Chapter Six

Hermione wasn't entirely sure when they had started sharing a couch rather than using two of the comfortable chairs. What she did know, however, was that his leg had been pressed against hers for the duration of the evening. She knew this because every movement either of them made, no matter how small, seemed to bring them into closer contact.

He leaned forward to pick up his cup of tea from the coffee table in front of them, and she found herself staring at his back. Was it possible for a back to be attractive? Even when covered by a shirt? She had to assume that it was possible, based on her desire to run her hand over the fine white linen. He'd steadily relaxed his dressing habits over the last few days until she now no longer expected to see him in formal dress wear. He still wore perfectly fitted trousers rather than anything more casual, but she hadn't seen him in robes in days. He was currently in his most casual state of dress to date: a white linen dress shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and no tie.

Her dressing habits had undergone a slight change, as well. Gone were her baggy jumpers and casual trousers. Instead, she found herself opting for her most flattering tops and jeans that did delightful things for her arse. Merlin, one day she'd even worn one of her shorter skirts, she remembered with a blush. Not that it was indecent. It was still perfectly professional. Mostly. And it had only been the one time!

"Miss Granger?" Mr Peters asked, and she realized that she was staring blankly at the now empty spot where he'd been leaning forward only seconds earlier. She smiled sheepishly at him and directed her attention back to the book she was purportedly reading. With a telling look, he plucked the book from her hands and placed it on the table in front of them.

"You haven't turned a page in over ten minutes," he informed her, sounding more amused than irritated.

"Yes, well, you still haven't explained how we both managed to become completely drenched on that broom ride!"

It had been a logical rebuttal in her mind.

His eyes opened wide in surprise, and Hermione grasped her chance. Though he'd been more than solicitous ever since the ill-fated flight, he hadn't wanted to talk about the details of it. Now, though, he appeared to be just off kilter enough that she could pry more information out of him.

"Well?" she said, crossing her arms over her chest, now that she no longer had a book to keep her hands occupied.

"We passed through a cloud," he reminded her. "They're notoriously full of moisture."

Her raised eyebrow did an admirable job of conveying her assessment of the obviously weak explanation.

"I played Quidditch in school," he said, as if this piece of information was any more helpful.

"And..." she prompted. The crossed arms, raised eyebrow, and imperious tone would have had both Ron and Harry scrambling to either provide a satisfactory explanation, or scrambling to get as far away as physically possible before the curses began to fly. Mr Peters did not appear to be immune, but it was taking him an irritatingly long time to come to the point.

"Never lost control of my broom once," he said. "Not in five years of playing on the school team. And that's saying something, considering the underhanded tactics the other teams would take," he said sourly.

"Are you saying you lost control of the broom with me?" Hermione questioned. "And this is some sort of blow to your Quidditch pride?" It probably wasn't the most tactful of phrasings, but she wasn't the most tactful person on her best day, and she really wanted to hear this explanation.

"You hit me!" he pointed out, sounding amazed that she had managed to get the drop on him at twenty thousand feet. Or however high they had been. Most likely no more than two hundred feet, her over-working, over-logical brain informed her.

"Yes, and there are no bludgers in Quidditch?" she said tartly. "Come, now. You can't expect me to believe that you've never experienced a little outside interference or distraction. And that still doesn't explain how I was soaked to the bone!"

He narrowed his eyes at her before looking away. Crossing his arms over his chest, he muttered unintelligibly.

"What was that?" Hermione questioned, trying not to smile. He'd cracked, and they both knew it. "I couldn't quite hear you."

"I said that when you were hanging on to the broom and I was trying to land, I may or may not have dipped you in the pond. Accidentally," he said in a huff. Arms crossed over his chest, his position mimicked hers.

