A/N: ...What can I say? It's been a decade. Okay, not that long, but it has been well over a month since I last updated. Did anyone miss this story?
Anyhoo, if anyone cares to know, I've had this chapter completed for a while, but I was hoping (praying!) to get more writing done before posting it. Alas, that hasn't happened. For whatever reason, my Muse and I are still struggling to get this story out of my brain and into a damn Word document. I know what I want to write, the words just...aren't coming.
So, if you're still following this story, and still enjoying it at all, I'd greatly appreciate knowing so at the end of this chapter. Hopefully your feedback might light a much-needed fire under my Muse's bum to get things crackin'. Of course, I can't make any promises that that will be the case, BUT every review and friendly poke from you guys means the world to me, and I can't express enough how encouraging your feedback is. So...please don't forget!
Oh, and you might want to read back through the past few chapters to recall where we're at...
Disclaimer: Harry Potter is copyrighted to and belongs to JK Rowling. I'm just playing in her sandbox and own none of her associated characters. No money, just fun.
Chapter 19: Idiocy in Love
"So, everything's set?"
Hermione eyed Severus curiously as she swivelled her half-consumed bowl of oatmeal. She thought him entirely too calm for what was in play. He merely grunted and continued scanning the front page of The Daily Prophet without looking up, prompting a concerned frown to form on her face.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
That, at least, earned some of Severus's attention. Dark eyes glinted at her from across the kitchen table, their conveyance rather unknowing.
"No," he answered matter-of-factly, "not until you have your wand back in your possession."
Hermione showed her disappointment but chose not to push the subject. Instead, she peered down into her bowl of mushed oats, unappetising and quickly turning cold. In many respects, she understood why there was little value in arguing with Severus; he was right: she couldn't provide much assistance without her wand. It was far too dangerous, and, anyways, what could she do? Stand idly by and twiddle her thumbs until Severus (hopefully) returned safe and sound? Hermione swiftly stomped out the idea in her head.
She was tired of feeling utterly powerless, though. Such grievances of ineffectiveness were finally starting to turn around, but any progress was entirely too slow to her liking.
Spontaneous planning to seize whatever Muggle-born wands could be amassed from the Department of Magical Equipment Control had been put into action yesterday evening. Hermione accompanied Severus to Malfoy Manor again, this time following his return home from work, and a private gathering with close allies tied to the Ministry to formulate a plan to be carried out as soon as possible.
At Severus's suggestion, it was determined that a number of the group's insiders within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, as well as the Departments of Control of Magical Creatures and Mysteries, would carry out the ambush as discretely as possible over the general lunch hour. Severus had tasked two of their group members with uncovering employees' names, shift changes, and the number of workers in the division at any given hour over the next twenty-four hours so as to plan accordingly for when their best opportunity to strike might be. The wands would be concealed and quickly handed off to Draco in the Floo Department, who would ensure that no one else was in his office during the break-in. If they were, Draco would close off his office to then transport the wands inconspicuously onto Narcissa for safe keeping and proper redistribution.
Hermione thought it quite a concrete, well-honed plan, particularly for being organised on the fly. At this point, everyone could only put their faith in the plan going forward without any hiccups. Those involved would need to act quickly; there was no room for error or the slightest hesitation. Severus insisted there wouldn't be.
Unfortunately, the group faced a disadvantage, however, in not having an ally working directly within the Department of Magical Equipment Control itself. To add to their detriment, time wasn't on their side. Between Wyman's disquieting attack on Snow in Moscow, and the Dark Lord's ever increasing paranoia with events stirring abroad, they needed to hasten their plans and work fast.
Apparently, accelerating such plans wasn't a practice Slytherins were particularly fond of, for the anxiety level reached its height that evening at Malfoy Manor, with Severus, Narcissa, and Draco recalculating and analysing their plan of attack to the umpteenth degree, determined to leave nothing to chance.
By the end of their rather drawn out meeting, Hermione's temples were throbbing in protest. Perhaps it was due to the fact that she hadn't eaten since lunch. Then again, if Hermione often prided herself on being exceptionally cautious for a Gryffindor, she realised that painstaking evening that she couldn't hold a candle to a bunch of Machiavellian Slytherins, particularly these three.
In the midst of devising arrangements with Narcissa, Draco, and a mostly ignorant Hermione, Severus prattled off a number of names within their group that the ill-informed witch didn't know of. All were supposedly stationed throughout the Ministry, well-concealed right under the Dark Lord's non-existent nose and without his supposed awareness. Hermione hoped to possibly glimpse more about these go-getters soon, perhaps even meet them in person if it could ever be arranged.
Although she couldn't necessarily participate in what was presently being crafted and put into motion, for the long-oppressed Muggle-born it was a complete thrill to be privy to their plans at last, and to be able to offer a few suggestions of her own, such as volunteering to aid Narcissa with organising to whom the wands needed to be distributed to. No one objected to Hermione's involvement in that regard, not even Severus, which pleased her immensely.
All wasn't well, however. Something pressing had been bothering Hermione since her previous meeting with the Malfoys, when her role had first been unveiled and agreed upon. She hadn't discussed it yet with Severus, and she could tell he was in a rush to finish reading the paper this morning before starting his work day, but she couldn't hold off bringing it to light much longer. Now might be as good—Or bad—a time as any.
"Mmm?" he mumbled, not meeting her freshly nervous gaze.
"When are we going to talk about...?"
"Talk about what?" he inadvertently responded, pausing to briefly sip his coffee. He then reverted back to the Prophet and turned to the next page.
Hermione began anxiously chewing her bottom lip. "About...you?" she stammered to get out. "Have you thought about...about once the Dark Lord learns of me being a part of this rebellion...what he might...do?"
Hermione's voice trailed off, and Severus's eyes finally glanced over at her, the already hard lines around his mouth sharpening. He blinked a few times, regarding the obviously anxious witch with all serious consideration.
