Hey ladies and gents,

I'd like to apologize for the long wait, this chapter was hard to write (as in I had to write a total of 3 long and 5 short drafts, which amounted to about 25 Word pages..). And I'm still not completely satisfied, but I wanted to upload it before I disappeared. Don't worry, I think I'll be back in a week or two, but I've just changed jobs and I have no idea how I'll fit this fic into my new schedule, I'll only see that next week. So please, forgive me if I'm late with the update.

Anyway, this chapter is huge, as in monumental for the story, I hope you'll all enjoy it. Reviews are welcome.

(Just a warning: Don't get caught up in this one, this is nowhere near the happy ending yet.)

Severus stood before the double doors leading to the balcony of his room, staring out into the lush garden of the Manor. Even at night it was a beautiful sight, the winding paths illuminated by hundreds of small lanterns that lit up magically as soon as the sun started to set.

He was restless. The events of the past week had wreaked havoc on his nerves. Emiliya was not a threat to be taken lightly. He should have been focusing on her, trying to guess her next moves. He should have been sitting in the library with the Malfoys, working on a plan against her.

Instead he excused himself and claiming to be exceptionally tired he retreated to his room, only to idle around and think about a certain petite brunette.

Doubt had settled in as soon as Draco came back from checking on her in the afternoon, only to report that she'd warded her room and was not answering any of his pleas to open the door. The ex-spy had been so sure that he'd made the right decision when he'd rattled her cage with the offhanded jab about Blythe. But it seemed that instead of getting angry as she should have the witch merely slipped further into agony.

Severus resigned himself to waiting until the morning and then blasting down her wards if he needed to. He reasoned that it would be beneficial if they'd both gotten a good night's sleep before trying to reconcile.

Alas, here he was, an unmoving statue of uncertainty, unable to sleep. He groaned, raking through his hair with his fingers.

The next moment his shoulders tensed, his breathing quieted and his stance changed to resemble that of a feline, ready to pounce. His wand was drawn, although he had no inkling why. Nevertheless, he gripped it with a steady hand and raised it, his face a stoic mask. He had absolutely no clue as to what had him on alert, but his unconscious must have picked up on something while he was lost in thought and he was never one to ignore his instincts. There was something lurking around in his vicinity that triggered the response.

A soft scuffling noise caught his attention and he rounded on the intruder, holding him at wand point. He lowered his weapon only when he recognized the tiny house elf cowering behind his desk. With a sigh the Potions Master approached the frightened Eppy and squatted down to meet his eyes.

"I apologise, Eppy. I was not expecting any visitors. What is it?"

The small elf peered out at him from behind the massive piece of furniture and squeaked, obviously still in shock.

"Master Severus, Miss Hermione would like to see you if you are available at this time of night."

The wizard's eyebrows drew together in confusion before the anxiety kicked in.

"Is she alright?" He was only half paying attention to Eppy at that point; he was already running through possible scenarios. And they were not pretty.

"She told Eppy to tell Master Severus that she's not in need of medical care, she merely wishes to talk."

Well, that eased some of the tension in his shoulders, but the Slytherin was not completely appeased yet. Nor would he be until he knew what the witch wanted to speak to him about at such a late hour.

"Thank you. I will head over there shortly."

He gave what he hoped to be a reassuring nod to the house elf and waited for him to disappear with a familiar pop.

Filled with equal parts dread and curiosity the Slytherin clenched his jaw and started towards the Golden Girl's room.

The door was not warded anymore and Hermione granted him entrance at the first soft knock.

She was sitting on her bed, sipping a cup of tea and looking at him with disapproval in her amber eyes.

"You've scared Eppy."

Of course she was more concerned about the elf's well-being than about her own. The wizard suppressed the urge to roll his eyes.

"You could've sent a Patronus. Surely, you must've learned by now that I'm prone to hostility towards unannounced visitors." He gave her a smirk and she responded with a shrug.

"I would have sent one if I could. But this..." She waved her wand and cast the spell, only producing a circular, white shield. "Wouldn't have relayed my message quite as effectively."

The lines between Severus' brows deepened.

"Shouldn't your Patronus be a perfectly corporeal otter?"

"It should. Or it used to be, anyway. Now I'm stuck with this." She gave him a small, bashful smile.

"Since when are you unable to conjure your Patronus?"

He was at her bedside in a matter of seconds, casting diagnostic spells over her, one after the other, determined to get an accurate read. There was something wrong, something he must have missed while concentrating on her life-threatening injuries. This was much more subtle than the deep gashes that he'd treated with relative ease a week ago.

After the twelfth useless spell he started to become frustrated, glaring at the results floating in the air above the brunette in sparkling, magical letters. He was so deep in thought he'd only realized that the woman had been speaking to him when she poked him in the ribs to get his attention.

"Severus, it's fine. I'm fine." She was smiling up at him with a reassuring, warm glint in her eyes, but he barely heard her.

