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Unforced Error

Chapter Text

Hermione was dizzy, and her head hurt. She was having trouble making out anything around her, and gradually realized that she could not see, that everything was black. Was she blind, or was something covering her eyes? She shook her head to clear it, trying to remember where she was and what she'd been doing.

She'd been Apparating. The memories came back to her all at once, tumbling slipshod into her mind. She'd made a clandestine visit to Hogwarts--dangerous and risky in these days of war, but the library held the only existing copies of the scrolls she needed. So she'd left the hiding place she'd shared with Harry and Ron for these long months, covered herself with a gray cloak that shadowed her face, and Apparated to Hogsmeade. She'd crept to the castle through the hidden underground tunnels. Some had been discovered by the Carrows, now in charge of Hogwarts under Professor Snape's command. (She could not think of him as Headmaster, though it had been nearly a year.) But some had not, and it was one of these that she scurried through, pulling her cloak around her tightly and keeping her wand at the ready.

Seeing the Hogwarts Library again gave her a pang of sorrowful nostalgia. It had been her favorite place as a student, and she’d spent so many afternoons here absorbed in some book or another. She shook it off. Focus, Hermione. She made her way to the Restricted Section, which of course is where she’d find the scrolls she required. She had to perform a stunning charm on one of them in order to open it without being bitten. The text was complicated, written in an ancient dialect that she could just barely make out, but one word was clear as water:

Horcrux.

This scroll purported to explain how to locate a Horcrux with a very specialized type of summoning spell. It was Dark magic, and dangerous to cast; Hermione had no idea if it would even work. But they were desperate, and they were losing the war. She'd run across a mention of this spell some months previously, and after much heated discussion with Ron and Harry--Ron had begged her not to go--she'd left them to go and find the spell.

And now she had it. She memorized the instructions; it was too risky to either steal the scroll itself or to copy it down and carry it on her person. Her mind was the only safe place to store it. She’d always been a quick study, and it took her less than half an hour to commit the entire thing to memory. The only thing left to do was return to her friends and pass the information to the Order.

She waited until dead of night and then crept silently out of the library, an invisibility charm aiding her as she made her way back to the tunnels. She encountered no resistance. No Filch, no Carrows, no Slytherin students pressed into guard duty. Unusual , she thought with some alarm. She'd expected to see someone . But the halls, so familiar to her from her years there as a student, were empty and barren.

She made her way back into the tunnels and then hurried as quickly as she dared to the edge of the anti-Apparition wards. That was the last thing she remembered. She'd meant to Apparate back to London, to Ron and Harry, but instead…she was here. Wherever here was.

Hermione tried to touch her face to see if something was covering it, but she found that her hands were bound together behind her back. Whether by magic or by more mundane means, she could not tell. Whatever it was, it was tight and unforgiving. She opened her mouth to ask who's there, but no sound emerged. A silencing spell had been cast on her as well, it seemed. With effort, she quelled the panic fluttering in her belly. No sense panicking now , she told herself. Keep calm. Wait for an opening.

But no opening came. The room still felt as though it were spinning when she was grabbed roughly by the elbows and hoisted to her feet; only then did she realized she'd been sitting on the floor. Her captors moved silently, neither speaking amongst themselves or to her, as they propelled her forward. Hermione’s heart pounded, beating painfully fast. She desperately wanted to cry out, to ask them who they were, what they were doing, where they were taking her, but she could not make even the slightest sound. She was carried along in utter silence.

After she'd been half-pulled, half-dragged for what felt like at least ten minutes, they finally stopped. Hermione heard the sound of a key turning in a lock, and then the sullen creak of a badly-oiled door hinge. Daggers of light pierced at her eyes, and just as she realized that a hood had been pulled from her head, she was shoved roughly into the room and the door locked behind her. Unable to balance herself with her hands tied, she fell to the floor, striking her knees on the splintered old wood.

Eyes watering from the sudden light, and head pounding with throbbing pain, she heard a voice, a very familiar voice.

"Miss Granger," her former Potions professor said, "what a surprise."

Chapter Text

“Professor?” Hermione said, feeling muzzy-headed and stupid, wondering if she were somehow still at Hogwarts.

His voice was calm, clipped. “To be precise, Headmaster is the most recent title that I could legitimately claim.”

The room swam into focus as Hermione’s eyes adjusted to the light. She didn’t recognize her surroundings, but the splintering floorboards and peeling wallpaper told her it definitely wasn’t Hogwarts. Snape leaned against the wall a few feet away, arms crossed, looking as though he’d just stepped out of the Potions classroom. Black frock coat, scuffed and worn boots, and an expression of mild disdain on his angular face.

“I’m not calling you Headmaster,” she said before she could stop herself. Her head throbbed. Nothing made sense. Had he captured her? If not, why did he look so unsurprised?

“I rather doubt I still hold the position,” he said. Hermione frowned. Looking more closely, she saw that the sleeves of his robes were torn and that there were partially-healed wounds on his throat and wrists. Defensive wounds. She knew the signs well, these days.

A thousand questions came to her mind; the first that tumbled out was, "What is this place?"

A corner of his mouth lifted unpleasantly. ”Interesting, Miss Granger. You do not ask where this place is; you ask what it is. Rather on point."

"That wasn't an answer," she said.

Hermione's wrists were bound tightly together with what felt like a thin, flexible cord. She twisted her hands together experimentally; the cord didn't loosen in the slightest. First step: get out of these ropes.

“Did you bring me here?” she asked abruptly.

“I did not,” he said.

She studied his face, but it was smooth and impassive, revealing nothing. She supposed she might as well believe him for now. She half-turned to show her bound wrists. “Then may I…ask you a favor?”

She was embarrassed at the stammer that had crept into her speech. Too many memories of having been subject to his biting tongue. Of detentions given for no reason. And this was a distressingly compromising position to be in before a man she’d briefly had a schoolgirl crush on.

She mentally chided herself. You're not his student anymore. There is no reason to be intimidated. And you haven’t had those thoughts for months. She had, in fact, shoved them into a dark corner of her mind, untouched and mostly forgotten while she and her friends hunted Horcruxes and tried to stay alive.

In response to her question, Snape only arched an eyebrow and said, "You may."

She sighed; he was going to make her ask. Her head throbbed badly enough to bring pinprick tears to the corners of her eyes.

“Fine,” she said. “Could you please undo the ropes?"

For a slow, sickening moment, he did not react and she thought he might refuse her, might force her to stay bound. But then he inclined his head slightly and bent down towards her. She flinched and recoiled, causing a shadow to pass over his face.

“Relax, Granger,” he said. “I have no intention of hurting you.” Before she could protest, he took firm hold of both her arms and effortlessly lifted her to her feet.  He was stronger than he looked; it felt almost like being lifted by a spell. With faint surprise, she realized that this was the first time Snape had ever touched her.

"This will be easier if you are not on the floor," he said, removing his hands from her. Hermione's brow furrowed; what did it matter where she was? All he had to do was to direct a simple untying spell at the cords.

Snape read her expression. “You wonder why I do not simply use magic,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, biting back the urge to say obviously.

"Two reasons," he went on. ”First, I am no longer in possession of my wand. And second, this room has been charmed with anti-magic wards."

She reflexively reached for her own wand, but was brought up short by the bindings on her wrists. But she could tell it was missing anyway, gone from its usual spot in her sleeve holster; whoever brought her here had taken it. She knew how to do a few wandless spells, though. Not trusting Snape, she cried “Accio pillow!”, summoning the first object she saw. The pillow didn’t budge. Hermione felt oddly drained, her head pounding worse than ever.

“I wouldn’t do that too many times,” Snape said, watching her. Hermione ignored him.

Accio pillow!”  Nothing again, and this time a silvery spike of pain stabbed between her eyes, causing her to gasp and stagger. Snape observed through hooded eyes, offering neither assistance nor remonstrance.

When she’d recovered sufficiently, he asked, “Are you quite finished?” He made it sound as though he’d just got finished reading some particularly dull essay.

She glared at him. “Yes,” she said. “For now.”

He gestured toward the window. “I cannot magic away your restraints,” he said, “and so this might take some time. Stand there; the light is better.”

Hermione looked around for the first time. She'd already noticed the floor, with its splintering, aged floorboards. The walls seemed to be in similar disrepair, covered with faded and peeling paisley wallpaper.  A faint musty smell, like that of a damp cellar, permeated the entire room. She and Snape stood near to a window--a window with bars covering the outside. It offered a view of a vast, rolling courtyard, somewhat overgrown and surrounded by groves of trees. Two high-backed, armless wooden chairs sat beneath the window, facing each other at a slight angle.

And there were two beds, thank Merlin. Single-sized, one on each side of the room. The nearest looked slept-in; the other, about 20 feet away, was made up as though this were a hotel room. Hermione glanced at the opposite wall; it too held a window. Also barred.

"This is a prison," she murmured.

“How very perceptive," said Snape. "If only I could give five points to Gryffindor."

Her eyes narrowed and she said, "There's no need to mock me."

“Equally there is no need to state the obvious,” he said. “If you want your hands unbound, stand there and hold still.”

She bit back a retort. “Fine,” she said through clenched teeth. She did as he said, facing the window and holding as still as she could. He approached her from behind with a soft rustling of robes. She had a sudden flash of memory of hearing him come up from behind her in Potions the exact same way. She flinched, jerking away from him.

He paused, standing so close behind her that she could feel his breath on her neck.

His voice held a silken edge as he asked her, “Do you or do you not wish to be free of these restraints, Miss Granger?” She wished she could see his face.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I mean, I do.”

She could practically feel his gaze burning into the back of her head. He waited a moment, then returned to the work at hand. She held perfectly still this time.

As he’d warned her, it took some time. She could feel his long, clever fingers at work, brushing against the skin of her wrists as he pulled at a cord here, teased out a knot there. She would have liked to watch. It occurred to her that for all the hours she’d spent in the Potions classroom, she’d rarely had the opportunity to see him work up close.

"You never answered my question," she said, breaking the silence. His fingers never slowed.

“You answered it yourself,” he said, “and therefore I had no need.”

“All I said is that it’s a prison,” she pointed out. “Not what sort of prison.”

He worked one end of the cord through the center of a knot, loosening the ropes enough for her to slide her hands out. She gasped with relief, rubbing one hand and then the other as the blood returned to them. She meant to thank Snape, but before she could, he withdrew from her, turning to face the window, clasping hand over fist behind his back.

“You’re very clever, or so I’ve been told,” he said, managing to turn what should have been a compliment into an insult. “Work it out for yourself.”

Hermione’s head hurt too badly to pursue any further questions or to suffer any more indignities from the man confined with her. She turned and unsteadily made her way to the far bed, where she collapsed onto the bedclothes, facing the ceiling.

“Fine, don’t help,” she muttered aloud. “Wouldn’t have expected any better.”

“Good,” he said, so quietly she could nearly have believed it was a figment of her imagination.

Chapter Text

Even with his back to the girl, Snape was acutely aware of her presence. He could feel her there, lying on the opposite bed. Was she watching him? Or had she perhaps closed her eyes?

With effort he turned his mind from her, though her presence nagged at his senses.

He thought back to ten days prior. At the end of a long night being interrogated by the Dark Lord, exhausted and bone-weary, he’d made an unconscionably foolish error. His Occlumency shields had slipped, just for a moment, the thinnest of split seconds. But it had been enough. He’d inadvertently revealed a piece of information...and in doing so, revealed himself. Decades of work, of the exhausting labor of maintaining two separate identities, and of submitting to a thousand indignities and miseries in the process...all destroyed in less than a single breath.

He’d thought for a brief but exhilarating moment that Voldemort might kill him on the spot. Instead Snape was relieved of his wand and dragged to the dungeons of Malfoy Manor. He didn’t even bother to fight back. He was thrown into a cell that was four feet by four feet of damp stone walls, with a ceiling so low that if he stood up, his hair brushed against the stones.

He supposed he should be more upset by this development, but instead he felt almost a sense of relief. No more spying. No more reporting to two masters. No more of a lot of things. Just this stone cell and the sound of scuttling mice. Perhaps, he thought darkly, I can finally get some bloody sleep.

Later that same night, while he was idly considering the difficulty and risk involved in Apparating without a wand, he heard footsteps nearing the cell. The dungeon was so dim and hazy that he could not see who approached through the bars of the door, but it barely mattered. He relaxed his body, knowing what was coming. He’d interrogated his share of prisoners in these dungeons, and Voldemort rarely varied his instructions.

Just as a Death Eater’s mask became visible in the gloom, he heard “Crucio! ” pronounced in a mellifluous, upper-class voice. Macalester, he thought in the split second before the curse felled him, recognizing the man’s voice. The pain, intimately familiar, writhed inside him like a living thing, gnashing and slicing at him with razor teeth. He let it flow through him, let it twist his body into tortured sigils, heard his own screams as though from a great distance.

Snape had long experience with closing his mind to unwanted input. It was no more than a different, advanced form of Occlumency. The Cruciatus curse activated all of the body’s pain receptors, but a master Occlumens who had occasion to practice the technique enough could learn to divert that pain down different pathways, to keep it from attacking the mind. It would never touch the place where he kept his secrets, the place where his true self lived. That place was locked away safely.

It went on for minutes before ceasing, leaving him pale and gasping, his back arching and limbs trembling from the aftereffects.

“Tell us the location of the Order headquarters,” Macalester said, affecting what he likely thought was a menacing voice. The man was an outer-circle toady, clearly hoping that with the sudden opening in the inner circle, he might move up in the ranks.

Snape spat blood. “Your mother’s cunt,” he said.

“Have it your way,” the Death Eater snapped, and with another “Crucio!”, Snape’s world dissolved into pain again.

It went on for some time, to no avail. This was hardly the first time he’d been subjected to Cruciatus from Voldemort or his followers, and not even the first time it had been a protracted assault. There would be physical consequences, but those would mend. Eventually.

He’d lost track of the time when Macalester finally gave up in frustration, spinning on his heel and stiffly walking away from Snape’s cell. Snape had an idea of the punishment awaiting the man for his failure, but couldn’t really bring himself to care.

He laid on the stones, the damp seeping into his clothing, but he could not summon the strength to rise. He closed his eyes and waited for oblivion to take him.

-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~

An hour or so later, another Death Eater arrived. Not the same one; this one was taller and broader, and lacked Macalester’s plummy tones. Snape did not recognize him, which meant he must be a new recruit within the last week. He had the same limited repertoire as his comrade, unleashing a series of Unforgivables on Snape immediately. Again to no avail.

In the deep corners of his mind where his sanity resided, Snape wondered how long he could endure this without permanent nerve damage. Which is based on the assumption, he thought, that I will leave this dungeon alive. That seemed rather questionable at the moment. More likely, Voldemort would grow tired of his resistance and have him killed, probably with the fucking snake. If Snape were fortunate, he might be able to provoke one of the Death Eaters into killing him first.

Faintly, he realized that the Death Eater had been shouting. With a little concentration, he was able to make out the words.

“…where the fucking headquarters is and we can stop doing this! Tell me bloody anything!”

The note of desperation in the man’s voice struck Snape as amusing. He lifted his head from the cool, damp stones and grinned wide, knowing how the whites of his teeth would gleam in the darkness. “All right,” he said. “I’ll tell you something." The Death Eater took a startled step back.

“I’ll tell you,” Snape said, his voice level and steady, “that you’re going to go back to Voldemort empty-handed. And I’ll tell you that I have a better chance of surviving the night than you do. And I’ll tell you that you have more chance of Apparating into bloody Gringotts undetected than you have of getting a single word out of my fucking brain.”

The Death Eater, wand visibly trembling, attempted a weak “Crucio!,” but there was no real power behind it. It felt more like a bad leg cramp than like an Unforgivable. The situation suddenly struck Snape as ludicrous. The idea that a bloody leg cramp, cast by a third-rate Death Eater, could make him betray the Order at this point... He laughed, the sound magnified in the dungeon chambers, echoing back and forth and making it sound as though there were three or four Snapes, all laughing at some particularly good joke.

“Stop it!” the Death Eater shouted, taking several steps back. “Stop laughing! I said stop!” But Snape was shaking with laughter.

“Or what,” he managed, “you’ll twist my ankle? Oh dear me, no!”

The Death Eater, face livid and wand trembling, finally spun and ran from the dungeon.

As the echoes died down, Snape’s mouth turned downward again, settling into a grim line. He rested his head back onto the floor and closed his eyes. “Not a single…fucking...word,” he murmured.

-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~

They came at regular intervals. Arrive, interrogate, leave. Sometimes they’d taunt him, sometimes they’d threaten him. One begged him, which was at least novel, but no more effective than the others. Eventually they’d give up, and another would come. It became routine.

Until suddenly it wasn’t.

Hours passed, and no Death Eater came. His body felt weak and useless, trembling and convulsing with the aftereffects of so many curses. He drifted into unconsciousness for a short time, then woke. He gradually became aware that he was ravenously hungry, not having eaten since his arrival here over a day ago. And still no Death Eater came.

Ah, he thought with weariness, so they’ve given up. This is when they’ll kill me.

The idea had appeal. He was so very tired. And his secrets would die with him.

He closed his eyes and waited.

-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~

When he next woke, he was in this run-down hostel of a prison. He’d recognized it immediately, with a cold spike of adrenaline. Had he been the sort of man who begged, he’d have begged his captors for any other punishment. The racks. Cruciatus. A quick death, even.

Not this. Please, not this.

But even had he been inclined to give them the satisfaction, there was no-one there to beg. He was alone in the room, for the moment.

He tried a few experimental spells. Alohomora, Accio, Wingardium Leviosa. No effect, of course, other than the same piercing headache that would later afflict Granger. He’d known what the results would be. The anti-magic wards were solid. He couldn’t have broken through them even if he were in top physical and mental form, which at the moment he decidedly was not.

He knew that someone would be brought to him. Probably a woman. He wondered with a cold shudder if they’d bring him a redhead, to remind him of past failures. It was exactly the sort of nasty joke Voldemort liked to play on his followers. He dismissed the thought. He’d find out soon enough, when she—or he—arrived.

He spent the days practicing his Occlumency shields, doing exercises he hadn’t bothered with since he was a student at Hogwarts. He’d been supremely confident in his abilities, and so had seen no need to practice. Recent events had shown that he was quite catastrophically wrong about that. And so he practiced stilling his mind, breathing from his center, finding focus points, and turning his outermost thoughts into nothing but gray fog—all the parts of Occlumency you could do without magic.

In between Occlumency sessions, he fabricated countless futile escape plans. He checked all of the crevasses between the floorboards, the cracks in the door, even the tiles in the tiny loo, to see if he could gain purchase. He knew damned well that it was pointless, but it at least kept him occupied. And after the first week passed and he was still alone, he felt a cautious optimism that perhaps this room was not to be used for its intended purpose after all.

When on the tenth day she was shoved through the door, landing nearly at his feet, he knew that the long delay had been in finding her specifically. He felt no surprise; only a fatalistic sense of dread.

How long, until the end? A month? Six months? Surely not as long as a year.

It hardly mattered. Time was the only variable left. Nothing else was mutable. Not anymore.

His mind returned to the present situation. Now that she was free from her bonds, he stood with his back to her, staring out of the filthy window. He felt the urge to turn and look at her, to ask how she’d been caught and what she knew of the war effort. But he knew better than to speak to her. The less she knew, the better. The less they spoke, the better. There was vanishing little chance of escaping this unscathed, but what slender chance they did have rested on his ability to keep his distance.

That, at least, was something he was very, very good at.

Chapter Text

Hermione laid perfectly still on the bed, her eyes closed. She imagined this must be what a migraine headache felt like. It felt as though she had shards of glass behind her eyes, the slightest movement jostling them and grinding them deeper into her temples. She focused on her breathing to lessen the pain. In, out. One breath after the next. The pain couldn’t last forever.

Snape is on the side of Light, she thought. That was something. He’d said he hadn’t brought her here, and that he was a prisoner himself. She could think of no reason for him to lie about that. He’d been locked here with her for at least half a day, probably more. Before much longer he’d be missed at Hogwarts. That would be hard to explain away just for the purpose of tricking her.

Unless...her eyes flew open as a nasty thought occurred to her.

"Who are you?" she said to his back.

"I wondered how long it would take you to get there," he said. She could hear the sneer in his voice.

Hermione would have shrieked with frustration if her head hadn’t hurt so badly. "Stop playing games and answer the bloody question," she said through gritted teeth.

"I am who I appear to be," he said.

"Prove it," she shot back. "Tell me something that only you—that only Snape , would remember. And turn around, I want to see your face."

Somewhat to her surprise, he did as she asked, turning from the window to face her. She nearly recoiled; his face was gaunt and drawn, the hollows of his cheeks deeper than she remembered from that last terrible year at Hogwarts. And he looked thinner, something she wouldn’t have thought possible.

“Fourth-year Potions class,” he said, his eyes hard and glittering. Pronouncing each syllable distinctly and precisely, he said, "I... see...no...difference."

She blinked hard to hold back the sudden welling of tears. She hadn't forgotten the incident with the Densaugeo curse—how could she?—but she'd managed to suppress it fairly effectively, and to hear it now, here, from him...

"Not good enough," she said, in a voice she almost managed to keep steady. "Loads of people were in that room. Loads of Slytherins. Some might remember."

A muscle in his jaw worked, but he said nothing for several long moments. When at last he spoke, his eyes focused somewhere behind her head. "When you stayed with the Order," he said, "you stayed in the second room to the left on the third story. You took your morning tea with two sugars, no milk. Your shampoo smelled of sandalwood, and you sent owl post to Weasley nearly every day. I could not know these things unless I'd been with the Order at their secret location."

Hermione stared at him. "It was Tonks's shampoo," she said. "She left it there and said anyone could use it. You noticed... all of that?"

His lip curled. "There is little I do not notice, Granger. Are you satisfied?"

She nodded wordlessly.

"Good." He turned his back on her again, returning to the window.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione didn't think she'd slept, but the next time she opened her eyes, the room was suffused with the dim orange glow of the setting sun. Snape stood in exactly the same place, facing the window, hands clasped behind his back.

"Have you moved?" she whispered, more to herself than to him. He gave no indication that he'd heard her. She pulled herself up into a seated position, taking inventory of herself. Her wrists felt a bit raw, but the numbness was gone.  She had a few contusions on her knees. And her head still throbbed, perhaps slightly less than before but still making it difficult to think clearly.

“Harry and Ron,” she said aloud, wincing as a shard of pain twisted in her temples. No response came. “Are they dead?” she tried again, needing to know though the effort cost her.

A pause and then, “You’d know better than I, Miss Granger.”

They’d been alive when she’d left them, and they hadn’t shown up here with her. That would have to do for now. She wondered if they’d missed her yet; if they’d sounded the alarm. Perhaps they’d be able to find her and free her.

She frowned. No, they had to stay hidden. The cost of being discovered was too great. If they were smart—and she believed that Harry, at least, would be—they’d forget about finding her until after the last Horcrux was found. They had to.

She pressed the heel of her hand into her forehead in an effort to stop the pounding. “Why does my head hurt so much?” she muttered.

He surprised her by answering. "Aggressive Legilimency, followed by Obliviation," he said.

She opened her eyes to look in his direction, wincing at the effort. “How do you know?” she asked.

“I’ve seen it done before. Many times."

"You've done it yourself," she said. It wasn't a question.

"Yes. But not this time.” He added, "The pain will pass soon enough.”

"What do you care?" she said, the words carrying more bite than she’d intended. His frustratingly vague answers were making her headache worse.

She’d expected no response to her question, and got none.

She laid back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling. “I can't remember,” she said. “I don’t remember anything that happened after I left the library. If they used Legilimency, they could have got anything from me. They could have got everything.

The silence from Snape stretched out so long that Hermione thought he’d simply chosen not to reply. At last he said, “Not everything. If they’d got everything, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Maybe they want to use me as a trap,” she pointed out. “A lure, for the others.”

Another infuriatingly long pause. He seemed so oddly reluctant to speak. At last he said, “No. Not here. This place is…different.”

“Different how?” she asked. “Different because there’s no magic here? Or did you mean something else?”

He inhaled deeply, in the manner of someone whose patience was being sorely tried. “Miss Granger, I was not a... fan of your insufferable questions when you were in my classroom. You are not in my classroom now and happily I am no longer obligated to put up with them.”

She spoke without turning her head. “Right then; since I’m not in your classroom, I believe that means I can call you a prat.”

His shoulders stiffened slightly, but he said nothing more. Hermione sighed loudly, closing her eyes. She would find out what made this place different. She’d ask him that and more, and he’d answer her, damn him. She’d make him tell her.

I will make him, she thought, as exhaustion swept her into a dark, restless sleep.

Chapter Text

Some time later, Hermione awoke to a darkened room. Moonlight spilled through the barred windows, casting shadows in striped patterns over the walls and beds. Snape was in his bed, back turned to her, motionless in silhouette. He wore only his white shirt and black trousers; his frock coat was draped over the back of one of the chairs. She listened for a moment and heard the sound of slow, regular breathing. Asleep, then. So he is human after all, she thought with grim amusement. But so was she, and there were certain immediate needs she had to attend to.

The pain in her head had lessened considerably, allowing her to think clearly again. She sat up as silently as possible and surveyed her surroundings, aided by the bright moonlight. Two beds; she'd seen those before, as well as the windows and the chairs near to them. But there were a few details she’d missed. Cabinet doors set flush into the wall nearest Snape’s bed. And the corner opposite her was walled off into a small alcove, with a door. The loo? She swung her legs out of the bed and onto the floor, wishing she could use a silencing spell on her footsteps. Snape’s breathing continued undisturbed, though. Perhaps he had been as exhausted as she’d been.

The alcove door, like everything else in this place, was old and in disrepair. It creaked when she pushed on it, swinging open to reveal a tiny loo. The moonlight did not reach the interior of the closet-sized room; in the dark she could just make out the outlines of a toilet, sink, and tub. It was disquieting; she’d had the vague idea that their captors would have to take them away for bathroom visits, which could have been an opportunity—for information, and possibly for escape.

She entered and closed the door behind her. She was now in total darkness. She sighed. Nothing to be done for it, she thought. It’s not like I could get lost in something the size of a shoe box, anyway.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

When she emerged, feeling somewhat better, she took her shoes off next to her bed, realizing that it was the first time she’d had them off in…a day? She had no idea how long it had been since she’d left Harry and Ron. It felt good to have them off. She was dressed for a chilly autumn day, wearing a heavy jumper layered over a blouse, and jeans. She thought about taking off her jumper but quickly rejected this idea. She was sharing a room with Professor Snape. Sleeping in her clothes would be fine.

Sleep, though, proved elusive. She watched the shadows from the bars on the windows stretch across the room, shifting as the moon traveled across the sky. She had no idea what this place was, who their captors were, or why she and Snape were here together; and furthermore she hadn’t the beginnings of a plan for how to make Snape tell her the answers to any of these questions.

Her thoughts drifted to Harry and Ron. She wondered whether they’d raised an alarm. This seemed like the sort of emergency that might get them to come out of hiding; she hoped they’d be smart enough to avoid falling into a Death Eater trap.

In other words, smarter than I was, she thought, wishing she hadn’t taken such a risk in traveling to Hogwarts alone. She’d convinced herself that the risk was worth it and that it was their only option...but she knew deep down that it hadn’t been. Not really. She’d just been frustrated, tired, and sick of sharing a tent with two boys.

And now she was here.

She laced her fingers behind her head and closed her eyes. Snape’s breathing continued, slow and perfectly regular, providing a sort of rhythm to her thoughts. His presence here was an utter mystery. She hadn’t seen him a single time since she’d started the Horcrux hunt with Harry and Ron. He had no special connection to her. He was a Potions professor who’d been exceptionally cruel to her in the past, and that was all.

The memory of his hands untying the bonds around her wrists popped unbidden into her mind. That’s not all, is it? You noticed him. You've been noticing him.

She dismissed the idea reflexively. Those thoughts were nothing more than a schoolgirl crush. She’d acknowledged it when she’d first noticed it happening, and had then promptly chosen to forget about it, assuming it would die from neglect. It existed in a tiny, ignored corner of her mind and nowhere else. She had told no one. That could not be why she was here.

She listened to Snape's breathing, in and out like the ticking of a metronome.

Perfectly regular. Her eyes snapped open. Whose breathing was perfectly regular?

“You’re awake,” she said, her voice startlingly loud in the silence.

“Obviously,” he said, his voice clear and unmuddied by sleep.

“Since when?”

“Since your breathing changed when you woke.”

Hermione blinked. “You woke up because my breathing changed?”

A pause, though nothing so long as his excruciating silences from earlier. “I sleep lightly.”

He is a double agent, she reminded herself. She was still acclimating to the news.

“We have to get out of here,” she said.

“We won’t,” he said, as easily as though he were refusing her extra credit on an assignment.

“Why are you so sure?” she asked, her voice rising. “What is this place?”

He drew breath to say something, stopped, then at last said only, “It’s best if we don’t speak.”

Hermione sighed loudly enough for him to hear. “You’re going to have to speak to me eventually,” she said. “It’s not as though we’re going anywhere.”

No answer came from his side of the room. In the dark she could not see whether his face showed despair, or contempt, or amusement. Whether it showed anything at all.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Sleep came fitfully; Hermione finally gave up on trying when she saw the first light of dawn filtering through the dusty windowpanes. Sitting up, she saw a figure standing in front of that window. So she must have managed some sleep after all; she hadn’t heard him move. How long had he been there, standing vigil?

His voice interrupted her thoughts. "How is your head, Miss Granger?"

She didn’t bother remarking on the fact that he’d known she was awake before she’d spoken. She pressed her fingers tentatively to her forehead. She hadn't even thought about the pain until he’d asked, which she thought was a good sign.

"Better, I think. No…definitely better."

He nodded. "Legilimency. Even at its most invasive, it leaves effects no longer than a full day."

Hermione sat up in bed, swinging her legs over the side. She found herself avoiding looking at the walls, focusing instead on anything else—the chairs, the window, even Professor Snape. The walls felt as though they were pressing inward on her, almost a physical weight. She felt pale and diminished. Even her voice sounded smaller than usual. ”Professor, I know so much. Even if they don't have all of it..."

He stared out of the dingy window, reminding her of nothing so much as a cathedral gargoyle in his black garb. "It is likely that they retrieved some information from you, yes. There are no other Death Eaters as skilled as I at Legilimency, but several come close."

Arrogant git, she thought, but shook it off. Snape's high opinion of himself was the least of her current concerns.

"I have to get word to the Order," she said. "I have to let them know that they've been compromised."

Snape absorbed this in silence for a long moment and then slowly turned to face her.

"Miss Granger," he said in a soft, dangerous voice, “I had not previously taken you for an idiot, but I may have to revise my opinion.” His eyes locked on hers; she had to fight the urge to shrink away. “How exactly do you propose to… get word?”

She stared back at him. I will not let him intimidate me, she told herself. I am no longer his student. “I don’t know,” she said, emphasizing each word. “But I will at least try.”

His lip curled into a sneer, an expression she’d seen so many times in his classroom that it was disorienting to see it here. “You will fail,” he said.

Hermione arched an eyebrow. “You can’t be sure of that,” she said.

"I can," he said simply, and returned to silence.

Hermione turned his words over and around in her mind, analyzing them like a puzzle. Snape’s arrogance was a defining characteristic of his personality. Perhaps the only characteristic, she thought, feeling uncharitable. His behavior made no sense in that light. He always seemed to pride himself on being two steps ahead of everyone else, so why was he accepting his fate so easily here?

She thought of all the times he’d taken satisfaction from proving her wrong in his classroom, and of the smoldering anger behind his eyes on the rare occasions when she’d done the same to him. He always thought he was the most clever person in any room. Why would he be so sure that this room was inescapable? The only trap he’d think was inescapable would be one that he’d....

Hermione’s heart skipped a beat.

Oh my god.

She rose to her feet, moving towards him. "You designed this place," she said, her voice raised in accusation. “It’s your prison.

“Clever Miss Granger,” he said, his voice skirting the edge of mockery.

Hermione stopped just short of him, blinking in surprise. “You admit it?”

He lifted one shoulder dismissively. “Why not? It hardly matters.”

“Of course it matters,” she said, frowning. “If you designed it, you know how to get out of it.”

“There is no way to get out of it,” he said. He stared down his nose at her.

“There’s a way to get out of anything,” she said, crossing her arms. She was so close to him that she could see the faint scars marring his face, a few much more recent than the rest.

“Not this,” he said. "Enough questions, Miss Granger." He made to turn away from her again, back to the window.

In a rush of frustration she reached for him to stop him from turning his back, to make him answer her. But before she could touch him, he moved more quickly than her eyes could track, grabbing her forearm and holding it tightly. He loomed over her so close that she could see his pulse beating rapidly in his throat. His fingers, long and pale, encircled her wrist completely. They might have almost been clasping forearms in greeting, if not for Hermione’s wide, startled eyes and Snape’s hard glower.

“Do not,” he breathed, “touch me.”

His coal-black eyes burned into her, and his grip tightened. His skin was warm, almost hot to the touch.

“All right,” she whispered. A moment passed, then another. He made no move to let her go. “Professor,” she said, keeping her voice steady. She dropped her gaze to where his fingers were leaving livid white marks on her skin. He blinked, then dropped her wrist as though it had burned him. With no further apology or acknowledgment, he turned back to the window.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Snape stared through the dingy window at the grounds outside. He trained his gaze on the rowan tree standing at the crest of the nearest hill, using it as a focal point to clear his mind. It was an old Occlumency trick, one he’d used more times than he could remember. Today he would use it to will away the sense memory of touching her. He filled his lungs with air and then exhaled slowly, concentrating on the tree until it seemed to take up his entire field of vision. Everything else—the lawn, the other groves of trees, the edge of the building visible through the window—faded and flattened into two dimensions, making the tree look like a sculpture in front of a background matte painting. After three repetitions of this exercise, his heart rate had slowed almost to normal, though his mind still raced.

His plan was failing. He'd imagined that Granger would want to stay away from him, that she'd be happy for him to remain silent. He was the bat of the dungeons, her hated Potions professor, a Death Eater, for God’s sake. She’d despised him since her first year at Hogwarts, and the ensuing years had, if anything, only given her more reason.

He’d been sure that she’d want absolutely nothing to do with him.

Instead, she was prying. It was in her nature, and he was stupid not to have anticipated it. He knew exactly how this would go. She'd goad him, provoke him, coax and manipulate, doing anything she could to get information from him. She’d erode his defenses, like a slow trickle of water undercutting a dam, until he cracked and gave her what she sought. He'd seen her do it enough times to his colleagues at Hogwarts. It was, admittedly, an asset in most circumstances...but a rather extreme liability in this one.

He considered various stratagems, ways to manipulate her into keeping her distance. He could insult her, perhaps—come up with some acidic jibe to drive her off. But even as he considered this, he knew it was futile. His silence hadn’t kept her away, and neither had his nasty reminder of what he’d said to her in her fourth year. He’d thought that might bring her to tears, and instead it had only driven her to pry even more from him.

He could not let her continue, but he had no idea how to stop her. Feeling disquieted and uneasy, he focused on the rowan tree, beginning his exercises over again.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

The sun was well up now, streaming through the windowpane and making Snape overwarm in his frock coat. In the stillness, every noise she made was magnified. Every breath, every sigh, every rustle. It painted a vivid picture for him. He knew that she was lying on her back, one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Every five or six minutes, with the whisper of denim sliding against denim, she switched legs. She had refrained from speaking for some while now; he assumed she was spending the time considering how best to approach him again.

She’s not going to give up. You have to tell her.

The knowledge sat in the pit of his stomach like a cold, heavy stone. If he told her, she'd know why she had to stay away. But she'd know other things as well, things he would vastly rather she didn’t. She was too sharp not to piece it together.

He thought again of the feel of her wrist in his hand, of her cool skin, her flushed cheeks, her wide, startled eyes. He'd be thinking about that for the rest of the night and into tomorrow. It would invade not only his waking thoughts but his dreams. There was nothing he could do to prevent it.

He had to stop her. This could not happen again.

I am in hell, he thought, and it is entirely of my own making.

Chapter Text

Hermione had been ignoring her increasingly sharp hunger pangs, not having seen Snape eat anything and not particularly wanting to ask him about it. But it had now been about a day and a half since she’d last eaten, and the need was becoming urgent.

“Do they feed us?” she finally asked, bracing for the inevitable sarcastic rebuke for having asked such a stupid question as whether they were going to starve to death.

Instead he simply said, “Yes,” then lapsed back into silence.

Hermione exhaled audibly. His behavior was maddening.

I am going to make him talk to me, she thought grimly. Somehow.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

True to his word, around mid-afternoon, the doors of the corner cabinet abruptly opened to reveal two plates of food inside. A vanishing cabinet, clearly.

“Not that I’m complaining,” Hermione said, “but that shouldn’t work in here.”

Snape exhaled and she could practically hear him rolling his eyes. “I am reliably informed that you are in possession of a brain, Granger,” he said, turning to her. “Perhaps you might consider using it.”

Hermione ignored this. Knowing that he was trapped here just as she was took some of the sting out of his jibes. She considered for a moment. “Inherent magic,” she said, inflecting it almost, but not quite, into a question. “Casting doesn’t work, but magic that is part of an object does.”

She could just barely see the corner of his mouth lift. “Precisely.”

“Don’t suppose we could send a note to the kitchen staff?” she asked, her mind already racing ahead to how she might draft such a note without pencil or paper.

“House elves,” he said, dashing her hopes. “Magically bound to be loyal to their masters.”

"Typical," Hermione said under her breath. Though…house elves, there's an interesting thought. She filed it away for later.

The rations they'd been given were bland and unappealing, but sufficient for two grown adults. They both took their share and ate in silence, Hermione balancing her plate on her lap while sitting on the bed. Snape faced away from her even as he ate.

"Are they listening to us?" she asked him.

"It is theoretically possible," he said. “But not probable.”

"Watching?"

"No."

He said no more, and she gave up questions for the time being.

After he finished eating, he replaced his plate in the cabinet, and so Hermione did the same. The cabinet doors swung shut again, locking into place. Hermione pulled at the latch, but it was stuck firmly, just like the door to the room.

