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: 03/19/2002
Updated: 09/01/2005
Words: 220,150
Chapters: 28
Hits: 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 18

Chapter Summary:
Hermione learns more about the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom


Sprawled on the sun-bleached grass, lost to deepening moist-mouthed kisses, Snape's body responded to Hermione's, hard where she was yielding, controlled where she was greedy for sensation. Lost to the heady pleasure of feeling all that power surrender to her, Hermione's weight shifted over his now supine body; lust ripped through her the first time his erection brushed her inner thigh through the thin fabric of her dress. One large hand continued to caress her back from her shoulders to the curve of her bottom, the thumb of the other teasing the achingly erect nipple of her right breast as his tongue stroked hers.

Cocooned in sensation, her senses spinning, she felt drunk on him, could have fed on him forever, drowning in physical sensation. Their mouths still hungrily joined, she covered him with her hand, learning his shape and sensitivity. His pelvis rose involuntarily, the hands on her tightening before his mouth was wrenched from hers. Ignoring her inarticulate sound of protest hard hands lifted her from him and to her feet in a display of strength that would have been disconcerting at any other time. Stumbling, she managed to right herself and only realised her eyes had been closed when she opened them, squinting into the fierce glare of the sun. The beat of her pulse was centred between her shaking legs so that thought was impossible, the clamour of her senses such that -

Then she saw Snape's expression. The loathing on his face was worse than a blow would have been and she flinched, her empty hands curled tight at her sides in a vain attempt to protect herself.

"What's wrong?" she whispered, denying what she already knew.

"That was a mistake. It won't happen again." His voice was corn-crake harsh. He wanted only to disappear, besieged by a mixture of lust, rage, mortification and a yearning for what he was never going to have. His breathing harsh, he willed blood back into his brain.

The wounded sound which escaped her made him savage. Make it crude and ugly enough and she would forget any romantic notions she might be harbouring.

"Is the idea that I could have feelings for you so terrible?" she cried.

"Don't attempt to deceive yourself. Overwhelming as it may seem, all you're experiencing is lust. Take deep breaths, it will pass. Quickly enough for you to be grateful you aren't being fucked up against a tree by your Potions master. Of course, if you're really that hot for it I'll be only too happy to oblige," he added with flat-voiced brutality, struggling to concentrate against the throb of his stubbornly persistent arousal. "At my age sex with someone relatively fresh is hard to come by. It won't take above a couple of minutes. Then a quick Obliviate and we're back to normal. What do you say? I know you want it, I can smell you from here." As he savaged her he became increasingly aware of the cloying scent of the plums where they lay around the base of the trees; the air was thick with the stink of rotting fruit and the noise of wasps drunk on the fermenting flesh.

He could have withstood tears and recriminations, even hysterics or protestations about True Love but she just stood there, staring at him from honey-brown eyes; the betrayal in them flayed away his protective layers. His hands were shaking but there was nowhere to put them, nowhere to hide. During the holidays she had moved from an often irritating pupil to a girl-woman whose company he had enjoyed to the point where he'd found excuses to seek her out. She had such a hunger to learn, a mind that constantly entertained and challenged his, an acidic sense of humour on the rare occasions when she allowed it free rein, a sometimes shrewish tongue, and a brave and loving heart.

And she was seventeen years old. He'd made sexual advances to a seventeen year old pupil and his chief regret was still the fact that he'd stopped when he had.

"I'll take that for a 'no' then. Pity." Those spectacular breasts and the lingering scent of her arousal were doing little to help his concentration; her devastated expression had already disposed of his self-respect. All the colour had drained from her face, leaving the few, faint freckles she had acquired stark over the thin-fleshed bridge of her nose. "In that case I see no reason for us to meet other than in the classroom. Do you understand?" he demanded, impatient with her passivity. The heat was ferocious; he was slick with the sweat which was making his shirt cling to him. Yet she was shivering.

"No," said Hermione, on her second attempt at speech. "I thought you liked me. That despite everything we were friends."

"I don't know why. Did you imagine you could have anything to interest me - beyond the obvious?" His hands moved in a descriptive arc, describing the area from her breasts to her pudenda and back again.

She flinched and then, because she couldn't bear to hear what he might say next, she walked away as fast as her shaking legs would carry her, narrowly avoiding collision with a tree because her vision was so blurred by tears.

Propped against the gnarled trunk of an elderly plum tree, it was some time before Snape became aware that he was not alone. Raising his head he found Flitwick standing beside him. Tensing, Snape made no attempt to retreat, having already accepted that he had precipitated a disastrous scene from which there could be no escape until all the repercussions had been dealt with.

"You know, don't you," he said, his voice dulled by emotional upheaval.

"I saw what happened. I was painting in an apple tree at the top of the orchard."

"You didn't intervene."

"There was no need. I had no doubt that you could be trusted to do the right thing."

"The right thing?" Snape's tone was scathing. "I kissed a seventeen year old girl - a pupil - and then blamed her for my loss of control." His head drooping again, he ran his long fingers through his hair. "I didn't see this coming," he added, his voice muffled.

