Characters are property of J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.

Chapter 30

Burning Bridges

I can give you Harry Potter in the flesh and very much alive—the simple phrase hung in the air between them, and Lucius was sure he could feel the words vibrating strangely toward him. It couldn't be possible. Anger laced with a slight sense of fear flared up in him as he saw a sweeping grin pay a visit to his wife's bruised face. He could possibly have believed her about Bellatrix, but never about Harry Potter being alive. Quite frankly, after that comment, he wasn't sure he could believe her at all. He had watched the boy die as he fell at the Dark Lord's feet, after all. It was absolutely impossible.

He jerked his hand from Narcissa's, looking at her with a mixture of dismay and anger. "Have you gone mad?"

"I am perfectly sane, Lucius," she said, the grin still curling her lips. "And I can see the skepticism in your eyes."

Lucius stood bolt upright, maneuvering around the desk so as to pull her from the chair. The smile on her lips was gone now as he took her face in his hands, staring directly into her eyes. He was searching for something, for a hint of the truth possibly, but more likely for deceit. Something was off, and he couldn't quite place his finger on it. "Are you ill?"

"I am fine," she answered. Her voice gave hint to her waning patience.

Lucius's hands dropped from the sides of her face, coming to rest on her shoulders. He looked at her for a long moment; still unsure of what exactly it was that he was looking for. His mind wandered briefly to the Dark Lord, to the notion that he had somehow managed to use Narcissa against him. How else could she have known about Bellatrix's disappearance? Why would she say anything about Harry Potter? Narcissa had never given the slightest bit of concern for the boy and, on more than one occasion, had questioned the Dark Lord's reasoning for placing her husband and only son at the front lines. Something is terribly off, Lucius thought. He turned her around by her shoulders and ushered her toward the door. Narcissa was content to follow him until he said: "You look tired. Perhaps a trip to the infirmary is in order. For good measure, of course."

"I am fine, Lucius," she told him again, but Lucius had managed to get her nearly to the door and looked to have no intention of stopping. Narcissa shrugged from under his hold and spun around, bringing them just inches apart. "I don't need the matron! I need you to listen to me!"

"Listen to you?" He erupted with a suddenly sharp viciousness. His eyes shone spitefully, and the longer she watched him, Narcissa could see the redness of a flush creeping up his neck. "You are talking madness, Narcissa! Harry Potter is dead, and unless you've developed great skill to bring him from beyond the Veil, there is no way you can deliver on your promise. And how do you even know about Bellatrix? She has been missing for days!" Before Narcissa could answer, Lucius took her roughly by the arm and forced her against the wall. "This is not a game! Do you understand that this will mean our heads!?"

"You…" she began, and for a moment she could not find her words. He had never handled her so brutally and it had taken her entirely off her guard. Out of instinct and before she could help herself, Narcissa brought her previously concealed wand to the base of his throat, feeling him tense as she did so. "You daft, stubborn man," she said, trembling all over as the words escaped through her clenched teeth. "If you ever put your hands on me in such a manner again, if you ever show me that level of disrespect, Lucius, there will be hell to pay!"

Lucius took a step back, the flush on his face now gone. "Forgive me, Narcissa. I… I—"

"I am your wife, your equal!" Narcissa spat. Bright red sparks exploded from the tip of her wand and bounced off the stone floor. One of the bolts ricocheted off the floor and spiraled past Lucius's blond head. He stumbled over his own feet in his retreat and fell on the seat of his pants, staring up at her in horror. After a moment, he put his hands over his face, unable to look at her any longer.

"Would you get up off the floor before you catch cold," Narcissa said finally, her voice only marginally softer. "Besides, there is more you need to know, and I would prefer to tell you somewhere comfortable."

"This is ridiculous," Lucius said, his tone somewhere between half-laughing and half-trembling. He was still staring at her feet, marveling at the mirthless quality of his own voice. He was finally cracking under the insane pressure. What a perfect time, he thought. And with the Dark Lord breathing down my neck, no less. He looked up to see her hand slender hand extended toward him, but he couldn't make himself reach out and grasp it.

"Lucius, please. Time is not on our side."

This time she sounded much more like the collected Narcissa he knew. Still, he hesitated for a moment, ashamed at himself for behaving like a fool, for forgetting that they were very much alike when it came to doing what was necessary to ensure their survival. He couldn't possibly fault her for that—even if he hadn't the slightest clue what she was talking about, or if he could believe her for that matter. He took her hand, and as she hefted him to his feet, Lucius found himself wondering with unwillingness if she could actually be telling him the awful truth.

Narcissa released him when he was on his feet, and made her way to the set of chairs in front of the Headmaster's desk. When she sat down, Lucius could see for the first time since her arrival coming that his wife was weary in a way he had never seen before. "Tell me where you've been," he said, settling himself next to her. "Help me understand what is going, Narcissa. Right now, I don't know what to believe."

