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 19

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


All tenderness, Hagrid controlled his grief for long enough to recover the remains of Filch and his wife. But by the time he had carried them back to the castle tears were glittering like jewels in the nest of his beard and his great shoulders shook with sobs.

From their vantage point at the top of the North Tower, Flitwick and Madam Hooch painstakingly checked every inch of the wards guarding Hogwarts - not forgetting those above and below ground.

Dumbledore stood at the heart of those members of staff still clustered by the gates, giving what little comfort it was in his power to offer. As he stared up at the pillars, the tops of which still bore grisly stains, he looked every one of his years - and more besides.

Black stopped him from completing a cleansing spell. "There may be a scent which might tell us the identity of the killers. I'll check." His face set against the revulsion which tightened his throat and churned in his belly, he used a Levitation Charm before making a meticulous examination of the area.

Professor McGonagall blew her nose in a decided way. "How was this even possible? At our very gates." Her face looked pinched and drawn with shock.

"It was a challenge," said Dumbledore.

"And a warning of what he could do next. Put someone who possesses an intimate knowledge of the school and its wards under the influence of the Imperius and you'd have a formidable weapon," pointed out Lupin, his calm voice at variance with the ferocity in his eyes. "One who could murder you, Harry...any one of us." Without making a production of it, some of his attention remained on Black at all times.

Dumbledore turned to him. "You're referring to Severus?"

"It's a possibility."

"The rest of the staff arrive later today, the students on Monday," said Professor McGonagall. "If Hogwarts is going to be under attack - "

"Everyone will be safer within our walls than outside them," said Dumbledore, projecting calm.

"Unless Severus returns to us under the influence of the Imperius," pointed out Lupin again, his control over his anger slipping. The air was clogged with the scent of blood, pulling at his senses; the hunger which never quite went away.

"You're quick to accuse him." Grief had hardened the warmth of Professor Sprout's eyes and sharpened her mellow voice. She had taught Majolica thirty-seven years ago and had known Argus Filch all his adult life. She stared at the spot one hundred yards down the perimeter from the gates, where their decapitated bodies had been found, crudely positioned in one of the more athletic positions for intercourse. It was the malice which must have prompted that final crude cruelty which had distressed her most of all.

As fast as it had flared, Lupin's anger faded, his shoulders slumping. "I'm not accusing Severus, just being realistic. It's an obvious line of attack. None of us could be held responsible for our actions while under the Imperius." He steadied Black as he returned to the ground, one hand remaining in the small of his back.

"Which is why it made such a splendid defence for Voldemort's Death Eaters," retorted Professor McGonagall tartly. "Severus would never - "

"Oh, my dear," murmured Dumbledore. "You know as well as I do that he may not have been given a choice. There has always been the risk of Voldemort using Severus as a weapon rather than just as a spy. But I believe that I would know if he was placed under the Imperius. And because Severus trusts me - as much as he trusts anyone," he amended wryly, "he always comes to me on his return from Voldemort. Not necessarily to report, because too many times he has been close to collapse, but so that I can ascertain whether or not he has full control of his mental faculties. It has been a concern of his for some time. Severus believes that it is pride which stops Voldemort from using the Imperius. Voldemort knows he must be seen to be the one who defeats me and takes over Hogwarts. And even then he must still face - and destroy - Harry. Both Severus and I believe that is where he is concentrating his efforts. The attacks on the families of pupils and Muggles seem to have little purpose beyond 'entertainments' for his Death Eaters. Though fear is as good a way as any of creating confusion and weakening the resolve of those who stand against you."

"I sometimes think we place too much reliance on Harry's ability to face up to Voldemort," said Professor Sprout.

"He is unique," said Dumbledore simply. "The only person in the wizarding world with the blood of all four founders of Hogwarts running through his veins."

"Somewhat diluted by now, I would have thought," retorted Professor Sprout.

"You're beginning to channel Severus," said Dumbledore, with the faintest of smiles. "I concede that I still don't fully understand why that connection to all four founders is so important - only that Voldemort fears it."

"Have you told Harry?" asked Black abruptly.

"Do you know of any seventeen year olds willing to sit through several tortuous hours of genealogy? Better, for now, that he concentrates on his own worth rather than whatever power might lie in him from his blood ties, no matter how tenuous they might have become down the centuries, to the founders. If only I had known earlier that Voldemort carries - carried, I should say - the blood of three houses in his veins. What did your investigations tell you?" Dumbledore added, gesturing to the pillars Black had checked..

"That Snape isn't the one who killed them. There are two distinct scents, both of which contain elements I've smelt before. I just don't know where."

"Perhaps the fathers - or more distant relatives - of two of our pupils?" suggested Professor Sprout.

Black nodded. "It seems the most likely explanation. Remus, you should imprint them, too."

Grimacing, Lupin got on with the task which was made all the more taxing because of the pull the blood exerted on the werewolf within.

"That's a relief," said Professor McGonagall briskly. "Not least for Severus' sake. My greatest fear is that tomorrow morning we could wake to find his head on a spike." Her voice was tight with strain.

The lines on Dumbledore's face deepened, not least because his first reaction on hearing who had died had been relief that Severus was still - as far as they knew - alive.

"There may be more clues where the bodies were found," said Professor McGonagall. "I propose that Sirius and Remus track scent trails, while Ceres, Poppy and I keep watch. Albus, you'll stay on guard here?" It sounded melodramatic but certainties were crumbling after the murder of two of their own at their very gates.

It took Professor Sprout's practical good sense to dispel the mood. "Voldemort dare not meet Albus face to face. Think, Minerva. Since he failed to get hold of the Philosopher's Stone Voldemort has been all too aware of his own mortality. For all his much-vaunted power, he knows there are still two wizards capable of killing him and he's always avoided standing against Albus. When was the last time he met Harry, face to face?"

"But last summer..."

"Wasn't a direct, face-to-face confrontation. Nor was the year before. It's time we remembered that Voldemort isn't invincible, just ruthless and wholly without moral scruples. Now, I suggest we see what we can learn about those who performed this outrage."

Black waited until the others had followed Professor Sprout outside the gates before pausing beside Dumbledore. "Is it true? You could kill Voldemort?" Despite the effort he was making, accusation seeped through.

"Oh, Sirius..." Dumbledore slowly exhaled. "Do you seriously imagine I would leave the fate of the wizarding world in the hands of a boy if there was any other option? Yes, I believe I could kill Voldemort. But I couldn't destroy him. Only the heir to the four Houses can do that."

Black studied his feet. "I had to ask," he mumbled, looking ashamed.

Dumbledore patted him on the shoulder. "I know. So would I, in your place. Now go and make yourself useful."

Black nodded. "It might seem as if we take you for granted, but you should know, we don't." Much to his own surprise, he lent in to give Dumbledore a swift, clumsy kiss on the cheek before jogging out of the gates.

Shaking his head, Dumbledore watched him go, but it was noticeable that he held his shoulders a little straighter.

Black picked up Snape's scent immediately, his excitement fading when Lupin reminded him how many times Snape had used the gates and that he had left through them only three days before. But he, too, looked uneasy and kept scanning the area, moving closer and closer to the edge of the Forbidden Forest.

"What's wrong?" Dumbledore called.

"I can smell Severus so strongly that he must be here. Pain. Fear. Anger. Blood. Ah, irritation. Merlin knows I've felt that from him often enough. He's here. Alive. He must be under some kind of spell. And presumably unable to speak."

"There are a number of invisibility charms," said Professor Sprout practically, before she cast the first counter-charm and began a methodical sweep of the area.

Lupin recalled the other members of staff so they could begin a physical check. After such a long drought the rain had left the air virtually vibrating with scents, to the point where he began to doubt the evidence of his beleaguered senses. In the event, he found Snape by the simple expedient of tripping over his body. A choked sound of agony sent Madam Pomfrey scurrying over to the spot. Shooing everyone back, she mapped out Snape's body with the tip of her wand, although it was beyond her power to break the charm.

The cloaking spell which had been imposed on Snape was so strong that it took Dumbledore a full three minutes to remove it, much to Madam Pomfrey's muttered displeasure. The fact she couldn't see her patient was no bar to her taking diagnostic readings; they left a grim set to her mouth.

