- 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
Having breakfasted in solitary splendour, Madam Pomfrey was relaxing over a final cup of coffee when she saw Snape narrowly miss colliding with the door jamb as he came into the Great Hall.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
Taken aback, Snape ground to a halt. "Would you like me to go out and come back in so you can insult me again?" He sounded as if even speech required more energy than he possessed.
Wondering how she could have failed to note all the signs of exhaustion the previous day, she fished for her wand. "Don't take umbrage." Without waiting for his consent, she began to take readings before glaring at him. "How much sleep have you had in the last few days?"
"I haven't been keeping count," he dismissed, easing on to a chair as if everything hurt.
"That bad? Lack of sleep impairs the mental faculties and slows physical reaction times. I wouldn't recommend you do any potion-making for a while. You should have used yesterday to catch up on sleep. What's the problem - nightmares? Don't glare at me, there's no one to hear us. Are they why you're not sleeping?"
Curling his hands around the large cup, Snape concentrated on drinking his tea. "About twelve hours I expect," he said. It took her a moment to appreciate that the most quick-witted member of staff was several sentences behind.
"Then it's time you had a Dreamless Sleeping Potion and twenty four hours in the hospital wing. You're no use to anyone like this." Experience had taught her the argument of usefulness was far more effective than concern for his well-being. "Your coordination is affected, your speech is halting - so heaven only knows what your thought processes are like - and your temper is erratic. Now I'm prepared to concede the latter is normal but you look...terrible. The tic in one eye isn't helping your looks," she added, hoping an appeal to his vanity might work where common sense failed. "There was absolutely no need for you to stay up all night working on that ridiculous puzzle - except you obviously didn't want to sleep. In fact I would go so far to say you didn't want to be alone, which isn't at all in character."
"That's enough!" On his feet, Snape swayed and sat down quicker than he had anticipated. He rubbed a hand over his face, the skin of which felt over-sensitised.
"I can't believe I missed all the signs yesterday," muttered Madam Pomfrey crossly. "Unless - Had you been eating medichocolate? Severus, concentrate. Oh, this isn't strictly speaking ethical but... Eat this. Slowly." She handed him two squares of medichocolate, then another, before pouring him more tea.
After a minute or so a little colour crept into his face. "Medichocolate? Uh. Yes. Albus gave me a slab. Then I shared another with Miss Granger. Why?"
"I'll have a word with Albus. There's a reason it's called medichocolate rather than Easifix. And where, pray, did Miss Granger get hers from?"
"Oh, that was me."
"I might have known. How would you feel if I came down to the dungeons and took over your Potions class?"
"If it was first year Potions I'd kiss you on the cheek and leave you to it," Snape mumbled, his head propped on his hand.
"I must put that to the test one day. In the meantime, do not - are you listening to me, Severus? - do not go around prescribing medichocolate. With nearly two slabs inside you it's a wonder we didn't have to scrape you off the ceiling. Why were you giving medichocolate to Miss Granger?"
"Menstrual cramps and bad temper," he said.
"I've never noticed medichocolate doing anything to improve your temper."
"I don't think anything could."
Taken aback by the sweetness of his sleepy smile, Madam Pomfrey patted his arm and stopped scolding. "The fact remains, you're exhausted. Remus left me a note. Apparently you fell asleep mid-sentence twice last night. It worried Miss Granger enough for her to come downstairs to ask for help. Which is why Minerva asked Remus if he and Sirius would stay with her. Didn't you wonder what they were doing there?"
Snape visibly thought about it. "From the knowing looks Sirius was giving me I think he assumed Minerva wanted him to act as a chaperone - in case I tried to inflict my manly passions on Miss Granger. Which just demonstrates how little he knows of Hermione," he added. The amused affection in his voice made Madam Pomfrey give him a sharp look.
"What makes you say that?"
"What? Oh. That considering look of hers. She's more than capable of depressing the pretensions of any would-be lecher. Or do you imagine my Slytherins haven't noticed how she's blossomed in the last year? It's amazing how House rivalries start taking second place to hormones around the age of fifteen or sixteen."
It was also comforting, mused Madam Pomfrey, to realise how obtuse even the cleverest of men could be. He had no idea that the child had a crush on him. But then hormones had blinded cleverer men than Severus Snape. Mentally congratulating Minerva on her foresight, she murmured something non-committal.
While his head was still propped on one hand, Snape was visibly reviving under the influence of the medichocolate and the caffeine in his tea. "Hermione didn't say anything to me about being worried." His stomach lurched when he appreciated how little he could remember of what he had said or done - catastrophic for a man accustomed to guarding every word and gesture. To buy himself time he poured himself some more tea but the question worrying him most slipped out despite himself. "Poppy, I didn't say or behave in an inappropriate...?"
"Of course you didn't," she said forthrightly. "No, it was just that at one point you claimed you were giving her the solution to the logic puzzle. What you actually gave her was the recipe for a hair conditioner - in Latin. When she queried that you snapped her head off, returned to your table and promptly fell asleep again."
"Ah," said Snape, a defeated slump to his shoulders. "I didn't realise things had got that bad. Wonderful. So she now assumes her Potions master is going mad. That's all we need."
"Give the child some credit. Not to mention my training. Sleep-deprivation isn't that hard to spot. Quite apart from the recent trauma of wondering if you had been transformed we're all anxious - waiting to see who we might have lost to He-Who - Voldemort. I imagine you have the added burden of remembering your own initiation."
His head whipped around but whatever retort he had intended died stillborn when he saw nothing beyond regret on her face.