“Even if you could break into it, you wouldn’t fit,” Snape pointed out, having seen where her thoughts were leading. “Too small for a human to escape through.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “I assume you designed it that way?”

No answer. Which obviously meant yes.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione spent the rest of her day testing the room, examining it and probing for weak spots. She started with the door, kneeling before it to peer through the keyhole. “This is pointless, Miss Granger,” came a dry voice from near to the window. She ignored him. See how he likes it for once.

Through the keyhole, she could see only darkness; it had obviously been spelled to prevent anyone from seeing whatever was on the other side. “Alohomora!” she tried, only to be met by a spike of silvery pain in her temple. She sucked air in sharply. Against her better judgment, she shot a sideways glance at Snape, but he remained motionless at his window vigil.

Trying the doorknob proved fruitless; it wouldn’t even jiggle. The door was perfectly flush with the door jamb, so no chance for purchase there. She reflexively tried another “Alohomora” and another spike of pain drove into her head, this one enough to make her gasp. “Stupid,” she said under her breath. Magic was such a natural part of her that it was hard to resist the urge to use it. The absence of her wand felt almost like losing a limb. She sighed. Probably better not to think about that for now.

The door was obviously a dead end. She dropped to her hands and knees to inspect the floorboards next, looking for any cracks or loose joins that she could exploit. Perhaps she could open a crack to an area that didn’t have the anti-magic wards in place.

Checking the floorboards proved tedious and time-consuming. As she crawled along them, prodding and prying with her fingers, her mind drifted to Snape’s behavior earlier, and how he’d hissed at her not to touch him. In her years at Hogwarts, she was sure she’d seen students run into him or shake his hand. Come to think of it, she’d seen Minerva McGonagall drape her arm over his shoulders at Christmas dinner one year. Snape had seemed vaguely annoyed, but he hadn’t flinched or jerked away.

So this behavior was new. Particular to this place.

Hermione had to flatten herself out to crawl under her bed and examine the boards there; the bed sat low enough that there was barely enough room for her to fit underneath. The cloud of dust she stirred up gave her a brief coughing fit. The amount of dust was truly astonishing; it looked like the floor hadn’t been swept in years, if not decades. She wondered again just exactly where she was. This place didn’t look like it had been built as a prison. It looked like a long-forgotten room in someone’s house.

She pried at another board, to no avail. For all their creaking and dustiness, so far the boards had all been tight as a drum. But she only needed one. One loose board, that’s all. She pulled the neck of her jumper up over her nose to keep the worst of the dust out and kept going.

As she inched along on her belly, she kept thinking about Snape’s outburst. Why in Merlin’s name would he be that upset about being touched? Was it something about her? Some anti-Mudblood thing? She frowned. Possible, but he hadn’t seemed disgusted, exactly. More… terrified. Her frown deepened. She’d never seen Snape show fear of anything.

She wriggled herself further under the bed, dislodging a cloud of dust from the underside of the mattress that irritated her eyes. Reflexively, she cast “Scourgif—!” before realizing her mistake. She bit back the word, but it was too late. She cried out and collapsed, lying with her head on the filthy, immovable floorboards. Tears of pain streaked down her cheeks onto the floor.

That’ll be the first cleaning this floor has had in decades, she thought, and would have laughed if her head hadn’t hurt so badly.

It took several minutes of lying flat before she felt recovered enough to work her way back out from under the bed. She sat up on the floor next to the bedframe, drawing her knees up and resting her head on them. “Dammit,” she said aloud, partially out of frustration and partially to break the oppressive silence in the room. None of the floorboards were loose. The door wouldn’t budge. She had no way to send a message out to Harry and Ron, and she was trapped here with a man who wouldn’t even look at her.

“Damn, damn, damn.” Fresh tears threatened to flow, but with effort she held them back. I will get through this, she told herself. I will get through this, and I will get the message to the Order, and I will get out of Snape’s stupid prison and he will see exactly how right I was.

Not, of course, that what Snape thought of her was important in the slightest.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione realized that she was going to have to physically wash. While she’d been crawling around on the floor, she’d managed to transfer a rather significant amount of dust and grime onto her face and hands. She was used to simply being able to Scourgify dirt from herself, but that obviously wasn’t an option here, so she ventured into the tiny loo. Now that it was day, she could see that it had a small window near the ceiling, enough to let in some light. She was pleasantly surprised to find that the taps at the sink produced a decent quantity of hot water, and splashed some onto her face to get the worst of the dirt streaks off. She eyed the tub; it was old and had peeling enamel, but it seemed serviceable enough. There were even two towels, folded on a rack below the sink. And a bar of washing soap.

“All-inclusive,” she muttered to herself. She closed the door—it didn’t fit flush with the frame, so she had to lean hard on it to push it far enough closed so that it would stay shut—and began filling the tub with hot water.

With some relief, she stripped out of the clothes she’d now been wearing for two days. She gave her jumper and jeans a good snap to get the dust off. She didn’t suppose there was a laundry service here, but at least she’d be able to bathe. If they were here longer than a few more days, she could wash her clothes in the sink.

That won’t be an issue, she told herself firmly. You’re going to get out of here. Soon.

She shut the taps off when the tub was nearly full. Sinking into the hot water felt deliciously good. She could almost forget where she was; could almost forget that on the other side of the sagging wooden door was a prison cell...not to mention a cellmate. She worked the soap into a lather, idly wondering what he was thinking about right now. Escape plans, probably...or perhaps his thoughts had also turned to his cellmate. She thought of the crush she’d had on him and half-smiled. Don’t know what you were thinking, Hermione. He obviously can’t stand you.

But it wasn’t about what he thought of her, was it? It was about his being the only person she’d ever met, teacher or student, who could consistently match wits with her.

And maybe it was a little bit about his clever hands, and the long, lean body hidden beneath those billowing robes...

She flushed, realizing that her mind had wandered into unsettling territory. She rarely allowed herself to indulge those thoughts at all, and never to this extent. Put it out of your mind, she told herself. It’s just a crush. She closed her eyes and deliberately relaxed, concentrating on the feel of the warm water enveloping her from her shoulders to toes.  She stayed there, allowing her mind to take her elsewhere, far away from this place, until the water had gone tepid and the room was nearly dark.

After she drained the bath and toweled off, she had to put her old clothes back on, having nothing else to change into. But bathing had left her refreshed, and she felt daring enough to leave off the heavy jumper she’d needed for the chill of the Hogwarts library, wearing only her thin blouse, untucked over her jeans. When she emerged, hair wet and smelling of harsh soap, the room even seemed a little bigger and lighter. Snape hadn’t moved the entire time. Of course, she thought.

“Loo’s free,” she said, not expecting a response and not getting one. He made no acknowledgment that she’d spoken.

She laid on her bed, fanning her hair out to dry, and sank into meditation. She was going to work out a way to get answers from Snape.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

The moon was high in the night sky when he finally moved from the window. Just as he had the previous night, he removed only his frock coat, remaining otherwise fully clothed. He laid down atop the bedclothes, facing away from Hermione.

She’d been drifting in and out of daydreams, mind wandering among topics from alchemy to the Potions classroom to Christmas at the Weasleys. The setting sun had been the only change in her surroundings for the last few hours and the lack of stimulation had sent her into a near-fugue state. Snape’s return to his bed brought her back to full wakefulness.

Seeing him without his usual black garb made him look oddly vulnerable. I wonder how he sleeps at home, she thought. I wonder what he wears. Surely not all of his clothes.

She opened her eyes wide in the dark, realizing that once again her thoughts had strayed into unsettling territory. What is wrong with you, Hermione?

Just a side effect of having nothing else to think about, she told herself. She deliberately turned her thoughts instead to her friends, thinking of Ron’s freckled face and broad grin, and Harry’s sardonic smile. But thinking of Ron and Harry was painful, making her heart clench. Perhaps it was better after all to think of Snape's gaunt features, his mouth twisted into a sneer, lip curled in derision.

Has he ever kissed someone? she wondered, and at this she shook her head to clear it. Stop it, she told herself firmly. If there was ever a time and a place for those thoughts, this was not it. And if Snape had any idea what she was thinking...

She shivered at the thought, and decided to put herself to sleep with a mental recitation of the fifteen types of poppies for use in alchemy. That would keep her mind away from dangerous wanderings.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Severus Snape was in hell.

He laid in his bed, using every power at his command to calm his fevered mind. But no matter what he did—Occlumency techniques, visualizations, reciting potions preparations to himself—he kept imagining the moment he'd touched her arm. He could feel the softness of her skin, the lithe muscles underneath, could hear her harsh breathing. Again and again in his mind, tormenting him, allowing him no sleep.

It had been iron will and nothing less that had allowed him to release her, to turn from her and behave as though nothing had been wrong. He'd wanted to pull her closer, to...

No. He stopped that thought before it could travel into extraordinarily dangerous territory.

He could not let this happen. He would not. He'd speak even less to her, make sure she stayed at arm's length. He’d keep their contact to the absolute bare minimum.

But even as he resolved this, the memory unwound itself again. Touching her, pulling her close, feeling her. Feeling her. His eyes half-closed and his cock lengthened.

He cleared his mind, an Occlumency trick he'd learned long ago, allowing nothing into his thoughts but a white haze. After too long a moment, his body settled again.

He shouldn't have let himself touch her, and he wouldn't let it happen again. All she had to do was to stay away from him.

He stared blindly into the darkness. He knew damned well that she wouldn’t stay away from him. She'd keep trying. And what happened today would inevitably happen again. The only way was to tell her: what the room was, what it did, and why she had to stay away. It would work; he knew it would. If she knew the consequences, knew what being near to him would do...

Oh yes, she'd stay away.

But that would mean revealing himself to her. The thought made his stomach churn. He'd hidden this for so long...

Voldemort knows it now; does she not have the right to know also? And following on the heels of that thought, she will be disgusted. She will hate me.

She stirred behind him, moaning in her sleep; the sound raised the hair on the back of his neck. For the dozenth time that day, he calmed his mind and stilled his body. It was taking longer and longer each time.

He knew that he had to tell her, and equally, with exquisite misery, he knew that he would not.

Chapter Text

The next day set the pattern for several to follow. Snape rarely spoke, and when he did he did not look at her. For the most part he’d simply clasp his hands behind him and stare through the window. The room was so silent that when she laid on her bed she could hear his breathing even from several feet away. She found herself measuring the ratio of their breaths. Three of hers against two of his, regular as gears turning.

Sometimes she’d ask him things. Who their captors were, how the anti-magic charm worked, how thick the glass in the windows was, who cooked the food they ate. He never answered.

Twice a day, food appeared in the cabinet. They’d eat in silence, returning their plates when they were finished. After eating, and at occasional intervals throughout the day, Hermione would pace back and forth in the room, for exercise and to burn off energy. Sometimes she’d examine the room, looking for escape possibilities. After she was finished, she’d return to lying in her bed.

In the late evening she’d bathe. Every other day she laundered her blouse and underthings in the sink. If she wrung them out thoroughly, they’d be just about dry by the time the water turned cold. And always when she emerged, he’d be lying in bed, clad in white shirt and black trousers, facing away from her. His frock coat would be neatly hung over the back of one of the chairs. Sometimes she’d tell him good night; he never replied.

As light faded on the fifth day, she spoke to Snape's back. "Professor, I will lose my mind if this goes on much longer."

Without turning, he said, "Be glad that is the only thing you are in danger of losing."

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Five more days passed, during which she neither saw nor heard a human being other than Snape. Her world contracted to the size of the room she was trapped in. She explored it thoroughly, inch by inch, looking for some gap or chink she’d missed, some means of escape. She memorized every paint chip and every crack in the walls. But she found nothing. The door was locked, the windows were barred, and there was no way to get out. Just as Snape had said.

For his part, Snape seemed to barely notice any of this. The only time he turned from his ceaseless watch was to eat and sleep. He took care of his personal needs while she slept; she often found the bathroom damp from his washing in the morning when she rose. At least that proves he’s human, she thought.

In the afternoon while lying on the bed doing a mental inventory of every unlocking spell she knew, she let her eyes drift to Snape’s figure at the window, noting the differences in his appearance from when she’d known him at Hogwarts. More gaunt, more pale. Hair a little bit longer. And more scars.

She thought about what he must have endured, performing the role of Death Eater while still reporting to the Order. We were all so wrong about you, she thought.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

On the twelfth day, after yet another fruitless search of the room, Hermione rested her forehead against the bars of the window near her bed. The window offered a view similar to Snape’s, facing the eastern side of the lawn rather than the west, and ringed by groves of trees. The bars were warm from the sun streaming through the window. She lifted her head to look out at what appeared to be a lovely spring day. Hermione stretched her hands out wide, letting her fingers slip between the bars to touch the glass of the window. Just an inch or two of glass separating her from the outdoors. From fresh air, and the sun, and freedom.

“It’s right there,” she said under her breath. Suddenly, in a fit of frustration, she swung her fist at the window, striking the bars. It had no effect other than to bruise her hand. “Damn it,” she cried, leaning against the wall and cradling her hand. For the dozenth time she asked of Snape’s back, "Why aren't you trying to escape?"

To her surprise, he turned his head toward her slightly, answering, "There is no point. There will be no escape unless I give them what they want. And I will not."

Hermione stared at him. It was the most information he'd shared with her in the week and a half that they'd been imprisoned together. "Give them what they want?" she said, crossing the room to his side. "What do they want?"

He half-smiled, a twisted and joyless thing. "Information."

“What information?”

He turned back to the window, having apparently rethought his decision to speak to her. She rolled her eyes and flung herself down into one of the nearby chairs. He was insufferable. In twelve mind-numbing days he had done nothing to alleviate the oppressive silence in this godforsaken room. He’d barely said more than a handful of words in response to her scores upon scores of questions. The tedium weighed on her like a thick, heavy blanket.

Meanwhile, her worry about Harry and Ron gnawed at her constantly. She was afraid they'd come looking for her. The last thing she wanted was for the two boys to come barging in, revealing their position to whoever had captured her. They needed to keep working on finding Horcruxes; needed to keep fighting the war. Without her.

And without Snape too, apparently.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Snape didn’t know how much longer he could hold out. She persisted in asking him endless questions, and the worst part of it was that he wanted to answer her. He wanted to. Countless times he’d had to bite back the words from the tip of his tongue. Don’t, he told himself. You must endure this.

It was easier when she was across the room, lying in her bed. But she never stayed there. She paced, circling him like a prowling lioness. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, could catch glimpses of wild brown hair, of the sheer material of her thin white blouse. Occasionally she stood near to him, close enough almost to touch him. She could not possibly know what this was doing to him, or how close to the brink of disaster it was bringing them both.

If you can endure Cruciatus for hours, you can endure days of being interrogated by Hermione bloody Granger, he told himself. But Cruciatus had never come close to breaking him, and right now he felt as though he were teetering on the brink.

One hard push, he thought, and I’m lost.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

The morning of the 14th day dawned gray and cloudy outside, leaving the room shrouded in shadows. Hermione rose in the gloom and performed her morning routine, washing her face and brushing her teeth as well as she could—being the child of dentists, she knew that in lieu of a toothbrush and toothpaste, one could achieve reasonable results in the short term by scrubbing at length with a finger. She emerged feeling a little more human.

As was also now her morning custom, she asked Snape, “What is this place?”

No answer. She walked over to stand next to him at the window, their shoulders nearly touching. His body tensed and became perfectly still.

“I know this is a prison,” she said, turning slightly so that her sleeve brushed against his, “but I don’t know what kind of a prison. And I don’t know why we’re here together. But I think you do.”

He neither moved nor acknowledged her question. “I’m going to figure it out,” she said, glancing up at his face. A muscle twitched in his jaw, barely perceptible. She allowed herself a small smile; she’d got a reaction. In a while, she’d try again.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

A few days later, as they were eating, she asked, “Why don’t you want me to touch you?”

He froze in place, fork halfway to mouth, then put it down. “Don’t,” he said.

A thrill of excitement shot through her; this reaction was different, and anything different was good. She kept her face as neutral as she could. “Don’t what?” she returned. “Don’t ask you for answers about the prison you built?

“Granger,” he said, his voice rising in warning.

“Why don’t you want me to touch you?” she asked again. “It’s not that I’m desperate to.” A flicker of something crossed his face at this. “But you have to admit it’s strange behavior.”

“This conversation is over.”

“No,” she said, her voice rising, “it bloody well isn’t. Easy enough for you to stand there with your back to me day after day with all the answers locked up in your head, leaving me in the dark. Tell me what is going on.

He rose from the chair and began to turn back towards the window. Before he could, she leaped up from her own chair, grabbed his wrist, and held it. He froze, his breathing suddenly shallow and rapid. His skin felt hot to her touch, almost feverish. Through clenched teeth he said, “I told you—”

“I know what you told me,” she said, mimicking his tone.  “And I am telling you that I am not letting go until you start giving me some answers.”

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

You should have told her days ago, he thought. But his cowardice had prevented him. She was clever, so clever, and he should have known she’d outmaneuver him eventually.

His skin burned where she touched him, and his nerves screamed. He held himself perfectly still and rigid, not trusting himself to move.

After half a minute that felt like a lifetime, he managed enough control to be able to speak. “Remove your hand,” he said, his voice low and hoarse.

“Answer my questions,” she said, and squeezed him more tightly. His eyes half-closed for a split second.

“I will,” he said, “but you must remove your hand.” And then, staring directly into her narrowed eyes, he said, “Please.”

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione took a sharp, involuntary breath. Snape—Snape—had just pleaded with her to let him go. She relaxed her grip and he jerked his arm away from her.  

“It is a mistake for us to talk,” he said, rubbing his wrist with his other hand. “This will end badly.”

“That’s nonsense,” she said. “How can talking be worse than not talking? We’re stuck in this room either way and together we might actually be able to come up with a plan.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, looking even more gaunt and drawn than usual. “Sit,” he said. “I suspect this will take some time.”

She did as he said, perching in one of the tall chairs by the window. He dragged the other one around to face her directly and sat in it himself, leaning back and staring at the ceiling, his hands steepled in front of him.

“This is not a good idea,” he said.

“Why not? Can they hear us?” she asked.

He returned his gaze to her, resembling nothing so much as a viper eyeing its prey. A chill touched her spine.

“I doubt it. This room wasn’t designed for auditory observation. Too difficult with no magic. There are Muggle devices that would do it without magic, but this house isn’t wired for electricity....not that Lucius even knows what that is.”

After days on end of hearing only monosyllables from Snape, this flood of information was almost too much for Hermione to absorb.

“Lucius Malfoy?” she said blankly.

He fixed her with the same serpentine stare, reminding her very much of being in his classroom.

“Malfoy Manor,” she said aloud, feeling stupid for not having realized earlier where they were. Where else would be safe from the Ministry and Order? And would have grounds this extensive, and enough space to have an entire abandoned wing with a private prison in it?

“Yes,” he said.

“What is this room?” she said.

He exhaled slowly and looked toward the window, signs of an internal struggle evident on his face. At last he met her eyes and said, “It is an interrogation device.”

Hermione frowned. “You said they couldn’t hear us.”

“I said I didn’t think they could hear us, and I don’t. The interrogation will not occur in this room. This room only facilitates it.”

Hermione glanced around her at the faded wallpaper, the battered furniture. “I don’t understand,” she said.

“No,” he muttered, “I suppose you wouldn’t.” He fixed her with a gimlet stare, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“Miss Granger,” he said, “you’ve spent enough time in war. Is pain the best way to interrogate someone?”

His eyes were so black the pupils were invisible. There was something behind those eyes that she couldn’t quite make out.

“I assume this is relevant?” she asked.

His expression did not change; he only waited, his hands steepled in front of him and one leg crossed over the other. The atmosphere between them felt electric, like ozone-charged air just before a storm.

“All right,” she sighed. “The answer is no, obviously. Pain only gets them to tell you what they think you want to hear.”

“Very good,” he said, his eyes never leaving her face. “And what is more effective than pain?”

She forced air through her nose in irritation. “Could you stop playing games and just tell me?”

He ignored this.

Hermione glared at him, but he remained impassive. “Fine,” she said, returning to thought. After a moment she said, “Turning them to your side.”

The corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk. “Gryffindors,” he said with a touch of derision. “True, but time-consuming, and not a guarantee. What else?”

Her brow furrowed as she thought. Seconds ticked past as she considered the question, considered various ways that one might exert leverage on someone. At length, a solution presented itself.

“Another person,” she said, feeling the satisfied hum of knowing the right answer.

He lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?” he murmured.

“Someone the target cares about,” she said, irritation forgotten as she worked it out. ”A husband or a wife. Or a sibling. Someone close. You take them as a hostage or you…” She faltered, realizing what she was about to say. “Or you inflict pain on them.”

Snape’s mouth twisted, and his eyes gleamed. “Now that,” he said, “was not a very Gryffindor-like thing to say.”

She flushed and looked away.

“It was, however, accurate. Using a loved one as the victim is… quite effective.” He looked suddenly discomfited, his lips thinning. “Now,” he said, “What if the target...has no loved ones?”

“Everyone has loved ones,” she said immediately.

He gave her a tight, mirthless smile. “Hypothetically, then.”

She fought to keep the surprise from showing on her face. She’d known Snape led an isolated life, but not to this extent. How could someone have no family...no friends?

But that was something to address another time. She pushed those thoughts away for the moment, focusing on the problem he’d presented. She frowned, chewing her lip. An only child, an orphan, someone who had never made any friends...how would you get leverage over such a person?

Snape sat perfectly still, hands steepled, watching her. With a sudden jolt of realization, she met his eyes.

“You’d give them a loved one,” she said, in almost a whisper.

“Are you quite sure that bloody hat didn’t make a mistake with you?” he said softly. And then, “Work out the rest.”

Hermione’s heart beat rapidly in her chest, adrenaline flooding her bloodstream. She wanted to get up and run, but there was nowhere to run to. Just this room and Professor Snape, and, it seemed, some kind of charm or spell that was doing something to them.

She forced herself to take a deep breath. “This isn’t a game,” she said. “I’m not in your bloody classroom.”

“It wasn’t my choice to reveal this, if you’ll recall,” he said acidly. “Work it out on your own or don’t, it’s up to you. I will advise you that if you try touching me again, you may not care for the results.”

His eyes glinted in warning. Her breath caught in her throat and she wet her lips.

Figure it out, Hermione, she told herself. “All right,” she said, focusing somewhere on the wall behind Snape’s head. “Say that you—that someone,” she corrected, with a glance at him, “had no loved ones. You could lock that person in a prison with someone else.” She thought for a moment. “Probably someone they already knew and had a relationship with. You could charm the room to make them… make them love each other.”

She bit her thumbnail, thinking out loud. “I’d probably use a basic hearthstone charm, the sort that people use to make their homes feel inviting. You could modify the charm to make the two people in the room actively enjoy each other’s company...to sort of draw them together. If I designed it, I’d make the effects subtle. If their feelings grew as naturally as possible, you’d be more likely to get good results.” She stared into space as she considered, forgetting for the moment that this exercise was not merely academic. “You could let close quarters and time do the rest. I mean, if you had time. It would help a lot if they already liked each other.”

“Would it,” he said, so softly she could barely hear him. “And what might the advantages be over a standard love potion, obtainable in any alchemist’s shop?”

“Please,” she said derisively. “I just told you. Something like that would produce quick results that would wear off just as quickly. You’d want something deeper, and longer-lasting, to endure through a lengthy, um… interrogation...” She trailed off as the implications of what she’d said sank in.

“Clever girl,” he said. “Lucius took nearly an hour to understand it when I first explained it to him.”

All of the pieces suddenly fell into place. “Oh my god,” she said, blood rushing in her ears. She stared at him in horror. “Is this...Has it been used? Have you used it on someone?

“Twice,” he said.

“Successfully?”

“Once.”

She knew the answer to the next question but had to ask nonetheless. “And the other time?”

Pale and still, he looked at her and said, “Yet to be determined.”

Hermione rose so quickly she nearly knocked her chair over, moving halfway across the room, crossing her arms over her chest tightly.

“You are telling me,” she said, avoiding looking at him, “that this room is designed to make me fall in love with you.”

“No,” he said, and to her great horror his voice cracked as he said it. “No, that’s a side effect. This room is designed to make me fall in love with you.”

Neither spoke for over a minute, Hermione for once at a loss for speech.

“Has it worked?” she said at last, barely louder than a whisper. “The room, has it worked?”

He didn’t answer. She advanced on him. “Tell me, Professor Snape, has it worked?”

His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Does it matter?” he said. And then, abruptly, “That’s enough for now.” He rose, turned his back to her, and took up the same position he’d held for two weeks. Facing the window, legs apart, hands clasped behind his back.

“It matters,” she said to his back, but he gave no indication of having heard.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione laid on her bed, atop the bedclothes, staring at the contours of the ceiling she’d by now memorized.

It’s time to be honest with yourself, she thought. Time to open the locked door in her mind that said Snape on it. She needed to know if the charm was working on her, if anything had changed since her arrival here. To know that, she had to examine her feelings about him. Something she had assiduously avoided doing for many long months now. She’d stifled these thoughts so many times that it had become a reflex. It was difficult to analyze them because when she tried, they slipped away like water through her fingers.

You can do this, she told herself. Don’t shove them aside. Just let them come. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, filling her lungs.

She’d noticed his clever hands, noticed his sharp wit, noticed his… his long, lean body. She blushed in thinking this; it was not something she’d allowed herself to indulge in. But it was there and it was real; she liked watching his graceful movements and she had done for some time. She’d idly wondered what it would be like to kiss him. She’d never allowed herself to daydream about it in any detail. He was Snape, after all.

She breathed evenly, eyes closed, remembering. She had barely even acknowledged these thoughts, and when she’d become convinced that Snape was on the wrong side she’d tried to extinguish them completely...but yes, they’d been there. They were not new to this place and time.

And had anything changed since her arrival? She frowned, picking through her memories. She’d noticed his hands, yes, but she’d done that before. She’d daydreamed about him a little, but she’d done that enough times before as well. She’d admired the way he looked in his shirtsleeves; that was new, but she’d never had the opportunity before, so it didn’t count.

She certainly wasn’t in love with him.

But you could be, an insidious voice whispered, deep in her mind. She glanced at Snape’s back as though he might have heard this, but he was motionless as ever. He was the cleverest man she knew, and one of the most powerful wizards. He was the only one who could really match wits with her. No one else even came close.

Wouldn't you like to know what it would be like with him? the voice whispered.

And does Potions Master Snape perhaps wonder what it would be like with me?

Her breath caught in her throat. Was that new? If he’d approached her before they’d been together in this place… It was nearly impossible to imagine him actually doing such a thing, but if he had, and she’d known he was on the side of Light? Would she have rejected him out of hand?

No, she realized, with a thudding heartbeat. She wouldn’t have. She’d have made him work for it, she thought with the ghost of a smile touching her lips, but she wouldn’t have rejected him.

I wanted him, she thought, feeling stunned. I still want him.

Again, she told herself. Make sure. She drew her knee up, shifting her position on the bed, and started over. She sifted through her memories of being in his classroom, of seeing him at Grimmauld Place...of when she’d first noticed him, of times she’d watched him. She opened her mind and let the memories come, let her desire for him breathe freely for the first time, examining and analyzing it like a strange species of bird. Was there anything new? Anything different?

Some hours later, breathless and unnerved, she came to the somewhat surprising conclusion that no, there was not.

“I don’t think it’s working on me,” she said out loud.

Chapter Text

Snape was lost in his own reverie, considering how much more to tell the girl. Surely he’d told her enough, humiliated himself enough, to get her to shut up and stay on her own bloody side of the room.

When he heard her voice, he almost laughed. Of course nothing would stop her ceaseless questions. Of course.

Against his better judgment he answered, snapping out a curt “What?”

“I said,” she repeated, “that I don’t think it’s working on me. Are you sure the charm is working?”

Snape fought the wild urge to laugh. “I am quite sure.”

He heard her feet touch the floor, heard the floorboards creak as she stood. She was coming to him. Fuck. He visualized the nothingness of Occlumency, extended his mental control over his body. The charm was powerful, but he was more powerful. He could master this.

She stood near enough to him that he could feel the heat from her body and smell the harsh soap she’d bathed with. “It would be easier to talk if you would face me,” she said.

“And more dangerous,” he said.

“I don’t care,” she said in return.

“Obviously,” he muttered. “You do realize you’re not going to get extra credit points for any of this, Granger?”

She said nothing; he turned to face her anyway. I shouldn’t have done that, he thought disjointedly. I am losing this battle. His thoughts felt chaotic, like leaves swirling in a whirlwind. It would have been frightening, if fear were an emotion he still permitted himself to experience.

“Nothing has changed since I got here,” she said. “I’m sure of it.”

He studied her face; she did not appear to be lying. “Nothing,” he said.

“No.”

“No thoughts or feelings for…” He stopped abruptly. “For...me, at all?”

Her face reddened and she broke his gaze. “Granger?” he asked sharply.

“That’s not what I said,” she told him. She crossed her arms over her chest, but he could see the tremor in her hands.

She took a deep breath. “I said nothing has changed,” she said. “And I never would have told you that if we weren’t in this damned room, but that...that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it.” Her eyes snapped back to his, glittering with defiance.

Her words struck him like a physical blow; his blood felt like a drumbeat in his veins. No, he screamed inside the whirlwind. No, this is not real. It is not possible.

“That is the charm,” he said, hearing his own words as if from a great distance.

She locked eyes with him. “I know my own mind and I assure you it is not.”

“It is the charm, Granger. Are you trying to tell me that you had feelings for your greasy, hook-nosed Potions professor—oh yes, I know what they say about me—who has never been anything but cruel to you? Use your brain, for god’s sake.”

Her cheeks were bright, crimson red now, but her eyes blazed. “Do you think that was easy for me to say? Yes, I’ve wanted you, and no, those thoughts haven’t changed, and you bloody well have been other than cruel to me, although not actually in this exact moment. Do you want me to draw you a picture?”

Her words, I’ve wanted you, rang in his ears. She saw the look on his face and took an uncertain step backward. Get away sounded like an alarm in his mind. Get away from her now. But he found that he could not. Would not.

“It’s the charm,” he said, his voice low and hoarse.

“It’s not,” she said. “The only thing that’s changed is my willingness to admit it.” She set her jaw and stared at him.

“It is effective,” he said. “I am quite sure.”

She took in a sharp breath, realization descending on her features. “Right,” she said, folding her arms tightly across her chest. “Effective for you. Of course. Don’t worry, I’m well aware you didn’t have feelings for me before. Frizzy-haired mudblood, I’ve heard what people say too.”

“Granger,” he said, but she kept going.

“Obviously it’s working for you,” she muttered to herself, looking somewhere past his head. “Don’t know what I was thinking. If you’d already....they’d have just tortured me straight away, rather than putting us in here. Stupid.”

He thought momentarily of dissembling, but there seemed no point. He was so very weary of keeping secrets. At least, he thought, there could be no greater misery than this moment, no greater indignity, no greater humiliation. At least nothing could be worse than this. There was an odd comfort in the thought.

“Granger,” he said, feeling as though he were standing at the edge of a steep and dangerous precipice, “they didn’t know.”

Her eyes widened. He carried on, “They didn’t know, that’s why they brought us here. They knew I favored you, but not...not the extent.”

“The extent,” she repeated, eyes still wide. The revelation left her speechless for several long moments.

When she finally spoke, she carefully pronounced each word: “And how did they know that you… favored me?”

“I told them,” he said.

Her face went white. “What?” she said, in barely more than a whisper.

He closed his eyes, remembering the moment with perfect clarity. He’d knelt before the Dark Lord as he’d done a hundred times previously. He’d felt the invasive, familiar violation of Legilimency, and he’d been secure behind his mental barrier wall. Same as always. Same as a hundred times before. And then Voldemort had said her name. “The Granger girl,” he’d said, grinning lasciviously. “Sssshe knowsss much of Potter. Hissss activitiess, his thoughtsss... we will quessstion her.”

Snape hadn’t been ready for this; he hadn’t prepared himself for his heart slamming itself against his ribcage at the sound of her name, for the vivid image of her being “interrogated” by Death Eaters. He’d seen those interrogations and he knew what they entailed.

It took him no more than a half-second to steady himself and shroud his thoughts behind the mist of Occlumency again, but that was long enough.

“Sseverrussss,” hissed the snake-thing calling itself his Lord, “you have an...interesst in thiss girl? I am ssurprisssed.”

Years of long practice allowed him to maintain his composure. He did not know how much Voldemort had seen—possibly nothing that Snape could not weave an explanation for. “My Lord,” he said, training his eyes carefully on the stone floor, “it is merely that I believe it would be a strategic error to bring in one of Potter’s closest companions at this time. It would draw too much attention and you are still gaining strength—”

“Lies,” Voldemort said. “LIES! Your interesst in thiss girl is perssonal, Ssseveruss. You want to protect her. I ssenssed it!”

Snape knew in that moment that his cover was blown and that he could likely count the remainder of his life in minutes. Free, he thought in the fizzing buzz of adrenaline that followed this realization. I am free.

“My mosst loyal sssservant, lying to me about a woman. A Mudblood woman!”

Snape felt Voldemort invade his mind again, brutal and bruising. He closed his eyes and strengthened his mental walls. Voldemort clawed uselessly against them; distantly Snape could hear his shrieks of fury. It went on for several minutes, but Snape could have withstood it for several more hours.

I am a master fucking Occlumens, and you won’t take me by surprise again, he thought. He lifted his eyes slowly to meet Voldemort’s face.

“How does it feel?” he asked. “Knowing that you’ve been fooled for years? You think you’re the most powerful wizard in the world? You’re not even the most powerful wizard in this room.” He grinned, feeling almost giddy as he rode out what he knew to be the final seconds of his life. “You’re going to lose to a load of puling schoolchildren, you...pathetic...mediocrity.”

Voldemort hissed “Sssilence!” and aimed his wand directly at Snape’s face. Snape rose to his feet, facing the Dark Lord with his back straight and head lifted. “How...does...it...feel?” he sneered.

A burst of light emerged from Voldemort’s wand. Free, Snape thought, and then the world went black.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

He opened his eyes to see Hermione staring at him, trembling. The memory faded away, Voldemort’s shrieks of fury echoing faintly in his mind.

“They were going to bring you in for interrogation,” he said.

“Interrogation,” she repeated softly.

“I advised against it. I told the Dark Lord that it would be a strategic mistake. But...” He stopped, gathering the strength for this next admission. “My Occlumency failed. Just for a moment. He saw that my request was...personal. I assumed he would kill me on the spot.”

“Professor,” she whispered.

“I wanted him to, if we’re to be honest,” he went on, never taking his eyes from her stunned face. “Instead, I woke up in one of his dungeons, and later I woke up here. In my own bloody trap.”

His confession hung heavy in the air between them. He waited for her to recoil, or shout at him, or perhaps to slap him. Nothing less than he deserved. At least she’ll stay away from me now, he thought. I’ve guaranteed that.

Carefully, she said, “If that’s all true, then how are you so sure the charm is working? If you…” She swallowed. “If you already wanted me. The charm would have no effect.”

No effect at all, he should tell her. None. And everything I just said was a lie; I feel nothing for you and I never will.

He should have said that, but instead he said, “It would have a rather significant effect.”

She frowned; moments later her eyes widened in realization. She wet her lips and whispered, “How bad?”

Don’t flatter yourself, he wanted to say, I’ve withstood a lot worse than a bloody hearthstone charm, but instead to his horror he heard himself saying “I’ll show you” as he reached for her.

He retained just enough self-control to stop himself from doing more than taking her into his arms.  “Forgive me,” he said, knowing he had to push her away. But Hermione took a deep breath, lifted up on her toes and, impossibly, touched her lips to his. He froze, feeling as though his entire nervous system was vibrating in time with his heartbeat. You can’t, he heard as a mantra in his head, you can’t, you can’t.

“I want you,” she said simply, and his fragile, tenuous willpower finally shattered.

He took her roughly, pressing the length of his body against her, driving his hands into her hair and parting her mouth with his tongue.

The part of his mind not stunned into incoherence noted that she was kissing him back, that her hands were clutching fistfuls of fabric from his shirt. No, he was screaming inside, no, stop this, this is not real and you are bringing yourself closer to destruction with every second this goes on, but it was too late, she was clinging to him and kissing him and he could not stop, not anymore.

It had gone on too long and nowhere near long enough when he managed finally to disengage from her, her hands on his chest. Her eyes were deep and wide and chestnut-brown, and he had to force himself to look away to stop from taking her mouth again.

“That,” he said in a hoarse, low voice, “was the charm.”

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione, dazed and slightly in shock, frowned at Snape’s words.

“Really?” she asked, touching her tongue to her upper lip briefly, tasting him there. “Because it felt a lot like you. And I told you, it’s not working on me.”

He laughed, a short sharp bark. “You’d never have even touched me without it. Don’t insult my intelligence.”

“Don’t insult mine,” she shot back, eyes blazing. “You think I don’t know what a charm feels like? There is no charm working on me. And I…” She faltered for a moment, realizing what she was about to say. But her Potions professor had just grabbed her like a drowning man and kissed her, so there was no point in being coy. She squared her jaw, tilting her head upward to meet his eyes. “I bloody well would have touched you before, and more.”

He absorbed this with a mask-like expression. “I can assure you,” he said finally, his words tight and clipped, “it is working on me.”

“Professor,” she said, “I don’t know why it’s affecting you differently, but—”

She stopped mid-sentence as a thought occurred to her. Surely, he couldn’t have…

“Did you cast a left-handed charm?” she asked.

A brief moment of puzzlement crossed his face, so alien to his features that for that instant he was barely recognizable.

“What?” he said, the word more of a statement than a question.

“The charm, did you cast it left-handed?” Hermione had never seen an actual example of handedness in spells, but she’d read about it. It affected certain types of love and friendship spells that could only be cast by exceptionally powerful wizards or witches. She glanced at Snape, who appeared to have been momentarily struck dumb by her question.