"Obviously. There are times when there is some advantage to being an onlooker."

After a moment Snape lifted his head, humiliation stark on his face. All prickles again, he glared at the older wizard, daring him to intrude on this most private of discoveries. "You mean everyone but me knew that I - ? Fuck."

"Not, I think, Sirius or Freyja," offered Flitwick conscientiously.

"Fuck," repeated Snape without heat. He toed a rot-speckled plum with a bare foot, wondering without much interest, what had become of his boots. Two wasps launched into the air but he resisted the impulse to blast them out of existence. Tempting as it might be, it wasn't a form of problem-solving that Albus advocated. He willed himself to shed the taste of her mouth and the memory of her body under his hands but his self-control in tatters nothing seemed to work as it should, least of all his ability to think. He felt nakedly exposed and knew it was only going to get worse. And he had no one to blame but himself.

"You're not going to give me any advice, are you," he recognised.

"I wouldn't dream of it," said Flitwick. His expression serene, his eyes were warm, kindness and understanding shining from them.

Snape's mouth twisted. "If you intended to make an exception, now would be a good time." It was the closest he could come to a plea for help.

It was the first Flitwick had heard Snape make in all the years he had known him. "I would offer one observation." He hesitated.

Snape was attempting to neaten his appearance. It was only when he tried to refasten his shirt that he discovered how many of the buttons were missing and he sternly repressed the memory of how that had occurred. "I would welcome it," he said, pride stripped from him. "I spurned her with the ugliest of - " He stopped dead, his mouth compressing, as if wary of what else might escape. "I've no experience of - I don't know what to do." Desperation and humiliation echoed in every bitten off word.

"While your main concern is Hermione's well-being I see no need for anyone else to intervene. I was merely about to observe that while you are hard on others, you are hardest on yourself. Ceres and I hold you in great affection but we're not blind to your faults. I just wish that sometimes you were capable of recognising the many splendid qualities you possess."

"Like seducing a seventeen year old pupil, who fancies herself in love with me?" But his sneer was a poor thing.

"All the self-castigation in the world won't resolve the problem. That is for you to do."

"Do you think I don't know that? I have to speak to her, to try and - I hurt her, March. And I have no idea how to put that right."

"You could simply avoid her," said Flitwick prosaically. "Term starts in six days. Outside the Potions classroom you need have no contact with her."

Snape exhaled unsteadily. "I can think of nothing I'd rather do but... This is my fault. I owe her something better than that. You didn't see the expression in her eyes after - It's just..." His hands parted in a gesture eloquent of helplessness. "I don't have the slightest idea how to undo the damage I've done, while making it clear that - "

Flitwick batted away a sullen wasp. "If I have learnt anything in my years of marriage it's that a simple apology from the heart works wonders. I have always considered Hermione to be mature beyond her chronological age. Possibly as a result of being prepared at the age of eleven to take on an active role in working to defeat Voldemort, alongside Harry and Ron."

"As if they understood the gravity of what they faced," dismissed Snape irritably.

"I know you dislike Harry but you do the boy an injustice. He understands all too well. As do Hermione, and I think, Ron Weasley. It doesn't stop them from being 'normal' teenagers in other respects, of course. But then girls always mature faster than boys. In Hermione's case that may be due in part because during her formative years she spent so much time socialising with adults. As the only, much-loved child - "

Snape tensed. "Are you implying that I'm a father substitute?"

"Certainly not," said Flitwick, careful to hide his amusement when Snape failed to disguise his relief. "It never occurred to me that Hermione seeks that from you."

"Just my balls on a plate, after today."

"She has never struck me as a vindictive girl."

"Let's hope Minerva and Poppy take the same enlightened view when I tell them what I've done," said Snape dryly. "But first I must find Hermione."

"I saw her enter Hogwarts through the main door. I imagine she's taken refuge in her quarters."

Snape nodded and headed off.

"You'll need your boots," Flitwick called after him.

Snape turned, glanced down and his expression stony, returned for them. "I'm sure humility is a desirable quality in a Slytherin but right now - "

There was a crack and a flash of power as a decaying branch was blasted into oblivion.

Flitwick gave Snape a thoughtful look as the younger wizard balanced on one foot to pull on his second boot. "Did that help?"

"What do you think? I've only just got used to being able to look myself in the face and - "

"No, spare the rest of the tree. It might be nearly sixty but it still has a few years of productive life left to it."

Snape's wand hand fell to his side. His face tight with temper, the sinews and muscles were in clear evidence. "Don't fucking humour me, March. Damn it, I - " He stopped, controlled his breathing and finally met Flitwick's wise eyes. "I apologise," he said stiffly, although his jaw was so rigid that it made it difficult to understand what he was saying.

Flitwick gave a nod of satisfaction.

Snape's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You were deliberately provoking me? Do you mind telling me why?" The request was delivered as a command.

"I needed to be certain Miss Granger wouldn't be subjected to a further demonstration of your temper," said Flitwick simply.

That stopped Snape in his tracks.

"Yes," he conceded after a moment, rubbing the back of his neck. "A wise precaution. I'll do my best," he added.