"I've been with Bellatrix for the past several days." Narcissa smiled a little wistfully. "The day you came home looking for her, you found her, Lucius. You don't remember, because when you tried to apprehend her, she was able to gain the upper hand... with Draco as well."

"If that happened, Narcissa, I believe I would remember it."

"You would, if I had not persuaded Bellatrix to wipe your memories," Narcissa said.

Lucius shot his wife an incredulous look. "And why on earth would you do that?"

"To protect you, obviously – the both of you. I knew what would happen if the Dark Lord went poking around in your mind and saw that you let Bellatrix escape."

Lucius's eyes narrowed as the realization of what had happened at Malfoy Manor swept over him. And how did your dear sister manage to escape, Narcissa? Draco and I may have been unconscious as you say, but that still left one person in the room." Narcissa averted her eyes to escape her husband's furious gaze. "What in the hell were you thinking?"

"I was trying to—"

"You helped her escape! My God, what have you done? What could you have possibly hoped to gain by doing this?"

"She is my sister, Lucius," Narcissa said with tears welling in her eyes. "I had hoped that my family, all of my family, could make it out of this ordeal alive."

"The Dark Lord will kill you if, or should I say when he finds out." Lucius fisted his hands in his hair, a look of utter turmoil on his face. He looked like a man stricken; a man who had just been told the terrible news that he had developed some sort of irrevocable illness that was beyond a Healer's capacity. "I can't save you from this... I don't know how to save you…" he trailed off, staring absently into the air in front of him.

Narcissa made to reach for him, but he stood up and went to the heavy desk a few steps from where she sat. She watched as he paced back and forth, deep in his own thoughts, and when she called his name, he wouldn't even look her way. Instead, Lucius had placed both hands on the desk for support with his head hung.

"Listen to me—"

"I have listened to you, and I have heard enough!" His words were cut off by the crashing sound of everything on his desk being swept into the floor. "I cannot fix this, Narcissa! I cannot undo the damage you've done!"

Narcissa sat, hardly able to bear the sound her husband's falsely calm breath as it left him. Her eyes focused on the mountain of parchment he had knocked to the floor in his fit of rage. "Do you know the reason I wiped your memory of the encounter?"

"To save me, so you say," he answered. His voice was harsh and frigid. "What fucking good it has done!"

"You are alive now because of the choice I made!" Narcissa shrieked. "Had you taken Bellatrix to the Dark Lord he would have slain you both! He would have taken everything I have left, because he failed to kill Harry Potter when the time presented itself. He would have laid blame to Bellatrix, to you… to Draco, Lucius. I could not sit idly by and watch you walk into death's arms, with my sister and my only child at your side!"

Lucius shook his head. "You couldn't have possibly known that. How do you not see that by keeping this from him it will be worse, so much worse?"

"I know where they are, Bellatrix and the boy. I know where Snape is," Narcissa said, and when she saw the look of disbelief flash across his face she added, "Oh yes, Severus Snape lives, as does the Blood Traitor and the filth that has the audacity to call herself a witch. They all live."

"This is not possible… Dolohov and Bellatrix were supposed to—"

"Antonin is dead, surely you have figured that out by now," Narcissa said firmly. "And no one else will die because of this, except the proper sort, of course."

"What do you intend to do?" Lucius asked, and Narcissa saw that for the first time that evening that she had finally managed to get him right where she needed him to be. She turned abruptly and walked toward the large window overlooking the castle lawn. Her eyes looked past the snow falling steadily, and as she surveyed the Forbidden Forest that stood at the edge of the grounds, she relished in the power those six seemingly insignificant words held.

"I told you, I can give you Bella and the boy." Narcissa ran her hand down the pane of glass, watching as the thin, watery film came off on her fingers. It was hard for her not to envision swiping away everything and everyone that had threatened her and those she loved, feeling their cold blood on her hands instead of condensation. It had been a long time in coming, and she was ready for it. "In the meantime, it is important for you to use discretion. This conversation never happened."

"I won't be able to keep this from him forever," Lucius said with a thin voice. "Eventually it will come to light."

"Luckily for us all, I'm not asking for that long." Narcissa turned and smiled at her husband. She crossed the distance between them in a few strides, bringing the tip of her wand to his temple. "Just a precaution, Lucius," she assured when he flinched. "They won't be out of reach."

At that, Narcissa began to siphon the entire encounter from her husband's memory, carefully pulling the incriminating wispy strands from his temple. Lucius retrieved the teacup on the floor—the only receptacle close at hand – and dumped the remaining tea onto the stone. As Narcissa placed the memory inside for safekeeping, the two of them were completely unaware that they had been watched from the shadows.

