- Hermione Granger
- Drama Romance
- Multiple Eras
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 03/19/2002Updated: 09/01/2005Words: 220,150Chapters: 28Hits: 163,807
Falling Further In
- Story Summary:
- The story begins in the summer holidays before the sixth year. After her parents are murdered by Voldemort Hogwarts becomes Hermione's home. She joins the staff in the fight against Voldemort and learns more of the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom. Will *eventually* be Snape/Hermione. Lupin is again the Professor teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has a black dog who lives with him - Sirius Black in his animagus form.
- Chapter Summary:
- Hermione discovers more about the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom
Hermione spent what remained of Saturday night in her Upper Sixth cubicle. She hadn't wanted to change rooms because doing so meant acknowledging how much her life was about to change; equally, she knew she needed time to slip back into her role of the school swot worried only about her N.E.W.T.s and what she would do when she left Hogwarts. All she knew was who she wanted beyond any one or thing else.
It was impossible not to think of what he had said, or of what it could mean for their future - if he would let it.
Hermione exhaled slowly. It would be up to her then. Eventually.
Patience had never been her strong suit; she'd never been good at waiting. She was going to have to learn how, if only for his sake.
He had been sleeping more naturally by the time she had left his bedside. Uncomfortably aware of Dumbledore's all-seeing gaze she hadn't lingered, afraid that she might betray them both. She was torn between exhilaration and disbelief that Severus should have taken over her inner life before she was aware of it. She dare not risk seeking out the conscious man until she had found a way to control this compulsion to beam at everyone she met. He must never know how much he had revealed.
Her only illumination a squat, fat candle of the finest beeswax, Hermione studied the cubicle which would be her home for the next year. It felt cramped and dark after her chambers; she didn't even want to think what the dungeons must seem like to Severus after the light and luxurious comfort of Serpens Tower.
Idly petting a gently vibrating Crookshanks, who had spread out to occupy a good half of her chaste, single bed, she stared up at the ceiling until her eyelids sank shut. She fell asleep to the memory of Severus' soft, slurred voice. But when she awoke four hours later she was shivering after a nightmare in which his declaration had been no more than a drug-induced delirium.
Starting awake, Snape's nagging sense that he had forgotten something important was lost when he had to head for the bathroom at an undignified run. The fever was back, accompanied by an irritating skin rash, vomiting and diarrhea. He felt too apathetic to put up much argument when Madam Pomfrey insisted he return to the hospital wing. Her interminable tests indicated he was suffering from an allergic reaction to the minute traces of unicorn blood discovered in the soft tissue samples she had taken from him.
Snape felt sure he would have a better appreciation of the irony when his body stopped voiding itself on the hour.
"Fortunately your system is taking steps to rid itself of the poison, although I'm afraid you're in for an uncomfortable twenty four hours or so," said Madam Pomfrey, her manner brisk because anything else made him uneasy.
"Oh joy." Snape propped himself against the wall in an attempt to convince himself there was nothing brushing his shoulder. "My first class is on Tuesday morning."
"You'll be fine by then," she soothed, knowing what she was really being asked. "You would do better to stay in bed but provided you don't attempt to do too much, you'll come to no harm. Drink this. I've rehydrated you but you must maintain a high intake of fluid and... Never mind. Take one of these every three hours." She presented him with a twenty four hour supply of tiny phials. "Then one of those every four hours." These phials were larger. "Don't start sniffing them. No one would be stupid enough to try and poison a Potions Master - unless he had a bad head cold, of course."
Her witticism met only with a raised eyebrow.
"Eat, if you can keep anything down. Don't take Antiquease or any of the..." She trailed into silence under the influence of a hard stare.
"Difficult as it seems to be for you to remember, as a Potions Master I was required to have some rudimentary knowledge of medicine." Snape's crushing manner would have been more effective if he hadn't been forced to retreat to the bathroom again.
Awash with ginger tea and her infernal solicitude, he finally escaped to the silence of the dungeons. He paused at the closed door of the Potions classroom and took a steadying breath before entering the set of rooms which all too often seemed like a prison. Ridiculous. The holidays had made him soft. But having emerged from the cell in which he had imprisoned his emotions for so many years he wasn't sure how successful he was going to be at closing the door once more.
Sentimental clap-trap, he thought, irritable with himself, before he started to check all the work Black - Pinchbeck - had done here.
The pain from his scar waking him just before dawn, Harry abandoned the pretence of resting with something like relief and headed down to the Great Hall for an extremely early breakfast.
Hermione was already there, her elbows on the table, both hands wrapped around the steaming mug from which she was drinking. She paused to give him a sleepy grin; while the welcome in it was unmistakable, he knew the signs and left her to finish her coffee in peace while he continued to study her surreptitiously.
Her new haircut was...disconcerting. It made her look older and more like a stranger than his bushy-haired conscience. Of course, that had never stopped her from breaking the rules alongside them - it just meant she lectured them the whole time. The more worried she got, the more she lectured. Without her and Ron he'd be dead three times over. And lonely. It wasn't that he didn't get on with plenty of people - the Quidditch team, for one - but she just saw him, Harry, not The Boy Who Lived. Of course, so did Ron nowadays, although there had been that bumpy patch. Funny really. Now he was the one envying Ron.
Maybe Voldemort had gone bad because he hadn't had a sex life either, thought Harry, sitting opposite her. Maybe that was his fate; kill Voldemort and then take his place as the new dictator. Compulsory Quidditch, followed by hours of sex - or would the other way round be best? World domination might have something going for it after all. But he shivered, despite himself, uneasy with the implications - just as he was uneasy about the power which seemed to possess him, rather than the other way around.
"Harry? Are you all right? You look horrible. Is it your scar again?" asked Hermione, matter of fact because that always worked best with him.
It didn't occur to Harry to lie: not to Hermione. "It's not as bad as it was earlier in the week. I don't know what Voldemort was doing."
"He was initiating one hundred and seventy three new Death Eaters," she murmured. It was difficult to remember that they were no longer private since the return of the rest of the staff.
"Snape was there?"
"Keep your voice down. For over three days," Hermione added, staring into her empty mug. "He nearly died this time. He should be back in the hospital wing instead of - He collapsed yesterday."
Pushing aside the memory of his collision with Snape, Harry placed an order for breakfast. Pouring himself some pumpkin juice, he moodily swirled around a seed that was floating in his glass.
It was all very well trying to keep his distance - to keep Hermione and Ron safe- but if he'd really meant it he should never have stayed with the Weasleys. Only he hadn't been able to resist the temptation. After two and a half months of the Dursleys, where he'd been shut in his bedroom for most of the time, he'd felt as if he was going to explode. Even the post he'd got had just kept reminding him of Hedwig. He'd missed her even more than he had expected. The owl the school had lent him wasn't the same. Not that you could call Hedwig affectionate exactly. Owls weren't. But she'd been his to look after and love and...
Everyone who loved him or got too close ended up dead, sooner or later. He didn't want that happening to Ron or Hermione but couldn't think how to make them back off.
"Can I ask you something?" he asked abruptly.
Hermione put down her mug. "Anything," she said simply, hoping he hadn't somehow discovered about Severus and her. Not yet - or preferably ever.
"You know that being friends with me could get you and Ron killed?" Harry stopped, unable to think of a way to go on that wouldn't embarrass them both.
The caffeine seeping into her system, Hermione's eyes narrowed. "Well, the first year probably gave us a clue. Though I don't know why you're so quick to take the credit. Voldemort is the one killing people, not you."
"I know that but I've been thinking. Maybe you and Ron shouldn't..." His voice tailed away under the influence of her glare. "It was just a thought," he said weakly.
Hermione continued to study him for an unnerving few seconds. "You're an idiot," she said finally.
Harry's head ducked down to hide his relieved smile. "Yeah. I just... I missed you," he added abruptly, ruining the effect by sounding surprised. Her grin was pure Hermione and it occurred to him that somewhere down the line she had become quite attractive. He had the sense not to mention that. "OK, so that came out wrong, but you know what I meant."
"The scary thing is, I do," she said affectionately.
"I should have come back here to be with you instead of watching Quidditch," Harry added. "I've been a real arse-hole these holidays."
"Don't be silly. I would have been rotten company - and you wouldn't have been much better, brooding over the Quidditch matches you were missing. Really," she added. Her smile and the gentle kick she gave him under the table were all the confirmation Harry required that everything really was all right.
"Thanks." He took a fortifying gulp of pumpkin juice and doggedly did his duty. "If you want - you know - to talk. About your feelings and stuff."
