- Hermione Granger
- Drama Romance
- Multiple Eras
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 03/19/2002Updated: 09/01/2005Words: 220,150Chapters: 28Hits: 163,807
Falling Further In
- Story Summary:
- The story begins in the summer holidays before the sixth year. After her parents are murdered by Voldemort Hogwarts becomes Hermione's home. She joins the staff in the fight against Voldemort and learns more of the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom. Will *eventually* be Snape/Hermione. Lupin is again the Professor teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has a black dog who lives with him - Sirius Black in his animagus form.
- Chapter Summary:
- Hermione learns more about the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom
Opening the door to his chambers, Snape flinched when Lupin virtually leapt forward and grabbed him by the shoulders. There was a moment when Snape was afraid he was about to be cried over before Lupin regained control, contenting himself with a fierce, brief hug before releasing him and beginning to talk at speed.
"Severus, I don't know how to apologise. You were right all along. I should never have returned to Hogwarts. I became far too complacent about taking the potion late and not withdrawing to the cage in plenty of time. We're already packed but I couldn't leave without... I needed to see for myself that you were safe and... Please believe I would never have knowingly put you at risk. I owe you too much."
"Yes, yes," dismissed Snape irritably. Having retreated as soon as Lupin released him, he propped a shoulder against the door jamb and folded his arms across his chest. "You're sorry, I'm fine. We got through it. Let's move on. Where's your bodyguard?"
"Here," said Black, stepping into view. "Any score you feel you have to settle is with me, not him," he added evenly.
Snape looked pained. "Do you ever listen to me? No, of course you don't. I'm well aware it wasn't Remus' fault. You'd better unpack," he said to Lupin. "Hogwarts - and Albus - need all the help they can get. Just don't expect me to celebrate the fact Black's staying," he added acidly.
Lupin just stared at him.
"You mean that? We can stay?" While Black's manner was brusque he was unable to hide what that meant to him.
"I just said so, didn't I." The joy on both men's faces making him uncomfortable, Snape fiddled needlessly with the fastening of one cuff.
"This is your doing, isn't it?" said Lupin huskily, patting him on the arm. "And please, no prevarication. If we are to stay we have to work together. As a team. With respect." He turned to glare at Black. "By all parties."
Black held up his hands. "I can work with him, if I have to. I just hate having to feel grateful to the bastard."
This a contingency he had been too tired to think of, Snape's expression brightened.
Lupin sighed. "Is working together against a common enemy so out of the question?"
"It was my impression we were already doing so," said Snape. "Or did you imagine I didn't know Sirius has been working with you - in my laboratory," he added pointedly.
"You knew?" Black exclaimed. He had the grace to look faintly embarrassed.
"I had an inkling," Snape said, before he deigned to explain. "Every potion-maker has their own style - from the angle at which they chop ingredients to the way they stopper the prepared potion. Yesterday's near miss was due to more than over-confidence - or to Black being a prick. How long have you been feeling out of sorts?" he asked Lupin.
"Since the last transformation. Even after I resumed my true form it felt as if I was...losing myself. I've been worrying that I might be developing a tolerance to the Wolfsbane Potion," Lupin added, looking down.
"My research suggests that Wolfsbane isn't addictive," said Snape.
Lupin's head shot up. "Then - Oh, Severus. I should have asked you, I know."
"I can guess why you didn't. I believe the problem is that one of the ingredients has been compromised in a way I haven't been able to detect. There is another possibility, of course. Didn't it occur to you that I might have made a mistake in the brewing?"
There was a short silence.
"Yes," said Black, with obvious reluctance. The storm he had expected wasn't even a damp squib.
"Why didn't either of you say anything?" demanded Snape, exasperated because it had taken him so long to admit - even to himself - the humiliating truth that he could no longer rely on his skills as a Potions Master.
Lupin shrugged but wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Because I was afraid you might stop brewing it for Remus altogether," said Black with a trace of defiance.
Snape looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "A reasonable assumption in the circumstances. A Pensieve for the time period when I made that batch of Wolfsbane might provide the answer and - Oh, no," he muttered helplessly as he saw Professors McGonagall, Sprout, Flitwick and Madam Pomfrey hurrying towards them, "the lynch mob."
