A lovely summer day off of work, XXtra Hot Cheetos, air conditioning, a cuddly kitten, and the "Game of Thrones" soundtrack makes a good combo for writing. Please excuse any typos as I no longer have a beta reader. Enjoy this chapter... if you can.

Disclaimer: I do not own anything, got it?


"Truthful witness by a good person clears the air, but liars lay down a smoke screen of deceit.

Rash language cuts and maims, but there is healing in the words of the wise."

- Proverbs 12:17-18, The Message Translation

The air was thick with a sense of foreboding and Hermione sensed it the moment she opened the door to Severus' quarters.

"Good evening." The smile he greeted her with didn't quite reach his eyes, his voice wavered between indifference and emotional while his long, black tresses hid his cheeks.

Any eagerness she had to share discuss her Patronus lesson with him over supper had vanished the second her eyes rested on him; all plans to chat about her evening were gone, her excitement waning. There was something to be said about the way he held himself. Strong shoulders that were usually arched back and his head high were hunched as if something heavy burdened them. Hermione's stomach clenched at the empty way he stared at her.

"Hello, handsome," she tested the unusual title as she shrugged off her cloak. If he shot down her compliment with displeasure, he was in better spirits than she first realized. Holding in her breath, she waited for his response and hoped that it was simply another tiring day for him.

However, the Potions master offered her the same fake smile as he Summoned the silverware to arrange itself on the table. "Did you have a pleasant day?"

Oh no... Those six words weighed heavily in her stomach. It's worse than I thought.

The Potions master's eyes fixated on the table, his long fingers gracing the air in slow gestures as he effortlessly prepared the table. Puffs of steam rose from the cooked meat and vegetables that portioned themselves evenly onto two plates and matching goblets rested on the wood. Without missing a beat, a bottle of what looked like expensive Elven wine floated mid-air poured generously into the goblets.

The man wasn't debilitated as he operated at a capacity that would fool any other onlooker. There was no hindrance in his movements, no indication to reveal any sort of ailment. But Hermione was no fool; she had spent a long time studying this man, learning his mannerisms and his behaviours.

Something had happened today... but he didn't seem too keen on discussing it.

If she couldn't figure out what was wrong with him and he wasn't going to pour out his soul to her, she would fill the void with whatever necessary. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Hermione crossed the room to stand before him. Smiling brightly up at him, she brushed his hair back behind his ears. Two large, endless pools of black met hers.

He looks exhausted... Maybe that's all this is.

"I missed you," She brushed her lips tenderly to the corner of his mouth, hoping to bring some life to that phony smile on his lips. "I've thought about you all day."

It was an exaggeration to gauge any sort of genuine reaction out of him. Even a typical Dungeon Bat sneer would be welcome at this point. No such thing happened, not so much as a sarcastic twinge of his lips.

"Come." He grasped her fingers, beckoning her to the table. "I just set our supper on the table. Let's eat while the food is hot."

The two ate their supper and with Severus' lack of conversation, Hermione took it upon herself to carry on the majority of the dialogue.

"Looks like it can't be helped. I'll be stuck with Gin planning a wedding she has no absolutely no interest in while you go to St. Mungo's and help Cruciatus victims." Hermione rested her chin in her hand and poked her fork at a turnip, looking more like a five-year-old pouting over not getting dessert rather than an esteemed Hogwarts professor. "I drew the short straw, didn't I?"

"A punishment fitting for the worst humanity has to offer, I'm sure." Severus deadpanned taking a bite of his roasted duck. Head craned downward, his gaze more interested in the table's surface than looking at her directly. "Was eloping truly not an option?"

Hermione felt like a broken record. "Harry really wants a wedding."

"Odd..."

"I mean, it is odd, but Harry is against the very idea of eloping." Hermione leaned back in her chair, craning her head back until she felt a satisfying pop in her neck. "When Harry proposed, that was Ginny's ideal suggestion – to run away, get married over a weekend somewhere, and be back at the field on Monday. No flowers, no dresses, no dramatics. It made sense for Ginny, but you should have seen Harry's and Molly's faces." shaking her head, she reached for her goblet of wine. "Both were equally appalled, let me tell you!"

"I can imagine." Severus drawled, also taking a sip of his wine and she could read the disinterest in the way he rested his back against his chair.

"Harry wasn't as privileged as Ronald and Gin, or even myself." she went on, hoping to make a sympathetic case for Harry. "He didn't have emotional stability or any kind of familial love or normalcy. For Merlin's sake, his 'room' was a cupboard under a set of stairs! I think that's why he is always the first one to sign up for any party, celebration, or get-together at the Burrow. He didn't experience any of it as a child so he wants to take in as much of it as possible. I can guess why Gin doesn't understand that; she grew up with it so it's easy to take for granted all those kinds of things she thinks are a bore, like social events and parties... I think that's one of the many reasons Harry wants this wedding, but I'm certain it's the most important."

A pause. "That's intuitive."

Could he be any less interested? Hermione bit her lip to keep from laughing. At least he's talking to me...

"I know Harry better than he knows himself," she tried again to reel in his attention. "He wants something concrete that no one can take away from him... And while a wedding can't give you emotional stability, but it can give him a happy day, maybe the best day of his life."

"I suppose."

Hermione's eyebrows furrowed with concern. When Hermione often spoke of her best friend, the disdain would be all over his face. It was no secret that Severus held a certain dislike for the young man and he often made no efforts to hide it. However, it was clear that he wasn't interested in talking about Harry. In fact, the man in question didn't seem to be particularly attentive to anything... except for the table. While he was not as expressive as others, Hermione knew him well enough by now to recognize the difference between her companion's usual tiredness and emotional distance.

"I'm guessing that's why he and Ginny asked you to perform that bonding ritual?" Severus blinked up at her, clearly surprised. Hermione rested her chin in her hands, not at all hiding the smirk on her lips. "There we go. That's the first time you've looked interested all night. Is everything alright?"

The Potions master sat still, as if caught in an act.

"I... Forgive me. I've had an... an off day." He brushed over her concern by addressing her question."Potter's desire is to be forever bound to his wife." Severus' pale, long fingers rested on the table as he resumed his perfect posture. "The bond is more commonly known as the wedding or marital bond. It has a simple name, intimidating and powerful: the Vow of Unification."

The Vow of Unification...

"It is old magic that this generation is unfamiliar with," Severus continued. "One could blame it on the increased divorce rate and infidelity... not that it matters. This particular kind of bond was intended for witches and wizards who were intentional about their future marriage - their love so powerful that they desire nothing and no one else more than one another. This marital bond is not dangerous, mind you, but it is very powerful. To my knowledge, this bond is so strong that no amount of distance, save for death, can divide the two involved. It keeps you accountable to one another, your hearts beat as one, your breath is of the same air. It will be official once the marriage is consummated."

He says it with such a straight face...

"There is more," Severus continued without missing a beat. "You establish a sort of magical, telepathic link with one another... If tapped into at will, one can hear the thoughts and feel the emotions their partner is experiencing."

So. Harry and Ginny could know each other's thoughts at a moment's will?

She wasn't sure she liked that. At all.

