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When she wakes up, she is a pawn.

Hostage.

Pawn brings up images of black and white squares and a boy on a bronze horse, and Hermione can't think of that just then--not when his blood has barely dried on her clothes. It's making them stiff and itchy, but with the way Bellatrix is looking at her, she can't help but be grateful to have them, full stop.

Bellatrix's eyes are crazed, but they have a different cast to them, one that feels familiar. Although Hermione hasn't yet seen her own eyes, she knows from where the familiarity originates. Their eyes match. Bellatrix has the look of a woman grieving.

Even with her arms bound, twisted awkwardly behind her, held by a type of burning magic that Hermione doesn't know how she can feel it should be easy to summon Bellatrix's wand given the woman's current state of agitation. The wand would not respond to Hermione the way that her own wand--evidently unaccounted for at the moment--would, but it would be enough to get her out of here, or at least end the stalemate-like state of waiting.

Not all of the blood on Hermione's clothing is Ron's.

It's hard to concentrate. She thinks she might have hit her head when Ron threw himself at her, intervening, using himself as a shield against a curse Hermione had never heard, hopes never to hear again. She felt Ron shatter against her. She felt. . .

She thinks she might have hit her head. There are tears in her skin. It feels like what she imagines shrapnel would feel like. She's pretty sure it's bone.

The thought makes her wretch.

Bellatrix grins at the noise, slinking toward her. "Feeling ill, my pretty?"

The touch of Bellatrix's fingers to her cheek is worse than the cold shock of Petrificus, more vile than the sewage tunnels of Muggle London.

"Common side-effect of being in your presence," Hermione manages, despite the swollen state of her throat. She wonders if she screamed. Probably. Ron.

"Worry not, love. Only until I get what I want." Bellatrix's smile is the barest issuing of a warning and Hermione stiffens as the non-verbal hex runs through her, causing every muscle to burn, quiver, tear apart and then reform itself.

She gasps as the magic wears off. "They'll want me whole, if this is a bargaining process."

Bellatrix meets her gaze, grinning and laughing and unrestrained. "Whole?"

Hermione grants her this point. They are neither of them whole. "Unharmed," she rephrases.

"Oh no," Bellatrix says. "They won't care, not so long as their precious little mudblood is alive."

Hermione keeps her breathing as even as she can manage.

"And I am owed, you sullied bitch."

Hermione thinks of the sound the last horcrux made as it vaporized, destroyed along with its master's last hope of immortality. Of life at all. Maybe Bellatrix is, but Hermione isn't giving Harry up to her. Not even if she could. "Would that we all received our just rewards."

Bellatrix hisses, and Hermione can hear the spell somehow in the unformed words. Bellatrix's hands push at the waist of Hermione's pants and she is less surprised than she would like to be when she feels the flesh growing from Bellatrix, heavy and unsated at her thigh. Hermione narrows her eyes, "Unafraid to be infected by my impurity?"

There is a quick movement, a thrust and Hermione can just barely make sense of Bellatrix's words for the pain. "I am leagues beyond all fear."

Hermione envies her.

*


Hermione can feel that something is wrong. She doesn't have her wand, so she shouldn't be able to tell, but she knows. She knows the way she knew something was different at nine when she reached into her mouth and removed the fixed retainer meant to reposition her jaw over time. The one that shouldn't have come out for anything less than a whole tray of dentistry tools and at least an hour's worth of her time.

Owls flitter in and out, and Hermione wants to believe that they will lead people--people she can trust--to her, but she knows that plenty of things can be done to owls to keep them hidden, to confuse someone who might try to follow.

She forces herself to think. It's hard, much harder than usual. Her throat is dry, and her skin feels tight where it is not torn. Hermione recognizes dehydration from the summer she and her parents visited Southern California and she hadn't known enough to understand just how much water she needed to drink.

It should be an impetus, the thought of water, but the desire only makes her head throb more. She closes her eyes and breathes, and tries to ignore the glances that Bellatrix throws her way on occasion.

Something is wrong with her magic. If she can identify what, then she can perhaps fix it, or get around it. She takes the risk of focusing on Bellatrix's wand, just visible at the hem of her sleeve. Her accio is silent, as it must be.

It brings a chair--the nearest item to her, directly in the path of the wand--crashing into her. It also brings Bellatrix' attention onto her. Hermione would worry, but she's too busy trying to breathe past the further pain of what she thinks might be fractured ribs. Her entire chest has become a spike, driving in on itself.

"Being naughty?" Bellatrix asks, her chin tilting as if there might actually be some question about this.

"Suppose that depends on your definition," Hermione spits out, her words red and liquid.

Bellatrix swipes angrily at where the blood has spattered her cheek, bringing her wand up with her other hand. "Dirty, scum-infested mudblood."

Hermione has seen the Cruciatus Curse in affect. She has watched others writhe under its power. She has never undergone it, not until this moment. She has certainly never undergone it with ribs that weren't working properly to begin with. Screaming hurts nearly as much as the pain causing it in the first place, and it won't stop, won't stop, won't stop--

She tastes more than sees the green. She can't explain how that's possible, how the spell seeps into her mouth, her nose, without harming her, but then, something is wrong, and she can't explain that either.

"-Granger! Miss Granger!"

Hermione fights to open her eyes. That is not Bellatrix calling her name. When she figures out who it is she wants to blink, but is afraid to risk shutting her eyes again, if only for a moment. "Professor?"

There's something wrong with that title, too, but Hermione is too tired to puzzle that out.

Another voice, equally well-known and confusing, asks, "Where did she put your wand, Granger?"

She does blink at Draco Malfoy. There's nothing for it.

"Wand," he demands.

"Don't know," she says.

"Bloody buggering-- We're here to rescue you, stupid mudblood chit."

"Draco," the professor says.

"What, I'm just--"

"She doesn't know."

"Rescue?" Hermione asks, thinking she missed something. Last she checked, Professor Snape was allied with Bellatrix and company. Or at least. . .

There are too many "at least" clauses to sort through, she realizes. For that she needs a quill and some parchment and water. The professor helps her a bit, though, saying, "We have our own uses for you."

That makes sense. That she can trust. It is not as if she has much choice in the matter. "Best accomplish them fast," she says, just managing to get the words out before the pain in her head and chest demand their due course with unconsciousness.

*


Unlike her last place of waking, Mungo's she recognizes. Mungo's looks the same. Harry, who is sitting by her bed, does not. He has another scar--obviously healed to that point by magic--running along his jaw, and his eyes are nothing more than green-black smudges. "Harry?"

Harry takes a shuddering breath. "Hermione."

Hermione has questions and questions and then some more questions, but first, "Water?"

Harry's hands are on her then, and she realizes that he was waiting for her to give him an excuse. Harry has problems seeking out touch, despite what Hermione recognizes as an almost-constant need for it. He brings a glass of water to her lips and says, "Uh, the Healer said--"

"Slowly," Hermione finishes. She takes a sip and it's so good, so very good, but she does have willpower and although she can now breath, she doesn't really want to risk vomiting.

When she has taken all she can manage she shakes her head a very small bit. Harry sets the cup aside and lowers her back down to the bed. Hermione tries to figure out where to begin. There are too many places and her head still hurts. "They said they had their uses for me."

"They--" Harry's mouth twists. "Snape and Malfoy?"

She nods.

"Bargaining chip," he tells her.

That helps with her next question. "What was I worth?"

"Anything," Harry says, his face going white. "Everything."

"I meant--"

"Once Voldemort was gone-- Do you remember anything?"

"Ron--" she shakes her head.

"Snape and Malfoy, well, I wouldn't be here if they hadn't, erm. McNair and Alecto and more than a few of the Notts and probably some others I didn't see. Nobody with a Mark was safe."

"Not so much a bargaining chip as a token to get through the gate, then, I suppose."

"You were worth a full pardon."

Hermione looks at Harry. "Dumbledore--"

"Snape won't talk about it, and Malfoy doesn't know."

"Full pardon," she repeats.

"It took the Death Eaters a minute, you know, to figure out that he had turned. They believed he was theirs."

Hermione understands. Just because Snape won't talk about it doesn't mean there aren't enough clues to come up with a good enough confession from his silence. One question down. "Did they find my wand?"

Harry doesn't look at her. The pain in her head spikes and she closes her eyes. "All right. All right. It can be replaced."

Harry is silent in the way he is silent when he has too much to say. Hermione wishes her head would stop distracting her. She really needs to focus. "Harry?"

"Hermione, the thing is--"

Hermione waits. He has something to say, something that needs to be said. If she waits, he will tell her.

"You. . .you have a headache, yeah?"

"Won't go away," she admits.

"No," he says. "The Healers are trying, but, look. When Ron, that is, when they--" He breaks off and bites his lip and for the first time since she woke up, Hermione is terrified.

"When Ron hit me?"

"The spell, it hit him. Only, it didn't, not entirely."

"It was a Shattering Curse."

"It mutated. It hit Ron and altered and hit you, only magic is hard to understand, even for the people who truly understand it."

Hermione tries to follow this. "They don't know what it did."

"They know, erm, they know enough to say things about it."

"What things, Harry?" Hermione knows, though. Her magic still feels wrong.

"Brain damage. They say it, I don't know, fractured the part of your brain that interacts with your magic."

"No, I can still feel-- I mean, it's different and I thought wrong, but maybe not wrong, maybe just different, but it's still there."

"Oh, yes. It is still there."

Hermione really hates Harry for making her ask, "But?"

"Can you control it?"

"What?"

"Can you channel it appropriately?"

Hermione remembers the chair hitting her, the cracking of her chest. "I don't-- I thought I was just hurt."

"They think the part of your mind that channels the magic, brings it to a focused point, is where the damage is located."

"Then I can't--"

"You can," Harry says, nearly feral in his belief. "We're just going to have to figure new ways, have to retrain you, I suppose. We'll work it out, Hermione, really. I won't give up until we do."

Hermione trusts Harry, he has a way of accomplishing the impossible even when he's not quite so set on it. Quietly, she asks, "My head. Is it always going to hurt like this?"

She feels a fool for asking when Harry's had to live all his life with a burning scar on his forehead, but it really is hard to think, hard to move her head, hard to do anything. Harry presses his forehead to hers, and it occurs to her that she's never seen the scar looking so diminished, so much like a, well, scar. He whispers, "We'll make that better, too."

Because he's there, and safe, and as whole as any of them are ever going to be from here on out and she really, truly wants to believe, she says, "All right."

*


It's not entirely evident how extensive the damage is until two days later, when Hermione is frustrated and tired and upon reaching over for the glass of water at her bedside, sends glass shards and liquid in every direction.

The Healers extract the shards that have buried themselves in her, clean the room and then scurry out. Harry stays. Hermione whimpers at the pain in her head, which spiked upon the accidental magic outpour and has not yet abated.

Harry whispers, "Get some sleep. I think it's time for a different plan."

He makes sure she's at least lying down before disappearing to parts unknown.

When she wakes this time, Snape is staring down at her, his features impassive. Hermione blinks herself into true consciousness and notices Draco behind him, an orchid plant in hand. She says, "Professor. Malfoy."

The sound of her own voice hurts her head. "I don't suppose you have a Tylenol?"

She would ask for a potion, but most no longer work. Only hands-on magical healing works, and even there the Healers have had to try a multitude of techniques before garnering the desired results. It is why the ribs and the other injuries took so long to repair. The damage to her magic is interfering not only with her ability to actually perform it, but with its effects upon her person.

Snape narrows his eyes. "Muggle analgesics? Yes, I suppose I can see where that would make a certain amount of sense."

He speaks at a regular decibel and the pain is enough to cause Hermione to retch. She has the presence of mind to do it over the side of the bed where he is not standing, but only just.

Harry comes away from where he has been standing by the door, watching. He vanishes the mess wordlessly and says, rather softly, "Noise can sometimes be, er, problematic."

Snape looks less than impressed by Harry's summation of recent events, but he doesn't yell or make any noise above a soft snarl, so Hermione relaxes a tiny bit. He asks, "What have they tried?"

Harry says, "Er, well--"

Hermione would laugh if she wasn't afraid of how much it would hurt. "They had me on a series of ground-murtlap based potions, then a cocktail combination with elements of billywig stings, four different magic suppressants, each from the Collinian school of brewing, and a concentrate of willow bark."

"You're certain?"

She looks at him. "I ask before I swallow. And you are the one who taught us to deduce these things."

"It does not take for most."

"I must be the one that makes it all worth while," she says, and manages a sharp, tight little smile.

"Contain your ego," he chides her, but in a whisper it does not sound half so derisive. "What kind of pain is it?"

"Sharp," she answers without having to think. Then she frowns. "You no longer have your uses for me."

"It wasn't you who asked a favor," he says.

"Professor--"

"Potter will always have his uses."

"Malfoy brought an orchid plant."

"I told him to behave himself. He has odd notions."

Hermione looks at Malfoy even as she speaks to Snape. "You would find basic politeness to be odd."

Malfoy scowls at the plant in his hand, but sets it down gently on the windowsill. Hermione doesn't thank him; she doesn't think he would appreciate it. She turns her attention back to Snape. "I know it's offensively Muggle of me, but I really do think something along the lines of a Percocet--"

Snape taps his wand lightly at her temple and a soft numbness comes over her head.

"Oh," she says.

It's hard to focus in an entirely different way after that, but she's fairly certain that Snape says, "I will see what there is to be done."

*


When she wakes up, Snape and Harry are still there. Draco has gone off somewhere. Hermione says, "Variant of the Legilimentical branch?"

Snape narrows his eyes. "What would you know of it?"

"Only what I've managed to find in books. But the mind magics seem to all relate back to either that or Occlumency, at some level, and the former made more sense."

"It worked?"

"Better than anything else has so far." She feels like she can sit up and think in various directions all at once. It is a familiar and yet cherished feeling--one she missed.

Snape's gaze goes back to the scroll he was perusing when she first woke.

"Do you think a diffindo would work on my hair?" Hermione asks.

Harry says, "I dunno," in a doubtful tone, and does not go for his wand.

Snape asks, "Heavy?"

Hermione nods. It is. She doesn't say that Bellatrix liked to pull at it in order to wake her up.

Snape pulls up his wand and the next thing she knows her head feels oddly light, and like it's sitting slightly higher. She's had long hair since she was four. She's surprised that the sight of it lying around her, limp and exiled, does nothing. "I would try to Banish it, but--"

Harry takes care of it for her. He tilts his head and says, "That's, er, cute."

Hermione doubts it--diffindo isn't precisely the way to go about styling one's hair--but she doesn't argue. "Thanks."

Snape tells her, "It looks like a rampaging manticore got hold of your head."

She nods. "It was the thought that counted."

He changes the subject. "Have you tried wanded magic yet?"

"I misplaced my wand."

"Of course you did." He draws his own out and hands it to her. "Point it elsewhere."

Hermione goes for the desk, where either he or Harry has left a quill. She tries a simple levitation charm, says the incantations and everything.

She's pretty sure she blacks out a moment from the pain, but not entirely. All she knows is that somehow the wand is no longer in her hand, and Harry's hands are on her shoulders, his face locked in a snarl, his gaze on Snape. She says, "Harry," softly, and he backs away.

It's better. She didn't used to have a problem with people hovering over her but evidently it's a bit claustrophobia inducing at the moment.

"No wanded magic," she whispers.

Snape nods and taps his wand to her head. The relief is so intense it's all she can do not to sob with it. His gaze is intense on her as he says, "Rest, you're useless like this."

It should offend her, but she's too glad of the permission to be bothered.

*


She startles from a dream that was black, black and something else, something she can't remember. She doesn't want to remember.

It's dark in the room and she can hear Harry snoring behind her. She peeks. Sure enough, he's sitting in the chair, his head thrown back in a way that will hurt in the morning. She won't be able to do the loosening charm she would normally hit him with.

On the other side of her bed, Malfoy is awake, staring out toward the window.

"What time is it?" she asks.

"Past midnight," he says.

"What are you doing here?"

"I don't know." He hasn't looked at her yet. She wonders if there is something actually outside the window, or if it is just his way of maintaining civility. He's never really been civil to her before.

"Do I have a life debt to you?"

He moves slightly at that, a twitch more than anything. "Possibly. The rules aren't very clear in cases where two people do the saving, and what's more is it was really Severus who took you out of there. And then we did use you to begin the pardoning process, so it's likely that negates something of the debt-- I'm not sure."

She tries, "What are you doing here?" again.

"Severus went to the school to see if McGonagall would allow him use of the labs. He had an idea about how to alter the bonding structure and he thought maybe that would allow for a different type of dispersal, since he thinks the base particles of your magic have changed patterns. That was how he explained it, anyhow."

"It's an interesting theory, given my inability to handle intermediary objects."

"I suppose."

"However?"

"Magic is magic. Sometimes things go wrong."

"Such as the birth of Muggle-borns?"

"I was thinking of Squibs."

It is an odd accession. "You still haven't said what you are doing here."

"He went to use the labs and I didn't, if she didn't let him in I didn't really want-- Hogwarts didn't seem like anywhere to go, and they've taken the Manor, at least for now, it was in Father's name, and there just. There just wasn't anywhere else to go. Potter didn't act as though I was something he'd spat up onto his shoes, and there was an extra chair in here so I stayed." He shrugs. "I suppose you want me to leave?"

She thinks about it. "No, not really."

He looks at her then. "Why not? I would probably want you to leave, if it were me."

"I suppose we've always been different people."

His gaze strays back toward the window. "I suppose."

"Malfoy."

"Granger."

"You'll find somewhere to go."

He laughs at that, small and bitter. "And Severus will find someway to fix your head."

"Probably. He's gotten it into his head, and whatever else I think we're all clear on the fact that he does what he has to in order to finish the things he starts."

"You're being a fool."

"And you've lost hope for some reason you're not talking about. Everyone has their issues."

Another laugh. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"Think there's tea in the cafeteria?"

"We are in Britain."

"You're up, right?"

"I am not ferrying for you like some bloody house elf."

She shrugs. "Very well."

It takes two minutes of silence for him to be up and out the door.

*


"Percocet," Snape says dryly, handing Hermione a bottle of something that is clearly not a Muggle drug.

"The idea has merit," she says, because it does. When she's been able to think over the past few days, she's returned to the idea of why it might be able to help where potions simply haven't managed. "Muggle medicines have different foci than potions."

"They are also infinitely more destructive to the organs they propose to heal."

"Muggles don't have magic on their side."

"You do," he says, clearly unwilling to grant her premise. "Drink, you obnoxious twit, I have better things to be doing today than nursemaiding you."

"Do you?" she asks, but drinks. He watches her intently. She finishes up and looks back. "Should it be instantaneous?"

"Not necessarily." The tone of his voice tells her that would have been preferable.

After a few minutes she says, "Well, all right, it's working, but probably not the way you meant."

His, "What is it doing, Miss Granger?" is wildly impatient.

"Soporific," she just manages, and then there is nothing, nothing in the world for which she could manage to stay awake.

The next attempt fails in the same way and she asks, "Are you using powdered bicorn hair? Because I've been thinking about the way my magic has essentially broken down and that the disseminative pattern of that ingredient might be causing the unconsciousness. I feel pretty good when I wake up, so I think the palliative is actually taking, there are just side-effects."

"You are making the untrained and unsupported assumption that your magic has actually broken down in any way."

