him to kill Dumbledore, fully expecting him to fail and then have to watch his mother die."

"He's Marked, then? Draco?"

The girl nodded. "He was forced into it as punishment, and the Mark won't set until his birthday in June. It just keeps burning until then."

"Lord," Tonks sighed.

"I don't know that he's changed his mind about all of the pureblood rubbish, but I am certain Draco hates the Dark Lord like we do. As does his mother."

The Auror quietly considered the information before clearing her throat. "And your father was never ill, was he?"

Hermione shook her head. "I hated saying that. I needed a reason to be away from the castle, and away from anyone who knew me… but I really hated having to use that."

Sighing deeply, Tonks leaned her head against the vanity.

"I'm so sorry."

Tonks startled at the whispered apology. "What?"

Hermione wiped her dripping nose. "I never wanted to lie to you. I had to, but I didn't want to. I wanted to tell you, I swear, but Professor McGonagall said to wait. Severus didn't want to go against her, so I didn't tell you."

"Shhh, love." Tonks tugged the girl into an awkward embrace. "I'm not angry at you, sweets."

A knock at the door drew both of their attention. The Auror snarled and hastily cast a Stinging Hex at the doorknob when it rattled. A muffled curse sounded from the other side of the door.

"Idiot! What part of do not fucking disturb us is so difficult to comprehend?"

Oblivious to the witch's mutterings, Hermione stretched out her legs. "Please don't hate Severus. You have to understand he didn't have a choice. The Dark Lord would've killed us both."

Tonks rubbed her face. "I don't hate him, Hermione… which frankly makes me hate myself a bit. What Snape did to you, what he did to Dumbledore, should be unforgivable, inexcusable. But in context, they were probably the right decision. The Killing Curse, rape, slave-binding rituals – I should want to lock him up with the dementors, preferably with several of his pieces missing, and yet somehow those were the right decisions?"

She shook her head and glared at the ceiling. "It's so bloody frustrating. I fought through all the patriarchal fuckery to become an Auror because I wanted to right the wrongs, you know. And now… when the rights are still so bloody wrong, it makes me perpetually nauseous."

"I understand," Hermione pressed her thumbnail into her jeans, then let out a deep sigh. "Tonks?"

"Yes, love?"

"Severus isn't the only one who used an Unforgivable."

Tonks straightened immediately. "Hermione?"

"I…" She heaved in a breath and slipped her shaking hands between her thighs. "I Crucio-ed someone."

The woman's eyes grew large. "What? Did Snape make you –"

"No!" Hermione shook her head. "Severus told me I just had to make it look like I was trying. But I… I actually did it."

"Whoa, just…" Tonks angled onto one hip and clasped the girl's arm. "It's alright, you can tell me. Nothing will leave this room, I swear it."

Hermione gulped in a breath. "The Dark Lord summoned us. He wanted a demonstration of my defense training, so he made me prove myself by dueling Dolohov."

"Good gods. Antonin Dolohov murdered Aurors!"

"I beat him – barely – with Severus's coaching, though no one knew Severus was helping me. But afterward… the Dark Lord… he made me use the Cruciatus on Dolohov. I didn't want to. That's when Severus told me I just had to make an effort, but the Dark Lord… He kept whispering in my ear about everything Dolohov had done to me, everything he wanted to do me. And then I wanted to, and…and… I did. I nearly killed him. I would have if…if the Dark Lord didn't stop me."

"Sweet Nimue." Tonks wrapped her arms around the hiccoughing girl, tucking her head under her chin. "You did what you had to, Hermione."

"I just had to try. I didn't have to succeed."

"Ssshhhh, it's alright. Even if the Aurory ever learned of it – which they won't, I promise – they'd probably give you a merit badge." She rubbed Hermione's arm for a moment before murmuring, "By the time this is over, we're all going to have a lot of sins to account for."

They sat together in silence for some time until Tonks cleared her throat. "Hermione?"

"Yeah?"

"I need to know – Snape… does he treat you well? Is he considerate of you?"

Hermione swallowed and sank back on her bottom. "Severus treats me well. You don't need to worry about that."

"Hermione."

"He does. He does everything he can to protect me, to make sure I can protect myself. He listens to me. He takes care of me. He cares about me."

"He hasn't hurt you?"

"No."

Tonks narrowed her eyes. "You hesitated."

"No, I –"

"Hermione."

Hermione huffed, crossing her arms. "It's not what you think. He doesn't mean to… and it's not physical. It's just… he worries a lot about me, about how he interacts with me. He feels guilty about what he had to do, and sometimes it comes between us. It makes him pull away because he thinks he's overstepped, but he hasn't."

"And that upsets you." Tonks pushed hair out of the girl's face. "Would he listen if you told him this?"

"He would. He did. The other night, we had… it wasn't really a row because he didn't argue. It was mainly me, yelling at him for shutting me out because Remus made him think the worst."

"Remus? What did Remus do?"

Hermione snorted bitterly. "After we told him, he first tried to kill Severus despite having just been told it would kill me as well. And then… he tried to convince both of us that our relationship was nothing more than an abuser and his victim. That there could never be anything real between us because I could never truly consent."

"What?"

"I didn't listen to him," she continued, "but Severus did. He started believing everything was a result of the bond, that his desires must be influencing me. Severus kept apologizing, and it just made me so angry. If…if he didn't…"

Hermione grimaced and closed her eyes.

"Hey." Tonks inched closer. "Just take a deep breath… tell me when you can."

The girl shook her head.

"He isn't–"

"No!" With a growl, Hermione climbed to her feet.