"So there's no more privacy?" She inquired, a sense of unease in her gut.

"I will try to explain it... This particular bond ties the two spouses together – mind, body and soul. This does not mean that you're completely open to your partner without barriers. There is this... telepathic middle ground if you can imagine it, where the two are connected. This middle ground has many titles and names but most simply call it the Center, or more famously, the Palace. The Palace is where the two involved can communicate telepathically with one another if they so wished. Once practiced and perfected, one can close yourself off to the Palace at will, if you do not wish to have that sort of communication at the time, or leave it open. It is always available. For example, if Potter wished to know what his wife was thinking, he could 'open his door' and 'tap' into the Palace. If she desired to reciprocate the gesture, she could meet him in the Palace and allow him to experience what she's feeling. Or, if she preferred to keep her thoughts and emotions private, her 'door' – if you will – would close and the only thoughts she would be able to hear would be her own." He took a sip of his wine, his gaze remained on the goblet even after he set it back down on the table. "Again, it is old and romanticized magic. The lack of accountability in relationships in modern days has made a magical bond such as this one appear to be invasive or possessive, when in fact, it's purpose is to draw the husband and wife closer to one another."

Hermione felt a warmth spread across her cheeks.

"I think I understand and I feel better knowing that the bond isn't as invasive as I first thought. I... I never imagined Harry would want something that intimate. I know how much he adores Gin but to open your entire self up to that one person? Blimey... One would have to be extremely careful..."

"Granted, this kind of bond is the very standard of commitment. One who chose to partake in this kind of marital bond would be recommended to not do so lightly. You seem..." Severus paused, and she guessed he was choosing his words carefully. "Unsure of their decision. Do you not trust in their love?"

What a ridiculous question.

"I... No, of course, I trust it. The way they feel for one another... It runs deeper than most relationships that I know of today. Their willingness to lay down their lives at a moment's notice for each other is admirable and something to be envious of..."

"There is uncertainty in your voice."

The Charm's professor scratched her cheek. "You know an awful lot about this bond..."

"I've taken to researching magical bonds in the past and more-so in recent days." He tilted his goblet a little and stared at the Elven wine inside, his black eyes lost in thoughtfulness.

For the wedding?

"I suppose..." Hermione tilted her head. "I just can't imagine doing that with just anyone as of right now... Despite it being probably the greatest romantic gesture a witch and a wizard could share, it's quite unnerving! A magical bond between me and someone else – it seems so risky!"

HACK!

"Severus?"

"I'm alright..." wheezed Severus, pressing his napkin to his mouth to shield any accidental spewing of wine. His hand waved at her so that she wouldn't approach him. "Forgive me... that was rude."

"Choking on a drink is rude?"

The wizard gave her a pointed look. "Yes." Cheeks tinted with pink from the rush, Severus forcefully set his folded napkin beside his plate. "You are not wrong. Most magical bonds between two people are terrifying and rarely have decent outcomes. This one, however, is primarily risk-free... unless the vows they had taken are violated by selfish reasons or severed suddenly. But who can say how unfortunate the negative outcome is? Divorce was a rarity in the day when this bond was popular... It's difficult to say."

Hermione thought long and hard about this as she lowered herself back into her chair.

It wasn't that she was entirely opposed to the idea of being completely and utterly in love with one person. Like many individuals her age, she had dreamed of finding that one special person to spend her entire life with, to create blissful memories, to build a path that both of them could take on a lifelong journey... but before she was a dreamer or a romantic, her instinct was to be logical and direct. The only person she could imagine even considering the idea was the wizard sitting across from her trying to recover his composure from coughing up wine. However... it just seemed to be too soon to even be considering being bound to someone – even Severus - magically. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that Severus Snape was the man that she wanted to live life with but would she consider a magical, marital bond to tie them to one another? Was it even necessary? Why would she agree to such a bond when she already felt bound to him now?

She already felt so close to Severus. Certainly, she didn't know everything about him and would probably never even come close. Being the cautious and guarded man he was, it might be half a century before he would share with her how his parents had first met. However, just spending each day with him had its marvelous rewards. Discovering what to say that would make his lips curve into a smile, mentally cataloguing that his love languages were both words of affirmation and physical affection, eating nearly every meal with him, working beside him and learning what made him swell with pride in his classroom...

The way his lips would set her body aflame...

Her heart pounded against her rib cage.

Of course, it was too soon to make such claims that a bond such as the Vow of Unification would not interest her. After all, her vows of celibacy were of the utmost importance to her until she had discovered how fascinating it was to kiss Severus so thoroughly. Promises of chastity would be tossed out the window with every time she and Severus ended up snogging. His taste, his scent, the sweet nothings that filled her ears caused the heat within her to spread like wildfire. His love was fuel to her flames and they licked at her insides, burning hotter and burning brighter with every heated kiss. Severus had warned her that if they continued, it would become increasingly more difficult for her to hold back. Despite her best efforts, her determination to keep her convictions at the forefront were waning.

She was beginning to desire him.

As Muggles say, never say never.

Don't.

Her gut clenched in sheer, internal terror. She hadn't heard that ugly, condemning voice for nearly a year... Damn it all, how could she have forgotten it?

Don't. The haunting voice whispered to her behind her ear. It took a bit of inner strength to force the whispers of the most irredeemable side of her to cease.

"M-Maybe one day..." Hermione shrugged her shoulders.

"When you're there, you will desire that vulnerability – that rare intimacy – with that person. You also have your... convictions to consider."

When she was with Ronald, she had made it adamantly clear that until she restored her parents' memories and received their mutual blessing, she wouldn't be with a man, let alone marry. Her will and resolve were iron back then. The debt she owed to her parents outweighed any carnal or selfish desires that she might have...

But with Severus...

She took a moment to take in the wizard sitting across from her.

It had been a hard journey so far. Two broken people trying to navigate unfamiliar waters, half the time it felt that they were sailing into this relationship blindly. In spite of every setback, each disagreement, each little jab at one another... He was her equal and her likeness. Whenever they were together, this pull between them drew them closer to one another. The build-up of every little glance, each small gesture, intimate embrace, even the breathless kisses. Oh, how she wanted him. She wanted him - every little bit of him that she could get her grabby, greedy fingers on. The way her heart would beat for him, she couldn't deny that she wanted to give him everything that she had, lay all that she was at his feet... even the parts of her she swore she wouldn't give. Her heart yearned to give him more-

Don't.

Darkness started to creep in from uninvited places, the room filling with shadows of the deep-seeded fear within her... The ugliest side of her, the part that she detested the most...

Marriage doesn't suit someone who breaks families apart...

Hermione's throat tightened and tears pricked at her eyes.

Do you wish to have a family? After everything you did to your own? Foolish girl...

No... She couldn't fall so hard that she would forget what she had done.

She looked to the man sitting opposite her, who was staring back at her with gentle concern.

You don't deserve that special blissful blessing... Not after what you've done to your own flesh and blood... Not until your parents are free of the horrible predicament you, their own daughter, put them in. Don't even entertain the thought.

"Hermione? Are you well?"

Don't.

