When she had been a teenager, Hermione Granger had made it her business to notice everything.
Despite what some might say, the reason for her attentiveness was not because she was a bossy, know-it-all bookworm who had a superiority complex. It wasn't because she took an unreasonable amount of pride in knowing something about a great many things, if not knowing the things completely, just for the sake of being able to say she knew them.
It was more like, her life depended on her knowledge.
Her life, and the lives of her friends, depended on Hermione's ability to know about every little thing that happened, to notice every little detail the others might not see, so that she could figure out a way to fix it. That is, should issues have needed resolving.
Consequently, Hermione was very good at logic, puzzles, and retaining snippets of information that others would forget, but which usually ended up being very important. Furthermore, if one were to believe in such things, it might be inferred that her resulting intuition was more than a little impressive.
She was also an avid crocheter.
In addition to her sharp eyes and nimble fingers, Hermione had developed keen ears that were all the better for catching whispers and stories. If the tale of the Deathly Hallows had taught her anything, it was to take stock in the grain of truth usually buried within legends and stories.
After leaving Hogwarts, Hermione had forced herself to put the events of her past behind her. She'd learned to stop expending energy looking for death and danger around every corner as she had done when she was younger. For the first time in ages, she'd allowed herself to relax. The tiniest little voice in the back of her head had been against this, and in fact, if she'd been perfectly honest with herself, Teenage Hermione would have been appalled by her level of complacency.
The threat was gone. It didn't do to dwell. Life moves on.
But then, shadows moved. Whispers stirred. Rumors spread.
As a child who had been forever affected by events that had caused her to grow up too quickly, no amount of complacency could allow her latent skills for noticing things to completely miss the warning signs.
"Miss Granger, how lovely to see you."
Hermione startles from her reverie to look up into the face of kindly old Mrs Harper, the House Manager of the Barbican. As a frequent patron of the theatre, Hermione has become friendly with a few members of its staff, and never fails to say hello and speak with the elderly woman.
"Mrs Harper, good to see you as well."
The two women share a quick peck when Severus returns from a short scouting jaunt, and introductions are made over a freshly acquired glass of scotch. His freshly acquired glass of scotch. Never mind that the bar doesn't serve scotch.
"How is your cat?" Hermione asks.
"Just fine," Mrs Harper says, with a roll of her eyes. "Lazy as ever, the beast. He fell asleep in the concertmaster's violin case last week."
Mrs Harper wishes them a lovely evening and soon departs. Around them, people smile and make polite small talk in the foyer before being let in to the concert hall. Hermione's eyes take in the various faces that pass by in case she recognises any of them.
Her gaze flicks to Severus, who is also skimming the crowd, though, perhaps, she muses, he sees more than she does.
This is the reason she had approached him when she could no longer ignore too many whispers. Hermione works in the Ministry's International Magical Office of Law, and as such has been privy to sensitive information. Recently, several odd, supposedly separate instances have occurred that, when joined together, form a rather alarming picture. Disappearances of certain Ministry officials, suspicious pardons of Death Eaters and their sympathisers. There have even been claims of dark revels, and for some ridiculous reason, nobody seems to be doing a thing about it. She suspects fear plays a large part of this, combined with disbelief, but what is most alarming is that one person appears to be, in most cases, involved in some capacity. The Ministry's newest rising star, Melanthus Orran.
When she had first voiced these concerns, Ron had accused her of looking for trouble that wasn't there because denial is a powerful thing. Harry, bless him, had listened with an open mind and taken her seriously, but had decided to take a slow approach first.
To be fair, Harry was not wrong for doing this. He'd recently been promoted to full Auror, and they both agreed a light initial touch was best for the long run. It wouldn't do to rush headlong into accusations that were based on what were still unsubstantiated rumours. Still, the frantic part of her no-longer dormant, danger-seeking, threat-minded brain had been engaged, and surged ahead into overtime.
So, she had gone to Snape. Who, to both her enormous relief and dismay, had reluctantly admitted he'd shared similar concerns. After composing herself, for it is never exactly good to have one's worst suspicions confirmed, they'd begun to plan.
At first, every attempt at finding out the depth and breadth of Orran's deceit was thwarted. Eventually, Severus deduced that Harry, their primary means of obtaining information, was being monitored, as were the rest of the Aurors, and quite closely at that. At times it felt as if Harry couldn't even piss without Orran immediately remarking on its impressive arc, as Ron had once so eloquently put it.
As soon as this had become apparent, Harry's attention had been unofficially, secretly, engaged, and he'd become much more involved, though from a distance, and with two and a half trusted insiders at the ready. Ron being the half, as Severus liked to say.
Covert was the order. Support had been harder in coming from those who were not Harry, and after a particularly embarrassing incident between Severus and the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Snape had thrown all remaining patience to the wind and set out on his own. Or, rather, on his own and with a frustrated Gryffindor trailing after.
"Miss Granger," Snape says at her side, fingers at her elbow, "may I borrow you for a moment?"
She looks up at him now and nods.
The crowd around them surges forward when the doors open to receive the night's patrons, and Severus and Hermione edge towards an unpopulated side hall.
"Is Potter at the ready?"
"Yes. He'll wait for our signal."
He nods. "Have you seen him yet?"
"No," she answers. Orran and many of the wizards from the previous night were nowhere to be seen. "Although, there seem to be no short supply of Ministry guards milling about." Security detail for Orran, no doubt.
"There is an unfortunate lack of Red as well."
She purses her lips. "Is it really unfortunate though?" Her ribs are still sore from the previous night's scuffle with that she-beast, and she's perhaps just a slightly bit jealous. Unreasonable though it is. Whatever.
He nods and peers around, searching, as people filter through to find their seats. "Let's see if we can spot him from the balcony."
"We're not going in at all?"
He sighs. "Miss Granger, we're not here for Mozart tonight."
"I know that, I just, the conductor… of course. Never mind."
