Hermione Granger
Drama Romance
Multiple Eras
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 03/19/2002
Updated: 09/01/2005
Words: 220,150
Chapters: 28
Hits: 163,807

Falling Further In


Story Summary:
The story begins in the summer holidays before the sixth year. After her parents are murdered by Voldemort Hogwarts becomes Hermione's home. She joins the staff in the fight against Voldemort and learns more of the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom. Will *eventually* be Snape/Hermione. Lupin is again the Professor teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has a black dog who lives with him - Sirius Black in his animagus form.

Chapter 22

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


Hermione had assumed she had mentally covered every contingency with regard to her relationship with Severus, until she realised she had failed to allow for the simple fact of just how much she would miss his often acerbic company. It seemed strange that someone who stimulated her on every level should seem so restful - or perhaps it was nothing more than the fact she could be wholly herself with him. She hadn't even had the opportunity to thank him for the book.

The long weeks of the summer, extended by Dumbledore's creative use of the time turner, had wrapped her in a comforting cocoon; term-time had ripped that from her within hours. More than anything, she missed him, but she slowly admitted to a growing resentment that Hogwarts had been taken over by noisy hordes of careless children who had no idea of the battle being fought on their behalf. She had also failed to allow for the fact that she no longer felt like a pupil - oh, she could act the role, but that was all it was, acting. She had always spent her time outside school in the company of adults - Harry and Ron had been the first real friends of her own age - but now her classmates seemed like strangers: and young, very young. Oddly enough, those she seemed to be able to talk to best were those who had lost family members to Voldemort - perhaps there was something about knowing your parents had been killed because of who, and what, you were, that forced you to grow up. She increasingly felt as if the box into which she had been asked to repackage herself was too small for her; some days she thought she must stifle. There was little in her course work to hold her attention - she had already covered the syllabus, moving beyond it in some subjects.

Without work to distract her, worry for Severus filled her mind. The blurring effect of the Appearance Detracting Charm made it difficult to establish his physical well-being beyond the fact he wasn't actually writhing on the floor in agony. His sour expression was one she had taken for granted for six years, although that was difficult to reconcile with the man she was coming to know. He had yet to take a senior Potions class but the first and second years still looked suitably traumatised when they emerged from the dungeons, so she presumed he hadn't mellowed, or lost his flare for drama.

Rather than being set practical work for Potions, the Upper Sixth were sent to the library to research the complex essays set for them. In the first week there had been only celebrations that Snape was away so much - not to mention scurrilous rumours about why. By the end of the third week, during which the new professor, Quinapalus Pinchbeck, had taken Snape's classes - a faint, disgruntled note could be heard from a number of the Upper Sixth. Snape was still a bastard but during their six years at Hogwarts he had become their bastard, and they wanted him back to see them through their N.E.W.T.s.

For Hermione each day came into focus only when she knew Severus had returned from Voldemort, the cycle repeated day after day. Apart from glimpsing him in the corridors and once at High Table, she didn't see him for the first three weeks of term. The staff had held one meeting of the Inner Circle, although from what the headmaster had told her it didn't sound as if anything important had been discussed, apart from news of the interrogations and subsequent executions. Ron must be more squeamish than she thought because he'd turned quite pale, though Harry hardly seemed to be paying attention. He never made any contribution to the Inner Circle discussions and she was pretty sure he hadn't even brought himself up-to-date on the information compiled so far. There again, he didn't need to, she reminded herself; as the Boy Who Lived he had faced and defeated Voldemort seven times.

But everything was dominated by the silent, sinister menace of the dementors, whose black figures could be seen outside the boundary wall, their hooded faces staring up at the castle as if they thought will-power alone would enable them to breach the protective wards which kept them out. No one in Hogwarts was wholly immune from the blight they cast but some suffered more than others. Many juniors were sleeping badly, and inclined to be tearful; tempers were frayed from the lowliest first former to the staff. Because dementors could see through any attempt at disguise, including invisibility cloaks, Black never went out of doors and grew pale and increasingly terse, while the lines on Lupin's face deepened, his normally equable temper fraying by the day. Harry suffered worst of all, although typically he made no complaint; the only indication was his increased irritability.

All in all, it was a miserable beginning to the start of the new academic year.


After a cold beginning to the new school year the temperature had risen to the seasonal norm, then kept on climbing. The waters of the lake began to evaporate, revealing mud banks that smelt appalling until they caked and cracked open. There was no sign of the Mer people who, it was presumed, had taken shelter in the cool depths at the centre. Dumbledore decreed that everyone must get some fresh air. Wary of the menace of the dementors, pupils had relaxed to a degree when even Dumbledore himself came out into the grounds, moving between the various groups, making sure he spoke to as many people as possible, offering sweets and whimsical jokes and like a one-man Patronus reducing the impact of the dementors on the other side of the perimeter wall.

Skilfully evading his fan club amongst the Gryffindor juniors, Harry hid himself away in the old orchard. Everyone had been given permission to leave off their robes and minimal clothing was the order of the day. His favourite tee shirt with the embossed stag in the wash, he was wearing another in Gryffindor colours bearing the legend Seekers always find the Snitch. Not that he'd know, he thought glumly as he worried the skin at the side of his thumb, while keeping an eye out in case Millicent should come this way. He usually managed to manufacture a couple of 'accidental' meetings with her each week - although he'd had most success in the library. She was working hard for her N.E.W.T.s - and despite parental displeasure, wanted to train as a Quidditch coach. She certainly knew her strategy...

It was so hot that the unheard of had happened and Quidditch practice had been cancelled. In truth, it was something of a relief for the Gryffindor captain. Even sitting on the grass, as far away from the dementors as it was possible to get while still in the grounds of Hogwarts, Harry had to fight not to sink under the clammy pall of despair that they cast. They had always affected him more than anyone else but this term...

This term he felt as if he was losing himself. In the past, no matter how terrified he had been, he had felt centred, certain of his place in the world - beyond his role of the Boy Who Lived. But this term...

Harry rubbed absently at his scar and the ever-present headache. He had hardly seen anything of Hermione. Not that he could blame her. The only reason her parents had been murdered was because of him. Funny, he missed her more than he had expected to - particularly her bossing him around. He didn't see so much of Ron, either. Hardly surprising, given that Ron could take his pick of girls. Not that he seemed to be this term. While he hadn't said so, he was probably worried about his mum. Even Dumbledore seemed different; distracted and vaguer than usual, and his smile never seemed to reach his eyes.