Tonks frowned as she watched her move to the stained-glass window on the other end of the bathroom. "Hermione, please."

"Severus isn't preventing me from saying anything," the young witch reiterated before facing her again. "I just… I just worked everything out with him, so I don't think it's fair of me to make it an issue again."

Pinching her lips together, Tonks closed the distance between them. She perched on the edge of the tub and folded her hands in her lap. "Hermione, I know you want me to think well of Severus. I'm not saying I don't, so don't get all riled up again. What I care most about is you and your well-being."

"Do you agree with Remus, then?"

"I did not say that," Tonks stated calmly. "If you shared all of this with Remus, and that was his take on it… No, I don't agree with him. I am more comfortable disagreeing with him because I know you were speaking to me of your own volition. Given the circumstances, I can't exactly hold that night against Severus. But if he doesn't respect you, if he isn't considerate of you, or kind to you, or if he doesn't listen to you, or keep his promises to you… that I can, and I will, hold against him."

Hermione hesitantly rubbed her arm but remained silent.

"I assure you, love, I would have the same concerns regardless of how your relationship began."

"Because he's Severus?"

"The nature of his position with the Order, that he's your professor – those are both serious considerations, as is the fact that you're only seventeen," Tonks explained. "But truthfully, if it were Snape, or Draco, or one of the Weasley boys, I would want to know the same thing. You are an incredibly intelligent and fierce witch – I want to be sure that both you and he recognize that."

"We both do."

"And when the two of you have sex… he's considerate of you then as well?"

Cheeks flaming, Hermione nodded.

"You don't feel pressured into… well, into anything more than is necessary?"

"No, of course not."

"He's careful with you?"

"Yes." Hermione rolled her eyes. "Sometimes too much so."

Tonks snorted in amusement, then fell somber. "I don't like making you uncomfortable, Hermione."

"I know."

"Will you forgive me for prying?" When the girl nodded, Tonks stood and approached her. "Will you forgive me for hexing your wizard?"

Hermione blushed as she was tugged into an embrace. "If you promise not to do it again."

"Sweets, I can't make such a promise," she replied honestly. "I will promise not to hex him again today, but should the situation warrant it… Don't grumble at me, Hermione. I'm rather fond of you, you know, and I will have your back before anyone else's. Alright?"

"Alright," Hermione relaxed into the hug. "Thank you for actually listening to me."

"You're welcome, love. Observational evidence leads me to suspect having a prick somehow interferes with the ability to hear clearly. Unfortunate, really."

"Very unfortunate," the girl giggled.

When the pair returned to the sitting room, Hermione was relieved to see Severus awake and sitting on the sofa. Poppy sat beside him, while Remus perched on the arm of the sofa, cradling his own hand on his lap.

In the armchair, Minerva sat with her arms folded, legs crossed, and foot tapping impatiently. "Satisfied?"

"For now," Tonks smirked, approaching the couch where Snape sat, eyeing her warily. "You understand I needed to be sure."

"Yes."

Tonks cocked her head. "I'm not apologizing."

Severus shrugged. "I didn't expect you would."

The Auror leaned in, placing her hand on the back of the sofa, and lowered her voice. "Fuck with her, and I won't be so forgiving. I've been itching for an opportunity to practice a castration charm."

"Nymphadora!" Minerva hissed.

"He only needs one of 'em to keep their bond renewed," Tonks quipped, straightening to her full height. Satisfied with the man's wince, she then turned to glare at Remus, who was nursing his reddened hand. "I'm not apologizing for that either."

Stepping past the Auror, Hermione claimed the other spot beside Severus. "I'm so sorry!"

The wizard shook his head at her whispered apology. When she took his arm, he flinched and glanced anxiously about the room. He relaxed, however, upon recalling that everyone present knew of their involvement.

"Are you alright?"

"Fine."

Poppy gave an exasperated sigh. "Nothing more serious than a few bruises."

Hermione grimaced but was distracted from saying anything by the hushed argument taking place near the fireplace.

"No," Tonks shook her long tresses. "Don't you dare 'Dora, darling' me."

Lupin tried to take her hand only for it to be pulled out of his way. "I wanted to tell you, but I was asked not to –"

"Did they make you swear an oath not to tell me?"

"N-no."

"Then you made a decision not to tell me, and you can live with the consequences of that decision."

Minerva frowned, leaning over the arm of her chair. "Tonks, Remus only recently learned the truth."

The Auror raised an eyebrow at her boyfriend. "How long have you known, then?"

Remus hesitated before responding, "Twelve days."

"Twelve days? Twelve days?" Tonks repeated, her wand hand twitching.

"Oh, no, no," Minerva stretched out of the chair to snatch the woman's wrist. "We've had enough of that, thank you."

All but ignoring the Headmistress, Tonks dropped her voice to a hiss. "Everything I did for you in those twelve days, and you still kept quiet?"

Flicking his eyes about at their audience, Remus colored and mumbled an apology.

"Christ," Severus groaned, resting his head on the back of the sofa.

"Fine, then," Tonks huffed, standing straight. "In twelve days, we can discuss our relationship. Until then, any part of you that tries to touch me will be permanently removed."

"Can we trust you to keep your wand sheathed?" Minerva asked her as Remus retreated glumly toward the window.

"That depends," Tonks exhaled. "Are you about to tell me the Dark Lord is my biological father or some such nonsense?"

The Headmistress snorted and released her grip. "Not so far as I am aware. Severus?"

Snape fixed her with a trying look. "Oh, wouldn't Auntie Bella just be thrilled?"

