Disclaimer: Still belongs to JKR. Yes, no end in sight on that front.
AN: As always, a thanks to Ariadne who survived the last scene quite nicely and, in true carnival fashion, has earned a mug with a quote for her "troubles". ;-)
"Severus, keeping secrets from each other is not a good start to a relationship," Hermione said as they walked back to the castle. She noticed that, while she was trying to reassemble her hair into something that did not look like she had rolled around in the grass, Severus looked perfect, except for a single blade of grass stuck under a fingernail. He frowned at it as he held his hand up to the moonlight, either oblivious to or ignoring her curiosity.
Just as she thought he wasn't going to answer, he stopped outside the Entrance Hall doors. "You cannot possibly insist on knowing everything. It can, and will, drive you mad. Ever hear that patience is a virtue?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I have, but why can't you tell me?"
"You will find out in good time, that I assure you, and do not roll your eyes at me," he said, without looking at her, and pulling open one of the doors.
"I did not," she said, mostly to herself.
"Hermione, I was a teacher for most of my adult life. Do you think I don't know when I am being taunted?"
Hermione shot him a look which did nothing to persuade him. He raised one eyebrow in amusement.
Severus looked out over the castle grounds while holding the door, and made a mental note of a light in Hagrid's hut.
Hermione saw him glance that way and asked, "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing. Just admiring the grounds," he said, offering a conciliatory smile. "After you," he said, bowing slightly.
Hermione looked at him suspiciously then slowly passed by into the castle.
"Isn't a touch of mystery romantic?" he said teasingly, closing the doors behind them.
"No, it's not."
"Interesting. It is late and I'm sure you would like to retire for the evening. I won't keep you any longer," he said, and, before she could react, he leaned in, gave her a soft lingering kiss, turned, and began to ascend the stairs two at a time.
Hermione stared at him incredulously and crossed her arms.
"You're also not supposed to go to sleep mad at each other," she called after him.
He turned with a hand on the railing, feeling the edges where the repair work had been done after the duel. He raised an eyebrow as he observed her for a moment.
"Read that in another book, have you?" he asked, knowing she was baiting him, but unable to resist the challenge.
She narrowed her eyes in warning. Even several steps away by dim torchlight, Severus could tell how formidable she could be when a nerve was touched.
"Must you continue to try to translate everything into the academic?" he asked. "How to manage love is not found in books, Hermione. It is not something to be captured, kept and studied."
Hermione smirked slightly in response, and closed the distance to the stairs, countering, "And you are an expert on love?"
He shook his head, mostly to clear his mind of rampant thoughts on how beautiful she was when sparring with him. "No more than you," he replied, and waited.
She only stared at him with a fierce intensity that made him slightly uneasy.
"Now that we are even on the subject, there is nothing more to discuss. It is quite late, and I need to sleep."
"Oh, please forgive me then, the master needs his sleep," she said tauntingly.
Severus swiftly closed the distance between them, took hold of her arm, and pulled her to him. He held up her arm, pressed it to his chest, and murmured, "Quite all right. I'm not angry with you."
"I'm not going to give up, Severus," she said, telling herself that it was not the best strategy to be drawing closer to kiss someone whilst trying to intimidate them.
A soft snort in amusement. "I expect nothing less of you; however, sometimes trust is all we have," he said, maneuvering her against the staircase railing. He raised his eyes to hers for a fleeting moment before whispering against her throat, "Isn't it?"
Hermione could only drop her head back and concentrate on breathing in - then out, trying to ignore how he was winning through seduction. She watched the staircases change randomly above them as he was seemingly considering exactly where on her neck was the most sensitive place to kiss. She almost cursed her own hand as she watched it ache to touch his hair.
Severus raised his head, saw her quickly drop her hand, and grinned.
"Good night, Hermione," he said clearly, as if the matter was closed, turned, and continued up the stairs.
By moonlight, the dismal looking mansion was barely visible, standing alone on the poorly kept grounds. The weeds had run rampant, snarling around any proper plants and shrubs, moving in with a ferocious appetite in the absence of a grounds keeper. While the house appeared deserted, it exuded a presence of a pure evil - devoid of any redeeming value. No family would ever live there, and none would ever know happiness within its walls. Shadows moved past some of the windows, and from time to time a flash appeared in the windows, giving the impression that lightning's wrath itself was trapped inside.
A thin blanket of mist slid across the grounds, flowing in an undulating motion, seeming to have a life of its own. The only sound was of crows cawing as they fought over ownership of a particular perch, throwing their wings forward as they lunged at an offending intruder.