"I'm the one who knows what it feels like. Untrained, perhaps, but not unobserved."

He glares at her.

"Are the Healers giving you anything better?" she asks. She's perfectly willing to bow to someone's superior expertise.

He stalks off at that, which she takes as a "no." She calls after him, "I look forward to seeing you again."

The third try does absolutely nothing, and she gets the feeling he would look triumphant at the failure of her idea if he weren't so incredibly frustrated by his own lack of success.

"Maybe if we did an ingredients testing? For the ones that aren't poisonous when undiluted, clearly. That way we could have some idea of what I react to at all, and in what ways."

"Your magic is behaving in unpredictable patterns. Such a test could kill you."

"For one thing, if anything goes wrong I'm at Mungo's, so now's a good time for that, yes? And for another, any of these tests could have killed me and we both know it. Now is not the moment to lose your nerve."

"My pardon was not so all-encompassing that it would cover the accidental murder of the wizarding world's very favorite plucky heroine."

"I could sign consent forms."

"What are you on about now?"

"Muggle thing, used for medical testing. The subject signs legal forms saying she understands the possible consequences. You could publish it in the Prophet, for all I care."

He looks at her assessingly. "Binding magical contract?"

She shrugs. "I'd want to look it over before I signed."

"The school keeps Wizengamot defense representatives on retainer."

"Really? Why'd the Headmaster never use them to help Harry out?"

"Because the Headmaster was better defense, obviously, idiotic child."

"I suppose."

He glances at her suspiciously, but doesn't pursue the thought. "I will see if Minerva would be so kind as to loan me one."

"Mention my name, she likes me."

Hermione isn't sure which one of them is more shocked when he laughs at that. It's hardly a guffaw, but it's more than a chuckle. He stands, "Good day, Miss Granger."

She stutters out a, "Good day, Professor," but he's mostly out the door by the time she gets to the word "day."

*


The contract is long and has quite a few unnecessary sub-clauses that take Hermione a bit to puzzle out. Harry has to apply the numbing charm--Snape taught him how when it was evident she was going to need it on a regular basis--a few times before she manages. Then she signs it, and hands it over to Snape. "Your own personal guinea pig."

"Yes, because the art of Potions is as coarse as the Muggle practice of pouring toxins into unsuspecting rodents."

"I don't believe I was the one to say any such thing." She smiles as innocently as she can manage.

He has his revenge, of course, just as soon as they begin the testing. It is only the rare ingredient that causes her to smile slightly and say, "That's showing possibility," or, "more, please." More often the ingredients are bitter and cause her stomach to cramp, or her throat to ache, or her magic to tingle sharp and hot under her skin.

On two notable occasions, they send her into heaving so badly that a Healer has to be called upon to stop the retching and help clean her up. Both times the Healer--different Healers--glares daggers at her and Snape and even Harry, who's an almost completely innocent bystander. She understands their frustration--she is, for all intents and purposes, willingly causing harm to herself--but she can see the long-term promise in the project.

Malfoy, who has mostly become just Draco by this point, comes around a few times looking bored and somewhat ill-at-ease with the goings-on in the room. On the third time, Snape snaps at him, "When you go, take Potter," which is how Hermione knows he's saved the best for last. Harry says, "Snape--"

Hermione shakes her head, just once. It's enough to hurt. "Go with Draco, Harry."

Draco looks entirely bumfuzzled as to what to do with Harry. He states, "There's, er, tea in the caf." They've all been near-to-living at Mungo's for the better part of three weeks.

It's a sign of how nervous the whole thing makes Harry that he says, "Er, right," and capitulates to Hermione's demands, following after Draco like he might otherwise get lost.

Hermione watches as Snape weaves silence wards around the room. Her, "Onto the good stuff, then?" is surprisingly calm.

"The most potent ingredients. They will either very much help or hurt with an intensity you've likely only experienced once."

"At least I've got some experience."

He says softly, "At the doses I've portioned out, none of the effects will last very long, good, bad or otherwise."

"All right."

On the second ingredient, when she wants to claw out her brain it hurts so bloody much, she realizes why he told her this, and it is enough to hang on for the eternity of sixty-or-so seconds that the ingredient takes to run through her system. She pants afterward and says, "Not that one."

He doesn't say a word, but he waits until she holds her hand out to give over the next ingredient. After that it is a slow, excruciating process, and the rewards are not as evident as Hermione could technically prefer. But there are rewards. Four of the ingredients prove to have enormous pain-relieving effects, and one of them even makes her feel as if her magic is focusing to some extent.

At the end he hands her water and orders her to, "Drink."

She does, handing it to him as she finishes, her hand still out, waiting for him to replenish the supply. He does so for her three times. He asks, "Will you need something to assist you in sleeping?"

Hermione's lids are already heavy, so she moves to lie down. "No, thank you. Was there anything else?"

"You are done for now."

She gives into the urge to close her eyes then and does not open them, not even when she suspects that someone is wiping her face carefully with a clean cloth, and tucking her under the freshly spell-warmed sheets.

*


Draco and Harry are talking when Hermione comes to, so it takes her a minute to realize that she's not dreaming anymore. They're saying things like, "Looks nice outside," and "I could watch over her for a bit," and "You think Puddlemere has a prayer after that pounding last week?"

"Harry," she says.

"Hermione," he says, and he's at her side. For a moment, brief and nearly sweet, the expression on his face has her back in second year, waking from petrification and safe. But for that Ron would have to be standing next to Harry, equally glad to see her.

Draco, who is still across the room, staring at her warily, is not quite the same.

Still, she says, "'Morning, Draco."

Draco glances out the window. "Not quite. But I appreciate the sentiment."

"Afternoon?"

"You've slept for about twenty hours," Harry says. His voice is a little shaky.

"Has the professor returned at all?"

Draco nods toward her bedside table. "He sent an owl."

Hermione squints at the parchment. There are words. It takes her a few moments to make sense of them and she wants to cry, because she has always, always trusted words. She closes her eyes and thinks, "McGonagall has insisted I sleep, wretched cow," which is what the note tells her. She closes her eyes and thinks, "The powdered mooncalf hooves helped. The fanged geranium sap worked."

Potions is not her strongest point, but she knows if she could get out of bed, if she could reach her magic, if she could just read more than a few words at a time without her head pounding mercilessly, she could put it all together. Snape certainly will. It is what he does.

"You want something to eat?" Harry asks.

Hermione looks at Draco and says, "You know what I really, really want?"

Draco looks terrified.

"I want to go outside."

Both boys are silent.

Hermione says, "Just for a little while."

Harry says, "I don't know that I can side-along you if we need to get you straight back."

"No, but I'm pretty sure you can carry me back." Magic isn't everything.

"Okay," Harry says.

"Potter--" Draco starts, but he cuts himself off.

"Want to join us?" Hermione asks.

Draco shakes his head, but says, "Someone has to watch after the two of you. Severus'd kill me straight off if something happened to you right in front of the bloody hospital."

"Sweet talker," Hermione says, and smiles. It's sunny outside, and she has gotten her way.

*


When Snape returns he brings a potion that burns worse going down, even, than the gin Hermione's father let her sip one year at Christmas. She gasps and makes herself finish it, wiping away her tears of shock and looking at him defiantly, daring him to say something. Wisely, he does not.

Until he asks, "Well? Is it working?"

As he says the words she begins to feel something, a tightening, almost in her mind. For a second it's as painful as the driving discomfort that has been her world of late, and then it snaps into place. She blinks. "Yes."

Snape makes a sound of disgust. "Use your words, Miss Granger. Surely even a scholar as lackadaisical and lacking in complexity as you realizes that a simple affirmative is not conducive to the furthering of my research."

"My scholarship is pristine," she tells him, not in a tone that invites argument. "I think you managed to focus the magic again in some way. Not the way it was before. I don't imagine I could pick up a wand and do anything, although I will have to try. But I also think I could stop myself from destroying things if I were to get upset."

"And the pain?"

"Still there, but nothing more than buzz. Quite endurable."

He scowls at this.

Able to think clearly for the first time in far too long, Hermione tilts her head. "I will point out that the only thing that has managed to dampen the pain before now was a directly applied altered form of mind magic. Perhaps the potion has to have a practical aspect to it? Or rather, a spell knit into it, is the best I can describe it. I've never read of a potion that involved that, but it seems like it would be possible. At any rate, other areas of magic can combine disciplines; runes depends on astrology all the time and vice versa, transfigurations often relies on a strong component of charms.

"Aside from that, it has to be possible. I've read manuals on the construction of Pensieves, the inside is nothing more than a meld of mind magics and clarifying potions. Well, a little more, perhaps, but the underlying concept is that simple."

"Simple," Snape says, and something in his tone makes Hermione hedge, "Well, things can often seem that way, in words."

"Pensieve composition is a level of potion brewing that not even the master under whom I apprenticed had the hubris to attempt. It is a specially trained field, and one that drives trainees mad more often than not. The combination of mind magic with any other discipline--"

"Then leave off."

"Do not interrupt me."

"I had grasped your point. Leave off. This dampens the pain adequately and allows the magic to focus. Now it is up to Harry and me to see if we can teach my body and mind alternate ways of accessing and expressing the gift. Worry not, professor, we owe you."

She watches as he seethes, and suddenly knows that Harry's debt was nothing more than pleasure and convenience to him. That the challenge of the project was what appealed and that he will never, never stop until he has fully triumphed over the whimsies of her biological and metaphysical wounds. She knows because she would not either.

"I suppose I am stuck helping you," he says, low and annoyed, even though he is not actually stuck at all. "For the method you propose of merely pushing through the injury will almost invariably lead to your death and I am ill-prepared to protect Draco and myself when the backlash finds me having aided you at all, my guilt or lack thereof merely a detail, not an all-that-important one, even."

"There are binding magical contracts," she says.

"For the testing."

"I would sign more."

"It is more effort to handle the defense teams than to simply swim against the tide you have so eagerly presented."

"No," she says, and looks at him, "it is not."

He holds her gaze. Neither of them breaks the stare. He says, "Draco's family name, sullied as it is, might be enough to get me an audience with a Pensieve brewer. Particularly one outside the isles."

"If that is what you wish to do," she says, because she won't have him using her as an excuse.

He smiles a little bit then and she gets it, so she returns the smile just the tiniest bit. He turns and leaves. She considers herself the winner of the staring contest.

*


Draco's name combined with Snape's reputation is enough to bring Tsvetelina Kostov--a renowned Pensieve brewer--out of Bulgaria and to the isles. So far as Hermione can tell, she is older than Professor McGonagall, possibly as old as Professor Dumbledore had been, but her hair is a still a dark, rich brown.

Then again, she brews for a living.

With Hermione on Snape's potion, the healers at St. Mungo's are forced to admit that there is nothing else they can do for her and release her into her own care. She is staying with Harry for the moment, since even with the potion there were times when it isn't best for her to be without someone to help her out.

Snape grudgingly works out of the laboratory that Harry has painstakingly put together in his house in order for Snape to be near to her without her having to engage in large amounts of travel. Extended amounts of activity are still wearing for her.

The Pensieve brewer arrives introducing herself as Lina and saying, "Mr. Malfoy's owls hinted at intriguing experiments."

Snape goes over the work he has done and the hypotheses that he and Hermione have come to. He does not credit her, but he doesn't make it sound as though he came up with everything on his own, either. She lets it lie. The potion is still making her feel relatively good and she remembers feeling bad well enough to be grateful and a bit gracious.

"It has been tried before, you realize?" Lina asks, her gaze sweeping over Hermione.

Hermione shares a look with Snape. He says, "We have been looking over those cases, attempting to clarify the common elements that have caused failure."

Lina nibbles at one of the biscuits Snape has provided. Hermione would feel slighted that he's never once provided her so much as a glass of water except that it's Snape, so she can't be bothered. Finally Lina asks, "What have you found?"

Most of what they found is due to Snape's expertise in both areas. Hermione is busy catching up on the theoretical aspects of mind magic, as all practical knowledge is lost on her at the moment. Snape says, "Put simply, there is a lack of combined ideological understanding as well as the power to control both disciplines in many of the experiments."

"Indeed?" Lina arches a too-perfectly shaped eyebrow.

"You know as well as I do that less than one percent of wizards are suited to brew Pensieves."

The compliment registers on her face, but she does not say anything. At least not about that. "Very well, then. What do you propose?"

"A targeted potion," Snape says. "Legilimency roots out necessary information, or weakness and strengths. If a potion has focusing intent, combined with that aspect of working mind magic, it is possible that it could allow for the subject to access her magic, even if not through meditative sources. The magic might always be direct, and need careful controlling."

"The subject thinks that there might be a way to dampen the effects of direct magic outpour as well, by aligning a warding field, much like one does to keep another from knowing she has entered said other's mind. A buffer, as it were," Hermione says, throwing a wry look at Snape.

Lina smiles knowingly and asks Hermione, "Is the subject versed in mind magics?"

Hermione shakes her head, ruefully. "Not at the time of the accident, and we haven't had any luck in figuring out a way to teach me since. We realize that it's entirely possible I will need that ability for the potion to work, that it might rely on my own interaction with it, but so far, this is the best we've been able to conceive of."

"It is a place to start," Lina concedes.

"Before the damage to her critical faculties, she was not entirely un-teachable," Snape says.

Hermione says, "Oh, stop being sweet. You're making me feel brain-damaged." She makes sure that her smile drips with sincerity.

Lina snorts. Snape gets that expression in his eyes that Hermione thinks might be respect. Then he says, "This will probably not work."

Lina says, softly, "No, probably not."

Hermione steals one of the biscuits even though they are clearly not for her. She deserves one.

*


The first time Hermione sees herself in the mirror since The Last Day--as she has come to think of it--is an accident, and, as it turns out, a mistake. Harry has been letting a townhouse in London, near Mungo's. She has been staying in one of the rooms, with a wash closet that allows her to keep the medicine cabinet open so that she never has to look.

It works until Harry offhandedly asks her to grab something from his room, which has a full-length mirror on the back of his closet door. Hermione steps past it and is arrested by the sight of herself.

She is unfamiliar. Her hair is still cropped close to the scalp--there's barely enough of it to curl. There are two scars on her face, one along her left temple and another cutting along the right side of her mouth. They are places where pieces of Ron sliced through her, lodged themselves and had to be extracted, healed without magic. Her eyes are sharper, meaner, and her skin is somehow colder in color than she remembers it being.

It scares her enough to overcome the blocking power of the potion and magic pours from her, breaking everything made of glass and pottery in the entire room. Her reflexes help her to curl into a ball just as the magic releases, but she is still caught in the maelstrom of exploding mirrors and mugs and photo frames.

Harry is there before everything is even done shattering, erecting shields around her. His voice is frantic, repeating, "Hermione, Hermione" over and over again.

She tries to say, "I'm okay," because she thinks she's a little cut up, but nothing she shouldn't be able to fix with a combination of some more potion, some directly applied healing magic, and a few bandages. Only she can't talk because her head is pure agony, white incandescent heat.

Harry touches her, tries to get her to unfold and she wants to work with him, she does, but staying where she is is the only thing keeping her from vomiting or screaming or passing out, or some combination of all three. She hears Harry say something about Snape and then he's gone for a bit, maybe a moment, maybe an hour, she can't tell.

When he comes back, he puts something to her nose, and it only takes one panicked breath in for things to cut to black.

Snape is there when she comes back around. She's nauseated and her head is still throbbing, but the pain has dulled and she isn't on the floor any longer. She asks Harry, "What did you--"

Harry plucks a stoppered vial off the counter. "Something he gave me," a quick glance at Snape. "Just in case."

She nods. "Sopophorous paste?"

Snape's mouth twists in something that might be amusement but doesn't look much like it. "Close enough."

"Hermione," Harry kicks his toe into the carpet. "Snape and I have been talking."

When he doesn't say anything else, Hermione says, "I grant you the extraordinariness of that occurrence, but--"

"We have come to the common opinion that your power was most likely amplified a nearly incalculable amount when the barriers that allowed for control and mediation were destroyed."

Hermione closes her eyes and waits until the colors inside her mind fade just slightly toward black and she can find enough space to think. "Not amplified, no. A curse wouldn't do that. The power was always there. I just couldn't reach it."

"You believe the barriers were there to protect you from your own abilities?"

Hermione forces her eyes open so that she can shake her head at Snape and have him know she's listening. "No, I think we all have those barriers to limit our destructive powers." She glances to the side. "Nice reparo."

"Thank you," Snape says over Harry's, "Thanks." Which tells her exactly how much damage she inflicted.

"Right. I'm going to sleep a bit more. When I wake up, I trust you'll have fixed the problem of the material in my brain evidently decomposing as we speak."

Snape looks like he very well might try.

*


If Hermione doesn't take the potion every four hours, the effects wear off, and quickly. This normally wouldn't be such a problem in her sleep, only it turns out to be, as evidently the rampant wild thing that is her magic at this moment can hear Harry's thoughts if he just shouts them loudly enough.

Snape scoffs. "Stop aggrandizing. Mind magics are one of the hardest disciplines to learn. Unbounded magic or no, you did not just fall into having the ability."

Normally, Hermione would agree. She's woken up to Harry's nightmares for the past three nights, though. She knows because she didn't see what happened to Ron so much as feel it, but evidently Harry had a great view. Just the thought makes her stomach churn. "Could we put your pride aside for the moment and be grateful that this might actually help with the brewing process? Or at the very least the research one?"

She doesn't mean to snap quite so hard, but she is tired and shaky, and it doesn't help at all that Harry hates it when she comes to him--hates it, but curls up around her and doesn't fall asleep until she pulls the covers up over them and whispers, "I know."

"Hermione's point is worthwhile," Lina says, not helping Snape's temper any. "We should use the knowledge to our advantage."

Snape swallows. "Even assuming--and this is a nearly preposterous assumption--that it is Legilimency and not overblown empathy or some equally ridiculous Gryffindor woman trait--"

"Shut it, Professor," she say with a blade-edge of amusement.

He ignores her. "--random occurrences of the trait do not prove a mastery of anything. Indeed, it proves the opposite."

Lina is as unimpressed by this fit of pique as Hermione. "No, but it proves aptitude."

Snape says nothing. Hermione sighs. "Why are you fighting this? It helps. Which makes it very near to a first."

"Yes, if you disregard all of the work I've accomplished for the sake of your blighted comfort."

Lina stands. "The young Mr. Malfoy invited me to share tea with Harry and him, should we finish early. I believe I will take him up on that, yes?"

She moves with surprising deftness for a woman of her age. Snape barely manages, "We're nowhere near finished," before she is gone. Snape turns to Hermione. "We have just begun, have we not?"

Hermione rubs at the place where her neck grows into her skull. "Why are you doing this?"

"I believe we've had this conversation. Is the brain damage progressing?"

"Why?" she repeats, and this time she fixes her eyes on him, aware of how much exhaustion and fear and pain they betray.

"Miss Granger-"

"I am holding on to my anger with everything I have because I wish neither to harm you or myself, but my control is evidently finite."

"Do not extend any favors in my direction."

"Why?" The question is quiet and far more serious than death.

He looks away. "I don't know."

"Professor--"

"I have no earthly idea. Not even the hint of one. It was about Potter's usefulness. Draco is going to need a few favors, and I thought if I could-- It was about Potter asking."