Flitwick patted him on the arm. "You always do. Now, go."

Watching Snape head out of the orchard and through the gate that led to the walled garden, Flitwick wandered back up through the orchard to the tree where his wife was still perched in the higher branches, their artists' materials safely secured with a Binding Charm.

"I suppose it's too much to hope you weren't using a charm to listen to us," he said with resignation.

"Oh, please. Of course I was. And if you hadn't been here I would have listened to whatever it was he said to Hermione. Though I can guess," she added compassionately. "Help me down, would you. Your levitation skills far outstrip mine."

"Only because you will insist on closing your eyes at the precise moment fine judgement is called for."

"Yes, yes. Just do it, would you."

"There, safely down." Even after all their years together Flitwick tried to tidy his wife's errant hair, which stubbornly ignored their joint effects at neatness. "I needn't tell you that what we overheard is not a subject for discussion - even with Poppy."

"Of course you don't!" Professor Sprout's indignant tone softened. "Those poor children."

"You think I should speak with Miss Granger?" Flitwick looked uneasy at the prospect.

"No. Leave that to Severus for now. This the first time I've ever heard him worrying about someone else's emotional needs."

"Now you are being unfair. He has been coping with those Albus imposes on him for years. Though I admit that today... I fear for him, Ceres. He has burdens enough without adding the additional complication of falling in love with a pupil."

Professor Sprout raised her already arched eyebrows. "Love? Severus, in love? Are you sure?"

Flitwick gave her a quizzical look. "I think I can still recognise the emotion when I meet it." Raising his wife's grubby hand to his mouth, he saluted the inside of her wrist. "But then today I find I'm not feeling my age."

Her thumb caressed his cheek. "Really, March," she said again, but this time her tone was indulgent.

Opening the door to her quarters Hermione resisted the urge to slam it shut when she saw who stood there, looking cold as a corpse and about as welcome.

"I should like to speak with you," said Snape, at his most formal.

"You seem to be doing so," pointed out Hermione, at her most Snape-like.

He resisted the urge to fidget, wondering if he had imagined the welcome which had just lit her face. "May I come in?"

"I'd rather you didn't." She was surprised by the steadiness of her voice.

There was a moment, before he thought to control it, when his expression was nakedly revealing. It didn't give her the satisfaction she expected.

"First, I need to apologise for the crudity of what I said to you."

"Because that makes everything fine, of course."

Snape's mouth compressed. "How could it? But it's all I have to offer." Her face tightened but not quickly enough to hide the tremor to her jaw. He studied the ground. "I have been considering what to say to you. First, I take full responsibility for what occurred and apologise without reservation. I can assure you it won't happen again."

"But I want it to," she burst out, before the humiliating truth sank in. "It isn't your fault. I kissed you," she added in a deadened voice.

"And I responded, in abuse of the trust placed in me as a teacher at Hogwarts. Allow me to take responsibility for my actions. Secondly, I do have more experience of...life...than you. Physical chemistry, no matter how intense, is fleeting. Don't attempt to cling to it, or to give it undue importance."

A slow burning anger began to dispel her misery. "Well at least you haven't. Don't tell me, it's different for men. Fast to arouse, faster to forget any little inconvenience." She could have killed him for the pity in his eyes.

"There is nothing beyond transient physical sensation - for either of us. As you pointed out, men are fast to arouse - penis erectus non conscientious," he added bluntly.

"That's even better than the alibi of the Imperius used by Death Eaters," said Hermione. His mouth thinned but he made no attempt to defend himself. "When did you become an expert in my feelings?"

"When it became apparent you imagined..." Snape took an audible breath. "...when you appeared to imagine you had a crush on me. I'm not disparaging your feelings, just pointing out that, despite my term-time appearance, it isn't unheard of for a pupil to imagine they have formed a relationship - of one kind or another - with me. They're mistaken."

"Ah, so you've done this before." At any other time Hermione would have enjoyed seeing Snape so disconcerted. He made a belated recovery.

"Never. Although you have only my word for that."

"Then what made you succumb to my inappropriate advances?"

"At the risk of sounding crude, propinquity," he said simply. She flinched. "We've been living on terms of some intimacy this summer. Despite rumours to the contrary, I'm a man as well as a school-teacher. These last few weeks the former prevailed over the latter. You should be aware that my behaviour has been far from typical - and I'm not just referring to this afternoon. We formed a measure of comradeship that is unrealistic and unsustainable. That, too, must end now. Term starts in six days. I must resume my usual role. Difficult enough after my weeks of indulgence, impossible without your cooperation."

"I have no intention of discussing this summer with anyone," Hermione said, hotly offended by the implication. He disarmed her in a heartbeat; the fact it was so obviously unstudied made it all the more effective.

"It never occurred to me that you would. I meant only that... You're going to hate me because I'm going to see to it that you do. There will be no more 'chats' over a meal, borrowing my books, or discussion on topics outside the scope of the syllabus. No contact outside the classroom and as little as possible within it."

"I had no idea I was such a siren."