Sirius and Remus were scared to death that the dementors would discover Sirius. Harry had promised himself that he would do anything necessary to stop them from getting to Sirius. Snape only needed an excuse to give the man he hated up to the dementors. If Snape ever did anything which resulted in Sirius being captured, he would make the greasy bastard wish he'd never left Voldemort's side...

Tense and on edge, Harry wheeled around when he heard running feet thudding on the sun-dried turf, but it was only Ron.

"Here, take this, quick," commanded Ron, holding out an extremely large ice lolly.

The wooden stick was already tacky from the beginning-to-melt fruit juice. Harry wasted no time in sampling the mouth-watering layers of fresh fruit flavourings, travelling through strawberry, banana, raspberry and apricot before he reached the blackcurrant centre. "'S wonderful. Where d'you get it?" he mumbled, through numbed lips and a mouthful of icy slush.

"Professor McGonagall. The whole school's got them. You should see Professor Flitwick eating his. If I didn't know better I'd swear he was a few twigs short of a broomstick. Shove up a bit, this patch of shade is shrinking. Phew. You can smell the lake even from here. I don't know if it's just my imagination but the giant squid looks sickly to me."

"Probably just the heat," said Harry, with a studied lack of interest. Since the Triwizard Tournament he tended to avoid the lake. "No one in their right minds would get in that water the way it smells."

"Yeah. Mum's ankles are all swollen. She says she can't ever remember it being this hot in September. But then it's been a while since she's been pregnant, so who knows," Ron added tolerantly. "You haven't forgotten it's Hermione's birthday in three days? Her eighteenth."

"Oh, bugger. Is it? Any idea what we get her?" asked Harry, without much hope. While Hermione had always been very polite about the presents they had selected for her over the years, he had come to realise that they'd never got it right yet.

"I was hoping you could think of something. Besides books, that is."

"What about your mum?"

"Oh, she's knitting Hermione a jumper," grinned Ron.

"No, I mean can't she help us? She's a woman. She must know what - "

"This is Hermione we're talking about."

"Yeah. Books it is then," said Harry with gloom. "I'll owl Flourish and Blotts for their catalogue. Is it me, or has Hermione been getting a lot of owls recently?"

"It's stuff to do with her parents and that lawyer Dumbledore found for her," said Ron vaguely.

"Oh. I thought she'd been a bit quiet." Taking a deep breath, Harry added in a rush, "Can I ask you something? Something personal, I mean?"

Ron looked distinctly wary. "Course," he said, with would-be nonchalance.

"D'you ever think about sex?"

Ron snorted. "You mean more than fifty times a day?"

"Oh." Harry could not conceal his relief.

"You are a prat," Ron told him. "Course I do. We all do. Though at least it's better than it was in the fourth year. When it was difficult to concentrate, what with getting hard every time - "

"Yeah," interrupted Harry, that not a period of his life he looked back on with much fondness. "Only I still feel like that - only worse." He studied his feet and willed the embarrassment away.

"A few games of Quidditch should help," said Ron, with tact. A discussion about Harry's non-existent private life held more dangers than reaching the Philosopher's Stone - not least because Harry's temper had become so unpredictable. But then the dementors had always affected Harry more than anyone else.

"I hope so," said Harry with gloom. "Except my game's turned to crap. The moment I come outside, all I can feel is...the dementors," he admitted, after a moment.

"What? Even now?"

His mouth compressed, because he hadn't intended to whine about that, too, Harry nodded.

"Then let's go back inside," said Ron practically. "We could ask Susan Bones if she's got any ideas about what we could get Hermione."

"Not Lavender?" said Harry, as he got to his feet.

"It's lucky you're not this unobservant on the Quidditch pitch. Lavender understands Hermione only slightly less than Hermione understands Lavender. And you don't understand either of them. The thing about women," Ron continued, with a knowing air that made Harry want to thump him, "is that you have to pay attention to what they like and do and say and think. All the time."

Harry stared at him, aghast.

"I didn't say it was easy," said Ron.

It occurred to Harry that his could be a long and lonely life.

"Oh, oh," said Ron, wearing a spreading grin. "Isn't that your fan club I see over there? Far be it for me to get in the way, I'm off."

"You git," said Harry with feeling.

"That's me," said Ron unsympathetically, just before the group of over-excited, Quidditch-mad juniors arrived. He left Harry to their tender mercies and went to look for Snape. Since learning of the interrogations Snape was conducting, Ron's sleep had been patchy at best, his peace of mind destroyed by the knowledge that Percy's life might depend on Snape's always questionable goodwill.

He eventually located Snape beyond the Quidditch pitches, under the shade of an old walnut tree. The only member of staff to still be wearing his robes, he looked like a crow in a flock of parrots as he stood in a half-circle of chattering Slytherin first years. Ron spared a moment's pity for the poor little sods - at least McGonagall had left them pretty much to their own devices outside the classroom.

"If you don't stop shoving me, Aniseed Twig," warned a skinny girl, whose plaits stuck out at right angles.

"Miss Flax, if you're intending to hex your companion, kindly have the good sense not to do so under my nose," drawled Snape. "One more display like that and I'll be compelled to deduct points from Slytherin for your stupidity."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," she added glibly, raising would-be guileless blue eyes to his face.

Snape studied her with all the enthusiasm of someone finding something dubious on the sole of his shoe. "We'll discuss subtlety another day.

"Miss Twig, insulting Miss Flax's parents is hardly an effective defence. No wonder the pair of you are doing so poorly in Charms. All that is required for the successful completion of a charm is focus and control. Both of which qualities all of you seem to lack." His gaze encompassed the group in front of him, none of whom looked particularly cowed. "I shall return after I've spoken with Mr Weasley, at which point I shall endeavour to improve your wrist movements. Anyone taking out their wand before my return will incur my displeasure, are we quite clear on that point? Excellent."

Leaving the jostling group behind him, Snape moved over to where Ron stood and said, "I was under the impression that we had agreed to discuss your infraction of the rules in my office in twenty minutes time."

Ron blinked his surprised, then belatedly caught on; Snape was good at this. "Yes. Sorry," he said, doing his best to hide his gratitude, not least for Snape's abilities as a mind-reader. "I'll be there."