"Don't concern yourself about me," he certified in a casual tone that quite unnerved her; was he chastising her or making light of her sincere worries for his welfare? "For the record, I have thought about it, and it will be dealt with."
Severus's eyes pierced hers to her chair, warning her silently not to push. "I have a plan in place, Hermione. That is all you need to know."
"Oh... Well, that's good." A short, awkward pause later, "Can't you tell me what it is?"
Severus's attention suddenly darted to an old Muggle clock on the opposite wall behind her, and Hermione's heart sank. Before he could so much as reply, Hermione already understood that this touchy conversation wasn't going to go anywhere. Not this morning, at any rate.
"Some other time," he said and, with finality, folded up his newspaper; he directed it towards her, encouraging Hermione to read it if she so desired. "I must go before I rouse suspicion by being tardy."
"Of course..." Hermione instantly dropped the subject, though reluctantly, and feigned a pleasant smile. "We wouldn't want that."
With those parting words, Severus nodded, gulped down the remainder of his coffee in haste, cleansed the mug with his wand, and placed it back in the cupboard from whence it came. Then he swept out of the room without so much as a backward glance or parting "Goodbye", leaving a distracted Hermione slumped forward in her chair and staring blankly at the empty spot he had occupied only moments ago.
That brief exchange hadn't proved at all reassuring to her. Hermione may not be an expert yet in how to deconstruct Severus Snape's convoluted thoughts and behaviour, but, with time and practice and careful examination, it was growing a little easier day by day to detect when the man was lying to her, at least; and, unless Hermione stood to be corrected by him at a later date, he had just fibbed to her now over breakfast.
No plan? How could he not have a bloody plan in place? Something's wrong here...
Severus certainly wasn't a man to ride things out by the seat of his pants. To not have a backup scheme for dealing with the Dark Lord's wrath come the revelation of Hermione's public involvement was, to her, more than a tad unfathomable. It was suicidal. Unless...
No. Hermione furiously began shaking her head, though the only other being present to witness her distress was Moo, currently pawing at her feet to be let up onto her lap. Don't jump to such drastic conclusions, Hermione. You always do that. Think! Think rationally! Severus wouldn't have survived this long, and put himself through such hell as he has these past several years—for the sake of so many—if his intention was always to simply...give up.
Pondering that gut-twisting possibility—And it's a ridiculous one, so calm the hell down!—had Hermione's insides doing somersaults, nettling fear and trepidation creeping to the forefront of her mind. But, what if she was right? What if she wasn't leaping to conclusions and Severus indeed had no intention of weaselling his way out of the Dark Lord's clutches once the psychopath learned of her involvement; or maybe he did have a plan but wasn't anticipating getting out of this scathing alive, so he saw little use in organising a Plan B?
Any which way Hermione considered the wizard's treacherous situation she found no comfort offerings to cling to. Lord Voldemort would be infuriated once he learned of Hermione, and, more importantly, his right-hand lieutenant's supposed blindness to his own 'slave' being involved in a rebellion that was hell-bent on destroying him. Severus had already worked tirelessly to persuade the Dark Lord that Hermione was no threat whatsoever, so once the maniac learned that Severus had been grossly mistaken all along...
Severus won't stand a chance. The Dark Lord won't show him mercy. He'll kill him. He'll. Kill. Him.
The more Hermione allowed herself to sit there in the spy's deserted kitchen, reeling and fretting over what the Dark Lord would see fit to do to this selfless, brave man she had grown so deeply attached to, the more nauseous and distressed she grew. Severus would be torn to shreds, obliterated, cursed beyond recognition. His life would most certainly be forfeited—there was little ambiguity on that terrible score—and it was no secret that a most malevolent Dark Lord liked to play with his victims nowadays before finally setting them free of this world.
Severus would surely be made an example of, and in a more gruesome way than Hermione could possibly imagine. An awful shiver broke out on her goose-pimpled flesh. She tried desperately to draw out of her frightening contemplations. Until she was rationally able to speak to Severus about this—and she would—pondering what calamities might befall him would only upset her, so she cast her attention to the demanding fur ball brushing in between her legs and meowing emphatically for attention.
"I have nothing to share with you this morning, Moo," Hermione sighed, and the quiet laughter that followed was not nearly as light as it could be.
Moo, with all his catlike reflexes, seemed to have picked up on his mistress's less than cheerful disposition, for he ceased whisking in between Hermione's legs to stare up at her, his whiskers giving a curious twitch, as if inquiring as to what was bothering her. Hermione projected a sad smile down at the feline and picked him up, gently placing him on her lap and running her fingers down his back. Moo sniffed the air and scooted around to face her, extending onto his two back legs to try to be at eye level. Unfortunately for him, he was still too short, no matter how greatly he stretched himself.
"Oh, Moo," Hermione muttered softly as she scratched him behind his furry ears, "I hope I'm wrong. It wouldn't be the first time, I know, and, in this case, I sincerely hope I've got things completely twisted around..."
Moo had no idea what his human was blabbering on about, but that scratching felt positively marvellous. He instantly leaned into her hand and closed his eyes, purring his encouragement that she continue. If only he could get that grouchy bugger his mistress liked so much to pay him the same divine treatment then they might actually be able to coexist.
Whatever was keeping Severus at a distance, both from Moo and his mistress, who clearly cared for him (the man would have to be a daft idiot not to realise her affections by now), the kitten was determined to keep on pestering the testy twat until he finally wore him down.
Two could play this game, and Moo was a feline with nine lives to squander. In other words, he had all the time in the world.
Wyman showed up on Narcissa's doorstep at noon the following day, emerging out of the blue and without explanation—at first. There would be no pulling the rug over Narcissa's eyes, and she immediately set to getting to the bottom of the wizard's bizarre disappearance and subsequent materialising onto her family's estate without prior warning of his coming.
"Why didn't you Floo, Wyman?" she hissed with sophistication, an achievement only Narcissa Malfoy seemed capable of. "You know how easily you could've been spotted?"