He throws her an odd glance, but extends his arm and they once more wade through the thinned foyer. They pass the entrance to the hall and she's able to see only a brief glimpse of the orchestra tuning their instruments, and releases a small sigh. She'd known that she wouldn't be able to enjoy the full concert, but a small part of her had hoped that they would be able to hear some of the Requiem.
Attention divided, she stumbles on the slick tile underfoot, and claws at Snape's arm to steady herself, cursing the godforsaken pumps that get caught up on the hem of her dress. Two. That's two dresses in as many days. She grits her teeth and swallows her embarrassment while Snape stares ahead.
"Did I miss a wine reception beforehand?"
"Not unless it was in your living room," she counters smoothly.
He narrows his eyes. "I keep telling you, I am a social drinker."
"If you say so."
He looks like he really wants to say something more, but declines as they approach a sweeping staircase that is manned by another obvious wizard guard stationed at the base. She savours her slight victory, and politely smiles to the guard as they pass.
It is quiet in the stairwell, with the only sounds being the swish of her dress and an occasional note from the tuning orchestra floating in. Until a squeak develops in her left heel. She sets her jaw and tries to ignore it. She's one those people who has "foot noises." Shoes seem to squeak more often with her than with others she's noticed, and it drives her insane. It has to be something about the way she walks – the squeak is getting louder. Her eyes dart up to check Severus' expression. If he's noticed, he's not letting on.
In fact, he says nothing at all. His eyes are focused ahead. His steps are silent, his posture perfect. His arm is warm beneath hers.
She straightens in an unconscious mimicry, and is comforted by his cool façade.
At the top, a man in a red jacket lined with gold brocade, is flashing a torch over tickets, and directing patrons to their seats. A second man, another obvious wizard guard, stands beside him, apparently bored.
"Tickets, please," the usher says in an overly helpful chirp.
As a moth is drawn to flame, so does Severus' brow arch in disgust at unreasonable enthusiasm. Hermione fumbles around for the paper slips in the bag at her wrist. Technically, their seats are below in the dress circle, which could be problematic.
The guard passes them a fleeting glance before lazily turning back to study his shoes.
"Um," she mumbles, pretending to get flustered in an effort to stall. A rude man behind them sighs loudly, and she feels Severus tense at her elbow.
"Tickets?" the usher asks again.
"She heard you," Severus clips.
"I'm sure we can find our seats," she sighs with a slight giggle and flutter of eyelashes.
The usher's false smile belies the shake of his head. "Sorry, miss. I need to see your tickets."
Hermione pauses and looks at him. She decides his attitude is just not worth it.
"Confundo," she whispers.
Severus smirks beside her while she thanks the befuddled usher for his assistance. The usher nods with a vacant expression, and they walk right around.
"Well done," Snape says and watches the oblivious guard from the corner of his eye.
At the balustrade, they peer over the edge, searching for Orran's characteristic yellow hair. A few minutes of scanning the box seats and the pricey ones up front, yields no progress, though, and neither spots him.
"I don't see him," she says.
Severus nods and they turn back. He gives the clueless guard a terse nod as they pass, before leaving the balcony and filing passed the people queuing for their seats.
They move on to step two; searching the green and conference rooms.
Halfway down the stairwell, Snape makes an abrupt turn at a service door on the left. Ignoring the 'Staff Only' sign, he holds the door open, checking behind them to make sure no one sees their flagrant disregard.
She follows him into a long, gently descending utility hall. Cold lights buzz overhead, and their footfalls echo in the empty corridor. Severus follows the various service signs and instructions that dot the walls for several yards.
"You think he's already meeting with the others?" she asks.
"It's possible," he says quietly. "The guards weren't paying the least bit of attention to anyone, much less on people who should be in the audience below. It most likely he's not out there."
She flashes a peek at him out of the corner of her lashes, and can't help but voice something that's been bothering her. "Just to be clear," she says, "we're detaining Orran. For the Aurors to deal with. Right?"
He spares her half a glance. "Of course." Then immediately follows up with, "But, should he fall while we are defending ourselves, it's a risk I'm entirely willing to take."
She looks up to him as they walk. He's being completely serious and a small part of her can't help but wonder if his mind has already been made up, regardless of what kind of defense they may have to employ.
The sounds of music faintly streams down the hall, signaling the beginning of the concert, and Hermione is pulled from her worries with a sigh. It feels like it's been months since she's been to a proper concert. At the end of the hall, they reach a door that leads to the backstage. Her hopes raise just the slightest.
"I saw that that the visiting conductor tonight is from Venezuela." Severus casually mentions.
Hermione's shoulders droop. "Gustavo Dudamel." If she's completely honest, that's another reason why she's upset at having to miss the performance. The famous young conductor is passion packaged in Venezuelan form, with flair and bouncy, dark curls on top. And a pretty face to boot.
"Really?" Snape seems genuinely interested. He glances over at her. "More's the pity then."
Severus Disillusions them, and they work their way through the backstage area, carefully searching for Orran. They aren't completely sure what his plans are, but just in case he was planning to do something dramatic, it behooves them to make sure they check each area.
A glimpse of the stage is seen near a door that a few stage hands are lingering near, and Hermione is helplessly drawn towards it as the sounds of the first act drift in. She peers over the shoulder of a man in suspenders and smiles as the sweet notes of the Mendelssohn concerto wash over her edgy nerves.
"What are you doing?" Severus hisses behind her. She jumps and has the grace to appear abashed, even though he can't see her clearly.
"I wanted to," she swallows, "to make sure the front stage was clear. Orran is definitely not out there."
He is silent, and she can only imagine the disparaging look upon his face.
"Shall we keep on then?" she asks, already moving towards the opposite end of backstage.
They exit through another door, deciding Orran isn't lurking in the shadows (that they could tell, rather) and head up a short hallway that leads toward yet another staircase.
A separate door just before the stairs catches Hermione's eye and she stops, jaw slightly hanging open.
