Hello old friends (and new ones!)

It has been a long, long while since I've had the time to write, but I've taken advantage of my winter break to pound out a chapter. It's kind of a filler, but it sets up lots of necessary plot points for later!

What's been happening in case you don't remember!

Draco has (reluctantly) joined Severus and Hermione. They are concocting a complex plot to poison Hermione and get that information back to the Dark Lord. We know that Harry is a Horcrux, and Hermione is researching a way to get the Horcrux out of his head.

Here it is! More author's notes after the chapter!

Chapter 57

"A dueling conference, Filius?" Dumbledore's blue eyes were cheerful, but there was something off with the way in which he said the words. Minerva McGonagall frowned, poking at her scrambled eggs with her fork. There was something amiss there, and from the quick glance Albus gave her, she knew she was bound to find out.

The diminutive Charms professor nodded solemnly. "Yes, in Salem of all places. Apparently they lost their keynote speaker at the last minute and needed a substitute. Nasty incident – he's all ears now, unfortunately. A curse gone wrong. Luckily, the ear that replaced his nose was still capable of breathing or that would have been quite the inglorious end for Dirk Dreferious. Quite the end."

Minerva smiled at her colleague down the table. "Yes, Filius. What an honor! You must be very pleased."

Professor Flitwick puffed with the praise. "Yes, yes, Minerva. You'd think that with the number of dueling championships I have under my belt I would be invited to these types of things more often. In fact, I do believe I defeated Dirk when I was just finishing my career, before coming here to Hogwarts."

"I'm sure it is because they know how valued you are here, Filius," Dumbledore said calmly. "After all, we are losing you for a week to this conference!"

"Yes, thank you, Headmaster, for agreeing to take on my classes," Flitwick said, grimacing slightly. "These things. Can't really be avoided. But all of my classes are doing just splendidly. Pay real attention to that Ginny Weasley – like her older brothers that lass is quick with a wand. I say, if she goes into Quidditch instead of proper Charms Mastery-"

At that point in the conversation, Madam Hootch joined in the rather lively debate. Severus scowled and glared at his coffee. He was wasn't tense per say – no, it would be impossible to be tense after the night before – but he felt apprehensive. Someone he cared about – cared deeply about – would be putting herself in danger in mere hours. And to top it off that danger would be at the hands of someone else he cared about.

"Severus looks like he bit into a sour lemon," he heard someone – Hootch – say. "What curdled your coffee?"

Severus turned his glare from his coffee to the flying teacher. "Hearing you prattle on about the Quidditch prowess of the Weasleys," he snapped. "Potter was an idiot to choose Weasley for Keeper – he can't keep out Quaffles let alone his nerves. If anything he's a blessing to Slytherin and an insult to the art of Keeping."

In return, McGonagall gave him a dark glower. "It's it a little early in the morning to be this acerbic, Severus?" she asked tartly.

"I would be sweeter, but since the Headmaster has dumped the last half of the sugar pot into his coffee I'm afraid this morning I'm left as sour as can be," Severus drawled, half of a smirk coming on his face.

Dumbledore chuckled. "If I had known that all this time all you needed was sugar to be halfway polite in the mornings, Severus, I would have had the house elves keep you in constant supply."

A few more pointed barbs were thrown around until Flitwick polished off the last of his sausage and rose from the table self-importantly.

"I'm off then," he squeaked, buttoning his cape around his neck. "Wish me luck!"

A chorus of well-wishes rose from the table, allowing Severus to retreat back into his meagre breakfast. The first part of the plan, executed.

"You look wonderfully refreshed this morning, Hermione," remarked Ginny as Hermione slid into a seat next to her. Across from Hermione, Harry was finishing up his Charms homework while Ron was tucking into breakfast. "Have you finally put down your homework sometime before three in the morning?"

Thankfully Hermione was looking at the stack of pancakes and had time to wipe her smile off of her face. "Yes, actually. I took an early night last night. I know I'll have to be studying late in the library tonight, so I thought one day of rest couldn't hurt."