"Standing guard at her bedside isn't doing either of you any good," Snape observed, his voice quiet and calm. The shadowed figure he spoke to jumped from surprise, and then turned in his chair. The light from the hallway illuminated Harry's face long enough for Severus to notice the haggardness about him. It was to be expected, considering that Harry refused to sleep until Hermione regained consciousness. It was simply the ridiculous nature of a Gryffindor, Severus thought as his gaze roved over their lifeless companion lying in the middle of the bed.

Hermione lay on her back, her hair in a wild halo around her head. She was perfectly still, except for the slow, arrhythmic rise and fall of her chest. If one didn't know otherwise, it would have been easy to assume she was sleeping. The hand that held the curse rested on the mattress, a single finger darkened as though a malevolent shadow had fallen over it. She was improving, but it was still unknown when she would wake.

"You need to sleep, Potter," Snape insisted. "You'll be no good to her when she wakes if you don't tend to yourself."

"I'm fine. Besides, I couldn't sleep if I tried." Harry ran a hand through his messy hair and shook his head. "Even if I could, I know what waits. It was hard enough watching her then, I don't want to see it in my sleep."

Severus sighed. "As I told Weasley, a full dose of Dreamless Sleep—"

"I don't want any Dreamless Sleep!" Harry snapped. "I want her to wake up."

"Despite what your immense sense of entitlement may lead you to believe, you are not the only one." The words tore through the strained silence, and Harry recoiled as though Severus had struck him across the face.

"And I'm supposed to believe you're talking about yourself, then?" Harry stood, his legs shaking like stilts from his temper. "We told you this would happen, and look what your immense sense of stupidity did to her! You could have killed her!"

Severus froze, feeling an entirely new brand of loathing awaken which he found hard to contain. His mind, muddied by anger and a horrible sense of responsibility, churned until he was able to see past the red clouding his vision to the green eyes staring back at him with equal contempt. He didn't know which he hated more; the boy for his insolence, or the fact that he spoke the truth.

"You don't even deny it, do you?" Harry had taken an abrupt step forward, his hands balled into fists. "All of this could have been—"

"What? Avoided?" Severus said. "No need to pussyfoot around it, Potter. Say it— cast your blame as you've done every time before when some great problem has arisen in your life!"

Harry's face twisted in fury. "I never asked for your help, but accepted it all the same when you offered. Do you know why? It was because Hermione trusted you! She trusted you to do the right thing. She practically begged you to let us destroy it, to trust us that it needed to be done, and you refused her."

You refused her. He hated those three little words. He hated how each one felt like the blade of a blunt axe wedged in his chest. "What's done is done," Severus said grudgingly. "If I could undo what's happened to her—"

"I'm not asking you to do that," Harry said curtly. "I want you to take responsibility for this."

"You think I haven't already?" Severus demanded, and the incredulous face Harry wore gave the impression that the notion was altogether unfathomable to him. "Not a minute passes that I don't wish I had done something differently. Not a single fucking one!"

He turned and made his way over to where Hermione lay, leaving Harry standing alone in the center of the room. "I made a promise. I told her that I would keep her safe and I failed," Severus said, placing the back of his hand upon her cheek. The fever had receded but only marginally, and when his fingers moved to her neck, the slow thumping of her pulse shot through him like an electric shock. He gave Harry a sharp look and said, "Does that satisfy you?

"It will if she wakes up."

"When," Severus corrected in a stern voice. "When she wakes, and she will. I have no doubt."

Harry came to stand at Snape's side, looking down at his friend. Several awkward seconds passed before he settled himself down on the bed, taking Hermione's damaged hand in his own. He sighed, miserable and listless, as though unsure of what to say next and shook his head. "She still feels too hot. How long until this passes?"

"I can't answer that," Severus answered sullenly. "I would expect soon considering the damage to her finger is no longer spreading."

"But it's still there," Harry observed. He turned Hermione's hand over in his, running his thumb across the darkened flesh. "You said destroying the goblet would prevent this. It worked for Dumbledore, it should have worked for her. "

"Miss Granger is a great many things, but she can't be compared to Albus. She's not only weaker in skill, but the circumstances are different surrounding her case," Severus said.

Harry rubbed the space between his eyes with both hands. "I'm not following. I thought this was the same thing. You said it was."

"It is the same thing, but the difference is in how it occurred. Albus fell victim to the curse when he placed the ring on his finger, the same ring containing one of the Hallows. He sought the power it held and thus became vulnerable to the magic within it. Hermione did not touch the goblet with the intent of gaining something from it."

Harry shook his head. "No, she just wanted to see what was inside. She didn't even touch it when it fell. Whatever was in it splashed onto her hand. We didn't even know it was there until it was too late."