"See that you are. Don't let me detain you," added Snape pointedly.

As Ron headed back across the sun-bleached grass, he could hear Snape saying, "Miss Finnegan, kindly desist in your attempts to demonstrate your origins and come down from that branch. Next time you want to retrieve something, you might care to remember you're a witch. Everyone, take out your wands."

The sounds of Snape teaching his first years the Accio charm faded into the distance as Ron headed for the kitchens for a snack to keep him going until dinner. Licking the sugar from his fingers as he finished a jam doughnut, he headed off to the old orchard, to see if Harry needed rescuing, only for Harry to make him jump as he came up behind him before he was halfway there.

"I can't believe you left me to those kids. I thought I was never going to get away," complained Harry, scowling.

"They look up to you," said Ron peaceably.

Harry snorted. "Then more fool them. They'll soon realise that the only thing I'm any use for is to get rid of Voldemort."

Taken aback by the venom in Harry's voice, it was a moment before Ron could think how to respond. "Careful, you're starting to sound like Snape," he said, trying to make a joke of it.

Harry stopped dead, his face going red with temper. "You take that back! I'm nothing like that faithless bastard! Can you believe this, Dumbledore said that if he has time Snape will be taking us for the Ethics of Magic? What would a Death Eater know about ethics? He should be locked up in Azkaban, not being allowed to corrupt children. He's - "

"Ssh," said Ron frantically. "What if someone heard you?"

"You think people don't know what Snape is?"

"Harry, you know they don't and if word gets out... Snape could be killed. You've got to - "

"Do what? Listen to you? I don't think so. I - "

"That will do, Mr Potter!" said Professor McGonagall from behind them.

It was only as they turned to see McGonagall and Snape a few paces behind them that Ron appreciated that Harry had known Snape was there all the time; it was McGonagall's presence that had surprised him. Troubled by such untypical spite from Harry, he studied his feet.

"Fifty points from Gryffindor, Mr Potter," said Professor McGonagall with icy displeasure. "Come with me, we have matters best discussed in private. I don't want to hear one more word from you until we are in the meeting room, where we can be certain we can't be overheard."

Only when she swept off, with a rebellious looking Harry in tow, did Ron venture a glance at Snape. It told him nothing, Snape wearing his usual sour expression.

"I'm not trying to make excuses for Harry or anything, because he's been behaving like an arsehole recently, but he's under a lot of strain," said Ron, feeling awkward and disloyal about going behind Harry's back, yet knowing something needed to be said. "The dementors - "

"Duly noted," said Snape. "As we can't be overheard, or overlooked, I see no need to go to my office. What was it that you wanted earlier?"

"About Percy... Is he - ?"

"I haven't seen him, if that's what you're asking," interrupted Snape. "Not since he took the Dark Mark. As far as I am aware he's been told to spy on Fudge and make his reports to Bruce Cabot. If - when - I have to question him, I have every confidence in my ability to keep Percy alive. Unless he is particularly stupid."

The relief was so great that for a moment Ron didn't trust himself to speak. "Thank you," he remembered to say. "You'd let me know if - ?"

"Of course."

Ron nodded. About to leave, he hesitated.

"What now?" asked Snape, looking resigned.

"Is there anything I can do to help? You, I mean," added Ron, braced for insult. The flicker of surprise which Snape was too tired to hide didn't do much for his self-esteem. "We are supposed to be on the same side," he said stubbornly.

"You can best help me by learning to spell 'differentiate,' and by not making unsubstantiated statements in your essays."

"I'm serious," snapped Ron.

It was always disconcerting to watch the child become a man. Snape studied him for a moment more. Ron had been handling himself well through all of this, but the strain was beginning to show. Small wonder. They were all showing signs of wear.

"So was I. While you're never likely to be a star pupil, I expect you to pass your N.E.W.T.s with a respectable grade."

"Oh," said Ron, before he grinned. "I can ease up then."

Snape just looked at him.

Ron's grin faded. "How will I know if - ?" He ground to a halt, afraid even to put it into words.

"Percy is unlikely to catch the Dark Lord's eye," Snape murmured, barely moving his lips - a skill first learnt in his first year at Hogwarts, and perfected down the years. "With regard to Potter... Try not to let him drive you away," he added quietly, before he brushed past Ron and headed up the steep escarpment.

Ron was so surprised that it didn't occur to him to keep up with Snape and by the time he thought to follow him the other man had disappeared from sight.


If it hadn't been for Harry and Ron's heavy-handed hints Hermione would have forgotten all about her eighteenth birthday, which fell on a Friday this year. Her coming of age resulted in a shower of gifts and congratulations and while she put a brave face on in front of her classmates, for Hermione the occasion was primarily yet another reminder that her parents were dead. Wrapped up in private grief, she was unaware of Madam Pomfrey's anxious glances, or Professor McGonagall's attempts to encourage her to unburden herself.

In an attempt to get away from the children who plagued his every waking hour and some of the ones when he should have been sleeping, Black took refuge in the meeting room to catch up on some Defence Against the Dark Arts reading, ready for when he must stand in for Lupin. He found Hermione there, her expression desolate, her face wet with tears where she sat by a window, staring sightlessly out across the grounds.

His expression gentling, Black crouched beside her and awkwardly patted her back. "Of course you miss them. They would be so proud of you - and the work you're doing. As are we all. Now, blow your nose and see if you can help me. I'm trying to work out a lesson plan for Remus' classes and while I know he would help I'd rather not rub his nose in it."

A short time later the area around the sofa they occupied was covered in books and parchments and Black and Hermione were deep in discussion.

"Thank you," she said with gratitude, sitting back some time later.

Black didn't pretend to misunderstand her. "As I know to my cost, it helps to keep the mind active. The last couple of years, when I was stuck in my animagus form for weeks on end, there were times when I thought I would go mad."

"It's feeling a bit like that to me this term," she admitted. "I did all my course work during the holidays and once you've got the hang of focus and concentration the practicals aren't much of a challenge unless you take up a subject at S Level."

Black eyed her thoughtfully. "Remus has always said you're one of the brightest pupils he's ever come across. Have a word with March. I'm sure he'd be more than happy to start your S Level course early. If you're sure it won't interfere with your work for your N.E.W.T.s "

"I could take them tomorrow," said Hermione listlessly.

