- Hermione Granger
- Drama Romance
- Multiple Eras
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 03/19/2002Updated: 09/01/2005Words: 220,150Chapters: 28Hits: 163,807
Falling Further In
- Story Summary:
- The story begins in the summer holidays before the sixth year. After her parents are murdered by Voldemort Hogwarts becomes Hermione's home. She joins the staff in the fight against Voldemort and learns more of the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom. Will *eventually* be Snape/Hermione. Lupin is again the Professor teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has a black dog who lives with him - Sirius Black in his animagus form.
- Chapter Summary:
- Hermione learns more about the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom
Escaping from the corridor crowded with exuberant third and fourth years busy resuming old friendships and feuds alike, Harry gave a sigh of relief when he entered the staff corridor which led to the meeting room of the Inner Circle. The castle seemed to throb with noise as pupils made Hogwarts their own again, the very air thrumming with magical energy. The portraits beamed, delighted to be back in service, and the ghosts had all gone to their respective Houses to keep an eye on things; the first week of the new school year was always wearing for the staff. Peeves was being unusually quiet because he missed having Filch to torment.
"Professor Pinchbeck!" called Harry, when he saw his godfather at the far end of the corridor, heading away from the meeting room.
Black turned. "Mr Potter?"
"Is everything all right? With the castle, I mean? Only I can feel - " Harry gestured vaguely. "Magic," he added, unable to explain in more depth.
"I'm not surprised. The castle virtually rocks with it for the first few weeks of term. The protective wards are only put in place in the corridors used by the children. The staff are expected to behave themselves," Black added dryly.
"The corridors are warded?" said Harry blankly.
"How else do you imagine we can prevent undisciplined first years from causing havoc? It's one thing to set a rule about no magic in the corridors, quite another to enforce it. The wards allow for minor spells, of course, or it would give the game away. No need to glare like that. You and Malfoy would have killed one another in a fortnight without those checks in place."
"He might have tried," said Harry, absorbing the fact that they had been far more protected than he had assumed - or felt comfortable about.
Black eyed him critically. "You're supposed to be in uniform," he said, remembering his new responsibilities. It was less Minerva's lecture than knowing Snape was waiting for him to fail which made him apply himself to learning these new skills.
"You sound just like Snape."
Black grinned. "No need to be insulting. Though that's who I'm modelling P - myself on. And Argus, of course. I couldn't believe some of the things he had on show in his office - though Minerva assures me he never actually used any of them. Is that a black tee shirt under your shirt?"
Harry peered down at himself and rebuttoned his shirt with more care. "That's right. It's one of the ones Mrs Weasley gave me for my birthday. They're the only clothes I've had from her that actually fit," he added with a fond grin. "They're brilliant. They have an embossed picture of a white stag on the front. It's my Patronus. From - "
"Prongs," said Black softly, feeling old as he stared at James and Lily's son, seeing now the promise of the man he would be; James' decency and clarity of purpose, with Lily's fire - and something that was uniquely Harry. Purposefully brisk, he pushed away the memories of his friends. "Though that's no reason not to fasten the top button of your collar and pull up your tie. You're a prefect now - you're supposed to be setting a good example.
"What's wrong?" he added, when Harry's expression changed. "Wait." He bustled Harry into the meeting room. "We can speak freely here. What's the problem?"
A sullen look crossed Harry's face. "Nothing," he said, without much conviction, fidgeting.
"Don't give me that. We're staying here until you tell me what's wrong, so you may as well spit it out now and have done with it. If it's about the N.E.W.T.s - "
"It isn't. It's just that... It's stupid. I know it is," said Harry, before the dam burst. "I know mum and dad were head girl and boy and it isn't as if I expected... Only Dumbledore usually gives me extra points at the end of term after I've defeated Voldemort so I thought that maybe... But I couldn't be head boy, I know that. It's my fault Cedric died and - Omph!"
Air rushed from his lungs as Black took him in a fierce hug. Maintaining a grip on Harry's biceps, he stepped back a little, the better to glare at him. "You listen to me, Harry Potter. The only person responsible for Cedric's death is Voldemort. All you've ever done is try to keep everyone safe. You've coped with situations that would terrify most adults. I won't deny you can be a prat at times - " his grin softened the comment " - but the way you've shouldered your responsibilities makes me so proud of you. As I know James and Lily would be. Oh, Albus..." he added, with obvious relief, as he spotted the older wizard further down the room. "You heard?" His hands fell to his sides.
Harry tensed and gave the headmaster a wary look.
"Indeed I did," said Dumbledore, one hand on Harry's shoulder. "And it was well said. Harry, you have nothing with which to reproach yourself. No one holds you responsible for Cedric's death. How could they? He was murdered by Voldemort. To cling to guilt when there is no need is a form of vanity and you're generally one of the least vain boys I've ever met." While Harry was recovering, he turned to Black. "Minerva was looking for you. She's in the Great Hall."
Black nodded and slipped from the room, giving the back of Harry's head an affectionate bat with the heel of his hand in parting.
"Now," said Dumbledore, studying Harry from over the top of his spectacles. "I think you and I should have a talk."
Harry looked unenthusiastic.
"Or not, if that is what you would prefer," added Dumbledore, in the same mild, vague voice.
Harry gave the bag of sweets Dumbledore held out to him a look of disdain. "No. Thank you," he added, polite because this was Albus Dumbledore and he was allowed to treat you as if you were a first year. "Can I ask you something?"
"What was that? Anything you wish." His gaze sharpening, Dumbledore looked expectant.
"There are rumours that Professor Snape stopped me from being appointed head boy," blurted out Harry, much to his horror because that was absolutely the last topic he had intended to mention to Dumbledore.
"There are rumours about all kinds of things, malicious things in the main." Dumbledore sucked on a bullseye of heroic proportions. "It is true that Professor Snape thought - "
"I knew it," said Harry, his mouth thinned and his eyes fierce. "May I go now?"
"Of course. If you wish. Harry, don't you think it's time you outgrew this somewhat childish vendetta against Professor Snape?"
