Beta Love: The Dragon and the Rose, Dutchgirl01, Flyby Commander Shepard, and Hollowg1rl

A/N: Thank you for the wonderful comments, everyone! I'm sorry I can't reply to everyone, but I do read every single review. I'm very happy you liked the start of the story!


Born Unto Darkness

A Crackfic by Corvus Draconis

Chapter Two

At his best, man is the noblest of all animals;

separated from law and justice he is the worst.

Aristotle

Hermione hadn't realised just how many of the things in the dungeon were actually Snape's until they were packing everything up to leave. Having been given permission to use the "portable hole" that you could throw anything into and have it appear at the DoM, it was only a matter of packing things securely so it could be whisked away on the other side to the proper stacks.

She sat in a free moment with an old copy of Advanced Potions Making, her fingers running across the writing of her master's younger self— it didn't take much to make the connection. He was as through in writing notes to himself as he was in writing notes to her.

"Take to make note of what hatred and bitterness can do to warp the course of your learning, Apprentice. Take this as a lesson in what focus can do— for the better or the worse."

Hermione hugged the book to herself. It was her master's book, and she would cherish it like his other lessons— lessons that the Dark was only one side of a greater spectrum, with the possibility to help and harm, both others and one's self. She wrapped the book in cloth and tucked into a crate with other bottles and books before sealing it. Then, she levitated it into the "hole" where it disappeared to the DoM.

Snape was talking with the headmaster, and judging by his scowl, it was not anything good. Her master wasn't exactly the accept and live-and-let-live sort, and she could tell by the twitch of his eyebrow that whatever they were discussing, that it wasn't about what they were having for lunch. Whatever discomfort she may have had with her master before their apprenticeship she had left behind her. With him directly responsible for her he was much more direct in his reasonings, and he took his obligations seriously. She found she could accept a lot of what he was easier when he wasn't being so cruel to her as he was before. He was still a right git a lot of the time, but he seemed to temper himself and explain things more closely so she didn't have that impulse to wave her hand around as much.

Truthfully, he had become a friend— at least how she defined it. He watched over her, spoke his mind, shared thoughts. That was what real friends did. He was still her teacher, but the one-on-one, deeper relationship was comforting. She accepted that he was looking out for her, and she paid that back with obedience and giving him her very best.

She had to admit that the Dementors, Fenrir, the Willow, and her newest creatures at the DoM were far more understanding friends than she had endured in Gryffindor. She wondered what her parents would think of it all. They were always pretty accepting about her "friends" she brought home. Her mother was quite fond of the "flying lizards" that ate up all the houseflies and also helped her in the kitchen. Her father said as long as they weren't stealing his watch and moving his car keys, or rearranging the contents of his boot, he was okay with them. Her mother wasn't a fond fan of creepy crawlies, but she was totally in for flying lizards that ate them. It made sense— at least more sense than burning down the house to get rid of a centipede like that barmy woman in Swansea.

Her father said the woman was obviously unhinged, but after seeing it on the news for a good month, she was convinced her parents were, by far, perfectly well-grounded individuals with just enough openness to accept a magical daughter. They might have preferred her to somehow be a magical dentist— but Hermione really wasn't into teeth after having had to stare at her own beaver teeth day in and day out.

Fenrir set his large head on the nearby table, proving once again he was big enough to be her personal polo-wolf, if there was such a thing. He did enjoy carting her around on his back, though, and she always enjoyed the rather wild romp he would engage in as he tore through the grass and brush with her clinging to his neck to keep from falling off. Between him and the mother Nundu, they put the entire concept of wild rides into an entirely new category.

Hermione caught a soft rustling in her knapsack, and she opened it to find two stowaways hidden within. A volcanic nightmare pup and one of the Nundu cubs had wriggled into her bag, not wanting to be left behind when she was going off on an adventure. She tried to frown, but she couldn't maintain it. They were just way too adorable with their wide, round eyes, pudgy bodies, and drippy cuteness.

She could tell it was the oldest of the pups due to the magma starting to drip from his body, unlike his younger siblings that still smoldered instead. Her first lesson with the current Master of Beasts was how to fireproof anything— or magma pup-proof everything, which was far more complex than simple fireproofing when they had super sharp obsidian puppy teeth, pissed fire, and shat lava.

