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 25

Author's Note:
To anyone still following FFI, apologies. After my computer finally gave up the ghost real life took over for a while. My new computer coincided with the mother of all writer's blocks (yes, writing every day gets words on a page, just nothing worth reading), in consequence of which I skulked off feeling lower than the worms.

Fortunately for those who have to put up with me, it finally wore off and the old itch to play in the HP sandpit returned with a vengeance. I'm so behind on the fannish front that I hardly know where to start. I'll be tackling my mail box this weekend, in the hope of catching up with old friends - in the hope they're still in fandom, come to that.

In a perfect world I would have finished FFI, learnt a couple of foreign languages and sorted out world peace (I wish!); as it is I can only offer a measly (or should that be Weasley ) 10K words or so. I'm working on the next couple of chapters, both about half done, but it's taking a while because everything needs to go in the right place, so to speak.

FFI ignores the events in OOTP while trying to maintain it's own integrity. Huge thank you to whoever runs the HP Lexicon - an invaluable resource for HP writers.

* denotes words in italics

* * * * *


If Charlie Weasley had hoped to keep his arrival at Hogwarts a secret, landing a Norwegian Ridgeback on the school roof was not the way to go about it.

Their arrival had been far from simple, Norbert losing confidence at the last moment; only the frantic sweep of his leathery wings and some fancy footwork prevented him from over-shooting his target and hitting a buttress. He thumped onto the flat roof of Hufflepuff Tower with all the grace of a re'em learning to ice-skate. Ancient stones groaned under the impact of even older magic but Hogwarts held firm. Already bearing the scars of a thousand years of weather and some fierce battles, nervous grotesques skittered behind whatever shelter they could find, while panicking gargoyles spat water for all they were worth.

Norbert blasted off a twenty foot flame and roared his fright to the world.

The ensuing sounds of panic from within the castle made Charlie, who had experienced a trying week, swear with even more feeling.

Because desperate times required desperate measures Dumbledore crashed all the protective wards barring Apparation within the grounds of Hogwarts, grabbed Snape by the wrist and Disapparated them both onto the roof of Hogwarts.

The noise, the reek and the heat made it obvious there was a dragon about although exactly where it might be was another matter. Even Dumbledore would require the assistance of several powerful wizards to force a cloaked dragon into visibility. He applied the 'Sonorous' charm and called out in a language unfamiliar to Snape; only some nippy footwork saved the headmaster from incineration as Norbert belched flame.

Dumbledore straightened his hat with a nonchalant nudge of his wand and called out again, this time in Tosk; the embroidered dragonflies began a frantic dance amongst the flowers decorating the cap, as if trying to escape the now sulphurous air as another flame shot across the roof of the tower.

"Hello, sir!"

The bellow sounded oddly familiar. Dumbledore scanned the roof, relaxing when a wind-swept Charlie Weasley popped into view thirty-five feet above them.

"Sorry about that," called Charlie, with no visible sign of repentance. "Only Norbert had some nasty experiences in Albania. I'll see if he'll decloak and make life easier for everyone."

After a tense few seconds Charlie's appearance of straddling mid-air gave way to the sight of him perched behind the head of an thirty-seven foot long dragon. Charlie straightened from where he had been speaking directly into one small bronze-coloured ear to move from the intricate looking saddle to a knotted rope in one graceful movement; he reached ground level in one fluid slide. Dressed in dragon hide from the tip of his stylish hat to his knee-high boots, he seemed to blend in with the dragon, against whose scaly leg he propped himself. He tipped his hat at a jaunty angle, which helped to hide both the freckles and the small burn on the tip of his nose.

"This is Norbert. Hagrid's little Norbert," he prompted, when neither Dumbledore or Snape reacted. "You mustn't mind him growling. Only his bowels are playing him up and that always makes him testy. Sorry if we gave you a bit of a scare," he added cheerfully.

Dumbledore found his voice. "'*A bit of a scare*?'" he echoed, in a tone few pupils had ever heard from him and which gave a sudden, disconcerting reminder that this was not just a dotty old man who wore frivolous caps and had no eye for colour. "How *dare* you bring a dragon through the wards without warning us first. And as for landing it on the roof... Of all the reckless, irresponsible - "

Charlie's broad, freckled face lost some of its assurance as Dumbledore wasted no time in making the extent of his displeasure plain, above the appalling gurgling noises which were still coming from Norbert. There was an ugly rattling sound as the spikes along Norbert's long tail scraped across the corner of the tower, leaving scars in its wake.

Dumbledore yanked Snape out of harm's way. "Severus, do try to concentrate!" he said with exasperation. When he gained no response he gave an apologetic shrug and pinched Snape sharply on the ear lobe.

"Albus? Bloody hell!" gasped Snape, as he took in the immensity of the dragon that was so terrifyingly close.

"At last. Now, if you think you could concentrate on not getting eaten," said Dumbledore with heavy-handed sarcasm.

Snape kept a wary eye on the dragon and a firm grip on his wand, needing all the reassurance he could get against this much ancient magic. The dragons brought to the Tri-wizard Tournament had been poor specimens, drugged beforehand and weakened by repeated stupefying spells and internment - egg laying always took a lot out of the females.

He hoped that Hermione - and those in his House - hadn't been too frightened by this breach of Hogwarts's security, although it was difficult to see how they could have been anything else. He flinched when Norbert turned his head to give him a considering look from pitiless orange eyes. This was the closest he had ever come to a live dragon; it was a disquieting experience to find yourself so near to a beast who regarded you as nothing more than a bony snack. His respect for Charlie Weasley went up another notch.

"You don't, I trust, intend to leave this beast on the roof of Hogwarts?" Dumbledore asked Charlie, in a milder tone of voice.

"I didn't intend to land here at all," said Charlie ruefully. "Is Severus all right?"

"He's recovering from the effects of phoenix euphoria," said Dumbledore, half-turning to include Professor McGonagall, who had just arrived, in his explanation. "I believe I may be experiencing it a little myself. It's surprisingly difficult to concentrate, even when faced with... Is Norbert supposed to do that?" he added with distaste as Norbert gave him a more intimate view of a dragon than most received.

"He's a beast," explained Charlie laconically. He looked less like a romantic hero and more like an over-grown first year when he saw Professor McGonagall's mouth thin with a mixture of fright and displeasure.

"Charlie Weasley, I should have guessed who it would be. You were behind at least three quarters of the trouble in Gryffindor House from the day you arrived at Hogwarts." Even in her human form she still managed to look like an angry cat whose fur had been stroked the wrong way. "The school is in uproar and the pupils... What idiotic prank is this? Merlin's balls, it's alive!" With more prudence than valour she nipped behind Dumbledore.

Norbert cocked his vast head and eyed the new arrival in the manner of a gourmet considering which hors d'oeuvre to try first.

