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 28

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


Rather than sharing the sofa, Snape and Hermione were occupying armchairs on either side of the library fire. The atmosphere was spiked with tension, most of which was emanating from Snape, who sat bolt upright, with his arms folded across his chest, and wearing an expression guaranteed to sour milk at three paces.

Hermione, who had been fidgeting where she sat, smoothed her robe over her knees. "Well I think it's a good thing we've got our first argument out of the way," she said, with a trace of defiance. Though quite when she had become the guilty party...

"Do you," said Snape unhelpfully.

The only light in the room came from the fire; the dancing shadows did not flatter him. His scowl deepened the gouge between his eyebrows.

"The odd disagreement is inevitable. It doesn't have to be a bad thing. I expect there will be times when I'll be so furious I could hex you to Diagon Alley and back. But it won't mean I've stopped loving you. You do understand that, don't you?" Hermione checked, anxious because Severus still shied away from conceding that he might have feelings which could be hurt.

He gave her a look of disdain. "Yes," he said finally.

She wasn't sure if she was imagining the first sign of a thaw. He'd probably sulked for England as a child, she thought, exasperated. But given that he'd spent his first decade in the company of house elves... Not for the first time in the last few months Hermione wished she had spent more time honing her people skills and less on books.

"Of course, that was your cue to assure me of the same thing," she said.

Snape absorbed that. "Aren't there easier ways?"

"How would I know? I've never done this before."

Little by little tension was easing from Snape's face. "Nor have I. I didn't enjoy arguing with you at all," he added, trusting her enough to tell her the truth.

"Then we won't do it - very often," she added realistically. "Though you can't tell me Lippy hasn't lost her temper with you over the years."

His mouth twitched.

"I thought as much. And she loves you to pieces."

"You're not a house elf."

"If you think her love is blind, you haven't been paying attention. She loves you, warts and all. So do I. And it's how I want you to feel about me. It's how I presume you think about me. That's another cue," Hermione added, tart because even though his mouth hadn't twitched again she just knew Severus was enjoying himself now.

"I know five different potions to get rid of warts," offered Snape.

"You are the most infuriating..."

Snape looked wary when Hermione produced her wand, but she only used it to draw the large sofa closer to the fire.

"So we can snuggle up," she explained.

"What about Ron?"

She resisted making the obvious reply. "I should think he left some time ago. And if he didn't he'll have the sense to knock before he comes in. He's had enough shocks for one day. Now can we please have a cuddle?"

Snape gave her a speaking look but within a minute they were comfortably settled, his hand cupping the back of her head, fingertips carding the hair shaped into the nape of her neck.

Hermione made a contented sound in the back of her throat and closed her eyes. "I know this will sound ridiculous but I kept worrying that this - us - wouldn't be real until we'd survived our first argument."

"Why should you imagine that's ridiculous?" said Snape.

Those who didn't know him might have taken that at face value. Hermione gave his chest a light thump.

"Bastard," she mumbled.

He kissed the top of her head. "You are convinced now, I trust?"


For once that reply satisfied Snape. They lay together, the only sounds those from the burning logs settling in the grate and the rain slapping against the windows.

Then Snape spoke quietly into the darkness, his breath stirring Hermione's hair.

"'I am yours, you are mine. Of this we are certain. You are lodged in my heart, the small key is lost. You must stay there forever.'"

There was a short silence during which Hermione stirred and raised her head, searching his face. "You are the infuriating man," she said again, in quite a different way.

"You're the one who began the key theme," he pointed out.

She frowned her incomprehension, then smiled as she traced the memory - a quotation she had memorised for his pleasure.

They began to exchange unhurried, increasingly sloppy kisses, his hand warm on the curve of her haunch, her hand seeking him out.

"Keys," mused Hermione, as one by one she slipped open his buttons, pausing to kiss the bared portions of flesh. A sentence glimpsed in one of her mother's books seemed particularly apt.

'I the casket, he my drowned key...'

Snape just sucked in his breath, his hands closing over the cushions before they settled, with some purpose, over her.

Hermione opened her eyes on Monday morning to find Severus sitting up in bed reading while Fawkes perched on the headboard, leaning forward at a precarious angle to preen the tufting black hair.

"Morning," said Snape absently as he continued skim-read the reports on the first years which Black had flooed him. One hand above his head, he was caressing the plump gold chest of the phoenix.

Hermione hitched the bedclothes under her chin, Accioed a robe and pulled it over her head, not minded to walk around naked under the bright-eyed gaze of a phoenix. Fawkes' attention remained on Snape as she left the bed.

"I'll leave the two of you to commune in peace," she said acidly, refusing to feel jealous of a bird.

"Don't be ridiculous," said Snape, sparing her what had been intended for a brief glance.

"I know," she admitted with a sigh as she returned to the bed. "Particularly given what we owe him. Thank you," she said to Fawkes, smiling as the bird gave a blissful sigh when she found exactly the right spot to rub on the back of his head.

There was a soft rustling sound, the long tail feathers shimmering as Fawkes stretched, his wings shadowing Snape's face for a moment before the phoenix vanished as suddenly and as silently as he had arrived.

"I think he was checking up on you," said Hermione.

Snape nodded. "I mentioned to Albus that I hadn't seen Fawkes since the Phoenix bliss and losing the Dark Mark. What's that revolting smirk for?" he added, irritable as being caught out in showing concern.

"I'm just enjoying your sunny disposition," said Hermione, knowing his attention was back on the reports he was reading. "First day of school."