"We really should be thorough, don't you think?" she asks breathlessly.
Carefully, she enters the side room, still Disillusioned, and holds her breath. Inside is a small, but tastefully outfitted room with sprays of roses adorning counter tops and side tables. A formal jacket with tails hangs on a coat rack, but there appears to be no further sign of any occupants.
She lets out a small sigh of disappointment, and whirls at the sound of the creaking door behind her.
She can't see him, but she can practically feel his disappointment.
"What are you doing?" his voice asks from near the doorway.
She raises her chin. "I told you. Being thorough."
"And the sign that says, 'Maestro Dudamel' on the door has nothing to do with that?"
She feels her cheeks warm. "He's a world class conductor, Severus. World class! He needs to be protected in the name of the arts!"
"Can we get on with it already?" he snaps. His footsteps echo in the hall, and she follows, feeling only slightly childish. Dudamel really is quite dishy, but that isn't important. The man is very talented and, well, maybe Orran would want to somehow exploit that in his favour… Okay, she just really wants to meet the famous, young, gorgeous, visiting conductor.
Ascending the next set of stairs, she sees Severus, no longer Disillusioned, waiting impatiently ahead. He ends her charm, and directs the full fury of his glare at her.
"May we proceed?" he asks, sarcasm dripping in his voice.
She sweeps past him. "Of course."
They reach the landing, wands out just in case, and tiptoe forward. Hermione's shoe has started squeaking again, and after the fifth squeak, Severus shudders to a stop and closes his eyes as if pained. His words are barely audible, but she feels their impact as if he'd shouted.
"Granger, if you do not silence that squeak instantly, I'll banish them."
Her wand twitches towards the floor. "Sorry," she whispers.
He takes a calming breath, and they continue on. The pair empty into an elegant, plushly carpeted hall with various works of modern art adorning muted walls, and suspect this is where the majority of offices and conference rooms are. If Orran is meeting with his fellows, it's likely to be here rather than down in the much more public concert hall.
Several doors line the corridor. He slowly raises an arm, just before the first, stopping her. She waits, hardly daring to breath, and watches as he carefully peers around the doorjamb to peep inside. His wand arm extends and he quickly enters, disappearing from view, while she watches the hall. Hermione's ears strain for the faintest hint of confrontation, and her heart beats its own symphony within her chest. Fingertips whiten at the fierce hold she maintains on her wand… but nothing appears to happen.
"No one," she hears from inside. "Sort of," he adds. Immediately, she follows, wand aimed.
"What do you mean, 'sort of'?" she asks, voice slightly elevated.
The room is dimly lit from the light of a fading sun, and Severus is frowning, shaking his head at the window across the room where an orange tabby cat is sitting on the sill.
"Ohh!" Hermione coos, instantly abandoning all caution, and rushes towards the animal who is staring at a pair of blackbirds perched on a branch just beyond. Severus makes a sound of disgust and turns away.
"This might be the stupidest thing I've ever agreed to," he grumbles.
The beast paws at the glass and makes a sort of quiet chittering sound, and Hermione pats its head.
She smiles down at him. "You're hungry again aren't you? Honestly, Ron." She can hear Snape's exhalation of disapproval at her back.
"Mrs Harper keeps a cat onsite to help with the rodent problem backstage. He looks just like Tom Kitten." She scritches behind his ear and the cat leans into her touch, purring deeply, pleased with the attention he's getting.
The Transfigured feline Weasley bats at her hand and meows once more at the window.
She holds firm, and folds her arms across her chest with a shake of her head and a wry grin at her lips. "You'll regret it when you change back, I promise."
Ron the cat looks up at her with watery, yellow eyes and yowls piteously.
"Oh for god's sake," Severus snaps.
The cat casts a final longing look outside, and Hermione ignores him. "I'm not changing you back just so you can eat, Ronald. Now do your job and find Orran."
"Yes," Snape adds in dark tone, "or I'll have your guts strung up to replace those on the school violins. Flitwick will be pleased with the donation."
Ron hisses at him and jumps off the windowsill. His tail flicks in irritation, but he does as bid and saunters off down the hall and out of sight.
"I have never known anything so ravenous as a Weasley." He goes to check the hall. "I'm still not convinced his presence here is necessary."
"Maybe he'll surprise us. Besides, he can get to places, unnoticed, and we can't."
Two further rooms are checked without incident, nor do they see any sign of Ron. Hermione hopes for their sake that he's able to find Orran, get whatever final damning evidence they need and sends word to Harry before they end up having to face him. She won't lie. Her skin crawls at the memory of last night's encounter. His roaming fingers on her waist, those horrid lips at her ear. His beady little bird eyes snatching indulgent peaks at the overly exposed décolletage in Red's dress. Then there had been the way he'd so casually spoken about death…
Halfway down the hall, the sounds of the swelling orchestra mid-programme are heard, and she has to force herself to ignore it. She's going to be missing the Requiem. She worries her lower lip. It's not like it won't come back at some point, she reasons. It's the Requiem.
Even still, she sighs something that sounds suspiciously like 'Dudamel,' and Snape flashes her a look and frowns at her nervous habit.
"Stop that." He turns back to the task at hand, and whispers. "You're not still whinging are you?"
She raises her chin. "Yes. I was looking forward to watching him." She blushes. "I mean, it. The orchestra."
He snorts softly. "I'm sure Muggles everywhere will thank you for choosing life over lust."
"It isn't about lust," she replies with a touch of indignity. "The man is incredibly talented. I admire him for his skill." Quietly she adds, "With a baton."
Severus rolls his eyes. "And I admire Red for her obvious powers of deduction. Shall we move on?"
Hermione glares at his back. She edges up to his side and hisses. "You can't seriously admire that woman."
He brings a finger to his lips. "Shh."
She huffs and turns away, moving towards the next office. Rather than waiting for him, she steps inside first.
"Oh, look. Empty."