Rolling her eyes disagreeably, she muttered an undetected, "What's the use?" under her breath and sighed at the grime-ridden, frumpy-looking figure perched on her doorstep. "I trust you have an account for why you've been missing?"
Wyman's eyes darted about, heightening Narcissa's quiet suspicions. "I would've sent word, but I was in a rush to get back, Cissy. Ended up splinchin' myself, I was in such a hurry to get here; put me out for a couple days."
Narcissa's fair eyebrows scrunched together. There was Snow's account of the incident that led to Wyman going on the run, and then there would be the man's himself, who now stood in front of her wearing a drenched coat and mud-ridden boots. No use in playing all her cards until Wyman dealt out a few of his own.
Thank Merlin she wasn't alone today. Draco had taken a rare personal day from work to help out with her husband, who had been retching and slurring incoherently since dawn.
"You splinched yourself?" she questioned him curiously, both appearing and sounding unfazed by his misfortune, causing him to scowl at her.
Wyman hadn't been lying about the bloody splinching accident. It was an unwanted delay in his haste to get back to Snape before Snow could. The only wretched idiot he had to blame for his rotten luck was himself, but there was still an opportunity at stake here, and he needed to play it for all it was worth.
Gathering that he wasn't about to be permitted inside Narcissa's well-warded home until he explained himself hoarse, Wyman focused all his efforts on winning the cool, stunning blonde over. She had been soft on him more than once—many times, in fact—and he had little doubt she could come around to his side on this rainy day. She just needed a cogent reason to trust him and, so far, his story wasn't stacking up in her eyes. She may be a Slytherin, but so was he.
"Yeah, surprised me, too; took off most of my left leg. Never experienced such bloody pain in all my bloody years! Worse than that fuckin' nose bleed your bastard of a husband gave me four years ago."
Inwardly, Wyman cursed his timing. No doubt by now Snow had scrambled back to Snape and the others—Narcissa, too—to relay how he had stunned her out cold and abandoned her in a soiled Moscow alleyway to anyone's ill-intended devices. This was going to be trickier than he originally planned, but he quickly forged ahead, grunting as he shifted his tuckered legs back and forth on the witch's stoop.
Narcissa quirked a faint smile but didn't budge the door wider an inch. "Poor dear. Have you sufficiently recovered?"
"Mostly," Wyman pouted, though his grey eyes were twinkling.
"Then what brings you here when you're meant to be in Moscow spying for our Dark Lord?"
"He recalled me from that assignment. Naturally, I couldn't delay in answerin' him, could I?"
Narcissa cocked her head slightly to the side, her hair flowing flawlessly along with the airy motion. "No, of course not; wanted as many details as you could provide him on Potter, I'm sure?"
"You know how he is," Wyman offered nonchalantly and shrugged his shoulders; if Narcissa was going to continue playing the reticent game then he was just as capable a player.
"Another cause for your delay?" she pressed as apathetically as Wyman dismissed the fact.
"Yeah, I'm afraid so."
"I hope you managed to relay your information to him with little...interference."
"I managed, but not without a proper reminder—or three—of where I bloody well stand," Wyman returned, schooling his rugged face vacuously.
"I see..." Narcissa's lips slumped, but then she proceeded to switch topics on him, keeping much of her figure concealed behind her expansive iron-clad doors. "So, what brings you to see me, Wyman? Do we have important matters to discuss, you and I?"
"Yeah, if you'll permit me in, Cissy?"
"I suppose I'll have to; it appears I won't get a word out of you otherwise."
"You're not happy to see me, my sweet?" Wyman shot Narcissa a greasy grin that stretched his leathery skin taut across a pair of sunken, whisker-covered cheeks.
"I would be if I could account for why you're here unannounced, Wyman. It's very unlike you, and it concerns me."
Fuck. Where had he slipped up? The bitchy cunt usually enjoyed his visits, even on the rare occasions when he showed up unannounced on her doorstep; or so she led him to believe, if her high-pitched screams of his name as she came, with that wanker husband of hers slumped over and drooling on himself in the next room, was any past indication to go by.
"My apologises. The last thing I ever want to do is worry you needlessly."
"I know, love," Narcissa cooed, piercing eyes obscuring the access he was accustomed to. "I'm happy to see you're well and recouped. It's something else that has me troubled."
At her reluctance to disclose more, Wyman chanced a step closer. "Do share?"
He watched Narcissa open and close her mouth more than once, which prompted his credence to drop, albeit briefly. Curiosity and confusion flashed across his face and he reached out a hand to press the door open. It wouldn't budge.
"Come, Cissy, what is it? What's wrong? Why won't you let me in?"
Naricssa sighed and gave a projected silly wave of her hand. "I always thought she was terribly half-witted, that girl—I still do in many respects—but she relayed something recently to the group that's left me with more questions than answers, Wyman." Narcissa's eyes narrowed considerably, her demeanour hardening before Wyman's flickering eyes. "If I let you in, what's to stop you from stunning me like you did Snow?"
"Ahhh, I was afraid you might've gotten the wrong impression of that, my sweet." Narcissa's brow furrowed, awaiting an explanation, so Wyman casually leaned in, his hand still pressed to the heavily warded doors that barred him access. "Remember how we'd expressed to each other before our suspicions about Snow?"
"Many times," Narcissa confirmed with a nod.
"I learned some compromisin' intelligence in Moscow. It turns out Snape was wrong about which side Snow is on all along, and that fuckin' bastard should know better than to send that stupid wench to spy on me, as if I can't be trusted! That bitch is clumsier at espionage than a drunken, two-legged elephant."
Narcissa remained entirely mute, rooted behind the door and quietly anticipating more details.
"She isn't on our side, Cissy. I know it for fact now."
At this supposed bombshell, Narcissa's eyelids squinted. "How?" she murmured suspiciously, and the door finally gave way a crack.
"Caught her red-handed, I did," Wyman hissed, showcasing his crooked, yellow teeth, "havin' a Floo conversation with someone none of us can trust."
"Someone who definitely isn't on our side."
