A/N: This story begins at the end of OotP. Many major plot elements from the original series remain (Draco's task, the Vow, horcruxes, etc.), but the story itself diverges rather sharply.
I own nothing, and I make no money from this story.
Despite his best efforts, Severus Snape's arms and legs shook as he lowered himself into the armchair across from the headmaster.
"Severus?" the older man questioned, frowning. So marked was his concern that he failed to proffer the usual lemon drop.
"He was… displeased with everyone, as we knew he would be. The loss of the prophecy upset him greatly."
"But the cruciatus?"
"He was using it rather indiscriminately. For my part, he thought I should have kept the other children from accompanying Potter." The potions master quirked his lips. On a softer man the expression might have been a wry smile, but on the harsh lines of his face the expression was one of derision.
"You took a potion?"
"On the staircase."
The headmaster frowned. "You ought to let Poppy have a look at you when we're through here."
Severus responded as he always did to queries about his health: by changing the subject. "He's targeting the boy, now more than ever. I know you had hoped that he would turn his attentions to the Ministry, now that he's been forced into the open, or even that he would turn to you. But we underestimated his obsession with the dratted child."
The twinkle in the headmaster's eyes, already subdued, went out entirely. "You're sure?"
"Quite. He's prioritizing it even over releasing the Death Eaters captured in the Ministry debacle from Azkaban." Severus paused, closing his eyes briefly. "Worse, it seems that Lucius had been gathering information, whether through the Ministry or through Draco. The Dark Lord knows that the boy's home is in Little Whinging. They're likely to try for him in London, and then any time he leaves the house."
"Harry must be hidden, then. He is not yet ready to face Tom, and he is too vulnerable where he is."
"You think Potter will submit to staying in hiding any more than that mongrel ever did?" Severus sneered.
The headmaster smiled. "Ah, but I don't intend to keep Harry hidden the way we did Sirius—about whom you might be slightly more polite, especially now that he is dead. Oh no, I know quite as well as you that would never work."
"What do you intend, then?"
Albus opened a drawer in his desk and withdrew a letter. Running his fingers over the broken seal, he raised his head and returned his gaze to Severus. "I've had a letter from Maureen O'Malley. She's dying—her core is inflamed, and they didn't catch it in time. Couldn't have, since she hadn't been to see a healer for almost a decade."
"Maureen? Dying? But she's no older than I…"
"She's outlived two of her closest friends for more than a decade—three of them, in all the ways that count. The war took its toll on Maureen, as it has on all of us."
"She's been visiting Alice in St. Mungo's for years. In all that time, none of the healers saw that her core was inflamed?" Severus dropped to a whisper, sorrow for once coloring the anger in his voice.
Albus sighed. "She says it was the healer on Alice's ward who finally noticed. Healers don't generally examine visitors unless they're visiting vulnerable patients, you know—a matter of privacy, I believe."
"You're telling me this now to ensure that my evening is as roundly unpleasant as possible?" Severus pinched the bridge of his nose, attempting to ward off the headache that he could feel closing in.
"Of course not, my boy," Albus remonstrated. "You know I take no delight in your discomfort. No, Maureen wrote to ask if there was anything she could do to aid in the fight against Tom. She says she will feel better facing Marlene and Lily again if she does something to help the cause that they died for."
"And the guilt-induced good intentions of a dying woman help us how, exactly? A woman who, I need not remind you, ran off to seclusion in Ireland to avoid the war and its aftermath?"
"Because she is offering exactly what we need to hide Harry, of course! She has lived so secluded for so long, and outside of England—it presents quite the opportunity we need to give Harry a new identity."
"How, Albus? How do you propose to give the most recognized boy in Britain a new identity?"
The twinkle was most decidedly returning to the headmaster's eyes, much to Severus' dismay. At this last question, the old wizard beamed. "A blood adoption in the old form, of course. Harry will receive a new set of features belonging to his adopted parents, and he will be able to change back and forth into his original form when needed, if at a considerable magical and physical cost."
"Blood adoptions in the old form require two parents, Albus." The old man was twinkling again, damn him.
"Of course. But you and Maureen spent a great deal of time comforting each other after Lily's death, didn't you?"
"Things never went that far, Albus!" Pink blossomed on Severus' pale cheeks, betraying his mortification. "And besides, I hate the brat! He despises me in return! You cannot possibly want me to be a father to him!"