"You should not imagine that I do not appreciate your assistance. More than anything I could possibly express. Not even with wild, unrestrained magic." She smiles slightly. It's not really a smile.

Silence stretches out between them, slippery and long and taut. Finally he says, "I have done research on some of the most difficult topics known within the entire discipline of Potions. Within all the disciplines, combined."

She nods. "I know. I've read several of your articles."

"None of them have come anywhere near to the problem that is you."

"And yet, it is me."

"I find that. . .not as large an obstacle as I had counted upon it being."

She does not know how to be gracious with him, does not think there is really any way. "Me neither."

He snarls a bit.

"I should have thanked you. For getting me away from her."

"Do not."

"No, not now. But I should have."

He accedes with, "I can see about lengthening the potion's effects."

"No, concentrate on the new potion."

"You need to sleep."

"Not as much as I need to heal, to control, to-- Work on the other."

He nods his head, ever so slightly. She thinks about touching him--a gesture of gratitude, is all--but does not.

*


There comes a night when Hermione crawls into Harry's bed, lays her head on his chest and waits for his heartbeat to slow. Then she says, "Maybe you should talk to someone."

Harry's answer is slow, confused. "You want me to talk to you?"

"I suppose it could be me. I'd certainly listen. But I was thinking more of someone who might be able to help, you know. With, well, this is-- You can't keep having nightmares like this. You can rather, but you'll become sick. And my brain is broken, so I think we can safely say that's not an optimal situation."

Harry laughs a little at that, an uneasy laugh. He curls his hands over her hair--she's had him cut it short recently again, it's more fuzz than anything else. "Your brain isn't broken. It's. . .in disarray."

"Oh, nice word."

"Sh, you're the one who always tells me I'm smarter than I think I am."

"You are." She tilts her forehead forward until it is touching Harry's.

Harry's breathing is uneven. He finally says, "You know, I mean-- You know that Ron and I, well. You know."

"I know," she whispers. She figured it out pretty quickly. Ron always used to kiss her like he was writing an essay that he needed a good grade on, all intent and hope, very little technique or interest. There had eventually come the day when she'd pushed him away from her and said, "I love you, Ron," in a way that reached him enough for him to nod and say, "Yeah."

She knew where he went when he wandered off from her.

"In the day there are all these other things to think about. I, look, you should unquestionably hate me for this, but there are even times when I'm glad that you--because it's something else to think about, you know? But night invariably has to come, and I'm here by myself and then I sleep and I. . ." Harry shrugs. Hermione feels the motion.

"I don't know if it would help--I'm not him, I know--but I could sleep here. Rather than moving in after the fact."

"It would help."

"Okay. Good," Hermione says, and snuggles down, resting her face in the curve of Harry's neck. "Because it's better for me, too."

If she couldn't hear him thinking--for a boy who doesn't always say that much, his words never seem to stop being loud inside his head--she would be surprised when he says, after nearly half an hour where they are both pretending to sleep, "Did you tell Malfoy that he could come to dinner over here?"

"I'm not the heinous house guest you seem to think I am."

"You're not a houseguest."

"I'm not paying rent."

"Here I was thinking we were friends."

Hermione hits him lightly in the stomach. "And friends allow other friends to mooch horribly off them. Which I'm currently taking advantage of."

"So you didn't tell him that?"

"He tends to follow Snape, who has been spending quite a bit of time over here. He probably just ends up still around at that time. I doubt anyone told him."

"Maybe." Harry does not sound convinced. "He's sort of hung up on protocol."

"I don't think that's it. I think that with us, it's the only thing he's got. I mean, we're not his friends."

Hermione says slowly, "I think maybe we are."

"I was sort of afraid of that."

"I've never known you to be stingy with your friendship before now."

"He's Malfoy."

Hermione lifts her head. "Sounds different than it used to."

"Just because I'm tired."

"That make you feel better, saying that?"

"Not really," Harry says with a level of petulance that Hermione can't help but laugh at. He shoves her off his chest, but immediately hauls her back. "Hush, you."

"Has he been insulting?"

"He's been eerily polite."

"Protocols."

"Exactly."

"He's trying to make a friend."

"Last time he did that--"

"He was eleven," she cuts him off. "And safe in the arms of his family and childhood friends and still hurt by your rejection. I was there, you remember?"

"Why couldn't your memory have been affected? Would have been dead useful when I wanted to pull one over on you."

"Why anybody would want you as a friend is clearly beyond me, but nonetheless, this is his second go at it and it seems to be a far sight better than the first."

"It's not as if I've kicked him away from the dinner table or anything."

"I know. But he watched even more of his friends die than we did."

Harry says, "They were evil."

Hermione yawns. "You say that like it matters."

"I thought maybe it did."

He doesn't sound as sure as he used to.

*


In the middle of brewing one day, Lina looks up and focuses her stare on Hermione, until Hermione gets the feeling of someone's eyes on her, and asks, "Was there something you needed?"

Snape has run back to Hogwarts, Draco in his wake, and Harry is busy being a productive member of society, so it's just the two of them.

Lina stirs the potion counter-clockwise and purses her lips. "What does it feel like, this wild magic of yours?"

Hermione doesn't have to think about it, she's had the images, metaphors, rolling through her mind since Harry explained what had happened--or, at least, so far as they knew. "An ocean at storm in my chest. The hottest part of a wildfire in my fingers. The rush of a broom ride at too high an altitude in my head."

"Does it hurt?"

"Not. . .not the magic itself. It's just intense. A little too too." Hermione runs a hand over her head, her hair somehow soft and sharp all at once beneath her palm. "Before, I never would have understood that explanation, but I don't know how else to describe it."

"Do you know why Pensieve brewers are so rare?"

Hermione shakes her head, not terribly concerned with following the non-sequitur.

"It's because we have sympathetic magic."

"I had an argument once with someone about whether that ability was purely a myth or not."

"And what did you argue?"

"That if mind magics existed, sensorial magics probably did as well, and that it was only logical that certain wizards would be able to comprehend others abilities, strengths, weaknesses and other aspects through touch."

"It is rare enough so as to be nearly a myth."

"And yet not quite." Hermione watches Lina's hands as they control the brewing process. There is a deep flare of jealousy in the midst of her belated argumentative triumph; jealousy over this woman's innate powers, over her control. Then it fades, and Hermione says, "You want to touch me."

"Only should you agree. An unwilling participant will lead to a less than pleasant experience for me."

Hermione isn't surprised. What she is surprised by is her reluctance to agree. It should be so easy. She likes this woman, respects her. But it is only the two of them in this room, and touch has been something that she has only allowed Harry since Bellatrix twisted it into something more complex and danger-ridden than the simple contact of two people's skin. Even the Healers' light, clinical contact was hard to endure. Harry smiled at her and often buried his hand in his pocket, where she knew he kept his wand, and that was all that kept her own magic from boiling up, as jagged as the edge of chaos.

It is not simply, however, that Hermione knows she shouldn't be afraid. It is that allowing this might very well speed along the recovery process; at the most basic level, this is what Snape and Draco worked so hard to bring Lina to the isles for.

"Yes, of course. Just, let me come to you, all right?"

Lina stays where she is as a sign of acquiesance. Hermione has no way to know how long it takes her to convince herself to take the seven steps needed to reach Lina. She thinks it might be even longer between the time when she stops in front of Lina and reaches out a hand, palm up.

Lina, in contrast, is quick. It is a relief that she doesn't wait to cover Hermione's hand with her palm. Hermione is not sure how long she could have held it up, out in the middle, open to contact.

Lina's touch is firm but not painful. Hermione counts, whispering the numbers to keep the magic as calm as she can manage. "Sorry," she says, because there's no way Lina can't feel the torrents of magic swirling around, a-directional and threatening.

"Keep counting," Lina says, her tone kind but her gaze far away.

Hermione has reached 271 when Lina pulls away. Hermione backs up, directly into one of the counters. She startles, and a brief burst of magic is pulled from her, setting the counter on fire. A dousing charm comes from the direction opposite of where Hermione is now on the floor, panting in frustration and pain. She looks up to see Snape.

He doesn't look at her, just crosses to the potions chest where he picks out the flasks with the dampening potion. She's glad she was on enough to keep this latest burst controlled. Killing both herself and Lina seems counterproductive.

No sooner has he handed it to her than she drinks and the pain in her head dulls enough to where she can start to think about standing. When she manages, she says, "I'm going to lay down, for a bit. If you need me, I'll be in my room."

Snape follows her there and she lets him, because she's in no condition to argue, or even press her point. At her doorway she stops, but does not turn around. "How much of our conversation did you hear?"

There is a long pause, but Hermione knows he's still there. She can't feel him or hear him, she just knows. Finally he says, "I took you from Bellatrix."

"Only parts," she says, and steps into her room, closing the door behind her.

*


Hermione wanders back into the workroom to find Lina gone but Snape still there, and Draco crushing ingredients with mortar and pestle. He looks at Hermione and says, "Good morning."

Hermione glances out the window. The sun is setting. "Harry home?"

"He stopped for dinner," Draco says.

Hermione comes further inside the room and sits down. Draco crushes with more vigor than he was using the moment before and when Snape glares at him, "I won't pick the pieces of you up when you're responsible for destroying my ingredients," he stands.

"The table will need setting," Draco says. Hermione has watched Harry help Draco set the table. Draco never puts the fork and knife on the right side of the plate. Neither Hermione nor Harry cares much, but Snape always has some choice words about spoiled children. Draco seems to find it a sign of affection.

When Draco is gone, Snape's glance flickers toward the door he left through. "Subtlety is not one of Draco's strengths."

"No, not as much." She moves to where Draco was the moment before and sets to the task he abandoned. "Did you wish to speak to me?"

"Wish being a rather strong verb aside, yes."

"I suppose you desire an apology for my earlier behavior. Of course I appreciate your actions in regard to Bellatrix. Headaches and all, I have no longing to be dead, and certainly not to leave Harry to his own devices, so yes, I should have said thank you long before now, and should not be denigrating your heroics."

"Suppositions will get you into as much trouble as assumptions, Miss Granger, given half the chance."

She shrugs. "Something else, then. Questions about my condition? What?"

For a man who needs to speak, he is conspicuously silent. Finally he says, "If I brought back only parts, you were the one who willingly left the others behind."

Anger wells up in her unbidden and she screams in frustration as magic pours off of her, dampened enough by the potion to simply throw everything not bolted down willy-nilly but not enough so as to actually stop the outpour.

He rights everything that can be righted with a few easy flicks of his wand and Hermione hates him so much that more magic pours off of her, melting the floor where her hands rest.

He frees her hands, and fixes that too, albeit more circumspectly. He uses magic to lift her from the floor, forgoing touch. If she were in the mood, she would thank him. She isn't. He asks, quietly, "Are you angered by my presumption, or by the fact that you recognize the truth of my words?"

Hermione closes her eyes to quell the headache that's threatening to burst from inside her head and kill them where they stand. "What, I'm not allowed both?"

His chuckle is equally soft as his words--perhaps softer. It is soothing in a way that it should not be. "I suppose, given the circumstances, that can be allowed."

"Your generosity is disconcerting."

"I cannot give you more potion."

Hermione knows. Headache though she may have, she can keep track of how many times a day she's already taken it, and another dose might merely compact the damage. "Some water and sleep, I'll be fine."

"Your word choice today is appalling. Wish, fine. Are you being imprecise purely to annoy me?"

"How did you know that your feelings were my first priority at this moment?"

"Legilimency."

Hermione smiles. She would laugh, the comment deserves it, but it would hurt. Snape hasn't been able to get anywhere near her mind since the accident. They tried, to see if maybe he could locate the problem in that manner, but the shafts and shards of magic floating haphazardly through her mind had him wincing and backing away with a shake of his head. "Of course."

"Lay down. Potter, I'm sure, will be sickeningly happy to cater to your every whim when he returns."

"Jealous?"

The magic he is using to hold her up gives her a shove toward the door.

*


Since proactivity is hard to come by these days and Hermione desperately needs some of it, she buys herself a couple of books on keeping her anger and tension levels down and reads them straight through. Most of the suggestions seem a bit unlikely, but one of the books tells her to get a hobby that has nothing to do with anything and another tells her to start exercising.

Since she has wanted to be able to understand opera since her father took her to Il Travatore at the age of seven, she purchases a Teach-Yourself-Italian kit, and starts waking early to take walks of ever increasing length. Sometimes she repeats the words she's learned the day before to herself, but mostly she just looks at the scenery. Even once she's gotten used to it, it's still focusing, still grounding.

She'll have to figure out another plan soon, when the air becomes too cold to breathe comfortably. But for now, starting her days out that way keeps her calm enough throughout them that she can rarely be goaded into accidentally setting things on fire. Snape often tries--albeit, probably not consciously--but she's begun to accept that maybe, in his own way, he's as confused by the world after Voldemort as she is, possibly more.

Not that there aren't the occasional--all right, hourly--spats between them, but so long as she can bank her frustration enough that biting back with words satisfies the swirl of magic always looming within her, then his research can progress and she can feel like something is being done.

She also buys another book, one that she doesn’t show to anyone, not even Harry. It is a book about the aftermath of rape and how to cope. Hermione wonders if maybe she shouldn't find herself a therapist. She knows its an eminently Muggle thing to do, but that doesn't bother her half so much as the problem of how to explain things without explaining them to this person that she's supposed to tell everything to. In the end she gives up on the idea, and decides that what she needs is someone who can just listen for a bit. She needs someone who won't pity her and who might even say things she needs to hear. Most of all she needs someone who will listen when she asks the person to.

There aren't that many options. Hermione is in the papers almost as much as Harry these days--what with brain damage being a bit sensational and all, and it's not even that she doesn't have a considerable number of people she trusts than that the more people who know these things from her mouth, the more people who will eventually know from other people's mouths, no matter what.

There is Harry, of course, but she doesn't want to tell him, doesn't want for him to have more images that only rebound into her mind at night. She doesn't want to have to see it from another, imagined perspective.

There is Lina, with whom Hermione is slowly building a working relationship, and who has the advantage of being another woman. But Hermione doesn't know much about Lina, about her past, about what demons this might bring up for her.

There is Draco, who is mostly silent these days, whether he is listening or not, but Bellatrix was Draco's aunt and it just seems unfair to say anything to him.

There is Snape, who shouldn't be on the list at all, except for his advice to her about not allowing self-victimization to get in the way of her healing process. He sounded so knowing when he said it, as though somehow he had insight into what it felt like to be huddled on the floor, terrified that he would so much as lay a finger on her--even to help.

Snape shouldn't be on the list at all, except that he's at the house every day working to better her condition.

She makes a list of pros and cons, neatly written out in perfectly straight columns and when she is done, there is still only one solution to her problem.

Of course, it's one thing to decide that she needs to speak to someone and that the only logical someone is Severus Snape. It's another to actually follow through on that decision because then she has to, well, speak to Severus Snape. And as it turns out, there is absolutely no good way to introduce the topic of rape and trauma and the need for a confidant. Everything she comes up with sounds stupid even to herself. She figures that any level of stupidity to her ears is going to be multiplied by at least ten times, most likely one hundred, when it hits Snape's ears.

Instead she stays silent, repressing as the book about anger has told her not to do and the book about rape has explicitly warned against. Hermione knows it's only a matter of time before something goes wrong, but what she doesn't know is how to head-off that eventuality.

Knowing all of this, she's hard-pressed to be surprised the day that Draco accidentally brushes into her as they're both coming around a corner from opposite directions and she panics, automatically Apparating both of them into separate places. She has no idea where she is when she rematerializes and has just enough time to think, Please let me not have splinched Draco before succumbing to the overwhelming pain in her head.

*


Hermione's back in the house when she wakes up, which is a bit of a surprise. She says, "You found me," but it comes out broken and odd. Someone hands her a glass of water and she takes it, looking up. Harry is above her, his eyes red and his face pale. She swallows and says, "You found me," again. The second time it is as much reassurance as surprise.

"No easy task," Snape says. Hermione starts--she hadn't noticed him near the door.

"Draco?" she asks. They might not have noticed that he was gone.

"Draco could get himself back," Harry says, anger and fear underlying the words. "Draco could get himself back, and even if he couldn't, his magic wouldn't send a locating charm far and wide and back and forth and spinning wildly. Thank Merlin you allowed Lina to touch you, and her sympathetic senses were able to lead us to where you were. Had you been any further she's not sure she could have. You Apparated yourself to the bloody continent."

"It wasn't intentional, Harry." She knows that he knows this, but she feels like saying it to him might reach him in a way that leaving it understood might not.

"Don't do that," he says anyway, and his voice shatters on the last word. He stomps out of the room before she can promise to try her best or say anything else equally useless. She watches him go, staring even after he's long past where she can see. Without looking over to where Snape is, she asks, "So I suppose I at least sent Draco all in one piece?"

"It would have been impressive had it not been so uncontrolled and completely idiotic."

"Story of my life, as written by you."

"Objectivity is something not even Muggles believe in any more."

"You say that as though most of them still believe in the Easter bunny."

"A goodly percentage."

"Of those under age seven."

"Formative years."

Hermione smiles. He can be funny, even when he's being arrogant and cruel. Perhaps especially then. "Why didn't the dampener work?"

"It has limits. So far your outbursts have been relatively contained--a normal level of anger, the type that would cause most people to scream; or a normal level of fear, the type that would cause most people to breathe more quickly or tremble. This was neither."

Hermione has been waiting for weeks for him to give her an opening. Now that he has, all she can say is, "No."

He does not respond, does not ask her what it was about, does not move. When she finally says something, it is not what she has ever intended to say, not in any of the times she thought about how to start talking. She asks, "What was taken from you?"

She jumps at the click of the closing door. She never even saw him take his wand in hand. He sneers at her. "My choices. At least until I took them back."

"Voldemort," she says.

"In a way. Lucius, rather. Beautiful, maddening, duplicitous Lucius."

She frowns. "Beautiful."

"Even more so when he was young. Draco is a pale imitation."

Draco has grown into a creature of delicate lines and golden purity. He has a strength to his looks that one would not expect, and the sharp grey of his eyes--even dulled by depression--is mesmerizing. "All right. You were infatuated."

"To the point of utter stupidity. One night of false promises and the mere hint of seduction and I told him things I had never told anyone. Secrets that I had kept for people far more important than myself."

"And he used them against you."

"My skill at both Dark Arts and Potions is rivaled by very few, Miss Granger," he says this quietly and without any of the arrogance she is so used to from him. "I was very useful to Voldemort. Lucius rather liked giving his Lord useful gifts."

"Ah. And your loyalty--your lack of choice--was obtained at the price of your secrets."

Snape's blink is affirmation enough.

"But you wrested them back."

"You must decide upon your priorities, Miss Granger. You must decide whether you want to allow yourself to live in fear that someone will come around the corridor at the wrong time. If not, then you must find a way to change that."

"How did you?"

Snape rests his hand on the door, and for a moment she thinks he won't answer. When he does it is quiet, perhaps even hesitant. "I trusted others to help me."

He turns the knob then, leaving without waiting for her response. It's for the best--she has no idea what to say.

*


Hermione goes looking for Draco when her body no longer feels threatened by the idea of walking. He's not in any of his normal places--on the couch reading Harry's Quidditch rags, or in the labs with Snape, or on the roof staring off into the east. Hermione doesn't know what's in that direction and she's never felt right asking. They aren't friends, not like that. Hermione wonders if he tells Harry these things; the two of them seem to spend quite a bit of time together, but she rarely ever hears them talking.