Ron groaned. "Right. That Transfiguration essay is due tomorrow. Shite, I completely forgot to start it. I'll be joining you in the library tonight, Hermione!"

Shit. "Well, you'll get it done in no time, Ron," Hermione said, thinking hard. "Don't you have Quidditch practice today?"

Harry shook his head. "Look at the weather, Hermione," he said, pointing up. "It's freezing cold rain out there! I'm no Oliver Wood, I'm not going to make the team practice in all weather and have them sick with pneumonia right before a weekend game!"

"And… you also forgot about that Transfiguration essay, didn't you, Harry?" Ginny said wryly. "I'll let Katie and Angelica know that practice is off for tonight."

Hermione and Ron laughed, even as Hermione was cursing her bad luck. There had been countless nights she had spent alone in that library, Harry and Ron on their brooms or in their beds, and tonight of all knights they decide they needed to do homework in a timely fashion? Should she move the timeline of her poisoning up? But then there was always the risk of Severus being called by the Dark Lord and not being in the castle to administer the cure. Earlier meant that there would be more people in the library, more people there to see what was going on.

She took a breath, trying to distance herself. It was all going to work out, one way or another. It would all work out.

The morning owls suddenly swooped in, dimming the noise in the Great Hall for a moment as students paused their conversations to untie packages from impatient birds. Hermione took her Daily Prophet from a sleepy looking barn owl. Harry wasn't paying attention to the birds, not expecting anything, but to his surprise a large black owl circled down and landed near him, haughtily sticking out a leg with a letter on it.

Hermione furrowed her brow. "Don't open that yet, Harry," she said cautiously. "Let me see something quickly." She pulled out her wand, casting a few quick diagnostic spells on the letter while the bird hooted in disgust.

"It looks okay," she said, still frowning. "Go ahead."

"Like he needs your permission, Hermione," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "It's probably from the Ministry with a bird like that." Harry chuckled, but he waited until he got another nod from Hermione to detach the letter.

"I know you're thinking it, so I'm just going to remind you that the Firebolt was indeed from Sirius Black," Hermione said loftily. "What does it say, Harry?"

Harry scanned the parchment for a moment longer, then sighed. "Ron's right, it's from the Ministry. Scrimgeour wants a meeting."

Well then. That was interesting. "Here at Hogwarts, or does he expect you to come all the way to the Ministry at his whim?" asked Hermione. She started drumming her fingers on the table as she thought, ignoring the food that was on her plate. Why did he want a meeting? What could he possibly want?

"Well that's the funny thing," Harry said. "He's coming to the castle at 3:00. He wants to meet today."

Well that gives me no time to plan, thought Hermione. "How nice of him to give you advance notice," Hermione said sourly. "What do you want to do?"

There was an expression of slight surprise on Harry's face. "What do you think I should do?"

"I think you should do it, mate," Ron said, his eyes flicking between Harry and Hermione. "Percy seems to like the bloke, and he's a good sight better than Fudge ever was. Wonder what it's about?"

"Probably this." They turned toward Ginny, who was holding up Hermione's copy of The Daily Prophet. Hermione, her spoon halfway up to her mouth, froze. Ron sputtered. Harry's eyes narrowed.

In large letters, the headline read, "RUFUS SCRIMGEOUR FOUND TO HAVE FORMER DEATH EATER FOR LOVER!" Below the headline was a picture with a magical block on it, warning the readers it contained sensitive material and needed to be tapped with a wand to be seen.

Around them in the Great Hall, as people opened their Daily Prophets and read the headlines there were gasps and exclamations as word spread around the room. Wordlessly, Hermione dropped her spoon and unsheathed her wand, tapping the picture to reveal what lay underneath.

It was apparently Scrimgeour's home – the moving picture showed the Minister for Magic opening the door, bare chested, for a man in a long cloak, pulling him into a kiss before moving into the house. To Hermione something about the man was familiar, but not familiar enough that she could place him in an instant. She had seen him once, maybe twice before? A Ministry worker, tall, thin – Yaxley. It was Yaxley. He was a Death Eater; she had seen him in the graveyard.