"Mmn." Snape had progressed to checking the results of the N.E.W.T.s class. His expression soured. "I can see I'm going to have my work cut out to get these dunderheads through their exam. Though Pinchbeck has done better than one might have expected."

Practically a eulogy, noted Hermione. "You're not nervous about going back to teaching?"

That caught Snape's attention and he gave a hoot of derision. "Do I look like a Hufflepuff? I should get ready," he realised.

Hermione was pensively studying her timetable when Snape re-entered their bedroom, smelling faintly of her bergamot cologne.

"Is something wrong? I thought March gave you an extension of that essay," said Snape.

"He did. I've just realised that I completely forgot my timetable - that is the detentions I was supposed to be supervising and the form exams I should have invigilated," Hermione said guiltily.

"I imagine we'll both be making our penance by way of extra duties for a while. Tonight I shall remind Slytherin House of my existence," said Snape.

Hermione gave him a fond look he was too preoccupied to notice. "Serves 'em right for being Slytherins," she said, giving a squeak of protest when Snape swooped down, his still damp hair cold against her breasts.

"I hope they give you hell," said Hermione, batting away his hand to rub herself warm with a portion of the sheet.

"They probably will," he admitted. "Order breakfast, will you. Lippy knows what I have on school days."

"I thought you intended to make a grand entrance and have breakfast at High Table this morning," said Hermione, watching with regret as favourite portions of Severus disappeared underneath layers of clothing. She had forgotten just how many buttons were involved.

"Mature reflection suggested it would be more fun to eat here, with you, then use a Disillusionment Charm to lurk at the back of the Potions classroom and frighten the first years when they've settled down," said Snape with relish.

"You really are a bastard," said Hermione affectionately, keeping to herself the certainty that Ron would have come up with a similar plan. At that train of thought, her expression changed. "What if Harry turns up for once? He's supposed to be taking Potions for one of his N.E.W.T.s."

Irritated, Snape just managed to stifle his impulse to snap her head off. Was that bloody boy always to come first? But he was too much of a coward to put her allegiance to the test.

"It's just that I've heard stories - about his bad temper," continued Hermione, nervous because this was dangerous territory for them both. "And he's always hated you. Don't under-estimate him just because you remember the eleven year old boy."

It took Snape a moment to appreciate that her concern was for him. "I won't," he said. It was a timely warning. He hadn't given Potter a thought for some months. "But I still don't understand why you're allowed to worry about me while I'm not permitted to express even the most basic concern for your - "

"That was different," said Hermione. "That was you and Ron expecting me to simper winsomely while you two decided I wasn't capable of looking after myself - Now what have I said?" she broke off to ask.

Snape took pleasure in decapitating his hard-boiled egg with one clean stroke. "I was just trying to imagine you simpering," he explained blandly.

Hermione had avoided eating in the Main Hall, whenever possible; officially she was a very minor member of staff ('Just above a house elf, really,' Malfoy had said), and as such had to dine at High Table, under the gaze of former classmates. After a morning with half her mind on what the first years might be doing to Severus - which was obviously absurd because if anyone was in need of protection it was them - she was one of the first members of staff to arrive for lunch.

Ron, predictably, was already at the Gryffindor table. At his broad grin she felt herself going faintly pink and forgot to wonder where Harry might be. She took a seat at the side arm of High Table, her glare enough to send Sybill Trelawney in the opposite direction.

As the Main Hall filled with children she became aware they were fizzing with a mixture of excitement and fright, although she was too far away to hear what was being said.

She had almost finished her soup when Severus and Dumbledore came in together, the headmaster's arm tucked in the crook of Snape's, as if to ensure he didn't try to escape, while Severus...

Hermione couldn't decide what to make of his expression.

"What's all the fuss about?" she asked in an undertone, the moment Bill Weasley sat beside her.

"Good afternoon to you too."

"Never mind that. If someone doesn't tell me what's going on..."

"Severus used a Disillusionment Charm to take his first year class by surprise. But his skill is such that... The entire school now seems to be under the impression that he can walk through walls."

"He'll love that," she murmured, her gaze flicking to the Slytherin table and staying there. The juniors were beaming with pride in their head of house and boasting about how quickly they would learn the technique, while conceding that it might explain why he didn't miss much. The middle school were visibly trying to remember which of their many misdemeanours he might have found out about, while the seniors said nothing at all. Hermione felt her pulse quicken when through a gap she glimpsed Malfoy's expression of baffled hatred before he thought to mask it. Goyle and Pansy Parkinson looked frightened, while Nott looked even more dangerous than usual. Crabbe and Millicent Bulstrode sat on either side of an amused looking Zabini. It took Hermione a moment to appreciate that all three sat with their sleeves folded back to reveal their naked forearms.

There was a clatter as Hermione's spoon slipped from her fingers. "Bill, did Severus let his Slytherins see that he - ?"

"Yes. He had the Upper Sixth for Potions just before lunch. Apparently he and Albus both agreed it was time Slytherins knew they have a head of house they can trust when Voldemort comes knocking. And to anyone - like Draco - who might have been told what Severus was, it gives the impression he was powerful enough to free himself. Which makes him - "

"- a target!" interrupted Hermione, so angry that her hands were shaking. "He must have known what he was going to do after he saw Albus and he didn't say a word to me." Her outrage was none the less for being expressed in a whisper.

"He probably didn't want to worry you," soothed Bill.

Then Dumbledore rose to his feet and lightly tapped his glass with the side of his spoon, the sound swelling as it moved out to the back of the long room. Silence fell.

