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 23

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

Falling Further In began life in January 2002, so obviously the events of Order of the Phoenix never took place in this universe. FFI will continue to ignore changes in canon, while trying to

maintain the integrity of its own universe.


Happily anticipating even more Snape-centric fan fiction after reading Order of the Phoenix. Commiserations to anyone who is unable to read it yet - it's worth the wait.


Turning from the huge main doors, which had locked and bolted themselves with a series of ominous sounding 'clunks', it took no more than a glance at Dumbledore's unsmiling face for Hermione to be reduced to the status of a guilty first year.

"I thought we had reached an understanding. I was obviously too optimistic," Dumbledore said, a faint but unmistakable bite to his quiet voice. "I need to talk to you, but in a less public place. We'll adjourn to the meeting room, where I can be certain we won't be disturbed." He crossed the vastness of the entrance hall, leaving Hermione trailing in his wake as they headed up the main staircase.

"Evening, sir," called a cheerful voice from the landing above them. "May I?" Oblivious to subtleties in the atmosphere, Colin Creevey gestured with his camera.

"Not now," said Dumbledore, as he drew level with the boy. "Shouldn't you be in your Common Room?"

"I'm on my way there now, sir. Professor Sprout asked me to take some photographs of the Nerys Lilies so she could locate the Chameleon Beetles that have been eating them. The beetles may be able to deceive our eyes but the camera wasn't fooled," said Colin proudly. "It saw straight through their camouflage. Professor Sprout was ever so pleased and..."

Hermione's head rose. This probably wasn't what Muggles had in mind when they said 'the camera never lies'. She had never given the properties of a magical camera a thought, although it explained the less-than-flattering photographs that appeared of a lot of people - except Gilderoy Lockhart, of course.

"I suppose that camera can see through any disguise?" she asked, supremely casual.

Dumbledore's expression sharpened.

Creevey nodded eagerly. "You bet. The girls won't let me photograph them any more because with this new Veritas lens the camera sees through most of their make-up. I bet it could even see through an Invisibility Cloak - only I can't test that theory as I don't know anyone who has one," he added sadly.

"I've heard they're very rare," sympathised Hermione, her hands sweating. The only wonder was that Colin had never in the past taken photographs of Filch or Severus. Worse than that, both Black and Snape risked discovery - and in Black's case it could result in his facing the dementor's Kiss.

"Indeed they are," said Dumbledore. "Colin," he added, in the smooth tones of a man about to sell something that didn't belong to him. "About your camera..."

It took him only a couple of minutes to take Creevey into his 'confidence', with a story so preposterous but told with such conviction that Hermione almost believed it herself. Colin, of course, was thrilled to be 'working' undercover for the headmaster; sworn to secrecy, he went off virtually glowing with pride. Taken aback by the fluency with which Dumbledore had spun his tale, Hermione was making some mental readjustments.

"Well," said Dumbledore, as he tucked the camera in a pocket of his purple and orange robe.

"I've never noticed anyone else with a camera," said Hermione, "but we should check. Without drawing attention to it. And Quinapalus should be warned of the possible danger."

"I'll do so tomorrow," said Dumbledore.

He summoned a staircase Hermione had never seen before, which brought them to the end of the corridor housing the quarters she had used during the summer holidays. The door had barely closed behind them when Dumbledore began his attack, made all the worse because his voice retained its usual moderate, kindly tone.

"I was under the impression that you understood there can be no 'relationship' with Professor Snape. I imagine the meeting this evening was your doing?"

Hermione nodded.

"I thought as much. Having given his word, Severus will keep it - he guards his honour ferociously. You must know that he is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted," Dumbledore added, changing tack. "These weeks at Voldemort's side, conducting interrogations, have taken their toll of him in every conceivable way - he's more emotionally vulnerable than I have ever known him. Small wonder if he should fancy himself 'in love'. But surely you can understand that when this crisis is over and he no longer needs any diversion... My dear, what of you when his 'feelings' for you fade away?"

His direct gaze left Hermione with no hiding place. Her back to the door she had just closed, her clenched hands concealed by the folds of her robes, she counted silently to fourteen; even then, when she spoke, her voice sounded tight and unfamiliar.

"Some relationships fade away, others grow stronger. No one can know which it will be. It's a leap of faith - or desperation. Wizards in love can't be much different from Muggles - except Wizards don't have as many of the Muggle hang-ups about sex and its various permutations."

"So you don't object to being Severus' emotional crutch?" persisted Dumbledore, in the same kind, quiet voice that felt as if it was flaying her nerves bare.

"My only objection is to having my emotions picked over by a third party," she said, in a voice that was almost steady.

"It's something you'll have to get used to if you intend to continue with this foolishness. Severus is thirty eight years old. He is not an easy man to know - he gives sparingly of himself, when he gives at all. Apart from a break of four years or so he has lived at Hogwarts since he was eleven. To all intents and purposes he has lived in a closed community. As far as I am aware until this summer he has enjoyed no intimate relationships of his own seeking during that time - either physical or emotional. Hardly a way of life that encourages emotional maturity or stability."

"Couldn't one could say the same of you?" Hermione queried, so angry that she was shaking.

"You're impertinent!"

"No. I would be impertinent if I questioned you about your relationship with your late wife."

"You go too far, Miss Granger!" Dumbledore warned, an edge to his voice now.

Hermione didn't even flinch. "I haven't even started. The respect in which I hold you does not entitle you to question me in this way. I am a legal adult in both the Muggle and wizarding worlds."

"Of which you've experienced so much."

She had never heard Dumbledore employ sarcasm before, and had not expected it now. Not from him.

"I apologise," he sighed, before she could speak. "You caught me on the raw because you're right. You are an adult. But you're also a young woman, without a family, in my charge."

Disarmed, Hermione relaxed to a degree. "Once they realised what I was - and had come to terms with it as best they could - my parents wanted to ensure that I made informed choices when I came to decide where I would live and work. So they saw to it that I experienced as much of the diversity of the Muggle world as possible. I've also spent most of my Muggle life with adults rather than my peers. Because of that I probably have a better idea than most people my age just how much work goes into making and maintaining a viable relationship. Much as I loved my parents, I was already drifting away from them in so many ways. I'm a witch and this is the world in which I feel truly at home. And in it I am an adult, answerable to no one but my own conscience with regard to who I love."

"I won't deny that you have consistently displayed more maturity than the majority of your peers but..."

Hermione heaved a sigh of impatience. "I'm not going to attempt to convince you of my maturity, it would be absurd to lecture a wizard of your age and stature. But ask any of us who've lost their parents to Voldemort. My 'childhood' ended the day I learnt they had been murdered. As for the topic of Severus' feelings for me - whatever they might be - I'm not prepared to discuss him with anyone. I appreciate the reason for your anxiety about members of staff behaving in an inappropriate manner with their pupils, really I do. Which is why the obvious solution is for me to stop being a pupil. So I resign, or whatever it is I have to do. With effect from today." The wave of adrenaline which had carried her this far vanished as her brain caught up with her tongue; she had just thrown away everything she had worked so hard for. Odd how life had a way of sorting out your priorities, she thought dazedly. She began to feel sick.

Dumbledore eyed her quizzically from over the top of his spectacles, which had slipped down his long nose. "Well," he said. "I confess, I didn't foresee this development."

Hermione sank onto the first available chair. "Me neither," she admitted. "But it's the obvious solution. While I don't want to put you - or Hogwarts - in a difficult position, I want to be free to put Severus first. Someone needs to."

"Ah. You think him hard done by?"

Remembering Granny Hoskins' advice about controlling her temper Hermione counted slowly to ten, got to seventeen and decided to speak anyway. "Over the years I've discovered that people often ask questions to which they already know the answers."

Dumbledore winced. "You really don't like me very much, do you," he said, taking care that the observation should not sound like an accusation.

"You hardly need my approval."

"Yet again I prove your point with my question," he noted, in the same mild tone.

Hermione parted her hands in defeat; talking to Dumbledore was like trying to sculpt fog. "Whatever I might feel about you at any given time, the truth is that I 'like' Severus more. He needs someone on his side, you have to be on everyone's and because of that..."

"He feels betrayed?"