With the best will in the world Hermione couldn't contain her splutter of amusement. "I'm tempted to say yes just to watch you suffer. Those mushrooms look good. I forgot to order any," she mused, eyeing his plate.
Harry watched with resignation as she helped herself to half of them.
"Where's Ron?" asked Hermione, through an unladylike sized mouthful of food.
"With his mum and dad, I suppose. Everything's going to be so different this term. Ron. You. Mrs Weasley."
Hermione's grin broadened.
"Ron told you," recognised Harry with gloom.
"You didn't think he'd be selfish enough to keep it to himself?"
"I'll kill him," said Harry, applying marmalade to his toast with a liberal hand. "It was just...a shock. She's so..."
"Pregnant," completed Hermione. "It's a perfectly natural process."
"Don't you start. I've had all this from Mrs Weasley. Then she started talking about her and Mr Weasley... You know, doing it."
"Ah," said Hermione with a grimace. "Yes, mum and dad could be like that."
Harry made haste to change the direction of the conversation. "I didn't expect to see anyone else down here. Couldn't you sleep?"
"Crookshanks woke me," lied Hermione.
"This summer must've been gruesome with only the staff for company. To talk to, I mean."
"They were great. They've been really nice to me."
With a rush of relief Hermione realised that she could do this. The Snape of the classroom and the man she loved were different enough to make it possible.
"In his way," she said non-committally.
"Don't tell me, he only had you cleaning cauldrons for half the summer."
"He let me help prepare the ingredients for the Wolfsbane."
"Yeah?" Harry looked interested despite himself, and the conversation moved into safer waters. "So, d'you think you could make it now?"
Hermione began a patient explanation about the complexity of the Wolfsbane.
Satisfied that all the wards required to prevent any pupils damaging themselves irreparably were in place around his classroom, Snape began a meticulous survey of supplies and equipment. He flinched when his plait brushed the back of his neck, each unexpected contact bringing a lurching sense of panic.
The fifth time it happened he stalked through to the back of his office and opened the concealed door to his quarters. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, he waved away the Appearance Detracting Charm, wanting no distractions. His hair clung sweatily to his forehead, his skin was the colour of cheese and his face consisted of harsh lines and hollows, bisected by the jut of his nose. He could see nothing about himself that could possibly make Voldemort -
He resolutely slammed the door on that train of thought, shivering when something tickled his ear.
This much he could do something about. Without giving himself time to think, he took out his wand and abruptly severed his plait. He appreciated his mistake only when the ragged ends of his butchered hair became more of an annoyance. Handful by handful, he traversed his scalp, savagely cropping his hair down to uneven, inch long spikes. But even after he had showered and changed his clothing the memory of the icy brush of fingers remained.
Dumbledore made no attempt to announce his presence as he stood in the doorway of the Potions classroom, which was lit by the sun pouring through windows set high in the cliff-facing wall. The open doors of one of the deep cupboards and the faint clink of bottles and vials betrayed Snape's whereabouts. In times of stress Severus was usually to be found pottering amongst the raw materials of his craft, if he wasn't actually brewing - although time for research had been severely reduced in recent years.
"If you're intending to stay there for any length of time you could always make yourself useful," said Snape as he came into view. "There's a lot to be done."
Dumbledore's face tightened as he absorbed the change to Snape's appearance. Worldly enough to suspect what lay behind it, he wondered what was the point of living to his great age if he had learnt so little about helping those who needed it most. But now wasn't the time to speak of that. He never seemed to find the right time where Severus was concerned and those failures weighed heavily.
"Nonsense," he said, with nothing in his mild tone to betray him. "Siri - Professor Pinchbeck attended to everything last night."
"That's hardly news, I could smell his reek the moment I walked in here."
"Has he neglected something?"
"I would be negligent if I failed to check. No pupil has ever come to any serious harm while I've been teaching Potions - which is more than can be said of my predecessors."
"That's true." Motes of sunlit dust only increased the eerie atmosphere of the room which, of all the classrooms, was the most theatrical - right down to the dais on which Snape's desk stood. Dumbledore peered up at the tall jars squatting on a shelf above him and shook his head. "I'm not even going to ask what that is floating in that large bottle up there."
Snape followed the line of his gaze. "I don't think I could tell you - except to confirm they aren't alive. Every year Ceres finds me increasingly gruesome specimens from the plant world. She's excelled herself this year. I've put them where I won't have to look at them."
"You'll give the first years nightmares."
Snape closed the cupboard. "The day I need to rely on trickery to do that is the day I resign. Although I suppose we could tell them they're the remains of pupils who failed their Potions exams..."
"A little healthy fear does no one any harm."
"You don't feel Voldemort is providing enough fear?" Dumbledore rushed back into speech when he became aware of the two-edged possibilities of that remark. "When I think how cosy this room used to be under old Professor Boyle - yes, you can imagine the jokes. Dear me, I haven't thought of her for almost a hundred and forty years. I know you complain about our academic standards but compared to those days... She was no Potions Master. In fact I used to have the impression that her level of knowledge was approximately one chapter ahead of ours. Her classes were lively affairs. I still have a couple of scars. Of course, she blew herself up in the end. Brought down the whole ceiling. The classes were on the other side of the dungeons, near Remus'...
"Cell," offered Snape dryly.
"Quite. I'm glad to see you've omitted the walls running with damp this year."
"Poppy made me dry them out." Snape's regret was obvious. "I would activate the Green Crawler again but its explosive qualities made it unsuitable. The last thing first years need is encouragement to blow things up."
"At least you won't get bored," pointed out Dumbledore cheerfully.
Snape studied him. "You might want to remember that I know one hundred and eighty nine ways to poison you."
Dumbledore's eyebrows rose. "So few?"
Snape paused. "I sometimes forget you're not just a batty old man put here to drive me insane. You've probably forgotten more about Potions than I'll ever know. Don't you miss the work?"
"Sometimes," said Dumbledore honestly. "The years spent working with Nicholas were some of the happiest of my life. But Hogwarts takes most of my attention these days - it goes with the position of headmaster, unless we can find a Warden. And given that there hasn't been one for what - three hundred years?"
"Can't Minerva - ?"
"The only penalty of having an Animagus as my deputy is the fact she can't communicate with ... But don't twit her about it. She does the work of two people already."
"Give me some credit," said Snape sourly.
"Batty I may be - "
"Ah. I suppose I should apologise for that."
Dumbledore's smile was one of pure affection. "Why change the habits of a lifetime?"
Snape gave him an edgy look. It always disconcerted him that he should find something oddly comforting about Dumbledore's presence - although it was probably no more than his need for the approval of a male authority figure. An approval that had been signally lacking throughout his life.
Until the incident with the whomping willow he had sought it from Dumbledore. After that betrayal he'd focussed on Voldemort. Then back to Dumbledore, expecting from him more than was reasonable just because he was Albus Dumbledore.
Frowning against a tension headache, Snape looked up to find Dumbledore watching him; recognising the concern behind the calm, he suddenly realised what must have brought the older man down to the Potions classroom. "You needn't concern yourself about me. I'm fine," he said brusquely.
The times when Dumbledore focussed his full attention and power on someone were rare, and daunting in the extreme.
Snape gasped at the unleashed power which suddenly flooded the room - all directed at him. It would have been easier to stare into the sun than sustain the blazing blue stare which seemed to strip him of all his secrets. As if he wasn't naked enough. As if... He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting for control.
"Not concern myself?" echoed Dumbledore, his voice cracking on the last word. He took Snape's cold hands in a warm grasp. "I know I fail you time and time again but do you imagine that I permit you to go to Voldemort lightly? That I wouldn't give... Oh, child. I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry for failing you."
It was the pain spilling from those blue eyes which stopped Snape from protesting as he was eased into an embrace and the back of his shorn head cradled by a thin hand. Awkwardly trying to comfort the older man, Snape inhaled the scent of lemon and sunshine and was comforted in his turn.
Mindful of the illegal, no doubt dangerous, and often sick beasts Hagrid would doubtless acquire this term, Snape took him a supply of basic potions, waved aside a concerned query about his own health and headed back to the castle. Habit made him head in the direction of Serpens Tower, before he remembered. In urgent need of a bathroom, Snape made use of the one in Hermione's chambers because he knew from Dumbledore that she had moved into the Upper Sixth Dormitory.