"Sirius, it's no good shouting at Severus to answer you - it's all he can do to breathe. He has a broken jaw, nose and cheekbone and multiple dislocations - shoulder, elbow, hip, knee and thumb, a broken fibula and three cracked ribs."

Snape snapped into view so suddenly that it made several people jump before they crowded around his twisted figure.

Dumbledore crouched beside Snape's head. "Severus, I must know. Is Hogwarts going to be attacked? I realise you can't talk. Blink twice if you understand me."

The dark eyelashes rose and fell twice, although it was clearly an effort. What could be seen of Snape's face was grossly swollen, the Cleansing Charm Madam Pomfrey had used revealing the raw abrasions down visible portions of skin . His lips parted, drool ran from the side of his mouth; it was obvious that every laboured inhalation hurt him.

Using two blinks for 'yes' and one for 'no' it didn't take long to ascertain that as far as Snape was aware there were no plans to attack Hogwarts. He had not known Filch and his wife were dead and his frustration at his inability to speak left him panting with pain, after an poorly considered attempt to move.

It was at that point that Madam Pomfrey insisted she be allowed to tend to her patient. Her expression was so ferocious that not even Dumbledore tried to argue with her.


"Severus Snape! What do you think you're doing?"

Easing his second arm into his academic robe, Snape spared her an irritable glance.

"I only reduced the swelling around those joints twenty minutes ago. You require bed rest before you can - "

"Enough!" interrupted Snape, his roughened voice sounding unfamiliar. "I'm fine," he added a few moments later.

Knowing he was anything but, however many wounds she might have healed, Madam Pomfrey had also learnt better than to argue. At least this way he might come to her of his own accord the next time he was hurt; alienate him and it would take months to rebuild his trust.

"I've rehydrated you but you must keep up your fluid intake. And you need food - small quantities at first - and sleep. A lot of sleep. The first week of term is always the most demanding and your strength has been severely compromised. You - "

"When's the funeral?"

"At eleven. Before the first of the staff arrive. Albus has agreed with your proposal to keep the murders a secret. As far as everyone else is concerned, Argus and Majolica simply failed to return after the holidays and no one knew where they went. Later, the truth can be told."

"I need to examine the bodies before the service. They might offer clues." Snape stood too fast, swayed and was forced to sit again. His scowl kept Madam Pomfrey away.

"Sirius couldn't identify who left the scent trails, only that there was something familiar about them," said Madam Pomfrey as she took unobtrusive readings with her wand.

Snape's scowl deepened but he didn't waste his energy protesting. "Sirius didn't sit at Voldemort's feet while one hundred and seventy three Death Eaters were initiated. I was close enough to smell them all. If it was one of the new intake, I'll know."

She stared at him in horror. "So many? Of ours?"

"Twenty nine. Forty-seven from Beauxbatons. The rest from Durmstrang."

"How can you be so sure?"

"House elves. Every school has a laundry. The house elves of which use different herbs or oils to scent the rinsing water. Durmstrang use myrrh." Snape's nose wrinkled fastidiously. "Beauxbatons use a florid concoction with tuber rose base notes. Ex-pupils, no matter how many years it has been since they attended school, tend to stick to the familiar in small things. Death Eaters are all pure blooded wizards. All have house elves."

"What do we use in our laundry?"

"Nothing. We used to but I ascertained that prolonged exposure in those kinds of quantities has an adverse effect on the nasal receptors of the house elves."

"But your clothing smells of rosemary," she said, because this trivia was preferable to thinking of so many ex-pupils lost to the ranks of the Death Eaters.

"Yes, I like torturing house elves," said Snape irritably.

"They don't have problems with rosemary?"

"Oh, ten points to Hufflepuff. I haven't got time to waste on this piffle. I need a stimulant. The Pepperup won't do, by itself."

"You need twelve hours sleep," Madam Pomfrey retorted tartly.

"Which I'm not likely to get for a while. My usual mixture, if you please. Poppy," he stopped for a moment, exhaustion dragging at the muscles of his face, "we don't have time for this. There's too much that needs to be done. And yes, I do know the risks, and no, I don't intend to make a habit of it."

"I don't like it," she said, frowning.

"You're not required to," he said, with an arrogance which made her long to box his ears, before she remembered what lay behind it. His usual grace of movement lost, he eased himself to his feet and followed her to the stock cupboard.

"You also need a strong analgesic," she pointed out.

He didn't waste his breath denying the obvious. "After my debriefing with Albus. Right now I need a clear head more than anything else."

And the chance to regain some semblance of control after three days as Voldemort's plaything, she recognised, her professional face firmly in place. While the physical trauma from the sexual assault he had suffered had been negligible, when compared to his other injuries, she didn't care to try and estimate its long-term effects on him. After his relative approachability of recent weeks the barricades were clearly back. He had yet to meet her gaze, and was dressed for winter. All starched formality, he was buttoned to wrist and throat and ankle, the barest minimum of flesh on view. The Appearance Detracting Charm in place, little of his face could be seen through lank swathes of hair. Despite the medication he had taken, his stress levels were far too high.

"I'll come with you while you examine the bodies," she said. "Are you sure it's necessary?"

"It might help to identify their killers. And perhaps more besides.

"'And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

they can tell us, being dead: the communication

of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.'

"Argus trusted few people. If he was taken off-guard, it was by someone he knew. Someone he knew and trusted."

"That narrows the field," said Madam Pomfrey dryly. "He made you look positively trusting."

"Given the treatment of squibs in the wizarding world it's a wonder he was prepared to trust anyone," retorted Snape, who was watching her preparations with a critical eye. "No, I'll need four drops of - "

About to protest, Madam Pomfrey added the extra two drops, waited until the sludge-green mixture had stopped smoking and handed him the glass.

"Make me up another dose that I can carry with me," said Snape, viewing the contents of the glass without enthusiasm. "I may need it later."

"If you're not flat on your back when the effect of the second dose wears off you'll drop like a stone."


It was the effort he made to keep his temper leashed rather than his impatience which convinced her. "Very well," she capitulated, "but I want to register my disapproval."

The sweetness of his smile came from nowhere. "Duly noted," said Snape gravely, before he drained the glass, only to splutter with disgust. "Why didn't you remind me how revolting that tastes?"

"You're the only person who ever takes it. It's far too strong for the children. I thought you were lying when you claimed to like the taste last time."

Snape affected not to have heard. "Where are the bodies being kept?"

"I'll come with you. A medical opinion may be useful," she added, as if that was her only thought.

While his look was openly sceptical, Snape made no protest.


Feeling slow-witted and lethargic after her potion-induced sleep, it took Hermione some time to wake up. Unable to eat until she had heard if Severus was home and safe, she spent almost an hour trying to locate anyone. Just when she was beginning to panic that something dreadful must have happened to him she located Professor McGonagall in her study, which looked as if a bomb had hit it. Her temper short and her tongue sharp, she barely seemed to be listening to Hermione's query as she busied herself sifting through parchments.

"Yes, of course Severus is back. He returned just after dawn this morning. Alive and likely to stay that way. I understand he was dehydrated and exhausted from lack of sleep. No doubt you'll see him later. At the sorting feast on Monday, if not before," she said, without looking up from what she was doing. "Have you seen a roll of parchment about so long? Ah, I have it."

Her heart sinking as she realised how long she was going to have to wait to see him, Hermione nodded dumbly. It was slowly seeping into her consciousness just how awful this term was going to be. Unless they had Potions she couldn't even rely on glimpsing him because in term time he often failed to eat at High Table; talking to him wasn't even an option. She missed him already. But he was alive. And safe. Her legs suddenly unsteady with relief, she propped herself against the wall and tried to concentrate on what Professor McGonagall was saying.

"Well don't just stand there, girl. We've got far too much work to do. The rest of the staff will start arriving any time now and we still haven't had the Head of House meeting, let alone the staff meeting and... Take this to Professor Weasley - he's in Ravenclaw Tower with Molly at the moment, this to Professor Sprout and these to Professor Flitwick. Remind March that his classroom will be out of commission until Filch has - will be out of commission for at least the next three weeks. I still need to know whether the substitute room found for him is acceptable. Also, ask Bill - Professor Weasley - " she amended impatiently, "to let me have his revised timetables. Then come back to me. I need another pair of legs. Well, don't just stand there, child. Go."