Her partner's mood takes a turn and he scowls. "If you don't be quiet it won't matter who admires whom because we'll both be dead."
One by one, they go through more empty offices, without speaking, and are increasingly running out of possible locations. And time. While she's happy to not have had any problems yet, the rational part of her mind worries that they've already missed Orran. The ramifications of this are concerning, and judging by the rigidity of Snape's shoulders ahead, he must agree. There are two rooms remaining and as they near the next, Snape's arm again halts her at the door. As before, she waits while he looks around, to no avail. His sigh confirms her suspicion, and she follows, closing the door behind her.
"What do we do if he's not here? I'm sure Orran said they were meeting tonight. Severus, it's very important we find him."
"Yes, Miss Granger, I understand the severity of the situation."
She looks to the ground.
He exhales. "If he's not here then we'll simply have to–" he freezes as the sound of people coming up the hall. Perhaps they were simply too early.
Hermione's eyes widen and she redoubles her grip on her wand. Snape raises his and silently strides to the door. Carefully, he pulls it open an inch, and dares a look around the edge, then quickly pulls back. Hermione joins him on the other side of the frame.
"Guards," he mouths.
Muffled voices sound from outside, and Severus' lips thin.
"… certain he heard someone muckin' about out here a few minutes ago. Better make sure first."
"Probably some kids sneakin' off again for a snog. I always did durin' these things."
"Yeah, I could see that."
Snape's brows raise and he shoots Hermione a quick glance from where she stands opposite.
The two men move from room to room, just as she and Severus had done earlier. Her neck burns remembering Snape's earlier admonishment about the noise. A little voice within comes to the rescue though, and she wonders if maybe Ron could have done something stupid enough to prompt investigation. Either way, trouble is now imminent.
She looks to Severus, heart thumping. The men's footsteps draw nearer, and her mind jumps into overdrive as she starts thinking of ways to get out of this situation. Her eyes take in the room. No closets. No obvious hiding places, and they'd both agreed earlier that Apparition might not be the best idea. Assuming the popping sounds aren't heard (thus signaling the fact that someone is around that shouldn't be) they could risk detection when they return.
Right. Confrontation, then. There are two guards, but there are two them as well and they have the upper hand. They can easily disarm them, cast Obliviate, and send them on their way, or even a hastily cast Petrificus would work.
The handle on the door to their room turns, and Snape is suddenly directly before her. She barely has time for a single breath before one hand is at her waist, another is at her neck, and his lips are pressed firmly against hers.
She muffles a cry of astonishment against him, and he pinches her side again as he'd done the night before when she wasn't focused. A flash of insight hits her, and she wraps her arms around his back, pushing down the shock, and pulling him closer. To her great surprise, his tongue snakes out to run along the seam of her lips, and to her even greater surprise – she allows him entrance.
The door flies open, and the two guards raise their wands, surprised.
"Hey, what the devil – oh! Beg pardon." a guard says sheepishly, averting his eyes, while Snape continues to… kiss her. Vigorously.
"Oh, lookit that," whines the other in a tone tinged with envy.
Severus pulls away from her with a visible smirk and nods to the guards as if he's just noticed their presence. The hand at her neck is warm and does not move, while below a thumb runs circles against her hip. What's left of Hermione's mind goes completely fuzzy. In fact, a rhinoceros could come stampeding through the walls and she probably wouldn't bat an eye. His chest presses against hers, pinning her to the wall behind, and she blinks over at the guards. If she had any sort of sense she should be horrified with exactly how, ah… she blinks, distracted. Tingly? With how tingly she feels? Oh, good lord.
The guards discreetly lower their wands and tut.
"Well," says one to the other, "it ain't kids, but you got the snoggin' part right."
"Sorry, gents," Snape says, completely unrepentant. Actually, if she were to over-analyse it, she'd say it sounded downright boastful. "We couldn't help ourselves."
A sharp pain registers at her ribs where's poking her, and she hisses, jerking back to the present. Oh! She whips her wand around his back and points.
Snape echoes her spell, and both men tumble to the ground with flabbergasted expressions upon their faces.
There is a tense moment of silence while staring down at the guards. Hermione is still a-tingle. Well. That was certainly one way to handle a situation.
They stand against each other and Severus slowly turns his chin to face her. His eyes are hooded, and a lump forms in her throat as she gazes up at him. With each breath her chest comes into contact with his, but he does not move away.
"That was," she swallows, cursing the telling crack in her voice, "very devious and quite effective at the same time."
She swears he smothers a grin, and reaches down to stow his wand, causing her to twitch at the unexpected movement.
"Merlin, Granger, relax and do try to get your head back in the game."
His look of obvious delight at having rendered her so discombobulated, added with the jibe at her expense, is enough to pull her wits back to order.
"My apologies, but my head was more than a bit distracted by yours," her eyes flick downward and then back, "which seems quite game, incidentally."
Severus' eyes widen in horror, and he jumps back, scowling for good measure.
"Hardly." He breezes past her to manoeuvre the petrified guards out of the way.
She bites her lip to keep from grinning, and freezes when a familiar voice comes floating up the hallway. Severus' head snaps up.
Hermione cocks her ear to listen through the sliver of space left open by the door, and figures out quickly who the voice belongs to.
"Orran." she mouths silently.
He nods and they wait as he passes by, conversing with another who sounds vaguely familiar but she can't quite place. Two black, indistinguishable shapes pass by, and Hermione does not move a muscle until they are several feet away. When she does, she is surprised to see what looks like a flash of orange fur.
Her hand moves towards the knob when the voices have all but disappeared, but Severus stills it with his own. His eyes dart to hers and he shakes his head once, listening. The sound of a door opens in the hall, there is a pause, then a final click.
They say nothing further and Severus places them back under a Disillusionment Charm, and Hermione sends the first Patronus off to alert Harry and his team. Snape does not ask her if she's ready; he simply gives her a look before pulling open the door.