"Well, in the meantime, shouldn't you be changing for that birthday party you're not supposed to know about. That is..." He looked suddenly worried.

"With Harry and Ron organising it?" Her smile unshadowed, as it rarely was these days, Hermione got to her feet. "Still, they'll have a good time."

"You don't like parties, Miss Granger?"

"I can't think of much to celebrate these days - particularly with the dementors on our doorstep. I haven't seen... Did he get back safely this morning?"

"Who? Oh. You're worried about Snape?"

Hermione's eyes narrowed.

"Well, yes, of course you are," Black said hastily. "Even I am. To a degree. It's just that old habits die hard."

Hermione waved that aside. "So is he all right?" she demanded anxiously.

"Yes. He's tired of course, but otherwise fine, so don't you give him another thought. Feel free to call on me any time you want some diversion. Now you go off and have a good time," Black added, as if she was eight, rather than eighteen. "Oh, and happy coming of age." He placed the lightest of kisses on the back of her hand, making her smile at the old-fashioned gesture, before she excused herself and flooed back to the hospital wing, from which she made her way back to her bedroom.

Reluctantly heading out of this haven from the Gryffindor second years, Black found himself being thrust against the wall, Snape's wand at his throat, strong fingers bracketing his jaw with a painful grasp.

"What the fuck - ?" croaked Black, too unnerved by the expression on Snape's face to think to retaliate.

"How dare you make assignations with a student! If you've - " Literally shaking with emotion, Snape stopped dead when he recognised the blank astonishment on Black's face.

"Little Hermione? Me and - ? You silly sod," said Black tolerantly, as he brushed aside Snape's now nerveless grasp. "You really should get some sleep. You look like crap and your brain is obviously turning to mush. It's her birthday. She was crying because she misses her parents. I distracted her with a debate about the Dark Arts. As for the idea of me chasing students... Are you insane? I have to spend more than enough time with the little buggers as it is. I don't know how you've stood it all these years," he added frankly. "Besides, she's just a child."

Snape flinched, turned on his heel and left the room without a word.

Black grimaced, wondered briefly what that had been about, and went back to work.


Draco's studied air of languor gave him something of a following amongst the junior girls, although according to gossip none had succumbed to his charms. Hermione had been conscious of attracting more attention from him than she wanted since term began, although he had never addressed her directly. Those veiled eyes slid over her, making her feel grubby in a way that Crabbe's uncomplicated and undisguised lust never did.

Her nerves strung out because a portion of her brain was always wondering if Severus was back yet and how badly he had been hurt, she overslept on Monday morning and was late for the unpopular early shift of prefect duty. After dealing with one duel and an outright punch-up amongst some Gryffindor second years, which left her channelling her inner Snape at their stupidity, she was so late for breakfast that she had time only for half a cup of cold coffee. Snape wasn't at High Table, she had cramps and had forgotten to take her Leniomensis and Draco's eyes felt as if they should be leaving a trail of slime over her breasts.

She made a quick detour up to the hospital wing, took the potion, snapped at Madam Pomfrey's concerned queries about her appearance and arrived late for her Transfiguration class, where she had to endure a sharp lecture from Professor McGonagall about punctuality.

A headache vied with the cramps.

By the mid-morning break the Leniomensis had kicked in but she still hadn't seen Snape and her imagination was working overtime. The urge to rearrange Malfoy's milk-white face was growing by the second.

Hermione made a lengthy detour to get to her Defence Against the Dark Arts class in the hope of glimpsing Severus - or anyone who could tell her if he was back safely. But she had seen no one who could help. She grimaced when she saw Draco and Gregory Goyle standing a few yards from the open door of the classroom.

"Here's our resident Mudblood. Late again? Still hunting for the pieces of your parents, I suppose," drawled Draco, giving the faintest of smiles when she flinched. "I hear dogs made off with some bits of your mother. There are some interesting uses for Mudblood body parts in the Dark Arts. Although there's only one use for a - "

Hermione didn't even hear the crude sexual insult; her world had narrowed to Draco's mocking face, his strangulated vowel sounds echoing in her ears. There'd been nothing in the papers about the dismembered bodies. He must have heard about it at home. If anyone understood the Dark Arts, it would Lucius Malfoy...

"Listening at keyholes while daddy boasts about killing defenceless Muggles?" she said, her voice tight and unfamiliar with the effort of holding in her rage, her wand already in her hand. It shook. Two words, that was all it required to kill someone. Two words and the will to enforce them...

Hermione thrust the temptation behind her. There were other ways. Oblivious to classmates spilling from the classroom at the sound of raised voices, she took a useful, innocuous charm and twisted it into a hex. Her focus absolute, she had no idea that battle lines were being drawn up behind her until a familiar voice cut through the buzzing in her ears.

"Expelliarmus!" Holding four peoples' wands in his hand, Snape stood between Draco and herself, his black robes still fluttering around him with the speed with which he had moved to intervene. "That's enough! One way or another, I will have silence."

Hermione flinched, then blinked, while around her angry faces became sullen and watchful. Despite the wards in the corridors, which she had overcome without even thinking about it, she could feel the pulses of magic in the air and her hands began to shake as she appreciated what she had almost precipitated.

"That's better," continued Snape. "Yes, Mr Weasley, I have your wands. They will be returned when I'm satisfied you're to be trusted with them. Mr Potter, stop emoting like a first year!" He had already reversed Hermione's hex, which had frozen Draco with the terror which came from hearing an Engorgement Charm applied to his testicles. His own wanted to crawl back up into his body at the very idea of such an assault, although he had managed to stop the hex before Draco had suffered any trauma - except to his nerves.

Green with fright, Malfoy glared at Hermione. "You cun - "

"Be grateful you don't need a trolley to wheel your bollocks around in front of you. If you - "

Ron saw Snape's expression and slapped a hand over Hermione's mouth. With Blaise Zabini on one side and Gregory Goyle on the other, Draco had the sense to keep quiet. Under the disguising folds of his robe he surreptitiously checked out the area in question with a shaking hand.

Snape's icy gaze tracked Lupin as he hurried towards them. "Professor. Had you been on time, this brawl could have been averted. I shall return your class to you when I've finished with them."

