In this chapter: As the risk to the underground grows, Hermione must again consider spying on Snape. Snape, meanwhile, wonders how much power he has over Hermione, and how he wishes to use it.
**The Bloody Stare of Mars
"I shouldn't even be here," Hermione repeated for the tenth or eleventh time.
The dozen or so people seated around her in the cellar paid this no mind. Ever since her first words about the locator spell, and the likelihood that Severus Snape would succeed in enhancing it the group had been abuzz with its own slightly manic energy.
"We don't want to stop him," one man insisted, thumping the low wooden bench for emphasis. "We want him to succeed! Then we steal it from him and we use it to find Azkaban. That's all that stands between us and a rescue mission, you know "
"Not a lack of weapons?" Hermione said tiredly. "Nor the fact that the Dementors are again in residence there?"
She might have added that, even if the group did succeed, they would find Neville half-mad at best. However, Hermione refrained because it seemed too harsh and depressing assuming they paid any attention her, and if they did not, saying it would be pointless anyway.
"It's too risky," Luna Lovegood said. Her blonde hair was piled up in a ponytail high on her head, making her look almost as young as she had at Hogwarts. And yet, for once, she appeared to be making sense. "If it exists for our use, it exists for You-Know-Who's use."
Many others around the room nodded, surprising Hermione. Funny all this time, she'd assumed that Luna's group could only be comprised of crackpots and dilettantes, people as disconnected from reality as Luna so often was herself.
But now that she'd finally made contact with them three weeks after she'd learned the truth of the locator spell, agonizing weeks she'd spent pacing the floor, counting each minute, waiting for any potential suspicion to clear Hermione was changing her opinion. Although a few had the wild-eyed glaze of zealotry, most seemed ordinary enough. They were eager, perhaps even a bit reckless; then again, who wasn't desperate, these days? After nearly two months of working for Severus Snape, Hermione knew she was in no position to judge.
Even Luna had a measure of calm about her. She still wore her strange costumes an honest-to-God catsuit this time, as though she'd go rappelling down walls after this. But when given a genuine problem to tackle, a real issue instead of mere gossip, she seemed able to focus. "Hermione, is it possible for you to sabotage the creation of the potion?"
"I can slow our progress," Hermione said. She'd been considering this question carefully herself. "I've already done so, at least slightly. But I can't hold Snape off forever. The theory behind the potion is sound, and he's smart enough to know it. And if I make stupid mistakes, tipping over cauldrons and the like, he'll become suspicious. He knows that's not the sort of thing I do."
"And if he becomes suspicious, he'll have you killed!" someone in the back said. This was one of the wild-eyed variety.
Hermione managed not to roll her eyes. "Far more likely that he'd fire me," she said. "Or try and use the knowledge against me."
She didn't bother controlling her shiver she didn't think most people in the room were paying attention to her, and if anyone did notice, surely the cellar's chill would explain it. But Luna cocked her head, her ponytail tilting to one side. "What is it? Is there trouble between you and Snape?"
Had Luna asked as a member of the underground, Hermione would have brushed off the question. But she was asking as a friend as the friend she had been, not so terribly long ago. Hermione took a deep breath. "Lately Snape's been acting differently around me. I mean, I think he's become interested in me, you'd say."
Luna made a face. "Snape? Oh, God."
"I don't know how much of it has to do with me, really," Hermione said. Self-consciously, she touched her unruly hair. "It's not as though I'm much of a temptress, these days. I think it's more a matter of control. He knows he has a lot of power over me. Sometimes he's tempted to use that power. That's about the measure of it."
"He hasn't he wouldn't force you, would he?" Luna's eyes were wide.
"No, he's not that sort. That's too brutish for him. Too easy, if you understand me." Hermione paused, collecting her own thoughts. She remembered from class that Snape had a sadistic streak, but she felt certain that it didn't run that deep. His desire for power that was deeper. He wouldn't like the idea of making her doing anything she didn't want to do. He would like the idea of making her want to do it, which wasn't going to happen.
