A/N: OMG, what? April isn't even over yet and already another chapter?! As always, I look forward to your hearing your thoughts!
Bound to Him
Severus felt every eye settle on him. "What brought us to this point, what initially allowed the Dark Lord to rise to a position of power was not his magical prowess, but his ability to use people to his advantage. He could read them. Even without the use of Legilimency, he could discern their strengths and weaknesses, desires and fears… And he could leverage it to motivate them – to manipulate them – into doing exactly what he wanted."
Hermione dropped her gaze to the floor, remembering Voldemort purring into her ear, urging her to crucio Dolohov.
"Sounds familiar," Aberforth muttered.
"And once someone was in his grasp, he knew how to keep them there. He knew what rewards to promise, what threats to make, how much pain or humiliation they would tolerate to remain in his favor. Very few who joined him did so because they wanted to torture or to kill, and he understood that. He made use of those that did, and those without the same penchant or stomach for violence and depravity were useful to him in other ways. Lucius Malfoy, for instance –"
"For fuck's sake," Moody snarled.
"Regardless of whatever you may think of him, is a talented wizard," Snape firmly stated. "He is bigoted and can be sadistic, but he has never possessed the same bloodthirst that the Lestranges, or Dolohov, or some of the others have. Instead, his true value – and before him his father's true value – to the Dark Lord has been his wealth, influence, and political machinations."
"Is there a point to this?" Moody asked.
With a scowl, Tonks lobbed a half-eaten biscuit at her mentor. "Some of us would like to hear what he has to say."
"Continue, Severus," Minerva glared in the ex-Auror's direction.
The Slytherin inhaled sharply. "The Malfoys have been synonymous with Society for generations, even more so when Narcissa took up the mantle of Lady Malfoy. As such, many wizards pledged fealty to the Dark Lord simply because Abraxas or Lucius had, and they hoped to gain some measure of that prestige. Their wives modeled themselves after Narcissa, seeking to establish their position within the high society the Dark Lord promised.
"Lucius keeping his nose clean, at least publicly, allowed the Dark Lord's network to creep through the Ministry as it has. Maintaining plausible deniability –"
The three Aurors snorted in unison.
"— was what kept that network in place after the Dark Lord's fall," Severus explained. "Yet, upon his resurrection, the Dark Lord appears to have forgotten this. He sent Lucius after the prophecy, despite the likelihood his true allegiances would be exposed, rendering him politically useless."
Bill leaned forward. "Why couldn't Riddle retrieve the prophecy, given it was as much about him as it was Harry?"
"He could have," Snape rolled his shoulders. "Twenty years ago, he would have because he wouldn't have trusted anyone else to do it. But now, it's suddenly beneath him. It made more sense to him to have Lucius lead a committee of deranged fuckwits through convoluted schemes to obtain what he himself could have simply plucked off the shelf.
"And to no one's real surprise, given Potter's inability to do as he's told, the plan failed. The Dark Lord, of course, will never admit fault and has instead made Lucius an example of his displeasure for more than a year." The spy shifted before continuing. "Those men who followed Lucius have seen him physically tortured. They've witnessed his home seized, his underaged son and only heir forcibly conscripted into service, and his wife treated like a house elf preparing to have her head mounted on the wall. They've watched him sink further into despondency, becoming ever more certain that his family would both pay for his failure with their lives. And I assure you – those men did not observe this in comfort."
Realizing she had been holding her breath, Hermione exhaled and pulled her knees up onto the sofa.
"Before his fall, the Dark Lord would have sensed that rising discomfort, understood the threat it posed, and would have toned it down. He would have bestowed his forgiveness upon the Malfoys the moment it was confirmed Draco helped bring about the Headmaster's demise."
Several eyes flicked nervously up to the portrait, who was glaring darkly at Snape.
"But he didn't. Even when the boy proved his loyalty upon being released from his prison cell, the Dark Lord did not relent. He has only furthered Lucius's punishment, proclaiming it necessary simply because a sixteen-year-old boy couldn't cast the Killing Curse. A curse that the majority of the Dark Lord's supporters have never considered, let alone attempted, using."
At Moody's penetrating stare, Severus rolled his shoulders. "And for that, Lucius was made to beat his wife… with a Muggle implement meant for livestock."
Amidst several gasps, Tonks jerked out of her seat with a breathy growl. She flashed a sharp look to Hermione, who dropped her head in an apology for not warning her of the details.
"The only charge leveled at her was that she had doted upon her son."
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. Hot shame washed through her yet again upon recalling her earlier accusations, but she was afraid to draw attention. Her fears were unfounded, however, for all eyes were focused on Snape.
At least until Tonks began to pace; a deep, dark red seeping through her locks.
"Dora, are you alright?" Minerva asked.
The young Auror held up a hand. "Just need a moment."
Nodding, Minerva swept her eyes back to Severus, silently asking him the same question.
"Fuck." Tonks wiped her hands down her face. "Alright, I'm sorry. Continue."
When both Remus and Kingsley offered her their seat, she waved them off but braced herself against the back of Remus's chair.
Uncertain the extent to which Hermione had glossed over details, Severus anxiously eyed the young Auror's clenched hands. He also noted the rest of the Council – Moody included – looked uncomfortable.
"The shock and disgust in that ballroom was clear to anyone with eyes. And yet, the Dark Lord decided that even that was insufficient punishment. To continue the evening's entertainment, Lucius was forced to surrender his rights as a father and as… as a husband," Severus wavered upon catching Hermione's wide-eyed look of warning.
As though the air had been let out of her, Tonks slowly bent over until her forehead rested against the chairback. Minerva nervously crossed her arms, while their pureblood compatriots gaped at the pronouncement.
"Surrendered to whom?" Kingsley recovered first. "To him?"
Severus held firmly to his shields. "To me."
"To you!" Moody growled.
Kingsley shook his head in disbelief. "But you're not even…"
"No," he breathed. "I'm not."
"Not what?" Hermione frowned.