"Does anyone know that things never went that far? It seems to me that most of your Death Eater colleagues were rather busy in those first months after Lily's death, and you've never been one to share personal details with your colleagues here at Hogwarts."
"Of course no one knows! My private life is and has always been private! But I never wanted any son, Albus, much less James Potter's brat!"
"Can you think of any other option that will keep Harry safe? Any other option with a better than even chance of keeping him alive? You yourself admitted that he cannot be kept hidden from the world, not ten minutes ago."
Severus grimaced in response.
"It is necessary for Harry's safety, Severus. I have asked many things of you, I know. This one, at least, I can hope will be less distasteful than you fear. Harry loves easily and forgives easily, and the two of you have more in common than you think."
"So you've said for the past five years, and yet I remain unconvinced. I suppose I must accede in order to keep the brat safe, but do not pretend that playing guardian to Potter can possibly bring me anything but a great deal of frustration and inconvenience," Severus huffed.
"As you wish. I am of course very grateful that you are willing to take him in—"
"Grateful? Pah. You know I have no real choice, not when the boy's safety is at stake."
# # #
Two days later at precisely three minutes past 4 PM, 15-year-old Harry Potter rode the moving staircase up to the headmaster's office. Less than a week had passed since he had half-destroyed Dumbledore's office, and he was nervous about facing the room and its occupant again. But the headmaster had sent for him, so here he was.
Dumbledore greeted him with a smile, as if their last meeting had never happened at all. "Harry, my boy! Do come in and sit down. Lemon drop?"
"Um, thanks." Harry blushed and took the lemon drop, more because it gave him something to do than out of any real desire for it. He sat gingerly in the squashy armchair facing the desk, studiously examining the grain of wood on the desk's front rather than meeting the headmaster's gaze.
Albus Dumbledore took the opportunity to study the boy in front of him. Harry looked tired, overwhelmed by grief. The headmaster found himself wishing once again that he could ask less of this boy, spare him further pain and discomfort: but he had already erred in that direction with Harry, and he could not afford to do so again. And so he cleared his throat and began to speak.
"I'm afraid that I have rather discomfiting news, Harry."
At this the boy suddenly looked up, green eyes wide with anxiety. "Has someone else been killed?"
"Oh no, nothing like that. No, the Death Eaters have been too busy regrouping to go on the offensive this past week, though we cannot expect that to last long now that the Ministry has acknowledged Riddle's return." Here Dumbledore paused, searching for the right way to begin. "I'm afraid that Riddle's reaction to last week's debacle at the Ministry has been to focus his attention even more obsessively on you."
"Does that make any difference? It's not like he hasn't been after me all along."
"I'm afraid it does. Since his return last year he had prioritized acquiring the prophecy, and when he targeted you before that he never had more than one or two followers to assist him. He was also avoiding Ministry attention, before. Now, forced into the open and with the prophecy out of his reach, he is likely to act more decisively."
"I thought the Aurors captured most of the Death Eaters at the Ministry. That has to hold him back, doesn't it?"
"Perhaps a little, but less than you might think. Only a fraction of Riddle's followers were present at the Ministry, and I do not think we can expect Azkaban to remain secure for long."
"Oh." Harry grimaced in dismay.
"I had hoped that Riddle would turn his focus in other directions, Harry. But alas, I have reason to believe that he is now more focused on you than ever. As things are, you are not safe."
"Have I ever been safe, sir? I still don't see that it makes much difference."
Dumbledore winced, keenly aware that he had been unable to keep Harry as safe as he would have liked, that he had at some moments encouraged Harry to face danger, despite his care for the child. Dearly as he might love Harry, his first priority was the defeat of Riddle. It had to be. For neither can live while the other survives.
"Perhaps never as safe as one might have wished. But you have never faced danger so intensely for such a duration. I'm afraid that our best option is for you to go into hiding, Harry, as you are not yet ready to face him."
"Hiding!" Harry yelped, dismay writ large on his face and in his voice. "Please, I don't think I could bear to be shut away, like Sirius was. I— I just couldn't. Especially not at Grimauld Place."
"Rest assured, I have no attention of shutting you away. It was a mistake with Sirius, and it would be a greater mistake with you."
"Then how will I be hidden?"
"That is something I cannot tell you yet, Harry. I have made arrangements on your behalf, but it is essential that no one know the details, especially not your friends."
"I won't be able to talk to them?" Real desperation showed on Harry's face.
The headmaster noticed, and it pained him. "I think we may be able to arrange for the occasional exchange of letters, carefully filtered. But nothing more—the risk is simply too great. I'm sorry."