"I'll take the damn potion," he muttered with poor grace, before he grimaced and sat back. "You're right, I'm no use to anyone at the moment. I was trying to make some Easiheal while I was talking to Albus yesterday - I couldn't even chop leeches properly. Once I've had some sleep I'll see him about using a time turner. I'll need at least a week to give you a decent stock of the basics. Lupin and Black can help me. Those supplies you used last term when I couldn't - "
"Your potions are infinitely superior," Madam Pomfrey said incisively. "They work faster, last longer and have fewer side effects. Hardly to be wondered at, I suppose. You are a Potions Master."
Even as a child he had been fascinated by the art of potion-making and its infinite possibilities and wonders. For a scientist who professed to be a pragmatist Severus had an odd, romantic streak - hence his tendency to grand gestures, although he would be mortified if it was pointed out to him. Besides, it had its uses. The knowledge that his sinister looking figure was prowling the corridors helped to keep some of the more boisterous pupils in check. "I wonder you haven't ever supervised anyone yourself."
Snape gave her an unpleasant look. "That's a remarkably stupid comment, even by your standards."
"Don't you use that tone with me, Severus Snape! If you think for one..." Breaking off, Madam Pomfrey sighed. "You play us like fish on a line, don't you," she recognised sadly. "And it was a tactless question. I'm just jealous because I can't even make a decent Easiheal Potion."
"You don't need to."
"But I should be able to. My Pupillage was terminated after three months. Since then I haven't been able to... I've been wondering if I should ask Albus about getting me an assistant. Making potions for the hospital wing takes up far too much of your spare time - time you should be spending on research."
"Worry about it when I start objecting," he said mildly. "Although your idea has merit. We don't know how long I'm going to be - Who was your Potions Master?" he broke off to ask.
"You studied under Rakoczi?" His tone was incredulous.
"I was considered a reasonably intelligent student," Madam Pomfrey said acidly.
"Stop laying traps for me. I meant only - "
"I'd stop there if I was you," she advised him, a twinkle in her eyes. "It was an honour and a privilege to study with Rakoczi - a fact he reminded me of every day of the three months I was with him. He was in England, working with the Ministry at the time. In the sixty odd years since then I've come to appreciate he's a poor communicator. Interestingly, he hasn't taken on a pupil for nearly fifty years. He's wise not to. His temperament isn't suited to teaching - although it took me some years to appreciate that." Madam Pomfrey stretched out her plump hands. "You've no idea how frustrating it is to know you have the knowledge and the ability and yet lack the skill."
"Too tense," said Snape. He sat back in his chair, life returning to his hooded eyes.
"You're probably too tense. It can block the energy flow necessary to complete the process."
"Your classes are tense enough but they all cope - except for Longbottom, of course."
"Hatred is as good a way of focussing energy as any other. Oderint, dum metuant. But if they can make a potion with me breathing down their necks, making their lives hell, they should be capable of making one in an emergency. As for the first four years... My one concern with those dunderheads is to ensure they don't blow up Hogwarts, me - or themselves. Would you care to work with me for a few days, if you have the time," Snape added. "I think any of those who have been in my seventh year Salamander Level classes would give me a good reference."
Madam Pomfrey stared at him in disbelief.
"That was a stupid suggestion," Snape muttered a short while later, avoiding her gaze. His shoulders were hunched, his arms defensively folded across his chest.
"I would be honoured," she said simply, pushing her astonishment at the undreamt of offer to one side.
He looked up then, his mouth twisting. "Of course you would be. It's all right, Poppy. You - "
"Is there any chance of you letting me finish?" she demanded. "Don't glare at me like that. Of course I'm honoured. How many people are privileged enough to study under a Potions Master?"
"Every pupil at Hogwarts for the last seventeen years," he said but he had relaxed again. What little vitality the medichocolate had given himself was draining away in front of her eyes and she could see he was having difficulty in stopping himself from fidgeting, his fingers plucking at the shirt sleeve of his left arm.
"And not one of them appreciates the difference between a Potions Master and a master who happens to teach Potions. I'm not even sure Albus does," she mused, side-tracked.
"Oh, I'm in no doubt. He doesn't. But then humility is supposed to be good for Slytherins."
"Do you ever regret not being able to take your rightful place in the wizarding world?"
"My rightful place?" In two swift movements Snape ripped open the cuff of his shirt and thrust his bared left forearm at her; it was shaking. "With this?" His voice cracked with revulsion.
"My dear, there's nothing there," she said gently. Medical detachment abandoning her, the expression in his eyes made her want to weep.
The years dropped away from him. "You're wrong," he said hopelessly, looking lost and scared. "There is. And it will never go away. The Dark Mark is only a reminder of what's inside me. There is no way out," he muttered. "No way out. No way... I'm tired. So tired..." The murmuring faded away. Like a small child kept up past its bedtime he folded his arms on the tabletop and settled his head on them.
Madam Pomfrey stared at his bowed head, almost afraid to breathe. In the last five minutes she had learnt more about this intensely private man than in the previous twenty seven years. Once he realised what he had revealed the best she could hope for was that he would never speak to her again. It was several minutes before she appreciated that he had fallen asleep where he sat. Glancing up she saw Professors Flitwick and Sprout in the doorway; from their expressions they had obviously been there for some time. Fortunately their discretion was absolute.
"We'll eat in our chambers," said Professor Sprout in an undertone. "You'll stay with him? Sirius and Hermione mustn't see this. Severus would hate it."
"We have to change our tactics and be prepared to consider every option," said Flitwick resolutely. "Severus can't go on like this." His eyes overflowing, he dabbed at them with a lace-edged handkerchief, while Sprout patted his forearm.