Charlie thumped Norbert's scaly flank with the side of his fist. "Leave over showing off. It's as I was about to say, Professor. I didn't intend to land here at all. We're on our way up to the McFlurries' reservation. They've agreed to let bygones be bygones," he added in parentheses.

"Then I suggest you continue on your way with all possible speed," said Dumbledore, in what was unmistakeably a command. "I will not tolerate having a dragon on school premises. Although he does seem a fine specimen," he added, drifting closer towards Norbert.

Professor McGonagall yanked him back, her other hand gripping Snape's arm.

"Have you two lost your minds?" she demanded, quivering with fright. "That's a dragon!"

"Don't fuss, Minerva," said Dumbledore. "We can see that for ourselves. I've never really had much to do with dragons. Well, not live ones. It's all very well discovering the twelve uses of dragon's blood but I would have enjoyed getting to know one."

"If you two have been smoking sativa again you can explain yourselves to Poppy," warned Professor McGonagall, "I wash my wand of the pair of you."

Charlie stored that nugget away to share with his brothers at a later date.

"Now, Minerva," began Dumbledore placatingly.

"It's just the aftermath of phoenix euphoria," said Snape, squinting as he tried to concentrate. "Fawkes sang to me. Then I applied the Sonorous and he sang loud enough to... the two Dementors at the gates just dissolved like smoke in the wind. And I - er - " His voice lacking its usual bite, he waved an untypically vague hand. "Phoenix bliss isn't a myth. Though Albus didn't seem affected when he brought me round. Maybe it's had a delayed reaction on him because the silly old coot - "

" - is standing beside you and has perfect hearing," said Dumbledore, veering back to the tart after the fatuous. "Mr Weasley, wipe that smirk from your face, take your dragon and go. And never land one on Hogwarts again."

"No, sir. The thing is..."

"Now, Mr Weasley."

"It isn't as if I intended to land Norbert on the roof," protested Charlie, aggrieved.

"You're supposed to be a Dragon-Whisperer," said Dumbledore acidly.

"But not a miracle worker," pointed out Charlie with patience. "Dragons and wizards co-exist only because of their...well, goodwill is probably putting it a bit strongly. To be blunt, if a dragon doesn't want to do something we ask of them there isn't a damn thing one wizard can do about it. It takes at least seven powerful wizards to stupify one - and that's no way to treat a dragon. Even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has stopped trying to find ways of killing them. Babies just out of the egg are more his line," he added, with a terrible contempt.

"Voldemort," interjected Dumbledore. "The sky won't fall if you call him by his name. My goodness, and isn't it a pretty sky this morning."

Charlie blinked. "I suppose so. He - Voldemort's Death Eaters had this...facility in Albania. The bastards have been trying to tinker with dragon reproduction. They soon learnt better," he added, relaxing now Snape and Dumbledore had stopped trying to immolate themselves on Norbert's breath. "The facility was flamed out of existence by a weyr of dragons. The dragons the Death Eaters tried to experiment on were just out of the egg and hadn't come into their powers, beyond the ability to flame a couple of feet. The poor little ducks were an easy target. I would have owled you, Severus, but Albania was too full of dragon hunting Death Eaters for comfort so I decided to bring Norbert out while I could. That said, you needn't worry about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named attacking Hogwarts with dragons."

"What if he found himself a Dragon-Whisperer?" asked Snape.

Charlie shrugged. "I only know of five others," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm not stupid enough to think I could resist if He-Who - Voldemort," he amended, pinned by Dumbledore's glare " - put me under Imperius, but I know damn well that he couldn't control a dragon. Beyond killing it, of course. "

Professor McGonagall wrinkled her nose fastidiously . "Well, now we've established that, kindly remove this creature from the grounds. It won't take you long to fly up to the reservation. You can Apparate back tonight. I know Molly would like a word," she added ominously.

Charlie grimaced. He'd take an irate Albus Dumbledore over his mother any day of the week.

"As would we," added Professor McGonagall. "Hermione's puzzle board would benefit from some informed input about dragons - and Dragon-Whisperers."

"Now, wait a moment," said Charlie. "Me being a Whisperer isn't for public consumption!"

"Nor are many of the facts we're compiling," said Professor McGonagall, wincing as Dumbledore began to hum. "Go away before our more nervous pupils assume this appalling smell is Voldemort's doing. Oh, this is all we need," she added, as the door leading up onto the roof was flung open.

"Where is 'e, the little precious?" cried Hagrid, red in the face from having taken the stairs six at a time. "I'd recognise that smell anywhere. Shocking trouble 'e used ter 'ave with 'is bowels. Shocking." Rushing in where any sane wizard would have headed in the opposite direction, he was in danger of being burned to a crisp.

"Bless 'im," Hagrid crooned. "I swear 'e knows me," he beamed, portions of his clothing and hair smouldering. He escaped incineration only because of Charlie's skill at deflecting flames.

"That's because you're an imbecile," said Professor McGonagall tartly, elbowing Snape in the ribs when he gave a snort of laughter.

"Oh, 'ello, Minerva," said Hagrid, without ever taking his eyes off Norbert, whose only sign of recognition was another attempt to incinerate him.

"We've got to do it, Albus," said Snape, propping himself against the wall in a decidedly casual manner. "Rubeus will never be able to keep this to himself and if the Ministry get to hear of it Charlie will face a fine that... I know a memory charm is required but I can't remember which."

Dumbledore laughed, which made Professor McGonagall look even crosser.

"Just as well," she said. "I won't have either of you attempting delicate work like that while the pair of you are blissed out of what passes for your minds. Kindly leave me to do what needs to be done. Charlie, go away. Now." She divided her attention between watching them and Charlie Weasley, as he meekly remounted Norbert. Rider and dragon took ponderously to the air.

"She's wonderful when she's angry, isn't she," remarked Dumbledore with pride. "I think I might have been a bit stern with Charlie."

"I should have asked him for some fresh dragon scales," mourned Snape. "There's a potion that... Well, I don't exactly remember what it does right now but I know it needs fresh dragon scales."

"It's for walking through fire," said Dumbledore authoritively.

"No, that's dragon-hide boots. Did you know dragon's shed their skin?" added Snape.

"I do know something about dragons. Who discovered the twelve uses for dragon's blood?"

"Oh, even I know that one," said Snape smugly. "You did. I've got a memory enhancing potion you might want to try."

Her eyes narrowing, suspicious that this might be some misguided attempt at humour on their part, Professor McGonagall resisted the temptation to knock some sense back into the pair of them. The beaded flowers decorating Dumbledore's cap were giggling together in the most irritating way, while the fatuous smile which kept appearing on Snape's face was enough to make her feel ill, although that might have been the knowledge that she still had to Obliviate Hagrid.

