Severus watched Hermione carefully the next day and the days that followed, but even though Weasley kept being an idiot, his friend did not break down again or even show the slightest bit of discomfort. And she would have had every reason to. Seeing the redhead and the naive little chit together, being so obviously taken with each other, was like watching a bad theatre play, with the actors being too unprofessional to make the whole thing believable. But it was not for their lack of trying.
Severus could tell he was not the only one being put out by that little display. Minerva, who was sitting next to him today, was seething with anger and he could tell she was itching to comfort Hermione about her ex-boyfriend’s abysmal behaviour. But she wasn’t the only one. He was pretty sure the boy would receive a dressing down from his sister because Ginevra Weasley looked like she was going to choke him right over his breakfast and Severus thought that he would enjoy watching her. The boy hadn’t done himself a favour by hooking up with the most naive Gryffindor girl he could find, and it wasn’t just because the girl didn’t seem to have two brain cells to rub together. But by the looks of it, she did not seem to mind the smooches the boy eagerly bestowed on her in the hallways, broom cupboards, or even before and after lessons, and maybe that was all Weasley was interested in. Well, that and maybe having a girl letting him get into her knickers, Severus thought, knowing the hungry look in the boy’s eyes only too well.
Hermione held her head high and kept her spine straight and during their shared evenings, they kept their routine of reading and discussing whatever crossed their minds, even though Severus now stayed in his Animagus form thereon. Everything else felt highly inappropriate and even though he had crossed that line twice already, he had done so for her benefit. But he would not cross it for his own.
Another big portion of Severus’ time was spent researching Horcruxes. He was quite versed on the topic of their existence and creation already, as he had been fascinated with Dark Magic in his youth. But now he focussed on the possibilities to destroy them - preferably without destroying the vessel - and the Room of Requirement readily supplied him with every book it could find on the theme. Hermione had really shown him a precious place, one that would give him all the resources he needed. And she had done so in a moment when she didn’t owe him anything, having every reason not to trust him. But she had.
When Severus left his new research base around midnight, he was actually looking forward to some hours of sleep, for once. But he had only made a few steps, when he found his god-son lurking around in the hallway.
“Draco, what are you doing here?” he asked evenly, even though he knew what the boy had been looking for. Hermione had explained to him that the room could only be used for one purpose at a time, which meant that the boy had not been able to enter it while he had still been inside. But instead of giving up, the boy had decided to wait. Very suspicious.
“Nothing,” the blonde boy replied evasively. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Obviously,” Severus replied dryly. “But I guess falling asleep does not work, as long as you are staying upright, in a deserted corridor. You will have to lie down for that.”
Last year, he would have tried to support the boy, probably even to help him. But with his allegiances officially changed, he would have to be careful and cautious around the junior Death Eater. Especially as Potter’s attacker was still not found.
“Your advice used to be more helpful than that, Sir ,” Draco said, staring at him with cold, grey eyes. “Sleep is not coming for me, no matter where I am.”
“I see,” Severus replied with a sigh. It was understandable, of course, as the boy found himself in a pretty desperate situation. But Draco was still lying, because Severus knew where he had been headed to. “I assume you have not considered seeking help with your… situation. There might be people around willing to help.”
His godson replied coldly: “You know what he would do to my parents if I did. Apart from that, not all of us can be traitors.”
Severus shook his head. “Indeed. I recommend going to bed now, Mr Malfoy. I would hate to take points from my own god-son.”
“Do you even care about that, any longer? Because it does not seem like you do,” Draco said, his eyes never wavering.
Severus stared back at him with a calm expression. “I cannot help you, if you do not want my help. And you might not like what I have to offer. But you can come to me in case you do not know where else to go. My side in this conflict is very clear though and I will not waver from the path I have taken, not for anybody, not after I have finally found freedom.”
“Freedom? Are you not Dumbledore’s lap-dog now?” the boy sneered.
He shook his head. “Standing on the same side of this war does not make me his servant, or whatever it is you are assuming I am. I have not traded one master for another.”