"As you can see, Professor Snape is back with us again," he said. "Contrary to popular belief he cannot walk through walls, although I feel sure it can only be a matter of time before he masters that skill. My dears, I wish there was more to joke about. By now we all know of the dangers our world faces. Voldemort - Voldemort, give him his name, he deserves no title," he said, when horrified gasps swept through the room, "has been using his Death Eaters to attack wizards and Muggles alike. Few families have been untouched by the horror. Malicious gossip would have us believe that every Slytherin is a Death Eater, which is, of course, nonsense.

"The staff are united in agreeing that it is vital that each of you understands there is a refuge for you at Hogwarts, whatever choices your families may have made, or may make in the future. You are not bound to live your lives by their decisions. And to prove what we say..."

Dumbledore moved one thin hand and around him the staff at High Table rose to their feet, a puzzled Hermione prompted by an elbow under her arm from Bill Weasley. Dumbledore murmured something and the sleeves of every member of staff fell open to reveal their bare forearms. It looked absurd, of course, as if often the case with grand gestures, but it was effective in making its point as the staff presented a united front to the school - and confirmed that they weren't wearing Voldemort's Dark Mark.

For several seconds there was a stunned silence before the roar of sound travelled towards High Table. Pupils were on their feet, whistling and cheering. Hermione thought it was probably Blaise who began to clap, the sound quickly taken up by every table. She was about to start clapping herself when she remembered those with no cause to celebrate.

Even through the Appearance Detracting Charm there was no mistaking Severus' closed off expression, all trace of betraying emotion locked away. He had no thought for her, Hermione recognised with a pang, all his attention was on his Slytherins. The juniors were going mad with excitement; jumping up and down on the benches they were whooping and cheering, their seniors only a little more dignified as everyone let off steam. Halfway down the table sat Malfoy, his face pale as milk as he stared through the bodies of those masking Snape from his sight.

By the time Dumbledore, beaming hugely, had restored order there were three empty seats at the Slytherin table; Malfoy, Goyle and Nott had gone, and Pansy Parkinson was staring into middle distance, seemingly unaware of the tears sliding down her cheeks.

It was almost midnight by the time Snape returned to Serpens Tower; he looked exhausted.

Hermione put down the book she had been pretending to read and forgot all the things she had been rehearsing. "While you have a shower and pull on a warm robe I'll ask Lippy to prepare you some scrambled eggs on toast."

Snape sat pushing his unwanted meal around his plate. "Pansy Parkinson wanted to leave with them but she was to scared to go, yet she's terrified of staying. Poppy is keeping an eye on her tonight but..." He shrugged. "It would mean turning her back on her entire family, all her friends... And I couldn't say a fucking thing to help," he added tiredly.

Hermione knew how he felt and so she took him to bed and held him until he fell into an exhausted doze but neither of them slept well and both gave up the attempt around dawn. Wrapped up warmly, they sat by the fire and drank tea.

"It's going to be a difficult morning," said Snape, warming his chilly feet under Hermione's thighs. "We didn't anticipate what happened and we should have done. I should have done. The penalty of making speedy decisions."

"You're certain they've left?" said Hermione.

"Positive. Because Hagrid was having lunch at High Table there was no one to stop them. Freya got outside into time to see them Apparate the moment they were outside the gates."

"They might come back later."

"No," said Snape, his voice flat with certainty, all the lines on his face back in evidence.

"At least it was only three. The rest are with you," said Hermione.

Snape visibly swallowed his first retort. "How can we be sure? There are likely to be more gaps this morning - owls were streaming in and out of Hogwarts yesterday evening like.... It doesn't take much intelligence to work out that bare forearms are going to be in evidence for some time to come."

"Which provides reassurance that we don't have any saboteurs living inside the castle."

Snape rubbed the back of his neck. "What if they change their mind? I did."

"And you came to find Albus. He won't close his door to anyone, you know that."

But at breakfast they began to appreciate how little they had known: the empty places included Susan Bones from Hufflepuff - the unanimous choice for head girl; three from Ravenclaw; and Lavender Brown from Gryffindor. And Viveca Sinistra was found dead in her bed, a potion phial and a letter addressed to Dumbledore on the small table at her side.

"Her sister and her family were kidnapped last week and she was told to give a contact information about Hogwarts' defences. The contact was Susan Bones. Except Viveca didn't know anything, beyond the obvious. Before Susan left she told Viveca that her family had been killed the day they were taken," said Dumbledore, before he sat heavily, the letter hanging limply from his fingers. "Miss Bones also gave her the exact details of how they died."

Snape tweaked the letter from his grasp and read it through twice, before crumpling it angrily and stalking over to the window. "Stupid bloody woman," he said harshly. "We could have - "

"Done what?" said Dumbledore quietly. "We're all vulnerable through our loved ones."

"She doesn't have the Dark Mark," said Hermione.

"No," said Snape. "So much for our self-congratulation. It seems we have no way of knowing who our enemies are."

"I want to see the four heads of house in my office the moment school is finished," said Dumbledore, pausing to stare down at the dead woman.

Even the juniors were affected by the sombre atmosphere; many had siblings further up the school and while none had been affected no one believed that state of affairs could continue. But it was the identities of those who had gone which seemed the most shocking. Not the Slytherins, of course - but that Hufflepuffs...

Arithmancy classes were cancelled for the day, while Professor McGonagall sat muttering to herself as she tried to find a way to ensure that classes could be continued without the need to employ a teacher from outside. They would have to replaced Viveca Sinistra, of course, but finding someone they could trust...

The idea seemed laughable, in view of what had happened.