Cursing his own ineptitude, Snape gave her a crushing look, trying not to notice that she had obviously been crying; her face still had a splotched, pinched look. "Hardly. What I was attempting to convey, in a way I hoped would avoid giving offence, is that I can't afford the distraction of worrying if you fancy yourself 'in love' and decide to confide in Potter, who will then blow my cover sky-high before taking steps against the man he's hated since he was eleven. There's more at stake here than your pride. Or mine," he added as an afterthought. "Then there's the fact I'm a Death Eater. While the romantic allure of the rapist and/or murderer has always escaped me, there are those for whom my reputation as a Death Eater would be inducement enough to have sex with me."

"I bow to your greater experience on that one." But when he flinched she had to resist the urge to reach out to him.

"I see you begin to understand," he said colourlessly.

She wondered how she could have ever thought his eyes expressionless. But it had been a mistake to lash out; hurting him only rebounded and apart from that split second, when she had wanted to kill him with her bare hands and her teeth, she didn't want to see him hurt more than he had been already. But she could take no more.

"I'd like you to leave now," she said.

"As you wish." But he stayed where he was. "Will you be all right?"

Stony-faced, she stared him down, noting that his supposed concern hadn't been urgent enough to stop him from changing his clothes to an outfit more reminiscent of the classroom. His starkly drawn-back hair served only to throw his strong-boned face into harsh relief.

"That was a foolish question," he accepted, rubbing the back of his neck. His usual guards down, he looked far younger and oddly uncertain for a man normally so definite in word and deed. "If you would prefer to eradicate the memories - ?" He fell silent when she shuddered. "No, I thought not. But I had to be sure."

"I'd like you to leave," she repeated. Despite herself, her voice cracked on the last word.

A muscle leaping in his jaw, Snape slowly exhaled. "Of course."

He had barely stepped back from the threshold before the door closed. For a moment he stayed where he was, his fingertips air-brushing the age-blackened oak, before he straightened his shoulders and stalked off in the direction of Dumbledore's study.

Exhausted by the stresses of the day, Hermione almost didn't reply to the knock on her door; she wished she hadn't when she saw Dumbledore standing there, Madam Pomfrey at his shoulder.

"We wonder if we might have a word with you," Madam Pomfrey said with brisk purpose.

Under no illusions about what must be behind their visit, Hermione gave a reluctant nod and stepped out of their way before the truth sank home like a knife. He had told them himself. Without a thought to what it would mean to her, he had violated her privacy and told them.

"He had no right to go to you," she said to Dumbledore in a hard voice.

He followed her thought processes without seeming difficulty. "In his capacity as a man, no, he didn't. But as your teacher he had a duty to do so. Until you finish your seventh year you are a pupil at this school. Come, sit by the fire." Chairs drew themselves up to the hearth, where a fire now burned. Selecting the seat closest to the flames Hermione leeched all the warmth she could, find, cold despite the heat of the day. Madam Pomfrey handed her a steaming cup of ginger tea, which Hermione began to sip without even being aware of what she was doing; she loathed ginger.

Disconcerted by what could be seen of Hermione's quarters, which were still virtually empty and so without character that it was difficult to imagine that anyone, least of all a seventeen year old girl, occupied them full time, Madam Pomfrey refilled Hermione's tea cup. The girl was on the verge of dehydration - probably from too much crying on a hot day - but now wasn't the time to make an issue of it.

"I am in something of a quandary," said Dumbledore, his quiet voice falling into the silence. "In the normal course of events Professor Snape would immediately have been dismissed without references for what he has done to you. Well, of course. Would you expect less from a Muggle school where a teacher made sexual advances to a pupil?" he demanded, when Hermione's lips parted in instinctive protest.

"No, but - "

"But nothing, Hermione," said Madam Pomfrey. "Parents entrust us with their children. How do you imagine they - how do you imagine your parents would react to the knowledge that a teacher had responded to a sexual advance from any pupil, let alone from you. "

Able to imagine the reaction of her parents only too clearly, Hermione studied her rigidly inter-locked fingers. "Is it my age? Because I'll be eighteen in three weeks. Nineteen if you count my year with the time turner."

"That's just chronology. Emotional maturity depends on more than that - life experience, for one," said Dumbledore, his voice kinder than she could ever remember hearing it. She blinked furiously: she was not going to cry - unless it was from rage. "My dear, Severus is twenty one years your senior, your teacher and a - "

"- Death Eater. I know. He told me. More than once. What's your quandary?" Hermione asked Dumbledore abruptly.

"These are not normal circumstances. Losing the services of Professor Snape would compromise our fight against Voldemort but to retain him on staff places you at risk."

"That's absurd! He would never - "

"It isn't Severus who concerns me. I was talking about you," said Dumbledore. "You must not attempt to communicate with him - in any way - outside the usual teacher/pupil relationship, and then as little as possible. Do you understand? It's too dangerous."