She finally finds him in the kitchen making himself tea. He's much more at ease with this task than he was at first, when Hermione had to take him through each of the steps one by one. Four times. Hermione knows he isn't slow, he just has trouble paying attention to things right now--especially things he'd rather not pay attention to.

"Making any extra?" she asks.

Draco makes sure to put a healthy distance between the two of them. "Enough, yes."

"I'm terribly sorry, Draco. I really didn't mean to Apparate you to. . .where did I send you, exactly?"

"Haven't a clue. Someplace with a lot of very hairy cows. Luckily, Apparition doesn't much care whether you know where you've started, so much as if you know where it is you're going. I know where here is."

"Here," Hermione says softly, because it's not home for him, it's not anywhere except 'here' for him. It shouldn't be enough. She senses that he thinks it is. "Well, as I said, I'm sorry."

Draco shrugs. "Severus said not to touch you."

"You didn't touch me, you ran into me. I ran into you, too. So if I hadn't forcibly thrown you half-way 'round the world we could probably call it even."

The teapot screeches. Draco winces and steals it off the heat. "I wasn't the problem, really."

Hermione pushes the cups toward him. "I would have come back, only I was comatose."

"Potter was a bit hysterical."

"I noticed he was less than calm."

"I had to stand bodily between him and Severus. I wasn't entirely sure that was going to stop him. But it did." Draco sounds confused.

"You stood in between Harry and Snape?"

"It sounds like a stupid plan now."

Hermione laughs. Draco looks affronted. She shakes her head, "No, it's just--" she stops because there's more laughter inside her and it feels so good, so unbelievably good, better than anything she can really remember.

After a moment Draco is laughing too and he says, "Between Severus and Potter," and that sets them off again until they are both on the floor, Hermione crying and pressing her hands to her stomach, Draco gasping for air.

She says, "I really am sorry," in a pained little whimper, mirth still crinkling the corners of her eyes.

Draco looks at her and for the first time in months she sees someone she knew--or rather, someone who was always potentially possible in the person she knew but never managed to quite form himself. "Hairy cows, Granger," he says.

"That part was personal."

When Harry finds them they are both being supported by the cabinets, far too weak to do anything other than breathe and smile.

*


When Hermione can't read anymore, when the words begin to jumble and it makes her want to cry with loss even more than frustration she looks up at Snape and says, "The thing is, I do trust others. I even trust you, although I've thought and thought about the situation and there is absolutely no reason for me to--there is, perhaps, even every reason for me not to. But I do."

"To a certain extent, I suppose." Snape never looks up from his brewing.

"I drink potions that you brew that alter parts of my brain. What else could you possibly ask of me?"

"To accidentally brush by you without worrying that I will end up stranded somewhere in the arctic region, perhaps?"

It stings, as it is meant to. "That is not a trust issue."

"Of course it is."

"It is not."

"You can stand for Potter to touch you. You can stand it, as you are entirely certain he will not harm you. He will not force you into actions you have no wish to take part in."

"I do not think of either you or Draco as rapists," she hisses. "I certainly don't cast Lina in that light."

"Rape is, indeed, extreme."

Hermione tries to say something else. Her breath catches in her throat. Snape asks, "First time you've said it aloud?"

"First time I've allowed myself to think about it."

He is silent at that. She wants him to talk, to make more noise than the sounds in her head, but he can't even give her that. Finally, when it is between laying her head on the desk and concentrating on nothing but breathing or pushing herself just a step, one tiny, inching step into the fear she asks, "What do you suggest?"

With a glance inside his cauldron, Snape steps away from it, toward her. He doesn't come particularly close, just around the cauldron, to where she can reach him if she takes a few steps, stretches out her arm.

She nods, but stays where she is. "Right."

"It is, of course, entirely up to you," he says with a sneer, and even though she hates herself for being so easily manipulated it's what she needs to get her on her feet, to take her those few steps.

It is not quite enough for her to reach out. In the end, there is nothing that he can do that will be enough.

He stays silent and still. She will realize later that he must stay like this for nearly an hour. She will realize later that he most likely let the entire day's brewing go to waste for her. In that moment there is nothing but the movement of her arm, the choice to touch her fingers to his shoulder, and then slowly, slowly upward to where there is exposed skin. To skim lightly at the sharp edge of his jawbone and stay there, because anything else will be too much and she is as worried about hairy cows and icy bluffs as he is--probably more. Finding her the last time was not easy, and while Harry has been working on a way to implant her with an inner locating charm which he can hone into no matter what, so far he hasn't had any luck finding the right way to rework the magic. Nothing wants to stay cohesive once it is placed upon her.

He does not step away, or suggest that she should let go. He waits for her to step away as patiently as he waited for her to come.

When she does, she's tired and her head hurts more than when they began talking. She says, "Thank you."

He looks disdainfully amused. "I haven't done anything. Neither have you."

"All the same," she says.

He goes back to his cauldron without a word, but she thinks she detects a slight dip of his head.

*


The second time she is the one who says, "Do you have a moment?" and the third time the two of them just catch each other's sideways glances, and he stills. She never ventures to different patches of skin. She never stays connected to him for longer than that first time. But after that third time, Lina says, "It would really help if we could touch again," and Hermione is able to move to her. There is some hesitation and a jumpiness to her actions, but she holds her position for as long as Lina needs and doesn't punctuate the experience with a terrifying, painful burst of uncontrolled magic.

She thinks she sees Snape smile, but that might be the giddiness of success cluttering her mind.

The fourth time he waits until she has her fingers at his jaw to say, "Let me touch you," which is a mistake, because her fingers dig in purely from instinct. He doesn't even flinch, which only makes her want to let go more. She is incapable.

Muffled through his captive jaw, he says, "I will take that as agreement."

He brings up a hand, spread wide, and keeps it within view of her eyes, touching the pointer and middle finger ever-so-lightly to her cheek. Hermione tries to think of all the breathing exercises, all the mental tricks that the anger book mentioned, tries to see if they will work on blind panic, but it's hard to think with his skin pressed against hers, no matter how light the touch.

He asks, "Was it like this?" which is good and not good. It forces her to focus, to measure and determine the words. It is not a question she wants to think about.

"No."

"She can be gentle at times. She can like to play." He sounds solemn.

"Could."

Snape smiles at that, slow and with a sharp sort of melancholy that she doesn't think has anything to do with regret. "She wasn't gentle."

"I don't generally inspire that in people." Hermione is proud of herself for coming up with this response. It is just witty enough to seem clever to her mind at that moment, and she can hold his eyes while saying it.

His fingers remain where they are, not an ounce more pressure exerted. "Me neither." His eyes do not try and stray to where she is still digging into his jaw. There will probably be marks when she lets go. Somehow this observation allows her to loosen her grip.

Because she needs something else to concentrate on, she picks the one thing that she thinks capable of distracting her. "What was the secret?"

"Secret?" he asks, but she can see in his eyes that he knows what she's asking.

"I am not Lucius Malfoy."

"That is evident with a single look."

"So sorry to disturb your viewing pleasure, but you take my meaning."

"That Gryffindors aren't betrayers."

"Unless your name is Peter Pettigrew. Or, depending on how you analyze it, Godric Gryffindor."

"That wasn't your point then?"

"You know what my point was, or else you wouldn't be acting dense. Something you do not even approach being."

"It is none of your business."

"No," she says. "Absolutely none."

"Nor have you earned it."

"You have a price in mind?"

"More than this," he says, and steps from her, back to his cauldron.

*


Hermione is a curious girl. It is a defining aspect of her personality, and has been ever since she can remember. The first thing Hermione remembers ever saying is "why?" She knows from her parents that she actually said plenty of things before that, including all the more mundane words, such as "mummy" and "daddy" and "apple." (She sustained quite the love of applesauce as a young child. It remains a comfort food even now, particularly the kind with actual baked apples, spiced and soft to point of near-melting.)

Snape's secret is eating away at her and she would ask Draco except that she's fairly certain Lucius never mentioned anything. Even if he did, even were Draco willing to tell, it feels like such an enormous betrayal that Hermione's curiosity--devouring as it is--is not enough to overcome her reticence to do so.

Snape has indicated that there is a price, a move daring enough, to garner the answer she desires. She's not entirely sure she believes him. It costs him nothing to lie and still achieves his own ends. It is convenient in some ways that somehow Snape's ends mesh with her own, but they are still his ends. Just because she cannot understand the motivation behind them does not make them any less so.

If he does not fulfill his end of the bargain, she can always find other, more devious ways of learning the answer. For now, though, it seems only logical to pursue it in the simplest manner available to her.

Of course, it's simple until she's in a room alone with him and she's thinking about walking up to him, maybe taking his hand. Then suddenly it's terribly, horribly complicated and she wonders if her wild Legilimency might not do just as well. Then she indulges in a bit of self-disgust.

She is no rapist. She won’t allow distress--let alone curiosity--to turn her into one.

She has avoided his hands up until now because despite their masculinity, they are elegant. Hermione remembers all sorts of things about Bellatrix's attack. Mostly, though. she remembers long fingers digging into her skin, pressing at tender areas, pulling at her hair, twisting at broken pieces. She has avoided his hands because they control his wand, his brewing, all of the things he does with such expertise and they seem infinitely dangerous. She has avoided his hands because--just as hers are--they are his agents of touch.

She makes "secret" her mantra, as in "I want to know his," and says it over and over again as she approaches him. She thinks she says it aloud at one point because he looks at her somewhat oddly, but when she makes a desperate grasp for one of his hands and manages to hold it with both of hers, he doesn't ask. She can't decide if it's mercy on his part or her actions having driven away his other thoughts. She doesn't care. Either way, it's better for her.

She asks, "Is this your price?"

"You presume me to be cheap?"

Every inch of her body is screaming at her to let go, let go before her hold over him falters and it becomes his hold over her. She can't comprehend cheapness at this moment and she looks at him. She imagines her expression is a bit hopeless.

Surprisingly, rather than taking advantage, he says, "Bellatrix was always clever with her hands."

"The insane ones tend to be."

"You know this from personal experience?"

"Hanging around with Harry one tends to meet a rather alarming array of completely mad persons."

"You might have a point."

"I generally do, you just don't like listening to me."

"I have better things to be doing with my time," he says, but he hasn't taken his hand back so she suspects he might be lying. She is fairly certain he lies a lot, but this feels like a different sort of lie. The ability of her mind to wander into others' tickles at her front lobe and she has to press her eyes shut and concentrate on keeping her curiosity to herself.

"Miss Granger?" he asks.

"Just. . .trying to maintain control," she says, hoping that it seems as if she's referencing her own panic level.

He must see through the equivocation. "It helps to concentrate on a particular object, or feeling, or color. Something your mind can make solid."

Immediately she calls up the color of Crookshanks' fur, warm and garish and familiar. It doesn't wash out the wildness of her magic, but it helps it to recede. When she can, she opens her eyes. "Useful."

"Indeed."

In an act of bravery that has nothing to do with curiosity or affinity or anything other than simple gratitude, she squeezes his hand before letting go.

*


With the aid of being able to touch Hermione a little more regularly, Lina's work progresses more rapidly and the first attempt at a potion that actually helps Hermione to contain and control her magic is soon nearly ready.

It doesn’t work, of course. First tries never do. In some ways, that is what Hermione likes about research--the failures, the sense that she can always do better.

It is more frustrating when the result of the research is necessary to her wellbeing. She takes the potion for three days straight before admitting that it's not helping. They all figure it out long before then because it shouldn’t need to build up in her system and she clearly can't control her magic even a whit more than she has been able to all along.

Hermione tries to ignore the disappointment that wants to lay heavy and cold in her chest. She has never quite realized how much magic has become part of her. Until now she has always been the Muggle of the group--not through lack of magic, but by cultural default. She senses Harry sometimes thinks the same way, but she is even more willing to depend on Muggle technology and information than Harry. The wizarding world is home, but it is not the sanctuary that Harry has been forced to see it as.

Yet, despite the fact that she has never let that part of herself go, the magical elements of herself have crept in and wound themselves more integrally into the whole than she has ever imagined possible.

She feels as if she has lost part of herself, left it in a classroom by accident one day and when she went back, somebody had already taken off with it.

It's hard enough to think through the headaches. The emptiness is overwhelming, something she can only acknowledge and then set aside to loom over her.

In the wake of recognizing this--if only inside her head--her attempts at touching Snape become almost a welcome distraction. The fear is infinitely better than her sense of loss. It is more violent. It is also more pure, more understandable.

The day that she fumbles angrily at the top button of his robes he looks down at her in what might be valid surprise. She nearly tears the fabric aside and presses her palm up against the small triangle of his neck now accessible.

He says, "Hermione."

It's the first time she's ever heard him say her given name. It sounds alien. "Severus," she says back. It's meant to be some sort of a challenge but she's not sure it comes out that way, and even if it does, she's not sure how she would back it up.

He thinks for a long time before saying anything else. She can feel his slight, smooth breaths under the cold skin of her palm. He doesn't shiver. "Experimentation is always necessary."

"Yes," she hisses.

He nods at that and stays silent.

"Touch me," she demands, each word a blister on the inside of her stomach. He puts his fingers to her cheek. She shakes her head. "No."

He takes his hand back, presses it over the one she has at his throat. She is breathing heavily, the instinct to flee pressing heavily down on her, but she shakes her head, hard enough to hurt. "No."

His lips twist slightly, but he moves his hand to her throat, his fingers easily spanning its entire length, wrapping over a bit. She keeps her eyes on him and hopes that they don't look wild. She can't help from saying, "Fuck."

His smile is bitter in its acknowledgment. "Enough?"

She realizes with a sudden clarity that it isn't, it won't be, not until she can just reach out and tap Draco or brush against someone in a queue and not even think twice, not feel a whisper of moist skin pressing into her chest, into her. Not until bigger things, more intimate moments, seem like something she has control over, something that might still be about her.

She doesn't answer, just waits until she's ready--or some approximation thereof--to remove his hand with her own. When she can breathe again, she says, "Right then."

He says, "Get some rest," and turns back around to cauldrons that hold possible--if not probable--solutions to at least one of her problems. He seems more useful than they do.

*


When things warm up just slightly enough that frostbite isn't a concern, Draco starts joining her on the walks. He doesn't talk much, so she can talk non-stop if she wants to. If it hurts her head, he doesn't mind if she stays completely silent. In his own way he is good company.

There does come the day when Hermione asks, "Don't you want to do something?"

Draco doesn't glance her way. "Do something?"

"You know, a job."

"I grew up with a father who dropped in on board meetings and a mother whose main employment was working the transfigurative magic of cosmetics on herself."

It is the first time Hermione has heard Draco talk about his parents since school. His tone is not as mocking as his words would suggest. "You grew up with a lot of things that I suspect look different now."

"I don't like you," he says. It sounds half-hearted, at best.

"That's all right, I wasn't necessarily talking about me. And I have to tell you; you aren't anybody's prime idea of company right at this moment, either."

He raises an eyebrow at that. What he says throws Hermione. "Hogwarts granted Potter an honorary degree. He walks within one hundred feet of a door, it opens for him."

"He deserved something for his actions. He deserved something out of pure karma."

"Did Hogwarts grant you one, too?"

Hermione nods. "For all the good it does me."

"I put in a petition, but I don't think-- If it had been Durmstrang, maybe. But I was busy doing the wrong sorts of magics, so no, not Hogwarts. Severus thinks McGonagall would let me back in, to finish up, if I asked."

She is tempted to poke at his pride, only he doesn't sound proud. He sounds lost. "Going back can be even worse than going forward."

"They're reworking the History of Magic curriculum, you realize? To include the Voldemort Wars."

"I believe you've actually shocked me. They're changing something in the educational canon?"

"You really didn't know?"

"I've been distracted."

"It occurs to me that I've always thought of you as knowing everything."

"Despite yourself."

"Very much so."

Hermione gives herself a moment to fit the pieces he has given her into their proper places. "You're not keen on fighting public opinion."

"Oh, it's not as though I've ever been popular. I was Slytherin." Draco kicks at the rocks and leaves marginally in his way. "But I had other Slytherins."

It has not occurred to Hermione, with Harry by her side, that Draco is not necessarily depressed. Or rather, that he is, but that the depression springs from a simple (or not-complex) loneliness. She thinks it over for a moment. She knows she is depressed as well. She pretends as though it is simply the loss of her magic, the constant aching of her head. She never thinks about the way these things make it hard for her to do things, to be productive, to build a constant sense of self-worth. She never, never thinks about Ron. "Maybe when Lina and Severus figure out how to constrain my magic I could join you."

"What?"

Hermione shrugs. "What's an honorary degree? It's a bit of a lie, really. I don't have all that knowledge just because they gave me a scroll. And let's face it, there's no question that I'm going to need to relearn how to use my magic, regardless. It's not going to return to its former state of being."

"Committing to a course of action that involves intertwining yourself with my name is at best unwise."

"At worst?"

"A completely dunderheaded, twit-ish thing to do."

"Why, thank you, Severus."

Draco smiles genuinely, if a bit uneasily. "Twit."

"Gryffindor," she says lightly.

Draco groans. He doesn't say anything for a bit. "You really want to go back to school?"

"I liked school, if you'll remember."

It hasn't been that long, but they both know it has felt longer. He says, "I remember. But you didn't like me."

"I'm not entirely sure I do now. But you seem to have potential."

"That's. . .flattering."

Hermione smiles. "It is, isn't it?"

"Not really," Draco says. "But I think I might be sort of desperate, currently. It feels a bit like it."

Hermione nods her head. She knows the feeling.

*


The second attempt doesn't fail in the same pedestrian way as the first. No, it fails spectacularly, leading to hours and hours where Harry has to stand next to her, warding the house and the others from the unleashing of her magic. She isn't even upset--or, well, she is once it starts happening, but the catalyst isn’t her emotions, it's the potion.

She eventually passes out from the level of magical drain she's experiencing.

She wakes up, drags her tongue around her mouth, says, "Too much fluxweed."

"It's necessary for solidifying the flow patterns of your magic."

Potions is not Hermione's strongest area and magic has never been a matter of innate talent for her, but she's perfectly competent in the former and learning quite a bit about the latter. "Too much. Altered the patterns to the point where I had no control over them whatsoever. Reformed them."

Lina narrows her eyes. "I believe we must begin compensating for the mutation in her magic, not simply the changed nature of her mind, her inner conduits."

"The fool girl has no idea what curse hit her, nor the effects of it passing through a barrier-"

"The fool girl is in the room," Hermione says, her voice so cold it burns in her throat. "And that barrier, you heartless, conscienceless bastard, was my best friend."

She breaks then, everything she has held back for the months since she threw her hands up over her face, the shards of Ron--ronronron--slicing through her coming to the fore. It's not dramatic. She sort of wishes it was. Ron deserves for it to be. Deserved.

There isn't even any accompanying magic. She doesn't have anything left, at least nothing that would do this kind of pain justice.

Neither Severus nor Lina turns away from her tears. Draco, who has until now merely lounged in the corner, gets up and takes his leave. It's nearly sweet of him. Harry exhales and his head weaves a bit on his neck. He says, "Hey."