"The implications of such an occurrence are grave. Do you have any idea how dangerous this could be? There are curses, cast upon unsuspecting victims, which can drain the magic from a magical being, be that a wizard or witch, or a creature of some kind. The ones who get afflicted with them usually have no idea until even their smallest spells won't work anymore. We have to determine exactly which curse had been cast upon you, when it was cast and which type it was exactly. Only then will we be able to counteract it."

She broke out in hysterical laughter as he finished his summary and Severus stopped in his tracks, looking at her as if she'd grown two heads. Frankly, he couldn't help it, he was stumped. What in Merlin's name was she laughing about? This was a serious problem, one that they had to solve before she ran out of magic and died. Oh yes, he'd forgotten to mention that tiny tidbit.

"Don't worry about it." She was wiping at some escaped tears of mirth and the wizard couldn't understand how she could be so nonchalant.

"Of course I should worry about it. So should you. Don't tell me that the most notorious bookwork to ever grace the halls of Hogwarts have never read about such spells."

"I have an extensive knowledge of the subject, thank you very much. I'm not only a bookworm, but an auror as well. I'm duty bound to know these things. However, this has nothing to do with curses. Well, you could call it that, more so if you look at it from another, more personal point of view, but it's not going to drain my magic and kill me in a couple of weeks." There was a hint of melancholy in her voice which Severus couldn't put his finger on, but he was intrigued. She seemed to be aware of the origins of her plight.

"Then what is it? If I remember correctly, your medical files at Hogwarts stated that you have no known allergies. Therefore I doubt that this is an allergic reaction to the knotgrass I've used in your healing tonic. And I've performed enough diagnostic spells on you in the past week to know that you did not just have a miscarriage either. And with that we've checked off everything from the list of things ever confirmed to cause such a remarkably strong witch's magic to wane. Which takes us back to curses."

The Slytherin crossed his arms before his chest, watching his patient with narrowed eyes. Maybe the curse was already affecting her mental faculties.

"Now, first of all, I'm glad that you are so well-versed in my personal life. If you're interested, I could give you a copy of my calendar which has all the calculated starting dates for my periods up to next March." She had the audacity to giggle as a look of horror ran through the Potions Master's face. "I thought not. No, I didn't have a miscarriage, and if I were allergic to knotgrass I would have died in my second year at Hogwarts."

The ex-spy remembered the incident, the Golden Trio's escapade with the Polyjuice and Hermione's subsequent cameo as one of Webber's Cats. That one would have, indeed, required the consumption of knotgrass.

"I'm not losing my magic Severus. It's merely my Patronus. I'll be able to cast a proper one again, eventually; it just needs time to..." She went silent and glanced away, looking embarrassed. "It's nothing to fret about, I assure you. I'll deal with it. Could you please leave it alone?"

She was desperate to change the topic from the looks of it.

"Alright. Cast a Protego for me."

The brunette gave a small snort, depositing her cup on the nightstand.

"Didn't Draco tell you that I've warded my room earlier? Those spells were a bit stronger than a simple Protego." She was smirking at him and he had to concede. This time he did roll his eyes. "There actually is something you could try if it would ease your mind."

He waited patiently as she drew her wand, mentioning for him to do the same.

"Occlumency is at the top of my skill set. You are the best Legilimens in wizarding Britain. Go ahead."

"Are you sure you are up to this? If I crack your shield... I don't want to pry into something you wouldn't wish to share with me."

She shrugged, giving him a smirk.

"I guess I'll have to do my best to keep you out then. Ready?" The challenge was clear in her eyes as she stared at him in defiance and the wizard let out a deep chuckle, amused by her ability to lighten the mood even when they were discussing such forbidding topics.

He cast the spell, delving into her mind and then hit the solidest Occlumency shield he'd ever encountered. When he tried to teach the Potter brat, the boy had merely lashed out at him, only using force to counter his attack. He could have probably learned to effectively protect his mind, had he the time and the patience to do so, but he'd never have reached this level of organization. Hermione's shield was impenetrable, stable and well-constructed. Her mind looked like a maze, some memories deliberately left out for all to see, but the majority safely locked away, far out of the wizard's reach.

He got glimpses of her surface thoughts and her mood in general, but nothing useful. Nothing important. She wasn't lying when she told him that her magic was intact.

He left her head, a tinkling wisp of laughter from a happy little memory ringing in his ears.

"Are you satisfied?" She was grinning, knowing very well that she'd won.

"I have to tip my proverbial hat, Hermione." He gave her a nod and a smile, a real one that he'd used so rarely. She deserved it. This was the least he could do, considering that he was otherwise unable to convey just how proud he was at her.

"Now that this is out of the way, would you like to take a seat? I did have a valid reason to call on you..."

A sombre expression appeared on her face and she scooted back in her bed, sitting cross-legged against her pillows and patting the edge of the mattress.

Severus searched her eyes, looking for any clue, but he found none. Steeling himself for the worst – a great way to avoid disappointment and hurt feelings in his experience – he settled down on the edge of the bed, turning his upper body towards her and gesturing with one hand for her to go ahead.