Harry's absence from the Gryffindor table did not register with the staff until that evening; they had become used to it over recent weeks. The most obvious scenario to explain it was the most terrifying, and the one all the staff feared the most. Before panic could set in Winky reported that Harry was in the kitchen. From Winky's expression this wasn't the pleasure it once would have been.

Over the years Sybill Trelawney had perfected the art of wafting artistically through life with her far-away gaze fixed on her Inner Eye - which was why she attracted some notice when she burst in on Dumbledore's meeting of the four heads of house. One hand to the stitch in her side, the fringed ends of her shawl trailed behind her, glass beads from one of her necklaces dropping to the floor like particularly noisy raindrops.

"Headmaster, you must listen to me!" she gasped, slumping back against the wall for support. Behind the lens of her enormous glasses her magnified eyes were wide with fright and her mouth was unsteady.

Dumbledore hurried over to her. "Of course I will listen, Sybill. But first catch your breath. Sit. Severus, a chair if you please."

With poor grace Snape drew out a chair for Professor Trelawney not troubling to hide his contempt for her histrionics - until he noticed her grip on her wand was steady enough and became more circumspect. While Sybill was a fool about Divination she was a formidable witch when she chose to apply herself.

"I've seen a Grim," Professor Trelawney blurted out, theatricality abandoned. "Just now. A spectral hound. Heading for the lake."

"Snuffles must be visiting Remus. You probably just saw him having a run," dismissed Professor McGonagall with thinly veiled impatience.

"It was nothing like Snuffles," snapped Professor Trelawney, her gaze never leaving Dumbledore. "Headmaster, it was a Grim."

"I believe you," he soothed.

"Really, Albus," said Professor McGonagall. "It does no good to humour her like this. Good gracious, is she having a fit?"

Slumped on her chair, Professor Trelawney had begun to rock backwards and forwards; her eyes unfocussed, drool slid from the side of her slackened mouth. Then she began to grunt: deep, strong sounds which had nothing in common with the wispy voice she normally employed.

"She's having a seizure!" exclaimed Professor Sprout.

"She's having a vision," corrected Dumbledore. "Quiet, if you please."

The disquieting noises continued for almost a minute, although it seemed far longer to those listening.

Suddenly, a harsh voice intoned:

"Under, over, side to side,

Harness four elements,

Watch Hogwarts gape wide.

But find the One

To unite the Four and the Four

And Voldemort will be no more."

Sybill Trelawney stopped speaking as abruptly as she had started. Her eyes rolled up in her head and she sagged where she sat, then jolted, as if started awake, life returning to her face. Her fingers unsteady, she wiped away the saliva which had dribbled from the corner of her mouth.

"The shock... I must have dozed off for a moment," she muttered, but she looked terrified by this manifestation of her Inner Eye.

"You had a vision," said Dumbledore. He repeated the rhyme to her.

"It's a pity your Inner Eye hasn't got an Inner Ear that can produce more than doggerel," added Snape disagreeably but he looked as uneasy as everyone else.

Dumbledore continued to study Professor Trelawney. "There's something else, isn't there, Sybill," he coaxed.

Her hair was coming down, the light brown strands streaked with white around the temples. "I don't want to," she said in a small, frightened voice.

"Sybill." Dumbledore held her gaze until she shuddered and looked away.

When she finally raised her head her face had slackened, her eyes fixed on something only she could see.

"One of the Four will die in a flash," she intoned, before she jumped, as if someone had pinched her, and blinked up at Dumbledore. "I heard that," she whispered, obviously shaken.

Dumbledore absently patted her on the shoulder. He looked as if he might have a headache.

"How many fours are there?" said Professor McGonagall acidly. "Really, Sybill, I do think you might aim for something approaching coherence."

"She has," recognised Snape, willing himself not to fidget. "It refers to one of the four heads of house. The reference to the green flash is easy enough. Death Eaters have demonstrated their willingness to use Avada Kedavra on a number of - "

"Quite," said Dumbledore. Even the tip of his turquoise hat seemed to be drooping.

"Yes," said Professor Trelawney, as she fidgeted with her bangles. "One of you. I don't know who, or when. I'm never told anything as useful as the whole story."

It was the bitterness in her voice that made Professor McGonagall take her seriously. "Oh," she said faintly. "Oh dear." She sank onto the nearest chair, her hands held tightly together in her lap.

Afraid he would also betray himself, Snape swallowed his sarcastic retort.

The only sound in the room was the chirpy whistle of a tiny steam-driven clock on a shelf behind Dumbledore's desk.

His thoughts roiling, Snape looked up to see that Flitwick was gripping his wife's grubby hand, but his expression was resolute, even though tears were welling from his eyes.

"When - if - it comes, we will be ready," Flitwick said, sitting very straight.

"Yes," agreed Professor Sprout hardily, but her chin quivered as she looked at her lover of eighty-four years, and she raised their joined hands to kiss the knuckles of his left hand over and over again.

"Is that all you can say?" cried Professor Trelawney, on the edge of hysteria. When she stuffed a thin hand against her mouth her fingers visibly shook.

"'The bright day is done, And we are for the dark.'" There was a terrible bitterness to Snape's voice.

"Hardly helpful, Severus," said Dumbledore, "particularly when there is so much to be discussed. Thank you, Sibyll. You saw nothing else?"

It took ten minutes for her to confirm she had nothing else useful to say.

Dumbledore bent over where she sat, then slowly straightened, his expression one of regret before it faded to bland affability. "There now, Sybill. I'm sure your new lesson plan will be simply splendid," he murmured soothingly.

When Professor Trelawney left his study her far-away gaze was even more vacuous than usual.