"Pureblood," Poppy murmured.
"Because that would make it better?" the young witch scoffed.
The matron nurse shrugged, while Bill muttered, "Marginally."
"Ugghh!" Tonks righted herself to meet Snape's eye. "Why?"
Severus grimaced. "Because I'm the one who stepped in to succeed where Draco failed. I'm the only one who spoke up for Draco, implying I could succeed where Lucius failed. And… because, as Bellatrix so helpfully explained to me, only Greyback would have been a greater degradation."
Tonks squeezed Remus's shoulder when he suddenly tensed. "That much, I understand. But the whole thing… Why?"
"That is precisely my point," Severus argued. "By his own actions, the Dark Lord has effectively revealed he gives fuck all about loyalty, bloodlines, or family. He made it quite clear he was prepared to wipe the Malfoy name out of existence, upending the portrait of reestablished pureblood society and traditions he's painted all these years. Every man in that room who ever idolized Lucius realized that if the Dark Lord is willing to defile members of the Sacred Twenty-Eight – members who have been critical to his success and have never, to their knowledge, acted against him – what wouldn't he do to them? To their wives or children?"
"And Bellatrix took no issue to…" Bill trailed off as the Slytherin snorted angrily.
"The only issue Bellatrix took with the evening's events was that she was robbed of the chance to mount her sister's head on the wall."
"The fuck…" Tonks fisted her hands. "I have never in my life spoken to Narcissa, and I can feel my blood churning."
"You're still human," Bill commented. "You've not ritually denounced your blood."
"And you haven't let dark magic run unchecked to prey on all your jealousies, insecurities, and injuries until it's rotted through your mind and soul as she has," Severus added. "Family, honor, ethics, duty – none of that holds any sway over her any longer. All that matters to her, to the Dark Lord is wielding power and destroying anyone they perceive is standing in their way."
In the corner of the room, Aberforth fixed an accusatory gaze on his brother's portrait.
"It sounds as though Riddle assumes they will not turn against him," Minerva surmised. "And he's probably right in that. If the Malfoys are powerless to counter him, what chance do they stand? Is there no hope in convincing them otherwise?"
Severus shook his head. "I doubt it. But…I also doubt they will exert every effort to see him cemented as their ruler. They'll tow the line of self-preservation, and should the tides change in our favor –"
"The rats will jump ship," Moody finished. "Speaking of defiling the Sacred Twenty-Eight… how is dear, old Lucius taking you tupping his wife?"
"Alastor!" Minerva glared.
Snape rolled his eyes. "Officially, Lucius will sow the seeds of animosity in any sympathetic ear. Unofficially, he knows I'm the only hope he has to keep his family alive. He will do whatever he can to ensure I remain breathing, and I will do whatever I can to ensure his plots to murder Bellatrix don't impede our own."
"Such consideration!" Fred dared.
McGonagall smirked at him before clearing her throat. "What I think this means for us is a chance to turn the table. Riddle presumes he's destabilized us, but he's the one losing the faith of his followers. If we can help shake things up further and keep him focused on disciplining his own troops, I think we stand a much better chance of ending his reign. Permanently, this time."
Rounding the corner of the cabin, Severus slowed to watch Draco duel one of the training dummies Dobby had delivered. The boy's wand sliced viciously through the air until the dummy's wooden head splintered into pieces.
The spy stonily observed the other two dummies strewn to pieces across the grass. "Dare I ask which of those is me?"
Hunched over and out-of-breath, Draco gestured to the edge of the tree line, where a fourth dummy was caught up in the branches.
"Ah." His dark eyes drifted back to the mess between them.
Without prompting, Draco straightened and pointed at each one in turn. "Dark Lord… Bellatrix… Lucius."
Severus swallowed hard at the last name. At the boy's challenging stare, however, he opted not to comment on it for the time being. Instead, he returned his gaze to his own wooden effigy, which had been relieved of his wand arm and opposite leg. "It appears I still stand a fair chance of survival."
Following his eyes to the trees, Draco shrugged. "Yeah, but you'll be fucking miserable, won't you?"
Snape snorted. "What else is new?"
"Besides," the young wizard sighed, "Granger doesn't deserve to die."
Nodding slowly, Severus cleared his throat. "Well, while you tidy this all up, I'll see to lunch –"
"I'm not hungry."
The man raised an eyebrow. "Did I ask if you were?"
"I don't want to –"
"In five days' time, you are expected to dine at a table alongside myself… the Dark Lord… Bellatrix…and, should the Dark Lord permit him, your father," Severus stated, pointing to each of the defeated dummies in turn. "And if you want to ensure your mother lives through dessert, you will do so without so much as a snarl. Do you understand?"
Draco's lip wobbled, but he kept his chin high. "Yes."
"In preparation for family dinner, you and I will share meals, which you will eat. Afterward, you will come out here and expel all of your pent-up emotion on these helpless bastards." Severus straightened his cloak and waved at the charred and splintered wood. "But you will be in no mood after lunch to repair anything, so fix them now."
As her office door opened, Minerva set down her sandwich and covered her mouth. "Mmph, Dora. I thought you'd be resting."
"Tried that," Tonks approached her desk. "Realized I have a few things to do first."
"Oh?" The Headmistress dabbed her mouth with a napkin.
"I can come back if –"
"No, no! Please, sit."
Claiming a chair, Tonks glanced at the door to the attached private chambers. "Snape still around?"
"No, he's returned to the cabin. Did you need him for something? I can send an elf—"
"No, no! I just hoped to speak to you without interruption."
Minerva frowned, pushing her plate aside. "What is it?"
Grimacing, Tonks ran her hand over her hair. "I feel like I shouldn't be telling you this, but at the same time… if they really are trying to bump me off, someone should know, and I think she'd rather it be you."
"I should know what?" McGonagall crossed her arms. "About whom?"
"You're concerned about something with Severus?"
"In a fashion." Tonks took in a deep breath. "She's in love with him."
"Ah." Minerva grunted softly. "She told you this?"