"Only this time it's not for you," said Black wryly.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Professor McGonagall, who had been close enough to hear the exchange. "Although I must say I think you behaved very shabbily in all this, Sirius. Remus, my dear." She kissed his cheek before sweeping up to where Snape leant, still blocking the doorway. "Well, am I finally to be allowed to enter the sanctum? You look terrible," she added in a gentler tone. She touched an unmarked potion of Snape's cheek with a careful finger, giving a pleased nod when, although he made a face at her, he did not pull away from the contact.
Her wand out, Madam Pomfrey was already taking readings from him.
By the time everyone had trouped into Snape's sitting room he had been soundly kissed by an over-emotional Flitwick, lectured, praised, patted and all the obvious signs of injury removed from his person. Emotionally off-balance, he was as prickly as a hedgehog. He swung around with a glare when he heard his name being called.
Lupin stood in the doorway, through which could be seen the most splendid tea. "Who are you waiting for - Freyja?"
"Indeed I am," said a familiar husky voice. "I let myself in. And there's no point you glaring at me, Severus, wait for an invitation from you and I'd wait forever. Merlin's balls, you look terrible," added Madam Hooch frankly. "What have you been doing?"
"It's a long story," said Snape. "Get Sirius to tell you."
Becoming aware that she had lost his attention, Madam Hooch half-turned. "Headmaster," she exclaimed with obvious affection. Going over to him, she had to stand on tiptoe in order to kiss his cheek. "Albus, you don't look much better than Severus does. What have you all been doing? It's not - ?"
"No," said Dumbledore quietly, his steady gaze already on Snape.
"Freyja, come and have tea with me," coaxed Lupin, returning to tuck his arm into hers. "I want to hear all the gossip about Hagrid and - " An observant man, he closed the door to the sitting room behind them, leaving Snape and Dumbledore alone.
"You must have smelt the cucumber sandwiches," said Snape into the silence. "You should be asleep."
"I'm too tired," Dumbledore admitted. "Severus..."
"Then ten minutes of hearing Minerva talk about her holiday should do the trick. I know," he added in a different tone. "But you didn't say anything I didn't deserve. About Hermione..."
"Are you sure you don't want me to Obliviate her again? One slip could mean - "
"I've had to trust Potter, since you choose not to Obliviate him," said Snape acidly.
"I had hoped the knowledge of your true role might improve relations between you."
Snape gave a crooked grin. "I see your optimism hasn't deserted you completely. I trust Hermione and as she'll be living amongst us during the holidays she should know the truth. Even if, like you, she seems to take an unrealistically optimistic view of everything. Now, come and have some tea."
"You're very forgiving."
His hand in the small of Dumbledore's back, Snape eased him inside and closed the door. "I'm known for it," he said blandly.
Despite the fact the holidays had given her the opportunity to get to know most of those present, Hermione did her best to remain inconspicuous as she joined the staff in the sitting room, after Snape belatedly remembered her presence in his study. She soon became aware that there was something different about everyone today, a new energy. Or perhaps it was no more than the few days holiday some of them had enjoyed.
Choosing a seat on the periphery, she began to take in her surroundings. Snape's sitting room was as comfortable as the rest of his quarters; this kind of deceptive simplicity was expensive to achieve - and extremely comfortable to live with. While there were no ornaments or pictures there were books by the thousands - add those to the number in the library on the floor above and he had an impressive collection. While the walls were of undecorated stone, the floors were covered in mellow oak boards and what she would have called 'rugs' but for their size; they were also extremely beautiful. The fireplace was large and starkly plain, except for the carving in the centre, of two entwined serpents. Hermione blinked and looked at them again but they were still two stone serpents rather than the couple of naked humans which she could have sworn she had glimpsed.. It was a moment before she noticed the embroidered wall-hangings of wind-sculpted desert landscapes. None of them possessed the relentless romanticism of the wizard artwork she had seen until now and the workmanship was exquisite. Getting up to study the richness of detail, she absorbed the patterns of life and death being enacted before her until she was ready to swear she could hear the singing of the sand and the cry of a hawk high in the sky.
"It's a magnificent piece of work, isn't it," said Madam Hooch, making Hermione jump and look self-conscious.
"Yes," she said shortly, trying to account for her feelings of antagonism. It wasn't as if she even knew Madam Hooch; beyond those initial flying lessons she had seen nothing of her except at meal times.