"I wouldn't presume to speak for him. You must know that he would never discuss you in that way with anyone. But it's obvious he holds you in great affection - which makes you one of the select few with the power to hurt him. Whatever there is or isn't between Severus and myself, the last thing he needs is any distraction from the job he has to do. Equally, he needs someone he can be himself with, warts and all. Preferably someone who hasn't known him since he was eleven," Hermione added dryly.

"As he as known you," Dumbledore reminded her.

"I hadn't forgotten. But he isn't just Snape-the-bastard from the classroom and I don't have a crush on 'teacher'."

"It's a large part of who he is."

"Perhaps I see a different set of defences from you," said Hermione, shrugging. "I had assumed that because he's a Potions Master potions would be his only interest but this summer, listening to him talking with Professor Flitwick, I began to understand just how much the disciplines interlock and overlap and the breadth of his interests. His mind is...extraordinary - and totally wasted on the junior forms," she added, looking so severe that Dumbledore almost apologised for his staffing arrangements.

"Excellence is never wasted. We all thrive best when challenged," he said.

"Oh, he's certainly a challenge," said Hermione, turning Dumbledore's meaning around. "But whatever might happen, life with him could never be boring."

Despite himself, Dumbledore smiled. "No," he conceded.

In the surprisingly comfortable silence which followed, light dawned for Hermione as she realised what was troubling Dumbledore the most.

"Look, if you're concerned that we'll be..." With the best will in the world she couldn't bring herself to talk about sex with Albus Dumbledore. "If you're worried because you think I'm going to throw myself at him, crying 'Take me, I'm yours!', please stop. There wouldn't be any point. He can barely stay awake, never mind..." She trailed off into silence but managed to keep looking him in the eye.

"No," said Dumbledore, looking faintly amused. "I don't suppose he could. Though it never does to give Severus a challenge. Um," he rubbed his ear. "I'm not so old that I've forgotten the temptations of... Well, I doubt if either of us want to discuss those. But you should know, this is the only time Severus has ever given me his word of honour about anything. It isn't something he takes at all lightly."

It took Hermione a moment to process what she was actually being told. "Then he takes me that seriously," she said, tension seeping away with the doubts Dumbledore had raised.

Dumbledore sighed irritably. "That would be the ego-centric way of looking at it, yes. Of course he does," he added, against his better judgment. "Truth be told, my main concern is for him, not you."

Hermione beamed at him. "Then we're in agreement."

His head slightly cocked, Dumbledore was eyeing her thoughtfully. "I don't believe I ever really knew you at all, Miss Granger."

"Why should you," she said, without rancour. "You established I could be trusted and that I was bright enough to be of use to Harry in his fight against Voldemort. The fact I was something of a social misfit, bossy, an over-achiever and inclined to gabble when nervous wasn't so important."

"If only everyone was as clear-headed as you," he murmured dryly.

Hermione decided to annoy him and take it as a compliment. "Thank you, Headmaster. Thinking is what I do best."

He threw up his hands. "I'm going to cry defeat now, so we can both relax. If you're serious about leaving school, what about your N.E.W.T.s?"

Hermione shrugged. "I could pass them tomorrow - if not with the sort of grade I could expect next summer. But if I've learnt nothing else I've discovered that there are more important things than exam results. Leaving Hogwarts won't stop me from studying."

"I doubt if anything could do that," he said, with obvious affection. "You will, of course, stay at Hogwarts, whatever happens. I have no intention of suffering Messrs Potter and Weasley rampaging through my office - and I don't even want to contemplate the reactions of Minerva and Severus if I were to cast you out into the cold world. Not least because, as a close friend of Harry's, you are a prime target for Voldemort's malice. Finding you work won't be a problem. The staff members within the Inner Circle are already working at full-stretch. You can be of assistance to them in many ways."

Before she could attempt to respond a house elf popped into view and swallowed whatever it had been about to say when it noticed her.

"You may speak freely in front of Miss Granger," said Dumbledore.

"The Minister of Magic is wanting an urgent Floo conference 'at once!'" it quoted, wringing its hands in an apologetic fashion.

"I'll be there in a few seconds. Miss Granger, we need to talk further. May I return here after I've spoken to Cornelius Fudge?"

Hermione blinked.

"These are your quarters, my dear. For as long as you stay at Hogwarts. In fact Lippy can organise the transfer of your belongings from the dormitory. Lippy, will you also see to it that Miss Granger eats enough to make up for the meal she missed this evening?" Dumbledore tossed a handful of Floo powder into the flames, said 'My office!" and was gone.

Hermione stared down at the determined face of the house elf and surrendered without a fight, eating everything that was set in front of her.

Hermione was sending off an owl when Dumbledore returned, a couple of hours later.

"I hope you don't mind me using a school owl but I needed to contact Mr Frayne immediately. Piecing together information on the puzzle board... Could you call a meeting of the Inner Circle?" she said, turning back from fastening the window.

"Of course, but what has upset you so?"

"Given that about twenty five per cent of pupils come from Muggle backgrounds, it's astonishing that the wizarding world has remained so ignorant of Muggle life - and that includes Mr Weasley, who's in charge of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. It's as if wizards have some inbuilt block which prevents them from grasping the simplest facts about Muggle life. That plan of Voldemort's to inherit the estates of the Muggles he murders, for instance. He must have forgotten everything he ever knew about Muggles if he thinks that crackpot plan will make him rich. Muggle probate - "

Hermione stopped and grimaced. "Oh, you wouldn't understand any more than Severus or Voldemort. Muggle inheritance law is nothing like wizard law. I wouldn't know anything about it myself except that Mr Frayne explained the differences to me before he began work on my parents' estate. Muggles can leave their money to any individual or organisation they want - although there are contingencies for when they die intestate. That's not important," she amended, realising she was digressing. "When Voldemort discovers his scheme has failed, the fallout could kill Severus. We need a contingency plan - preferably one in which Malfoy - or Pettigrew - gets the blame. Headmaster?" she added, after seconds went by without a response from him.

"What was that? Oh, yes. With you as our Muggle expert we should get on much better," said Dumbledore absently. "I'll ensure you have a couple of fast, strong owls at your disposal."

"A Muggle machine called a computer would be more useful. And access to the Internet by someone who knows their way around it. I know electricity doesn't work at Hogwarts but I imagine that's because you won't let it."

"Not me, Hogwarts," said Dumbledore. He looked pale and drawn and Hermione had the increasing sense that little of his attention was given to their conversation. "The Inner Circle has a contingency fund upon which it can draw. Peter Frayne understands more about our current situation than most Muggles and has pledged himself to help our cause in any way he can. Ask him to get this compacter and eklectricity. There's no point my pretending I understand much about the Muggle way of doing things. As for the puzzle board, I confess, I haven't spared it any time."

"Which presumably is why no one thought it was worth telling me that Percy Weasley is a Death Eater." There was a brittle edge to Hermione's voice; the discovery had shaken her to her core. If Percy could be so stupid... What guarantee was there that Ron won't decide to prove himself by single-handedly taking on Voldemort?

"That information shouldn't be there," said Dumbledore, after a worrying time lapse. "Severus was of the view that the information should not be shared amongst the other members of the Inner Circle - or the rest of the Weasleys and I concurred."

"That's absurd! What if one of the Weasleys tells Percy something vital to our cause? Just because Severus saw sense and came to you there's no guarantee Percy will, whether he's secretly working for us, or against us. And another thing, the information about Harry having the blood of all four Founders of Hogwarts in his veins... Won't Voldemort have it too, given that he took some of Harry's blood? And these are only the things I had a chance to read while you were gone. There's bound to be more missing information that people have forgotten to pass on because they take it for granted. You must call another meeting and order everyone to make time to read every scrap of information on the puzzle board.

"I know everyone is tired," Hermione added passionately. "I know everyone is busy. But if we don't find time to pool our information properly it could cost lives. Or the war itself."

"Very well," said Dumbledore absently. "Don't make any announcements about leaving school yet, if you please. Now what?" he added, on finding Hermione crouched in front of him.

"What did you mean when you said Hogwarts wouldn't allow electricity to be used? Headmaster?" she added sharply, when she realised his gaze was unfocussed. "Are you feeling all right?" It was clear that he wasn't.

Very pale and sweating, Dumbledore blinked and slowly raised his head. His skin looked as fragile as crumpled tissue paper. "I'm sorry, my dear. The demands on my attention are always greatest in the autumn term. This year it seems to be taking Hogwarts - and me - longer than normal to adjust." He took a Muggle sherbert lemon from the bag in his pocket and crunched it vigorously.