"Nor can we, my dear. Nor can we."
Having called another meeting of the Inner Circle, Dumbledore beamed at those occupying various comfortable chairs in his office. The windows were all open now the heat of the day was done, allowing cool, sweet air into the room. Out in the darkness some of the owls could be heard hunting in the Forbidden Forest; inside the glow from the wall sconces flattered everyone, while casting fantastic shadows across the room.
"Isn't this nice," he said contentedly.
"Not really," said Professor Sprout, her manner brisk. "I've seeds in urgent need of preparation. And many more needing to be harvested. I've never been this behind before."
"You must co-opt help, my dear. Remus, Sirius, Poppy - and Miss Granger, of course."
"Don't forget Severus," said Black blandly. "Where is he, come to that? I haven't seen him since the day before yesterday."
"Asleep," said Madam Pomfrey. "I gave him a second dose of Dreamless Sleeping Potion this morning."
Dumbledore peered at her from over the top of his spectacles. "Isn't that a little drastic?"
Madam Pomfrey glared at him. "The next time you get the urge to feed Severus a whole slab of medichocolate you might want to pause to ask yourself why he's looking so ill. He's suffering from exhaustion - and stress. The mere fact he agreed to take the second draught should tell you how much. Kindly leave the diagnosing to me."
"Yes, my dear. I'm very sorry, I didn't think," said Dumbledore humbly.
"Why am I not surprised, you're a Gryffindor," Madam Pomfrey retorted.
The twinkle in his eyes grew even more evident.
As Hermione watched the changing expressions of Professors Flitwick and Sprout and Madam Hooch, it occurred to her that perhaps the Slytherins weren't the only ones irritated by members of her House at times. Then the implications sank in behind Snape's exhaustion.
"This is a nuisance, it nullifies the results of the logic puzzle," she said, wondering why several people were glaring at her with disapproval.
"I'm all for single-mindedness but it's always useful to remember your patient is also a sentient creature," said Madam Pomfrey.
Hermione subsided with an abashed murmur, rebelliously aware that Snape would have understood.
Lupin gave her a sympathetic look. "Don't take it personally," he whispered. "Poppy's cross with herself for not spotting what was wrong with Severus yesterday."
"I think it would still be valid to discuss the results of Miss Granger's experiment," said Dumbledore firmly. "Severus didn't expect to do well. Hermione, my dear, if you will."
Dumbledore's study a treasure trove of items she longed to investigate, Hermione did her best to marshal her arguments. But try as she might, she soon realised she had lost her professors. Eventually she stopped talking and glanced at Dumbledore in silent appeal.
"Well, I'm sure that was extremely well put, my dear, it's just that... Let me see if I've understood you. Your logic puzzle is for Muggle children and easier to solve than the puzzle Severus devised to protect the Philosopher's Stone. You solved his puzzle in about ten minutes. Even allowing for his exhaustion he took far longer but he was handicapped by the fact you'd asked him to concentrate on not using magic. You didn't actually devise your puzzle, he spent four days of intensive work creating his." Dumbledore paused to chew reflectively on a chocolate caramel. "I know this is foolish of me but I don't understand how any of this helps us."
"It doesn't, in itself," said Hermione, doing her best to ignore Madam Hooch's sound of impatience. "What it has done is open up some possibilities. Either the ability of a powerful wizard to reason logically seems to be seriously impaired in situations where they can't use magic as at least in part to solve a problem, or concentrating on not using magic impairs his thought processes to the point where -"
"Well, there's a surprise," said Madam Hooch. "Who would have thought that concentrating on two things at the same time would slow anyone down?"
But Flitwick was nodding his comprehension. "I think I see what you were getting at. Severus has been capable of using magic since he was three years old. It's as if you asked him to take a Potions class without being able to see, smell or hear."
"Not being able to use magic would be akin to not being able to breathe," said Professor Sprout, looking horrified.
"Exactly," broke in Hermione, now too excited to think of being nervous. "That's the crucial difference between those born into wizarding families and those of us who come from Muggle families. While using magic is as natural as breathing to me, I can still remember how to do things without it. Whereas all of you... You've never known that, have you?"
One by one the members of staff nodded, murmuring amongst themselves as they absorbed a concept they had never fully considered before.
"Ron or Malfoy are like you. They grew up saturated in magic. But Seamus - even Harry - would understand what I'm talking about. It might be a tiny part of what's helping Harry to defeat Voldemort."
"He's half Muggle," pointed out Professor McGonagall. "And reared in a Muggle orphanage."
"And from the information you've all given me he's been working towards waging war on Muggles ever since," Hermione reminded her. "Given that he and his mother were abandoned by his Muggle father you would expect Tom Riddle to have turned to the wizarding world for support. Instead, he's using it as a means to destroy Muggles, while trying to prove himself more of a wizard than the most powerful wizard alive." She nodded in Dumbledore's direction. "But no one knows why he went after James and Lily Potter, only what happened. He hadn't allowed for Harry. Or was it Harry? Though his power is real enough, isn't it?"
"Now isn't the time to get side-tracked on inessentials. Is there any hope of you getting to the point - whatever it may be," said Madam Hooch briskly.
Professor McGonagall 'Ssshed' her but Hermione had barely noticed the interruption.
"I'm not sure. I'm sorry. I know I'm not being any help but at the moment I'm just thinking aloud while I try and identify our problems, hoping something will make sense. You used a chess game to protect the Philosopher's Stone - as if you didn't expect anyone to be able to play well enough to get through. Only Quirrell did. As did Ron. Real battles, real wars require some of the same skills... You should think about involving Ron."