Narcissa blinked several times. "What?" she exclaimed, her mouth dropping open in rare form. "Yaxley? Are you certain you saw Yaxley, Wyman?"
Wyman scowled, affronted by her questioning him. "Of course I'm bloody sure of who it was, Cissy! I saw him with my own eyes! And she knows that I know. It's why I stunned the bitch and took off."
Narcissa quickly recovered from her initial shock and shook her head disappointedly. "If that's the case, love, you should've done more than just stun her!"
The witch's hiss of disgruntlement surprised him. Wyman growled back, "And risk givin' my position away to the other side, when I'm supposed to be there spyin' on Potter for the Dark Lord? No fuckin' thank you!"
"Oh, rubbish!" Narcissa made a dramatic huff of her shoulders. "You know how to be discrete, Wyman. They'd never have found out what you did."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Cissy," Wyman grumbled disagreeably. "His spies are everywhere, and it's negligence that'll do us in if we aren't careful. You know that as well as I."
"I had no idea caution was so key to this operation," she deadpanned coolly and brushed back some of her long locks. "Well, this is a disturbing development, I must say."
Wyman bowed his head weightily, his expression seemingly glum. Poor dear, Narcissa reflected wickedly to herself, keeping her shocked expression in check. He never was the cleverest Slytherin in the bunch. Thank Merlin I had better sense to marry Lucius.
"You'd better come in."
With that, Narcissa threw back the door at last, and Wyman entered through the family wards, wearing an understated grin of triumph. Eager fingers curled around Narcissa's waist as she started to breeze past him, greedy lips hungrily whispering into her ear, "You look good enough to eat, my sweet. I've missed you."
"And I, you, but that'll have to wait, I'm afraid." Narcissa met the rough man's grumpy frown with a soft pout of her own. "Hubby's been retching all morning, and Draco's here."
"You can keep 'em waitin' a little while longer, can't you?" Wyman growled with stubborn persistence. "Right now, I need to sample how good your pussy tastes."
Salty lips smacked fervently against hers, the assault enough to make the Malfoy matriarch shudder against him, and not with excitement or eager anticipation but with vehement disgust. Wyman was too enthralled to decipher the difference.
Merlin, the price she had burdened herself with paying in order to obtain information. Narcissa could only hope this would be the last time she would ever have to engage in Wyman's repulsive advances. The incompetent arse couldn't shag her to a proper orgasm with that pencil stick of a cock if his ruddy life depended on it, and pretending to be swept up by the idiot's clumsy, off-putting charms was about as gruelling as watching grass grow.
"Not here, Wyman!" She thwarted the man's appetite by snatching up his hand and leading him down the hall towards the stairs.
"I knew you'd warm up to me," he snickered from behind, emphasising the point by grabbing her arse through her figure-hugging robes as they climbed the stairs to what had become their usual spot.
Highly unlikely, Narcissa reflected bitterly, her mask of indifference falling swiftly into place; the less she thought about what they were about to do, the better. This had better be worth it.
Unbeknownst to Wyman, Draco had retreated to another room down the hall shortly after seeing that his debilitated father, who was as pissed as a newt, was comfortably lying asleep in his favourite leather-bound chair in their drawing room. He had made sure to administer several potions to combat Lucius's throbbing headache and persistent nausea, and ensured that he gulp down at least one cup of strong tea, before leaving him to activate the Floo Network. He muffled the space he now occupied so as not to risk any unwanted intrusions—not that he didn't trust his mother to keep Wyman as far away from here as possible, but one could never be too careful.
"Let her obtain whatever information out of Wyman she can, Draco," his godfather was insisting in a collected tone of reason, much to Draco's personal frustrations, "and with whatever means she deems appropriate."
Draco curled his nose, repulsed. "What's to stop me from going up there and forcing the information out of the twisted, fucking wanker myself?"
"Quit it, Draco. Your mother knows what she's doing. Don't interfere; she won't thank you for it."
Disgruntled, Draco brushed his fingers through his hair, which had grown out considerably since the end of his Hogwarts days, and lowered his voice a fraction, though there was no reason to with the Muffling Charm he had in place. "What if the Dark Lord knows, Severus? Wyman might have gone to him first. The Dark Lord could look into Wyman's mind without needing him to say anything about us, saving him from what would otherwise be the result of breaking his Unbreakable Vow."
"If Wyman has been playing both sides..." Severus paused from the other end of the Floo, his sharp features calm, yet focused. A short pause later found the young lad's heart pounding wildly against his chest, "Then we activate Plan B."
Draco swallowed thickly. He could feel his palms breaking out in a sweat.
"We need to get Snow and the others back on home turf, Uncle. Snow should be here for the break-in."
"Not with Wyman back in England. It's not safe for her."
"But Wyman's here! Mum can keep an eye on him, surely; stall him as much as necessary. We need every local group member we can rally, Uncle."
"We have several insiders already in place and ready for tomorrow, Draco," Severus insisted, remaining firmly collected and unyielding in their task. "Keep your head on. Unless you wish to rouse suspicion tomorrow by acting as worked up as you are now, I suggest you take another personal day."
Draco scowled in offence. "Over my dead body," he ground out.
Severus raised a challenging eyebrow at him. "Are you in?"
"Yes, of course I'm in, Uncle—"
"Good, then enough."
Draco sighed heavily and dropped his chin into his hand. "What about Granger? I mean, Miss Granger," he corrected himself when he spotted his godfather's eyes flashing strangely.
"What about her?" Severus countered, his voice unchanged.
"Don't you think it's about time she stepped up to—"
"Don't be a dunce, Draco," Severus fired back at him, dark eyes suddenly flaring to life; his foul temper was enhanced by the magnetic green flames. "Let's see what your mother uncovers first about what Wyman's been up to before we resort to any drastic measures, shall we? Use your head."
"Sorry, Uncle..." Draco squirmed and squinted. "But Granger really should—"
"Miss Granger," Severus corrected in a low growl, "has only just recently been bombarded by what's being asked of her. She's working through her magic and making progress, but we cannot push anything on her just yet, Draco."