One of the underground members was grinning and shaking his head. "But don't you see? This is the perfect opportunity!" When Hermione stared at him, he began speaking excitedly, gesturing with his broad hands. "All you have to do is play into that. If you were sleeping with him, you'd be a more effective distraction, and he'd think he had you under control, so you could do a lot more to slow down the spell without being suspected "
"How DARE you?" Hermione didn't feel herself becoming angry; she went from calm to outrage in the beat of a heart, felt her hands clenching into fists just as her blood pressure soared, pounding in her temples, flooding her brain. "How have you the NERVE to suggest something like that?"
Someone else sniped, "You know, there IS a war on."
Hermione shot back, "But, somehow, I'm not a whore just yet."
Luna stood up at her side and slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Basil, that's too much to ask. You know it is. Besides, I'm sure Hermione can come up with some other way to interfere with Snape's work. Can't you?"
To hell with Snape. To hell with them all. Hermione shrugged off Luna's arm and went for her cloak. "I'll do my best. You've been warned. Don't contact me again."
"Hermione " Luna began, but there was no point in waiting around for anything more.
"This is the perfect opportunity," Ron had said.
"Oh, I'm just I don't know " Hermione had blushed, holding her robe close around her as they went through the halls of the Burrow, toward Ron's room. They had finished their seventh year and left Hogwarts for good just a few days before.
"Come on! Nobody's home, and nobody's going to be home for hours. D'ya know the next time that's likely to happen? Next century, maybe." He'd had such a broad grin on his face, and his hand had been warm in hers. She could still remember the white cotton T-shirt he was wearing, the feel of her bare feet against the wooden floor as she tiptoed, even though nobody else was home. She could still hear him saying, more gently, "It's not I mean, you do want to, right? If you're not ready "
Ready. She'd been so far past ready, for months and months. Hermione had laughed at him, then tilted her face up for a kiss. "It's perfect. You're perfect."
"Hardly," Ron had said, pulling her into his bedroom.
Hermione blinked back tears as she walked along the London streets, trying to force back the memory. She tried so hard not to think of the past, not any more than she could avoid, but at the moment she was lost in what had been.
They'd lost their virginity together in his room that day, though not without awkwardness and even laughter. Had she ever laughed as hard as she did when Ron had to jump out of bed and take down his Quidditch posters? The players had kept pumping their fists in the air and giving them thumbs-up, which was far more unnerving than encouraging.
But after that after that, it had been hours of perfect quiet, perfect peace. They'd lain together beneath a quilt Molly Weasley had made, and Hermione still remembered the pieces of fabric dancing, making new patterns every few minutes. Flying geese. Wedding rings.
That had been four years ago. Ron died with Harry two years ago.
In those two years, Hermione had been with nobody else, nor did she want to be. She couldn't even imagine wanting anybody but Ron. Her grief wasn't the only factor there; the days when she could have been so open and happy and free when she could have come to know anybody as intimately as she'd known Ron, just as a person, long before they were lovers had passed.
And if she could not imagine taking another lover of her own choice, for her own desires, how could they even suggest that she
Hermione's mind flashed with imagined images: Snape's pale hands on her, his silky voice telling her lies, her own attempts to conceal her true reaction. Was that was she was supposed to have instead of Ron?
Never, Hermione thought. Never. I'll find another way. A better way.
So she walked home through the April rain, wrapping herself deeper in memories of Ron Weasley, and a long morning at the Burrow, and how soft his red hair was in her hands.
Her resolution held for one week until her next visit to Tartrosgate.
Remus looked even worse, which Hermione would have thought impossible. His cheer remained undiminished, however. "You're looking well, Hermione. Don't you agree, Firenze?"
Of the three of them, Firenze appeared the least changed; Hermione supposed it had something to do with being magical that, or the fact that he seemed as unconcerned with events around him as he ever had. "All humans change, Muggle and wizard alike," Firenze said in his deep voice. He stood above Lupin, gazing skyward; her presence interested him only very slightly. "The planets do not change. They tell us far more than tongues ever will."
"Ah. Yes. Well-put." Remus breathed out, then smiled and clapped his hands together. "I meant what I said. You've gained weight, and in this day and age, that's not just a compliment, it's an achievement."
"I suppose I have," Hermione said. "Helps, having three square a day again." No sooner had she spoken the words than she regretted them. Remus was even more painfully thin than before; he looked as though he might break in two, just from the weight of his ragged clothes.