"Well, shit," Hermione said, shaking her head. "I suppose this does answer that question."

"What happens now for him?" asked Harry. "Now that he's known to be with a Death Eater?"

Ginny winced. "It's not that he's with a former Death Eater that's the problem, Harry," she said awkwardly. "Lucius Malfoy always hung around Fudge and that was never a problem. It's because – well, it's because it's a man."

"I reckon he's going to be impeached, or at least threatened with it," added Ron. "There aren't any outright rules – I mean, Dumbledore was head of the Wizengamot for years – but the Death Eater part will be the excuse."

"That's barbaric," snapped Hermione in a hushed voice.

"Dumbledore's gay?" asked Harry at the same time.

"Yes, and there have been rumors," Ginny answered, looking at Hermione first and then Harry. "Wizarding society is slow to change. And the rumors are just rumors, but well – Dumbledore's never been married. No one knows if he's ever had a partner."

"Great Aunt Muriel says that everyone suspected he had something with Grindlewald," Ron said quietly. "And I forgot who suggested Nicholas Flamel too."

Hermione cleared her throat loudly. "If we could stop speculating about Dumbledore's love life, we need to figure out what Harry is going to do about this meeting."

Suddenly, an envelope appeared under Harry's breakfast plate. He took it cautiously. "Dumbledore," he mumbled, opening it with more than a hint of embarrassment. "Um – um he wants to meet with me now. Well, after breakfast. But now."

"Can I see that, Harry?" asked Hermione, frowning. Would Dumbledore have sent it so obviously if he didn't want me to come?

Harry passed the note and she scanned it quickly. It was written in Dumbledore's 'dotty old man' voice he usually used with Harry, not the stern and calculating voice he used when he sent notes to Hermione. Yes, there it was, it said "feel free to bring along your wits and your shadow." She wasn't sure if she was meant to be the wits or the shadow, but either way, she was going to be in that office.

The first thing that Hermione did when she turned back through time was to race to her private room and pull out her enchanted notebook. It was here that she had stored extensive notes on everything, absolutely everything. The notebook expanded as she wrote more, never finishing. At the beginning the notes were in a carefully practiced and yet still childish hand, notes on spells and potions and Occlumency, from her first summer in Safe House Three. Closer to the end the subjects got darker, Horcruxes and soul magic and secrets. It was a confusing mess if one didn't know how to use it, as Severus had told her many a time before. Each time, Hermione had fondly stroked the worn brown leather and said that confusing messes were exactly what magic was meant for.

It was the secrets that Hermione was the most interested in, the secrets gleaned from Severus, from Rita, from all the spy in Severus's extended network. It was in this notebook that she recorded Severus' reports when he returned from meetings with spies and Death Eaters, where she took her notes during Order meetings, where she noted the gossip that Rita Skeeter reluctantly scrawled – in an illegible a hand as possible – into a notepad linked with another of Hermione's notebooks.

The last page was a painfully cramped index. Names and names and names of people were followed by page numbers - all she had to do was speak the name of the person she was looking for and their name would glow on the page.

"Let's start with Yaxley," she murmured. What did she know about him?

There was a sketch on one page from one of Severus's agents – or maybe Severus himself? – that Severus had given her. He was a thin man, with gaunt cheeks and an odd little moustache. She skimmed her notes – there wasn't much on Yaxley. Ministry employee, Slytherin, worked in the Department of Magical Files and Records. Never married, no children. According to Severus, didn't particularly like torture. Wasn't creative with torture spells, wasn't vicious with families. However, he still used his position in the Ministry to get addresses and discover information about potential blood traitors, or the homes of Muggleborn students for other Death Eaters to kill. Hermione felt a chill run down her spine – this man would have had access to her parent's address for years. She felt a surge of gratefulness that she and Severus had taken care of her parents so long ago.