"Best not to spend too long in it at first. It's easy to lose yourself," Madam Hooch added, before strolling back to the group around Snape.
Making herself comfortable in a leather armchair that positively begged to be curled up in, Hermione watched her professors, wondering why she was the only one who could see how uncomfortable the attention made Snape. Vilify him and he didn't turn a hair but he seemed to have no defence against affection.
There was a thought for Voldemort, she thought bitterly, kill them with kindness.
Her longing to see her parents again a spearing ache, she lost all sense of the party and those around her.
Hermione refocused to find Snape perched on a leather footstool beside the chair she occupied, a plate heaped with an assortment of sandwiches in his hand.
"I interrupted your train of thought."
"I was just remembering something."
"About your family?"
Hermione shivered. That voice would coax the truth from a Sphinx. "Yes. My parents used to hold tea parties like this on Sunday afternoons. Well, all day, really. People would turn up when they wanted and leave when they had to. They'd bring their children and their dogs and it would be chaos but the house was full of talk and laughter and music and warmth and I wish I'd known how to remember it all. Because we never wanted it to end, by the time we finally got to bed it was always really late so that on Monday morning we were all half-asleep. My father played the flute and my mother painted. Sometimes they'd say or do stuff with their friends that made me realise they were people as well as my parents, you know?"
Snape didn't but he nodded anyway. Her formative years spent wrapped in love and warmth, her first years at Hogwarts must have been difficult for her, he mused, before he realised she was reminiscing again.
"My mother painted portraits. Nudes. All purple with green splotches - and way too much skin. I used to get so embarrassed when I was younger. The people in her pictures didn't move, of course, though given what she painted that was probably just as well. She and dad were dentists. They didn't have many private patients because they believed in supporting the National Health Service and you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, do you?" Hermione recognised in more of her usual tone of voice.
"No," admitted Snape. "Although I understand the need for creativity - and stimulating conversation. You should continue to talk about your parents."
It was strange to see his face below her own, let alone to know she had his complete attention. No, she had become accustomed to that in recent weeks but it was rare to see him so off-guard, his defences down. She was close enough to see that his eyes weren't black, as she had always assumed, but a velvety brown, like the richest dark chocolate.
"Why?" Hermione added, resisting the urge to replait his hair.
"Poppy said it would be good for you. There again, she tells me to do the same thing." He moved his head and the light turned his eyes to black again.
Losing herself in the bones of his face, she said the first thing that came into her head. "Do you take any notice?"
"What do you think?"
"I think I still have a year of Potions to get through."
While small, his smile was warm and uncomplicated, small lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes. "You've got this far, you'll survive. If you can concentrate with me harassing you, you should be able to cope with most distractions. Here, have a sandwich."
"I'm not hungry," said Hermione, absorbing the implication that Snape's chosen method of teaching might have some point beyond sheer bloody-mindedness.
"Eat anyway. If you don't, I can't - wizard etiquette - and I'm starving."
"Ah, enlightened self-interest." She took an egg and cress sandwich and two bites later realised how hungry she was. There was a short, busy interlude.
"You have a wonderful library," she said, licking a tomato pip from her finger. Glancing up she found herself caught in Snape's heavy-lidded gaze and for several seconds she was conscious only of her pulse thumping in her ears and the shape of his mouth.
Snape blinked, straightening where he sat and the disconcerting moment was gone. "So many books. And yes, I have read them all."
She grinned. "You must have been listening to - "
"Ninety nine per cent of our acquaintance, I would imagine."
"I started to look for books on Wolfsbane - "
"That can wait. I think there may be a more obvious solution," Snape said, beating her to the last sandwich.
"More food," said Professor McGonagall, having approached without either of them being aware of her. "Miss Granger, you'll have to learn to eat fast around Severus. I used to think he had worms."
"Minerva..." he protested, looking pained.
"Let him be," said Professor Sprout. "He's missed a number of meals over the last four days."
"And he's quite capable of speaking for himself," said Snape pointedly.
"Indeed you are," said Dumbledore from where he sat in a dull crimson wing-backed leather chair. His purple suede boots clashed with the crimson footstool. "Isn't this delightful. Some of my favourite people gathered together to enjoy one another's company." There was a flash of gold and a puff of feathers as Fawkes appeared on his shoulder. "As we're all here with the exception of Argus, who won't be back until the beginning of term, I propose we hold a meeting of the Inner Circle. There is much to discuss."