"Yes." agreed Dumbledore. "I will speak to him - and Harry - when they arrive. But - um - about the protection around the Stone..."
Hermione went very still. "It was never meant to stop anyone, was it," she said, the chill of recognition creeping over her. "Just enough to convince Quirrell and keep out anyone who stumbled down there by accident. I love Hagrid but no one would trust him with a secret as important as the Stone. He even took Harry to collect it. We did exactly what we were supposed to do, didn't we?" It wasn't even a betrayal because from the perspective maturity brought she knew her eleven year old self would not have understood just how ruthless Dumbledore had to be.
"You did more," Dumbledore said gently. "We - no, I - didn't bargain on Harry having two such stalwart friends."
Hermione nodded absently, her attention clearly elsewhere. "Did you know Voldemort was part of Quirrell all along?"
"Only at the very end. Just as I knew Harry was our only hope of keeping the Stone from him. What I hadn't anticipated was being called away at the time I would be needed here the most."
"Tom Riddle moved so far into the Dark Arts that... Is Voldemort even human any more?"
Dumbledore sighed. "From what Severus has told me, Voldemort looks more reptilian these days. As for his soul, if he still has one... I don't know."
"Perhaps we should assume he still reasons as a human until the contrary is proved. Would some of you be willing to try play chess handicapping themselves by concentrating on not using magic while playing against opponents who can? And perhaps someone else would be prepared to try to solve the logic puzzle I gave Professor Snape? Only you would be able to use magic while you tried out the various permutations."
"Perhaps if you were to explain," said Lupin.
Hermione read out the puzzle. "You could create all the figures, the boat, the river. Or draw moving figures on parchment before trying to solve the puzzle. Obviously, you have to abide by the rules laid down in the puzzle. I wonder if the use of even such a small amount of magic would be enough to free up your ability to reason? You all have it in abundance, if you didn't, you wouldn't be able to run Hogwarts."
Dumbledore gave her a benign smile. "We don't run Hogwarts, my dear, Hogwarts does that very well by itself. But I do take your point. Are you suggesting this may help us against Voldemort?"
Hermione's shoulders slumped. "The truth is, I've no idea. I think I might be most useful to you all because of my Muggle background and cross-cultural references. While I have no doubt that I'm a witch, part of me still thinks like a Muggle. I can still remember what it's like to have to go through everyday life, let alone solve problems, without magic. If you'll permit it, I do have some questions to ask you."
"Ask away," said Professor McGonagall, glaring at Madam Hooch.
"First, what plans do you already have in place for taking the attack to Voldemort?"
"Attack?" echoed Dumbledore blankly.
"Deliberate aggression?" squeaked Flitwick, tears of dismay springing to his eyes.
"We couldn't do that," said Lupin, apologetic but firm.
"The very idea," sniffed McGonagall. "I'm surprised at you, Miss Granger."
Madam Pomfrey looked too appalled to speak.
Hermione glanced at Sirius Black, her last bastion of common sense.
He fidgeted where he sat. "It occurs to me that wizards and Muggles must fight in very different ways." He sounded defensive, even to his own ears.
"You mean there's no plan of campaign?" said Hermione.
"We protect the Muggle and wizard community as best we can. We do our utmost to keep the children in this school safe," said Dumbledore.
"And sometimes we fail," said Professor Sprout with sorrow, as she thought of Cedric Diggory.
"And sometimes we fail," acknowledged Dumbledore, the bleakness of ages in his eyes.
Hermione was tempted to pinch herself to ensure she was still awake. "I should like to be clear on this point, if you don't mind. Are you saying that all we do is defend - react to attack from Voldemort and his Death Eaters?"
"What else should we do? We're not killers," said Professor McGonagall, looking troubled.
"Then there's Severus, who at my request returned to Voldemort two years ago," said Dumbledore.
"And has Professor Snape been able to supply you with any useful information?" asked Hermione, trying not to remember the figure twisted in agony.
"He has been able to mislead Voldemort on occasion," said Dumbledore.
"Mislead..." repeated Hermione softly, growing disbelief on her face. "On anything important?"
"Not as yet," said Dumbledore, looking down.
"So for the last two years you've been sending him off, time after time, knowing he won't be able to gain any information and knowing he's going to be tortured?"
"That's not fair, Miss Granger," snapped Madam Hooch, after a glance at Dumbledore's face.
"No, it isn't," she said, shaking with anger. "Least of all to Professor Snape. The only mystery is why he lets you use him this way. He must know you're killing him by inches - and for nothing!" Angrily blowing her nose, she glared at the silent circle, too upset to notice how pale Dumbledore had become as he absorbed what she had said.
"And what about Harry? The Boy-Who-Isn't-Going-To-Live-Much-Longer. He was eleven years old the first time he faced Voldemort. He's met and defeated him every year since then and every time Voldemort becomes more powerful while Harry's powers stay the same. Oh, he learns a few charms, or how to brew a potion but he can't even Apparate - "
Lupin gave a gentle cough. "Actually, he can. I taught him last year. He doesn't have a Licence, of course but between you and me, the Ministry has never been very successful at preventing illegal Apparation - you'd be amazed how few of the Death Eaters have a Licence."
"Great. So now Harry has the means to get himself into trouble even faster. Can't you see," Hermione burst out. "If the wizard community had united to take steps against Voldemort years ago how many wizards and Muggles now dead would be alive - including Harry's parents? The high moral ground is all very well but continue with this - you can't dignify it with the name 'plan' - and we'll all be dead, or wishing we were, before the year is out! Although if you could play wizard chess with the lives of three eleven year olds at stake you shouldn't have any problem with Muggle warfare at all," she added, but she winced when Dumbledore flinched.
