- Hermione Granger
- Drama Romance
- Multiple Eras
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 03/19/2002Updated: 09/01/2005Words: 220,150Chapters: 28Hits: 163,807
Falling Further In
- Story Summary:
- The story begins in the summer holidays before the sixth year. After her parents are murdered by Voldemort Hogwarts becomes Hermione's home. She joins the staff in the fight against Voldemort and learns more of the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom. Will *eventually* be Snape/Hermione. Lupin is again the Professor teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has a black dog who lives with him - Sirius Black in his animagus form.
- Chapter Summary:
- Hermione learns more about the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom.
FFI continues to ignore OOTP while maintaining its own integrity.
Snape was halfway to the dungeons before he remembered what Dumbledore had just told him; the third years had been trying to hex each other silly so Quinapalus was sleeping down there tonight. While it was galling to admit, Quinapalus was doing an unexpectedly good job of looking after his Slytherins - not least because his volatile temper meant that not even the most foolhardy pupil was willing to cross him twice. But with Sirius in his chambers he needed somewhere to sleep. Lupin was still occupying Serpens Tower; there were spare bedrooms there, of course, but he had no intention of sleeping that close to a werewolf.
He massaged the aching bones of his face while cataloguing his options; it took a depressingly short time. House elves would soon make him up a bed but they would fuss and fidget and cosset him to death and all he wanted was some peace and quiet in the hope that he could stop thinking for a few hours.
It would be quiet in the meeting room, with no danger of a spotty third year discovering that even the most loathed member of staff was human. Though fostering the rumour that he was a vampire had provided a degree of entertainment for a few years. Such simple amusements seemed a long way away.
The wards guarding Hermione's chambers were keyed to admit all members of the Inner Council. Once inside the small internal hallway he removed his robe and the Appearance Detracting Charm; here nothing was required of him but that he be himself. He gave a sardonic snort. A prize by anyone's standards...
As he sank stiffly onto one of the large sofas in front of the fire he wondered vaguely what Hermione did to make these rooms feel so comfortable. Ten minutes later he was asleep.
Damp around the edges after her hurried shower, Hermione hitched at a slipping bra strap through her robe as she hurried out of her chambers. She had over-slept, so no time for breakfast before her practical Potions N.E.W.T.
She was halfway down the corridor before she registered that she had just seen Severus fast asleep in front of the fire. Not only home, safe, but seeking sanctuary with her - not that it would do to notice and risk making him feel self-conscious about the fact, she reminded herself.
Even the discovery that she would be doing her Practical in front of Albus Dumbledore did nothing to dim her smile.
After taking the written Potions N.E.W.T. on Monday afternoon there had been no time to catch her breath after dinner, let alone think of revising for the four N.E.W.T.s that were to follow. Professor McGonagall produced a teetering pile of first year Transfiguration essays for her to mark. Mindful of the responsibility, Hermione agonised over them in her determination to be scrupulously fair, while trying to capture the older woman's often acidic style. But the following morning Severus was sprawled along the sofa, a socked foot protruding from one of the blankets she had left out for him. All that was visible of his head was some untidy tufts of black hair.
Hermione allowed herself one minute of sentiment, one minute to luxuriate in the living, breathing reality of him, only to discover she had spent twenty minutes gawking at him. Which meant she missed breakfast again and her stomach rumbled throughout her practical Transfiguration N.E.W.T. - to the point where Professor McGonagall ignored protocol to halt the Practical and order sandwiches for her.
"Perhaps then the chair you're supposed to be transfiguring will stop bearing a disquieting resemblance to Severus," Professor McGonagall added, absent-mindedly helping herself to one of Hermione's sandwiches.
Hermione grimaced. "I hoped you hadn't noticed."
"Optimistic of you," said Professor McGonagall, with a faint smile. "While that kind of ostentation is frowned on, it displays a high level of skill. There are artists who have made careers from such work. Not that I care for it myself."
"Nor me," said Hermione. "Too much like the things you see at the edges of a nightmare. I heard that Quinapalus is sleeping in the dungeons this week."
"Yes. It doesn't seem to occur to Albus that Severus is too tired to think of organising himself new chambers. Fortunately there's no need."
Hermione gave her a wary look.
"I'm not Albus, my dear. Apart from which, Severus is exhausted." Professor McGonagall added, with a practicality that made Hermione grin. "But I'll have a word with Remus. I'm sure he won't mind moving out of Serpens Tower."
Hermione was kept so busy helping Professors Flitwick and Sprout that she was slow to absorb the reaction of many of her classmates to the abrupt termination of her schooldays and new status. The spite behind some of the remarks stung, particularly those from Hufflepuffs like Hannah and Susan but she did her best to shrug off the hurt; she had never imagined she was particularly popular, although it would been pleasant to be proved wrong.
Delighted with the suggestion Ron had made at the last meeting of the Inner Circle, Dumbledore had wasted little time in owling the legal guardians of every pupil. By the time Hermione had finished sitting her N.E.W.T.S. The Daily Prophet was demanding an explanation from the Minister of Magic for the presence of the dementors around Hogwarts and vigorously campaigning for their immediate removal. Wizarding society - something of an oxymoron given how unsociable the majority of wizards were, unless Quidditch was involved - was in uproar.
"I never thought we'd get this much coverage. See what happens when you set Bill loose on Rita Skeeter," said Ron, exuding pride in the pulling power of his sibling.
"You don't think the paper's campaign might have more to do with the fact that the owner remembered he has a great-niece at Hogwarts?" asked Professor McGonagall, at her most tart because it had been she who had sat up all night, searching through school records in the hope of finding some connection.
Two days later The Daily Prophet smugly reported that, thanks to their untiring efforts to safeguard the well-being of the future of British wizardhood, all dementors had been recalled - except for two, who would continue to guard the main gates of Hogwarts. The reduction in their numbers brought immediate relief for everyone; nightmares decreased and tempers improved - which was a mixed blessing for the staff, who now had to deal with the increased energy levels of their pupils. The number of detentions handed out rose exponentially.
Half-term loomed. Belatedly alerted to the threat to their offspring a number of parents were threatening to descend on Hogwarts.