"Well, not explicitly… but I'm fairly confident that was the underlying message."
The Headmistress nodded. "I did suspect that was the case."
"And?" Tonks leaned against the desk. "Does he return those feelings?"
Minerva rubbed her cheek. "Well, I strongly believe he does…but I'd wager he's yet to even admit it to himself."
"That's what I thought, too," the younger witch sighed. "Hermione's convinced he doesn't and is afraid she's burdening him. Worse, she's concerned she'll keep him from finding happiness with someone else. It didn't help matters that he had to…with Narcissa."
Grumbling, Minerva sank back in her chair and folded her arms. "I was afraid of that. I thought he should take time to sort himself out before bringing her into it, but… they both were so damn insistent on verifying the other's well-being, there was no delaying it."
"If he did delay, Hermione may have felt he was hiding it from her, and we'd be in a worse spot."
"True. Though I don't think waiting until the sun was up or until he had a chance to sleep would have hurt anything."
"Fair enough," Tonks scratched the back of her head. "If circumstances were different, I'd advise her to tell him how she feels. But with the way things are… if he dismisses them… I think you'd have to put Hermione back together."
Minerva closed her eyes a moment. "I sincerely doubt Severus is in a position right now to accept her feelings for what they are. Not because he means any insult to Hermione…"
"But because he's still punishing himself. Right. Hermione's said he gets caught up in his head."
The elder witch snorted sadly. "An understatement, that."
"Hermione wants to be able to help him through his…struggles, as he's done for her."
Minerva blew out a puff of air. "That is not a one-person job. Even if she could convince him to off-load, there's far too much trauma there for her to handle. Not when she has her own to deal with. It's going to take time, incredible patience, and an entire village, I fear, to sort him out. And with the demands we and Riddle are placing on him, things are bound to get worse before they improve."
"Well," Tonks shrugged. "If I make it through to the next round – count me in on the Snape sorting."
Reaching across the table, McGonagall squeezed her hand. "You will be fine, Dora. If you need us, we will be there."
"In Azkaban?" She raised a dubious eyebrow.
"You think Alastor Moody doesn't have at least three ways into that place?"
Tonks smiled sheepishly. "I'm not sure he likes me that much anymore."
"Oh, please! I don't think Alastor's ever been as proud of one of his trainees as he is of you. Calling him out and chucking your biscuits at him won't change that. If anything, it probably improved his opinion of you."
The young Auror laughed, then blinked away the few tears that had formed. "Sorry."
"Don't be. It's been a long, trying day."
"It's hardly afternoon!" Tonks exclaimed before glancing guiltily at the plate. "And I should leave you to your lunch."
"Have you eaten?"
"'Course I did. The moment you dismissed this morning's meeting I was in the kitchens harassing your elves."
Minerva chuckled, standing along with the Auror and extending her arms. "Come."
Tonks startled but happily stepped into the offered embrace.
"I am incredibly proud of you, too," the Headmistress murmured.
Inhaling deeply, Tonks tightened her grip before releasing the hug. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. And I will be here for Hermione if she needs."
"Good. And if something does happen to me – tell Snape I will haunt his bony arse until he gets his shit together."
Minerva laughed brightly. "I will do so."
"Oh, erm…do you mind if I borrow Remus for the rest of the day?"
"Of course not. Just make sure he's back in time for the Wolfsbane, or I'll never hear the end of it from Severus."
"Copy that." Tonks saluted her before sauntering across the office.
"And Dora?" McGonagall quirked her lips. "Do try to spend some of that time actually resting. You have longer days ahead of you."
With a waggle of her eyebrows, the witch grinned. "No worries, Captain. He's hardly in any shape this week to run any marathons anyway."
Holding the smoking goblet away from her face, Hermione firmly rapped on the door to Remus's quarters. She hummed to herself while waiting and was about to knock again when the door finally opened.
Tonks leaned against the frame. "Wotcher, Hermione."
"Oh, Tonks – hello! I brought Remus… his…" Her cheeks warmed as she looked past Tonks to see Remus hurriedly buckling his belt. "…erm…"
"Wolfsbane," Tonks finished with a giggle. "Come on, come in."
"Oh, I don't know," Hermione mumbled. "I don't…want to intrude."
"Nonsense!" She slipped her arm about the girl's back and guided her into the sitting room. "Darling, come get your potion."
Red-faced and refusing to meet her eyes, Remus took the potion from her. "Thank you, Hermione."
"No problem. Well, I should probably –"
"Just hold on a moment," Tonks squeezed her. "One moment, and then I'll let you both escape to suffer the embarrassment separately."
Hermione relented with an uncomfortable snicker. "Alright."
"I have something – we have something to tell you."
Hermione glanced between the smiling witch and Remus, who silently stared down at his goblet.
"Remus and I snuck away from the castle to run a few errands this afternoon, which included a visit to Gretna Green."
Tonks held up her left hand and wiggled her ring finger, now adorned with a simple gold band.
"Oh, gods!" Hermione grabbed her hand and looked back at Remus, noticing the glint of gold on his hand. "You got married!?"
"Surprise!" Tonks grinned. "You know I would've had you there otherwise, but… it was a sudden decision, and we thought it best to keep it quiet."
"No, that's… I completely understand. But congratulations!" Hermione threw her arms around the Auror. She considered hugging Remus but was deterred by the strained look on his face. "I'm happy for you both. Does anyone else know?"
"Minerva suspects, but my parents are the only ones we've told thus far. We dropped in for supper after." At Remus's grumpy snort, Tonks grimaced. "They're not exactly thrilled."
She shrugged. "They'll come around. Just like Remus did."
Her new husband flashed her an irritated look.
"Don't mind him; it's his week." Tonks patted his shoulder affectionately. "He's just as glad to have me as I am to have him."
His eyes softened at her reproach, and he pressed his lips to her head in apology.