Perhaps her dismay showed in her eyes, because Remus leaned forward, coming very close to the edge of the Phlegathon Barrier. "Careful!" she cried.
"No worries," Remus said. "I'm in no hurry to be sucked down into that thing."
"You know what happens if you just breathe it in, don't you? About losing your voice for nine years?" Hermione protested. The roiling liquid fire of the stream was casting too-brilliant light upon his gaunt face. "And that's the very least that could happen "
"Which of us was the teacher, again?" Remus said, a teasing smile on his face. It dimmed somewhat as he continued, "I doubt I have to worry much about nine years in the future, anyway."
Firenze, apropos of nothing, said, "The stars do not tell us our fates. We tell our own, by what we claim to see there. We behave more truly than we know, when charmed by the presence of Venus, or fixed in the bloody stare of Mars."
"How very true," Hermione said coolly. She did not appreciate the interruption. "Remus, what is it?"
"You know what it means to be in Tartrosgate. You know the odds of my ever leaving here, or even surviving inside much longer."
"Professor I mean, Remus "
Remus cut her off with a gesture. "I'm doing what I can here, and that's more than Voldemort's people would like to think. But, just in case, I thought you ought to know how much this has meant to me, your coming to visit. You remind me that all the good things I remember teaching, and being friends with Harry, and living with Sirius all those things were real. I didn't imagine them. I didn't make them up. Sometimes, here, it feels as though nothing that wonderful could ever have been true." Remus smiled at her sadly. "You tell me that it was. You remind me what I fought for that the battle was worth fighting."
She made it through the rest of the visit as best she could, before stumbling out at the end of the hour with the rest of the visitors. Most of them were in tears by the end, sobbing as they left their loved ones behind for the last time. Hermione, on the other hand, felt strangely calm and sure, apart from it all.
The next morning she rose early and stopped in an expensive apothecary's shop on her way to Snape Manor. It had been years since she'd entered such a place, years more since she'd walked past the healing essentials and into the part of the shop reserved for luxuries. In something like wonder, Hermione stared at the shelves filled with Glowing Powders, dragon-horn combs and ambergris perfumes. Had there ever been a time she'd spent money on such things without a second thought?
"No, no, NO," said a familiar voice. Hermione ducked behind a display of sunglasses; through their color-shifting lenses she could see Pansy Parkinson, blond curls bouncing as she impatiently shoved a canister of powder back at the shopgirl. "I wanted lilac-scented, not lavender-scented."
The shopgirl hurried to fix Pansy's bubble bath. Hermione stared at her in frank curiosity, mixed with a little envy. Pansy's robes were clearly new, cut fuller in the sleeve, narrower in the waist. The brilliant red color looked rather strident to Hermione, but at least it was bright and cheerful, as opposed to her own cheap grays. It caught the eye, and that was precisely what mattered to her now.
Well, she couldn't do anything about that. She'd have to start with smaller measures.
As soon as Pansy had flounced out with her purchases, Hermione went to the counter, a bottle of Sleekeasy's in her hand. The shopgirl seemed relieved to be able to be curt with someone, after Pansy's imperious ordering about. "Eight sickles."
Hermione counted out the precious coins, imagining how much food each would buy. Seduction was more expensive than she'd realized.
It would be the best thing for her, really.
Severus had, during the past two years, become adept at a kind of calculus of pragmatism; for any given action, he could quickly and accurately weigh the consequences, the costs, the benefits. He had learned to admit no concerns beyond the most concrete. It was the only way to remain sane, not to mention alive. So he tried to convince himself that his wish to make Hermione Granger his mistress was for her own good, as much as for any of his selfish desires.
And his desires grew more selfish by the day. He couldn't deceive himself in that regard.
Hermione had taken on a softer aspect in the past few weeks; that wasn't his imagination, but observable, objective fact. She'd gained weight and had a glow to her skin that had been lacking before, no surprise given that she had been near starving. Apparently she had saved up enough money from her wages to feel more secure, enough that she could now buy perfume, makeup perhaps. He didn't know much about such things, though he perceived the results. Her eyes were rimmed in something dark that made them seem larger, more alluring. Her lips shone in deeper shades. And, though he was less certain of this, Severus thought perhaps she was doing something different with her hair.