The injustice of the mild-voiced remark deprived Harry of breath and by the time he had thought of a suitable reply, Dumbledore was gone. Battling against anger, he stood turning his wand over and over in his hand until he realised the time and hurried off to the Great Hall for the Sorting Ceremony.
It had been dark for some time, making the storm which raged over Hogwarts seem even more spectacular. Harry loved storms, not least because they were a reminder - and a reassurance - that there were still things stronger than Voldemort around. On the fringe of a laughing group, he accompanied the rest of the Gryffindor Upper Sixth into the Great Hall. As the door opened the wall of sound which assaulted them made him wince, although within a few seconds he had stopped noticing it. Perched astride a bench, fidgeting away some of his excess energy, he tried to ignore his ever-present headache as he threw himself into the argument about Quidditch strategy that was in progress. He was vaguely aware that Hermione was talking to Susan Bones, while Ron was busily checking out the talent.
By the time she made her way back to the Gryffindor table Hermione felt worn down by the necessity of pretending nothing was wrong. Sinking into the space left for her between Harry and Ron, she let the familiar conversations wash over her, smiling and nodding when required. When attention slid away from her she took out a book on Ancient Runes. If she remembered to turn pages at regular intervals no one would realise she was just staring into space, her mind caught on a non-stop wheel of terror for Severus, and frustration that she could think of no way to defeat Voldemort.
"Having her nose in a book is just habit. Hermione could sit her N.E.W.T.s tomorrow and pass. Couldn't you?"
Responding to a nudge, Hermione refocused on Ron, who gave her a small nod of encouragement; almost as if he saw the strain behind the smile. His habit of noticing what lay behind the obvious took some getting used to; she was accustomed to the old Ron, who had possessed the sensitivity of a mountain troll when it came to noticing subtleties of behaviour. Then he had realised the dividends which came from pleasing his girlfriends and Mr Sensitivity had been born - with only the occasional back-sliding.
"I did spend a lot of the holidays in the library," she admitted, belatedly picking up her cue.
"Oh, Hermione," sighed Lavender with exasperation. "You really must get a life. Though I suppose with McGonagall around you and Viktor couldn't - ?"
"He broke up with me," said Hermione. It seemed a lifetime ago.
About to mutter some conventional platitude, Lavender looked up just as Bill Weasley walked over to the High Table. It was lust at first sight. Getting an unsatisfactory response from Hermione, and a look of disbelief from Ron, she withdrew to dissect the sex god in their midst with the Patil twins and Hannah Abbot of Hufflepuff.
"Last I saw of Bill there were two little second years trailing after him," said Ron, all brotherly sympathy thanks to his own status as a bona fide sex-god. "The Slytherins don't look very happy about being watched over by Professor Lupin, do they? Though given the way Snape has gone on about werewolves in the past, I suppose it's not surprising."
Hermione was watching the Slytherins, many of whom kept glancing up at the High Table, as if waiting for Snape to appear. It suddenly struck her how dependant they were on their Head of House. Much as she enjoyed her Transfiguration classes, she rarely gave Professor McGonagall a thought in her role of Head of Gryffindor.
Now they were no longer the centre of attention, Ron turned the right way up the book Hermione had been gripping. "Try not to worry. Snape's survived this long." He flinched at the ferocity in the glare he received. "Stupid thing to say," he accepted. "You like him, don't you?" A year ago, even three months ago, it would have taken some effort to keep his incredulity from showing but now it was just a statement of fact.
"I got to know him better during the summer," she said, evading the dangerous question. "Shouldn't you be in the thick of that Quidditch discussion?"
"There are more things to life than Quidditch," said Ron. "I'm just biding my time."
Half-turning, Hermione followed his gaze over to the Ravenclaw table, where Cathy and Sebastian were in the middle of a quiet but obviously vitriolic argument.
"She's very bright," warned Hermione.
"Thanks," Ron said dryly.
"Well, I know I drive you nuts sometimes."
"Ah, but you're Hermione and not - "
On this occasion her grin was unforced. "I get the picture. Have you noticed anything different about Harry?" she added in an undertone.
Ron gave her a wary look. "Like what?"
"Ah, so you have. Maybe it's just...nerves. I used to think he didn't have any."
"That's just silly," dismissed Ron, with his new-found assurance. "He's always been better at hiding them than us, that's all. He's a bit wound up, I grant you." He pushed to the back of his mind the casual cruelty of Harry's comment about Snape, allied with the untypical tendency to snap at the slightest provocation. "A few games of Quidditch should loosen him up. You know he's captain?"
"Oh, I think it got mentioned about fifty times last term," said Hermione, who had forgotten.
Ron's head came up. "Don't whip round but you can relax, Snape's just come in." He was uncomfortably aware that he needed to see Snape to apologise for breaking the confidence he had sworn to keep.
Hermione turned so she could glance up at the High Table; she allowed herself to the count of ten to study him before she looked away. While he looked drawn and tired, he didn't look as if he'd been -
He was home, safe, that was all that mattered.
Concentrating on controlling her breathing, she smiled at nothing in particular. It was odd to see him sitting beside Professor McGonagall, rather than the seat in the shadows which he usually occupied. He and McGonagall looked as if they were fighting about something. Abruptly remembering the strategy suggested at yesterday's meeting, Hermione relaxed and enjoyed their expertise - she wouldn't have expected Professor McGonagall to be quite so good at this.
"Did Professor McGonagall seem all right to you?" she said idly to Lavender, the worst gossip in their year.
Lavender leant across the table. "What d'you mean?"
Mindful of their new responsibilities, Ron produced a defensive scowl. "There's nothing wrong with her liking the odd nip of Old Ogden's."
"It's red-currant rum - and she's been taking more than a nip over the holidays. Though I suppose it doesn't matter so much then," said Hermione, in the tone of one fumbling for excuses.
Professor McGonagall rose to her feet and tapped the side of a glass with her wand. A high, ringing sound circled outwards, cutting through the hubbub until all the conversations had petered out.