If the caster weren’t careful, he—or she—would cast an unbalanced charm that only affected people of the caster’s own gender, left-handed for men, and right-handed for women. (The name had nothing to do with which hand you cast the spell with; Hermione suspected it was something to do with the “left hands, right hands, both hands, wand hands” game that many wizarding children learned in toddlerhood.) The most famous example in the literature was when Phyllida Spore, in her tenure as Headmistress of Hogwarts, had attempted to charm the Great Hall to produce a “romantic atmosphere” during a school dance. The night had ended with the female students stealing away with each other to secluded nooks and crannies around the castle, leaving behind a passel of very bewildered boys.

Handedness in spells was rare, but it would go a long way toward explaining the glaringly inconsistent effects of the charm Snape had cast on this room.

“You do know what a left-handed spell is...?” Hermione asked Snape.

“Obviously,” he snapped.

She tilted her head and lifted an eyebrow. “So you could have—”

“No,” he said, but with only a fraction of his usual arrogance. Lines appeared between his brows.

“You’re a Potions Master,” she went on relentlessly, “and you’re exceptionally talented at defense against the dark arts. But you’re not particularly known for your charms-casting skills, and this is a complicated one. Is it possible you…?”

His face darkened at this, and she had to fight to keep from rolling her eyes. Oh gods, she thought, I’ve bruised his ego.

“Miss Granger,” he said, twisting the words into a sneer, “not five minutes ago you were kissing me like a long-lost lover, and I’ll thank you not to insult me by suggesting you’d have done that without being coerced. I know what people like you and your friends think of me.”

Sudden anger rose in Hermione’s chest at his mockery of what they’d just done. “Believe what you want,” she spat at him, “I’m telling you that your stupid charm isn’t working on me, and you can make of that what you will, you arrogant arse.” With that, she stalked to the other side of the room to fling herself onto her bed, very deliberately turning her back to him.

~-~-~-~-~-~-~

Hermione stared out her own window from where she lay. He was infuriating. But... maybe he was right. She’d just kissed Snape, for Merlin’s sake. It could be due to the charm.

No. I’m right. It’s not working on me. He cast a left-bloody-handed charm, that’s all. She’d just spent the last several hours analyzing all the ways she wanted him, so it was hardly surprising that she’d let him kiss her.

Heat slowly crept up her face as she replayed it in her mind. Be honest, she told herself. You didn’t just let him kiss you; you kissed him. Because you wanted to.

He was infuriating. And arrogant, and a bastard. But she thought of how he’d moved against her, needful and hungry. She’d wanted that. She wanted it again.

And he wanted it too.

What are we going to do?

Chapter Text

Two days passed, during which they barely spoke. She kept mostly to her side of the room, and Snape returned to his previous routine of standing at the window with his back to her, doing his best to forget what had transpired between them.

As though I could, he thought wearily, watching the sun slowly sink in the sky and trying his best to ignore the sound of her pacing the floorboards behind him. When he closed his eyes, he saw her face; when his concentration lapsed for even a moment, he felt her hands and her mouth on him. They had been here for just under three weeks, and it was this bad already. When they’d arrived he’d wondered if they’d be here for half a year. Now he was uncertain whether they’d make it a full month.

He had been unforgivably weak. He should never have even spoken to her, much less touched her, much less… His chest tightened as he remembered again how she had felt in his arms.

The only way to survive this was to delay interrogation long enough to allow for outside rescue. The only way. He’d anticipated every escape route, foreseen every potential gambit, and eliminated them all.

He thought about the cut-glass globe Malfoy had on display in his drawing room, mounted on a half-circle frame. If the prisoners touched each other, it would turn slightly. The more intimate the touch, the further it would move. He’d instructed Malfoy to remove the prisoners for questioning once the globe had turned a full circle.

Two days ago, the globe had most certainly moved. How far, he couldn’t be sure. A few more such incidents and they’d be taken for interrogation. He had to keep well away from her.

If that is even possible, he thought bleakly. The charm throbbed in his mind, a constant low reverberation. He hadn’t intended it this way; it hadn’t been meant for someone who already wanted the other occupant. How Riddle must be laughing, he thought. For the first time in my life a woman returns my desire, but falsely, and in his fucking service. He stared out of the window and wished, not for the first time, that they’d ended this back in the Malfoy dungeons.

Granger had said she hadn’t felt the charm working at all, but that wasn’t possible. The effect on her would be more subtle; she’d likely just failed to notice it.

She’s sharper than that, better than that, came a whisper from deep inside his mind. And you were under a lot of pressure when you cast this charm...are you absolutely sure it wasn’t left-handed? You didn’t have time to double-check. He ignored it. That was hope talking, and he had learned through long years of experience to stifle it immediately whenever it reared its head.

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That evening, just after nightfall, she broke the long silence. “I have questions,” she said, her voice unnaturally loud in the darkness.

“As do I,” he returned. “And yet I am not foolish enough to speak them aloud.” There was no answer, but after a moment he heard her rise and approach him, the floorboards creaking as she moved closer.

She stopped just short of where he stood at the window. He could feel the charm working. Go to her, it whispered, touch her, take her. He concentrated on the tree outside in the courtyard,  distracting himself.

“Would you please turn around?” she asked.

He clasped his hands more tightly behind his back. “I would prefer not.”

A silence, and then her quiet, steady voice: “I could make you.”

You could try almost made it out of his mouth before he bit it back, remembering with a swift surge of arousal how she’d gripped his wrist the last time. He tightened his jaw.

Fucking charm. He’d stood before an enraged Voldemort without breaking his composure, and now a few words from this girl were enough to unman him.

He turned, before she could make good on her threat.

“Satisfied?” he said acidly. She stood just a few feet away, the moonlight reflected in her eyes.

“Yes,” she said. She studied his face, examining it as though she were reading a particularly interesting book. It was just as well the moon was to his back, leaving his face in shadow; there was nothing in his mind he wanted her to read.

“You said you had questions,” she said.

“As did you,” he returned.

“I’ll answer,” she said, ignoring this. “Truthfully. Anything you want.” She met his eyes in challenge. “As long as you promise the same.”

“No,” he said immediately. “Absolutely not.”  

She arched an eyebrow. Let her disapprove; he would not, could not, reveal everything in his mind. Secrets he’d promised to keep, thoughts he needed to keep hidden...humiliations he had no wish to expose.

She acquiesced. “All right, not every question. But can you at least promise that what you do say will be truthful?”

Even this was more than he’d have agreed to with anyone else. His entire life was nothing more than a tangle of lie upon lie. It had kept him alive all these long years. But three weeks prior he’d sliced through those lies like a Gordian knot. He had little left to lose...and her face was open and lovely in the moonlight.

“Yes,” he said, feeling raw and exposed.

She blinked, looking first surprised and then...something else he couldn’t quite discern in the dim light. With a slight tremor in her jaw, she said, “You can go first. I’ve…asked a fair few already.”

“This is not a good idea,” he said, in one last attempt to steer away from danger. “Will you reconsider?”

She shook her head silently.

No, of course she wouldn’t. It wasn’t in her nature. Her curiosity would finish the job that his unforced error had begun.

“As you wish,” he told her. He needed no time to think about what to ask her first, the question having nagged at him since her arrival. “How were you caught?”

Her cheeks flushed, visible even in this light. “I don’t know,” she said.

He stared down his nose at her with scorn that had withered a decade’s worth of Hogwarts students. “I think you can do better than that, Granger,” he said.

“Sorry,” she said, looking down and away from him. “I really don’t. I was in the Hogwarts library near midnight, in the Restricted Section. I remember finishing my research and putting my book away, and I know I made it at least to the doors...but after that my next memory is waking up here.”

“What research?” he asked her.

She met his eyes again. “I’d rather not say out loud. Just in case.”

“They’re not listening to us,” he said. “We’d know by now.”

“Still,” she said stubbornly. He dropped the question, but made a mental note to come back to it later.

“Who were you with?” he asked instead.

“No one,” she said. “Ron and Harry stayed behind.”

The subject of her research was instantly forgotten. “They did what?” he said, in a dangerously low voice.

“I was the most familiar with the library,” she said, folding her arms over her chest.

“Ah,” he said, “so they left you to face Death Eaters on your own. Sent you alone into the Hogwarts bloody library. Very thoughtful of them.”

“It was my idea,” she protested.

“It was a stupid idea,” he shot back, “as evidenced by the fact that I am talking to you here. And they shouldn’t have let you do it.”

Her eyes flashed. “I suppose you wouldn’t have let me,” she said, emphasizing let.

“No,” he said, “I wouldn’t have. Not alone.”

“Because I’m just a stupid girl?” she said.

Because I give a damn about you,” he snapped, more loudly than he’d intended. “Unlike Potter and Weasley, apparently.”

She swallowed hard. “That’s not fair,” she said.

Merlin’s bloody robes, what had those two idiots been thinking, letting her sneak off alone? He had a mind to hex them within an inch of their lives when he saw them again.

If he saw them again. He expelled a breath. “Life’s not fair, Granger. You of all people should know that by now. Ask your question.”

He could see that she wasn’t ready to let this drop, but the chance to interrogate him was too good to pass up. It was like dangling a shiny object in front of a magpie.

He expected her to quiz him again on possible means of escape, something she’d asked about—and got the same answer on—at least a dozen times in the last two weeks.

Instead, she looked directly into his eyes and said, “When did you first want me?”

Chapter Text

Hermione’s heart pounded in her chest as she watched his face and waited for an answer. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d managed to get up the nerve to even ask the question.

Snape’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. “This is a dangerous subject, Miss Granger,” he said softly.

“I know,” she said. “I have my reasons. You don’t have to answer.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t.” He measured her with an evaluating gaze. She met it with her own. During her final year, he’d done an exceptional job of pretending to be on the side of Dark, and it was hard to reconcile his actions with those of someone who supposedly had feelings for her. If he’d been honest—if he’d truly wanted her before they’d arrived here—he’d have a believable answer. As well, she sensed that provoking his desire would ultimately help, not hinder, their escape.

But mostly she simply wanted to know. When he’d noticed her. When it had started.

The silence between them had stretched far beyond the limits of comfort, but she held her tongue, feeling that she was somehow being tested. His eyes were sharp and focused on her; Hermione wondered how many of her thoughts he could see written in the lines of her face.

At last he exhaled a long breath. “You may as well know,” he said, “since I assume you'll get it out of me eventually some way or another.”

He leaned against the wall, crossing his arms. “Your last year at Hogwarts,” he said, his voice becoming thick and low. “Just before Christmas. I took over the Potions classroom for a day when someone dosed Slughorn with Bulbadox powder. Do you remember?”

“Yes,” she said. It had been the only day that Snape had been in the Potions classroom that year; she could hardly forget it.

“The class was brewing Mandrake Restorative Draught. Malfoy was near to you, and obviously had no idea how to assemble the ingredients. He was watching you, mimicking what you did. Your technique was perfect, of course. Which is why he was watching you. And you knew he was doing it.”

Hermione felt an odd prickling on her neck as she realized that this was the first time Snape had ever acknowledged her proficiency in the classroom.

He went on, “You reached the final step, thinly-sliced mandrake root. The slices were to be precisely one-quarter inch thick. You cut yours broadly, three-quarters inch. Draco didn’t know better, and copied your cuts. Of course you knew what the result would be.”

“Exploded mandrake stew all over his face,” she said, lips twitching.

“Indeed. And while everyone was distracted by the explosion, you disposed of your original cuts and re-cut a new batch, this time to the correct specifications. Your hands were a blur, faster than even I could track. And just as you were finishing, you caught me watching you out of the corner of your eye. You looked up and...and smiled at me, just for an instant. As though I were a co-conspirator.”

“You were,” she said. “You could have turned me over to the Carrows when you saw me, but you didn’t. When I caught you looking and you didn’t say anything, I thought, oh...he’s enjoyed this.”

“Yes,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “I did.”

Hermione’s heart raced. He’d nearly smiled just now, and she was startled at the depth of her desire to see it again.

“It was then,” he said. “When you looked at me...when you shared that moment with me. I felt it like a blow. Like the world had shifted beneath my feet.”

The air felt heavy and charged. She barely even dared to breathe.

“I saw you again two days later,” he said, “passing in the hallway. I felt the same, and I knew for certain.”

Hermione absorbed this. “You made my life hell for the rest of that year,” she said softly.

"What else could I do?" he said. "Everyone I care for is destroyed." He said this matter-of-factly, without a trace of self-pity.

Hermione stared at him with wide eyes, wanting suddenly to go to his arms. Oh my god, she thought distantly, I am actually falling for him.

“We can finish this another time,” she said. “If… if you want.”

He cleared his throat. “I believe it is my turn,” he said. “Your research at the library—”

“I won’t tell you what it was,” she interjected. “Not here.”

He arched an acerbic eyebrow. “If I might finish, Miss Granger?” he said.

She pressed her lips together, looking abashed. “Go on,” she said.

“Your research,” he repeated. “It is still within your memory?”

She gave a tight nod.

“And that is why you are so intent on reaching your… friends?”

She let pass the sneering way he’d said friends. “Yes,” she said. “Mostly, anyway. Of course I want to see them again, but more than that I need to get this information to them. Or really to anyone in the Order.”

“Is it possible they will discover it on their own?” he asked.

Hermione’s eyebrows shot up and she blinked. “Ron and Harry?” she said, failing to suppress a snort of laughter at the thought.

“That’s a no, then,” Snape said dryly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “But can you imagine them in the Restricted Section, taking notes?”

“I take your point,” he said, mouth twitching almost imperceptibly. “What about the rest of the Order?”

She shook her head, serious again. “No. I was acting on a hunch and I didn’t bother telling Ron or Harry what my theory was, because I knew neither of them would understand it. I don’t think anyone else would even think to look in the books I was reading.”

“No, I doubt they would,” he said, looking at her with an odd expression in his eyes. He absently rubbed his chin with his thumb, lost in thought for a moment.

“Miss Granger,” he said at last, looking at her intently, “do you believe it can end the war?”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I do.”

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Merlin’s blood, Snape thought. The surety with which she’d answered made his spine run cold.

Why then,” he asked, leaning forward, “aren’t you more afraid of being interrogated here?”

Her lips thinned. “Who says I’m not afraid?”

He arched an eyebrow. “I do,” he said. “It’s plain to observe. You don’t fear interrogation half as much as you should. You seem to be inviting it. You’re provoking me deliberately.”

She gave him a wan smile. “You noticed that, did you?”

“I told you; there is little I do not notice.” He fixed her with a piercing gaze, having the unpleasant—and rare—sensation that somehow he was losing the upper hand.

“You needn’t bother with your Hogwarts intimidation tricks,” she said, sounding suddenly tired. She sat down heavily on the edge of his bed, holding on to the sides and looking at the floor in front of her. “There is no escape from this room. I know that now. The only way out is through the door, and that will only happen when they come to take us for interrogation. So that’s what we have to do.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “I think you’ll find I don’t have to do anything,” he said in a quiet, dangerous voice.

She rolled her eyes skyward. “It’s what I want to do,” she said. “And it’s what you want as well. It’s plain to observe.” She gave him a tight, thin smile, as though daring him to retaliate.

He refused to take the bait, giving her only a level stare in return.

“There is no point in fighting it,” she continued, “when it is the only way we’re getting out of this Merlin-cursed room.” Color crept up her neck, proving that she knew very well what she was suggesting. He pushed it out of his mind as best he could. He had to regain control of this conversation.

“This is madness,” he said, his mouth twisting into a sneer. “The charm is making you irrational. If what you know is truly as important as you say it is…if it can do what you say it can, then you should be terrified of having it found out by the people who have trapped you here. You should not be actively trying to deliver it into their hands.” He found himself raising his voice and looked away, breathing deeply to calm himself. Losing control of his emotions was an exceptionally bad idea under the current circumstances.

She glared at him. “I am afraid,” she said. “I’m quite good at Occlumency, but these are Death Eaters, and... “ Her eyes traveled momentarily to his forearm, then away again, sending a momentary chill through him.

“If they find out,” she continued, “it will be… bad. But they want what’s in your head, not mine.  And they didn’t manage to find it out when they brought me here, so—”

“You can’t be sure of that,” he interrupted.

Her face went blank with genuine surprise. “Can’t be sure...what, that they didn’t Legilimens the information from me?”

“Yes,” he said. “You can’t remember them doing it, so how can you be sure?”

She tilted her head to the side and cocked an eyebrow, looking at him as though he’d started speaking in a different language. “Because I still remember what I found,” she said. “They’d have—”

“Obliviated it,” he finished, feeling stupider than he’d felt since he was a schoolboy, and possibly not even then. Merlin, would there be no end to his humiliation?

But to his surprise, she let it pass, simply nodding in agreement. “Yeah,” she said. “Anyway...I am scared that they might find it out, and I’m really scared of being tortured or...or worse.” Her fingers curled tightly around the bedclothes. “But I’m even more scared of being trapped here for the entire war with this information stuck in my head not doing anyone any good.”

She met his eyes. “I’m scared of losing.”

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On hearing her speak these words, Snape felt as though some vast, dangerous machinery came to life inside him—as though gears that had been slipping past each other suddenly snapped into place. She was afraid of losing. She was more afraid of that than she was afraid of being tortured or even killed.

And why shouldn’t she be? She was the brightest mind of her generation by far, and she was locked here in a room, separated from any capacity to aid in the war.

Separated from any capacity except for him, that is. And he was also the brightest mind of his generation.

He’d been so focused on his failure and humiliation that he’d lost sight of these basic facts.

“We,” he murmured, “are the best weapon in this war.”

She looked up at him, brow furrowed. “What?” she said.

“Miss Granger,” he said, “I believe I am coming around to your way of thinking.”

Guardedly she asked, “And what way is that?”

“That we must escape from this room or die trying,” he said.

Chapter Text

"Come to me," Snape said, extending an arm to her.

"You said that we should remain apart," she pointed out.

"I'm well aware of what I said. Come."

She rose, took his hand, and let him draw her close, so close that she had to tilt her head upwards to look at him. "Listen carefully," he said in a low voice. "I do not wish to repeat myself."

"All right," she said, feeling breathless at his change of demeanor.

Her hand was still in his. Before she could release it, he slid his fingers through hers, resting his thumb against her palm. Her mouth felt suddenly dry.

He never took his eyes from her as he spoke, low and fast. "Lucius has a globe that turns each time we touch each other. It barely moves for touches such as this." He pressed his thumb into her palm to demonstrate; the flare of heat it produced in her center made her shift her eyes away from him.

"Look at me," he said, so softly it was almost inaudible even in this silent room. "I want to see your face."

She lifted her eyes back to his face. "Like this?" she asked, voice only the slightest bit unsteady.

He lowered his chin in assent, then went on. "It will have moved quite a bit more after our earlier encounter, though not yet a full revolution. " She noticed that he neither paused nor stumbled over the mention of the kiss they'd shared earlier.

"So a full revolution means—"

"—they'll come for us," he finished. "If Lucius is under a lot of pressure, he could move early, but that is unlikely. He'll want to do things properly so that he doesn't disappoint his lord and master." His mouth twisted around the last few words.

"And if it never completes a full turn?" she asked.

"Then we stay here indefinitely or until he gets tired of waiting," he replied, "which was my original plan, you'll recall."

She swallowed. "But not anymore."

"No," he said. "Not anymore." His thumb traced slow circles into her palm. "If we proceed, there are certain things we cannot avoid," he said. "One of those is your torture. They will force me to watch and they will tell me that I can stop it by telling them what they want to know."

"Which is?"

The corner of his mouth lifted. "The right question, as usual. They want to know the location of the Order and the names of the other Order spies. The Dark Lord is obsessed with the idea that he has been infiltrated by the Order." He leaned close enough to whisper into her ear, "Which he has."

Hermione's eyes widened, more from the feel of his lips against her ear than from the revelation. Snape withdrew again, fixing her with a steady gaze. "The torture will be severe," he said. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

His hand, warm and dry, was still laced together with hers. "It's not about what I want," she said. "It's about what's necessary. And I think this is. But..." she trailed off. She squeezed his fingers a little, cleared her throat. "Is there no other way?"

He shook his head with the barest movement. "We have no wands," he said. "We will be outnumbered, and I do not know the place or method of the interrogation. Any ad-hoc plans we attempt are likely to fail rather catastrophically."

Her chest felt tight and constricted. "So we just… what, let them torture me?"

He caught her other hand in his own, facing her and holding both of her hands, as though they were about to dance. "Do we?" he murmured, looking down at her.

She stared into his eyes, knowing there was some part of his plan she was missing. Why put herself in a position to be tortured if there was nothing to gain from it? And yet what could they possibly gain? He's a spy, she thought, and I'm good at....at knowing things. How does that help us in a torture chamber? What are we supposed to do, observe our way out?

She blinked; suddenly the missing part dropped into place like the final, center piece of a jigsaw puzzle. "No," she said. "Not just that. We watch. And what we learn, we use the second time."

"Good," he breathed, his eyes betraying deep satisfaction. "Exactly right."

She curled her fingers around his. "But what if things are different the—"

"They won't be," he said, stopping her. "If Lucius doesn't get what he wants from us, he'll send us back here. Once the globe has turned sufficiently again, he'll have us brought to the exact same interrogation room and use the exact same techniques as before."

"You're sure?" she asked.

"I know how he works," he said, without elaborating further. He'd been a Death Eater, or pretending to be one, for almost as long as she'd been alive, Hermione realized, and he'd seen and done a lot of things that she probably didn't want to know the details of. At least not right now. Maybe not ever.

A dark thought occurred to her. "What if You-Know-Who intervenes directly?" she asked.

Snape met her eyes, his stare long and steady. "Pray he does not," he said. "But I suspect that if he were going to, he would have already. This," he gestured around himself, "is all Lucius' idea. The Dark Lord is either testing him, or preoccupied. Possibly both. It is not worth worrying over; if he does show up, there is very little we can do without wands or preparation."

He squeezed her hands gently. Her eyebrows lifted; of all the unexpected things this day had brought, Snape making an effort to reassure her was perhaps the most surprising yet.

"OK," she said, in an attempt to steady herself. "All right. So, this first time, you'll... observe them torturing me," she said, hoping she sounded braver than she felt. "Compared to what you've already been through, that...really doesn't seem too difficult."

He met her eyes with a steady stare. "It will be agony."

Her heart skipped a beat. "...Oh," she managed.

"But I will keep my eyes open, and so will you, and together we will learn a great deal."

Hermione felt apprehensive, despite his seeming confidence. "You said they might kill us if they don't find out what they want," she pointed out.

"They well might," he said, his easy agreement sending a jolt of panicky adrenaline through her. "If so, our plans will be for naught."

She swallowed hard. "But you think that is unlikely?"

He let go of her hands, shrugging a shoulder. "I think it's rather more likely than not that this ends in death. Both yours and mine. The Dark Lord has attempted once already to get this information out of me. If he—or his minion—fails again, he may well decide I have fully outlived my usefulness." He gave her a long look. "And you had little usefulness to him in the first place. This is one of the many reasons I have so assiduously avoided anything that might lead to our interrogation."

Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. "...Oh," she managed.

"Would you rather I had lied to you?" he asked, surprisingly gently.

She shook her head. "No, of course not. It's just…"

His mouth curled up. "Just that you're accustomed to being lied to about things like this. I know how the Order operates."

She felt a flare of defensive anger, but it subsided just as quickly. He was right, and she knew it. How many times had she been told that right would always prevail, that good would always win out? They all knew damned well it wasn't true at this point, and yet they kept saying it.

"But," Snape said, his black eyes burning into her, "I think we have a good chance, and a chance is worth the risk, if what you know is as valuable as you say it is."

"It is," she said simply. "I swear to you it is."

"I believe you," he said.

You do? Hermione almost blurted out. She had spent years in his classroom unacknowledged and waiting for praise that never came, and yet he'd just said he was willing to risk his life based on nothing more than her word. Her knees felt weak and watery.

"So," she asked, trying and failing to keep the tremor from her voice, "what now?"

"What indeed," he murmured, closing his eyes. The wind outside swayed the branches of the trees in a slow, bending dance, casting their shadows into bands of light and dark that shifted across Snape's face, first one way, then the other. Hermione watched them, counting their traverses. Two... then four... then ten.

After the twelfth pass, he took a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. Hermione caught her breath; his face bore a needful hunger that he did not bother to mask. He brought his hand to her face and brushed his thumb along her cheek.

"We can, of course, speed the timetable," he said, eyes dark and bottomless. She felt as though the world came to a stop around her, as though the universe had momentarily stopped marking the passage of time.

He waited for her response with near-perfect equanimity, only the slightest tremor of his mouth betraying any emotion.

She reached for him, letting her trembling hands come to rest on his hips, feeling the rough broadcloth of his frock coat beneath her fingertips. "Is that what you want?" she whispered.

"It would be strategic," he said, leaning closer to her, his hair falling in curtains around his face.

"Do you want it," she said more loudly. Her heart beat a tight staccato rhythm inside her rib cage.

"Yes," he hissed. "Yes." And for the second time his mouth was on hers. This time was slower, more deliberate. She laced her hands around his back and pulled him closer; he held her face between his hands, sliding his fingers into her messy curls. So different from Ron or Viktor, she thought in a haze. So good.

Snape pressed his weight against her body, driving her against the nearest wall. With a dark thrill, she felt his arousal. He'd told her that he wanted her, but feeling it was different, heady, thrilling. She pushed her hips against his, and he made a low noise in the back of his throat.

He pulled away from the kiss, his lean form still tight against her. "No more than this," he said. "It's the charm, and I don't…" He sucked in a sharp breath as Hermione rolled her hips against his stiffness. "I don't want more if it's not real."

How could this not be real, she thought.

She let one hand slide along the outside of his thigh. "But you'll kiss me even though it's not real?"

"I'm only a man, Hermione," he said hoarsely. "And I'm not a very good man."

"I know," she said, and brought her mouth to his again.

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Long, breathless minutes later, Snape finally managed to disengage from her, removing her hands from his hips and backing away from the knee she'd thrust in between his legs. He was painfully, disastrously hard. Not the first time he'd found himself in this condition while confined in this room, but certainly the worst. He hadn't allowed himself relief a single time since he'd arrived; he knew better than anyone how the charm worked, and he knew that giving himself pleasure would only mean ten times the torment afterward. So he had simply endured.

Tonight would be particularly bad. He shouldn't have indulged to this extent, but Merlin, what else could he have done? He'd meant only to kiss her, once and done, but she'd wrapped herself around him, all hands and hips and mouth, and it had taken every ounce of self-control he'd had not to simply throw her down onto the bed and take her.

She'd have said yes, that was the insidious part. She'd have said yes and she'd have enjoyed it.

And then if they actually did manage to escape, which to be perfectly honest was fairly fucking unlikely, the charm would wear off and she would despise him. Her theory about left-handed charms was no more than a facile attempt to rationalize why she had feelings for a man she had every right to hate.

"I—" he began, but humiliatingly, his voice broke. He began again. "I think that's enough for one night."

"Are you sure?" she said, in a teasing voice he'd never heard her use before. It curled right around the base of his spine.

The answer he gave her was not any of his rationales or strategizing, but only the simple truth: "I don't want it if it isn't real, and this isn't real, so yes, I'm sure." He expected to see hurt, or anger, or irritation on her face, but instead she merely looked thoughtful.

Leave me to my misery, he thought. They'd most likely done enough already to make Malfoy order the interrogation. Assuming Malfoy was even paying attention.

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Hermione returned to her side of the room, as Snape had asked. She knew the condition he was in. She'd felt him pressed against her, and she'd seen the tortured look on his face as he'd turned away.

He needs something he cannot ask for, she thought. And my feelings damned well are real; I don't care what he says.

Feeling lightheaded but clear of purpose, she sat on her bed and waited.

A few minutes later, Snape, as was his nightly custom, undid the eleven buttons of his frock coat and slid it off, hanging it neatly over the back of one of the chairs. He removed his boots as well, leaving his white shirt and black trousers. Normally he slept atop the bedclothes, but tonight he slid beneath them, turning to his side away from her.

Hiding from me, she thought.

He was facing away from her, which made the first part easier. She pulled off her jumper, exposing the thin white blouse she wore underneath. This was part of her own nightly routine. But tonight instead of lying down and turning toward her window as usual, she took a quiet step toward his bed.

Snape's shoulders stiffened.

It took her only a few moments to cross the distance between their beds.

"Granger," he said in warning.

She said nothing in response, only lifting the blanket and sliding in behind him, pressing herself against his body. He felt like a bundle of piano wire, tense and rigid, but he did not stop her. She lay still for several moments, until his muscles relaxed fractionally and her own heart slowed a little.

Are you really doing this? she thought to herself. Are you really, with Snape?

But she'd made her decision the moment he'd first kissed her. She was afraid of being tortured, and she was afraid of dying, but she wasn't afraid of this.

Yes. With Snape.

She rested her hand on his hip, causing him to jerk in response. "I told you—" he said, voice thick and muddied.

Before he could finish, Hermione said, speaking close to his ear, "For me this is real and that's what matters. You don't have to do anything. Just let me."

Her hand found him, stiff and hard, through the fabric of his trousers. She pressed herself even closer against his back and whispered, "Let me, Severus."

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Snape lay still and silent, letting her fingers play over his cock. You said you wanted to speed the timetable, he thought. Her breath felt hot on his neck, and he could feel the sheer fabric of her blouse sliding against his shirt. He recognized on some level that he was rapidly losing the capacity for rational thought.

I won't fuck you, he thought as he slid into the haze. Anything else, I'll let you do anything else, but not that. Not like this.

"All right," she whispered into his ear, and he realized he'd spoken aloud. She slid her tongue along his earlobe, and he was helpless to stop the low moan that emerged from his throat. He'd so rarely felt intimate touch, and he'd never been touched by a woman he truly desired. She nipped at his ear with her teeth and a jolt of electricity traveled straight down his spine. She smiled, and he could feel it against his skin.

Her hand played over the taut fabric of his trousers, gentle and maddening. "If you tell me to leave, I will," she murmured. "If you truly don't want this."

Wordlessly, he reached down with one hand to undo his belt buckle, loosen it, and open his buttons. It took her less than a second to slide her hand past his waistband, pushing fabric aside until he felt the cool skin of her fingers wrapped around his cock.

"Oh Christ," he gasped, slipping back into the vernacular of his childhood. "I'm not… this won't take long."

She pushed one of her knees between his legs, molding her body to his. "Shh," she whispered into his ear, and squeezed his cock, little pulses at irregular intervals. She quickly discovered exactly how hard to squeeze him to make him gasp, exactly where to touch her tongue to his ear to make him shudder. It felt so good it brought pinprick tears to the corners of his eyes.

He had a sudden flash of memory of her in the Potions classroom, replicating perfectly his actions even before he gave any instruction. She is learning me, he thought, studying me like a new spell.

He pushed his hips forward but she wouldn't allow any friction; only those gentle, maddening squeezes. She traced the outline of his ear with the tip of her tongue, nipping with her teeth occasionally. It seemed to transcend time, lasting minutes, or possibly days.

One stroke, he thought incoherently, one stroke will finish me.

"Ready?" she murmured into his ear.

"Yes," he managed, his voice thick and choked.

She loosened her grip, just enough to allow her hand slide up and down his cock, her thumb tracing circles over the tip. "Hermione," he gasped. It felt obscenely good. He made a needful sound that in other circumstances he would have found humiliating. Her hand moved over him slick and tight, and her sheer blouse slid against him, and her breath was hot on his skin. She was whispering his own name into his ear, Severus, yes, Severus.

He'd been wrong; it took a full half-dozen strokes before he cried out and bucked his hips sharply, losing himself in the whirlwind.

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Afterward, Hermione curled into his side, resting her head on his chest and hearing his heartbeat slow to normal, feeling his trembling subside. He stroked her hair.

"It will be soon," he said. His tone was serious, but held a faint undercurrent of satisfaction.

"Good," she said, affecting a bravery she didn't quite feel. "I'm tired of this room."

"No matter what happens," he said, "do not try to resist; they are better-armed and better-prepared than you. You must only endure, and keep your eyes open to the extent possible. Observe everything. Acting on impulse will not help us. Assuming we survive, we will devise a plan for the next time."

She took this in. "We may die," she said. "Maybe tomorrow." It felt real when she said it aloud, and she felt a sudden tilting vertigo.

He nodded. "Yes," he said. "In which case…" He tilted her chin up to meet his eyes. "I am glad to have made this my last night."

Hermione swallowed hard to hold back the sudden rush of tears threatening to spill forth. She nodded wordlessly, then laid her head on his chest, letting the slow regular rhythm of his heart provide some respite from fear.

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She fell asleep in his arms. He gazed down at her sleeping face, her breath warm against his chest.

This is an illusion, he told himself. She will be gone from your life the moment you leave this place.

If he ever left this place. It barely seemed to matter at this point; the future held nothing for him either way. Once the charm wore off, so would the desperate urgency he felt, but his true feelings for her would remain. Falling in love had destroyed him once, and he'd been stupid, foolish enough to let it happen again. With a student, for Merlin's sake.

Though, to be fair, not just any student. She was the brightest light of her generation, the cleverest witch he'd ever met. In the deepest, most private chasms of his mind, he knew that she outshone even himself. She was certainly braver.

And she is sleeping in your arms right now. He shifted his weight below her and she sighed in her sleep, threw her arm across his middle. The feel of her body pressed against his produced a low, pleasant hum of ecstasy that made him feel, against all reason, almost optimistic.

It wasn't real, and it would end soon, one way or another. He stroked her hair, felt her shift in her sleep.

For tonight it was enough.

Chapter Text

 

The next morning, Hermione was torn from sleep by Snape saying, “They’re coming.”  She bolted upright in bed, trying to get her bearings. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she realized that she was still in Snape’s bed. But she barely had time to process this before he spoke again. “I can hear them,” he said. “Vibrations on the floorboards. The first humans that have been in this wing of the house since we arrived. We have no more than two minutes.”

He stood next to the bed, his eyes traveling briefly down her body. “You should get dressed,” he said, already buttoning his frock coat.

“Right,” she said, getting out of bed to find her jumper. She threw it on hurriedly and was halfway through lacing her shoes when he said, “Granger.” She looked up to find him watching her with a naked, open expression on his face. Her hands froze in place over her laces.

“I want to survive this day,” he said. It held the weight of a great confession; she understood with sudden clarity that this was new, that his previous failure to attempt escape was at least partially because he hadn’t cared if he survived this. She wondered, not for the first time, what his life had been like for the last twenty years.

“Yes,” she said. “Let’s.” He took this in silently, lifting his chin ever so slightly in assent.

Two seconds later the door to the room burst open.

A pair of masked Death Eaters rushed into the room, with a second pair close on their heels. They split apart, the first pair heading for Snape and the second for Hermione. None of them had wands out. Hermione’s defensive training had taught her that a wandless enemy was an easy target, so she instinctively reached for her own wand, only to remember that it was missing, and that the Death Eaters had no wands out because magic would not serve them in this room.

She understood why Snape had told her not to resist. In a battle of sheer physical strength, she would not fare well against these men. She suspected it was no coincidence that they were all built like rugby players. She might be able to kick and bite her way to escape from one, but two would be nearly impossible.

The pair nearest Hermione caught her by the arms; the other pair held Snape similarly. One of Snape’s pair grabbed his arm and twisted it tightly behind his back, which he bore silently and with no perceptible change of expression. Her pair was slightly less rough with her, though they still gripped her arms tightly enough to bruise.

Snape’s captors dragged him out into the corridor, where one of the Death Eaters holding him produced a wand from his sleeve, holding it at Snape’s throat. Hermione’s pair followed close behind, and shortly she had a wand at her throat as well. “You really don’t have to—” she said, but the Death Eater jabbed the wand into her throat, making her choke on her own words. “Silencio,” he said, and she felt the silencing spell settle onto her, like a thin greasy cord around her neck.

She felt unsteady and thought for a moment that the walls were tilting and shifting, but soon realized it was nothing more than vertigo. She’d been shut in that damned room for too long. She kept swaying to one side and losing her footing, so that the Death Eaters had to half-push, half-pull her along. Snape, ahead of her, seemed to be having no such problems, moving as fluidly and gracefully as ever. Show-off, she thought.

"Move," the Death Eater behind her snarled, and jabbed her in the back with his wand. She stumbled and nearly fell before catching herself.

As she was pulled along, she tried to note everything she saw: The carpet looked expensive, but worn. The walls were lined with portraits of grim-looking people in stylish clothing who tended toward the blonde and angular. The woman in the first portrait sniffed haughtily at Hermione and turned away from her; most of the rest of the subjects simply ignored her, looking into the middle distance beyond her head and pretending she wasn’t there. One man in a top hat and tails mouthed what she swore was the word “Mudblood,” and then glared icy daggers at her. Malfoy obviously came by his personality honestly. She’d have felt offended if she weren’t so preoccupied with keeping her feet underneath her.

The first corridor was about fifty feet long; at the very end of it, they turned left, went another dozen or so feet, turned right, and went down a flight of stairs. Another turn, and another, and shortly thereafter she lost track of their path. They were taken down a flight of stairs, then down another corridor, and another, and it all turned into a seamless maze of ornate portraiture and dark paisley carpeting. The mansion seemed labyrinthine, with no end to its twists and turns. She wondered if Snape was doing any better tracking their progress.

After several minutes of descent through the house, they left behind the carpeting and wallpaper in favor of damp, gray stone, and the air became dank and humid. The musty smell was pervasive now, seeming to grow stronger the further they went. They had to be underground...in Malfoy’s dungeons, most likely. Hermione shivered, wondering if she’d ever see the outside again.

Yes. You will, she told herself firmly. And Harry, and Ron, and all the rest of the Weasleys, and everyone else. They’re out there looking for you and you’re going to get back to them. Comforted by this thought, she straightened her spine a bit.

They finally arrived at a thick wooden door set into the stone walls at the very end of a long, narrow corridor. As they approached, the door swung open to allow entry. It was only wide enough to permit one person to go through at a time. In what was clearly a practiced maneuver, one Death Eater went through the door; the second one shoved Snape across the threshold, and the first one caught him and twisted him into an armlock again as soon as he was through. Snape received all of this with equanimity, a dismissive lift of his eyebrow the only visible reaction to his rough handling.