In no sense was he fool enough to believe that she was doing this to attract him. She'd made her contempt for his choices clear, and as yet she showed few signs of taking a more realistic view of the matter. Hermione continued working for him and disapproving of him with no apparent awareness of her own hypocrisy. Also, she was a young woman, only just past girlhood; Severus knew that nobody of his years would be her first choice, even if he possessed more of those shallow physical attributes females so prized.
But he was the one who desired her, and he was the one who had the power to make her his.
No, he told himself. I must not think of it that way. I must not.
Manipulating a powerless girl one who had come to him destitute and hungry, one who needed a job badly enough to work for the enemy she had once hated Severus could not justify that. But when he thought of it differently as giving Hermione a place in his home, and therefore a place in the world from which she would again have some standing, some safety
That, he could justify. Perhaps.
"Professor Snape?" Hermione was leaning over the worktable, squinting at a beaker full of bubbling green liquid. "Do you think this is quite right?"
Come to think of it, the liquid's surface was far too foamy. "Indeed not."
She swiftly removed the beaker from heat and set it in a wooden holder to cool. As she frowned at the still-boiling mixture, he noticed the shade of her lips pink today, not bright
"I'm having second thoughts about the scarab-shell powder," Hermione said, bringing him back to more immediate concerns. "The instability it causes it's greater than I know how to compensate for."
No other ingredient would do. Severus said, "Then we should think of better ways to compensate for that instability. Certain venoms might prove useful."
"Venoms! Of course!" She brightened, as if he had given her a gift instead of a piece of information. "I'd never have thought of that." With a sidelong glance, she added, "And you never mentioned it in class."
"It is an advanced technique," Severus said, rather sourly. Of all the foolishness. Imagine if he'd given mamba venom to that halfwit Neville Longbottom.
"But the paralyzing effect of some of the poisons I see it now. Some elements in potions react almost like living tissues. So the paralysis would create a kind of stasis."
Such a fine mind. Severus found himself taking authentic pleasure in the moment as he crossed his arms and said, "If you understand the principles so well, then you can tell me the additional problems we may face."
"All venoms are corrosive," she replied, tapping the side of the beaker experimentally. A faint crust of crystals had formed around the rim. "So that's potentially damaging to other ingredients. It will be a matter of finding the right venom. That could take a while."
"I have confidence in your abilities," he said. And it was true. Though Hermione's overcautious ways were slowing their progress, he knew that the results of her curiosity were making the potion better than it otherwise would have been. He didn't think she fully understood just how much improvement she'd achieved over his original plans.
Then again, it did not matter if Hermione Granger understood that. There were others who needed to hear the information more, and sooner, for her good as well as his own.
"Welcome, sir," squeaked a nervous-looking house-elf. "Welcome to Malfoy Manor."
Severus sometimes pretended that his manor house truly reflected the grandeur of ages past. But that pretense dissolved like copper in dragon's blood as soon as he entered Lucius Malfoy's home.
"Severus," Narcissa cooed as she leaned forward to kiss the air beside each of his cheeks. "It's been ages. Far too long."
"Indeed," Severus said, trying not to flinch as she briefly pressed his hands with her own, the slick satin of her gloves unnaturally cold. He knew that Narcissa Malfoy had not missed him any more than he had missed her as if anyone could miss such a vain, cruel, self-absorbed creature. But officially they were both heroes of Voldemort's return to power, and as such politics dictated that they pretend to get along.
Groups of people stood around, gossiping and drinking individualized brews, each bubbling with a different sort of narcotic or hallucinogen. Within a few hours, this gathering would be wildly uninhibited; Severus intended to have left long before that.
"Lucius has been longing to talk with you," Narcissa said, beginning to weave her way through the crowd, pulling Severus behind her. Her white gown was the brightest shade in the dark room, and he felt eyes following them as they went. Just as well. He needed to be seen.
So many hated faces, wearing broad smiles and enjoying their privilege. There was the Malfoy heir, that insufferable boy Severus had always had to pretend to like as part of his cover; Draco himself had dropped the act of liking Severus as soon as he left school and now treated him with the same airy condescension he did everyone else. On his arm was that rich, air-headed girl he'd gotten himself engaged to, Pansy something or other. Next to them were the Goyles, father and son, equally stupid, equally mean-spirited, equally hulking. In their gray robes, they loomed over the engaged couple like a misplaced Stonehenge. And then, finally
"Professor Snape. What an unexpected pleasure."