While his mouth tightened, Lupin had the sense not to respond in kind in public and he went into the classroom.

Snape returned his attention to the sulky faces around him. "Mr Malfoy, we'll discuss this further in my office, six thirty. Miss Granger, it isn't my habit to deduct House points from those in the Upper Sixth. However, given your appalling behaviour... Two hundred and fifty points from Gryffindor. One can only be thankful that sanity prevailed and you weren't made head girl."

Snape's chilly gaze swept around the group: Hermione was staring at him as if he'd slapped her; his dignity bruised after his fright, Malfoy would send a whining owl to Lucius; only Finnegan's grip was keeping Potter subdued; and everyone else was glaring at him with impotent dislike.

"Clearly you all have far too much time on your hands. I want a ten foot essay, with all the relevant footnotes in addition, on the merits and side-effects of the various sedatives we covered last term. By half-term. From the entire class," he added.

The protests were predictable and vocal; he allowed them only a few seconds of life.

"Any more childish displays of this kind and that will be the least of your worries. You're prefects - try to remember as much and display a modicum of self-control. If you have a class, I suggest you go to it."

As he swept on his way, confident that he had successfully redirected their hated, Snape heard light footsteps hurrying after him and knew that Hermione was following him. He even knew what she would say, despite the fact anyone could be listening.

"Professor Snape! Malfoy just confirmed - "

He swung around fast enough to make her flinch. "One more word, Miss Granger and I'll make that three hundred points from Gryffindor and a detention to be served with the first years. Do I make myself plain? You have responsibilities beyond your petty concerns." Every word was edged like a razor.

Her eyes narrowed but on this occasion her temper held. After a moment she gave a jerky nod, turned on her heel and walked off, still vibrating with echo of the killing rage she had only just managed to control.

Hermione stalked around the meeting room, wondering how Dumbledore had persuaded her to come down here to cool off when she should be investigating the Malfoy family's part in the murder of her parents. If Draco had been involved she'd kill him - with her bare hands if her wand was kept from her.

At the click of the heavy door latch she wheeled around in time to see Snape enter the room. She waited only until he had closed the door. "Draco knew how my parents died," she said, the intensity of her anger making her voice shake. "He knew about the dogs. That wasn't in the papers. He taunted me about it and you're going to talk to him!" She was in no mood to try to interpret Snape's expression as he slowly crossed the large room.

"The more gruesome aspects of your parents' death are widely known, despite the fact they weren't reported. Malfoy's taunts prove nothing."

"Oh, it's proved one thing to me," she said in an unfamiliar voice. Accusation blazed from her as she eyed him with contempt.

Snape leant against the wall and folded his arms. "You know better than that," he said after a moment.

At any other time Hermione would have recognised that veiled appeal for understanding. "Why are you here?" she asked.

"Albus sent me."

"You wouldn't have come to speak to me otherwise?"

"You know I wouldn't," he said quietly.

"Well, that's honest enough," she said with a trace of bitterness.

There was a small silence, during which Snape studied the floor. Just as a snake was unable to shrug back into its cast-off skin, he was finding it more difficult than he had anticipated to resume his former role. Worse, instead of a pupil, he saw only Hermione. Although quite what she saw...

Despite his better judgement, he came the closest he dared to asking outright for reassurance. "It seems to me that honesty is all we have," he said.

"Unlike friendship, support, loyalty..."

While his expression didn't change, he looked down for a moment, marshalling his thoughts. "Now you've made it obvious to Malfoy that he has a formidable weapon, he won't hesitate to use it against you. Guard against losing your temper with him again. It's a luxury you can't afford."

Hermione stopped pacing to stare at him, some of the antagonism fading from her face. "I didn't intend to make things more difficult for you."

"I thrive on difficulty," Snape said with heavy irony. "It doesn't matter," he added, wondering tiredly what Albus had thought this meeting would achieve. Although one more person looking at him with contempt shouldn't make that much difference. Except that this was Hermione. "I can only urge you to allow your normal common sense free rein," he said, finally admitting his fear for her. "Malfoy is out of his depth, with many difficult decisions to make, while desperate to prove himself - not least to his father. And you do not want Lucius Malfoy as your enemy. Minerva will return your wand to you after lunch. She wants a word."

"More than one, I'm sure. Lucius Malfoy was one those responsible for murdering my parents," Hermione added, emotion flattened from her voice.

Undeceived, Snape watched her pace. "You're probably correct. Not for sport though, but to improve his standing with the Dark Lord."

"Oh, well, that's all right then."

Snape grimaced. "You seem determined to misunderstand me."

"I'm just wondering why you should feel it's necessary to defend him."

A muscle jumping in his cheek, Snape stared at her but by a visible effort of will said nothing.

"Draco insinuated that any missing...that body parts of the murdered could be used in the Dark Arts."


Her mouth dry, her palms wet and her heart racing, Hermione added, "Do you think that's what happened to the remains of my parents?"

"Possibly," said Snape, wondering if she was going to vomit.

"You don't know?" Disbelief echoed in her voice.

Despite himself, it stung. "No."

"You're not much use at getting information from Voldemort, are you?"

"This isn't achieving anything," said Snape tiredly, trying not to watch her angry pacing up and down the room.

Hermione slowed to a halt. "No. That was a cheap shot. I don't know why I should be making you my whipping boy."

"Don't you? I can think of several reasons. All of which you have to find a way to deal with. Exercise a little of that maturity you claim to possess."

That struck a nerve, not least because she knew it was justified on her recent behaviour. "Or what? You strike me off your Christmas card list? What have I got to lose? I don't have anything."

Snape's expression gave nothing away. When it became clear he was not going to reply Hermione made a sound of disgust and walked out of the room.

Snape watched her go, squinting, as if against a headache. He had expected no other reaction from her by this time, but it was disconcerting to realise he had not been as prepared for it as he had assumed. If he hadn't been so tired he would have realised what lay behind Dumbledore sending him to her. Albus had made no secret of his disapproval - and distaste - for any relationship between a member of staff and a pupil.

He had no one but himself to blame. Stupid enough to fancy himself romantically in love, but to imagine he had it in him to make anyone happy, least of all...