She reaches out and buries her hand in his hair. He returns the gesture. Hers is shorter than his, but there's enough for the action to anchor her. She doesn't stop crying, but she can focus just the tiniest bit. "I've been trying to find the curse. I haven't, but I'm fairly certain we can narrow it down to the rumpo family. Except I think it was augmented somehow. Perhaps a melding of some branch of the quassos."

"Curse-splicing does generally have unexpected results," Severus muses.

"And terribly unpredictable once it has already begun to work. Much more so than in transmission," Lina says, her voice thoughtful even as her gaze is on Hermione, warmly sympathetic. "I will need to touch you again later. I may have been looking for the wrong things."

"Yes, I'm a bit--" Hermione gestures to herself with her free hand.

Lina smiles at that. "We will leave you to rest, regain your strength." She leaves the room without another word.

Harry glares at Severus. It isn't even incendiary, or at least Hermione knows it isn't meant to be. He just wants them left alone.

Severus ignores him. He trains his gaze on Hermione. "I did not mean to. . .denigrate Weasley's death."

"You're not much of one for thinking before you speak," she tells him. Her tone bears no rancor. Her grief is stronger than her lingering anger and even if it weren't she's bad at holding a grudge. She tires easily these days.

He nods. "I have contacts who might know about curse splicing experimentation, particularly within those branches. I shall see if I can get hold of them."

"No doubt that would be helpful," Hermione says. She has yet to stop crying. She does not think she will for some time. When she closes her eyes the only thing she hears is the soft lapping of water.

"No doubt," Severus says. He leaves even more silently than Lina was able to manage.

*


Hermione redoubles her efforts to find the curse. She doesn't ask Harry what he saw, despite the fact that it would be helpful to know. Even fixing her brain doesn't seem quite as important as keeping Harry in the relatively intact state he's managing.

The research comes easier than it did before, which is odd because nothing has changed. Hermione thinks maybe she needed to acknowledge her grief. She's a practical person but practicality can only get one so far. At one point or another, emotion will take its turn.

Her scars still ache a bit--and she knows the pain originates purely in her head; while magical healing might not be working as well as it should on her, it's not failing her wholly--but it's not the sharp tinge that followed her everywhere and at every moment before. It makes it easier to breathe, to concentrate.

She can't test out her knowledge practically, which means talking it over a lot with Lina and Severus, who can. Even with their aid, it takes her nearly a month to narrow something down that she believes mimics the effects. It's not as if there's any good way to test it, not thoroughly.

Touching Lina is also easier. This, in turn, makes the brewing easier for Lina, and by proxy, Severus. The third incarnation shows some improvement. Her headache clears up. She can't do a single spell more than she could before. For a moment it's actually hard to care. She feels nearly three hundred times better than she has since Ron was killed.

Despite all this, touching Severus is not easier.

It is this fact that brings a somewhat interesting truth to light: Hermione no longer has any idea what the relationship is between them. It seems like it should be simple. They are both researching a cure, nevermind that it is a cure meant for her. She is his ex-student. She could be his future colleague, of sorts. Potions will never be her area, but there is a wide arena of academic disciplines that Hermione is more than willing to take on as her life's work.

These are all perfectly good ways to describe what is between them.

She suspects they are all incomplete ways as well.

So when she has her hands on him--one wrapped over the forearm that doesn't bear another man's mark and one spread wide just below the hollow of his neck--she asks, "Why did you offer this?"

"You were likely to send Draco to some arctic wasteland."

"I have other friends."

"And yet you chose to speak to me."

She takes the risk of being honest, at least partly so. "You seemed like someone who had seen broken. If not stayed there for a while. And you had shown sympathy when you very well could have done otherwise."

"It wasn't sympathy."

"It was something similar."

He sneers. "Your concept of complexities is breathtaking."

She makes sure to look distinctly unimpressed. "Why did you offer?"

The sneer never leaves his face. "Because it was the right thing to do."

It has the odd ring of truth to it. For a moment, Hermione wonders if the brain damage extends to making her crazy. Then she remembers that Severus has done the right thing when the choice had to have been much harder to make. "I like that in a man," she say. She does not lend the saying any particular inflection.

It shocks him out of his complacency. He presses himself into her fingers just a tiny bit. "Testing me, Miss Granger?"

She holds her ground. "No. But perhaps myself."

He doesn’t back down. He doesn't press any further, either. He smiles, just a bit. "That's somewhere to start, I suppose."

She hasn't noticed that she needed somewhere to start, but his words sound correct in some inexplicable way. She smiles back.

*


The tests get ever so slightly easier with each improvement to the potion. So far the improvements are mostly to her control over the magic when emotional and her well-being.

She can yell at Severus without accidentally throwing him--and all of his instruments--across the room. She suspects it is this freedom more than anything that makes it ever so slightly simpler to unbutton his waistcoast further, to lean her forehead up against his. Sometimes she does these things while she is yelling, while he is yelling back.

It's oddly fun. Not the touching; the best that can be said for that is that it is less terrifying. But the way he can sometimes soothe his yelling with a small breath after he has finished or how he listens carefully to her, even though she's insulting him, all the while using him as an anchor.

One night in bed, as they're both drifting off to sleep, Harry says, "I think you're mellowing Snape."

Hermione laughs. "Why would you say that?"

"Lina leaves the two of you in that lab for hours while she sleeps or eats or carries on like a normal human, and when you emerge neither of you are dead. Most of the time you're both in fairly decent moods, actually. Given that you've got a crack in your brain and Snape. . .is Snape."

She snuggles against him. "Maybe it's just the circumstances. A near-to-impossible potion that he's making possible, a true professional working with him, Draco crushing things without comment every once in a while."

"Draco agrees."

"Draco what?"

"Agrees, with me."

"You spoke with Draco about this before you spoke with me?" Hermione pokes around inside herself, trying to find the sore spot where her betrayal lies. She can't find it.

"Well, he's, you know, around a lot. And sometimes it gets awkward, never speaking. So sometimes we, ah, speak."

"Yes, but-- About me?"

"Not usually," Harry says.

Hermione can't help it, she smiles into his chest. He sounds so very defensive.

"It's not like we have all that much in common."

"Just Quidditch, and six years of schooling, and a knowledge of the Dark Arts in one manner or another."

"Yeah." Harry takes a deep breath. Hermione's head rises with the movement of his chest. "Yeah, we actually sort of have a lot to talk about, when we do."

"But you talk about me."

"Sometimes. I don't have--"

"Ron," she says, because someone has to. Because Harry needs to hear it, even if he can't say it.

"To worry over you with."

"As if the two of you ever did."

"We always mentioned when we thought you were going mad."

"Brilliant," she says, propping her head up so that she can smile at him.

He must see her even through the dark. He musses her hair with his hand. "We were. . . We were us. We didn't have to talk about it to know what we both thought. Draco's nowhere near as easy. But sometimes that's all right. Sometimes I feel like struggling through it helps me to make sense of things."

"He's probably pretty good at listening."

"I haven't a clue if he actually hears a thing I say. But he doesn't talk over me, that's for certain."

"I think he's paying attention. He's just lost his knowledge of how to say things. He's finding out that everything he used to say is useless to him. It takes me forever these days to figure out what's relevant, and I still have you and the moral mandate of the world surrounding us."

Harry's, "I think he's a bit jealous," is hesitant.

It takes Hermione a second to connect the thought to its significance. "Of Severus and I?"

"You do call him Severus."

"We're both adults."

"I'm an adult as well."

"You're special, Harry," she says with as much condescending sweetness as she can.

"Just pointing out."

"We spend a lot of time together. And he has shown some concern for my welfare. I'm not Draco to him. Even were I to be something more than a project to him, it would still be different between us. Draco should bloody well talk to him."

"I think we've established that talking isn't Draco's strong point at the moment."

Hermione opens her mouth to say something. Shuts it. Starts again and asks, "Do you want me to intercede? Is that what you're getting at?"

"Maybe a bit." Harry scratches between her shoulderblades. "He's just so bloody sad. And Snape is alive. Feels like a waste."

Hermione arches up slightly to kiss his chin. "Harry."

"I know. It won't fix the things I really want fixed."

"No," she says. "But I will do it."

He squeezes her. "That's my girl."

Hermione huffs. "Yes, that's me."

*


There is a morning where Hermione wakes up and thinks, wait even though she has no idea what she's supposed to be waiting for. She thinks, wait, but the word she says is accio her hand held out to her wand.

It comes to her. There is an unpleasant twinge at the base of her skull and the center of her forehead that accompanies the accomplishment, but Hermione is too busy looking at the wand in her hand to care. She squeezes its wood--not as familiar as it should be--in her hand.

Then she runs.

Down the hall and into the kitchen where Harry looks at her with a moue of concern touching his lips and Draco with a slight sheen of wariness in his eyes. Severus and Lina must already be in the lab. It's unfortunate, they sort of deserve to be the first ones to know, but she has an audience and she's not taking the time to find another one.

She barely even thinks as she levels her wand at the stove and says, "Incendio," careful only not to channel too much of her excitement into it, and sure enough a small flame pops up. Smaller than she could have hoped, but it is flame and flame that at no point involved matches.

Harry literally whoops with joy and catches her up in his arms to twirl her around. She laughs. It hurts her head. She doesn't care, not at all. Even Draco is grinning a little stupidly at the flame, and somehow it makes the moment all the more real, if he can acknowledge its importance as well.

When she's back down on the ground Harry takes her hand and pulls her towards the lab where she does a bit of levitation. Lina claps her hands together and smiles. Severus says, "She hasn't taken a dose in days. Residual build up?"

"Or some sort of combination in the different versions that we weren't expecting to interact catalytically," Hermione says, even though by this time each word causes an explosion of black behind her eyes and it's something of an effort to stay standing. When she starts to drop to her knees, Harry catches her by the elbows and guides her down.

"Some improvements might be necessary," Lina observes, with only mild sarcasm.

Hermione blinks and when she opens her eyes Severus is crouching in front of her, vial in hand. "Drink," he says, tipping the vial to her lips, the fingers on one hand lightly touching her chin. It feels reassuring, the way Harry's palms pressing her back, keeping her upright, do.

The thought is throwing. She nearly chokes on the potion.

It doesn't take long for the effects to kick in, and then she can see again, if nothing else. "That might have been a bit of overkill."

"How many spells?" he asks.

"Three, in the space of ten minutes."

"Perhaps the brain damage is more extensive than we had believed," he says drolly.

She shoves at him a bit. "You'd have done the same."

"Hardly."

She doesn't dignify that with a response. They are wizards. They all would have done the same. "We need to go through the permutations of the potions. Figure out which ingredients would have lingered and possible chemical interactions."

Severus raises an eyebrow. "Chemical?"

"Magical or not, potions brewing comes down to basic particles. One just has to figure for the basic particles of magic itself being involved as well."

"It's very nearly a shame that you have no intrinsic talent in the discipline."

"Yes, I'm certain you're broken up over the fact."

Behind her, Harry snorts. Severus glances up. Hermione can very nearly see Harry's look of false contrition. "Be cautious, Mr. Potter, or you might very well find yourself press-ganged into service. She is your friend, is she not?"

"You couldn't stand to have me around for long enough," Harry says, and hauls himself and Hermione to their feet.

"I should--" she starts.

"Get some more sleep," Draco finishes.

"But I--"

"Have had a long enough morning," Harry says, and steers her gently but firmly toward the door. She throws her gaze toward Severus in hope of some aid and for a second, just as she looks around, his eyes are surprisingly--startlingly--gentle. Then they snap back to the sharp, calculating look worn most of the time and he turns back toward the lab.

She would fight more, but the truth is that she's feeling rather worn, despite having just risen. "Well, all right. But I will return in a bit."

"Inevitably," Severus says.

Lina looks between the two of them before smiling down into the cauldron she's standing over.

*


When Hermione wanders back into the lab Severus is not in there. Lina looks up and says, "Draco needed someone with him to meet with his Gringotts representatives."

"Ah."

"You were right," Lina tells her. "The build-up from the lovage in the third batch and the dittany in the fifth caused an unexpected field which mimics the actions of one's natural magical barriers."

Hermione takes a seat. "Makes sense, I suppose. Severus explained that the original purpose of the lovage was to literally trick my brain into believing the barriers still existed, but it does so by altering the makeup of the brain, if only temporarily. It's not that big a leap with dittany's tendency to strengthen whichever ingredients it comes into contact with."

Lina smiles at her. "Too analytical by half."

Hermione shrugs. "As an approach to academics, it has its moments."

"I suppose it would. It maddens him, however. All that intelligence with none of the instinct to back it up."

"He's not mourning my lack of ability, he's deriding my lack of passion."

Lina shakes her head, clearly amused. "All four of you know each other so well without having the slightest idea of who any of you are."

"I'm not certain I would agree to knowing him well."

"Better than most, I would imagine."

"Which is like saying I comprehend seventh-level arithmantics better than most."

"Do you?"

"Yes."

Lina laughs. "I'm not sure he's quite that impenetrable."

"Really? I would have said more so."

"You allow his defenses to blind you in the way he wishes them to."

Hermione wants to believe Lina is wrong, but mind magics are one of Lina's foremost talents and Hermione has spent enough time with Lina's hands closed over her wrists or her elbows or her shoulders to know that Lina's perception in these matters is near to flawless. "Is that so?"

"He has accustomed himself to hiding in plain sight. So much so that nobody can see him anymore. Not even, I believe, himself."

Hermione makes a small sound of frustration. "I envy your sympathetic magic capabilities."

Lina looks confused. "I have not touched Severus."

"No, I didn't mean--"

"Oh," Lina says.

"I thought you would have--"

"I do not pry. There are ethics to be upheld, strict ones."

"I just thought, with it being increasingly easier for you to siphon the information--"

"It often is. Sympathetic magic can be a thing that requires some getting used to."

"Oh." Hermione blinks. "Of course, that makes sense."

"Most of what I say does."

Hermione rolls her eyes even while smiling.

Lina asks, "It is him I have to thank for the improvement then?"

"Technically, but I would prefer if you were to forego mentioning it."

"Obviously."

Hermione tips her head. She's silent for a bit. "Hiding in plain sight?"

"Perhaps behind his potions and his words. But nothing more solid."

"I didn't used to have such a hard time reading between the lines."

"You did not used to have cracks in your brain."

"That excuse never seems to get old."

Lina huffs in amusement. "I am still glad not to have it."

"Smart of you," Hermione says softly.

Lina says, "We shall seal them."

Hermione says, "Even after the glue has been applied, one can always see the fractures."

"Glue?" Lina asks.

"Don't worry about it," Hermione says.

*


The new, pointed improvements to the potion allow Hermione to manage stronger spells, and to draw out the length of time she can hold the weaker ones. The headaches are still a major issue, but Hermione's too encouraged to mind much. She knows the frustration will come more than soon enough, she allows herself to let the moment of pure satisfaction to take her as far as it will.

When it is over, she calls forth every ounce of anger and frustration, even the tiny, frivolous ones, the ones that have lain dormant in her for years, and kisses Severus. She doesn't touch him; not one of her fingers goes near him. She just lays her lips against his and lets instinct take her.

It's not familiar. Even if her and Viktor had had the things she and Severus have between them, there wouldn't have been the fear and the refocused emotion. It's not familiar, but it's not as frightening as she thought it would be.

When she pulls back nothing but their lips have touched, neither one of them opening their mouth. It hasn't been sexy. It hasn't been chaste, either.

He says, "Oh, bravo."

She says, "Hiding in plain sight."

"I beg your pardon?"

"What's your secret?"

"Pitiful, Miss Granger," he says he doesn't sound as though he means it. He sounds a little bit thrown.

She says, "I had no way of defending myself, with her."

"She wasn't foolish."

"Even if she'd left me my wand," Hermione says. "Although I suspect she didn't know, or she would have taunted me with that as well."

"You believe yourself to have a chance with me?"

"My hands aren't tied." She brings them up, palms open, as proof.

He takes them in his. She sees the test in it and forces herself not to struggle. He squeezes just enough for the sensation to border on pain. "How is your confidence level, I wonder?"

She doesn't say anything. She leans in and kisses him again. The pressure on her hands relaxes into something--she would call it a caress, only it's not so heavy as that. She pulls back. "Your secret. Or do you believe yourself ethically within rights to demand more?"

He tilts his head. "Why did you choose that matter of meeting my challenge?"

She frowns slightly. "There were options?"

"There are always options."

"Not always," she says, aware of the irony of their respective arguing positions.

"If you are intelligent enough to decipher them."

"Sometimes," she maintains. "You would have chosen differently?"

He looks down at her, nothing of desire in his countenance. One hand strays from her hand to the curls that she has just recently shorn nearly to the scalp again. "Perhaps not."

"Then you have promised me one secret."

"And you truly believe I will deliver?"

He is here, with his hand on her head, and she does not want to flee, at least not so much so that she must obey the impulse, so she says, "Yes."

His silence stretches for so long that Hermione begins to think he will go back on his word after all. She has no idea whether she plans to mock him for this or not; that outcome has not really occurred to her until this moment. She really does need to start considering all of her options again. It used to come to her so easily.

Finally he asks, "Have you any plans tomorrow?"

"No more than any other day."

Severus nods. "Half past two then, be dressed for presentation among Muggles."

Hermione does her best to take this in stride. "All right then."

He takes his hand back. "You've distracted me long enough today."

She smiles at the inadvertent admission of her power and stays in the lab just long enough to make the point that she will go and do as she so pleases.

*


Severus looks discomfited in his Muggle clothing. Hermione wonders whether his father never took him to a cricket game on the weekends, or to a pub some dreary weeknight. Maybe he did, maybe Severus has just grown out of his familiarity.

Or, then again, maybe he never bothered. It's not as if Severus talks of the man fondly.

Not that Severus ever talks of anyone fondly.

For Hermione, Muggle clothes are the ultimate guilty comfort. (Or well, not so much guilty, but it sounds better that way.) She was thrilled to have the excuse to slip into the jeans she's had since she was fifteen, the ones that now have patches over both knees, and one over the curve of her left arse-cheek. Severus eyed them with a distinct lack of impression but didn't say anything. Which was for the best, since she would have pressed the point that he hadn't told her what sort of meeting this was going to be.

She thinks maybe she should have gone with something a bit more Sunday-oriented when they walk up to the London headquarters for The Eternal Childhood Foundation. Severus is in well-tailored black slacks and a grey jumper. He does not look any more formal than he generally does. He doesn't look any less so, either.

The girl at the front desk looks to be sixteen, at best. Her eyes widen when they set on Severus and she stutters, "Um, um, how can I help you?"

Hermione glances over. Sure enough, Severus is glaring at the girl. Or rather, in the general vicinity of the girl. Hermione has a feeling this has nothing to do with her, and everything to do with why they're there. Which she still does not know.

"Mrs. Whitley please."

His sneer on "Whitley" is so extreme that it surprises even Hermione. The poor receptionist squeaks, "Is she expecting you, sir?"

"You may inform her Severus is here."

"Sir, you have to understand, as the Executive Director, Mrs. Whitley cannot always take walk--"

"Tell her," he says, and spends a couple of seconds fixing her with a look designed to make her worry that his eyes might actually reduce her to a pile of quivering gelatinous material.

Unsurprisingly, the girl picks up the phone and calls back to the all-important Mrs. Whitley. It takes less than ten seconds for the girl to set the phone down with a gobsmacked look. "She'll be up right away, sir."