"How dare you suggest - " began Professor McGonagall, spots of colour in the centre of each cheek.
"You forget yourself," said Madam Hooch, her fierce yellow eyes boring into Hermione.
Professor Sprout held up a small, plump hand. "No, I believe it is we who have been remiss. Miss Granger is right. Voldemort's success has depended on the fact we persist in thinking he's a wizard when the truth is we don't know what he is any more. Part Muggle, part immensely powerful wizard, wearing the body of... Who knows what? We need to adapt. Difficult decisions have to be faced up to. We cannot defeat him if we go on in this fashion. The alternative? Do you really want to see our children prostrating themselves at his feet, with the world as we know it destroyed?"
There was a babble of sound as almost everyone in the room started to protest at once.
Curled up in her chair, Hermione felt cold and sick with nerves, not least when she saw the anguish in Dumbledore's eyes as he sat silent and still, his head bowed. With a murmur of contrition she knelt at his side, taking his hand in both of hers and holding it to her cheek.
"I know how I must have sounded just now. I was wrong to blame you. I can only imagine how hard it must be to make the kind of decisions you have to. And I know you have no choice - it's just... They're my friends. I worry about them. Forgive me. I never intended to hurt you."
Dumbledore patted her arm. "Oh child, of course I know. There, there. Don't kneel. Not to anyone. Though I fear that you may be right about the need to consider new... But it will be hard for us. We're not accustomed to..."
"War," said Black flatly. "We're talking of war. And one we have to win."
"Is it my imagination or are all the former heads of Hogwarts glaring at me?" asked Hermione, half-smiling, half-serious where she sat in Dumbledore's study the following afternoon. Because emotions had been running high, and there was still much to be discussed, he had arranged for her to see him 'for some more thinking aloud.' Various figures in the portraits lining the walls quickly found something to do when Dumbledore glanced at them.
"Wizards are a conservative bunch, my dear."
"I've learnt that much already," said Hermione with feeling. The atmosphere around the breakfast table had been distinct chilly this morning. "But the wizarding community needs to decide what is more important - tradition, or saving two communities from Voldemort by considering adopting some Muggle ploys, such as taking the attack to the enemy with a view to defeating him."
His elbows propped on the carved arms of his chair, Dumbledore studied her for an unnervingly long time before he spoke. "I can see why Severus enjoys his discussions with you," he said at last. "But you might want to remind yourself how Tom Riddle's fall began."
"Or mine," said a familiar voice.
Hermione half-turned in her chair to see Snape propped in the doorway, his arms folded, a familiar sardonic, closed-in expression on his face. He looked considerably better than when she had seen him last.
"Hardly comparable," she dismissed, turning back in time to see Dumbledore's face undergoing some strange contortion.
"Headmaster?" she said worriedly.
He waved away her concern. "It's was nothing, my dear," he said in strangled tones. "Merely a piece of toffee sticking my jaws together."
"A pity it doesn't happen more often," said Snape unpleasantly as he sank into the chair beside Hermione and subjected her to a hooded glare. "I understand you've created something of a stir."
"Good afternoon, Severus. What a pleasure to see you, and in such a good mood, too," said Dumbledore pointedly.
Snape's expression further soured. "I'm here because Poppy said you wanted to see me."
"I always enjoy seeing you. Don't grind your teeth, you're going to need them for at least another one hundred and twenty years. Perhaps afternoon tea before we begin work. Miss Granger wants to - um - 'pick our brains'."
"Which shouldn't take long in some cases. About what?" asked Snape.
"Ways to defeat Voldemort," Hermione said hardily.
"Oh, well, five minutes should do it. Headmaster, I had hoped to be brewing potions, not sitting here listening to some idiot-girl burbling about - " Snape stopped talking only when he realised Hermione had left the room.
"Satisfied?" inquired Dumbledore.
"Ah," said Snape, meeting a pair of disapproving blue eyes. He rubbed the back of his neck.
"I suppose you want me to go after her?" he added, a little time later, still caught in the spotlight of those eyes.
"My wishes have very little to do with the way events are shaping," said Dumbledore evenly. "We are all going to have to make difficult choices. I know Hermione sounds...arrogant. But she's just tackling what was requested of her the only way she knows how - by doing her research. Unfortunately she has to rely on us instead of source books. Soon it will occur to her to ask me for my memories of Tom Riddle. I taught him for seven years and never once suspected... No one enjoys revisiting the memory of failure. And while she undoubtedly has moments when she is less than tactful - "
"She is not - what is it you call us? - one of the bone-headed Gryffindors. She's - "
"Sentimental, over-emotional, do-gooding and - "
"Yes, I suspected you'd become fond of her. Will you answer me one question honestly? And I'd rather you didn't spend long deciding," Dumbledore added, with a tartness which won him a faint grin before Snape sighed and sat back in his chair with every appearance of ease, his long fingers linked over his flat belly.
"Ask away," he said with resignation.
"Do you believe there is any gain to us in you obeying Voldemort's summons?"
It was not one of the many questions Snape had been braced against hearing. "I used to," he said at last.
Dumbledore closed his eyes for a moment. "Then you must stop going."
"No," said Snape simply. "While I don't believe it, there is still a faint chance of my learning something useful. And while that exists it's worth - "
"Your life?" said Hermione, belatedly tapping on the door although she was already over the threshold. Breathless and pink-cheeked, she hurried into the room. "Here," she added to Snape, tossing a handful of photographs at him. "Reasons to swallow your pride and consider the idea that there might be other ways of fighting Voldemort."
