Disclaimer: It all belongs to JKR and yes, I shall proclaim it every chapter.
AN: A debt of thanks to Ariadne. As always, she is Super Beta. The buttons are for you. ;-)
"Take it, Severus," Poppy said sternly. If Minerva would only turn a blind eye - just once - I could do this with a simple flick of my wand.
"I quite clearly said 'no' and I don't care for your tone, Madam," he said, matching her tone.
Poppy stood, clearly agitated, "For Merlin's sake, Severus, I need to sew that up. You are not new to this procedure, and I am hardly going to do it while you are conscious! Now, stop acting like such a child. I have first years who come here with more bravery than you."
"You believe me frightened? Of what?" he said calmly.
Poppy pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.
"Severus, why must you be so difficult?"
"Poppy, you know the day I stop being difficult will be the day you will think me either dying or insane."
Setting her hands on her hips, Poppy smirked as she heard Hermione enter the wing. She kept her glare on him as she said loudly, "Hermione, dear, we have a problem with our patient."
"Oh?" Hermione said as she made her way over.
"Don't you dare," he warned, narrowing his eyes.
Poppy only smiled more, enjoying the startled look on his face. "You should have thought of that before, m'dear," she whispered, grinning down at him.
"You take pleasure in making me as uncomfortable as humanly possible - don't you?" he said in a low voice, his eyes moving from Poppy's grinning face to Hermione's inevitable arrival at his bedside.
Leaning down, Poppy glared at him, and said in a hushed voice, "If you are so self-centered as to believe that my world centers around making you uncomfortable, then by all means believe it to be so. Otherwise, just take the potion so we may both get on with our lives, you miserable, childish, - ah, Miss Granger, good evening."
"Good evening, Madam Pomfrey," Hermione said, noticing the argument in the air. With a suspicious look, she set down some books she had brought for Severus to read while in the hospital wing.
"Severus was just about to take this potion to render him unconscious so I can stitch up his body - yet again," Poppy said, turning to look at her miserable patient.
Severus glared at her.
"Isn't that so, Severus?" Poppy said sweetly, holding the flask out towards him.
After Severus remained silent for a moment, Poppy turned to Hermione and asked, "Maybe you can assist?"
"No," Severus said quickly.
As the two witches smiled knowingly at him, he muttered in defeat, "No, I'll take it."
As Poppy handed it to him and turned to leave, he said after her, "You're evil."
"I learn from the best," she said, waving her hand at him. "I shall be back in ten minutes to patch you up."
Hermione sat on the side of his bed, watching him as he drank the potion. Looking at the gash across his chest she said with a strained look, "Quite impressive. My hugging you must have hurt quite a lot."
"Not enough to make it not worth my while," he said, hating the potion's taste.
"How long until it takes effect?" she asked while inspecting his hair.
"About six minutes."
"Hmm, you smell like firewood," Hermione said slowly, moving her face into his hair.
Severus grinned, remembering the mansion as it burned, "Yes, it's a pity mahogany isn't burned more often since it has such a pleasing aroma. Instead, it is used for frivolous things such as expensive tables and chairs."
Hermione could see a faraway look in his eye as the potion started to take effect.
He didn't answer, but did look up at her. She thought that he looked as though the weight he usually carried around with him had been lifted for those few minutes.
Hermione shook her head sadly. "Tell me why you resist pain potions," she asked, hoping the drug would prompt him to open up.
After a while, she didn't think he would respond. She brushed a stray hair way from his face, trailing her fingers along the angle of his jaw. Her other hand unbuttoned his shirt, ignoring how it stuck to the wound. His breathing alternated between a deep and calm rhythm and soft intakes when she pulled the fabric away. He was fighting the potion's effects, she could tell, refusing to allow sleep to come.
When she looked back at him his eyes were watching her; that same intelligence was there, but fading.
He moved his eyes slowly - closing them for a time - then said clearly, almost startling her, "Pain is a poor, but singular remedy for regret."
Nodding sadly, she whispered, "I'll be here when you wake up. Go to sleep."
She ran her fingers through his hair while he seemed to sink deeper. He nodded slightly and closed his eyes.
"You did well, Severus. We appreciate all you do, you must know that," she whispered as she felt him relax against her.
"Looking peaceful as ever. Perfect," Poppy said, smiling as she approached Severus' bedside with her supplies.