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

By dinner, Hermione was too exhausted to eat. Instead, she climbed back up to the Gryffindor dormitory and sought the comfort of her bed. Of course, she would have preferred to stay with Severus, but spending another night away from the dormitory likely was not advisable.

Kicking off her shoes, the young witch crawled fully dressed onto her bed and pulled the covers over her head. With Crookshanks purring beside her, she quickly fell asleep.

Hermione startled awake sometime later having had the irrational fear that she had slept through class. Groggily, she wiped at her face and then tossed the covers back to cool down.

"Are you awake?"

Groaning, the brunette rolled over and blinked through the dark to see her roommate sitting up in bed. "Mmph, Gin… what time is it?"

"Dunno really," Ginny replied. "After midnight, though."

That would be why I need to wee. Extracting herself from the covers and her cat, Hermione disappeared into the bathroom to prepare for bed. Once she returned clad in her pajamas, she climbed back into bed and glanced curiously at her unusually quiet roommate.

"Is something the matter?"

Ginny shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Maybe?"

Hermione frowned and sat up. "What do you mean? Did you and Dean quarrel?"

"Hmm? Oh, no. No, Dean's alright. He owled me today and said he missed me." She sighed and shook her head. "His parents don't want him to return to Hogwarts, but he said he would come back if they resume classes. Do you think they will?"

"I know Professor McGonagall is working with the Board of Governors to determine what's best. It doesn't sound like many parents are keen on the idea, but what about the OWLs and NEWTs?"

"Merlin, I do not want to think about the OWLs right now."

Hermione scratched Crookshanks under his chin. "So, if it isn't Dean or the OWLs, what's wrong?"

There was a lengthy pause before Ginny asked, "Do you know why Bill was here today?"

"Bill was here?" she feigned ignorance.

The redhead nodded. "He came to find me after lunch."

"Oh. Did he say anything?"

Ginny picked at her bedcover. "It was strange. He didn't say much at all except that he loved me. He hugged me so tight, I almost couldn't breathe. I've been trying to remember, but I don't think Bill's ever hugged me before. Maybe when I was little, but Mum made him. Never on his own."

"Huh." Hermione looked down at her lap, uncertain what she should say. She recalled the horrified look on Bill's face upon learning that the diary had been a Horcrux. Clearly, Bill was concerned for his sister.

"It was probably Order business, right? Ron said he saw Mad-Eye Moody walking to the front gates."

"It would make sense, then.

"You don't think… Do you think Moody's sending him on some dangerous mission?"

Hermione frowned. The only tasks Minerva had assigned the Council was to keep their eyes and ears open, get as much rest as was possible, and to return on Sunday to discuss what needed to be done. "Why would you think that?"

"Because he told me he loved me!" Ginny exclaimed. "Like he might not get a chance again."

"You don't know that's true."

"What if it is? What if he…" The girl's voice broke, and she hid her face in the crook of her arm.

"Oh, Gin…" Pushing Crookshanks aside, Hermione rolled out of bed and settled in beside her friend. "Ginny, don't cry. It's okay."

Ginny shook her head against Hermione's shoulder. "No, its not. What if something happens to Bill? Or to Ron? Or George? Or.. or Fred? Or…"

"Sshhhh…" Hermione wrapped her arms around the sobbing witch. "They're going to be okay."

"You can't know that, though."

"You're right; I can't know that. Just like they can't know something won't happen to you. Or something won't happen to me. We don't know what will happen. We can prepare as best we can, look out for one another, make the most of the time we do have, and hope everything turns out alright."

"I'm sorry I was such a bitch."

Hermione stiffened at the whispered comment. "It's okay."

"No, it wasn't! You were hurting, and I hurt you again. I shouldn't have said that about you. You're like my sister, you know, and I love you."

"Oh, Ginny…" With a soft sigh, the brunette witch slid down the bed to lay beside her friend. "I love you, too."

"I'm scared, Hermione."

"I know." Stroking Ginny's hair, Hermione stared up at the ceiling. She thought of everyone she loved – her parents, the Weasleys, Harry, Tonks, Minerva, Severus – and of what loomed ahead of them. As Crookshanks hopped onto her feet, she quietly admitted, "I'm scared, too."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

With an exasperated groan, Hermione rolled onto her side. The only sounds in the room were those of slumber – Ginny had no issue falling asleep tonight, and Crookshanks was snoring from Mattie's empty bed – but they were somewhat torturous for one who could not manage it.

"Merlin's sake." She flopped on her back and exhaled slowly as pain throbbed through her lower abdomen. Can stress make menstrual cramps worse? Or am I just dying?

Pressing her palms against her stomach, she closed her eyes and willed sleep to come.

Half an hour later, Hermione gave up and sat against the headboard. It was proving impossible to keep her mind from running through everything currently weighing on her. She stopped herself from trying to think of a way to save Harry, only to start thinking about how she was failing to regain Harry's trust. And when she forced herself out of that mental sinkhole, she dwelt on the anxiety she felt for the upcoming Council meeting, or the smiling face of the daughter she dreamt of but would never meet, or on identifying the remaining horcurxes, or what would happen when Draco was released from his imprisonment.

Hermione rubbed her eyes, then glanced about at her sleeping friend and familiar. Though she was not alone, she certainly felt it. Pulling her wand from beneath her pillow, she cast a Tempus and saw it was nearly two. I need to sleep.

Coming to a decision, the witch slipped out of bed and pulled her bed curtains closed. She donned her shoes and robe, Disillusioned herself, then crept quietly out of the dormitory. Several minutes later, she was inching open the door to the Headmaster's quarters.