"I'll leave you to it," said Snape, through a mouthful of ham sandwich. Uncoiling, he rose to his full height.
"Try not to look too relieved to be escaping us all," McGonagall advised him, but she patted him as he walked past.
Hermione got to her feet, prepared to follow Snape from the room.
"No, Miss Granger. We should like you to stay, if you will," said Dumbledore gravely.
Off-balance, she glanced at Snape, who gave her a small nod. It was a moment or two before it occurred to her that she should have turned to her Head of House for reassurance.
"Of course, Headmaster," Hermione said, with more composure than she felt. "But I don't understand. What is the Inner Circle?" she added diffidently, becoming aware of the level of power and influence of those around her.
"Many at Hogwarts are united in the fight against Voldemort. Here in this room you see those from whom I have few secrets." The twinkle gone from his eyes, Dumbledore exuded authority, for all that he was just a tired old man sitting by an empty fireplace. "We are unanimous in hoping you will join us in that fight."
"You know I will," she said simply. "Why is Professor Snape leaving?"
"He doesn't attend these meetings," said Professor McGonagall shortly.
It took a few moments to process that. Outrage informing her every line, Hermione glared around at her seated professors. "You send him off to be tortured, but you don't trust him to - "
A number of voices spoke at once. Snape's deeper tones prevailed, cutting effortlessly through the babble.
"What's the point of having one of the best minds in Hogwarts if you don't use it? While Voldemort knows better than to waste time questioning anyone under the Cruciatus there are many other methods of extracting information. I'm adept at a number of them myself. The less I know, the less I can betray. I am excluded from these meetings at my own insistence. Even I don't see a sinister Gryffindor plot at work."
"Oh," she said in a small voice, wishing a hole would open and swallow her up. She cast an apologetic look at Dumbledore. "Headmaster, I - "
Dumbledore looked amused rather than offended. "Nothing to apologise for, my dear. Rest assured, we take Professor Snape's safety as seriously as you do. All of us," he added, when he noticed her glance at Black. "Sirius, that was uncalled for - and so was your response, Severus."
Both men muttered graceless apologies and Hermione was reminded of Ron and Harry. But the exchange reassured her as nothing else could have done: it wasn't until later that day that it occurred to her that had been the sole purpose of the exchange, which Snape and Black had created so effortlessly, with no more than a glance between them.
"Severus, you don't escape that easily," Dumbledore continued. "Not yet, anyway. Miss Granger, I understand you solved Professor Snape's logic puzzle to get to the Philosopher's Stone."
"It wasn't that difficult. That is - " To her relief Snape looked merely resigned.
"What did I tell you?" he said to Dumbledore.
"What good are logic puzzles to us?" demanded Madam Hooch briskly. "The only one of us who understands them is Severus."
"It occurred to him that Voldemort may not understand logic any more than we do," said Dumbledore. "Miss Granger is our resident expert."
"Me?" She looked appalled. "But I don't - I'm sure it's easier to solve a puzzle than to construct one." Correctly interpreting the look Snape gave her, she stood a little straighter. "It must be." She went to sit on the sofa beside him and took one of the macaroons on the plate that appeared between them.
"The obvious solution is for you to create a logic puzzle, which I will endeavour to solve as quickly as possible. Keep a careful note of how long you spend devising it," Snape added.
"How long have I got?" Hermione asked.
"How long will you need?" asked Dumbledore.
"I've no idea, headmaster. I could start work now, if you like."
"If you would, my dear. Once Severus has been tested we can meet again. I'm sure there are things you will need to know in order to assist us."
Hermione was too deep in thought to be conscious that she had appropriated Snape's desk, parchment and quill and snubbed his one attempt at conversation.
Propped against the wall because he knew that if he sat down he would fall asleep, Snape watched Hermione's face as she sat staring into space. There was an air of closed-off intensity about her that was all too familiar; it occurred to him with a jolt of surprise that he and Hermione did share certain characteristics.
It wasn't a particularly comfortable thought given how easy it was to forget their respective ages and positions.