"Well, Severus?" said Dumbledore, his voice sharp. "I know you disapprove of Obliviate but - "

"No one needs Sybill dispensing gloom and doom all over the place - particularly when it's obvious that she's actually had a vision." Snape was speaking faster than usual, as if trying to outpace his thoughts. "I must put my affairs in order. There's no need to share this news with anyone else. No point worrying them unduly." His gaze swept around the room but the other heads of house were paralysed by their own thoughts, their attention very obviously elsewhere.

"I agree," said Dumbledore mildly.

Snape looked again at Professors Sprout and Flitwick, who sat side by side, hand in white-knuckled hand, and abruptly he couldn't bear it. "Don't look so... We all knew it could only be a matter of time before my luck ran out."

"Don't be so eager," said Professor McGonagall, her face pinched and pale. "You know Sybill. Every Divination class she finds some new way to foretell Harry's death..."

"I'd forgotten that," said Sprout, a little colour returning to her face.

Flitwick blew his nose. "As had I. But this time..."

"Was different," confirmed Snape, his expression grim. His hands felt cold, his face hot and he wanted to blast a hole in the wall very badly. Except there wasn't time for that indulgence, there wasn't time for...


His stomach lurched.

"Perhaps things aren't as bleak as they might appear," said Dumbledore.

"If you're going to tell us to look on the bright side," began Snape, a hint of hysteria pushing through his calm facade.

"Never mind your temper tantrum," cut in Professor McGonagall sharply, "I want to know about that verse Sybill quoted. What - exactly - does it mean? It's obvious Hogwarts is going to be under attack."

"The One must be Harry Potter," said Professor Sprout.

"But who are the Four and the Four?" asked Flitwick. "I would have thought the four founders of Hogwarts..."

"And the four heads of house," said Snape.

"But how can the four founders...?" began Professor McGonagall.

"Harry has the blood of all four founders," Dumbledore reminded them.

"Wonderful. So how many of us can imagine Potter bonding with the four heads of houses?" said Snape but his voice lacked any bite; he was fighting the urge to destroy something. Anything.

After further discussion, during which there was a lot of pointless speculation and stifled panic, the four heads of house left finally left Dumbledore's office; they didn't speak amongst themselves, taking pains to avoid meeting one another's eye, as if afraid what they might see reflected back at them.

Because he wasn't ready to face Hermione yet, Snape avoided Serpens Tower to take refuge in the portion of the third floor that hadn't been used since Fluffy had guarded the Philosopher's Stone. It was bitterly cold, the air heavy with the dust he stirred; but it was quiet, school life seeming a long way away. He tucked his hands in the pockets of his robe and paced with the relentless precision of a metronome, taking care to avoid the trapdoor.

The more he thought about Hermione the worse it got. He knew what he should do - what any puling Gryffindor would do - equally, he knew he couldn't, wouldn't, find a way to end their relationship. She deserved better than a lie, no matter how noble its intention. Of course, the obvious option was to say nothing. It freed her from worry and when... When he died...

Wasn't it just fucking typical. After all those years, tied to unwanted life by that oath James Potter had compelled him to make? Now, when he wanted to live for ever...

Snape's pace quickened but it was impossible to out-distance his thoughts and eventually he slowed to a standstill.

He should talk to her.

He just couldn't think of a way to tell her he was going to die.

Wearily eyeing the stack of parchments waiting to be marked, and willing to swear they multiplied when he wasn't looking, Lupin gave an inward sigh when he looked up to see Snape stalk into the Defence Against the Dark Arts Classroom, wearing the expression which was guaranteed to subdue the most unruly third year, and some of his colleagues.

"Professor Lupin, a word with you," said Snape abruptly. "Would you be good enough to let the headmaster know that I'm taking the evening off." It had the sound of a challenge.

"Certainly," said Lupin mildly. "Have you a celebration planned?" Stranger things had happened, but not many. Of course, Hermione was obviously having a mellowing effect on Severus' temper but there was still plenty of room for improvement.

"You could say that. I'm off to Hogsmeade."

"Yes?" Lupin waited politely.

"To frivol," added Snape sardonically.

He left before Lupin could think of an appropriate reply.

Side-tracked by some unusually belligerent Hufflepuffs, who had taken exception to the jeers from some Gryffindors who had lost only one senior and so felt able to take the moral high ground, it was a couple of hours before Lupin remembered to give Dumbledore Snape's message. "Really, Remus," said Dumbledore, frowning over the top of his half-moon spectacles. "Is it too much to have hoped you might tell me while there was still time to stop him?"

"Stop him from doing what, headmaster?"

"Encountering Alastor Moody. He and his Order of the Phoenix are in Hogsmeade, hunting a cell of Death Eaters who are supposed to meet there and he has never believed in Severus."

"Oh," said Lupin weakly.

"Quite," said Dumbledore. "I shall owl the Three Broomsticks and Hog's Head. I just hope the message reaches Severus in time."

Snape sat in a dark corner of The Hog's Head, the hood of his cloak pulled so far forward that he appeared faceless, staring into his second glass of fire whisky. The first had smelt appalling and tasted worse, so he had gulped it down; he could still feel the burn, his nasal receptors blunted by whatever had gone into what had been sold as Old Ogden's.

How pathetic, he couldn't even get drunk because he didn't like the taste... Bracing himself, he swallowed the contents of the second glass and gestured for a third.

After an hour he had managed to down four and a half glasses because he couldn't taste anything any more. He couldn't feel much either. Except for the leaden weight of knowledge.

He would have to drive her away, make the break quick and clean, if ugly, so that when the end came...