Hermione smiled at their exchange. "I should let you both be. But, erm, about the Wolfsbane. I don't know if you should…"
"Don't worry; we considered that," Tonks replied. "Our union is 100% consummated –"
Growling in discomfort, Remus turned away toward the sofa.
" – and I have to be up early. He'll kiss me goodnight before taking the potion, and then I'm passing out cold until daylight."
"Well, congratulations again," Hermione remarked at the door.
"One more for the road?" Tonks asked, opening her arms and squeezing Hermione tightly. "I love you, you know."
"I love you, too," she murmured.
"You're a force to be reckoned with. Don't forget that."
Hermione frowned, then pushed herself out of the embrace. "Wait. You think you're going to die. That's why you –"
"I don't think I am, but I'm acknowledging the possibility."
"What happened to not thinking that way? What happened to 'fuck realistically'?"
"Shh…" Tonks cupped her face. "I'm fully intent on sticking around. I'd want to marry Remus regardless of how much time we'll have together, and I'm going to fight like hell for those holidays and grandkids' birthday parties."
The Auror pulled her into another hug. "With all my heart. When this all is over, we'll have a party with champagne and cake, and we'll let the Weasleys loose with their whizbangs and what-nots."
"Okay," Hermione grinned, stepping back.
"Or maybe we'll just celebrate twice as hard at your wedding," Tonks teased.
Severus paused mid-slice to peer up at the ceiling. He had felt the wards tingle and heard the faintest pop of apparition. Even before Draco moved in, Minerva never Apparated directly into the cabin, and he had already chased off the house elves who had insisted on cleaning every surface after delivering supper.
'That had better be you upstairs.'
'It's me! I delivered the last of the Wolfsbane to Remus and needed to see you. Are you soon free?'
He glanced at Draco reading on the sofa, then resumed his paper-thin slicing of the ginger root. 'Twenty minutes?'
'I can wait. I brought a book.'
Snorting, Severus silenced their bond. Once finished preparing the ingredients to be added during the morning timepoints, he tidied his workspace. After cleaning up in the bathroom, he told Draco – who gave little indication of having heard him – he was going to bed.
Hermione looked up from her book as he entered the bedroom. The wizard warded the door and silenced the room before acknowledging her. "You couldn't use the front door?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps I'd like to spend the night with you without broadcasting it?"
"I could have come to you." He sat on the corner of the bed to remove his boots.
Hermione set aside her book. "Are you upset I'm here?"
His boot dropped with a thud. "No."
"I thought if I came here, you wouldn't have to Apparate back before dawn and waste even more energy."
"It wouldn't be a waste."
"This way, you can get a bit more sleep, and…"
Severus glanced over his shoulder. "And?"
Expelling a breath, the witch stretched her arms out over the blanket. "And… it seems like, recently, all we've done is quarrel there. We weren't like that here. We were just…together."
With a thoughtful grunt, he moved to the chest of drawers. Hermione slipped out of bed and placed a hand on his arm. "Can we just be together tonight?"
When he nodded, she shoved his nightclothes back in the drawer. He held his hands up as she determinedly unbuttoned his shirt. Pushing the shirt from his shoulders, she checked that his bruises were healing well before stepping into him. She squeezed her arms around him, then brushed her lips against his chest. "Come to bed, Severus."
The wizard followed her, undoing his trousers while she scooted to the middle of the bed. When he climbed over her, she ran her hands up his chest and behind his neck. "I've been thinking about this all day."
Severus felt a guilty pang in his stomach, knowing he had been thinking of it with some degree of dread. He had known she would need him soon and only had himself to blame for spurning her advances the week prior.
"Everything alright?" Hermione tucked his hair behind his ear.
"Yes." He forced a smile, then lowered his lips to hers. The sensation of her fingers over his body melted some of the tension from their kiss but did not keep his mind preoccupied. Hoping to chase away thoughts, he caressed his hand along her smooth thigh, pushing beneath her soft nightgown. He kept his eyes closed, determined to focus only on the feel of her mouth and the tightening of her thighs as she arched into him.
When her hand ventured beneath the waistband of his pants, however, Severus jerked out of her grasp. Half-expecting Narcissa to scold him to get it together, he flushed with shame at seeing Hermione frozen beneath him, staring up at him in concern.
"Severus?" The witch reached up to him, but he escaped with a shake of his head to the edge of the bed. She scrambled up to kneel beside him.
Feeling terrible, Hermione gently rubbed his back. "No, it's alright, Severus."
"I thought if…" Snape rubbed at his face in frustration. "Does it have to be tonight?"
He looked over his shoulder. "You're not in any pain?"
She shook her head, having no wish to pressure him further. Though the mark had begun to throb hours prior, applying the salve had temporarily relieved the effects. "It can probably wait another day… or two, perhaps?"
Scrutinizing her face, however, he suspected the truth of it. He glared down at his lap before summoning his wand with a growl.
"No!" Hermione snatched his wand hand when she surmised his intention. "No spells, no Occluding."
His eyes widened in desperation. "I don't know that I can, Hermione!"
She exhaled loudly, releasing his hand. "I'd like to try something. Please. And if it doesn't work, then… we'll just go to sleep, and… and we can try again after your dawn stirs. Please?"
Though his stomach twisted, he stowed his wand on the small chest beside the bed. "Fine."
Hermione took a moment to think, then pushed the pillows against the brass headboard. While Severus settled against the pillows as instructed, she pulled her nightgown over her head. His gaze dropped to her bare breasts as she moved toward him, then carefully straddled his lap.
Heart pounding in her ears, she placed her arms around his shoulders. He brought his arms about her waist and met her eyes in question.
"I don't exactly have this planned out," the witch smiled. At his shrug, she leaned her head against his shoulder to figure out her next move. You can do this, Hermione. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. He won't hold it against you, and no one else has to know.
Taking a fortifying breath, Hermione raised her head. Nervous under his gaze, she asked him to close his eyes. She then slipped one hand down to trace her fingers along his jaw and pressed a light kiss to his opposite cheek. Her voice cracked as she murmured in his ear. "It's just us…"
The shiver that rippled through him encouraged her to keep going. "It's just you and me here…nothing else. Right now, nothing else, no one else exists."