It was the final indignity. They thought she was in the throes of a schoolgirl crush. Although quite how they'd come to that conclusion when -

Abruptly she remembered Professor Sprout's warning of several weeks ago to steer clear of dark and brooding wizards and Professor McGonagall's comment that wizards rarely tackled difficult emotional issues face to face. How could they have known before she had? Although if this was love the poets could keep it. Not that she had anything with which to compare it, except books. And suddenly they didn't seem as reliable as they once had.

"Do you understand, Miss Granger?" pursued Dumbledore. He looked stern and unfamiliar.

"I won't do anything to compromise the fight against Voldemort," she said, bitter at seeing her feelings dismissed out of hand.

Except by Severus, who had come to apologise. If she felt this humiliated she could only imagine what he must be feeling and be glad his temper would have a chance to cool before school began.

Best not think about the implications behind his apology, or to keep remembering the feeling of his mouth on hers. That controlled certainty of purpose had been something new, as had the body under hers. While lean, it had unmistakably been that of a man, not a boy - broader, stronger, power leashed...

Oh, Merlin...

Maybe he'd been right. Maybe it was only lust. How could you tell?

"We would like you to be in no doubt about one thing," said Madam Pomfrey, the usual briskness missing from her voice. "If we thought for one moment that Severus couldn't be trusted to behave in an appropriate manner with you - or any other pupil - he would not be teaching, whatever his role in the fight against Voldemort."

Given Dumbledore's habit of letting Harry run free, risking his life time after time, Hermione wasn't convinced that convenience wouldn't have continued to prevail but she went along with the fiction and nodded her understanding.

"In some respects Harry is a remarkable boy, in others he is wonderfully ordinary," said Dumbledore. "While he must face Voldemort, I would never permit a sexual predator to have contact with children - any children."

"If you have to read my mind, couldn't you pick up on the part about me wanting to be alone," said Hermione tiredly. A moment later her cold hands were being held in a loose clasp and Dumbledore was smiling at her with such affection that it made her want to weep. It had never occurred to her that he might like her.

"Oh, my dear, I'm so sorry. This has been a difficult day for you which I have done nothing to make any easier. You seem to be under some misapprehension. Quite apart from our other concerns, even friendship between Professor Snape and yourself would be too dangerous for you. You're already a target because of your friendship with Harry and the work you have done to fight Voldemort. Should anyone suspect any kind of a relationship between Severus and yourself you would acquire a whole new range of enemies, which neither of you can afford."

"Oh," said Hermione, feeling rather small.

He shook her hands lightly. "A natural mistake. We've asked a lot of you this summer and you've never failed us. And I shall continue to ask more of you - and of so many others. Which is small consolation right this minute, I know. Have a lemon drop. I find they aid thinking. Emotions are dreadfully complicated things. With my one hundred and forty years advantage over you, I can only say that year by year they do become less...overwhelming, although I confess it did take about one hundred years for that to happen," he added wryly. "I know how unhappy you must be feeling but there is much to be done and work, I find, leaves little time for misery."

He looked so concerned that Hermione produced a smile from somewhere. They meant well.

"I must go," said Dumbledore, with what sounded like regret. "I have a number of things to attend to - not least restoring Hogwarts to real time - but I leave you in Poppy's capable hands. Should you wish to speak with me, my door is always open to you. The password is 'aniseed twist'." Giving her hands a final pat, he produced some Floo powder from a capacious pocket, stepped into the fire and disappeared.

Hermione exhaled shakily and rested her head against the back of her chair. Emotionally battered, she knew sleep would be beyond her despite her emotional exhaustion.

"Drink this, my dear," said Madam Pomfrey. "It's a mild pick-me-up and sedative in one. I made it myself," she added, when Hermione just stared at it the small phial. "And I know it works because Severus agreed to test it for me. Grudgingly."

Torn between laughter and tears, Hermione opted for the former and managed another shaky smile before drinking down the potion.

"Well done," said Madam Pomfrey and while her voice was brisk her vivid eyes were warm with affection. "Now, isn't it about time you made this place more homelike? The current lack of decor is enough to depress anyone. While they're far from new, there are some very comfortable chairs in the storerooms, not to mention bookcases and tables - until you acquire your own. And I can offer a couple of wall hangings which you may care to have. I won't take offence if you hate them. Now, what colour scheme did you have in mind?"

It had been dark outside for some time before Hermione's sitting room/study was complete and if Madam Pomfrey noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to a shabbier version of Snape's library she made no comment. The strain on Hermione's face had eased and she seemed genuinely pleased with the work they - and the house elves - had done. The eclectic mix of styles worked, giving a welcoming, homely feel to what had been a barren space.

Hermione held out a pile of books, which she had reduced in size. "These belong to Professor Snape. I wonder if you would - ?"

"Of course. I'll have a word with Madam Pince. I think it's time you had access to the Restricted Section. I know I can rely on you to use such knowledge wisely. The final meeting of the Inner Circle takes places tomorrow morning after breakfast. I'll see you there. Try not to worry about him, he is surrounded by friends - whether he wants them or not," she added dryly.

"Then why did the headmaster insist on removing Professor Snape as signatory for the contract between us?" burst out Hermione.