He says, "Thank you," in a way that allows the girl to know he is not at all appreciative. Hermione winces and says, "Thank you," in a more sincere tone.

Severus throws her a warning look. She smirks. Unsurprisingly, this response does not cool his ire.

There is nothing in the world, however, that can help him to keep his composure a moment later when almost six full feet of professionally dressed woman throws itself at him and exclaims, "Baby brother!"

"You are making a spectacle, Achillea." Despite his words, spoken harshly, Severus makes no move to get away. Hermione thinks, "older sister?" and then the word Squib falls into place as the only way to make any sense out of this. Her only corresponding thought is oh. The circumstances are too much for anything else. This is Severus' secret. The one Lucius knew. The one Severus clearly would have done anything, anything to protect.

It is nice, if only shortly, to feel that her problems aren't such a big deal after all. The only person she truly has to worry about is herself. Harry (and even Severus and Draco) can take care of themselves.

Only when the woman is good and ready does she relinquish Severus and turn to Hermione. "You'll have to excuse my exuberance. My brother does not come around often. I don't believe we've met?"

Hermione grins and extends a hand. "Oh, I believe excuses are unnecessary. Hermione Granger, a pleasure."

"Achillea Prince Whitley, but I generally go by Lea. The kids have a time trying to make my name work."

Severus looks as if he has swallowed something that refuses to go down. "They wouldn't were you to teach them properly."

"My own children can pronounce my name, Uncle Sev'rus," she says, in obvious imitation of these unseen nieces and nephews. "But I work with children day in and day out who have much larger issues than the proper pronunciation of archaic appellations."

Severus glowers. "Archaic only if one has lost all touch with one's originating culture and tradition."

"Whose culture and tradition would that be, Severus?" She raises her eyebrow. It's impressive. Hermione wonders who taught whom. Then, "Did you really come here to argue with me over minutiae?"

"I lost a bet," he says with absolutely no inflection.

Achillea laughs. "No! You?" She looks at Hermione. "If you're here, I will assume he lost it to you."

Hermione dips her head. "'Bet' is a somewhat interesting choice of words."

None of the joy in her features--and despite the fact that they are a feminine mirror of Severus', they are filled with the emotion--lessens, but her eyes sharpen. "What sort of word would you have chosen?"

"I would have said he found me worthy of taking into his confidences, but I've felt the need to put a positive filter on events of late."

"Found you worthy," Achillea echoes. She asks, "Severus, have you brought home a woman?"

The pallor of his cheeks deepens to an ice-white. "She is a student."

"Was," Hermione says. Even if she is thinking of returning to Hogwarts, he won't be her professor. And for all his high dudgeon, she's felt his lips on hers. She's even come near to enjoying it.

Achillea's smile curves up just the tiniest bit. "All right, then."

"Achillea," Severus warns.

"You'll be staying for tea, of course," she says as though she hasn't even heard him. Hermione wonders if Achillea will share dealing-with-Severus tips. It has occurred to Hermione, somewhere in the ten minutes they've been speaking, that she might need them for future use.

It is only because she glances to see Severus' response to that near-to-order in the second when Achillea turns to head back to her office and ready things that Hermione catches the look of affection that passes over his features. It is brief and restrained and barely recognizable, but it is there and on any other man it would be a visual marker of the purest type of love.

It makes her breath catch. When he starts down the hall she is just a second behind, which is enough for him to turn back and snap, "Are you coming, or shall I have to Apparate you?"

Improvements to her magical state or no, Hermione would really like to see him try. Not here, though. Here, she wants to meet this woman for whom Severus has broken every rule--those in the book and all the others. "Right behind you."

*


Achillea's office is filled with pictures of and by children, at least some of whom have to not belong to her. Then again, she is the Executive Director of a place called The Eternal Childhood Foundation.

Hermione seats herself in one of the cushily stuffed chairs. Severus, unsurprisingly, looks discomfited in his. She takes the proffered cup from Achillea with a small nod of thanks before sipping. "Oh, that's good."

Achillea smiles. "It's a Ceylon. Only kind my husband will drink. I suppose I've gotten used to it."

Severus makes a sniffing sound at the word husband. Achillea confides without lowering her voice at all, "Severus believes I married beneath me."

Hermione's gaze settles on one picture, one hung directly behind Achillea's desk. She is in this one, along with a man--shorter than her and sporting rosy, kind features. In front of them are five children, two displaying traits that mark them as biologically descendant of the two adults. The other three are clearly not, two of them being racially diverse and the third far too Nordic to have been cobbled together between Achillea and her apparently inappropriate choice of a spouse.

Achillea must notice the direction of her focus as she says, "Yes, that's Kenneth. And our children. The blonde is Anna, the boy next to her is Dhanush, next to Dhanush is Severin. Behind Severin is Jules and next to Jules is Kenton."

"You make a lovely family," Hermione says.

"The Whitleys simply cannot help themselves whenever a stray crosses their path."

Achillea eyes Severus with what Hermione takes for amusement. This is confirmed a moment later when Achillea turns her attention back to Hermione. "Ignore him. Jules is his favorite, anyhow, with Dhanush and Severin competing for second place. He sees them all as mine no matter what he says."

"Severin is not--"

"Oh, no, Severin is. She and Kenton. We adopted Dhanush at birth, but Anna came to us when she was seven and Jules at four. Still, they are mine. Well, Kenneth's and mine. I have papers that say so, were the fact that they all call me mum and yell about hating me when I press them to do chores were not enough."

"The Eternal Childhood Foundation is an adoption agency?" Hermione asks.

"No, we work to make sure terminally ill children receive proper treatment and try to grant them at least one wish."

Hermione asks, "Are you entirely certain the two of you are brother and sister?"

"The hair and nose don't give it away?"

"I thought perhaps it was some sort of freak accident of genetics."

"Like a Squib?" Achillea does not have any of the sharpness to the question that Hermione would expect.

Hermione sets her cup down. "I'm Muggle-born."

"So if he hasn't 'brought you home,' whatever has my dear brother brought you here for?"

Hermione thought she knew. Now that she is here, though, she realizes that she didn't do much to be here. Not nearly so much as she could have. And the chilling recognition that Lucius must have threatened this woman, must have whispered the things that he could do to her into Severus' ear, settles somewhere inside her chest. The scars from Ron ache. Severus isn't just showing her his secret, he is showing her what he risked coming to Dumbledore.

Even if it was the only way out of an untenable situation, Hermione does not know if she could have taken that leap.

As it is, she can hardly do more than touch her lips to his. And she has very little to lose. Perhaps even nothing.

Achillea is still waiting. Hermione looks at Severus and says, "I think he brought me to prove a point."

"I am a point, am I, Severus?"

Hermione wonders how much this woman knows. If she has any idea the things her brother--her baby brother--has done to keep her safe and whole and part of a world that can still laugh along with its children.

"Achillea," he says, and this time it is soft, almost tender.

"Nobody calls me that anymore."

"Nobody else is your brother."

"Wouldn't have anyone else," she tells him plainly.

Neither would he, Hermione thinks, and for the first time, actively, truly wants to kiss him. Figures the desire would creep upon her at a completely inappropriate moment. She thinks she can save it, though, for later. She thinks she can make him understand that she appreciates this. That she gets it.

She doesn't know if she can make him understand that she wants to be brought back. She wants to be brought home.

*


She climbs into bed that evening and says, "I'm probably a bit infatuated with Severus."

Harry stares at the ceiling for a long time. "Wouldn't have been my first choice."

"I'm serious."

"So am I."

Hermione props her chin up on her fists in order to see Harry's face better. "You're taking this better than I expected."

Harry rolls over to look at her. "I know I'm not always the most perceptive person in the room, particularly not when you're in it, but I'm not completely stupid, either. The two of you have been spending a lot of time together in that lab. So far neither one of you has been permanently maimed and the lab is still standing and let's face it, your control isn't what it used to be, so I had to figure the two of you were at least friendly. I mean, I don't know that the word 'friendly' applies to him--"

"It doesn't."

"Right. You get me."

"I do."

"You think he, erm, well, you know."

"I can see that talking about this with you is going to be a constant exercise in deductive reasoning."

Harry grins. "He is Snape. I could be screaming."

"You could, but you don't like sleeping alone."

"There's that."

She can feel Harry tighten up beside her, so she collapses onto him. "None of that. You know I won't leave you."

"If it-- If you can. Get him to-- If the two of you--" Harry sighs in frustration. "He's not going to be all right with you sharing a bed with another bloke."

"No, probably not. But you're my oldest and best friend, so I will figure something out."

"Don't let this--"

"Shut it, Harry."

"I just mean that you can't spend your life watching after me."

"Except that I wouldn't even have to ask to spend the rest of it freeloading off your hospitality, would I?"

"That's different."

"It's not, Harry."

"It's just money."

"No," she says.

He curls his arms around her. "Maybe not."

"Not to mention that this may very well be a completely irrelevant conversation. He introduced me as his student today."

"Introduced you?"

"Old colleague of his." Hermione doesn't even have to think about lying, not even to Harry. The secret of Achillea already lies deep, deep inside Hermione.

"Someone helping with the brewing?"

"Yes."

"A student? Not an ex-student?"

"It's a doomed crush, really."

"I don't know. I sort of expected him to pack up and leave after Lina came on. And then, when he didn't, after the three of you actually had some success. But he just stays."

"Maybe he thinks Draco's settled a bit."

"They didn't grant him any of his family's estate, you know?"

Hermione hadn't. Draco never speaks of those things with her, and it has never occurred to her that if she asked, he might answer. "No."

"If I knew him well enough to say that he's scared out of his mind, that's what I'd say."

"I said I'd go back to Hogwarts with him."

"He mentioned. I don't think he believes you."

"He's a bit of a prat."

"Less so now."

"Maybe you're just mellowing. Witness your reaction to my latest hormonal bent."

"Maybe we're all mellowing."

Hermione suspects that is probably true. "It's not as boring as I thought it would be as a child."

"I've been wondering if maybe I just like boring."

"You did wait an awfully long time for it."

"Yeah," Harry says. Then, softly, "I wouldn't have minded Ron coming along for it."

Even knowing Ron would have yelled long and hard at this latest revelation of hers, Hermione nods into the dark. "Me neither."

She falls asleep thinking he might say something else, knowing that there's nothing more to say.

*


Seduction has never been one of Hermione's true strengths. For one thing, she's never much needed it. She didn't even want Viktor until he came to her and by the time he did, and his interest was enough to spark hers, he was already well and seduced. With Ron there was never a prayer. She could have lain naked in front of him and he would have taken her up on the offer, but it would have been straight back to Harry afterward.

There were forces of nature, and then there was Harry Potter, and in a fair fight Hermione would bet on Harry every time.

Even if seduction had been something she'd excelled at, seducing Severus would have been different, as he doesn't seem the type to be much affected by the standard flirtation and come-hither routine.

Hermione figures herself fortunate that she has the perfect excuse to physically manipulate the sexual tension between them. She also figures herself somewhat unfortunate in this, as in any other situation kissing someone would be a clear sign of one's intentions.

Harry is clearly not going to be any help as, for one thing, he has even less experience with seduction than Hermione. All he had to do to get Ron--or Ginny, or even Cho, for that matter--was to look sideways. For another, he can't verbalize anything that refers to Hermione and Severus being romantically involved. Anything.

Lina is Severus' colleague, and despite thinking that she already knows, Hermione feels that it would be a bit like betrayal to mention anything to her.

Calling Achillea to say, "You were right," and "How in the bloody hell would I go about bedding your brother, were I to desire it?" seems indecorous.

Which leaves Draco.

He gives her an opening without even realizing it as he's handing her part of the paper one morning. Their hands brush and while Hermione does snatch hers back, she does nothing more extreme. Draco stares at her for a moment. "Better."

She could say, "Yes," or she could say, "The potion helps with control." Both are true. She says, "Severus has been helping me."

Draco looks at her for a couple of seconds. "Me too."

"With touching," she says.

"Oh."

"It's not like that."

"It isn't?"

"If it were, I wouldn't need to be having this conversation with you."

"Why do we need to be having this conversation?"

"Because there aren't many people who know him, and I need some help."

"I don't know which confuses me more, the fact that you think I know him, or the fact that you think I would be able and willing to help."

"You don't think I would be good for him, then?"

"What does you being good for him have to do with anything?"

"You do know him, so I'll assume that that's largely just you being snide and Draco-like. It's a nice change by the way, wears almost like spirit on you, given your recent behavior. And if you aren't willing to help me I can only assume it is because you feel I would be harmful to him, and therefore it is in his best interests to allow me to flounder."

Draco tilts his head. "You see me as a protective sort?"

"Harry stalked you all of sixth year, you realize? I pieced together the things he told us, why you were doing what you were doing. You're the protective sort."

"He doesn't need protecting."

"He might need it more than anyone I've ever met, just in different ways."

"You clearly know him better than I do."

"I just talk more than you do."

"You talk more than anyone." But after saying this Draco quiets down, his expression one of thoughtfulness. "Is it just about gratitude?"

She runs a hand over her shorn hair. "What do you think?"

Draco looks frustrated. "That whatever else, you're too smart for that."

"Then let's just assume it's about the fact that I find him intelligent and courageous and oddly kind and think we might have more in common than we probably have any right to."

"He will read anything, but he has a fondness for the Muggle French Romantics."

Hermione blinks. "He told you this?"

Draco shakes his head. "He has a collection of them at Spinner's End. I asked what they were."

"Curiosity over Muggle artifacts?"

"Curiosity over Severus. Something it seems we have in common." He couldn't sound more discomfited if he tried.

Hermione says, "Thank you," and she means it in regard to his assistance. She's more than willing to have him believe it's about him recognizing their similarities.

*


Hermione read most of Dumas when she was a child, so it's easy enough to make her way through it for a second time. She lets Severus catch her at it, which is pretty simple, all she has to do is use the downtime in the labs to curl up and indulge.

He makes snide comments at her about being of no help, but at this point she is of no help and they both know it. Even if her researching skills were entirely at their normal level--the headaches are much better, but if she works for too long they will re-emerge with a vengeance and her control will slip, despite the aid of the potion--Lina and Severus are at a point where the testing is far less about the theoretical and far more about the practical. Hermione's problem-solving capacities are of absolutely no use to them at this point.

Severus is well aware of this, so she is able to blithely ignore his needling without even so much as looking up from her guilty pleasures.

The week she begins Hugo, he grabs her and brings his lips within an inch of his and says, "What are you doing, you little fool?"

His grip is tight on the breast panels of her shirt and she bites her lip as a way to ground herself. It takes a couple of mental repetitions of safe, you're safe, this is safe, safe for her to say, with any sort of equilibrium, "Could you please, perhaps, let go of me?"

He does. He even does so with care, making sure that she doesn't stumble backward, doesn’t fall to the ground.

She says, "You're right, that was backhanded of me."

"To whom did you speak?"

"Draco, but I didn't say anything about you or this or-- Oh, well, I might have said you were helping me to reacquaint myself with touch, but I didn’t suggest that there was anything improper in your motives."

"He told you that I liked the French Romantics."

"He said you kept several at Spinner's End. I thought it would give us something to talk about."

"Why should we need to talk about anything?"

"It's not-- There's no need." Hermione closes her eyes and sees herself as she looked in the mirror that morning, angry white scars that don't show half so deep as they actually run, baby soft fuzz making her face rounder than it otherwise would be, eyes fairly skittish and somewhat pained.

"You are mistaking what we have been doing with each other for something entirely else. I imagine that to be a fairly common occurrence in trauma victims--"

"Could you stop being a teacher for five seconds?"

"Believe me, Miss Granger, were I acting as your teacher, we would not be having this conversation." His tone is perfectly ironic.

"I meant that in a larger, more universal sense."

Seriously, quietly, he says, "You are confused."

"And you're a condescending prat. Somehow, I still want what I want."

"I am attempting to get the point through your damaged cerebral processes that you don't know what you want. You have a fractured concept of reality shaped by recent events, which you are too young and foolish to look upon with any sort of objectivity."

She considers him for a moment. Then she risks the wrath of demons and hellions and all sorts of unholy creatures, not the least of which is him. "You're scared."

"I am what?"

"Scared. S-C-A-R-E-D. Defined by Oxford as--"

"You had to look in a dictionary for that one? Constant personal experience wasn't enough?"

"We aren't talking about me."

"We certainly cannot be speaking of me."

Hermione raises an eyebrow. "As defenses go, that was rather weak."

"Who's the one of us who shakes at any sort of unexpected contact?"

"I am terrified. You being scared does not preclude that. The two are not mutually exclusive."

"I am not scared." His decibel level is so low she can barely hear him speak. She would know what he was saying by the movement of his lips, the look in his eyes.

"Then why were you trying to scare me off?"

"For your own bloody good, you complete twit!"

"Since when are you so benevolent?"

His eyes--already narrowed--shutter. "You want to see an end to my benevolence?"

Hermione may be foolish, but she's not stupid. "I wouldn't mind an end to your nobility."

He grabs her again, although this time his motions are slow enough that she at least knows what is coming, even if she can't entirely prepare herself. He asks, "You wouldn't?"

"No," she says, and goes on the defensive, bringing her lips to his before he can get there.

She knows she's gotten what she wants--at least for the moment--when by the time he swipes his tongue along the crease of her lips she's ready and it only takes one repetition of safe, this is good, this is safe for her to open up, and enjoy.

*


Severus appears at breakfast one morning--something he has never, to that point, done. Harry has already left. Draco and Hermione are still sharing tea and the paper. One look and Draco is on his feet, out of the door by the time he reaches the "um" in, "I have to, um. . ."

Hermione smiles up at Severus. "Oh, nice."

"You were expecting nice?" He takes out a cup and pours himself some of the tea.

"No, but you seem to like the element of surprise."

He sits across from her. "You are not clever, Hermione."

He's calling her Hermione, though, so she's something. She nods her head in easy acknowledgement.

There's quiet then, the comfortable silence they've always managed in the lab. Hermione finishes the articles she suspects might contain any useful information and works at finishing her crumpet. Severus asks, "How do you find the Hugo?"

"Intricate," she says with relish.

"Got to the fields of Waterloo, have you?"

She laughs. "I was referring to the relationships between the characters."

"I know," he says.

"What did you see in it, when you were my age?"

He picks a crumpet off the plate of them. He does not eat it. She is about to tell him he does not have to answer when he says, "Redemption, of course."

"Ah."

"Do not look at me knowingly."

"What would you prefer?"

He opens his mouth before cutting himself off. She has never seen him do such a thing and it brings about more questions than it answers. He does not say anything. She stands and comes around the table to stand at his side. Without looking at her, he rests a hand over the curve of her hip. There are two layers of clothing between his fingers and her skin and still the touch is intense.

She repeats, "What would you prefer?"

He looks up at her then, his eyes shaded. "A different sort of knowledge regarding me, perhaps."

Cautiously she folds onto her knees. "Is that all?"

"And if I said yes?"

"I should have to decide what sort of knowledge I believed you wanted me to acquire."

"And if it was merely of a carnal nature?"

"I would walk away," she says, without any sort of viciousness or victory.

"You should," he tells her.

"Should I?" She fixes her gaze upon his.

He does not divert his gaze. He does not answer her, either. She presses her lips to his cheek, whispers, "You are not as terrifying as you believe yourself."