"It is almost time for the Sorting Ceremony for this year's intake of first years," she said, in her prim, tight voice. "Hogwarts is an ancient institution. Thanks to the founders, we have four Houses to which we are rightly proud to belong. Each has a noble history, each has much to offer. While House rivalries are encouraged, there is a point beyond which we will not permit you to go. And hissing a first year because they have been fortunate enough to be selected for Slytherin House is wholly unacceptable behaviour. I trust I make myself clear," she added, with a pointed look at the Gryffindor table.
"Look at Snape," muttered Seamus, who had mastered the art of talking without moving his lips by the end of his first term. "He's loving this. How did he persuade McGonagall to say that? She looks like she's going to choke."
"Unlike them," said Dean, his brooding gaze on the Slytherin table.
A ripple of reaction had run through the members of the various Houses. Hermione just noticed the way the Slytherins sat a little straighter. But it was the surprise on the faces of some of the second and third years which made her feel ashamed.
After threatening a reckoning with each Head of House, not to mention the loss of two hundred House points for anyone rash enough to ignore this warning, McGonagall left to collect the first years.
Harry frowned, having tuned out the discussion at the meeting of the Inner Council the previous evening. "I never thought of us as bullies before," he said, scowling automatically at Draco, who was looking appallingly pleased with himself while he sat striking poses midway down the Slytherin table.
"Me neither," said Seamus slowly. "I suppose it did get a bit out of hand last year."
"Can't expect much else with arseholes like Malfoy and his pathetic little gang," dismissed Dean. "Though Pansy isn't bad, I suppose."
"You're only saying that because you fancy her," said Harry disagreeably, as he did his best not to notice Millicent Bulstrode. Tall and sturdy, with wide hips and shoulders, an almost square body, small breasts and an expression of angry defiance, she had none of the more obvious charms. It was just that she could be quite interesting if you got her away from Malfoy and Goyle. She knew her Quidditch and as a Slytherin Beater had given him some nasty moments. He had overheard her talking about the design of the new Nimbus earlier but before he could go over to her Malfoy had stuck his oar in and -
Harry propped his head on his hands. She deserved better than Draco. There was something disquieting about the way his eyes travelled over women, although Hermione swore it didn't bother her.
He wondered vaguely if he could bribe Ron into teaching him some chat up lines that wouldn't leave him sounding like an idiot, then shivered involuntarily as the wind howled loud enough to be heard above the clamour of excited voices.
"I wonder how many of the first years threw up coming across the lake?" said Seamus, looking uncharacteristically worried.
"It's character building," dismissed Lavender without sympathy as she turned from her confidential chat with Parvati, Padma and Hannah having headed back to their respective tables.
"I'll have you know that one of them is our Nuala. And the last thing she needs is any more character. She's as stubborn as they come. There's no arguing with her once she puts her mind to something. It drives mum distracted because she's that way inclined herself. I take after dad, despite him being a Muggle," added Seamus, who was cheerfully proud of both parents.
Then Dumbledore called for silence and the great doors opened on the first years.
"....my own sister a Slytherin," Seamus was saying angrily, to a diminutive girl with undistinguished features and the same sandy coloured hair. "What were you thinking?"
"That it's my business, not yours," she said with spirit. "My friends are Slytherins and I wanted to be with them. Besides, Gryffindors are boring." She gave the last word two distinct syllables and a wealth of contempt.
"The ones I made on the train of course."
"But they couldn't know which House they would be in."
Nuala gave him a scornful look from her boot button eyes. "Don't be silly. I did, so why wouldn't they? I chose Slytherin because it's the coolest House," she added with all the smugness of one who knew herself to be one of the favoured few.
"Cool? Slytherins, my girl, are - "
"Yes, Mr Finnegan?" said Snape, from behind him. "Slytherins are what, exactly?"
Seamus turned with resignation, familiar enough with Snape after six years to recognise the malicious amusement gleaming in the dark eyes. Though it obviously wasn't apparent to Nuala who, he was glad to see, was looking properly apprehensive. "Nothing, sir. I'll see you, Nuala."
"As will I, later. It was my impression that you were told to go to your common room," added Snape, studying her without enthusiasm.
Nuala's courage visibly drained out of her boots as she looked up Snape's intimidating length.
"Do I have your complete attention?" added Snape.
Roused by the impatient bite in his voice, she squeaked an acknowledgement and trotted off - in totally the wrong direction.
"Miss Finnegan! Your common room is that way. Walk, don't run."
Nuala gave a jerky nod and set off down the corridor in the opposite direction.
"Well that's a first," said Seamus, looking unwillingly impressed. "Mum's been trying to get our Nuala to do as she's told for years. Ah... She's my sister, you know."
"I had an inkling," said Snape dryly. His sarcasm bypassed a preoccupied Seamus.
"Only I was wondering... She's not been away from home before and..." Seamus' voice petered out under the influence of Snape's unblinking gaze. "Well, of course, I know she'll be safe enough..."
Snape moved, the voluminous folds of his academic robe rearranging themselves into even more elegant lines. "Kindly leave my Slytherins to me."
"I'll not stand by and allow her spirit to be crushed by bullying," Seamus warned in an abrupt, heated rush.
Snape eyed him in the thoughtful manner of one deciding where to make the first incision. "I can't say I'm flattered by the implication." There was nothing that was reassuring in his quiet voice.
After a flicker of surprise and some mental back-tracking, Seamus looked suitably horrified. "I wasn't meaning you. You're a rite of passage we all have to go through. No, I was talking about the Slytherins."
"And on their behalf I repeat, I'm not flattered by the implication. Doubtless you have grounds for assuming members of my House would behave in such a manner?"
Seamus began to sweat. This was going even worse than he had expected. "No, sir. That is... We don't know much about the goings on in Slytherin House."
"Don't deceive yourself. You know nothing about them." Snape's voice stung like a whip. "Instead, entrenched in your prejudices - Oh, go away. I've heard all the nonsense I'm prepared to tolerate for one night."