Step three begins.
Severus himself moves like a cat ahead of her along the wall, with nary a single swish of fabric or popping joint to be heard. She briefly wonders if it's a charm or if he's really just that good.
At the door, his lips wordlessly mouth an incantation, and then a frown line forms on his brow.
She sends him a questioning look, but he ignores her and looks at the floor in thought.
Her lips curve upward with a smirk, and she carefully rifles through her bag. Perhaps they need a less sophisticated means of reconnaissance? She pulls out two pairs of flesh coloured strings, and Severus watches with wary irritation when she bends to slide one Extendable Ear under the door.
"What?" he mouths.
She winks and holds up the other end for him, pointing at her ear.
He gives her a look that leaves no doubt as to exactly what he thinks of this, but relents after a particularly expressive slitting of her eyes.
Reluctantly, he holds the string up to his ear – and then marvels. He holds it closer, jaw falling slightly open and looks at her with moderate astonishment. She holds her own to her ear and imagines the look on George Weasley's face when she tells him he and Fred's product was used for real spying.
The sound of a chair groaning as its occupants settles within is heard on the other side, and the unknown voice speaks up first.
"Sir, when should we expect the others?"
"When I'm ready for them."
The other man does not immediately reply. "I don't quite understand."
"It's very simply, really. I cursed them all last night. When I am ready, they will come to me immediately."
Snape looks at Hermione, and she blinks. She doesn't recall any point when Orran had cast any sort of curse while she'd been around.
The other man laughs in a tone that contradicts the gravity of his implication. "Of course! Why, even you've been cursed, Darnley. How do you think you found me so quickly? I requested your presence, and you arrived."
A memory from the previous night hits Hermione at the sound of the other man's name. He's the wide-eyed man that had assisted her when she'd "stumbled" at the benefit.
The man, Darnley, covers his stutter with a breathy, panicked kind of laugh. "Sir?"
"Imperius is a wonderful spell. People call it a curse; but really, it's a miracle."
Hermione freezes and a weight like a lead ball settles in her gut.
"There's really only been one or two problems with it, in my opinion." Orran doesn't wait for Darnley to reply. "Until recently, its use has been restricted to only one person at a time. That's dreadfully time consuming, you see."
"Ah. I hadn't thought of that before."
"The problem is that it's so limiting, and the risk of getting caught is so much greater than if I could simply, Imperio numerous people in one go. I thought to myself, if I could only get an entire room of people to bend to my will at once, it would save so much trouble. So, I worked on being able to do just that, and do you know I've finally been successful!"
Hermione feels ill. A quick glance at Severus shows his skin to be paler than normal too. Sweet Merlin, had they already been cursed and not known it?
"But, I modified it. You know, the Dark Lord got excellent results from that nasty Dark Mark, but it's so easily detectable on a person's skin."
Severus leans carefully against the wall before him for support.
Orran's footsteps travel the circuit of the room. "Now, I had a stroke of genius involving an upgraded kind of Protean charm and people's minds, but details are boring for one like you, aren't they? Suffice to say, at my whim, a person will do exactly what I tell them to - no matter where either of us are. " Orran laughs. "It's brilliant! Go on, tell me it's brilliant."
Darnley gasps and weakly applauds while Orran giggles to himself, sounding quite pleased about the whole thing. "It's… it's brilliant, sir." Darnley sounds as though he thinks otherwise.
Beads of perspiration well up on Hermione's forehead and her limbs feel heavy as the implications of Orran's work plays out before her. If he's serious, that means he could order any cursed person, anywhere, to do anything at any time.
"Last night," Orran continues, "was the largest group I'd yet tested it on, and in about, oh, ten minutes time, we'll find out just how well it worked. My little minions will suddenly find themselves overcome at my command. They'll know instantly where to go and what to do, even though I won't physically be with them to give the command." Orran chortles again. "My genius is staggering. Truly."
Hermione is having trouble breathing and her mind desperately searches again for a time last night when she'd seen Orran do anything suspicious, like, for example, curse an entire room full of wizards and witches with a twisted new form of Imperius. But she wouldn't know would she?
He holds up a hand to shush her, and gives her a strained look.
Orran continues. "Now, what would you say if tonight, I placed the entire audience of one thousand under this spell, hm?" Orran cackles and slaps what sounds like a table. "And what if I had them do the same to a similar number of people, and so on and so on? Why, I could have the entire population of Britain under my thumb in less than a week. A week. Can't you just imagine?" he ends with a wistful sigh.
Hermione's jaw falls open and she has to strain to hear his next words which are hardly above a whisper. This man… Merlin it's worse than either had thought.
"At my command all Muggles could be slaughtered by the following week's end, and our lovely isles would be as pure as the shores of Eden."
Chills creep along her spine. How many are there already inside the Ministry? Orran had risen so quickly to the top….
"Whereas Voldemort's pride and love of flair got him into trouble, I have no such weaknesses." Hermione has to bite back a groan. "One must be quick. You see?"
The other man in the room has no response.
"I have to be." Orran says plainly. His voice changes direction again with the turn. "While I've fixed most of the curse's limitations, there is still one pesky drawback I've not yet managed to resolve."
Instantly, Severus points his wand at Hermione and whispers a quick, "Finite incantatum," at her.
"All my work could be destroyed by just one individual with the counter-curse. The Protean aspect is still susceptible."
A heartbeat later, she gratefully repeats the same for him. Just in case. It stands to reason that neither of them had yet been affected if they are actively trying to put a stop to him, but….
There is a heavy silence on the other side of the door. Hermione can feel Severus tense beside her.
"Have you nothing to say, Darnley?"
The other man still does not respond.
"Perhaps you need a demonstration to fully appreciate what I've shared with you."
"No, that isn't necessary, my—" he stops speaking abruptly, and a thud is heard slamming against the wall. Severus and Hermione jerk back in surprise.
"On your knees," Orran demands, almost cheerfully.