Hermione jolted. "Sorry!" She apologized as the shadows retreated to the darkest corners of her mind. Fixating a smile on her face, she settled herself back into Severus' quarters. "I just lost myself in thought for a moment... Haa haa..."

He sent a peculiar look her way but did not press further. "Come what may, Potter and Ms Weasley have arrived at the point where their shared desire is to build a life together, as they should be after many years." Severus leaned back in his chair, his hands resting in his lap. A distinct expression flitted over the man's countenance as his eyes glossed over. "They're more than ready. After all, the devotion Potter carries for his wife mirrors his father's love for his mother."

What? "What?" Hermione asked, her interest piqued.

"Nothing," he muttered. "Are you finished with your meal?"

"I am." Hermione agreed, reaching for his plate. A distraction was necessary to cut off her inner demons from becoming louder, to keep their words from growing darker...

"What are you doing?"

The Charms professor didn't have to look at him to know that quizzical smirk of his was already on his lips. "I'm not going to Summon Fingles to do something as simple as dishes, Severus. I can do them myself."

His lips pressed into a thin line. "Why not? He's well compensated."

Some things we will never see eye-to-eye on. Doesn't mean I can't fight for my way every once in a while.

"You know how strongly I feel about House-Elf working conditions and pay, Severus..." Hermione stood her ground with a tone that meant that she was not going to back down. "You remember our talk of what I fought for when I worked in the Department for Regulation and Control for Magical Creatures, don't you?" Feeling fiery with Gryffindor stubbornness, she held his gaze -without once blinking- until he sighed in resignation.

"As you wish. I won't stop you."

As she set to work scrubbing the dirty utensils and dishes with a sponge, she felt the familiar presence of her romantic companion beside her.

"Cleaning my own dishes..." Severus grunted as he steered the faucet to his side of the sink to rinse the sud-covered dishes. "What is this world coming to if powerful and respectable wizards have to clean up after themselves? Such folly..."

"Come on, a bit of humility is good for you!" Hermione jabbed him playfully with her elbow as he rolled up his sleeves. "It's not like we never ask Fingles for help. This one task we can do ourselves!"

"Hn." was his reply as he proceeded to thoroughly rinse the dishes by hand.

As her hands worked at scrubbing off food from the plates, Hermione's mind wandered. Would it be so terrible to have that kind of relationship with someone? To open one's self up entirely to their partner? To have such an intimate connection, to be able to communicate with someone she loved at will?

She took a moment to admire the pale hands working next to her. Those hands worked diligently, as they always did, thumbs running over the plate to rid it of any excess soap before placing it carefully onto the counter next to the sink to be dried. Long fingers that crafted perfection, cool hands moved with intention and patience, arms that told a tale of heartbreak and loss while also mirroring a resilient will...

Even standing here beside him, doing something as simple as washing dishes, brought her a sense of peace and fulfillment that she hadn't felt in years, maybe ever.

Then, why was there this sense of apprehension when discussing this sort of marital bonding?

Her hesitance could likely be attributed to her last relationship with Ronald Weasley. Deep down, she couldn't bring herself to blame him entirely for the disappointment and failure of their relationship. She was equally guilty of not doing everything needed to meet him where he was, to give him what he needed to keep their sinking ship afloat. There was always something amiss, a tension underlying all of the affection... a sense of pressure - pressure for her to be more affectionate, for her to give up her convictions, to work less, to compromise her happiness in hopes that it would make his life easier. There would always be reflections and guilt about what she should have done instead, what she could have done to improve their relationship... but as both Severus and Harry had told her, there was no point in staying in a relationship that would ultimately lead to more heartbreak, more loss, more wasted time. Their love didn't grow over time; it plateaued, maintained itself, and then began it's slow, but sure, descent. She and Ron were a thing of the past.

The man across from her was different.

Unlike Ron, Severus had required very little from her in terms of 'the future'. Of course, it would be inappropriate to discuss such things when they had been dating for such a short time. The only time marriage was discussed was when it involved Harry and Ginny's future wedding plans since both of them were involved with the wedding. Hell, he never even mentioned if he was even interested in getting married himself. Even so, the Potions master encouraged her to pursue her passions, to devote herself to her teachings and the Cure project. When they spent time together, they would enjoy the moment that each day lay before them. Most recent conversations revolved around their undertaking of the Cure, their House's Quidditch practices, and their plans for dinner that evening. Hermione couldn't recall a single desire of his in regards to the future, or rather, their future. He discussed the present, the 'now'. Even his talks of retirement were a thing of the past. It was comforting to her that there were no far-fetching, unrealistic expectations placed upon them.

He and I are career-focused, which is one of the many reasons why he and I are so suitable for each other... If we were to discuss the future...

But you won't.

Hermione's scrubbed the plate a little harder.

What gives you the right to crave such bliss such as marriage and children when you took that away from your own family? Without allowing them to make their own choices, you stripped their rights away from them by taking their memories from them?

Her parents' smiling faces resonated within her soul... and fresh nausea rose within Hermione.

The kindhearted couple who accepted their magical daughter with all of the love in the world, withholding no good thing from her... and this was the kindness she repaid them with. No amount of hard work or goodwill would ever restore the desecration she had brought into her own family, regardless of what good intentions she had in mind... She had forced the Obliviate charm upon them against their will, planted in them the desire to go far away and to never once glance over their shoulders. The happiness of being a parent – the memories of having a child – so what gave her the right that she could entertain the idea that she could partake in that blessing? Why risk pregnancy when she took something so precious from her parents?

Until your hands are washed of your sins and you restore what was lost, don't even think of taking for yourself.

Clank!

Hermione jumped a little as Severus placed one of the plates a little too forcefully down onto the counter. "Careful! Don't want to chip a plate, now do we? Severus?"

The strange aura that encompassed room that she had stepped into when she first opened the door was now suffocating her partner. Whatever he was feeling half an hour ago was just starting to seep through the careful clasps of his control, so much so that he wouldn't even pull his hand away from his eyes. The Severus Snape who had withstood countless trials and tribulations stood at the sink, one hand grasping the counter and the other pressed into his eyes. Every breath escaped his lungs in short, quiet heaves of anxiety. Dread sank into the pit of her stomach. Her private shortcomings and inner demons side-blinded her to that point that she unintentionally neglected her partner.

Oh, God...

She grasped his free hand to which he gave no resistance to her touch. To her shock, his normally cool skin was clammy from perspiration and he trembled at her touch. Hermione stood there, running her two thumbs comfortingly over his knuckles. Coaxing him without words, the brunette slowly guided him to his couch, the dishes abandoned in the sink. Hermione's lips remained sealed as the Potions master slumped back into the cushions without resistance.

"Surely, this is not what you expected when we agreed to pursue one another..." His words were quiet but Hermione could feel the sardonic ice in them. "To have to deal with my every emotional turbulence..."

"Shhhh... don't." Hermione cut him off gently, shaking her head. "Don't."

She didn't understand the depth of his torment but speaking further wouldn't produce any good fruit. Keeping her silence, she sat motionlessly, her composure relaxed as to not evoke discomfort from him. Holding onto his hand, her thumb would occasionally brush against his knuckles, allowing as much time as he needed to collect himself. Whatever he had to say, if anything at all, she would be there to walk with him through it and then if need be, be there to pull him out of the abyss before it was too late. The Potions master's head rested back against the dark leather of the couch, his eyes closed in what looked like... Pain? Or was it concentration? She didn't dare ask.