"Because in the circumstances it was inappropriate that he should remain in that position of trust. Most people would be honoured to have Albus Dumbledore stand signatory for them," added Madam Pomfrey lightly.

Hermione's expression was so reminiscent of the look her youngest daughter used to give her when she had said something particularly stupid that it was all Madam Pomfrey could do not to smile. Instead, she gave Hermione a quick, unsentimental kiss on the cheek and went off to bed.

Curled on the windowseat, wrapped in a light quilt, with Crookshanks warming her lap, Hermione stared in the direction she knew Serpens Tower to be, although there was nothing visible to the naked eye.


Sluggish from lack of sleep and misery Hermione took some time to answer the loud knock at her door. Lupin and Black proving impervious to hints, she accepted that her intention of skipping breakfast was doomed Seemingly intent on working his way through Snape's extensive Potions library in the fastest possible time, Black good-naturedly pushed Lupin ahead and engaged her in a discussion on some problems he was having understanding the complexities of the humble lacewing. While one part of Hermione's brain knew and appreciated what he was doing in providing a distraction while it was obvious he had no idea for what, she couldn't resist the fascination of the discussion, not least because Black had already outstripped her own knowledge.

"You must ask Severus if you can borrow - " said Black.

"Perhaps in the next holidays," cut in Lupin. "Miss Granger is going to have work in plenty to keep her busy this term, not least from me. And with Severus' library at your disposal you won't lack mental stimulation either," he said to Black. "Have you heard what Severus has proposed?" he added to Hermione.

She shook her head, trying not to resent the casual way in which he had referred to her exclusion.

"He intends to live and work in the dungeons this term and he's offered Serpens Tower to us. Because the tower is screened it means Sirius won't have to spend too much of every day in his animagus form - and he can work. He might even be able to see Harry occasionally."

Hermione stared at him. "He's given you free rein of his home," she said blankly.

"Late last night. Isn't it wonderful? Amazing generosity."

Black visibly swallowed an insult and mumbled something non-committal.

"Though how Severus can bear to live in the dungeons when he doesn't need to - " mused Lupin.

Hair shirt time, recognised Hermione crossly.

Going through the door Lupin was holding back for her she was disconcerted by a chorus of greetings and belatedly appreciated that they had reached the Great Hall. Acknowledging everyone, she was half-relieved, half-disappointed that Snape was absent. Sipping her first cup of coffee she noticed a new face at the table: male, in his forties, tanned, yellow hair, vivid blue eyes and good-looking enough to give Black, with whom he was in animated conversation, a run for his money.

"Miss Granger," the stranger said, looking amused when he caught her staring at him.

Caught mid-sip, Hermione was in grave danger of spraying coffee across the table.

"Filch!" she squeaked, when she had the breath to spare. "Mr Filch, I mean," she added, trying to collect her thoughts.

"I'm sorry, my dear. You're party to so many of our secrets we forgot you didn't know this one," said Dumbledore. "Yes, this is Argus Filch. As must be obvious he, too, uses an Appearance Detracting Charm."

"Yes," she said faintly. It wasn't every day that a childhood Nemesis turned into a Greek god. "Sorry," she added belatedly. Feeling herself under surveillance, she discovered Mrs Norris to be a few feet away, staring at her. "At least she's still the same," she said, making a feeble recovery.

Filch's smile froze. "Yes," he said stiffly.

McGonagall patted him on the shoulder just as Snape entered the room.

"Argus. Leaving it to the last minute again?"

"You don't change, I see," Filch retorted.

Except Severus had, Hermione noted painfully. The clothing was dark and unflattering and what could be seen of his expression between the curtains of lank hair was one of sour irritation. She stared fixedly at her bowl of Rice Krispies but had to set her spoon down when it began to vibrate against the dish.

"Miss Granger, should you need to get a message to any of us you may communicate through Argus, whom you can trust implicitly," Dumbledore said.

Careful not to glance in Snape's direction Hermione nodded self-consciously before smiling at Filch as she tried to excise memories of the dour man who always seemed to appear when he was least wanted.

"Um, can Harry and Ron know?" she thought to ask.

"A good point," conceded Dumbledore. "Argus?"

"As always, I'll be guided by you, Headmaster."

"Then, I think, yes, you may tell them," decided Dumbledore.

Breakfast was a strained, edgy meal. A conversation would begin brightly enough, only to peter out a few moments later. When Professor McGonagall glared at Snape for the third time in as many minutes Hermione was afraid she had contributed to the souring of their relationship until she realised that Professor McGonagall was worried about him. Hardly surprising, in the circumstances. The ceremony to initiate the new Death Eaters would be held at two a.m. Snape would be summoned and they would learn how many had been lost to Voldemort. Presuming Snape came back, of course.

Breathing becoming problematical, Hermione concentrated on the exercises Madam Pomfrey had shown her soon after her parents' murder and slowly the panic attack ebbed away.

"I've almost completed my move down to the dungeons. You'll take my quarters there off the internal Floo network?" Snape added to Dumbledore.

"It will be inconvenient for you."

"There are more important concerns."