He knit his brow.
He snorted but gradually did so as she stroked his face, neck, and chest.
"There's no war… no obligations or duties…no Dark Lord, no Order…"
"I thought you said no Occluding," he muttered.
"Oh," Hermione flushed. "This is Occlumency, isn't it?"
"Mmm." He peeked out from one eyelid but closed it before she raised her head again.
"As long as we do it together… If the walls are around us, not between us. That's alright, yes?"
"They're your rules."
Her lips quirked. "Then we shut it all out. No fears, no pain, no blame, no guilt. There's just you and me… seeking, providing comfort…and pleasure."
Hermione paused in her ministrations and held her breath. The throbbing sensation had traveled from her lower back to her center, magnifying tenfold and making it hard to think.
Oh gods, if this doesn't work… He'll have to use a spell. Exhaling slowly, she nuzzled her nose against his throat. "We focus on touch…sensation…what makes us each of us feel good."
Severus quietly groaned when her thumb toyed with his nipple. "May I open my eyes yet?"
Hermione swallowed. "Only if you're prepared to kiss me again."
His eyes opened long enough for him to cup her jaw and guide her mouth to his. He drew her tighter against his chest before they sank back against the pillow. Eventually he tempered the exchange with a few lighter kisses. "Is that how you'd like me to kiss you?"
"Yes," she nodded.
"Or is this how?" Severus moved to her neck, nipping gently and laving his tongue over the area.
"Ohh…" She grabbed hold of his hair and squirmed in his lap. "Both…gods…both."
"Anywhere else?" he purred against her throat.
Smirking, he scooted down until his lips hovered beneath her breast. "Here?"
"Yes," she gasped, tightening her grip on his hair as his hot mouth engulfed her left nipple. His fingers prevented her right one from feeling left out, and she grabbed hold of the brass headboard with her other hand to keep her balance. When he swapped breasts, she slammed her pelvis against him with a whimper.
Severus slowly released her nipple. "Is that the next anywhere else needing attention?"
Hermione nodded eagerly. "Please! Not next… now."
Obediently, he slipped her cotton knickers from her hips. After freeing one leg, he encouraged her up higher on her knees.
"What do… oh, fuh!" The witch grabbed the headboard with both hands when his tongue attended to yet another sensitive bud. With a white-knuckled grip, she closed her eyes as his dexterous fingers joined in again. She tried her best to keep still – dear gods, don't embarrass yourself by humping his face – and prayed his silencing charms held because she could not stop the desperate sounds escaping her.
She soon quieted, and her head lolled backward as the tension became almost unbearable. Reaching her pinnacle, her eyes flashed open to the bright moonlight streaming in from the window, and she wheezed out his name.
Spasms fading, Hermione sagged down his body. After wiping his face, Severus ran a hand down her back, feeling the energy radiating from her mark. "You alright?"
"So right," she panted into his shoulder. At that point, the witch realized what she felt beneath her bottom. Eyes wide, she reached back to feel the bulge in his pants. "It worked?"
"So, it seems."
"Thank gods!" Hermione whispered, massaging him. "Because I need you inside of me, right now."
Needing no further encouragement, Severus maneuvered them lower on the bed. He wordlessly divested himself of his pants, then guided her atop his erection.
"You want…like this?"
He nodded against the pillow. "I need to see you."
While he gripped her hips, Hermione carefully braced herself on his torso, mindful of his bruises. Though it made her nervous to be on top, her anxiety vanished as she sank down him with a groan to match his. She closed her eyes, yet he kept his wide open, committing to memory the vacant pleasure on her face, his amethyst necklace again dangling between her breasts, and the way her body glowed in the light of the full moon.
Hermione opened her eyes, and her pelvic muscles involuntarily tightened about him. As he cursed and reactively thrust up into her, she leaned down to engage him in another passionate kiss. She smoothed a hand along his scarred chest and whispered, "You are, too."
Despite not believing the statement, Severus returned her appreciative kiss with one of his own.
Yawning, Hermione hauled herself up onto the kitchen counter to watch Snape brew.
"How late are you planning to stay?"
She shrugged. "How late does Draco usually sleep?"
Severus expelled a sigh. "Save for the first day, I haven't seen him downstairs before ten."
"Can I stay until then?"
"If you'd like."
Hermione smiled while dangling her feet. "I have to be on hand to help offload wands, but the wagon isn't supposed to arrive until late this afternoon."
"How are we on brewing?"
"Well-stocked on basics. There should be enough Cheering Solution to last Tonks the rest of the week, then we'll need more."
Severus tapped the stirring rod on the cauldron's edge, then set it aside. "The potency fades significantly faster than most potions. For prolonged dementor exposure we want it as potent as it can be. Small batch, twice a week until she's clear of Azkaban."
"Is it difficult to brew?"
"It isn't Wolfsbane-difficult, but it's NEWT-level. Although, I'd argue a truly effective Cheering Solution requires a more experienced potioneer than a NEWT student."
At her grimace, Severus moved toward her. "That wasn't an insult, Hermione. You've handled the Wolfsbane on your own –"
"Not the main stock," she reminded.
"No, but you've managed most of the nightly doses on your own now, which I do appreciate." He gently raised her chin. "And how many other brews have you conquered this year? I trust your skills above most NEWT students I've graduated."
Hermione gave him an awkward grin. "Do you really?"
"Are we fishing for more compliments this morning?"
"No, but I'll take whatever I can get."
Severus snorted, letting his finger trail down her neck. "I can guide you through it."
She swallowed heavily. "Yes, please."
At his smile, her gaze flicked between his eyes and his lips. Placing her hands on his waist, Hermione parted her knees to draw him closer. His fingers slid gently into her wild curls, and she smiled in anticipation as his lips hovered over hers. And when they finally touched, she closed her eyes and tightened her hold on him.