"Don't move, I'll get Madam Pomfrey," said Hermione.

Much as she loathed the Floo, she was grateful for it now, the mediwitch was at Dumbledore's side in under a minute. His head against the high back of the chair he was occupying, a little colour had returned to his face but his thin-fleshed hands were visibly unsteady.

"Don't look so worried, my dears. I neglected to eat lunch - or dinner," he added, after a moment's reflection. "But the sugar in these Muggle sweets works faster than anything our wizard confectionery can offer."

"Oh, Albus, really" said Madam Pomfrey with irritation. "How many times do I have to remind you - you're not a hundred any more. You must take better care of yourself."

"Don't fuss, Poppy. It wasn't my idea to call you." He gave Hermione a look of reproach.

"That much I believe. Thank goodness Hermione has more sense. Eat this medichocolate. Only you would be arrogant enough to think you can do so many jobs at once - between being headmaster, dealing with Fudge, Lucius Malfoy, the dementors and acting as Warden, it's a wonder you aren't speaking in tongues."

"Give me time," he said wryly. "I came close to it while trying to maintain the link when I was removed as headmaster."

"Warden? What do you mean by Warden?" asked Hermione. "Is it important?"

"Important?" echoed Madam Pomfrey, before she thanked the house elf who had brought Dumbledore's meal. "Without a Warden there would be no Hogwarts. The four Founders created Hogwarts by magic, and it's magic that holds it together, and magic that defends it."

"But the wards you all expend so much energy maintaining..."

"Are necessary because I'm only acting Warden - and not as young as I was," said Dumbledore, in between mouthfuls of a light meal of Lemon Sole, creamed spinach and tiny new potatoes.

"Can't anyone else take over the burden? Or at least help you?" asked Hermione.

"Unfortunately it doesn't work in that way," said Dumbledore, looking pensive. "The Ministry of Magic and Board of Governors assume that between them they select and appoint the Head of Hogwarts. That's nonsense, of course. In the absence of a true Warden, Hogwarts selects the most compatible candidate. There is only ever one candidate, which rather tarnishes the glow of being appointed."

"Nonsense," said Madam Pomfrey trenchantly. "You were thrilled to pieces. I remember Ceres telling me you were incoherent. We assumed that was from joy at being Warden."

"No, I was babbling like a man who had discovered that I was destined to share my consciousness with a castle, while letting the rest of the world assume I was the true Warden. There hasn't been one Warden for well over three hundred years. Reading between the lines of Hogwarts, A History makes it clear just how many Heads have gone completely mad. I'm afraid poor Dippet had a hard time of it and I fear I wasn't as understanding as I might have been. Until you experience..." Dumbledore gestured vaguely at his head. "It's as if Hogwarts is trying to meld...incorporate... I don't think there is a word to describe the forced union. Suffice to say that it's the most disorienting experience suddenly to find yourself with corbels and buttresses, or to try and comprehend the link with something which -

"I've never been able to decide what Hogwarts is exactly, but it undoubtedly is something. Some entity. Whether the Founders understood the full extent of what they had created, I tend to doubt. They weren't ones to hide their lights under bushels. I suspect Hogwarts has been...evolving over the centuries. From what little information I do have, I gather that for a true Warden the joining is as natural and as effortless as breathing. I confess, there have been occasions when I find the task...wearing."

"Such as the start of the school year," recognised Hermione, her inner Hufflepuff making her feel guilty for being such a bitch to him, even while her Slytherin side pointed out she had been perfectly justified.

"Just so. Even without a true Warden, Hogwarts still protects those who inhabit it but unfortunately subtleties are lost. Without a true Warden Hogwarts can't distinguish between the various sentient creatures. So I'm afraid an animagus, Voldemort when he hid within poor Quirrell's turban, a mountain troll, a first year, or a Basilisk are all one and the same to Hogwarts at the moment. What's that noise?" Dumbledore broke off to ask, as he poured some cream over his treacle tart.

"The sound of Hermione grinding her teeth," said Madam Pomfrey dryly. "Feel free to speak your mind, my dear. It's the only way with Albus. Not that he ever takes any notice, of course."

"It's just... You'd drive a saint to drink, you impossible bloody man," exclaimed Hermione, her voice rising. "What's the point of the Inner Circle if you don't tell us any of the most vital information?"

"Kindly remember to whom you're speaking," said Madam Pomfrey, as she poured Hermione some tea. "That would be 'You impossible bloody man, Headmaster.'"

"Poppy," sighed Dumbledore, looking pained.

"Don't 'Poppy' me," she said, her voice cracking with her calm facade. "You complain that Severus doesn't tell you everything but you're even worse than he is! And if you imagine it gives any of us any satisfaction to watch you put yourself through hell when we might be able to help - "

"Merciful heavens. I seem to have upset you both. I forgot to eat today, that's all," said Dumbledore, glancing between Hermione and Madam Pomfrey. "I'm afraid I have been spreading myself too thinly."

He looked so contrite that the mediwitch leant over and kissed his cheek. "Impossible," she said fondly.

"Yes," said Hermione. "At least Severus lets you shout at him for a bit longer." She was too preoccupied to notice the sharp look Madam Pomfrey gave her.

"I never really paid any attention to the four Founders," mused Hermione. "Except for that bit with the sword and the Parseltongue the year before last, when Neville helped Harry foil Voldemort's plot. I might start doing some reading in some of the less obvious places. In my spare time," she added earnestly.

"Please do," said Dumbledore. "If anyone can find the information, you can. Madam Pince is a fine woman but..." He trailed off into silence.

"Oh, Albus," said Poppy, exasperated. "Hermione isn't going to have vapours at the idea that members of staff were young once. "Verbascum Pince had an affair with Tom Riddle while they were in the Lower Sixth. She's a Slytherin, of course. And a pure blood."

"I'm sure Mr Riddle wouldn't have it any other way," said Hermione. "So he's bisexual?"

"He's a leech," said Madam Pomfrey in a hard voice. "Only in those days he was more subtle about it. Verbascum was head and shoulders above the rest of her year. He stole her research, undermined her confidence and... She was vivid and vital and the intelligence shone out of her. I loathed her, of course. But by the time he'd finished with her she was a dried-up husk. She's never recovered from whatever he did to her mind. She wasn't the only one. He's a parasite who sucked the marrow from everyone he's ever drawn in. Dipat Patel, Niobe Finch... The list of those he used is a long one."

"Um." Hermione rubbed the back of her neck as she tried to think of a tactful way to frame the question. "Headmaster, I know you can perform some check on Severus - to make sure he isn't under the Imperius Curse. Can you do the same for Madam Pince?"

"Oh, there's no need for that. Surely?" Madam Pomfrey glanced at Dumbledore, who was sipping some strong coffee.

"Poor Verbascum. I fear that most of us are in danger of forgetting her very existence," said Dumbledore. "Rest assured, Miss Granger. I will check."


"Tomorrow," confirmed Dumbledore meekly.

"Does Voldemort know? About the link between the Warden and Hogwarts, I mean?" Hermione thought to ask.

"Yes," said Dumbledore, looking better by the second now he had eaten. "It's just that he believes I'm the genuine article. It's that belief rather than our puny defences which have kept him from attacking Hogwarts itself. Even he won't risk the castle turning on him."

"How can you be so sure?"


"Oh." Hermione accepted that without question. "So how do we find the real Warden?" she added, with the air of one rolling up her sleeves ready for action.

"I wish I knew," said Dumbledore in heartfelt tones. "There's no helpful literature on the subject, and if Hogwarts knows it hasn't told me. Or perhaps it has and I've just been too stupid to understand."

"I don't know if you were aware of it, but the protective wards in the corridors can't be as strong as usual. I managed to hex Draco Malfoy."

"So I heard," said Dumbledore. "Please don't do so again. He has some difficult choices to face."

"You don't seriously imagine he won't follow in Daddy' s footsteps?" Hermione didn't try to hide her contempt for Malfoy.

Dumbledore cocked his head. "If only life was so cut and dried. Did Severus teach you that hex?"

"No. Madam Hooch."