As members of the Upper Sixth Harry and Ron had risen to the heady heights of those entitled to have their own rooms, even if they were little more than partitioned cubicles within a five person dormitory.

Harry studied his surroundings with bright-eyed excitement. This was his first real room. His room at the Dursleys didn't count because they hadn't wanted him to have it and at Ron's he just borrowed a room. But this was his. A four poster bed with a large chest at the foot of it. Two shabby, comfortable armchairs, the dull crimson leather scuffed by those who had used them before. Like that mattered. They were comfortable. A window, with some cushions so he didn't freeze his arse off on the stone window seat. There was even a broomstick cupboard. And a study area, with a shelf for books. They'd need more than one shelf for Hermione, he thought, running his hand along it. His room. For now.

"Oy, Harry! Haven't you finished unpacking yet?" demanded Ron, knocking on the door only as he entered the room.

"Yeah. I was just - It's going to be strange, having our own rooms. Nice, though."

"It'll certainly make some things easier," said Ron.

Wanking, for one, thought Harry, giving his best friend a look which combined honest envy with puzzlement that Ron - of all people - should suddenly have blossomed into a Sex-God last year. If only some of it could rub off on him. It wasn't like Ron was even good-looking like that Ravenclaw prat the girls went mad over. But sometimes it seemed as if Ron only had to look at a girl for her to be putty in his hands; while some of his girlfriends hadn't lasted more than a few weeks they always parted by mutual consent - and with no hard feelings. How Ron did it was something Harry was still trying to work out. His own relationships were a joke. If you listened to Juniper or Merrilyn he was a cross between the biggest bastard and - even worse - the biggest bore going. Take last term, with Merrilyn. He hadn't even progressed beyond a kiss and feel of her -

And that had cost him a knee in the balls. It was his own fault for using Vernon Dursley as a role-model in seduction techniques. Though maybe once you'd been married to someone like Petunia for years and years you didn't have to bother. It was just his luck that the library didn't stock any useful books. Oh, there were plenty telling you how to do it, but none that told you how to get to that stage in a relationship. 'Relationship'. Some joke that was. What he had was armed warfare...

Harry looked up to find Ron watching him.

"What's up?" asked Ron.

"Nothing," denied Harry. Ron might be his best mate but he had some pride. "I still don't see why we had to come back two days before everyone else," he groused, unhappy with any changes to tradition. "This place is like a mad house. If it isn't house elves dashing around, it's staff expecting us to help out and with my luck I'll get caught by Trelawney or Snape. I haven't been able to find Sirius yet. I thought he might have found time so we could spend a few hours together before school starts on Monday."

Busy studying the goatee beard he had been nurturing during the summer holidays, Ron turned his head and studied his mirrored reflection as the crystal earring he wore sparkled in the sunlight. He wondered if the small iridescent feather that shivered beneath it was overkill.

Harry threw a pillow at the back of his head, which Ron deflected with no more than a twitch of his wand.

"Prat," he said amiably.

"Then stop admiring your reflection." Standing beside him, Harry peered gloomily into the mirror. "I don't think there's much chance of me growing any taller. Do you?"

"It doesn't seem like it," said Ron without much interest, from his eight inch advantage of height.

Harry tugged at his fringe. "Whatever style I try it just ends up looking the same as it did when I was eleven." He wondered if he could carry off the look Ron had been sporting for the last six months, with his long red hair tied back in a severe queue. But whatever style he tried, nothing seemed to subdue his hair for long.

"Be grateful the rest of you has changed. I suppose it has changed?" added Ron, keeping his face straight only with difficulty.

The ensuing scuffling match resulted in a lot of breathless giggling.

"I just meant that no one's ever going to accuse me of being good-looking, are they?" said Harry, as they went out through the Gryffindor Common Room, nodding to the Fat Lady as they stepped into the corridor.

"Not many people are," Ron pointed out, with all the smug satisfaction of someone who had risen above such mundanities, thanks to the bucket-load of sex-appeal which some kind fairy had poured over him. Much to the loudly expressed disbelief of his family. "You're all right. Well, I've seen worse," he added as an afterthought.

"Yes," said Harry dryly. "D'you think your mum has stopped crying yet?" Fishing two chocolate frogs from a pocket, he handed one to Ron.

"She's fine," said Ron tolerantly. "Just pregnant, that's all. It's hormones. Or something. And she hated having to leave The Burrow. But after what happened to Filch... I mean, I know he was a git but... I'm glad mum's safe here at Hogwarts. So's dad, even if it might make things even trickier for him at the Ministry."

"Mmn." Harry looked pensive. "About your mum. It was just that I've never had anything to do with pregnant women before." He tried not to sound defensive, or as shocked as he had felt when he had first seen Molly Weasley, who looked to him as if she must be carrying a Hippogriff.

"No," said Ron, failing to subdue a grin. There weren't many things that scared Harry but his pregnant mother was one of them. Three, if you counted the twins she was carrying. For his own part Ron had spent too many years as a member of a large family living in small, cramped rooms not to know that his parents had a sex life. You either got over the fact pretty quickly, or you went barmy. Which might account for Percy, now he thought about it.

"It's not funny, Ron. So if I hear Dean or Seamus making jokes at my expense..."

"Yeah, yeah. Quick, there's Trelawney. Let's go and see Hagrid."

To their disappointment Hagrid's cottage was empty, except for Fang, who was twitching and farting in his sleep. The air sulphurous, they didn't linger. Unable to think of anything else to do, they headed aimlessly back to the castle. A quick call at the kitchens left them munching Cornish pasties as they took refuge in the herb garden.

Harry licked his greasy fingers. "Is it me but Hermione didn't seem that thrilled to see us earlier? She said all the right things but it was like she wasn't really there."

"It's not you," said Ron. "She looked...all white and tense. It's still her mum and dad, I suppose. We should've owled her more often."

Harry looked resigned. "No need to be tactful. Go on, say it. Dumbledore has. I should've come back to school instead of staying with you and watching Quidditch. And not just for Hermione. It never occurred to me that Sirius might - " he shrugged. "You know." He was still smarting from the lecture he had received. He wasn't used to Dumbledore's disapproval - or worse, knowing that he had disappointed him. He didn't need reminding that this was his last year at school. Probably his last year alive. Only no one but him seemed to think of that. Just because he'd been lucky for the last six years didn't mean his luck was going to hold. He didn't know how he had survived this long. Yes, he could do stuff other people couldn't but most of the time he didn't know how he did it, so what use was that? And if there were no more magical rabbits to be pulled out of hats then next time he and Voldemort met... It had been two years since there had been a face to face confrontation. Two years in which Voldemort's power had increased while he had started to shave.

Hardly an equal contest.

And he was scared. To the point where he wasn't sure if he could hide it any more. He wasn't even sure if he could go on being the plucky Boy Who Had to Face Voldemort. He just wanted a life where he didn't have to worry. Where he was free to be himself and do what he wanted - which was to play Quidditch for England and have sex. Although not necessarily in that order.

Ron had. Not that he had said anything. He had just looked quietly pleased with himself when some of the others started bragging. And once, without thinking, he'd corrected something Malfoy had said. Which made Malfoy a virgin, too. Unless he'd got lucky this summer. Harry was willing to bet that every one but him had got lucky. Even Dudleykins had a girlfriend. Of sorts.

"No need to take it to heart," said Ron, wondering if Harry would ever talk about what was really bothering him. "After spending all summer with the Dursleys you were entitled to some fun. I could have come back to school with you," he added. "I knew we should've done really but I chickened out because I didn't know what to say to Hermione - beyond the obvious."

"Why, Messrs Weasley and Potter. How nice," said Professor Sprout, beaming as they belatedly got to their feet.

"We're looking for Hermione," said Harry, as if she had made some accusation.

"I thought you saw her when you arrived."

"Well, yes. But she seemed a bit...preoccupied."

"How inconsiderate of her."

Harry blinked at that trace of acid. "I didn't mean it like that. It's just... I can't find Sirius, either."

"He's busy. As are we all. Ron, is your mother settling in comfortably? Not doing too much, I hope?"

"She's fine, thanks. Ginny and I saw to the last of the unpacking. I made sure mum put her feet up. I've left Ginny and Bill keeping watch."