It felt so right to wrap herself around him; she wanted never to let go. Unless, of course, it was only temporary while they hurried upstairs for another –
"Once was more than enough, thank you."
Severus jolted out of her grasp and spun back toward the simmering cauldron.
Having narrowly avoided falling off the counter – and feeling suddenly empty – Hermione turned to glare at Draco stomping down the staircase. He said nothing else as he exited the cabin, letting the door slam shut behind him. Turning to Snape, she noted he gripped the edge of the counter as though it were the only thing holding him up.
"You should go."
Growling under breath, Hermione hopped off the counter and stormed outside, where she found Draco setting up dueling dummies. "Malfoy!"
Startled by her sudden approach, Draco raised his wand only to have it blasted out of his hand with enough force to knock him on his bottom. "Circe's tits, Granger! What is wrong with you?!"
"What's wrong with me? What's wrong with you!" She stood over him, gesturing to the cabin. "That man is doing everything he can to help you!"
"Oh, is he?" Draco scrambled to his feet. "Do you have any idea what he did to help me?"
"Yes! I do know what he had to do!"
He narrowed his eyes at her, then shook his head. "No. You don't. Because if you did, you wouldn't be sitting there sucking his tongue down your throat like some two-Knut –"
"Finish that sentence, and I will punch you so much harder this time." At his glare, Hermione forced herself to calm down. "I promise you: I do know. And I'm sorry–"
"Then how can you defend him?!"
"Because he had no other option! Because I've seen how negatively it's affected him!"
"Yeah, he seems real affected," Draco sneered.
The witch growled, stepping closer. "You haven't a bloody clue what he –"
She slowly turned toward the cabin, where Snape scowled from the doorway.
"A word," he instructed, disappearing back into the cabin.
Tossing a warning glare over her shoulder, Hermione followed him inside.
"While I appreciate your defense," he ground out, "it is entirely unnecessary."
"Furthermore, the last thing Draco needs is someone attacking him."
Hermione crossed her arms. "The last thing you need is someone attacking you."
With a snort, Severus rolled his eyes and glanced back at the potion. "He's well within his rights."
"You only did what you had to."
His eyes pierced hers. "Had it been me, at seventeen, in his position… I would have killed the bastard. It wouldn't have even crossed my mind how many lives depended on him until it was too late. So, no – I don't care if he sneers, or throws a punch, or burns me in effigy."
Her arms slowly fell to her sides. "You don't deserve any of that."
He shrugged his shoulders before resuming his stirring. "Regardless of what I may or may not deserve, it's only been five days. I'm not certain how long it took you to truly trust me, but I know it wasn't in the first week."
"No," she sighed. "But you kept antagonizing me…"
"Which I have long since recognized was not the approach I should have taken with you. Nor is it the best approach now."
Feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of her, Hermione sank onto a dining chair. She ran her hands over her thighs and stared at the wooden floor for several minutes. "You're right; it wasn't."
"I'd apologize if –"
"No. We're done with that," she declared, folding her arms atop the table. She glanced at the window but, unable to see much from her vantage, returned her gaze to the solemn wizard in front of her. "I will apologize to him. So long as he doesn't hex me first."
"He's not that dumb."
Hermione smirked before noting the tension in his shoulders. "Severus, what happened was not your fault."
"I should have seen it coming."
"Don't be ridiculous. How could you possibly predict that?" When he shifted his weight, Hermione sat back and stretched out her arms. "Wait. The men you described who followed Lucius… you were one of them?"
His nod was almost imperceptible.
"And if the Dark Lord knew you wanted –"
"I didn't want Narcissa!" Snape spun around; his tone desperate, not angry. "I didn't want his estate, or his position, or his… fucking child! I didn't want to be him. I just wanted…"
Shaking his head, he turned his back to her.
Hermione slid from her chair. "You just wanted respect… wealth… recognition… a nice home… love?"
He hung his head as she approached.
"Who doesn't want that?" She touched a hand to his shoulder blade.
"I don't," he whispered. "I stopped wanting any of that a long time ago."
Hermione swallowed hard. "But he remembered."
"It's not your fault that the Dark Lord doesn't understand you can have something nice without taking it from someone else, without hurting someone else to get it."
"But I should know how the Dark Lord thinks, and I should have remembered that. I should have expected him to offer up such a reward for my service, but I deluded myself like the rest of them into thinking he would preserve social standings – to some degree at least."
Hermione squeezed his arms. "You're being too hard on yourself, Severus."
The wizard sighed and rubbed his forehead.
"Oi," she gently swatted his arm. "Don't touch your face while brewing."
Severus snorted in surprise and glanced over his shoulder. "Touché."
Grinning, Hermione slipped her arms about his waist and pressed her cheek to his back. "Five points from Slytherin."
Hermione picked her way across the uneven ground to the shoreline, where Draco sat hunched over. Hearing her approach, he quickly wiped his eyes and straightened his posture. Though he rolled his wand between his fingers, he made no effort to brandish it.
"I hope you didn't finish him off where I have to eat," he sneered.
Rolling her eyes, the witch sat an arms' length away from him. "No one finished anyone off, arsehole. He called me in to chasten me for tearing after you like that. He's right, and I'm sorry that I –"
"I don't need your pity, Granger."
"I wasn't offering it," she snapped. "I'm offering empathy, you ignorant…"
Hermione caught herself and took in a deep breath. "In case you've forgotten, I've gone through something similar. I'm sorry I didn't think about that before reacting. Severus reminded me how difficult things were between us in the weeks after the binding. Things are still difficult."
Draco raised an eyebrow at that but merely looked out at the lake.
She watched the water gently lap at the shore a while before asking if he wanted to talk, which he denied. When she finally stood to return to the cabin, however, the boy cleared his throat.
"I'm sorry if I get you killed."
The witch froze, uncertain of what she heard, then sank back to the grass. "What?"
Draco refused to look at her. "I have to go back… to face him, face them. For fucking dinner. Like we're family. We're not fucking family. Blood doesn't mean a fucking thing apparently."