A hunched figure popped into existence and peered around carefully, bringing his hands up to his face. He smoothed his thin hair and straightened his tattered jacket before moving in a lumbering gait towards the house.
The wooden staircase cracked loudly as he made his way up, grasping onto a handrail held in the wall only by a few failing screws. The paneling, which once shone with the rich glow only fine mahogany can achieve, was now mottled with neglect, dust covering any horizontal surface. Arriving in the room at the top of the stairs, he immediately threw himself into a low crouch before a large armchair.
"Master..." Wormtail whimpered, bowing low.
A long arm reached out from its resting place in a chair, hovered for a moment, then clasped its thin fingers around a goblet. Barely acknowledging Wormtail's presence, Voldemort muttered irritably, "Speak."
"My lord, the house is ready."
A silence filled with suspicion. "Seems too soon, Wormtail; are you certain?"
"Yes, my lord," he said quickly. "The wards are up and the Disillusionment charm is in place."
Voldemort was silent for a painful stretch of time. He studied Wormtail's face before apparently pushing a thought from his mind. "Very well, we shall make preparations to move."
"My lord, the Horcrux, it requires security. It would give me great pleasure to guard it for you," Wormtail groveled, practically touching the extremely filthy floor with his nose. The heavy smell of old musty carpet and rotting wood filled the air. An uncontrollable urge to guard the Horcrux drove him, but he could not explain why.
"I do not trust your abilities, Wormtail," Voldemort sniffed, replacing the goblet on the side table. "No, I will grant you the pleasure of guarding it, but you will not be alone."
Wormtail looked up at the Dark Lord.
"While you were off playing with the traitor's house, my faithful servants have broken out of Azkaban and are now pleased to rejoin us," Voldemort declared, holding a hand out as if welcoming guests to a civilized tea.
Wormtail cringed at the sight of several half-starved Death Eaters as they entered the room and slowly circled around him. Their wild eyes told a story of their depraved minds. Given the chance, anyone who had thought them violent before would be very sorry to discover the height of their derangement now. The circle closed, Wormtail still on his knees in the center, Voldemort in his chair at the head.
"My servants, as I should barely call you," he said with disgust. "If you think for one moment I do not remember the failure that landed you in Azkaban, you are sadly mistaken."
As he rose from his chair, a barely perceptible flinch passed through every figure in the circle. "Complete failure, all of you."
Voldemort walked slowly around the circle, pausing just slightly before each figure before sneering and moving along. He stopped and gazed appraisingly at one in silence before moving to stand before the chair.
"Some have taken the gift of freedom but not returned to my service," he announced. "No matter. They will certainly die or be recaptured. There is no place for them in this world."
"Wormtail here," he said to them all, gesturing towards the quivering mass on the floor before him, "has successfully prepared the traitor's house for our new headquarters. It is a pity that my most valuable servant is such a wretched thing as this," he said, looking down in disgust. "Who only serves me out of fear of his destruction."
"My lord, I am at your mercy, I will do whatever you wish-"
"Oh, that you will." Voldemort narrowed his eyes at Wormtail once more, then said to the circle, "We move tonight. Three of you will remain here to guard my possession."
Voldemort turned and took his seat once more. "Macnair, Goyle, you will guard the chest in the basement. Leave it for even a moment, and have no doubt that you will lose your life in the most horrific way possible. You will beg me for the lightness of the Cruciatus if I lose this. Go. NOW."
Without a sound, they both bowed and left the circle. "Wormtail, you will make final preparations at the traitor's house and await us there. Once we are settled, you may join the others to assist them while they stand guard."
"Thank you, my lord," Wormtail gasped appreciatively, moving in an exaggerated bow that only irritated Voldemort further. Even though he knew that “assisting” meant keeping them well stocked with food and drink, a part of his mind felt some goal had been achieved.
When the room had cleared with the exception of one, Voldemort dug his nails into the upholstery of the chair, enjoying the sounds as he tore through what had once been a fine piece of furniture.
Running a long finger across his chin, Voldemort spoke. "You have nerve, returning to me - in disgrace."
"My lord, I have been most faithful-"
"SILENCE!" he roared, his voice echoing off the empty walls and down countless deserted corridors. The chair groaned as he slowly leaned back again. "You have been a failure to me. Nothing more."
Voldemort waited, daring him to speak.
"In fact-" Voldemort said angrily, "Your entire family is a great disappointment to me. Have you no saving grace?"