Waiting for his legs to stop shaking after another exhausting bout of nausea, he swallowed his medication and slumped onto the chaise longue in the corner of the bathroom suite whose opulent splendour was in marked contrast to the shabby, but oddly familiar comfort of the main rooms. He wondered if this, too, was Hermione's choice. It seemed unlikely but he had little enough information on which to base that supposition - and no chance of increasing his expertise, he reminded himself bleakly.
She had left a selection of toiletries on the sink, as if she had intended to pack them but had forgotten them at the last moment. Not that she would need the anti-tangle conditioner with her newly styled hair, which made her look -
He closed his eyes and concentrated on not vomiting again.
Thanks to her appallingly early start to the day the morning seemed endless to Hermione, who spent the three hours after breakfast helping Professor Vector. Dodging Professor Trelawney, Hermione headed back to her chambers to move the last of the belongings she would need during term time. She was busy reducing books and parchments, so she need make only one journey, when a noise made her glance up to see Snape in the doorway that led to her bathroom and bedroom. Disconcerted by the blurring effect of the Appearance Detracting Charm, which was only partially effective for those who knew it was in place, it was a moment before she noticed the severely cropped hair, which served only to accentuate the bony promontories of his over-controlled face. His skin had a faint, greenish tinge to it, shadows like bruises under his eyes. If she had hoped for some sign of pleasure she was disappointed.
"I'll leave you to your packing," he said, eyeing her without interest.
"Don't," she protested involuntarily. "I haven't seen you since yesterday and - " She stopped.
Snape tried and failed to pin down an elusive memory. "Yesterday?" His gaze lingered on her hair, his frown deepening as he appreciated he had no idea what she was talking about - or how he had known she'd cut her hair. That gap in his memory, allied to yet another loss of control, made his skin crawl.
"Uh, yes," said Hermione, worried by the expression on his face. "The headmaster and Madam Pomfrey were kind enough to let me sit with you for a short while."
"Why? Have I now become a spectator sport?"
The bitterness in his voice made her flinch. "It was for my benefit, not yours. I was worried about you," she added simply.
It silenced him, as little else could have done.
"Herm - Miss Granger - you - "
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," she snapped. She thought she had been prepared and was discovering her mistake, devastated at being treated like a troublesome schoolgirl by this chilly stranger. "The world won't stop turning just because you call me Hermione. Nothing happened, all right? You said you liked my haircut and you fell asleep again. Madam Pomfrey had you drugged to the eyeballs."
"Ah," said Snape. He had assumed that had been a dream. Despite himself his gaze returned to her hair.
"Don't tell me you were just being polite?" Hermione was rewarded with an easing of the tension lines around his mouth.
"It has an unlikely ring to it. You have a pretty neck. And I shouldn't be noticing that," he added irritably, a moment later. "It's nothing to grin about. You haven't done anything clever." He couldn't shake off the feeling that something else had happened; her eyes were virtually glowing. "While you were sitting with me, did I - ?"
"Don't panic," Hermione, disappointment adding an edge to her voice. "You didn't talk in your sleep, or snore, or dribble." She could hear herself babbling as she struggled to keep him with her until she could find a way of reopening the lines of communication. "Your virtue, or what's left of it, was quite safe with me."
His only betrayal was the tensing of his jaw and the flicker of his eyes. "Don't be impertinent."
Something in his voice caught her attention but it took a moment's mental backtracking to appreciate what she had said. Then the significance of his rigidly controlled body and face, the retreat into academic clothing - even the savagely cropped hair - all made a terrible sense.
The wave of protective rage which swept over her was so intense that it made her shake. Burning with the primeval need for revenge, her wand hand twitched even while there was an unpleasant thumping noise in her ears which blocked out everything else, sweat cold on her clammy skin. Voldemort had raped him. She'd sent him back to that.
"Sit down. What's wrong? Are you ill?" For a too brief moment the back of Severus' hand rested against her forehead. "I can't tell if you have a fever." He sounded distracted.
"Unlike you, I don't. Just - " How to account for her reaction? Her mind went blank before it cleared. "I haven't been sleeping," she said, her voice flat It was her right to share this with him - to offer any comfort it was in her power to give. But it wasn't what he wanted or needed from her and so she must feign ignorance.
And it hurt like hell, bringing the reality of their non-relationship home to her as little else could have done.
"I've never seen you look like this before," said Snape, unconvinced.
"The only other time I experienced this level of stress was when my parents were murdered. And if you ask why I've been so worried about you I swear I'll hex you," Hermione added pugnaciously.
As declarations of affection went it was quite subtle by Gryffindor standards. She looked so fierce that Snape found it difficult to subdue a smile. "You might try to," he said, all his good resolutions melting away with the balm of her presence.
"Don't be provoking. Given that you look as if a puff of wind could blow you over, it wouldn't be much of a challenge. I'll wait until you've got your strength back. I'm surprised you're still talking to me," Hermione added bleakly.
"Why?" To his relief some colour had returned to her face.
"Voldemort beat you to pieces. I wanted to keep you safe, instead my suggestions almost got you killed." She was close enough to notice the exquisite detailing on the seams to the raised collar of the jacket he wore beneath his academic robes. There was a small piece of fluff marring the perfection of the matt black and she brushed it away with unthinking intimacy.
Snape gave no sign of noticing anything unusual. "Why do all Gryffindor's feel compelled to over-dramatize? While I realise this will come as a shock to you, I make my own choices."
Hermione opened her mouth.
"And you needn't bother to point out how well some of those turned out," Snape anticipated.
Shocked, she met his gaze but rather than bitterness she saw only a concern for herself and a certain wry humour. Anything else he might be feeling was hidden away for him to deal with by himself, as was obviously his habit. She did her best to respond in kind.
"Even I'm not that tactless."
He made no attempt to control the smile that lit his tired face. "Self-deception is a wonderful thing," he murmured.
"I could say the obvious," she pointed out blandly.
"Damn, now you've got me setting traps for myself," said Snape, before he sighed. "We shouldn't be having this conversation."
"Bollocks," she said forthrightly.
"Oh, please," she said, looking pained. "There's nothing improper about the fact we enjoy one another's company. One kiss didn't change that, whatever else it did." Her gaze slid from his mouth. "More than anything else, you've become a friend. And while I'd rather not, I worry about my friends. I won't make a nuisance of myself."
Snape gave her a look of incredulity and muttered something incomprehensible.
"I presume that was an insult," she said with resignation.
He could see all the small marks of stress that hadn't been there a week ago - and the effort she was making. And while he knew what he should do, that cruelty was beyond him. "More a plea for patience," he said. "Save your concern for those who need it. Will you stop - ? I'm fine," he added in a goaded tone, spurred into speech by nothing more than the honesty of her gaze.
"I thought Slytherins were supposed to be skilled liars. That would have been more convincing if you didn't look so awful," she said frankly, surprising him into a huff of amusement.
"If you're serious about wanting to become a mediwitch you'll need to work on your bedside manner."
"But you don't think I will, do you? Become a mediwitch, I mean," Hermione added.
Snape propped himself against the wall. "Are you asking for my advice?"
"Would you give it?"
He gave the faintest of smiles. "No."
"Not even if I asked for it?"
"That would be different. However, I doubt if you need me to tell you something you've already discovered for yourself."
"That I'm not cut out to be a mediwitch? I know. So does Madam Pomfrey. Though I'll learn all I can from her and maintain the cover the headmaster has established. But when it comes to the S Levels and what to do when I leave Hogwarts... I need to learn the spells to help with languages. Listening to you and Professor Flitwick... Some of those ancient texts... So much we still don't understand. So much knowledge still waiting to be brought to life. I'm going to ask him if he'll allow me to take Charms at S Level and later, if he'll have me, I'd like to become his Pupil. And to work on Ancient Runes with Bill - Professor Weasley, I mean. Though I don't think I'd just want to do research. I like people too. I think I'd be a good teacher. I know I haven't done any but there have been times when someone has been stuck with their homework and I've explained something and I've seen what I've said click and it sets them free to start thinking for themselves..." Words were rushing over themselves, her eyes sparkling as she looked up at him. "You know what I mean," she said with certainty.
"Yes," agreed Snape, eyeing her with a mixture of affection and respect.
Hermione grimaced. "Yes, of course you do, or you wouldn't be letting first years drive you crazy. Have you seen Madam Pomfrey today?"
The abrupt change of subject caught him by surprise, his expression closing, the smile fading from his eyes. "Regrettably, yes. I have a minor allergy, that's all. It should pass in another twenty four hours."
"Oh. Good. What are you allergic to - the lily?"
"No. Irony of ironies to Voldemort - as he is now." Rather than the flippancy he had intended the raw pain in his roughened voice betrayed him. Humiliated, he swung away.