She was apparently immune, but her library hadn't been. Now, it was, thank Merlin. After having her shoes chewed on (and utterly destroyed) her new pair was too. Live and learn, that was Hermione Granger.

Hermione smiled, having finished with the entire classroom, leaving behind only the things her master had specified belonged to the school. It looked— scarily empty. She was proud her master trusted her to pack all their things. Harry or Ron would have thought he was just making her his slave, but she knew he wouldn't trust just anyone to pack their things with or without a list. She was always meticulous, and she knew he would come back and check if she missed anything, but that was okay. Just because he double checked didn't mean he didn't think she was up to it.

She was pretty sure she got everything. Except for that top shelf she couldn't quite reachEEEAGGGH!

The Dementor lifted her up by the waist so she could check the top shelf.

"Oh!" she giggled. "Thank you!"

As she hovered the things down, taking all the things from the list and leaving the others— some of it looked like it'd been there for centuries. Some jars had the initials H.S. on them, and she wondered who that had been. The writing was overly loopy and ornate— the kind of thing that took longer to write one letter than most people took to write a sentence. It wasn't in the shorthand that her master had been teaching her either.

She loved learning the shorthand. It felt like a secret language only the elite knew, and even if that was total rubbish, it made her happy to imagine it.

Within a few minutes, all the top shelves had been cleaned up and cleaned off, leaving it better than it was previously. Whoever came after would have pristine shelves to fill.

When the tall, aristocratic Lucius Malfoy came in, Hermione dove into the Dementor's embrace, shivering, but not in cold. The man made her very nervous. Draco was far easier to handle or ignore as the situation called for, but the elder Malfoy— ever since he'd slipped that diary in Ginny's cauldron, she hadn't really trusted him in any capacity.

Though— when she thought about it— she didn't really trust anyone in any capacity anymore, except her teachers. Her own house had pushed her out— and even if only a few Gryffindors had been guilty of that, the others had stood back and let it happen. While Slytherin had become civil enough to her, she believed it was only because she was Snape's apprentice and not because they truly liked her. Hufflepuff thought she knew too much. Ravenclaw thought she didn't know enough— because if she truly knew any better, shouldn't she be studying more instead of telling people about it?

Well, none of that, at least anymore. The masters in the DoM seemed eager to teach whatever she desired during the times when she wasn't directly doing things for her master, and she liked having options to choose from. And they didn't mind her having all her other friends coming along to keep her company. That was even better— though, admittedly, she tried to limit herself to a few at a time, just for space considerations.

The headmaster was staring at her— no, he was staring at the Dementor. There was the nervous query in his stance she recognised. Dementors were just not easily accepted company to most people. Hermione thought otherwise, especially when in the company of Lucius Malfoy. The Dementor seemed to sense her distress, and it covered her in its cloak, allowing her to hug its waist like a small child hiding from the boogey man. The irony was thick— but she couldn't help being uncomfortable under such scrutiny.

She wondered if the Dementors would stay at Hogwarts when she left. It was their job, after all, to find Sirius Black. There lay another reason to be happy in the bowels of the Ministry's DoM. Even the mere mention of Sirius Black caused her master to clench his fists and grit his teeth in anger. Some would think that was perfectly normal for Snape, but she had come to realise there was far more complexity in her master's many easily overlooked tells. All of them seemed like anger, but there were very tiny differences between them.

How had she never seen it before?

Or had she?

Would she have accepted his offer to be his apprentice had she truly believed him evil? Sure, she had once set the poor wizard's robes on fire, but she'd admittedly done that thinking he was guilty of trying to hurt Harry.

Maybe that was when she'd started to think there was more to her teacher than appearances. Now, of course, she knew it— and she would be a true hypocrite if she were to think a person couldn't have hidden values buried within.

"Apprentice."

Oh gods. Merlin. Crap.

Hermione slowly let go of her Dementor friend and slinked over to her master's side. "Yes, master."

The Dementor followed her, drawn by her distress.