Happily anticipating her tutorial with Flitwick, Hermione was on her way to the quarters he shared with his wife when she found herself facing Lucius Malfoy's elegant figure. Thanks to Madam Hooch's training it was already second nature for Hermione to slip her wand from wrist to hand behind the concealment of her robes.
"Ah, Potter's Mudblood," drawled Malfoy, his languid, heavy-lidded gaze stripping her where she stood. There was something about his expression that convinced her of his involvement in the death of her parents. While brewing Veritaserum was beyond her skills there must be dark Charms that could rip the truth from Malfoy...
Her skin crawling, she did her best not to react to him. The last time she had been conscious of this much raw magic emanating from one person Severus had been on the brink of a duel with Sirius. The obvious response - the only sensible response - would be to ignore Malfoy and continue on her way. But she couldn't - wouldn't - do it. Quite apart from the fact it was too dangerous to leave him wandering the corridors, there was no way she was going to turn her back on Lucius Malfoy, despite the charms with which she was protecting herself.
"Well?" Impatience sharpened Malfoy's voice.
"Very," returned Hermione pertly, a little confidence returning when she realised that the artistic fall of his hair owed little to nature.
Malfoy looked pained. "No doubt that passes for humour amongst Mudbloods."
"Ah, Lucius," said Dumbledore, as he emerged from an archway Hermione couldn't remember seeing before. "Thank you, my dear," he added to her. "I see you located Mr Malfoy without any difficulty."
It was a lie, of course, but it made Malfoy's eyes narrow and gave substance to the fiction that Harry's friends had mastered skills beyond the capabilities of most.
"No difficulty at all, Albus." Hermione wondered what her chances of being able to damage Lucius Malfoy might be.
"Then we won't detain you." There was a clear warning in Dumbledore's eyes.
Her shoulders held so straight that she made the muscles of her neck ache, Hermione continued on her way. But instead of Malfoy's pale face she saw the ruin of her home. Instead of his sneering voice she heard the screams of her parents as he tortured them to death.
The demands Voldemort made on his time increasing, Snape was rarely seen around Hogwarts, which increased speculation about exactly what hold he had over other members of staff - and Professor McGonagall in particular. The maintenance of class discipline a technique she had mastered fifty years ago, her temper began to fray at the lack of respect some of the middle school began to display to her - not least from her own Gryffindors.
Already being torn apart by conflicting loyalties, the Slytherins were particularly edgy. While Voldemort was rarely spoken of, the only people who seemed capable of ignoring the threat he posed worked for the Ministry of Magic.
His emotions bludgeoned by the casually inflicted cruelties he witnessed night after night, Snape's role as Voldemort's interrogator became a burden whose weight it was beyond him to conceal. By the beginning of November his reports to Dumbledore reached the point where they were barely comprehensible and it took a burst of phoenix song to bring a semblance of vitality to his voice.
Jolted awake, sweating, it took Snape a moment to appreciate he must have fallen asleep mid-sentence. Dumbledore sat in front of him.
Before Snape could get to his feet and deny the moment of weakness, Dumbledore took his cold hands in a warm, two-handed clasp.
"I'm relieving you of all teaching duties," he said.
Snape's mouth thinned. "You have some complaint?"
"Only that you seem intent on killing yourself with overwork. In addition to taking over the remainder of your Potions classes, Pinchbeck will officially assume your duties as Head of House."
"Over my dead body!"
"With the best will in the world you can't give your House all the attention it needs - particularly in these difficult times."
"So a Slytherin-despising arsehole like Sir - Pinchbeck - is the obvious replacement?" Snape's tone was scathing but despite himself insecurity leaked through. He knew he could be over-protective of those in his charge but was not inclined to examine the reasons why. "While Sinistra doesn't possess the most forceful personality, at least my Slytherins knew and trust her - as much as they trust anyone."
"And would run rings around her, given half the chance," pointed out Dumbledore, releasing Snape's hands. "Much to his own embarrassment, Quinapalus has finally realised that, whatever their House allegiance, children are children. It doesn't stop him wanting to murder them, of course, but he defends your House almost as vigorously as you do yourself. If with even less subtlety," he added pensively. "Yesterday he took twenty points from Gryffindor for bullying a Slytherin, while conveniently ignoring the fact Miss Frayne had not only started the fracas, but was caught holding the evidence."
"But junior Potions - "
"The wards are in place and wherever possible either Remus, Poppy or myself finds an excuse to be close at hand. Which, as you'll appreciate, does nothing to improve Quinapalus' mood."
"It isn't his well-being that concerns me," said Snape, unnecessarily. "Those little bastards can think up more ways to kill themselves than you can dream of. I've had almost eighteen years to learn them, Pinchbeck's had ten weeks."
"The children will be safe," said Dumbledore, in a calm voice that gave no indication of his mounting irritation with Snape's obsessive need to over-protect his students. "It's our intention that these new arrangements will enable you to get more rest."
Snape gave a dismissive shrug and got to his feet. "Easier said than done. To me the darkness brings not sleep nor rest."
"What you might have done twenty years ago - "
" - concerns me less than what I am doing now. Ironic, a Slytherin flinching from the exercise of such power. Judge and jury in one."
"But not executioner." Dumbledore almost succeeded in keeping the question from his voice.
His black eyes unblinking in the candlelight, Snape outstared him with ease.
"Rest easy, Headmaster," he said finally, a shocking bitterness to his voice. "You have nothing else for which you need to forgive me."
"You think me a hypocrite."
It occurred to Snape that no man that old should have eyes so blue.
"What does that matter?" he said, without expression. "If our positions were reversed I would do exactly the same thing."
Because the removal of most of the dementors did not bring the improvement he had hoped for, half-term had been a barely registered blip to Harry. His sleep continued to be broken by appalling nightmares in which he heard the cries of his parents as they died and the thin, cruel voice saying, 'Kill the spare' over and over again. Only this time Voldemort meant Ron and Hermione and Harry could only stand and watch them die while Snape sneered at him for his incompetence.
He already knew he was a disappointment to Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Sirius but he couldn't bring himself to care. He was tired of trying to live up to other people's expectations, tired of fighting the imperative to lash out at those who awoke the anger it was so hard to subdue. After meeting an embarrassed deputation from the Gryffindor Quidditch team he had resigned as captain; the humiliation of that failure was like a raw wound. Malfoy had yet to run out of jibes and many others in Harry's year weren't much better.