"Miss Granger, I think you forget - " Snape fell silent as he righted the first photograph.
Her forearm propped on James' shoulder, amusement sparkling in her wonderful eyes, Lily gave him a broad grin before she blew him a kiss; James pretended not to notice. Two Muggles stood in stiffly formal poses; the man's bushy brown hair and earnest expression betrayed whose parents they must be. Cedric Diggory stood at the back of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team, beaming happily. Snape's mouth thinned. Cedric had been a promising student. More Muggles, older, the woman with a look of young Susan Bones...
"Very affecting," he drawled, setting down the photographs without looking at the rest of them. The photo of Lily and James was on top - as usual, James was looking solemn until he glanced at Lily. Tucking his arm around her, he stared directly at Snape, then nodded, as if in approval. Making a sound of impatience Snape turned it face down on Dumbledore's desk. "It will take more than crass sentimentality to convince me that - "
"I'm to be trusted," completed Hermione, her clear voice cutting through his deeper tones.
"If you weren't trusted we would hardly be having this conversation."
"I meant trusted by you not to take advantage of any personal information I might learn. I don't blame you. Why should you trust me? I'm a pupil, a friend of Harry's and Ron's and - the greatest sin of all - a Gryffindor. The only reason I have to ask you these invasive questions is because no one else has had the opportunities you've had to see Voldemort."
"I'd never thought of them as opportunities before. How foolish of me. Given that I spend most of my time in Voldemort's company either face down in the dirt or writhing in agony I'm at a loss to know how you imagine I can help."
Unable to sustain the contained anger being directed at her, Hermione ducked her head. "I knew you weren't going to like it," she whispered, her hair slipping forwards to mask her face.
A disagreeable twist to his mouth Snape glared at her. "If you imagine I've enjoyed anything about the last few days you haven't been paying close attention. What, in particular, do you want to know?"
Her hands curled in her lap, she tried to untwine her knotted fingers. "What happens when you are summoned? Between you and Voldemort, I mean. What kind of a relationship do you have with him?"
In the space of a breath she found herself staring into the arctic waste of Snape's eyes before he rose to his feet in one smoothly economical movement. Without saying a word he stalked from Dumbledore's office. While he didn't touch the door, it slammed loudly enough to make Fawkes flinch where he sat on his perch.
For a moment it felt as if all the air had been sucked from the room.
Hermione stared at her hands. "That went well," she said in a small voice.
"Why do you want to know those things?" asked Dumbledore into the silence.
"So I can gossip about him in the witches' toilet!" Hermione snapped, feeling shaken and out of her depth. A moment later she exhaled shakily and looked up. "I'm sorry, Headmaster, I'm... I don't see how I've done anything but make everything worse. But something has to change. It's obvious Professor Snape will have to continue to obey Voldemort's summons. If he can't make himself useful, either with information or some service he can perform, Voldemort will kill him. We need to think of things to stop that from happening that won't leave Professor Snape feeling soul-sick."
"Ah," murmured Dumbledore, with something that sounded oddly like satisfaction. "I couldn't agree more. Please go on, Miss Granger."
Steadied, some of the tension left her body. "It occurred to me that even monsters like Voldemort don't think of themselves as monsters. How does Voldemort view himself? Professor Snape is used to observing people - if he wasn't some first year would have blown him up years ago. I wonder if there's anyone left who ever shows Voldemort anything but fear, greed, ambition... I don't care who - or what - they are, we all enjoy praise, admiration, affection, respect... For instance, when was the last time anyone gave Voldemort a present?"
Dumbledore had to stop drinking his tea in case he choked. "You want Professor Snape to take Voldemort a present?" he said, careful not to look across the room.
"I know it sounds stupidly naive..."
"That's the first sensible thing you've said," drawled a familiar voice.
Open relief on her face, Hermione swung around. "You came back!"
"I had no choice," said Snape acidly. "The wards the headmaster placed on the door at the bottom of the steps prevented me from leaving." He strode over to the fireplace but as he reached for the bowl containing Floo powder it scuttled to one side. Unamused, he turned to glare at Dumbledore. "Tell me you're not serious."
"About keeping you alive? Very."
Snape directed an irritable glare at Hermione. Staring into the middle distance, she gave no sign of noticing. He began to prowl around the perimeter of the cluttered room; by the time he made the third circuit even Fawkes was glaring at him. Oblivious, Snape came to a halt behind Hermione.
"Headmaster," said Hermione, her voice tightly controlled, "during term time I have to tolerate Professor Snape looming over me. Do I have to put up with it during the summer holidays?"
"Not at all, my dear. Severus!"
"Kindly stop looming over Miss Granger while she's trying to concentrate."
Guiltily aware that he had been inhaling the clean, sweet, unique scent of her, Snape nodded but stayed where he was against the wall, his hooded gaze on the back of Hermione's head. She had tried putting her hair up but it was too thick for that to have been successful, although it had the merit of revealing the tender nape of her neck and line from neck to shoulder, usually hidden by her hair. She had a pretty neck.
Voldemort would snap it like a twig.
After three more circuits of the room Snape again came to a halt behind Hermione and propped himself against the wall, his arms folded. When it came to it, he wasn't sure if he was physically capable of speaking and so he was surprised by how matter of fact he sounded.
"What is it you want to know, Miss Granger?" She raised her head but did not turn and he was grateful he didn't have to meet her eyes.