Both wizards paused for a few moments, reflecting. Eventually Harry discovered that he had a question, and after another moment managed to voice it. "When— when do I go?"
"Tomorrow when the other students depart on the train. Pack your trunk as if you were taking it—the House Elves will take it for you. You may walk down to the platform with the other students, but do not board the train. You may tell those who ask that I'm insisting you travel separately, as a matter of safety. You may tell Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger that you are going into hiding, and Miss Weasley and Mr. Longbottom as well if you desire. It will become apparent soon enough."
"Wait. Does that mean I'm not going back to the Dursleys?" Harry smiled, if tentatively, for the first time in the conversation.
"It does." The headmaster smiled in return, pleased that one small aspect of his plan appealed to the child. "The rest will have to wait until the other students have departed. While you may not be thrilled with the arrangements I have made, I think you will not find them so terrible as you may fear."
Unsure of how to respond, Harry remained silent, lost in thoughts.
"Do you have any questions, my boy? Or should I say, questions that I might be at liberty to answer?"
"Er—How often will I be able to write to my friends?"
"Perhaps every couple of months? Though it will depend upon circumstances." Seeing Harry's crestfallen face, Dumbledore added, "I'm sorry, Harry. But any more than that is too likely to attract attention, and your safety must be the top priority."
Harry felt a lump forming in his throat. Only writing to his friends every couple of months! That would be worse than summer at the Dursleys. Wanting to leave before he started either crying or destroying the office again, he responded, "I think that's all."
"Very well then, Harry. Until tomorrow."
# # #
Unable to face dinner in the Great Hall, Harry wandered down to the kitchens to get food, encountering Luna on the way. His anger at the cruelty of her housemates momentarily overrode his overwhelming self-pity, at least for a few minutes, and she really did make him feel a bit better about Sirius dying. A tiny bit.
But even treacle tart in the kitchens could not erase the despondency that surrounded him. Harry was beyond relieved not to be going back to the Dursleys, but that relief was overwhelmed by his despair at the prospect of being cut off from all of his friends. They were the best part of his life, and the only thing that seemed worse than being cut off from them was being tortured by Voldemort—which was the point, he supposed. But he still hated it.
So it was a despondent Harry who returned to the Gryffindor common room halfway through dinner, and when Ron and Hermione returned from dinner in the Great Hall they found him even gloomier than he had been earlier that afternoon.
When the three friends had made themselves comfortable in an out-of-the-way corner of the Common Room, Harry haltingly related his meeting with the headmaster. "At least he says I won't be shut away in a moldering old house somewhere. Maybe it'll be better than the Dursleys." Harry tried to smile, more for his friends than for himself, though no one was reassured by it. "Just—I'll miss you. And Hogwarts, and the DA, and everyone."
"Oh, Harry." Hermione reached over and pulled him into a hug. Uncharacteristically, she didn't say anything else.
Ron more than made up for Hermione's silence. "Well I reckon if Dumbledore says it's not safe for you, he's probably right. But Merlin's pants, he's mental to make you leave Hogwarts and keep you away from everyone. " Ron continued ranting, mostly about the injustice of it all, with a little bit of why couldn't Harry come stay at the Burrow mixed in. Neither of the others answered him, both knowing that nothing about Harry's life had ever been fair. Hermione watched Harry to be sure that he understood that staying at the Burrow was wishful thinking—surely it would be one of the first places that Death Eaters would look—but seeing in his face that Harry understood Ron's offer for the mix of love and wishful thinking that it was, Hermione bit her lip and said nothing.
The three friends sat together all evening, playing the occasional game of Exploding Snap but saying little—for what was there to say in the face of such news?—each in their own way relishing the last chance the three of them would have to sit together for a very long time.
Entering the Common Room a few minutes before curfew with dirt from the greenhouses caking the knees of his pants and clinging under his fingernails, Neville Longbottom saw the three friends and made to go over to say hello. But there was something in the intensity of their faces that told him the moment was private, and he turned and took the stairs up to the boys' dormitory instead. But something of the looks in their eyes and mouths stuck in Neville's mind: sadness on all three faces, Harry's eyes heavy with resignation, the quirk of Ron's lips broadcasting confusion, and Hermione's eyes alight with a strange determination. It was a scene he would remember for a long time.
# # #
When the three friends parted to go up to their dormitories just before midnight, with promises to meet the others for breakfast, Hermione pulled both boys into a quick hug before disappearing up the girls' staircase.