Over all, he wasn't one of the particularly nasty Death Eaters – but he wasn't particularly pleasant either. He was cowardly, with a weak stomach. Severus had told her that he was repeatedly mocked by other Death Eaters for his squeamishness, for his less aggressive attributes. But still, he had risen to favor after Fudge had been ousted – and now they knew why.

"Now let's look at Scrimgeour." The journal flipped pages of its own accord, turning open to a page with a number of newspaper clippings about Scrimegour. He looked like a lion, Hermione thought, with a mane of wild russet hair with streaks of grey, and a broad nose with wideset eyes. It was more the eyes and the nose that made him look like a lion, that gave him the sense of the feline. He was broad shouldered and well muscled, a body made for fighting.

But he was shrewd, she knew, clever. He had made his way from the Auror department to the head of Magical government for England – no easy feat. He would have been up against Amelia Bones – a sympathetic figure who also had a few scars from fighting off the Death Eater attack on her home over the summer. But he had insisted that he had insider knowledge from fitting Death Eaters all of those years, that he did not have any dependents that could be held over him and prevent him from doing his job. He had done a good job so far – cracking down on crime, forcing the Wizengamot to strengthen Auror forces. But this… this would wreak his career. And for the wrong reason too. Who would replace him? Would Amelia Bones win this time?

The key question for Hermione was if they could – or should – risk trying to bring the disgraced Scrimgeour into the folds of the Outer Circle, or even Inner Circle, of the Order. He was a powerful and capabile wizard, there was no doubt about it. He would be an asset to the Death Eaters, an asset who knew far too many national secrets. If he were to join the Dark Lord, it would bring them one step closer to the fall of the Minsitry for Magic. No, they should try to recruit him. They could spin it well, she thought – perhaps working for the Order of the Phoenix would allow him to work for the Ministry once again after the war was over. If she had anything to do with it, the Ministry would reform some of its bigoted policies after the war.

Well, that decided things. Hermione closed her journal and hid it away once again, then left her chambers for Dumbledore's office.

Dumbledore's office was warm, almost too warm. Still, Scrimgeour was pale and shaking, as if he were freezing. There were large dark circles under his eyes, and stubble around his chin. His famous mane of hair looked dry and dulled, more grey than red. The broad shouldered, confident Auror was gone, and who was left was a broken man, pleading with Harry and Dumbledore in turn.

"Please, please, I never shared anything with him, you must understand-" He stopped as Hermione entered the room. His eyes narrowed slightly. "What-"

"I'm sure you've heard the stories and rumors, Scrimgeour," Hermione said quietly. "You know why I'm here."

Harry looked over at Hermione in relief. He was distrinctly uncomfortable with begging and pleading – he was not one for power. Dumbledore, however, was, but still the older man did not look pleased at the proceedings. In fact, he looks rather pained, Hermione noted. It must be difficult for him.

Hermione went to stand behind Dumbledore's desk, on the right hand side of the older man. "Have you called in Kingsley, yet?" she asked in a low voice. "I have an idea."

Dumbledore looked up at her, a bemused smile on his face. "I'm sure it is a brilliant one, my dear," he said mildly. "What would you like us to do now?"

"Let's bring Mr. Scrimgeour to Safe House Three," Hermione suggested. "I'll ensure that we have a friend there to keep the Minister company." Cedric was still based at Safe House Three as he did his research into Horcruxes – he could certainly watch the disgraced politician.

"I'm no longer the Minister," Scrimgeour interrupted. "We're out of time – the Wizengamout is voting to oust me now." His voice was bitter, and he scowled at Dumbledore and Hermione. "If we hadn't wasted time waiting for this snip of a girl, you could have come before them, both of you, and convinced them that they needed me-"

"Shut up," Hermione said ruthlessly. "Stop your whinging. You knew that there was no chance, that this was a last-ditch attempt. Don't blame them for your own mistake."

Furious, the disgraced man glared up at her. "So you, you too, you ride up on your high horse and think that you're better than me just because-"

"I don't give a whit about the gender of who you're sleeping with," Hermione said coldly. "I do care that you've given a Death Eater a chance to access the sensitive information that you are privy to – that you were privy to – as Minister for Magic. That was irresponsible, and could have cost us the war. You are going to go the Safe House until the Order can figure out how to turn your error into an advantage."