"Hermione, could you go in the storeroom and fetch some of my special healing balm? It's in a box up top," Poppy said, tilting her head as she examined the extensive gash across Severus' chest.
"Sure," she said distractedly, feeling woozy at the variety of needles and magical thread Madam Pomfrey had with her. Remembering that Severus was willing to have this done while awake made her think him either insane or exceedingly stubborn, or both. Then again, removing the Mark was certainly no picnic.
"Ah, how's our patient?" Minerva said as she entered the wing and made her way over.
"Unconscious," Poppy said happily.
"Splendid. And the wounds?"
"Will be fine in a few days. Just a flesh cut. He doesn't have much in that department though. He's either very lucky or very skilled. His back is not terribly bad either. The arm will be fine, as well. Looks like a rather nasty piece of glass was lodged in there," Poppy said as she worked.
"I worry less about his body than his mind. This is a lot for someone to take on in such a short time. Albus' death was a mere month ago," Minerva said thoughtfully. She felt a twinge of sorrow then, thinking how absurd it felt to be taking care of the man who had murdered someone so close to her.
Poppy began to stitch, jerking the thread tight each time. "Ah, Minerva. I have seen him in much worse shape. Times when I thought he would be permanently broken at such a young age. Even his magic suffered, although he made me swear to never tell at the time. Lately, though, he has recovered quite nicely. One should take longer, not shorter amounts of time to heal with age."
Poppy paused, checking her progress. She nodded, selected a larger needle, waved her wand to thread it and set back to work.
"Little is known about how love affects one's magic and strength. I do believe that it is the difference we are seeing here," Minerva said, trying to look anywhere but at what Poppy was doing.
"The difference is he now has someone to live for," Poppy said, frowning in concentration.
Minerva nodded, offering a sad smile. "That he does; however, he must be terrified. He is no longer in control."
Poppy stood up, admiring her work.
"You know, he's not half bad looking... while asleep," Poppy said jokingly.
Minerva laughed, "Poppy!"
"Oh, you know every woman has a soft spot for the dark hero with the rugged good looks," Poppy said as she waved her wand, enchanting the stitches to bind tighter and then close, leaving a neat stitch line.
"I think we can be sure Miss Granger is more interested in his mind," Minerva said confidently, allowing a smirk.
Poppy looked to where Hermione had emerged from the storeroom, "Of course. She's obviously looked past the mess of scars on the man."
"Indeed," Minerva agreed, looking at the maze of scars crossing his upper body. So young to have so many.
"Ah, Hermione, thank you," Poppy said, taking the balm and spreading it over the stitches. "Finished. Now make sure the man rests tonight?" she said, and glancing doubtfully at Severus, added, "At least a little, no one expects a miracle of you."
"Yes, I will," Hermione said with a smile as Minerva and Poppy rose to leave.
Hermione sat back in her chair and watched him sleep as the sun set on one of the most emotional days she'd endured since Dumbledore's death. The colors drained out of the air, settling towards cool grays and blues before moving towards a charcoal the torches could not reach. Letting her mind wander, she held his hand, examining where his Mark once lain. A faint scar outlined where it had burned over time.
"Hey, Hermione," Ginny said, coming in to sit next to her. "How is he?"
"He'll be fine. Just knocked out for now," Hermione said, putting his hand down.
"He looks better when he's not trying to be all angry and bitter," Ginny said laughingly, pushing Hermione a little. "Not very intimidating without a shirt - is he?"
Smiling, Hermione said, "Yes, he does, and no, he'd kill you if you saw."
"You love him?" Ginny asked.
Hermione stilled for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I do."
Ginny shrugged. "To each his own."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Well... is he - at least good?" Ginny asked, elbowing her.
"Good at what? Oh, Ginny!" Hermione said in shock
"Just a question," Ginny laughed, holding up her hands. "Should I assume, then, you haven't-"
"Ginny!" Hermione knew she was blushing - had to be.
"If you are both quite finished staring at me."
Both Ginny and Hermione were startled to find Severus not only awake, but in the process of angrily pulling a sheet over his chest.
"Severus! Must you do that?" Hermione said, clutching her chest. Ginny looked severely pale.
"Do what? Be conscious?" he said, scowling at the two of them. "Please accept my sincere apology for the disappointment."