Harry had taken to avoiding the places where he used to meet Millicent because he didn't want to see the contempt on her face. While Quidditch hadn't been all they had talked about it had been a large part of their budding relationship; she wouldn't want him now. He only saw Hermione occasionally in the distance, while Ron was so preoccupied with the work he was doing for the Inner Circle that even his new girlfriend Claire had to take second place.
His sense of isolation and anger at his inability to steer his own life intensifying, Harry did his best to get through each day without succumbing to the growing urge to hex anyone who crossed him. His truculent behaviour - both in class and out of it - resulted in Professor McGonagall deducting thirty House points and giving him a lecture which made the tips of his ears go red, while his wand hand twitched with the longing to silence her prattle.
And all the time he could feel the clammy chill cast by the presence of the two remaining dementors, the black pall of depression they exuded a constant pressure against his consciousness. Awake or asleep, he couldn't forget that one careless word was all it would take for Sirius to be captured and face the dreadful kiss of the dementors. And Snape hated Sirius.
His report to Dumbledore made, Snape slowly headed for Hermione's quarters. He didn't try to justify his decision any more, just admitted that he hoped she would be there. He hadn't even glimpsed her for four days, or spoken to her for ten - it seemed far longer. The space she occupied in his life seemed to expand whether he wanted it to or not.
Disconcerted, he stopped so abruptly that the stairs he was travelling down had to do some fancy manoeuvring to ensure he didn't fall from top to bottom and break his neck.
How could she have taken over his internal life without him noticing?
Almost numb with fatigue, the question was beyond him to answer. He doggedly continued on his way, shying away from admitting his dependence of another human being.
When he entering the Meeting room, it belatedly occurred to him that ten past four on a November morning was no time to expect to see Hermione; she would be asleep. But there could be no harm in resting by the fire in a room which bore the faintest trace of her scent.
The door to her sitting room was half-ajar, light spilling into the gloom. She was not, as she should have been, in bed. Noiselessly crossing the room, tension began to drain from Snape's face. Hermione's head was pillowed on her folded arms on the portion of table not obscured by rolls of parchment. They were covered in her small, cramped handwriting in that excruciating shade of purple ink she favoured - there was a practical reason why he never tolerated such fripperies from pupils: black ink withstood the test of time the longest. He made a mental note to tell her - preferably without insulting her taste in the process.
Eyelashes skilfully darkened to make them appear even more luxuriant shadowed her cheekbones; the bone structure, previously only hinted at, had arrived with the haircut. Admiring the artful styling that was rarely seen in the wizarding world, his gaze lingered on the vulnerable nape of her neck with its delicate curves and hollows, and the small bumps of her spine. Such a strong spirit to be housed in such a fragile cage.
The only wonder was that Potter hadn't got her killed already. And to lose Hermione...
Too preoccupied with himself, he had never considered that possibility and the terror of it weakened him. It would have been a relief to find a victim at whom he could rail in an effort to vent his fear and rage at being made so vulnerable. Instead, he took the back of her chair in a one-handed death grip until his breathing returned to normal and his legs firmed.
It did nothing for his self-esteem to realise that even more than losing her he was afraid he would betray her trust in him. How could he hope to make her happy? He was long past thirty and three parts iced over. Embittered, anti-social, no fit company... Except for the fact that like two awkwardly shaped pieces of a puzzle he and Hermione fitted in every way that mattered most to them.
Besides, he wasn't about to entrust her happiness to some witless wonder who'd fall for her breasts, even if they were highly distracting.
Hardly aware of what he was doing, Snape caressed her toffee-brown hair with his fingertips, before his hand curled possessively around the base of her skull, his thumb stroking the delicate skin behind one ear. The lobes were plumply defined and he resisted the urge to suck and nip the one closest to him.
Stirring under his touch, Hermione mumbled something incoherent. More asleep than awake she sat up, grimaced and half-turned in his direction.
One cheek bore pink pressure marks. The pleasure which lit her face at the sight of him caught Snape unprepared, his answering smile more revealing than he could know.
"I shouldn't have come here," he said hastily. "I didn't mean to wake you." It was, at best, a half-truth.
"As if that matters. Besides, when I know you're back I stop worrying," said Hermione prosaically, which ended that line of conversation.
Between her brisk practicality and the house elves it took little time to ensure Snape had every comfort it was in their power to provide. Warm and fed, he sat in front of a blazing fire, Hermione curled up on the sofa beside him.
"I should be with my Slytherins," he said, without enthusiasm. "The juniors will have forgotten who I am."
"Because you never make much of an impression of course. You're missed. And by more than your Slytherins. Quinapalus is a terrible teacher," Hermione added dispassionately. It had occurred to her that his combination of over-protectiveness and possessiveness would be difficult to live with until they found a way around it. But when you had so little control over your life it must be difficult to relinquish what little control you did have.
"Of course he is," said Snape, too tired to conceal his satisfaction. "You look tired."
"We all do. You in particular," she added, giving him a critical look. "You need more sleep. And to sleep you need to unwind. I suppose alcohol wouldn't be wise with the cocktail of Potions you're taking."
"No. Besides, I don't drink." Slouched in the corner of the sofa, his long legs stretched out in front of him, Snape was staring into the heart of the fire.
While undoubtedly dark and brooding, he was far removed from the typical romantic hero - particularly with that nose seen in profile. Besides, romance was the last thing on his mind, she recognised with regret, before what he had said penetrated her abstraction.
"You never drink alcohol?"
He gave a casual flourish of his hand. "Wandless magic," he said, as if that explained everything - which in a way, it did.
"Oh. I never thought of how dangerous it could be if you lost control," said Hermione, eyeing him in the thoughtful way that still had the power to disconcert him.
He frowned to disguise the fact.
"I've been hoping to speak to you," continued Hermione, untroubled by his scowl. "Mr Frayne has completed the sale of my parents' house. I was worried I'd forget to give you this." She got up to take a small leather sack from the aumbrey before handing the sack to Snape.
"A present?" Accepting it from her, Snape looked intrigued, disdainful and pleased all at the same time, making Hermione wish she had thought of buying him one. Then it occurred to her that he was the wizard least likely to expect a gift.