I'm here for you...

Hermione bit her lip, feeling a surge of sympathy for her companion. What could she do? What did he need?

He needed comfort.

But what must she do to give him that comfort?

Wordlessly, Hermione moved to sit in his lap. Carefully throwing one leg around his hips, she effectively straddled him. They had been close when there were less pure and more playful motives involved when the night ended in meaningful conversations and kisses accompanied with cuddling until the early hours of the morning. This was not one of those times. Tonight she would make it her duty to provide solace for her distraught companion. Drawing close to him, Hermione ran her fingers through his dark tresses before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Severus didn't put up a fight – vocal or otherwise. Taking this as a sign that she was on the right track, Hermione pressed her lips to his forehead in a comforting kiss, then one to his cheek. Embracing him as gently as she could, she willed her body to breathe slowly and calmly, knowing that if she were to show any kind of panic or distress, Severus would sense it and mirror it.

At times, she would plant soft kisses along his skin. Others, she would massage his scalp before running her fingers through his hair. He was still for a while. No words, no movements... nothing at all.

"Are you in pain?"

"Physical pain? No."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No."

"What can I do?"

"I don't know..." It was a rarity for the Potions master to not have an answer to guide her forward. "I am... lost."

His words broke her heart.

She shouldn't ask. She shouldn't prod him for answers. She should keep her mouth shut and embrace him entirely... But an idea came to mind that she couldn't help but offer.

"Show me?"

The man stiffened below her. "I beg your pardon?"

"If it would make it easier, instead of telling me, you could show me."

Eyes grew wide at her suggestion, fear etched into every line of Severus' pale face. "That's impossible."

"It might be. You're a powerful Occlumens." She tilted her head at him. "But we can always try?"

"If this is for academic purposes, I must decline-"

"I'm concerned about you," Hermione interrupted, raising an eyebrow at him. "Not everything I do is strictly for the pursuit of knowledge, you knew me better than that."

Guilt flitted across his features. "Forgive me."

"Don't hide it from me." Hermione lifted his hand to her temple, pressing his fingertips to her skin. "We're partners, remember? Whatever you're going through, whatever you're feeling... I can't take it away from you, I can't distract you to the point of erasing the pain. But if I can share it with you, I want to carry it with you."

Her affections were met with a glare. "It is one thing to offer to comfort me, it is another to seek out the information unbridled in the sanctuary of my own mind."

Hermione's heart sank. "You don't trust me?"

Severus' hand grasped hers. "That is an unfair and manipulative question. One I do not see the need to answer."

Although that wasn't my intention... he has a point.

"Severus... I want to help..." The witch caressed his skin, running her fingers into his hair in the way that he liked. "You've taken on so many of my burdens... What kind of partner would I be if I couldn't offer the same? How can I help if you won't share with me?"

"This is not a concern of whether you're a good partner or not. This is personal and not something for you to see through my eyes. Just..." He swallowed thickly as he pried her hands away from him entirely and pushing them to rest in her lap. "I can see the desire in your eyes to take action but this isn't something you can mend, Hermione. Seeking out the answers in my mind through my perspective will not grant me peace. Do not try to fix this. It will only hurt you..." He repeated himself, his baritone darkening with resolve and quiet fury. "Do not ask again."

It was a request and warning for her to stop.

Hermione's heart tore in two different directions.

He's not well... It's clear that he's emotionally compromised. The right thing to do would be to embrace him. Run your fingers through his long hair. Whisper little encouraging words to him. Kiss his cheek, kiss his eyes... Don't try to push open the lid... It's too soon...

But then he won't share anything with me. How am I supposed to be the partner he needs if he won't share anything with me? He's always keeping me at an arm's distance, always hiding something from me... He won't share with me the things that weigh so heavily in his heart... Am I not doing my job efficiently as his partner to take on those burdens?

Offer what you know will be comforting to him... Say nothing, hold him close...

Challenge him to become a better person... Speak now...

"Alright."

Severus' hands found her middle and for a moment, she thought he would pull her closer to him and lock her in a tight embrace. Instead, with little effort, he moved her off of his lap, placing her beside him. Hermione watched hopelessly and wordlessly as Severus stood to his feet and retrieved his cloak. Without a word, he left and closed the door quietly behind him.


The snow-covered buildings sparkled from the bright moon above as she approached the small village of Hogsmeade. Smoke rose high from the chimneys and light danced in the foggy windows as the bushy-haired professor trudged through the snowy streets, nodding politely to friendly faces as she headed towards the Three Broomsticks. The witch's breath escaped in puffs of air as the wooden doors opened to her, and a familiar face stepped out, dodging his head so that he wouldn't smack the door frame.

"Ermione!" the half-giant greeted her. "Saw ya comin', wanted t' open th' door for ye! Here fer a drink-?"

"Hagrid! Forgive me for interrupting, have you seen Sev – Professor Snape?"

"Sev'rus? Oh, he's inside." The half-giant gave her a quizzical smile. "Ye two sure have grown close, haven't ye?"

"Hagrid, please."

"He's at the corner of the bar. But believe me, 'Ermione, ye don't wanta disturb 'im righ' now."

"Thanks, Hagrid!" Hermione moved past him with a slap on his arm, picking up her skirt to move quickly.

The Three Broomsticks was full of lively patrons, eager to eat their fill and drink the night away. Hermione paid no attention to those who glanced her way, her brown eyes searching the crowd for her dark-haired lover...

"Severus...!" her breath left her lungs as she spotted the Potions master seated by himself at the bar, nursing what she knew was an iced Firewhiskey. Heartbeat matched the speed of her feet that carried her quickly to his side. "Thank God, I was worried sick, absolutely sick," she whispered as soon as she reached him. It took everything in her not to throw herself at him and embrace him. As they were surrounded by fellow members of the magical community, not to mention a colleague or two, it would've been a detriment to the privacy they valued... despite her joy, she didn't want to expose their relationship.

Either Severus remembered this as he sat still at the barstool, making no effort whatsoever to look at her. "What time is it?"

"It's nearly ten."

A look of surprise dawned on him. "I hadn't meant to stay here for that long... I only intended to go for a walk..."

His voice... It's so... I mean, his voice is always toneless but why does he sound so... mechanic?

"A... walk." Hermione repeated blankly.

"Yes... I needed to clear my head." Dark eyes snapped on hers. "What of it?" His words became defensive and sharp, ready for a fight. The very glare he sent her made her caused her stomach to drop.

This isn't normal.

"I... It's not like you to leave without a warning." Her head tilted as she peeked up at him, hoping that her words would reach beyond his disturbed state. "If you needed space, all you had to do was ask."

"Isn't it obvious that is precisely why I left you?" His voice was on the edge of something dark. "And yet here you are."

"What is that supposed to mean? You left without a word." She pulled her cloak closer, for self-comfort. "I'm sorry if I offended you. I was only trying to help. But to get up and disappear on me like that-"

"Is it a sin to go on a stroll by myself? We don't always have to be attached at the hip, you know."