Her eyes widened. Though it should have, this possibility had never occurred to her. "You dropped me in the pond?" she asked in disbelief. It had always been her worst fear. Falling from a height and landing in a body of water. Even though she was a fair swimmer, there was something about the scenario that absolutely terrified her. And it had happened! All those years of telling herself that the odds were against it. All those years of listening to her Quidditch-mad friends poke gentle fun of her! She felt the beginnings of hysterical laughter and clapped a hand over her mouth in the hopes of staving it off.

"Well, you weren't exactly making the landing easy," he fired back. "I think you even managed to kick me while you were dangling from the broom, hanging on with one hand!"

"That was an accident," she protested weakly, her cheeks colouring. Honestly. She couldn't be held responsible for what she did in a panicked state, could she?

"And so was the dunking," he said smugly.

"You insufferableŚ!" she exclaimed, outraged at his blatant amusement at her expense. And then she realized how much closer they'd moved towards each other while they'd been bickering. His face was only inches from hers, and sweet Merlin, how had her hand ended up on his upper thigh? She tried to snatch her hand away, but before she could quite manage it (was this curious lethargy a side effect from the fever?) he had grasped her forearms and now she was practically in his lap and his breath was hot on her neck and he was going to kiss her and Nimue his hair was softer than it looked and...why wasn't he kissing her?

She managed to force her eyes open (when had they closed?) but before she could really register his hazel eyes regarding her so intently she worried that she'd go up in flames, she heard the faint pop of Apparition and knew that Mona had once again thwarted them.

"You is receiving mail," the house elf said, eyeing Mr Peters more sternly than Hermione had ever noticed her to do before. "From the other smart lady." Mona's eyes flickered over Hermione, and then back to her master.

To her horror, Hermione realized that she was still in Mr Peters' lap. One of her hands was gripping his thigh, and the other was entwined in his hair. He was grasping her upper arm with one hand, and had placed his other hand on her hip. She tried to scramble off him, but his grip tightened, and she gave it up as a bad job. If he wasn't embarrassed to be seen like this by the house elf, then she'd do her best to mimic his poise.

Until they were alone. And then she'd let him have it.

As if he had read her thoughts, Mr Peters' tightened his grip on her hip, and she found herself flushing even further with thoughts of exactly how she could let him have it.

So to speak.

"I've been waiting for this letter for some time," he said, obviously pleased. "I've been corresponding with a Transfiguration master," he explained, breaking the seal on the parchment and smoothing it open. He proceeded to read the correspondence, and, as Hermione was still situated on his lap, she read along with him. It was a fascinating letter, and Hermione was almost able to forget that she was perched on a man's lap, and that said man's arm's were still wrapped around her, tucking her into his embrace.

Almost.

"What do you make of the theory that the origins of lycanthropy lie in botched Animagus attempts?" she asked, frowning.

Mr Peters shrugged and shifted slightly, his head very close to hers as he read over her shoulder. "I suppose it's possible," he said skeptically. "I admit that I'm not one for fanciful theories. Or at least, only as they relate to possible treatments. If lycanthropy and Animagus forms really are related, it would open the door to an entirely different field of study for treatment," he concluded thoughtfully.

Hermione continued to scan the letter, looking for any further theories or practical suggestions. There were none. Apparently, the writer of the letter was interested only in the theoretical portion of study. The writing style seemed familiar to her, however, and she skipped to the bottom of the page, looking for a signature. Of course. Nadia Bentworth. She'd read several of her articles published in various magazines, and had found her theories to be fascinating, even though many of them had yet to be substantiated with any sort of empirical evidence.

Underneath the signature was a post script. Having read the entirety of the body of the letter, Hermione continued on, but very rapidly realized that it had been meant for Mr Peters' eyes alone. The invitation and sultry tone contained in the post script made it plain that the relationship between the two was more than just that of two people exchanging ideas. She stiffened and attempted to detach herself from her impromptu "chair", succeeding only when Mr Peters himself reached the post script.

"We..." he began, letting go his grasp on her waist as she stood.

Hermione held up her hand. "No explanation necessary," she said crisply. "And I apologize for reading what was obviously a private communication." Gathering her dignity as best she could, she picked up a book and swept out of the library. There was no reason she couldn't finish her reading in the privacy of her own rooms, after all.