"Anything you're willing to tell me. Once I've had a chance to offer some ideas based on that information, if you wish someone can use a Memory Charm to remove...whatever you wish from my memory."
For what seemed like forever the only sound in the room was the rustle of feathers as Fawkes groomed his fabulous tail feathers. Without warning he stopped preening and flew to land on Hermione's shoulder, making her flinch with shock - it was the first time Fawkes had appeared to notice her existence. To her surprise, despite his size, she was barely conscious of his weight, the great talons light as the air itself. After tweaking her hair, Fawkes flew off and without needing to turn Hermione knew he had gone to Snape.
She shivered as the most beautiful sound she had ever heard filled the air: Fawkes was singing. To the pure in heart - even if Snape would deny that strongly. The golden notes soaking into her soul, she slowly straightened where she sat.
It was some time before she appreciated that it was silent again and that the atmosphere in the room had changed.
Finally Snape began to speak, in a measured, even voice that didn't quite succeed in pressing all emotion from it.
"First, you must understand that the Dark Lord will never forgive my desertion. He's still punishing Lucius Malfoy for the years he stayed away. He trusts no one. The Death Eaters are toys for his amusement, servants to do his bidding, slaves when it suits him. There is no camaraderie between the Death Eaters, only a rivalry for Voldemort's favour and the profit and power to be gained from that. And terror, of course. It's less his power over life and death than his imaginative ways of prolonging both. However, the Dark Lord did - and still does, I think - believe my return was voluntary simply because I waited so long and returned when there was no reason and nothing to expect except death."
Hermione had the sense not to turn around but she winced, beginning to appreciate why Snape had been so unwilling to discuss this, least of all with her.
"It's rare to see more than three or four Death Eaters at one time, all of them known to me. Often it is only the Dark Lord and Wormtail, sometimes Malfoy, Nott, Goyle and Crabbe. Malfoy assumes he is the Dark Lord's favourite; he is undoubtedly useful, with a large sphere of influence. To those who care about such things he's a pure-blood from one of the oldest wizarding families; unlike the Weasleys, who could make the same claim, he's also extremely wealthy. But he's not intelligent enough to hide the extent of his ambition, which is why one day Voldemort will turn on him.
"We are always summoned at night. Around two a.m. usually. Once outside the grounds of Hogwarts I Disapparate - I never know to where until I arrive. It used to be in deserted country locations but as the weather grew colder we began to meet underground - in holes, caves, old tunnels. Sometimes the Dark Lord inflicts the Cruciatus the moment I arrive, waits until I'm capable of making my obeisance and then inflicts it again. At others I'm there for my irritant value - Malfoy never was particularly quick-witted. Sometimes Voldemort demands information - why haven't I brought Harry to him, or killed Albus, broken the wards around Hogwarts? All predictable. My failures are punished, sometimes in public, sometimes in private. Always with pain and its accompanying humiliations.
"Is this the sort of thing you need to know, Miss Granger?" The flick of the whip behind the evenly-voiced question was unmistakable.
"Yes, Professor," she said quietly, trying to demonstrate her support and respect in the only way he would permit. Tension made the muscles in her neck and shoulders ache. "As a Death Eater, what are your duties? I mean, what do you actually have to do?"
"In the last two years?"
"Nothing? Oh. Then why does he call you to him?"
"Because he can, Miss Granger. Because he can."
"What were your duties seventeen years ago?"
Snape's hand went to his collar, as if it had grown too tight, despite the fact that the neck of his shirt was unfastened. "I was Voldemort's interrogator," he said, without justification or apology. He felt the shudder of revulsion which went through her from where he stood several feet away.
Dumbledore took one look at Hermione's anguished expression and calmly filled the silence.
"Voldemort reserved Severus' skills for the times when torture was inappropriate. For the times when he wanted the information most. The only tools at Severus' disposal were Veritaserum, his mind and his voice."
"Ah," said Hermione in an unsteady voice. She was too inexperienced to hide her relief. "That must have been...appalling."
"Yes," agreed Dumbledore. "What many people fail to appreciate - and fortunately Voldemort is one of them - is that Veritaserum is only as effective as the questions the interrogator asks. Voldemort was always present during questioning - in person or...otherwise. Severus often managed to prevent vital information from being given by misdirecting the questions in a manner subtle enough to deceive Voldemort."
"And at other times I failed," said Snape but a certain roughness to his voice betrayed him.
"Did you ever have to question other Death Eaters?" Hermione asked, still not turning to face him.
"Two or three. All now dead."
"Is there any possibility that you could hypnotise someone while they were under the influence of Veritaserum? There's a risk Voldemort might detect a magical trace if you used the Imperius but hypnotism uses no magic."
"Hypno - " Snape stopped. "I'm not convinced I fully understand what it is, let alone - Do you have any conception what - ? Never mind. It hasn't arisen since I returned to him."
"If he gives you nothing to do, yet keeps calling you back to his side... He already thinks you love him. Doesn't he?"
There were a few seconds when Dumbledore was afraid what Snape's reaction might be but Snape's control held; only his hands tightening over the stone behind him betrayed him. He couldn't bear to look at Severus' face - not least because he was afraid of the blame he would see there. He had sent Severus back to this. He was the reason Severus was humiliating himself telling a schoolgirl secrets he had guarded for eighteen years.
"As I said, I'm a toy to him and am treated as such."
"Would you describe Voldemort's relationship with you as paternal, mentor or - ?"
"Until I was twenty one I assumed it was that of mentor and pupil. I was wrong. Voldemort uses sex as a weapon."