Either he's trying to make me leave by pushing me away... or he means what he's saying.

"No, of course not. You can leave at any time you wish... I didn't... I didn't mean for it to sound like that." Hermione willed her heart to keep calm and not to receive any of the harsh words he hailed at her. "Severus... You don't just get up and leave Hogwarts for hours for no reason. When you need to clear your head, you bury yourself a book or have a smoke or two. This isn't-"

"What do you know about me?" Severus hissed at her, leaning into her so suddenly that the gesture elicited a gasp of surprise from the witch. A twinge of fear rose in Hermione as the man in question towered over her, despite remaining seated, his glossed-over eyes glaring menacingly down at her. "What do you truly know, little one?"

Hermione took a whiff; she could already smell it imprinting on his skin.

"I suppose I don't need to ask what you've been doing here. You've had one too many, Severus." She spoke gently, without any trace of accusation. Desperate, she had to reach him, to pull him out of that darkness before he spiraled out of control. Without thinking, she brushed her fingers along the back of his arm. "Here, let's get you back to your quarters. I can make you some tea and-"

"I do not WANT tea," he growled at her, the command rippling down Hermione's back. "What I WANT is for you to get your hands off of me."

The demand cut Hermione deeply. This isn't him... This isn't my Severus... But... He's not himself right now and if I don't rectify the situation, it's only going to escalate. Hands shaking, Hermione met the eyes of her beloved. "Alright..." she whispered gently and as slowly as she could. "Alright... I won't touch you. I won't..." she promised sincerely and lifted her hands off of him. "See, there. No more touching." The lump in her throat made it difficult for her to speak clearly. "I was only trying to help... I don't know what happened today but I wasn't sensitive enough to you to do what you needed..." She didn't mean to sound so helpless and whiny, but it was getting hard to hide her guilt for his pain. "I'm truly sorry... but... we should talk about this. I'm scared for you. You're not yourself."

The Potions master turned his back to her, shoulders hunching over the counter, his glass cradled by his slim fingertips. All the signals he was sending her were obvious: "Go away." "I do not wish to speak to you." "I can't even look at you."

The signals alone should have sent her packing. She could hear the cynical voices in the back of her mind, encouraging her that she needn't put up with this sort of man - that such a man, broken and battered by the world, who held onto every little thing, should be left to his own devices - that she deserved better than this...

Only, Hermione wasn't about to walk away. After all, I'm plenty broken too.

"Fine." the witch sighed as she dug her fingers into her scarf, pulling it off with little force. With her scarf gone and her cloak next, she sat comfortably in the empty barstool beside him. She didn't need to look to see her wizard crane his head to look at her. Clearing her throat for Rosemerta's attention, she gave her a polite smile. "Good evening Rosemerta," she greeted the bar owner. "Could I have a Butterbeer with some ginger, please?"

A growl next to her. "I told you..."

"That you needed space. You made that quite... quite clear. However, my evening just freed up. I would like a spot of my favorite Butterbeer and then I'll be on my way back to the castle." Folding her hands on the counter, she inhaled deeply, trying to banish any emotional reaction to his cold shoulder. "I'll feed Crooks, read half of a good book and be off to bed. I won't bother you for the rest of the evening.." she lowered her voice to a whisper. "After all, I've hurt you enough for one evening."

"You did not..." A tiny crack in his voice.

"You don't need to explain anything right now," Hermione whispered over her shoulder, hoping that their conversation wasn't being overheard by any nearby guests. "It must have been a rough day for you. It's not like you to be this upset to the point where you turn to the drink... Please forgive me for not being sensitive to you and your request for privacy. I didn't mean to overstep my bounds, I swear." Don't you dare cry here, Hermione Jean Granger. "Please, hear me out... I never meant to make you feel like I wanted to invade your space or read your mind. Yes, I know you hate that phrasing. I just wanted to help you and I... I didn't know how. My suggestion was... I don't know, I didn't think it through. I'm so sorry that you felt that you had to leave to have some distance so you can think. Forgive me."

She smiled at him, despite that he wouldn't – or rather, refused - to look her in the eye. "Just... remember that you're not alone, okay? And I'm here for you, whatever you need. Please... take all the time you need to get back to normal... but don't take too long? I'm already starting to miss my narky companion."

I mean it...

"Hermione, I-"

"Well well well, look what the Hippogriff dragged in." A youthful voice on her opposite ear reached her, sending a rush of annoyance throughout her entire body. Putting on a cordial smile, the witch turned on her barstool to address the person to her right. Felix Doddle sat facing her in his seat, his light eyes twinkling with mischief as he adjusted his robes to get more comfortable. "Rare to catch you outside of the classroom or the Great Hall."

Hermione hid her discomfort behind a mask of civility. "Professor Doddle, hello. How are you?"

"I am very well, better now that I ran into you!" Doddle craned his neck a little, glancing past Hermione. "Oh, good evening, Severus!" he acknowledged the Potions master before turning his gaze back to her.

Ugh, this is so not what I need right now. I can't be busy entertaining this oaf! I have to make myself available so that if at any point in time Severus needs me, I'm here. "Professor Doddle, I-"

The wizard charmed her with a smile, his eyes wrinkling. "Please, please. I've asked you repeatedly to call me by my first name. We're colleagues after all, aren't we? Call me Felix," he stuck out his hand.

I can be polite and courteous like my mother raised me.

The witch met his extended hand to give it a firm, professional handshake. "Yes, and I'm-" Only, to her dread, Felix took her hand raised her knuckles to his lips. "Hermione..."

"The pleasure is all mine..." Doddle murmured, his lips moving against her skin. "Hermione."

The witch could feel the heat of Severus' seething glare burning right through her to the oblivious young wizard beside her.

"Aha..." The witch withdrew her away quickly, a nervous laugh escaping her. "That's um... Alright. Now, um, oh look! My drink is here, thank you Rosemerta. So, I'm going to just sit here and enjoy it. It was nice to see you and I hope you have a lovely even-"

"So tell me, Hermione..." Felix purred her name as if addressing a pet. Hermione shuddered as his barstool moved, the legs of the chair scraping on the floor as Doddle scooted closer to her. Even with her eyes fixated on her glass of Butterbeer, making it her best effort to not address him, the wizard leaned into her vision by resting his elbow right next to her tankard. "How is it that we don't talk more? Ever since our conversation in the hallway, I've been meaning to take more time to speak to you. We are coworkers, after all."

Because I would like to keep my brain cell count high, thank you very much. "Oh, um, I'm rather busy." Grasping the tankard, she greedily took a few sips to wash down the horrible taste of this conversation. She wasn't a naive little girl - she knew exactly what Doddle was after. The look in his eyes was the same kind of look that Cormac McClaggen would send her back when she was in her sixth year – the smolder of a young man's impure thoughts and that grin of wicked intentions.

The tankard, which she had just pressed to her lips was abruptly pulled out of her hands and placed on the counter with a thud. "Busy?" Doddle pressed, leaning closer. "Someone so young shouldn't be so consumed with work. Surely, you have some hobbies you like to do in your free time."