Impatient with himself, he moved to a table set between shelves of books to prepare a Pensieve for the days concerning the preparation and making of the last batch of Wolfsbane Potion. Tired as he was, it didn't take him long to strand out memories of the relevant time before skimming through them; the years of reporting to Dumbledore had increased his familiarity with the concentration required both to make and study a Pensieve. While in the early weeks his debriefings by Dumbledore had been conducted with the aid of three drops of Veritaserum, Snape had been the first to point out that was hardly conclusive proof of his trustworthiness given that interrogation by Veritaserum was only as effective as the skill of the interrogator. Even at twenty Snape's skills in that direction had far surpassed Dumbledore's. And it was as an interrogator that Voldemort had made use of his young protege. There had never been any crude violence employed on the occasions where the information was important to Voldemort - that came later, when the victim had rendered up everything they had - just the pitting of intellect to intellect and the skilled probing of a tortuous mind and flexible voice seeking out all the hidden truths in a battle of wits which Snape had never yet lost. Although the real skill had always consisted of ensuring some people didn't tell him too much - particularly with Voldemort watching the proceedings.
Even in the comfort and familiarity of his study, Snape shivered, memories shadowing his mind as he studied his outstretched hands. Technically they were clean of blood; he had never killed, the Dark Lord had never required it of him, but every one of those he had interrogated over the years had died. And he, why he consoled himself that he was doing Dumbledore's will, while trying to pretend he'd gained no pleasure from outwitting some of the finest wizarding minds.
"Professor Snape. I've finished. If you're sure you want to do this tonight," said Hermione. Some of her excitement at having finally remembered the puzzle her father used to tease her with as a child evaporated when Snape gave her a blank stare. It was obvious he had forgotten her very existence.
For a moment he continued to stare at her before life snapped back into his eyes. "Yes," he said shortly.
"I've written it down for you," she added, disconcerted by the sense that he had slipped away from her again.
"Why? Were you afraid I'd lost the knack of joined up writing?"
"It was that or dictate it to you. I assumed you would prefer the former," she said crisply. "When you try to solve the puzzle, don't forget, you can't use magic. Concentrate on not using magic."
"Yes, yes," muttered Snape, twitching the parchment from her fingers before he began to read. "Concentrate on not - Are you mad? You might as well suggest I stop breathing. A tempting option, no doubt."
He gave her a speaking look and after a short time began to read the parchment again. After the third reading, he glanced up, his former chill replaced by an unwilling admiration.
"How long did this take you to prepare?"
"Two hours and twenty four minutes. I made up one myself but it was very bad. It took me a while to remember this one, which is a puzzle my father told me when I was a child. I thought it might be sensible to test you on two levels - the elementary, then something more advanced."
Snape gave her a sharp look but it was obvious that impudence was the last thing on her mind. She had the slightly bossy tone she assumed when instructing Longbottom. For the first time he had an inkling about how Neville might feel and he didn't enjoy the unwelcome sensation of fellow feeling at all. He stared ruefully at the puzzle written out in Miss Granger's picturesque script.
There was a man with a chicken, a cat and a dog. The man needed to cross the river using a boat which could only carry himself and one animal. The cat and the dog can't be left alone together, and the chicken and the cat can't be left together. How does he get all three animals and himself across the river?
His elbows propped on the table top and his head supported in his hands as he resisted the urge to fidget with his wand, Snape could feel the ability to reason trickling out of the tip of his boots. Suspecting it was going to be a long night he ordered some tea.
On his return from the bathroom two hours later Snape began to stalk around the study, pausing beside Hermione, where she sat in a pool of light amidst piles of books.
"Don't concern yourself with research into the Wolfsbane potion," he said abruptly. "A Pensieve I prepared provided the answers."
"I've never..." Hermione gave him a look in which speculation was mingled with hope. His expression wasn't encouraging.
"You'll learn the technique this year."
She gave a resigned nod, then said blandly, "Have you solved the puzzle yet?"
Muttering something under his breath, Snape reluctantly returned to the table, which was already surrounded by scrunched up pieces of parchment.
One hand clenched in his unruly hair, exhaustion dragging at his eyelids, Snape was muttering under his breath as he scribbled.
"Yes," he hissed, tossing down his quill and jumping to his feet. "Got it!"
Hermione woke with a jolt, shooting up in her seat just as Lupin and Black stirred in their respective armchairs.
"What time is it?" mumbled Black, his black hair rumpled and one cheek reddened where it had pressed against the studded leather wing of the chair.
