*** This story is a non-profit-making work of fanfiction. Anything you may recognise belongs to JK Rowling. ***
Hermione was crouched halfway down the stairs in Grimmauld Place, trying to hide as much of her body in the shadows as possible so as to prevent the discovery of her attempted eavesdropping. There was a meeting of the Order taking place in the kitchen, and despite her seventeenth birthday being mere weeks away, she had still not been permitted to attend.
She was staying at the Burrow for the last two weeks of the summer holidays; as was Harry, and had cajoled Mr and Mrs Weasley into allowing her to come to Grimmauld, since Bill, Fleur, Fred and George were all in the Order and leaving the Burrow for this meeting, but on arrival, Professor McGonagall had flatly refused to allow her anywhere near the kitchen table, so she was forced into the humiliation of lurking around on the stairs, hoping to overhead a crumb of information, like a naughty child. She supposed she could have Apparated home, but that seemed churlish. She would bide her time, it was only a few more weeks before she came of age, and then not even her fearsome Head of House would be able to prevent her from attending any meeting she so wished.
Dumbledore was in the meeting tonight, so it was clearly an important one, she seethed, internally. Lupin and Tonks were present, all the Weasleys, Kingsley, Sturgis, and many other Order members, not all of whom she knew. It was their first meeting since returning to Grimmauld Place after the death of Sirius Black at the Ministry two months previously. Harry was the new and legal owner of the secret-kept townhouse, and he had confirmed to Dumbledore that he gave his permission for the house to continue to be used as the Headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix.
Harry and Ron had not seemed too bothered by being kept at a distance, on the contrary, her two friends seemed more disinterested and more immature than ever. She had left them at the Burrow with Ginny, discussing racing brooms and next season's Quidditch team, since Harry had just received his letter and badge informing him that he had been made captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team for their sixth year at Hogwarts. She wondered whether perhaps he had been given more information during his visit with Dumbledore than he was letting on, as Harry seemed calm and even enthusiastic about returning to school. He was still grieving his godfather, of course, maybe he was just preoccupied with that.
Hermione was just wondering which of the Order members she had not seen enter the meeting yet, when she heard a crack of Apparition on the front step, and the door pushed open smartly. She barely heard the footsteps approaching down the hall, but they were definitely there. Shrinking as far back as she could, into the shadows, she saw the wraith-like figure of Professor Snape stalking down the hall, although was he actually stalking? He looked to be walking somewhat painfully, with a pronounced limp to his gait.
As her fearsome Potions teacher came into the dim glow of the one light that hung from the ceiling of the Grimmauld Place hallway, she was shocked to see a large wound on his forehead, dripping blood down the side of his face and trickling down his neck. Both of his eyes looked as if they had been blacked, and he had a split lip; swollen and sore. Hermione tried not to make a sound, but her eyes widened like saucers at the sight of him.
He stopped almost opposite to her hiding place, such as it was, and looked in the large, ornately-framed mirror that hung a little way down the hall from the curtained portrait of the foul-mouthed Walburga Black. She heard Snape curse softly under his breath at the sight of his reflection, draw his wand, and begin to cast non-verbal spells that started to close his cuts and siphon away the blood, including that which had stained the collar of his white shirt that peeked slightly above his all-over black clothing. Once he appeared satisfied, Hermione distinctly heard him cast a glamour charm over himself and watched his face transform into its usual sallowness, hiding the extensive bruising and injuries below the covering spell.
Examining his face in the mirror, he flicked his eyes upwards and caught hold of her own; wide-open and terrified, in the reflection behind him. He whirled around, his gaze neutral, but she could detect the anger within.
"Miss Granger," he hissed, dangerously. "Has no one ever advised you how very ... impolite it is to spy on others?"
"I wasn't spying, Sir," she whispered, as he appeared unwilling to be overhead, "I was just ... just ..."
"I do not wish to hear your excuses. You will forget what you have just seen, do you understand?"
Professor Snape spoke in a low, urgent voice that she had not heard from him before. Usually his speech was slow and languid, caressing the words before delivering them, in order that each one should be fully understood by his listening students. Right now he seemed ... almost flustered.
"Good. I would not wish to inflict an Obliviate on such a formidable brain as yours. Good evening, Miss Granger."
He whirled away from her, inspecting the spellwork he had performed on his face one final time in the mirror, before stepping softly down the hall. On his second step, his left leg seemed to buckle slightly underneath him. He redrew his wand and fired yet another non-verbal spell at his knee. There was a sickening crunch of bone against bone, and Hermione's hand flew to her mouth in disgust, although she forced herself to make no noise lest she provoke his ire again.