Lucius Malfoy's smile was the most unnerving in the room, perhaps because it was the most genuine. "Hasn't Narcissa taken care of you? Tell me what you want to drink."
"I cannot stay," Severus said quickly. "There are matters we should discuss. I shall not keep you long from your festivities."
Lucius put a brotherly hand on his arm and walked with him to the balcony that overlooked the courtyard where, Severus could see, several partygoers were taking advantage of the warmer spring air and their increasing intoxication, dancing, groping, flirting, laughing too loudly. Calmly, Lucius said, "Is there a problem?"
"Not at all," Severus said. He looked up at the stars, to avoid seeing the carnival unfolding beneath them. "I only wanted to inform you of the potion's progress. We are moving more slowly than I had anticipated, but I believe the final results will be powerful beyond even the Dark Lord's dreams."
"Excellent," Lucius said. "No real rush, after all. Not as if we're hunting down anyone but a bunch of amateurs and malcontents at this point." After sipping pale blue liquid from his goblet, he continued, "You know, you might have had a meeting with me about this today. Then you could have come tonight to enjoy yourself."
Severus said stiffly, "I am far too entrenched in the Dark Lord's work to take time for such amusements."
"Severus, does it not occur to you that you've turned victory into defeat?" Lucius laughed as he ran one hand through his shining hair. "What did you fight your war FOR? To continue slaving away over burners and lamps?"
Of all the things he did not wish to discuss, his real reasons for fighting the war were last. "There is still work to be done."
"No doubt," Lucius said. His smile curled along the rim of his goblet, his smile reflected in the iridescent surface of his drink. "But there is also play. Surely, there must be something you want to possess. Or someone."
He ought to have said something immediately, shut off the subject. But his own shame, the moment of fear that his desire somehow showed on his skin, held him back. Severus could not deny what Lucius had said; instead he was trapped there, speared with deadly accuracy, as Lucius' smooth words flowed into him:
"We all suffered, during the war. You through your intrigues, I in Azkaban. Every person here tonight every person on our side, and I suppose on the other paid dearly for the privilege of still being alive. Those who allied themselves with the Dark Lord are being rewarded for everything they endured. Do we not deserve that? Does not hard work and loyalty deserve some reward?"
All the nights he'd spent, feverishly coming up with cover stories and counter-operations. All the memory spells he'd performed, betraying his conscience to destroy clues absorbed by the innocent. All the times he'd gone to report to Dumbledore and endured the contemptuous sneers of Sirius Black and Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin and every other Order member who thought themselves above him.
"Life is for living, Severus," Lucius continued. "I have a suspicion about you; I don't think you're as much an ascetic as you claim. Perhaps not even as much you think. No, my opinion is that you're still trying to play the hero. Pretending the war's still going on, so that you can keep suffering, keep proving what a brave man you really are." He clapped Severus on the back. "The war is OVER. You don't have anything left to prove. There's a better life available to us now, and it's past time for you to claim your share."
"Yes, you're quite right," Severus said. He told himself he was agreeing only so Lucius would let him go. The image of Hermione, of her slim hands and dark hair, surfaced briefly in his mind. "Past time."
Within ten minutes, Severus had managed to extricate himself from the party after having only one drink pressed upon him by the insistent Narcissa. No telling what had been in it, but his mind and body hummed pleasantly as he hurried home. The project they'd been working on lately required many late nights, and if he had not left it too long
No. When he stepped into his workshop, a few candles were still burning, and Hermione sat at one table, still scratching measurements into a record book with her quill.
She looked up as he entered, her soft hair falling past her shoulder. "You're back earlier than I thought."
"It is rarely difficult to deprive myself of Lucius Malfoy's company," he replied. To his surprise and perhaps hers Hermione laughed, then quickly covered her lips with the edge of her quill. Severus said, more softly, "You need not conceal your contempt for him from me, Miss Granger. Nor in any other way at least where we are in agreement."
"We're in agreement there," she said. Then she blew quickly on the ink, setting it on the paper. The expression on her face then almost a kiss worked with the intoxicant in his system to steel his resolve.