Hermione had barely closed the door when she felt the Disillusionment charm fall. Startled, she spun to see Severus propped up on the sofa, wand extended. With a nervous smile, she murmured, "Hi."

Snorting, Snape laid down again. "So, you've returned to breaking and entering?"

"I couldn't sleep." She approached the sofa.

He arched an eyebrow. "I was asleep."

"Sorry." Hermione grabbed the edge of his blanket. "Mustn't have been that asleep, though."

Rolling his eyes, Severus turned onto his side to make room for her. "Lowering one's guard in the aftermath of an altercation with a Black is ill-advised."

"What?" She paused while settling alongside him. "Oh, you mean Tonks?"

"Make no mistake, that witch is more Black than Tonks," the wizard grumbled. He hissed under his breath when her elbow grazed his chest.

"Sorry! Did I hurt you?"

"No."

Hermione frowned at him, then sat up and grabbed hold of his nightshirt. Ignoring his protests, she quickly unbuttoned it to reveal dark purple bruising radiating outward from the center of his chest where the Stunner had hit. "Oh, Severus…"

Snape sat up and tugged the sides of his shirt back together. "You needn't fret over it. It's fine."

"I'm sorry about how –"

"No," he interrupted. "I assure you – this is trivial compared to what typically results from dealings with that family."

"Severus," Hermione chided, stalling his hands when he started rebuttoning. "Accio bruise paste."

"Merlin, you don't need to –"

"Shut up." She caught the jar as it whizzed toward her and unscrewed the lid. "You were the one who pushed me into Healing, so you have only yourself to blame."

Severus snorted. "You've been spending too much time with Poppy."

Raising her eyebrow, Hermione scooped out a generous glob of the salve. "This is a hundred times worse than the ones on my legs you got all bothered over."

Sighing, he closed his eyes and rested his head on the back of the sofa. He said nothing else while she gingerly applied the paste to his chest, and Hermione could only think of all the other occasions he had suffered his injuries in silence. She remembered him laying at Death's door on the cot in front of her while Poppy labored to drag him back to life.

And he still keeps giving them more… for what? More abuse than credit? Hermione cleared the emotion from her throat. "Can you turn over, please?"

"Why?" he asked without opening his eyes.

"Because you hit the bookcase, Severus, and I'm confident in assuming you refused attention on that side as well." When he begrudgingly turned his back toward her, she hiked up his nightshirt until finding the marks she expected were there. She carefully covered all the bruises, set the jar on the end table, then tugged his clothes back into place. "There. Thank you for letting me."

"Am I allowed to sleep now, Madam?"

"Only if I'm allowed to join you."

"If you must," Snape murmured, returning to his original position.

When Hermione laid beside him, he wrapped an arm about her waist to prevent her from falling of the sofa. The witch threaded her legs through his and carefully tucked her head on his chest to avoid irritating his injury.

"You realize Minerva likely knows you're here."

"So? Does she have a policy about overnight guests?"

A soft snort was his only response before the wizard fell back asleep. Enveloped in the warmth of his body and his scent, it took only a few minutes for Hermione to join him in slumber.

The witch slept uninterrupted by dreams until rousing shortly after dawn. Though Severus was still breathing in deep rumbles beneath her, it seemed his lower half was more awake. Hermione sleepily smiled at the feeling of his erection pressing into her… until she remembered the reason for the dull ache in her pelvic region. The thought of having sex during her period was somewhat horrifying. She recalled what Ginny did for Dean during her time of the month, as well as the fuss Ginny had made over Hermione not reciprocating oral sex.

Does Severus think similarly? He'd never request it, obviously, but does he want it? Panic tingled at her scalp. Beyond the general idea of it, Hermione did not know the first thing about fellatio and did not feel courageous enough to attempt it.

Or I could use my hands again. But not until he's actually awake. Hermione glanced up at Snape's peaceful expression, then returned her head to his chest and closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, the witch found herself alone on the sofa. Moaning quietly, she rolled over and glanced about her surroundings.

Severus sat, fully dressed, at the table in the kitchenette area. Nursing a cup of coffee, he peered up from the book he was reading. "Morning."

Hermione yawned and pushed up to a seated position. "How did you…"

"You were sleeping like the dead," he explained. "You didn't so much as stir when I moved you."

She shook her head in disbelief. "What time is it?"

"Quarter to nine. You should go down to breakfast before certain members of the Council start arriving."

Though somewhat disappointed, Hermione quickly readied herself for the day in the bathroom. Dressed in the clothes Dobby fetched for her, she returned to the sitting room. Before leaving, however, she moved to the table.

The wizard lowered his book at her approach. His eyes widened a fraction when she grasped his face in both hands and kissed him squarely on the lips. He coughed lightly in surprise as she pulled back a moment later.

"Good morning," Hermione smirked before heading toward the exit. "I'll see you shortly."

Nodding in response, Severus stared at the door long after it closed behind her. Eventually, he closed his book, sat back in his chair, and expelled a long sigh.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Albus is being intentionally difficult," Minerva griped, glaring up at the empty portrait frame. "I've asked him repeatedly to share with us what he knows regarding the location of the remaining horcurxes, but he has thus far refused. The other portraits were only able to tell me that Albus and Potter were digging into Riddle's past, searching places he may have frequented."

"Oh, well that ought to narrow it down considerably," Moody growled, crossing his arms.

"Hermione, how do things sit between you and Potter?"