But she did not enter her dormitory. Instead she stopped near the door, looking to make sure no one was in sight, and whispered a Disillusionment charm, tapping her wand on the top of her own head. Looking down, she saw that her legs and feet exactly matched the carpet and walls of the dimly lit hallway. After whispering a silencing charm in the direction of her feet, she turned and retraced her steps to the Common Room.
After satisfying herself that the boys had gone up to their dormitory and that the few students still in the Common Room were engrossed in each other and not attending to the exit, Hermione snuck across the Common Room and out of the portrait hole. As she walked away from the Fat Lady she allowed herself a small sigh of relief—but only a small one, for she couldn't shake the feeling that she must remain undetected now if she was to have any hope of success.
Fifteen minutes later, after successfully evading Filch (luckily Mrs. Norris had been in another part of the castle), Hermione found herself in front of the gargoyle guarding the headmaster's office. Silently thanking Harry for his carelessness with the password earlier in the day, she whispered, "Fever fudge." The gargoyle sprang aside and she stepped onto the moving staircase, breathing another small sigh of relief.
She saw light streaming from beneath the headmaster's door as she approached and felt a further rush of relief: so far, so good. After cancelling the disillusionment charm Hermione hesitated only for a moment before knocking, and her hand did not shake.
The headmaster looked only slightly surprised to see her. He offered her a lemon drop and gestured for her to take a seat, both of which she accepted. "Good evening, Miss Granger. What brings you here tonight?"
Hermione clasped her hands together in her lap to stop herself from fidgeting. "Harry told me and Ron about your meeting with, Sir. About his going into hiding."
"Indeed, I would be quite surprised if he hadn't." He peered at her over his half-moon glasses, waiting for her to continue. The absence of the Weasley boy suggested that she wasn't here in an attempt to dissuade him, and the headmaster found himself genuinely curious.
"I want to go with him."
"I want to go into hiding with Harry, Sir. If you say it's necessary for his safety then I believe you. But the last thing he needs is to be separated from his friends. He's grieving for Sirius—he's still grieving for Cedric, in a way—and he's never done well when he's isolated. You didn't see much of him last summer, Sir, but I did. It was terrible. And then he was only isolated for a few months. He needs his friends. Maybe he can't have all of us with him in hiding, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't have anyone. So I'm volunteering. He can have me." As she finished she raised her chin, looking the headmaster squarely in the face.
He considered her for some moments, looking intently into the girl's face as if really seeing her for the first time, possibilities and plans whirling rapidly, revising themselves within his mind. Finally he questioned: "Do you have any idea what this would mean for you, Miss Granger?"
"I suspect you can tell me, Sir."
The headmaster's eyes twinkled in appreciation of the rejoinder, though his face was grave. "We would have to fake your death, in the Muggle world as well as magical. No one could know the truth—not your parents, not your other relatives, not the Weasleys, not your other friends, not your professors here. Far more completely than Harry, you would have to cut off all contact with your former life. Your education would be interrupted, though you would be able to complete it in time. But you would be giving up your entire life—nothing less. Are you willing to do that?"
Hermione hesitated briefly, searching for the right words rather than uncertain of her answer. "Harry was one of my first real friends. I know what it's like to be lonely and isolated, because it was all I knew before Harry and Ron. Harry saved me from that. Now it's my turn to save him. Ron has other people in a way that Harry and I never have—he doesn't need me in the same way. Harry does—need me, I mean. He needs to not be alone. I owe him so much, and I can give him that. Besides, it might make a difference: help keep him alive, help win this war. And giving up my life as I know it is worth that chance, isn't it? It's not like I'll have any place in this world if the Death Eaters win, and at least this way I'd be doing something to help stop them."
The headmaster nodded slowly, and though he did not smile something eased in the creases around his eyes. He cleared his throat and responded, "Very well. I apologize for asking such a delicate question, but I need to know: do you harbor any romantic feelings for Mr. Potter?"
"For Harry?" Hermione laughed in response. Despite the gravity of the circumstances, the idea was just too absurd. "Never. Harry's like the brother I never had. He thinks of me like a sister, too."
"Thank you for answering, Miss Granger." He paused again, contemplating the girl in front of him. It was an extraordinary offer she made—so much so that the possibility had not entered his head.