"I've solved the puzzle."
"That's good, isn't it?" said Lupin, still half-asleep.
"Not for my self-esteem," admitted Snape. "It's a child's puzzle. I've no doubt Miss Granger had already contrived a more advanced puzzle before she fell asleep."
Hermione nodded when he glanced at her. "Um, are you're sure you've got it right this time?" she asked diffidently.
Bristling with irritation Snape stalked over to where she sat and loomed over her. "Positive. The man makes four trips in the boat. First he takes the cat, leaving the chicken and dog behind. Second, he takes the chicken and returns with the cat. Third, he takes the dog, leaving the cat behind. Fourth, he takes the cat." His glare dared her to find fault.
"Well done, Miss Granger," said Lupin, coming over to join them. "You don't look very happy about your success."
Light-headed with exhaustion, Snape stopped looming to perch on the edge of the desk. "No, you don't," he noted. "As I recall, I made no promise to enjoy being bested by a chit of a girl."
Hermione stared at him round-eyed. It was the closest she had ever heard him come to an apology. "I'm used to you being bad-tempered," she dismissed, too tired to think of choosing her words more carefully. "It's just... I thought I was a good witch."
"You are," said Lupin, because he wasn't sure what Snape's response might be.
"Define 'good'," said Snape, ignoring the interruption. "Are you referring to your morals or one adept in the practice of magic?"
"Both," snapped Hermione. "No," she added immediately. "I meant the latter. Though I hope I'm the former."
"How depressingly correct," murmured Snape but the approval in his swift look helped.
"The fact I can do logic must mean I'm not as adept as I assumed I was," she added, having been battling with a sense of alienation ever since she had become aware of the implication behind this testing of Snape.
"A chastening thought for any Gryffindor." Approval banished, Snape wore an unsympathetic grin.
Hermione glared at him. "I might have known you'd find it funny."
"Not funny, ironic perhaps. I understand pride - and arrogance. You might lack the power required to become a 'great' witch but you're one of the finest minds we've ever had at Hogwarts. Although honesty compels me to admit there hasn't been a lot of competition," Snape added in the same matter of fact tone.
"There's no danger of me getting swollen-headed with you around, is there," Hermione said, battling not to give way to her crushing disappointment at his confirmation she was never going to fulfill her dream of proving herself to those who persisted in believing children from Muggle homes made inferior wizards.
Snape raised his eyebrows. "You would prefer a flattering lie?"
"You know I wouldn't."
"Ah, then I'm just your whipping boy while you ward off disappointment."
Sitting back in her chair, Hermione shook her head in defeat. "I'm no match for you tonight."
Snape smothered a grin at that unconscious display of arrogance. "You need to sleep. The sun's about to rise."
"I'll escort Miss Granger to her chambers," said Lupin. "After all, she is next door to ours. You look asleep on your feet. And so do you, my dear. You should have gone to bed hours ago."
"It didn't seem fair to leave Professor Snape strugg - working by himself."
"Are you sure you wouldn't like more salt?" inquired Snape, swallowing a yawn.
"To rub in my wounds," he explained blandly. "Go to bed," he added gently. "You can torment me again later today."
"Oh, good. Something to look forward to." Getting to her feet, Hermione placed a hand on his forearm for a moment. "Thank you for telling me the truth, though I don't know why no one told me before."
"It probably didn't occur to them that 'fame' was one of your goals in life. Ambition is a familiar concept to a Slytherin. Enough. Go. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes," she said, and the satisfaction in her voice made Lupin smile to himself as he tucked her arm into his.
Black idly watched them leave the room. "She's a nice child," he said, with a trace of condescension.
"I'm sure she'd be gratified to hear you say so," said Snape. "I know what contaminated the potion. Remus is fine."
"No, I'm lying."
Black ran a hand over his face. "Just for once in your life give me a straight answer. Are you sure Remus isn't developing a tolerance for the potion?"
"I'm positive. It was contaminated by a minute amount of sugar. The mistake was mine," Snape added flatly.
Black's eyes narrowed. "What aren't you telling me?"
Snape gave him a look of disdain.
"That's the first time I've ever known you admit you've made a mistake," said Black , ordering some black coffee.
"Don't bother making yourself at home," said Snape unpleasantly. "I want to go to bed."