As Seamus hurried away Snape took a deep, steadying breath. Bone-tired, he had yet to believe he had survived where so many had not. It had been a blood-bath and he was finding it difficult to concentrate on familiar duties while wondering if he would be alive by morning.
"Sir, the Juniors are ready for you," said Blaise quietly. Tall, elegant and self-contained, he had side-stepped the various cliques and feuds until the death of his father the previous year, when he had taken a public and uncompromising stance against Voldemort and those who supported him. It had caused some interesting undercurrents amongst the Slytherin seniors.
"What do you make of this year's intake?" asked Snape.
Blaise grinned. "It promises to be an interesting year."
"Oh, good," said Snape ironically. "Just when I was afraid things might be getting dull." Seeing Ron Weasley loitering further down the corridor, he sent Zabini on ahead of him.
"Lost, Mr Weasley?"
"No. I wanted - That is, I felt I should - " His new-found confidence melting faster than a snowman in the tropics, Ron ground to a halt, before doggedly starting up again. "I made a promise, only to break it a few minutes - "
"In my experience promises from Gryffindors are usually worthless," interrupted Snape, without seeming interest. "Mr Malfoy, did you want to speak with me?"
Ignoring Malfoy's sneer, Ron trailed back to the Gryffindor common room.
Happily cross-examining the Bloody Baron, Buttercup Wean wasn't best pleased to be interrupted by a thickset prefect who looked as if he might be second cousin to a mountain troll.
"Save your cheek for the Gryffindors," he advised her, but he looked unwillingly amused before he raised his voice and addressed the entire Junior Common Room. "Professor Snape is on his way. When he comes into the room, stop talking immediately and get to your feet."
"Why? We didn't have to in that place we got Sorted," said Grania Frayne. Her hair the colour of a burnished conker, she was as pretty as Buttercup was plain. Jostled by the Coppel twins, who were trying to hex her plaits, she glared at Gail while elbowing Fern away.
Crabbe pretended not to notice the exchange. "That room is called the Great Hall. Whatever you might say about Professor Snape in the privacy of Slytherin House, outside it you refer to him with respect at all times. Forget that and McGonagall and Dumbledore will be the least of your worries."
"You mean Professor Snape will - ?" began Vinod Patel, his beautiful eyes looking huge with apprehension.
Crabbe shook his head. "No, I mean that we - the senior Slytherins - will. Remember, we don't discuss private House matters outside the House. How Slytherin conducts its affairs is no concern of anyone else. Understand?"
There was a chorus of nervous agreement.
"Relax, young 'uns," said Crabbe kindly. "Slytherin looks after its own at all times. If anyone is stupid enough to try to bully or threaten any of you, come straight to one of the Slytherin prefects. Clear? It goes without saying there'll be none of that within the House - Professor Snape sees to that."
He had barely stopped talking when the door to the Junior Common Room was flung open. All sound was cut off; those sitting rose to their feet and those already standing straightened their spines.
The first years watched apprehensively as an immensely tall man with a hooked nose and a forbidding expression swept into the room, the swirling richness of his black robes swallowing up the shadows. He nodded to Crabbe and Zabini and made his way to stand in front of the imposing fireplace. The force of his personality was such that he gave the impression of inhabiting twice the space he actually occupied.
Pinned by his chilly, considering regard, Nuala swallowed hard and edged closer to Grania but his gaze had already moved on. The silence had reached intimidating proportions before he spoke, in a quiet voice that carried effortlessly to every corner of the oddly-shaped room.
"First years to the front, where I can see you. The rest of you, welcome back to Hogwarts. I trust you're ready to do your best for Slytherin House - and yourselves."
Pale with apprehension, the nine girls and three boys reluctantly shuffled forward, huddling together like fawns facing the dangers of the forest for the first time.
"My name is Severus Snape. I am your Head of House and Potions Master of Hogwarts. Miss Trevallyn, do you require the bathroom?"
"N-no, sir," she stuttered, appalled that this scary man already knew who she was.
"Then kindly stop fidgeting. I shall, of course, be having a private meeting with each of you but until that time you should be aware of a few things..."
His smile well-hidden as he listened to the familiar speech in which reassurance and threat were finely balanced, Blaise Zabini unobtrusively left the room as the house elves arrived with steaming mugs of cocoa and a huge basket of chocolate frogs. It was time to prepare the Senior Common Room for the arrival of their Head of House.
The owl post for the first full day of term was chaotic as parcels of forgotten items of clothing narrowly missed collision with cards and messages from loving families, or from parents who understood that public displays were expected in a society which valued its children above almost everything else.
Oblivious to the looks of concern being directed at her from various sources, Hermione stared fixedly at her congealing fried egg, gritted her teeth and ignored the burning prickle behind her eyes. She was not going to look up for the messages which couldn't possibly be there; her parents had always sent a 'care' package for the first day of term, full of silly presents - and a letter. Stupid to wish she had kept them. Beside her, Ron was elbow deep in wrapping paper - with Ravenclaw Tower screened, it had been agreed that the Weasleys' move would not be made public yet. Even Harry had received a package from Sirius, with a book on Quidditch and a note which Harry had read twice before tucking it safely away.
"Ow!" exclaimed Harry, aggrieved as an eagle owl clipped him with a heavy package, which then dropped into his lap. "It's for you," he said, passing it to Hermione. "Big surprise, someone's sending you a book. You're popular today."
It was then that Hermione looked down and noticed the cards and notes addressed to her: the good wishes and support came from Madam Pomfrey, Madam Hooch, Professors Sprout and Flitwick and Professor McGonagall. There was a letter from Mrs Weasley that was so loving that it made Hermione blow her nose. Only when she was sure everyone else was engrossed in their post did she open the parcel. Flattening the brown paper with the greatest of care, she stared silently at the beautifully bound copy of Radiccio Levant's Treatise on Medieval Magic, which was essential reading for anyone taking S Level Charms, even if it was not actually on the syllabus. She didn't need to open it to know it was a first edition, or to whom it had belonged. She had last seen it in Severus' vault at Gringotts - and his pleasure in finding a book he had believed lost.