"Good boy. I know this academic year will be tricky for you, with Bill - Professor Weasley, I should say - working here. But it isn't as if you'll be in his class."

"Unlike Ginny," said Ron, with an unsympathetic grin.

"Ginny's a sensible girl, she'll cope. I'm delighted to have the chance to see more of Molly. I've always been fond of her. Now, I must get going. Harry, make yourself useful and go and help Madam Pomfrey. You'll find her in her office in the hospital wing. Ron, I have a meeting I must attend. I wonder if you would see to this problem in the hothouse for me?"

Harry watched the two very different figures disappear down the garden path and allowed his shoulders to slump. If only having a brother teaching at Hogwarts was the worst thing he had to worry about this year.

It would have been nice to see his eighteenth birthday, he mused, wallowing in self-pity as he went into the castle. Better still if he could have sex, of course. It didn't help that all the girls he had asked out seemed more interested in letting it be known they were going out with the Boy Who Lived than in a Harry Potter who was shit-scared and who didn't have a clue what he would be doing with his life anyway. If he survived.

Even the two weeks with the Weasleys hadn't been as much fun as he'd expected. He'd barely heard from Sirius and the Weasleys had been...odd. Except for Ron, of course. It was strange, Mrs Weasley being pregnant. She was so old to be having a baby - babies - not that he even wanted to think about that. No one but him seemed to think it was strange that witches could keep having babies right up until they were seventy odd. Not that he thought Mrs Weasley was that old. Probably. But her being pregnant meant that she hadn't had as much time for him as usual and -

He was turning into a total arsehole. She'd been brilliant. The same as always. He was just turning into some needy whiner. He'd be wanting approval from Snape next. Grinning at the likelihood of that happening, Harry headed for the hospital wing. When he'd finished helping Madam Pomfrey he might be able to get some practice in on the new Nimbus he'd bought.

Racing down a narrow stone staircase at breakneck speed, Harry rounded a tight corner so quickly that only a lightning fast charm stopped him from smacking face first into the wall. Having over-done the charm, he rebounded into the person who had been coming around the corner in the opposite direction, sending them thumping back against the far wall.

To Harry's dismay it was Snape. He made a hissing sound, like the snake he was, then went dangerously still, his face a twisted mask. It was the bane of Harry's life that his lack of inches meant he still had to look up to the bastard - if not nearly as far as he used to. He mumbled an unconvincing apology, taking a petty satisfaction from the fact he had obviously winded the dried up old bat.

"Potter. I should have guessed. Still convinced the world revolves around you, I see. Madam Pomfrey requires your assistance in the hospital wing. Now," he added, when Harry just glared at him with the same poorly concealed hatred he had displayed as a skinny first year. "She needs help moving certain items. Unless you feel the Boy Who Lived is too grand for mere menial work?"

Harry's glare would have turned sand to glass but six years under the lash of Snape's sarcasm had taught him the futility of answering back. Snape seemed to get uglier with each passing year. The holidays obviously hadn't done much for him. His skin had the damp pallor of a slug's belly. Disgusting.

"Well go on, boy. I'll have to see quite enough of you in term time."

Harry went. But half-turning as he reached the corner he was surprised to see Snape still standing where he had left him. Fumbling in a pocket, Snape took out something and downed the contents in one gulp. Harry blinked. Great. Now Snape was turning into an alcoholic. Resolved to keep a close eye on him, Harry hurried on his way when it occurred to him that Madam Pomfrey might know where Hermione had got to.

Propped against the wall while he waited for the cocktail of stimulants he had just drunk to take effect, Snape braced himself for his meeting with Dumbledore and the revelations he must make, in the knowledge that they would be shared amongst the Inner Circle. But who knew what might help? The slow drip of information he was now feeding Voldemort had the double benefit of keeping him in favour and some of Voldemort's resources occupied elsewhere. It wasn't much but it was more than they'd had before.

Revitalised to a dangerous degree, Snape headed off to Dumbledore's study. To his dismay, Dumbledore had already started a meeting with the other Heads of House.

"Severus, I know this is the last thing you must feel like, but if we finish this now, you and I needn't attend the staff meeting and I can take your full report then."

Feeling disconnected from what was going on around him, Snape began to pace while Dumbledore brought him up-to-date with the discussion so far. The meeting was over in fifteen minutes, leaving them all with a great deal of work to get through before the start of the new term.

"Oh, my stars," said Dumbledore, just as everyone got to their feet. "We've forgotten to appoint a head girl and boy." He ignored rebellious mutterings to say firmly, "Nominations, please."

"Susan Bones," said Professor Sprout briskly. "She's well-liked, but not too popular. Fair. Honest. Good with the young ones. Truthful. And as steady as the foundations of Hogwarts."

"Not quite the comparison I would have chosen," murmured Dumbledore, who had cause to know more about the foundations than most. "An excellent choice. Does anyone disagree? Severus?"

He concealed his inclined-to-twitch hands in the folds of his robes. "She'll do as well as anyone else. So long as it doesn't affect her work in Potions."

"Then, for head boy? Nominations?"

"Well, I was wondering about Har - " began Professor McGonagall.

"I could have put money on that," interrupted Snape. "I nominate Longbottom. No, I can't believe I'm saying it either," he added, his voice slicing through the hubbub with ease. "With Potter lionised by the impressionable and encouraged to flout any rule that takes his fancy - not least by his Head of House - the school needs a steadying influence, not someone who will be at the thick of any rule-breaking. Longbottom might have all the charisma of pond-water but he's displayed strength of character enough to stand up to his friends, he hasn't missed a Potions class in six years and he never let Malfoy succeed at bullying him. He can be relied upon to look out for anyone in need, not simply those from his own House."

There was a stunned silence when he stopped talking.

Professor McGonagall rubbed her thin-bridged nose. "Would the real Severus Snape step forward?"

Strung out on stimulants, Snape's temper slipped its leash. "Oh, for - ! Do you really think Potter would be a good role-model with his record of flouting rules - often for no better reason than his own convenience? Do you think juniors would go to the Boy Who Lived for help? No, nor do I."

To Snape's mortification, Dumbledore publically kissed his cheek. "Neville is an excellent choice. And one which transcends House rivalries. That's settled then. My. I can't remember the last time we had two unanimous decisions."

"Most of us are still lost for words," squeaked Flitwick, giving Snape a warm beam of approval. "Neville will have the broadest appeal of anyone out of the Upper Sixth. I was about to nominate Blaise Zabini."

Snape snorted and began pacing again. "Why? For the pleasure of hearing my House insulted? The days when a Slytherin expects favourable public attention are long gone. Zabini is an intelligent and sophisticated boy. Any expectations he may have had will have been excised after six years at Hogwarts. Or have you conveniently forgotten that every year at the Sorting Ceremony, nervous eleven year olds are hissed for no better reason than that they have been sorted into Slytherin? What, no denials or excuses? No. That would be difficult. In the circumstances."

"It's just childish high-spirits," protested Professor McGonagall, if without much conviction.

Snape didn't even glance in her direction. "Oh quite."

"You should take a good look at the behaviour of many of your Slytherins," added Professor McGonagall, a spot of colour high on each cheek. She wasn't sure how to interpret the expression on Snape's face before it was gone.

"What a good idea. I would never have thought of that. Perhaps you'd care to instruct me?"

"Well, I think that's all we have time for," said Dumbledore, before all-out war could be declared. "Except to say that I've been fortunate to find someone who can take Argus' place as school caretaker."

"Albus!" protested Professor Sprout. "We only cremated him two hours ago."

"You hardly need to remind me of that. The fact remains, the school needs a caretaker. And one we can trust." Dumbledore went over to the inconspicuous door which led to his quarters. "I wonder if you would like to join us? You, too, Remus."

The man who entered the room in front of an angry looking Lupin was of medium height, stocky, with a barrel chest, scanty faded hair, a loose mouth and runny light blue eyes.

"Good afternoon," he said, in a high, tight voice. He looked as if he would flinch at his own shadow.

"Perhaps further discussion might be a good idea," said Snape, wondering if Dumbledore had lost his mind. Then the man came closer. "Sirius!"

"Yes," said Dumbledore, with satisfaction. "After some persuasion - "

" - blackmail," interjected Black sourly.