Draco was taken aback by that suggestion and scrunched up his nose. "I... I'm not trying to push anyone, Uncle, but you do realise..." He stopped himself short, suspecting what was to come.
"What?" Severus snapped, forcing Draco to press on.
"You have to prepare yourself for the likelihood that Gran—Miss Granger may have to get out there in the open sooner than we'd planned. And you... You might also have to..."
Draco purposely cut himself off again, unable to finish his sentence. It pained him too greatly to think on, really, but the delicacy of the situation was irrefutable.
For all intents and purposes, Draco had already lost his father, who was determined to drink himself into an early grave. Therefore, he couldn't prevent himself from despising the dangers his godfather was gambling with in regards to his own future. Aside from his mother, Severus Snape was the only family Draco had left, and the thought of losing him, too, affected him more deeply than he wanted to admit.
Of course, everyone in their group was aware that as soon as Hermione Granger was out in the open, the Dark Lord would be thoroughly—violently—displeased with Severus, and likely to make an example of his most loyal supporter to the rest of his followers. Draco trusted his godfather to worm himself out of harm's way as he had managed many a time before, and understood Severus to be quite the resourceful sort when the chips were down, but what if he wasn't able to escape persecution this time?
The Dark Lord had tried to kill his godfather once before and nearly succeeded; what was to stop him from trying again, and following through on his aim?
"Draco," came Severus's steady address, pulling the young wizard from his worried thoughts. His godfather was regarding him reservedly. "I've told you before: this is what has to be done. It's dangerous and that's why I decided that Miss Granger should fall under my protection and not yours or anyone else's."
"I know that, Uncle, but—"
"Then there's nothing more to discuss." Severus's frank tone came down hard on Draco, but he clamped his mouth shut lest he say something too sentimental for his godfather's liking. "We must all simply do the best that we can. We have no right to hope for better—not yet."
"I... I understand," Draco mumbled and diverted his eyes to the floor. "I just hope you know what you're doing is all..."
That dubious eyebrow rose yet again. "You don't trust me?"
"To get out of this alive? No, I don't," Draco expressed candidly, losing his ability to remain subdued.
From the opposite end of the Floo, Severus sighed, his features solemn and grave, yet resolute. "Enough of this talk, Draco."
"Fine." Draco shoved his hands into his pockets and rose to his full height. "You can't stall much longer, though; not with Granger. She's going to have to fight just like the rest of us. You can't stop her."
Draco couldn't have missed the flicker of ire that danced across Severus's eyes had his own eyes been drawn into the back of his head. The whirling flames themselves weren't enough to camouflage the dark wizard's reaction.
"What are you suggesting, Draco?" Severus snarled between his teeth.
In that angst-ridden moment, Draco chose boldness over obedience. He may still be young in his godfather's eyes, but he wasn't a bloody fool. He knew the root cause of all of Severus's delays when it came to getting Hermione Granger involved in their cause; that much had been determined just the other week when Severus brought Draco's former peer over for tea and an important chat. A Malfoy knew love when he saw it (if his parents' once openly affectionate relationship when he was a boy had taught him anything), and there was no missing the tell-tale signs his godfather had unknowingly been dropping throughout that meeting. That didn't even include the actual intense exchanges between Uncle Severus and Granger during tea, but just in other private conversations his godfather had had with both Draco and his mother about Severus's one-time student.
Severus Snape was in love.
It was indeed a shock to uncover—his mother had been the first to broach the jaw-dropping subject last week with her son after their guests left—and yet, there was no denying its validity. Severus Snape, a man Draco had known to be solitary and untouchable for most if not all of his life, was in love with Hermione know-it-all Granger! All his delay tactics and excuses for not getting the clever girl ready to join their ranks sooner had, after the confirmation at tea, made perfect sense.
Confronting his testy, immensely private godfather about said stalling techniques wasn't going to go smoothly, and certainly not if push came to shove. For Draco and his mother, however, if Granger didn't start becoming more actively involved soon, shoving Severus to his emotional limits was going to be necessary. They couldn't afford much more delay, not with Potter—Ginny Weasley—and their supporters closing in.
"I'm not suggesting anything, Uncle," Draco offered his freshly sneering godfather. "But... She's going to fight, you know. We're all going to have to fight. Whether you want her to be involved or not, Granger's chosen to be a part of the bigger picture—"
"Don't you dare think to lecture me on the 'bigger picture' or the 'greater good', Draco," Severus warned him most seethingly, the boiling emotions behind his words rippling across the divide that separated them, "or I shall personally come there for no other reason but to rip out your tongue!"
"Bloody hell, Uncle Severus, calm down!" Despite the infuriated elder of the two not being there in person, Draco still felt compelled to throw up his hands to protect himself, as though he expected to receive a thump on the head. "You can't hold her back forever, though! I know you care about her but—"
"Choose your next words carefully, Draco."
Slowly, Draco's hands dropped to his sides, his face turning paler before the fire light. "I'm just saying, Uncle, that, regardless of what the next few days or weeks or even months may bring, Granger has to get involved; she wants to be involved. And... She'll be all right, I'm sure of it. She's survived this long, hasn't she? We're all behind her, Uncle; you most especially. She's going to be brilliant."
For several agonising seconds, a severely cross Severus simply scowled at him, the green flames heightening the deep-seated tension. Seemingly untouched by Draco's words of encouragement, Severus's eventual response was to snap a demanding, "Have your mother contact me as soon as she has more information on Wyman," before he projected one last sneer at his godson and vanished abruptly from the Floo.
Left to his own devices, Draco continued to stare on at the lost flames for the next several minutes, his mind reeling as it tried to unravel what would come to pass in the coming angst-filled days. The break-in at the Ministry to seize Muggle-born wands was set, Granger was reportedly prepping herself as best she could, another group meeting would be forthcoming once all wands were distributed back into their proper hands, and Draco had unexpectedly received confirmation of all of his suspicions when it came to his godfather and the surly wizard's relations to Granger: Uncle Severus was in love...
