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Factor Z

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Hermione felt adrift. She wasn't sure what time it was or which day of the week it was. Since George and Percy had come for Ginny's body a few day ago, she hadn't left Rowle's bedroom, and she was still too weak to even leave the bed. Rowle came back every night to sleep here, but he let her have the bed, while he took the settee in front of the fireplace.

She barely ate and never spoke to Rowle when he was around—which wasn't often. He woke early for work and came home late in the evening. Except for Rowle and the house-elf Rosey, who popped in to leave food and check on her, Hermione hadn't seen anyone else. She was left alone for too many hours and with too many thoughts.

Hermione couldn't believe Ginny was dead, that she had killed her best friend. George and Percy would never want to speak to her again. Their only sister, a third of their surviving family, gone because of her.

By now, Percy and George had probably already conducted Ginny's funeral. She wasn't surprised she hadn't been invited. Who would want their sister's killer at such a sacred event? And that's what she was: a killer, a murderer. She hadn't cast the spell that had killed Ginny, but Ginny wouldn't be dead if she hadn't followed her to France. Hermione was sure of that.

The Dark Lord... What would he have to say about her murder of a pure-blood? She was surprised Rowle hadn't come home one day only to drag her back to the Ministry for prosecution. Countless times, Hermione had been told explicitly and in subtler ways that the life of a pure-blood was worth more than the life of a Mudblood. So many times that she had actually come to believe it. Now, referring to herself as a Mudblood was as commonplace as having a cuppa...

The bedroom door opened, interrupting her dark thoughts. She watched as Rowle strode into the room, heading straight toward the bathroom. Hearing the shower turn on, she snuggled deeper beneath her covers and feigned sleep. Thus far, it'd saved her from having to speak a word to him.

Hermione was truly dozing when she sensed a presence beside her. Old instincts kicking in, she roused herself, finding Rowle towering over her. For a moment, all they did was stare at each other.

"When was the last time you ate?" he asked softly.

She furrowed her brows. She didn't actually know. Had she had some toast that morning? Or was that yesterday? Her days had all begun to bleed together.

Rowle pursed his lips when she didn't answer. "You haven't washed since I brought you here, either," Rowle pointed out rather rudely in Hermione's opinion. Taking a pesky shower was the last thing on her mind.

She rolled her eyes before closing them, doing her best to ignore him. She was mourning and doubted she had the strength to take a shower even if she wanted one.

Rowle sighed heavily and squatted beside her. "You have to take care of yourself, little witch." He brushed a dirty lock of hair away from her face.

Antagonistic behaviour, she could handle. Meanness and rudeness, she could ignore. But this, this act of caring, was too much. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Rowle cupped her face and then pulled her into his arms.

Hermione would rather not take comfort from the great, big plonker; but her suffering heart ached for it, and he was offering it so selflessly. He crooned into her ear, holding her tightly, running a large, calming hand over her matted hair and down her back. Something about this behemoth of a man made her feel safe, protected. She was a modern woman and had always been independent, but here she was, a twenty-eight-year-old clinging to a virtual stranger as she sobbed her heart out.

After she had calmed some, Rowle lifted her and carried her to the bathroom. Getting a good whiff of herself, she had to admit she stank.

Once he set her down on the floor, keeping a steady hold around her waist, he inquired quietly, "Rosey's out on an errand for me. Can you do this yourself? Or will you need my help?"

Blushing, she crossed her arms over her breasts. "I promised to marry you, but we aren't married yet," Hermione bit out. If the slimy scoundrel thought he deserved an eyeful after a few moments of comfort, he was greatly mistaken, pure-blood or not.

His eyes hardened, and Hermione turned away from him, supporting herself on a nearby wall. She didn't want to see him looking at her with disgust. She couldn't bear it.

"Fine," he replied, exiting the room but leaving the door open a crack.

Hermione sighed in relief and sat down heavily on the floor. With determination, she removed her clothes. She was stronger than she had thought, being able to fully undress by herself, but she was still quite feeble. Weeks of illness and eating infrequently had left her dizzy and breathless after such a simple task.