"Okay. So... First of all, I'm not mad at you. I've spent a good two hours mulling over your words and trying to find the reason behind your cruelty. And I must say, you are one tricky ass. But you've helped me realize that instead of blaming myself I should blame that bitch. It was her plot and her mind games which led to this situation. I'm only human, I'm not invincible and I certainly can't take responsibility for every act of savagery committed in the wizarding world." She flashed a sad smile at him and he could see that although she'd stopped torturing herself about the unfortunate turn of events she still wished that she could be in multiple places at a time, righting every wrong. "I'd like to thank you. I have no idea how I'd have dug myself out of this if not for the little push I've gotten from you."

He was not used to getting this kind of acknowledgement and there was also something akin to admiration in her eyes that made him decidedly uncomfortable, so the ex-spy inclined his head, fixing his gaze on a spot on the wall right above her left shoulder.

"I was hoping you'd come to this conclusion. I've taken the liberty to gamble with your sanity when I had no right to do so, and I'm sorry about that. But it was either this, or letting you wallow in doubt and guilt until you wasted away."

His eyes wandered back to her face and he was met with a beautiful smile.

"Rest assured, I'd eagerly put my trust in you and my life in your hands any day. I know you well enough to understand that you'd never carelessly throw them away. And if I were unable to make decisions for myself, I'd rather have you making them for me than letting the monsters in my head talk me into something I'd regret."

Her last sentence held such a heavy underlying meaning that even the socially inept Slytherin took notice. He unconsciously reached out, taking one of her hands in his own. And the auror clung to him, her cold little fingers gripping his as if she was afraid to let go.

"You've saved me from them once before. I've never told this to anyone. Not to Harry and not to my mother with whom I spoke about the war in depth as a form of therapy." She re-established the eye contact they'd lost and Severus could see her very soul – sad and tired, but still a beacon of strength – bared before him. It was humbling, to say the least. "You've saved me from a really ugly fate that night. When I was held by Bellatrix six years ago. I was not prepared for such horrors back then, I wasn't as resilient yet. And she was just as creative with her spells as she was with that cursed knife of hers. I knew I'd die there, if not from the wounds she'd inflicted, then from the sheer amount of pain. And all the while she kept asking me questions I couldn't answer. She wanted information about the Order's spy. About you. And I couldn't have given them to her even if I wanted to. But then I've lost it, I was too far gone to think clearly and there was a little voice telling me to give her something, anything, a small morsel of information so it would be over. And I couldn't argue with it any longer. I was about to take my own life by breaking an Unbreakable Vow when you've swept in and rescued me."

The Potions Master couldn't reply. He sat for well over a minute in complete silence, attempting to absorb the information. When he was finally able to form words his voice almost cracked with emotion.

"You've taken an Unbreakable Vow to protect me?" He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt his throat close up so. He gulped, franticly trying to quell the urge to cry. He lifted his free hand, cupping the petite woman's cheek. She responded by tilting her head to lean into his touch, a tiny smile playing on her lips.

"Why does this surprise you so much? I've respected you, I've looked up to you, and I've realized that without you we had no chance of winning the war. More importantly, I wanted you to walk away from all that in the end, to live the life you've deserved without two manipulative bastards tugging on your strings. There was no other member in the Order I would've taken the Vow for, but I've trusted you to make the most of my sacrifice, had it come to that." She looked away for a moment and then peered up at him with that familiar, but unrecognizable spark in her eyes. "I have a different perspective now, different reasons and more insight, but if I had the chance to go back I wouldn't change a thing."

She raised her unoccupied hand to rest it on his own still cradling her face and a single teardrop glided into his palm.

"Alas, that was the first instance when I'd almost betrayed you. I was weak and if not for your intervention I could've given her more than I wanted to in my haste to escape from that agony. I could've jeopardized you out of selfishness. Merlin knows what I would have given up to break that Vow. And afterwards I couldn't get it off my chest, I couldn't apologize, because Dumbledore had asked me not to burden you with it." She zoned out for a while and the Potions Master almost jumped when she started to speak again. "And a week ago it happened again. Emiliya was baiting me, I could logically understand that, but I could barely keep myself from correcting her, from telling her just who you really are. And that's what she wanted, to learn what your life is like now and what would hurt you the most."

She bit her lower lip and looked at him with such sadness in her eyes that the Slytherin couldn't come up with a suitable response. His body instinctually supplied him with one though and he'd never been more surprised by himself before.

He leaned closer, angling the brunette's head and capturing her lips.

And she kissed back. Deepening the kiss the petite auror somehow got up on her knees, moving closer to him on the bed while her fingers tangled in his hair.

When they'd finally come up for air Severus felt dizzy. His vision was blurred and the blood was rushing through his veins. They were both breathing heavily as if they'd just finished running a marathon.

And then he made the mistake of looking her in the eye, the glazed over, amber orbs sobering him like a cold bucket of water.

He tore himself away from the witch, shook his head in disbelief and then turned on his heels, stumbling out of the room before Hermione could process what had just happened.

When the door of his own suite closed behind him with a loud click he leaned back against it, his hand clamped over his still tingling mouth. He just stood there, eyes wide like that of a deer caught in the headlights. What could've been minutes, or even hours later he let out a very uncharacteristic yell as a knock startled him.