Turning his head halfway, he glared at her with one black eye through a curtain of greasy hair that was falling across his face. He appeared to note her shocked expression, but did not acknowledge it. Snape began to walk with more intent and purpose down the long hallway, his footfall becoming louder, until he reached the heavy kitchen door and opened it with his customary shove, causing it to spring back and slam hard against the stone wall behind it with a loud clatter. The few gasps she heard from the kitchen meant that he had made his dramatic entrance, as was no doubt his intention.
As he entered the room, she heard Dumbledore's voice welcoming him, and before he closed the door behind him she caught a glimpse of the coolly neutral face that she saw every time he entered the dungeon classroom to teach. No one could possibly know that a few minutes ago he was cut, bleeding, broken and limping; as he was now masked. No one in that room would have any idea that he was suffering.
Hermione felt an unfamiliar stab of sympathy for the unpleasant wizard, although had he just described her mind as formidable?
That was unexpected.
- xxx –
On the 31st August, with just a single day before the students returned to the castle, Severus Snape was pacing around Albus Dumbledore's office, attempting to ignore the portraits and infuriated beyond belief, yet again, at the gall and presumptuousness of this aged bloody wizard. During the summer, the headmaster had managed to inflict an eventually-fatal injury upon himself, but despite needing his help to heal it, Albus would not tell Severus how it had happened, only that he had touched a dark object that he believed had been impregnated with an irreversible curse.
Severus had used some fairly dark and explicitly forbidden magic to contain the curse within the headmaster's right arm, but had been forced to warn him that it would eventually spread, that there was no doubt it was terminal damage, and that he would certainly be dead within the year, slowly dying over the following months and most likely in terrible pain in the final weeks. It wasn't the most auspicious news he'd ever been obliged to impart.
However, Albus appeared to be taking the news remarkably cheerfully, and had clearly spent the remainder of the summer holidays making a series of plans, all of which gave Severus grave concern, since he appeared to be the lynchpin of them.
The most horrific of Dumbledore's entreaties had led directly to him making the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy at his home in Spinner's End during the latter part of the holidays. The only good thing that had come out of it was that taking the Vow had wrongfooted the vile Bellatrix Lestrange, who suspected, quite rightly, that Snape's loyalties did not lie with Voldemort.
She still didn't trust him, he knew that. The witch, although bloodthirsty and somewhat deranged after her stint in Azkaban, was definitely not stupid. She had good reason not to trust him, she just needed the proof and was determined to find it, and he was equally determined that she would not.
The reason for his current pacing was his utter frustration with the headmaster. How much did Albus think that one wizard could take? How much could be heaped upon his thin shoulders before he shattered and died under the pressure?
Dumbledore already knew the answer. Severus Snape could take anything. All that had been thrown at him, and he was still alive to tell the tale.
Not that he had anyone to tell it to.
Just over a year previously, after Voldemort's return to a corporeal form at the end of the Tri-Wizard tournament, the Dark Lord had summoned his Death Eaters using the magically tattooed marks they all bore on their left forearms. Dumbledore had not allowed Severus to attend the summons and leave straight away, nor to respond to the call, despite their plan for him to resume his spying.
Instead, Albus had kept Severus loitering at Hogwarts - questioning Crouch Junior, wasting time with Fudge, Black, Potter ... messing around in the infirmary like a miniature war general commanding his motley troops. Finally ... finally, once he had revealed the large dog that had been sitting on Potter's hospital bed to be the Animagus form of Sirius Black and sent the sleazy bastard away on his own mission, Dumbledore had turned regretfully to Severus.
You know what I must ask you to do. If you are ready ... if you are prepared.
Severus had turned away with a curt nod and swept down the central aisle of the infirmary, not looking at any of the others that had been gathered there.
Of course he was fucking prepared. He'd been preparing himself since the Dark Mark began to gain colour on his arm at the very beginning of the school term, watching it reform and grow bolder over the months of the Tri-Wizard tournament, watching his panic mirrored in the frightened face of Igor Karkaroff, who also bore the Mark.
Yes, he was prepared to walk back into the centre of the Dark Lord's inner circle, inexorably late and with no excuse to offer other than to throw himself at the psychotic bastard's mercy and hope that Voldemort would accept his repentance and allow him to rejoin the Death Eaters. Albus knew exactly what he was sending him back to, and Severus, like a bloody fool, had agreed to do it, to do it all.