"Is it your birthday?"
Snape shrugged, irritated by his neediness even after all these years.
"So you're thirty nine."
"Entering my prime," said Snape ironically, aware of the less than flattering changes to his appearance. Flesh stripped from him by ten weeks of tension, missed meals and lack of sleep, his face was all bones and nose, with new lines grooved around eyes and mouth; his tailored clothes hung on him and his long-fingered hands were beginning to resemble claws.
Hermione battled a sudden, absurd desire to weep and disguised her distress by tending unnecessarily to the fire. Severus looked...touch-starved - and increasingly brittle, as if whatever was holding him together was about to shatter but she dared not hug him in case he thought she was asking for more response than he was capable of making. Or perhaps she was intellectualizing something instinctive and failing him when he needed her most? She turned around, studying his long, bony face and decided to trust her instincts.
"How long does a wizard's prime last?" she asked, injecting the necessary level of brightness into her voice.
"About forty years."
"That's a relief. I thought I might miss out completely. Though I don't think either of us would be very good at love's carefree rapture," she added thoughtfully.
Snape gave a snort of derision. "No," he agreed. "Unless it entails you gazing at me adoringly while agreeing with my every pronouncement."
"Cling to that vision," Hermione advised him. "I never thought of you as an optimist before. Though that could just be resistance to all Albus's cheeriness. I wonder what he's really like when - " She remembered just in time that Snape must not know that Dumbledore wasn't the true Warden.
"He's off-duty? I wonder if we'd ever be permitted to see that," said Snape. He moved slightly, dislodging the forgotten sack. Galleons spilled onto the floor, bouncing across the rug-strewn floorboards. He frowned. "Why are you giving me these?"
"It's just repayment of the money you lent me in the summer," she explained.
"I don't want it." Snape got to his feet in one of those disconcerting bursts of energy occasioned by his unorthodox mixture of potions.
Hermione flushed an unbecoming shade of red. "You needn't remind me of just how rich you are. Just because you come from a wealthy family there's no need to patronise - "
Snape stopped in his tracks to stare down at her. "Sorry to disappoint you. The Snapes aren't rich."
"Oh, please. I've seen inside your family vault."
"Family...? Oh." Snape pinched the bridge of his nose in what Hermione was coming to recognise as a stalling tactic. "About that..." He made no attempt to continue.
More adept at reading him, she recognised that the worst he was suffering from was a dent to his pride. Hermione made herself comfortable. "This must be a really embarrassing revelation," she said happily.
"Must you revel in my humiliation quite so openly?" he complained, sounding no more than mildly peevish.
"Who else can I enjoy it with? I wish you'd sit down again. I'm getting a crick in my neck."
He sat beside her but obviously found it difficult not to fidget. After a few seconds he was prowling the room again, although with none of the grace which had once characterised his movements.
"So?" encouraged Hermione. "What's your guilty secret? The money and jewels are fakes? It's all an illusion? Or - "
"There is no 'family' vault - although I presume my parents must have one. Mine came courtesy of Albus. Well, who else could have conceived of that ridiculous snake?"
The flamboyance and touch of drama had seemed perfectly in character to Hermione, although she knew better than to say so. But it explained the motto. Where Severus was concerned she had noticed that all-too-often Albus had a tendency to offer the equivalent of a present and a slap at the same time. "Well, that explains why it wouldn't do as it was told," she said. "It seemed unnecessarily whimsical."
"Amongst other things," said Snape, with remembered grievance. "Albus did it on purpose, of course. He knows I don't even like - "
Hermione's eyes widened with delight. "You don't like snakes, do you."
"Why should I? No one expects Ceres to keep badgers - the fact she looks after the sett that runs through the grounds is neither here nor there. March wouldn't know one end of a raven from another. And I'd like to see Minerva's expression if she was offered a Griffin."
"Hagrid would be thrilled."
"Hagrid's an imbecile where dangerous beasts are concerned."
"Lots of people don't like snakes," Hermione pointed out, but her chin quivered in betrayal. "Poor you," she added, all mock-sympathy.
The affection in her voice meant that Snape let the provocation pass. "As Head of Slytherin I usually get given at least one snake a term - and not always a venomous one," he anticipated.
"I must be predictable if you can anticipate me that easily. Can I ask you something? It's personal. You don't have to answer," she assured him earnestly. "I wouldn't want you to think I was prying."
"Heaven forfend." He picked some non-existent lint from his trousers. "I trust you."
That fact had been apparent for months but Hermione had never expected to hear him confirm it in such a direct fashion.
After a minute or so, Snape looked up. "Do you have to look so fatuous?"
"Drink your tea before it gets warm in front of the fire," said Hermione, unimpressed. "And stop trying to distract me from whatever your secret shame might be. You're too tired to make a good job of it." She could see him begin to relax as he continued to engage in their frivolous conversation.
Shadowed with the plum-brown marks of sleeplessness, his eyes widened. "You're twitting me about a lack of subtlety?"
"I should know better than to expect the last word with you so, changing the subject, let's get back to this embarrassing secret of yours."
"Let us be quite clear on this," said Snape, looking down his nose at her. "I have nothing to be embarrassed about. The potions are of a fine quality and none make false claims, even if the work was completed while I was in my late teens."
"Nothing complicated then," said Hermione wickedly.
Snape gave a reluctant smile. "Don't overplay," he advised her. "I'll tell you in my own time. Though I'm damned if I know why. You'll never let me live it down."
"Probably not. Think of it as character-building," she encouraged him.
"You obviously favour the make or break school of thought. I suppose my youth was an advantage. I just concentrated on making the best preparations I knew how. Their very simplicity was the secret of their success - along with their obvious quality. For some reason no one had thought to offer such a wide range of cosmetics, toiletries and simple medical potions on a commercial level."
Hermione made no attempt to hide her amusement.
"You may as well laugh and get it out of your system," said Snape with resignation. "I'd be sneering myself, if I wasn't the target. Potion Masters are expected to make their name with some incredible breakthrough - preferably something dramatic. Or something dark, of course, such as Craddock's vein-rotting draught. My fortune continues to grow at an alarming rate, thanks to the Peter Frayne's legal skills in drafting the contracts with the various licensees. Every wizard in Britain uses at least one product - from Spot-Less for the treatment of adolescent acne to Marvels for the Mature Mage. Strange as it may seem, I'd rather not go down in the annals of potion making as the Potion Master who created the Wart-On Potion."