Weighted down with fatigue and stress, yet too tired to sleep, he labouriously extricated himself from his robe and jacket, unfastening half the small buttons of his shirt before flapping the damp, creased fabric to create the illusion of a breeze. While he revelled in heat, the current temperatures made life unpleasant for everyone. He wondered vaguely why Cooling Charms applied to hot tea were so much more effective than those he applied to himself. He must have a word with March. If there was ever time.

He should be taking the opportunity to catch up on some marking, if only to keep track of what progress - if any - the third years were making under Black, but it required more concentration than he felt capable of right now.

Which didn't bode well for tonight.

If her temper got the better of her again and she tried to take on Malfoy... His stomach lurching, Snape stared blankly into the middle distance.

But if Voldemort had made use of...

He linked his unsteady hands over the top of his bowed head and willed himself to stop thinking.

Snape knew who stood on the other side of the door even before it opened; this close to the full moon Lupin's reek was unmistakable.

"Shouldn't you be confined by now?" Snape asked, surprised by how dark it had become while he had been thinking - or perhaps he had fallen asleep after all.

Because he hadn't been expecting that, given the improvement in their dealings with one another, Lupin flinched. "Not for another three days."

"What do you want?"

"Severus, this is important," said Lupin, more sharply.

"To me, or to you?"

"It concerns Harry." A change Lupin wasn't sure how to interpret crossed Snape's face.

"Doesn't it always? What's he done now?" he added with resignation. "If I didn't know better I would say he was suffering from arrested development."

On edge, Lupin was prowling up and down the large room. "Hardly surprising given his upbringing. He needs a male authority figure in his life."

"What Potter needs is a boot up the backside to encourage him to decide what he intends to do with his life," said Snape, trying not to think of the rolls of parchment which needed to be marked before the beginning of the new school week. If he wasn't summoned again tonight.

"Harry doesn't think he'll live long enough for that to matter," said Lupin flatly.

Snape sighed and sat down. "This is obviously going to take some time," he recognised. He tucked an inclined-to-shake hand from sight.

"Quinapalus and I are worried about Harry."

"So are Minerva and Albus," conceded Snape.

"And you?"

Snape gave a derisive snort.

"I'm serious," said Lupin, a snap in his normally pleasant voice as he stalked over to Snape, whose eyes narrowed.

"Are you sure you've got your dates right?"

An ugly colour suffused Lupin's face at the unnecessary reminder of how close he had come to infecting Snape during the summer, but all he said was, "Oh, no. You don't distract me that easily. We were talking about Harry. You're worried about him too. Aren't you?"

"My participation in this conversation seems irrelevant. I find him impertinent, truculent and selfish."

"You're not alone, this term," sighed Lupin, perching on the arm of a sofa and rubbing the back of his neck. "Although given his upbringing I suppose it's hardly to be wondered at if he should be slower than his classmates to mature. He's been lionized as the Boy Who Lived, and given virtual licence to do as he pleases by Albus. I suspect the years prior to Harry coming to Hogwarts were somewhat different and I doubt if the three months of the summer he's had to spend with those Muggle relatives each year have helped. Rather than having the opportunity to develop 'normal' social contacts, during which he can make all the usual mistakes of judgement and taste, Harry is locked in his bedroom."

"Don't be absurd," dismissed Snape, insulted that Lupin should imagine he would swallow that piece of nonsense.

"It's the truth." His tone measured, his manner unexcited, Lupin told Snape all that he knew of Harry's life amongst the Muggles. While Snape was too experienced to react, he had made no further attempt to interrupt.

"...any wonder he's resentful when his parents are denigrated at every opportunity? Until Harry came to Hogwarts his bedroom was a cupboard under the stairs. I'm serious," Lupin snapped, when Snape opened his mouth. "They used to lock him in every night and - "

"I get the picture." Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. "I can easily arrange matters so that Pinchbeck tutors Harry in Potions."

"While that might help, there's a small problem."

"Pinchbeck's personality?"

"This isn't helping, Severus. Quinapalus tries so hard. Too hard. After twelve years in Azkaban he mistrusts his own impulses. In consequence he can't bring himself to be everything Harry needs - a disciplinarian, for one. He'll take Harry to task for wearing his tie crookedly, yet allow him speak to... Sirius is afraid to do or say anything which might risk alienating Harry."

"Ah, your reason for seeking me out becomes apparent," said Snape dryly. "I don't understand why you're talking to me. If Harry needs a male authority figure he has Albus. And you."

"Albus is...Albus. Harry won't talk to him. As for me, I'm a werewolf."

"For three days a month. The rest of the time..." Snape paused, looking as if he had an appalling smell under his nose. "I'm prepared to concede that I may have been mistaken about you. To a degree. And you can take that fatuous grin off your face. You're a Gryffindor, you bond with the insolent little bastard. Harry likes you."

"I know he does. I'm also Sirius' partner. And while we - Sirius - hasn't told Harry yet, unless Harry's a complete idiot he must suspect. Which means he won't talk to me because he can't be certain I wouldn't tell Sirius."

"And would you?"

About to reply, Lupin paid Snape the courtesy of thinking about it. "I hope I wouldn't betray his confidence, but realistically it would depend what Harry was talking about. No, he couldn't trust me. Not one hundred per cent."

"Then speak to March," said Snape.

There was something approaching affection in Lupin's smile by now. "How old were you before you learnt to appreciate March Flitwick?"

"Then what about Arthur Weasley? Or Bill, or Charlie?" said Snape, evading the question.

"All too close to Ron."

"Let's be quite clear about this Remus. I am already an authority figure in Potter's life. I am not about to attempt to become his confident or mentor. Not that I could," Snape added realistically. "He hates me."

"He resents you," corrected Lupin. "But at least he doesn't ignore you."

"And this is a good thing because? Harry won't confide in me. Since he learnt that Voldemort... " Snape stopped, then forced himself to go on; missish evasions of the truth helped no one. "Since he learnt I've been sexually assaulted... His manner to me has undergone a marked change. Not for the better."

Lupin just stopped himself from offering anything that might be construed as sympathy when he saw Snape's glare. "It was an ill-conceived idea on my part. It's just that I wish I knew how to help Harry. Quite apart from the fact I like him - for his own sake as well as for James and Lily - realistically, Harry is our only hope against Voldemort."

Snape's wand hand twitched, but he managed to resist the temptation to blast Lupin across the room. Remus had only said what the majority of the wizarding world thought. For all the sentimental twaddle that was said about the boy, few people spared a thought for the person behind the name.