Dumbledore clasped his hands together. "Very well," he said. "Harry, you can get back to class. Hermione, I'm assuming you'll join him… later?"

"Yes," replied Hermione. "Harry, I'll be down in a turn in and a wink." With a nod, and a refusal to look at Scrimgeour, harry left.

The arrangements were made quickly – Hermione Floo'd to Safe House Three with a visibly confused Scrimgeour in tow. Cedric gladly agreed to watch him, and Hermione raised the wards on the house that would prevent anyone from finding Scrimgeour. The last thing they needed was for someone to come hunting him down. The house elves set to work making the tired man some lunch, and Cedric cleared his papers away with a wave of his wand. Scrimgeour simply sank into a squashy armchair by the fire, bitterness in every line of his body.

Hermione quickly Floo'd back to Dumbledore's office, where she was pleased to find that both Kingsley and Severus were waiting. They had been in conversation; as soon as she arrived, all eyes were on her.

"You said you had an idea, Miss Granger?" Dumbledore asked. "Let's hear it." With a wave of his wand, he conjured a sparkly purple chair for her to sit in. Hermione sat in it carefully, sharing a warm smile with Severus and Kingsley.

"I'm glad you were both able to come so quickly," she said. "Yes, I have an idea, and we'll need to work quickly if it's to work at all. We've been worried because this relationship has meant that Yaxley has had an opportunity to get at us through Scrimgeour – what if we used Scrimgeour to get at the Death Eaters through Yaxely? Hopefully there would have been affection on both sides of the arrangement – we can attempt to determine that anyway – but perhaps we could kidnap Yaxley, interrogate him. Use him for – for something. I'm not sure yet. But he would be useful."

She was tense, taunt, waiting for Severus' approval of her plan. Hermione's eyes were intent on her lover, analyzing his face and his reaction. His eyes were tired, she saw, probably from their late night the evening before. But still, there was something to his face that was something akin to rejuvenation. He was only thirty-five – she thought of him as old, older, but in truth he was still a young man in his prime. He was looking it more every day.

The surly professor frowned, but it wasn't an unhappy frown – just a Severus frown. "It would be difficult. We'd have to do it exactly right – and Scrimgeour would have to be fully willing to cooperate."

Kingsley shrugged, his dark skin in sharp contrast to his bright blue Auror's uniform. "I could make sure that Tonks and I would have the day off. Brunnings too, if you needed an extra hand."

"And we'd need a place to store Yaxley while we wait," Severus added, absentmindedly tracing his lips with a long, pale finger. "That would be an issue."

Damn that was sexy – but his words, less so. Hermione sighed. "Well, I'm quite sure that if we offer Scrimgeour a promise of the future political capital of bringing Yaxley in he would be agreeable. That doesn't mean that it would work, of course, but we could agree to speak on his behalf. As for storing Yaxley…" she hesitated. "Well… I've had an idea. A half-baked idea. One that would require someone… expendable."

The eyebrows of both Dumbledore and Kingsley rose dangerously high, and both men tried to speak at the same time.

"I highly doubt-"

"Are you sure that you've-"

Hermione winced and raised a hand. "That wasn't quite the right phrasing, sorry. Let me explain. Draco Malfoy has obtained an opal necklace from Borgin and Burkes that he had been planning on using to attack me personally, on the request of the Dark Lord. As you both now, he is now working with Severus and me on this task. However, he is still in possession of that necklace. Apparently, it stores souls, or traps souls, depending on who you ask. I want to experiment with it, but that means I need a soul that can be trapped. I am also interested on the effect it would have on the Dark Lord and the other Death Eaters through the Dark Mark. If we could get Yaxley – and if my 'poisoning' goes to plan tonight, I would have a few days with which I could experiment with Yaxley and the- well, and the necklace. And his soul."