"Don't you mean off?"
"I'm not that decrepit. I meant exactly what I said. It isn't easy to be taken seriously as a mature wizard without a few warts and no one had discovered a safe way to produce them at will. Don't stare at me as if I've started speaking Aramaic. You must have noticed that once witches and wizards hit one hundred they want to look venerable - as if they know what they're talking about. Even if that will take some doing in Sybill's case." There was a reassuring note of acidity in his voice. "And, of course, many wizards find the look very becoming."
"They do?" said Hermione blankly.
"Of course. I know you have a tendency towards the single-minded, but you must have noticed that wizarding standards of beauty of very different from the Muggle ideal."
"Oh. Only...when people have told me I'm beautiful..." She'd thought it was too good to be true.
"Ah, back to your Muggle preoccupation with characterless faces and emaciation. By now I would have expected you to realise that the wizard world has far higher standards. We expect character - or the promise of it."
"So I can be a plain Muggle or a beautiful witch." Without being aware of it Hermione had her hand to her cheek - her smooth cheek - as she considered the adult wizards and witches of her acquaintance. Now she thought about it she could count the ones she would call 'beautiful' on one finger. And, with hindsight, Lockhart's propensity for flirting with his own reflection might have owed more to insecurity than vanity... There were plenty of striking looking figures, of course, or the just plain odd-even-after-all-these-years, but those pupils she would call attractive all had at least one Muggle parent.
Snape exhaled irritably. "Don't over-simplify."
"Do you think I'm beautiful?" She closed her eyes with mortification. "Forget I asked," she mumbled.
"It's good to know you're no more immune to vanity than the rest of us," said Snape, the warmth in his voice giving her the courage to open her eyes. "Of course I think you're beautiful. But then I've never cared for warts. Now what have I said? Here, take this. Though why the idea should make you snivel is beyond me." He thrust a clean handkerchief at her, gave her an edgy look and resumed his pacing.
"My real triumph - and greatest money earner come from the Luxurious Locks brand," he said, while Hermione regained her composure, managing to look distractingly pretty even with reddened eyes and splotched skin. "By the time you reach one hundred and thirty you can't rely on nature to grow really impressive eyebrows- or a beard to your waist. Those hair-growing potions were the trickiest - not least in ensuring the hair grows only where you want it. I just wish I'd come up with them earlier in my schooldays," he added, sounding faintly wistful.
Besieged by various unpleasant images, Hermione grimaced and made a mental note to start discouraging Severus from growing any length of beard. Though she missed the plait.
"They're terrible product names," she said critically.
"You don't imagine I chose them? The advertising and marketing of the products is something over which I have far less control," said Snape, with obvious disapproval. "Bewitching Botanicals! I ask you!"
"I use that line!"
"No need to sound so excited. So does virtually every other person at Hogwarts. It never does to underestimate the vanity of wizards."
"Present company excepted, I presume?" asked Hermione dryly. "No wonder you made a fortune."
Snape grimaced. "That's only part of the story. They have certainly earned me a great deal of money. But most of it comes from... I also license production of - um - more personal preparations."
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "How personal?"
"As personal as it's possible to get - from the medical to the frankly..." Because he adjudged Hermione to be giggling too much to be paying attention, Snape just glared at her.
"Yes, I can quite see you wouldn't want this getting out," said Hermione, fizzing with amusement. "Are you carefully not telling me that you're responsible for the Centaur's Friend? Not to mention the Maiden's - "
Snape gave an uneasy twitch. "As I've already told you, I have no control over the names - "
"Virtually every boy in the Upper Sixth uses the Centaur's Friend."
He resisted the temptation to ask how she knew that. "Of course they do. If word ever got out that I concocted these preparations half the wizarding world would be impotent while the other half indulged in hysterics."
"I know," said Hermione happily. "Though at least this explains why you were able to recite - in Latin - all the ingredients of my hair conditioner that night you were struggling with the logic puzzle I'd set you. While we're on the subject, I want my money back. That conditioner never did a thing for the frizz in my hair. It used to drive me nuts. Nothing kept it down, which meant that every time the wind blew I couldn't see a thing."
"Don't blame the conditioner. I'd wager half my fortune that you were too impatient to wait the full seven and a half minutes. Not to mention using Muggle muck as a shampoo. The instructions clearly state - "
"I know. I didn't use it all the time," said Hermione, on the defensive.
"Once is too often. Although you're not alone in believing you know better than the creator of the potion," Snape conceded with resignation. "Teaching Potions is a thankless task. Most of my pupils assume it's an obsolete art best left that way - handy for the odd prank but put into the curriculum only to make their lives miserable. The majority buy their every day needs from merchants and then complain about the quality of the product. But I don't know why I'm so surprised given how few pupils ever realise that far from teaching the juniors how to hex their friends, what I'm actually teaching them is wandless magic and all that entails in focus, precision and concentration."
"Your obsession with 'no foolish wand waving' was a bit of a clue. Not that I realised for several years," Hermione admitted cheerfully. "I think it takes us so long to realise what you're doing because those first few years are so amazing - not just coming to Hogwarts - but magic itself. Being around so many people who are wizards and witches. Beginning to realise what you're capable of doing. It felt like..." she gestured vaguely "...coming home."
Snape's hand settled on her shoulder. "I've never stopped to consider the culture shock to those from Muggle families," he admitted.
"Pure bloods don't need to," said Hermione matter of factly. "Which is why Hogwarts needs some teachers from Muggle backgrounds."
"Are you volunteering?"
Hermione swung around, her look of horror making him grin.
"That's what I had assumed," he said.
"Although I'm amazed so little research has been done."
"Then there's a possible project for you to consider at some point."
"Yes. Our life span means we don't just have to settle on one speciality. You must need nerves of steel to teach junior Potions. What spurred you into making toiletries and sexual aides?" she added idly, recognising her mistake only when he began to pace around the room again.
"Financial necessity," he said finally. "On my eighteenth birthday I learnt that the Trust Fund set up at my birth had run out, which meant there was no money to pay my school fees, let alone fund my Pupillage with - "
"But surely your parents - ?"