Hermione was shoved through the door similarly to Snape. As soon as she was inside the room, she surveyed her surroundings; the interior was about the same size as the room she and Snape had been confined in, though the ceiling was quite a bit higher. The featureless stone walls and ceiling gave a claustrophobic feeling to the room, making it feel even smaller than it actually was.

A masked Death Eater stood next to a large wooden chair in the center of the room. The chair faced a pair of tall metal poles, each with manacles hanging loose from the top, sunk into the floor a few feet away. The room was otherwise bare of furnishings. When the Death Eater saw Hermione, he slid his mask off, tucking it somewhere inside his robes. She was unsurprised to see the long, blond hair and aristocratic features of Lucius Malfoy, who favored them with an unctuous grin. Her eyes drifted to where Malfoy’s hands rested on the back of the chair. Snape would be in that chair shortly, and she would be in the manacles. Don’t resist, she reminded herself. Endure.

"Severus," Malfoy said cheerfully. "I trust you've enjoyed your stay with us? And your companion?"

"Ask her yourself," Snape said coldly.

Malfoy chuckled, the polite heh of a well-bred host who has witnessed his guest commit a faux pas. "No, no, you misunderstand. I don't mean to ask whether your companion has enjoyed her stay; I mean to ask whether you've enjoyed your companion."

Snape’s mouth turned up into a smirk. “I didn’t feel the need to patronize a whore because my companion was unattracted to me, if that’s what you mean,” he said. Malfoy’s face darkened into a glower and Hermione, after her initial shock had passed, realized that Snape had clearly hit a sore spot. Provoking him, she thought. Testing him. And also possibly just wanting to anger him. If so, he’d certainly succeeded, which meant that what Snape had said was probably true.

Malfoy hissed, "Was she worth it, Severus?"

Snape, seemingly oblivious to both the question and to the fact that he was being held in an armlock by two bulky Death Eaters, said mildly, “I don’t see your master, Lucius. Has he let you off the leash for the day? Given you the run of the park? Will you get a biscuit for good behavior?”

Without warning, Malfoy backhanded Snape, snapping his head to the side. Hermione gasped, but Snape only reached up to wipe a trickle of blood away from the corner of his mouth, eyebrow arched as though asking oh, is that all? She reminded herself that he’d been through worse than this many times before, but her heart raced nonetheless.

Malfoy managed a tight smile at his captive. “Be thankful our master is… indisposed, Severus. He might not treat you quite so well as I will.”

What did that mean, indisposed? Hermione wondered if it might be related to what she’d found in the Hogwarts library. She felt a stab of worry for Ron and Harry, but set it aside. No time for that now.

Snape’s mouth curved into a smirk. “Oh, I think that when you finish this day without retrieving what he seeks, you’ll find him entirely less indisposed, Lucius.”

This struck a nerve; Malfoy’s face went white. Hermione thought he might strike Snape again, but instead he only snapped his fingers at the Death Eaters holding Snape and said, “Prepare him.”

“What?” Snape said, looking from Malfoy to the Death Eaters. His eyebrows lifted fractionally, the first true emotion he’d shown on his face since they’d left their room. One of the Death Eaters grabbed his frock coat by the collar and tore it from his shoulders, popping the buttons off and ripping it in the process, then did the same to his shirt, leaving him stripped to the waist.

“Bind him,” Malfoy said. Oh gods, he was wrong, Hermione realized with an icy thrill of panic. They aren’t torturing me, they’re torturing him. The interrogation is for me.

The Death Eaters dragged him between the two poles and attached his wrists to the manacles, leaving him suspended loosely in the shape of a Y. Snape allowed this without struggling. Don’t resist, he’d told her, and she understood now why. They were trapped in a tiny room with five armed Death Eaters, deep in the bowels of Malfoy Manor, with no wands.

Malfoy turned to give orders to the other Death Eaters. While he was distracted, Snape met her eyes, steady and unwavering. The contact had a calming effect, dissipating some of her panic. Slight change of plans, nothing more, she thought. If he can be calm, I can as well.

She nodded her head barely a millimeter, trying to indicate that she was all right, that she could manage. He blinked once, slowly, then broke eye contact.

Abruptly the Death Eaters shoved her down roughly into the wooden chair. One pressed her arms tightly against the arms of the chair, and the other briefly knelt and did the same with her legs. As soon as she touched the wood, she became stuck fast to it; it had clearly been charmed with some kind of sticking spell.

Snape stood restrained just a few feet away from her, manacled to the poles. She was struck by the surreality of seeing him trapped this way—stripped of his usual robes, with his pale, scarred chest and abdomen visible. He should have looked vulnerable and exposed, but instead...his demeanor was arrogant and commanding, as though he were the one holding power over Malfoy, rather than vice versa.

She glanced at Malfoy. Good luck breaking him, she thought vengefully. You’ll need it.

Malfoy dismissed the other Death Eaters with a few words. Hermione felt a draft as the door opened behind her, heard their footsteps as they left, heard the solid grinding noise of the door closing again. It felt distressingly final.

She twisted in her seat experimentally, testing its limits. Her legs were completely immobilized, but her arms had a little bit of give. Not enough to allow her to escape, but certainly more than the spell should have permitted. She made a mental note. Something to tell Snape later. If they survived.

She met his eyes, and it was there again, the rush of warmth and cessation of fear. The lines on his face eased a little, and she wondered if perhaps he had felt the same thing.

Malfoy tapped his wand on the back of Hermione’s chair, making her jerk in surprise. Grinning, he crouched down next to her, resting his wand on her leg. She glanced at it; if her hands were free it would be so easy to snatch it away from him. Conceited arse, she thought. No wand discipline.

Hermione concentrated on filling her lungs slowly, avoiding eye contact with Malfoy and trying to still her fear. “Now that we’re alone together,” he said silkily, “perhaps you’re wondering exactly what I’m going to do to, ah, former Headmaster Snape. A smart girl like you might expect me to use Cruciatus, which I admit does have its place in the interrogation chamber.” He reached up to push a stray hair back from her face, and she fought the urge to recoil. “But an Unforgivable is a bit of a blunt-force instrument and I think something a little more precise is warranted.”

He pointed his wand at her, making her flinch, and said, “Finite incantatem.” She could no longer feel the invisible cord around her neck. “I rather think we have quite a lot to talk about,” he said, “and we can’t have that nasty spell in the way.” He ran his fingers along her cheek.

“Don’t touch me,” she spat.

Malfoy giggled, a high-pitched noise that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. “Oh, is that reserved for your professor? I’m quite sure he’s allowed to touch you. Did you enjoy your stay in the little love nest he built?” he asked. “I thought that thing was a foolish waste of time, but I admit it’s proved to have its uses.”

Still crouching next to Hermione, he turned to face Snape. “Now,” he said, his eyes trained on his former comrade, “a bit of business to get out of the way. I’m going to cause a rather significant amount of pain to Potions Master Snape in a few minutes. It will be rather unpleasant. But you can stop it at any time. Simply say the word—that being the information you discovered at the Hogwarts library three weeks ago.”

They know, they know, they know sounded like alarm bells inside her mind. She felt a distant pain in her arms and realized that she was pulling against the sticking charm, her body telling her to flee. She forced herself to stay calm, relaxing her body and allowing none of her panic to reach her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

They must have got something out of her with Legilimency. She breathed deliberately. They know I found something, but they don’t know what, she told herself. If they knew that, we wouldn’t be here. And they aren’t going to find out.

The tip of Malfoy’s wand danced along the outside of her thigh. “I hope that’s not true,” he breathed, “or your professor is about to have a very bad day.”

He rose then, gracefully turning to Snape. Hermione spitefully thought I’d give a lot to cast a Petrificus on you right now, you greasy pompous arse.

Malfoy stumbled, his arms flying out to keep his balance, nearly dropping his wand. Hermione stopped breathing for a shocked second. Surely that must have been a coincidence. You couldn’t cast a curse just by thinking it at someone.

Snape smirked at this mishap. “Excellent form, Lucius,” he said.

Malfoy smiled tightly. “You may as well laugh now,” he said. “While you are still capable.”

He stepped closer to the bound man, standing just a few inches in front of him. “We know how good you are at resisting curses, Severus,” Malfoy said. He touched his wand to Snape’s shoulder, let it drift down his side, over his rib cage, prodding gently at his abdomen. “Cruciatus particularly. Some mental trick of yours, I’m sure. You’ve always been proficient at that sort of thing.”

Snape’s abdomen rose and fell, each breath making his rib cage show in sharp relief.

“So I’ve made sure to find something physically painful. Rather exceptionally so, in fact. Something you won’t be able to hide from. I do hope you appreciate the effort.”

The wand played across Snape’s hips, then drifted up his side, almost hypnotic to watch. Malfoy prodded the tip into his rib cage, and Snape finally reacted, involuntarily jerking away. Malfoy laughed. “Oh, this is going to be fun,” he said.

“I wonder,” Snape said, conversationally, “whether he will torture you for your failure, or simply kill you outright.”

Malfoy paled, but recovered quickly. “You’re pathetic,” he sneered. “You’ve betrayed the Dark Lord and declared your life forfeit for...that.” He waved his wand vaguely in Hermione’s direction. “Is she exceptionally good in bed? That’s the only explanation I can think of, and honestly, Severus, I could have loaned you one of mine for a night if you were that desperate.”

Hermione felt heat creep up her cheeks, though Snape betrayed no reaction. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. It’s just Malfoy.

“Enough chatter,” Lucius said. “Let us begin.”  Hermione’s heart painfully skipped a beat. Malfoy directed his wand at Snape’s back. He paused dramatically, and then with a sharp downward motion, said, “Scapellus!”

Snape’s eyes closed briefly and his jaw clenched. Hermione swallowed a cry that threatened to escape her throat. Malfoy observed his handiwork, then made another quick motion with the wand, and another. Four in total, and then he stopped for a moment. Snape’s eyes were focused somewhere in the distance. Several drops of blood spattered onto the concrete floor.

“Do you know what I’m doing?” Malfoy called to Hermione. “I’m writing. I’m writing a word on his back—two words, actually, if we get that far. Do you know what I’m writing?”

She stared at him mutely.

“Answer me or I’ll cut him twice as deep. Do you know what I’m writing, girl?”

Hermione thought it was not possible to hate someone more than she hated Malfoy in this moment. “No, I don’t,” she gritted through clenched teeth.

He frowned, made a tut-tut noise, and looked questioningly at Snape. “Thought she was supposed to be clever,” he said. Snape’s eyes flickered toward Malfoy briefly but then unfocused into the distance again.

Hermione tugged against the sticking charm. Her arms had quite a bit of movement—definitely more than her legs, and enough to make her think the charm was misbehaving—but not enough to pull free. Glaring at Malfoy, she thought Expelliarmus as hard as she could.

His wand hand twitched, and he nearly dropped his wand.

Hermione’s eyes widened. That hadn’t been a coincidence; she’d thought a spell at him, and it had done something. Not much, but definitely something. If she vocalized the spell, she might actually be able to disarm him. But Snape had told her not to resist...and she had to admit he was right. She might be able to get Malfoy’s wand away from him, but she might not; and even if she did, they had no plan for how escape the dungeon. They’d likely just end up quickly recaptured. Or worse.

This is the reconnaissance mission, she told herself. You just have to survive it.

With a flick of his wrist, Malfoy began carving the next letter. Snape’s eyes refocused and he jerked, hissing with pain. Hermione’s breathing came shallow and quick, making her feel lightheaded; he was visibly suffering already and they’d only just started.

“Two letters down,” said Malfoy. “Can you guess how many more to go?” He looked at Hermione. “He knows,” he told her. “Don’t you, Severus?”

Another flick of the wrist, and several more drops of blood spattering onto the concrete floor, pooling there. Malfoy was cutting deeply. “The interesting thing about this particular spell,” he said, “is the sensation it causes while cutting. It has been described as feeling like having acid poured on one’s wounds. Does that sound accurate, Severus?” He reached up to brush a strand of hair away from Snape’s face. “Hm?”

Snape ignored this, eyes closed in concentration. Malfoy swiveled the wand in his hand, giving a little flourish at the end. Snape grunted, face clouded with pain. “Malfoy!” Hermione cried out. She pulled against the charm, wishing it would give way. She felt that this would be so much more bearable if she could only move.

He looked at her, feigning surprise. “Oh, does the little Mudblood have something to say?” he asked in a singsong voice. “There’s exactly one thing that will get your precious professor out of these restraints. You know what it is.”

She glared at him. He laughed and swished his wand through the air, eliciting another full-body jerk and a harsh grunt from Snape. Malfoy leaned in close again. “Getting worse, is it? We’re not even halfway there.” A red smear of blood darkened the sleeve of his robe where it had brushed against Snape’s back.

He looked over at Hermione. “I suppose you still haven’t guessed it. Dull little creature. I’m writing two words on his back, my dear. Mudblood….Lover. A little memorial to his time with you.”

“I hate you,” she heard herself saying. Malfoy grinned, teeth bared like a jungle cat. He was patient and slow with the next cut, looping and slashing carefully with his wand. Snape’s face was ashen. Blood spattered continuously onto the floor. The final cut, a sharp diagonal slash, produced an actual spray of blood, leaving a few droplets clinging to Malfoy’s fine blond hair.

“Mm, don’t quite care for how that one came out,” Malfoy murmured, observing his handiwork. “One more time.” With a frown, he moved his wand, and this time Snape screamed through clenched teeth, going slack in his restraints for a moment.

Hermione felt tears spring to her eyes. Her heart galloped in her chest, and she wondered just how bad it would be to tell Malfoy what he wanted to know. It’s just one spell, she thought. Just one. And it probably doesn’t even work.

No, she told herself firmly. No. Absolutely not. Voldemort could not and would not know what she’d discovered. Even if it was useless. Even if it didn’t work.

Snape, breathing hard, looked in her direction; his eyes were slightly unfocused and half-lidded. She remembered how it had felt earlier when they’d made eye contact, and lifted her eyes to his. He stared at her, his eyes watery and bloodshot, distant in a way she’d never seen from him. She filled her lungs and brought to mind the feeling of lying in Snape’s arms the night before, of hearing his heartbeat. She took that warm, protected feeling and projected it at him, as clearly and vividly as she could.

His breathing slowed and his eyes cleared; she felt as though she were seeing him again. Malfoy curved his wand through the air, and Snape jerked, but this time he didn’t scream.

But there was blood, Merlin there was so much blood. Rivulets flowing down his back and pooling on the floor, spilling from the body of the man she was falling in love with.

She found herself barely able to breathe, a hard lump forming in the center of her chest. Don’t think about that, she told herself hurriedly. You can think about that later. Right now you just have to get through this.

“Just give up, Malfoy,” she said, surprised at how steady her voice sounded. “We’re not going to tell you anything, so just give up.”

“Do you know what I’m going to do when I’m finished writing these two words?” Malfoy asked, sounding slightly unhinged. “I’m going to go over them a second time. Every letter. And if you still have nothing to say, we’ll do it a third, if there’s anything left of this mudblood-fucking traitor by then.” He sliced his wand through the air and Snape’s knees buckled. He hung from the manacles for a few seconds, the muscles in his arms straining from supporting his body weight.

Hermione’s entire body trembled. She was desperate to help him, but even if there’d been something she could do, he’d told her not to. He’d told her not to fight back, to simply endure. So she watched, her hatred for Malfoy growing with each passing second.

Slowly, Snape pushed himself back up into a standing position, grunting slightly with the effort.

How can I endure when they are killing you, she thought desperately.

But he would have, in her place. Even if they were killing her. Even if she were bleeding, screaming, even if she were dying. He’d said that nothing would break him. That it would be agony to watch her but that he’d do it, that she needn’t worry that he’d give the Order up.

The entire war might rest on the information protected in her mind. Everyone she knew and loved. Wizards, witches, children, everyone. Everything rested on her ability to keep it safe. Everything.

So I can endure, she thought. Because I must.

She felt wetness on her shirt, and realized that she was openly weeping, tears spilling helplessly down her cheeks.

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When Malfoy began the second iteration, she tried thinking another Petrificus curse at him as a test, and this time only felt a mild throbbing in her head, with no discernible effect on Malfoy. Whatever power she’d tapped into earlier had weakened, or dissipated. Or maybe had just been wishful thinking and had never existed at all.

“Are you enjoying this, Severus?” Lucius murmured as he began tracing over the second word. “I admit I rather am.”

There was so much blood now. So much. Hermione pulled against the chair, feeling the maddening almost-give of her arm restraints. “Malfoy,” she said desperately, “you have to stop. You are killing him.”

He glanced at her. “I think you’ll find,” he said, “that you’re the one who’s killing him, my dear.” Another cut, and another spray of blood. The second round was clearly going even deeper. Snape’s eyes were heavy and half-lidded; he hadn’t made eye contact with her for several minutes.

By the end of the second iteration, Snape was barely conscious. His skin looked pale and waxy, his head hung down, and his lips had a bluish cast.

“Third time’s the charm,” Malfoy murmured, moving his wand to begin the third tracing. At this, Hermione lost all of her self-control. “Stop it,” she screamed at Malfoy, “he’s dying!” Malfoy half-smiled but otherwise ignored her, concentrating on the next cut.

Snape, hearing this, lifted his head with effort and met her eyes; his own were red-rimmed and watery. Tears spilled down her cheeks and she thought, I didn’t promise to let you die. I didn’t promise that. He’d said he wanted to live. He’d said that.

It’s only research, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just one spell. I could stop this.

But his eyes burned into her, and she remembered how he’d taken her into his arms, how he’d held her and made her feel safe. Her heart slowed a little, and a sense of calm descended over her.

He is giving me strength, she realized with faint shock. He is dying, and he is giving me strength.

Watching him through tear-blurred vision, she gave a slight, barely perceptible nod. He closed his eyes and exhaled.

Malfoy, hair disheveled and blood spattering his face and clothing, snarled at her, “I am tiring of this, Mudblood. If you don’t want him to bleed to death right here in front of you, I strongly suggest you tell me what you found in that fucking library.”

She looked at him as though she were seriously considering this and then after a long pause said, “Go fuck yourself, Malfoy.” Snape, slumped from the restraints and streaked with his own blood, his hair hanging in front of his face, made a wet chuckling sound in the back of his throat.

Malfoy’s face went livid. “Have it your way,” he sneered. “We can easily put you in that room with someone else and do this again in a month. I am finished with this.”

Snape coughed and lifted his head, an effort that clearly cost him. “Lucius,” he croaked. “Wait.”

Hermione’s heart nearly stopped. She almost opened her mouth to cry, no! But she stopped herself. Trust him, she thought. He said he wouldn’t break, and he won’t.

Malfoy’s face lit with a greedy, hopeful sneer. “Go on,” he said.

“Lucius,” Snape said again, his muscles trembling from the effort of holding himself upright and his face the waxen color of death, “to answer your question…” He glanced at Hermione. “Yes, she was worth it.”

Malfoy’s face crumpled into blind rage and he lifted his wand, holding it with his hand wrapped around it as though it were a club, opening his mouth with a sibilant hiss. Hermione realized instantly which curse it was and forgot everything she’d promised about not resisting, throwing herself against her restraints so violently that her chair rocked sideways and twisted on its axis. “NO,” she shrieked, as Malfoy finished shouting “Sectumsempra!” He twisted his wand viciously and drove it forward, like a boxer executing a right jab.

Malfoy, no!” Blood sprayed out in a fan-shaped pattern, spurting in great gouts from the wound; Snape made a terrible gurgling noise and went limp in the restraints, hanging in them by his wrists.

The chair was falling, and Hermione was shouting, “You can’t, Malfoy, help him, help him!”

She was forming the words for Expelliarmus when the room went over sideways and Malfoy pointed his wand at her face, just before everything went to black.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Hermione dreamt of swimming upwards from the bottom of a deep, dark pool, trying to reach the shimmering light at the surface. The higher she went, the brighter the light became, making her temples throb with the glare. The light became brighter and brighter, and the pain worsened, but she couldn’t quite get to the surface, no matter how hard she swam. Almost there, she thought, her lungs burning. Have to try harder. Have to get there.

Abruptly she thought, this makes no sense. And then of course, because it’s a dream, as the water dissipated around her into the odd yellow-glow of the sun shining through her closed eyelids. Just a dream. She squinted, letting the light reach her eyes gradually before opening them all the way. A familiar, grime-encrusted window took up most of her field of vision. She was back in the room, lying in her bed.

She carefully maneuvered herself into a seated position, pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead against the low throbbing there. Fear whispered deep in her mind. Something was wrong. Something was different, and wrong.

Memories filtered in. Oh no, oh Merlin, no.

He was gone. His bed was empty and no one kept vigil at the window. She stumbled out of bed, went to the door, and rattled the knob as hard as she could, but to no avail. It was stuck as firmly as it had ever been. She pounded on the door uselessly for longer than she should have, until she felt her hands start to hurt. Finally she gave up, turning her back against it and sliding to the floor.

She sat on the floor, head resting on the locked door, elbows on her knees, remembering what had happened. Remembering his blood, and his pale, ashen face, and the way he’d hung heavy and lifeless at the end.

At the end.

“No,” she said out loud. “Not the end. This isn’t right. I don’t accept this. I don’t accept this.

She thought tears should come, but none did.

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She hadn’t realized how accustomed she’d become to the steady sound of his breathing until it was gone. Her eyes kept grazing against the empty place at the window where he should be standing.

She felt terribly, unspeakably alone.

Eventually she picked herself up from the floor and began pacing across the creaking floorboards. “What am I supposed to do now?” she asked the walls. “I was supposed to work out a plan with him. What now, wait until they bring someone else and then murder him in front--” The words caught in her throat.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she muttered. “Is that what he would do?” After a moment, “Then again, his plan got him killed, so...”

When she closed her eyes she saw his blood in Lucius Malfoy’s hair, saw his body twisting in pain. I could have tried harder. The sticking charm wasn’t right. Maybe I could have got free. I could have taken Malfoy’s wand. I could have saved him.

“But you didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t, and he’s gone, and that’s what happened, and now you need to figure out what to do.”

She went to his window, looking down at the rowan tree, thoughts muddied and going nowhere. Hours passed as she kept his vigil, the sun gradually lowering in the sky and finally dipping below the horizon. When the sky was dark but for the moon, she turned and looked at the two empty beds, one she’d slept in alone, and the other with him.

Standing in the moonlight streaming through the window, she reached for the top button of her blouse. Her hands rested there, motionless. She’d thought, somewhere in the depths of her mind, that she’d do this for him at some point. That he’d watch while she did it.

After a while she felt able enough to finish what she’d begun, and pushed the button through the buttonhole with the edge of her thumb. The next few came easier. When the blouse was fully undone, she slid it off, then did the same with her jeans. When only her bra and knickers remained, she crawled into his bed, burying her head in his pillow and breathing in his scent.

She did not cry, but neither did she sleep.

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The next day, she tried to cast a spell, and then another, whatever ones came to mind—Accio, Wingardium Leviosa, Alohomora—hoping that she could overwhelm the anti-magic charm, burn it out like an electrical fuse. All she accomplished was to give herself a headache so intense that she nearly blacked out, collapsing onto her bed with tears in her eyes from the pain.

No one was there to tell her how stupid she was being, or how pointless the effort was, and she felt Snape’s absence more keenly than ever.

“It doesn’t matter,” she called out to the empty room. “You can send as many people as you want and it doesn’t matter, I won’t tell you anything.” There was no answer, not that she’d expected one. “Stupid left-handed charm doesn’t work on me anyway,” she muttered, and pressed her head down into her pillow.

At lunchtime, she opened the disappearing cabinet. This proved to be a mistake; the blood rushed from her head and she felt herself go pale as she saw two plates waiting there, side by side. Apparently no one had informed the house elves that Snape was no longer in need of sustenance. “Not hungry,” she murmured, and closed the cabinet again. She wondered how long it would take them to come for her if she went on a hunger strike. Days? A week? Maybe never. She had a hunch that apart from watching the globe, nobody was paying attention to this room at all.

Later that evening, she decided to perform a mental inventory of everything in the room, cataloging it all to see if perhaps there was something she’d missed, something she could use. She ran through the list methodically, starting at the loo and moving outward. There was soap...towels...running water... the beds...pillows...bedsheets...

Sheets, she thought. A memory tried to surface, something about sheets. She closed her eyes, clearing her mind to let the memory come to her, a technique that had often served her well during exams. After several moments, her eyes flew open and she sat upright. “Got it,” she said. She got up and stripped the sheet from her bed, bundling it under her arm and carrying it into the loo. She gave it a good soaking under the bathtub faucet until it was dripping wet.

After wringing some of the excess water out, she carried it back to her window. She remembered hearing once about a way to escape through prison bars by using a wet towel. The idea was that wet fabric was stronger than dry, so if you got the towel—or the sheet—wet, and twisted it around the bars just so, you could bend them far enough apart so that a person could slip through.

Of course, that would still leave her about twenty feet up with no real way to get down, but she could cross that bridge when she got to it. Sheets had other uses than bending bars, after all.

She slid one end of the sheet through the bars and pulled it back through again, two bars away. She could practically hear Snape in her mind, saying What a remarkably stupid idea; you’re well aware, of course, that it won’t work?

“Shut up,” she muttered, winding the edges together in a loose knot. “What do you know, anyway?”

Twisting the fabric was harder than she’d expected; after only four turns she was straining to hold on to the knotted sheet, and it occurred to her that she might need some sort of stick or board for leverage. She let go for the moment...and then she noticed that where the sheet had touched the bars, it was dry. Bone dry, as though she’d never wet it in the first place.

“No,” she said, staring at the dry spots. “He can’t have.” She let go of the sheet and unwound it to examine it. The parts that had touched the bars were completely dry. She touched a damp section to the bars, and it instantly dried as well.

Damn it, Severus,” she swore. “How could you possibly anticipate this?” He’d charmed the bloody bars with a bloody damned drying spell. She flung the now-mostly-dry sheet to the ground and sank down next to it, resting her head in her hands and feeling the hysterical urge to laugh. He really did think of everything.

Later on, she gave the door a useless but satisfying kick. Other than that, she made no further escape attempts.

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Without realizing it, she’d grown accustomed to talking to him over the previous several days. The silence in the room now was oppressive, and the tedium made each minute feel as though a full hour had passed inside it. More than once she stared into space for so long that her eyes began to water. Sometimes she’d turn to tell Snape something, then remember he wasn’t there.

Wasn’t anywhere.

When darkness came, she laid in his bed again, staring at the window no longer obscured by his dark silhouette. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I wasted so much time ignoring how I felt about you. I’m sorry I ever believed you were as terrible as everyone said.”

And then, into the ink-black silence, she whispered, “I’m sorry I didn’t save you, Severus.”

She curled up into a fetal position, arms wrapped tightly across her chest. Eventually exhaustion took her into a dark and fitful sleep.

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Mornings were the worst, because in her dreams he was still alive. Waking brought first only a vague sense of dread, the knowledge that something was deeply, irreparably wrong. And then, moments later, the horrible dropping sensation in the pit of her stomach as she remembered. Remembered blood, and screams, and falling. Remembered that he was gone.

On the fifth day without him, she was sitting on the floor next to the bed, head leaning against it, watching the door and thinking about what she’d do when—if—someone finally came through it.

A thought suddenly occurred to her. Maybe… She lowered herself flat on her back onto the floor, pulled the collar of her shirt up over her nose to protect against the dust, and worked her way underneath the bed, staring up at the structure of it from below. She’d not considered until now that these beds would by necessity be of Muggle construction—possibly the same type she’d had as a child. Mattress, frame, and… yes, wooden slats. Six of them, holding up the rest of the bed.

It was the work of a few minutes to lift the mattress off the frame and push it over the side of the bed, leaving the slats exposed. Hermione removed one from the frame and examined it. Reasonably hard wood, about four feet long, two inches wide, and two inches thick. It would do for her purposes.

The next time the door opened, she would smash the wooden board into the face of whichever Death Eater happened to be closest, and if she was quick, and lucky, she’d manage to hit the second one as well. It wasn’t a great plan. Not even a good plan, really. “But,” she said under her breath, “it doesn’t rely on magic, and it’s better than staying locked in this room for the rest of this Merlin-cursed war.”

She drew a bath, making sure that the board was within easy reach of the tub, and washed the dust from herself. The rest of the afternoon she spent sitting on the floor between the beds, holding the wooden slat across her knees. I may not be able to accomplish much, she thought, but I bet I can at least break one of their noses. See how they like seeing their blood on the floor.

If she managed to bring them down, she would make a run for it. Once she was outside the room, she’d be able to use magic again. She’d try to find her way outside, and if she got outside she could Apparate.

Not a great plan. But loads better than sitting in this room waiting for them to kill her.

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In the early evening, when the light was just changing to the dusky orange of sundown, Hermione felt a vibration in the floor. She froze, listening carefully to be sure. Regular vibration, gradually increasing in both volume and tempo. Someone was coming. More than one person. She quietly got to her feet and crept near to the door, wielding the wooden slat like a cricket bat. Her heart rate barely increased, and she realized with some surprise that she felt no fear.

I’m not afraid, she thought. I’m just going to kill them.

The steps came closer, and her fingers tightened around the improvised club. She watched the door with steady, unwavering eyes.

When it creaked open, a tall figure stumbled through the threshold. Hermione was halfway through her swing when her fingers, suddenly nerveless, released the wooden board, sending it clattering onto the floor.

“Miss Granger,” said a baritone voice she’d thought she’d only ever hear in dreams again, and she fell to her knees as her legs gave out completely.

 

Chapter Text

He was pale and gaunt, the hollows of his cheeks deep and cavernous. He was missing his usual black frock coat, wearing only his white button-down shirt, untucked and loose at his waist. The same black trousers, and the same worn, black boots.

The door slammed and locked again behind him, but she barely noticed. She stared at him in stunned silence.

“I thought…” she began, and then broke off, her eyes narrowing. She grabbed the board from where it had fallen on the floor and scrambled to her feet, brandishing it in front of her and backing away from him.

“You’re not him,” she said. “Who are you? I saw him die.

The expression on his face barely changed, only the slightest shift of an eyebrow. “You did not,” he said.

“Prove it,” she hissed, glaring at him from behind the makeshift bat.

“Again?” he said mildly.

“I may not have magic,” she said, never taking her eyes from him, “but I spent two months living rough and carrying everything I owned on my back and I promise I will put this board through your face if you don’t prove you’re him right fucking now!”  

His eyes fixed on her as though she were the only thing in the room. “The last assignment you ever turned in to me,” he said, “was on the applications of Erumpent horn. It was perfect. I could find nothing wrong with it, start to finish. Worthy of publication in The Alchemist’s Journal, to be perfectly honest. Wait—” He held a hand up as she’d begun advancing toward him. “Wait. I took ten points off.”

She froze, slowly lowered the board.

“I wrote in the margin, unsubstantiated evidence.”

Hermione let the board slip from her fingers. “You bastard,” she whispered, her whole body trembling.

The corner of his mouth lifted. “Yes,” he said. “I believe that is widely known.”

“I thought you were dead,” she said. “I thought you— I saw him—” She pressed her hand to her mouth, choking back a wracking sob.

He watched her mutely and, she thought, impassively. But to her surprise he moved to her, taking her into his arms. She felt his warmth and the rise and fall of his chest, felt the tremor in his hands where he held her. She clung to him, arms around his middle, and gradually he relaxed into the embrace, tightening his arms around her to hold her close. Hermione buried her face in his shoulder, leaving his shirt damp with her tears. At some point in the last week, she realized, she had lost any confusion over how she felt about him.

Her hands drifted upward on his back, and she felt him tense. “Careful,” he murmured. She looked up, startled.

“You’ve been gone five days,” she said, drying her eyes with her sleeve. “You’re not healed?”

Surprise crossed his face. “Five?” he asked. “You’re sure?”

Every morning felt like drowning, she thought, but only said, “Very sure.”

His eyes lingered on her face. “Let us sit,” he said. “We have much to discuss.”

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Staying well away from her would have made the most sense and been the safest for his undeniably fragile psyche. But having her in his arms had overridden any sense of rationality or reserve. He lowered himself gingerly onto his bed, bracing himself against the headboard with a pillow behind his back, and then glanced at Granger and raised an eyebrow.

She understood immediately—is there anything she does not understand immediately? he thought—and carefully crawled in next to him, curling up next to his body. Her warmth and heat suffused him with a pleasure he no longer had the will to deny himself. He put an arm around her, drew her even closer.

When this ends, Severus, and it will end, sooner rather than later, it will destroy you.

He would address that later. The likelihood that he would survive the next encounter with Malfoy was so vanishingly small that it hardly mattered anyway.

“Ask your questions,” he said.

She glanced up at him. “I didn’t say I had any!”

He cocked an eyebrow.

She flushed. “All right, a few.”

“You astonish me,” he said, with a smirk.

“So,” she said, “what happened? Where were you for five days?”

He had no quick answer to this question. He felt groggy and heavy-headed from his ordeal; not to mention which, a significant part of his brain was preoccupied by the fact that he was holding this woman in his arms. It was not a distraction to which he was accustomed. Hermione waited in silence while he considered his response.

“I am not entirely certain,” he said at last. “Having my blood replaced by a healer, I surmise, but I was not conscious for most of it.”

She stiffened. “They kept you unconscious for five days?”

“Apparently.” His hand rested on her shoulder, his thumb tracing slow, insistent circles.

“Blood-Replenishing Potion doesn’t take that long to work,” she said, staring up at him with her brows knit.

He gave her a thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “My spell,” he said. “Sectumsempra. Assuming the healer didn’t know the counter-spell—a safe assumption, as I’m surprised Lucius even knew the spell; his brat must have told him—I would have continued to bleed. Profusely. I’m sure it took them some time to discover the cure. Known Death Eaters can’t exactly owl St. Mungo’s for advice."

Hermione shuddered. “When Malfoy used Sectumsempra at the end,” she said, “there was so much blood. You collapsed and it was just…” She closed her eyes, swallowed. “It was everywhere. I saw a Death Eater get knifed to death once and it looked...it looked the same. I don’t understand how you’re alive.”

He made a low chuckle in the back of his throat. “Ironically, I believe we have Voldemort to thank for that.”

Hermione jerked, startled. “You said his--”

Snape met her eyes. “I did, and I don’t give a damn. Let him come for me. He’s sent enough of his bloody minions at me at this point.”

She blinked. “So he— Voldemort, has exactly what to do with this?”

Snape leaned his head back against the bed. “Ordered Malfoy not to let me die.”

He remembered Sectumsempra, remembered the bright, shattering pain and the feeling of wet warmth across his back, followed by darkness. He’d woken briefly to the faint sound of Lucius shouting, if you let him die we’ll both answer to the Dark Lord so stop the fucking bleeding. Another man spoke outside his hearing, and then Lucius again, yes, Sectumsempra, and I’ll use it on you next if you don’t heal him. After that he’d lapsed back into unconsciousness, where he’d stayed for apparently the next five days. He doubted it had been necessary to keep him out for that long; more likely Malfoy was too afraid to let him wake up.

Hermione frowned. “If he wasn’t supposed to kill you, why did he use Sectumsempra?”

A lazy smile stretched across Snape’s face. “Because he was enraged,” he said. “It was a stupid mistake. He did it because I taunted him, and because you wouldn’t break.”

“I wanted to,” she said softly. “I...I thought about it. If he’d kept going, maybe I would have.”

Snape went still, his hand ceasing its motion on her shoulder. After a moment he said, “Look at me.” She did so, furrowing her brow in question. With his thumb he brushed a loose hair back from her forehead, and he said, “You were magnificent.”

A long moment passed during which Hermione wordlessly stared into his eyes. Finally, she expelled a breath. “You think we’re going to die,” she said.

He raised an eyebrow.

“You’d never say something that nice to me if you thought we were going to live,” she said.

He laughed. The sound was strange; when was the last time he’d laughed with genuine pleasure? Months ago, at least. He couldn’t remember. “True,” he told her, affecting a serious tone.

“Arse,” she told him. She rested her head on his shoulder again. Breath warm on his neck, she said, “If we are going to die, though, I want to know something.”

He waited, committing to memory the feel of her soft warmth pressed against him.

“The Densaugeo charm,” she said. “The one Malfoy cast on me. Draco, not Lucius.”

“Yes. I’m familiar.” Ah. This. He shouldn’t have been surprised it had come up. The hearthstone charm wasn’t perfect, after all. It couldn’t make her forget everything he’d done.

“You said—”

“I remember what I said.”

She disengaged from him, shifting away and sitting more upright. A line appeared between her brows. “Why?” she asked. “Why say that to me? And… why use that when I asked you to prove who you were?”

She hadn’t moved away from him completely; he could still feel her thigh pressed against his. He didn’t want to answer her. Didn’t want to remind her of who he really was and what he’d done. He briefly thought of making up a false answer that would satisfy her. But he was sick to death of lies, and couldn’t have lied to her anyway. Not now. Not anymore.

He laced his hands behind his head, stared at the window on the far side of the room. “You ask why I said that to you. The answer is simple. I thought you were an annoying, know-it-all Gryffindor, and I wanted to hurt you.”

That was true, as far as it went; but there was more to it, and someday if they had time he might even tell her. About his soul torn to shreds from loss. About how he couldn’t stand Potter or what Potter reminded him of, couldn’t even stand any of Potter’s friends. About how he saw himself reflected in this inquisitive Gryffindor with a brilliant mind and had wanted to tear her down out of some sort of misdirected self-hatred.

He glanced at her face; she was maintaining a carefully neutral expression. “I told you,” he said, “I’m not a good man.” It was, he thought bleakly, better for her to be reminded. Better for him to break the illusion that held her next to him. Better for her to stay away.

“And when I first arrived here?” she asked.

“Equally simple,” he said. “I wanted you to stay away from me. I thought that if I wounded you with words you’d keep to yourself.” The corner of his mouth turned up. “I should have known better.”

She considered this. “I am an annoying know-it-all,” she said, “and I always will be. Does that mean you still want to hurt me?”

A muscle worked in his jaw. “You’re not. You never were. And I don’t,” he said in a low voice. “But Granger, I will hurt others, and you will hate me for it. I have hurt others and you do hate me for it. It’s only temporarily masked by the charm.”