Don't take my drink away. Little prat. "Not that it would interest you but I enjoy reading in my spare time. When I'm not reading, I'm knitting. When I'm not doing either of those things, I take time to perfect my Charms so that it makes it easier for my students to learn from me. And I like to be productive, I'll have you know." Hermione challenged him, her well-behaved smile replaced with a smirk. "Productivity is what separates an ardent professional and a passive amateur."

The dunderhead nodded with feigned agreement, rubbing his chin with two fingers while her direct insult went completely over his fancy hair. "That is true, that is true, Hermione. Passion is what matters, isn't it? Working towards something with nothing but pure determination and rock-hard will, putting your heart to the test, striving for the one thing you want the most..." The look he was sending her was meant to capture her heart... But unbeknownst to him, her heart belonged to the man sitting to her left. "But it takes a risk, doesn't it?"

Hermione reached out for her drink. "Naturally. But it also takes-"

Slide. "Takes what?" He was teasing her now, tugging her tankard across the counter so that it was beyond her reach. The absolute nerve of this guy...

Hermione wet her lips, taking a moment to bite them so that she wouldn't snap at him. "Caution. It takes caution. Please hand me back my drink."

The wizard laughed, his teeth showing for all to see. You are as fake as they come, Doddle... I can see all the cavities and fillings in your back teeth. "Come now, Hermione. I wasn't insulting your dedication to your work. In fact... I find it..." Doddle clicked his tongue as if searching for a word. "Admirable... And even quite... Attractive."

Oh Merlin's pants, please stop...Hermione had to remind herself to take a collective breath to calm the blood that was rushing to her hands, her right on in particular itching to draw her wand from her sleeve. Don't react, Hermione. He's a colleague. If you react badly, you'll be risking your job. You'll risk your entire career. Don't react...

"Oh, so you like women that work hard, do you? That's delightful news." The witch's tone on the edge of disdain, her jaw clenched and speaking through her teeth. "Maybe if you put more work into teaching your students actual defensive spells instead of having the Charms professor take over, maybe you would find yourself a woman of my caliber."

Her slight against him caused his smile to curve downwards. "Oh, please, I..." he paused. "I only allowed you to teach the students that Charm because I was hoping to... to impress you."

"You allowed me?" Hermione repeated, repulsed by the very word. "You're barmy, aren't you? Do you remember the conversation in the hallway the other day that it wasn't in your curriculum to teach the Patronus Charm? You said, and I quote: 'There's no need to teach such a defensive Charm when Hogwarts is the safest it's ever been'. Which is precisely why I took it upon myself to teach the students a Charm necessary for many of them to pass their exams with 'Exceeds Expectations'! You made it quite clear from the beginning that you had no intentions to teach them the Charm, so please, don't give me that codswallop of 'allowing' me to teach it!"

"Now now, my dear, there's no need to overreact."

Ooooh, are you serious right now? You chose the wrong witch to chat up, you loathsome thing.

"Overreact?" She repeated his words, leaving a vile taste in her mouth that she was certain no Butterbeer, not even Rosemerta's, could wash off. "Professor. This is why I became a teacher. I want to impart all the wisdom that I can into the next generation. When I was a student, I went through hell to learn most of these spells and half a dozen Dark Arts teachers who were either incompetent or troubled and therefore made it extremely difficult for my friends and me to be able to learn properly. But if we as teachers can change that – if we can make learning easier for them – then that's our purpose. That's why we are here. Or, at least, that's why I'm here. If you're passing out your job like biscuits for others to take and do what they will, your heart isn't for them, it's for yourself. Perhaps you should reconsider your profession."

Doddle's smile had long-since vanished.

"One more thing: if you want to impress a woman, take initiative by doing your job instead of handing it off to her." Calm down, she willed her emotions to settle, to come down from the invigorating high. "Now, please. I want to drink in peace. Hand back my Butterbeer and go find some other woman who would be more than happy to have you charm her knickers off." Satisfaction filled her as he gaped at her like a fish out of water. "It's not going to happen, Professor Doddle. Ever. Whatever you think is there, it's not. So you best mind your business and step off."

Slide. "Now, why would I do that when there's all this... tension built up between us?" The tiny hairs on the back of Hermione's neck stood on end as Doddle's hand – too warm, too invasive - rested on hers. Breath hitched in her throat as she felt his presence draw closer to her, leaning in as if to embrace her. "You can feel it, can't you? Whenever I'm around you, I feel it growing stronger between us..."

"Doddle, I swear, if you don't step off right now..."

"What? Don't tell me that you don't want me..." Ice pricked her skin as she felt his hot breath, his lips glazed with fresh alcohol, in her ear. "Hermione."

Then, both the ice and the heat were gone as the man in question was lifted off of her completely.

Rosemerta screamed from behind the counter. "Professor!"

CRASH!

Screams erupted from the patrons of the pub as the sound of wood breaking, shattering any sort of jovial drinking from the guests. All eyes in the room, including Hermione's, snapped over to Doddle laying sprawled out on the floor, the barstool he sat upon moments prior now busted into bits beneath him. The wind appeared to be knocked out of him as harsh, uncontrolled breaths tore from him. Hermione's heart sank into the depth of her stomach as a dark, familiar figure with shoulder-length raven hair and a tangible sneer stood over him, casting a menacing shadow over the prone wizard's entire body.

"Severus...!" Hermione gasped as the Potions master stood over the writhing man, his hands balled into fists so tight that his knuckles were turning white.

"Sev'rus!" Hagrid's voice called from one of the tables, aghast. "What're ye doin'?"

"This doesn't concern you, Rubeus." Severus' steadfast eyes were locked upon the writhing colleague at his feet. "Go back to your mead. And to the rest of you lot..." In this moment, Hermione knew, that he was addressing her. He didn't need to look her in the eye for her to realize when he was speaking directly to her. "Don't interfere."

Blood ran cold through the witch's veins as her beloved smirked viciously down at Doddle.

"It appears you've found yourself finally down where you belong... On your back on that filthy floor, like a mutt. While you're down there, lounging about like a worthless bum, I believe that this is a good time for you to reflect on your poor behavior and repent..." Severus' inflection was gradual and controlled, but Hermione could feel every single drop of venom in each word spoken. Her heart raced with fear.

What is he going to do to him?

Without warning, the brooding wizard's cloak flew back and with a grunt of force, brought the heel of his boot down in a fluid movement right onto the center of prone wizard's chest. The cries torn from Doddle startled Hermione so badly she nearly jumped out of her skin. "Don't you agree?"

"I... didn't do anything..." Doddle croaked, his hands grasping for the boot to remove it, with no success. The fact that the charming smile that graced his handsome features was now contorted in pain didn't bring Hermione any pleasure in the way she thought it would. Instead, her fear grew for him.

"Tsk tsk... Don't lie." Severus taunted through a clenched smirk, sinking his boot further onto Doddle's chest. "Don't tell me that your memory is as poor as your teaching abilities. I can think of several people in this very room that you owe reparations to. Before you think of reaching for that wand, keep in mind that it will only take seconds for me to render you unconscious and as I am a master duelist, it would be a very poor decision on your part." His throat cleared. "First and foremost, apologize to Madam Rosemerta for stinking up her establishment with your bad business and your clumsiness breaking her property."