Hermione understood the anger and fear she heard in his voice. "Do you know when?"
"Sunday." He took a deep breath and leaned on one raised knee. "And every Sunday after that until he sees the same potential in me that Snape claimed exists. Or until he deems otherwise."
"So, that's what he meant by provisionally accepted."
Draco rubbed the back of his head. "He's just humoring Snape for the time being… won't hesitate to kill me if I prove disappointing."
He snorted bitterly and stared at the wand dangling from his fingertips.
"I about weed myself when he called me back the first time. Well, every time." Hermione rested her arms on her knees. "Severus had to drag me halfway there and give me a pep talk before we apparated."
Draco looked to her for the first time. "An actual pep talk, or the don't-be-an-idiot-you-idiot talk?"
"Somewhere between the two," she smirked. "He told me I could and would get through it, that whatever happens, happens. Obviously, he was right since we're both still here. And you've had years more practice with Occlumency than I have. Look how far you've already come. You're alive; your mum's alive. Because of you."
"Because of Snape."
Hermione pinched her lips. "Severus helped, yes, but what use would he have been if you hadn't made it through? If you hadn't let Severus in. If you hadn't fought through the pain. You did that. You fooled the Mark and kept out the Dark Lord, not Severus."
Draco scowled at his left forearm.
"It's not going to get easier, but I think you can do it. I know your mum believes in you. And you're probably not ready to hear it, but Severus believes in you. I don't think you understand how much he's risked because he believes in you."
Grimacing, he linked his arms around his knees and stared out at the water again. "I really want to hate him."
Hermione toyed with a loose thread on her jeans. "But you can't. No matter how hard you try, something inside prevents you. And then you start to hate yourself instead. Because deep down, you know what happened was more your fault than his. Because you got yourself into a position where he had no better option to get you out of it."
His eyes sharply locked onto hers.
"I told you," she smiled weakly. "I've been there."
"Fuck," he exhaled, rocking backward.
"At least you don't have to deal with that on top of everything else." Hermione winced, immediately regretting the comment.
"Oh gods," Draco groaned, rubbing his eye. "No. But I would've rather it been me…and not my mother. It would be easier to forgive."
Chewing on her lip, Hermione knew there was no offense meant in his comment. Frankly, she thought he might be right; it was harder to watch a loved one suffer than to take on the pain oneself. Before she thought better of it, she blurted, "I watched Severus murder my parents."
"Humgh-what?" the blond slammed a hand on the ground to keep from tipping over.
"I mean, he didn't!" she clarified hurriedly. "It was a false memory he'd shown the Dark Lord, who took great delight in shoving it into my head. At the time, I didn't know it was his memory, and I didn't know it was false."
"What the fuck?"
She shrugged uncomfortably. "For two and a half months, I thought I'd gotten them killed, and for five days I thought I knew exactly how it happened. I didn't know the truth until after you and your stupid henchmen tried drowning me."
"And then, for several horrible minutes, I thought I was sleeping with the man who killed them."
"I'd misunderstood what he was trying to tell me." Hermione took in a ragged breath and flexed her hands. "Even though I know for a fact they're alive, and that that memory was a lie, I still see it sometimes. Especially during nightmares."
"I begged Snape to use a false memory," Draco revealed. "Pleaded with him… like a sniveling, useless child… but Mother said it had to be real. She didn't want me to have to generate a false memory."
"It would've been just as real to you as –"
"I know that!" he huffed.
Hermione nodded warily and fell silent.
Eventually, Draco sighed. "Fine. How affected was he?"
The witch glanced back at the cabin before answering. "Completely fell apart. Like to the point where I wonder whether he'd still be here if he didn't have us to look out for."
The blond frowned at the cabin.
"He hides a lot behind his shields. More than you or I could possibly imagine." When he resumed his silent brooding, Hermione sighed. "Well, I should go. Again, I'm sorry about what you've been through… but I'm certain you can suck it up enough to get through pudding."
"Fuck off, Granger," Draco murmured, no real venom in his tone. As she walked away rolling her eyes, he snatched up a sizeable rock and heaved it into the lake. After repeating the exercise twice more, he tipped onto his back and let the morning sun warm his face.
Resting her elbows on the table, Hermione held her teacup with both hands. She was exhausted after a long evening of unloading and hauling crates. Facing another long day, she was content just to listen to the other table occupants' conversation. How McGonagall has any energy left to spend on idle chitchat is beyond me.
She watched sympathetically as Remus collapsed into his chair. "Feeling better?"
He sighed before beginning to load his plate with sausages. "Somewhat. Tomorrow will be better."
"That's what I keep telling myself."
He gave her a tight grin. "If you were concerned, the transformation went entirely as expected."
"I'm glad," she replied before adding, "Well, not glad it's so miserable but glad it wasn't any worse."
"I knew what you meant," he nodded.
Hermione sipped her tea to hide her embarrassment, while he dug into his meal. As Poppy and Minerva chuckled over Aberforth's story, she leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and worked on clearing her mind. In the afternoon, Severus would teach her how to brew the Cheering Solution, and the rest of the day would be spent helping Minerva unpack and organize wands. She needed all the moments of relaxation she could find.
When the voices faded, the girl assumed it the result of her mind exercises until she heard the flapping of wings. Peeking out of one eye, her stomach cramped at the sight of the snowy owl landing on the table in front of her.
The group seemed to hold their breath as she read the few lines of text Harry and Ron had cobbled together.
Remus fed Hedwig a piece of sausage, after which the bird took off without waiting for a response.
"Good or bad news?" Minerva asked.
When it rains, it pours. Hermione folded the missive in half. "Harry and Ron want me to visit them at the Dursleys on Monday."
"Excellent!" the Headmistress clapped. "About time he started thinking clearly."
Hermione turned the letter over in her hands. Despite everything that had happened, she was excited to see her friends again. She missed them but was also concerned over how the meeting would go.