Hermione and Severus hear a slight scuffling along the floor, which is followed by an awful choking sound. Hermione's brows fly to her hairline and she looks at Snape. He presses his lips into a thin line and grips his wand.
Seconds later, Darnley cries out, prompting a laugh from Orran.
"Would you like to get a better view of the room?"
A double-pop is heard in quick succession, followed by a gasp from, presumably, Darnley. A third pop sounds, and then a violent bang is heard as Darnley re-Apparates and is slammed against a wall.
"Severus," Hermione breaths. Her stomach clenches uncomfortably. Orran is toying with the other man as if he were a ragdoll to be easily tossed about, rather than a human with breakable limbs.
At her side, Severus holds up a finger, muscles tense, and wordlessly summons an anti-Apparition barrier.
A grunt is heard from Darnley and he stutters for mercy.
"I know what you're thinking," Orran says breezily. "Parlour tricks."
"But the true test," Orran continues, "is whether or not I can do the ultimate. I can make you step left," Hermione and Severus hear the man jump helplessly, "or right." Darnley gasps. "But what about the worst Unforgivable?"
Hermione's hand convulsively clutches at Severus' forearm.
A small, but heavy silence fills the space on both sides of the door. Snape slowly stands and brings his wand up close near his chin. Hermione rises with him, eyes wide.
"Say the spell," Orran murmurs.
Darnley chokes on the other side of the door, groaning in an attempt to fight the command. Hermione's eyes flash to Severus, who reaches for the handle between them. His dark eyes dart to hers, and she nods.
"Do it!" Orran yells.
"Avvv-vada Kedavra!" Darnley screams helplessly, and Hermione goes still as his guttural cry fills the air, and a flash of green bursts out from under the threshold below. The next moment, Orran's laughter rings out in triumph, and the pair on the other side of the door stare in horror.
Her lips part, her heart pounds and her mind races. Orran had made someone consciously cast the Killing Curse upon themselves at his word…. Severus looks at her and nods.
"Enough of this," Snape says and points his wand at the door, blasting it open. The time has come to officially shut Melanthus Orran down.
Severus wastes no time. Wand aloft, she follows Snape in, who is hurling spells left and right, but drops to the floor as a violent green flare blasts a chunk out of the door frame where she's just been standing.
Severus throws a line of angry red light at Orran's heart, followed by her own retaliatory spell.
Orran deflects. He looks between the two, vaguely surprised, and a flicker of recognition crosses his face.
Hermione, thoroughly miffed by the wayward Killing Curse she's just dodged, casts a string of spells at Orran, and then glances down to the lifeless body of the other man on the floor.
"Drop your wand, now," Severus bellows, never ceasing his assault against the other man.
Orran responds by sending a wide arc of purple sailing out towards them both. Hermione and Severus both repel this with a well-placed Shielding Charm, and Hermione follows up with a hex. Severus re-enters the duel with renewed vigor, and hurls a nasty return curse that shatters the bookcase behind his opponent. Curses, flashes and sparks fly across the room and smoke gathers. Hermione can hardly see Severus through the fog, but she hears him with each spell he delivers.
Orran duels very well, but to her mind, it seems as if he's beginning to get overwhelmed by the constant barrage.
"It's very rude to attack someone you've not been properly introduced to first." Orran says between clenched teeth.
Snape laughs bitterly, keeping his wand trained ahead. "Do you follow your own rules of etiquette with others?"
Orran smiles and dips his chin as a spell ripples against an invisible shield before him. "I am a politician. Etiquette is mainly just for show." He hurls a giant ball of blue flame at Severus. "You're earlier than I'd imagined, Snape. I confess, I had expected Potter to be the one in your place."
Snape's wand slashes, sending a shower of golden sparks that fly at Orran like blades. "You've underestimated me."
Hermione attempts another Disarming spell while Orran focuses on Snape. Her heart hammers inside her ribcage, and her gaze shifts back and forth between the two. She's fairly certain Severus is distracting him, but for fuck's sake, now is not the time to strike up a chat!
The Dark wizard brushes both spells aside, and flashes another cruel smile. "Underestimate?" He dodges another hex from Hermione. "I'd always pegged you as more of a follower. Is Potter your new Dumbledore these days?"
Severus directs a level stare at him and sneers; his voice is dark and cold. "I'm following my own agenda this time."
Orran's beady little bird eyes widen just the slightest, and her skin prickles. Across the room, Severus raises his arm, and his words reverberate in her mind from earlier. "…it's a risk I'm willing to take." He inhales, and in that moment, she can see his intent clear as day across his face. Before Severus or Orran is able to spit out the first syllable of the Killing Curse, her own words fly out of her mouth faster than she can stop them.
A large plume of yellow smoke explodes where Orran has been standing, and Severus throws an arm up to block the blast of blinding light.
Hermione rises up to her knees, arm shaking, and stares at the spot where Orran had been standing. Severus winces through the smoke. There is silence for the space of a breath before he starts shouting.
"What did you do?" His wand points ahead, and he takes a hesitant step forward, peering closely.
"Grab it!" she yells frantically as a little figure on the ground emerges through the miasma, twitching and hobbling about in a daze.
Severus launches himself at the object, grabbing it between his hands and cupping it to his chest.
"What is it?" he chokes, and winces as the thing in his hands screeches shrilly.
Her wide eyes blink in surprise, and she coughs in an attempt to preempt a bout of hysterical laughter bubbling up from her throat.
Severus yelps and releases the shrieking little fury when it scratches his hands. A small, yellow canary falls to the ground. After failing to take flight, it stumbles around blindly, screeching at the top of its lungs. Severus looks up and sends her a deeply aggrieved look.
"I didn't intend to," she yells. She drops to her knees to try to capture the thing before it can escape. "We need something to put it in."
The bird viciously pecks at her hands and she curses when it draws blood.
"For fuck's sake," Severus groans, and kicks the thing so that it goes flying against a wall, knocking it out cold.