With Hermione fucking Granger. Bloody hell.
That evening, a late-night visit from Narcissa had both Hermione and Severus on edge, for they had been waiting for hours to hear what she might have uncovered about Wyman. Hermione didn't know the man at all, but Severus had brought her up to speed about his relations to the group and what had been done to Snow. Hermione also wasn't, until that very evening, aware of what the Malfoy matriarch, of all witches, had been busy uncovering—physically, anyway—about the supposed traitor in their midst. Somehow, without Severus elaborating too much on the details surrounding Narcissa Malfoy's exploits, Hermione had quickly gathered that this, in all likelihood, was also far from the first time the witch had resorted to such measures to get whatever scoop the group required.
The truth left Hermione feeling awfully guilty for previously being so judgmental about the woman. The mere thought of going to the sordid depths Narcissa Malfoy was apparently willing to go to in order to extract information for the good of the group seemed terribly unfair, not to mention morally unsound, and it amazed Hermione more so when Narcissa Apparated that night onto Severus's doorstep, dressed in a hooded, silk cloak of royal navy blue, looking the epitome of composure and grace. The notion that she had just shagged a possible double-crosser, not to mention betrayed the sanctity of her marriage by doing so, couldn't have been unearthed by the cool expression she wore had anyone wanted to try to divulge more.
It was almost too much for Hermione, who had to look away several times as she and Narcissa sat on the opposite sides of Severus's worn, green couch. If she was uneasy with Hermione knowing the details about her conduct and behaviour, Narcissa didn't display any discomfort, and began speaking in haste after removing her hood, though she kept her cloak on.
"I'm sorry, Severus, Hermione, but I didn't want to risk using the Floo this late. I'm sure it would raise suspicion to someone in Draco's department."
"Understandable," Severus agreed with a slight nod.
After inquiring as to whether or not the witch wanted the tea that Severus and Hermione were presently enjoying, and declining, Narcissa pressed on in an excited whisper, "Wyman tried to pull off the same story Snow explained: about catching him conversing with Yaxley via Floo. He tried to pin it on Snow, but I knew he was lying from the off. He's let his guard down around me too often, the poor scumbag."
Severus thoughtfully scratched his chin, his hawk-like features outlined by the glow emitting from the roaring hearth. "I feared he might. Snow caught him red-handed, so he tried to flee and wants to pin it on her." He squinted, suddenly befuddled. "I wonder why he didn't just kill her," he stated candidly. "Did he not expect her to talk once she came to?"
"Apparently, he splinched himself trying to make it back and was held up for several days to recoup. Otherwise, I reckon he'd have gotten to you sooner to plant the story of a traitor amongst us before Snow could. Perhaps he wanted to see what we might do to her."
Severus's frown intensified. "What else, Narcissa?" he prodded quietly, his lean form visibly tense as he sat rigidly forward in his wingback chair. "Has he...?"
Narcissa swallowed hard. It was the first time Hermione had ever seen the woman visibly shaken. Her complexion had turned ghostly pale, and her fingers coiled tightly together in her lap.
"Yes...he has," came her confirmed whisper; the heightened atmosphere seemed to have risen by several layers. "If he hadn't been delayed by injury, he'd have come to you first, which—"
"Would have worked to our advantage," Severus ground out through a clenched jaw, turning away from Narcissa to stare directly ahead. "He'd have come to me, and I could've sent warning to everyone, to better prepare us..."
Narcissa's hands wrapped tighter around themselves. "Yes... But, we cannot focus on that. We must look to where we go from here."
Hermione, on the other hand, hadn't a clue what had just altered the atmosphere, only that, whatever it was, it was horrifically bad news. She scooted about on the couch and laid down a thick tome Severus had given her earlier that day on combating dark curses and hexes; it was a rare find Hermione hadn't read before, and she had eagerly consumed nearly every page by nightfall.
"I'm sorry," she piped in apologetically, her eyes darting between the pair of them, "but what has Wyman done exactly?"
Severus continued to stare elsewhere, deep in thought, his intense scowl more worrying by the second. It was Narcissa who turned to the confused young witch, her expression disconcerting.
"He's gone to the Dark Lord...gave him information...compromising information that will affect where we go from here."
Hermione startled. "What? But— How? Didn't he take an Unbreakable Vow?"
"There are ways of getting around that," Severus grumbled; Hermione thought he suddenly sounded exhausted. "All the Dark Lord would've had to do is look into Wyman's mind and scrounge for whatever he wanted to see."
Hermione locked eyes on Severus, but when he blinked and looked away solemnly, Hermione swiftly turned to Narcissa. "What information did he give?"
"That I'm not completely certain of," Narcissa conveyed with a guilty sigh. "I tried using Legilimency on him in the midst of... Well, I'll spare you both the seedy details, but it was difficult to figure out without making Wyman aware that I was in his head."
Severus narrowed his eyes at her. "What did you see?"
"I saw Wyman kneeling before the Dark Lord; being Crucio'ed several times. He did look into Wyman's mind, and I could tell Wyman was terrified by whatever he uncovered. I believe he pissed himself, in fact, and the Dark Lord told him not to speak 'lest you wish to die right here and now.'"
After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, Hermione's brow knitted together. "But...that could mean a number of things. It doesn't necessarily mean the Dark Lord knows—"
"Wyman and I have a history," Severus interrupted her, staring openly from his perch in his chair, "that stems back to our school days. He doesn't trust me and I've never trusted him, and with legitimate reason."
Hermione blinked. "And what's that?"
Severus's eyes hardened. "He tried to undermine me to the Dark Lord a number of times in the past when matters hadn't gone in his favour. Unfortunately, for him, I was always on to him before he ever got the upper hand."
Hermione stared on, befuddled. "Then why bring someone like that into your group?"
"To keep an eye on the scheming bastard, of course," Narcissa answered for them both, as though it were obvious. "That, and he's always fancied blondes."