"And you not as brave," he says without inflection.

She bites softly at his lower lip. "No?"

He swipes his tongue along hers even as he says, "No," and for the first time since all of this began her body responds with a soft, oh.

"I suppose we'll just have to make due with what is," she says, forcing herself to rise up a bit and settle herself over his legs, facing him.

He brings his hands to the button at the neck of her robes slowly. "I suppose."

"Go ahead," she says, and holds herself still as he peels back the robe, lets it fall over his knees. His hands seek at the hem of her shirt, slip under where the palms can rest against the unblemished skin of her back. She leans into them, finding them surprisingly supportive.

His hands travel upward, the thumbs brushing along her spine. They pause at the clasp to her bra and she waits before realizing that he is expecting something from her. She makes herself nod. It seems cruel of him to make her participate in this. Cruel and unquestionably brilliant.

His hands skim to the front of her, cupping at her breasts. She says, "Severus."

He says, "Yes?"

"What do you--"

One hand steals around to her back again, pressing insistently forward, "Like this."

She slides so that she rests over his cock. With the exception of his hands on her breast, on her back, there is not an inch of their skin touching. Earlier, much earlier, with Viktor, and in more than a few of her fantasies, Hermione has thought about what sex is, what sex would be. This was not it. Not this press of cotton and wool, not this nearly-chaste chasing of a man's tongue against hers. Not she having to be the one to press back, to say, "I like--" before he surges up against her, further into her mouth, further into her legs.

She rocks then, against him, and heat burns up into her stomach, more sweet than painful, more electric than hot.

He breathes, "yes," into her mouth and she repeats the motion. She would have anyway, his permission simply makes it easier.

Her hands find their way to his shoulders and she wishes she could think enough to pull back his own robes. There are too many obstacles and so she grips as tightly as she can and says, "Severus," and grinds down, as intent on her own pleasure as she is on his--perhaps, if she is honest, more.

His head is thrown slightly back and he says, "Yes," but she knows it is not in relation to anything she has said. He has taken to meeting her thrusts, up and down and up and down, only nowhere so neat as that and far, far more interesting.

At some point their lips meet again and even as he presses to her his breaths come in short gasps and she can feel him tighten, his fingers digging insistently into the skin of her back, her breast. It should be threatening but it is just necessary, and then she is the one to say, "yes, yes."

When he is done his limbs loosen and his fingers fall and she says, "What are you--" only then the fingers are at the buttons of her trousers, finding their way inside and maybe this is the way she imagined things, maybe, except it's not because she can barely think for the pleasure. She manages to make a sound. She has no idea what that sound is, can only be glad that Severus ignores it and continues to ignore it until she is gasping, near clawing through his robes.

She comes even as his fingers slip into her, mouthing against his jaw, "Ohohohoh."

Eventually, long after she has settled against him, her body pliant, her breathing slow, he says, "That is not all I want."

It should be a non-sequitur, but now that speech has come back to her the morning's events are writ in her mind, clearer than any book has been for months now. "Do you know what you want?"

"No."

She smiles. "Very well then."

"Very well?"

She nods, her short curls brushing against the underside of his chin. "Very well."

*


When she has finished Les MisÚrables and begun The Cloven Viscount--she needs something to help along with the Italian lessons--they still haven't worked all the problems out of the potion. She can do all basic magics, and even some transformative ones. Anything more complex than that is completely out of the question.

Severus has taken to showing up earlier in the mornings and waiting for Hermione in the labs. She does not generally make him wait long. There are mornings when they talk about possible ways to retrain her in magic use that might work around the difficulties still present, or about Hermione's reading, or Severus' reading--most recently a treatise on the wealth re-appropriation of Death Eaters' one-time property--or anything that comes to mind.

There are also mornings when he holds her up against the wall without asking if it is okay and she finds his buttons before she can forget how, and sometimes she will actually dip her fingers inside his trousers and rub at him even as he returns the favor. Mostly, though, they kiss. Mostly his mouth trails along her jaw and down her throat. Mostly they press their bodies up to each other and mimic other things, things that Severus doesn't ask for and Hermione can't be sure she's ready to give.

It is in the aftermath of the morning when he sucks on one of her ears as she is coming and holds her up when she is done that he murmurs, "You sleep with Potter."

"Fight fair," she says, aware that she's not at her best, not yet. Her legs haven't regained their full strength. Also, her head hurts, as it sometimes does after these sessions, the combination of energy expended and not yet having taken the potion coming over her. She pulls away to look at the clock. She has another twenty minutes before she can take her daily dose. She tried taking it early one day and spent the full twelve hours vomiting.

He looks over at her. "You sleep with Potter."

"And you know bloody well it's nothing more than that."

"Do I?"

Hermione gets up. She can come back for the potion in twenty minutes. Or she can have Draco go get it for her. He has a healthy respect for her lack of abilities when driven completely mad. She feels a hand on her shoulder just a second before she realizes whose hand it has to be and she snaps even as she turns, "Don't touch me!"

He pulls his hand back. "I didn't intend to frighten you."

"It's nothing, Severus, it's a friendship, it's a way of keeping us both quiet and whole in the dark. Have you never wanted anything like it?"

"Not until now," he says, his eyes on her.

"Liar," she says.

His lips form into the beginning of a smile. "Perhaps there is something I have forgotten. Not up for a little flattery?"

"From you? I'd be afraid to follow the trail for concern of where I'd end up."

"Smart girl."

"All right, that's enough from you."

When he speaks again, the shadowed smile is gone. "Truly, Hermione. If you are to share anyone's bed, I insist that it be mine."

It is not an unreasonable request, Hermione knows. Even if she isn't sure she can lie next to him and fall into sleep, even if the thought sends a trill of what she nearly recognizes as excitement through her stomach into her throat, it is still a perfectly reasonable request. There is only one problem in the way of Hermione fulfilling it. "Help me find a way to settle Harry."

"He is your friend."

Hermione just looks unimpressed. Severus can work a bit if this is what he wants. He can work a bit for her. (Perhaps that last thought is unfair, given the circumstances, but Hermione knows how to fight unfairly as well.)

"Do you at least have some idea of where to start? I sincerely doubt that any ideas of mine will meet with your approval."

She smiles at the suggestion that he actually cares. "I do. I am not sure about the wisdom of the plan, but it's the best I have been able to formulate."

"Dreamless addiction?"

It actually had crossed her mind to see if she could chemically stimulate Harry's sleep on any sort of regular basis, but all her reading lead her to believe it was a bad--if not criminally dangerous--plan. "I was thinking more along the lines of aiding Draco and him in their latent flirtation with each other."

Severus stares at her for a long moment before blinking. Then he stares some more.

"You're not mad about it, I can tell."

"What ever would give you that idea?"

"But you're still here listening, so I'll take it that deep down you believe the plan might have some merit."

"Are you brain-damaged?"

"Actually, yes," she manages after a moment wherein she must decide whether to run off and lick her wounds or come back at him with everything she has. Her determination to stand him down is somewhat ruined by the look of mild horror in his face at what he has said and even more thoroughly ruined by the fact that it causes her to laugh. Sob with laughter, really. At some point she has to lean over the counter and hold herself up with her arms, which aren't terribly interesting in helping.

When her breathing has returned to a somewhat normal pattern and she can actually hear anything other than the sound of her own amusement, she becomes aware of his voice. It sounds alien in its uncertainty. "Hermione?"

"Sorry," she says. "Your face was. . .apologetic. And I thought, 'why start now?'"

He is quiet for a long time, long enough that she thinks about bringing up Harry again only just as she opens her mouth he moves to her and slides his hands onto her shoulders. "Nonetheless," he says.

She looks up at him. "I'm not wrong about this, Severus. Draco wakes earlier than he has any need to in order to get over here in time to see Harry. Harry learned how to make that frippy creamy tea that Draco is always craving. And neither of them are the type to go out of their way for an ex-enemy."

"Perhaps theirs is a friendship."

"Perhaps." Hermione lets every inch of her doubt color the statement.

"They are. . .careful of each other."

Hermione stays silent, letting him work through to his own conclusions.

"How, exactly, does one aid in flirtation?"

"How does one make both Voldemort and Dumbledore think he's on their side?"

"Your Machiavellian tendencies have a way of coming out at unsuspecting junctures."

"Just drops hints, Severus. Subtle ones."

"There are other sorts of hints?"

Hermione laughs softly. She looks at the clock. "I can take the potion."

He takes his hands from her shoulders. "I'll get it for you."

*


Hermione really does believe that all Draco needs is a bit of encouragement in the right direction. Harry is a different situation altogether, which is why she has left him for herself. Harry, like her, sees Ron in his dreams every night and can hear what he would say at any given situation. Harry, like her, thinks that to let go is to betray Ron, even if the betrayal is a healthy one, a necessary one.

She starts small. She starts one morning when Draco hasn't shown up for tea, "It's unlike Draco to run this late."

She regrets it when Harry mumbles, "No," his eyes strained behind his lenses. She realizes then that she has perhaps underestimated the depth of Harry's trauma. She allows herself to feel stupid for a moment--Ron is not the first person Harry has lost, and he spent days waiting to see if Aurors would be able to recover her, then more days waiting for her to wake up, nowhere near as whole as when he had last seen her.

The worry is cause for both concern and cheer. Hermione does not want Harry lost in his own fears; still, the fact that he feels them for Draco is a good sign. She says, "He probably slept in, Harry. He's been a bit down since the Ministry denied his appeal."

"Talking to him makes me glad I lost everything important to me before I could remember it, which is about the worst feeling I've ever experienced."

"It'll be better when the two of us get ourselves back into school."

Harry butters a piece of toast. "Do you believe that? I mean, really? Or is that your way of coping?"

"I didn't say it would be easy. It will probably-- People will look at him and say things too loudly and my presence will provoke whole other types of gossip and no, it won't be easy. But I do think it will be better for him. It will certainly be better for me, getting back to my studies, having something to do every day, a goal in mind. It helps me to focus on moving forward. I don't know if he's like that, but it might not be a bad moment for him to try it out."

"He doesn't know what he's like."

Hermione steals a piece of toast from Harry and pulls the raspberry jam to her. "Oh?"

Harry frowns down at his plate. "It's like when I first came to Hogwarts. When there were too many possibilities, particularly after the Dursleys, and I couldn't even understand most of them and so I was just going along and hoping everything would be better. Only he's not eleven and not particularly optimistic so instead of seeing a million doors open to him he only sees all of the ones that have closed."

"Maybe it's not optimism. Maybe it's that you were raised to see closed doors and he open ones. And that a shift of perspective can often be forerun by the most extreme opposite of one's original position."

"Maybe." Harry glances up. "I wouldn't mind seeing him smile, occasionally. You manage it, and you've every right not to."

Hermione tilts her head to one side.

Harry asks, "It's odd that I care, isn't it?"

"I don't know. Is he your friend?"

"He's Draco Malfoy."

"And you're Harry Potter. Does that actually mean anything to you?"

"Not so much to me, but it seems to mean quite a bit to a whole bunch of other people."

Hermione takes a bite of toast and waits.

"Oh."

"Indeed," she says.

Harry brings a hand to the back of his neck and holds it there, squeezing at the muscles. Hermione asks, "Sore?"

"Must've slept wrong."

She'd felt his distress even through the potion's dampening effects, so she nods.

"Would I sound even more foolish if I asked why you cared?"

"About-- Oh, about Draco?"

"Mm."

"Because it seems to me that you do. And it's not like we've an abundance of people left to care about. Just thought a bit of encouragement wouldn't go amiss."

Harry lets his eyes slide shut. "And you don't think it's some sort of pointless substitution on my part?"

"You have Remus for pointless substitution, Harry. He's really all you've ever needed."

Harry's eyes fly open. "Cow."

Hermione smiles. "My point is--"

"That if I haven't done it before I'm not likely to start now. Yes, I understood, thank you very much."

Her head hurts a little as she says, "Ron wanted us to live, Harry. As much as your mum and dad and Sirius all wanted you to."

"He could be selfish, though."

"He could. Until he figured out how much it was hurting you. Then he always found some way to move past it."

Harry dips his head in acknowledgment. "If Draco doesn't come with Severus, owl me, yeah? I'll drop by the flat and pick him up."

Hermione reaches across the table and tweaks his ear playfully. "It means something to me that you're Harry Potter."

"Something different than all the others, right?"

"Something different," she confirms.

*


As it turns out, too much caffeine causes the potion to go haywire. Hermione figures this out after drinking two cups of espresso in the space of twelve hours and spending the next twenty four with a headache so intense she is literally blinded--unable to see anything but white sparkles when she bothers to open her eyes. She doesn't make the connection to the change in her libational diet; Severus does.

She maintains that had she been able to actually string two words together at the time, she would have gotten there before him. It's an easy thing to maintain, as there is no way to prove her wrong. She probably is, but that doesn’t much matter.

What matters is that somewhere in middle of it all, when the headache lets up just enough for breathing not to hurt, she feels a hand on her hair and without even thinking about it, recognizes the hand. She tries to say, "Severus." All that comes out is a conglomeration of consonants and vague, letter-like sounds.

"Foolish twit," he says, so softly that it's more the edge of the consonants that she hears but she knows him and can piece together the words from context clues.

"Mm."

To her surprise he doesn't leave then, doesn't take his hand back and slide off to do more exciting--or at least more solitary--things. Instead the bed depresses slightly and then he's at her back, wrapping her up inside his robes, settling her against his chest. She doesn't know what to make of the action. It warms her, physically, and she's glad not to be by herself and in pain any longer, but it worries her too, the uncharacteristic bent of it.

Her head hurts too much to follow the thought to its completion, so all that's left is the vague nervousness running through her limbs.

His hand drops around to her stomach--fingers sneaking underneath her shirt--and rubs gently. "Shh."

The sensation is too soothing for her to hold on to her anxiety and before she can help it, she falls asleep.

She wakes up at fits and starts over the next several hours. Sometimes he is there. Sometimes it is Harry. She thinks she hears Draco once. Sometimes she's alone.

Severus is there at the point when she wakes up with the ability to make any sense out of the world. She blinks at him a couple of times. He asks, "Better?"

She nods slightly.

"You're going to have to take the potion again, you realize? Or there will be another type of headache altogether."

She hadn't yet puzzled this out, but it makes a counter-intuitive sort of sense, now that he mentions it. "Yes."

"Would you like some breakfast first?"

Food sounds indecently nauseating, but she's taken the potion on an empty stomach before and it's not something she wants to do ever again. Ever. "Tea and toast?"

He hauls her up into a sitting position. She keeps her eyes closed for a second until the world rights itself. When she opens them he's put a tray over her lap with tea and toast. Hermione sniffs at the tea. "Rosemary?"

"Your head will thank you."

"Smells lovely." She takes a small sip and is pleased that it tastes as mild as the smell suggests it is. The bread is potato bread, thick and rich and Hermione remembers why eating can be a fulfilling experience. Of course, the single piece of toast and cup of tea are more than enough, and Hermione isn't so enamored of the practice as to press on.

He produces the potion from his pocket and she swallows it down without complaint. It's tart to the point of making her tear up. She knows that anything he could do to alleviate that would most likely mess with the positive effects as well. She waits the four or so minutes that it takes for the potion to kick in, and the clearing of pain behind her eyes, traveling up from her throat, is more magical than many of the things Hermione has seen in her near lifetime of magical practice.

She looks over at him. "Thank you for staying with me."

"I didn't."

"A little."

"It was only practical to have someone watch over you, in case the adverse symptoms were more extreme than we were originally given reason to believe."

"But you needn't have been here so much of the time and we both know it, so thank you."

He tilts his head slightly. "It was to your preference that I be here?"

The question confuses her for a moment. Then she remembers that Harry had stayed with her some as well. She reaches out and grabs a section of his robes, tugging him insistently toward her. He says, "I realize that the more harsh symptoms will have cleared up with that latest dose, but I am not entirely sure your energy levels--"

"Shut it," she says, curling herself around him. "This was all I wanted."

His hands settle awkwardly over her, no longer so sure now that she's fully awake to pay attention to what he's doing. When he has laid them over her torso and left them there, she makes an approving sound.

He says, "I didn't mind staying."

She would kiss him, but she really is too tired. She compromises, once more falling asleep as he holds her.

*


Hermione aims the hex at Draco knowing it can't possibly land. Her control is much better and she is progressing on to ever more complicated magics. Hexes, though, involve focus and intent and so when she laughingly spouts off the words to fix Draco with a panther tail--mostly because he's being obnoxious and really does deserve the effects of a fully-reversible hex--nobody is more surprised than her at Draco's squeak of surprise as he jumps up from where he was sitting.

Harry stands stock still and says, "Wow. Way to go."

Draco blinks at his new appendage. "I wasn't even insulting your bloodlines."

Hermione reverses the hex completely by instinct.

"I kind of liked him better the other way," Harry says.

"I hate you," Draco tells him.

Harry nods. This isn't news to anyone. Hermione looks at her wand. It's not even a particularly strong time of the day for her. Normally she's at her best right after she's taken the potion and for a couple of hours thereafter. It's early evening, they're waiting for Severus and Lina to come up from the lab for supper.

Softly, Draco says, "No harm done."

She looks over at the stove and points her wand, trying the incantation for a very specific fire charm, one meant to regulate the temperature. It doesn't work. She tries again, only to fail. Harry says, "Don't think about it."

It's good advice, but easier said than done. It takes nearly half-an-hour of Draco and Harry doing their best to distract her for her to spin around, roll off the charm and have the flame flare into a bright blue. She nearly drops her wand.

"All right, Hermione?" Harry asks. His grin takes up a good two-thirds of his face.

"Should have thought of this before." She snaps her fingers lightly, a physical habit long used to keep her mind from shorting out on her. It's been invaluable since she incurred her injuries. "Wild magic is based on a lack of focus! I was trying too hard."

Draco asks, "You think your magical structure has altered irreparably, then? Even given the potion?"

"Yes, probably. I mean, it was unlikely that any sort of exterior component could fix something that basic, that tied to nervous functions and systems so basic we haven't even discovered them yet."

"I suppose that makes sense." Draco pushes at her a little. They are both trying to feel more comfortable in each other's space. Hermione thinks she might owe it to him, and Draco surely has his own reasons. Possibly having to do with her relationship to Harry. "You need to go tell Severus and Lina."

"Right," she says, letting him push her out the door to where she breaks into a sprint. She's not so out of her mind that she forgets to knock on the lab door before entering. One never knows what might be happening inside a closed lab and Hermione has no desire to accidentally decimate Harry's house with a case of over-eagerness.

"Yes?" Lina calls.

Hermione pops her head in. Severus looks at her irritably. "We are coming. I am sure you can manage the chore of keeping whatever it is warm and suitably un-congealed."

"I did magic," she says.

Neither he nor Lina seems terribly interested. He says, "On several occasions, why do you think we are continuing to develop the potion in the same line of thought? Or did you just feel the irresistible urge to talk?"

"A hex."

That gets their attention. Lina asks, "Which one?"

"Oh." Hermione blushes. "One of the forced transfigurations."

"Animal or object?" she asks.

"Animal."

Lina purses her lips. "Were you able to reverse it, or did someone else have to--"

"I did it, but I wasn't really thinking about it."

Neither brewer says anything.