“The charm isn’t working on me,” she said, “and I’ve never hated you. Ask anyone.” She reached up and traced her fingers along his jaw. “As for others...What if I don’t care if you’re a good man?” she said.

His heart leaped painfully in his chest and he cursed himself for his weakness. “You will care,” he said. “You do care. I was a Death Eater, in case you’d forgotten.”

“Was,” she said, pushing herself up and throwing a leg over him so that she straddled his thighs with her knees. His jaw tightened and he took a sharp breath, but he didn’t push her away. “And what if I don’t?” she said. “What if I think good men are overrated? I know who you are. I’ve seen what you’re capable of. And I want you.”

“It’s not real,” he said, but his voice cracked.

“Kiss me, then,” she said, tilting her head and arching an eyebrow at him.

The soft weight of her body straddling his lap had him half-hard already. He was keeping his hands at his sides and away from her through nothing more than steel willpower. “I beg your pardon,” he said.

Her eyes glinted, and as he watched, she wet her lips with her tongue. “Kiss me,” she said again, “and then tell me it’s not real.”

“Miss Granger—” he said.

“Are you afraid?” she asked, her voice bright and conversational, her eyes glittering. She was teasing him, provoking him, and he thought distantly that he was lucky she’d never tried this on him in the classroom or his resulting actions would have got him kicked out of Hogwarts forthwith. “Are you afraid to kiss me, Potions Master, Headmaster, former Death Eater Snape?” Her voice was teasing, but her mouth was not smiling.

I am not strong enough for this, he thought, hands already moving towards her. “Stop,” he snarled, pulling her head towards his. She gasped in surprise and he took her mouth, tasting her, taking her. He no longer even attempted to suppress his erection, pressing it against her as she moved rhythmically on him. The kiss was long and slow; he made it last. When she finally broke contact, breathless and flushed, she looked into his eyes and said, “Tell me it’s not real.”

He could say nothing, and she had a triumphant gleam in her eye.

You’ll be gone as soon as we’ve left this place, he thought, and I’ll never see you again. But he was weak. What would be the harm in enjoying this moment? Just one moment, to savor the pleasure of her body pressed against his, the taste of her on his lips. He wanted her so very badly.

And he was not a good man.

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Hermione had never been this suggestive or flirtatious with Viktor or Ron. She’d never quite known how to go about flirting and when confronted with it usually ended up ignoring it or, more often, rolling her eyes and dismissing it. She had no patience for that kind of thing. It seemed false, like a glorified form of playacting.

But with Viktor and Ron she hadn’t felt this warm knot of desire deep within her belly. Viktor and Ron hadn’t sent electric fire down her spine every time they kissed her. Ronald Weasley is, in fact, a terrible kisser, she thought, feeling somewhat disloyal even though they hadn’t been together for months.

She wanted Snape in a way she’d never wanted Ron, not even Viktor. Maybe without this room she’d never have admitted it to herself, would never have allowed herself to act on it. She could imagine a future in which she approached him, ten years from now, after the War. Once everything felt less urgent, safer. Maybe she’d have acted on it then, if things had gone differently. It didn’t matter. What mattered is that she had admitted it to herself and she was going to act on it now.

Straddling him, she could feel the muscles of his thighs beneath her, flexing and releasing in turn. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. The lines of his face relaxed, and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly. He looked… content, an expression that looked so alien on his face he was barely recognizable.

I’m doing that for him, she thought. That’s me. She squeezed his thighs with her knees again and his hands crept up to her hips, rested there. It felt good. It felt right.

They stayed that way for a while, his hands loosely resting on her while she circled her hips in barely-perceptible motions, rocking back and forth against him. Bit by bit, her movements became a little quicker, a little more fervent, and his breathing sped to match. His fingers pressed a little more tightly into her hips. She bit her lower lip and rested her hands on his chest; he opened his eyes and looked at her with a half-glazed expression.

Hermione felt a slow, heavy warmth unfolding inside her and realized that she wanted more.

Are you sure? she asked herself. I don’t think there’s any going back from this.

She gave the man beneath her a long, evaluating look. Cruel tongue, she thought, but clever hands, and a brilliant mind. I want him. I’ve wanted him for ages; I just couldn’t admit it.

“I’m going to say something,” she said, “and I want you to let me finish. You’re going to want to interrupt, but don’t.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Giving orders, Miss Granger?” he murmured.

She rolled her hips against him and his fingers gripped her more tightly. “Only making a request,” she said.

He made a lazy thrust upward. She gasped, and he half-smiled. “Go on, then,” he said.

She ran her tongue along her teeth, gathering her nerve. She could feel color coming to her face already, before she’d even said anything.

“I know you don’t think this is real,” she said. He opened his mouth, and she lifted her hand and laid a finger against his lips. “I told you to let me finish. I know you don’t think this is real, but after… after we’re free from here…” He went still, watching her.

She set her chin firmly and met his eyes. “I want more than this,” she said, voice only wavering the slightest bit.

His entire body stiffened and his eyes darkened, instantly losing their distant glazed quality and coming into sharp focus. “Explain,” he said, in the same interrogatory tone she recognized from a hundred times in his classroom.

She caught the inside of her lip against her teeth, not quite knowing how to say what came next. He waited in silence for her to speak, his hands tight against her hips.

“You said,” she began slowly, “that you wouldn’t…” Her face turned bright, crimson red. “Fuck me,” she whispered, the words barely audible. “Not here, not like this.”

He went still.

“But afterward,” she said, “when we’re free…” She licked her lips. His face was an impassive mask, but she could feel his breathing become slightly uneven. “When we’re free,” she repeated, building up her courage, “that’s what I want. With you.”

She felt him swell where she straddled him, and realized with a thrill that her words had aroused him. He gripped her hips so tightly she had to bite her lip to keep from gasping in pain.

“You should not say things like that,” he ground out. “Not least because it will no longer be true once we get out. If we get out.”

“It will,” she said. “I know you don’t believe it. But it will.”

Warring emotions shifted across his face as he absorbed this. “Understand this,” he said finally, sounding hoarse. “I want that as well. More than you can know.”

Her mouth went dry at this blatant acknowledgment of his desire. “But,” he went on, “I will not while you are influenced by the charm, and without the charm, you will not. So it will not happen. It cannot happen.”

She opened her mouth to speak, and he drove his hips upward into her. She gasped, feeling his erection stiff and hard through his trousers. “Shut up,” he said. “It’s my turn.”

She instinctively rocked herself against him, eliciting a low growl from the back of his throat. “When the charm wears off, you will be repulsed by me,” he said. “And if I were a better man, I’d keep my hands off you while you’re in this place.”

She leaned forward, bracing her hands against his chest and brushing her lips against his ear. He took a sharp breath.

“Then,” she whispered into his ear. “I’m glad you’re not a better man.”

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Severus was rapidly losing himself in a fog of need. He’d reached for her, meaning to push her away, and instead he’d somehow pulled her even closer. She was pressed against him so tightly he barely knew where she began and he ended. He could feel her heartbeat against his chest, could feel her breath in his ear. She wants this, he heard in his head like a mantra. She told me. She wants me. Inside her. Would it be so wrong? Would it?

He’d wanted her for the last year, and he’d want her for the rest of his life. He knew his own mind. For better or for worse, this is how he loved: all at once, and forever. If he took her here, in this place, no matter how much she said she wanted it, he would be taking advantage of her, and destroying any chance he ever had of it becoming real. And he would live with that for the rest of his life.

Yes, Severus, but at least you’d have had her.

Hermione brushed her lips against his neck, scraping the skin with her teeth as she withdrew. The hair rose on his arms and his heartbeat felt like thunder. She was clinging to him, her hands in his hair, her mouth on his neck, his cock pressed between the V of her legs. He thought that this might be what going mad felt like.

“It’s not real,” he breathed into her neck. “I don’t want it if it’s not real.”

“I know,” she said, but she didn’t let go. Instead she whispered into his ear, the low vibration of her voice lighting up every nerve ending in his body. “But there are other things we can do. Besides that.”

There was no sense trying to pretend he hadn’t reacted to that; her eyes had widened as soon as she’d felt it.

“Such as?” he said, eyes fixed on her. Her lips were parted slightly and her color was high. She said nothing for so long that he thought perhaps she wasn’t going to answer. But then she drew in a deep breath and took one of his hands from her hip, lifting it to her mouth, brushing her lips across his knuckles. This is when you push her away, Severus. Do it.

She unfolded his hand, extending his fingers. She glanced up at him, her chestnut-brown eyes wide and searching, and then, eyes still trained on him, she took his index finger into her mouth and closed her lips around it.

He was perfectly, completely motionless. He felt as though time itself had stopped around them, and knew with sudden, fearsome certainty that there would be no pushing her away this night. Slowly, tentatively, she drew her tongue along his finger and then he felt the warm, soft, tight pressure of suction. She lifted her eyebrows in question, and he realized that, impossibly, she wanted to know if this was good, if it was all right.

He jerked his head once in assent. She swirled her tongue around his fingertip, sucked at him for another second or two, and then slowly withdrew. The sight of her lips sliding down his finger nearly undid him.

“Such as something...like that,” she said in a small, tentative voice, eyes darting to his face to check his reaction.

The cacophony of reasons this was a bad idea went silent, one by one. She thinks it’s a left-handed charm, he told himself. Maybe it is. Maybe this is real.

You know it’s not, a voice whispered in his mind. But it’s not too late. Not too late to stay on solid ground.

“Yes,” he said, feeling as though he had stepped off the precipice, the earth disappearing below his feet.

Her mouth curled into a small, secretive smile. “Good,” she said in return, her hands already working at his trouser fastenings.

Flying and falling, so much alike. The only difference was in what happened at the end of the journey.

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Hermione felt lightheaded and unsteady. She’d only done this twice before, and hadn’t realized until she heard herself saying it that she was going to offer it to Snape. When he accepted, she felt an exhilarated sort of terror.

Look at him, Hermione, she told herself. His breathing was shallow, his eyes were half-closed, and the fabric of his trousers stretched taut over his obvious erection. He wants you. You can do this.

She worked his belt buckle open while he watched her through heavy-lidded eyes. Once the belt was loose, it was quick work to undo the buttons, seven in a row. She tugged his waistband down just enough to be able to free his cock from the fabric containing it. She stared at it for a moment, catching her bottom lip in her teeth.

His eyes never left her, and his harsh, irregular breathing was the only sound in the room. She carefully wrapped her fingers around his cock, squeezing gently with her left hand. It was impossible not to make comparisons. He was a little bigger than the others she’d seen, enough to make her shiver at the thought of taking him inside her.

Still holding him with her left hand, she bent her head and touched her tongue lightly to the tip. His abdomen jerked and he drew in a sharp breath. Sensitive, she thought. She touched another spot, and another, tracing her tongue in a circle around the head.

Hermione felt a sudden dizzying wave of surreality. You’ve got Professor Snape’s cock in your mouth. Professor Snape. She’d been so convinced for so long that he was working for the side of Dark, that he was the enemy. He’d been a symbol of everything they were fighting against. She’d repressed her attraction to him so severely that she’d been able to convince herself it didn’t even exist.

She pushed that aside. He’s Severus, she told herself, and he’s on the side of Light. And he wants you. As though in illustration of this thought, his abdomen jerked as she licked across a particularly sensitive spot.

She glanced up; his eyes were closed and his head was thrown back, his hands balled into fists around the fabric of the bedclothes. Just as the last time she’d touched him, he needed so very little to bring him close. Touch-starved, she thought, and kissed the tip of his cock, letting her lips slide down over it ever so slightly.

He groaned, which sent a thrill right to her center. I’m making him do that. Making him. She sucked a little, just as she’d done to his finger earlier. She looked up again, just as he opened his eyes to stare down at her. When their eyes met, she felt him jerk, hard, and knew that he liked that— liked seeing her face, liked seeing her mouth around his cock.

She teased him with her tongue for a while longer, little touches and strokes, sucking just a little bit. He didn’t need much. After only a few minutes, she could feel him stiffen and tighten, and his breathing became fast and uneven. She looked up to him. “Close?” she asked, feeling breathless and bold.

“Yes,” he said. “You needn’t—” but she didn’t wait for him to finish before sliding her mouth three-quarters of the way down his cock and gripping the rest tightly in her hand.

“Oh, fuck,” he gasped, and arched his back as though someone had tied a string around his middle and was pulling him toward the ceiling by it. His hands clenched and released the bedclothes, and each ragged breath retracted his abdomen past his rib cage.

Hermione maintained a steady, even pressure and rhythm while the man beneath her slowly lost every shred of his self-control. He began thrusting his hips upward into her, groaning, forming incoherent syllables, arching his back, and at the last, driving his hands through her hair, helplessly writhing under her mouth.

When he came into her, she felt giddy and powerful. She lifted her head afterward and looked to him with blazing eyes.

“I am yours,” he breathed, and let his head fall back onto the pillow, closing his eyes.

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Snape felt as though he were coming back to consciousness after a particularly vivid dream. He looked at Hermione, who was sitting up, legs over the side of the bed, smile playing about her mouth.

She half-turned to meet his gaze. “If it turns out that you’re actually Barty Crouch under there,” she said conversationally, “I am going to murder you.”

He made a short, sharp bark of laughter. “Barty Crouch should be so fucking lucky,” he said.

She grinned, then stood to stretch, staring out the window into the night as she arched her back and worked the stiffness out. She pushed her hair back from where strands had fallen down into her eyes and licked her lips absently. She can taste me there, he thought with a sudden electric jolt.

Clear your mind, he told himself. Time was of the essence—though what they’d just done was time well-spent. His mind was clearer and sharper than it had been in weeks. He pulled his trousers back up over his hips, straightening his clothing to the extent possible.

“There is much to discuss,” he said.

She nodded, still looking through the window. “How much time?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he told her. “Minutes, possibly. Or days. Or weeks.”

She tilted her head to the side, looking thoughtful. “Depending on the globe?”

“Yes, partially,” he said. “There are other factors. Such as how much pressure Voldemort is putting on Malfoy.” He swung his long legs over the side of the bed and rose, finishing tucking his white broadcloth shirt into his trousers. A pleasurable warmth suffused his center.

“Mm,” she said. “How long would you wait if you were him?”

He snorted. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know.”

Hermione turned her head from the window to roll her eyes at him. “Do you always need this much coddling?”

Before he could retort, she went on, “Obviously I’m not equating you with Malfoy; if he were half as clever as you, Voldemort would have taken over the Ministry by now. But presumably you have some insights into the working of this spell, and you’re familiar with Lucius Malfoy. Yes?”

Several biting comments occurred, but the compliment she’d dropped offhandedly soothed his ego enough for him to simply respond, “Yes.”

Her eyes sparkled. “I like you this way,” she said. “We should do this more often.”

The flood of emotion he felt in response to this nearly buckled his knees.

He reflexively stifled it, summoning a quick Occlumency exercise to restore calm. Pull yourself together, Severus. You’re going to work out how to escape from here and then you’re never going to see her again. There is no time for weak-mindedness.

He gave her a tight smile. “To answer your question, I’d ignore the globe, as it wasn’t designed for this purpose. We’ve already spun it the maximum extent, and resetting it would be meaningless. If it were me, I’d wait no less than two days, no longer than a week. Enough time for the, ah...participants, to emotionally bond in the aftermath, but not enough time for them to fully recover from the trauma.”

“Emotionally bond,” she repeated, cocking an eyebrow.

He returned her stare. “Quite,” he said, lacing his hands behind his back. “But,” he went on, “Malfoy, as you point out, is not me, and he may therefore be impatient and bring us in tonight. Or he may be a complete idiot and give us a month to plan. I suspect it will be sooner rather than later, however. I believe that Malfoy is being tested, and so far he’s failing the test. He’s been given far, far longer to extract information from us than any usual interrogation takes. And he has retrieved nothing. He’ll be anxious to have another go.”

“Then let’s be ready,” she said, giving him a piercing look. “I have no desire to repeat what happened last time.”

“Nor do I,” he agreed. The memory of Malfoy sneering and using Sectumsempra to open one of his arteries rose unbidden to his mind. Snape cleared his throat and said, “Under the...circumstances, I was unable to note as much as I’d intended, but I did make a few observations.”

She smiled. “Why don’t I start?” she said. “I made a lot more than a few.”

Chapter Text

Hermione felt hungry for the first time in days. Before they began planning, she checked the cupboard and was pleased to find lunch still waiting there, somewhat cold but still edible. She sat in one of the chairs by the window, plate balanced on her lap, and Snape took the facing chair.

She stabbed what appeared to be a morsel of lamb curry with her fork. “Four things,” she said, before popping the lamb into her mouth and chewing. “One, the sticking charm. Two, Petrificus. Three, Malfoy’s wand. Four, the draft from the door.”

Snape lifted an eyebrow.

“What?” she said, swallowing the lamb and looking at him curiously.

“Perceptive,” he said.

She arched an eyebrow. “You’re not the only one who notices things.”

“Clearly,” he said, eyeing her. “Now, what about the sticking charm?”

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Hermione told Snape what she’d noticed—that the charm worked, but not as effectively as it should have. She’d been able to pull away from the chair. Not enough to escape, but more than the charm should have allowed.

“Both arms and legs?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Just arms. It doesn’t make sense. That charm should either work or not work. It shouldn’t...half work.” She sighed. “It might not even matter. There’s no guarantee he’ll even use the same charm next time.”

Snape snorted. “I’ve observed more of Lucius Malfoy’s torture sessions than I care to number—”

Hermione winced at this; he noticed, and his lips thinned. “Part and parcel of the job, and the last I checked, no one else was volunteering to do it,” he snapped.

She gave him a long look. “All I was thinking,” she said quietly, “is that that sounds like it would be awful.” She wondered if anyone had ever shown him sympathy; he seemed incapable of recognizing it.

His mouth worked silently. “Yes,” he said finally, “well, the point is that I’ve seen how he operates. He is spectacularly unimaginative. The setup will be identical in every respect to the previous one. Same room, same charms, same restraints.”

“That’s difficult to believe,” she said, setting her plate aside. “How could he be so stupid?”

Snape half-shrugged. “It is less stupidity than arrogance,” he said. “Lucius has always believed that no one is cleverer than he.”

Hermione lifted an eyebrow. “Then it is stupidity,” she said. “I mean, he knows you.”

Snape had nothing to say to this, for once looking nonplussed.

“Anyway,” she said, “that helps quite a bit.” She frowned, looking at her arms where they rested on the chair. “Though I still don’t understand why the charm—”

She broke off. Her eyes traveled down her right arm to where her sleeve stopped, rucked to about halfway up her forearm. Snape tracked her gaze.

“The charm,” he said in a low voice. “Did it perhaps only affect—”

“My bare skin,” she finished, staring down at her blouse. “Just my hands and wrists where the blouse didn’t cover. That’s why it felt like it was half-working. Where my sleeves covered me, there was resistance, but not enough to keep me from pulling away.”

She studied the simple, button-front shirt as though it would have answers for her. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve had this for ages. I’ve never charmed it. I—” She stopped mid-sentence, realization arriving like a sudden cloudburst.

“The Weasleys,” she said.

Snape’s face hardened, the lines deepening. “What about Weasley?” he asked.

She frowned and narrowed her eyes. She hadn’t said Weasley, singular. He’d immediately leapt to the conclusion that Ron was involved, apparently. Did he—

“Oh,” she said under her breath. She met Snape’s eyes, which had gone hard and flintlike. “We broke up,” she said. “I suppose no one told you.”

“When?” he asked, with no change of expression, and Hermione knew that her guess had been accurate. He hadn’t said how is that relevant or what are you talking about. Just, when?

“Months ago,” she said.

“Your decision or his?” he asked. His expression was unreadable.

“That’s a bit personal,” she said, flustered. He lifted his eyebrows. Her face grew warm, as she took his unspoken point that not an hour ago she’d been rather more than personal with him.

“Fine,” she said, expelling a breath. “It was my decision. I told him that with the War and my studies it was just too hard to focus on a relationship right now.”

“I’d ask if that was true if it weren’t such an obvious lie,” Snape said.

Hermione glared in irritation. “Yes, it was a lie,” she snapped. “Obviously. Because he’s a friend and I didn’t want to wound him. The real answer is that he’s boring. He’s boring and his favorite things are Quidditch and going to the pub and I’d rather drink Tentacula juice than do that for a single day, much less the rest of my life. Happy?”

He made no reply, but he didn’t have to; she could see the answer plainly in the way the lines eased on his face. She was almost—almost—amused. His reaction had been nothing more than possessiveness. He can’t admit that this is real, but he can’t stand the thought of me pining away over Ron Weasley, either, she thought, followed by: As if.

Something else occurred to her. “If you thought Ron and I were still together,” she said, “then why did you…” She trailed off, but glanced at his bed, her meaning clear.

His mouth lifted at one corner. “Because I don’t give a damn about Ronald Weasley’s love life,” he said.

She met his eyes directly. “As it happens, neither do I,” she said. He gave her a sharp, knowing smirk that she felt all the way to her bones.

“So,” he said, “what did Mr. Weasley have to do with your blouse?”

“Wrong Weasley,” she said. “It was Fred and George, I’m sure of it. They’ve been trying out a shield charm prototype for clothing and other wearables. They wanted to borrow some of my...things,” she said, with a slight grimace.

Snape raised an eyebrow, but she ignored it. She didn’t feel the need to explain that she’d had to have sharp words with them about keeping their grubby hands off her underthings. “I told them they absolutely could not use my clothing for experiments, but obviously they did anyway, and I’m wearing one of their damn prototypes. I’ll have to thank them later. After I slap them.”

His mouth twitched. “I’d rather enjoy watching that,” he said.

“I’ll give you front-row tickets if we make it out of here,” she retorted.

Snape leaned forward, looking more closely at her blouse. He reached for her sleeve, taking the fabric between his thumb and forefinger and studying it like a jeweler with a gemstone. “Clever design,” he murmured. “The charm attaches to each thread of the garment, not to the entire garment as a piece. Nearly undetectable.” He looked up at Hermione and asked, “Are you able to ensure that only your shirt sleeves touch the chair when you sit in it?”

She shrugged lightly. “Of course. I could have done last time if I’d known my blouse had a bloody shield charm on it.”

“Which just leaves your legs,” he said, casting a glance down at them.

“Thread-by-thread enchantment means—” she began, and then trailed off. “Don’t suppose you happen to have a pair of scissors?”

Snape gave her a sardonic smirk. “Miss Granger, you are of my mind entirely.”

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Hermione’s question about scissors had been rhetorical; she’d searched the room thoroughly the first day she’d arrived and knew there were no blades to be found.

“I’ll tear it,” she said. “It’ll be against the grain, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Because the charm was thread-by-thread, they could cut pieces of the shirt away, and each piece, even each individual thread, would retain the full properties of the charm. Thread-by-thread charms were significantly more difficult to cast than whole-garment ones, but the Weasley twins had apparently managed it.

Snape nodded. “Do it,” he said. “But keep the sleeves intact.”

She gave him an are-you-serious look and said, “Oh, should I not turn this into a vest, then?” She half-expected him to cut her down with a withering retort; instead, he merely smirked. It was almost collegial.

We are so many miles away from Hogwarts, she thought.

She’d have to take the shirt off in order to tear it from end to end. She stood and reached for her top button, then glanced at Snape. He’d made no effort to turn away. She realized rather suddenly that she wasn’t ready to be casually unclothed in front of him, that she didn’t want this to be the first time she undid her blouse for him. “Could you…” she said, nodding her head towards the opposite wall.

His mouth turned up in seeming amusement, but he inclined his head in assent and did as she asked, standing and turning away from her, clasping his hands behind his back.

She unbuttoned quickly and shrugged out of the blouse, feeling exposed and vulnerable in only her bra. Just do it quickly, she told herself. She pulled the blouse taut between her hands and started a small tear in it with her teeth, then continued it with her hands. To her relief, the sheer fabric gave way easily and relatively cleanly. When finished, she was left with a scandalously midriff-baring blouse, and a ragged-edged swath of fabric about six inches wide by two and a half feet long. She put what was left of the shirt back on and buttoned the remaining buttons. It covered her to about an inch above her navel.

“All right,” she said. “I’m finished.” Snape turned back around; his eyes drifted down to her exposed abdomen and lingered there. She felt his gaze almost as a physical touch, raising goosebumps on her flesh. She was thoroughly discomfited by the time he returned his eyes to her face. After weeks of denying himself even the ability to look at her, it seemed he wanted to take the opportunity to drink her in.

“Professor,” she breathed unsteadily, “maybe I should get my jumper.”

“Not yet,” he said, without elaborating. His eyes traveled down her body again. Their breathing was the only sound in the room. Hers was slightly elevated and she knew he’d noticed.

The jumper was neatly folded at the foot of her bed, just a few steps away. She glanced over at it, then back to him. No jumper, she decided. If he wanted to look at her, let him. His mouth twitched as though he’d heard her say this aloud, and not for the first time she wondered exactly how many of her thoughts he could read directly from her face.

“Hand that to me,” he said, and without hesitating she gave him the fabric swath.

“You can start making strips out of it,” she said. “I’m going to roll my trousers up.”

“No,” he said. “Take them off.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”

“We need the fabric to extend past your knee at the top. It will be easier if you simply remove your trousers.” His features were impassive, but his eyes gleamed.

He was right, of course, but that didn’t stop her face from growing hot. Hermione, she reasoned with herself, you’ve been intimate with him twice. This shouldn’t be a big deal.

But it felt like it was. He’d never seen her unclothed. And she could tell by the glint in his eye that he very much wanted to. She became suddenly and exquisitely aware of a warmth and a heaviness between her legs.

“All right,” she muttered. “All right.” She gave him a sidelong look and reached for the button of her jeans. Her hands trembled so much that it took two tries to get it undone. He stood silent and still, watching her. She undid the zipper quickly, then hooked her thumbs into the waistband and pushed it past her hips, meeting his eyes, daring him with her expression to say something.

He held her gaze just for a moment and then dropped his eyes to her hips, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. Bastard, she thought. He knew she was uncomfortable, and he liked it.

Though you haven’t exactly told him to stop looking again, have you? said a voice somewhere in her mind. She ignored it, sliding her jeans all the way down and stepping out of them. She now stood before Snape wearing only a pair of knickers and a midriff-baring blouse. His eyes traveled up and down her body and his lips parted slightly, the faintest tinge of color touching his cheeks. She felt more self-conscious than ever, having never before been openly admired this way.

“Happy?” she said, with an edge to her voice.

“Yes,” he said simply, and she felt goosebumps rise on her skin again. “Sit down,” he said, and she did, easing herself into the wooden chair.

His eyes never leaving her bare stomach and thighs, he used his teeth to tear the length of fabric into two pieces, and then each into two again, and then he knelt before her.

Her heart skipped a beat. “I can do this myself, you know,” she said.

“I am aware,” he murmured. He knotted two of the strips together at her ankle and then began winding them around her left leg, slowly working his way upwards, elegant fingers brushing against her skin as he worked. He crossed the strips over and back in a lattice pattern, with each loop perfectly equidistant from the previous one. When they were criss-crossed from ankle to knee he slid his hand beneath her upper thigh to pass the fabric beneath it, made a figure-8 loop, and then secured the end in a snug knot.  “Comfortable?” he asked.

She nodded mutely, and he began again with her right leg. He was touching her more than was strictly necessary, Hermione thought, his fingers sliding across her calves and behind her knee and along the top of her thigh...and drifting to her inner thighs.

Her breath caught in her throat and she looked down at him. His head was bent, studying his handiwork, his hair falling around his face and brushing against her legs. “If you keep that up,” she said, trying with limited success to keep her voice from wavering, “we’re not even going to get to the second point on my list tonight.”

He turned his head and let his lips brush against the skin of her inner thigh. She gripped the sides of the chair, stiffening in surprise. Another kiss a little higher up, and then a third. A barely-suppressed moan escaped her throat as a wash of desire flooded through her.

“Well,” he murmured, looking up at her, “we can’t have that.” He let his fingers trail along her bound and wrapped legs and withdrew, rising to his feet again and returning to his chair. She watched him with wide eyes and parted lips, her hands white-knuckled on the arms of the chair.

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He shouldn’t have done it; they didn’t have time for delays, and touching her was dangerous. Every time he came near to her it felt like she was trapping him in her gravity, his orbit slowly collapsing into hers.

But while there might be a man who could have knelt between her bare thighs without touching, without taking, he was not that man. And hearing her moan had been well worth it.

Well worth it.

“The shield charm is not perfect,” he told her, “and we do not have enough fabric to cover your legs completely. So you may need to expend quite a bit of effort to free yourself, but I believe it is within your capability.” Hermione nodded. Her eyes were still wide and fixed on him, he noted with satisfaction. “I admit,” he said, “I am not entirely pleased with owing a debt of gratitude to Fred and George bloody Weasley.”

“You’re not the only one,” she said dryly, regaining some of her composure. She rose from the chair, shifting from leg to leg, testing out the feel of the bindings. She bent to retrieve her jeans and began gingerly pulling them on over the lacings around her legs.

“Your second point?” he said as she was buttoning the last button. “Petrificus, as I recall.”

She folded her arms over her chest and went still, looking out the window. She took a deep breath. “I’ve had some time to think about this one,” she said. “And I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

Chapter Text

Hermione was unsurprised to find that she was right. He didn’t like it at all.

“You are imagining things,” he said flatly. He stood with the window at his back, arms crossed over his chest, looking strangely open and vulnerable in just his white shirt and black trousers.  “That is not how spells work.”

She’d told him about thinking Petrificus at Malfoy and seeing him stumble, and about subsequently trying Expelliarmus and seeing him fumble his wand.

She expelled a loud breath from where she sat on the edge of his bed facing him. “I may technically be a drop-out at the moment, but you may recall that I did spend several years at Hogwarts, so thank you, but I am well aware of how spells work.

“Are you?” he shot back. “Via exactly what mechanism do you believe spells work with no wand and no vocalization? It is simply not possible.”

If he didn’t like the first part, he’s really going to hate this part, she thought.

“Sympathetic magic,” she said. He blinked, stared at her for several long seconds.

“No,” he finally said.

“Think about it,” she said.

He gave her a withering look. “It is not possible, and therefore there is no point.”

“It is possible,” she told him, refusing to lose her composure, “and I think we can use it.”

Over the previous several days, Hermione had spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling and replaying the events of their interrogation. She’d come up with a handful of possible explanations for what she’d observed and had ranked them by probability.

Least probable: She’d imagined it. Even under extreme duress, she’d never been prone to hallucinations, and it seemed unlikely that she’d start now.

Slightly more probable: It was coincidence. But it would be quite a coincidence for Malfoy to falter in ways that perfectly matched the spells she’d projected at him twice. Not impossible, but highly improbable.

And then... there was sympathetic magic.

It was widely known that wizarding couples’ magic worked a little better when they were near to each other. One of the pair would instinctively draw on the other’s magic; the two intertwined had a subtle amplifying effect, allowing a wizard to speed up a cleaning spell, or a witch to perform a particularly seamless Reparo on a broken dish.

But what few had ever witnessed was the rare and extraordinarily powerful magical intertwining known as sympathetic magic.

“No,” Snape said.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” she retorted, undeterred. “It’s mentioned in An Unabridged History of Wizarding England—wizards and witches who performed magic that should have been well outside the realm of the possible. Apparating across continents. Freezing an entire river into ice. Levitating a building.”

“Children’s storybook tales,” he said dismissively.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “I don’t know about you, but my childhood storybooks didn’t come from the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts Library,” she said. “And I think making someone stumble with an unvocalized Petrificus spell is a lot less difficult than freezing a bloody river.”

Snape scowled. “If it exists at all, which I doubt, sympathetic magic of the sort you’re talking about is rare as firedrake scales. And—” He stopped abruptly.

She cocked her head slightly, waiting for him to finish.

He forced out the next words as though they caused him physical pain. “We do not...meet the criteria.”

According to the books, three things had to be true for true sympathetic magic to be possible. First, the wizards or witches had to be extraordinarily powerful magicians in their own right. Second, they had to be in mortal peril.

And third, they had to be in love.

“Don’t we?” she said softly. They’d come to the crux of the argument, she thought.

He closed his eyes for a long moment. “If it exists, which I do not concede, it is ancient magic. Deep magic. Magic like that does not work on artificial love such as that induced by potions, spells, or charms. You know this, Miss Granger.”

He turned away from her to stare out the window, hands clasped behind him so tightly his knuckles were white.

She rose and went to his side, leaning against the window so that she could see his face, so close that their left shoulders were touching.

“Severus,” she said. His eyes shifted to her at the sound of his name, then back to the window. “Is it so very impossible to believe that this is real?”

He was silent for a long while. She thought of the little she knew of his past. None of it was good, and she suspected that what she didn’t know was even more horrid than what she did. That might go some way toward explaining why one of the most logically-minded people she knew was rejecting all of the evidence leading him to an obvious conclusion.

“It is,” he said at last, drawing her attention back to him. He moved away from the window and sat heavily in the wooden chair nearest to him. Hermione guardedly perched on the edge of the other one.

Snape looked suddenly very tired, his face gaunt and drawn. “There is every chance that we will die in this place, so there is little reason for me not to tell you certain things.” He glanced at her. “I know it is not in your nature to listen without comment, but for once please do me the favor.”

She gave a short, tremulous nod.

“You ask,” he said, “if it is impossible to believe that someone might love me; I can tell you only that no one ever has. My life seems closed to it, rejecting it as an organism does a pathogen.”

A protest rose to her lips, but at a glance from him, she stifled it.

“I have fallen in love exactly twice,” he said. “Once with a woman who was kind to me, and once...” He looked at Hermione through hooded eyes. “Once with a woman whose mind excites me.”

Hermione felt the beat of her heart in her throat. The room seemed suddenly vast and limitless around them, with herself and Snape forming a tight nucleus in the center.

“The first is...gone,” Snape went on, the shadow of ancient pain crossing his features. His voice was rough but steady. “And the second does not return my love, though she has been made to believe she does,” he said. “Thanks to a charm that will cease its effects as soon as she leaves its influence.”

In the wake of his confession, the room was utterly silent. Hermione held perfectly still, feeling that the slightest movement would shatter this fragile moment.

“The irony that it is a charm of my own invention has not escaped me,” he said. “At any rate, odd as it is to say, the days we have spent here have been…a gift.” His face was open and unguarded, a rare sight that left her nearly breathless.

“But it is not real. And it was wrong of me to indulge. When we leave here, the effect of the charm will fade within a week. You will remember how I behaved toward you here, and you will despise me even more than you did before.”

He rose from the chair, clasped his hands behind his back, and gave her a tight, bleak smile. “I will not see you again.”

She blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. “I have never despised you,” she managed. He closed his eyes briefly and inclined his head slightly as though to say, nonetheless.

Hermione felt as though she were experiencing every emotion all at once, from joy to despair to fury, flooding through her like a storm-swollen river. Too much, she thought. This is too much. I need to focus on what I know.

I know that he loves me.

I know that I love him.

And I know that he is being a fool.

Suddenly Hermione heard herself saying, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Her eyes flew wide open and she had to stop herself from clapping a hand over her mouth. Snape raised both eyebrows, looking almost comically astonished.

In for a penny, she thought, straightening her back and tilting her chin upward.

“I never despised you,” she repeated more loudly. “You’re dead wrong about that. So it is just possible that you’re wrong about the rest too, Professor.” She rose from the chair and began to pace restlessly. “I’m not stupid, you know,” she said. “I’ve been charmed before. I’ve been spelled, I’ve been hexed, I’ve been cursed. I know what it feels like.”

She stopped pacing and fixed him with a stare. “Did you feel the charm working when you got here?”

When he didn’t answer, she demanded, “Did you?”

“Yes,” he said. His eyes held an emotion she couldn’t quite make out.

“Well, I didn’t,” she said.

“The effects are deliberately subtle—” he began, but she cut him off.

“No. Shut up,” she said, raising her voice and moving towards him. “I don’t care about the damned charm. I care about you, and I am telling you that I felt something in that gods-damned interrogation room. I don’t know if it was your magic. Maybe it wasn’t. But it was something, and it was powerful, and you have to trust me because I am not coming back to this fucking room alone again.”

By the end she was shouting, so close to him they were nearly touching, with tears streaming down her face.

She expected him to shout in return, or favor her with a sarcastic deflection, but to her great surprise he silently drew her into his arms. Wracked with sobs, she laid her head on his chest while he held her, hand pressed against her head.

After a few minutes her tears began to subside. “Please,” she said into his shirt. “You have to have faith in me.”

“I can’t,” he said, voice thick with emotion. “Not...not here.”

With her head pressed against his chest she could hear his heartbeat in time with hers, forming an intricate, syncopated rhythm. She looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes and said, “Then have faith in us. We’re the best weapon in this war.”

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I am lost, Snape thought. Lost in a wilderness with no compass and no stars. He felt Hermione’s chest rise and fall against his and heard her words reverberating in his ears.

Have faith in us.

In the deep, cold, calculating part of his mind where his reason lived, he knew that she was wrong. That she would leave him as soon as she was gone from this place. That he had spoken the truth when he’d said that he would never see her again.

A great, yawning loss waited for him, just ahead and out of sight, large enough to swallow him whole. The rest of his life, without her in it. He’d tried to avoid thinking about it since the first time she’d kissed him. But time, as it always does, had brought him nearly to that nightmare place.

We are the best weapon in this war.

His own words, as true now as they’d been when he’d first spoken them. Each day that they remained confined in this place was a day the war went on without them. She was needed. They were needed. And if they didn’t manage to escape this interrogation, Malfoy would likely finish the job he’d started last time.

When he’d arrived here, he’d wanted to die. He’d have welcomed it, at Malfoy’s hands or anyone else’s. He’d wanted to stop the constant deception, wanted to stop serving two masters, wanted to just… stop.

And then she’d come, and little by little, against his own resistance, their minds had begun working perfectly in tandem. She anticipated his thoughts and elaborated on them; he took her insights and refined them. Two minds working as one, something he had never experienced with any other person. Being with her was brilliant, breathtaking.