She touched the embossed leather cover with a gentle finger. There would be no inscription, cheesy or otherwise, and no snake emblem cunningly hidden by a charm, or even some personalised bookmark; instead, tucked inside the cover, there was a simple piece of the finest cream parchment. The writing was Madam Pomfrey's. A friend asked my permission to send you this gift.
She already knew that he cared for her - that he wanted her - and she had heard a slurred avowal of more. But here was confirmation that his feelings ran deep enough for him to put her need of comfort and reassurance before his pride. In formally going to Madam Pomfrey he had made public something he could easily have kept hidden. While she was wary of reading too much into that, she hugged the knowledge to herself.
Caressing the dull leather binding with the side of her thumb, Hermione finally allowed herself the luxury of looking up at the High Table. But he sat, large tea cup in hand, deep in conversation with a grave-looking Professor Sinistra. Carefully rewrapping the book, she applied a Reducing Charm before tucking the book safely in a pocket and ordering a fresh breakfast from a house elf. She was starving.
"All right?" said Ron, who for reasons best known to himself seemed to have appointed himself as her watchdog.
"Fine," she beamed. "Your mum is brilliant." Idly scanning the hall, she noticed that every pupil who had lost family to Voldemort had received a pile of mail similar to her own, although she felt safe in assuming that no one else had a book from Severus' library.
"Where d'you think I get it from?"
"What?" she said, having lost track of their conversation.
Ron gave a hard-done-by sigh. "Never mind."
The Upper Sixth were still absorbing their new timetables as they prepared to head off to the various classes they had selected in one of the optional subjects. Because of the increase in work only five core subjects, and one extra could be taken at the N.E.W.T. level.
"Though I call it cruelty to dumb animals not letting us have a few free periods," said Dean, still looking shell-shocked. "D'you know how many hours a week we'll be working?"
"And on top of our prefect's duties," wailed Parvati. "Then, if we do get invited to sit an S Level... I knew I should have done more work in the holidays."
"Six hours of Potions a week," said Harry bitterly.
"Better that than Divination," said Seamus philosophically.
"I can't believe Dumbledore still makes me sit through two hours of that," groused Harry. "It's not like I'm even taking it for my N.E.W.T.s"
"It's better than Arithmancy, Ancient Runes or the History of Magic. You have to work in those classes," said Dean. "Has anyone found out what the 'Ethics of Magic' is about? Or why it's compulsory?"
"No doubt we'll find out this afternoon," said Neville. "It could be interesting."
"Have you noticed how being in love has turned you into such an optimist?" said Dean, grinning. "Speaking of which, how is Polly?"
"Besotted with me, so go and letch over someone else's girlfriend," said Neville amiably. Since playing a major role in helping Harry to foil Voldemort's attack two years ago his confidence had improved to a marked degree, and with it his magical abilities - although he continued to melt cauldrons in Potions at least once a year. He only had to enter the Potions classroom to revert to an ineffectual first year, his magical abilities draining away.
"At least Potions won't be so bad. Snape will find it difficult to look down his nose at us now so many of you are taller than he is," said Lavender.
"I wouldn't put money on it," said Dean realistically.
Having slept badly, Harry's grumpy mood hadn't been improved by discovering that the acne he'd developed during the holidays had returned, along with his headache. "There's no need to sound so...tolerant."
Dean gave him a look of faint surprise. "You need to lighten up, mate. There's no point stressing over Snape after all these years. He might be a dry old stick but he can be quite entertaining if you're not the one under the lash. Another thing in his favour, his lessons aren't as boring as most. The O.W.L.s were a piece of piss in comparison to producing an essay that would keep him happy. I quite like Potions these days."
"Touched, Mr Thomas. Should I ever require a reference, I'll know where to come."
While Harry jumped, his scowl intensifying, Dean just turned to give Snape a relaxed grin from his five inch advantage of height. "Anytime, sir."
Feeling as if she had a walk-on role in a very bad play, Hermione said nothing at all, careful to do no more than glance in Snape's direction. The blurring effect of the Appearance Detracting Charm was disconcerting but she couldn't help noticing that beneath it he looked as if he had forgotten what a good night's sleep was like.
"Do you want to get past?" asked Seamus easily.
"Not at all," said Snape. "There's nothing I enjoy more than..."
Many of them smiling, Gryffindors parted to let him through the portion of corridor crowded with suits of armour and a chest so massive that no one had yet found a way to lift the lid, even with the aid of charms.
The first week of the new term was uneventful, if you ignored the wear and tear on the nerves of the staff and the gossip which arose because of Snape's absence from so many of his senior Potions classes. Dumbledore emerged from meetings with the Ministry of Magic to call a review meeting of the staff involved in the Inner Circle on Friday evening.
Professor McGonagall hobbled into the room, ignored the greetings from some of her colleagues and collapsed on the nearest sofa, barely missing Snape's outstretched legs, where he sat irritably marking parchments. As he moved to accommodate her she quickly filled the space before beginning to swear, softly and fluently and without ever repeating herself.
"Another devoted member of staff celebrates the end of the first week of term," he murmured, glancing up at her. "What you need is a drink."
"Don't start with me, Severus," she warned, recovering enough to bend to massage her aching ankles.
"Here." Snape gestured impatiently, took one of her long feet in his hand, slipped off her impractical shoe and began to massage the ball of her foot until she was in a state of boneless contentment.
"I may let you live," she conceded after a few moments, her eyes closing with bliss.
"You could use a Soothing Charm."
"What I could use," said Professor McGonagall with asperity, "is a large red-current rum or three and a week in bed. Preferably with some over-sexed young - "
"Minerva!" protested Snape, looking queasy.
She grinned and settled her other foot in his hand. "Too easy," she said smugly. "Have you heard that you and I are going to settle our differences with a Wizard's Duel on top of the Astronomy Tower at midnight?"