Unfortunately, it appeared that neither Dumbledore nor Kingsley was reassured. "That seems – well, honestly, Hermione, it seems a bit dark," said Kingsley, a furrow in his brow. His large brown hands twisted in his lap, a rare sign of discomfort from the usually stoic man. "Experimenting with someone's soul? Who deserves that?"

"Who deserves to have their defenseless Muggle parents murdered because they have the audacity to be a Muggleborn who works at the Ministry?" drawled Severus. "I say murdered, but I really mean tortured to death. Violently. With the slow removal of body parts, pain causing spells, rape, and humiliation. Often all that is left is a pile of parts and a good deal of blood. And all because Yaxley handed over names and addresses to the Dark Lord. He doesn't have as much fun with the participation as other Death Eaters do, but he is still involved. He deserves many painful deaths. Or his life could be used to figure out this confounding business with souls that got us into this mess with an undying megalomaniac for an opponent. If we want this war to end any time soon, we need to get an advantage greater than a pimply sixteen-year-old with a penchant for getting into trouble and a piece of the Dark Lord's soul embedded in his forehead." His voice was cutting, yet quiet.

Telling them was, perhaps, a mistake, thought Hermione. Time to put on the schoolgirl. She leaned forward, widening her eyes. "I will not hurt him," she said, conveying as much honesty and openness as she could. "I am not a torturer. I am not Bellatrix; I don't like playing with my food before I eat it. For him it will be as painless as I can make it, and I'll do my absolute best to have him in one piece when this is finished. This is not sinking to their level, this is trying to give us the tools we need to defeat the Dark Lord."

Kingsley still hesitated. "Are there any other options? Any-"

"Would you rather her experiment on the souls of children? Order members? Innocent civilians?" asked Severus, the silky lightness of his voice doing nothing to disguise his cutting words. "Or perhaps you can get her some felons – but wait. The Auror department hasn't caught a criminal in months, at least not one who's done anything more than sell a few false charms or lie about the prices of their property. Certainly they haven't captured any truly evil characters, not a single Death Eater since six children rounded some up for you in the very bowels of the Ministry last year-"

From behind his desk, Dumbledore sighed and held up his good hand. "Very well, Severus. I see your point. Hermione, if you promise us that you'll be ethical and kind in your dealings with this man – to the extent that your work allows you to be – we give our permission for this plot of yours to go forward." Kinglsey frowned and crossed his arms, but said nothing.

Hermione nodded, suppressing a victorious grin. "Thank you, Albus. If I might borrow Severus for some planning?"

The man next to her snorted at her comment. "If Severus will allow himself to be borrowed," said the headmaster lightly, a twinkle in his bright blue eyes.

"Severus has classes to teach today – in fact, right now – so he'll have to be transported through time to do so," Severus said crossly. "So let's get to it. Time of the essence and all of that."

Kingsley and Hermione shared a small smile. "Of course I'll be able to take you through time, Severus," Hermione said. "Do we have anything else to discuss?"

"I believe not, my dear girl," said Dumbledore. "We'll also release you now, Kingsley. Thank you for coming at such short notice on such a busy day for the Ministry."

Standing, the Auror gave a worried look to the other Order members. "Be careful," he told them. "This isn't worth getting hurt over." He offered Severus and Dumbledore a handshake each, and leaned over to give Hermione a kiss on the forehead. "Be safe," he admonished her. Hermione wasn't surprised – he had always viewed her in a fatherly light since he had trained her the summer after her third year.

"I will, Kingsley," she told him. "See you later." With that, the tall Auror waved and stepped up to the fireplace, Flooing away.

Dumbledore looked at the man and woman remaining before him. "Well, I trust the two of you will sort things out," he said. "If you need anything, Severus, let me know."

Hermione and Severus took their leave, travelling down the spiral staircase until they stood before the door leading to the rest of the castle. Without a word, Severus drew his wand and tapped Hermione's head, and then his own, disguising them from view.