Gazing in mock contemplation of the ceiling, Voldemort shook his head, saying, "I shall grant you the answer to that. No."
Silence greeted his statement. Voldemort continued, clasping his hands together and giving the impression he was considering his fate, "I should kill you for your failures. As it stands now, I can no longer trust you within my inner circle to plan our assault. You will remain here and help guard this Horcrux. Consider your punishment delayed. The worst thing is to have impending torture hanging over you."
Voldemort smiled; an expression that would strike mortal terror in any soul. It warned of his future amusement at the consequences of what he was about to say.
"Know this, Lucius: I do not forget."
"Yes, my lord."
With a slightly amused tone, Voldemort gestured around the decrepit room. "Staying here is a gift of mine to you. Considering that through your own stupidity you are now homeless."
Before Lucius could push himself to his feet, Voldemort said thoughtfully, "One more thing."
At Lucius' questioning expression, Voldemort stepped forward and repeated, narrowing his eyes, "Follow him."
Details of the Order meeting the following morning washed over Hermione, as she could think of little other than what Severus was keeping from her. Why am I so obsessed? It's just driving me crazy to not know what he's doing. She had cornered Hagrid before the meeting, asking him what Severus was up to, and he had refused to tell, moving sideways and quickly slipping away to chat with Molly. She remembered hearing something about Harry's training continuing with Remus and Alastor while Severus' chest wound healed. Something else passed by about Harry and Remus researching their theories on the final Horcrux being an artifact of Godric Gryffindor. Even Narcissa standing and recounting her orders to Wormtail while under her Imperius Curse flowed over her in a haze. Hermione's mind was working overtime, recounting everything he could possibly be hiding. She knew that overworking a problem could leave one open to missing the obvious solution, but she just didn't see it...
Several times during the meeting, she found herself openly staring at Severus, which she could tell made him uncomfortable. Only she could pick up the slight flicker of his eyes towards her. She was brought out of her thoughts by McGonagall's next announcement.
"There has been a breakout at Azkaban and several Death Eaters have escaped. We fear the prison is fallen into Voldemort's hands," Minerva said nervously. "Lucius Malfoy is one of them."
Everyone turned towards where Narcissa and Draco stood in the back of the office. Narcissa looked visibly paler, and her eyes immediately went to Severus, who nodded slightly. Draco's face held an expression that was almost murderous.
When the meeting adjourned, Severus swept out the door without as much as a backward glance.
Watching as he left, Hermione turned to Harry and Ginny. "I have no idea what that man is up to."
"What do you mean?" Ginny asked, leaning towards Hermione.
Hermione recounted what he had said and how he was acting, conveniently leaving out the romantic parts.
Ginny looked at Harry. "What do you think he'd be up to?"
"Who'd be up to what?" Ron said, sitting down next to them with a biscuit.
"Severus," Ginny and Hermione said almost simultaneously.
"The git has been hiding something from her," Harry said, rolling his eyes and gesturing at Hermione.
"Oh, that's simple," Ron said through a mouthful of another cake. "He's up to no good, that one."
"Ron!" Hermione gasped.
"Really, Ron, could you stop eating for just three seconds?" Ginny complained.
"What does he say when you ask?" Harry asked, throwing a look at Ron.
Hermione sighed, and said, "Just that he can't tell me and I'd find out in due time - whatever that means."
"Then it's a secret," Ron stated.
"Oh, well done, Ron," Hermione said angrily, and stood to leave. "I'm going to follow him."
Watching Hermione leave, Ginny touched Harry's hand and asked quietly, "What do you think?"
"I don't know, but Snape had better watch his back if he thinks he's going to keep her in the dark for long," Harry said with a grin.
Severus left the meeting, intending to head to his lab to work on the item he had procured from Hagrid. He had felt Hermione's stare boring into him throughout the meeting, and he knew she would make some attempt to track him down. With sufficient wards, he could work in peace, under the guise of brewing the Wolfsbane potion for Lupin.
Severus suddenly stopped and grinned. He could hear Hermione breathing as she tried to follow him. Surely she needed to hurry to catch up to him, and was now, quite loudly, out of breath. He had no idea how determined she would be when faced with his denying her the knowledge she sought. He continued walking and turned a corner, a devious grin spreading on his face.
Hermione saw him stop and her heart jumped. She quickly pressed herself against the wall behind a statue of some witch that she should probably remember from a book. Venturing to look again, she could see his robes fly out as he turned the corner. As quietly as possible, she went to the corner and peered around slowly, only to find he was gone.