Dumbledore's eyes lit up. "Ah. Yes. I should have identified her direct approach to a problem. In some respects you and she are much alike. With regard to the wards in the corridors... It isn't their power which has diminished, simply that you have come fully into yours. You're a powerful witch, my dear. Which brings its own responsibilities. This is the term that will see the majority of the Upper Sixth discover their true capabilities. Yet another reason both for caution - and celebration. I'll call the Inner Circle together tomorrow morning. It's a Saturday, so we should have time for what will no doubt prove to be a lengthy meeting."

"Then I'll be off to my bed," said Madam Pomfrey, having checked his readings one final time.

"Oh, before you go, Poppy, there are a few other things we should discuss. I know Miss Granger is of age, and your guardianship has officially lapsed, but I thought you might be interested to know that she has resigned as a pupil of Hogwarts," said Dumbledore, giving Hermione a bland glance.

It was only then that Hermione appreciated how greatly she had underestimated him.

Madam Pomfrey tucked her wand away. "Really?" she said, a steely look in her eyes.

Hermione gave Dumbledore a look of reproach and braced herself.

It was already late when Dumbledore and Madam Pomfrey left, and even later by the time Hermione thought to go to bed. She spent most of the rest of the night mentally sifting through the implications behind the dependence of Hogwarts on a Warden. Her sense of the castle sleeping during the summer months hadn't been so fanciful after all. But if a Warden was so vital to the running and defence of Hogwarts, what would happen if the burden of acting as Warden became too much for Dumbledore? Last night he had looked alarmingly frail.

On the other hand, if he could carry that burden at his advanced age, what else might he be capable of if he didn't have Hogwarts weighing him down?

With that to consider, Hermione felt faintly ashamed of her pang of regret whenever she thought of her lost final year of school. While she would be sitting her N.E.W.T.s next week her grades would be no more than average and... There might be more important things to worry about but it was still hard to let go.

Harry and Ron would be told she was leaving to concentrate on her S Levels and work for the Inner Circle, the rest of the school would be told she had left because economic necessity forced her to earn her living. There was even a minuscule salary to lend credence to the tale. And hours of over-seeing detentions and first year marking ahead of her - if she was lucky.

Yawning as she drank the coffee a house elf had brought her, she stared sightlessly out the window. These rooms were her home now, the future a blank page, offering no certainties. For a girl who had once colour coordinated her notes, Hermione found the idea wonderfully liberating, even while it scared her to death. Fortunately there was too much to be done to have time for a panic attack.

The staff having - reluctantly - given up their Saturday morning lie-in, it was only just light when the first of them arrived for the meeting. As the room filled with sleepy, irritable looking people, the house elves set out a long table under the window with everything anyone could possibly want to eat for breakfast.

"Good morning, my dears," said Dumbledore, looking as rested as if he had enjoyed twelve hours sleep and an untroubled life. "Severus returned safely an hour ago. It was a difficult night. Voldemort's mood was such that he even put Pettigrew under the Cruciatus."

"About bloody time," growled Black. "Where is Snape?"

"I asked Harry to tell him to get some sleep while he can. If Severus were at this meeting I should have to Obliviate him - the knowledge that I'm acting Warden only must never fall into Voldemort's hands - and I would rather spare him that. What?" Dumbledore broke off to ask, when he saw the dismay on several faces. Turning to follow the line of their gazes, he saw that Snape stood just inside the room, Harry behind him.

"Harry, you were supposed to tell Professor Snape to rest," said Dumbledore.

Hermione took one look at Harry's expression and understood only too well. Harry had never pretended to like Snape but these flashes of spite were totally out of character.

Harry shrugged. "Too late now."

"Indeed it is," said Flitwick, looking unwontedly stern. "Thanks to you, Severus now faces a Memory Charm."

"I don't see the problem," said Harry dismissively. "Given how quick Snape was to Obliviate Hagrid it can't be a big deal. It might do him some good to feel what it's like."

The room was so quiet when he stopped speaking that for a moment Hermione wondered if she had gone deaf.

"That will do! See me after this meeting," added Dumbledore, stern as he so rarely was.

Harry gave a cursory nod and headed for the table laden with food.

Pale from the emotional drain of a night which had gone from bad to worse, Snape had barely registered Harry's spite. He was still trying to come to terms with the fact that everyone assumed he had known Albus was only acting as Warden. No wonder Albus rated their chances of defeating Voldemort so low, or that he had confessed to despair during the summer holidays. They were fucked. And so was he because it was obvious that while he was trusted, he wasn't trusted enough - and he never had been.

The years falling away, the realisation smarted more than he would have thought possible.

Stranded where he stood, it was a moment before Snape realised that everyone was watching him. He took refuge behind a familiar wall of defence.

"Ah, Gryffindor honour. You must be so proud of him, Minerva."

Her lips tightened but she made no attempt to reply. The look she gave Harry promised him a reckoning.

"Mr Potter, five points from Gryffindor for 'forgetfulness' and a weeks' detention with Professor Pinchbeck," added Snape. He was so tired the necessary bite was absent from his voice.

"Five?" said Harry, who had anticipated a heroic martyrdom for this goading of Snape.

"Behave like a first year and you can expect to be treated like one," said Snape. He evaded the arm Dumbledore had been about to tuck around him and took an armchair on the far edge of the circle.

Hermione noticed only the betraying caution of his movements. In addition to whatever Voldemort may have done to him, thanks to Harry he must suffer a Memory Charm. He'd called them an abomination and stopped Dumbledore from using one on her, while she could do nothing to protect him. Not even from his supposed allies.

Before she could go to him Dumbledore beat her to it.

"What?" said Snape edgily, hating the waves of sympathy being sent his way from the more sentimental members of staff. "Or is there something else you neglected to tell me?" He failed to keep the bitterness from his voice.

Dumbledore blinked as he appreciated the measure of Snape's misapprehension. "Oh really, Severus. I know you're tired but you can't honestly think I would have kept something so vital from you?"

The affection which bled through the reproof compelled Snape to look up. His eyes were bloodshot and heavy-lidded from fatigue. "Then why don't I remember anything about - ? Oh." His scowl deepened.

"It is, after all, the purpose of a Memory Charm," pointed out Dumbledore, patting him on the shoulder. "You were told the truth on the day you were appointed Head of Slytherin. Once you rejoined Voldemort that information was removed from your memory - at your insistence."

"I'm relieved to hear my memory is superior to Potter's."

Dumbledore's smile faded. "Yes," he said heavily. "I had hoped to spare you this meeting - which is likely to be a lengthy one. However, as you are here, I would welcome your participation in the discussions before I have to Obliviate you."

"If you wish. Pettigrew is worried about something," Snape added abruptly. "More than normal, that is. His hair is falling out and he's developed a nervous tic. And I still haven't been able to identify what's causing the stink in the corridors of Voldemort's underground hideaway," he added, with evident frustration.

"You will," said Black abruptly, pausing on his way to the table laden with food. "A nose like yours doesn't miss much."

Snape eyed him without enthusiasm. "I thought it wouldn't be long until we reached the insults."

"That wasn't... I'm sorry," Black added, flicking a glance at Harry, who was eating for two while ignoring everyone around him.

"Then do something about him. No one else can," said Snape.

Black stared at him. "It isn't that simple."

"Acting like a responsible adult rarely is, but you have to begin some time."

"Yes, well. Shall we start?" said Dumbledore hastily.

"Shouldn't Bill be here?" asked Madam Hooch, spreading apricot jam on her croissant with a lavish hand.

"I sent him to Molly and Arthur," said Dumbledore. "Ron, I'm afraid the Burrow was totally destroyed last night. You know what that means?"

His freckles standing out more than usual, Ron straightened his shoulders. "No more gnome tossing? I know what it means," he added soberly. "But I've been a target for years. Can I see mum and dad after the meeting? Only she loved the Burrow and she shouldn't be upset right now."

"Don't you go worrying about Molly. She might have loved her home, but she loves her family a damn sight more," said Madam Pomfrey trenchantly. "She'll be fine, after a good cry."

"Your dad will have lost all his Muggle artifacts," said Hermione. "I wish I'd thought of him before I cleared mum and dad's house." She sat comfortingly close to Ron and gave him a friendly nudge with her shoulder; he would have been mortified if she'd tried to hug him.

"I think half the fun for him is finding them," said Ron. "Thanks," he added automatically, when someone handed him a cup of coffee.