He said, "Would you like a drink? You could join me in my study, when you're through."
"I what?" Hermione hesitated, but only briefly. "I don't take anything as strong as firewhiskey. But if you had some mead "
"I do." Severus said, hoping this was true. Fortunately, a bottle Rozier had pressed upon him as a gift remained alone in an oaken rack, wax-sealed and slightly dusty. As he carefully opened it, Binks appeared with two glasses, then quickly vanished.
He filled each glass; just as he set the bottle down again, Hermione entered. She was slightly uncertain, which Severus understood; he had never asked her even to have a drink with him before, much less what he was about to ask
Would he really do it? Could he?
Severus knew his hesitation might overtake him soon but he took a deep draught of the mead and watched Hermione do the same, her head tilted back, the slow undulation of her throat. When her eyes opened again, she saw him watching him, but she didn't look away. Instead, she simply said, "It's been a long time since I had mead."
"I should imagine," he said. "You've been deprived of luxuries, lately." Hermione ducked her head, agreeing without speaking aloud. The alcohol was already settling in his bloodstream, warming him and making him bold. "Deprived of far too many things, I think."
"It hasn't been easy," she said simply as she took a seat on the long couch. Hermione wasn't given to wallowing in pity. Severus liked that about her. He liked so very much about her.
Now, he thought. Enough hesitation, enough thoughts. An act. "Miss Granger Hermione I've been thinking."
She didn't react to the use of her first name, just took another sip of the mead. She murmured, "What about?"
He sat beside her; she didn't move away. Severus resisted the urge to move closer. Not yet, it wasn't time yet, he shouldn't rush --
But then, those were all calculations that belonged to another place and another time, when he had dealt with women who could say no. Hermione no, Severus reminded himself, she could say no. But she would not. Not if he presented it correctly, not if he made himself entirely clear. Still, a lifetime's uncertainty was difficult to cast aside.
Deliberately, Severus reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder. She didn't turn away, didn't react, just watched him. He said, "As your employer, I can do so little for you. But were our connection to change I could help you far more."
"Our connection?" Her voice was faint, but not, Severus thought, surprised.
Perhaps it was the alcohol in his bloodstream. Perhaps it was the slow-acting poison of Lucius Malfoy's words in his mind. Perhaps it was only his own desire. Whatever it was, it allowed Severus to smoothly say the words he had so long denied himself. "I should like you to stay here with me tonight. And after that." He wound a soft curl of her hair around his fingers. "Stay here," he repeated.
For a long moment, there was only silence. Then, at last, she whispered, "Yes."
How could it be as simple as that? Was she mocking him? Other women had. But Hermione did not laugh; she only gazed at his hand on her shoulder, as though she were still convincing herself that the touch was real. "I'd been hoping you would ask me."
She didn't mean desire, of course. She could not. Instead, Hermione meant that she had seen what he had seen, that a position as his mistress would give her a better kind of life than she could expect any other way.
In other words, she had finally learned the art of compromise. Severus had been waiting so long for her to learn that, to make her own choices in a way that would force her to understand his own. And yet, looking down at her, he found that he felt hollow; some of that fire he had admired in her was gone forever.
But that was no more than the way of the world.
Severus did not kiss her, did not even touch her again, until they were in his bedroom, the candles unlit, the dark enfolding them both. He did not need to see her, not yet. Strangely, it seemed too intimate.
It was enough to unwrap her robes, feeling the thin cotton fragile beneath his hands, then her skin the slope of her shoulder, the curve of her belly. He did not need to know her expression as they kissed for the first time, only to feel her mouth opening beneath his. Severus needed nothing else but this, the freedom to touch her, to have her, to bear her down upon the bed.
He'd thought she might balk, when it came to that last moment that something of what she'd left behind might hold her back. He had not decided what he would do if she did. But instead Hermione was sweetly compliant, undemanding, gentle and soft and warm. Everything he would have hoped for, everything he'd been sure he would never have.
The next morning, Severus said, "It would be as well if you had a room here. You can't be comfortable in that garret you live in."
If Hermione realized that he'd spied on her in the past, she didn't react. She simply nodded and smiled. "I wouldn't want to be too far away."
It was all just as Lucius had said so many pleasures, all his to claim.
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