By the time Norbert and Charlie were no more than a fiery dot in the sky, Hagrid was back in his hut preparing a stoat sandwich and wondering how he had managed to burn off clumps of his beard.

Professor McGonagall took Dumbledore and Snape straight to see Madam Pomfrey, who wasted no time performing a diagnostic check with her wand.

"Physically there's no indication of anything being wrong with either of them," she said, frowning - not least because Dumbledore's humming was driving her mad. "They both look as if they've enjoyed a good holiday. I could give them a full medical, of course but there doesn't really seem any need. If this is the result of phoenix bliss I can't understand why no one has ever written about it. Do you realise the possibilities for curing - ?"

"Never mind that," said a harassed looking Professor McGonagall. "When will they be in their right minds?"

"It's hard to say. I would think a few more hours rather than days."

"Can't you accelerate the process?" demanded Professor McGonagall. "We can't have the pair of them wandering around the school in this state."

"Well, I could try a triple-strength dose of that hangover cure Severus came up with when Professor Kettleburn had his...um...episodes," mused Madam Pomfrey, rummaging through her stock cupboard. "Ah, here it is." She checked the expiry date. "And still fit to be used."

"That's a matter of opinion. I'm not drinking that muck," said Dumbledore with decision. "It tastes like rotting tripe and smells even worse. I don't know what all the fuss is about, there's nothing wrong with me."

"If only that were true," sighed Professor McGonagall. "Albus, will you do me a favour?"

"Anything, my dear. Anything at all." His smile held so much affection that she forgave the expansive sweep of his arm, which knocked her hat askew.

"Go and sleep it off," she said, with a trace of desperation.

"Sleep what off?" he asked.

Madam Pomfrey left her colleague to give Snape the sobering up potion while she took charge of Dumbledore before the Deputy Head could perform an Unforgivable on the Headmaster of Hogwarts.

Ten minutes later gentle snores issued from the bed under the window of the hospital wing; all that could be seen of Dumbledore, who was snug under the covers, was cap tilted over his face and the pointed tips of his orange boots.

Professor McGonagall experienced a faint pang of guilt when Snape took the potion she handed him with a trusting nod of thanks. His gratitude was short-lived.

After rinsing his mouth out for the fifth time Snape accepted that he would just have to wait for the rest of the taste to wear off. He revived enough to cast some unpleasant aspersions on Professor McGonagall's parentage. "There is no mercy in you, is there?" he said bitterly. "There was I, no trouble to anyone..."

"Self-delusion is a wonderful thing. The children mustn't see you while you're in this state."

"All the more reason to leave me alone. Besides, it's the weekend. My contract specifies that I'm only supposed to work one weekend in four. Albus is always telling me to take time off and frivol."

In all the years she had known him she had never heard Snape complain about his lack of free time. "That potion should have worked by now," she said worriedly. "All this untypical good-humour in the face of adversity is most disquieting."

"It must be," he said sympathetically.

She grinned despite herself and sat beside him. "Goodness, you really are relaxed. I suppose there's no hope of this state of affairs continuing once the state of phoenix euphoria wears off?"

"Ah, but wouldn't you miss me?" asked Snape.

Professor McGonagall hesitated, then surrendered with grace. "I realise I'm making a rod for my own back, but yes, I would. Now come on do. There's nothing like a dragon before breakfast to give one an appetite. No, you go down the staircase first - in case you stumble."

"Don't want me landing on you, eh? Very wise," said Snape.

There seemed little point in explaining she hoped to stop him from killing himself.

Snape had entered the corridor outside the hospital wing when Professor McGonagall yanked him back. "Your appearance!" she hissed. "You need to apply the Appearance Detracting Charm."

Snape put a hand to his face. "But I didn't remove it," he said blankly.

"Then presumably Fawkes did. Just apply the charm, Severus."

His visible concentration was slightly worrying but she relaxed when she saw a more familiar profile appear.

"How's that?" he asked, gesturing to his face.

"Highly unpleasant. Situation normal, in fact. Oh, have you remembered that you're back in Serpens Tower?"

"Not with B - Pinchbeck?"

"He's sleeping down in the dungeons the better to keep an eye on your Slytherins. Some of the third and fourth years..."

"It's always the third and fourth years. When it's not the fifth years. Or the second years. Of course, the first years..."

"Severus, you're rambling."

"Nonsense." His forehead wrinkled. "Was I? It's difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes."

"Are you sure you shouldn't sleep this off?"

Snape waved the query aside. "You worry too much, Minerva. *'Tis magic, magic that hath ravish'd me.* I wonder if they're serving kippers this morning. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a good kipper."

It required some exertion to keep up with him as he set off down the first staircase. He finally came to a halt outside the Great Hall. As they listened to the noise coming from inside they both braced themselves.

"Listen to those children. What do we tell them to account for this disturbance?" demanded Professor McGonagall.

"That we have just completed a successful test of Hogwarts's defences and repelled the enemy without injury to ourselves," said Snape promptly.

"And what if they - or the Ministry - ask about the intruder?"

"Get Albus to tell them the Dark Lord isn't the only enemy of wizarding freedom."

Professor McGonagall pinched the thin bridge of her nose. "But then the news will get back to Voldemort and he'll assume he has a rival and - " She broke off to give Snape a look of approval. "That's very good, Severus. That potion must be working at last."

"Perhaps it's just that lying comes easily to me," he said straight-faced.

Undeceived, she gave him a narrow-eyed glare. "It would be a pleasure to box your ears."

"You never have yet. Now, kippers," he added more briskly.

"Don't you think you'd be happier eating in Serpens Tower?" she asked hopefully.

His eyebrows rose. "Ashamed to be seen with me?"

"Will you behave," she scolded in a venomous whisper.

With no intention of doing anything of the kind, he suddenly noticed how tired she looked. Minerva wasn't an old woman, of course, barely middle-aged by wizarding standards, but she was doing the work of two people while allowing her good-name to be slandered by idiot children who should have known better.

"I promise to be unkind to the children," he offered.

Rather than smile, she held him back for a moment but could think of nothing to say that wouldn't make her sound like Sybill Trelawney.

"Is something wrong?" he added in a different tone. "Apart from this morning?"

For a moment her straight shoulders slumped. "I don't know," she admitted with a trace of helplessness. "I've not been sleeping well and the work keeps piling up but - I have this feeling," she added with obvious distaste, as if the aberration was nothing to do with her. "As if something dreadful is about to happen. Though so help me, if you make one crack - "

"You've been reading Titmouse's Prophecies again, haven't you?" recognised Snape with resignation.

"He says November is the month of blood and sacrifice," she said unwillingly "and this has been a particularly long November."

"I know," Snape said.

"Aren't you going to tell me it's all superstitious nonsense?"