"Severus, don't you think you should rest before dealing with Narcissa and Draco?" Hermione said hating a little that his leg had gotten better.
"The man's stride when on a mission to get somewhere is outrageous," she thought, trying to keep up.
"I think our guests deserve a proper welcome. Besides, I have business to discuss," he said without slowing.
"Could you at least slow down a little?" she asked irritably.
He stopped abruptly in front of a door, forcing her to almost run into him. "Why must I slow down? Why don't you speed up?"
"Severus," she said, trying to hold her frustration,"why must you be so difficult?"
"Forgive me," he said, placing a hand over his heart in apology, "I've seem to have had a trying day. Revenge is a tiring business."
A smirk spread on Hermione's face as she crossed her arms. "Now you're mocking me."
"I must keep up an equal system of torment for everyone," he murmured, his voice lowering, darkening.
"Oh really now? Am I no different?" she whispered, reaching out to hold him somehow without touching some sort of healing injury. Drawing her hand down the front of his frock coat, sliding a finger around each button methodically, tracing its circumference, an intertwining pattern, enough to feel friction, her other hand on his shoulder, moving higher and around his neck.
He leaned back against the door, ignoring how the wood groaned in protest. The scratching sound of his wool coat against the rough texture, catching, tearing loose to slide a distance. Stopping again. The feel of her hands on his hips, holding him there as she looked at him, a wildly intelligent, yet playful look in her eyes.
"It's only fair, I must keep my reputation," he said, bending to lightly breathe on her neck before whispering, "You must understand, I have standards to keep."
"I see, but you torment everyone, Severus," she gasped, trying to keep her breath. Her heart beat wildly, surging forward, rising to a trembling level before climbing even higher with his every breath. Severus moved to drag his teeth on the back of her neck, driving her to press both of her hands against door on either side of him, feeling the deep wood grain under her hands - hard, unforgiving, timeless - offering strength. When his hands trailed down her sides slowly to rest at her hips, pulling her to lean against him, her nails dug into the grooves, dragging downward, tearing splinters out, leaving marks.
"I only torment you with the utmost intentions of pure adoration in mind, an overwhelming need to worship, if you will, compulsive to an obsessive fault," he breathed, touching his mouth to her neck, barely, receding, a terrible grin, a skirmish in the war won.
One of her hands had found its way into his hair. She was kissing around his throat now, nudging his chin upwards.
"Yes, I'm a man of high standards, you see. Anything I do, no matter how small, I approach with the highest regard for quality," he said before moving to kiss her deeply, holding her close as best he could. Every movement caused some injury to complain. It only made sense to him to anger them all in the name of being closer to her.
"Oh?" she breathed. They both looked down to where she had his frock coat twisted in her fist.
"You seem to be fond of this - yes?" he said in a dark voice as he reached up and covered her hand with his. His hand tightening over hers.
Her eyes widened and she allowed him to remove her hand. He stared into her eyes as he raised her hand to his lips.
"I think you are fond of it - of this - the exhilaration, perhaps? It is possible; I see it there in the shadows, unspoken, but known... "
"Yes, considering, wondering... anticipating," he murmured, then took a ragged breath before continuing to whisper directly in her ear, "Of course, as with any performance, it must be well thought out; however, it must seem to be completely impulsive, bordering on primal, if you will. Every possible detail, every movement, no matter how slight; every word, every touch of emotion, no matter how minuscule, all must be accounted for and attended to with the utmost intensity of pure perfection. All of the senses must be taken into consideration. The absolute peak of satisfaction must be reached in a fashion that obliterates all thought of the outside world, each ingredient working together in complete harmony, rushing higher and higher until all that is known crashes over the edge of reason, leaving in its wake nothing except absolute, unadulterated and exquisite bliss."
He kissed her gently, lingering just inches from her lips and said looking deep into her eyes, "You see... nothing less will do."
Hermione felt as though it was plainly visible just how hard her heart was beating. Finally finding enough breath to form words, she said with a knowing smile, "We're no longer talking about your mocking me, are we?"
Severus' eyes held a strange glint as he grinned, "Bravo, you are quite observant. To answer Miss Weasley's question: I am damn good."
Hermione gasped loudly at the realization that he had heard. Before she could say anything, Severus turned and pushed open the door.