The girl winced and shook her head. "Harry's still angry with me and keeping his distance, but he hasn't shouted at me again. Ronald is apparently encouraging him to forgive me."

Sitting beside her on the sofa, Tonks squeezed Hermione's arm in support.

Minerva swung her gaze to the other side of the room. "Remus, perhaps you might assist in that venture?"

"Of course," he nodded. "I can also attempt to glean information on the horcruxes from him."

Tonks clucked in disapproval.

"Only if he offers it," the Headmistress held up a cautionary finger. "Potter is growing increasingly resistant to authority figures, and I can only assume it will worsen as the shard of Riddle's soul continues to exert its influence over him. I do not want him becoming suspicious of the what the Order knows and risk Riddle learning of it. Forgive me, Hermione, but I believe he will view you more as a follower than a handler. It's important he does."

"I understand." Hermione inwardly snorted at the similarity to the Dark Lord's intentions for her. Covertly, she looked to Snape to see if he shared her recognition but found him frowning at carpet, rubbing his chin.

"In the meantime, we will need to brainstorm possibilities. We need to be cautious in our search, draw as little attention as we can." Minerva leaned against her desk and looked to the window seat. "Severus, you look as though you have something to add."

Snape lowered his hand from his mouth. "I do not have much to go on, Headmistress –"

The witch pursed her lips.

"—but I think it relevant. Some months ago, Bellatrix Lestrange boasted the Dark Lord trusted them enough to keep his prized possession in their vault."

"Their Gringotts vault?"

"I would presume. No doubt the Aurors thoroughly sacked the Lestrange estate years ago."

Kingsley folded his arms. "We removed and destroyed several Dark objects, but I doubt any of them were horcruxes. It took the better part of a year before our cursebreakers were able to open the vaults at each of their homes. We were never allowed to enter their Gringotts vaults, however, as the goblins refused to cooperate."

Bill grunted and shook his head. "They'll never grant anyone affiliated with the Ministry access to anything beyond their own personal vaults."

"Sane or elsewise, Bellatrix Lestrange is not a stupid witch," Moody exclaimed. "From what you claim, Snape, she's never trusted you, so why in the seven hells would she offer up such a statement? Unless she intended for you to drop it in our laps."

Snape fought the urge to roll his eyes. "Bellatrix did not tell me anything. She spoke to her husband in what she assumed was the privacy of their rooms. That the conversation was overheard and reported was unbeknownst to the Lestranges."

"Overheard by whom?" Moody pressed.

"House-elves," Severus replied after a moment's hesitation.

Hermione scowled at the snorts that escaped a few Council members.

"Whose house-elves?"

The spy glanced questioningly at Minerva, who gave half a shrug, before answering. "The Malfoy elves. Narcissa has taken it upon herself to add espionage to her list of accomplishments."

"Really?!" Tonks exclaimed, wide-eyed.

Nearly all gathered members bore similar looks of surprise. Moody, however, appeared skeptical. "You expect us to believe Lady Malfoy is any less treacherous than that viper sister of hers?"

"Truth be told, I don't expect you to believe anything I say," Severus murmured.

"Severus," Minerva warned.

"Apologies, Headmistress."

"Hold on." Tonks leaned forward and pointed at Snape. "Since when has Narcissa been on our side?"

"Allegedly," Moody scoffed, drawing a fleeting smirk from Kingsley.

"Narcissa never actively participated in the Dark Lord's doings," Severus replied. "She silently supported her husband, tended to the estate and their son as was expected of her. As such, she has been grossly overlooked by the Dark Lord and his followers, who view her as little more than a possession, a symbol of Lucius's status. I admit I did not recognize this until recently, but even Lucius is unaware of the depths to which she has gone and will go to protect her son."

"And she thinks we'll help her accomplish that?" Hestia asked.

"After he helped assassinate the Headmaster?" Moody snickered. "Fat chance, that."

"Ask me, Dumbles rather deserved it," Fred muttered under his breath.

George nodded, whispering, "Should send Little Malfoy a fruit basket."

"What kind of fruit do ferrets eat?"

Despite the situation and her empathy for Draco and his mother, Hermione had to bite her lip to suppress a giggle. As the twins chuckled to themselves, their elder brother glared at them to keep quiet.

"Young Mr. Malfoy was an unwilling participant in the event," Minerva stated.

"He took the Mark, did he not?" Kingsley folded his arms.

"And you would know that how?" Severus questioned.

"From the Trav –"

"We are under no obligation to you to reveal our sources," Moody interrupted.

At this, Severus did roll his eyes.

"Enough," Minerva snapped. "Even had he desired it at any point, the fact remains no one can consent to the Mark until they are of age. Malfoy is not yet of age, and he sought our assistance, despite the great risk it carried – to both himself and his mother."

"So they say. We'd do well not to take their claims at face value like some naïve schoolgirl with a crush."

Hermione's head snapped up, and she shivered involuntarily at the pointed look leveled in her direction by the ex-Auror. The three older witches in the room bristled at the statement, while Snape pressed his knuckles into the window seat.

"That is more than enough, Alastor." Minerva stood from her chair, placing both hands palm down on her desk. "We used Hermione to reach out to the boy, yes, and she handled the task admirably. She more than earned her position in this room, and you will treat her as such."

Hermione shifted in discomfort as several pairs of eyes moved to her.

"No offense meant, Granger," Moody grunted. "So, when you say he sought assistance, you meant he was seduced –"

"For fuck sake!" Severus snarled.