"Why bother? Your own good sense has done that. You've been under considerable strain this term, not least from the children of your own House. Your Gryffindors need a sharp lesson in manners. They're bullies and cowards, not to mention stupid if they've learnt so little about you. You would no more drink on duty than ride bare-back on a broom."

"Severus!" she protested, failing to sound shocked. "When I agreed to play the drunken incompetent I knew House discipline would suffer."

Snape didn't make the obvious reply even though he knew he would regret the missed opportunity when next she irritated him. "You should take the rest of the weekend off."

"I've got the seventh years final career sessions this morning," she said with gloom. "All ten of them - including Goyle and Malfoy."

"At least it won't be as dull as ten Hufflepuffs." Snape fished in a pocket and produced a knut. "As I feel as rested as if I've had a week's sleep, I'm willing to gamble. You call it. Loser takes all ten sessions."

Hermione had never considered herself to be particularly imaginative but weeks of knowing Severus had gone to Voldemort, combined with the uncertainty of when - if - he would return, had proved otherwise. Whether waking or asleep it was difficult to banish thoughts of what might be happening to him. She slept poorly and it was beginning to take its toll on her.

Woken by what had sounded like an attack on the school had left her jumpy and out of sorts, although she was learning to conceal what she felt. Outwardly calm, she wasted little time in calling on Madam Pomfrey; she hadn't believed the story Minerva had fed them in the Great Hall for a moment, although at least Severus had been there. To her relief the hospital wing had no patients, a real crisis convincing would-be malingers of their glowing health. Besides, no one wanted to miss the grudge match between Slytherin and Gryffindor which was to take placethat afternoon.

"Oh, come in, my dear," said Madam Pomfrey with a welcoming smile. "You're the perfect excuse for me to stop stock-taking. Don't worry about that noise, it's just Albus snoring. He's sleeping off the effects of phoenix bliss. Come into the office and I'll order some tea - and toast. You look as if you haven't eaten."

"What's phoenix bliss?" asked Hermione.

Madam Pomfrey brought her up-to-date while they enjoyed a late breakfast. "Now, what was it you wanted to see me about?"

Hermione ploughed right in. "I know the initiation of the new Death Eaters took place before term began, but from what we know there's nothing to stop Voldemort from giving anyone the Dark Mark whenever he choses, is there?"

"What makes you say that?" asked Madam Pomfrey sharply, before her expression relaxed at Hermione's look of surprise. "You haven't got some hare-brained scheme about offering yourself up to him, I trust?"

"No," said Hermione, looking pained. "Even Voldemort wouldn't believe that. But he could, couldn't he?"

"You should discuss this with Severus."

"I don't need his input for what I have in mind."

"Go on," said Madam Pomfrey.

In single-minded pursuit of her idea Hermione was oblivious to the trace of reserve in the mediwitch's manner. "Suppose, for argument's sake, that some of the seventh years hadtaken the Dark Mark since the summer Initiation. How would you feel about conniving in the sedation, kidnapping and unauthorized examination of one or two of your patients?"

"Unenthusiastic. I take it this isn't a joke?"

"I've never been more serious," said Hermione earnestly. "I'm worried - terrified - about what carrying the Dark Mark might mean for individuals."

"Severus," cut in Madam Pomfrey.

Hermione's shoulders sagged. "Yes."

"Which concern justifies what you are proposing?"

"Not exactly justifies. Look, if I knew where Percy was I'd suggest using him. It's not just about Severus and Percy though. From what Severus has said many of the new intake of Death Eaters are far from being volunteers. Their families have been threatened, attacked in some cases."

"That doesn't justify the action you propose."

"We need to understand the Dark Mark," said Hermione, desperation seeping through.

"Do you think Albus hasn't thought of this in the years since the Dark Lord returned?"

"Thought, possibly. But what has he actually done to eradicate or nullify the Dark Mark?"

"It's called the Dark Mark for more than its appearance. It was devised and created by the darkest of magic and the most wicked of intentions. Severus has - understandably - been unwilling for anyone to study the mark, but Albus believes the Dark Lord may be able to draw power from his Death Eaters."

"Has he also told you what efforts he's made to remove or study the Dark Mark?" pursued Hermione, wearing the dogged expression which Ron and Harry had become all too familiar with over the years.

Madam Pomfrey's gaze slid away. "Not exactly. Oh, for heaven's sake, child! Do you seriously imagine Albus would sit back and do nothing if it was within his power to - "

"Yes, I do."

There was a small, stark silence.

Breath wooshing from her, Madam Pomfrey sank onto the nearest chair. "What has Albus ever done that you should so dislike him?"

"I don't. Though I should. But when you're with him his charisma is such that you find yourself wanting to please him. Yet he's the wizard who sacrificed Harry's childhood. The wizard who left an untrained eleven year old face Voldemort. A wizard who has consistently not told Harry things which might have helped or comforted him - and of all people Harry's needed that. A wizard who hasn't even seen to it that Harry's had decent training against the Dark Arts.

"Good grief, Poppy, Albus couldn't even come straight out when he told me to use the time turner, at a point where lives depended on split second timing! Luckily I didn't appreciate the implications until afterwards or I might have frozen and Sirius and Buckbeak would have been dead."

"How do you think Severus will react to what you're proposing?"

"I thought I'd take a leaf from Albus' book. There's no need to load Severus down with information until we have to," said Hermione evasively.

"Who amongst the seventh years do you think might be a Death Eater?"

"Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle."

"You Gryffindors," sniffed Madam Pomfrey. "Once you develop a prejudice you really hold on to it, don't you? Vincent Crabbe may look like the second cousin of a mountain troll but he's turned into a nice, dependable boy. He's come on amazingly in herbology, has a sense of ridiculous, and is both amused by and protective of the juniors. He's proving to be an excellent prefect."

In no mood to be lectured, Hermione folded her arms.

"Why speak to me about your plan? You must have known I would disapprove - besides, you're more than capable of going ahead and doing it anyway," added Madam Pomfrey.

"I thought about it," admitted Hermione, her frown lifting now it was obvious she was going to get her own way. "But I need your diagnostic skills. I don' t want to risk taking any action which might compromise our tests on the Dark Mark."

"That's a cold-blooded way of looking at it."

"There's nothing admirable about war, whichever side you're on. And the sooner the wizarding world faces up to that the sooner it will be over," snapped Hermione.

"Get Severus to agree to having his Dark Mark examined and I'll think about helping you with some more test cases."

"But - " Hermione silenced her instinctive protest. "All right. I'd like to make one other test, that of scent, if any. Of the Dark Mark, I mean. We already know the mark on Severus' arm has no smell. I wondered if Remus would be prepared to help."

"What difference does the smell make?"

"I don't know! That's the point," added Hermione more moderately. "It's why I'm trying to cover every contingency. Once we understand what the Dark Mark is and how it was constructed we have a better chance of removing it - and not just from Severus."