"I swear, he is a bat," she said aloud, disappointed.
She only took a few steps before she was grabbed from behind and, in one motion, spun and shoved against the cold wall, finding herself staring directly into Severus' eyes.
He dropped his gaze as he took each of her hands in his. "I am many things, Hermione. A bat is not one of them."
"Oh really-" she gasped, trying to catch her breath.
"Yes. One of which is spy. Do you think for an instant I cannot hear you breathing a mile away?" he said pridefully.
"Fine. So you caught me, what are you going to do about it?"
"Well, as I can no longer take points, I shall need to think this over," he said thoughtfully. He clasped her hands almost painfully tightly, and raised them, slowly, out, dragging along the texture of the stone, repositioning them above her head. Slowly, he leaned forward, making sure to push very slightly against her hips.
"I am mad at you, Severus Snape," she said, doing her best to give him a proper glare.
"I find that interesting, since I could use you instead of a fire on a cold winter night at the moment. If this is anger, I am extremely anxious to discover what love is like," he said studying her face with a smirk.
Hermione's eyes widened. "You're horrible. You do know that, don't you?"
"I've been informed of the same, yes. Yet... " he said, tilting his head in thought, "you somehow keep coming back."
Hermione grinned and glanced up to where he held her hands.
He followed her line of sight. "You are driven insane by this aren't you?" he said, shifting his hands in hers, lowering them.
"You have nothing to keep from me."
"I beg to differ," he said sternly, releasing her hands and stepping away from her. "It is very important that you do not know what I am doing until the proper time."
"Fine," she said, then suddenly took hold of his coat, drawing him into a kiss that was so passionate that he couldn't resist.
Lowering his voice, he murmured, "Was that an attempt at seduction?"
"No, well not exactly..." she mumbled, taking an involuntary step backwards as he moved towards her. She found herself literally cornered, with him looming just inches from her face.
"Shall I grant you knowledge of what true seduction is?" he said slowly, moving to breathe along her neck. He had her trapped, but did not touch her, his hands against the stone wall on either side of her.
It was as if her heart stopped. She needed to swallow a few times before her voice returned. "Maybe," she rasped.
"Excellent," he said softly. "The art of seduction is extremely complex. In order to perform it correctly, the dominant party - that would be myself - must convince the unwilling party - that would be you - to participate. For purely demonstrative purposes, of course..."
All traces of amusement left his face as he moved even closer, but still made no contact. "It is the hint of the touch that is much more alluring. The slight promise, the anticipation, or the threat that a touch may indeed be granted. See, Hermione, your mind may still be against me, angry because I will not divulge my secret, but there is something else happening here."
Pausing for a moment, he looked down and brought his lips so close she could feel his measured breathing mixing with hers. "Yes, something interesting occurs at this moment. The body cannot hope to resist as behind the mind's protests true desire lives. The kind of desire that is always there, flickering just under the surface. It is the fire that humans for centuries have worked diligently to deny and vilify. The mind may rail against the body's desire, but, in fact, resistance only drives it forward."
Severus moved to speak directly in her ear, enjoying how whenever she did breathe, it was forced and shuddered, "Eventually, you will find yourself forgetting to even draw breath as mind and body collapse into one. Your baser needs battle against rational thought, throwing it aside in the hopes that this thing, this emotion, this one moment in time when all that is wanted is that one touch be completed. In a world where sensuous contact is so freely given, there are still those who believe that it is far more desirable to only offer it up as the reward of a dance of wills, of tearing down the thin wall of resistance, of submitting to the elements of what makes us all human. For that is the beauty of seduction, to make the ordinary into something so powerful that you would cry out for it with every ounce of your being. For your partner to grant you that wish only after it has become something of such value, something you would practically give your life to experience just once."
"Some say seduction is about drawing someone reluctantly into the act. I tend to disagree," he murmured, feeling the heat rolling off of her. Moving closer, he barely touched his lips to her ear before saying, "I am of the opinion that it is the true art of persuasion. That in the end, the victim, if you will, comes willingly, almost begging to be taken."
He was silent for a moment, taking in the sweet smell of her hair. Turning his head just slightly, he whispered, "Breathe, Hermione."
He held her eyes as he said, "You may attempt to seduce me all you wish. It won't, however, force me to tell you. Not yet."
Standing back from her, Severus said evenly, "Do not follow me. You will find out what I am doing in due time."
He then turned and strode off, a slow grin spreading on his face, leaving Hermione leaning against the wall, clutching the stone wall behind her to keep steady.
Without it, she would surely fall.