"Would you like me to limp tomorrow morning?"
"I'm delighted you have the sense to know I would win."
"The day you can defeat me in a Duel is the day I specialise in Transfiguration."
Professor McGonagall sat up in a flurry of black robes. Before she could declare war, a house elf appeared with tea and cakes.
"I would have preferred alcohol," she said ungratefully, as she munched a honey cake.
"Good evening, my dears," said Dumbledore, stepping through the fire. "I thought this week went rather well."
"That's because you've been conspicuous by your absence," said Flitwick irritably.
"I wish I had," said Lupin with feeling.
Everyone else just scowled at Dumbledore with varying degrees of dislike, making him reconsider the platitude he had intended to offer. "Now seems the appropriate moment to tell you how proud - and grateful - I am to you all. For the hours you work, the care you take of the children, and the risks you accept. That said, I should like to remind Professor Pinchbeck that we're not in the habit of calling first years 'little buggers' to their faces, whatever the provocation."
"I don't know how Argus stopped himself from killing the little bastards," growled Black, who had spent a trying week, thanks mainly to some Gryffindor second years. Not that he intended to admit that while Snape was around.
"Will-power," said Dumbledore dryly. "If it's any consolation, to judge from a comment overheard from the third year Gryffindor who had just spent the previous evening in detention with you, it seems you're gaining an even worse reputation than Severus."
"I shall have to see what I can do to redeem myself," said Snape.
"Where's Bill? I haven't seen much of him since the first day of term," added Dumbledore. He seated himself in a wing-backed chair and fished for a handkerchief. It was all very well being credited with discovering the twelve uses of dragon blood, but he often thought it would have been more useful if he could have found a cure for the common cold.
Professor McGonagall and Madam Hooch exchanged the sort of grin that reminded all the men that there was good reason why the female was known as the deadlier species.
"Looking harassed the last time I saw him," said Professor McGonagall. "The hormone levels rocket every time he appears. He stopped wearing those leather trousers after the first day. The dragon-hide boots, ear-ring and cologne disappeared the day after. Now he's wearing even more clothing than you," she added to Snape.
"You'd think he would have listened to our advice," said Madam Hooch with a malicious grin. "Ah, hail the conquering hero..."
Bill stumbled out of the fire, looking harassed.
"No need to ask who you're gossiping about," he said, giving the inclined-to-slip shoulders of his academic robe an irritable hitch. "I give you all fair warning, I know some interesting hexes and I'm in just the mood to use them on anyone misguided enough to say they told me so. Clear?" He shared his glare impartially around the assembled staff before stalking over to an empty chair, very much on his dignity.
"Dear me, I hadn't realised things were quite this bad. I thought this year's first years were a very promising bunch," said Dumbledore.
"Promising to do what?" inquired Professor McGonagall tartly.
"Never mind this nonsense," squeaked Flitwick, looking untypically cross. "I, for one, have far too much work awaiting me to appreciate wasting my time. My two homesick Ravenclaws appear to be settling down nicely. Angela Vector is keeping an eye on Clemency Weekes. Ceres?"
Her mouth full of honey cake, Professor Sprout gestured for Madam Hooch to reply for her.
"No problems in Hufflepuff, apart from the one bed-wetter. And he seems to be making friends after that bumpy start. The house elves report dry sheets except for the first two nights. And thanks to the charms we used none of his classmates realised his problem. I hope we're through the worst of it but we're keeping an eye on him."
"No problems in Gryffindor," said Professor McGonagall with authority. "Which is more than can be said for Slytherin. A bigger bunch of undisciplined hooligans - "
"Nonsense," said Snape instantly, tossing another parchment onto the marked pile. "They're a bright, adventurous bunch with more personality than the rest of the first years put together."
"Even you can't believe that bollocks," said Madam Hooch forthrightly.
"Before you all begin to insult my House - "
"Nine girls..." said Madam Hooch, with a touch of malice. "Just think of all the inter-House mingling further down the line."
"Because that's never happened before," said Snape dryly. "Though I have to admit the three boys are looking..."
"...hen-pecked," said Black. "I can't say I blame them. There are few things scarier than a bossy first year girl. And you've got at least five of them."
The faintest of smiles crossed Snape's face. "Yes," he admitted.
"I'm worried about Alaric Cleeve," interrupted Madam Hooch. "His condition this year seems even worse than last. I know he's your concern Severus but - "
"I can't place him," frowned Bill.
"You won't have met him yet. I sent him off to the hospital wing with the excuse of suspected chicken pox," said Snape grimly. "Second year Slytherin, white blond hair, withdrawn, scared of his shadow, performs poorly in stressful situations. His only relative is his father who, I suspect, has been abusing him since birth. Sirius, Remus and Freyja may remember Quintus. He was in the fifth year when we were in the first."
"Him." There was pure loathing in Madam Hooch's voice.
"Oh, I remember him," agreed Black. "James, Remus and I never got caught because we never went anywhere alone but any loners would have had a rough time of it. I wouldn't trust Quintus with the care of a Blast-Ended Skrewt, let alone a child."
"I never liked him when he was in my House, but I hadn't appreciated he was a bully," said Flitwick, looking anxious.
Madam Hooch patted him on the hand. "That was our fault for not telling a member of staff. Quintus was a sadist."
"He used to lure first years up to the old owlery and see how long they could last without fainting under his experiments. That was before your day, Albus," said Lupin. "Though someone must have turned on him because it had stopped by the end of our first year. Like all bullies he was a coward. I'd guess that someone scared him with a hex beyond their years."
Madam Pomfrey glanced at Snape but, his robe wrapped around him, all his ostensible attention was given to the parchment he was marking.
"Pity it wasn't enough to keep Alaric safe," said Black. "What can be done for the boy?"
"Severus, it isn't like you to take a threat to one of your Slytherins so calmly," said Madam Hooch.
"Calm yourselves," he said, without looking up. "Quintus died last night. After the initial bloodbath on Monday the Dark Lord has continued to summon me to interrogate Death Eaters under Veritaserum."