Hermione closed her mouth, feeling her cheeks flush. Narcissa casually turned to Severus, something else pressing on her brow.
"The Dark Lord mentioned something else that put me on alert..."
"Where's Wyman now?"
"Passed out at the manor," she snorted sarcastically. "I gave the arse a tonic—he claimed he had a headache—and that should keep him out for several more hours. As soon as he fell asleep, I informed Draco of what I'd learned and Apparated here."
"What else did the Dark Lord say?" Hermione pressed with urgency.
Narcissa issued a shaky breath. "I saw him say to Wyman, and he was very angry, 'I will only keep you alive this night, despite your treacherous wrong doings, Wyman, until you are of no further use to me. Consider yourself fortunate; I'm not one to spare lives when I'm double-crossed. I'm disappointed in you, but you may prove useful to me yet.'"
Severus's black eyes glinted next to the firelight. "The Dark Lord would only keep him alive for one motive..."
Narcissa's mouth slumped apprehensively. "I know."
Hermione understood as well, and she kept her eyes glued on Severus, her heart pounding furiously in her chest. "To double-cross us," she responded in a hushed, choked whisper that brought both sets of Slytherin eyes to hers. "What - What are you going to do?"
Severus brushed back a few straggly hairs and stared long and hard at the crackling flames. "The plan tomorrow still stands. If the Dark Lord would know of what we're up to, and has put the Ministry on high alert, I'll try to get word to the others before dawn."
"If chaos breaks out, have them come to the manor," Narcissa insisted with remarkable calmness. "What about your meeting with the Dark Lord?"
"I'll still meet with him as scheduled. To not do so would only raise his suspicions; I have little doubt he'll want to enter my mind and try to uncover compromising information about me or Herm—Miss Granger," Severus quickly corrected himself. "I'll give him the report on you and Lucius that he'll surely be asking for and derail him on France's and Switzerland's support abroad."
Supposedly, Luna and her father had made contact with Draco fairly recently that the French Minister was being pressured on both sides to openly declare his support. Hermione had been excited to hear that Luna was alive, but receiving word from Severus that her friend had made contact but wasn't anywhere nearby to see the confirmation for herself was slightly heart-breaking, as she was now being reminded of the fact in Severus's and Narcissa's presence.
"I'll distract the Dark Lord for as long as I'm able," Severus's deep register interrupted Hermione's reflections. "I can't guarantee everything will go according to plan. For all I know, and depending on what information Wyman has already divulged about my particular involvement, if any, the Dark Lord may seek to discard me as soon as I enter his quarters."
"Severus!" Hermione rattled, unable to hold back her gasp of surprise.
It only dawned on Hermione a moment later, when Severus projected an intensified scowl her way, that she had addressed him informally in front of Narcissa. The attractive elder blonde, however, surveyed Hermione with only a curious eyebrow lift but her thoughts couldn't be discerned from the off.
"I mean," Hermione stuttered; she could feel her cheeks burning and hadn't a clue how to amend her error. "Erm, Snape, please tell me you have a plan in motion if that is to be the case?"
Severus started to open his mouth but it was Narcissa's voice that rung through the air. "Oh, Severus is quite resourceful and quick-thinking, Hermione," she assured her with a strange smirk that Hermione didn't understand; was the woman goading her on or being serious? "I'm sure he's already thought of something." She casually turned to Severus, both eyebrows raised. "I hope?"
Severus gave a measly "I have," that didn't put Hermione at ease whatsoever. She suddenly felt lightheaded and unknowingly clutched her stomach.
"Well, I'd best get back and try to get a few hours' rest." Narcissa rose off the couch; Hermione didn't follow, for she was too distracted. "Tomorrow's going to be intense. Send word to Draco, Severus, if anything changes or goes awry. He can inform me and I can spread the message accordingly."
Narcissa reached out and squeezed the wizard's arm. "We'll hope for the best."
Then, she twirled towards Hermione, still seated numbly on the couch with a dazed look in her brown eyes, and stepped forward. When Hermione didn't so much as flinch, Narcissa reached down and gently patted the concerned witch's shoulder. Hermione's eyes fluttered up towards her, but her face had turned white as a sheet.
"Don't worry, Hermione," Narcissa offered with remarkable poise and confidence. "Everything will be all right. We have things well-sorted. I'll see you tomorrow to assemble the wands, yes?"
Hermione gulped and nodded accordingly, but, for herself, she couldn't claim the same boost of admission as Narcissa had nor find the credence to reply, so she didn't try.
Narcissa lingered not a moment longer. She draped the hood of her cloak over her head, stalked to the front door with Severus where the two exchanged a few more excited, hushed whispers Hermione didn't catch, and disappeared into the thick of night. Hermione detected the distant pop outside the house that told her Narcissa had Disapparated away, and, finally, her eyes warily peered over at Severus, who had his back to her as he shut the door. He took out his wand and reconfigured a few of the wards, muttering a series of incantations under his stared on until the man finished and silently turned around, obscure eyes settling on her from the darkened hallway.
After an agonising pause stretched out between them, Hermione sucked in a quivering breath, not trusting her voice, and asked, "Severus, what are you going to do?"
That curt aggravation the wizard so often wore when he didn't want to be pestered to explain himself surfaced like scorching fire. His boots heavily dragged themselves back into the sitting room, where he slumped into its favourite wingback chair again, lips unmoving, or refusing to speak.
"Severus?" Hermione pressured him critically. "Please... Can't you tell me?"
"Hermione, don't," he hissed out, the strain apparent in both his worn face as well as his tired tone of voice; he brought a hand to the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes in a failed attempt to warn her off.
"Don't we—or I, at the very least—have the right to know just how you intend to get out of this, should the Dark Lord have something violent in mind? Shouldn't someone be close by in case you need help?"
"No. That would be counterproductive."
"Counterproductive?" Hermione all but huffed in exasperation. "How's helping you counterproductive? How?"