"I suggest involving March at the earliest possible stage. What he doesn't know about Charms isn't worth knowing. Severus will take more persuading," added Madam Pomfrey without subtlety.

"I know," said Hermione with gloom, not looking forward to that part. "There's no need to tell Albus, is there?"

"Absolutely not. Given how much of his strength is given to maintaining the protection around Hogwarts, with luck he won't find out." Madam Pomfrey gave a tired smile. "Don't look so shocked. Above all else Hufflepuffs are pragmatists."

After a mind-numbingly tedious morning listening to the career plans of the dull and undistinguished - or worse, the social plans of those with no financial need to earn a living - Snape remembered why he never made altruistic gestures; they always bit you on the arse. There was nothing like boredom for dispelling phoenix euphoria. Only two more pupils to go, after which he might just take to drink himself.

Ron hurried in for what would be the last discussion he would have about possible careers since he had decided against joining the Aurors.

"Professor Snape," he said, coming to a halt just inside the door of Professor McGonagall's office.

"No, I haven't murdered your Head of House. We had a bet, I lost. Close the door, come in and sit down. The quicker we begin, the quicker we finish. Given your change of heart, what career do you want to follow when you leave Hogwarts?" asked Snape briskly.

"What I want to do doesn't come into it," Ron replied, trying to press any resentment from his voice. "Mum and Dad lost everything when the Burrow was destroyed. Dad gets treated like dirt by the Ministry. Bill and Charlie have only just started earning anything like a decent wage and have loans to pay off before they can help much and Percy..." His large hands parted as his voice trailed away.

"What about Fred and George?" asked Snape prosaically.

"They've always got away with murder. I shouldn't think there's much chance of them developing a sense of responsibility now and mum won't ask them to - " Ron shrugged and changed tack. "If I get respectable results for my N.E.W.T.s I should be able to get a job with the Ministry of Magic." He lacked the experience to hide what that prospect meant to him.

"And if you had a choice?" asked Snape.

Ron's calm facade cracked wide open. "I don't, so there's no point talking about it." A moment later he had himself under control again. "Sorry."

He had grown up fast this last year or so, noted Snape with approval. It was a pity Potter hadn't done the same.

"It's no big deal. It isn't as if I particularly good at anything - except playing chess," continued Ron. "And in a few years I can decide what I really want to do."


Ron visibly bristled at having his ambitions so lightly dismissed.

"Ah, I see you're not totally devoted to the idea of self-sacrifice. I repeat, what would you really like to do if you had a choice? "

"If money was no object, the most useful thing I could do now is to copy Herrmione, leave school and concentrate on working full time for the Inner Circle. With the increased class workload, being a prefect and N.E.W.T.s homework there isn't nearly enough time to work on strategy."

Snape glanced at the parchment in front of him. "That much is obvious from the decline in your marks this term. The castle still needs a caretaker, a job which has always paid well, to make up for the obvious drawbacks. It gives you the perfect excuse to stay at Hogwarts - naturally, apart from a few visible patrols you'll leave the work to the house elves and concentrate on strategy. Later, should you wish to resume your studies, there are scholarships available to cover the costs involved."

"These scholarships. I'd be able to live off one - and still put something in the family kitty?"

"The terms are reasonably generous. You will, of course, need to discuss this with your parents. You're still under age. Should they agree, I would suggest that you let it be known amongst your more garrulous acquaintances that a reversal in your family fortunes means you have to start work. But it would also leave you open to ridicule from some of your peers."

"I can handle Malfoy with one hand tied behind my back," said Ron, who looked as if he had just been relieved of some great weight.

"Quite," murmured Snape. "Then I suggest you speak with your parents. Close the door on your way out, then send in the next victim."

"Yes. I just want to say...thanks, professor."

"Go away, Mr Weasley."

Ron grinned and headed for the door. "I've just thought," he said, before he opened it, "once I've officially left school, do I get to call you Severus?"

He had the sense not to wait for Snape's reply.

Charlie returned to Hogwarts that afternoon, just as the Quidditch match was starting; he looked slightly at a loss without Norbert, who was safe on the reservation, sleeping off recent excitements. A beaming Arthur clapped his second son on the shoulder and wasted no time in taking him to see Molly.

In the event Charlie escaped much of a lecture from his mother because she was drowsily nursing two additions to the Weasley family; Eleanor and Martha had been born when the panic occasioned by Norbert's arrival had been at its height. When Molly fell asleep mid-scold Charlie crept out to find Bill waiting to introduce him to the work of the Inner Circle.

"We're using Severus' library in Serpens Tower now he's moved back in there. He's pretty decent about allowing us to borrow books, just don't make a song and dance about it. It only makes him irritable. The puzzle board has been moved there too. You've got a lot of catching up to do."

One of the brightest of a bright family, Charlie applied himself to work.

"I'd no idea things were this bad," he said to Bill, as people began to arrive for the meeting of the Inner Circle in ones and twos, some of the staff still caught up in the aftermath of a more-heated-than-usual Quidditch match.

"Thanks to cover-ups by the Ministry, not many people do - except those who've taken the Dark Mark"

"And you're sympathizing with them because - ?" asked Charlie.

"Ah," said Bill. "You didn't get to the information about Percy then."

"Poor Charlie," murmured Professor Sprout, careful not to appear to be watching the Weasley in question. "I knew he would take the news hard. I always thought he was the most sensitive of the Weasleys."

"Not much of a competition," said Madam Hooch. "Fred and George always struck me as having the sensitivity of a bludger. As for Charlie... That damned dragon left our tower stinking like a midden."

"Don't exaggerate," said Professor McGonagall as she hurried into the room. "Thanks to the efforts of the house elves your precious tower is probably the cleanest it's been for centuries."

When general attention was on a heated discussion taking place between Madam Hooch and Professor McGonagall Hermione edged closer to Snape, disconcerted to discover he was staring with rapt attention into the white-gold heart of the fire. Wary of startling him, she sank beside him on the low, wide footstool.

His head turned then, the unspoken welcome on his face all the reassurance she needed.

"I hope I haven't interrupted a train of thought vital to the war effort," she said, flippant to cover a wave of lust that came from nowhere.

"I'm just grateful to be capable of more than two minutes coherent thought at a time," he confessed. "Phoenix bliss might be astonishing - and I freely admit that I can't remember the last time I felt this well - but I still feel as if I have the attention span of a first year full of chocolate frogs. Where's Albus?" he thought to ask.

"According to Minerva he's still sleeping off the effects of the euphoria. She kept muttering something about his humming."

"Ah. That would explain it," he said cryptically, before he leant forward. "There he is! See? I thought I was imagining it. There's a salamander in the heart of the fire. He's eating that small patch of flames in the centre of the log."

She had never seen his face so unguarded, his eyes sparkling with pleasure rather than with malice.

"I've read about salamanders, of course."