"You knew about this?" Bill asked Dumbledore, less in outraged question than the weary acceptance of the realities of the battle with Voldemort. He had spent all his free time during the last week familiarising himself with the work of the Inner Circle; the knowledge had marked him, muting his carefree manner. Aware that Ron was going through the same process made him appreciate how much his little brother had grown up.
"Of course." Dumbledore studied Snape. "I suspect Severus would say that mine is a typically Gryffindor solution, leaving a Slytherin to bear the burden."
"I'm used to it," said Snape, slashes of red appearing on the parchment he was reading. Then his brain registered what he had said and he looked up at Dumbledore.
"But what's the point of these interrogations?" asked Bill, oblivious to undercurrents.
"To ascertain which Death Eaters are truly loyal to him." Snape's voice was devoid of expression.
Lupin grimaced his comprehension. "I presume you're ensuring that they're not."
"Not every time," said Snape. "That would test even the Dark Lord's gullibility. Veritaserum is flawed because it relies too heavily on the questioner. It's easy enough for fear, pride or greed to sound like treachery to one such as Voldemort. Ironically, Quintus was as loyal as any megalomaniac could wish, although I slanted the questions so that his answers would suggest otherwise."
"So you're judge and jury now," said Black.
Snape visibly braced himself. "That's right."
Professor Sprout made a sound of impatience. "Sirius, if you can offer an alternative course of action, I'm sure Severus would be delighted to take it. You're the one who told us this was war. So far, thanks to Severus, the rest of us have been able to keep our hands clean. Make no mistake, that will change. Prepare yourself for that now, or leave before you endanger everyone. I would have expected Azkaban to teach you more about the realities of life."
"Or too much," interrupted Lupin, on seeing Black flinch. "There was no malice behind what he said."
Snape looked up. "If you're going to talk for him, at least aim for the credible. As for myself... Hic murus aeneus esto, nil conspire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa." As if regretting what might be taken for a sign of weakness, he applied himself to his marking once more.
Black cleared his throat and staring at his knotted fingers said: "Unlikely as it may seem, Remus was right. I meant only... I don't envy you this. And for what it's worth, I support your actions."
"There now," beamed Professor Sprout. "Well said, Sirius. What will become of Alaric?" she continued, to forestall whatever cutting comment Snape might have intended to make. "I presume the Ministry of Magic will make him a Ward of Hogwarts, once Quintus' death is confirmed."
"They will," confirmed Dumbledore. "That excellent couple the Semples are eager to adopt. Zenith has been doing some fine work in Arithmancy. You may remember Diccon. He was a year ahead of you," he added to Snape.
"Dull but worthy. Good at Herbology. Claimed he was a poet," added Snape, looking pained.
"He is," said Professor Sprout indignantly. "And sweetly pretty his verses are too. I understand his book sales rival Gilderoy's. Zenith was a dear child - so kind."
"Not to mention boring," interjected Madam Hooch, sotto voce to Snape. "But they're just what Alaric needs. You did the right thing."
Snape gave her a look of hauteur. "I know." He kept to himself the knowledge that Alaric hadn't been his only thought. Slytherins understood that revenge was a dish best eaten cold.
"Yes," said Professor McGonagall, wearing an expression that none of her current pupils had ever seen, "you did." Yet again Snape reminded himself that above all else the cat was a merciless and highly efficient hunter.
"I concur," said Flitwick. "How long were you under the Cruciatus?"
Dumbledore looked up. "You didn't mention that when you gave me your report."
"What would be the point?" said Snape, straightening his spine. "I grew careless over the summer. The Dark Lord is not accustomed to hearing himself spoken of as 'Voldemort'. I paid the price for my familiarity. Poppy, go away. There's nothing you can do and I'm in no mood to be prodded and - "
"It's food," she said shortly. "And these sandwiches will do you more good inside than out. You may have a macaroon once you've cleared the plate."
Snape's glare, so effective on first years, bounced off the woman who had known him since he was eleven.
"And you can wipe that smirk off your face, Bill Weasley. I remember you very clearly," she added tartly. "You were a little hellion."
"There was no real vice in him," said Professor McGonagall, automatically springing to the defence of one of her own.
"Unlike the Coppel twins," said Flitwick.
"I don't think it's so much that they're evil as that they're Slytherins," mused Professor Sprout. "I blame Severus."
Unwilling amusement had replaced the tension on his face. "No change there then," he said dryly as he began to relax under the wonderful normality of exchanging insults.
"I thought no one could be worse than the Weasley twins until I meet the Coppels, " said Professor McGonagall, of the view that Snape needed some diversion. "As usual, I transfigured for the first years. The fat one had the temerity to try and bell me!" Her meagre bosom inflated with outrage.
His mood improving by the second, Snape's mouth assumed an odd shape as he struggled to keep his face straight. "It's a first," he said in strangled tones.
"And last. I soon put them in their place."
"And let's not forget Buttercup Wean and Grania Frayne," said Professor Sprout. "I've got bubotuber pus all over my greenhouses - first years aren't supposed to touch the stuff! Wean and Frayne decided to have a duel behind the potting shed and as for - "
"Nuala Finnegan," said Lupin. "Oh, yes. What mischief the Coppel twins miss, she thinks up."
"The first flying lesson was...interesting," said Madam Hooch. "If they listened to one word I said it was by accident and - "
"You're right," said Snape with resignation. "It's all my fault. And I'm really really sorry. There. Better? Or would you like to hear about the explosion caused by Shirley Thweat from Hufflepuff, which left a hole in the Potions room floor - despite all my wards? Or the second year Gryffindor boy who thought it might be amusing to try a Cheering Charm on me."
"What have you done with him?" demanded Professor McGonagall instantly.
"Not what I wanted to," Snape said, with obvious regret. "The damn charm worked. Not that young Mr Knowles - or anyone else present - realised that of course. Fortunately the charm was weak enough for me to overcome it before I started to grin inanely at the class but it was a near thing. March, you might want to keep an eye on him, he continues to show a promise ahead of his years. But for now I'm afraid Mr Knowles will be spending the next three Wednesday evenings in detention."