Silently, Hermione followed the shimmer that was Severus to the seventh floor, to the Room of Requirement. A moment passed. A door appeared, and opened. Hermione knew he would be holding it open for her; she passed through, and it closed.

The room was simple, with a fireplace and two large armchairs by the fire. Tables stood to the side of each armchair, in case one of them wanted a surface to write on. A large sheepskin rug was spread on the flagstones, and several braziers sent the pleasant smell of sandalwood into the air. It was cozy and warm, but also functional.

Severus reappeared a moment later, a scowl on his face. Hermione sighed and tapped her own wand to her head to remove the spell. "You can wipe that scowl off of your face," she told him tartly.

The scowled deepened. "I'm not scowling," snapped Severus.

Hermione moved closer to him, a small smile on her face. She rested a hand on his chest, then trailed it up to his face to caress his cheek, tracing his lips with her fingers. "Liar."

Severus' arms came around her, pulling her close. "Fine. I was scowling. Do I get a kiss for telling the truth?" The hints of a smile were playing in his dark eyes, a smile that Hermione longed to draw out.

"It depends," she teased him. "On how good a kiss it would be. What are you promising?"

That made him smirk, at least, and draw her in to him until they were pressed together tightly. He leaned down, brushing the shell of her ear with his lips. "A sensuous kiss," he told her, making his voice as silky as he possibly could. "One that will make you… moan."

Hermione shivered despite herself. "Well then," she said, feeling infused in her voice. "Kiss me."

First, he kissed her ear, then the skin below it. His lips traced the line of her jaw, and then found her mouth. It was a surprisingly gentle kiss from a man who liked to claim with his mouth. His lips caressed her own, his tongue swiped at her lower lip, then gained entrance to her mouth. Unsurprisingly, Hermione did indeed moan.

All too soon, he pulled away. "As much as I would like to continue this on the rug," he murmured, "I am afraid that we have some planning to do."

"We do," said Hermione with regret, lowering herself from tip-toe she had been maintaining to kiss Severus. A languorous desire was threatening to settle in her bones, a desire that would distract from what they had to do.

They settled in front of the fire, turning their minds to the problems at hand.

"So we have a lot to do today," Hermione started. "We need to get Yaxley, and I need to get poisoned by Draco. Is there any way to connect those two events? Make our lives easier?"

"Perhaps," Severus said slowly. "We could have Scrimgeour contact Yaxley while the Death Eaters receive news of your poisoning. It would be busy, he could slip out without anyone noticing. If there is a celebration and he goes missing, then no one would notice right away, and if they did notice, they would first assume it had to do with the drink. Yaxley is fond of alcohol."

Hermione nodded. "That would be good. We could have Scrimgeour lure Yaxley out with a promise of information about my condition – would he leave for that? For a chance to get information that would put him back in the Dark Lord's favor after losing his source of information?"

"Brilliant. That would work, or it should work. We really do need to think about where we should store him." Severus frowned deeply. "Yaxley has the third version of the Dark Mark, the one that connects him deeply to the Dark Lord. The easy answer would be to remove his arm-"

"No," Hermione said immediately. "No, I want to study it. What kind of wards could we put up to prevent the Mark from revealing his location? Are the wards at Safe House Three strong enough?"

Severus shook his head. "No, no they wouldn't be. We would have to construct something ourself, or build off of something strong, or confuse the signal."

"How accurate is the sense of where he is?" asked Hermione. "Does it know where one Dark Mark is? Or if there are two Death Eaters in the same place, can he differentiate between them?"

"I don't think so," Severus said slowly. "I think the Dark Lord has a general sense of where the power is coming from, not an individual personalized connection to each person. When he presses it, he can see if there is an anomaly – someone who is farther away than someone else, for example – and he can follow that until that one Mark becomes clear. Are you suggesting trying to mask Yaxley with my Dark Mark? They are different, they wouldn't work."

"Not with your Dark Mark, no," said Hermione carefully. "But with Draco's. He has a Dark Mark now – if we kept Yaxley here, in the dungeons somewhere, I think it could work."