Hermione locked her shaking hands together and rediscovered her ability to breathe. Stupidly, that kind of 'love' hadn't occurred to her. It was a measure of how hopeless Snape felt their position to be that he had even contemplated talking about such personal issues, let alone admitted that - She forced herself to concentrate.
"Did that continue after you went back to him?" Her voice betrayed her on the last word and she firmed her chin. Now, of all times, he needed them to be strong.
"Once. On my return," Snape said, in the same flat tone.
"Then he is still part-Human. Oh, Merlin, I didn't mean that the way it sounded!" She remembered, just in time, not to turn to him.
There was the sound of a sharp exhalation of breath from behind her. "Not human. Last time it was...different. So cold. Not human."
Her knees drawn up to her chest, her toes just visible under the concealing folds of her long dress, and her forehead propped on her knees it was difficult for Hermione to make herself any smaller. That didn't stop her from trying. Beyond tears, she forced herself to stay focussed despite a roiling nausea and the headache spearing behind one eye.
"Physically inhuman then. Mentally still capable of human emotions, if warped out of all recognition. Have the frequency of times he calls you to him increased over the last year?"
"To a marked degree."
"We have to find a way to balance keeping you in his favour without you ever having to do that again. Information. That's what you need. Rumours. Turn Death Eater against Death Eater. Keep Voldemort too busy checking the rumours to kill Muggles." She was feverishly driving herself on, anything rather than imagine... Another question occurred to her.
"What about other Death Eaters? Are they all...? That is, does he - ?"
There was a lengthy silence.
"Not to my knowledge."
"Would you be likely to know?"
"Hermione, my dear. That's enough," said Dumbledore. His voice sounded unfamiliar and spiked with pain.
"Yes. I think it is," she said. "And it hasn't been for nothing. I know it won't seem like it to you, Professor, but it sounds as if you're his weakness. He's been finding excuses to keep you alive. We need to give him something more concrete. Maybe a long-term project you could be working on. Does he test what you tell him - with Veritaserum?"
"No. He prides himself on being able to detect a lie from his Death Eaters. He's an arrogant fool in many ways."
"Even so, better if you can flirt with the truth. Feigning respect, flattery, affection... We can't use them too much because of the risk you'd have to... Information. We have to find things you've been doing behind the scenes. You could start by telling him you've been working to sabotage Professor Lupin's Wolfsbane but that it backfired because the transformation happened so early you almost got killed. It's close enough to the truth for you to be convincing."
"The idea has merit," said Snape after a moment, in something approaching his usual tone. "I'll have a word with Remus. If he agrees, he could start to look increasingly tired next term - perhaps more irritable, to indicate fluctuations in the efficacy of the Wolfsbane. The notion of Harry being killed - or even turned - by a werewolf who was once a friend would appeal to the Dark Lord."
"What about rumours that Harry's godfather is in Europe trying to drum up support against Voldemort?" offered Hermione.
"Not much help if I'm the only one hearing them," Snape pointed out.
"I might be able to help there," said Dumbledore slowly. "My brother - a libidinous fool - is currently residing in France. He's never grasped the meaning of respecting a confidence. With a little judicious spadework I believe the rumours should be easy enough to arrange in such a way that they aren't immediately traceable back to me. I'll set things in motion."
"Does Voldemort fear the headmaster?" Hermione asked Snape, conscious that she had yet to look him in the face.
"Given that the Dark Lord is unable to refer to the headmaster without insulting him, I would say yes."
"Would it work, at some point - obviously we can't try all these at once - if you were to tell Voldemort you're afraid the headmaster suspects you of spying for Voldemort. That he almost caught you eavesdropping when he and Professor McGonagall were discussing the spy they've planted amongst Voldemort's Death Eaters. A brave young whatever, ready to die for the cause of right."
"Voldemort would go through the most recent intake like a scythe through wheat," said Snape bleakly.
"And this would be a bad thing because?" asked Hermione hardily.
"Miss Granger, some of them may be ex- or even current pupils of Hogwarts," said Dumbledore.
She met him, stare for stare. "My point exactly. After seven years at Hogwarts they have even less excuse for believing Voldemort's claptrap."
"You're not very forgiving."
"I'm not at all forgiving. Some of those bastards probably tortured and murdered my parents. Anything I can do to repay that debt - "
"Ah, so that's why you're so enthusiastic," said Snape in his silkiest voice. "Revenge. Only you prefer to keep your hands clean at the same time."
"I - " Fury coursing through her, Hermione swung around to glared up at him. "How dare you lecture anyone," she said finally, a scathing contempt blazing from her.
Snape flinched as if she had stuck him. There was a lengthy silence, during which the muscles and sinews of his face became more evident before he turned away to stare out of the window.
"I believe you have matters best discussed without a third party present," said Dumbledore, and quietly left the room.
Finally forcing herself to look up, Hermione found herself staring at Snape's thin-fleshed back. A study in stillness, he had closed in on himself. Small wonder. Against all the odds he had offered up his trust and she had just thrown it back in his face.
"Professor Snape, I - "
"Spare me any insincere protestations, Miss Granger. You spoke your mind. Don't let me detain you." A betraying roughness marred the richness of his voice.
"Please, you must know I didn't... It's difficult to talk to your back. I need to know what you're feeling."
"What I'm feeling? Let me give you three guesses." Stripped of artifice, he faced his tormentor, his sense of humiliation too immediate and raw for him to be capable of concealing it. "Satisfied?" he asked colourlessly.
The inadequacy of every possible reply left Hermione dumb and she made no further attempt at conversation as he walked past her and out of the room.
Oderint, dum metuant - Let them hate, so long as they fear.