She crawled over to the shower. There was a bath too, but Hermione wasn't quite ready to literally drown in her sorrows.

She groaned as she reached up to turn the water on and moaned when hot water cascaded down onto her face. It felt heavenly, the best thing Hermione had felt in weeks. She leaned against a wall and drew her legs to her chest, luxuriating in the steam that swirled around her.

Starting awake, she found Rowle crouched outside of the shower, looking at her worriedly.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

Hermione nodded but, as she attempted to scramble to her feet, slipped.

Rowle caught her before she could fall on the hard, slick tiles. Fully clothed, he stepped into the shower and hauled her upright against him, blocking the spray with his back and squishing her breasts against his chest.

"Did you even wash?" he asked, frowning down at her.

She shook her head no, and he sighed as he reached for the shampoo.

Hermione leaned against him, grateful for his support, and then immediately felt ashamed. She didn't deserve to rely on anybody. And she certainly didn't want to rely on him like she currently was.

She began to struggle in his hold, but a light swat on her bum had her gasping in indignation.

"Stop your nonsense," he murmured. "You'll only tire yourself out again."

He soaped up his hands and began massaging her scalp. It felt wonderful. The shampoo smelled of spices and mint, a very masculine scent. His hands were firm, and he used his short nails to scratch her head all over. When he was finished, he shuffled them forward to rinse her hair.

"I'm guessing you need help with the rest, too?" he rasped.

Still groggy, she didn't understand why his voice sounded so odd. But she knew she was too weak to properly bathe herself and nodded.

He moved them back out of the spray and grabbed a bottle of body wash. It complemented the shampoo, smelling of oranges and rich, earthy oakmoss. Rubbing his hands together to form a lather, he started at her shoulders and soaped each of her arms down to her fingertips, making sure to get between each of her fingers. For reasons Hermione couldn't quite fathom, her heartbeat quickened, and her breaths became shallower.

When he was finished with her arms, he soaped her back, all the way down to her bum.

Her breathing hitched, and she understood the earlier rasp in his voice: the thought of bathing her had aroused him. To her amazement and consternation, she was feeling tendrils of her own arousal curl through her at his touch.

Hermione again tried to pull away from him. She didn't want to be aroused by him, and she didn't want him to be aroused by her.

"Not so fast, little witch," Rowle said as he turned her around and pulled her back against him. He slid his soapy hands down her chest and around each breast, cupping them lightly, before continuing his journey downward. He soaped her abdomen and hips, then slid a hand between her legs.

His hands on her were sweet torture, and she moaned when his hand left her mons and moved to her thigh. However, she didn't know if she had made the sound in protest because his hand had been there, to begin with, or because it had left.

"I don't think you have the stamina for that yet, Princess," he chuckled as his hands slipped lower and lower down her legs.

He squatted behind her, letting her bum rest on his broad left shoulder, and picked up her left foot and then the other, scrubbing them clean.

Hermione closed her eyes at the sensations he was causing. He was right: in no way was she strong enough to have sex. And she very much did not want to have sex. Not with him. But, at the same time, she couldn't deny the way he was making her body feel. His touch was light, not quite clinical, but not overtly sexual either.

"Time to rinse," he said as he stood and shuffled them forward into the warm spray once more.

Running his hands down her body, he washed all the suds away, then he turned her so she was facing him, rinsing her back and hair a final time.

She couldn't quite bring herself to meet his eyes, but with one of his hands clasped around her waist, he used his other to tilt her head back.

Hermione wasn't sure what the look on his face meant; it was pensive and maybe a little confused. When she flicked her tongue out to lick her lips, his eyes focused on her mouth, and when she bit her bottom lip nervously, the hand on her hip tightened.

Slowly, so slowly that Hermione knew she could have pulled away, he brought his lips to meet hers. She found she didn't want to pull away. She wanted to know what it felt like to kiss him. If she were being honest with herself, she'd wanted to know since that time in the lift all those weeks ago. She wanted to taste him. To match his flavour to the scent of him, the scent that had invaded her nostrils and mind, being stuck in his room. She wanted to erase the hardship of the previous weeks from her mind and lose herself in the man before her.