"Sirius has agreed to take over Argus' role as caretaker. He will also help Severus with the marking of first and second year Potions - "

"Over my dead body," said Snape, to whom this plan was news.

"An incentive if ever I heard one," said Black, looking more cheerful. "Forget it, Albus. I told you Severus wouldn't like it. I don't like it."

"Only you would look a gift-horse in the mouth," Lupin told Snape. "Give him the second and third year parchments. You'll want to assess the first years for yourself."

Snape's look of hauteur increased. "Let me be quite clear on this point. Either I teach Potions, or I don't. If you want Black to make himself useful - and not before time - let him do the marking for your Defence Against the Dark Arts classes."

Lupin gave him a look of betrayal.

"You've done us proud. You look perfect. Nothing noteworthy or memorable. And you've avoided the temptation of making yourself a comic turn," said Professor Sprout with approval. "Even if you do look as if you should smell of over-ripe cheese. Something which should prevent any over-sexed fifth year making advances to you. As a squib Argus was vulnerable to the baser instincts of some of our students."

"Exactly," said Professor McGonagall, having walked around Black to examine him from all angles. "You'll keep the more excitable element in their place. There's no denying it will be useful to have your wizarding skills at our disposal. The Ministry can't track wand work within Hogwarts, so that won't be a problem and that new wand you obtained - I should like to know from where - is working superbly. "

"I don't like anything about this," snapped Lupin, quietly and coldly furious. "It's far too dangerous for Sirius."

"Less so than if he continues to masquerade as your 'pet'," pointed out Snape, the sneer absent from his voice. "Given that Pettigrew knows your animagus form I don't know why he's never made the connection."

"Sirius, you can't honestly expect to get away with it?" Lupin protested, looking worried.

"Why not?" said Black indignantly. "Severus has been using an Appearance Detracting Charm for years. I must see if I can fool Harry. Are we going to tell him?"

"While he holds Severus in no affection, he has never done anything by look or word that might betray him," said Dumbledore. "So yes. He, Ron and Hermione need someone accessible to them when a member of staff might not."

"What is your new identity to be?" asked Professor Sprout practically.

"Ah," said Black, crestfallen. "I hadn't got that far."

"Quinapalus Pinchbeck," said Snape, after a moment.

Black gave him a look of suspicion. "I've known you far too long. What does it mean? 'Idiot' - or 'small penis?"

"No. Credit where it's due," drawled Snape, not to so far gone that he had lost the ability to judge a pause to a nicety.

Lupin glared at him but received a look so bland that he abandoned the unequal contest.

Finding himself under the speculative gazes of Professors Sprout and McGonagall, Black twitched, crossed his legs and tried to look nonchalant.

"As for your background, keep it simple," continued Snape. "Assistant Professor Pinchbeck. You've been travelling abroad, taking work where you can find it. You had a private tutor as a child. Your family lost their money with the rise of Grindelwald and you're the only survivor. You can't afford to be seen favouring Gryffindors - or anyone, for that matter. Don't talk any more than you have to. Keep a guard on your tongue, your prejudices betray you with every breath. You want more?"

"I think you've said more than enough," said Lupin coldly. "It's too dangerous," he insisted to Dumbledore. "What if anyone finds out who Sirius really is? I give you fair warning, I won't stand by and see the Dementors take him."

"Remus," began Black, going to his side.

"Spare us the histrionics," said Snape. "I repeat, he'll be far safer in this guise than as your 'pet.'"

"Does this mean I can't use my animagus form?" asked Black.

"I would advise against it," said Snape. While he ached with fatigue, it was impossible to stay still. His skin felt too tight and over-sensitive, the light flooding into the room made him squint and he could hardly hear what was being said for the high-pitched whine in his ears.

"Very well. If asked, Remus can say he left the dog with a friend, which leaves me free to resume the form should it be needed. I can't say I'll miss it," Black admitted.

"It must have been very wearing," said Flitwick sympathetically. "Not least because you have a fine mind - when you're given the opportunity to exercise it. I agree with Severus. They're far less likely to connect you with Pinchbeck. Should anyone ask, I can vouch for you. A young fourth cousin of mine was a private tutor until he got drunk one night. Some Red Caps lured him into a bog and that, I'm afraid, was the end of poor Aeneas. Although he had an appalling temper and was a poor teacher - "

"I wonder who that reminds me of," murmured Black provocatively but his target failed to react.

Propped against the wall, Snape's eyes were closed; it was a moment more before Black noticed the barely perceptible tremors rippling through him. With more subtlety than he was credited with, he gave Dumbledore a questioning look.

Dumbledore shook his head and quickly brought the meeting to a close.

"Thank you for your time. One last thing before you go. Severus managed to identify the scents of the last people with Argus and Majolica. Thanks to her skill with diagnostics, Poppy detected and saved enough physical evidence from the bodies to confirm that Malfoy and Nott senior both had contact with the severed heads. We have little doubt that examination of their wands would confirm their guilt - the severing spell is a simple one and it is only a matter of degree from severing cloth to severing heads. We will never know how they got Argus off-guard. That they did so is inescapable.

"Yes, indeed, it is a terrible thing," he added, but now please excuse us. Severus and I have much to discuss before he can have a well-earned rest. Minerva, you'll chair the staff meeting? Thank you. I'll see you all tonight at High Table."


"...It isn't that the supplies are vital, just that this close to the beginning of term it's quicker to collect them in person. I ended up being given a shopping list from everyone," added Madam Hooch ruefully, with nothing in her manner to suggest she had recently returned from the funeral of two friends. "I appreciate your help. We can divide the shops between us. I'll spare you another ride on a broomstick. We'll walk down to the gates and you can have you first Apparating lesson."

Hermione looked uneasy. "Uh, I'm not sure my concentration - "

"Apparition is a useful means of escaping danger. But your focus must be absolute, whatever might be going on around you, whatever preoccupations you may have. Unfortunately the universe doesn't grind to a halt every time we face a personal...difficulty. Thanks to Voldemort we rarely have time for the luxury of indulging our emotions," added Madam Hooch forthrightly.

"Then you'd better tell me what it is I'll need to focus on," said Hermione, swallowing her resentment. There were more important things. Besides, it would give her something to think about beyond whether he was really all right.


"Take your time in beginning your report," said Dumbledore, when Snape had said nothing for almost five minutes. His back to the room, one hand flat to the stone embrasure, he was staring out at the grounds, although Dumbledore doubted if he saw anything.

Gaining no response, he clasped Snape on the shoulder.

Snape swung around so fast that Dumbledore only just had time to counter the Petrificus Totalus. For a moment neither wizard moved before life roared back to Snape's face; he was shaking beyond hope of concealment.

"Of all the witless, irresponsible, stupid things to do. I forgot where I was. I could have... You know I can do wandless magic and - I could have fucking killed you!" Horrified by how close to disaster they had come his hand fell to his side and he swung away, trying to regain a measure of control.

"I hope I don't need to explain that I didn't intend to startle you," said Dumbledore, his troubled gaze never leaving the too straight back presented to him. As he watched, the wide shoulders slumped.

"It wasn't that. I just - It wasn't that. I could have killed you."

"You always did have an over-exaggerated belief in your abilities," Dumbledore teased gently, blinking the moisture from his eyes. "Of course you didn't harm me, and if you had it would have been my fault."

"Small comfort that would be," Snape muttered, leaning his hot forehead against the cool of the stone while he listened to his blood thumping in his ears. "Still, Voldemort would have been pleased," he said, a few moments later. "Do you have any medichocolate?"

"No, Poppy took it away from me," replied Dumbledore, encouraged when Snape turned with the ghost of a smile. It was disconcerting having to see him through the blurring of the Appearance Detracting Charm, whose drawback was that it was only partially effective on observers who knew it was being used.

"Me, too," Snape admitted wryly. His worried gaze travelled over Dumbledore. "If I didn't hurt you, then what's wrong?"

"Nothing," lied Dumbledore, his outer calm giving no hint of his inner anguish that he could do nothing to help the younger man. "I'm glad you're home. I was concerned. What did he do to you?"

Snape's expression closed faster than a slammed door, the sinews and muscles of his face starkly visible. He swallowed audibly several times, looking around with some urgency. "I need..."