And perhaps...perhaps there would be something to salvage, afterward. Some shred of friendship. Something better than dying here in this wretched place.

He bent his head to rest it in Hermione’s hair. Perhaps I could find a moment of faith, he thought. Just enough to take us back to the world, and back to the war. He felt as though he were still falling from a great and terrible height. Falling, or perhaps flying... the only difference was in what happened at the end of the journey.

“I can’t promise you that you won’t come back here alone,” he said, muffled into her hair. “I can’t promise that. But I can promise to believe you. And I can promise that only death will stop me from escaping this place with you.”

She went still.

“That is all I can give. Is it enough?” he asked.

Softly, barely audible, he heard her say, “It is.”

He took her head between his hands and tilted it upward so that he could meet her eyes. “Good,” he said. “Let us plan.”

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Snape returned to his bed, propping himself up on pillows as he had before, and Hermione sat in one of the chairs, stretching her legs out and using the end of Snape’s bed as a footrest.

“So you concede that I felt your magic during the last interrogation?” she asked.

“I concede that it is possible,” he said, regarding her with a gimlet eye. “But even if that were the case, the point remains that...regardless of our feelings for each other, true sympathetic magic only manifests in times of mortal peril.”

Hermione pressed her lips together. “Are you implying that we will not be in mortal danger?”

“No,” he said. “I am suggesting that it might be advantageous for us to effect our escape prior to that point.”

Hermione fell silent, irritated despite herself. His arrogance would be easier to take if he weren’t also right so much of the time.

“And,” he continued, relentless, “ancient magic is—”

“Unpredictable, unknowable, and unreliable,” she interjected with a sigh. “Is that about the shape of it?”

He inclined his head. “As you say.”

She leaned her head back onto the chair, staring up at the ceiling. “I don’t suppose you have a better idea?”

“Point three,” Snape said in response. “Malfoy’s wand.”

Hermione blinked. She hadn’t thought he was paying that much attention to her list from earlier. She was used to being around Harry and Ron, who tended to tune out after the first sentence or two of whatever she was saying. “Right,” she said. “He keeps it in the front breast pocket of his jacket. Very easy to Expelliarmus, or honestly just grab.”

Snape made a tsk-tsk sound. “Terrible wand discipline,” he said.

“Did he even go to Defense Against the Dark Arts class?” Hermione asked. “Although I’ve never been sure why Slytherins bother. No offense,” she added, seeing Snape’s eyebrow arch disapprovingly.

“Lucius must be incapacitated before his wand is taken from him, however,” Snape said. “Otherwise, point four.”

“Right,” she said. “The draft from the door. Where air travels, sound travels.”

“Yes,” he said. “We’ll have two or more Death Eaters storming through the door before you even have a chance to undo my restraints. He must be silenced or rendered unconscious before they can be alerted.”

She frowned at him. “I can’t do Silencio without a wand.”

“I can,” he said, his mouth curling into a smirk.

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “You’ve had this plan from the beginning, haven’t you?”

“No,” he said. She eyed him skeptically.

“Not from the beginning,” he said. “Only from when you outlined your list.”

Arrogant bastard, she thought. “Just don’t forget it was my list.”

“Obviously,” he said, his smirk deepening nearly into a grin.

She shot him a withering glance. “Let’s go over the plan again, start to finish. I want to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything.”

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A few hours of discussion later, they’d settled on a plan both were satisfied with and the gray light of dawn was filtering through the window.

One day closer to the end, Snape thought.

Hermione stood from her chair and stretched, working the stiffness out of her muscles. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, wincing slightly as his back briefly contacted the headboard.

Her brow furrowed. “How bad is it?” she asked. “They had you for five days. I’d thought that would be more than enough to heal you.”

“It was,” he said. “If they’d wanted to. They merely restored my blood, which takes some time even when you haven’t lost almost half of it at once. Malfoy was only trying to keep me alive, not preserve me from suffering.”

“Can I see?” she said. Her voice sounded perfectly neutral and natural, as though she’d asked him nothing more than to show her where the fluxweed was located on the shelves. But her eyes were dark, and the atmosphere between them felt suddenly charged.

His reflexive instinct was to tell her no, to keep from letting her touch him. But there is no need now, he thought. Let her touch. Let her see.

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Wordlessly, Snape began unbuttoning his shirt. When he was done, Hermione helped him slide the shirt from his shoulders; she hung it on the back of the chair where his frock coat had hung before.

She’d seen him bare-chested in the interrogation room, but trauma and stress had kept her from fully processing it. Now she took her time, letting her eyes travel over his body. He had a narrow chest, pale and scarred, and so gaunt that she could make out the outline of his rib cage. His abdomen was flat with just the outline of muscles; a thin line of dark hair descended from just below his navel.

He watched her avid gaze. “Happy?” he asked in a low voice.

“Yes,” she said.

She moved to the other side of the bed and climbed onto it, kneeling behind him on the mattress. When she saw his wounds, she had to bite her lip to keep from gasping. His back bore the angry, welted words Malfoy had carved into him, still seeping in a few places. And there was one gash in the shape of a half-moon that stretched from shoulder blade to just under his armpit. He sat perfectly still, allowing her to look at him.

“The cuts were deep,” she said finally. “They look...bad. The Sectumsempra one especially.”

“That one will never fully heal,” he said. “I’ll bear the scar. The others will clear up as soon as I get to a proper healer.”

Hermione leaned in close, careful to avoid his wounds. She left a light, delicate kiss in the hollow of his neck, just where it met his shoulder. The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and a satisfied smile touched her lips.

Not bothering with putting his shirt back on, he gingerly lowered himself to the bed, positioning himself on his side to face her. Her eyes traveled over his bare chest and belly, then to his face. The need she saw in his eyes made her breathless.

“Lie with me,” he whispered.

She carefully crawled in next to him and rested her head next to his chest. He let his arm lie on her, and they stayed that way in silence for a time, watching the room slowly brighten.

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He was drifting in and out of the trance-like state of early sleep when she said, “I’m afraid.”

He opened his eyes and saw that she was looking up at him. “I don’t know if our plan is good enough,” she said. “We might have forgotten something. If something goes wrong, he’s going to kill you. He almost did last time.”

Snape stroked her hair. “No plan is ever perfect,” he said. “All you can ever hope for is good enough. Good enough to survive.”

“Is ours good enough to survive?” she said.

“Possibly,” he said. “And possibly not.”

She lifted herself up on an elbow so that she could look directly into his face. “Severus,” she said, “if you die... I will kill him.”

Her eyes were deadly calm, and her voice didn’t waver.

He meant to tell her that she needn’t do that, that it would be dangerous to even try, but instead he took her head in his hands and brought her mouth to his. She made a little noise and pressed herself tightly against him, lacing her fingers through his hair. It lasted ages, slow and languorous, neither of them wanting to break contact. When she finally drew away, he traced her cheekbone with his thumb, looking into her eyes.

“When we leave here,” he said, his voice low and intense, “the charm will take a week or two to wear off.”

She opened her mouth to respond, but he pressed a finger against her lips. “Listen. You must stay away from me for a full month. Do not look for me, do not owl me, do not attempt to visit me. No contact whatsoever. If at the end of that month you still…”

He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “If you still… want me,” he said, forcing the words out, “then come to me.”

“One month,” she whispered.

“The charm will have worn off completely,” he said, “and your feelings will be truly yours.”

She repeated, “One month.”

Somehow, some way, false hope had wormed its way into his soul. It would end badly; hope had always ended badly for him, and it would again this time. And yet it remained, a tiny pinpoint of light in an otherwise ruined landscape.

The woman he loved laid her head down on his chest, and he held her in his arms, feeling the rays of the morning sun upon their bodies. After only a few minutes, her breathing became slow and regular, and shortly afterward his did as well, sleep taking them both at last.

Chapter Text

Hermione woke in the early afternoon to the sound of rain pattering against the window. She gently extricated herself from Snape and got out of bed, going to the window to watch the rain fall, pressing her hands against the bars. He stirred behind her.

“I need to breathe fresh air again,” she said. “I need to feel the rain.”

She turned to Snape, knowing that he’d be sitting up in bed watching her. “The other couple,” she said. “The ones that were here before. How long were they here?”

He arched his eyebrows, but she merely waited for his answer. “A week and a half,” he told her.

Hermione absorbed this information. “Fast,” she said.

“They already liked each other,” he said.

She gave him a skeptical look. “I already liked you,” she said.

He inclined his head in acknowledgment. “They already liked each other and they lacked defensive training. They were also unaware of the nature of the room.”

“Mm,” she said thoughtfully. Then she furrowed her brow. “Wait, they should give proof of my theory. The woman, was she affected as much as the man?”

Snape looked at her for quite some time before answering. “They were both men,” he said at last. “And no,” he said, seeing the expression on her face, “that proves nothing.”

“You didn’t mention it before,” she pointed out.

“Because it is irrelevant,” he said. But Hermione felt vindicated. The room had been successful, yes, but never on a woman.

Another of the long silences she’d become accustomed to stretched out. She watched the leaves of the rowan tree shaking and trembling as raindrops fell onto them, watched rivulets stream from the eaves of the house and spatter onto the lawn in widening puddles.

After a while Snape joined her at the window, saying nothing, watching the rain alongside her, his shoulder nearly touching hers. She did not acknowledge him, because there was no need.

“Do you really think I could have been published in the Alchemist’s Journal?” she said, some time later.

His mouth twitched. “I thought you might come back to that. No, they’d never have accepted a submission from a Hogwarts student. It’s simply not done. But apart from that…” He half-turned to glance at her. “Yes.”

“I’m not a Hogwarts student anymore,” she said, watching the rain.

“Indeed,” he said.

They lapsed into silence again. Some time later, the rain lessened, and the clouds began to clear off. The orange-red light of sunset shone through the patchy remnants, glinting off the puddles on the lawn and giving the impression of some great conflagration just out of sight.

“It’s late,” she said. “Do you think it will be today?”

He didn’t need to ask what she meant. “Malfoy likes to start first thing in the morning,” he said. “So I doubt it.”

“I’m sick of waiting,” she said.

“I’m not,” he murmured.

Hermione felt a tension in the air, reminiscent of standing next to the high-tension power lines in the town where she’d grown up. She turned to him. “I will come to you,” she said.

His lips thinned. “Do not make promises you can’t keep.”

She knew better than to make further protestations. He was right; nothing she said now mattered. What mattered was what she did after they made it out. If they made it out.

The sun hung low on the horizon when he spoke once more. “If you are indeed tired of waiting…” He gazed out the window without even glancing at her and said, “We could attempt to speed the timetable again.”

Her heart sped up and warmth expanded low in her belly. She wet her lips. “Would that work?” she asked.

He met her eyes, his own black and bottomless. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps not. I find I don’t particularly care.”

“Nor I,” she told him, and the slow, wicked smirk that materialized on his face made her knees go watery and weak.

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Hermione touched her hands lightly to his chest and let them trail down the front of his shirt. “You know,” she said in a teasing voice, “I think the bindings you put on my legs may have come a little loose.”

A muscle worked in his jaw. “Have they,” he murmured.

She nodded earnestly. “You should probably check.”

“You should take more care, Miss Granger,” he said, the words unrolling like slippery satin.

“I suppose I should, Professor,” she breathed in return. She’d never played a game like this; it felt exhilarating, almost dizzying.

His fingers found the button of her jeans; he undid it, and slipped his hands inside her waistband, sliding his long fingers against her bare skin.

“Take them off,” she whispered, feeling bold. He did, pushing the fabric past her hips, letting it slide down to her ankles, where she stepped gracefully out of it. Without taking his hands from her, he glanced down and murmured, “The bindings look fine from up here.”

She wondered how often he’d played a game like this. Though it was less of a game than...a dance, she thought. Her mind drifted to how this dance might end and she felt her eyes flutter closed for a moment.

“Perhaps closer investigation is warranted,” he said, and she bit her lower lip and nodded.

“Sit,” he told her. She did, perching on the edge of the bed with her knees pressed together. He knelt before her, graceful and fluid, so close to her his shirt touched her legs. She stiffened slightly, and a faint smirk touched his mouth. He rested his hands atop her knees and slowly pushed them apart.

This is really happening, she thought disjointedly. Really, really happening.

Snape lowered his head so that his nose just touched the top of her left thigh where the strips of torn blouse were knotted. His breath was hot against her skin; her own breathing was shallow and rapid. She could only see the top of his head, and his hair hanging down like a curtain, and his long, elegant fingers splayed out over the tops of her thighs. She felt the whisper-soft sensation of his lips brushing against her skin, and she gasped, curling her fingers around the bedclothes.

Another kiss higher up, and another. He trailed kisses all the way up her inner thigh, slow and deliberate, until he reached the hem of her knickers. He hooked his thumbs underneath the elastic and tugged; she lifted her hips to assist, and in no more than a moment, they were gone, forgotten on the floor.

She felt blatantly, shockingly exposed, knowing that now there was nothing between her and Severus. She was so tense that her muscles were trembling.

And then her mind went completely blank with shock, because he brushed his lips gently against her folds. He did it once, then again, and then she felt a faint velvety sensation that she realized was his tongue. She instinctively stiffened at the unfamiliar sensation, taking in a sharp breath.

Withdrawing, he looked up to search her face. She knew her eyes were wide and imagined she looked like nothing so much as a rabbit caught in a snare, but her heart was beating too fast to allow her to relax. Gazing into her eyes, he appeared to come to a decision. “I need to see your face,” he said, in a voice that was not ungentle, but equally brooked no argument. “Lie down.”

She did as he asked, lowering herself so that she was half-reclined against the bed pillow. He watched her there for a moment, resting his hand on her leg while the racing of her heart slowed.

After a moment he rose, never taking his eyes from her face, and sat next to her on the bed. “You have me at a disadvantage,” he said.

She didn’t understand, but before she could answer, he slid his hand between her thighs, pushing them apart slightly, and gently brushed a finger along her outermost folds. She stiffened again; this time he watched her face intently. He rested his hand motionless until she relaxed, then began stroking with a feather-light touch. This time her eyes fluttered slightly and she did not stiffen. His mouth turned up barely perceptibly.

He is studying me, she thought. Learning me.

“I told you of when I first wanted you,” he said. His eyes hawklike, he slid his finger back and forth, pressing just a little bit deeper each time. After a few moments, she lifted her hips to meet him and his finger slipped into her. She caught her breath.

He raised an eyebrow in question, and she gave a slight jerking nod. He pushed deeper, sliding in all the way to the joint, flexing slightly inside her. She gasped at the sensation and let her legs fall a little further apart. Ron had never touched her this way—probably, she thought, couldn’t have touched her this way, agile and dextrous and clever.

“But you have not told me,” Snape said, “when you felt the same for me.” He moved his hand inside her, each motion eliciting a little thrill of pleasure. He was a quick study, cataloging every facial expression, every noise, learning rapidly what she liked and what she didn’t. Within moments she was rocking her hips rhythmically against him and trying without success to stifle her moans.

“Perhaps,” he said, pressing inside her in a way that made her mind turn to white static, “it was while we have been here.”

Thank Merlin that isn’t true, she thought, because I couldn’t lie to him right now if I tried.

“No,” she gasped, finding it hard to articulate words.

The corner of his mouth turned up slightly. “I’m not convinced,” he murmured, his eyes glinting. Before she could reply, he slowly slid a second finger into her alongside the first. “Merlin,” she gasped, closing her eyes momentarily.

He pressed both fingers in tandem, exactly where he’d been touching her with just one, and she felt as though little electric charges were going off inside her. He pulsed his fingers in a slow, steady rhythm, and Hermione openly gasped and moaned, no longer caring about the noises she made.

“I’m going to have to take marks off for that rather poorly-articulated answer,” he said, his lip curling into a smirk. “I’ll ask you again: was it here?”

If he would stop for just five seconds I could think. But he clearly didn’t mean to, so she managed to force out, “No, it was—oh god—it was in your… in your bloody classroom, where bloody else?”

“Language, Miss Granger,” he said, and did something with his hand inside her that made her arch her back and gasp. The blankets shifted under her and she realized she’d grabbed large fistfuls of bedclothes, gripping them with white knuckles.

“Do you want me to tell you or not?” she managed.

“Very much,” he said, but he didn’t stop moving his fingers.

Stop fighting it, she thought. Just let it happen. She released the bedclothes and let her hips rise in time with his fingers pulsing inside her. Her head fell back against the pillow and she met his eyes. He looked hungry, vulpine. Needful.

“Your classroom,” she repeated. “You were cutting fluxweed. While we worked. Ron asked me something about—” She lost her train of thought and stared at him with unfocused eyes; he’d discovered another sensitive spot inside her.

“Continue, Miss Granger,” he said.

“Yes, Professor,” she said, and his eyes gleamed. “Ron asked something about the taste of Polyjuice and I told him that...that it depends. Pansy Parkinson laughed at me and said I obviously didn’t know the answer.” She broke off, lifting her hips against the pressure of his hand. “Severus,” she gasped.

His lips parted and his eyes were deep black pools. “Continue,” he said.

I can’t, she thought, but she would have done anything he said in that moment, helpless and vulnerable to his touch.

“You...you looked up and you said, Miss Parkinson, you are incorrect as usual. You told her that Polyjuice is different depending on the person being imitated, and you told me to...to name a….” He let his thumb come to rest against her clitoris, producing a warm tingling sensation that began expanding outward from her center. She felt a sudden wash of uncontrolled emotion sweep through her and thought frantically for a moment that she might actually start to cry.

“To name a contributing factor,” she managed, holding herself together by what felt like the thinnest of threads. “I said that...that tall people produced a le...le-he-mony flavor, and you looked at Pansy and you said, you see, of course she knows. And I watched your hands the whole time and they never ever stopped, you were perfect, and I just…. I just wanted you,” she said, meeting his eyes and feeling as though she were coming apart at the seams.

“These hands?” he asked in a low voice, pulsing his fingers inside and circling his thumb against her.

No longer able to speak, she could only nod, biting her lip. She felt as though a balloon were expanding inside her, filling her. She bore down on his fingers, squeezing them tightly; he made a low growl and his eyes narrowed. I want you, she wanted to say, I need you, but no words emerged, only a long, low moan.

He looked directly into her eyes and said, “Give this to me,” and she did, the orgasm moving like slow fire from her center outwards, sending her hips thrusting upwards and her fists clenching bedclothes on one side and the fabric of his shirt on the other. Time seemed to slow as it surged through her like a rising tide, while she writhed and cried out his name, losing herself in the flood.

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He withdrew his hand, watching her come down slowly. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks flushed, one knee pulled up and her hand resting on his forearm. Her hair was fanned out on the pillow in curls and tangles, and she looked beautiful and wild. Regardless of what happened later, he knew that this image would be seared into his mind for the rest of his life, there for the taking whenever he closed his eyes.

He well remembered the incident Granger had described. He’d begun to take notice of her already and had used the familiar motions of ingredient preparation to still his sudden desire to defend her against Parkinson. As though Hermione had ever needed him, or anyone, to defend her.

She is magnificent, he thought. She opened her eyes, almost as though she’d heard him, and smiled.

“You can’t possibly believe this is still the charm,” she said, her voice lazy and soft as though she’d just woken from sleep.

He said nothing, but she read his face and frowned.

“Severus,” she said, “are you trying to tell me that your charm can implant false memories in people?”

He shifted on the bed, withdrew his hand from where it had lain on her thigh. “I don’t know,” he said. “I know that it is powerful. I know that it is not in my nature to exhibit such a...startling lack of self-control.”

He’d sworn on arrival that he would never touch her, would not even look at or speak to her, and it should have been well within his capabilities to keep that vow. But she’d chipped away at his defenses, aided unknowingly by the charm, and now…he thought of how she’d writhed under his hands a few minutes before.

“Not that I am complaining,” he added, eliciting a grin on Hermione’s face that nearly took his breath away.

“Good,” she said.

“We should prepare,” he said. “There is an excellent chance that they will come tomorrow morning.”

She sat up, crossing her legs under herself on the bed. “Set off the charm, did we?”

“The globe will be spinning like a top,” he said, and her mouth curved into an impish grin.

“Does this mean I have to sleep in my jumper?” she said.

“Yes,” he told her. “We can’t risk having them see that your shirt—” He broke off, seeing from the smirk on her face that she’d already known the answer.

“You don’t say,” she said, unfolding herself from the bed and stretching, arching her back like a cat. “I suppose I should be more nervous about tomorrow, but somehow right now I can’t quite bring myself to worry about it.”

He felt much the same himself, he realized with some surprise. That, too, was not in his nature. He closed his eyes momentarily and remembered Hermione crying out his name, consumed with pleasure he had given her. She may walk out of my life and never return, he thought, but that moment was enough for a lifetime.

He felt a prickling at his neck and thought of beds without her in them, and felt the cold wind of an empty future swirling at his back.

Almost enough.

Chapter Text

Later, after dark had fallen and the full moon was visible high in the night sky, Hermione stood at the window, staring at the rowan tree, hands clasped behind her back. She heard Snape shift behind her in the bed.

“I can’t sleep,” she told him.

“Clearly,” he said.

“How many Death Eaters are in this building?” she asked. “How many might he have with him?”

She heard faint rustling sounds, and then the floorboards creaking. A moment later, she felt the warmth of his presence behind her. “Going over this again is not necessary,” he said. “You know the plan, and we will both execute it to the extent we are able. There is nothing more we can do tonight.”

“You told me there would likely be two outside the room and none inside the room. How many in the building?” she asked again.

“Hermione,” he said.

“How many?” she asked, implacable.

He exhaled. “As few as five or as many as two dozen,” he said. “Or a hundred, if we’re unlucky enough to coincide with a Dark Revel.”

She chewed her lip. “And you know the way out.”

He moved closer, bringing them shoulder to shoulder. “Yes. I am familiar with this house and its grounds. There are three exits we can reach within five minutes.”

“You’ll silence him, I’ll get his wand, I’ll use the wand to release you, we’ll incapacitate Malfoy and then the guards, and you’ll lead us outside before anyone notices.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Sounds easy.”

He glanced at her. “It won’t be.”

She lapsed into silence, watching the rowan tree in silhouette, its leaves trembling slightly in the night breeze. This room had become so familiar to her over the last several weeks that it held an odd sort of comfort. Standing here at Snape’s side felt safe. It was difficult to comprehend the fact that within hours they could be back in the interrogation room.

Within hours we could both be dead.

“It’s like the eye of a storm,” she said. He turned his head toward her. “You’re safe where you stand, and everything looks normal, but…”

“...the storm is coming,” he finished. “Yes.”

She turned toward him, searching his face. “I don’t want to die, Severus.”

“Then let’s not,” he said, and slid his arm around her waist, drawing her to his side. She rested her head on his shoulder, and for a while they said no more, listening to the silence and watching the moon traverse the sky.

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In the early hours of the morning, as the sky was just beginning to streak gray with dawn, Hermione felt a distant tremor in the floorboards. She and Snape sat in the wooden chairs; she’d been unable to sleep, and he’d been unwilling to leave her side.

“It’s time,” she said. “Isn’t it?”

He stood wordlessly, extending a hand to her. She took it, rising to face him.

“Are you ready?” he asked, still clasping her hand in his own.

“No,” she said. “Not really.”

The ghost of amusement touched his eyes for a moment. “That is perhaps for the best,” he said. “Stay sharp.”

The vibrations grew louder, now coming from the same level of the mansion. She squeezed his hand. “I don’t regret any of this,” she said. “Even if… even if it turns out it was all due to the charm. I don’t regret a minute of it.”

“Nor do I,” he said, eyes burning black,  “and I hope someday you will forgive me for that.”

Before she could respond, the door slammed open and four masked Death Eaters burst through it, wands out. “Don’t resist!” one of them shouted.

Snape shot him a withering look. “Does it look like we’re resisting?” Two Death Eaters grabbed him, one by each arm, and Snape rolled his eyes. “What exactly do you think we’re going to do? Talk you to death?”

“Shut up, traitor,” one of them snarled. The other two grabbed Hermione, tightly gripping her upper arms. They propelled her roughly through the door, just ahead of the others, leaving the room behind them.

Good riddance, she thought. It can burn, for all I care.

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As far as Hermione could tell, they followed exactly the same path as before through the mansion. She took this as an encouraging sign that Malfoy would indeed change no details from the previous interrogation. She fought the urge to run her hands over her trousers to check that the bindings underneath were in place. She trusted Snape’s knot-tying skills, but it was like having a sore tooth and needing to keep prodding at it with your tongue.

Stop thinking about it, she told herself. You’re just making it worse.

She ran through the plan in her mind for the dozenth time. She would free herself from the chair, Snape would use Silencio, she would immediately cast Expelliarmus to take Malfoy’s wand, and she would then use that wand to free Snape and incapacitate Malfoy. She would have to be fast. Malfoy was cocky, but he was skilled, and had the quick reflexes that came from having seen more than a few battles. If he managed to hex her before she could take his wand, the entire plan would fall apart.

So I’ll just be faster than him, she thought. That’s all there is to it.

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When they arrived at the interrogation room, Hermione’s heart sank. There were two Death Eaters already waiting outside the room. That was different, and anything different was bad. If Malfoy managed to call for assistance, there would be two additional enemies to incapacitate. Which meant that disarming him quickly and silently was of even more paramount importance. They needed to retain the element of surprise.

Stay sharp, Snape had told her. She pushed her anxiety and fear away and calmed her mind. She’d been in battles. She’d disarmed enemies. She was fast and capable.

More capable than Malfoy, she thought.

She and Snape were shoved through the door in the same choreographed motion as the last time. Malfoy stood before them unmasked; when Hermione saw him, she had to suppress a gasp. He looked as though years, not days, had passed since their last encounter. He was haggard, and his hair was stringy and limp. His clothing was disheveled, and his eyes were bloodshot and wild, underscored with deep circles. He looked unhinged.

She was still staring at him in disbelief when two Death Eaters grabbed her and forced her down into the chair. They’d taken her off-guard, and she realized with a thrill of terror that she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d managed to position her sleeves to avoid the sticking charm. And she couldn’t very well check while Lucius Malfoy was watching her.

It’s fine, she told herself. You can disarm him even if you’re stuck here. It will just be a little trickier. Wandless and handless Expelliarmus can’t be that much harder than just wandless Expelliarmus. A bead of sweat formed on the back of her neck.

“Rough week, Lucius?” Snape said mellifluously.

Malfoy ignored this. “Strip him to the waist,” he said to the Death Eaters, who complied with enthusiasm, tearing Snape’s shirt off and popping most of the buttons off in the process. Snape bore this with imperturbable calmness.

“Let me see his back,” Malfoy commanded. The Death Eaters took Snape by the elbows and forced him to turn, displaying his red, angry wounds. Malfoy broke into a high-pitched peal of laughter. “Beautiful,” he cried, clapping his hands together. “Even better than I’d hoped for. Although you know, I feel it might be missing something...perhaps the word traitor. Let us remedy that.” Gesturing with his wand to the Death Eaters, he said, “Bind him.” Moving quickly and silently, they dragged Snape into position between the poles, attaching his wrists to manacles so that his arms were suspended over his head, just as before. So far everything—with the exception of the two extra Death Eaters waiting outside—had been exactly the same as before.

“Has Lord Voldemort been pleased with your progress, Lucius?” Snape said in a pleasant, conversational voice, sounding for all the world as though he were enjoying afternoon tea with an old friend.

Malfoy’s eyes darkened. “Keep his name out of your mouth, traitor.”

“I’ll take that as a no, then. He’s not going to be particularly happy after today either, I imagine.” Snape smirked, managing somehow to be condescending and dismissive even while half-stripped and chained.

“Shut up,” Malfoy hissed.

Snape’s eyes gleamed. “Are those lapdogs meant to report back on your failure? Or are they here because you’re just...too...incompetent to be trusted with this job?”

Shut...up.” Malfoy glared at the four Death Eaters, who were still waiting for orders. “I will handle this myself,” he snarled. “Get out.” They exchanged a quick glance but did as he said, disappearing through the door. It closed behind them with a loud echoing thump.

Malfoy turned to face Snape. As soon as his back was to her, Hermione pulled against the sticking charm. She was able to raise her elbow from the arm of the chair, but only with quite a bit of effort. It felt like trying to get out of a vat of sticky molasses. Her forearm had even less give than her elbow, refusing to come free. She began twisting her arm back and forth, clamping her teeth together to stay quiet as she loosened her arm from the spell.

This is going to take too long, she thought with alarm. But there was nothing for it; she just had to keep at it.

“Listen carefully,” Malfoy said in a soft, oily voice, jabbing Snape’s stomach with his wand. “I’d love nothing more than to kill you. Last time I almost did, and this time...I have permission.” He grinned. “If the little mudblood fails to give me what I want today, the Dark Lord is starting over. Someone else will go in the room with the bitch, so there’s really no need to keep you alive.”

“Nor, I suspect, much need to keep you alive,” Snape said. Malfoy’s face went white, and Hermione knew Snape had struck a nerve.

“Be that as it may,” Malfoy hissed.

Hermione had barely any time before Malfoy moved to Snape’s back to begin the torture, which would put him in direct sight of her. She yanked hard, and with an unpleasant sticky sensation like unpeeling cellotape from her skin, her forearm came mostly free. Only her wrist was still stuck. About half a square inch of bare skin there had come into contact with the chair. Barely any is touching, she thought. I can get free of this.

Encouragingly, her legs had quite a bit more give. Snape had been thorough and precise with his bindings. She rocked them from side to side while she worked on her wrist.  Please, she thought, biting her lower lip so hard it nearly drew blood, and pulling with all her strength against her wrist. Come on. Give way.

“You know this won’t break me, Lucius,” Snape was saying, in a low, hypnotic voice. His eyes never wavered from Malfoy’s face, though he could easily have glanced over the man’s shoulder at Hermione if he’d chosen to. “You’ll lose everything you care about. If he doesn’t kill you first, he’ll kill your family and make you watch. You know I’m right; you’ve seen him do it before. The Harrisons. The MacLears. And for what? Power? Glory? You’ll get none. He cares nothing for loyalty, and serving him will destroy you in the end.”

Hermione’s legs broke free of the charm at last. Her right wrist was still stuck fast, but she’d given up on it for now in favor of working on her left arm. She twisted it back and forth desperately. Her muscles were tiring, and sweat beaded on her forehead.

“Traitor,” Malfoy whispered, but his wand stayed low.

“Look at yourself, Lucius,” Snape said, in the same satiny, slick tones. “Where’s the man who used to spend his free afternoons at Twilfitt and Tatting’s being fitted for the finest robes? The man who took pride in having more beautiful hair than half the girls at Hogwarts? You’re an absolute wreck. This isn’t what you signed up for. It’s not what any of us signed up for. Is it?”

Malfoy shook his head, his lank hair swinging from side to side. “It’s too late,” he said with a cracking voice. “It’s too late for all of us.”

By half-rotating her left arm as she pulled, Hermione worked it almost completely free. She grit her teeth and yanked with all her strength, and suddenly it came completely unstuck, sending her hand flying into her own chest and making her involuntarily yelp with surprise.

Malfoy turned sharply to investigate the noise. Snape’s eyes flickered from Malfoy to Hermione and back again, evaluating the situation; before Malfoy completed his turn, Snape seized the moment and said, “Silencio!

When Malfoy opened his mouth and no sound came out, he realized instantly what had happened and raised his wand, whirling back towards Snape.

This is it, this is it raced through Hermione’s mind, but she could hear herself already pronouncing the syllables of Expelliarmus. The magic flowed through her outstretched hand like a wild river, surging and powerful. It felt almost... coppery, with a hard, metallic tang.

Snape, she thought, it’s Snape’s magic. Bound together with my own.

“Expelliarmus!” echoed off the stone walls of the room and with a knee-buckling sense of relief Hermione saw Malfoy’s wand flying through the air. Forgetting that her right wrist was still stuck to the chair, she instinctively reached to catch the wand. At last she tore free of the sticking charm, crying out with pain as she left a half-inch patch of skin behind on the chair. Her hand jerked involuntarily; the wand grazed the tips of her fingers and spun past her, clattering onto the floor on the other side of the room. She rose from the chair, meaning to dive for the wand, but the last bit of sticking charm on her leg made her lose her balance, stumbling and pitching forward.

I can still get it, she thought. No more than a few seconds had passed since Snape had cast Silencio. The wand was spinning on the floor. She steadied herself with a hand on the floor to stop herself from falling and used all of her remaining forward momentum to launch herself towards it.

She hit the floor hard on her knees and rolled, grabbing onto the wand with a sense of triumph. But then she heard Snape shout “Hermione!” and to her great horror, she saw Malfoy draw a second wand out of the inside of his robes.

Why does he have two wands, she thought wildly, and then suddenly realized that she knew that wand. She’d seen it a hundred times pointed at a cauldron, and occasionally pointed at herself.

She scrambled to her feet, moving into a dueling posture, wand high over her head and legs braced wide apart. Malfoy cast Finite Incantatem with a quick gesture to remove the silencing charm and then fell into a dueling stance himself, wielding what she now recognized as Snape’s wand. He advanced slowly towards her. “I kept it when he was brought here,” Malfoy said with a sneer. “I liked the idea of killing him with his own wand. And it never hurts to have a backup, does it?” He grinned, brandishing the wand in front of him.

She took a step to the left and he took one towards her; she took another step to the left, and he took another towards her. His watery, unblinking eyes were fixed on her. He was close enough for her to see the unshaven growth on his chin and the broken blood vessels in his cheeks.

Her world shrank to encompass only her and Lucius Malfoy, circling each other with wands drawn. The rest of the room, the building, Snape, the other Death Eaters—all ceased to exist for the moment.

You get one spell, she thought. Make it count.

She and Malfoy moved simultaneously; he thrust his wand in her direction and shouted “Crucio!” and she pointed hers at Snape and cried “Alohomora!” Snape’s shackles released instantly; before they’d even clanged into the pole, he was lunging towards Malfoy, who had staggered backwards in surprise and what looked like pain. Hermione was distantly aware that something had gone wrong with his curse, but that could be addressed later. She pointed her wand at Malfoy and for the second time cried “Expelliarmus!” The spell felt strangely… directional and she instinctively flicked the tip of her wand to send the other wand flying directly towards Snape, who plucked it out of the air as easily as picking an apple from a tree.

“Protego,” he murmured, and with a start she remembered the Weasleys’ spell, still intact and attached to her shirt. Malfoy’s Cruciatus had rebounded onto himself, though with significantly less power than it would normally have had.

Snape had his wand at Malfoy’s throat. A commotion arose outside the door. Hermione had just enough time to think we’ve made too much noise, this was supposed to be silent, when the great wooden door ground open and six masked Death Eaters poured in, wands at the ready. Six, she thought frantically, we weren’t even prepared for four.

She had the sudden sickening realization that they must have been waiting for this. She and Snape should have anticipated it; Malfoy’s behavior and appearance demonstrated how far out of Voldemort’s favor he’d fallen. He’d been set up, with the other Death Eaters poised and ready to storm in to witness his failure.

We have no counter for this, she thought. No alternate plan.

The Death Eaters formed a semicircle around Hermione, Snape, and Malfoy. One of them took his mask off, revealing a blond man Hermione didn’t recognize, wearing expensively-cut robes. “Lucius, you incompetent fool,” he said, in an upper-class accent reminiscent of mansions and house elves. “You’ve had them for four weeks and all you’ve managed is to let them disarm you in your own fucking interrogation room.” He turned his attention to Snape. “Severus. Charmed, I’m sure. If you’ll pardon the pun.”

“Macalester,” Snape said. His fingers twitched slightly on the wand he still held. Macalester smiled humorlessly. “Drop the wand, Severus, or we’ll drop it for you. There are six of us and one…” His gaze drifted momentarily over Hermione. “...and a half of you.”

Snape did nothing, and Hermione knew that he was calculating their chances. But after a moment, he let go of his wand. She watched it fall to the ground, almost as though in slow motion. He’d obviously come to the same conclusion she had: We are out of plans. There is nothing left.

The tall, blond Death Eater nodded with satisfaction. “Now. Malfoy’s techniques have proven shockingly inadequate, so let us try something different. Either of you can tell me what the Mudblood bitch found in the library, right here and now. Or I can do what Lucius should have done weeks ago: Kill the traitor.” He gestured his wand at Snape. “And then use Cruciatus on this one,” pointing at Hermione, “until she either talks or goes mad. It hardly matters to me.”

Malfoy chose this moment to protest, “My system will work, I assure you. I just need a little more time.” He scrabbled forward and snatched Snape’s wand with a treacherous gleam in his eye.

Macalester glanced at him. “Shut up, Malfoy,” he said. “Your time is finished.”

Hermione felt an odd sensation at the base of her skull, a strange prickling, almost like the pins and needles of a limb waking up from sleep.

“I want to talk to the Dark Lord myself,” Snape was saying. Buying time, she thought distantly. The prickling sensation grew. “If I give information, I want it to be to his ears directly.”

Macalester, sounding bored, said, “No, I think not. Is that a refusal, Severus?”

“It is a request,” he said. Hermione half-closed her eyes; the sensation was growing, filling her chest, expanding like a balloon. Mortal danger, she thought. We are in mortal danger.

“Ah,” Macalester said. “I see. Gentlemen?”

The other five Death Eaters lifted their wands in unison. Hermione instinctively reached for Snape’s hand, gripping it tightly in her own. She felt the deep electric jolt of their magic joining and amplifying; he made a low grunt, and she knew he’d felt the same. The hairs on her arms stood up. She heard white noise, louder and louder, as though someone were turning up the volume on a radio that was tuned to dead air. This is mine, she thought. I need only take it, for it is mine.

“That won’t save him, my dear,” Macalester said.

Hermione cast a curious expression at him, cocked her head to the side, and said, “I think you’d better go.”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise and he laughed. “Is that what you think?” He looked at Snape and said, “I see why you like this one.”

“You’d better go,” she repeated. “Now, I think.” Her voice reverberated around the stone walls, amplified and commanding.

“Hermione,” Snape said in a low, urgent voice.

“Shut up,” she said sotto voce, squeezing his hand. “And don’t let go.”