The air was cold, she could tell— not that she felt it, but that she could see their breath freezing in the air as the hoarfrost spread through the room.

Lucius' eyes narrowed. "And you are quite certain that this isn't some sort of fluke, Severus?"

"It is not," Severus said.

"You would throw away a successful career—"

"I will be fine, Lucius," Severus said.

Lucius glared at him, and Hermione knew there was something not being said that was very clear to the both of the adults.

Hermione didn't like Lucius glaring at her. She didn't want to hide in her master's robes— okay, so she did— but she knew doing so would not look good on her master in the present company, so she tried to suppress her shudder.

GRAWRRRLL!

The volcanic nightmare pup tackled the blond wizard's boot with his obsidian fangs, magma dripping from his baby teeth.

RAWRRL!

The Nundu cub tackled the other boot, sinking its fangs into Lucius' other boot.

Oh gods. This is bad. This is really. Oh Merlin.

She rushed up and pried the pup off Lucius' boot, clamping her hand over his molten muzzle. He whined and wriggled, wagging that little stump of a tail, sending bits of lava flying in a few directions. He pegged her with his tongue under her chin.

"You're very brave," she told the pup, "but you shouldn't introduce yourself with your mouth." She tried to sound professional, and she prayed the blond wizard didn't read more into what she said in other ways.

Gods… I'm such a failure at life.

The Nundu cub looked up at her, seeing that the pup was getting cuddles, and disengaged to put her large paws on her knee. Mrowl?

Hermione picked them both up, cuddling them.

"Please apologise to Mr Malfoy."

Browl.

Mrowl.

They looked up at Lucius as one would evaluate really large prey as they came up with a game plan for taking him out and eating him for supper.

Hermione felt her master's private amusement without actually seeing it. His face, as usual, was set like stone.

"As you can see, Lucius," Severus said. "She is exactly as I described."

"You also said she was competent."

"I did."

The wizard's lip curled. "Her… things assaulted my boots."

Severus' eyes darkened— the light in them disappearing completely. "Do you think you could do better? By all means. Do show her how it is done."

Lucius lifted a hand. "I need not."

Hermione scowled, sensing that he didn't have any idea how to work with Volcanic Nightmare Hounds and Nundus any more than the average wizard or witch, but he was dismissing it as if it were unnecessary to show his own power.

Ah, the power game.

True power versus bluff. One had only to show true power a few times to convince others that the bluffs were real. She wondered how long it had been since Lucius Malfoy had showed such power.

Just like that, the tension ended between the blond wizard and her master.

"Fine, I will take your offer, Headmaster," Lucius said. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Perhaps I can bring some order to these little heathens I have heard so much about."

Hermione watched her master's finger twitch.

"Ah, thank you, Lucius, let us go up to my office and discuss the details," Albus said. "Severus, I trust you'll inform Miss Granger—"

"Yes, Headmaster," Severus said, his voice flat and monotone.

"Excellent," he said. "We will miss you here, my boy. Do take care of yourself."

Snape's lip curled. "I will."

As the two other wizards left, Snape's shoulders lost some of their tension.

"Master?"

"Hn?"

"Did I do something wrong?"

"No, Apprentice, you did not."

Hermione slowly let out the breath she had been holding.

Severus looked around the room. "You are quite thorough." He did not say anything else, but as he walked around the room, he looked behind some of the jars that she left, a quirk of a smile on his lips when he found nothing amiss.

He looked at her with a neutral expression. "Do you wish company in making sure none of your old things were left behind in Gryffindor Tower?"

Hermione felt her heart lurch and try to hide in her boots. "Yes, Master. If it would not be too much trouble."

He tilted his head. "It is not."

Snape "folded" the portable hole and tucked it away in a pocket, gesturing with his chin for her to follow. She fell in line next to him, brushing up against his wool robes both for his presence and comfort. Most people would think her mad for finding him comforting, but then again they would think her finding comfort in a Dementor was barking mad, too.