"Through there, second door on the left."

Left alone, Dumbledore winced at the sounds of retching, which came through the closed doors but he knew better than to go to Snape. Behind him, he heard the rustle of feathers as Fawkes woke up.

"No, old friend. Not yet. Not yet," he murmured. Summoning a house elf, he ordered a simple meal and drew two of the most comfortable armchairs up to the fire, which blazed so comfortingly.

After a short spell of silence he heard the distant burp and rattle of the water pipes and nodded his satisfaction. Not even the most efficient cleaning spell could equal the benison of hot water. Perhaps the ritual cleansing of the shower might help. At least Severus was safe now.

Dumbledore was sipping his second cup of Earl Grey tea when the door leading to his quarters reopened.

"My apologies for that abrupt exit," said Snape, as he came into the room, his hair slicked wetly to his skull. "Poppy warned me that I might experience an adverse reaction to the second dose of stimulants - I chose to ignore her advice."

"Just so long as you're prepared to eat a healthy dose of humble pie when you have to admit as much to her," said Dumbledore placidly, relieved to see how much better Snape looked. "Come, sit by the fire. I doubt if you can remember the last time you ate and I fasted before the funeral. Take a simple meal with me. Hot buttered toast and scrambled eggs."

"Your cure for all ills," said Snape. But he drank the ginger tea offered to him, and after the first tentative mouthful ate enough food to return a little colour to his face.


The temperature had dropped almost twenty degrees, a cool, thin wind causing Madam Hooch and Hermione to shiver as they completed the last of their purchases. Her cloak billowing out, Hermione subdued it with an impatient flick of her wand and wished it was as easy to control her hair, which seemed to be blowing in four different directions at once.

"For two pins I'd have the lot cut off," she said crossly. With everything in her life that mattered most outside her control, she was determined to win at least one small victory. Even with the use of charms and hair care products her hair was the bane of her life; sleek and glossy was achievable, but only after expending more time and effort than could be reasonably expected.

She slowed to a halt as a sign in a window caught her eye and glanced at Madam Hooch. "How long would it take to have my hair cut?"

"Not long, in my experience. A quick charm and - Oh. You mean by someone else. How novel. A 'hair stylist'? What will they think of next? I blame it on Muggles, myself."

"If you don't go to someone like this, who does your hair?"

"Me, of course. One charm applied once every four weeks. But I don't know anyone else who takes the trouble I do. Most people just tie their hair back and hack some off when it starts being a nuisance. Others, like Albus, just let it keep growing. As we got through the shopping so quickly why don't we go inside and find out what this 'hair styling' would entail?" Madam Hooch was prepared to welcome anything that took the frozen look from Hermione's face when she thought herself unobserved.


Stiffly pushing himself up from the comfort of armchair and fire, Snape began to pace around the perimeter of Dumbledore's study, as driven as an over-wound clockwork toy. Having checked that the quill could keep up with him, he began to talk in short, staccato sentences.

"I Apparated into a clearing above ground. Near the sea. I could hear it at times. And smell it. The place was sheltered from the weather. We had to pass through intense light to get to Voldemort. An irony that I'm sure was unintentional. But I've never known him to seek out the light before. He was enthroned on the most vulgar-looking piece of furniture it's been my misfortune to see. The lily was a great success, which is why I spent the interminable initiation ceremony sitting at his feet like a favourite dog, to be petted and fondled as the mood took him. Initiates climbed the twenty four steps to where he sat and prostrated themselves at his feet to receive the Dark Mark . After a while the screaming became monotonous. I was close enough to touch any of them. I could certainly smell them. There were only twenty senior Death Eaters present - all the usual suspects. The Initiation Ceremony was spread over two days. The new Death Eaters Disapparated out so quickly that some of them were still sobbing. There were a lot of people to get through."

Snape fished in an inner pocket of his academic robe to produce a large roll of parchment. "Here's a list of the one hundred and seventy three initiates. In some cases I can offer only supposition about their former school based on the scent of their clothing." He dropped the parchment on Dumbledore's desk as if it was contaminated and continued to stalk round and around the study, nervous energy pouring from him beyond his ability to conceal it.

"Viktor Krum was one of them. Which might account for him severing his relationship with Hermione. She should be told," Snape added. "But not, obviously, by me."

"Perhaps Minerva...?"

"No! Poppy or Ceres. Yourself even."

"Thank you," said Dumbledore dryly.

Snape's head came up, a wry twist to his mouth, before he returned to his report. "Of the new Death Eaters from Hogwarts, twenty were Slytherins. All from the period I've been Head of House."

"You can't blame yourself for - "

"Spare me, headmaster. One was Marcus Flint. I had hoped his acceptance by the Willoughby Whompers would keep him safe from temptation but... The Flints are a poor family and Marcus likes his creature comforts."

"I know you worked hard with him."

"Not hard enough, it would seem. There's more."

Dumbledore glanced to where the parchment sat and braced himself.

"Percy Weasley," said Snape.

"No!" Dumbledore's denial was instinctive. "That was a foolish thing for me to say," he added immediately. "What is the boy thinking of?"

While he had expected no other reaction, Snape hadn't anticipated his own fierce flare of anger on behalf of the twenty Slytherins, of whom nothing had been expected. It was a moment before he trusted himself to reply.

"Fame. Glory. Ah, no. I was forgetting. Percy is a Gryffindor. And therefore exempt from such vainglory or venality."

"How am I supposed to tell Molly and Arthur?" whispered Dumbledore.

"You can't," said Snape flatly.

"But the risk! What if they discuss Inner Circle matters with Percy? He could betray you to Voldemort."

"So could Potter."

"Percy was head boy."

"Percy was born middle-aged and he lives his life as a cliché. Do you want me to approach him?"

While tempted, Dumbledore shook his head. "It would compromise your safety. Although you won't be going back. Voldemort nearly killed you. Next time we might not be so lucky."

"I have to go back. There's too much going on. I was with him the entire time. He killed Etienne Bujold for failing to locate Sirius Black in France and ordered Malfoy to send sixty Death Eaters over there. Whether it's because he can't stand to be thwarted, or because he feels threatened by Black I couldn't say. He's wearing a cloak made from dragon-hide."

Dumbledore could never remember receiving such a disjointed report. "Dragon-hide? Interesting. I've yet to meet the charm that can penetrate that. He obviously anticipates attack from some quarter," he mused. "From within the ranks? Or outside?"

Snape shrugged. "Unfortunately the Dark Lord failed to confide in me. Lucius was looking unsettled for most of the time. Pettigrew, on the other hand, seemed more confident than ever. Malfoy seems to have started quite a trend with his walking cane. Pettigrew's taken up the affectation. Voldemort made a point of showing everyone the lily. Lucius was so irritated I could hear his teeth grinding from twenty paces. He made some disparaging comment about my attempt to curry favour and received the Cruciatus for his pains."

"Is that how you gained your injuries?"

"No. After the last of the initiates had been sent on their way Voldemort took me underground again. Some Muggle-dug cave with innumerable tunnels. The walls and ceiling were decorated with shells and mirrors and sexually explicit statues. Very ugly. For the whole three days he was exuding power as if... I could feel it crawling over my skin, even when I was some distance from him. The last day he sent everyone else but myself and Pettigrew away, and even Pettigrew was banished for a while. Voldemort has a set of rooms. The light was almost blinding and they were uncomfortably hot and over-furnished. There was an odd, repellent smell to the tunnels. When he touched me it was like.." Snape's voice faltered, then steadied. "It was like being burned by ice."

His heart in his eyes, Dumbledore stared at him; a tear rolled down one cheek, although he made no attempt to speak, unable to think of anything which wouldn't make things worse.

"Spare me any Gryffindor sentimentality. I'm fine. While he looked more human, he must still be taking unicorn blood. I could smell it on him." Snape's mouth thinned with revulsion and he paused before forcing himself to continue, his gaze sliding away from Dumbledore to rest on the middle distance "He didn't...he didn't ejaculate. He didn't sleep, eat or urinate the whole time I was in his company. He wanted to know if I had found a way to circumnavigate the hex you had placed on me to stop me brewing dark potions. I told him of my plot to sabotage the Wolfsbane, which met with his approval.