"I didn't seduce him!" the girl protested. "I listened to him. I told him he could trust –"

"Hermione, you do not need to defend yourself to him," Minerva advised before hardening her tone. "Alastor, I will bring this meeting to a close if you cannot remove your head from your arse. Hermione offered an avenue of communication between this office and Draco Malfoy, and he chose to accept it. Unfortunately, that arrangement fell in jeopardy, and it was necessary they don the cover of teenage romance to protect it."

Heart pounding, Hermione stared at the Headmistress, surprised at the apparent ease with which everything was explained away. And yet, it isn't actually a lie.

"Mad-Eye, can we move on from this?" Tonks sighed.

"It's enough that they've asked us to look past an assassination, but I'm not nearly ready to crawl into bed with the Malfoys. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why you seem to be!"

"I haven't made up my mind."

"Because you're blinded by some foolish notion of family loyalty. Were it anyone else, you'd recall that you are, in fact, an Auror charged with protecting the Wizarding realm from dark witches and wizards."

Tonks scrunched up her face in disgust, then crossed her arms and smugly tilted her head. "Go on, then, Mads – explain to us why your goddaughter and her husband never spent a day in Azkaban, why they aren't even mentioned in any Aurory files from the First Wizarding War."

Her mentor paled somewhat as several Order members gasped, and his magical eye spun. "You are entirely off-base."

"Am I?" Tonks rolled her head to the side. "Snape, what can you tell us about Ramsey Macnair?"

Severus raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Ramsey Macnair?"

"Yes. Was he Marked as a Death Eater?"

"No –"

Moody smirked. "There you –"

"—he was never Marked," Snape continued. "Ramsey was not as bloodthirsty as his elder brother but was to prove himself instead through more academic pursuits."

"Such as?"

"He was one of the men assigned to make the Taboo curse a reality. He did not succeed before the Dark Lord fell and thus was never Marked."

"Fascinating," Tonks goaded, staring coldly at her former trainer. "And his wife?"

"I don't know that she assisted the Dark Lord in any manner, but she attended several of his social gatherings."

Nostrils flaring, Moody sat back in his seat.

"You didn't think I would check up on the man I entrusted my career and my life to? Constant vigilance and all that," Tonks smirked. "And yet, you sit there, condemning my aunt for not publicly opposing her husband or her sister? I really don't think you have a leg to stand on, Mad."

Behind her, Fred audibly snorted and slapped his twin's arm.

"As enlightening as this little discussion has been," Minerva sighed, "we are here to work together, not tear each other down. We will table the subject of Narcissa Malfoy for now, but Bill – I would appreciate if you would start thinking about how we might gain entry to the Lestrange vault should we deem it necessary."

The eldest Weasley looked skeptical but agreed to the task.

"Given the diary, Riddle obviously started working on his collection of Horcruxes while a student here. Thus, we cannot rule out that one may be hidden on the premises." McGonagall reclaimed her seat. "The Board of Governors has bowed to parental pressure and will be cancelling classes. Once the students have departed, I will dismiss the staff. We can then work our way through the castle and shore up defenses as we go."

"Speaking of defenses…" Severus smoothly slid out of the window seat and withdrew the Marauder's Map from his pocket. He spread it out across McGonagall's desk, then gestured between the Weasley Twins and Lupin. "You three idiots –"

"Severus," Minerva scolded.

"—are going to get up here and document all of the tunnels, secret entrances, and other security lapses you've been exploiting all these years."

George nervously slipped out of his chair. "Erm, where'd you happen upon that, Professor?"

"Where do you think, Weasley?"

"Been tellin' Harry for years not to leave belongings layin' about for sneaky Slytherins to pilfer," Fred mumbled.

"Yes, because given what we now know of Potter, he is exactly the one who should be in possession of the whereabouts of every Hogwarts occupant and the location of unwarded tunnels," Severus sneered, prompting the twins to glance sheepishly at one another. He then glared at Remus. "And pray tell why Messrs Moony and Padfoot neglect to inform anyone of the threat this posed, given that Wormtail was as desperate to impress his Lord and Master as he was Potter's cursed arse?"

Lupin flushed red. "Unwarded?"

"Quite."

"I, erm…" Remus glanced helplessly at Minerva, who merely arched an eyebrow while waiting for his response. "I suppose we must've thought Dumbledore already knew of them?"

"And left them unguarded for werewolves and serial killers to waltz right into the castle?" Snape scoffed. "So long as the Gryffindor sweets smuggling ring went undeterred, why not?"

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Wotcher, Ginny…Hermione!" Tonks greeted, dropping onto the bench at Gryffindor table.

"Good morning," Hermione replied, while her roommate mumbled something similar around a mouthful of eggs.

The Auror snagged the closest piece of buttered toast.

"Oi, I was going to eat that," Ginny grumbled, watching it disappear from her plate.

Tonks winked at her, then stretched down the length of the table to grab the platter of toast.

"You couldn't do that to begin with?"

"Where's the fun in that, love?"

Hermione gave a half-hearted smile before taking a sip of pumpkin juice. She did not feel particularly jovial, having been up half the night unable to sleep after a nightmare.

It had stemmed, of course, from the Council meeting. It had started with a discussion about Harry, which grew into a heated argument about the Malfoys, during which Moody had referred to her as the Order's slut. Severus had immediately leapt in, wand drawn, to defend her only to have Moody accuse her of whoring around with Death Eaters. She had been frozen in place, unable to do anything but watch as it spiraled into chaotic violence that left Severus bleeding out in front of her. No matter what she did, Hermione could not heal his wounds. She kept screaming at Poppy to help her, but no sound ever emerged.

"You alright, Hermione?"