"Don't forget to let me have your lesson plans," said Professor McGonagall. "I'm still fine-tuning the timetables."

"My plans have been on your desk for the last week," said Snape disagreeably.

"I must get mine done," said Professor Sprout, abandoning her pretence of eating any breakfast. "Severus, is there anything I can do?" Her warm voice was soft with concern, like the voice of those addressing the bereaved - or soon to be dead.

Hermione shivered and watched Snape's mouth thin.

"No," he said shortly. He was turning the handle of a tea spoon over and over in his fingers until he became aware of what he was doing and set it down.

"I've placed the lily by the front door," said Flitwick, looking as if he was about to burst into tears. "The charm will ensure the lily takes no harm during Apparation and is one of my own devising. You should learn it, Voldemort might want to know what you used. Have you your wand?"

"Of course."

At any other time Hermione would have enjoyed seeing Snape endure criticism of his wrist movement but she dared not watch him. To her gratitude Madam Pomfrey engaged her in some meaningless enquiry and she concentrated on replying to it.

Snape left the room just before the owl post arrived.

"Does Hagrid know Professor Snape is a spy?" Hermione asked.

"You think Severus would still be alive if Hagrid did?" said Black. "He'd have blabbed the truth to the first person to offer him some exotic beast."

"That's not wholly fair," said Dumbledore, before he shrugged under the concerted stares of various members of staff. "No, Hagrid doesn't - and mustn't - know," he conceded. "Though I would trust him with my life."

"Just so long as you don't entrust him with Severus'," said Professor Sprout, meeting and holding Dumbledore's gaze.

Most of the meeting of the Inner Circle was spent bringing Filch up-to-date and hearing reports of progress made. Hermione toyed with an escaped tendril of hair. While they were compiling plenty of information, none of it seemed of any use in defeating Voldemort. Questioning Severus - when had that happened? - Snape wasn't an option at the moment. If it ever was again.

Hagrid returned just after lunch and Hermione escaped to his cottage. On her way there she saw a familiar figure sitting on a fallen tree trunk, clove-scented smoke trailing through the almost motionless air. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

The only other time Snape had smoked those disgusting cheroots was while waiting to discover if he had been infected by saliva from a werewolf. Her hands clenched at her sides Hermione watched the achingly straight set of his shoulders before turning and taking the long way round to Hagrid's cottage.

After a joyful greeting from Hagrid, and an exceedingly slobbery one from Fang, Hermione settled down to hear about Hagrid's weeks of dragon-watching while helping him to spring-clean - which consisted mainly of waiting until Fang's attention was elsewhere before disposing of the yellowing bones of unidentifiable animals which he had strewn about the place in case famine loomed on the horizon.

Then, because she could stay away no longer, she hurried back to Hogwarts in the hope of seeing Snape, only to discover he had been summoned just after lunch.

"But that's over twelve hours before the ceremony," she said, her gaze moving between Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall. "Is that usual?"

"No," said Professor McGonagall shortly, "it isn't. Now. We can either pace the halls, which will do nothing but wear out our shoes, or we can work. And I have plenty you can help me with. If you will."

"Anything," said Hermione grimly.

"It's gone midnight, you should sleep," said Professor McGonagall, although without much conviction. The lines on her face looked deeper than usual and she was having difficulty containing her nervous energy.

"How do you know when he gets back?" There was no need to name him, no point pretending thoughts of him weren't filling every moment.

"I don't, usually. But then I rarely knew when he was summoned. He usually goes straight to Albus - so you can see he'll be in good hands."

Keeping her thoughts to herself, Hermione nodded politely and went to her quarters without protest. She would have gone to the Entrance Hall to wait for him but doubted if Snape would ever use such a visible means of entry and exit when there were other, more private gates, to slip through.

Performing all the usual nighttime rituals, she bathed and moisturised and changed into her warmest pyjamas before sitting to watch through the night again, as if somehow that could keep him safe.

She fell asleep some time around dawn and awoke with a sick headache in the full glare of the sun.

Snape had yet to return.


Two days passed and Hermione's admiration for the professors she had come to know during the summer increased; to listen to them no one would guess the extent of their anxiety, except perhaps for the fact they were quieter than usual and that Dumbledore forgot to eat sweets, a distant look to him, as if the majority of his attention was elsewhere. In retrospect she never remembered much about that time, moving in a numbing cloud of exhaustion. She spent most of her time wandering the grounds close to the perimeter, oblivious to the large dog who was never far away as Black kept watch over her while using his enhanced senses to check for Snape.

"He's dead, isn't he," Hermione said in an unfamiliar voice, when Madam Pomfrey came to see her that evening. Tomorrow the rest of the staff would return to Hogwarts.

"We don't know that. We don't know anything." Bitterness leaked through Madam Pomfrey's usually brisk tones. "I won't deny that we're all worried but this is a school, life must go on. As does the fight against Voldemort. You help no one by not eating or sleeping. There is so much to be done, Hermione. We need all the help we can get. Now, scrambled eggs and milk, I think, before a measure of the Dreamless Sleep Potion. And when you awake there will be work in plenty for you to do."