He should have known that nothing this good could last, he thought, emptying his glass and grimacing as the alcohol burnt his throat on the way down. Still, it shouldn't be too difficult to go back to his former existence...

'I am a man with no ambitions

And few friends, wholly incapable

Of making a living, growing no

Younger, fugitive for some just doom.

Lonely, ill-clothed, what does it matter?...'

Wonderful. Now he was getting maudlin.

Sod it, he was fucking well entitled.

The thought didn't bring the sardonic satisfaction it once would have done.

He finally admitted that he had already made his decision and had just been putting off the moment - as if that would make it any easier. Without giving himself time for more paralysing thought he rose abruptly to his feet, tossed and handful of Sickles onto the sticky table top and headed out into the night.

The moment the cold air hit him he realised he was in trouble, not least because he seemed to have lost the ability to walk in a straight line.

Lupin regarded it as a fine example of Sod's Law in action when Hermione rushed up to him just as he was about to close the doors of his quarters on the rest of the world. "Hermione," he acknowledged with resignation, hoping she couldn't hear the words of the song Sirius was singing in the bath.

"Have you seen Severus?" she asked urgently. "Only I can't find him anywhere and the Minister of Magic is with Albus and I'm worried that Voldemort might have found a way to get Severus - "

"No, no," said Lupin in reassurance, before he quickly brought her up to date.

"Severus has gone to Hogsmeade to frivol?" She gave Lupin a look of disapproval. "Have you been drinking?"

"Unfortunately not. But I took Severus to mean that he was intending to get drunk," added Lupin, unobtrusively flexing first one aching foot, then the other. It had been a long day and he still had an evening of more marking ahead of him.

"But he never has. Got drunk, I mean. Because of his ability to do wandless magic."

"Ah. Then he must be found. Albus told me that Alastor Moody is in Hogsmeade hunting for a cell of Death Eaters he believes is there. Severus could find himself caught between - "

"Excuse me," said Hermione, with poorly concealed impatience, "you're in my way."

Lupin automatically stepped aside with a murmured apology, then realised what she proposed and caught hold of her wrist. "You can't go."

Hermione freed herself with a supple twist. "Don't be ridiculous. If he is drunk I'm the one person with a chance of getting through to him." Then she was gone, racing down the corridor.

Left feeling tired and middle-aged, Lupin stared pensively at the space Hermione had occupied.

Bound fast, the thump of blood in his ears meant that it was a moment before Snape recognised that the voice growling threats in his ear belonged to Alastor Moody rather than Lucius Malfoy.

"Oh, no, m'bucko. One way or another I mean to know all your secrets this time," Moody promised, his breath hot against Snape's face as he muttered an unfamiliar hex.

That was Snape's last coherent thought for some time; his eyes rolled back in their sockets, the muscles of his face slackening as he crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose string had been cut.

It was only when she got lost in a narrow alleyway that stank of urine and vomit that Hermione discovered she didn't know Hogsmeade at all - but then she had never visited it alone, or late at night. She had never realised how big the village was, or how confusing its geography once you strayed from the High Street. Myriad alleyways twisted off in every direction, curving and looping back on themselves until she had lost all sense of direction.

Unlike the picturesque cottages which lined the main street, sitting snugly between the smart-looking shops, here the buildings were all residential; squat and so ancient that the walls bulged in the most disconcerting fashion, to the point where she began to wonder if some of them might be sentient.

She had drawn a blank at the Three Broomsticks and had been heading towards the Hog's Head when she had been accosted by a group of drunken wizards. Drunks were tedious at the best of times, drunken wizards the worst of the lot; Muggle or wizard, they could be dangerous. Hermione had retreated into the first alley she came to, fleeing down it when it seemed as if the drunks were about to follow her. Once she was out of sight she pulled on the Invisibility Cloak she had 'borrowed' from Harry. She felt a new surge of guilt about having taken it without permission but even at its worst the guilt hadn't been enough to stop her from taking the cloak; besides, most of the guilt had worn off by the time she finally gained access to the boys' side of Gryffindor Tower and located Harry's small cubicle without being seen.

It took her three attempts to light the Hand of Glory, which Harry had given her for Christmas two years ago; the gruesome associations with its name had put her off using it but she was glad of its light now. Mud-splashed and shivering with fright, she wondered how to get back to the High Street; she had never made a study of tracking spells. Without warning, the alleyway came to an end. Instead of buildings leaning together over a wet, noisome surface, there was just tussocky grass leading up to a small hill topped with outcrops of rock and some wind-twisted saplings.

Sliding down two steps for every three she took, she was halfway up the hill when she heard a cut-off cry; someone was in pain.

She never remembered how she reached the summit, only of peering out from behind a jagged outcrop of granite.

There were all kinds of cliches to describe anger but when she realised Alastor Moody was torturing Severus she operated at a level of rage she had never experienced before. From Severus' vacant expression he had been hit with some twisted variation of Confundus; his mouth slack, face devoid of any hint of his sharp intelligence, he grunted and twitched every time Moody moved and Hermione realised Moody was kicking Severus, who lay curled in a ball, his knees up to protect his genitals.

"Where are they, you bastard? You might be able to fool Albus Dumbledore but you'll not fool me," said Moody in his gravelly voice. "We know there's a Death Eater cell holed up in Hogsmeade. Odds are, you're heading it. One way or another I'll get the truth out of you." He muttered something Hermione could not hear and Snape arched, the tendons of his throat starkly defined as he cried out before the sound was abruptly cut off - presumably by another hex.