"Later he opened the case the better to admire the lily. He's allergic to its pollen. Within seconds he was sneezing and coughing, and his eyes were running but his breathing certainly wasn't compromised. He destroyed the lily. The next thing I knew I was hitting the far wall of the chamber, while feeling as if half my body was still on the other side of the room. I dislocated every joint down the right side of my body and... After a while, I don't know how long, Pettigrew began to beat me with that damn cane. Then Voldemort came back. I remember Peter screaming. Then I think part of the cave ceiling gave way because I could hear this rumbling and something hit me and I lost consciousness. When I came round I was on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. You know the rest."

"You should be dead," said Dumbledore, frowning into the distance. "That Voldemort should have spared you..."

"I know," said Snape tiredly, trying to pitch his voice above the buzzing in his ears. "Hermione's suggestion that I take him a gift was inspired. He seemed more human. I don't know what use we can make of that," he added trying to find the energy to move. The stimulant should have lasted longer than this.

That was his last coherent thought for some time.


"Of course, he should be in the hospital wing but now the staff are back it will be difficult to get him there without attracting attention," said Madam Pomfrey briskly.

"Quite," said Dumbledore, his gaze never leaving the man on his narrow bed. Fawkes sat on the head rail, chirping some soothing nonsense. "Let him stay here. I have a spare room I can use. Is there anything I should do?"

"Just let him sleep. He's exhausted. The less he does until term starts on Monday the happier I'll be about him. I've given him something for the pain and something else to counteract the last of the stimulant. Don't worry if he stops making much sense for a while. I wish I could have given him some Dreamless Sleep Potion but the less he takes the better. Besides, I suspect he'll be needing a lot of that this term."

"Where are the children?"

"How offended they would be to hear you call them that," she said with a smile. "Harry is with Sirius. Ron and Ginny are staying with their parents in Ravenclaw Tower tonight. Hermione has just got back from Hogsmeade and has had all - well, most - of her hair cut off. She looks like a Muggle," added Madam Pomfrey, looking perplexed. "If you're concerned about Severus' condition, call me."

Dumbledore waited until she had left by Floo before going into his bedroom.

Flat on his back, Snape was awake again, and looking up at him from hollowed eyes.

"No one will disturb you and you're quite private here. Try to sleep," murmured Dumbledore.

Snape stared at him through haunted eyes. "Sleep? That's the last - I don't want to," he amended flatly. "But I'll rest. You've forgotten Fawkes."

"He intends to stay with you, so you may as well give in gracefully."

Too exhausted to argue, Snape could only nod.

"Is there anything you want? Anything at all?"

From nowhere came the overwhelming longing to see Hermione. Just to sit and listen to her cut-glass tones set the world to rights in that brisk, no-nonsense manner of hers. But he would be the last person she wanted to see, and small blame to her. He was going to miss her more than he had anticipated. Lost in the desolation of the moment, it was some time before Snape trusted his voice.

"There's nothing," he said at last.

Dumbledore's hand hovered over the dark head, before he thought the better of imposing his touch. After a moment or two, he left the room, his face troubled.

Snape threw his forearm across his eyes but it didn't block out the memories of all those faceless ranks making the same mistake he once had. Children he had failed to reach. What was the point of experience if...? What was the fucking point?

He flinched when something warm splashed onto his cheek, then gave a quivering sigh: it was only a phoenix tear.

"Even you can't heal this," he murmured, feeling the moisture roll across his skin. "Save them for someone more worthy." But he stared up into the golden eyes, where Fawkes was leaning forward at a precarious angle, obscurely comforted. He wondered rather forlornly what it said about him if he rejected comfort from a wizard but could accept it from a bird. Not that a phoenix could be called a mere bird.

Stupid to try and pretend he had no regard for it.

Stupid to pretend...except when that was all that was left to you.


Grateful to be kept busy, because she couldn't stop worrying about Severus, even though she knew he was safe, Hermione completed the various errands for the headmaster, culminating in returning an armful of parchments to his study. Carefully placing them on the desk, a shot of gold caught her eye and she turned to see Fawkes popping into view.

He landed on her shoulder, running his beak through her cropped hair and she gave a wry smile, suspecting that she could add Fawkes to the lengthy list of those who disapproved of her haircut. Muggle look or not, she felt free of a bushy burden she had carried since childhood - a childhood she had left behind without really being aware of its passing.

It was a moment before she realised that Fawkes was trying to communicate with her. Following him across the study, she stopped when she found herself at an open door which obviously led into Dumbledore's private quarters. She had never even noticed the door before. Hardly surprising, given whose study this was. Then the breath caught in her throat and she forgot any thoughts of trespassing, any thoughts of anything but of the mirrored reflection of the man who had just come into her line of vision.

She froze in the bedroom doorway, drinking in the sight of him. Prone on the bed, his face turned to the door, Severus was deeply asleep, looking as boneless as if he had been fileted. His hair seemed shockingly black against the white bed linen. One arm dangling over the edge of the mattress, his long fingers skimmed the floor, as if he had been reaching out for something that had not been there.

Absorbing the wonder of the breathing, living reality of him, she began to take in more details.

It was obvious his sleep had been troubled, the sheet his only remaining cover. Tucked high on his left shoulder, he was naked to mid-buttock down his right side, one narrow, high-arched foot jutting beyond the bottom of the mattress. Every so often his foot twitched. Despite the heat in the room, the temperature elevated to keep him warm, Hermione felt cold, then hot, then cold again when she noticed the almost healed marks where someone - or thing - had gripped him at flank and shoulder. There was a fresh, blackening bruise down his shoulder, while his tanned skin clearly showed the silvery signs of recently healed wounds where the flesh of his back had been torn; they would fade totally within a week but in the meantime...

She had sent him to that. Take Voldemort a present, she had said. Everyone needs to be loved, she had said.

The tea she had drunk on her return from Hogsmeade acid in her throat, she swallowed with determination.

It was up to her to ensure he never had to go back to Voldemort again.

The castle was thrumming with activity, as Hogwarts prepared itself for the new academic year. All the staff had returned and house elves were popping in and out in a frenzy of final preparations for the arrival of the pupils on Monday. Walking around the castle as she completed her errands for Dumbledore she had been willing to swear she felt Hogwarts itself stir, as if waking from a deep sleep. But up here, in the headmaster's austere bedroom, the silence was complete, as if they were shut off from the outside world.

Her set, white face giving little indication of her inner turmoil, Hermione ignored the straight-backed chair over by the window to sink onto the floor at Snape's bedside, careful not to brush his arm. More than anything else he needed the chance to sleep. To heal, if he could.

Hardly daring to breathe, she sat watching Snape as he slept. The crescent of dark eyelashes did not stir and his breathing was so quiet that there were terrifying seconds when she panicked that he had died without her noticing. But the barely perceptible rise and fall of his back reassured her and little by little she began to relax.

Once again she lost herself in the bones of his face, noting their new prominence since she had seen him last. He would hate it if he knew she was watching him in the vulnerability of sleep, but even now he gave little away. Although his mouth was relaxed from the near-perpetual scowl of Snape-the-bastard, the frown line gouged between his eyebrows seemed deeper than ever. As she watched, the ridiculously long eyelashes began to flicker. He was dreaming. And not of anything pleasant from the look of him.

Her hands in her lap, she knotted her fingers to stop herself from giving in to the urge to touch him - just once, to confirm he really was safe. But she had no right to impose her needs on him. He had enough to contend with.

When Hermione finally looked up from the severe-even-in-sleep set of his mouth, it was to find Madam Pomfrey and Dumbledore watching them from the doorway.

"He's asleep," Hermione said protectively, her voice pitched low.

"Yes. No need to ask how you got through the protective wards," said Madam Pomfrey, but her eyes were kind. She took some readings and nodded her satisfaction. "His stress levels have dropped by a marked degree. You'll be practising medicine yet," she added to Dumbledore.

"I felt sure we could rely on Miss Granger's good sense. And Severus needed... We all need the comfort of our friends."

"He woke once," said Hermione. "But he just said my name and went to sleep again. I doubt if he'll remember. He seemed...drugged."

"He is," confirmed Madam Pomfrey. "And he probably won't remember. What about you?"

Hermione glanced at Snape with unconscious possessiveness. "I have an excellent memory. And the headmaster's word that I won't be given any memory charms."