"What are you talking about? I didn't break that chair! You did – AH!"

"Do it!" Severus leaned over the man until his knee bent, applying more weight onto Doddle's center.

A grunt. "F-Forgive me, Madam Rosemerta... I will pay for the damages..."

The Potions master exhaled a breath. "Very good," the compliment was hollow with belittlement. "He knows how to follow orders, like the good dog that he is. Second. You will apologize to Professor Granger for disrespecting her with your vile intentions, for disturbing her evening, for pressuring her with your foul and unwanted advances."

"AH! Get off me!" Doddle cried, gasping from the pressure of Severus' heel caving in on him. "Y-You're crushing me!"

"I won't ask again."

With all the strength the wizard could manage in his position, the Dark Arts professor craned his head to look at Hermione. His expression was pitiful, to say the least. There was not an ounce of mischief left in him to manage even the faintest of smiles. Hermione couldn't help but feel sympathetic towards him. "Forgive me, Professor Granger..."

"For?" Severus hissed.

"F-For... pressuring- ah! Pressuring you!"

The Potions master snickered at Doddle's whimpers. "What a good dog, you are. So obedient." Hermione saw Severus lifting his boot of Doddle's chest and she felt relief. "That will teach you to seduce an unwilling lady. And a coworker, no less. What a deplorable, despicable display..."

Thank Merlin, he's done.

"Lastly. You will apologize to me."

"Cough! What? Apologize t-to you? What for-?"

Oh no... Hermione didn't realize how wrong she was until it was too late. With full force, her friend and partner slammed the heel of his boot with excessive force down onto Doddle's chest until she heard a sickening crack.

"AH!"

"Severus!" Hermione cried. "Stop!"

"I told you..." Severus' head tilted in her direction over his shoulder. Long, black hair hid his dark eyes from finding hers. "Do not interfere," he warned her before turning his attention to the man under his boot. "You will apologize to me-" Severus spoke over Doddle's grunts and cries, adding emphasis into his next choice of words. "You will repent to me- For trying to take what's mine."

Hermione was at a loss as to how to proceed. Not only did her tipsy partner assault a colleague and disturb the peace of an entire pub, but he was also now glaring at the said colleague with a dark look in her eyes that she could only describe as hatred. His fathomless black eyes were fixated with pure, unadulterated wrath. She had seen those eyes before – recognized the way that the serpentine way that he would speak as cruelty would creep from his words into his actions – and it terrified her to her very core. It was in this moment that she remembered who exactly Severus Snape was.

He wasn't just a man nor an ordinary wizard. He wasn't her witty coworker. He wasn't her potions partner. He wasn't even her beloved and alluring boyfriend. This... This was the posture and presence of a former Death Eater. An elite one; one who the Dark Lord Voldemort himself had entrusted with most of his vile and horrific deeds. A person who had used magic and physical strength to inflict pain and misery upon those he opposed, a person trained to use whatever tactics possible to become as efficient and lethal as he needed to be... a person who had taken human life. Without morals, without refrain, without ethics.

All he needed was an excuse.

I can't just sit here. I can't. He's going into the dark. I have to do something. Move, body. MOVE!

She couldn't bear to see him fall apart. Not now.

Against her fear, Hermione moved forward. Moving cautiously across the floor until she was close enough to touch him, she prayed to high heaven that it wasn't too late to pull him back from the edge he was about to fall off of. Summoning her courage, beseeching God above that he wouldn't do anything else, reached out with her trembling hand until it touched his. She gasped; his skin was hot to the touch.

"Severus..."

He flinched. Swallowing her rising despair, Hermione braved a step closer to him. "Severus... That's enough," she implored in a whisper barely audible. "Please... You've done enough... He's learned his lesson... It's time to let him go..."

"He deserves this..." Came his edged, heated reply. "Treating you in that way... He deserves punishment."

"Severus, please..." Hermione whispered, her voice hoarse from holding back tears. Squeezing her eyes closed, she traced her thumb in circles on his skin. If her words couldn't reach him, perhaps her touch could... "He's not worth everything you've fought for. If you do anything else, go any further, you'll be forfeiting everything you've worked so hard for. All of your accomplishments, all of your hard work, everyone who believes in you, all of us that have your back..." Talking became difficult due to the pain in her heart but she had to push through it... for his sake. "Let him up... Walk away... Don't give in to the darkness... I..." Holding back tears was far easier than hiding a sob. "I don't want to lose you."

Hermione couldn't hear the murmurs of the patrons or Doddle's grunting could be heard in the building, only the sound of blood rushing through her head and the silent cries of her heart.

Please God... Please... Bring him back to me... I need him... I can't lose him now...

Tentative fingers brushed along hers.

"Hermione..." When Hermione felt safe enough to open her eyes, she squeaked due to Severus' proximity to her face. Then, his fingertips were on her face, his thumbs gently caressing under her eyes, his skin not as warm as it was before. "I stopped."

The unspeakable animosity that filled his gaze was forgotten, his voice clear of any contempt, his touch free of any desire to wreak havoc...

Was he alright now?

"Thank God," Hermione breathed, her shoulders aching from being anxiously hunched. "Thank God, Severus... I was..."

"This isn't the place." Severus interrupted her. Without giving her a chance to think, the wizard leaned past her and slammed something on the counter – judging by the clinking sound of coin, it was likely payment for the drinks. Mumbling a half-assed apology to a shocked Rosemerta, he then grasped her hand and tugged her along, stepping over Doddle. "Come. We're leaving."

Hermione couldn't help but look at everyone as she passed, namely Hagrid who stared slack-jawed after her as her partner guided her out of the Three Broomsticks. "Severus, people are looking-"

"Let them look." came a grumbled reply ahead of her. He opened the door for them and a gust of winter wind greeted them harshly. "Maybe it would be best if they did. Then fools like Doddle won't make the same mistake as he did..."

That has to be the alcohol talking... Sober Severus values privacy above all else.

A blush rose to Hermione's cheeks as they trudged through the snow and passersby of Hogsmeade stopped to stare at their joined hands. "Severus... Wait for a moment... I can't keep up with you..."

His steps slowed but he didn't stop. "We'll stop when we reach my quarters."


"Are you feeling back to normal now?" Hermione inquired, her feet tucked under her as she curled up next to Severus on his couch.

"The Pepper-Up potion is doing its job," Severus replied dryly, tossing the empty vial onto the floor and ignoring the way it clattered to the corner of the room. "The headache might last, though..." He must have meant it because he pressed a hand to his forehead and groaned. "Blast it, my head is throbbing..."

"You'd best sleep it off," Hermione suggested, resting her hands on her knees as she didn't know what else to do with them, uncertain touching him would comfort him or set him off. "Can I get you anything? Tea? Would you like something to eat?"

"No..." He shook his head. "No..."

"Alright..." Hermione swallowed the lump in her throat. "Well... I'm glad you're back to normal. Thank you... for defending me tonight. I know you meant well."

Severus' eyes found her at long last, after a full night of avoiding looking at her direction. "I would do it again, tipsy or sober." he avowed.