"In a minute. I want to get to the bottom of this first. If you're voluntarily taking the blame you've either grown up or - Who are you protecting? It wouldn't be me, there would be no point keeping it from Remus and no one else is allowed in while you're brewing... Prospero's tits! It was Albus, wasn't it. Those bloody sweets of his."
"As Potion Master, the responsibility for any errors is mine. I contaminated one of my instruments in a moment of absent-mindedness. It won't happen again. Now go away. Come to think of it, I don't remember inviting you up here in the first place. What are you doing here?"
Tired as he was, Black wasn't so sleepy that he wanted to explain that Minerva had been concerned Snape might try to ravish her Gryffindor chick if he was left alone with her at night. Odd that she should be so prim and over-protective about her students when she was so uninhibited outside Hogwarts...
"I wanted to come and jeer, Remus came along to stop me. Do you really think Hermione will be able to help us fight Voldemort?"
Snape shrugged and sat in the armchair opposite the one Black was occupying. "I've no idea. I just know we need all the help we can get."
"Are things that bad? We need to know the truth, Severus," Black added quietly.
"I suppose you do," Snape conceded without enthusiasm. "Then, yes, they are. And in a few days they'll get worse when Voldemort holds the initiation ceremony for a new crop of Death Eaters. After all, it is harvest time."
"Harry won't be amongst them," said Black quickly.
Pride was the only thing which prevented Snape from rubbing his forearm. "Of course not. No Gryffindor could."
"I didn't mean it that way. It's just... Albus told me that the Sorting Hat wanted to put Harry into Slytherin."
Snape looked unexcited. "Given that it wanted to put me in Ravenclaw I shouldn't place too much reliance on that."
Black choked on his coffee. "I don't believe you."
"Situation normal in other words."
"You're no more a Ravenclaw than I'm a Slytherin."
"Oh, grow up man," said Snape wearily. "We all have elements of each House within us. Though some of us are less Hufflepuff than others. We're judged as much by our choices as from our characters - or perhaps they're the same thing. Slytherin was once a House to be proud of. One day it will be again. I'm going to bed."
"Do you ever regret choosing Slytherin?" asked Black.
Snape studied him with an insulting thoroughness. "How gratifying it must be to be you," he said at last.
"I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Fuck, Severus. I'm scared shitless Voldemort has somehow turned Harry... Minerva's worried, too."
Snape cocked his head. "Interesting. I'm not. Not since it occurred to me how many times Harry has defeated the Dark Lord. I find it difficult to believe Voldemort would favour the direct approach when there are so many alternatives."
"It's a mess," muttered Black in a low voice. "I don't know how we've come to this. Wizards don't have wars."
"Which is why we're so bad at it. Muggles, on the other hand, never seem to have anything else. We could learn from them. We'll have to, if we want to survive," said Snape grimly.
"From anyone willing to help us." His outstretched legs crossed at the ankles, Snape leant back in his chair, the lids of his eyes dragging with the fatigue which was slurring his slowed voice. "I learnt something else from studying the Pensieve I made."
Black went very still.
"Remus is never going to be able to brew Wolfsbane. Most of the energy has been yours, hasn't it?"
His eyes wary and defiant, Black nodded.
"You should have told me, Sirius. We've wasted too much valuable time - time I don't have."
"What? Are you ill again?"
"No. But... I have been Summoned more and more often in the last few months, usually for no reason than..." Snape grimaced. "I don't expect to survive until Christmas. You need to learn to brew Wolfsbane as quickly as possible. You certainly have the power required and you used to have the brain. I vaguely remember tying with you for first place once or twice."
"Once or twice?" hooted Black, successfully sidetracked. "I beat you to first place four years in a row. You'd be willing to teach me to brew Wolfsbane?" he added incredulously.
Snape gave him a tired look. "Teaching is what I do."
"Yes, I suppose it is." His fingers stuffed into the shallow pockets of his waistcoat, Black twiddled a booted foot. Shooting Snape a glance from under his lashes, he gnawed his lower lip. "I've seen something of what Voldemort's put you through. If I can do anything to help, tell me. We can settle old scores when Voldemort's dead. I mean it, Severus. I give you my word."
There was a short silence before Snape nodded. "Agreed," he said, his expression giving nothing away.
There was another lengthy silence.