"Hardly surprising, given what he must be doing to himself to stay even vaguely human," said Hermione quickly, afraid Severus would complete his withdrawal. "I know you must be busy but before you go may I ask you a favour? I wondered if I could borrow books from your library? The Muggle portion of it, I mean. I hadn't read much fiction before I came here and I haven't read any since. There are so many fields of learning that... But I've realised that there always will be. It's time I learnt something about Muggle literature. I thought I could start with poetry."
"And get it over with?" inquired Snape, his expression thawing as he turned back to her.
"Something like that," admitted Hermione, in the tone of one making a clean breast of things. "I have to start somewhere - and poetry is shorter."
"And the lines don't usually go to the end of the page. Entertaining as this farrago of nonsense is, you forget, I saw the books we brought back from your former home. The secret of a convincing lie is total conviction - and keep it simple."
"You might give me credit for trying."
"You must be confusing me with someone else. What really happened last night?" Snape added, in the same pleasant tone.
Pinned by his steady gaze Hermione discovered she couldn't lie to him - but equally, she avoided telling the whole truth. "Nothing much. Except that you quoted some poetry one of the times you woke up. I'm not going to tell you what it was because you'll only sneer and spoil it."
"Romantic then." Snape looked as if he had sucked on a particularly acid lemon.
"It could be taken that way. Not in the moon, June, spoon sense, of course."
Snape looked revolted. "I should hope not."
Her grin was devoid of sentimentality. "No surprise there then. Why do you read Muggle literature?"
He allowed her to steer the conversation into less intimate waters because he had no wish to wonder how much he might have betrayed. "Because wizards have little artistic ability."
"I suppose they channel all their creativity in magic," she mused.
"They?" picked up Snape. "You're one of us."
"Not completely," said Hermione with decision. "I don't think anyone Muggle-born can be. But I don't feel the need to apologise for the fact any more. I'm quite happy the way I am, with a foot in both worlds."
"Good," said Snape, looking unsurprised.
"I'm a teacher. I'm supposed to notice these things."
Hermione gave him a brooding look. "You can be horribly smug."
"Not smug, right."
She gave him a fulminating glare and Snape firmly quashed the desire to kiss her.
"Is it so difficult to integrate the two worlds?" he asked.
"It's mostly irrelevant at school. But in a year I'll be leaving. And I have no idea what the wizard world outside Hogwarts is like."
Snape got to his feet. "Borrow anything you want from my library. I know I can rely on your discretion. There are some volumes I would prefer you didn't read. You'll recognise them when you come across them."
She nodded and wondered if he had any idea how much it meant to her to know she still had his trust. "I'm going to miss our discussions," she whispered, the enormity of her loss sweeping over her. "And you."
His expression closed. "It will pass," he said, coolly dismissive.
Hermione rarely lost her temper, and apart from the odd PMS-induced moments of tetchiness regarded herself as easy to get on with. Fear for him, guilt, longing and raw lust saw her good resolutions go up like sun-dried grass to a naked flame.
"If I wanted sex with you do you think it's beyond me to get it?" she demanded, stalking over to him. He gave ground instantly, trusting his self-control no more than hers. "If the obvious method of knocking you off your moral-principled perch failed - though I don't think it would - I'd simply brew some Polyjuice, give it to one of my over-sexed classmates, and spend the next two hours fucking the image of you legless. But I won't because it's you I want. Not just the place where you keep your brain most of the time." She gestured in the general direction of his groin. "Though I want that too. I want..."
There was a stark, lust-filled silence.
Hermione slumped onto the broad arm of a sofa with an audible sigh before rubbing her face with her hands. They were shaking, sexual tension crackling through her like lightning.
"I shouldn't have said that. Any of it." Her voice was flat and lifeless and she was avoiding his gaze.
"And I should have left immediately," said Snape quietly.
She looked up at that, heartened by the fact he hadn't turned on her, or simply walked out. "I'm glad you didn't. I'm sorry about suggesting you keep your brain in... You don't deserve that. You're not nearly as bad as Harry or Ron."
Resting against the wall, Snape's expression thawed as yet again his sense of humour came to the rescue.
"Not the compliment I was hoping for," he said unsteadily, afraid that if he laughed she'd remember she was a witch and hex him into next week. Although quite why his prick should find that so... Grateful for the voluminous folds of his robes, he changed his stance.
It belatedly occurred to him that he had lost any pretence of being in control of this exchange - let alone of their relationship. It wasn't as if he hadn't been warned. Over the last six years he had seen what she was like with Harry and Ron - with any of her friends. He'd wager every knut in his vault that she would boss him to death most of the time - without ever realising she was doing it.
He was obviously doomed because he could think of far worse fates than allowing Hermione Granger to believe she was running his life for him. He massaged the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off a tension headache but when he looked up Hermione was staring at him. She still looked as if she'd been hit on the head by a bludger. Not yet ready for canonisation, Snape felt a prickle of very male gratification that he'd taught her more about lust than that pipsqueak Krum. And Pilgrims of Love with bad timing were no competition. He'd do more than write a sonnet to her breasts.
Oh fuck... He really should leave. He refocused to find Hermione watching him, a worried frown in place.
"I don't know what came over me just now," she murmured. "Well, yes I do. I just never anticipated it would be so hard to... I thought I'd got the hang of lust," she said in a rush, managing to meet his eyes despite the embarrassed heat which rose on her face.
Her emotional courage demanded some acknowledgement, even though he knew it was unwise. "Me too," he said dryly, cursing his self-indulgence when he saw that the sparkle had returned to her eyes.
She studied him for several disconcerting moments. "Thank you. I don't think I could have stood a lie. Not now. And I know," she anticipated, "we shouldn't be having this conversation." Her tone became brisk as she moved away. "I only came to collect the last of my things. I'll see to that after the meeting of the Inner Circle this afternoon. I know this term - this year - will be difficult. But you've lived a double life for years so if, just occasionally, here, in these rooms - if we could talk. Just talk, I swear. As ourselves..." The plea in her voice was unmistakable.
"It's going to be difficult enough to resume my usual role without - "
"I know. And any distraction could be dangerous for you." Her shoulders slumped. "Maybe I should give up Potions."
"You'll do no such thing," he said immediately.
"And how are you going to stop me?"
With the experience to see what was happening, Snape swallowed his instinctive retort and parted his hands in a gesture of conciliation. "All I can do is appeal to your usual good sense. I agree that it would undoubtedly be easier for both of us - except for the gossip it would cause about why the best all-round student Hogwarts has seen for years drops one of the key subjects." He willed the nausea away.
"There is one obvious solution." said Hermione slowly, the idea still formulating as she spoke. "Everyone will soon find out that I've spent the summer at Hogwarts, with you. Let it be known that I have a crush on you. How would Voldemort like the news that one of Harry's best friends is in love with you?"
"Attempt to put that plan into action and I'll Obliviate you myself and be damned to it," said Snape violently, as the horror of what she had proposed sank home. "One of us as his toy is quite enough. If you imagine I'm prepared to stand by and watch you - "
Swallowing hard, he was forced to retreat to the bathroom. By the time he was able to return to the sitting room Hermione was gone. A rolled up parchment with his name on it jumped up and down until he noticed it and picked it up. It seemed odd that her writing should seem so familiar when everything else between them had changed. Although quite when he had admitted that to himself was a mystery. Wary of what she might be proposing now, he smoothed the parchment on the table top, his palms flat on the wood as he read it.
It was a stupid idea - the penalty of thinking aloud. And of course I'll continue with Potions. Despite my lapse today, you can trust me not to let you down.
Please be careful. You already know me better than anyone else alive. I want the chance to be able to say the same about you in the years to come.
'There's some ginger tea cooling on the desk. You should try to eat something - perhaps dry toast?
It was clear she had resisted signing it only at the last moment, a small blot of ink betraying her. Snape rubbed his thumb over the spot, his expression unconsciously softening. This was the first personal communication - and the shortest parchment - he had ever received from her. After reading it for the third time he gently placed it in the fire and stood watching until it was quite burnt away, the soft, grey ashes floating up the chimney.
A few moments later, Dumbledore's head appeared in the flames, requesting that he meet him in the headmaster's study.
Ron's early morning meeting with Dumbledore had killed his appetite for the breakfast which had been offered to him. He finally left the headmaster's study caught between exhilaration, pride and terror at the trust being placed in him. There was also a small part of him that wished he could have stayed in ignorance, happily chasing girls, supporting Harry and doing as little work for his N.E.W.T.s as he could get away with.