In the days that followed, after he had been tortured to within an inch of his life to prove his loyalty, and what remained of his unconscious body returned to the gates of Hogwarts broken and barely alive as a warning to Dumbledore, Severus had fought for his survival right there in the school infirmary. Madam Pomfrey, Albus and Minerva had used all manner of magic and healing to save him, to repair his gargantuan wounds and salvage his shattered bones and ruptured organs the best they could.
The three of them had succeeded, up to a point. They repaired his body satisfactorily, eventually. His mind and soul, however, would be forever damaged, but that couldn't be seen, he could hide that away, hold the stress and pressure inside. Severus had continued to teach. He had survived Dolores Umbridge, odious little toad she was, and had alerted the Order to attend the Department of Mysteries to resolve the battle that occurred following Potter's failure to occlude the Dark Lord.
He had agreed to all that Albus had asked, and would continue to do so. He was to support Draco Malfoy's assassination attempts. He was to hand over the teaching of Potions to Horace Slughorn and take his much-wanted position as Professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts. Only he would know that what he was teaching the students would not be theoretical. These would be skills they would need far sooner than any of them would expect. He was the only professor in the castle who could prepare these children for what they were about to face in the imminent future.
And now this. Just when he thought his head might pop from the pressure of his myriad of tasks, Albus heaped another log on the fire.
"Granger, Albus. Granger?"
"It is the only way, Severus."
"In addition to everything else you have asked of me, you want me to private tutor the most annoying child ever to set foot in this school?"
Albus had actually had the gall to smile at him.
"She is no longer a child, Severus. Miss Granger is the first of her cohort to come of age, just a few weeks into the new term, and has expressed her intention to join the Order at that point. She has an exceptionally keen mind, and a thirst to learn. It will be her that will see Harry Potter through the tasks I have set for him, as he will not manage alone. She must be prepared."
It always came back to a bloody Potter, his mind seethed, as the old, bearded wizard continued.
"Hermione Granger will succeed at Occlumency where Harry failed. And she will need it. She will certainly need it ..."
Severus narrowed his eyes at his mentor and supposed friend as his speech tailed off.
"How do you know what she will need? How do you know she will need to able to Occlude?" he asked, suspiciously.
"You can teach her skills that no one else in this school can. You can ... build a trust with her. This will be important. For both of you."
The irritating poof was now speaking in riddles, and it annoyed the absolute hell out of him.
"There is no way you can be so certain, Albus," he grumbled. "Unless you ..."
"Unless I what, Severus?"
"Unless you have already seen the future."
Dumbledore regarded Snape with his bright blue eyes, for a split-second losing their twinkle and becoming hard and accusing.
"All the Time Turners were destroyed in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries. You know this."
He stared at Snape from across the desk, as if daring him to contradict the statement.
"Every single one?"
He saw Dumbledore's hand stray absently to a tiny, undoubtedly locked, drawer in the large mahogany desk. Bingo. He would wager everything he owned that just one Time Turner was in there, and that bloody Albus had used it.
"Terrible things happen to wizards that meddle with time, Severus."
"And you are not meddling, Albus?"
"I am not. I am making plans for the most favourable outcome, whilst not disrupting the timeline."
It was tantamount to a signed and sealed confession. Severus sighed, heavily. He was too fucking tired to argue any longer. He would do it. He would do all of it. Who cared? He would be dead before the year was out, anyway.
"What do you require of me?"
"Befriend Miss Granger. Build a trust with her, a rapport, if you can. And if that is too difficult, then at least equip her with skills above and beyond the level of what she will learn in her scheduled classes. Occlumency, for one. Advanced defensive magic, for another. You will find her mind as razor-sharp as your own, I assure you."
Severus sank down in the armchair in resignation, his recently injured leg beginning to ache from his constant pacing.
"I suppose I should be grateful that you have not asked me to resume my private tuition of Potter."
Dumbledore smiled, indulgently.
"Ah yes, the ill-fated lessons between yourself and Harry Potter were, as I should have predicted, an unmitigated disaster. No, I shall be instructing Potter myself this year. I have much to teach him."
"I can see that my own Occlumency skills will be called into even greater use than I have put them to this year past, since I have now a private student to hide, and knowledge of your tuition of Potter. Perhaps I should Obliviate myself nightly."
"There is no need of that, as if you would do such a thing. I would trust no one else. You are a Master Occlumens. I have the greatest of faith in you."
"It is a miracle I haven't killed you yet, old man," he replied, ruefully.
"All good things come to those who wait, Severus," Dumbledore replied, making a most distasteful joke and in remarkably cheerful humour for a man who had just signed his own death warrant.