It was Professor McGonagall.

He got to his feet in confusion. "Professor, you shouldn't be waiting on me."

"No, I should be fast asleep," she agreed. "Sit down and make the most of it, Mr Weasley. It won't happen often." But she patted a broad shoulder before she moved away.

The cup Ron held rattled on its saucer until he thought to steady it. "I know all information is to be shared, but Bill doesn't know about Percy yet. Can I be the one to tell him. In private?"

"Tell me what?" asked Bill, throwing his robe in the general direction of a peg before he came to sit beside Madam Hooch. "Mum and Dad send their love and said not to worry." For all his casual tone anger seethed beneath the surface.

"Yes," Dumbledore said to Ron. "I think that would be best. Do it now."

Worrying the skin at the side of her thumb, Hermione watched Ron take his brother out through the far door, which led via a hall to her bathroom and bedroom. She wondered when Ron had grown up without her noticing. Though she had got out of the habit of noticing him back in the fifth year, when he had fancied himself in love with her. There had been a tricky few months, which they had both done their best to forget. But things had never quite returned to the old easy friendship. Until this term. Now it was like finally having the brother she had always wanted; a brother she could rely on. It was just that she had always expected Harry to fill that role.

Harry, who looked at Severus as if he wanted to kill him...

Harry who was powerful enough to do just that.

Both the Weasley brothers looked pale when they returned to the meeting some time later; the sound of raised voices had been clearly audible above all the attempts at polite conversation.

Obviously spoiling for a fight, Bill marched over to where Snape sat in a wing-backed chair. "I have to ask - is there any possibility you were mistaken?"

"None," said Snape, his wand a fingertip away.

With a visible effort Bill refrained from saying anything else, but anger radiated from him when he took a seat next to Professor McGonagall. Ron just looked tired.

The identities of the Death Eaters was the first item to be discussed.

To Hermione's relief Harry made no comment about Percy being a Death Eater, although the unpleasant little smirk he gave made her feel sick. Fortunately Ron and Bill hadn't noticed. Just Mr Black - and Severus.

Concentrating on them, it was a moment before she heard Viktor's name and had to ask for it to be repeated. She tried to equate the intense, shy, Quidditch-mad boy with someone who would join Voldemort, when so much was known of him. Then it occurred to her. Outside of this circle, how many people appreciated just what Voldemort was?

But Viktor...

She realised she was mourning him, as if he were dead - or perhaps it was the fact she had obviously never known him at all. Cold, she moved closer to the fire, oblivious to the concerned looks she was receiving from various quarters.

Dumbledore went through every scrap of information, which was inwardly digested, then discussed by everyone present. The news of Hermione's resignation as a pupil came as a surprise to everyone.

Snape's head shot up, although he relaxed to a degree on hearing the ensuing explanation.

Ron and Harry both came over to sit with her, during one of the short breaks.

"If it's money," began Harry awkwardly, as he fiddled with the cuff of his shirt.

"Will both of you stop looking so worried," Hermione said with exasperation. "I couldn't be happier. I'll be taking my N.E.W.T.s early - next week in fact. And no, Ron, you won't be having the same papers," she anticipated. "Then I can settle down to work with Professor Flitwick on my S Level - and do research for Albus."

"Albus?" said Ron and Harry, almost in unison.

"You heard all the staff invite me to use their first names," Hermione said, feeling no need to mention that she wanted to practise making it sound natural on Ron and Harry first.

"Yes, but...Dumbledore," said Ron.

"McGonagall," added Harry.

"I'm going to really miss you," said Ron, close to reverting to a whine. "Who's going to make us do our homework?"

It was a conversation Hermione could have had in her sleep - and wonderfully reassuring amidst so much change. "If I haven't got you trained after six years, there's no hope for you," she said briskly.

"But we won't see each other," said Harry, still not looking at her.

"We hardly see each now," Hermione pointed out. "What difference does that make to us being friends? Oh, it's starting again." She hurried off to where she had left her quill and parchment.

Ron watched Harry stare at the floor.

"I don't like change," Harry said at last, as if Ron had spoken.

"It doesn't have to be bad. Come on, mate. Back to the grindstone." Getting up, Ron left Harry sitting unnoticed outside the circle.

After lunch, the discussion turned to the dementors.

"Professor Pinchbeck supplied Hermione with the information about Azkaban and the dementors," said Dumbledore. "But we still know so little about them. Remus?"

"All my research has been able to confirm is that they're distantly related to Boggarts," said Lupin. "Dementors don't carry wands, and they don't use any kind of language, so I presume they're legally categorised as beasts but I couldn't find anything to confirm this. The enquiries I made with the appropriate department at the Ministry have been ignored."

"If the dementors are beasts, would Hagrid be of help in destroying them?" asked Professor McGonagall.

"The man who loves Blast-Ended Skrewts?" returned Snape.

"I'll discuss it with him," said Dumbledore.

"Have all parents been officially informed that the Ministry has surrounded Hogwarts with dementors?" asked Ron.

"Not to my knowledge," said Dumbledore.

"Then might it be worth you, as headmaster, writing to every parent. Say that while, obviously, they must have given their consent to the Ministry's action because dementors upset the kids so much, you don't appear to have a signed copy of that consent for your records. With any luck outraged parents will flood the Ministry with complaints and demands for an explanation. Even if it doesn't get rid of the dementors, it will make the Minister think twice. It would help if we could get the Press on our side. Bill can flirt with Rita Skeeter," Ron added casually.

"Thanks a lot," said Bill dryly.

Snape eyed Ron with mild approval. "Not bad," he adjudged. "Sometimes I can almost forget you're a Weasley."

While Harry heard only an insult, Ron was beginning to get Snape's measure. He grinned. "No need to go overboard with the praise."

When others proved more vocal in their approval, Ron realised he couldn't have been looking as becomingly modest as he had intended when Hermione kicked him hard on the ankle.

Dumbledore moved on to the topic of the murder of Filch and his wife.

"Why kill him?" asked Ron suddenly. "Why did Voldemort even know of him? He was a squib and a caretaker."

"I presumed it was because of Majolica," said Dumbledore. "Argus' wife was a powerful witch. While she was a fine animagus, if not the equal of Minerva or Sirius, she taught Muggle studies for some years."

Ron frowned. "Could she have known anything about Voldemort's Muggle years that might help us?"

"If she did, the secret died with her," said Professor McGonagall.

"Who turned her into a cat?" Hermione asked.

"That was her animagus form. We never knew how she came to be trapped in it. Over the years Argus became very bitter when, for all our supposed expertise, none of us could help her," said Dumbledore. "They had only been married eighteen months..."

"So Filch never said anything about the castle or grounds that might give us a lead?" asked Madam Hooch, her disconcerting eyes narrowed.

"None that we know of it would seem," said Dumbledore.

"You taught Transfiguration, didn't you?" said Hermione.

He nodded.

"Are all Transfiguration professors animagi?"

"It's useful to be able to demonstrate what you're talking about," said Professor McGonagall.

"But the headmaster isn't on the Register of Animagi," pursued Hermione.

"Not for this century, no," said Dumbledore. "Try 1867. Yes, I'm an animagus. Although since I have been acting as Warden I have been unable to transfigure."

"Don't you miss it?" blurted out Hermione.

There was a small silence.

"Very much," said Dumbledore finally.

Oblivious to undercurrents, subtle or otherwise, Harry showed his first sign of interest in the proceedings. "So what were you?"

"What else could he be with a name like that," said Professor McGonagall, smiling fondly at Dumbledore. "He was a bumblebee, of course. The most beautiful fat bumblebee."

"No wonder you like sweets," said Hermione. "We'll find you the real Warden," she added with determination.

And because she was looking at Dumbledore with such obvious affection, even Snape refrained from sarcasm.

"You look disappointed, Harry," noted Dumbledore.

"No. It's just...not very..."

"Grand? Heroic? No. But it was fun," said Dumbledore with a trace of wistfulness. "Especially in the springtime..."

Pain wrenching him awake, it took Snape a few seconds to place his surroundings. He was in Hermione's rooms, and she sat on a stool by the fire, carefully not watching him. He must have cried out then. Damn. But a quick check established he hadn't been drooling, which was something. He never surrendered to the vulnerability of sleep unless he was alone, and securely warded. Worse, he must have fallen asleep during the meeting itself because the last thing he remembered was Ceres explaining the binding hex on which she was working.