Needing to collect his thoughts, he spent a couple of hours walking in the most secluded part of the grounds as he tried to come to terms with his new responsibilities. A combination of a rumbling stomach and the realisation that he was putting off the inevitable sent him back inside. He headed for the rooms Dumbledore had told him had been allocated to Hermione, and that would be used by the Inner Circle for meetings and study during term-time, because only here could they be certain they wouldn't be interrupted.
Ron studied the puzzle board, frowning at the morass of information. Typical Hermione, she'd try to cover every possible contingency instead of narrowing down the field to the most likely method of defeating Voldemort. Which meant facing up to him - taking the attack to him rather than constantly trying to defend, while all around them innocent Muggles and wizards were killed for sport.
There seemed a lot of material to be read and no obvious reading order. Sighing, Ron picked up the first parchment.
The greatest shock concerned what he read about Snape. It didn't require much of a stretch of the imagination to see him as a Death Eater - Harry was going to love getting confirmation about that! - but it was far harder to accept that he was on their side and that he had been for longer than they'd been alive.
Snape heroically protecting Harry behind the scenes beggared belief, thought Ron as he tucked into the plate of roast beef sandwiches a house elf brought him for lunch.
But Ron's expression changed when he read the various reports from the previous year - most written in the flowing hand of the automatic quill spell they were forbidden to use, although some of the later ones were in Hermione's cramped handwriting. Pushing away a half-eaten sandwich, the reality of what they were facing began to sink in.
Rape and repeated torture by Cruciatus Curse... Two years of... His new-found sophistication curling up at the edges, he stared into the middle distance.
No one deserved that.
It would be the least of it if Voldemort won. It didn't do to forget that - not least for the sake of his unborn brothers or sisters. Whatever it cost, Voldemort couldn't be permitted to win. He'd done enough damage to Ginny. People thought she'd got over her first year, when in truth she'd just got better at camouflaging what she felt.
It occurred to Ron how little he knew about what his own sister really thought about things.
How much the mind of the Tom Riddle of that diary had in common with Voldemort remained to be seen, but he should speak to Ginny. Pick her brains. And probably rekindle those nightmares she'd been having since her first year, he accepted glumly, as it occurred to him there could be consequences far worse than that ahead of them.
Staring gloomily at the stack of parchments waiting to be read, he unfastened another fat document filled with automatic quill writing and began to read.
Five minutes later, a crumpled parchment in one hand, his wand in the other, he stormed into Dumbledore's office. He stopped dead when he found himself facing Snape, who sat on a straight-backed oak chair.
"You fucking liar!" yelled Ron, tossing the parchment in Snape's face. It hit him on the cheek, rebounded onto his chest and fell to the floor.
"That will do, Mr Weasley," said Dumbledore from behind him, just before he relieved Ron of his wand and tucked it up his own sleeve.
Far from being grateful, Snape looked exasperated. "Albus, this isn't helping anything."
"And you think being blasted through the wall of my office will achieve what exactly?" inquired Dumbledore mildly.
"Well, it would make me feel better," said Ron, but even looming over the seated man his attempt to intimidate and dominate Snape failed.
"You weren't supposed to see that report yet," said Dumbledore into a silence that was broken only by Ron's attempts to catch his breath.
"I suppose you wanted time to doctor it. To think up more lies." Ron's hands were clenched into fists of rage.
"No. I didn't feel it was necessary for you know about - " Dumbledore stopped. "I have already made my apologies to Severus. Now I must apologise to you. But there is some information you shouldn't have."
"Why - ?"
"No!" said Snape instinctively, when he saw the headmaster about to cast the Obliviate.
Pale with shock, Ron stared into Dumbledore's watchful blue gaze. "You mean you believe what Snape said?" he demanded accusingly.
"Implicitly. And that's Professor Snape, Mr Weasley."
"Percy wouldn't," muttered Ron, so pale that every freckle stood out in stark relief. "You never liked him," he added, wheeling round to glare at Snape again. "You've always hated our family. Percy wouldn't."
Snape remained silent and continued to study him.
Ron's right hand curled into a fist again. There would be a certain satisfaction in bloodying that supercilious face. Except... He couldn't shake off the memory of what he had read in the various reports. It was one thing to help out on the spur of the moment, before your imagination could get to work, but knowingly to... His fingers relaxed, his hand dropping to his side.
"Are you positive it was Percy?" he asked in a different tone.
"Yes." Snape made no attempt to elaborate.
Ron slumped onto a chair. "I suppose you must be. There would be no point lying about it when it can be checked so easily. The silly, misguided sod. I know how it must look but it won't be the obvious. You're sure it was the Dark Mark that he took and not some other...? You could be mistaken?" Hope blazed from his blue eyes.
"Not about that," said Snape.
"It could be a fake."
"No one could ever mistake the real thing." Snape's gaze moved beyond Ron for a moment. As he straightened his left arm, the fabric of his gown, jacket and shirt parted as cleanly as if cut by an invisible knife. Peeling back the layers of material he extended his inner arm for Ron to see. "The Mark has been fading since I got back from Voldemort yesterday but it's still visible. As a new Death Eater Percy will be in favour. His arm will appear unblemished except when Voldemort summons him and for a few minutes afterwards."
Staring at the livid skull and snake, Ron lacked the experience to conceal his revulsion. Snape's mouth tightened. Smoothing out his clothing, he repaired the fabric with a murmured "Reducere".
Leaning forward where he sat, Ron was staring at his clasped hands where they hung between his parted legs. The crystal dangling from one ear twisted and sparkled, then slowly stilled until Ron finally spoke again.
"I know he can be a pompous prick at times but really he's just...insecure. Like I was, I suppose. Only he doesn't seem to have grown out of thinking he has to prove himself all the time. He's always wanted to do better than Bill and Charlie but this isn't the way to go about it. Oh, Percy..." His voice thickening, he swiped his running nose with the back of his hand, a glare daring Snape to comment when he was forced to give a loud sniff. "This will kill mum and dad," he muttered.
"Don't be absurd," dismissed Snape briskly. "They have far too much good sense. Besides, you can't tell them."
Ron's reaction was predictable and noisy. His yelling woke up Fawkes.
Meeting Dumbledore's eyes, Snape shook his head. "With the quantity of self-pity he's exuding, sympathy's the last thing he needs. Leave him to me, Albus."
After another sharp look at Snape, some of the anxiety in Dumbledore's eyes faded. Nodding, he collected Fawkes and quietly closed the door on his way out.
Snape allowed Ron his head for another thirty seconds before silencing the shouting with a simple charm.
"That's better. When the headmaster admitted you to the Inner Circle earlier today you accepted the fact that difficult choices would need to be made. That was more than mere form and this is simply the first of many. Believe it or not, it's probably one of the easier ones you'll be expected to make. If you don't want to be thought of as a child, stop behaving like one. Yes? Oh." Snape returned the power of speech to Ron as casually as he had removed it.
"I don't understand why they can't be told. It's their right to know!"
"Yes, it is. And if you think Molly will be capable of concealing the devastating effect the news will have on her..."
Ron opened his mouth, then looked down. "What makes you think I can?" he muttered.
"In the last six years you have repeatedly demonstrated your willingness and ability to subordinate your needs - even your life - to help Harry in his fight against Voldemort."
It took a moment for the magnitude of the compliment Snape was paying him to sink in. Ron went very red and stared at his feet, mumbling nonsense.
"Besides, you're our strategist," added Snape prosaically. "You need to know. Bill and Charlie don't and aren't to be told. Clear? The less people who know, the less likely the news is to get out. And the safer Percy will be. One word out of place could kill him. Or make him wish he was dead." It was clear he spoke from experience.
Ron nodded. "Does Harry have to know?" he blurted out a few moments later.
Snape was slow to control his surprise. "You don't want him told?"
"No. I couldn't bear it if he started to go on and on about it. And he wouldn't be able to stop himself. Dumbledore was going to use a memory charm on me, wasn't he?"
"Why did you stop him? You can't want me to know... Oh, blimey," breathed Ron, as it occurred to him just how much Snape must hate this.
"Quite. Not everything is about your family."
"No." Ron concentrated on picking some dry skin at the side of his thumb nail. "You trust me?"
"I wasn't aware that I'd been given a choice in the matter." Snape's voice was as dry as dust but that very control spoke volumes.
Aware of an unwilling sympathy for the teacher he had barely learnt to tolerate over the years, Ron nodded. "No. Yet you stopped him Obliviating me. Why?"