"A failsafe the Dark Lord did not anticipate in his ingenious design," Severus said absently. He reached down to brush a stand of Hermione's unruly hair behind her ear and continued. "It is the hunger, the need to gain power that makes the curse fatal. Her intentions, though irresponsible, were innocent."

"What about the potions you gave Dumbledore?" Harry said without hesitation. "Couldn't you—"

"It would do nothing for her. The curse doesn't need to be contained. It isn't spreading," Severus said.

"It isn't going away either, and now that Voldemort knows what we've done, she's even more vulnerable. We all are."

Severus could sense the nervous fear rising up in Harry again, and he could hardly blame him. That same anxious worry would often rear its ugly head in him as well. Still, there was little that could be done with Hermione. They could only bide their time until she recovered, and Severus was quite certain they would remain safe for the time being. "The Dark Lord could appear just beyond the stoop and he would never find what he was searching for. We are protected here."

Harry fought off a yawn, and stood. "We're holding a Death Eater right under our noses, not to mention her sister has escaped."

"You needn't worry about Narcissa," Severus said at once. "She won't act against us until she knows Bellatrix is neutralized. She knows I would rather give her sister over and watch them both burn." Severus was unsure how convincing he was, but Harry seemed to be placated for the time being. "At any rate, it is nothing to concern yourself with."

Severus waited for the next round of worried questioning, but found himself surprised when Harry silently made his way toward the empty chair instead. He could have been a Hufflepuff for all of his loyalty, Snape thought, watching as the young wizard continued to fight against his exhaustion.

"Why do you insist on being so incredibly pigheaded?" Severus asked."Go to bed."

Harry gave a half-hearted grin, but didn't sit. "It is my nature, I've been told. Besides, someone should be here with her."He hesitated, looking stupidly at his own socked-feet, then continued. "She would do the same for any of us."

"I think I can manage it well enough." Severus waved his wand, and the bedroom door swung open. "The Dreamless Sleep is in the lavatory cupboard," he continued as he seized Harry by the sleeve of his shirt and ushered him out into the hallway. "Take it or leave it, but I don't want to see you step foot in this room until you've slept."

Harry paused for a moment, then turned to sulk down the darkened corridor and into the room was sharing with Ron. The door shut behind the young wizard with a quiet snap and all was still—all except the sound of shallow breathing coming from the room at his back.

Severus turned, hearing the aged boards of the floor creak under his weight, and closed the door to his room. The clock hanging on the far end of the space read just shy of three in the morning. Nine hours, he thought as he threw himself into the empty chair by Hermione's sickbed. She's been convalesced nine hours, and still there is no change.

There, as he sat alone in the dark, his fingers drumming silently, restlessly upon the armrests of the chair, Severus felt the first paralyzing stirrings of helplessness. He had managed to keep his emotions in check from the moment she had been cursed, but as the seconds ticked on, and as she lay still and silent, the guilt and the powerlessness was beginning to bear down on him with more and more weight.

The world was spinning out of control right in front of him, and there was nothing Severus could do but wait to see if it would correct itself. Narcissa's disappearance was still there, hiding in the back of his mind. Bellatrix was there, taunting him with all of the things he should have done differently. When she wasn't perversely laughing her way to the forefront, the damaged Horcrux was there, reminding him that it was all far from over and that time was running out. The boys were there with their 'I-told-you-sos', casting their blame, and the Dark Lord was there, too, with his plans to fully overthrow the Ministry of Magic—an act that would finally give a face to the reign of terror being carried out in his name and swiftly cripple any opposition remaining. Still, with all of those thoughts swirling around like some wildly violent tempest in his mind, Severus could focus only on one question: had he done enough save her?

Severus felt his stomach take an unpleasant roll forward, and he found he couldn't sit idly in the chair any longer. He crossed the space between the chair and the bed, coming to stand at Hermione's side, feeling regrettably small and lost. This isn't right. This isn't how this is supposed to be, he thought. "The good and just should never fall by the wayside. This isn't right!"

He had not intended to say those words aloud, but found them coming out of his mouth before he could pull them back in. He watched her face, hoping to detect any sort of response. There was nothing, but an idea suddenly came to him.

He remembered standing in the doorway hours before, listening as Harry and Ron took turns simply talking to her. They would have one-sided conversations that ranged anywhere from Quidditch and memories of their earlier and far less perilous days at Hogwarts to what they intended to do once the Dark Lord was defeated. They would ask her questions and dutifully wait for a response that never came. It had grown too much for him to witness, and Severus had retreated into the kitchen to escape their failed attempts but more so Hermione's lack of reply. When all was said and done, their experiment had ended with a tearful Ron seeking him out for Dreamless Sleep and an angry, forlorn Harry that refused to give up no matter the cost to his mental health.