Too exhausted to protest, Hermione ate the meal set in front of her without being aware of what she was swallowing, then took the small phial handed to her. Pausing, she inhaled, as if hoping to find something of the man who had brewed it, but there was nothing. Her expression one of rigid control, she drank the potion down in one swallow.

The storm which had been gathering for several days broke just after two in the morning, when Hermione was already asleep. The temperature plummeting, wind-driven hail battered the ancient castle as lightning ripped through the sky. The sound of the thunder was deafening.

Grateful they didn't have a castle full of frightened children to contend with, the few staff who were present congregated in Dumbledore's study and reluctantly conceded the necessity of rearranging the timetable until a replacement Potions teacher could be found.

"I know Severus was - is," Flitwick corrected himself fiercely, "very pleased with the way you've come on," he said to Black.

"He is?" Pleasure battled with astonishment, before irritation won through. "I don't need his approval."

"Nonsense," said Professor Sprout trenchantly. "Severus knows his Potions and is notoriously hard to please. Given your history of animosity, you must have talent for him to work with you at all."

"He worked with me because he didn't expect to live to see - " Black stopped when he saw Professor McGonagall purse her lips, which did nothing to stop her eyes from watering, while Professor Sprout gave him a look so ferocious that for a moment he forgot they were allies.

"Severus is not dead," she said flatly. "However, with the aid of an Appearance Detracting Charm, you could take over some of the junior classes. That Charm is far more reliable than Polyjuice and once in place remains so until it's removed. I suppose it's so effective because it works with and exaggerates existing features."

"It's too risky," said Lupin. "If anyone finds out a Dementor will - "

"That's always been a risk," said Black, although colour had visibly drained from his face at the very mention of the Dementors. "But I know nothing about teaching."

"More than you did," said Flitwick. "You've sat in on a number of classes in your animagus form. You must have picked up something."

"Yes. That I'm no teacher. I'd kill the little bastards the moment they started playing up. And they always start playing up."

"Not in Severus' classes they don't," said Professor Sprout. "Or mine. It's time you applied yourself to some more serious work. You and March can work on the Appearance Detracting Charm tomorrow." She used that tone of voice so rarely that it was always effective when she did.

Black gave a defeated nod before he glanced out the window, where rain was now lashing the side of the castle. "I should be out there on patrol," he muttered. "It would be just like Snape to come back in this."

"I'll come with you," said Lupin.

"No. Stay and make sure I don't get volunteered for anything else," grinned Black, before he slid out of the study.

Even his thick fur was insufficient to keep Black dry as he prowled around the four foot high brick wall, which marked the boundaries of the grounds, while checking the invisible wards which actually guarded them. It didn't do to rely on the creatures which inhabited the Forbidden Forest respecting any other boundary markers. The huge wrought iron gates were closed and locked and the castle was warded above and below ground nowadays. Unable to shake off a sense of foreboding, Black was more watchful than ever as he maintained a ceaseless patrol, varying its direction at whim to prevent it from becoming predictable.

Shaking water from his sodden coat while he was under the protection of an old elm tree, he saw the faint light on the horizon and knew dawn couldn't be far away; the storm was over, the wind easing and the rain slowed to a heavy drizzle. Revelling in his restored physical condition, he ran for the joy of it, testing his stamina for the day when it would be needed most.

It had been light for an hour when hunger made him decide to go in; he would come out again later. With luck the excuse would save him from their plans to try and turn him into a teacher.

Sensing something amiss, the hackles on the back of his neck began to rise and he stopped, sniffing the air. But after so many weeks without rain the storm had unleashed a multitude of conflicting scents so that the canine part of him was almost dizzy with the barrage on his senses. Forcing himself to slow his pace he emerged from the rear of the castle, heading for the main gates, which Hagrid would be opening in a couple of hours.

Something was wrong, debris lying just outside the gates and he began to lope towards them until he could see the rubble was what remained of the smashed carvings of the winged boars' heads which usually decorated the posts at the side of each gate.

One scent grew stronger than all the others and he looked around as something warm and intoxicating splashed down onto his head: blood. Ruled by canine responses, he began to drool despite himself. Looking up, he discovered that the stone heads of the winged boars had been replaced by the decapitated heads of Argus Filch and his wife Majolica, who had for so many years been trapped in her animagus form of Mrs Norris; there was still a trace of fur visible around what was left of her neck.

Human revulsion collided with canine panic and for a moment Black could not respond.

Baying at the top of his voice, he raced back to the castle and so did not look beyond the gates to where, on the very edge of the Forbidden Forest, lay the crumpled figure of a man. He lay as one dead, looking like a bundle of broken sticks that had been thrown down by a careless hand. His black robes clung soddenly to him, the white mask gripped by one clenched hand no paler than what could be seen of his face. His limbs were sprawled awkwardly, as though disjointed, his torso twisted. Only the sweat on his skin betrayed that he was alive; that and the agony in his eyes, which seemed to be all he could move.


Penis erectus non conscientious - an erect penis has no conscience

The oldest and least effective excuse in the book.