He tucked his wand back into his sleeve and pressed the heel of his hand to the muscles cramping in his left thigh - as if that ever helped. In the distance he could hear the high whistling snores which betrayed March was close at hand. He wondered whose idea the chaperon had been - his money was on Poppy or Minerva.

By the time the pain ebbed enough to permit more complex thought he was sweating, fatigue like leaden weights pressing on his bones. He shrugged out of his robe, jacket and high-buttoned waistcoat, unfastening the cravat at his throat. The silk of his white shirt clung clammily to his shoulders and back. Behind him he could hear Hermione talking to Lippy. He turned to find the house elf gone and Hermione bringing him a cup of tea.

"I can hear March but I can't see him," Snape said, reseating himself.

Hermione set the cup and saucer on an occasional table. "He's asleep on my bed. He stayed on after the meeting so he can Obliviate you before you go to Voldemort. He refused to do it while you were asleep."

"I'm glad to hear it. Whose idea was that, yours?"

She gave a shamefaced nod. "I thought it would be easier."

"For me?"

"For everyone," she said frankly. "But then I was trying not to think about it." She crouched in front of him, one hand resting just above his knee, as if she needed the reassurance of touch. "You look awful."

Already dreading the Memory Charm, because he could never quite shake off his fear that this time something would go wrong, Snape moved his leg in a surge of irritation, dislodging her hand. "I don't want a nursemaid and I certainly don't need you to wait on me."

Hermione rose to her feet and paused to stare down at him from her advantage of height. "You were under the Cruciatus?"

"As you see."

"Obviously not for long enough to teach you any manners," Hermione said tartly.

Snape blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. You have a vicious tongue but I don't have to put up with it any more. Drink your tea before I give in to the temptation to pour it over you."

Snape was so taken aback that he didn't think of a suitable retort until she had stalked off. While the tea was warmer than he preferred, he drank it without comment as he watched her stalking around the room, tidying discarded parchments and books. From the snap of her boot heels on the portions of uncovered floorboards to the set of her shoulders she was clearly furious.

The flow and swirl of her calf-length skirt distracted him from the way the soft fabric clung to the contours of breast, belly and bottom before the material flared out. He had a suspicion that she might have discovered the same charm he used to control the movement of his academic robes. The warm amber tones flattered her skin and hair, as did the soft light of the room. For someone so pragmatic she had a romantic taste in clothes. And a depth and passion -

He couldn't ever remember seeing her in the trousers many of her peers wore under their robes. There again, until this summer how much notice had he paid to her physical presence? Her intellect had always commanded attention, even if he had misinterpreted what drove her.

What was he thinking? Nearly twenty years of impotence and bitterness were hardly good training for sustaining any kind of a relationship.

Still pointedly ignoring him, Hermione slammed down Leontine Dreary's groundbreaking Treatise of 1486 on the creation of Charms and sat at the table, with her back to him. She was sulking.

Snape set his cup down with a decided clink. Typical woman. He was the injured party and she was sulking.

He couldn't see her face from this angle, just her narrow shoulders and defined waist, both of which served to emphasise the fullness of breast and hip, just as her short hair revealed her pretty neck and small, plump earlobes.

He should leave. Now. He'd hardly seen anything of his Seniors in this, a vital year for all of them, with decisions to be made that could blight their lives. The one advantage to her having left school was that it would keep her a safe distance from Draco. Malfoy would be looking to revenge himself for the way she had humiliated him and while he wasn't particularly inventive, he was tenacious. That aside, Albus and Minerva should have stopped her. Although in all fairness it was difficult to imagine anyone talking Hermione out of anything she had set her mind on.

Rain thumped against the windows as gusts of wind swirled around the courtyard outside. The scent of wood smoke intensified. Even Albus Dumbledore hadn't found a way to stop the chimneys from smoking.

His growling stomach made him take out the pocket watch which had been a present from Albus some years ago - although quite why everyone should assume that just because he was a Slytherin he liked snakes was a mystery. Instead of the usual vivid green serpent who barely found the energy to tell him the time of day, there was a mass of slender multi-hued snakes. One final slither separated them into the message 'Fourteen minutes to kissing Hermione'. Only when he had turned on the seat of the chair to slip the watch back into the pocket of his discarded waistcoat did he realise what he had just read. He took out the watch again, opening the front casing so fast that he made the serpent jump. 'Ten hours to breakfast.'

Damn, it was later than he'd thought. He must have slept for hours.

His gaze returned to the stiff set of Hermione's shoulders. He really should leave, but he knew he wasn't going to, not until he was summoned. He twitched straight the soft cuffs of his shirt and went over to where she sat.

She continued to pretend to be reading.

"I may have been a little abrupt," he said stiffly. "I meant only that you shouldn't have to wait on me. We have house elves for that."

The quill she was gripping twitched. "That's all right. You bought me clothes, so I'm free."


"Our shopping trip in London?" she prompted. "You paid for the underwear I'm wearing. And I still can't pay you back."

He was so distracted that he almost asked which set, before the bitterness in her voice penetrated. "That doesn't matter."

She rounded on him then. "It does to me."

He nodded. "Yes. I'm not expressing myself very well today. It isn't too late to change your mind. You may have resigned but..."

"That's not a problem."

"Of course it is."

As his tall figure loomed over her, Hermione glared up at him. She swallowed her first retort when she saw he was fidgeting slightly - a sure sign he wasn't as confident as he wanted to appear. Ron and Harry were rotten at apologising when they were in the wrong too. Maybe it was a male thing.

And Severus was very male.

They were in such close proximity that she was conscious of the warmth of his body, achingly conscious of the pull of his physical presence. He wore only a white shirt and close-fitting black trousers. Instead of the fine lawn material of summer, his white shirt was silk and it clung and fluttered as he breathed, offering disconcerting reminders of the body it housed. A couple of buttons had slipped free, exposing a small, tantalising patch of flesh just below his navel. She resisted the temptation to place her mouth to the spot.

"Did you resign because of me?" Snape demanded into the heady silence.

"Modesty isn't your strong point, is it?" she retorted, aching for him.

"I'm not that vain. And will you put that bloody quill down before you break it!"

He moved away a little and it became possible to think again. "Not everything is about you," said Hermione, just before the quill snapped under the pressure she had been exerting.

While Snape didn't say 'I told you so' his expression spoke for him. Hermione muttered a Cleansing Charm, although there was still a trace of indigo around one nail when she had finished.

"You still haven't answered me," said Snape, sinking onto one of the high-backed wooden chairs close to where she sat. "Did you resign because of me?"

The unexpected gentleness of his voice was her undoing. "Look," said Hermione, belligerent to hide the fact tears weren't far behind, "you don't have to panic. I don't expect anything from you. I'm not your responsibility."

Snape audibly exhaled and leant forward to take both her hands in a loose grasp. Gently turning her writing hand over, he kissed the palm before setting her hands on the table again.

"I see things a little differently," he said with a slow deliberation that betrayed his fatigue. "And I would do so whatever feelings there might be between us. No matter how it might appear to our pupils, responsibility comes with the job of teaching at Hogwarts." He gave the faintest of smiles. "The trick is not to let it show."

"So you'd be as concerned for Neville Longbottom, or Goyle?"

There was an abrupt silence.

"I was generalising," said Snape coldly. "My point is that you shouldn't throw away your last - best - year from some misguided sense of duty. Whether or not you're a pupil won't affect... We won't become lovers."

"Odd, I thought we already were. Except for the having sex part, of course." Hermione's voice was tart as a lemon. "You might have sounded a lot more convincing if you hadn't been staring at my breasts."

Snape looked pained.

"And it's nice to know you imagine you're going to be making all my decisions for me," continued Hermione.

Snape briefly closed his eyes. "I'm not handling this - "

"I don't require 'handling'. Well, not the sense you mean. As for when we become lovers, rest assured, I intend to have a say in that."

From her current expression he'd probably be waiting until sometime after the next Millennium.

"I'm too tired to chose my words as carefully as I should," he admitted, because he didn't seem to have another option. "You are, undoubtedly, your own woman. It's one of the reasons I... But I made Albus a promise," he amended hastily. "I gave him my word of honour."

"About what exactly?" asked Hermione.