The trek up to Gryffindor Tower was, just as she had expected, ripe with whispered gossip from every shaded corner they passed. Gossip always travelled quickly through Hogwarts, like a virulent plague. Fenrir trotted along beside her like the huge, intimidating beast that he was— tongue lolling as he carried his favourite stick with him. He sported the identification collar from the DoM so no one could confuse him with, say— another disgustingly huge battle-torn werewolf with a known obsession with sticks. The cub and the pup were riding on his back like a pair of jockeys, seemingly enjoying the novel experience.

They were met with Professor Lupin, who was leaning up against the railing of Gryffindor Tower. The moment he saw the Dementor, he whipped his wand out, and a blazing white radiance filled the stairway. Hermione dropped to her knees, her hands clamped to her ears as the agonising shriek tore through her.

Snape stood in front of her. "What is the meaning of this, Lupin?"

"Dementors are not allowed on the school grounds, Severus," he said. "Besides, there is a crisis going on in the Tower right now." He pointed to the torn up portrait that was notably missing one Fat Lady. "No one goes in or out."

"So caring for the school rules, now, are you, Lupin?" Snape hissed. "How very… responsible of you. I would have you know that recognised familiars are allowed on school grounds when they are registered by the Ministry. And. All. Of. Hers. Are." He made each word drip like acidic venom.

Fenrir growled lowly, his hackles raised and stiff, and Lupin's eyes widened as his face rapidly paled.

"Impossible."

Fenrir's snarl caused the pup and the cub to snarl too, doing their level best to look mean and vicious.

"Tell me, Lupin," Snape said in a disturbingly quiet voice. "Have you displaced Minerva as Head of House, or do you just like hanging out on the stairs and remembering the good old days when you terrorised the hallways past curfew with your reprobate best mates?"

Lupin's fists clenched in anger, and Fenrir snarled.

Lupin, immediately cowed, stepped back quickly.

Now Minerva was rushing up the stairs, Hermione right by her side. Snape's eyes flicked over to his apprentice— the sly girl had slipped off to get her former Head of House. Clever girl. Well worthy of Slytherin.

Minerva, ire writ bold across every crease of her face, stormed up the stairs with such an intense swirl of her magic about her that Fenrir looked to Hermione for direction. Hermione opened her arms to him, and he eagerly bounded over for a hug, allowing her to comfort him as he comforted her.

"Remus, what are you doing here instead of coming to me if there was a situation with Gryffindor?"

Lupin flinched when confronted by the elder witch, unable to justify why he was even on the steps to begin with and why he hadn't come to get her immediately if there had been a problem.

Minerva eyed the slashed portrait. "Who did this?"

"No one knows," Lupin said.

"Oh, I'm sure someone does," Minerva replied caustically. "Where is the Fat Lady?"

The quivering portraits pointed in all directions.

Minerva scowled.

"She's hiding from Sirius Black!" one portrait said, pointing down the hall.

"She won't hold still."

"She's scared to death!"

Hermione watched all the expressions very, very carefully. It was self-preservation in Slytherin, and even more necessary around the company her master kept— knowing when to bow and when to make herself scarce was important.

Minerva's expression hardened even more. Her eyes flicked from the portrait— which had been ripped to shreds— and Lupin. "Is it true that you banished Apprentice Granger's familiar?"

"It wasn't a familiar, it was a Dementor!" Lupin protested.

"While I am sure you are our resident expert on Defence, Remus," Minerva replied coolly, "I do not think you are our expert on familiars— and we all got the warning from the headmaster this morning that Severus and Apprentice Granger would be coming along with a number of her familiars."

"Dementors are Dark emotion-sucking fiends, Minerva! They do not act as familiars to anyone!"

"Are you not the one who told us that you saw Apprentice Granger speak with a Dementor on the Hogwarts Express? Did you not witness the Dementor giving her chocolate and exiting the train car?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"Did it suck all the emotion out of three children and you?"

"Well, no, but—"

"Then you must admit that not all Dementors are there simply to suck out all your souls indiscriminately!" Minerva argued.

Lupin flinched.

"So, what, Remus, would cause you to go from advocating that Dementors could show different behavior to driving one away to the point of emotionally traumatising Apprentice Granger with the screams of her familiar?"