"Of course," he agreed, earning himself a nudge in the ribs from a sharp elbow.

"But nothing I read said how beautiful they are."

"The living heart of a fire," he murmured. "I'll give the house elves instructions not to let it go out."

Ultra-conscious of the warmth of his thigh, flank and arm brushing her, she sat contentedly salamander watching, until finally the small creature scampered out of sight. Snape gave a small sigh but made no attempt to move.

Unable to remember seeing him this relaxed, Hermione hoped she wasn't about to spoil the mood. "I was hoping to have a word with you in private," she murmured. "I know you said we were probably better not discussing Harry..."

"Nothing has occurred to change my mind," he assured her.

"I'm worried about him."

Snape gestured to where the others sat in small groups, poring over books, debating points or frankly gossiping. "Allow me to introduce you to a room full of people who are 'worried' about Potter. But if his godfather sees no need to take Harry to task, forgive me if I can't summon up the enthusiasm to be further insulted."

Hermione scanned his face. "So you don't think Voldemort has anything to do with the change in Harry?"

Snape briefly considered the idea. "If he did I would have expected him to be in a better mood."

Hermione gave a dispirited nod. "The thing is... The other night I couldn't sleep so I was going down to the kitchen for some hot chocolate - Yes, I know we have house elves to see to that but sometimes I like to do things for myself, all right! - and I saw Harry wandering the corridors. He looked... He looked as if he was spoiling for a fight," she said quickly. "So I didn't say anything but I did follow him. Did you know the Mirror of Erised has been moved again? And that Harry's found it? The thing is, when he looked into it... Severus, the mirror stayed blank - and black. As if Harry was dead!"

Profoundly unexcited, Snape rubbed the back of his neck. "A more prosaic explanation might be that Albus has found a way to disable the mirror." To his relief she didn't ask if that was, in fact, the case.

"Thank goodness for that," she said gruffly, trying not to give way to the relief flooding her. "Only I thought..."

"While this isn't something you'll hear me say lightly, let alone often, you think too much." His quirking mouth betrayed him.

"You are in a mellow mood. Or stoned," added Hermione, remembering a couple of her parents' friends. "Muggle term for phoenix euphoria," she explained, when he looked puzzled.

"Muggles have phoenixes?"

Better understanding Minerva's frazzled expression, Hermione shook her head. "Never mind. So about Harry..."

"Do you want me to have a word with Black about him?"

"No," said Hermione with more decision than tact. "But you could speak to Minerva," she added, successfully wiping the smug expression from his face.

"It's time we returned to the others," said Snape, getting to his feet.

"That would be a 'no' then," recognised Hermione, undeceived.

Muttering under his breath Snape went to find Sirius Black, in the hope that an argument might clear his head.

"Where's young Harry?" Charlie asked Bill, more to take his mind off Percy than any real interest. "I would have expected him to be in a thick of things."

"Last I saw of him he was skiving off in the direction of the kitchen. He seems stuck in that stroppy fifteen year old sulk mode. His class work is appalling, when he bothers to turn up, he's quarrelled with all his friends and all Albus will say is that Harry has a lot on his mind."

"Anything to do with why Harry and Ron aren't talking?" asked Charlie. There was nothing like working with dragons for improving your powers of observation.

"I don't know and there's no point asking Ron, he just gets very tight-lipped and stern. I still can't believe that our ickle Ronikins is planning strategy for the likes of Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape," said Bill wonderingly. "And more, that they take him seriously. The lunatics are taking over the asylum. Did Dad tell you about Severus' plan to let Ron leave school and work for the Inner Circle all the time?"

"Mmn, though I'm not sure if I like the idea of him abandoning his N.E.W.T.s. That said, we don't seem to be making much progress against He-Who- Voldemort. And Ron..." Charlie gave a wry grimace. "He makes me feel old, Bill."

"How d'you think I feel?" said the eldest Weasley unsympathetically.

The two brothers exchanged a grin, then automatically rose to their feet as the headmaster came into the library.

"I'm sorry I'm late, my dears. A small crisis amongst the house elves. Ah, Charlie. You might want to apologize to them for the extra work they've been put to, thanks to Norbert. It isn't that they object to work but dragons and house elves..." Dumbledore shook his head.

Charlie looked guilty. "Of course. I was just wondering what can I do to help the work of the Inner Circle."

"Given that you only just escaped Voldemort's clutches in Albania, your mother has let it be known that she would be happier if you undertook less 'exciting' work for a while. And we really could use some extra help at school. I wonder if you would be willing to consider joining the staff at Hogwarts - on the same terms as Bill," added Dumbledore quickly.

"Sure," said Charlie, having resigned himself to leaving his beloved dragons behind for a while. "But doing what? "

"Assisting me," said Madam Hooch, tucking her arm into Dumbledore's. "If it comes to a battle with Voldemort it's likely to be at Hogwarts. The seniors could use some training in advanced broom work. Those on the Quidditch teams do all right, but the rest..." Her nose wrinkled.

"And Hagrid could use an assistant," added Professor McGonagall. "Not least one capable of curbing his enthusiasm for the more dangerous creatures."

"Right now I could use some help in thinking of an explanation I can give the Ministry to account for the disappearance early this morning of the two Dementors who guarded our gates," said Dumbledore.

"Does the Ministry know they've gone?" asked Charlie.

"If they did, I imagine I would have heard from them."

"Easy. Tell them you hadn't noticed because no one's been down to the gates. Everyone's been working too hard to think of leaving the grounds and after living in close proximity with so many Dementors since the beginning of September they can't expect anyone to be bouncing with joy."

"If only we could find a way to record whatever it was that Fawkes did to Severus we could play it again at a later stage," mused Hermione.

"But why would we need to?" frowned Madam Pomfrey.

"In case Voldemort ever tries to make use of the Dementors."

"He doesn't control them," said Pinchbeck.

"Yet. They're an obvious weapon," said Snape. "I've heard nothing to suggest that's what he plans, but the possibility should be borne in mind."

"Recording sound," muttered Ron, who was frowning to himself. "I'm pretty certain dad had a muggle machine that could do that. Though it didn't work. No eklectricity. Lost now, of course."

"Electricity," corrected Hermione, a distinct snap to her voice. "How hard can one word be? If I bought a tape recorder is there anyway it could be made to work at Hogwarts?" she added to Dumbledore.

"I have no idea," he said blankly. "It isn't something I've ever tried. Or wanted to," he added reflectively. "I'm sure that Fawkes will be only too pleased to sing for us again, should the need arise."

"And if Voldemort kills him the moment he bursts into song?"

Dumbledore rubbed his long nose with his index finger. "I've never heard of a phoenix being killed. What is Severus doing?"

"Watching the salamander that lives in the fire," said Lupin.