"Was I that specific?" murmured Dumbledore. "That was rash of me. This academic year will be a difficult one for you." The warning was as clear as if he had spelled it out.

"I know. I'll survive. Just make sure Severus does," said Hermione, before she remembered to whom she was talking.

Far from being offended or annoyed, Dumbledore chuckled. "Ah. Gryffindor women. Much is made of the ferocity in battle of a Gryffindor male but they've never seen a Gryffindor woman protect a loved one. There are several things we should discuss. You may sit with him again afterwards, I give you my word."

With some reluctance Hermione got to her feet and followed him into the study, Fawkes balanced on Dumbledore's shoulder. Once there, she was sat in front of the fire while Dumbledore updated her on the murder of the Filches, Snape's report and Sirius Black's new role.

"While, obviously, your work for your N.E.W.T.s must not suffer, I have no doubt that you'll wish to continue your work for the Inner Circle. That being so, we propose to make it known that you'll be spending much of your free time studying with Madam Pomfrey. You will be authorised to use the internal Floo in her office to go to your permanent chambers in the staff quarters, which will enable you to maintain your puzzle board of information. Given that this is the only place where all the information is on display it would be helpful if it was available to the rest of us. I wonder if we might have your permission to use your chambers for our meetings? During term-time my study is open house for the Ministry, Governors, parents, staff and teachers."

"Of course. Professor Flitwick knows the protective wards because he helped me instal them. Make whatever use of them suits you best."

"Thank you, my dear. I need hardly add that your quarters should not be used for - " Dumbledore paused.

It was a moment before Hermione appreciated what he was talking about. "Illicit liaisons?" she said, with an acid humour that was reminiscent of Snape. "You don't know him very well if you think I'd get away with that. I won't take advantage," she added in more familiar tones. "He wouldn't let me even if I wanted to." She sounded so disgruntled and unlike the studious girl he had assumed he knew that Dumbledore was hard-pressed not to smile.

"It's that tedious Slytherin honour of his," said Madam Pomfrey. "You'll have to get used to it. Once you've drunk this glass of milk and eaten a sandwich you can go back to him."

"But I'm not hungry." Pinned by that implacable gaze, Hermione took the line of least resistance and ate the meal offered to her before returning to Snape.

"Do you think that's wise?" murmured Dumbledore, as they watched her go.

"Who sent her there in the first place?" retorted Madam Pomfrey.

He raised his hand in a gesture of defeat.

"I never doubted Severus' integrity," said Madam Pomfrey, "and now that Hermione understands what it would mean to him to betray his word she'll guard his honour more closely than her own. Don't be misled by her prosaic exterior. That's her armour, just as much as Severus' sarcastic tongue is his. Now, about the girls' toilets..."

Dumbledore sighed. There were times when he almost envied Voldemort.


Ignoring the chair which had been placed at Snape's bedside, Hermione made herself comfortable on a nest of cushions on the floor, where she had a more intimate view of his sleeping face. There was little that was peaceful about his sleep at present. Obviously in the grip of some unpleasant dream, he was moving all the time, small twitches in the main. One foot moved convulsively, then the fingers of the hand draped over the edge of the bed. After a while an incomprehensible muttering began. Hermione forced herself not to try to comfort or wake him but the effort left livid nail marks scored in her palms as she sat watching the signs of distress intensify.

Despite her hours of studying with Madam Pomfrey she wasn't even capable of using her wand to make a diagnosis. He smelt unfamiliar; of strong potions, whose purpose she could only guess, part antiseptic, part cloying and sweet. She presumed some must have been painkillers, which meant that he hadn't suffered the Cruciatus again. Which was something.

In the grip of some mounting terror, Snape eventually shocked himself awake; his breath strangling in his throat, his one visible eye snapping open. Hair clinging damply to his forehead, he was panting like an animal caught in a trap, every muscle tensed in the atavistic instinct to flee.

"You're safe, at Hogwarts. In the headmaster's quarters," she said quickly, because she couldn't bear the terror on his unguarded face. While the look of panic faded, he was frowning, as if trying to make sense of something.

Hermione cupped his cheek briefly, experiencing a fierce sense of pride when he didn't flinch at her touch, before she brushed the hair from his eyes. His skin felt damp, and warmer than it should be.

"You're safe. At Hogwarts. Do you know who I am?" she added, her voice wobbling when he just continued to stare at her, as if she was speaking in tongues.

He seemed to be having difficulty in focussing, running his tongue over his lips. His breathing returned to normal by now, he slowly relaxed as he continued to stare at her. Their faces were almost on a level and she was close enough to see the signs of recent injuries to the skin of his cheek, jaw and nose. When finally he spoke his voice was slurred and sloppy and slightly hoarse - and he said the last thing she had expected to hear from him.

"You've cut your hair."

It was only then that she appreciated that whatever potions had been given to him had been strong enough to knock out his self-imposed prohibitions. He wore the same expression as that friend of her mother's who had arrived in the middle of the night and ended up dancing naked around the bird table. She could ask him anything and the odds were that he would give an honest answer. She firmly closed the door on that particular temptation.

"Yes," she confirmed.

Coordination something of a problem, he raised his arm, his large hand languidly cupping the back of her head, fingertips caressing the silky hair which now hugged the shape of her scalp. "Why?"

It was clear something was worrying him.

Having difficulty in following his thought processes, such as they were, she stared at him, trying to concentrate on anything but the fingers now tracing the contours of her ear and the sensitive skin behind it. She kept reminding herself that he was obviously dosed up to his eyeballs, although his eye colour meant that his pupils didn't betray him.

"It was untidy and a nuisance and we saw a sign for a hair stylist while we were in Hogsmeade. So I had my hair cut. Everyone I've seen since hates it. I like it," she added with a trace of defiance.

His heavy-lidded eyes only half-open, he continued to stare, as if trying to memorize her. Then he nodded. The thumb which had been tracing her jawline brushed across her mouth, caressing her lower lip. "'I would not freeze thee, shorn one, but am ruled as thee.'," he murmured at last.

Without being aware of what she was doing, she turned her head into his hand to nuzzle his palm; his long fingers curled against her cheek.

"I'm glad you like my hair," she said, linking their fingers for a few precious seconds. "I bought the charm which will enable me to keep it this way."

"Like...?" Squinting at her, he paused, his half-smile fading. "You're not really here, are you?" It was less a question than a statement and the accepting sadness in that plangent voice widened her eyes but she did her best not to react; now wasn't the time.

"No," she said, because it was what he needed to hear. Resolute, she eased her fingers from his.

"Good. Then you can stay."


As he subsided back onto the mattress she saw the Dark Mark, like a raw wound against the blue-veined pallor of his inner arm. She neither avoided the mark or set out to touch it. He moved slightly, so that his face brushed her bare forearm, where it rested beside him. It was their only point of contact and awareness of him ripped through her all over again.

"I like this dream. You even smell right. Of Hermione. Home."

The satisfaction in his drug-slurred voice tightened her throat as the significance of his reaction sank hilt-deep in her heart. He had lied. He had told her he didn't care and it had been a lie.

She watched his eyes close, the muscles of his face slowly beginning to relax and supposed him to be asleep when that slurred, sloppy voice drifted back into the silence.

"'Though I conquer all the earth

Yet for me there is only one city.

In that city there is for me only one house;

And in that house one room only;

And in that room, a bed.

And one woman sleeps there,

The shining joy and jewel of my kingdom.'"

His nose brushing the inner curve of her elbow, Snape fell asleep inhaling her scent.


Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has reviewed, it's much appreciated.

'And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

they can tell us, being dead: the communication

of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.'

Little Gidding: T. S. Eliot

Quinapalus - name invented by Feste in Twelfth Night when he wanted to give a saying weight and authority.

Pinchbeck - term used for anything spurious or of deceptive appearance or low quality.

'I would not freeze thee, shorn one, but am ruled as thee.' - paraphrased from the second verse of The Subalterns: Thomas Hardy

'Though I conquer all the earth

Yet for me there is only one city.

In that city there is for me only one house;

And in that house one room only;

And in that room, a bed.

And one woman sleeps there,

The shining joy and jewel of my kingdom.'

- Anonymous Sanskrit poem, translated by John Brough