"As our strategist you need every available piece of information. Though what possible..." Snape stopped, paused and started again. "I have no choice," he said with bleak honesty.
"No," said Ron again. "I suppose you don't."
There was a lengthy silence.
"I don't understand why he did it," muttered Ron finally. Beneath the raw pain was blank incomprehension - and the inevitable guilt. His head rose, a challenge on his face. "Do you?"
It was only later that he realised Snape had been waiting for this response.
"Are you asking me in my capacity as an ex-Death Eater?" It was the final twist of the knife to see the flicker of fear in those usually fearless blue eyes.
"Yes," said Ron, overly conscious that he was wandless in the presence of a powerful wizard and ex-Death Eater who had always loathed him. Even Dumbledore wasn't infallible. Or so Hermione had said in her reports and he trusted her opinion over any of them. While Snape's name kept cropping up in her notes, there weren't any clues what she really thought of him.
"I suspect Percy joined the Death Eaters for the same reason I did."
"Percy's nothing like you!"
"I'm glad you noticed that."
"How you must be loving this," said Ron fiercely.
"Oh quite," said Snape.
It was only then that Ron appreciated the measure of the insult he had delivered. "Sorry," he muttered, obscurely ashamed.
"No, don't spoil it. You were doing quite well."
"And you've made no attempt to retaliate. Why?"
"It's difficult to take the high moral ground while wearing the Dark Mark."
Ron stared at him, for the first time seeing just a tired looking man with lines of stress engraved on his face. "How old were you when you joined them?"
Devoid of emotion, Snape's voice drifted into the silence just when Ron had given up hope of getting a reply.
"I joined two weeks after my eighteenth birthday. Voldemort offered arcane knowledge not available elsewhere. Only later did I realise why. And I was arrogant enough to assume I could take what I wanted, defeat him and return a hero. I thought he was ruled by the intellect but... He wasn't. It took me four months to admit the extent of my mistake. Four long months before I found the courage to go to Albus."
Snape found it impossible to hide how much he was hating every second of this - not least because he had no one but himself to blame for the fact he had to permit self-righteous little pricks sit in judgment on him. His glare went unnoticed because, deep in thought, Ron was staring through him.
"That's the real reason you won't let me tell mum or dad, isn't it?" said Ron slowly. "You want Percy to do the same thing. And he will, I'm sure of it. Only he's nowhere near as powerful as you. What if he gets himself killed before he gets the chance to come to Dumbledore?"
"I'm relying on the fact that Percy has always been more willing than me to admit when he's made a mistake."
"Oh. Right." Ron fidgeted where he sat, staring fixedly at the wall. "If I'm to be of any use I need to understand Voldemort."
"Why else do you think Albus left you to my tender mercies?" said Snape sardonically. "Order some ginger tea for me. I'll be back in a moment, when I'll do my best to answer any questions you may have."
It was that, more than anything else, which brought it home to Ron how much things had changed.
What was worse, he didn't even enjoy the experience of having the whip hand over Snape - although he couldn't have explained why not, even to himself. It was late afternoon before he ran out of questions, by which time he looked almost as exhausted as Snape, not least because the man opposite him had become real to him in a way that he never had before.
"You can't be much older than Bill," Ron said, as he collected up the rolls of newly filled parchment.
"About eight years, I think."
"Blimey, I always thought - "
"Best not go there," said Snape dryly.
"No," agreed Ron, rubbing the back of his neck, before he gave a wry grin. "Being treated like an adult takes a bit of getting used to."
Snape eyed him thoughtfully. "With a little reflection it should be apparent that the staff - even your mother - have been doing so since you entered the Lower Sixth. It's just that you're finally beginning to look beyond the obvious. About time, given that you'll all be inflicted on the wizarding world next June."
"I just want to say something." Ron stopped dead.
"Yes?" said Snape, but beneath the impatience he looked wary.
Ron tried, and failed, to imagine how Snape must feel about being interrogated by a pupil. "I just wanted to say that...Well, of course I won't say anything. That goes without... I just thought you might want to hear me say it."
"Yes," said Snape, the set of his shoulders dropping a fraction.
"I think that what you're doing is... It takes a lot of guts. That's all. And that - "
"Let me stop you there, Mr Weasley. Has anything about our conversation today led you to believe I've developed a tolerance for Gryffindor sentimentality?"
"Well, no but - "
"But nothing. Go away."
Getting to his feet, Ron grinned. "Yes, sir."
It wasn't often, he thought, racing down the stairs for the sheer pleasure of being able to loosen some of the kinks, that anyone took Snape by surprise, but he thought that show of respect might just have done it. It was a pity he couldn't in all decency share the moment with anyone.
Then he remembered Percy and lost all desire to smile, seconds before he almost careened into Dumbledore.
"Sorry, sir," he gasped.
"No harm done. The parchment?"
"I left it on your desk."
"Good," said Dumbledore, handing him his wand.
Ron looked anxious. "No one else must - "
"Rest assured, they won't. Is Professor Snape...?"
"He's still upstairs," said Ron.
"Mmn. Well done, Mr Weasley. I'm sure we can rely on your discretion."
By the time Ron thought to mumble something Dumbledore had disappeared from sight up the stairs.. Not looking where he was going, Ron rounded the corner at the bottom of the narrow staircase and collided with Harry.
"What was all that about?" demanded Harry, once they had regained their balance and he had pushed his spectacles up his nose. "With Dumbledore, I mean. About discretion?"
"Oh. That I'm strategist for the...y'know," Ron muttered. It felt odd lying to Harry.
"Are we that hard up?" inquired Harry, beaming at him. "You'll be brilliant at it. So what was that about Snape?"
"Just... Harry, you won't blow your top, right? Only, he's a - that is, he was - a Death Eater."
"Yeah, I know. I've known for a couple of years. The bastard," Harry added automatically.
"So would you be if you'd been through what he has. Repeated doses of the Crucio. Raped by Voldemort - "
Harry stared at him. For a moment he couldn't speak, couldn't think, what Ron had just said refusing to make sense. His hands felt cold and his face was burning as the implication sank home. If that could happen to someone as powerful as Snape then -
"Voldemort must be desperate to want to shag that greasy git," he said, pushing away the reality of what he had been told.
"Harry," exclaimed Ron, appalled, not least that he had just betrayed the very secret he had promised to keep.
Harry jumped, as if woken from a dream. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded," he protested. "I swear it. I - " It was then that he looked beyond Ron to where Dumbledore, with Snape at his shoulder stood.
"Oh, Harry," said Dumbledore, and the disappointment and pain in his voice cut like a knife.
Snape simply brushed past them all and quickly disappeared from view.
While sunset was still several hours away, the light was poor, the clouds low; it had started to drizzle, a thin, mean wind making Harry shiver as he sulkily started to search the grounds, having failed to locate Snape in the castle. So far he had managed to avoid thinking about what he had actually said - not that he could remember the exact words. Despite Dumbledore's lecture he wasn't sorry. Not in the way he should be. Not in the way Dumbledore wanted.
What did he expect? Snape hated his mum, dad and Sirius, had been a bastard to them for the last six years and he was supposed to grovel because of one tactless -
Wrapping his cloak more firmly around him, Harry decided to call in on Hagrid. Even one of his rock cakes would be better than this.
But Hagrid and Fang weren't home.
Harry headed round the back of the cottage; Hagrid could often be found out by the pens he had built, nursing back to health some highly dangerous or repulsive animal. The trace of wood smoke on the air told him Hagrid must have lit the fire. But instead of Hagrid he saw Snape, sitting on the wooden plank supported by two buckets, which made up a bench for Hagrid's visitors. Sitting forward, with his head bent and his forearms resting on his thighs, Snape held a clove-scented cheroot, which was burning away unsmoked. In anyone else Harry would have called the body language defeated.
Snape looked up when he became aware that he wasn't alone. While he made no attempt to speak, something about his expression made Harry look down.
"I'm - uh - sorry," he said awkwardly.
"Yes? Fine. Don't let me detain you."
Turning on his heel, Harry was about to stalk off when something he couldn't have explained drew him back. Snape was staring at the ground again, rubbing his left arm.
Harry cleared his throat.
"Fuck off, Potter," said Snape tiredly, without looking up.
"What?" Harry couldn't have been more surprised if Professor McGonagall had performed the dance of the seven veils.
"You heard me. It isn't term time yet. I don't have to set you an example. In fact I don't have to put up with you at all." Snape rose to his feet and Harry braced himself but Snape simply walked past him as if he didn't exist.