"You heard that Harry won't be staying for the rest of the holidays after all." Black's tone was determinedly nonchalant.
"Yes." Snape offered no insincere protestations of regret but equally he made no further attempt to remove Black from his chambers.
"I can't blame Harry for preferring to watch Quidditch with his friend," muttered Black. "I mean, it's not as if he gets a lot of fun during the holidays. Those Dursleys..."
"The woman is Lily's sister. Somehow that seems to keep Voldemort from the area - helped by enough wards to break open Gringotts, of course."
"Oh, I know all the reasons for it. I just... I don't think Harry has ever known what it's like to be free of fear. Can you imagine being eleven years old and learning you have to face Voldemort? The more he learns the more terrified he gets. Not that he says so, of course - even to me. In some ways he's very like James. I know he's sports mad but that's partly an escape from the reality of Voldemort. I sometimes think the reason he hates you so passionately is because you're a villain he can cope with. Apart from the fact you're a git to him, of course."
Snape gave Black a look of surprise. "You worked that out for yourself?"
"I could easily punch you again," said Black, without heat. "I suppose I should apologise for that last one."
"Why break the habit of a lifetime. I suppose Remus explained it to you."
"No. I managed that all by myself. Eventually. Harry likes Remus a lot. It almost makes up for the fact I can't be with him."
"I think I may vomit. Keep your sugary sentimentality to yourself."
"You really are a... I'm worried about Harry."
"He's his father's son."
"Yes," agreed Black, looking proud.
"That isn't a compliment."
"Yes it is. And you know it. "Have you ever used any of the Unforgivable Curses? I have a reason for asking," Black added quickly.
"If Harry was threatened - ?"
"I'd leave the heroics to his fool of a godfather. I'm not his besotted parents. Lily died for that brat. He lived only because of her sacrifice but who remembers her? Harry doesn't. When he was choosing his Patronus he chose the stag - James."
"We remember her," said Black simply. "Those of us who loved her. And you're wrong, Harry thinks of her a lot - it's just not the Lily we knew. But he never got that chance and despite his courage he's still very young in some ways - far less mature than Hermione, for instance. He still thinks in stereotypes. Men are heroic and strong, woman gentle and nurturing, and of course there's truth in the stereotype but - "
"It's obvious he never knew Lily in a temper," interjected Snape.
Black gave a wry grin. "I've still got the scar where she hit me in the second year. When this is all over we'll start telling Harry about them properly but right now he's less interested in what they were really like than what he wants them to be - parents."
Snape cocked his head to one side. "I see the ability to think really is returning."
"I've always wondered. You and Lily - ?"
"No, we weren't," said Snape with resignation.
"How did you know what I was going to ask?"
"Because Albus did the other week. This preoccupation with my sex life is very gratifying. Trouble in Paradise?"
"Don't start," said Black mildly. "You forget, I know your diversionary tactics. Harry can't work out why you hate him so, now that he's had to concede that you're on our side."
"Having to do that must have hurt," said Snape with relish.
"You have no idea. I should add, he still doesn't trust you."
"Well, there's a surprise."
"Why do you hate him so?"
"Because he's his father all over again. So full of righteous certainty. He can do magic it took me fifteen years to master - and so much more besides. And he alone can stand up to Voldemort. My survival depends on a child who hates me." Snape's expression brightened. "If he really wants to know why I don't like him you could always tell him it's because he's the son I never had."
Black grinned, despite himself. "In an uncertain world it's comforting to know some things never change. You really are a bastard."
Snape failed to look modest.
"But about Harry," pursued Black doggedly.
Snape got to his feet. "Who do you think has been helping to keep him alive for the last six years? At great personal inconvenience, I might add. Of course I would do it," he added in a goaded tone.
Black sighed his relief. "Thank you for that, Severus." Getting to his feet he held out his hand.
Snape viewed it with interest. "Don't give me any credit. I'd do the same for any of the little bastards. It's what I'm here for. That and to stop the first years killing one another until they've learnt to control their magic, of course."
Glaring at him, Black managed to hold his tongue, although the effort almost killed him.
Smiling, Snape headed out of the room.
It was a moment of two before Black appreciated that Snape had left him alone in his study. He left before his baser instincts to pry should prevail. Besides, Remus would kill him if he destroyed this fragile peace.