Severus would not be happy, at least not to begin with—he loathed the Granger girl only slightly less than he loathed Harry. But would it be worth it? For Harry, for the war, for the girl herself? Two of those questions were simple, answered as soon as contemplated. As Miss Granger had noted, Harry did far better in the company of his friends than without them. Miss Granger in particular seemed to be a steadying influence on him, and her brains could only be an asset.
As for the girl herself, all of this was feasible only because she was muggleborn. Magical parents—and records of their children, just as importantly—were extremely risky to manipulate. But for a muggleborn, both family and official records would be far easier to hoodwink. And as the girl herself had suggested, it was conceivable that life in the magical world could become very difficult for a muggleborn, if Voldemort ever attained the upper hand. So there were large potential advantages to the girl herself, large enough to justify cutting her off from her family and interrupting her life.
But her effect on the war effort? On the stability of the family that would need to be built? That was harder to say. Dumbledore was inclined to think that she might be a moderating influence between Severus and Harry (at least once Severus acceded to her presence), and strategically he liked the thought that her intellect could be made so directly available to two of the key pieces on the board. Impossible to say with any certainty, of course, but he rather liked the odds.
While the headmaster considered, Hermione Granger sat still in the chair before his desk, hands clasped tightly in her lap. Her anxiety was evident in how tightly she clasped her fingers and in the way she bit her lower lip, but she did not fidget, nor did she press him (as, it must be admitted, she would have done even a year before). While the headmaster's mind rushed through possibilities and details, likelihoods and logistics, her mind focused on a single point: he hasn't said no yet. He hasn't said no yet.
Finally, Dumbledore spoke. "I cannot make any promises now because there are arrangements to be made involving others than myself, so you must not say anything to Mr. Potter. But your arguments have merit. I will see if the arrangements can be made."
"Thank you, Sir," she responded quietly. Her eyes blazed, not with joy but with triumph and determination.
"Do not thank me, child. The road you ask to walk will not be easy." His eyes twinkled as she opened her mouth. "Of course you did not think it would be easy when you asked, I know. But your gratitude is unnecessary, all the same. Now, can you arrange to have yourself ready and everything that you would like to keep with you packed in your trunk by Tuesday morning?"
"Yes, I think so. My parents will be at work—they've planned our holiday abroad for later in July."
"Excellent. It will not take long to discover whether my plans can be rearranged to accommodate you. If we are able to include you, you will leave your current life behind on Tuesday. Understand that you will not be able to keep your current possessions with you—the risk is simply too great—but they can be stored in safety for your future use."
He paused, watching to see how the girl took such immediacy. She swallowed, but responded calmly: "Very well."
The headmaster smiled. "One other detail. I will have to construct a simulcrum to take your place, so it would be helpful if you were to make two copies of everything you write by hand between now and then. The copies will be consumed in making the simulcrum, and will help to give it depth and a more believable semblance of life. They need not be neat, but they must be in your hand."
Hermione nodded. "Yes Sir, I've read all about them. Simulcrua absorb knowledge, opinions, and feelings from writing in the subject's hand, and are able to converse about subjects and people mentioned in the writing used to make them. Is there anything particular that I should be sure to write?"
"Letters to your friends and a start on your summer assignments should be adequate. But be careful not to write anything that so much hints at Harry's going into hiding or the possibility of your accompanying him, whether for the simulcrum or otherwise. The risk is simply too great. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sir. Of course."
"Very well. Thank you for coming to see me this evening, Miss Granger. Given the lateness hour, I think you would do well to floo back to your Common Room. You will be able to reverse the spell if I disillusion you before traveling through the fire, yes?"
"Yes, I disillusioned myself for my walk here this evening."
"Very prudent, Miss Granger." The headmaster smiled broadly, the lines in his face slightly less pronounced than they had been for several days. "I look forward to seeing you on Tuesday."
# # #
So it was decided: Harry Potter and Hermione Granger would be adopted—by blood, in the old style—by Maureen O'Malley and Severus Snape, becoming their children legally, magically, and physically. An audacious ruse, to be sure, but so preposterous that it had a reasonably high chance of success.
Severus complained about Miss Granger's inclusion in the plan, of course. He didn't like the Granger girl, he'd never made any promises about keeping her safe, et cetera. But when pressed by Dumbledore, he grudgingly admitted that Granger and Potter together were likely to be slightly less irritating than Potter by himself, on the grounds that (1) they could entertain each other, and (2) Granger (unlike Potter) could be reasoned with. He wasn't happy, but he was so accustomed to Albus prevailing in their disagreements that he made only token complaints.