Hermione knew she would have seconds at best. Oddly enough, her mind seemed to be working overtime as she cobbled together lessons learnt from March and Freya: disarm, disable and disengage. Avoid the obvious hexes because the enemy will have had too much practice at countering them.

So she made a two-pronged attack, going for Moody's magical eye and his wooden leg. Moody let out a howl of rage, then fell as his leg disintegrated in a puff of galloping dry rot. By that time Hermione had his wand clutched in her spare hand. His small dark eye widened as he felt the Engorgement Charm, although his magical eye had yet to recover from the brilliant light she had focussed on it to blind him for those vital few seconds.

"I'm Hermione Granger, friend of the Boy Who Lived. And I won't hurt you if I don't have to," she said, her voice high and tight with tension. "Severus Snape is a friend to both of us. And Harry looks after his friends. You spent too long in that trunk. Your mind's gone."

She could feel Moody's power roiling around her but her hours of study and hours of duelling, combined with the terror of what might become of Severus meant she didn't falter. She daren't.

"Snape's a Death Eater," growled Moody, glaring just beyond where she really stood. "Take off that Invisibility Cloak, girlie. I can see you anyway."

"Not until your magic eye starts working again you can't," Hermione said calmly. "What have you done to...Professor Snape?"

"Harry's no friend of Snape's. He can't stand the bugger."

"Couldn't," corrected Hermione. "Release him, or I might forget how to control my wand..."

"You're a Gryffindor."

"After six years as Harry's best friend I'm a survivor," she said grimly, trying to use language he would understand. "Release him. Then you can explain why the wizard you claim is a Death Eater isn't wearing the Dark Mark, as he demonstrated to the whole of Hogwarts yesterday. Not to mention the fact Albus Dumbledore will vouch for him and the fact Professor Snape has been working as a spy for the last twenty years."

"Oh, I'm sure he's a spy. Just as I'm sure whose side he's really on."

It was then that Hermione lost her temper. The young sapling closest to Moody exploded, peppering him with splinters.

He ducked and swore as some penetrated his defensive charm.

"Butter it, girl, that hurt!" he complained.

"Release Professor Snape," said Hermione, hoping her charm had protected Severus from the fallout.

"I'll need my wand to do that."

"Rubbish," said Hermione briskly.

Moody's scowl intensified but Hermione realised he had released Severus when Snape went limp and slumped in the mud. While his breathing was still ragged there was already the beginning of expression returning to his face, even if was a display of physical discomfort.

Hermione kept the focus of her attention on Moody as she fumbled for Snape's arm. Severing the cloth, she held up his bare forearm. "See? No Mark."

"I don't believe it," muttered Moody, dragging himself across the ground so he could see for himself. "You've found a way to hide it from sight."

"And from Albus Dumbledore?" Hermione returned.

Moody began to mutter under his breath. "I'll be sending you the bill for a new leg - and just when I'd got one that one trained. Not bad work though, girlie. Not bad at all." There was a grudging respect in his voice and what might have been approval on his face.

Hermione trusted neither and so was braced for his attack, which came before he stopped speaking. She countered the three hexes he threw at her, before encircling him in a variation of the Containment Charm March had taught her, and which had taken her six weeks of practising to master.

"Now, this is new," acknowledged Moody, disconcerting Hermione by sounding no more than philosophical. "That'll teach me to under-estimate a slip of a girl. Who came up with that? Albus? No. He claims he doesn't have time to innovate these days. My money's on March. Oh, put your wand down, girlie. Though you've got some small talent... You've been working with Freya Hooch. She's always favoured going straight for the bollocks." His magical eye was working again, its rolling sweep making her feeling vaguely queasy.

"Show me Professor Snape's Dark Mark," insisted Hermione, refusing to relax her concentration. But the glance which was all she dared spare Severus showed that dreadful slackness draining away as the twisted Confundus continued to wear off.

"Well, give me some light then. Just don't go dazzling my magic eye this time."

Hermione's mouth tightened, but she bathed the three of them in a mellow light.

Moody studied Snape's forearms for what seemed like forever.

"Well I'll be buggered," he said blankly, sitting back, his stump sticking up at an odd angle. "When I interrogated Snape nineteen years ago..."

"Did you see it then?" demanded Hermione, taking a calculated risk.

Moody waved that irrelevance aside with an impatient hand. "It was there...in his mind. He reeked of guilt... Just because I didn't see the physical proof doesn't mean it wasn't - isn't - there."

"Albus will tell you it isn't. You owe Professor Snape an apology."

"I owe him nothing," retorted Moody. Apologising for torturing prisoners had never been part of his remit; besides, he'd never sunk to the depths of the Death Eaters. Never. "You don't know what you're doing, girlie."

"Call me 'girlie' once more time and I can guarantee your testicles will explode," she said flatly. "As it is, I don't envy you when I tell Albus you've been torturing Professor Snape for no better reason than that you don't like him."

"I'll be having a few words to say to Albus myself," growled Moody. "What am I supposed to do for a leg?"

"You're a wizard, transfigure one."

A heartbeat later he had breached the Containment Charm, thanks to her loss of control, reclaimed his wand and was back on his feet, leaning on the crutch he had transfigured, from a broken off branch of another sycamore sapling.

Her hands shaking, Hermione stared at him white-faced. It seemed impossible that anyone could be that fast...

"You're lucky I'm not quite as crazy as you think," Moody told her in a different - saner sounding - voice. "And you, you bastard..." he glared at Snape, who had just begun to stir. "If you're innocent, I'm a Veela. I'm off to talk some sense into Albus."

"Then perhaps you'll realise Professor Snape has spent the last six years helping to keep Harry alive and the pupils of Hogwarts safe," said Hermione.