“Entertaining as this is, I rather think it’s time for Snape to go,” Macalester said, stretching the final word out into a multisyllabic exploration of the letter “o”. He smirked. “Have you ever seen simultaneous Killing Curses cast? I assure you it’s quite spectacular.”

Hermione felt no terror, only a preternatural calm. Terror was boxed off somewhere along with a lot of other feelings she’d get around to experiencing later. She let her gaze travel around the semicircle, resting on each Death Eater in turn. “You lot really picked the wrong side,” she said.

Macalester chuckled and then said, “Three...two…”

Snape remained silent and expressionless, but he gripped her hand so tightly that it hurt.

“One,” and then six voices spoke the Killing Curse in unison and six wands discharged six beams of bright green light, directly at Snape’s body.

 

Chapter Text

Hermione could never decide later whether the curses had slowed or whether she had sped up. The effect was the same; the green light arcing toward Snape flowed through the air like streams of water arcing from a fountain, so slowly that she could track the movement with her eyes. She instinctively stretched out her left hand and mouthed the word Protego, moving her hand in a broad circle that encompassed both her and Snape. Exactly as she completed the circle, time returned to normal.

Six beams of light hit the Protego charm and bounced off, scattering across the room like a midsummer fireworks display. One struck a Death Eater, who dropped to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut.

Merlin’s fucking balls,” she heard one of them shout, but it sounded tinny and distant, as though she were hearing it through a tunnel.

She breathed in deliberately, feeling the thrum of magic inside her. Most of the Death Eaters scattered and dove for cover. Only Macalester stood facing them, a look of rage coalescing onto his unmasked face. “Severus,” Hermione said quietly, “I can end this. But they will not survive.”

His magic entwined with her own, coppery and metallic, racing through her veins and winding around her nerves, all the way to her fingertips. It felt delicious and intimate. It felt right.

“I know,” he said thickly. “Do it.” None of the Death Eaters reacted, and Hermione realized that they could not hear what she and Snape were saying.

“Don’t let go,” she said again.

She held her hand out and said, “Accio.” Malfoy’s wand flew from the floor into her outstretched palm; she aimed it at Macalester, who was already raising his wand towards her. He flinched momentarily, but then his eyes tracked the angle of her wand and he realized with a look of confusion that it was not pointed directly at his face, but rather at a spot just over his shoulder. Closing her eyes, Hermione channeled the surging, chaotic power inside her, directing it into and through her wand. Gouts of fire spurted from the tip, leaving the walls traced with bright intricate sigils of flame, rapidly spreading across the entire room.

“Fiendfyre! She cast fucking Fiendfyre!” one of the Death Eaters screamed. Macalester’s face went ashen and he turned and ran for the door. Snape muttered a locking charm under his breath, slamming the door closed before he could reach it. Hermione made a complicated gesture with Malfoy’s wand. A dragon-shaped gout of flame emerged from it, rapidly expanding to fill a good quarter of the room. Macalester’s fingertips had just brushed against the door handle when the fire-dragon reared up behind him, shrieking with an ear-splitting roar. With shaking fingers, Macalester rattled the handle, but he could not bear the heat of the dragon’s flames. With a cry of agony, he turned and fled to the opposite corner of the room, joining the rest of the Death Eaters where they had huddled. The ceiling above them charred and smoldered, sending black flakes cascading down through the air. A few of the cowering men attempted a counter-spell, but none was powerful enough to overcome the Fiendfyre. The corners of their robes were beginning to smoke.

The fire burned so bright that Hermione had to turn away from it, looking to Snape’s face, which bore a faintly stunned expression. Neither the flames nor their heat reached inside the Protego circle she’d made, and the fire-dragon took no notice of them.

Malfoy’s voice pierced through the cacophony of roaring fire and screams. “Severus! Severus, please! We were friends once!”

Snape turned to look at Malfoy, who was holding his robes over his head in a futile attempt to protect himself from the flames. Snape extended a hand in the man’s direction, fingertips outstretched. Malfoy looked pitifully grateful, but Snape said only, “Accio wand,” and his own wand flew from Malfoy’s hand into his own, landing with a satisfying thump. He turned his back again.

“Let’s go,” Hermione said. He nodded, and hand in hand they made their way to the door, the flames licking at the bubble of their shield charm but never penetrating it.

“You know, of course, that this is not possible,” he said neutrally.

“I must have missed that day in class,” she said, and cast Alohomora on the door, which swung open easily. Once they were through the threshold and into the hallway, she gestured with her wand and said, “Colloportus,” slamming the door shut again before anyone could follow. Smoke poured out from the gap between the door and the stone flooring, and agonized screams could be heard from inside.

Hermione closed her eyes for a long moment. When she opened them again, she said, with a trembling voice, “I think this is the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

The lines in Snape’s face grew hard and deep. “I know those men,” he said. He met her eyes without wavering. “Let them burn.”

She swallowed, then nodded once. “I think I’ve ruined our quick, quiet escape,” she said.

Faint amusement touched his eyes, just for a moment. “Quite,” he said. “We have to get out of here. Quickly.”

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The Dark Mark on Snape’s forearm tingled, a sensation he hadn’t felt for weeks and had hoped never to feel again. “We’ve just killed six of Voldemort’s best men, plus Lucius Malfoy,” he said to Hermione. “He knows.”

“Is he here?” she asked.

“Not yet,” he said. “If he were in this building, he would be upon us already. But he is coming. We have minutes at best.”

Part of his mind was reeling in stunned disbelief. She’d just killed seven men, not in self-defense, but to save his life. Via a spell that he’d felt, with power like a freight train, and somehow the taste of lavender—her magic, drawing on his own. It shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t possible. He pushed it aside for now. It would mean nothing if they did not manage to escape this building in the next few minutes.

He glanced at their surroundings. The door behind them was already crackling and blackening, but the corridor to either side was clear. “We are on the third level of the dungeons,” he said to Hermione. “The closest exit leads to the front of the estate and is too exposed to be a viable escape route now. The next-closest exit leads to the rear gardens through the conservatory. It is four levels up and perhaps 50 meters distant.”

“That’s too far,” she said immediately. “We won’t make it, and… I don’t even know what this is,” she said, gesturing vaguely around herself at the shield charm. “I doubt it will stand up to Voldemort.”

“I share your concern,” he said. “But I fear we have no other options.”

The Mark began to throb. He glanced down at it, and her eyes followed his gaze. “He’s near,” she said.

Snape nodded. “Very.”

Her expression went unfocused; he nearly barked a word to snap her out of it, but some primal instinct stopped him. Best let her think. A moment later her eyes met his, clear and sharp.

“House elves,” she said.

He shook his head slightly, signaling that he didn’t follow.

“There are house elves here,” she said. “They made our food. Every day. They have to have quarters. A kitchen. They have to have an exit, Severus. How do the house elves get out?

He’d forgotten the elves. She was right; house elves never used the same doors their masters did, nor were they usually permitted to Apparate on the grounds. They had their own exit to the gardens, unused by anyone else on the premises and too small for an adult human to fit through comfortably. He’d never seen it but he knew where it had to be. Crucially, it was downstairs, not up.

“Come,” he said sharply, and he broke into a run down the hallway, pulling her along by the hand.

“Wait,” she said, holding back. “We don’t have time,” he said, but she slowed and he had to slow with her so as not to let go. She glanced over her shoulder at the hallway behind them and with a quick gesture of her wand slashed another gout of Fiendfyre into the walls.

“I hope this shield charm holds,” Snape said, breaking into a run again.

Hermione kept pace alongside him while tendrils of smoke raced ahead of them. Snape led them through a series of turns and then into a stairwell. They descended the stairs two at a time, Hermione almost losing her footing twice, and then ran down another long corridor. She was half a foot shorter than he, and the effort of keeping up was clearly taxing her, but he did not slow. He didn’t dare take the half-second it would cost to look behind them, but he knew the fire was directly on their heels.

And then they turned a corner and nearly ran into a wall. Set within it was a doorway no taller than Snape’s chest. “Here,” he said, ducking through it and pulling Hermione behind. Once inside, they found themselves inside a drab, dingy room staring at a dozen or so house elves. The elves had frozen where they stood, some in the middle of carrying laundry or parcels.

The room had peeling wallpaper and old, musty carpeting. It held a collection of ramshackle, half-size furniture. The ceiling was barely taller than Snape. Through a short corridor at the rear a corner of the kitchen was visible, much larger than the living area but still sized to house elf proportions.

“Our prison cell was nicer than this,” Hermione muttered.

“We’re just passing through,” Snape said to the elves. “Go on about your business.”

Hermione shot him a look, then turned to the elves. “Actually, you should leave,” she said. “The house is on fire.”

The house elves exchanged glances. One of them nodded and then, without ever saying a word, they all Apparated away in a cloud of black smoke. Hermione blinked.

“House elf magic,” Snape said, leading her towards the kitchen. “Not bound by usual wards. And they’re not obligated to stay in a house that is no longer intact, particularly with a dead master.” He crouched to get through the corridor into the kitchen. “I imagine they’re off to some other branch of the Malfoy family.”

The kitchen had a largeish pair of ovens on one side, and a long counter with various cooking implements on the other. The far wall had built-in cabinets. There was no sign of an exit other than the way they’d just come. Smoke tendrils drifted in along the floor.

“Where’s the door?” Hermione said. “Do they even have a door? They all just Apparated out of here!”

Her voice held an edge of panic. He turned to her and brushed his thumb against her cheek. “Trust me,” he said, meeting her eyes. She held his gaze for a moment, took a long, deep breath, then nodded.

“This way,” he said. The Dark Mark throbbed in time with his heartbeat. Voldemort was nearly upon them. Snape led Hermione to one of the cabinets set into the far kitchen wall. Opening it revealed a tiny tunneled passage, no greater than three feet high, that led about five feet into the wall and then turned a corner out of sight.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

“They’re only house elves, so they don’t need a direct door to the outside.”

“You make them tunnel through like…” She broke off. “We’ll discuss this later. I don’t think I can hold your hand while we crawl through this, and if I let go I don’t think I can maintain the shield.”

“I concur on both points,” he said. “But if we move quickly we should stay ahead of the fire.” He glanced behind them; the house elves’ quarters were hazy with smoke. “Very quickly.”

She took a deep breath, filling her lungs completely, and let go of his hand. The shield charm dissolved, and immediately the quality of the air changed, becoming smoky, thick, and hot. “Go,” he said. She gave him one last look over her shoulder, then climbed into the tunnel, scrambling her way forward. He crawled in behind her. The tunnel was almost too small for him to fit through; he had to angle his shoulders to get past the narrow bends. It twisted and turned, having been built around the existing structure of the house and wedged into whatever spaces were left over.

The Dark Mark burned on his skin. “Faster,” he urged Hermione. He could feel Voldemort’s presence. “He’s near,” he said. “He’s very near. Be ready.”

After a few minutes that felt like half an hour, the air in the tunnel freshened and Snape knew they were close. Moments later, Hermione called to him, “I see the exit. I’m going through.” She disappeared through it and he followed, falling several feet to the ground and tumbling behind her partway down a grassy hill just beneath the egress. She picked herself up almost as quickly as he did.

“Run,” he told her, pointing to a tree-lined ridge about fifty meters to the north of them. “The anti-Apparition wards extend to that line of trees.”

“I can Apparate from here,” she said, catching her breath. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

“I can do it. I’ve Apparated around wards before.”

“I don’t care,” he said, his voice rising in volume. “We didn’t get this far just for you to splinch yourself to death!”

She looked as though she wanted to argue, but she pursed her lips, nodded her head sharply, and broke into a sprint towards the ridge. He followed, pacing slightly behind her, trying to keep his body between hers and the manor. He was exhausting the last reserves of his energy, but the line of trees was close.

Ten seconds, he thought. Ten seconds and then we’ll be shut of this place forever.

Halfway there, a voice behind him made his blood run cold.

SSSEVERUSS SSSNAPE.” Hermione faltered, and he screamed, “Go, just go!” They were almost to the trees.

You have disappointed me, Sseverusss.” The voice reverberated through the grove, magically amplified so much that it made his ears ring.

Snape saw a bright flash out of the corner of his eye and Hermione fell with a sickening thump, grunting as the air was forced out of her chest by the impact.

It wasn’t green, the light wasn’t green, he thought frantically. Please no, please. Not again. He threw himself towards her, covering her body with his own and half-twisting himself to angle his wand arm toward Voldemort. She made a noise beneath him, a soft moan, and he almost wept with relief.

“Stay down,” he said roughly.

“Oh my God,” Hermione said weakly. Ignoring his order, she’d lifted her head and seen the tableau behind them: Malfoy Manor lit from within by a flickering orange glow, with pillars of black smoke rising from several places on the roof, and Voldemort haloed by it, hovering several feet over the ground, face stretched into an inhuman grin.

“I foolishly indulged Lucius in his little scheme,” he said, his voice rebounding and echoing from all directions. “But I see now that some things require a more... personal touch.”

Barely moving his mouth, Snape said under his breath, “Can you move?”

She shook her head almost imperceptibly and mouthed the word legs.

A Stunner, most likely. The Weasleys’ shield charm had stopped it, but not enough. He felt a slight wriggling motion beneath him; she was inching her hand slowly toward his.

“Perhaps you thought you’d done me actual harm today!” Voldemort called to them, rising a little higher into the air. “Killing seven of my most loyal Death Eaters!”

Hermione’s hand reached Snape’s; she worked her fingers through his, lacing them together. He felt a brief wash of euphoria at the contact, followed by an odd sense of calm. Her magic, he realized. Joining with mine. He had a sudden, vivid mental image of a lavender wreath wound around and through a hard, metallic circlet, could smell the lavender and taste the copper on his tongue.

“I can raise a hundred more,” Voldemort said, “a thousand by year’s end. Ssseven men mean nothing to me. They mean no more than the life of the one man I ssee before me now! Your time is up, Ssseverus!”

Snape, his fingers laced through Hermione’s, glanced up. “Is that so?” he said.

Voldemort cackled, floating towards them on a cloud of black smoke. “When I’ve finished with you, I’m going to finish the job with that little Mudblood sslut. I will tear the information I want out of her mind. I will make it hurt. I will make her ssscream.”

Snape thought, Didn’t we just go through this with Malfoy and Macalester? Does no one learn? The ludicrousness of the situation struck him, and a sudden chuckle erupted from deep within his chest.  The Dark Lord’s looming presence seem to somehow shrink in the face of this sound.

Voldemort’s face twisted in anger. “I fail to ssee the humor.”

Still chuckling, Snape looked Voldemort directly in the eye and said, “The last two people who tried to make Hermione Granger do something are burnt to a crisp about a hundred meters behind you. Do you really want a go?”

The dark wizard extended his wand in fury, but before whatever spell he was about to cast left his lips, Snape wrapped an arm tightly around Hermione and with a loud crack of thunder, Apparated both of them away.

 

Chapter Text

Hermione opened her eyes and saw blue sky, felt earth beneath her back. She wiggled her toes experimentally. Feeling seemed to be returning to her legs. “Severus?” she tried to say, but only managed a croak. Her mouth tasted like smoke and dust. She swallowed hard and tried again. “Severus?”

He groaned nearby; she turned her head and saw him a few feet away, on elbows and knees, looking as though he might be sick. “Merlin’s balls,” he muttered. “Haven’t felt like this since I was a teenager.”

“Did you splinch?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Almost wish I had. Not…” He looked green. “Not one of my better Apparitions.”

The air smelled of salt; Hermione pushed herself up into a seated position, surveying her surroundings. The gray-blue of the sea took up most of the view. She and Snape sat on a grass-covered hilltop that was scattered with gorse bushes. Large boulders stuck out of the ground at irregular intervals, like teeth in a giant’s mouth. As the hill descended to the sea, it became steeper and more jagged, and white breakers formed at the bottom as the tide surged against the rocks. In the opposite direction, the grassy moorland extended as far as the eye could see. There was no sign of human habitation anywhere.

“You Apparated us from inside anti-Apparition wards,” she said.

“Yes, well,” he said, sounding a bit more like himself, “you’re not the only one who can do that. Are you injured?”

Hermione did a quick inventory of her limbs, confirming that everything was where it should be and nothing was bleeding. “I’m all right,” she said. “Where are we? This doesn’t look like Scotland.”

Snape rocked back onto his thighs and rose into a standing position, his color improving by the minute. He looked down at his bare chest, seeming to notice for the first time that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. “Ah,” he said. With a murmured word and a gesture, he transfigured a shirt out of the air. It looked reasonably similar to the one he’d lost at Malfoy Manor. Hermione blinked; having lived without magic for so many weeks, she’d forgotten just how powerful a wizard he was.

Buttoning the shirt, he scanned the horizon, looking from rocks to sea. “Land’s End,” he said finally.

What?” Hermione said in a high-pitched voice. “That’s 500 miles from where we were. We’re on the other end of England!”

“Well spotted,” he said, still looking out to the sea. “5 points for Gryffindor.”

She shook her head. “I can’t believe you Apparated us out from under wards across an entire bloody country.”

“I wanted to get as far away as possible,” he said, glancing at her. “I’d seen photographs of this place and it came to mind in the moment.”

Hermione wrapped her arms around her knees, staring up at him. “You’ve never even actually been here. Merlin’s breath.”

“I was not entirely confident that it would work,” he said, but his eyes betrayed a certain smugness. The sea breeze swept his hair back from his face. It took her by surprise; after so long trapped indoors, she’d forgotten about the wind.

“I can see the sky,” she said. “And smell the sea. Everything seems so… bright.

“Indeed,” he said. Then for a while he said nothing more, staring out at the sea, hands clasped once again behind his back. His black hair made a stark contrast with the white of his shirt and the brilliant blue sky. He is beautiful, Hermione thought suddenly. How have I never noticed?

She felt wetness on her face and reached up to find that her cheeks were streaked with tears.

“It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?” she said, almost to herself.

Snape turned. He saw her tear-streaked face and raised his eyebrows in question.

She met his gaze with wide, stricken eyes. “Riddle. Facing him. And getting out of that room, and the fire, and being here with you, and...I killed seven men,” she said, her voice becoming a cracked whisper. “Seven men, Severus. I’ve never killed anyone before. Draco’s father...I burned him to death.”

Understanding crossed his features. He lowered himself to the grass next to her, stretched his long legs out in front of him, and took her hands in his own. “Killing another person is no trivial thing,” he said. “But sometimes it is the only way.”

“You’ve done it,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes. When I needed to.”

She sat quietly for a while, letting her hands rest in his. “I don’t know if I needed to,” she said at last. “I was just so angry.”

He took her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger and tilted it up to face him. “All of them—every single one,” he said, “have tortured and killed in the name of their master. They would have killed me where I stood, had you not stopped them. There is no question of that.”

She bit her lip. “I didn’t have to...to burn them alive.”

“If you had let them live, I would be dead,” he said simply.

“Was it really the only way?” she asked.

He met her eyes wordlessly. You know the answer, his expression said.

She let out a long breath, her shoulders slumping. “I know,” she said. “I just wish I hadn’t had to do it. And I wish I didn’t have to remember it.”

He stiffened, his grip tightening. “Hermione...” he said.

She added quickly, “No, I don’t mean Obliviation. I just wish it weren’t quite so...vivid.”

He relaxed again. “I understand,” he said. “It will fade with time.”

She exhaled deeply and let herself lean against his shoulder. “I’m so tired,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been awake for days.”

He was silent for a while. The promise he’d extracted from her—one month—loomed unspoken between them. As long as it stayed unspoken, she could maintain the tenuous pretense that it wasn’t real, but it felt like a drop of venom quivering on a viper’s fang, waiting to fall. When Severus finally moved, she tensed in expectation, but he only stretched himself out on the grass, pulling her down next to him. She rested her head on his chest, and he encircled her with his arm.

The ground beneath her felt cool and healing, and exhaustion swept over her like a storm front blowing in from the sea. “I think I’m going to close my eyes for a few minutes,” she said. He tightened his arm against her, and that is the last that she remembered for some time.

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Hermione opened her eyes with no sense of time passing, but the sun rested much lower in the sky now. She sat up and stretched her arms behind her head. Severus watched her, pale and serious.

Her stomach clenched. The poisoned drop was about to fall; she could see it in his eyes. “No,” she said, scrambling to her feet, feeling the pins and needles of sensation returning to her legs.

He stood and brushed himself off, standing well away from her. “I have stolen more time than was my right,” he said softly. “London is not too far.”

“It’s far enough,” she said, folding her arms over her chest, “and we only just got here.”

Weariness touched his eyes. “Half as far as we just went,” he said. “Well within my capability, or yours. It is time.”

She wanted to argue, to protest, but he was right. They couldn’t stay here for any length of time;  she had to get back to the Order as quickly as possible. And the hard lines of his face told her that he would brook no argument on this.

The nascent beginnings of a sob formed deep within her chest, but she tamped it down hard. No crying, she told herself savagely.

“You don’t have to—” she began, but he cut her off.

“I do,” he said. He extended a hand to her, as though inviting her to dance.  She reached out and took it, her lips set into a thin, trembling line. “Ready?” he said.

She met his eyes. “No.”

The corner of his mouth lifted, but the smile did not reach his eyes. Wand extended in his free hand, he made a quick gesture. Hermione inhaled the clean salt air of Land’s End, and the world twisted inside out. Her next breath filled her lungs with the thick smog of London. The familiar grimy facade of 12 Grimmauld Place stood waiting when she opened her eyes.

Still holding Severus’ hand, she turned to him. His eyes were hooded, and he seemed abruptly older, as though he’d Apparated not only through space but through time.

“Forgive me,” he said, and drew her into a tight embrace, bringing his mouth to hers. It was a hungry, desperate kiss, and it was over nearly before it had started. Taken by surprise, Hermione saw his wand moving out of the corner of her eye and had only time to cry “No!” before he disappeared in a cloud of black smoke.

She exhaled sharply, feeling suddenly and shockingly bereft. “Pull yourself together,” she muttered. She crossed one arm over her middle and rested her forehead on her other hand, standing that way for some time. Only when she was absolutely sure that no tears were forthcoming did she lift her chin and knock twice loudly on the door.

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Severus Snape stood outside the door of his home at Spinner’s End. He had not thought he would see it again, nor had this particularly bothered him. He stood on the threshold, reluctant to cross. Entering this place felt like returning to his old life, like leaving Hermione irrevocably behind. He could still taste her on his lips, and he knew with wrenching certainty that that was the last time he would ever touch her.

He’d told her that no one had ever loved him. It had been a true statement, and it remained so. Thinking otherwise would be nothing more than self-torture. Best to begin excising that part of his psyche now, cutting it away like a malignant tumor.

And yet he stood at his door for long minutes without crossing the threshold.

When finally he cast the incantations to reverse his wards, it felt like an admission of defeat. He pushed open the stiff, creaking door and entered the front room. It was dusty from months of disuse, and the air was stale and silent. For the first time in Snape’s adult life, he stood unbeholden to any master.

I am free, he thought, and I have lost everything.

Over many long years, he’d built careful barriers in his mind against grief and pain, keeping it all hidden away where it could not touch him. Those barriers fell now, like doors slamming open one after another down a long hallway. His shoulders shook, and he sank to his knees in the middle of his decrepit living room, covered his face with his hands, and wept.

 

Chapter Text

Hermione stood frozen on the threshold of the door to 12 Grimmauld Place, staring at Harry and Ron. “You’re supposed to be in the woods,” she finally said, just as Ron threw his arms around her and wrapped her in a bear hug.

“Hermione,” he said, “oh Merlin, we thought—where have you been? Are you all right?”

Hermione helplessly submitted to the crushing hug. “I’m better now,” she managed. “Now that I’ve seen you two.”

“Ron,” Harry said in a voice of warning. “We need to check.” Ron pulled back from the hug and gave him a skeptical look.

“Come on, Harry,” Ron said. “Look at her!”

Harry frowned at Ron. “You know that’s not good enough,” he said. Turning to Hermione, he said, “What’s your mum’s name?”

“Monica Wilkins at the moment,” she said. “Normally Katherine Granger.”

Harry’s face broadened into a grin. “Okay,” he said. “Ron, your go.”

“All right,” Ron muttered. He wrinkled his brow. “Um...what did you turn into the first time you tried Polyjuice Potion?”

Hermione mock-sighed. “A cat, and thanks for bringing that up, Ron.”

At this, Harry wrapped her in his own giant hug, and Ron joined it, and they all stumbled their way into Grimmauld Place, laughing and hugging each other. Hermione felt a pang of guilt for Severus, alone and miserable, but her joy at being back with Ron and Harry overrode everything else for the moment.

“Seriously, why are you two here?” she said, as soon as they were inside the house.

Harry extricated himself from the hug. “Have Ron explain,” he said, already moving down the hallway. “I’m going to Floo Professor McGonagall. She needs to know you’re back.”

Hermione frowned. “Why specifically does Professor McGonagall need to know I’m back?”

Ron shrugged. “Because she’s the head of the Order. And she’s been the one running the search for you.”

“There was a search?” Hermione asked, surprised. She’d thought that Ron and Harry might spend a few days trying to find her, but certainly nothing along the lines of a large, organized search. There were too many other important things for the Order to do.

He furrowed his brow. “Of course there was, ‘Mione. Everyone searched like crazy. Harry’s been losing his mind about it. That’s the whole reason we’re here. Where were you?”

She felt pinprick tears welling up. They looked for me. They were looking the whole time.  

She blinked rapidly, pulling herself together. “It’s a long story, Ron. I’ll tell you as soon as Harry’s back. But you two...you came to Grimmauld Place because you thought I was here?” she asked.

“Course not,” Ron said. “We came here because Harry wants to redo the Fidelius Charm. He figured that if you escaped from somewhere, you might try to come back here, and he wanted to be able to have someone friendly here waiting. So he was going to redo the charm. Still is, I wager.”

“With you as the Secret Keeper?” Hermione asked.

He nodded uncomfortably, his eyes shifting downward. “Yeah, I know. But there was nobody else—”

“Ron,” she interrupted, “I think you’d be the best Secret Keeper ever.”

His eyes widened and his eyebrows went straight up his forehead. “Really?”

“Really.”

He beamed as though he’d just got a new puppy on Christmas morning. “Anyway,” he said, “we just got here yesterday.”

Just then Harry returned, announcing, “All right, she’s on her way.” As though to punctuate his sentence, they heard the loud crack of Apparation from outside. Moments later Professor Minerva McGonagall swept into the sitting room in a furl of black and grey robes, her face pinched and lips pursed.

“Boys, stand aside,” she said. Years of conditioning at Hogwarts meant that Ron and Harry were scurrying toward opposite ends of the room before the last syllable was out of her mouth.

Hermione blinked in surprise. “Professor—” she began, but she made it no further before Professor McGonagall produced a green, glass flask from within her cloak, unstoppered it, and flung the quite cold and quite wet contents onto Hermione, who shrieked in surprise. Ron’s mouth fell open and Harry’s face looked remarkably similar to when his name had been announced for the Triwizard Tournament.

Professor!” Hermione shouted. McGonagall studied her, leaning close, eyes narrowed. Then her face relaxed into a satisfied smile and she waved her hand to cast a Hot-Air Charm at Hermione, whose clothes and hair dried instantly. “My apologies, dear,” the older witch said. “I called in a favor from Gringott’s. That was about half a gallon of Thief’s Downfall.”

Hermione’s shock and upset dissipated almost as quickly as the water had. She had to admit that it was a clever idea. If she had assumed a disguise of any sort, the Gringott’s water would have instantly revealed it.  “I mean no offense, Professor,” she said, “but Harry and Ron already made sure I was me.”

McGonagall’s lips thinned slightly. “My child,” she said, “you were gone for a month. Your captors could have got any amount of information from you in that time, including personal details that your friends are likely to know. In these times, we simply have to be sure.” Her face softened again, and her eyes were warm with affection. “And now we are, thank Merlin. I am so glad to see you, my girl. So very glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Professor,” Hermione said honestly. “Believe me.”

Were you captured, ‘Mione?” Ron interjected.

“Why don’t we all sit down,” McGonagall suggested, “and Hermione, you can tell us exactly where you’ve been.”

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“You have to admit, Hermione, it seems a bit suspicious!” Ron’s face was red and he was nearly shouting. “You’re gone a month and now you’re saying Snape is on our side!”

Hermione sat at the Grimmauld Place dining room table, surrounded by Ron, Harry, and Minerva McGonagall. She’d given them a heavily-edited version of events; things had gone spectacularly downhill at about the time she announced that Snape was on the side of Light.

“I am telling you, Ronald Weasley, that I know,” Hermione said, pronouncing Ron’s name in approximately the same way she’d say bubotuber pus. “He helped me escape. Not to mention that Lucius Malfoy tortured him! Why in the world would he do that to someone on his side? And if any of you tries to Legilimens me, I swear to Merlin I’ll hex you into next Sunday,” she said, glaring at Harry, whose hand had crept towards his wand. Hermione’s Occlumency was fairly good, but there was absolutely no way she was going to take the chance of letting anyone in this room see certain of her memories of Snape. Not today, not ever.

“It’s not that we don’t believe you, Hermione,” Harry said placatingly. “It’s just… I mean, Snape?”

“Yes, Snape,” she said, fixing him with a narrow stare. “And if you lot could please shut up about Snape, I have some fairly important research to share with you that I found in the Hogwarts library.”

Ron looked at Harry. “That’s definitely Hermione, mate.”

McGonagall said, “Boys, now would be a good time for you to begin work on the new Fidelius Charm. Hermione, tell me what you found in the library. It has been a difficult few weeks, and we could use some good news.”

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The night was long, with many questions. Yes, she was sure the spell would locate a Horcrux. No, she wasn’t sure it would locate all of them at once. Yes, the spell had to be cast on or near Riddle’s birthplace. Yes, they needed to begin work immediately.

An owl arrived late in the evening with news confirming Hermione’s account of Malfoy Manor burning down, with one additional detail. “Fiendfyre,” McGonagall said as she looked up from the scroll, leaving much unspoken behind this single word. Hermione hadn’t mentioned how the manor had burned. It would be world-historic for a Hogwarts student to cast and control Fiendfyre, even a remarkably skilled and accomplished Hogwarts student.

Hermione could think of no other explanation than the truth, so she simply said, “Yes.”

McGonagall eyed her with a gimlet stare. “Did you cast it alone?” she asked.

It was a telling question. Spells were almost never cast by two people together, and there were very few reasons why anyone would. Hermione swallowed. “Uh...together,” she said.

Professor McGonagall’s eyebrows twitched. “Interesting,” she said. “I would very much like to hear Severus’ account of these events.”

Hermione sighed. “You’ll have to find him,” she said. “He didn’t tell me where he was going.”

“If Severus wants to stay hidden,” McGonagall said, tapping her finger on the table thoughtfully, “I doubt any of us can find him. And you are quite sure he is on our side? Quite sure?”

Hermione met her eyes steadily and said, “Yes.”

McGonagall studied her face. After a moment, she appeared to come to a decision. “Perhaps so. I would like it very much if you were right about this, Hermione. In the meantime, you should sleep. Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley are remaking the Fidelius Charm, and I think it is safe to stay here under the circumstances.”

Hermione rose to go upstairs, then paused. “Professor,” she said, “there’s...there’s one more thing.”

McGonagall raised an eyebrow.

“You didn’t say anything about Mr. Malfoy,” Hermione said in almost a whisper. “Or the others.”

Professor McGonagall pressed her lips together, but she reached out to take Hermione’s hand in hers, her skin warm and dry. “My dear,” she said. “It is war, and I trust that you did only what you had to.” Her eyes made this into a question.

“Yes,” Hermione said. “Yes, but—”

McGonagall’s eyes looked suddenly very old. She squeezed Hermione’s hand. “That is all the more anyone need know,” she said.

Hermione gave a quick, short nod. “I’ll...I’ll be upstairs,” she said, too exhausted and overwhelmed to manage anything more than that.

She climbed the stairs to the third floor and took the first bedroom she found. It was dusty from disuse, but it had a bed. She collapsed into it still wearing her clothes. The mattress was almost shockingly soft and comfortable, compared to the ones she’d slept on for the last several weeks.

For the first time since she’d arrived she was alone, and her thoughts returned to the man who’d left her standing on the doorstep just hours before. “Where are you, Severus?” she whispered into the silence. “And how am I supposed to wait for a month?”

Her last thoughts before sleep took her were of the way he’d looked at her with haunted eyes, just as he Apparated away.

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“We need a potions laboratory,” Hermione announced the next day over breakfast. The Horcrux location spell involved soaking a magical parchment in a series of complicated potions, none of which were in the standard formulary. They’d have to be made from scratch.

Professor McGonagall sipped her tea and nodded thoughtfully.  “I had already planned to return to Hogwarts today,” she said. “I’ll notify the rest of the Order about what’s happened and send a few of them back here to help. And,” she said with an arch smile, “I shall delegate Professor Flitwick to...liberate what supplies he can from the Potions laboratory cabinets.”

Within the day, members of the Order began trickling in and were immediately pressed into service levitating tables into place and transfiguring glassware. Remus Lupin arrived late in the afternoon, holding up several bags full of Potions ingredients. “Can’t stay long,” he said with a grin, “but I’ve brought these. Courtesy of Professor Flitwick.”

By the second day after her arrival, Hermione began work. While tedious and difficult, it kept her mind focused on something other than Snape—and kept Harry and Ron from pestering her with too many difficult-to-answer questions. Ron assisted with potions where he could, demonstrating a surprising facility for ingredients preparation. “Mum’s had me working in the garden since practically before I was born,” he shrugged. Harry mostly spent his time sending and receiving owl post, having become the de facto communications head of the operation for now.

Days passed in a blur of ingredients preparation and brewing. Hermione read the Daily Prophet every day, hoping for some mention of Snape, but there was nothing. Nor had any of the Order members had any news of him. No one had seen him; no one had heard from him. It was as though he had vanished from the earth. She thought about what Professor McGonagall had said: that if Severus wanted to stay hidden, no one would be able to find him.

She tucked a curl behind her ear and stared at the swirling mugwort mixture in her cauldron. Perhaps he wanted to stay hidden from her. Perhaps he’d decided it would be better and easier for them to simply stay apart. Perhaps he’d realized he didn’t want her after all.

Perhaps Voldemort had found him.

She shook her head to clear it. Stop that, she told herself. There’s no sense borrowing trouble. Voldemort hasn’t found him, but you will, when the time comes.

And then the quiet whisper, if I even still want to. It had been two weeks since her arrival at 12 Grimmauld Place. She found herself testing constantly to check how she felt about him. Whether she still wanted him.

Alone in the makeshift laboratory, she closed her eyes and remembered. The drape of his frock coat as he stood at the window. His long, dark hair. His eyes when he looked at her. The sound of his voice, the feel of his arms around her, his breath on her neck as he slept. His absence was a ragged hole torn in the fabric of her life. Potions work helped, and so did her friends, but it wasn’t enough, could never be enough, to fill that void.

More than ever, she thought with a deep ache in her chest. I want him more than ever.

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“Hermione,” called Harry, “I’ve had owl post back from one of our spies in Cokeworth.”

She was drinking tea and having toast, looking over the Daily Prophet’s headlines. “What’s in Cokeworth?” she said absently.

“Spinner’s End,” he said, scanning the letter.

Hermione nearly choked on her tea, swallowing hard to clear it. She made what she knew had to be a terrible attempt at sounding casual, asking, “Any news?”

“Sort of,” he said. “More like an absence of news. The house is empty, no lights. No one is there. They’ve been watching it for two weeks.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because I told them to,” Harry said, glancing at her. “I believe you, but considering some of the things Snape has done, I just…”

“Want to be safe,” she cut him off. “I know.”

He furrowed his brow, looking pensive. Hermione sighed. “Harry, I’ve known you for long enough to know that look. If you’ve got something to say, say it.”

“All right,” he said, putting down his quill and turning towards her. “Something happened between you and him, didn’t it?”

Hermione kept her features perfectly still. “Why do you say that?” she asked, hoping she sounded calmer than she felt.

“Because I’ve known you for a long time, too,” he said. “You’re convinced of his rightness. I mean, rock-solid convinced. And what you’ve told us isn’t really enough to explain it.”

I’m in love with him, Harry. She could almost hear herself speaking the words, but they wouldn’t form in her mouth. Not now, not yet.

“You have to trust me,” she said instead. “Please.”

He gave her a long, evaluating look. Finally he exhaled and said, “Okay.”

She felt a rush of gratitude toward her old friend. “Thank you.”

He still looked skeptical, but nodded. “I suppose you’d do the same for me,” he said.

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The potions were finished on the 28th day. Hermione led Harry and Ron into the basement laboratory to demonstrate how to use them. “The order is important,” she said. “You need to get it exactly right. Write it down if you have to.”

“Why do we have to memorize this?” Ron said. “You’re the potions expert.”

Hermione took a deep breath, reminding herself that Ron was a good friend and that she really did like him. “I’m not a potions expert,” she said. “And you have to memorize them because I’m not going with you.”

“What?” both boys said in unison.

“Hermione...” Harry said. “We’re casting a complicated spell in the middle of an office block in London. We could use your help. To put it mildly.”

“You and Ron are perfectly capable of completing the spell,” she said. “There’s something I have to do. And you’re not going to talk me out of it, and I’m not going to tell you what it is. I’ll tell you after, if everything works out.”

“No way,” Ron said. “You’re not leaving us again.”

She hadn’t fully considered what it must have been like for him when she’d disappeared. As gently as she could, she said, “This is different than last time, Ron. I promise.”

Harry sighed deeply. “Professor McGonagall isn’t going to like this,” he said.

“I’m sure she isn’t,” Hermione said, implacable. “Harry, you have to—”

“Trust you?” he said.

“Yes,” she said simply. “And you have to memorize how these potions work.”

Ron and Harry exchanged a glance. “You’re not going to let her do this, are you?” Ron pleaded with his friend. “Tell me you’re not going to let her do this.”

Harry shrugged helplessly. “I don’t think either of us is going to stop her.”

“No,” Hermione said, “you aren’t. Now repeat back to me which mixture goes in first.”