Severus sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the shaft of light falling across his socks, and said to Hermione, "Did you know the word listen and the word silent are made up of the same letters?" He paused, turning to look at her face. He wanted to hear her voice, but was happy to settle for a perplexed expression if that was all he could have. He was given neither.

"I'm sure you are wondering why I would lead with something as incredibly mundane as an anagram, but it is for my piece of mind. Those two words are often used in tandem, and it is for that reason alone I'm going to accept your silence, Hermione. I'm going to take your silence because I believe you are one of the very few people who understand listening has far more to do with not talking."

She offered no response, but Severus didn't stop. He wasn't normally one for talking, because the successfulness of a conversation was often in the hands of the listener. This felt different, however, as though the outcome was solely in his hands. "I have nothing worthwhile to offer in terms of Quidditch, nor do I possess any remotely interesting story of my tenure at Hogwarts, but what I can tell you is that Potter and Weasly cannot be expected to travel down this road unless you are alongside them." He paused for a moment, and then said with great difficulty, "It isn't just them, either, Hermione. If there is any hope for me seeing this through to its end, it lies with you and you alone."

Severus took her hand, and folded her hot, limp fingers into his, wondering with absolute misery if she had heard anything he had said.

Snape's voice had reached her. As he spoke, the sound of it rather than the words or meaning drifted through her mind like a wisp of cloud, and no matter how hard Hermione fought to reach out and grasp it, it would disappear just as quickly as it came. The only things she could fully sense were the cold and the darkness. It was an incredible coldness that threatened to smother her as she lay powerless to stop it. It was consuming, and she was starting to wonder if it would freeze her alive from the inside out. Instincts, the sort buried deep down, told her to move, to react in defense any way she could, but the blanket of unconsciousness draped over her was too heavy to lift.

Instead, Hermione felt herself slipping further and further down into the freezing pit. I need to go up. Up, not down! But down and down she went, descending, spiraling further into the darkness. Hermione knew that something dreadful waited down in the oppressive chill, something that haunted her. There was something else too, a soft light she could hardly detect in the shadows. She had seen it several times before, but it was always only a quick glance she managed to steal before it disappeared. Now, however, she could see it. She could almost feel the heat radiating from it, as if it was her own personal sun.

The urge to follow it grew aggressively, and she found herself hurrying toward it. She persisted, but never managed to make the slightest gain—with each stride, the light would recede deeper into the abyss, taking her with it as it went. Don't leave me here! she called, but the light continued to vanish, leaving her alone to choke on the bitter loneliness that was everywhere. She closed her eyes and thought of herself climbing out with her bare hands. She fought past the cold and the bleakness, focusing instead on finding any way that would lead her to freedom. Up. I need to go up before it leaves me down here!

That was when Hermione heard the voice again. She could feel it in the darkness and she began to move again, this time with renewed strength. Guided by the voice, she felt her way through the fog, and as she went, she became increasingly aware of the heightened difficulty with which she moved. It started with the weird heaviness that she couldn't shake, and then shifted as she continued into a gnawing ache that branched out in every direction. When the ache turned into a sizzling pain she could hardly stand, she had no choice but to stop, the voice just beyond her reach.

Hermione could feel her teeth chattering when she forced the plea past her lips, the desperate request to wait, which the voice ignored. Slowly, with a terrible sense of fear, she sank to her knees and listened as it faded away. She made a soft sound just shy of a whimper and gave herself over to her nightmare, saying one last time as she curled up, "Don't leave me alone…"

"Shhhh," the voice answered gently, fleetingly. Hermione felt it caress the side of her face like a steady hand, and she started to cry. "You're not alone."

Her eyes fluttered in response to the burning tears, and she not only saw light when she opened them fully, but a face she recognized at once.


It hurt to speak. It hurt to move. It hurt to even think. Hermione felt as if she had slept for ages, and the fact that she had no idea where she was or how long she had been there only made matters worse. Her stomach was sour and empty, and she could feel a spasm of pain twist through her head as she tried to sit up.

Hermione looked reluctantly around the room, which was bathed in the soft glow of a single lamp burning in the adjoining lavatory. I must be in his bed, because this is his room. The next thing she noticed was the lit streetlight beyond the window, and though the flimsy curtain blocked most of her view, she could tell snow was falling steadily.

"What time is it?" she asked, her voice dreadfully hoarse.

"A little past three in the morning," Severus said. "You've been nearly comatose going on nine hours. How do you feel?"

Hermione knew what she felt like, but didn't think she could properly articulate it. It was like she had been trapped inside herself as crazy as that sounded, like she had been locked away somewhere dark and damning never to see light again. At the thought of it, she felt the panic rise up and clasp its cold hands around her throat, making it difficult to breathe. Hermione pushed herself up the pillow, feeling flares of pain ripple outward in every direction.