The boy stared at him with a contemplative gaze, his eyes trailing towards Severus’ left arm. His unblemished skin was well hidden beneath his robes, of course, and it would stay that way until he could be sure he could trust the boy. He had offered him a way out of this mess, if only vaguely. But it had to be enough for now.
“Go to bed, Draco. You will not find the solution to your problems tonight,” Severus said, taking in the boy’s stubborn expression. “Do you need me to accompany you back to your dorm? Or will you manage to not get yourself into trouble?”
“I don’t need your help,” Draco replied, turning and walking away a moment later. Severus was not sure to which of his offers the boy was referring, but then he thought that it did not matter, as long as his god-son rejected them.
On the morning of her birthday, Hermione awoke without having any high expectations for the day. With her parents out of the country and Ron not even talking to her, it would probably be a pretty sad day, especially as Harry’s mind seemed to be occupied elsewhere most of the time. She could not really blame him, but if it hadn’t been for Severus’ constant company, she would have felt pretty abandoned.
To her surprise, there was a small stack of presents at the end of her bed and she went to open them, still clad in her pyjamas.
There was a stack of books from her parents, all of them being novels from several modern muggle authors. It was a good gift and Hermione enjoyed reading casual literature from time to time if she felt the need to relax her mind for a bit. And as the magical world did not have any technology to offer distraction, a book was always a good choice.
Harry had gotten her a new self-inking quill, a beautiful one that must have come from an eagle. Hermione stared at it with a soft smile and touched the soft material, before carefully putting it aside. She would use it for her classes today, even though her old quill was still in good shape, but somehow she wanted to make the day special, as much as it was possible under the given circumstances.
There was only one more present for her and it came in a small, wooden box. For a moment Hermione just stared at it, unsure who might have sent it to her, because there was no note attached to it. But as soon as she opened it, she knew, because inside she found a delicate, golden necklace, with part of a blue light-crystal added to it as a pendant. It was beautiful, even though the design was rather simple, but staring at the crystal alone reminded her of their hours in the cave, their cave, and she realized that probably no one except them knew of the place.
“Wow, that is beautiful!” she heard a female voice behind her and when she turned around, she saw Parvati and Lavender staring at her present in awe. “Who sent this to you?” Lavender asked, her eyes full of speculation, while Parvati seemed more fascinated with the design. Now that she looked closer at the pendant, she could see a delicate strand of gold winding itself around the crystal, tiny scales engraved in it that made it look like a snake. Only the very precise use of magic could have created something as detailed as this.
“I have never seen a necklace like that before, Hermione. Do you know where it was bought?”
Unfortunately for them, Hermione would not answer either of their questions. Instead she said: “There was no note added to it. I am pretty sure it’s not from my parents and Harry sent me a quill. I don’t know who else would get me something for my birthday.”
At that, she heard Lavender snort. Parvati, on the other hand, stared at her with a curious expression on her face. “Very curious indeed,” she said, rubbing her chin. “Maybe it is from a secret admirer,” she murmured, a little smile forming on her lips. “Wouldn’t that be the most romantic thing?”
Hermione sighed. She and Lavender had never been friends, but ever since she had dated Ron the girl’s behaviour had been outright hostile. It wasn’t just that Lavender seemed to pull Ron into a kiss when she got aware of Hermione’s presence, Hermione could have also sworn that the girl talked about her behind her back. She knew the signs, as such things had happened to her before, in primary school. But back then she had learned that things got only worse if one showed how much one was bothered by it. As long as Hermione had complained about that treatment to her parents and teachers, things had gotten worse and worse. Only when she had stopped caring and held her head high instead, those girls had suddenly stopped bothering with her. With Lavender it would be the same, Hermione thought. With time she would lose interest and realize that Hermione was not a threat to her - or Ron.
Hermione stared at her dorm-mates with an unreadable look on her face that would have made Severus proud. She knew for a fact that Severus was not a ‘secret admirer’, even though a part of her wished it to be otherwise. Still, the necklace was the most beautiful gift she had received in years and she would be only too proud to wear it under her sweater. And every time the stone rubbed against her naked skin, she would remember the cave with all its beautiful lights, and smile. Maybe this seventeenth birthday wouldn’t be all that bad afterall.