Absently rubbing his scar, Harry wasn't sure what to do next. He refocused to see Hagrid watching him, Fang leaning against his thigh. While Hagrid said nothing, he said it eloquently.
Harry glared at him. "Is it my fault the greasy git became a Death Eater?"
Hagrid's eyes widened for a moment. "Does the headmaster know?"
"Of course he does. He thinks the sun shines out of Snape's - "
"I've never known Albus Dumbledore ter be wrong abou' anyone," said Hagrid slowly. "An' I'd trust his judgement over any other."
"But Snape was a Death Eater!"
"Yer migh' want ter shout a bit louder. Someone up at the castle might not 'ave heard you," said Hagrid, in the same quiet voice he used to sooth troubled animals.
Harry fought to subdue his rising temper. "I forgot," he said sulkily.
"Yeah? Then mebbe yeh should work on improvin' yer memory. Yeh're seventeen now, Harry. This time next year yeh'll be decidin' wha' ter do with yer life."
"Like I have a choice. If I'm not dead I'll be fighting Voldemort. I'm the Boy Who Lived. I don't get to choose," said Harry, wallowing.
"Nor did Cedric Diggory, Arabella Figg, or Hermione's parents," said a cold, passionless voice from behind them. "The list of those who have had no choice is a long one," continued Snape. "You, however, have the ability to do something about it. So pick up your tiny burden, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it. Hagrid..." His hands parting, he fell silent, looking untypically at a loss.
"Don' you go worryin' 'bout me, Professor," said Hagrid sturdily. "I know wha' needs doin'. Harry shouldn't have told me, that's the truth o' it. But now he has..." He took out a red-spotted handkerchief the size of a pillow case and blew his nose. "Yeh've got ter take the mem'ry from me. I know that. Best yeh do it now, rather than troublin' the headmaster. I wouldn't mean ter give yeh away. Yeh do know that?"
"Yes," said Snape, without the sneer Harry had been expecting. "Yes, I do. Obliviate," he added quietly.
Hagrid blinked. "I dunno what I'm doin' standin' gossipin'. Fang here's expecting his tea, aren't you, boy." The pat he delivered would have knocked a young calf off its feet. Fang gave no sign of noticing beyond turning his head to swipe Hagrid's hand with his tongue. Saliva slid groundwards. "Harry, Professor. You'd best get back to the castle. It's blowin' up for rain."
It wasn't the first time Harry had seen the Obliviate used - Dumbledore had used it on his friends in front of him - but this upset him more, because Hagrid had been so...trusting. He just hadn't expected Snape to recognise the fact. Spoiling for a fight, he hurried after Snape, who was already striding up the slope, through the trees.
"Did you have to do that to him?"
Snape stopped abruptly in his tracks, heading for the shelter of an ancient cedar tree. "Of course not. I could have let him tell everyone in the Leaky Cauldron that I'm spying for Dumbledore and ended all my troubles. Go away."
Before Harry could ask why, Snape leant his palms against the tree and began to retch as if he was about to turn himself inside out.
His own gag reflex sorely tested, Harry backed away a few paces but he didn't like to leave Snape alone; equally, he didn't want to get any closer than he had to.
"I'll get Madam Pomfrey," he said, when the spasms finally began to ease.
In a position of abject humiliation, on all fours by this time, still dribbling blood-speckled bile, with his eyes and nose running and his skin waxen, Snape slowly looked up. Despite his attempts to control the urge, Harry began to fidget.
"What?" he demanded belligerently.
"Relax," said Snape in an attenuated voice. "I'm not pregnant."
Harry felt the hot colour run up over his face. "I didn't mean it what I said the way it must have sounded. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Er - that is - "
"Yes, James would never knowingly put one foot down his throat when he could use two," said Snape weakly, before he closed his eyes, shutting Harry out. Shivers rippled through him.
It belatedly occurred to Harry that he could make himself useful. Taking out his wand, he cleaned up the area, Snape and produced a glass of water and a towel, before thinking to screen them from sight - and the rain, which was falling heavily now.
"About bloody time," said Snape ungratefully, spitting water onto the grass as he swilled out his mouth. "Now go away."
It didn't occur to Harry to argue.
Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, Harry sat in the corner of what he had been told were Hermione's rooms during the holidays, watching the various members of the Inner Circle greet one another. It was disconcerting enough to see the new way they treated Hermione - almost as if she was one of them. Sirius - Professor Pinchbeck, he reminded himself - looked weird and sounded even worse. It was strange, seeing him through the Appearance Detracting Charm. It had come as something of a shock to learn that the suite of rooms in Serpens Tower was Snape's and that he had offered them to Sirius and Remus of his own accord. Though maybe that was why Sirius hadn't ranted about him once. It wasn't a bit like the sort of place you'd expect Snape to live in. There again, who would think Snape would have books on Quidditch? Maybe next time he visited Sirius he might find time to have a better look at them. But it was unsettling because it meant he had to rethink Snape yet again and there were too many changes going on as it was.
The room was buzzing with conversations, some of which made Harry uneasily aware that all the teachers he had taken for granted for the last six years had an existence outside the classroom, and personalities which bore little resemblance to those he had believed he knew. Professor McGonagall for one, he thought, shocked to his socks when he overheard the joke she was telling Madam Hooch. He hadn't known women that old talked about stuff like that. What was worse, it was giving him a hard on. He was getting turned on by Professor McGonagall! How sick was that?
"Severus!" exclaimed Bill Weasley as he entered the room at a jog. "I haven't had the chance to see you yet." No one but Dumbledore knew how close Bill came to being blasted across the room when he took Snape in a brief, fierce hug.
"And you thought it was accidental because?" Snape's relaxed voice was at variance with his rigidly-held body.
"Seriously. I must thank you for - "
"Wait until the end of your first week of teaching," Snape interrupted, trying to pretend he wasn't aware of Potter's stare boring into him.
"You forget. I've taught before. I survived twelve months at Beauxbatons," Bill reminded him cheerfully. "Charlie asked me to pass on his thanks. It's obviously your adopt-a-Weasley year."
"Yes, I failed to allow for the two extra in the pipeline. Are you intending to wear those trousers when you teach?" Snape retreated to the edge of the circle, sat on the first available chair and tucked his unsteady hands from sight. The green of the leather of the shabby wing-backed chair did nothing for his complexion.
"What's wrong with them?"
"Not a thing," Madam Hooch assured him throatily, before her gaze returned to the supple chestnut leather which clung to the long legs and narrow flanks.
Bill visibly lost his train of thought and unconsciously straightened his shoulders, returning her speculative look with interest.
"Wear those and you'll have every hormonal girl - and a few of the boys - lusting after you," said Professor Sprout bluntly. "If I was fifty years younger I might think about joining the queue. They're very flattering, dear but really, they won't do."
"The little buggers don't need any encouragement. If they can fixate on Snape here, anything's possible," said a high voice.
Bill turned, then frowned and looked puzzled. "Have we met?"
"Professor Quinapalus Pinchbeck, caretaker and stand-in for Professor Lupin during his periods of absence, Bill Weasley, junior Charms and Ancient Runes," said Professor McGonagall crisply.
"And - um - ?" Bill gestured to the gathering, nodding when Ron slipped into the room and made a bee-line for Harry.
"A valued member of this council," said Dumbledore. "It's actually Sirius Black under the influence of an Appearance Detracting Charm."
"Bugger me," said Bill blankly, before murmuring an apology to the women present. "It never occurred to me that... I would never have guessed. Though now you've said it I can see... It's damn confusing, seeing both images."
"Isn't it just," said Madam Hooch, glancing at Snape.
His eyes closed, he did not notice.
"So should I use one?" said Bill. "It could be fun."
"You haven't changed," remarked Professor McGonagall dryly. "The Appearance Detracting Charm is only effective to those who don't know its in place. There are too many people at Hogwarts who know what you look like. They would see straight through any charm you applied. Worse, it would draw attention to the rest of us and for Sirius' sake..."
"It was just a thought," said Bill sadly, before he frowned at Snape. "Well, I'll be blowed. Though at least it explains why you don't smell as greasy as you look."
"Bugger me," said Ron blankly as he stared at the stranger he realised must be the real Severus Snape under the blurry yet hooked-nose image.
"Yes, well, fascinating as Severus undoubtedly is, our time is limited," said Dumbledore. "Down to business. Severus, as this meeting is more about bringing people up-to-date with information you've supplied, I'd like you to stay."
"Of course, headmaster," said Snape, wondering if there was any hope of Potter and Weasley looking at someone else.