As the adults confronted each other, Hermione noticed she was one Nundu cub short of a pard. She tugged on her master's sleeve, subtly, to get his attention. She pantomimed four legs and whiskers.

He jutted his chin, giving her permission to go as he maintained his cross-armed and scowling posture.

She patted Fenrir. "Help me find the cub, will you, Fenrir?"

The werewolf whuffed, tail wagging. Of course he would. He loved tracking things.

He put his nose down and then sniffed the air. She put her hand on his collar and walked beside him as he guided her along. Unfortunately, Fenrir's nose let him to the portal that Lupin was standing in front of, and the werewolf was not amused. He growled—

Lupin's hand went to his wand, his body stiffening.

A rat went flying between his legs, running down the stars.

Followed by a royally brassed-off Crookshanks.

Followed by a very excited Nundu cub.

Followed by a crazed red-headed Weasley shrieking at the top of his lungs about 'that bloody cat trying to murder his Scabbers'.

The rat and the half-Kneazle made it between Lupin's legs easily enough, but the excited Nundu cub just ploughed into his legs like a bulldozer and knocked the man off balance. Ron followed after, too angry to watch where he was going, and slammed into Remus.

They both went tumbling down the moving staircase, falling off one side to land, one on top of the other with a bone-crunching crash, squarely on top of a mangy-looking black dog.

Crookshanks pounced on the rat, and the rat squealed and injured his own tail to escape, only the Nundu cub pounced on it from the other direction, sinking of all its super-sharp kitten teeth into the rat and shaking the body violently over and over, throwing it up in the air and pounce it again, smacking the body into the floor with a good swat from its paw.

The rat's body was still, and then it shook violently as it expanded into the twisted almost rat-like form of a man that was bleeding from many, many puncture wounds.

"Well, well," Snape's voice oozed velvet and venom as the tip of his boot crushed into Pettigrew's shoulder— perhaps the one place not torn by Nundu teeth and claws. He put his wand to the wizard's temple. "Do. Not. Move. Pettigrew. Seems you are not as dead as you wished everyone to believe."

Peter Pettigrew's eyes, wide with fear— more fear— in the acidic, umbral gaze of his most hated school victim grown up.

"Apprentice."

"Yes, Master."

"Use your medallion."

"Yes, Master."

Hermione felt around in her robes and pulled out a disc that hung from a golden chain around her neck. She rubbed the red jewel in the center with her fingers as she said an incantation Amelia had drilled into her over and over until she remembered it. The disc flared into brilliance.

"Aurors will be coming— and then some," Snape said coldly. "I cannot. Wait."

There was a flurry of growls coming from down on the other steps. One Volcanic Nightmare pup had a scruffy-looking man's leg clutched in his mouth, his molten drool doing quite a number on the man's skin. The man was screaming in agony, but his futile struggles were causing him even more as his body was still suffering several painful effects from having two wizards land on top of him.

Snape's wand arm twitched. "Well, well, well. What a rrrrrrrrr-red letter day this is."

Minerva had already sent her Patronus out to alert the staff and the headmaster as a rapid series of distinctive cracks of Apparition came from outside Hogwarts.

Hermione, distressed by all the screaming, called the pup to her. The magma pup bounced over to her, leaping the distance between the moving stairs to hop into her arms and snuggle.

The portraits were all calling out, "Sirius Black! It's Sirius Black! That's Pettigrew, Peter Pettigrew!"

"It was the rat all along!"

Peter tried to make a break for it in his desperation, but before Snape could even cast a spell, Fenrir tore into the closest arm, sinking his teeth down into the bone, the disturbing crunch of teeth against bone moving against tendon. The rat Animagus screamed shrilly. "No, no, nooo! I don't want to be a werewolf! NOOO!"

"Fen," Hermione called. "Let our master handle him."

Fenrir released the arm but the tattered cloth had stuck around his fangs, and it ripped, sticking to his muzzle. The werewolf snarled, rubbing his muzzle against the floor to get it free, using his paws to pry the offending fabric off his teeth. He shook his head fiercely and and padded to her side, wedging his head into her side for scritches.

Peter was too busy moaning and lamenting his fate as a werewolf to notice the shape of the Dark Mark emblazoned on his skin.