It was for the best.

Her dreams that night were disjointed. One moment she was dreaming happily of her Animagus form (a phoenix this time, rather than a dragon. Preferable, on the whole, as she wouldn't require a space the size of a Quidditch pitch to transform) and the next, she was chasing, still in her Animagus form, a stag and doe. But there was something terribly wrong. Even in her phoenix form, (or perhaps it was because of her phoenix form?) she could sense that the doe was unwell. She ran with abandon, taking no notice of the harm she was doing to herself as she grazed against branches and plants. Worse, when the stag tried to guide her back to the path, she turned on him, causing the stronger male to back away. It was all very confusing, Hermione thought, because neither the doe nor the stag were acting as they ought. Before she could observe them further, the doe stopped short in the centre of the path and the stag was forced to come to an abrupt halt.

There was no reason for Hermione to do what she did next. Convinced that the doe was, inexplicably, about to attack the stag, she darted forward in her phoenix form and swooped between them. The doe lashed out, rising on her hind legs and attempting to hit her with her front legs. The stag lowered its head, sharp tips pointed at the doe.

Landing heavily and breathing hard, the doe hovered in indecision for only a moment before darting off the path and into the dense wood. The stag remained on the path, staring after her, and Hermione flew away, curiously saddened.

The dream changed again, and this time Hermione knew that she was in her own bed. The same lullaby she had heard several nights earlier drifted into her dream, and, with the irrefutable logic of dreams, she knew that whoever was singing it was on the fourth floor. Despite the warnings, and the terms of her employment, she threw back the comforter and peeled back the curtains on her bed, determined to discover the source of the ethereal lullaby.

She crept up the staircase noiselessly, shivering in the long white nightgown Mona had laid out for her. The eyes of the portraits followed her, but made no sound. Almost as if they supported her curiosity, she thought, frowning. The singing grew louder with each step she took along the fourth floor corridor. She passed door after door, finally stopping in front of the door at the very end of the hall. The singing clearly originated from this room. As she placed her hand on the doorknob, the voice faltered, but continued. She was singing through tears again, Hermione realized, and her heart broke. Who was this woman, and what had happened to her that she was miserable?

Determined to provide what assistance she could, she turned the handle. The door swung open, revealing what should have been a pleasing, domestic sight. A woman with long, red, unbound hair sat in a rocking chair, crooning softly. Beside her, a cradle rocked, the rhythmic creak comforting.

"Hush, hush," the woman said, leaning over the cradle. "Everything will be fine."

Hermione listened for the cries of a baby, but heard nothing save the creak of the rocking chair and that of the cradle.

"Don't cry," the woman entreated, her voice tight, as if she were the one crying.

Hermione edged closer. The woman never once glanced up from the cradle.

"Soon it will be morning," she continued "Everything will be better then, you'll see," she promised, though Hermione didn't think it sounded as if she believed it herself.

She took the final step that would allow her to see into the cradle. Expecting to see a sleeping child, she jerked her gaze back to the woman when she realized that the cradle was empty. The woman, still oblivious to her presence, hummed a little tune, and Hermione felt a shiver of horror creep up her spine. The woman wasn't nearly as young as she had assumed. Her red hair was shot with silver, and her face was lined with worry. She was still beautiful, but, Hermione was certain, quite mad.

Without a second thought, she backed from the room and hastened back to her own bed, no longer caring if anyone heard her. With the covers drawn around her bed, she closed her eyes and tried not to see the other woman's face, filled with despair.

In the morning, she didn't remember dreaming at all.

The wards, she decided, were magnificent. If you considered dark, potentially lethal, and astonishingly cruel wards magnificent.

She was rather tempted to.

"So you see," she said, cocking her head to the side in concentration, "if I unravel the top layer of protection, I'll actually be strengthening the layers beneath it." She shook her head, and the glowing strings of wards she'd made visible through a highly specialized revealing charm dissipated, ending in a shower of gentle sparks on the carpet.