When his tongue danced out, seeking entrance past her lips, she opened for him gladly, welcoming him into her mouth. A light moan reached her ears, and she was somewhat shocked to find it was coming from her, that he was causing this reaction in her.

His growl of response pooled desire in her abdomen, leaving her core aching. Her nipples strained as they hardened against the fabric of his shirt. She became light-headed from the intensity of it all, and her knees gave out. Rowle's hold kept her from falling but not from breaking their kiss.

Rowle stared at her like he couldn't quite believe who was in front of him, who had just been kissing him with such wild abandon. Hermione felt herself redden in embarrassment and shame, realizing she had snogged Rowle to hide from her pain, to forget about her forget about Ginny. Hermione tried to duck her head, but he tilted her head back once more.

"Little witch," he sighed.

After shutting the shower off, he stepped back and Summoned a towel that he wrapped around her body. He carried her into the bedroom and sat her on the bed. Then he dried his own clothes with a flick of his wand before drying her off in the same manner. For once, her hair didn't frizz into a massive bush.

Next, he helped her slip into a ridiculously large pair of flannel pyjamas, presumably his.

"Should have shrunken these," he mumbled as he knelt to roll the legs up while she worked on rolling the sleeves.

She shrugged. "It's alright." It didn't really matter what she long as it was something.

Rowle's bedroom door suddenly banged open, startling Hermione and Rowle. A tall, lithe, blonde—gorgeous—woman stood in the doorway with a ferocious look on her face. Hermione wrinkled her brow. Who was she?

"Is this her, then? The Granger bitch?" the woman asked.

"Katrina," Rowle's voice warned as he stalked forward, leaving Hermione on the bed.

"Have you married her yet?" Katrina spat. "Or is she just warming your bed like any other Mudblood whore?"

"We've already had this conversation," Rowle stated coldly. He grabbed Katrina's arm above her elbow and dragged her from the room, slamming the door shut behind them.

Hermione sat on the bed, nonplussed. She had forgotten that Rowle had a wife, a wife he was expected to set aside for her. She sighed heavily and shuffled to the nest of pillows at the head of the bed. She didn't want to think about anything anymore, and sleep beckoned her.

She woke at some point when Rowle tucked her under the covers, pulling her close once he lay beside her. She smiled—guess she was warming his bed—and soon fell back asleep wrapped in his arms.

Hermione woke to Rowle shaking her gently.

"Time to get up, little witch," he said as he pulled the covers back.

Instead, Hermione rolled over; she had nothing to get up for.

"Weasley's funeral is in an hour. I assumed you'd want to go," Rowle told her as he stood from the bed.

Stunned, Hermione turned to face him. "Ginny's?"

He nodded. "It was postponed entirely for your sake."

Hermione's eyes prickled. Percy and George didn't hate her. She made to sit up but instantly felt woozy.

"Rosey!" Rowle called out, and a second later, the house-elf appeared.

"Get Granger some porridge," Rowle ordered. He glared at Hermione. "You need to eat, or you won't make it through the day."

Hermione nodded; she knew Rowle was right. And she owed it to Ginny to say goodbye. Plus, she desperately wanted to see Percy and George; they were her family: all that she had left.

After she ate as fast as she could, Rowle had to help her get ready and dress her in a new set of robes.

Holding her tight, he then Apparated them outside the front yard of the Burrow. Once a bout of nausea subsided, she was surprised to see two Aurors guarding the front gate. They both nodded at Rowle as he led her inside. Hermione was sure she would have fallen if not for Rowle's arm around her waist.

George's and Percy's welcoming hugs were a relief, but entering the Burrow was still painful. She hadn't been here since before the war had ended, and it brought back too many memories, the happy ones the most painful of all.

She directed Rowle to help her to the viewing line. Her steps faltered as they neared, and Rowle tightened his hold around her.