"Try not to move just yet," Severus said. Hermione felt the bed give under his weight as he sat, and suddenly his face came into focus right above her head. She wanted desperately to reach out and touch him, to prove that she wasn't trapped in the horrible dream she had endured, but he pulled a blanket around her snuggly, keeping her in place. "You are shivering."

"It's cold," she rasped. "…I'm cold."

"That's the fever doing its work." Severus placed his hand on her cheek again, looking at her intently. "I would have given you something for it, but I didn't want to chance you choking on it while you were unconscious. Do you think you could swallow it now?"

Hermione winced. "Please."

Severus reached for a small phial on the bedside table, and popped the cork from its mouth. "This isn't going to be pleasant on an empty stomach," he cautioned, holding it out. "You have to keep most of the potion down in order for it to work."

Her cursed hand reached for the phial, and when she caught sight of the darkened skin, she stilled. The grayness had seeped nearly up to the knuckle of her index finger, but the nail itself looked as though she had repeatedly slammed it in a heavy door, blue and black. Hermione realised quickly that it wasn't simply bruising.

"It has improved," Severus insisted, seeing the stricken look on her face. "The curse had spread to another finger."

Hermione managed an awkward nod, still looking at the damage done. She could not imagine it looking worse, if truth be told. It looked to her like her finger belonged to a corpse. The tinge would most likely never go away, a constant reminder of the chaos and the horror that couldn't be washed away. She flexed her hand, slowly and meticulously moving each joint. "I can't feel it."

"Your entire hand?" There was an edge of alarm in Severus's voice. He placed the empty phial back on the bedside table and took her hand in his, carefully touching each of her fingers, asking with each pass if she had feeling.

"Only the one finger."

"Consider yourself lucky it isn't worse." Severus retrieved the phial of potion once more, and this time Hermione took it. The potion drained down her throat like acid, stinging and burning, but stayed down despite the round of nausea she felt.

Severus appeared to be content that she would be fine for the time being, and went back to his chair, pulling it closer to her bedside. "You need to rest."

The heavy silence that followed soon after was a hundred times worse to Hermione than anything in her dreams. She wanted to ask after Ron and Harry—who were doubtless sleeping given the hour— and what had happened before she found herself shivering from a cursed fever in his bed, but the words all failed, smothered by the image of the wizard sitting at her bedside. Severus looked tired with dark lines etched under his eyes. He was fighting sleep as much as he looked to be fighting with himself. That wouldn't do.

Hermione sat up, feeling a dull throb in her head intensify. "I don't remember much of what happened, except feeling like someone was holding my head under iced water." When she thought about it, she realised the fever still lingered on stubbornly.

Severus took a slow, deep breath, his eyes watching her face as he spoke. "The goblet carried a curse, a defense mechanism, if you will. It was apparently threatened, and it reacted." Severus frowned. "At one point you stopped breathing entirely…I thought you were lost to us all."

The realization of how close she had come to greeting death chilled her. "And the Horcrux?" she asked, looking down at her hands. "Was it destroyed?"

"I had no choice," Severus said. "And in the chaos, Narcissa fled."

"The Dark Lord knows we're alive and we're still hunting him?"

"None of that matters, do you understand me?" he said. "None of that is important now."

Hermione shook her head, knowing with a cold certainty that every bit of it mattered. "Of course it does… I've doomed us all. This... all of this is my fault." A single tear tracked a salty path down her cheek. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

That surprised him, given the expression on his face. "You have no reason to be sorry," Severus told her, vexed. "You have done nothing that merits an apology. I should have listened to you from the beginning. Had I listened, this—"

"No one blames you, Severus," Hermione interrupted. "Besides, there's enough sadness in the world without getting involved in figuring out who's responsible for it."

"If I had known—"

"Most people don't believe something will happen until it does." Her head was still swimming, and she could feel her eyelids grow heavy again. The potion must have been working, making her lashes feel like they were made of stone. Hermione reached out, taking Severus's hand in hers, and squeezed. She refused to sink back under.

He squeezed back, looking wounded. "It was stupid and irresponsible—"

"It's human nature," Hermione insisted, allowing a faint smile to grace her lips. "If anyone is at fault it's me. I should have never tried look at it. The cup would have killed me, had you not done what you did. "

Severus looked as if he was about to smile, but his face disappeared behind a curtain of dark hair before Hermione could see him properly. It wasn't hard to guess something was troubling him, though he tried to pay it very little mind. "I did very little, if anything at all."

"You've done more than I could have ever asked from you."

"And I would do it all again," Severus admitted softly, almost as if he had said something that should have stayed private. "I made you a promise, remember?"