Hermione, ever the animal enthusiast, cannot help but feel at least a small amount of sympathy, and admonishes her partner. "Severus!"
He points to the small bundle of yellow feathers on the ground. "It's not a concern now."
A gash on his left cheek is bleeding freely, and she stands up to get a closer look. "Are you hurt?"
He shakes his head and asks the same of her.
They both turn to look back down at the dazed, unconscious creature.
"A canary? Really?"
"It's just the first thing I thought of," she says, defensive. "That horrid yellow hair. Those eyes." She shudders again. "The way he never shuts up…."
Severus shrugs, conceding the point.
They both take a moment to catch their breath and let the adrenaline level out somewhat. She runs a nervous hand through her hair. "How many do you think he's already cursed?"
He studies the bird for a moment and shakes his head. "Hard to say. He wouldn't have too many or else he'd have already begun cursing everyone and we'd be none the wiser. Orran had to have just recently perfected it."
She shudders again at the thought and then freezes.
"What time is it?"
He looks up. "What?"
"Time, what time? It must be nearly time for the others to arrive, right?"
Understanding dawns, and he goes to the door and releases the anti-Apparition charm from earlier. "Call Potter. They aren't here yet, but they will be soon."
She sends off another Patronus to tell Harry that Orran has committed murder but has been detained, and walks with hesitation towards the body of the unfortunate Mr Darnley.
"Poor guy. Even if he did have awful taste in overlords."
Snape lets out a long exhalation and rubs the bridge of his nose. "I can already see an increase in my brewing schedule for Veritaserum. Merlin knows how many people are going to, again, use it as an excuse this time around."
"What should we do with Orran?"
Severus slowly turns to her with a gleam in his eye that makes her slightly uncomfortable.
"I've been thinking about that. You see, the last time this sort of thing happened, it didn't end well. Voldemort had his Horcruxes hidden all over. Then there were the imprisoned Death Eaters. Azkaban couldn't hold them. If one has enough determination, say, to alter even a powerful curse such as Imperius – let's just be rid of him."
Her jaw drops open. "What?"
He takes a step forward, palms spread in supplication and nods. "I know how it sounds, but you've been through this, Hermione. These things… bars can't always hold evil in. I'm tired." He sighs and Hermione sees genuine weariness and fear reflected in his eyes. "Too many people die. Too many unforeseen accidents occur. Too many; it's all just too much. I refuse. No, I absolutely refuse to go through it all again."
She stares up at him, at a loss.
"But, we can't murder someone, Severus. Harry is on his way—"
"He would have murdered me if you hadn't stopped him," he interrupts. "Then you. Then your family and countless others."
"But he didn't," she says gently.
His shoulders slump and his fingers grip his wand at his side. "I won't go through what I went through for over ten years again. I can't." He adds in a final whisper, "It will break me this time."
He stands before her in a rare moment of raw vulnerability, and she understands a bit more why he'd been so anxious to get started on this mission. It isn't that she doesn't understand; truly she does.
She raises a hand to tentatively touch his shoulder, when they both jump as a triumphant yowl issues from behind them.
Severus whirls around, pushing her behind him in the process. Wands drawn and not seeing immediate danger, they rush to the corner where Orran had been left. The sight on the floor makes them both stop dead in their tracks, and horror dawns on Hermione's face.
Ron the cat crouches over a twitching canary that is squeaking frantically, trapped within feline paws and teeth. With a quick jerk of the cat's head, the bird ceases all movement, allowing the contented animal to gnaw on its victorious spoils.
"Oh my God," Hermione weakly mutters, lowering her wand in shock.
Severus stares in absolute wonder and then whispers a genuinely sincere, "Ten points to Gryffindor, Weasley."
"Severus! Do something!"
He rolls his eyes, and a smile, an actual, real smile, turns his up his lips, and he saunters away, merrily even, to plop down into a chair.
"It's your bloody spell, you do something about it. I wash my hands of this whole mess." He cringes when the sound of crunching bones fills the room, and Hermione goes positively green.
"This is horrible…" she moans, and removes her cloak. She tosses it over the tabby and hurriedly aims her shaking wand at him. "Finite incantatum."
Ron instantly morphs back into his human form, and an unsightly yellow feather pokes out over red-smeared lips.
He spits and scrubs at his mouth, gagging on the feather and looks down in confusion.
"What in Merlin's pants?" He looks at the feathery mess on the floor, blinks, and then breaks out into laughter.
"Hermione! Did I just eat a bird?" Instead of being horrified, like a true Weasley male, he is amused.
He gestures to the cloak and slips it over his bare shoulders. "Thanks for that. Could've been completely starkers. That would've been awkward." He glances up and pauses at her look of lingering revulsion.
"Oh, come on, Hermione. I was a cat. It was, like, this whole natural predator thing. I was a ravenous, killing machine. I couldn't be stopped," he winks, and looks over at the professor, who is, uncharacteristically, grinning. Mistaking it for equally shared amusement, he points down to the bird carcass on the floor. "Professor, did you see that?"
The gleam in Snape's eye, which may have never been equaled by anyone with the exception of Albus Dumbledore himself, positively twinkled, and he nods.
"Oh, yes, Weasley, I certainly did." He leans forward. "Well done."
Ron puffs up his chest at the first ever compliment he's received from his least favorite professor, and turns to Hermione to make sure she heard it, grinning like a loon.
"He said, 'well done!'"
The strain is too much and she finally breaks.
"You ate Orran, Ron!"
His grin slips. He looks down to the bird. "No I didn't. I ate a… whatever bird this is."
She shakes her head, overwrought. "No. No, I Transfigured him! Just like I did to you! You… you ate a human, Ron!"
Ron's lips part and he looks down at the feather in his hand. His tongue darts out and he licks his lips where traces of blood still linger. "What?"
"You ate a human, Ron!" she shrieks a final time as the sounds of Harry and his team's arrival is heard inside the hall.