It wasn't the first time that it had occurred to Snape that he and Potter had more in common than their need for a male authority figure in their lives but he hadn't appreciated the degree to which Albus had made use of Harry from the very beginning. It was one thing to make use of an eighteen year old wizard; Harry had been eleven years old the first time...

"A number of this year's Upper Sixth will require an occupation that pays remuneration," Snape said. "Use the one-to-one career discussions to make Potter consider what he'll do when he leaves school. The Aurors will expect him to go to them. Which seems to me to be by far the most dangerous option. Their powers are already too wide, add Potter's unique abilities to that kind of unbridled power..."

"He would never turn to the Dark Arts. I would know. Surely? Oh, Merlin. You don't think Voldemort has found a way to - ?" Lupin stopped, unable to voice his greatest fear. "It would kill Sirius," he whispered, almost to himself.

"Ah, the one bright note in all this. I suggest we keep Potter too busy revising for his N.E.W.T.s to worry about world domination just yet. If he's shown an unusual interest in the Dark Arts I've heard no sign of it. Have you noticed any change?"

"He's usually about sixth in class overall," said Lupin. "Top in the practicals, of course. But this term he's consistently been in the bottom three."

"Has he indeed? Get Minerva to have a word with him. You know that if Sirius won't discipline Potter you'll have to," added Snape.

"I was afraid you'd say that," said Lupin.

Snape's retort died stillborn as his breath caught. Unable to move for a moment, the pain seared through the Dark Mark, demanding all of his attention. He swung away to rest his face against the wall while he rode out Voldemort's ungentle summons.


The feral stink caught the back of his nose, but at least that warning stopped him from lashing out when Lupin touched him on the shoulder.

"Don't concern yourself," said Snape at last, when the pain had faded enough for him to be able to think of more than ways to claw off his arm. "It's just my master tugging at my leash. I have to go."

"Again? He hasn't missed a night. Do you need your robes and mask?" added Lupin, at his most practical.

"I carry them at all times, reduced and tucked away in an inner pocket. Tell Albus I've gone."

"Of course. Be careful," added Lupin awkwardly, because it seemed wrong that Severus should leave without some kind word.

Closing the hidden door at the base of Serpens Tower, which enabled him to come and go unnoticed by any curious eyes, Snape avoided the driveway as he headed for the main gates. With neither moon nor stars to light his way, the darkness pressed against him, the air still and heavy with heat; and yet he shivered, dread making it difficult to draw enough breath into his lungs.

The walk to the gates was always the hardest part. Death Eaters couldn't afford imaginations. Snape headed through the grounds, one foot at a time, as he tried to batten down all his inconvenient emotions. He wasn't having a lot of success when he caught a familiar drift of perfume. He stopped dead, before backtracking to the nearby stand of trees. Hermione stood in the shelter of an ancient yew tree whose trunk had split and split again over the centuries. He drew close enough to see that she was trembling, her chin raised, as it always was when she was afraid of something. With the dementors so close, it wasn't difficult to imagine what had been affecting her.

"Are you mad?" Snape demanded, a faint, betraying crack in his voice. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing out here alone?" His fingers bit into her shoulders.

"I'm glad to see you, too," Hermione said, in a voice tight with a tension that had already begun to ease in his presence. Which showed a touching confidence in Severus' abilities, because realistically nothing but a strong Patronus worked against the dementors and she had been too wary of drawing attention to herself to try it. "I know I shouldn't have come out here but - "

"You're right there," he said, releasing her and stepping back from temptation. "No one is supposed to be out after dark."

"And I won't make a habit of it. I've been trying to see you for what felt like hours. But first Professor McGonagall caught me and talked for ages, and by the time I got back to the meeting room you were just letting in Professor Lupin. It was already dark and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to see you before Voldemort summoned you. So it seemed sensible to come out here and wait for you by the gates." With Severus so comfortingly close, the morbid, dementor-induced terrors were melting away. But it had been more difficult than she had anticipated to stay in position, every whisper of a sun-dried leaf becoming a dementor creeping up behind her to touch her with a scaly hand.


"I've never heard your voice go that high before," Hermione said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

He stared at her with sudden hauteur. "Don't confuse me with Ron or Harry," he said coldly. "There's nothing remotely humorous about what you've done. You risked - They could..." Snape exhaled unsteadily and ran a hand back over his hair. "The risks you take scare me to death," he muttered, sounding more at a loss than she could ever remember hearing.

Hermione blinked. It had never occurred to her that he might worry about her, particularly given that she was safely tucked inside Hogwarts while he had to face Voldemort.

"Oh," she said blankly. "I didn't mean to worry you. But there's no need. Truly," she assured him earnestly. "The grounds are so strongly warded that even this many dementors won't get in this time. It was just my over-active imagination playing tricks. Besides, I've been so miserable since I was such a bitch to you that I've' probably depressed the dementors.

"I was terrified I might miss you," she added, achingly conscious of the warmth of his body so temptingly close to hers. But he couldn't afford the distraction - any distraction. "I wanted you to be certain about my feelings for you. You shouldn't have anything on your mind when you go to Voldemort except doing your job and coming home safely."

Snape opened his mouth to attempt to respond but the words wouldn't come, emotions welling to the surface beyond his ability to trust his control. "I - um - " He made an unconsciously helpless gesture.

"I know," she said, her palm on his chest, as if to reassure herself he really was here. "I wanted to kill Malfoy and instead I took it out on you. You shouldn't let me do that," Hermione added severely.

For the life of him Snape couldn't subdue his grin. "No. Though I'd welcome a few suggestions about how to stop you." Impatient, because he could see little beyond the pale blur of her face, he performed a privacy charm to ensure they wouldn't be seen or heard, before a murmured Lumos produced a soft, golden glow from the tip of his wand, bathing their faces in light.

Because he was on his way to Voldemort, Snape had already removed the Appearance Detracting Charm; without its blurring distraction the toll the last twenty six consecutive nights at Voldemort's side had taken on him were all too apparent. His gaunt face was all lines and shadows and his eyes seemed old beyond his years.