"What? Oh, fine." Hermione set down her glass, then flexed her hands in her lap to dispel the feeling of warm blood oozing through them. Though she was grateful to have Tonks as a confidant, she was hardly interested in joking about with the witch who had most recently – and unapologetically – left Severus battered and bruised.

"What are you doing here so early?"

"Early!" Tonks teased. "It's half-past nine. I've already finished my official shift for the day."

"Gross," Ginny yawned.

"But I'm here unofficially to keep an eye on things, and I thought… I could keep you lot occupied."

"Occupied?" Hermione raised an eyebrow.

"Classes may be cancelled for the remainder of term, but that doesn't mean you should disregard your defense training. Especially not now."

"Defense training?" Ginny groaned.

"Things are gonna get real dicey in the coming days, and we all need to be ready. So, as soon as you're through shoveling that down, we're heading out to the Pitch."

"The Pitch?" the redhead brightened at the prospect.

Across the table, Hermione glanced sullenly at the window. "It's raining, though."

"Ooooh, by Merlin's beard, you're right!" Tonks enthusiastically turned toward the window, then leaned into the table. "Of course, we know You-Know-Who always suspends his assault on account of rain."

Rolling her eyes, Hermione set down her fork and pushed her plate away. The Pitch no doubt meant flying, and flying still elicited a certain sense of nausea despite the improvements she had made under Severus's tutelage. Additionally, it had been several weeks since her last flying lesson.

"Will Ron and Harry be –"

A fork clattered as Ginny crossed her arms. "If Harry is there, you can count me out."

"I thought it best to keep the two of you separate," Tonks reassured her while shooting Hermione a pointed look, "given everything that's happened. That, and I don't wish to deal with any petty sibling squabbling. Remus will deal with the boys. They have that fancy room upstairs; we have the Pitch. Tomorrow, we'll switch."

"Tomorrow, too?"

Tonks smirked. "I think we can even squeeze in an hour or two before you head home on Wednesday."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Panting, Hermione rolled off the remnants of her broom and stared up at the grey clouds. She blinked as heavy drops pelted her face until two heads appeared in her line of sight.

"You alright, Hermione?" Ginny asked, kneeling.

The brunette nodded. "Just need a moment."

"You did fantastic, though!" Tonks beamed. "Minus that last Bludger, of course. But other than that!"

"I didn't know you could fly that well!" Ginny exclaimed. "You could try out for Quidditch."

A dark glare settled onto Hermione's features. "Over your dead body."

Laughing, the youngest Weasley toppled onto her bottom. She sobered a bit a minute later when Tonks declared it was her turn to run the gauntlet.

Once Ginny was airborne and zipping past enchanted Bludgers, Tonks cleared her throat. "So… you care to share what's twisted your knickers today?"

Hermione narrowed her eyes as she sat on the soggy grass. "What?"

"You're upset with me. I thought we were on good terms. At least you didn't have this edge yesterday."

"It's nothing."

Frowning, Tonks quietly fired off a barrage of spells at the flying girl. When Ginny successfully dodged them, she looked back down to Hermione. "The sting with which you disarmed me earlier suggests otherwise."

Hermione silently watched Ginny gracefully moving across the sky. Though she was afraid to confront Tonks – afraid of only making things worse – she could only think about her dream when she was physically unable to speak up for Snape. "Perhaps you can ask Severus to spare some of his Bruise Paste."

The Auror raised an eyebrow. "You're still upset over that? I explained –"

"I understand why you did it, but you didn't even apologize."

"Snape didn't seem to think one was necessary."

"Because he never does! Because no one ever apologizes to him." Hermione tore a handful of grass from the Pitch. "He's covered in bruises."

Tonks held her breath as a Bludger clipped the side of Ginny's arm, but the girl continued flying. Casting a Sonorus charm, she asked, "You good, Weasley?"

Ginny gave a thumbs up.

"This isn't Quidditch practice, you know! You have a wand. Defend yourself, eh?"

In response, the redhead fired a crackling, purple hex toward the ground. Tonks easily batted it away with a chuckle and canceled the amplification charm. When Ginny resumed the exercise, Tonks glanced down at Hermione. "Bruises seem a relatively small price to pay."

Hermione growled as she got to her feet. "And what would an appropriate price be, then? Blood? Broken bones? A concussion? Cracked ribs? The Cruciatus? Internal bleeding? Because he's paid all of that. Repeatedly. For me!"

"Hermione –"

"Because of me! I ask for things, and he gives them to me. I never understand what price is attached to it, but he knows exactly what it would cost him, and he does it anyway! I asked for you, you know! I asked for you because I wanted a friend I could talk to, a friend I could be completely honest with… and he agreed! He knew you would hurt him, but still he agreed. And you did! You hurt him, and he doesn't care because… because he thinks he deserves it or something."

Stunned, Tonks flicked a nervous glance up at the sky to see Ginny was still preoccupied. She then took a step forward and held out her hands in surrender. "Hermione, I am sorry."

"He doesn't deserve it."

"I know. I know, and I'm sorry."

"Tell him that!"

Tonks let out a slow breath. "Okay. I'll tell him."

Hermione jerked in surprise. "What?"

"I will apologize to Snape. Alright?"

She nodded slowly, then grimaced. "God, don't tell him I told you to."

"I won't, I swear." Tonks shrugged her shoulder. "Does this mean we're friends again?"

Hermione hesitated. "He didn't eat or sleep for days after the assassination. Before it, too. And anything he did eat, he threw up."

Tonks shifted in discomfort.

"He wouldn't be happy to know I told you that."