Hermione heard his voice fade into silence, and the spasm she felt shuddering through her chest was a different sort of pain. This was the stomach-churning agony she felt every time she looked at him and wondered if he even had even the faintest of feelings for her. There was a sense of responsibility there, which she couldn't deny, but was there truly more than that?

Suddenly a thought occurred to Hermione, one that was both horrible and frightening. There was a very real chance she would never know the answer to that question, and what little likelihood there was lessened every day they marched dutifully closer to the end of their fight. It would all be lost with a well placed curse, or worse. The Dark Lord had a great many weapons at his disposal, each of them crueler than the next. She had to know. Good or bad, she had to know.

"Say what's on your mind," Severus told her suddenly. "It's written all over your face, you're holding something back."

Hermione looked at him quickly and spoke before she lost her nerve. "I can't do this anymore." Even to her, her voice sounded like it should have belonged to someone else, but still she continued. "I don't want to do this anymore."

"We are nearly there," Severus said hopefully. "Two Horcruxes remain. It will only be a matter of time."

"I wasn't talking about the Horcruxes, or Voldemort, or any of this." Hermione looked away, fighting the flow of words that threatened to burst from her and make a mess of things. When she finally turned back an odd expression had fallen over his face, somewhere between dread and nervousness. "Are you going to actually make me say it aloud?"


"Don't," she said impatiently. "Just don't speak, please. If I don't say what I mean to say, I might never find it in me to bring it up again…" Or the opportunity. She swung her legs off the bed slowly, ignoring the brief feeling of faintness that washed over her. Severus drew back into his chair in what Hermione hoped was an attempt to give her room to stand and not an escape.

"You shouldn't stand," Severus advised, coming to his own feet should she need support.

"There is a lot I shouldn't do," she answered as the tips of her toes touched the floor. Hermione eased herself up off the bed, her legs feeling as though they were made of lead. Don't fall, don't fall. "There is a lot I shouldn't feel, and no matter how much I try to talk myself out of it, it never works."

"This is your fatigue talking."

"No it isn't. And I know you think it's all nonsense." She took an awkward step toward him, and he caught her by the wrist when she swayed. "I don't want to be your friend anymore…or whatever this is."

"Do you understand what you are asking me to do?" Severus's voice sounded far off, faint. Hermione was sure she saw something akin to hurt flash across his face. It was gone nearly as soon as she had seen it.

"I'm asking you to be honest with me."

"No, you are asking me to place you in even more danger than you are already in. What do you think would happen should the Dark Lord discover…" Severus trailed off, as though he couldn't finish the thought. "Do you know what kind of power that could give him should you and I become involved?"

Her heart sank. "And you think the danger I'm in won't worsen regardless of that?"Hermione stood a bit straighter, and the pain that lanced through her head was almost blinding. "You think I won't have any more brushes with death before this is all over?"

"I won't have them on my account…" He hesitated, and she thought he may have lost his nerve. "I told you that I would keep you safe. Don't put me in a position where I can't follow through with it."

That was unexpected, and somehow she felt a stab of anger go through her chest. "Look at me," Hermione ordered, unsmiling, and he did. "Look at me and tell me that there isn't enough for You Know Who to use against us already."

Severus shook his head, and wrapped an arm around her waist. "Hermione—"

"Answer me!" The tears were falling freely now, and she felt as though the room was closing in on itself. She was only vaguely aware of the fabric of his shirt brushing against her cheek as he pulled her toward him. Severus didn't answer right away, but she could sense that he was trying to determine if he should say anything at all. That wasn't good enough for her, and she said, "Tell me I'm wrong!"

"You know I can't tell you you're wrong," he said, carefully selecting each word. "Surely you can see that?"

Hermione twisted out of his grasp, her face colorless. Her body screamed at her to lie back down, but she refused. "Then why can't you say it? Why can't you tell me how you feel—and spare me the nonsense about keeping me safe, because you and I both know that is ridiculous." At that, his eyes found hers, and for the first time since their coming together, Hermione saw something entirely foreign in his face, reckless courage perhaps. "I know this is hard for you, admitting it, letting go even—"

Severus's lips coming down on hers caught her completely by surprise. At first she didn't respond, her mind several steps behind what her body was trying to tell her. Only when his free hand turned her face upward did she finally catch up.

"You are killing me," he whispered against her mouth. "Is that what you want to hear? Do you want me to admit that you are grinding my resolve and my restraint to dust?"

Severus took her lips with his again, not bothering to wait for an answer, and Hermione could feel herself sink into him. His mouth was deft and sure, but as she tried to mirror the way he moved around her, her pulse thrummed along with the pain in her head, making it impossible to think. He drove her back one step at a time until Hermione became aware of the mattress pressing into the back of her legs, and in that moment she felt something shift between them.