Snape swung round to give her a look of impatience. "They barely remembered my existence from one decade to the next. They used to travel a lot. For all I know, they still do. But the lack of funds meant I would have to leave Hogwarts - there were no scholarships in those days."
"So you went to Albus," said Hermione, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for parents to forget they had a child.
"D'you take me for a Hufflepuff? Of course I didn't." Snape was pacing backwards and forwards along a four yard strip, like a cat in a too small cage.
No, thought Hermione, of course he hadn't. Full of pride, the pain unspoken and heart-deep, he would have lashed out at anyone stupid enough to offer pity, or even help. But despite parental neglect and the barriers he erected, he was familiar with warmth - and he had been loved. She made a mental note to get to know Lippy better.
"Sorry," she said with spurious meekness.
Snape gave her a narrow-eyed glare. "Albus stopped me leaving that night and - " Abruptly the anger was gone to be replaced by an wry resignation. "You know Albus. He asked me to do him a favour."
"That was sneaky, particularly for a Gryffindor."
"It's fortunate I wasn't expecting sympathy or support from you, isn't it," said Snape, but he looked amused.
"So how did he manipulate you into doing what he wanted?"
"The way he always does, one step at a time. It started with an appeal to my vanity. There was a third year with the worst acne I've ever seen. Nothing had helped the condition and between the 'jokes' and the bullying the boy was desperate. Albus asked for my help. It grew from there. The initial royalties for what became known as Spot-Less earned me enough to see me through my final year. Meanwhile, I was creating more and more toiletries and basic medical potions. It had never occurred to me to try before and I found it simplicity itself. No one would has ever accused me of modesty," Snape added dispassionately.
"Those successes reinforced my self-belief to a dangerous degree. My Pupillage was a disaster because I learnt none of the most important lessons. When I had been recognised as a Potions Master I looked around for something that would actually challenge me."
"And then?" said Hermione, when the silence had gone on for some time.
Snape was staring at something only he could see. "Then I went to Voldemort. I was young enough and vain enough to believe that mediocre was the worst fate that could befall anyone, and arrogant enough to imagine I could take what I wanted from Voldemort without becoming contaminated. Then my real education began. He sees enough who doth his darkness see."
Without seeming to be aware of what he was doing he was rubbing his forearm, whatever energy had been keeping him going until this point wholly drained away. And he looked so alone that it didn't occur to Hermione to worry about intellectualising anything; she simply hugged him tight until finally he relaxed enough to bury his face in the hollow between her shoulder and neck and accept the comfort she offered.
And, because she was learning something about the wizard she loved, she wasn't surprised when he took to avoiding her over the next few days.
Snape wrapped his cloak tightly around himself, too tired to control his shudder of horror at the close proximity of the dementors, who continued to guard the main gates. It required some effort of will to walk past them, even though he had made this journey every night and morning for the last...
It occurred to him that he couldn't remember how many times he had done this. The wind-driven rain lashed him but he made no attempt to shield himself from it. Despite the cold it felt cleaner than anything else he had experienced that night.
Practised at making inconspicuous exits and entrances, he closed the main gates, checked that the wards were still effective, and headed for the castle by a circuitous route designed to avoid notice.
As Snape entered a stand of trees Dumbledore stepped out from behind an ancient chestnut.
Snape flinched and just managed to stop the hex he had been about to let fly. "You should know better than to creep up on me!"
"Why are you here?" The wind plastered his sodden clothing to his body, the chill sending him into shuddering convulsions.
Dumbledore extended the protective charm that sheltered him from the rain to include Snape, and as an afterthought added a drying charm. "I thought you might like someone to welcome you home. Humbug?"
Snape grimaced and shook his head. "Why?" he persisted.
"Because they're particularly good. You're still wearing your Death Eater robes and mask," Dumbledore added gently. His power was such that it didn't even require a flick of his hand to relieve Snape of the unwanted reminders of his servitude.
Snape grimaced and rubbed his now bare face. "I don't know how I could forget about that. Voldemort must have increased his intake of unicorn blood. He reeks of it." He wrapped his arms around himself. "He's mad as a March hatter!" Unable to remain still, he was stalking around the small clearing, exuding an unnatural, febrile energy.
"Tell me," said Dumbledore, bracing himself for details of cruelties inflicted for no better reason than the whim of a moment.
Snape began to make his report, shuddering from a mixture of cold, fatigue and the horrors of the night. The effort it required for him to concentrate was worryingly obvious.
"Poppy tells me you've increased the amount of stimulant you're taking," said Dumbledore, when at last Snape fell silent.
Slumped on the broad trunk of a massive oak felled in a storm a decade ago, Snape did not look up. While his hands were locked together his fingers were never still. "It's that or fall asleep in front of Voldemort again and next time I won't get off so lightly. I had to question Grimley tonight. I managed to stop him betraying himself totally - he answered Voldemort's initial summons in the hope of saving his brother from the same fate - but his stupidity cost him a prolonged bout of the Cruciatus. Presuming what passes for his mind is still functioning, he could be useful to us. If not wholly trustworthy."
"I'll get Alastor onto it," said Dumbledore.
Snape's head shot up, his face a pale blur in the darkness. "Alastor Moody?"
"Ah. Yes. I didn't tell you before because... The moment didn't seem right. He's been appointed the new head of the Order of the Phoenix," Dumbledore added. While he sometimes disapproved of the methods of the ultra-secret department within the Aurors, who guarded their identity even more closely than the Unspeakables, Severus was quite irrational on the subject.
"I'll make sure my affairs are in order."
"I don't know why you have this foolish prejudice against - "
" - the man whose interrogation technique consisted of ripping through my mind as if it was a piece of old rag?"
"You exaggerate, Severus. I know he dealt harshly with you but - "
His fingers biting into his forearms, Snape battened down the hysteria he could feel bubbling up. Albus had some curious blind spots; Moody's propensity for acting as judge, jury and executioner was one of them.
"I was a Death Eater, so it didn't matter," said Snape, trembling at the memory of what had been done to him. As a skilled interrogator, the crudity of his own questioning had been an added affront - from a distance of eighteen years. At the time it had almost driven him insane. Ironically, it had been that 'Hearing' which had cleared his name and that 'Hearing' which had driven him to kill himself - only to be dragged back from the brink and bound to an unwanted life by a promise forced from him by that self-righteous prick James Potter.