When her turn came to view the casket, a moment of panic overwhelmed her. She wanted to run away; she didn't want to accept what she was about to see...but she had to.

Lifting her head from Rowle's chest and looking down into the casket, she first noticed Ginny's bright-red, shiny hair. Ginny's hands were clasped above her heart, holding her wand. She looked beautiful but empty. So very empty.

"Ginny," Hermione whispered, reaching her left hand out and setting it on top of Ginny's cold, lifeless hands. Inhaling a trembling breath, with her right hand, she placed the Snitch she'd brought inside the casket.

"That's for you. For the afterlife. To fly free and wild. I'm sure the boys wouldn't mind a good match, and I know you'll give them a run for their Galleons." Tears slid down her face, but she didn't falter. She owed her friend this.

"I'm so sorry, Ginny. If I had known, I would never have taken you away. I would have found a different way to save you. I…" she trailed off, not finding the words to express how much regret and remorse she felt. Her throat tightened, and she gritted her teeth to keep from sobbing.

"It should have been me," Hermione said in a low, fervent voice. "It was my idea. It should have been me."

Shaking her head, she hissed, "I don't want to say it; I don't..." Choking on her words, she finally said what she needed. "G-goodbye, Ginny." She lifted her hand from Ginny's. "Love you, too."

Walking away from Ginny, who had been her best friend, her sister, Hermione felt numb, too many emotions hitting her at once.

The journey up the hill to Ginny's awaiting grave was difficult, but the service was beautiful and brief. George spoke so lovingly of Ginny that Hermione couldn't stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. She sniffled and Rowle handed her his handkerchief. She squeezed his hand in thanks.

After the burial, Hermione was ready to face George and Percy, so she and Rowle went back to the Burrow and waited in the kitchen. While George and Percy said their goodbyes to the rest of the guests, Rowle made her the tea Rosey had been brewing for her.

As she sipped her tea, Rowle stood behind her, and Hermione felt comforted by his presence. George and Percy hadn't forbidden her from attending the funeral, but that didn't mean they weren't upset with her. She braced herself for the worst. For the accusations. For them to call her a murderer.

But they didn't.

She could have sobbed in relief. Not only did they not blame her, they still accepted her as part of their family. Hermione felt so relieved that she gave them both especially long and tight hugs before she left.

It wasn't until she was home, funny how Rowle Rock was suddenly home now, that she started bawling. Rowle held her as she cried and gasped for air. She was grief-stricken, and tired, and overwhelmed, and so, so relieved that Percy and George still loved her.

She fell asleep in Rowle's arms again that night. And when she woke from a nightmare, he soothingly rumbled words into her ear and stroked her back, calming her back to sleep.

A few days after the funeral, Hermione woke up, as usual, finding herself alone in Rowle's bed, Rowle already having left for work. She was feeling better, stronger, and she decided it was finally time to explore the house. As much as she hated to admit it, it would be her house someday.

Rosey had left her a breakfast of porridge, toast, and tea. Hermione sipped her tea and enjoyed the brief warmth it brought. She finished her toast and porridge before heading to the bathroom. After her tea and porridge, she still felt cold to her bones and thought a long soak would help warm her.

She stayed in the tub until the water turned lukewarm, then dried herself and dug through her beaded bag for something to wear. Everything she pulled out was worn and dirty, and guiltily, she called for Rosey to clean and mend her clothes. Rosey was happy to comply and whisked them away.

She searched Rowle's wardrobe for something she could shrink to fit her and found a worn pair of Slytherin sweatpants and a Quidditch jumper. She loved Quidditch jumpers and how warm they were, remembering when she used to wear Ron's and Harry's all the time. She shrank Rowle's clothes and donned them before leaving the bedroom.

The house was large, and Hermione suspected magically expanded. It was medieval in its appearance with its stone floors and small, mullioned windows. She counted four levels, and a lake surrounded the property, a bridge connecting it to a gatehouse. There were a few outbuildings that Hermione could see, and beyond the lake, there was a deserted moor.

She finally found herself in what appeared to be a library. It wasn't as expansive as the library at Hogwarts or the Ministry, but it had a respectable number of books.