Severus leaned back in his chair. Hermione could practically see the wheels turning in his head as he considered her proposition. "I see two problems with this plan. The first is that the Dark Lord would sense more power coming from Hogwarts, and he might assume that either Draco was growing more powerful, or I was growing more powerful. The second problem would be your experimentation with the Mark – if you do anything to it, the Dark Lord would sense it. No, we need to completely mask what is happening."

Hermione sighed. "I was worried you would say that," she admitted. "Ok. So not the dungeons. Do you think that you could build wards that would keep him?"

Tracing his lips with a finger, Severus thought. "I could try," he said slowly. "They wouldn't be perfect. I would have to muffle Yaxley, I think. The Dark Mark feeds off of his magic. I think you need to make a choice – do you want to experiment with his Dark Mark, or do you want to experiment with his soul? I could remove his magic, which would render the Mark inert, allowing soul experimentation."

"I'm not married to the idea of removing the Mark just yet," Hermione said with a sigh, fiddling with the pearl around her neck. "I still need to do more research on that. But for now, I am very concerned about the soul research. If you could block off his magic in some way, disconnect it from his Mark... that seems that it would work for me."

Severus sat up suddenly. "We drain him. That's it." He gestured toward the pearl necklace he had given her. "That's how we do it. We use something – gemstones, probably – to drain his magic away from his body. The Dark Lord doesn't see the Death Eaters of Hogwarts as growing in power, because the Mark has nothing to pull from Yaxley. If you experiment with the Mark then, it shows nothing. Then if we wanted to restore Yaxley's magic to him, it would just be a matter of removing it from the gemstones."

"Brilliant!" Hermione said happily. "Can you set that up today? Figure out what gems we need, purchase or find them?"

Severus waved a hand at her. "Of course, of course. I'll figure out a room in the dungeon for you to practice on him while you're explaining the plan to Scrimgeour."

Hermione nodded resolutely. "And then the poisoning."

Something in her lover's gaze softened. "We will save you. You'll be fine."

"About that," Hermione said, a thought coming to her. "It looks like Harry and Ron will be joining me in the library tonight. I think that we should give the antidote to Harry. Give him another opportunity to be a hero."

An expression akin to snarl lit upon Severus's face. "Potter does not need another opportunity for pointless heroics-"

"Yes, he does," Hermione said firmly. "He needs to feel like he has a part in this movement, and people need to respect him." She stood, and went to sit on the arm of Severus' chair. Resting a hand on his sleeve, Hermione looked her lover in the eye. "It would give me peace of mind," she told him. "I'm worried that something is going to wrong.

Gently, Severus laid a hand over Hermione's smaller one, looking up at her soft dark eyes. "Nothing is going to go wrong."

And so ends chapter 57.

Many of you tell me you enjoy the little updates about my life, so here's another one! Ignore if you don't care!

I am finishing my last year of undergrad with that wonderfully cushy scholarship (serious my 'extra' money this semester for rent and food was like 8k)... but that means that wonderfully cushy scholarship is coming to and end. I've applied to 7 graduate schools to do a Phd in anthropology or sociology (AHHHHHH) and that's very nerve wracking because I'm an overachiever and applied to 4 Ivies and the rest still top schools. But I've heard back from one Ivy and have an interview coming up soon! I am very terrified. I'm relatively accomplished for an undergrad - one publication, two major independent research projects, and two paper presentations at a major conference - but I'm also only 21. So. We'll see where that goes.

Life with my lovely girlfriend continues to be amazing - we have a beautiful apartment that is so cute and cozy it hurts, and are still completely and totally in love with each other. I'm actually flying out tomorrow to visit her and her family and go skiing in the mountains!

My research in Africa went really well this summer - the good parts were really great, and the bad parts were really bad (hospital, weird men being creepy, etc). But it is over and my thesis (totaling 160 pages at the moment) is nearly done.

Next chapter will most likely be a long time. I'm done with the thesis, but now I have my minor capstones and classes and clubs as per usual.

Leave a review! I read and cherish every single one. I'll see you soon folks!