"I won't tell him."

Hermione chewed her lip. "What about my necklace?"

"Necklace? The one Mal…" The Auror's face shifted in realization. "Malfoy didn't give you it, did he?"

The girl shook her head. "It was my birthday present. It helps with nightmares, and I'd like it back."

Tonks scratched her eyebrow. "I'll see what I can do."

With a sharp inhale, Hermione nodded. "Okay, then we can be friends again."

"Good!" Tonks yanked the girl in for a quick embrace, then pushed her forward with a pat on the bum. "Now, get out there and take down your flying opponent."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxxX

Freshly showered, Tonks watched rain drip down the windowpane as she prepared to follow through on her promise to Hermione. She was not afraid to face Snape – she had survived several encounters with Death Eaters who were actually trying to kill her – but was nervous about making further mistakes. With Snape especially, she felt as though she distrusted him when she should trust him and trusted him when she should not.

But she knew Hermione was right. Tonks had seen Snape return from summons with his shoulder torn open, shivering off the aftereffects of the Cruciatus. Had she sustained such damage on duty, the Aurory would put her on mandatory medical leave for at least a day and stick her behind a desk for the rest of the week. Yet Snape was back on full duty within hours, acting as though his injury was as commonplace as slicing his finger during ingredient preparation.

She had apologized then on behalf of the Order, and she could do so now for herself.

"Get on with it, then," Tonks whispered, stumbling over to the gargoyle. She trudged up the spiral staircase and was less than surprised when the office door opened at her approach.

At her desk, Minerva peered over the edge of her spectacles. "Tonks. How did training go?"

"Afternoon, Professor! It went well. Hermione's the superior dueler, of course, but Ginny's better on a broom than most of the Aurory. I'd say all those years of Quidditch and miscreant brothers honed her reflexes quite nicely."

"Of that, I have no doubt," the Headmistress smirked. "What is it you need?"

"I, erm, actually wondered if I might speak to Snape."

Frowning, Minerva lowered her reading glasses. "Whatever for?"

"I would like to apologize for my reaction the other day."

"Changed your mind, have you?"

Tonks nodded sheepishly, feeling like a student about to be assigned detention.

Minerva eyed her carefully for a minute complete. "If I allow you in without supervision, can I trust I will not return from supper to find bloodshed?"

The younger witch snorted. "If you do, it'll probably be mine."

"I doubt you have any reason to be concerned on that front."

"Likely not, no," Tonks agreed, recalling how easily he had waved off her previous apology.

"As long as you promise to keep your wand sheathed, go on ahead."

"Aye, aye." With a quick salute, Tonks walked past the desk and into the alcove where steps led up to the residence. She rapped firmly on the door, then cracked it open and slipped inside. "Afternoon."

Severus watched her with suspicion from the armchair, where he sat reading with Crookshanks sprawled across his lap.

"Brushing up?" She quirked her head at the title, Secrets of the Darkest Art. When he glared in reply, she winced. "Sorry, I didn't come here to try to antagonize you at all."

"You do not need to try, Nymphadora," Snape sneered. "You succeed."

Tonks dropped onto the sofa with a snort. "Yes, well, you've been irritating the piss out of me this year."

"We must take our amusements where we can."

"This is going swimmingly," Tonks muttered under her breath. She sat tall and cleared her throat. "Look, I came up here because I wanted to apologize."

His lips parted as his eyes narrowed.

"I was upset to learn how fully I'd been deceived, and I allowed my temper to get the best of me. I should not have assaulted you as I did."

Severus shifted his shoulders. "You needed to be certain Hermione was in control of her own voice. What else were you to do?"

"Besides trust the lot of you?"

"I think it would have spoken less of your character had you just accepted what was said immediately after learning everything you did. You're not a stupid witch."

Tonks gave half a smile at what was practically a glowing recommendation from the man. "If I had asked you to allow me to stupefy you, would you have?"

"With some manner of comment," he admitted after a moment's hesitation. "Though the Headmistress may have objected."

"I had to promise to keep my wand sheathed to get past her." Tonks tugged on her messy braid. "At any rate, I could have incapacitated you with less force."

"I told you an apology wasn't necessary."

"You said it wasn't expected. That doesn't mean it isn't necessary."

Snape rolled his eyes. "That sounds like Granger's logic."

"She is rather intelligent. And given how well you've trained her, I can only hope you're both on our side."

"For now."

"Circe's tits, Snape. Don't make me disappoint McGonagall." When the wizard snickered, Tonks sat forward and extended her hand. "Truce?"

Severus exhaled slowly, then shifted in his chair so that he could shake her hand without displacing the sleeping half-kneazle. "And have you made up with the wolf?"

"He still has seven days on his sentence."

Snape gave a grumbling sigh.

"Why? What do you care?"

"Because when you aren't scratching him behind the ear or rubbing his belly, he wanders about feeling neglected and eventually winds up here."

Tonks laughed brightly. "Perhaps Crooksie here told him of your superior scritching skills."

As if in response, Crookshanks gave one empathic flick of his tail.

"Hardly. The cat finds him irksome as well."

The witch settled back into her seat. "I suppose I could be convinced to let him off early for good behavior."

"I don't know that good behavior is the appropriate qualifier," Severus quipped. "And what do you want in return?"

"Ever the Slytherin." Tonks smirked and crossed her arms. "I want to know everything there is to know about the Malfoys."

"Everything?"

"Everything," she affirmed, toeing off her boots. "I've got nowhere to be tonight, and you're obviously ordering in again…so we've got plenty of time. Now, spill."