Moody paused. "I've never denied Snape's had his uses over the years but that's not the same as innocent, girlie. Not by a long shot. But if Albus had a hand in removing the Mark I'll concede I might have been wrong about Snape."

"Where's Professor Snape's wand?" demanded Hermione, her eyes narrowing. The tricky old bastard...

Moody gave a curious grimace which she eventually identified as a grin.

"I thought you'd forgotten about that," he said, fishing in his inside pocket.

"Careful," warned Hermione, determined not to let him best her a second time.

"Oh, I'm always careful, girlie." But for all his bluster Moody handed over Snape's wand without any tricks and turned away.

He was surprisingly nippy for an elderly wizard with a makeshift crutch over uneven ground. She longed to tend to Severus but dared not take her eyes off Moody. To her relief Moody Disapparated when he was on the other side of the clearing. Before she had time to worry if he might come back with reinforcements Severus groaned.

Hermione pulled off the Invisibility Cloak and crouched beside him. "Are you all right?"

Snape struggled to sit up, lost what little colour had remained to him and vomited over himself and Hermione.

"Sorry," he croaked a little later. He crawled away on his hands and knees to a clean patch of grass before subsiding onto his back, one arm across his stomach. "I feel terrible," he mumbled as he pushed himself up into the sitting position a little later.

"Serves you right for drinking fire whisky," said Hermione with a grimace. "You owe me a new pair of boots - these are never going to be the same. A cleansing charm wouldn't do you any harm either," she added critically, her nose wrinkling with distaste. "Here," she handed over his wand, which was heavier than she had expected.

Snape nodded and took it from her with an exaggerated care. His control less than perfect, rather than a charm to cleanse the stains from his clothes he inadvertently magicked off all his clothes instead. Mildly perplexed to find himself naked, he frowned.

Reaction catching up with her, Hermione began to laugh, even if, for a while, it sounded closer to tears.

"Not the reaction a man hopes for," Snape said moodily. "You've no idea how crushing laughter can be at a time like this." His arms wrapped around his skinny torso, he began to look distinctly pathetic as the cold began to bite. Mild was a relative term in December in lowland Scotland.

Hermione cleaned his clothes and his person with a flick of her wand, remembering to add the wizarding equivalent of a mouthwash for Severus while she was at it.

"Ugh, Spearmint," he noted.

"You can't pretend it isn't an improvement on vomit," she said tartly. "Get dressed. We need to get back to Hogwarts."

His coordination shot, Snape finally succeeded in getting one arm in a shirt sleeve - unfortunately it was the wrong one; he was still trying to work out what had gone wrong when Hermione took pity on him. She muttered under her breath as she discovered the hard way that while it was ease itself to charm clothes off a person, it was virtually impossible to charm them back on again. Her irritation with him for being irresponsible enough to get drunk fell away when their close proximity made her aware of the marks springing up on his body from Moody's boots and fist.

"Severus..." she began in a completely different tone.

"Don't fuss," he said in more of his usual tone, before he ruined the effect by adding pathetically, "I feel awful."

"You've only yourself to blame. Of all the irresponsible... To go off drinking. Why?"

Reality crashing back in on him, Snape relied on old skills to guard his expression. "I'm not answerable to you," he said haughtily but he couldn't meet her gaze.

Instead of starting a blazing row Hermione sank back beside him and took his cold hands in her own. "What's happened?" she asked simply.

Pinned by those warm, honest eyes, Snape told her, bluntly and without finesse.

They sat wrapped around one another for a long time but even while wearing Hermione like a second skin, with his cloak and a Warming Charm enfolding them, Snape felt cold and ill, the future like a clammy shroud.

They had enjoyed nineteen carefree days. It wasn't enough. Not nearly, he thought rebelliously, hating himself for the pain in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he whispered into her hair.

Hermione stirred then. "You have nothing to apologise for. If Sybill Trelawney tried harder she might actually be of some use instead of terrifying people with vague predictions that could mean anything. You are not going to die," she said fiercely, holding his face between her hands. The force of her will was an almost tangible presence.

"No," agreed Snape, as if he believed it. He would have welcomed sinking back into the old bitterness but it was beyond him now; his life had been so changed that he couldn't abandon the possibility of hope.

Nineteen days weren't nearly enough.

Author's note:

'I am yours, you are mine.

Of this we are certain.

You are lodged in my heart,

the small key is lost.

You must stay there forever.'

The poem appeared in a Bavarian manuscript dated around 1160. (While there is no evidence, it has been attributed to Frau Ava of Melk). Translated by Willis Barnstone

'I the casket, he my drowned key'

Michèle Roberts: 'The Women of the Harem'

(While I'm pretty sure this is the correct reference I haven't been able to locate the book of poetry to check and neither Google nor Amazon could help.)

'The bright day is done,

And we are for the dark.'

Shakespeare: 'Anthony and Cleopatra'

The hooded robe Snape wears in the pub is a shameless steal from those worn by the Nazgûl in the film of the LOTR.

'I am a man with no ambitions

And few friends, wholly incapable

Of making a living, growing no

Younger, fugitive for some just doom.

Lonely, ill-clothed, what does it matter?

At midnight I make myself a jug

Of hot white wine and cardamon seeds.

In a torn grey robe and shapeless hat,

I sit in the cold writing poems,

Drawing naked figures in the crooked margin,

Fornicating with the insatiable

Virgins of my imagination.'

Marcus Valerius Martialis: 'The Advantage of Learning'

Translated by Kenneth Roxroth, amended by Jamie Chadwick