"But Wednesday is our night for Quidditch practice on the main pitch," protested Professor McGonagall.
"No? Is it? That's terrible," said Snape, bland as milk.
"Minerva, don't let that wretched boy do this to you," said Professor Sprout, laughing.
"Given that Gryffindor failed to get the Friday night practice slot again," said Professor McGonagall, glaring at Snape before her expression changed when she realised he was in pain. Glancing up, she saw that Black and Lupin had noticed and that Poppy was inconspicuously taking more readings.
"I seem to be coping with the caretaking side of things," said Black, out of the blue. "And I've been doing as much reading as I can fit in. It occurred to me that I could always take some more of Severus' classes. If you want," he added, when Snape opened his eyes.
"What I want has very little bearing on - Yes. Thank you," added Snape, with obvious reluctance. "If you could take the fourth and fifth years, as well as the sixth forms?"
"Wouldn't you rather off-load the juniors?" asked Madam Hooch.
"Of course. But I don't trust him to stop them blowing themselves up," said Snape. "By the fourth year they've either mastered the basic principles or killed themselves. Realistically, I'm unlikely to be able to fulfill all my teaching obligations for some time to come. The Dark Lord has made it clear I'll be interrogating Death Eaters every night for the foreseeable future."
"But he must know that you need sleep," protested Professor Sprout.
Snape just looked at her. "Don't be absurd. I'm allowed back here only because he believes I've increased my power base - and that I'm supplying useful snippets of information. He already knew of my 'hold' over Minerva."
"Draco?" asked Lupin.
Snape shrugged. "Probably. But I can't be certain. And because I'm still stuck at his side I don't get the chance to hear the gossip in the ranks. At least we now know the rationale behind the murder of the Muggles. We might even be able to protect some."
"We do? This is the first I've heard of it," said Flitwick, glancing at Dumbledore.
"My apologies. Between the Ministry and... dementors will guard the school with effect from tomorrow."
"And so it begins," said Black, his face white with dread.
"Inside the grounds?" queried Madam Hooch, her eyes fierce.
"No, it isn't quite that bad," said Dumbledore. "Outside the boundary wall but I'm afraid their presence will still be felt throughout the school. Not least by ourselves. But rather than dwell on something that can't be changed we should move on. Severus, perhaps you would bring everyone up-to-date on developments."
"The Dark Lord is murdering Muggles for money," said Snape bluntly, his voice rising effortlessly over the various exclamations. "The selection of victims is far from random and, ironically, it owes much to the laws of the Muggle world. Freyja has been working on the topic but Vol - the Dark Lord - inadvertently confirmed everything she had begun to suspect. While some Muggles are selected because of their relationship with key pupils or known opponents, the majority of victims are chosen because they're wealthy - although, obviously, he doesn't care how many others die in an attack. The generation of fear is a valuable tool. But it seems that Tom Riddle was interested in genealogy - presumably in an attempt to deny the taint, as he saw it, of Muggle blood. During his researches he gained possession of an extensive family tree. He's murdering his way through that. As you know, wizarding inheritance laws are unbreakable so even Voldemort can't gain the benefit of the wealth or estates of the wizards he murders. But in the Muggle world he's murdering every branch of a family until ultimately there is only one heir remaining - Tom Riddle. I can only presume that he has somehow managed to convince the Muggle authorities that Riddle is still alive. The how hardly seems to matter."
"The bastard," said Professor Sprout eventually, her voice so flat that it wasn't until Snape glanced up and saw the expression in her eyes that he realised how angry she was. "And of course we wouldn't spot the pattern because of the variety of names that would be involved, and none of them would be familiar to us. I suppose he needs the money to draw in more Death Eaters. But why doesn't he simply attack Gringotts? That bank is the bedrock of wizarding society."
"Which is why even he would hesitate to go that far," said Snape. "Nothing inflames the passions like money."
"Besides," said Bill, "Voldemort's first break-in caused Gringotts to lose face. Their defences have been augmented to a degree where even he would think twice. If you want confirmation, the mere fact he hasn't attempted to rob the bank again is proof enough."
"What about this family tree?" asked Professor McGonagall.
"The likelihood of my being able to see that are remote to non-existent," said Snape. "But analysis of those who have already died should suggest key families, whose remaining descendants could be warned - or protected. We need Muggle help with this. I wondered if Peter Frayne...?"
"I'll owl him," Dumbledore promised.
"Fortunately the attacks on Muggles seem to have slowed while Vol - the Dark Lord - is purging his Death Eaters," continued Snape, in the same flat, disquieting voice. "Everyone is afraid - from Pettigrew, through Malfoy, to the newest recruit. In the past a punishment session had a specific purpose - even if it was only that of entertainment. Now... Now the Dark Lord doesn't even bother to watch. Or seem to remember who he's already killed. His mind veers off at tangents and a conversation with him is fraught with difficulty - not least because some of the time he just doesn't make sense. His physical appearance is changing again."
"The effects of the unicorn blood?" asked Madam Pomfrey.
"How would I know?" said Snape, before he grimaced in what an optimist could have taken for an apology. "There's little enough information on the prolonged ingestion of unicorn blood - simply because no one has ever been mad enough to take it in these quantities." He stopped abruptly and clasped his left forearm in a useless attempt to stop the inevitable.
"Who is Voldemort's Potions Master?" asked Black abruptly.
"I don't even know if he has one," said Snape. "There's been nothing as subtle as potions in the way he's been murdering Muggles or wizards alike. And - " His head bowing, for a while the only sound was his uneven breathing as the pain intensified, peaked and slowly receded again.
"You must go," said Dumbledore. "I'll walk with you to the main gate."
"I'll walk with you. It's the least I can do," he said firmly.
And because each night it became harder and harder to make that walk, knowing that once outside the gates he must don his Death Eater's gown and mask and Apparate to some new horror, Snape made no further protest.