"There was so much going on around the time Alastor took you in for questioning. But that was no excuse. I should have taken more notice of what was happening to you. Was it truly that bad?" asked Dumbledore.
Snape blinked into the older man's worried face. It was a moment before he trusted himself to speak. "It was unspeakable," he said with deliberation, knowing he wouldn't be believed because even Albus Dumbledore was fallible. "And now some idiot has given Moody licence to act with impunity. The Order have never been held accountable for any of their actions over the years but - "
"That will do!"
"Have you forgotten Moody's treatment of Draco Malfoy?"
"Draco was about to launch a cowardly attack on Harry."
"Which justifies transfiguring a thirteen year old boy into a ferret and bouncing him off a stone floor? And you complain about my teaching style. To give Minerva her due, she was almost as angry as I was. You didn't even reprimand Moody, let alone see Draco. And you wonder why my Slytherins are so bitter."
"That wasn't Moody," Dumbledore reminded him.
"It was enough like his usual behaviour for everyone - including you - to accept it as normal! His time in that trunk won't have reduced his paranoia - or improved his grip on his temper. How could you let them appoint him? He's abused every scrap of power he's ever been given. As head of the Order of the Phoenix he has licence to - "
"It was either Alastor or Bode, who's been promoted from the Unspeakables."
"Oh, another sterling example of wizardhood," sneered Snape. "It's interesting how many Gryffindors and Ravenclaws choose to join the Unspeakables - the legitimate version of Death Eaters."
Snape noted that Dumbledore's outrage didn't extend to meeting his gaze.
"Alastor's appointment is far from ideal, I know," Dumbledore admitted, after a moment. "But I don't have the strength to spare to fight it. Hogwarts takes all my time and energy. At least what's left of our friendship might give me some small influence over Alastor. Besides, until Harry is eighteen he's under my protection, not that of the Order."
"If Potter joins the Order of the Phoenix you'll find yourself with a Dark Lord against whom Voldemort is no more than a gnat."
"That will do! He's a child!"
"Who is changing. Or are you going to pretend you haven't noticed the difference in his behaviour this term?"
"His lack of respect to you is troubling but he's at the age where he needs to challenge authority figures and - "
Snape made a sharp sound of impatience, his hands parting, palms outwards in a gesture of defeat "Yes, yes. I'm not worthy to lick the floor under his boots, Alastor is much misunderstood and Peter Pettigrew wasn't a true Gryffindor. I'm tired. If I'm lucky I might get four hours sleep before I have to get up and do all this again. I'm going to bed."
There was a flash of movement. Snape instinctively stepped between Dumbledore and the threat but it was only Fawkes, who popped into view. He glided from Dumbledore's shoulder to Snape's, resisting all Snape's attempts to hand him back to Dumbledore.
"This impossible bloody bird suddenly weighs..."
"Whatever he wants to," said Dumbledore.
"What an enviable freedom of choice," murmured Snape tiredly, unaware of the assessing looks he was receiving from both wizard and phoenix. "Why is it we never see Fawkes around Hogwarts?" he thought to ask, trying to distract himself from thoughts of Moody.
"His presence is too disruptive. Although you would be surprised how many people have never seen Fawkes, even when he's sitting in front of them. Few outside the Inner Circle, in fact - our true Order of the Phoenix, perhaps?"
"Whimsy at this hour?" said Snape, looking pained - although that could have been because Fawkes was busying grooming the sodden clumps of his hair.
"Malfoy, Fudge and the dementors have all been in my office at one time or another. None of them appeared to see Fawkes. You never had a familiar as a child, did you?" added Dumbledore, with seeming inconsequence.
"What? No. It never occurred to the house elves that I might like one." Snape sank on to a fallen tree trunk and rubbed his face. "I found an injured pigeon when I was nine and decided it would be my familiar. Only I tried to dose it with some Pepper-Up Potion of my own devising and..."
Dumbledore grimaced. "Oh dear."
"Quite. It rather put me off looking after things." Without seeming to be aware of it, Snape was caressing Fawkes' plump chest with the knuckle of his index finger. It was a while before he spoke again, his voice flat and unemphatic because he had expended his tiny reserve of energy.
"I don't know how much longer I can do this, Albus. No one should have the right to decide who should live or die and I don't even know if I'm making the right decisions any more. Let alone why."
Before Dumbledore could reply Fawkes ruffled his gorgeous plumage and began to sing. While the volume was comfortable for the man whose shoulder he occupied, the sound crept through the trees, lighting the shadows to reveal the dark outline of the two dementors on the other side of the boundary wall.
The song was piercingly sweet, and so complex that it seemed impossible the unearthly sound could come from just one throat. Voldemort forgotten, the hair on the back of Snape's neck prickled, tension draining from his face and body as he soaked up the glorious music Fawkes was creating. His eyes on the first, faint light, he watched the cloaked figures of the dementors shift with obvious unease. Old resentments and his ever-present fear dropping away, Snape's mind began to work with crystal clarity; it occurred to him that he felt none of the edgy chill the dementors usually inspired in him. He stared from Fawkes to the dementors and back again as the last shimmering note faded away.
"Severus? What is it?" asked Dumbledore, his tone sharpening when the other man was slow to respond.
"Protect your hearing," Snape told him. "And watch the dementors." Taking out his wand, because he was too tired to trust himself to wandless magic, he transfigured earmuffs for Dumbledore and himself from two buttons from his waistcoat, then turned to Fawkes.
"Once more, old friend. Only louder if you will. For as long as you are able." After casting a directional charm, he held the tip of his wand to Fawkes' throat and murmured Sonorous.
His bright gaze on Snape's face, Fawkes opened his beak. This song wasn't one Dumbledore could remember hearing before, although he would be the first to concede his musical tastes were more in line with the school song. High and clear, the multi-layered sounds held a sweetness so piercing that only the ear muffs made it bearable at this close proximity. The effect on the dementors was immediate; at first it was no more than a restlessness but as the song became increasingly complex their distress became evident. They bent and twisted, their scaly hands to their hooded heads, their dreadful mouths wide, as if trying to suck life from the very air.