They were met by the sight of Tonks and Remus in a passionate embrace on the couch.
"Well now, let us hope that our guests aren't missing in the wake of your most attentive guarding talents," Severus said smugly, watching as a blushing Tonks shot him a look.
"Never mind if they had opened the door they've been met with the same scene," Hermione thought, rolling her eyes at him.
"Come now, Severus. They hardly have anywhere to go. They're in the bedroom there, safe as can be," Remus said, embarrassed, smoothing out his robes.
"Indeed," Severus muttered, striding past Remus to the bedroom door and throwing it open.
Narcissa sat by the window, appearing even more drawn and worn than when Severus had seen her earlier that day. If he hadn't known better, he'd have said she'd been cursed to age at some accelerated rate. Across the room, he saw Draco sitting on the bed with his hood still drawn over his head, hiding his face. That was agreeable to Severus, as even he couldn't easily manage looking into such a hideous mass. Some part of him wondered if the affliction was physical or magical in nature.
Narcissa merely slid her eyes in his direction and asked, without emotion, "You have survived, I see."
"Yes. Shall I add you to the list of those disappointed by my quite irritating talent at survival? I've often been compared to cockroaches."
Narcissa's lip curled slightly in response to his sarcasm. "And my sister?"
"Dead," he said flatly. A small noise came from Draco, but he said nothing.
Hermione stood, watching the exchange. The amount of angst in the room made the air heavy with strained conversation usually reserved for speaking of loss or evil.
"And the mansion?" she asked, looking at him angrily.
"Deceased as well," he said, willing himself to neither look pleased nor prideful at the destruction of the Malfoy mansion.
Looking down at her hands, Narcissa said, "Never cared for that house anyway. It's not as if Draco and I could stay there now..."
"Now that you've earned the illustrious title of traitor to Voldemort?" he said, ignoring the pain and fear it caused those who still wore the Dark Mark. His subconscious mind felt privileged to no longer be part of that group.
"I should kill you for leading me into such a trap, Narcissa," he said, lowering his voice.
Remus made a slight move as if he would intervene, then seemed to think better of it.
Her eyes met his quickly. Part of Hermione felt strange at the sight of someone looking fearful of Severus.
Draco turned towards them, but still held his silence.
"I had no idea, Severus, I swear it. It must have been Lucius," Narcissa said in a regretful tone. Her arrogance faded when faced with him, unarmed and at his mercy.
"Your own husband, Narcissa? What a fine taste in men you have," he sneered. "In fact, your entire family tree seems to be lacking some portion of the brain that controls both moral aptitude and independent thought."
"Oh, excepting you, of course," Severus said, smiling innocently at Tonks as she stood in the doorway.
Severus enjoyed the way Narcissa's jaw worked as she bit back whatever sharp comment was on her tongue.
"Placing that aside, let's get to our business," Severus said, crossing his arms and staring down at her.
Her eyes grew suspicious, "Severus, we've delivered you two Horcruxes. Surely that is worth-"
"Do you think for one instant that what happened today won't cost you? DO YOU?" he yelled, tearing open his coat and shirt. A long, jagged, rambling line of stitches ran directly across his heart. "I stood in front of you both and earned this! It would have killed you, Narcissa, do you realize that?"
Narcissa flinched, but held her ground, choosing to look away.
The room was silent as Severus glared at her, willing her to speak back to him. When she did not, he stated, as he repaired his coat, "No. You are far from repaying your debt to me. Your usefulness has only begun."
His tone aroused Narcissa's suspicion. She looked at him with an expression that spoke of both sadness and defiance.
"What are you suggesting?" Narcissa asked with an air of reluctance. The hatred had not left her eyes.
"Your dear, departed sister shared with me that another Horcrux is hidden in the Riddle house. The problem is that that is currently the place where Voldemort is holding council, am I correct?" he said, studying her face.
"Yes, at least part of the time. Wormtail, however, has taken up residence in your home," Narcissa said, settling into a mode of information sharing.
"He has?" Severus said with increasing interest. He fell silent as he paced the room, thinking. Arriving back in front of Narcissa, he looked at her appraisingly.
A grin born of evil intentions spread across his face as he asked, "Narcissa, how accomplished are you at the Imperius Curse?"
Narcissa tilted her head up, met his eyes, and said, with pride, "Very."