"That we wouldn't become lovers until Harry has left school."

"I might have known it would be about Harry," she said, seconds before her eyes narrowed with concentrated ferocity. "The devious old bastard. And he lied."

"Albus does that more than you might expect," said Snape, not without sympathy. "What about this time?"

"He told me he hadn't foreseen me wanting to resign from school, but he must have known I would all along. Otherwise he would have made you word that ridiculous promise differently. Though why us having sex..." Hermione stopped.

"It would matter," said Snape. "More than... It would matter." Finding that he was leaning towards her, he straightened but couldn't bring himself to withdraw completely. "So, you're to take your N.E.W.T.s next week," he said briskly. "Sitting them seven months early is unlikely to present you with any problems." A frown drew his eyebrows together. "Who set the Potions exam?"

"As all the papers will be compiled from a mixture of questions asked in previous years, I imagine you did. Albus - "

"You're on first name terms?"

"He said to call him 'Albus'," said Hermione defensively.

"I'm sure he did. Just as I'm equally sure he expected it to take you a year or so before you managed to make it sound natural." While Snape's tone was dry, something about his eyes betrayed his amusement.

Their focus on each other, they didn't notice the house elf who was clearing away the books and parchments before setting the table. The beguiling scent of food gave them a new sensory focus, reducing the intensity which had been building between them.

"You're probably right," admitted Hermione, discovering how hungry she was only as she began to eat. "He is the most infuriating - "

Snape failed to subdue a grin. "You really are beginning to get his measure, aren't you. Will he be marking your Potions paper himself, or getting someone from the Ministry?"

"Can we not think about that?" begged Hermione. "I mean, the idea that the wizard who discovered the twelve uses of dragon blood might be reading my Potions essay..."

"You worry about me first," Snape advised her. "I'll make sure Albus does it. After I've had a word with him about you. He doesn't know you require to be judged by a higher standard."

Hermione's jaw sagged. "You mean you penalise me for being good?"

"Of course I do. Think about it. How many of your classes had stopped being a challenge by last year? I've no intention of allowing you - or a few others - to become complacent, or weighed down by the mediocrity of your classmates."

"But - but - " Pink-cheeked and spluttering, Hermione glared at him. "That's outrageous."

"I do my best," said Snape, finishing his meal with every appearance of enjoyment.

Despite herself, Hermione smiled. "You really are a bastard," she said fondly. "And I admit, I've never been bored in Potions. I couldn't go back to school though. While I expect to spend the rest of my life learning, I'll get on faster outside the classroom. I grew up last summer and it wasn't just because I began to see you differently. I didn't fit any more. The things that used to matter so much stopped seeming important. I'll have enough spare time to be of real use to the Inner Circle. And, I hope, you."

The smile faded from Snape's eyes, to be replaced by a vast wariness. "Hermione..."

"I know, I know. Back to business," she said without resentment.

The small lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes deepened as he smiled again. "It would be best," he said, his obvious reluctance sweetening the pill.

"Um. About Harry..."

"Do you really think it would be a good idea for us to try and discuss your best friend?" asked Snape quizzically.

Hermione sighed. "I suppose you're right."

"Which is something I don't hear nearly often enough." The relief he couldn't disguise betrayed him.

Not for the first time, it occurred to Hermione that some subjects were always going to be difficult for them to discuss. As she couldn't do anything about that now, she set herself the task of easing the lines of strain on his face.

"I suppose no one thought to tell you about Professor Pinchbeck's latest?"

"What's he done now?" asked Snape, looking resigned.

Hermione grinned. "Well, for one thing he's fast overtaking you as the most hated professor in the school. The Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs are convinced he's a Slytherin."

"And I'm supposed to be flattered because...?"

To Hermione's relief he looked no more than amused and mildly curious.

"The Ravenclaws are hedging their bets."

"And my Slytherins keep their thoughts to themselves. I've heard enough to know they assume he's one of us," added Snape with gloom.

Hermione failed to stifle a giggle before she sobered. "The main thing is that no one knows who he really is. While Harry's mortified, Quinapalus seems to relish being hated. Only he got so cross with some third year Gryffindors yesterday that he brought down part of the ceiling when he lost his temper with them."

"Gryffindors?" For fleeting seconds the exhausted man reverted to a mischievous boy.

"Yes, I thought that would be your favourite part," said Hermione dryly.

"How well you know me," said Snape, before he paused, disconcerted.

"Is anything wrong?" Hermione asked.

"What? No, nothing. Except that I'm obviously losing my mind."

"Ah, that would explain it. His wit invites you by his looks to come, But when you knock it never is at home."

Snape's eyes widened. "You've been borrowing books from my library."

"Just a book of quotations. I enjoyed flicking through the poetry but..." Her nose wrinkled. "Those poetry books you saw were my mum's, not mine. I only kept them for sentimental reasons. I don't read much - well, any really - fiction. The library here has so much I want to study that... Anyway, I can rely on you to quote the best bits to me." Hermione paused, sidetracked by the thought of his voice thrumming against her inner thigh as he recited...whatever he wanted. That voice would make a laundry list sound appealing.

"Hermione? You haven't heard a word I've said, have you," recognised Snape with irritation. "What were you thinking about?"

Beset by heady images of herself spread out beneath him, she stared at him, her gaze straying to his mouth, imagining all the things it would do to her.

"Hermione..." There was an odd roughness to his voice.

Not touching him with anything but her eyes, Hermione smiled at him. Snape made a sound caught between a hiss of irritation and a groan of disbelief and surrendered with something approaching grace. They moved towards one another with the slow inexorability of two strong magnets.

His large hands framed her face with an aching tenderness before his head bent, his mouth brushing hers, lips barely moving. The wet warmth of her tongue parted his lips, and for a few seconds he ceded control, needing to be certain this was what she wanted.

Slow kisses deepened, gaining in urgency. Hermione slid her hands under his shirt, desperate for the immediacy of skin on skin. He lifted her onto the edge of the table as if she was weightless. Cutlery clattered to the floor as she wrapped her legs around his flanks, hooking him closer.

Careless of the clumsy bumping of nose against nose, they fed from one another like people starved. A couple of buttons bounced to the floor before rolling to a standstill.

It was the need for air that gentled them as their bodies rearranged themselves, seeking a way through what suddenly became interminable layers of clothing. Breathing as if she had been running, her lips tingling and her eyes black-pupilled with lust, Hermione blinked at Snape, wondering why it should have taken her until now to remember how potent a simple kiss could be. But then he had already taught her that.

She released his backside to attack the diagonal row of tiny buttons fastening his trousers, only to lose concentration when Severus' hand cupped her breast. He thumbed opened the buttons of her bodice with a disconcerting dexterity, the lace of her low-cut bra no bar to the heat of him on her naked flesh. Her nipple sprang into his palm, her sigh swallowed in his mouth. Her legs locked around his flanks as she pressed his hand to her breast. His other hand slipped under her wide skirt, his fingers circling their way up her inner thigh to tease her to greater heights.

Gasping for air, her pulse thumping in her ears, she sucked on his lower lip, then buried her face against him as he cupped her through the apricot silk of her panties. He circled the knuckle of his index finger so tantalisingly close that she whimpered into his skin from sheer frustration at the clothing which continued to separate them.

Snape froze.

Then he was withdrawing from her, mouth and hands abandoning her turgid flesh. She shivered from the chill. His breathing was harsh, his body taut against her as, with fingers that shook, he smoothed her lace and refastened her buttons. Hermione made an instinctive, incoherent sound of protest, but she too was freeing him, one hand easing from under the waistband of his trousers, her legs unhooking. But the heels of her hands settled on the indentation above his hips, her palms spanned the muscled hollow of his flanks, preventing him from severing all connection. Her pulse began to slow even while her lips still tingled with the memory of his mouth on hers.

"I'm sorry," said Snape. His voice sounded drugged, his face still tucked into her neck as he fought to get his body under control - a process which their continuing proximity was doing nothing to help. "This was my fault."

"I don't see why you should take all the credit. Severus..."

"We can't," he said tightly, only now finding the strength of mind to sever all physical contact with her.

He had yet to get his body fully under control and Hermione stared at him, the wanting raw on her face. His shirt gaping open, there was a small bite-bruise just below his naval.

Snape gripped a chair back for support. "Don't. I gave him my word of honour. It isn't... appropriate," he fumbled, the word he wanted eluding him.