"Lumos," commanded Dumbledore. The tip of his wand cast a light bright enough to see that the dementors were dwindling like smoke in the wind until there was nothing left - not even a smudge of grease.
With an expression which could only be described as smug, Fawkes stopped singing.
His face lit with joy Dumbledore turned to Snape, only to groan when he realised what had happened. His eyes unfocussed, Snape's expression of exultation had changed to the slightly vacuous look of someone blissed out on phoenix song.
"Bugger," muttered Dumbledore irritably.
It was too easy to take Fawkes for granted - to forget how dangerous a creature a phoenix was. Medieval manuscripts spoke of wizards who sought out this state, supposedly for spiritual enrichment. Seven hundred years ago it had been an offence punishable by death to 'keep company' with a phoenix - ambiguous phrasing which still led to much ribald speculation. Even now too little was known about the phoenix. He and Fawkes had acquired one another just over seventy years ago and he understood him - her? - no better now than he had then. Genevieve hadn't even been able to see or hear Fawkes - much to her annoyance - and in consequence had not appreciated sharing her home with a phoenix. But this development...
He glanced at his companion in a hopeful manner but Snape was oblivious, his face still wearing that same disquieting blank smile, lines of stress and exhaustion smoothed away. Dumbledore racked his brains for the antidote to this state of euphoria, starting and discarding various charms after only a word or two.
Despite the heavy rain, the darkness was lifting. There were lights in almost all the windows of Hogwarts by now. As it was a Saturday, Quidditch-mad juniors would be out wanting to practice. It wouldn't do for them to see Severus in this state. Dumbledore rolled up his sleeves and applied himself.
Snape's expression did not change.
Dumbledore's frown deepened when it occurred to him that Snape's blank face bore an uncomfortable resemblance to someone under the Imperious Curse. He glared at Fawkes. Still perched on Snape's shoulder, the phoenix rocked precariously on one foot while he scratched the side of his head, the scritching sound as his quills rattled together loud in the silence.
"If you're so damn clever, you snap him out of it," said Dumbledore crossly.
Fawkes shrugged, his shimmering plumage seeming to ripple, before he leant down and nipped Snape sharply on the ear lobe.
Snape flinched, blinked and intelligence flooded back to his face but the deep lines of fatigue did not return; in fact he looked as if he had enjoyed several weeks of uninterrupted, untroubled sleep. He rubbed a smear of blood from a smarting ear lobe.
"What happened?" he asked, unoriginally.
"I've never seen anyone lost to phoenix song before," said Dumbledore. "It took Fawkes to bring you out of it."
Snape sniffed and flexed his neck and shoulders, as if wondering where the stiffness had gone. "I can see why they banned phoenixes. It's an 'interesting' sensation." He paused, then swung around to stare in the direction of the gates. "I didn't imagine it then. The dementors really are gone."
"Oh Merlin!" cried Dumbledore, as the realisation sank in. He took Snape in a powerful hug.
"A simple 'yes' would have sufficed," said Snape, withdrawing with as much dignity as was possible. "I thought it was impossible for a phoenix to kill. So how - ?"
"I have no idea," said Dumbledore, looking remarkably sanguine about the fact. "But I could hazard a guess. Dementors turn joy to despair and feed on misery. Perhaps they destroyed themselves by overdosing on joy. If so, they weren't the only ones to overdose. You were suffering from phoenix euphoria - a state I'd never quite believed in until I saw it for myself. At least, I presume that's what accounted for your fatuous expression."
"Too kind," said Snape dryly. "Though I wouldn't call it 'suffering' exactly. It was an extraordinary experience. That song was the most exquisite sound I have ever experienced. But why now? This morning?"
Dumbledore shrugged. "Unfortunately Fawkes doesn't take me into his confidence. I think I envy you for being able to sink into that song so deeply. I've never had much of an ear for music."
"No?" marvelled Snape.
"That's a relief, you're sounding more like yourself."
For the first time in days, Snape grinned. "I feel...restored," he said slowly, his smile fading as his brain further engaged. "The dementors were sent here by the Ministry. You'll have to notify Fudge that they've vanished. There will be questions. What will you do?"
"Lie, of course," said Dumbledore placidly. Tucking his arm in Snape's, he led the way out of the stand of trees. "Although I could wish you wouldn't look so approving" he added, in a pained tone.
"Severus? What is it?" he added, having to pitch his voice louder as a strong wind came from nowhere, making the ancient trees protest and whipping up half-rotten leaves until they seemed to be in the centre of a vortex of air and debris that stung and smarted unprotected portions of skin.
"Can you smell something...odd? As if - " Snape stared upwards, protecting his eyes from the rain as he searched the clouded sky.
By now both men were braced against the onrush of air. Shoulder to shoulder, they cast spell after spell up into the sky but could see nothing. They were half-deafened by an assault of noise - an dry creaking interspersed with unpleasant grumbling gurgles, like a mud geyser about to erupt. Then came a grinding protest as stones shifted. Snape began to race towards the castle, Dumbledore at his shoulder.
Something - or someone - had just landed on the roof of Hogwarts.
To me the darkness brings not sleep nor rest.
'He was long past thirty and three parts iced over.' Adapted from a quotation by Matthew Arnold in a letter dated 12.2.1853 - I am past thirty and three parts iced over.
He sees enough who doth his darkness see.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury
Apologies for the fact there's only one chapter to show for my enforced time off-line. Between life,
'home improvements' and a decrepit computer fandom has had to take a back seat. I was about to
throw this computer out when, to my surprise, it decided to work. However, it won't
install/uninstall or recognise my CD Rom, which means I'm stuck with a dying mouse and no
means of replacing it - and to top it all, no Free Cell
As I haven't been able to access Yahoo since getting back online apologies to anyone who may have tried to contact me since June - particularly the friends with whom I've lost touch, not least Silene and she-who-never-wanted-to-be-named, whose nit-picking saved me from many embarrassing mistakes. Obviously this chapter has been produced without her help and I hope the difference isn't too apparent.
Many thanks to those on ffnet and schnoogle who have commented on the story and/or left messages of support and good wishes. It's all much appreciated. Belated happy new year to everyone. Kaz (I suppose that should be Kaz2 now).