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The boys left the next day. With the potions finished, there was no reason to delay. Ron tried one last time to talk Hermione into going with them, but she refused to even entertain the question, and he finally gave up, looking sorrowful and hurt.

“I promise I’ll be fine, Ron,” she said one last time. “I promise.”

“You’d better,” Harry said.

She hugged them both goodbye and told them they had to be safe, and she even managed to keep from crying. She watched from the windows as they crossed the street to the other side and Disapparated in clouds of black smoke.

In two days it would be one month since Snape had left her on this very doorstep. She turned from the window and went back downstairs to her makeshift potions lab. Two days was enough time to disassemble it and store everything safely away. The preparations she’d sent with Harry and Ron would either work or they wouldn’t. It was out of her hands now.

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Hermione rose early on the 30th day. With a thudding heart, she went through her morning ritual. Teeth cleaned. Hair brushed. She inspected herself in the mirror over the bathroom sink. She was thinner than she’d like, and her hair was hopeless as ever, but it would do. She pulled on a jumper and jeans similar to the ones she’d worn at Malfoy Manor with Snape, though these lacked the smell of smoke that had refused to come out even after multiple Scourgifies.

She gathered a few things—a change of clothes, the wand she’d borrowed until she could get a proper replacement, a handful of Galleons, and enough food to get through a couple of days—and stashed them in a knapsack. Her beaded handbag with the Extension Charm had gone with Ron and Harry, who she felt needed it more at the moment.

She moved softly and quietly, hoping to escape the house unnoticed, but just as she got to the door, a severe figure in Hogwarts robes emerged from a Disillusionment charm.

“Professor McGonagall!” Hermione said with jolt of adrenaline that made her feel as though she’d been caught stealing the family crystal. “I thought you were at Hogwarts.”

“Harry informed me of your plans,” the older witch said sternly. “I don’t suppose I can talk you out of...this,” she said, gesturing vaguely with her hand to indicate whatever this was.

“No,” Hermione said, making a mental note to have words with Harry later. “I’m sorry, but you can’t.”

“I thought as much,” McGonagall sighed. “I suppose all I can ask, then, is that you be careful. And…” Her eyes became distant for a moment, then softened. “Find him, my dear. And bring him back to us.”

Hermione’s face must have broadcast her shock, because McGonagall’s lips twitched in what was almost a smile. “I was young too once, believe it or not,” she said. “And I happen to have read a few of the books in the Restricted Section.”

“I...thank you, Professor,” was all Hermione could manage. She raised up on her toes to give her professor a hug. And then, not trusting herself to say any more, she opened the door and crossed the threshold of the Fidelius Charm, leaving 12 Grimmauld Place behind her.

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Her first destination was Cokeworth. She didn’t believe for a minute that Severus Snape couldn’t easily avoid the eyes of a few low-level spies if he chose to. Determined, destination, deliberation, she thought. She closed her eyes and stepped firmly forward, the world swirling around her.

When she opened her eyes again, she stood in the back garden of a decrepit, rundown house. She instinctively did a full-circle scan of her surroundings, wand extended, but no one was there. Even Harry’s watchers were gone; likely they’d decided to make better use of their time than sitting watching an empty house for weeks on end.

The door held a Protego charm. She stepped a little closer and reached towards it with her wand. Before she could attempt to unward it, the door unlatched itself and creaked open. She took a startled step backward, scanning her surroundings again. But just as before, no one was there.

Severus, she thought. Her heart beat faster; he must have set the ward to recognize her and allow her entry. Gingerly, she stepped over the threshold. When no further wards went off, she breathed a small sigh of relief and closed the door behind her.

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, it became apparent that the house was still, silent, and empty. She hadn’t really expected Severus to be standing there waiting for her, but she still felt a jab of disappointment.

You’re inside, she told herself, and that’s a good start.

She’d never seen Snape’s home before. The living room was tiny and cramped, the walls lined with bookshelves filled with ancient, dog-eared books. A chair and writing desk were wedged into a corner of the room, and a great hearth took up most of the rest of the space. Dust coated every surface and floated in the shafts of light coming in from the grime-encrusted windows.

Books were stacked absolutely everywhere. She glanced at a few of the titles in the stack nearest her: Alberto’s Alchemical Alterations, The Future of Potions in a New Wizarding Age, and Cauldrons of Yore.

“Time for that later,” she muttered. And then she took in a sharp breath—on the floor next to the stack of books, faint outlines of footprints were visible in the dust. The footprints appeared to lead to the middle of the room but no further. It was as though someone had walked to the middle of the room and then vanished. Or Apparated, she thought.

But Apparated where? She looked for the way upstairs. She’d seen from the outside that the house had two stories, but she saw no stairs. Just this cramped room full of bookcases and unbroken walls.

This is Severus’ house. Think like he would.

After a moment, she stepped carefully around stacks of books to approach a section of bookcase. She tapped her wand on the books there and said, “Aparecium!” Nothing happened. She tried a second section, then a third, tapping her way methodically around the room. On the seventh attempt, the outline of a door appeared. “Got you,” she murmured. The door swung open at a touch, revealing a narrow, winding staircase to the upper level.

The upstairs was just as neglected as the lower story. There was a narrow, sagging bed that didn’t appear to have been slept in for years, more ancient books, and a mildewed chest of drawers. For someone’s home, it didn’t feel very lived-in. She’d never seen Snape’s quarters at Hogwarts, but she suspected they reflected his personality much more than this horrible little place did.

In fact, other than the footprints there was no sign he’d been here at all. The dust upstairs was untouched except where she’d disturbed it.

“Where are you?” she whispered. The disquieting thought occurred to her that perhaps he didn’t want to be found. Perhaps it was really only the charm that had made him want her, and now that it had worn off...

Then why would he have charmed the wards to let you into his house? It didn’t make sense. He’d allowed her in, but he wasn’t here, and he’d left nothing to indicate where he’d gone.

She sighed deeply and sat on the bed, launching a small cloud of dust into the air. Perhaps this had been a bad idea. Maybe she should have gone with Harry and Ron after all. She held her wand in both hands and stared at it as though somehow it might have answers for her.

Then out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of yellow. It stood out in this place of dusty grays and browns. She turned to examine it more closely, and then she forgot to breathe.

It was a gorse flower, placed carefully on the pillow and charmed to keep from wilting.

 

Chapter Text

The water of the North Atlantic was gray, reflecting the overcast skies over Land’s End. Thick banks of clouds scudded overhead. Different, and bleaker, than the last time Snape had been here. If he’d been the sort to believe in soft-headed foolishness like omens, he might have considered it one.

He stood at the edge of the cliffs, hands laced behind his back, staring down at the waves crashing and breaking onto the rocky headlands. He’d watched them for most of the day, standing in silent vigil where land met sea.

He did not scan his surroundings, or peer into the distance, or listen for the sound of a distant thunderclap. He did none of those things, for to do those things would be only to torment himself, and ultimately to bring himself grief.

There was no sun to speak of, but the bright spot behind the clouds drifted across the sky, lowering into the western horizon bit by bit. Gulls called and wheeled overhead, their cries disappearing into the constant crash of waves on rock.

At the end of the day, he would leave this place. He had not decided yet where he would go. It hardly mattered.

His thoughts were troubled and ceaseless. The month without her had been unbearable, and it was the first of many such months to come. He’d tried to work, with dismal results. Nor had he been able to read, nor sleep—though the latter at least was not terribly unusual. Unbroken sleep was a luxury of which he had long been deprived.

He’d finally ended up here, alone with the gorse bushes and the endless, pounding surf. He considered simply hiding forever. It was within his capability. She’d never find him, and he’d never have to worry about being disappointed by her failure to appear.

But the flickering bit of hope deep in his soul had not sputtered out. Not entirely. And so he waited out each excruciating day, counting up to thirty.

The sky darkened into the gloom of early evening, the breakers visible only as thin lines of white on a slate-black surface. He became aware of a pain in his hands; he’d clasped them together so tightly he’d driven his fingernails into his palms.

And then, a faint pop. No louder than the pop of a soap bubble next to one’s ear. It was nothing, he told himself, and yet the hair on the back of his neck rose up.

A few minutes later, footsteps, soft and steady on the rocky ground. A painful pressure built in his chest, and he realized he’d forgotten to breathe.

The footsteps approached closer and closer, mere feet behind him. Closer than he ever allowed anyone to get, until she—until whoever it was—stood just behind him. His nerves vibrated together like a single plucked string.

“You’re rubbish at charms, you know that?” she said softly. He turned at last and saw her face, and the world he knew shattered into a thousand pieces. He met her brilliant brown eyes, and he reached for her, pressing her head to his chest, unable even to form words around the constriction in his throat.

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“I missed you,” Hermione said, muffled into the thick fabric of his frock coat. “I missed you so much. It felt like a year.” She pulled out of the embrace and glared at him. “Why? Why did you make us do this?”

“I had to know,” he said, his voice cracking. “I had to be sure.”

“Professor McGonagall doused me with Thief’s Downfall on the first night,” she said. He blinked in surprise. He’d never heard of Gringotts allowing its use outside their vaults before; Minerva was quite resourceful. Hermione went on, “It made no difference. That night I went to bed and I wanted you more than ever, and every night after that as well, and I went through the entire month knowing, and you were just—”

She radiated anger as a sun radiates heat. She pressed her hands flat against his chest as though to shove him. “You were nowhere,” she said. “I asked everyone. I read the Daily Prophet every day. I—”

Abruptly, he leaned down and covered her mouth with his own. She froze for only a moment before opening to him, returning the kiss. Instant reflexive guilt rose within him, until he remembered that there was no need for that now. No need for it ever again.

Oh Merlin, this is allowed, he thought with wild rising hope. This is allowed.

It lasted for long, wordless minutes, while the gulls cried overhead and the last of the light faded beneath the horizon. He’d held her before, but never like this, never without guilt. Never with full knowledge that this was what she truly wanted.

Afterward, he was too stunned to speak, not quite able to believe that she was here, and real.

Hermione broke the silence, asking, “Where do you sleep?”

“A tent,” he said, finding his voice. “A quarter-mile from here.”

“Take me there,” she said, inflecting it into a question.

His blood was electric in his veins, his nerves singing. He wordlessly took her by the hand.

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In the darkness, Snape led the way to his campsite unerringly, guiding Hermione around tussocks of grass and rocky outcroppings. They moved together in silence, covering the distance rapidly.

The tent was an unassuming bit of canvas stretched over a wooden frame.  From further than a few feet away, it would look like nothing more than a bit of debris blown across the moors.

Snape unwarded the entrance and opened it for Hermione. She stepped through the threshold and into a dimly-lit room about ten feet square. Though small, it felt much more lived-in and inviting than Spinner’s End had. A four-poster bed took up the far end of the room, with a nightstand to the side holding a small lamp and a propped-open book. The near end had two overstuffed armchairs next to a blazing hearth. The walls were draped in fabrics of green and silver.

“Slytherin,” she said under her breath, faintly amused.

Snape came in after her, closing the entrance behind him. “We can change the color scheme to something less widely despised,” he said.

For once, she could not tell if he was being sarcastic. “There are good Slytherins,” she said. “Allegedly.”

“I wouldn’t know,” he said. And then he caught his breath, because Hermione reached for the top button of his frock coat.

“Don’t you think we’ve waited long enough?” she said. He didn’t answer, watching her fingers as they nimbly undid button after button. It took her only a few moments. He shrugged out of the coat and hung it carefully over the back of one of the chairs, a movement intimately familiar to Hermione by now.

She removed his white shirt next, exposing his pale chest covered with scars like hieroglyphs scrawled across his body. Hermione gently traced a fingertip along one of the longest, a white jagged mark stretching from breastbone to hip. His eyes followed the path of her hand.

She trailed her finger along his chest to his side until she met the Sectumsempra scar that curved there like a twisted grin, then moved behind him so that she could see his back. The Sectumsempra scar was still angry and livid, but the words Malfoy had carved into him had disappeared. She traced her fingertips over the skin where the marks had been. There was nothing left of the deep wounds that had been there.

“Healed completely,” she said.

“I spent a few days at St. Mungo’s,” he said. “They asked no questions.”

Hermione could feel the vibration of his voice under her fingertips as he spoke. On sudden impulse, she slid her arms around him to embrace him from behind, and she touched her lips to the hollow of his shoulder. “I thought of you every night,” she whispered, near to his ear. “Every single night.”

A shudder traveled through his body. “I tried not to think of you at all,” he said.

“Were you successful?” she asked, trailing her hands from his chest to his abdomen.

“No,” he said. He lifted her hands away from him and turned to face her. His eyes were half-lidded and dark. “Not in the slightest.”

He hooked his hands under the hem of her jumper and pulled it upwards. She lifted her arms to assist, and it soon joined his shirt on the floor.

She’d worn her white blouse underneath. He reached for it, but she shook her head slightly and bit her lip, looking up at him. “Let me?” she asked.

His mouth curled up at the corners. He inclined his head as though to say go on, then.

Slowly, carefully, she undid her buttons, one by one. She watched his face; he watched her hands. When the blouse was completely open, she rolled her shoulders and let it slide down her back, pooling on the floor. She pushed her trousers down next and stepped out of them, standing before him in only bra and knickers.

His eyes never left her body. “I don’t deserve this,” he said in a low voice. “This is… not for me. This has never been for me.” But his eyes were hungry and his lips were parted.

“Severus,” she said. She reached behind her back and unclasped her bra, letting it fall away. He wet his lips and exhaled a long, slow breath. Raising her arms and lacing her fingers behind her back, she turned in a slow circle, displaying herself to him.

“This,” she said, “is for you.”

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Snape had spent decades severing his mind from his emotional and physical impulses, and was now caught between that conditioning and a guttural, primal need to possess this woman now. She was practically naked in front of him, giving herself to him. Fantasies that had tormented him for months, now become reality, now his for the taking.

But first there was something he wanted to do, something he wanted to hear.

“Sit on the edge of the bed,” he said, in a rasping voice he barely recognized as his own. She obeyed him—and oh Merlin, that thought did nothing to calm his fevered mind—and took her knickers off before he even asked her to.

“Clever girl,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “I believe that is widely known.” Her eyes glinted.

“Cheek, Miss Granger,” he said.

“I’m not sorry, Professor,” she said, and he felt lightheaded from the surge of blood to his cock. Christ, what was she doing to him?

“We can discuss that later,” he said. He knelt before her almost reverently and put a hand on each of her knees. The grin faded from her face and her eyes widened. He pushed her knees apart, far enough to make her have to brace herself with her arms on the bed behind her. Her back arched, her breasts thrust forward, her thighs spread before him.

He stayed there motionless, his eyes taking her in. “You are beautiful,” he said. She opened her mouth to reply, but before she could, he bent his head and touched his tongue to her. She stiffened and tensed, just as she had the first time he’d attempted this, but this time he didn’t stop. He pressed his hands down firmly on the tops of her thighs, and he traced his tongue delicately around the nub of her clitoris.

“Oh my God,” she gasped in a high-pitched voice. With his mouth still on her, he slid one finger inside her. She was already slick and wet and he encountered no resistance, no friction. She let her head hang back and pushed her hips forward against him. He knew exactly how to touch her now, knew exactly how to find the textured spot just reachable with his curved finger. He pressed against it, and she let out a sob that sounded somewhere between pain and pleasure. He pulsed his finger over and over on that same spot, making her breathing hitch, making her rock her hips against him. He kept on, slow and deliberate, until he heard her gasp, “Please.”

Yes, he thought. He withdrew, looking up to her face. Her eyes were wide, her color high, and her chest rose and fell rapidly.

“I want you,” she said. “Please, Severus. Please.

His heart pounded in his chest. A twisted, dark part of himself wanted to deny her even further, but he wanted to be inside her even more badly than he wanted to make her beg. He wanted to be inside her more than he wanted to breathe.

He rose to his feet, looming over her on the bed, his waist at her eye level. He rested a hand in her hair, tilting her head back so that she looked up at him. “I’m not an easy man,” he said.

She reached for his belt and slid it through the buckle to undo it, never breaking eye contact. “Do you think I want an easy man?” she asked.

His cock swelled and his fingers tightened in her hair. “No,” he said. “I don’t imagine you do.” With his free hand, he finished unbuttoning his trousers. She pushed them down his hips, freeing his cock at last. Holding his gaze steadily, she leaned forward and left a light, delicate kiss just at the tip. He took in a sharp breath.

Eyes glinting, she said, “I’m sorry, Professor Snape; did I speak out of turn?”

He clenched his teeth together. After a moment, he got control of himself and said, “I’ll address that shortly, Miss Granger. Lie down.”

She laid back onto the bed and he positioned himself atop her, straddling her with his knees and lowering himself onto his elbows so that he could look directly into her eyes. His cock rested just at her entrance.

He’d not done this before, not with anyone. Even had he been interested, no one would have had him after he became a Death Eater. He thought he should be nervous. But his mind was no longer firing properly, and she was so needful and ready that it barely seemed to matter.

“You’ve done this before,” he said.

She nodded. “Twice,” she said, barely audible.

“Then this shouldn’t hurt,” he told her, and pushed his cock inside her, and fucking Christ she was slick and hot and tight and it felt obscene. Once he was fully within her, he stopped and closed his eyes, feeling her muscles flexing against him, listening to her short, shallow breathing.

“Don’t stop,” she breathed. “Please don’t stop.”

He pulled back a little and then thrust deep into her again. Another, then another, and he found his rhythm, slow and regular. Her face was open, her eyes wide and unfocused, each of his thrusts eliciting a little sound from her throat.

In a distant, dreamy voice, she said, “I wanted to do this in your classroom.”

This produced a quite vivid image involving his desk and her mouth. “It’s not too late, Miss Granger,” he said. “Unless I’m mistaken, you haven’t actually graduated yet.”

Her eyes widened. She wrapped her legs around him, pulling him more tightly against her, clinging to him. And then, oh Merlin, she shifted her hips so that he slid even more deeply inside her with each stroke. Her eyelids fluttered closed over the whites of her eyes; he was bringing her close to orgasm, a realization that drove him closer to that edge himself.

“Don’t stop,” she gasped. But he did exactly that, bottoming out inside her and resting there, motionless. The shocked look on her face was almost enough to make him lose control right then. She thrust her hips against him, squirming. He had to summon an Occlumency exercise to calm himself; she was frantic.

“Bastard,” she moaned.

He chuckled, low and deep. “Yes,” he said. “I thought we’d established that.”

She groaned in frustration, struggling beneath him, trying to make him move, but he was bigger and stronger and stayed motionless, smirking. He felt a pulling sensation deep within, like a thick, knotted cord being drawn from him, and realized that she was drawing on his magic.

It felt good. It felt very good.

Beg, he thought. I want you to beg.

He knew he hadn’t spoken aloud and yet somehow she heard him and responded without hesitation. “Please,” she said, her eyes glazed. She pushed down on his back with her hands, trying to force him to move inside her. “Please. Severus, I need you.” The last words were almost a sob, and with astonishment and raw satisfaction he saw tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

He wanted to draw this out, wanted to see just how far he could push her. But the feel of her magic drawing on his, the velvety sensation of her muscles gripping his cock, and her desperate, blatant need for him, proved too much. With a snarl, he snapped his hips, thrusting hard inside her. She cried out and her eyes lost focus and her fingernails bit into his back. She tightened around him like a satin glove wrapped around his cock.

“S-Severus,” she sobbed, unable to articulate anything more than that. Her hips bucked once, twice, and she squeezed his cock so tightly it made him lightheaded.

He could hold back no longer and with a final series of hard thrusts, he lost himself inside her, his vision darkening to black for a moment as the orgasm swept through him like a desert cyclone, hot and dark and fierce.

Afterward, trembling and spent, he rested his head in the crook of her shoulder and she stroked his hair and shoulders and back.

Perhaps I died in that interrogation room, he thought on the edge of consciousness, and this is a hallucination I’m having in my final moments.

Hermione’s hands moved over him, calming and soothing. If this is my death, then at least it is an exceptional one, he thought, and drifted into warm, dark, oblivion.

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He woke some time later to find her lying on her side next to him. She’d been watching him sleep. It occurred to him that there was a time that this would have bothered him.

“Aquiline,” she said.

He arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

“Aquiline,” she repeated. “Not hook-nosed. Your nose is aquiline. Like the ancient Romans. And your hair isn’t greasy, either.”

He was unable to think of anything to say to this.

“I should know,” she added, ruffling it with her fingers to illustrate.

He heard a faint ringing in his ears and a sensation of momentary weightlessness, and without fully realizing what he was about to do, said, “I love you, Hermione.”

Her eyes widened like that of a startled deer. The words seemed to hang between them in the air. She touched his face, resting her fingers on his cheek, and said, “I love you, too.”

It is moments like these on which a life turns, he thought. He drew her close, breathing her scent and feeling her regular heartbeat.

“I’m quite glad I’m not dead,” he said some time later. This was met with a soft giggle.

“Did you think you were?” she asked, with a smile playing about her lips.

He looked down into her eyes. “I thought it was a possibility,” he said.

“Well,” she said, “I was quite sure you were alive.” She gave his shoulder a playful nip with her teeth. “We can prove it again later if you’re still not sure, though.”

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Two days passed, during which they rarely left the tent, subsisting on Hermione’s packed rations and making up for what she called a “rather unnecessary amount of lost time.”

“I had to know,” he said, lying next to her in bed atop the covers, cooling off.

“You could have known the second Professor McGonagall threw Thief’s Downfall on me,” she pointed out.

He cocked an eyebrow, managing somehow to look condescending even while completely unclothed. “I believe no one would have anticipated that Minerva could talk Gringotts into that,” he said.

She threw a leg over him and raked her fingernails lightly down his chest. “Clearly,” she said, “you’ve never seen her Quidditch coaching.”

He smirked. “Miss Granger,” he said, pulling her down and rolling on top of her, “I think you’ll find there are far better ways to spend one’s time than by watching Quidditch.”

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On the third day, an owl arrived at the tent. Hermione fed it a bit of bread—almost the last of her rations—and unrolled the scroll it had brought. Snape, behind her, was pulling his trousers on. “Read it,” he said.

“Dear Hermione,” she read aloud, “I hope this stupid owl finds you. Harry won’t let me use his owl.”

Snape interjected, “Perhaps a summary.”

She shot him a sidelong look and half-smiled. “Give me a second.” She skimmed through the letter, nodding slightly at parts. When she finished, she rolled it back up and looked at Snape, now buttoning his shirt. She raised an eyebrow; he hadn’t bothered to get fully dressed one time in the last two days.

“I suspect we may be traveling soon,” he said, inclining his head towards the letter.

Her lips twitched. “Harry and Ron have run into some trouble with the Horcrux spell. They can’t get the potions to work.”

Snape met her eyes. “Need a potions expert, do they?”

“This sounds pretty complicated,” Hermione said. “They might need two.”

He found his frock coat and swung it on over his shoulders, fingers working rapidly to button it. Hermione stood and found her shoes, having already put on her jumper that morning to ward off chill. She stepped outside the tent into the damp Cornish air, stretching her arms overhead. Snape soon emerged as well, standing at her side, wearing the black cloak he’d never been without at Hogwarts.

“We are the best weapon in this war,” he said.

“Then let’s go win it,” she said, taking his hand.

With a clap of thunder he Apparated them away. Back to the war, and back to the world.

Chapter Text

 

Hermione could never quite decide what had shocked her friends more: the fact that her magical map instantly revealed the location of all of the remaining Horcruxes, or the moment when Snape kissed her hard on the mouth immediately afterward.

“That was a hell of a way to announce it,” she told him that night when they were alone again.

He smirked. “Thought Weasley was going to hex me where I stood.”

She’d have called him a bastard, but his mouth was already on hers, and at any rate he knew perfectly well what he was.

Harry and Ron couldn’t be too upset, though, as Hermione was clearly happy with the situation. Not to mention which, Snape was working openly for the Order now. “He’s still a git, but he’s our git now,” Ron said, and nobody seemed inclined to disagree with him.

The next day, Hermione called Ron, Harry, and Snape over to the table where the map was laid out. “There’s a problem,” she said. “Look at the locations.”

Ron and Harry stared down at the map. Ron read out, “Gringott’s...Hogwarts, that one I didn’t see coming...Malfoy Manor, that’ll be the snake… And…” His brow furrowed.

Harry looked up at Hermione. “We’re standing on top of one.”

Snape, who had been watching the trio’s faces rather than the map, cleared his throat. “I believe I know what the problem is,” he said, enunciating carefully. “I was waiting only for confirmation, and now it would seem that we have it.”

Hermione knew that tone of voice; her face went pale. Ron and Harry glanced worriedly at each other.

Snape said very softly, “Mr. Potter…I am sorry, but you have a choice to make.”

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Shortly thereafter, Snape retreated to the Grimmauld Place library, spending hours scrawling notes on scraps of parchment with ink-stained fingers. After the second day of this, Hermione quietly joined him.

“I know what you’re doing,” she said.

He glanced up from the table, his quill pausing over the parchment. “Of course you do,” he said. “Start with the Heckel; it’s next on my list.”

Hermione found the book in question and opened it. Before long, she had even more notes stuck into the leaves of the book and stacked alongside it than Snape did. They worked together in silence for the rest of the day, only occasionally exchanging a word or a query.

The next day owls began arriving with thick, rolled-up scrolls, and a few days after that a package arrived bearing a return address that appeared to be in a different alphabet. Ron delivered it to the library and returned looking somewhat shell-shocked.

“They’re honestly a bit scary,” he confided to Harry after coming back downstairs.

Harry raised his eyebrows and nodded in agreement. “You’re telling me. I went in there yesterday to drop off a scroll and they both looked up, looked at me, then looked at each other, perfectly simultaneously. It was like they had an entire conversation without actually saying anything.”

Ron shook his head. “I can’t even be angry. How am I supposed to compete with that?”

Harry shrugged. “You can’t, Ron. Nobody could.”

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Fred and George Weasley showed up the following week. “We heard someone wants to break into Hogwarts?” one of them shouted cheerfully into the front hallway. Hermione leapt up from her desk, hurtled down the stairs, and launched herself into them for a giant group hug.

“You absolute bastards,” she said, her arms around both boys. “You absolute great bloody wonderful bastards.”

Fred glanced at George, who shrugged. “If this is what we get for being great bloody bastards—”

“—we’ll take it,” both of them finished together.

Hermione beamed up at them. “You aren’t going to believe what you did,” she said. “Sit down, I’ll make tea.”

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Things began to happen very quickly. A late-night expedition to Hogwarts, organized by the Weasley twins, successfully retrieved Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem from the Room of Hidden Things. Fred and George were insufferable for days afterward.

“Found it right away, we did,” Fred said.

“You wouldn’t believe what’s in that room,” George chimed in. “Loads of stuff. Interesting stuff.”

Fred grinned. “We’re definitely going back.”

A few days later, Hermione called Harry to the library. Snape looked tired but satisfied, and Hermione’s eyes shone. “Harry,” she said, “I think we’ve found a loophole. I don’t think you have to die. I mean, I don’t think you can die. Not yet, anyway.”

Harry glanced from Hermione to Snape, whose mouth curved into a sardonic smile. “You will have to submit to the Killing Curse,” he said. “Or die some other way, though I suspect the Killing Curse will be easier than throwing yourself off a building.”

“No offense,” Harry said carefully, looking from one to the other, “but this sounds like a terrible plan.”

Hermione shook her head. “No, I’ll show you,” she said, turning pages to a marker she’d left in the book in front of her. “Look here. It makes sense. The only terrible part is that you can’t tell anyone. Not even Ginny,” she said, glancing at him.

His face clouded. “Hermione…”

“Not even Ginny,” she repeated. “We can’t take the chance. Everyone is going to have to be actually, genuinely surprised when it happens.”

Harry sighed deeply. “All right,” he said. “Tell me what I have to do.”

Half an hour later, Harry’s head hurt and his eyes were crossing. He’d understood little of what she said, but he’d got the gist—you can’t die while You-Know-Who lives—and he felt optimistic for the first time in weeks that he might actually survive the confrontation with Voldemort. “Thanks, Hermione and, uh…Professor Snape. I mean, you didn’t have to do this and...I appreciate it.”

Snape, reclining in his chair wearing his customary black robes and looking as professorial as he ever had, said, “I believe you are no longer a Hogwarts student, Mr. Potter. You may call me Severus, if you like.”

Harry’s eyebrows looked as though they might try to crawl off his forehead. “Uh…thanks...Professor Snape. I’ll, uh...keep that in mind.”

He turned and practically ran. Faint giggling wafted from the room behind him.

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Snape used what he vaguely referred to as “an old connection” to gain access to the Lestrange vault at Gringott’s. He refused to allow anyone to come with him, including Hermione. She protested heatedly, but after a short but vehement argument in the closed library, she relented.

While he was gone, Ron and Harry traded theories about what he was doing. “Using Legilimency, mate,” Ron offered. “You do what you’re best at.”

Harry considered this. “I bet it’s potions, though. Same reason. He’ll drug the Gringott’s goblins.”

“Or Imperius them,” Ron said with a dark look.

“Will you two please shut up,” Hermione said in a flat, irritable tone. She was on her fourth cup of tea and had nearly paced a groove into the sitting room floor.

“He’ll be all right, Hermione,” Harry said, seeing his friend’s distress.

Ron nodded vigorously. “It’s Snape. He’s clever. If he said he can do it, he can do it.”

Hermione expelled air through her mouth. “He’s clever except when he’s being a bloody idiot,” she said. “Trust me. I’ve seen it.”

Three hours later, the front door banged open and Snape swept through the threshold in a billow of black robes, his face like a thundercloud. He tossed Helga Hufflepuff’s cup onto the kitchen table and immediately went to pour himself a stiff drink. He tossed back a Firewhiskey and only then looked around him. “Where is—” he began, but Hermione appeared at his side, having come as soon as she’d heard the door. He drew her into his arms.

“Did you?” she asked, and he wordlessly nodded at the cup on the table. She saw it and her eyes filled with tears. “One left,” she whispered.

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“My God, Hermione, I can’t even imagine what we’d have had to do to find that cup without your spell,” Harry told her over dinner the next evening. “Unless Bellatrix Lestrange decided to just tell us where it was for some reason.”

Hermione laughed. “Not bloody likely.”

Harry shook his head. “You’re winning this war for us single-handed, I swear you are.”

She lifted an eyebrow.

“You and Snape, of course,” he amended.

His former Potions professor came into the room just then, having caught the tail end of the conversation. “She and Snape are what, exactly?” he asked.

“Winning the war for us,” Harry said.

“Ah,” Snape replied. “Well, it’s a damned good thing someone is. You lot would still be wandering around in the forest hoping to trip over a Horcrux if we hadn’t stepped in.”

Harry shot Hermione a glance. “You’re sure you’re happy with this bloke?” he asked.

She smiled demurely. “Very.”

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It had been just over a month since Snape and Hermione had returned from their imprisonment, and Voldemort’s familiar Nagini was the only Horcrux left, other than Harry himself.

Professor McGonagall had been busy at Hogwarts, as had Fred and George Weasley, who had a seemingly preternatural ability to evade detection and capture. The DA, which now constituted the majority of the student population at Hogwarts, was organized and ready to move at a moment’s notice. Harry had been in contact with Aberforth at the Hog’s Barrel, and the man had recruited quite a few people from Hogsmeade and surrounding environs. By Harry’s rough count there were about a hundred and fifty people who were willing to fight on their side.

“How many Death Eaters will he have?” Harry asked, going over his lists of names again at the writing desk in the drawing room.

Snape reclined on the sofa, legs crossed and arms stretched out languorously along the back. “On the premises? Far less than that,” Snape said. “Available within half an hour’s notice via the Dark Mark, considerably more. Perhaps three hundred.”

Harry tapped the quill against his lower lip. “All right,” he said. “Call the Order. I want to talk to everyone. Here. Tonight.”

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Hermione, Snape, Ron, Harry, Tonks, Lupin, most of the rest of the Weasleys, Professor McGonagall, and Kingsley Shacklebolt assembled in the sitting room of Grimmauld Place, standing around the sides of the room, sitting in chairs, or in Tonks’ case, folded up cross-legged on the floor. All eyes were on Harry, who stood near the center.

“I don’t think we should delay any longer,” he said. “We’re as prepared as we can be. We’ve destroyed every Horcrux that we can without going directly to him, and every day that we delay is a day that he grows stronger.”

Snape inclined his head in agreement. “Riddle anticipates a battle at Hogwarts. He has spent months, if not years, preparing for it. If we take the battle to him instead, we will remove that advantage entirely. He is powerful now, but not as powerful as he will be in two months’ time. We should move.”

Professor McGonagall’s eyes fixed sharp and bright on her former colleague. “Are you sure, Severus?” she asked.

He nodded once.

“Does anyone disagree?” she asked, sweeping her gaze across the room. No one spoke; no one even blinked.

She exhaled deeply. “Then I will begin preparations at Hogwarts.”

“Can you be ready tomorrow night?” Harry asked.

She nodded firmly. “Tomorrow after the dinner hour, I will...disable the Carrows,” she said, her mouth turning upward into a grim smile. “And the students and staff will move outside the anti-Apparition wards. We have portkeys as well, for those who cannot Apparate or be taken via Side-Along. You are quite sure that You-Know-Who is still at Malfoy Manor?”

“What’s left of it,” Snape said. “Part of the building remains intact, and that is where he is headquartered. He cares little for physical comfort.”

She nodded. “Then that is where we shall next meet,” she said.

“Thank you, Minerva,” he told her. “And...best of luck.”

“To you as well,” she said. “And to you, Harry.” Harry nodded in acknowledgment.

“Oh, and Severus?” she said, the lines on her face easing ever so slightly.

He raised an eyebrow.

“I expect an invitation to the handfasting,” she said, and swept out of the room. Harry and Ron shared a smirk, and Hermione had the good grace to blush slightly.

Snape merely looked insufferably smug.

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The Battle of Malfoy Manor took place the following night. As predicted, Voldemort was poorly prepared for a frontal assault. The first wave of Order members brought down the anti-Apparition wards within minutes. Once more began freely Apparating directly onto the grounds, the rest of the wards fell just as quickly. The handful of surprised Death Eaters on the premises mounted a disorganized and ineffective resistance, running outside the mansion to be picked off one by one. After several minutes of this, someone must have managed to raise an alarm because more began streaming in, but they arrived in small groups. The Order, well-trained and prepared, was more than able to handle them as they came.

With the outer grounds under control, the Order forces divided into halves, one half staying to fight off incoming Death Eaters and the other half mounting an expeditionary force through the manor to find and kill first Nagini, then Voldemort.

Hermione and Snape both stayed with the outside group. Snape’s Dark Mark left him too susceptible to control by Voldemort. As well, Hermione would not leave his side—nor did she particularly wish to visit the inside of Malfoy Manor ever again.

Decades after the battle, many of the participants would recount one of their most vivid memories as being the sight of Severus Snape and Hermione Granger, backs to each other and wands extended, firing off spells so rapidly that they looked like a great firework going off. They moved like a single person, fluid and deadly, Death Eaters falling around them like moths that flew too close to a flame.

An hour into the battle, Snape crouched to cast a low Leg-Locker Curse at a short and stout Death Eater halfway across the field, and Hermione spun to send a Stunner flying over Snape’s head at another Death Eater about to curse him. The Death Eater fell bonelessly to the ground. “Another one down,” she muttered, using the sleeve of her robe to wipe a sheen of sweat from her brow.

Just then, a blinding flash of green light came from inside the manor. Everyone’s heads turned as a piercing scream of, “Harry, no!” reverberated across the grounds. Hermione exchanged a glance with Snape.

“Ginny,” he said, and she nodded.

“Now we wait,” she said.

“Now we wait,” he agreed. And with a “Confringo!” he turned back to the battle.

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Half an hour later, Neville Longbottom staggered out of the front doors of Malfoy Manor, covered in green ichor and carrying what appeared to be…

“My God, that’s Godric Gryffindor’s sword,” shouted Remus Lupin from across the field. “Neville, how—”

But then a bruised and exhausted-looking Harry Potter emerged from the doors of Malfoy Manor, supported by Ron Weasley on one side and Ginny Weasley on the other.  A great shout went up, though it was nothing compared to the riotous celebration that erupted when Ron cried out, “He’s dead! Voldemort’s dead! Harry killed him! I saw it! And Neville killed the snake!

The grounds filled with the popcorn-popping sound of dozens of Death Eaters Disapparating at once. We’ve won, Hermione thought, a great wave of emotion cresting in her chest. She ran across the muddied field to Harry and enveloped him in a crushing hug. “Harry, you did it,” she said through her tears. “You really did it.”

“Yeah,” he managed, with a crooked grin. “Got the wand, too.”

Severus arrived at Hermione’s side, flushed and sweaty with exertion but otherwise unmarked from the battle. “Well done, Harry,” he said, sounding genuinely pleased enough that Ron’s jaw dropped. “Well done indeed. I believe that your parents would have been proud. I know that your mother would have been.” His voice was low but did not falter or break.

Harry swallowed hard. “Thanks....thank you, Severus,” he said.

Hermione looked up to Snape, with a questioning expression on her face. He lifted his hand to cradle her face.

“Sometime soon I have many things to tell you,” he told her, “but for now, suffice it to say that many things have been laid to rest this evening.” He smiled and the lines in his face almost disappeared, looking like a man who has at last set down a long-burdensome weight. The simple joy that welled up from Hermione’s heart felt almost too much to bear.

“Look,” she said, turning with him to look over the wreckage of Malfoy Manor and the battlefield littered with dead and injured Death Eaters. Fred Weasley leaned on George’s shoulder; Ginny Weasley and Harry were deep in an embrace; Neville sat heavily on the ground staring dumbfounded at the Sword of Gryffindor still balanced over his knees; and Tonks was tending to a nasty wound on Remus Lupin’s head.

No one had fallen. The entirety of the Order had survived.

“It’s over,” Hermione said. “It’s really, truly over.”

“It is a night of endings,” Severus said, wrapping an arm around her. “But also, I think, of beginnings.” Hermione rested her head on his shoulder, content in his embrace.

Severus Snape watched the joyful chaos surrounding them and thought of falling, and flying, and had no more confusion over which was which.