"You look terrible," Hermione whispered, Without conscious thought she reached up and tried to flatten an errant spike of black hair that was sticking straight up in the air. It sprang back up the moment she released it, but at least his hair was growing and he looked less like a prisoner of war. It had already occurred to her that Voldemort couldn't have assaulted him again because Severus hadn't suffered another allergic reaction; not that it stopped her worrying.

Far from taking offence, his mouth twitched. "Not what I was hoping to hear," he said blandly, watching her lick her fingers before rubbing them over his hair. He thought the better of asking what she was doing.

"Don't joke," said Hermione, her eyes searching his face. "Not about that. You must get some more sleep. You need all your wits about you for the interrogations. I am sorry for the mess I made of things earlier. You warned me how hard it would be. And you haven't even said 'I told you so.'"

"I've been waiting to get a word in edgeways."

Hermione looked resigned. "I know you were joking - I hope you were joking - but there's an element of truth to what you said all the same. I always talk too much when I'm nervous, and until you got here I was. Nervous, I mean. You know I didn't mean what I said to you earlier?" she added with a trace of anxiety.

"These are impossible times for everyone," said Snape, yet to reach the stage where he was prepared to reveal just how emotionally needy he was. It wasn't her he had doubted, only himself.

"My goodness. That's untypically forgiving of you. I must have the wrong wizard."

"You could just be wearing me down," he pointed out, the tension in his shoulders easing as he continued to relax in her astringent company.

"Not you," said Hermione with confidence, before her tone became serious. "I know I've hardly proved myself in recent days, but you can trust me."

He gave her a quizzical look. "To do what? I know," he added a beat later. "And I do. Have for some time, in fact." He sounded mildly pained, as if he couldn't quite account for this aberrant behaviour on his part. No one had ever looked at him in quite this way before, or put his welfare above even their own. It had so disconcerted him that it had taken him a moment before he could think what to say - not what he really wanted to, but then what he really wanted wasn't a lengthy chat in a wood, surrounded by dementors. He tried to ignore the intensifying throb of pain from his arm.

Sometimes, when she couldn't sleep, Hermione worried whether she had it in her to interest such a complex man, beyond the obvious physical chemistry that existed between them. But listening to him now, seeing the odd, lost look on his face before he thought to conceal it, it occurred to her that his needs were the same as hers - he just wasn't used to admitting the fact, even to himself. She'd been lucky enough to be raised in a secure and loving environment, and so had been slow to learn the penalties of trusting too readily. Where Severus was concerned she suspected that the reverse was true. To be given his trust was a gift beyond price, although even to hint as much would result in him verbally cutting her off at the knees.

"How very Gryffindor of you," she said.

His mouth quirked appreciatively. "It must be your pernicious influence."

"I'd like to think so."

"Speaking of influence. That hex March taught you - "

"Oh, I didn't learn it from him," Hermione said blithely. "Madam Hooch said every woman should have a few defences up her sleeve."

"I should have spotted Freyja's touch. And she's right. When there's time, I'll teach you others," Snape added, trying to concentrate. Hermione was wearing that pretty voile dress which gave such a splendid view of the freckled tops of her breasts. His senses swimming with her, he gave an audible swallow, surprised - and relieved - to discover he still had the energy to respond to her.

"I must go," he croaked.

"I know." Reluctant to see him go to Voldemort, her fingers curled in the limp fabric of his lawn shirt.

The insistent pain was demanding more of his attention with each second that he delayed - the Dark Lord had never been known for his patience - and yet he couldn't tear himself away.

Hermione winced when she saw him flinch, and realised what he had been trying to hide from her. "Don't waste your energy worrying about me. I won't let Malfoy get to me again. Although only because you can't afford the distraction," she added, with a realism which made him smile, before his expression became more intent.

"Your clash with Malfoy could prove useful, in a minor way. If anyone asks where you learnt that hex, hint that it isn't just the Boy Who Lives who has skills beyond his years. Malfoy has a well-developed sense of self-preservation - and there isn't a wizard alive who'll risk a threat to his genitals. It will have the added benefit that the news will get back to his father. Don't overplay this. Subtlety is everything. Do I make myself clear?"

Far from looking cowed, Hermione just looked amused. "We're going to have to work on this dictatorial side of yours. There again, mum's side of the family have always produced managing women. Don't snort like that, I made you a gift of it. I'll be subtlety itself," she promised, his smile making her overly aware of her own body - and his power over it, and her. She wasn't sure she liked the lack of control which arose when her body decided to make decisions for her.

"That has an optimistic ring to it. I have to go," he added flatly, and the change in him made her want to kill Voldemort. She had never let herself dwell on how much Severus must dread this moment every day, but it was there, starkly engraved on the lines and angles of his face.

"Yes," she said, with not a hint of that protective rage in her voice. "Keep safe. I've found some wonderful quotations I want to use on you - all by Lakmer the Tuneful," she added.

There were so many things he wanted to say, instead he just cupped the side of her face, his thumb caressing the tender skin behind her ear. "Lakmer the Tuneful," he scoffed.

Hermione turned her head so that she could nuzzle his inner wrist, but she had the sense to keep her voice brisk and unsentimental. "So I lied. Here's a thought for you to ponder for our future. He that will enter into paradise must have a good key."

Snape was surprised into a huff of amusement.

"Not that I have any worries on that score," added Hermione. If she could do nothing else for him, she could offer support and play the court jester - a reminder that there was a life beyond the horror of his current existence.

"Modesty forbids that I... This is a most improper conversation. Go back to the castle. Now," Snape added with a trace of exasperation. "I'm not leaving until I know you're safe inside and I'd rather not have to escort you back."

Hermione gave a peculiar grimace, captured his face between her hands and kissed him once, hard on the mouth, before running all the way back to Hogwarts. She found the discipline not to look behind her before she went inside the castle and closed the door.

"Ah, Miss Granger. There are things we need to discuss," said Dumbledore from behind her, making her jump. "Follow me."


He that will enter into paradise must have a good key.

George Herbert: Outlandish Proverbs

Although whether Herbert would ever have thought of attributing Hermione's meaning to the quotation is another matter .

Many thanks to all those who've reviewed or written to me. Because of computer problems, I've had less than two weeks on line since mid-December. I now have a third-hand hard drive in my ancient computer, and a magnificent 32 RAM, which means everything takes a *long* time, presuming I can load a site in the first place. I'm slowly catching up on a backlog of mail but have no way of knowing if any got lost.