It was as if they had finally accepted the unspoken connection that had formed between them over the last several weeks, the same bond that was molded and shaped by everything they had been through and everything they had yet to face. It was terrifying, but it was right.

Severus pulled back as she sat on the edge of bed, but he was still close enough for Hermione to feel his breath on her lips and his hair as it fell forward. He kissed her again, his hand coming to rest at the nape of her neck, and said, "Need I tell you more?"

She pulled him forward, eager to feel him against her, desperate to forget the dull ache that was everywhere else. He relented more easily than she had expected, his body now hovering over hers. This time, her mouth captured his first as he pushed her back onto the bed. She held back somewhat timidly, fearing she would come off as clumsy or inexperienced, but when she heard him utter a single, deep groan, it told her she had done everything precisely right.

Hermione reached upward, touching the fabric of his shirt, and noticed she wasn't the only one breathing heavily. There was desperation in each breath he took, and she was determined to answer it then and there, with his hips pinning her to the bed. One hand found his hair, allowing the strands to become woven between her fingers, while the other snaked down his back, pulling him closer.

"Patience…" Severus breathed against her ear. The chills went down her neck and spread. One of his hands hooked behind her knee, drawing it up, and when the faint moan managed to slip from between her lips, he went rigid.

"We have to stop," he said, his eyes pinched closed. The composure of his voice was forced just as much as his words, it seemed.

For a moment, every single thought in her mind disappeared, wiped away by a silent blast of embarrassment and betrayal. Hermione turned away, trying to hide the redness creeping across her face, and ashamed at herself for allowing the situation to unravel as it had. She had known this was coming, the harsh rejection she had been preparing for since the moment she realised she had developed feelings for him. Severus had never truly cast her away, but he had never given her a solid indication he wouldn't. She thought back to the night she had confronted him about what had taken place at the Riddle House and in his kitchen, recalling how he had blamed it all on a lapse of judgment. Hermione also remembered how he became reserved the days afterward, attempting to keep his distance, watching what he said around her. It hardly made sense when she was perfectly well, but now, in her depleted state, it made even less. Regardless of what was happening, one this was certain: she didn't expect it to hurt as much as it did.

"Because it'll be something we'll both come to bitterly regret in the end, right?" Hermione asked in a strangely emotionless and flat voice.

"No." Severus came to rest on his elbow, but did not ease all of his weight of her. Their legs were still tangled around the bed linens when he kissed her again. "It's because I won't be able to stop myself if we continue."

She had nothing to say to that.

Severus pushed himself off of her, righting his clothes as he sat up. When Hermione sat upright herself she noticed that she had managed to wriggle the tail end of his shirt from his trousers when she had pulled him forward. She reached over, flattening the rumple of cloth, and rested her head on his shoulder.

Severus gave a tiny little smile when he looked down at her. One arm pulled her closer, and he laced his fingers with hers, his thumb tracing languid patterns over the darkened one. "Now you know."

And even though she truly knew, Hermione still felt off balance. She was not used to feeling at a loss. She was the one who always had the plan. Now, it all seemed to be scattered with the winter wind; her better judgment tugging her one direction while he pulled her in the other. "What are we going to do?" she asked him, feeling an uneasy fluttering in the pit of her stomach.

"What we must," Severus answered. He hung his head, trying to disguise the fact he looked plainly miserable.

"And when this is all over?" she asked, unhappy with the limp quality of her voice.

He lifted an eyebrow at that, smiling faintly again. "You needn't worry yourself over that." Severus's cheek rested against Hermione's temple before he kissed the top of her head. "I need to let you sleep."

"I'm not tired." Hermione knew if she told him the truth, he would leave her out of courtesy. She wasn't ready to give him up just yet. She wasn't ready for the wall to be built between them again, not after she had finally managed to force it down.

"You couldn't lie to save your life," Severus said, nudging her with his shoulder.

"Luckily I have you so I don't have too," she answered timidly, looking down at their socked feet. His grazed the floor, while hers dangled a few inches shy. All of this will be over when I wake up in the morning, Hermione thought, her foot brushing across the top of his. Severus started to stand moments later, but she refused to let his hand free.

"Does it matter that I don't want you to go?"

Severus sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "This will only make things harder, you know that."

"I know, but…" Hermione couldn't think properly. Her head was beginning to pound deeply now. She knew it would only worsen the longer she sat upright. "…would you stay, at least until I fall asleep?"

Severus regarded her for a moment, as if searching for an unexpected reserve of the resolve he claimed she had stolen from him. Perhaps seconds later, when he sat back down and propped himself against the headboard, Hermione knew that he hadn't found any.

Author's Notes: As always, reviews are welcomed and greatly appreciated. The next chapter will come after the Christmas holiday. Until then, friends, I wish you happy holidays, a splendid New Year, and hours of happy reading!