"Sirius, kindly keep your comments to yourself," snapped Flitwick, when Black muttered something uncomplimentary. "They are neither accurate or generous. I would have hoped that even you would be capable of appreciating how much Severus needs to relax. We owe Fawkes our thanks for giving him this respite."

Chastened, Black muttered an apology. Flitwick was so easy-going that it was easy to take his sunny nature for weakness.

"I don't recall seeing much information about phoenixes in the library," mused Flitwick. "I don't know if anyone else has ever come across anything?" He glanced around the room and was met by a series of denials.

"There again, I haven't ever looked," admitted Dumbledore.

"But Fawkes has been with you for decades. Weren't you worried that you wouldn't look after him properly?" demanded Hermione, responsible pet-owning having been drummed in to her at an early age.

"My dear girl, you don't look after a phoenix," said Madam Hooch. "If anything, they look after you. "

"Given the lack of interest shown for their well-being, that's probably just as well," retorted Hermione.

"Why all the fuss?" added Madam Hooch, her strongly marked eyebrows drawing together in a frown.

"It just seems symptomatic of the wizarding world's lack of interest in magical creatures," said Hermione, her voice flattened. There were still occasions, usually when she was least expecting it, when all that was familiar suddenly became foreign and she was left feeling as if she belonged in neither the Muggle nor the wizarding world.

"Where would we be without you to tell us what's wrong with us," wondered Madam Hooch tartly.

"Perhaps Charlie would be kind enough to better inform us about dragons," suggested Professor Sprout in the interests of harmony.

"...Of course dragons don't eat humans," said Charlie, who got over his nerves five minutes into his talk. "There's not enough meat on us to produce a good belch, let alone raise a flame. I'm not saying dragons have never eaten one of us, mind. Get a dragon hungry enough and he'll eat anything."

"So what do they eat?" asked Flitwick, leaning forward in his enthusiasm. He had always harboured a secret dream of being a dragon keeper.

"Anything they can sink their teeth into. Muggle animals for preference. Magic beasts give them shocking indigestion. If they have to they can go without food for months - though it makes them bad-tempered. As the reservations are well-stocked with food it's easy enough to tempt them onto one - safely away from Muggles. One Muggle on a Quest can wreck havoc."

"Quest?" frowned Madam Sprout.

"Would-be dragon-slayers," said Charlie shortly. "It doesn't happen nowadays, of course because we Obliviate the Muggles in cases of a dragon-sighting. The thing is...they can see dragons. Whether they're cloaked or not. For obvious reasons this is never been made public knowledge."

"St. George," said Hermione, with a grin.

"Murderous bastard," said Charlie. "In the bad old days, before the Ministry was set up to keep Muggles and Wizards apart, Muggles killed more dragons than attacks of the Flux and the Nobblers combined."

"I suppose dragons don't horde gold either?" asked Black in the squeaky voice of Pinchbeck.

"Pure propaganda from the days when goblins tried farming dragons for harvesting. The state of most dragons' bowels they'd end up melting whatever they were sitting on. Dragons have got more sense than to waste energy on something they can't eat. When the Dragon-Whisperers first approached me I read everything about dragons I could get my hands on. Not a decent bit of research in any of it. It wasn't till I joined the Whisperers and studied their writings..."

"Will they ever be made public?" asked Flitwick, looking wistful.

"Too risky for the dragons. We Whisperers like to kid ourselves that we have a relationship with our dragons but they tolerate us, that's all. Their race memories are so old that they've seen everything, many times. They have no interest in the doings of Wizards."

"Nil desperandum," said Bill cheerfully. "We'll think of something."

Black gave him a sour look. "Trust a Weasley to persist on looking on the bright side."

Rather than being offended, Bill just grinned. "I don't want to worry you but you're sounding more like Severus every day."

"Don't be provoking," said Flitwick. "Hermione, my dear, you've been unusually quiet."

"Always tactful, that's my March," murmured Professor Sprout to Madam Pomfrey, who had finally been able to leave the hospital wing after patching up various injured Quidditch players.

"I was just wondering how much misinformation might have been written about other magical creatures," Hermione said. "We have these translation spells, which enable us to read in most foreign languages. Has anyone ever tried to adapt one so we could communicate with...a unicorn, for instance?"

"I doubt if it ever occurred to anyone that they would have anything of interest to say," said Pinchbeck blankly. "They're beasts, not rational beings."

"And werewolves are...?" purred Snape, in the mood to make mischief.

Uproar ensued until Dumbledore enforced the peace. "One more word," he warned the various guilty parties. "Hermione, my dear. While the idea is interesting as an exercise, the notion that any beast could..."

"If we don't try to communicate with them, how can we be sure?" she interrupted, indignation blazing from her at yet another glimpse of the arrogance rife in the wizarding world.

"The Ministry," began Bill.

"Well, I don't want to be rude about the Ministry," said Hermione - those who knew her best held their breath - "but from what Charlie has told us about the disinformation about dragons and hippogriffs, we can't be certain of anything. If some wizards had their way Muggles would be classified as 'beasts' . It couldn't hurt to research translation spells."

"There are none," said Snape. "You only have to think back to how Harry's fellow pupils greeted the news he was a parseltongue to realise how well the idea of talking to beasts would be received."

"I thought that was just because Voldemort is a parseltongue," said Hermione.

"Not entirely," said Professor Sprout.

"Well, maybe Harry can..." Hermione turned to glance around the room. "He's not here," she said blankly, horrified that it should have taken her until now to realise as much.

"No," agreed Black with reluctance.

"And you didn't think that someone - you - should go and fetch him?" said Hermione.

Black avoided meeting anyone's eyes. "No."

"So we're all going to continue to pretend that we haven't noticed what an ill-mannered lout Potter has become?" said Snape.

Ron looked miserable and Hermione bit her bottom lip, but neither leapt to Harry's defence.

"Ah, I see we are," said Snape, his voice at its silkiest.

"Severus, this is hardly helpful," said Dumbledore irritably.

"I should have guessed I would be the one at fault here, rather than the perfection that is Potter. If we're to have any chance against Vol - The Dark Lord - we need to see things as they are, not as we'd like them to be."

"That's it!" yelled Ron, making several people jump as he leapt to his feet. "I knew there was something bugging me about Colin's camera and then Professor Snape..." Gabbling in his excitement, he was unaware that some of the best brains in the wizarding world were hanging on his every word. "Look, if the Veritas lens sees things - people - as they really are wouldn't it show Voldemort as he really is? If we understood that, we might find out how to kill him. The only problem is how do we get that photograph?"

One by one the members of the Inner Circle looked at Snape.

"Easy," he said. "I'll just asked him to pose for a holiday snap."

"Sarcasm is hardly helpful," Professor McGonagall pointed out.

"And your contribution to the effort has been what?" inquired Snape acidly.

"Children, please," said Dumbledore.