"Oh, my sweet Circe." Ron whispers, aghast.
Harry rushes in, wand drawn, and breathes a sigh of relief to see his best friends alive and well. He's brought backup, evident by the Aurors streaming in by the dozen.
"Are you all right? Where is Orran?"
Hermione, who is slightly numb, shakes her head and points to the floor.
Harry crosses to her, concerned, and takes in Ron's troubled appearance contrasted against Snape's weirdly cheerful one.
Ron flips around on his knees and promptly begins vomiting on the floor.
"Ron, what the hell?" Harry yells.
Snape gets up and places a hand on Hermione's shoulder.
"Mr Potter, suffice it to say that Orran has been taken care of. He'll not be a problem any longer."
Harry's brows raise. "Did you get enough proof?"
Ron retches loudly in the background and Snape nods.
"Harry! We've got company!" someone yells from the hall.
Harry turns at the commotion, but looks back to Hermione, concerned.
Snape takes a step forward, and Hermione is grateful to hear him take over.
"Why don't you handle the confused group of people that are probably standing out in the hall wondering how and why they got there, and leave Miss Granger to me. We'll follow up with an official Ministry report tomorrow."
Torn, Harry begins to interject, but pauses at the sound of Ron gagging in the corner, and mumbling to himself.
"I thought it was a bird. I was a wild animal... just a wild animal!"
Hermione watches as Harry cocks his head, and turns to slowly regard her silent, shaken self. She stands beside both men, unsure of what to say. Admittedly, Harry has walked into an odd situation at best. In the end, after Ron retches a fourth time, she decides that words can wait, and she really wants Harry to listen to Snape's suggestion.
She squeezes Harry's hand and gives him the small grin he's waiting for. "Severus is right. Tomorrow, Harry."
He leans down and looks into his friend's eyes. "Are you all right?"
She nods and rests a palm on his arm. "Yes. Physically, I'm fine. I'd just like to go home now."
"I assure you I'll get her home safely," Snape says with a touch of sarcasm, and rests a hand at the small of her back. She twitches at the sensation and shoves back the memory of what had happened the last time he'd touched her so familiarly. Not that it was unpleasant. By any means.
They start to leave, and at the doorway, Harry calls out to them one final time. "Are you sure Orran is," he lowers his voice, "handled?"
Snape looks over his shoulder with a wicked smirk. "All is well, Potter."
He turns to face her then, and she's surprised to see him give her a small smile. His voice is gentle and soothing. "Would you like me to see you home, Miss Granger?"
She nods, and when he slides his hands around her back, she welcomes him easily.
They Disapparate and she holds on tightly until they arrive on Hermione's stone doorstep at her quiet, little cottage in the country, far away from London.
"Are you sound enough to be left alone?"
She looks up at him, lips pursed, and reluctantly pulls back when his arms drop to his sides.
"I've been through worse."
He smirks. "This is true."
They stand awkwardly together on her step and she hopes he'll say something else. Anything, really. When his voice is calm and, well maybe not caring, but sympathetic, it's really very nice.
"It's still a shame about the concert though." She closes her eyes. 'The concert, Hermione? Another Voldemort nearly comes to power and you're still on about the bloody concert?'
"The Requiem was appropriate."
She grins. "Mozart might have been tickled to know what occurred during the playing of it."
Crickets chirp nearby.
She stares at a button on his waistcoat, contemplating Mozart, conductors with curly hair and former professors of current interest; yet for the life of her cannot understand why she's run out of intelligent things to say aloud.
She looks up in surprise.
He clears his throat. "Food might help restore your, ah, energy levels."
She mentally smacks her forehead. "Oh! Oh, yes. I suppose."
He watches her carefully.
"Not sure I could stomach food at the moment though, considering." She murmurs aside, "Definitely not chicken."
At her response, it appears as if he somewhat deflates. "Right."
She quickly adds, "I think a hot bath and bed is what I really need."
He nods and steps back.
"Well, then I'll leave you to it," he says quietly, looking to the ground. "Thank you for your assistance, Miss Granger."
Something's happened, she thinks anxiously. A shift she's missed, somehow in his tone, and can do nothing about but nod and agree.
"Yes, of course, and you as well." 'Don't go.'
He turns to leave and she's seized with an urge to say something. Anything to keep him on her doorstep.
"It's Hermione, you know."
He pauses and looks back to her.
She reminds herself not to chew her lip. "My name. You can call me that if you wish."
He stares at her.
"I mean, if you want. Rather."
He simply looks at her and says nothing, and she can feel her cheeks burn. It's only a name, for goodness sake, it's not like she asked him out. Oh god, he still hasn't said anything. Cut and run.
"Okay, well, goodnight." Feeling incredibly stupid, she turns on her heel and unlocks the front door.
She stops inside the entrance. The hopeful lump in her throat has returned. "Yes?"
Snape stands halfway down her walkway, illuminated in pale moonlight, and regards her curiously. "What about tomorrow?"
She cocks her head. "Tomorrow?"
Severus actually shuffles his feet in the gravel, and swallows. Standing up straight, he inhales and looks her directly in the eye. "What about tomorrow? Would you like to get dinner then?"
Warmth blossoms in her chest, and she can't stop the joyous smile that suddenly spreads across her lips. Dudamel be damned.
"Tomorrow would be lovely."
Severus is silent for half of a moment, before nodding a final time, and gives her a slight bow from his hips. "Tomorrow then. Goodnight."
She watches him Disapparate, and stares after the spot he'd lately occupied. The calm of night descends in his absence, and she slowly lets herself relax. Orran and the threat he posed, no matter how unfortunate, has been handled. Their mission is complete. A full inquiry will be launched, and all possible issues have been pre-empted before they'd become full on problems. She breathes a sigh of relief and quietly anticipates pleasanter things.
Her fingertips brush over lips where his had been not so long ago, and her smile widens.