"Please, don't." Hermione requested but found herself unable to smile. While Hermione couldn't deny that she liked the idea of Severus' acting protective over her, this was something different, dare she label the terms: territorial and possessive. Why did it feel satisfying as well as... uncomfortable? Sure, she didn't mind knowing that Severus guarded her with fierce jealousy but that's not what she witnessed tonight... This was a different animal all on its own. "While I appreciate it, he was just as drunk as you were. He didn't mean it."

Severus gave her a look. "He did," he insisted.

"How do you know?"

"Drunk words are sober thoughts, my dear."

"That's not an answer."

"So I looked into his mind," Severus' confession was unapologetic, his hand lowering from his head to rest next to her knee on the cushion. "The thoughts that raced through his mind now plague mine... Doddle truly felt that way and the liquid courage was all he needed to make his move. The detestable maggot..."

Hermione tried to crush the indignation that flared within her... and failed.

"So, it's alright for you to read the minds of others?" she challenged him in a slow tone. "And you feel that it gives you a right to attack him like that?"

"I didn't attack him. I put him in his place."

Hermione stared at him incredulously. "You knocked the man off his chair and then stood on his chest until he almost passed out. You might've even cracked a rib or two. You could get in trouble for assaulting a Hogwarts professor!"

To her annoyance, the wizard was unaffected by the facts, rolling his eyes and scoffing. "He'll speak nothing of the incident because it will earn him a harassment allegation. If he wishes to confront me on the matter, or foolishly drag the school into it, he will have a mark on his record that no amount of time, money or charm can take away. Mark my words," he finished with an edge of iron in his tone. "That will teach him to think twice before he decides to harass anyone again."

"Severus-" She couldn't support his decision, not this time.

"Would you prefer that I move aside and allowed him to continue to touch you? To take what is-"

"What's yours?" Hermione finished hotly, her temper rising with each passing moment. She watched him as he slowly closed his mouth, his jaw setting in irritation. "Do you really see me as yours, Severus? Judging from the way you treated me tonight when I first walked into that pub, one would guess you wanted nothing to do with me. Am I truly yours every day all the time, during the good times and the bad? Or am I only yours when you feel territorial and another man steps in to make his move?"

They stared at one another, brown eyes hot with anger and confusion met with cold, calculating black. Sure, it was a low blow. Did it matter? No. It didn't. It didn't change the truth that something in him had changed and instead of talking with her openly about it, he retreated into his old ways and lashed out at anyone who dare come near. Not backing down, Hermione continued to glare into her beloved's eyes, hoping her words would ring true in his sober, aching, annoyingly-intelligent brain.

"How did we get here?" Hermione didn't take her eyes off of him, her eyes sweeping over his countenance to look for any sort of giveaway, any kind of revelation to what he was going through. "This morning, we were walking through the forest collecting roots. We kissed, talked, held hands, and then we went our separate ways for our day... We were happy. What happened between then and the moment I walked into your quarters to make you so angry with me that you can't even look me in the eye properly?"

He said nothing. So she went on.

"Sure, I didn't deserve to get harassed tonight. Do you know what else I didn't deserve? To be treated like I did something wrong when my boyfriend won't communicate with me. I apologized for suggesting to share your burdens with me but that's all I can offer. This isn't fair to me, Severus. Tonight, you were upset to the point where you felt the need to go to a local pub and drink. When you couldn't take it out on me because I wouldn't let you, you saw an opportunity with Doddle and you chose to take it out on him."

Her fingers dug into her bushy curls, exhausted and exasperated. "Reacting like this... It isn't... this isn't alright." She caught a flicker of fear in his eyes.

"You're not..." He couldn't complete the sentence.

"I'm not ending this, Severus." Hermione shook her head. "I'm not... I'm not walking away. Of course not. But this is an area for you to grow in. You just need to be clear to me about what you're feeling... Or don't! Just say that you need space and time to think through whatever it is you're going through. I can understand that. I just... I don't need the emotional whiplash every time you grow upset, or you start to feel insecure, or if you're going through something internal. Just... be upfront with me. And I will do my best not to prod you for answers in the future..." Nope, that wasn't truthful. So she amended her statement by adding: "Unless I find it absolutely necessary."

Again, Severus Snape fell silent.

Anxiety caused her belly to knit together in painful knots from all of the turmoil from the last few hours. Perhaps... staying wasn't the best option for either of them right now. If space was what he desired... she would give it to him.

"Alright... I've said my peace. More talking will just infuriate both of us further because you won't tell me what's going on and you will only take offense to my outstretched hand. I... I need to go feed Crooks and turn in for the night..." Placing a half-hearted kiss on his cheek, Hermione stood to her feet. "I'll see you later, yeah?"

A gentle tug on her wrist kept her where she stood.

"Wait."

Despite her own words spoken not a few seconds prior, her heart leaped with hope.

"I do not want you to go..." His fingers interwoven with hers, his voice was small. "The space I forced between us caused more problems... I... The fault is mine."

"Severus... I have to take responsibility for my part in the fight. You were hurt. I suggested something that I assumed might help but I only wounded you deeper. And worse, I made you feel unsafe. I... I never want you to feel that way with me."

"I am safest when I'm with you." Severus' words weren't spoken with careful selection but felt genuine. Perhaps it was the alcohol talking? "Which is why I... I will tell you. It's what you want, isn't it?"

"Severus, you don't have to."

"Even if it will hurt you?"

Hermione froze. "Yes."

"I lost a friend today."

The world faded to grey.

Hermione turned slowly to meet his gaze; his eyes were tired, his spirit broken.

The puzzle pieces were beginning to fit together. The uncomfortable aura during dinner, his near-breakdown on the divan, the uncontrolled rage that was unleashed earlier at the Inn...

How could she have been so blind?

She licked her cracked lips. "I don't understand..."

"She's gone... But not in the way one might think."

What does that mean? Gone? That could mean a thousand things. And who is "she"?

The Potions master drew in a deep breath to calm his nerves and failed as his entire body trembled with grief. "I didn't get to say goodbye." His words were cryptic and fractured, his meaning lost within them. What did he mean? Did someone pass away? Did he get into an altercation with a friend or a family member? The witch brushed his hair back with her free hand before holding onto both hands. At this moment, nothing else in the world mattered. She would do anything to give him relief from the burden that weighed so heavily in his spirit. Face any foe, seek out any gift, take on any task, offer him the greatest comforts...

"I'm here... Tell me."

"My Patronus changed its form today." His eyes were empty of life. "For the second time, I was unable to say goodbye to someone precious to me..."

She shouldn't ask... Part of her dreaded to know who he was speaking of... He had warned her that it would hurt...

Her lips pursed to form the word: "Who?"

"The love of my life."

END


Thank you all for your continued patience and support of Relentless ^_^

It's been a long journey so far. Thank you all for all the favorites, reviews, and for sticking around! If you're new to Relentless, welcome aboard the crazy train! Mwahahaha!

Just kidding! Or am I? ;)

God bless!

SonicxAmyfan4Life

Random fact of the Day: The "Game of Thrones" soundtrack makes for excellent writing ambiance. Seriously! I've never seen an episode but the soundtrack is just so amazing!