"No," agreed Hermione. "March is only in the next room, asleep on my bed."

That practicality surprised a small huff of laughter from him, although there was a raw edge to it. "That wasn't what I meant. I'd forgotten about him." His hands were visibly unsteady.

"I'd be mortified if you hadn't," said Hermione. Her senses strung out, she couldn't rage at him because his face was unguarded, as it so rarely was.

He brushed a wisp of hair from her eyes. "I'm sorry," he said again, his mouth brushing hers with unmistakable tenderness.

"Don't leave," she said in a rush, when he stepped away from her. "I know it would make this easier to deal with but please don't go. I'm being selfish," she recognised a moment later, her voice flattened out, her body protesting at the breaking of sensory promises made to it.

He felt drunk on the scent of her, could smell her still on his skin, the ache of arousal slow to fade. His hand remembered the weight of her breast, the warmth of her thigh, just as his body remembered the too brief moment when she had cupped him.

"Tea," he said abruptly. "Order tea. I need five minutes..." He gestured in the direction of the bathroom.

"Oh," said Hermione, going faintly pink.

It took him a moment to appreciate why. A very male grin escaped him. "No," he said, "although the principle is the same. I need a shower. A cold shower," he added pointedly.

"I'll ask Lippy to bring you a change of clothing," said Hermione. "Though you needn't look so superior. I was just wishing I could... Never mind."

It was only when the water splattered into life a few minutes later that Hermione realised the bodice of her dress had been mis-fastened. And that if only she'd had the presence of mind to use a charm on them, she could have dealt with the buttons on Severus' clothing in seconds. Though how anyone was supposed to focus enough to concentrate -

Which might account for why there were no books in the Restricted Section on magical sexual techniques, she mused. The knowledge of how much damage could be done to those most delicate of body parts rather put a damper on wanting to experiment with your wand.

None of which was dispelling her longing to join him in the shower. Bloody wizard's honour... Which was unfair, because he wasn't enjoying this any more than she was.

Hermione gave a deep sigh and began to tidy the room, only to find Lippy glaring at her.

"This is house elves' work. You leave to us. Master Severus is on his way."

"Master?" queried Hermione, because it was a term she associated with old-fashioned nannies referring to their high-born charges.

"No time to talk now. Much work to be done," said Lippy, hitching the knot fastening the tea towel she wore higher on a bony shoulder.

Hermione sank onto a chair. "Would you do me a favour?"

"I is here to serve," squeaked Lippy, but she looked wary.

"Then bring us some tea," said Snape, coming fully into the room. "What was it you wanted to ask Lippy?" he added.

"It doesn't matter," said Hermione vaguely. He had changed from rumpled sensuality to a buttoned to the throat formality. It did nothing to reduce the itchy ache that made concentrating on anything but sex so difficult.

Snape crouched in front of the fire and set another log in place; dislodged ash sparked into life before drifting up the chimney. "There's a storm brewing."

Hermione drew armchairs to either side of the hearth and tucked her wand away. "Will you be called tonight?"

"Inevitably. And soon." Snape sat opposite her.

"Why did Voldemort put you under the Cruciatus?" Hermione asked, so abruptly that it surprised Snape into telling the truth.

"Because I fell asleep while he was talking to Pettigrew." He took his tea from Lippy, who had already served Hermione.

The first time Hermione opened her mouth no sound came out. The second time she had no trouble at all. "Are you insane? You can't go around falling asleep on Voldemort!"

"Well, I hardly did it intentionally," said Snape, faintly aggrieved. It wasn't that he wanted sympathy, but a faint display of concern wouldn't have gone amiss.

"It's a wonder he didn't kill you for the insult."

"I know. Fortunately he took my dedication to duty as another sign of my devotion to him," said Snape, all emotion pressed from his voice.

Hermione tensed. "He didn't - ?"


"You should be trying to catch up on some more sleep instead of talking to me."

"This is better," replied Snape simply.

Her heart in her eyes, Hermione stared at him, then gave a determined sniff. "That book of quotations might come in handy after all."

Whatever response he might have intended to make was lost in a gasp of pain as he doubled over, clutching his arm. His cup fell unregarded to the floor, tea splashing over his boots.

"Voldemort?" asked Hermione, just managing not to rush to his side because he would hate it so.

Snape nodded and turned away, wanting to spare her having to watch his subjugation.

Hermione found the robe he had been wearing when he arrived and retrieved the tiny bundle that was the reduced Death Eaters robes and mask.

After a minute or so Snape was able to concentrate enough to tuck them in an inside pocket. "I must go." He was halfway across the room when he stopped dead. "I forgot. I have to see March first." His face was very white when he turned back.

Hermione went cold. She had forgotten the need for a Memory Charm. "Would you rather be alone, or shall I come with you?"

"You shouldn't have to see - "

Hermione took that for a 'yes' and led the way into her bedroom, where Flitwick was curled fast asleep on the counterpane, his knees tucked up to his chest.

With a gentleness which few of his pupils would have credited, Snape woke him. He remained kneeling as Flitwick sat on the edge of the bed. Swallowing a yawn, Flitwick took out his wand, his bewhiskered face grave and kind as he looked down and touched Snape briefly on a still damp spike of hair.

"I know how much you loathe the use of Memory Charms, and I honour you for going through with this," he told Snape, his formality making it clear he didn't take the tampering with a mind lightly.

As a faint, unaccustomed flush stained Snape's pale face, Flitwick added, "Obliviate."

Her hands clenched, her mouth trembling, tears blurred Hermione's vision as she saw the bewildered look which crossed Severus' face.

"Thank you for waking me, Severus," said Flitwick, his wand out of sight. "Now you must go to Voldemort. I will keep night-watch with Hermione until you return. Pinchbeck and Sinistra will keep your Slytherins safe."

Already on his feet, Snape nodded and glanced at Hermione. In two strides he stood in front of her.

"Try not to worry," he said, touching her cheek.

She twitched a fold of his robe straight. "Your desire to my heart is an absolute commandment."

Pleasure lighting his tired face, Snape shook his head. "I don't know who you borrowed that from, but you're a shocking liar."

"I'll work on it," she promised.

"You stay as you are," he retorted, and kissing her forehead, he quickly left the room.

Hermione took a shuddering breath. It had been a long, emotion-packed day.

She sank on to the edge of the mattress next to Flitwick. "You didn't eradicate any of his other memories."

"Of course not. They will strengthen him." Sensing that tears weren't far off, Flitwick gave her a worried look before patting her on the shoulder in a hopeful kind of way.

"You're tired. You can't stay up all night," Hermione said, when she trusted her voice.

"Ceres will take over from me around four a.m. We had already decided that Severus needs more support than he has been receiving from us. And you should not have to wait for him by yourself. In our experience, the best antidote to anxiety is work, and there's much to be done. When you're ready, come into the other room. I've been preparing a reading list for you." Flitwick patted her hand, then left her alone.

Her hands clenched in her lap, Hermione wept silently, understanding to her very bones one thing she had read.

I want to go with the one I love.

I do not want to calculate the cost.

I do not want to think about whether it's good.

I do not want to know whether he loves me.

I want to go with whom I love.

After a few minutes she calmed enough to go into the bathroom where she blew her nose on some toilet paper, before rinsing her splotchy face. Only then did she take in the finer points of her surroundings. While Lippy had removed Severus' laundry, she had not had a chance to clean the bathroom, which looked as if a hurricane had hit it, rather than one lone wizard.

Hermione scooped up one of the three sodden bath sheets and held it to her face, as if hoping for some trace of him, but all she could smell was her orange-scented soap. Setting the towel neatly over the rail, she took a deep breath and went out to get on with some work.


His wit invites you by his looks to come, But when you knock it never is at home.

William Cowper: 1.303, Conversation

Your desire to my heart is an absolute commandment.

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia: Sir Philip Sidney

I want to go with the one I love.

I do not want to calculate the cost.

I do not want to think about whether it's good.

I do not want to know whether he loves me.

I want to go with whom I love.

I Want to Go With the One I Love: Bertolt Brecht

Again, heartfelt thanks to everyone who has reviewed FFI. Apologies for the lengthy delay in getting this chapter out, I hope it was worth the wait. I'm also hoping to be able to update more often, computer willing.