While she browsed through the collection, the door slammed open. Startled, Hermione dropped the book she had been holding and whirled around to find Snape striding in.

"Miss Granger," he greeted once he stood before her.

"S-sir," Hermione replied before picking up the book and shoving it back into place.

"You haven't been at work in weeks. And I have it on good authority you returned from your trip a week ago."

Hermione huffed out a breath. Up until that moment, her job hadn't even crossed her mind. Due to her lengthy absence, she assumed she'd been fired.

"I'm sorry, sir. I haven't felt myself this last week," Hermione muttered, staring at her feet. She blinked rapidly, trying to will the tears away. She didn't want to cry in front of Snape.

"I expect you to be at work next week, Miss Granger."

Hermione didn't meet his eyes; she just nodded.

"Look at me," he hissed.

She looked up at him and was shocked to see compassion. He quickly schooled his face to his usual expression of disdain.

"You've made it this far. Don't give up now," he murmured, holding her gaze. Then with a swift nod, he left the room.

Hermione swallowed past the lump in her throat. For Snape, that had been downright heartwarming. And Snape was right: she needed to get back to work and solve what Factor Z was. By now, she was sure there were loads more data to plug into her formula. Could Factor Z be the Blood Curse? She'd have to ask Rowle what he knew about it. Maybe Snape or Malfoy could help, too.

She left the library to head back to Rowle's room. She kept copies of her research and formulas in her beaded bag, and she could get started today. Maybe the time off had helped to freshen her perspective.

Rounding a corner, someone shoved her to the side. Hermione stumbled but caught herself on a small table. Looking up, she found Katrina glaring at her, wand in hand. Rowle said Katrina was rarely home...guess she wanted to pay her a special visit.

Katrina's eyes narrowed when she took in Hermione's outfit. "Listen here, you uppity, Mudblood bitch, digging your paws where they have no business" she hissed as she stalked toward Hermione.

"I don't want any trouble," Hermione tried in a calm voice, backing away.

"You don't belong here, filth." Katrina flicked her wrist, sending a stinging hex at Hermione's thigh.

Hermione flinched but didn't cry out. She wouldn't show Katrina how scared she felt. "I'd leave if I could."

"Thorfinn is a possessive man; he's not going to let you leave," Katrina spat condescendingly. "But I could help you."

Katrina's subsequent grin chilled Hermione. She could imagine just how Katrina wanted to help her leave. Rowle wasn't due home until the evening, and Hermione's wand was locked away in his room, of course. If Katrina truly had murderous intentions, she could easily kill Hermione, and nobody would know for hours.

"Er, thanks," Hermione hedged, taking a step back, "but I'm okay."

"I don't think it's okay that you're living in my husband's bedroom, Mudblood. Do you?" Katrina asked menacingly as she took a step closer.

"N-no," Hermione stammered at a loss. All she could try was the truth. "But Katrina—"

"Don't say my name, you Mudblood cunt! It's Mrs Rowle to you," Katrina growled.

"M-Mrs Rowle, the Dark Lord is the one who commanded our marriage. I'd much rather—"

"I don't give a flying fuck who commanded it. If you're dead, it won't matter, will it?" Katrina stepped even closer and now had her wand pointed at Hermione's head.

"Wait, listen, Mrs Rowle. If you kill me, the Dark Lord will be furious with you. And it won't matter if you kill me, Rowle would just have to marry someone else." Hermione's heart beat wildly. She hoped Katrina would see sense.

There was a quiet pop, and Rosey appeared in the corridor behind Katrina.

"Mistress Katrina, Rosey is having your tea ready." Rosey's right hand worried the fingers of her left.

Hermione could only hope that Katrina would back off now that there was a witness.

"This conversation isn't over, Mudblood," Katrina growled as she whirled away.

Hermione let out a deep breath and felt her knees buckle. As she shook from adrenaline, she vowed to speak to Rowle tonight. He needed to know how barking unhinged Katrina was.

Unfortunately, she'd never get to talk to Rowle that night.