Mr Peters leaned back in his chair, his face devoid of expression. "You're saying there's nothing to be done."

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "I said nothing of the sort." Casting another series of rapid fire charms, the glowing lines reappeared. A final flick of her wand and they started to vibrate, emitting a low hum. "There," she said, pointing to a dirty, black strand that looked as if it was completely unconnected to the whole. "That's the one I'll need to start with."

She felt slimy just looking at it. What had Dumbledore been thinking? The entirety of the wards was based on something so dark, so sinister... She shivered. The most interesting people in the world, she reminded herself, were also the ones who were the most flawed.

No wonder the general public was still, now nearly five years after the end of the war, gobbling up everything having to do with him. Because this was seriously twisted.

"What will happen?" Mr Peters asked, staring at the threatening black strand with her.

Her shoulders sagged and the visual representation of the wards collapsed again. "I don't know," she admitted. "And that's why I'm not tinkering." Yet.

"You don't know how many times I've wanted to blast through the wards. Bring them all crashing down," he said, staring at where the glimmering strands had been only seconds earlier.

"Well, it was a wise decision not to," Hermione said briskly. "There's no telling what would have happened if you had."

That wasn't completely true. Based on what she'd deduced from her study of the wards both here and at Hogwarts, she was fairly certain that reckless tampering would have resulted in a very violent end to both the person doing the tampering and to the estate.

"Why on earth did Dumbledore construct this level of wards?" she wondered out loud, beginning to pace the length of the small room. "I find it hard to believe that the general safety of one man..."

She stopped and stared at her employer. "What are you not telling me?"

He looked away. "I've told you everything I can," he finally said. "Everything I'm allowed to."

Her eyes widened. "That's it!" Another set of rapid flicks, and the visual representation of the wards appeared again. "See this orange strand?" she asked, pointing with her wand. "I wasn't certain what its specific purpose was. It's to keep you from divulging information, isn't it?"

"It was never supposed to last for so long," he said, sinking into a chair and resting his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. "At least, I never thought so. Looking back, I have an idea that Dumbledore knew full well what would happen."

Hermione nodded. That sounded exactly like something the master strategist would do.

"Are the reasons for the wards still valid?" she asked. "Do you need to be hidden away from the world?"

He hesitated, raising his head slightly. "I believe the need for secrecy has passed. If it ever really existed in the first place," he said grimly. "But there are other reasons now..." He hesitated. "I wonder if it wouldn't be best to leave matters as they stand."

"You're a virtual prisoner!" Hermione cried. "In your own home, yes, but still! It's not right!"

He shook his head, and stood, facing away from her. "No," he agreed, "it isn't right. But there are many things in this world that are not right. Many things that are hidden that should remain so." He turned and met her searching, curious gaze. "Keeping certain things hidden is sometimes necessary for the happiness of others."

It wasn't a line of thought that she enjoyed pursuing. How often had she withheld information and plans from people, in order to keep everyone safe? And it had been the right decision, she knew. Still, this was different. Wasn't it?

Mr Peters stared, hands clenched at his sides, into a row of books, but she had little doubt that he was actually seeing them. "It would hurt certain people if I were not to remain hidden," he finally said, his voice tight. "And without the wards in place, I worry that I would not be strong enough to keep them from that pain."

What of your own pain, she wanted to ask. Instead, she walked soundlessly across the thick rug to join him. Without a word, she slipped her arms around him and pressed her front to his back. Merlin knew she didn't even begin to understand his situation, but what comfort she could offer him, she would.

He stood stiffly for the first ten seconds, and she worried that she'd overstepped her bounds. But then he turned, keeping her tucked in his arms, and led them to the large chair he'd used before they'd started sharing a couch. He sat down, and pulled her with him onto his lap.

No words or kisses were exchanged, but she hoped that she comforted him, all the same.

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Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

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