"Then, with your permission, I'll summarize your report," continued Dumbledore.
"Thank you," Snape murmured, knowing that Dumbledore intended to omit his rape and the fact Percy Weasley had joined the Death Eaters.
When Dumbledore finished speaking the ensuing discussion was something of a free-for-all but when no one mentioned the obvious Ron nervously cleared his throat.
"Yes, Mr Weasley?" invited Professor Sprout, turning to him.
Aware that he had just become the centre of attention, Ron focussed on his brother's leather-covered kneecap. "Uh, if Voldemort's sending Death Eaters to France to search out Mr Black and suppress the supposed uprising, as well as slapping down Malfoy and Pettigrew when they show too much ambition... It suggests he's nervous that he might have a rival. As if anyone could get the kind of power he now has."
"Not anyone," said Snape impatiently, having returned in time to hear that. "Potter. Black is Potter's godfather. Pettigrew was a friend of Lily and James. Malfoy could fulfill his ambitions through Potter just as easily as Voldemort. It's power he's after. Voldemort is afraid of the influence any one of them might exert over Potter - not to mention Potter himself. Voldemort judges others as he would behave. Your point, Mr Weasley?" It was not the disparaging tone of the classroom but of one equal to another and it so disconcerted Ron that for a moment he lost his train of thought.
"We - uh - We need to keep Voldemort off-balance. One way might be to get him worrying about who he can trust."
"He doesn't trust anyone, I thought I had made that clear," said Snape impatiently.
"Let the boy finish, Severus," said Flitwick kindly. "What are you proposing, Mr Weasley?"
For a split second all Ron could think about was all the times when he'd fantasised about saving the wizarding world - about people of importance hanging on to his every word. It had never occurred to him how fucking scary that would be. What he said could have a very real impact on the safety of his family.
"It occurred to me that next time Professor Snape is summoned he could tell Voldemort that he overheard the headmaster talking about information they'd got from a traitor in Voldemort's midst."
"And have him assume it's Severus? No, it's too risky," said Professor McGonagall.
"Unlikely given that I'd be the one giving him the news," Snape pointed out. "The idea had already occurred to me. I'm more concerned about the possible risk to the new initiates."
"Since when do we worry about Death Eaters?" said Harry, disconcerted when every head turned in his direction. He hadn't intended his comment to be audible.
Ron swallowed his angry retort and stared at his feet.
"Albus?" said Snape.
"It's something to consider," said Dumbledore. "In order to ensure you stay alive you need information to take Voldemort."
"But - " began Ron.
"Anyone who joins the Death Eaters knows what they're getting into," said Bill. There were supportive murmurs from Black and Professor McGonagall.
"Rubbish," said Professor Sprout forthrightly.
"Succinctly put," said Snape, "but correct in essentials. For every Malfoy there are half a dozen muddle-headed fools. Which doesn't, I concede, prevent them from being a danger to us. I could always put a name to the traitor."
"And sign their death warrant?" exclaimed Professor McGonagall.
"It hadn't occurred to me that might be a disadvantage," said Snape, his voice at its silkiest.
"Severus, stop baiting Minerva. I would suggest keeping your report to Voldemort as vague as possible - not least because that way he won't dare trust any one of the one hundred and seventy three with any task of importance," said Professor Sprout briskly.
Snape gave her a look of approval. "We'll make a Slytherin of you yet."
She smiled and leant over to pat his hand. "If it makes you happy to think so, dear."
"You could offer Voldemort something else as well," said Hermione, making Ron jump because he hadn't spotted her over in the chair in the far corner, on the other side of Snape from Professor Sprout.
"Yes?" said Snape. It was the tone any of his students were accustomed to hearing.
"We need to convince him that it's useful for him not only that you stay alive, but at Hogwarts. What if he believes you have a hold over one of the staff? Someone important, I mean, not like Bill."
"Thank you," Bill said blandly, wondering when she had become beautiful.
"Or the headmaster," continued Hermione, "because Voldemort wouldn't believe it. But how well does he know Professor McGonagall?"
"Not at all, I hope," she said with feeling.
"Beyond the fact he knows you're Albus' deputy I doubt if he gives you a thought," said Snape but there was approval in the look he gave Hermione - and a well-concealed relief.
"But he'd be pleased if he thought you had something on the deputy head of Hogwarts? Something which might give you leverage?" pursued Hermione.
"Probably," said Snape. "What did you have in mind?"
Hermione made an irritable noise. "I can't be expected to think of everything. What about sex?"
There was a small silence.
"What indeed?" said Snape dryly.
His head coming up, Ron stared from Snape to Hermione, then shook his head and applied himself to the problem.
"What if you let it be known you'd found Professor McGonagall in a compromising position with - with - Who?" He avoided glancing at his former Head of House.
"A pupil," said Lupin promptly. "If word got out, she would be dismissed immediately."
"Really?" asked Ron, side-tracked.
"If we could concentrate on the matter in hand," said Madam Hooch acidly.
"Then make it a pupil. It will need to be someone close to Harry and ... Oh no," said Ron. He glanced at Professor McGonagall. "Due respect and all that but - "
Bill whipped out his handkerchief in an unconvincing bout of sneezing.
"Perfect," said Snape, looking more cheerful than he had all day.
"Your sense of humour doesn't improve," said Professor McGonagall, less than flattered by Ron's expression of horror.
Snape looked across at Dumbledore. "Albus, you know I obey you in all things," he began.
"I do so enjoy hearing you rewrite history," said Dumbledore placidly, his eyes twinkling.
"In most things," amended Snape testily. "The plan would be perfect. Not only a lever against Minerva, but a blow to the Weasleys - and Potter's best friend."
"Sorry, Ron," said Hermione cheerfully.
"Hermione," he said, frustrated by the inhibiting presence of so many of his professors.
"I suppose no one wants to hear what I think?" said Professor McGonagall acidly but Harry was surprised to see the twinkle in her eyes.
The debate went on for some time, until Dumbledore pointed out that they were due at High Table in forty minutes.
"It's agreed then. Severus has some hold over you - not a sexual relationship with a student, if you please," added Dumbledore, failing to hide his amusement. "Perhaps an over-indulgence of red-currant rum?"
"Credible," said Snape judiciously. "I could be supplying her with the Hangover Potion - in large quantities."
"If only you weren't enjoying this so much," said Professor McGonagall with resignation. "Drink, it is. How do you intend to demonstrate that I'm under your thumb? One would-be witticism and you're a toad, I warn you now. And I'll give you Longbottom for safe-keeping."
It was with a real sense of shock that it occurred to Harry that she actually liked Snape.
A choked sound turned every head to where Snape sat, bent almost double.
"Oh no," said Hermione in a strange voice.
"He's recalling you? So soon?" said Dumbledore urgently, going to Snape's side.
Snape slumped with relief when, as abruptly as it had begun, the pain eased. "So it would seem."
"You mustn't go," said Madam Hooch fiercely.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Snape. "Against all the odds he let me live. There's no reason to suppose that has changed. But I may not be back for the beginning of term. Minerva, should anyone ask, I took an extended period of leave. It has the merit of reinforcing the notion that I have some hold over you. Poppy, can you give me something? I can't afford to retch over Voldemort."
"Of course. I'll collect it and meet you at the main gates," she said composedly. "It will last for twenty four hours. I'll ensure you have a further supply, although you really shouldn't be taking - "
"There isn't time for this," Snape interrupted her. "Viveca Sinistra is an excellent woman but my House needs more consistency than she's capable of giving them. Remus, this is a contingency we've discussed?"
He nodded. "Of course."
"Speak to Zabini. He'll tell you all you need to know."
"Go," urged Lupin. "I'll keep your Slytherins safe for you."
Already at the door, Snape turned and for a moment his expression was nakedly revealing. "If you could bring yourself to do so for their sakes you would be of more use to them."
The door closed behind him.
While I don't write to any kind of a schedule, an unpleasantly large dollop of real life has made this chapter even later than it would have been.
I've had a number of people asking if they could put FFI on their sites. It's a WIP, and as such, subject to a rewrite whenever it takes my fancy. For that reason it will only appear on ffnet, Schnoogle, at Fiction Alley and with Silene's pictures (at her website and in the Files section of her Yahoo Group - see below for details).
I've had the greatest good fortune to have my work illustrated by Silene. Her artwork can be seen in
the Photo section of her Yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/silenes_pictures. Quite
apart from the wonderful illustrations for FFI (not that I'm biassed
Thanks again to everyone who has commented, I know it sounds corny but it is much appreciated