"Don't you 'children' me, Albus Dumbledore," retorted Professor McGonagall. "Life as your deputy isn't all roses. Anything but. You try to keep up with the Ministry paperwork, teach Transfiguration, and run a House - all while having to rearrange timetables every month to accommodate Remus not being able to work. And what thanks do I get - ?"

"Oh, hush, Minerva. We're all tired," soothed Professor Sprout.

" - a Death Eater twitting me about not doing enough!" Professor McGonagall stopped as abruptly as if she had been pole-axed.

There was a stark silence while everyone but Snape looked as if they wished they were a long way away and deaf to boot.

"Oh mercy, I never intended... Severus, I know you've borne the brunt of... I'm sorry," Professor McGonagall added stiffly, looking angry and ashamed in equal measure. "I don't know what made me say that."

"You're all tired. Perhaps if you were to take a couple of days leave," suggested Dumbledore. "It's been a difficult term."

"If Minerva takes a couple of days off, she'll be the one who'll have to amend the timetables. *To nihil dices faciesus Minerva,*" added Snape, in the closest he was likely to come to an apology. "Perhaps I could help with some of the paperwork. It would lend strength to the idea of my trying to supplant you," he added to her.

"But you hate paperwork," said Professor McGonagall. "You're still not yourself, are you?" she added.

Her lack of tact just made him grin. "Why be myself when this version worries people so much more? But the fact remains you need an assistant. An administrator who can beat the Ministry at their own game."

"What a splendid idea," beamed Dumbledore.

"But how can we afford it?" protested Professor McGonagall. "It's a wonderful idea but the school's accounts never balance as it is."

Snape shrugged. "I'm sure the money could be found from somewhere. All we need is a suitable candidate."

"Percy would be perfect," said Charlie, before he went red, got up and abruptly left the room.

Bill and Ron exchanged a glance and went after him.

"Poor boys," said Professor Sprout. "Albus, go after them."

Dumbledore took one look at her stern expression and went without a murmur.

Oblivious to the spat between staff members Hermione absently nibbled the side of her thumb nail. Her father had loved the James Bond films, more for the gadgets than the pretty women.

"This Veritas lens," she said slowly, "can it be adapted to fit any size camera?"

"Why?" asked Snape with suspicion.

"My father loved gadgets. Whenever we went to London he'd try and find an excuse to stop off in Mayfair - there was this shop that sold all kinds of surveillance equipment for spying on unsuspecting neighbours, employees, or business rivals. Some of the cameras were tiny. But first we need to know whether Voldemort would be able to sense Muggle technology."

Snape considered the matter. "I doubt if it would ever occur to him that one of his pure-blooded wizards would even think of using it. Or know how to," he added, having mastered years ago the art of asking a question without appearing to do so.

"Well, you'd certainly have no problem," Hermione said. "Wait until we've seen what's available. Then you'll know whether or not the idea's feasible."

"You'll need an escort to London," said Professor McGonagall.

"Severus will take me," said Hermione. "Oh, that is..."

"Thank you for remembering me," he said dryly.

She gave an unrepentant grin. "There's no point going tomorrow, it's Sunday and a lot of shops still don't open then. Could we go Monday morning?"

Black, who had been watching Snape and Hermione in low-voiced conversation, turned to Lupin. "Am I imagining things or is he tupping her?"

Lupin gave him a look of exasperation. "If you spoke a little louder Severus would hear and could tell you himself."

"Ah. Yes. Probably not a good idea. You've enough wolfsbane?" There would be a full moon tomorrow; true to his word, Lupin did not teach for two days on either side of the full moon, which placed further strain on the overstretched staff.

"Sirius..." His nerves always frayed at this time of the month Lupin made an obvious attempt to control his irritation.

"I know he wouldn't withhold it, really I do. It's just... Old habits," explained Black with a grimace, which looked all the odder when seen through the blurring effect of the Appearance Detracting Charm. "Though if ever I saw an advertisement for phoenix bliss it's Severus Snape."

"Now we're all up-to-date I propose we pause for supper," said Dumbledore. "Ron, summon a house elf, would you." He sent Bill and Charlie off to talk to March Flitwick and made himself comfortable in a crimson, wing-backed chair.

Conversation was general while the wizards made inroads on the supper the house elves provided, although a murmured request from Snape made one squeak with disapproval.

"Have you taken to abusing house elves in your old age?" inquired Madam Hooch.

"Worse, I want to make toast in front of the fire," Snape said.

"Buttered toast," mused Dumbledore.

Resigned, the house elves bought more supplies as Snape took down a battered looking bronze toasting fork from where it hung at the side of the hearth. The heat from the fire was intense and

Snape took off his robe and jacket, unfastened his waistcoat, removed his cravat and opened his shirt collar before drawing the footstool even closer to the fire. It was a mark of just how relaxed he was that he folded back his shirt sleeves without a thought.

"Budge up a bit and I'll butter the toast for you," said a familiar voice, in a tone that took his compliance for granted.

Snape shifted without comment, having resigned himself some time ago to Hermione organising his life as she saw fit.

"This fire is almost hot enough for an Ashwinder," said Snape, spearing a thick-cut slice of bread.

"Too hot for me," said Hermione, whose face was already flushed with the heat.

"Then take off your robe."

"I can't, I'm wearing trousers."

"A train of thought which might make sense to you but which means nothing to me."

"I haven't got the hips for trousers."

Snape's eyebrows drew together. "Nonsense," he said with authority.

"What would you know?" said Hermione crossly.

He turned to look at her, then gave the faintest of smiles.

"It's not funny," said Hermione, but she was shrugging out of her robe because her ladylike glow was fast turning into sweating like a horse.

"Indeed not," he said. Busy watching her instead of what he was doing, the smell of burning recalled him to his task.

"In fifty years time, thirty, if I'm really unlucky, I'll look just like Nana Hoskins - pear-shaped," said Hermione.

"I like pears," Snape offered, tipping a charred piece of toast onto the buttering plate.

"Pairs of what?" asked Hermione, applying butter with a liberal hand.

"Pears. The fruit. The shape." Snape bit into half the slice.

"If you say there'll be more of me to love, or that you like a good handful, I shall be forced to take drastic action."

"Credit me with some sense of self-preservation. Although there will, I do and feel free."

Hermione placed buttery fingers on his forehead. "You feel hot."

"That could be the fire," pointed out Professor Sprout, as she bustled over. "Severus, March and I would enjoy some toast if you're so inclined. I prefer my toast with less charcoal," she added pointedly, before she gasped. "Severus, it's gone!"

"What has?" Snape asked, looking up at her.

Professor Sprout caught hold of his forearm. "Look, it's gone. The Dark Mark has gone!"

Dragons - I don't think anything here contradicts the limited information provided in FB. The first time I came across the concept of decloaking was in Classic Trek.