Severus had planned the day very carefully, determined to make that 17th birthday special for his friend. It was what he would have wished someone had done for him, when he reached majority, but the only “special” thing that happened to him was being locked into a cupboard by fucking Potter and his bully-friends. It had been a horrible day in a string of horrible days for him, a never ending humiliation that only ended when Lily started dating the unworthy idiot. Even then his tormentors did not stop, but they sought him out much less frequently.
For Hermione her 17th birthday things would be different, better; that much he had sworn to himself. The first had been the gift, the necklace he had spent many hours crafting and enchanting. It would not be obvious from just looking at it, but he had exerted all his knowledge on protective spells, layered enchantment over enchantment over the crystal and fed it with his own magic, until he knew his bondmate would be protected from most magical attacks. The necklace would not really help her survive a full Death-Eater attack, but it would buy her time until he was there to help her.
But that wasn’t all he had in mind for today and the rest of it had taken as much careful planning and scheming.
“We will be trying to improve your duelling skills today,” he announced, staring at his class of sixth years with a hard expression. “You will be practising in pairs and trying to disarm or immobilize your opponent. You’re allowed to use any spell from your repertoire, verbal or non-verbal, except Unforgivables.”
The class stared at him with wide eyes. They all knew they were an uneven number of students and that he would ask one of them to duel him. Today, his choice was an easy one.
“Miss Granger, you will be facing me today. I have been made aware that you value the gain of knowledge that a private lesson can provide.” He gave his face a disdainful look and from across the room he heard Weasley and several Slytherins snicker. They, of course, assumed he wanted to humiliate her, but Hermione knew better. She did value having a private instruction as she had told him so many times.
“I do,” she replied, her chin raised proudly. Then she walked over to him and positioned herself in duelling distance, her wand waiting readily in her hand. Severus saw the pitying looks she received from Potter and Longbottom, whereas Weasley looked like he was waiting for her to be humiliated the way he had been. What a jerk, Severus thought, before giving the students the signal to start.
He had barely closed his mouth, when he felt Hermione’s first, non-verbal spell rushing towards him and he blocked it, with a practised flick of his wand. She was taking this lesson seriously, he thought, feeling pride for the girl. Still, he did make a plan for today and that required her losing this duel. Not that she would have had a chance to win against him, having years of duelling experience. But he would not humiliate her, not ever again, Severus swore and send a silent stunner back at her. She blocked it with a determined expression on her face. Good.
Hermione did have a vast theoretical knowledge on spells, Severus knew, and he went through his own repertoire of non-lethal duelling spells and five times he managed to beat her, leaving her unable to fight in one or the other way. Hermione, of course, took it in stride and thanked him politely but breathlessly every time he revived her or handed her wand back. She was treating this duel for what it was, a valuable lesson, and even though he could see her getting frustrated with herself, she never lost her patience, like her friends would surely have at this point.
“Enough,” he shouted after he had deflected a well-aimed cutting curse from her and slowly he could see the duels around him die down. There were no major injuries, Severus realized with satisfaction as he scanned the classroom with a dark gaze. Then he focussed his attention back on Hermione, putting on his best sneer and said: “Well, you at least did learn to hold your temper, Miss Granger, even though your duelling skills are still rather… lacking. Theoretical knowledge is not all, you see?”
Hermione nodded silently, her eyes downcast. He could only hope this would not be too rough on her, but he did want to spend the evening with her and there was only one way on how to go about this. “You will be spending the evening in my office, girl, practising , as you don’t seem to be able to make use of the things you have read in those thousands of books.”
He stared at her without blinking hoping that she would understand what he was trying to do.
She remained calm and collected, her back ramrod straight as she asked: “Are you putting me in detention, Sir?”
He looked at her with a bored expression. “No. I asked you into my office to be taught a lesson, girl. Call it whatever you want.”
She nodded silently, before retreating into the back of the room. He could see Potter waiting for her, whispering agitatedly while his green eyes stared at him with a calculative expression.
“...it’s your birthday… unfair… overstepped a line…” Severus could only hear snippets of what the boy said, but it was enough to get the message across. Harry Potter was not happy with him but he could not find it in himself to care, not even a little bit.