"You help everyone else around here. Why shouldn't someone be on hand to help you for once?"
"Quit badgering me—"
"I'm badgering you by asking after your own safety?"
"Something you obviously care little about!" Hermione fired off, feeling slighted and hurt all at once.
"Don't!" he unexpectedly snapped at her.
Suddenly, Severus was out of his chair and striding across the room in a flurry of black robes. Hermione started but hurriedly sprung to her feet, knocking over their tea in the process, but she was determined to reach him before he could storm off to his lab or somewhere else she couldn't reach him. He halted when Hermione proceeded to block his path near the doorway, brown irises alight and staring up at him imploringly.
"You refused to tell me this morning, and you're going to refuse to tell me now?"
"Hermione, what the—"
"I care about you, damn it!" she screamed and grabbed onto Severus's arms in an attempt to shake him furiously. "Why must you be so fucking difficult, Severus? I want you to be safe! I'm asking you because I care!"
"Hermione—" Severus exclaimed, surprised by her sudden outburst.
"Does how I feel mean nothing to you?"
"No, of course it does!" he argued rather patiently and snatched up Hermione's arms, trying unsuccessfully to pull her close. She came forward reluctantly, wiggling and squirming against his much stronger grasp.
"Then what is your plan, Severus? What are you going to do?" Her frown turned into a trembling lower lip. "Or do you have no intention of doing anything whatsoever?"
Severus stilled, though his long fingers continued digging into her flesh, determined to keep her close. Hermione used the pause that ensued to weave her arms around his back, this time inclining into him willingly. She could feel his heart beat rapidly in tune with hers, and gathered by the torturous silence that she had hit upon a dreadful nerve she had hoped against hope would be unfounded.
"Why don't you care, Severus?" she found herself begging to understand, her eyes watering by the unflinching, stone-like stare he returned. "How could you not want to escape this?"
The muscles in Severus's jaw tightened and loosened, his breathing, too, quickening against her chest; but she held tight to him, refusing to look away. Her crushing expression—her hard-hitting questions—demanded to be acknowledged, and Severus swayed into Hermione ever so slightly, warm, weathered hands stroking gently up and down her arms, as if attempting to provide her some level of solace.
"I... I didn't think it mattered," he, at last, muttered in reply, straggly hair drawing forward to try to conceal his shame and uncertainty.
Hermione blinked hard in dismay. "What?" Perhaps she hadn't heard him correctly.
Severus's thin lips parted, working out the horribly forsaken response she prayed she had misunderstood. "I didn't think my escaping mattered...or was in any way important. What's important, to me, was that you... That you stay safe."
Hermione stared on a long moment, utterly dumbfounded by his confession. After her brain scrambled to process his words, and unable, at first, to properly reply, she resorted to using her fists and pounding them vengefully against Severus's chest, letting go of the tears she had been forcing herself to suppress. Severus didn't step away from Hermione's anger and aggression and, instead, drew her unconsciously closer to him as she hit and clawed at his coat.
"You're a fucking idiot!" she cried several times over, eventually burying her snot-nosed face in his chest. "What the hell's the matter with you? How could you think that, Severus? How? You're a fucking idiot, Severus Snape, and I hate you!"
"You idiot! You idiot!"
Severus was rarely speechless, but tonight he found himself bereft of words. He could hear the witch attached to him crying into his coat, berating him, telling him over and over again that he had been a fool; but he couldn't quite process its significance. Her emotions were far too intense, too unfamiliar and strange to be on the receiving end of, and Severus found himself ill-at-ease with so much...concern.
Somehow, Severus's unsure fingers found their way into Hermione's curls, massaging tenderly from her scalp down to the nape of her neck, by which point Hermione was no longer crying or sputtering but holding onto him soundlessly, though she continued sniffing into his chest every so often.
A quiet shiver in his arms prompted Severus to peer down with worry. He cupped Hermione's chin to direct her gaze upward, finding that, when her eyes met his, they were still watery and wounded. The rest of her face was flushed, a drastic contrast from minutes ago when she had sat dazedly on the couch, ashen and too distressed to speak.
"I... I didn't know..." he started and stopped; words seemed to keep failing him. "I didn't want to hope..."
Hermione's heartbroken frown deepened before his eyes, and Severus sensed the terrible ache that was now squeezing both of their hearts in two. "You really are a fucking idiot, Severus," she repeated with overwhelming sadness, and, not wasting another moment, she rose on tiptoe to kiss him achingly, hungrily on the lips. "You're such an idiot," she whimpered once more when their raw exchange broke apart, "to think that no one would care. To think that I don't fucking love you with my whole heart, however damaged it may be. You are such a fool, Severus Snape."
Severus's response wasn't anticipated. Hermione was surely too emotionally compromised to consider the heavy-handed words she had just uttered aloud.
If she wasn't in such a state, she probably would have expected the startled man before her now to push away from her, or to cut her down with some harsh remark in order to keep her at an emotional distance; but, in fact, Severus acted quite the opposite.
In desperation, as if he feared Hermione was about to disappear forever, Severus grasped onto the loving woman well wrapped within his arms, tugging and heaving at her loose-fit clothing, at her exposed arms, her lower back and even her backside to bring her as pressed to him as humanly possible. Well-defined arms ensnared her petite frame, bringing them nose to nose as he effortlessly sought to lift her off the ground.
"Do - Do you mean that?" he breathed shakily on her face, his voice higher pitched than usual. "You... You love me?"
A lonely tear trickled down one of Hermione's cheeks, and she adamantly pressed her lips to his again, tongues locking with passion whilst small fingers curled and pawed at the nape of his neck. "Of course I do, Severus," she mumbled mouth to mouth. "I love you... I love you. I do."
Severus stared profoundly into Hermione's watery eyes, his teetering tongue working against his better judgment as the words tumbled forward without fear of rejection. "I... I love you, too, Hermione. Fucking hell, I do. I do..."
A/N #2: If you skipped over my sad A/N above, please review! Your feedback means a lot!