"I can be there if you'd prefer," Remus offered.
"No." She cleared her throat to clarify. "Thank you, but I think they're more likely to talk to me without supervision."
"You're probably right," he smiled. "Dora will similarly disapprove of me babysitting her, but she signed up for the lifetime experience."
Tucking the letter in her pocket, Hermione cracked a grin. "Should've read the fine print, I guess."
Having finished scrubbing the kitchen, Severus ensured the potion was simmering happily and all excess ingredients and equipment were properly stored. He worked at a crick in his neck on his way to the restroom, where he contemplated bathing but ultimately decided he did not have the energy for it. He had been up at dawn to brew and spent hours at Hogwarts working with Hermione on the Cheering Solution. Between brewing sessions, he had put Draco through his paces in preparation for the morrow.
With the Dark Lord slowly but surely unraveling, Snape knew they both needed to be as well-rested and sharp as they could manage. Before returning to the front room, he extracted a slim vial from his medicine crate.
Draco was sprawled inelegantly over the wicker sofa with his nose in a book. He looked up, however, when the dark-purple potion was placed on the end table.
"You need to actually sleep tonight," Snape explained, stepping away.
Sighing, the boy sat up and grabbed the vial of Dreamless Sleep. He turned it over in his hand a few times, then cleared his throat. "Sir?"
Severus halted halfway up the staircase. "Yes?"
Draco rested his arm along the back of the sofa. He studied the older man's face for several long seconds. "Did you know?"
"Did I know?"
"What was going to happen," the blond scowled. "Did. you. know?"
Severus returned to the main floor. "No."
"You didn't have any idea?"
He rubbed his palm. "I should have…but I didn't. Your mother saw it coming, as did your father, but I did not."
"I expected to be given Headmastership of Hogwarts. I expected to be allowed to keep Granger regardless of her potential utility to the Dark Lord. I expected to be humored when I offered to mentor you. I expected to be forced to sit beside him until the next time I piss him off. I did not expect anything else. I certainly did not expect that."
When the boy only stared at him, Severus huffed and crossed his arms. "Think about it, boy. Think about who your parents are, then about who I am – a half-blood with no money or influence to his Muggle name. Until the moment that disgusting grin slithered across his face as he turned to me… it didn't occur to me as a possibility."
A greenish tint washed across Draco's pale complexion as he whirled forward. Grumbling under his breath, Severus summoned an empty bowl. The last thing he wanted to do was clean vomit out of Minerva's ridiculous wicker furniture.
"Here." He shoved the bowl in the boy's lap before claiming the other end of the sofa.
Draco took several deep breaths and, with a shake of his head, pushed the bowl onto the cushion beside him. "I'm fine."
Severus rubbed his temple. "No. You're not fine."
Grimacing, the boy hung his head.
"It speaks in your favor that you aren't fine." When a grey eye peeked at him, Snape cocked his head. "You care. You're human. Which is more than I can say for most who bear his Mark."
Draco shuddered. "If I had just done what he fucking told me to…"
Severus leaned forward and touched the boy's arm. "What happened to your mother is not your fault. What happened to you is not your fault."
"But I could have prevented it!"
Pulling his hand back, the spy straightened. "A year ago, perhaps. But given recent events, I don't believe you fracturing your soul with murder would have brought about any better conclusions."
Draco narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Bellatrix has made it quite clear she wanted you to fail. Why else would she provide you poison without any useful detail, then put the Aurory on high alert before you had chance to act by very obviously slaughtering the source's entire family?
"Fuck if anyone knows why, but she wants to bring the House of Malfoy to its knees. She and the others weren't there to ensure you succeeded. They were there to ensure Dumbledore fell. They were under no obligation to see that you made it off that tower or out of that castle alive."
"You think they would have killed me?"
"Or left you gift-wrapped for the Aurors, so you could rot away in Azkaban instead of your own basement." Severus scratched the back of his head. "Christ, the Dark Lord may have even encouraged them to spare him the need to gauge your loyalty."
Eyes wide and chest heaving, Draco stared at the small stone fireplace. He clenched and unclenched his hand. "You're not lying to me?"
"I am not. But whether you believe that or give my suspicions any credence depends on what you think and feel," he replied, standing.
"Granger says I ought to trust you."
"And do you trust what Granger says?"
Draco shrugged. "She's just as talented a liar as you are."
With a weary snort, the spy headed for the staircase.
"But I don't think she'd lie about her parents. At least, not like that."
Caught in his tracks, Snape slowly pivoted back to meet the boy's gaze. "Explain that."
Draco arched an eyebrow. "That you showed the Dark Lord their deaths when in truth they're in perfect health."
The fuck have you done, Hermione? Severus stood like a stone, hurriedly reassessing the threat his mentee posed.
"Oh, sod off!" the pureblood stood with a huff. "I couldn't off an old man when I still believed it could actually save my mother. Why would I send four people to their deaths when it would only further jeopardize her life?"
"Then why bring it up?" he asked rigidly.
"I wanted to see your reaction," Draco gestured pointedly. "And since you look ready to shit a brick, I think its safe to assume you didn't know what she told me. Ergo, I stand by my assessment that Granger wouldn't willingly dishonor dead parents by claiming they live just to make you look better. Lying to protect living parents by claiming they're dead – that I believe she'd do."
Severus let out a heated breath but relaxed his shoulders.
"Look, I'm not – I don't know when I'll be ready to forgive what happened, but… knowing you went well out of your way to protect her parents, who'd never helped or even met you, I have to trust you'll do the same for my mother." The boy took a deep breath as his mentor nodded. "And if I'm going to make it through tomorrow, I need to trust you have my back. I know there isn't really anything you can do to help me once we're there, but…"
"You have my support, Draco, and given we are all still alive, I am confident in your abilities as an Occlumens. But… that will all mean nothing if you don't go the fuck to sleep."
Draco choked on his snort and held up the hand in which he clenched the vial of Dreamless Sleep. "I'm going, alright?"