Hermione figures that it takes a lot of energy to focus all one's efforts into one discipline, so she lets them off the hook. "I have to let it be wild magic."

"Wild magic has no--" Severus starts.

Hermione cuts him off, "No control, I know. It wasn't a perfect analogy. I just meant that I have to stop thinking my magic is something I can have power over, ever again. I have to work with it as though it is my equal, as though its needs are as important as mine."

Lina shakes her head slightly. "For all its qualities, magic is not an intelligent force."

"No, but it can be intuitive," Hermione says, and knows that they're listening by the fact that not even Severus scoffs at that. "The potion gives me focus, a way to channel, but not control. And I'm not sure that any potion can restore that. Some damage is final. But if I can just re-teach myself, if I can just learn to let magic performance take a different form in me, then I think I can have it all back. Probably even, as we suspected, far more than I had to begin with."

Lina's eyes narrow at this hypothesis. "What makes you believe that?"

"I finally managed a calium when I was able to stop thinking about it and the level of force and precision behind it was far greater than anything I ever remember being able to do."

"Memory is, at best, unreliable."

"Says the creator of Pensieves." Hermione smiles.

"Nonetheless, how are you certain--"

"Certainty is out of the question. But as far as I know my memory wasn't part of the affected area, and it's always been decently reliable up to this point."

"Aside from which, all evidence does support her suspicion."

Lina and Hermione both glance at Severus. He says, "If this is the case, perhaps we are at the right permutation."

"I think we should try this version," Hermione agrees. "I will work to adjust my casting methods, and in two weeks, I will provide a progress report."

"I should return to Bulgaria. We can conference on the paper through owls."

Severus nods. "Indeed. I believe that even if adjustments need to be made, your advice will suffice at this point. There is no need for you to be kept from your home any longer."

Hermione folds both her hands over the older woman's. "If there is anything--"

"Hush, little fool. You will have made my career with this." Lina brings up one hand to brush over Hermione's scalp. "At much greater cost to yourself than to me."

Hermione's smile is perhaps a touch too bright. Lina has never even met Ron, her words are an understatement of a level Hermione has a hard time comprehending--and she knew all the players. "Stay for dinner, yes?"

"Naturally."

Severus interrupts with, "We will be eating sometime this evening, then?"

Hermione rolls her eyes at him and turns to head back to the dining area.

*


In their own way, Harry, Draco and Severus all help her in the endeavor to completely relearn everything she already knows. There are a considerable number of headaches involved, along with swearing and more than the occasional charm-gone-awry-in-the-worst way possible. Harry always fixes the worst of her magical mishaps, grinning lopsidedly. Draco cleans up after her with a roll of his eyes and a reassurance (always a lie) that this is the last time he's participating in these "games."

Severus waits until she can put things right on her own. Then he says, "Well? Was that all?"

She hasn't allowed him to have the last word yet. She realizes that this is most likely a form of letting him have the upper hand, but as she always walks away a bit more accomplished in her deeds, she's hard pressed to care.

As he later will lick along the line of her shoulder--at some point they have progressed to undressing, at least a bit, enough for him to taste at her breasts, for her to press her hands to the cool skin of his stomach--and say, "Witch."

She pretends to hear a possessive attached to the epithet. Alone, however, it is its own type of praise, a title she would have had no right to only weeks previous. She figures, with enough time, she can cajole the rest out of him.

Enough time, and the gift Harry gives her. She is thoroughly undeserving of it at the time it is offered. She is on the floor, her head pounding just enough that she knows she is done with any sort of practice for the day. Any more, and she will be done with everything for the day.

Harry is repairing the curtains, which are partly torn, partly burnt. He says, "Look, this might not be the best time to ask this," and his smile is as big as it ever is, bigger, too big.

"Harry," she says, because this is her, and really, when have there ever been 'right' times between them? If there have, she has missed them for lack of attention on both sides.

"Right, just. You want something for your head?"

He means the bottle of Tylenol-3 he smuggled into the house without Severus' knowledge. Severus knows about it--Hermione is not so foolish to take something that might interfere with the potion without asking first--but Harry doesn't know that. It does, on occasion, help, but it sets her stomach to burning. "I want to know what's on your mind."

"It's entirely within your rights to say 'no,' you need to understand."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"It's just that, er, Draco and I, see, we've been, um--"

"Yes, Harry. Even if the portrait of thirteen-year-old Sirius weren't a complete tattle-tale, I am not quite so oblivious as you clearly believe me to be."

Harry pales. "Sirius?"

"Serves you right for putting adolescent portrayals of your godfather in the sitting room. Or at least for doling out blowjobs in front of him."

"Please, please stop talking."

"Well, all right, but if I quiet down, which one of us is going to actually verbalize that you wish to have your bed back to yourself? Or at least yourself and your dashing blond boy?"

"That could just go unsaid. I'd be happier if it did. Dashing blond boy?" Harry leans his head back so as to knock it against the nearest wall. "You're a cruel woman. I don't know why we're friends."

"Because I'm fun," Hermione says, motioning toward the now repaired curtains.

"Must be it." Harry still looks discomfited. "You don't mind, then?"

"Not if you don't mind me wandering off to Severus' place around the same time you two stumble off in pursuit of carnal bliss."

"You just want a fellow sufferer in brain-damage, don't you?"

"You've caught me out."

Harry is silent for a long time after that. Finally he says, "You really want to go to him?"

"Every single time. And before you asks, he wants me to come. I think he would come to me, only he's, well, Severus, and it would break something in him that I prefer whole. There's enough broken between us."

"It's hard to see--" Harry shakes his head.

"I know," she says, and she does, but she's always seen things that Harry didn't, that Ron didn't. She's always seen too much, and for the first time in a very long time that is acting in her favor. She will have to face a lot more than Harry's confusion before she's willing to give that up.

"I suppose I'm asking for Draco bloody Malfoy."

"You are."

Harry grins at her then, the same grin he always gives while magically mopping up after her. She takes it as it's intended.

*


Hermione has never gone to Severus' flat. It's close to the house, but he's never invited her and there are some verbal cues she's unwilling to second guess. That night, however, when Draco stays after Harry's poured the second cup of coffee, she says, "I'm going for a walk."

Harry asks, "Want some company?" She can hear the politeness in the offer.

She says, "I'm pretty sure I can whip out some serious defensive magic without thinking once, let alone twice, if called upon. Stay, have coffee."

She walks there slowly and when she gets there, it takes her five minutes of standing in front of his wards before she manages to touch her fingers to the edges, alerting him of her presence. She's pretty surprised when the wards fall almost immediately. She recovers enough to step through before they snap into existence again.

The door is unlocked.

He's standing a few feet back from it. "Is everything all right?"

"Everything is-- Draco's spending the night."

"I needn't know the tawdry details of my former student's lives."

"Hm. Perhaps I oughtn't mention that I was thinking of spending the night here, then."

"You haven't been invited."

"You thought you were allowed to be the only socially inconsiderate person in this relationship?"

He looks vaguely amused. "Naturally."

"Just shagging, then?"

"Don't be indecorous," he says, stepping into her space.

"Oh, no." She rocks up onto her tiptoes and kisses him.

He kisses back, pulling away only to say, "I'm going to--"

She says, "Just--" and then he's pushing her back into the apartment and she thinks, let him, let him. There is a moment when the back of her legs hit the edge of the bed that blank, sheer panic scrolls behind her eyes.

He says, "You are--" and she has no idea what he means by it, but the cadence of his consonants is enough to make everything better enough that she can focus on the taste of him, the solid, somehow safe strength of his body against hers.

He undresses her. It's slow, and she could stop it, she could say, "no, not that," at any point. She could put her hand over his as it plucks at her buttons, or shake her head as his hands slide along with her trousers down the length of her legs. There are a million opportunities to halt things.

She takes none of them. Instead, she returns the favor.

She is quicker than he, more shaky, more intent on the destination than the journey. He helps her when her hands become caught on the buttons, when she gets tangled in the fabric of his robes. It's not sexy. Somehow it's better, more comfortable.

When they are both fully naked she looks him up and down and says, "Maybe a little slowly."

He is still looking at her legs.

"Severus."

He pushes her further up the bed. "Breathe, Hermione. And shut up."

She does, mostly because he turns to spending time exploring her legs, running his hands from ankle thigh, biting softly along the backs of her calves. She is free to curve her hand over his scalp, to say whatever she wishes. She stays silent.

Slowly, slowly, he makes his way up the inside of her thighs until his tongue is drawing a line over the slit of her vagina, within a breath of her clitoris. She moans, "Please, um--"

"Sh," he says, even as he continues his ministrations. "Shush."

She doesn't, but she obeys the spirit of the command. When she has no idea what the concept of quiet even corresponds to anymore, that is when he rises up over her and says, "Hermione."

Her name doesn't make any real sense to her. She says, "Huh?"

"Hermione, I'd like--" and he drags his cock along her clit.

Hermione's eyes roll into the back of her head. It's hard to put the syllables for the word, "careful," together, but she manages.

He laughs at her. She lets him, there's not much she can do--barring accidental magic, which she supposes is imminently possible at the moment--to stop him. She doesn't really want to. It sounds right.

He presses into her and it doesn't hurt, but it's a bit uncomfortable. She tenses, but he licks at the spot on her shoulder that never fails to cause her to mewl. This time is no exception.

He pushes further and she makes herself breathe, relax, think Severus. He kisses her, which makes it much easier. Kisses her and kisses her as he sinks in, and then he's whispering, "All right?" and she is, at least enough to arch into him when his fingers drop down between them and glide smoothly over her clitoris.

She says, "Right, like that," and he says, "Bloody hell." She can't tell if he's complaining about her instructions or if the fact that she's now moving with him has brought him as close to incoherent as he ever comes.

One of her hands presses at his lower back bringing them closer together. There's pleasure cresting inside of her and it's at once sharper and more overwhelming than it ever has before. She tries to say "oh," but she knows the sound doesn't form correctly, that it's simply breath on her lips.

He says, "Hermione," softly, intensely, and then he's tightening his muscles, pressing down into her and it should be terrifying. Instead there's only heat and pleasure and something that is a combination of both.

She thinks she screams as she comes, but she can't hear properly, can’t do anything but feel.

He rolls off her as she finishes, but takes her with him. She thinks about moving, about garnering her own space, but his arms are loose against her and she could if she wanted to, and that seems to be more important than actually doing so. She says, "All right, that was--"

"Satisfactory," he says, but there's a hint of amusement in his voice.

She laughs. "I need to floo Harry."

His grips tightens ever so slightly. "In a bit."

She nods, the top of her head brushing against his torso, "Yes, a bit."

*


Severus' presence does not keep Hermione's nightmares at bay. Rather she finds herself being shaken from them, hands at her shoulders where she does not, does not, does not want them. It's only instinctive to hex first and worry about what comes later in the next moment.

Severus says, "Oh for-- Undo it, Hermione."

His voice shocks her into full wakefulness and she is sorry enough to distract herself from the magic she needs to perform in order to adequately do so. "Maybe--"

"Quiet."

"I did just--"

"You're disturbing me," he says, one hand curling gently over the base of her skull, the other cradling the curve of her ass.

Forgiveness and acceptance--both reactions that Hermione has found to have a particular flavor for most people--are completely different with him, but she is slowly learning to understand the signs. She waits to hear his breathing even out again. It doesn't. "Trouble sleeping?"

"I was woken by someone."

"You only have one chance a night?"

"At the rate you are prattling on, it seems likely."

"We could sleep apart."

"If that is what you would prefer."

"I realize it’s a bit against form and all, but could you stop being an arse about this for ten seconds and discuss it with me like a rational adult? Because short of you reformulating Dreamless so that it is not habit forming and will work on me, this is probably something that will come up again. Believe me."

He tucks her very close into him and whispers. "I have my own nightmares, now and again. I am simply bad at offering comfort."

"You do all right when you stop thinking so bloody much about it--like me and my magic."

Severus presses his forehead to hers. "When I allow her, or, I suppose, when I get myself near enough to her that she believes she's allowed any liberty she can think up, Achillea will find ways to remind me of when we were younger, and I would--"

Hermione waits.

"School was never a place of refuge for me, and as much as my father liked to yell, I had my mother and Achillea when I was at home. I would come home and hide in her rooms. Father yelled at her less than mother and me. He had some odd beliefs concerning witches and wizards. He blamed mother and me for much of his bad luck."

"She seems like she would have been a brilliant older sister." Hermione can't help some of the wistfulness that creeps into her voice. Even knowing only small, horrific-enough, bits and pieces of what Severus' love for Achillea has cost him, even knowing how much the twins and Percy and sometimes even Ginny rubbed at Ron, Hermione has always secretly wanted a sibling.

"Worth everything. Everything," he repeats with more emphasis. She wonders if he sees Dumbledore in his last moments or if there are other, more pointless crimes that haunt him with greater persistence. She wonders if she will ever know him well enough to have some idea of how to ask. "She acquired all the talent for compassion in the family."

"No, just the outward trappings," Hermione says, her voice firm.

"You see what you want to see."

"If I do, what's it to you? Unless you would prefer I looked elsewhere."

He opens his mouth and she knows he's going to call her bluff. Only at the last moment he closes his mouth without saying anything, evidently unable to take the chance. It is reassuring in the way that no words or promises would ever have been from him.

"Good," she says, nodding her head once.

"You really should get some more sleep," he says quietly.

"As should you."

"I was waiting."

"For me to fall asleep?"

"Yes." She can feel muscles stiffen underneath her at the admission.

"You needn't. Sometimes it just takes a bit, depending on what I was seeing, and how smoothly the waking process went."

"I thought perhaps you shouldn't be left alone."

"I wouldn't have been. You're right here, sleeping or otherwise."

"Of course."

She finds the place where she can feel his heart beat under her palm and presses both hands to the spot. "So you wouldn't mind, were I still here in the morning?"

"I have enough tea," he says.

She's pretty sure she falls asleep before he does.

*


Hermione isn't surprised when the Hogwarts owls deliver half of her books to Harry's place and half to Severus'. Conscientiously, she does not snicker when all of Draco's are dropped neatly beside her half at Harry's.

She spends some time helping Severus and Lina out in their attempts to publish, mostly working on the editorial and fact-checking side of things, although she will occasionally join in on the floos where they argue about actual content. Severus leaves money in her Gringotts account--it took her a while to figure out where it was coming from when they first started sending her statements--which she mostly forwards on to Harry by way of rent.

Harry says, "It's not as if you actually sleep here anyway."

She doesn't, but she likes having her own space. She likes leaving Severus' to him.

She's still not wholly adept at managing her magic by the time September 1st rolls around. Nonetheless, she Apparates with relative ease alongside Draco to a spot outside Hogwarts' wards. She can feel her magic wanting to push her further. One of these days she thinks she might let it take her where it will--when she's more certain of her ability to return.

The skin around Draco's eyes is tight and faintly shadowed. She asks, "Trouble sleeping last night?"

"Harry's bollocks at comforting a person."

"He tries."

Draco sniffs, somehow managing to make it a sound of disdain and affection all at once. Hermione bumps into him slightly and he's thrown an inch or so off course. He rolls his eyes at the childish gesture, but there's something else in his expression, something that Hermione thinks might be pride. She wonders if the emotion is meant for her, and her ability to control her fear, or for him, the knowledge that he has won her over enough to merit casual touch. Then again, she could be reading the expression wrong entirely.

Their first class is Potions, so once they've reached the castle they make their way down into the dungeons. Next to her, Draco unwinds a bit, comforted by the familiar. There are children everywhere and even aware that she has only been away a year, that she is not that much older than several of them, they seem small in Hermione's eyes.

A few of the children bump into her in their hurry to get to class and Hermione bites at the inside of her cheek and breathes and lets the potion help her not to harm anyone. She can't Apparate within these walls. All the same, she does not want to find out what her magic would choose as an acceptable alternative.

Draco says, "Almost there," and his voice is as centering as anything is going to be.

They pick a desk up front, one that all the other students will work to avoid as it is too front and center. This has the benefit of meaning the students will most likely avoid them, as well.

Professor Slughorn is cheery in his greeting--too cheery, a sort of heavy cheer that clamors in Hermione's ear. He is unsure of what to do with them, she can tell, particularly the two of them as a pair. Draco he could ignore as toxic and Hermione he could ingratiate himself with as one of Harry Potter's Nearests and Dearests--if only he knew--but the two of them together present a conundrum.

He is mincing and only vaguely helpful, seeming to hope to hedge his bets. As it turns out, his behavior isn't that bad a prediction of the more silent reactions of the student body.

It is all made worth it, however, by the way Draco and she are able to puzzle out a new arithmantical concept together, or see the more complex workings of the astronomy charts that they were never before taught insights into. It is all made worth it by the Headmistress walking them to the gates and saying, somewhere amidst the pleasantries being exchanged, "It is honorable, this task you've chosen. Returning."

It is all made worth it by the look on Draco's face when he hears her say it.

It is certainly all made worth it when she comes home to find Severus waiting there, pointedly not responding to any of Harry's attempts to make conversation. He nods at her and asks, "You found it achievable, then?"

Draco says, "She was brilliant," sounding rather defensive. Severus looks at him with one eyebrow nearly at his hairline and Draco shrugs, ducking off to see what Harry has brought them for dinner. Hermione knows from the smells that if nothing else it involves cinnamon and nutmeg. She hopes it's butternut squash soup. The walk to the gate has her a bit chilled and that is one of her favorites this time of year. She can't remember if Harry knows that or not.

Harry pushes Draco out of the room, ostensibly to get him seated, but Hermione knows he will watch Draco carefully, make sure he has come to no harm, physical or otherwise. It would be offensive were it anyone other than Harry. In his case, Hermione knows he simply can't help himself.

Severus fixes his gaze on her and by way of answering all his unasked questions she says, "I didn't turn any of the children into lemurs. Not one."

"That leaves a fair amount of territory open, would you not say?"

"I have been studying the skill of leading comments. Learning by observation."

"You have," he says dryly.

"On the sly." She nods, her eyes unassuming.

He asks, quietly, "Did they do anything that would have merited life as a lemur?"

"No," she says, equally quiet.

"Not even to him?"

"No. I wouldn't have-- No."

He reaches out slightly, not much, and she realizes that he isn't sure whether she wants him to touch her or not. She doesn't even have to think about moving toward him, it's like her magic, elemental, unpredictable, imperfect and yet so, so strong. Her lips touch his and she says, "I'm glad you came over."

"I thought you might come over later. I wasn't sure." Then, still somewhat unbalanced sounding, "Potter let me in."

"Harry knows me pretty well."

He makes a discontented noise, but it's not jealousy--at least not the type of jealousy where he wonders how true she is to him. He is jealous of their friendship, she knows, in a vague, human sort of way. He is not jealous enough--or cruel enough--to try and take it from her. She says, "Achillea will always know things about you, always recognize parts of you that will forever be foreign to me."

"She's my sister."

"Harry's my brother."

"But you were pleased to see me."

Hermione hears the falter in "pleased" even though it is not in his voice. Sometimes it is like that now, particularly with him, with Harry, the emotion sliding over her mind. She kisses him. "Beyond the telling."

"Dinner is waiting."

The scents wafting in from the other room are as strong as before, and Hermione is almost certain that comfort food awaits her on the other side of that door. She is hungry. She leans in for another kiss. "We'll be there in a moment."


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