"Master, what is that?" Hermione asked, seeing the strange movement of his arm, as if the mark was alive under his skin.

"Damnation," Severus said, his voice low and dangerous.

The Aurors arrived soon after, and the word that Ronald Weasley had been harbouring a supposedly-dead wizard and newly-revealed Death Eater as his familiar spread like wildfire, even more quickly than the truth that Sirius Black had been captured as well.


Snape sat in the Ministry courtyard under what appeared to be an apple-pear tree, depending on the mood of the tree. If you were really lucky, you'd get an actual apple pear, otherwise you'd get a random kind of apple or equally random kind of pear. He watched Hermione sitting with the elder Weasleys, allowing her to speak with them in relative privacy, but also staying close just in case she became distressed.

Molly and Arthur Weasley had both been shown the parchment Hermione had received that had resulted in her bonding with a werewolf as her familiar— a parchment that had, by all logical clues, been written by Molly. Yet, when Dumbledore had run a trace upon it as well as comparing it to handwriting from previous letters about her children, he had found that it had actually been her youngest child's attempt at a shaming "joke."

Ginevra had, apparently, succumbed to hazing in order to get into Gryffindor's good graces for being friends with "a Dark witch," and it all boiled down to the young witch crafting a perfect shaming letter in the style of her mother's all-too-well-known howlers.

The elder Weasleys had been trying to meet with Hermione for weeks, but Severus had blocked them each time until he was sure Hermione wouldn't knee-jerk summon the wrath of Volcanic Nightmare Hounds or worse down upon their heads.

Life in the DoM had done wonders for the young witch's confidence and happiness, but reminders of her life back at Hogwarts seemed to be fraught with stumbling blocks and emotional triggers.

With the discovery of Peter Pettigrew, Scabbers the rat extraordinaire, as well as Sirius Black, both highly-touted Gryffindors who had fallen from grace, it hadn't just been the Weasleys taking a reality check about the "light side" being beyond reproach.

Though, from the rumour mill from the Auror team and Unspeakables that had come to handle Pettigrew, Black, and Weasley's entanglement, Mr Weasley was not taking the truth of having slept, cuddled, and kissed a wizard pretending to be his rat very well. Not at all.

Snape's smile was wickedly genuine. His enjoyment of the situation was more than a little payback for their shared history.

Dumbledore had seemed utterly weary by the time Hermione and he had left, having collected Crookshanks and a few things that had "mysteriously" found their way into certain other hands in the Gryffindor tower. He'd requested all of the things be scanned thoroughly before she used or even touched them again.

Children.

He shuddered.

He swore they were more irresponsible and cruel in a combination that almost guaranteed they would kill each other off— yet somehow, they didn't. Was that a miracle or resilience?

Fortunately for Hermione, she never wore the necklace or earrings her mother had given her— just kept them on a box on the bedside table to remind her of her parents— so she hadn't tried to put them on immediately. She seemed disheartened that her mother's gift would have been tampered with in any way. Having it stolen by one Ginny Weasley to placate the other girls, however, just drove Hermione's heart into a place he knew well: scorn.

His forgiveness to the little chit was not coming anytime soon— even if Hermione eventually chose to forgive her. He was the one who had to coax her out of her depression and the pileup of worried familiars that wouldn't let anyone else but him inside the ring of protective fury that was her more reliable friend network. The irony that he— Severus Tobias Snape, bastard extraordinaire— would ever be the person to provide comfort to an emotionally damaged witch was surreal. He had, of course, experienced enough selfishness at the hands of fellow students to know the depths of their untrustworthiness.

There was something calming about how she wrapped her arms around his waist and sobbed into his robes— not that he wanted her crying, for Merlin's sake. Sobbing witches tended to be emotional bombs that blew to pieces and made a mess everywhere.

But Hermione, unlike her blatant hand-waving self, buried herself into his robes and sniffled, taking comfort from his presence. He had not abandoned her, and he knew in that moment that she truly relied on him— not to be some great and gushing friend— but not to change. To be there— that was what she wanted, no, needed.

And maybe, just maybe, she was just what he needed as well.

Molly was getting a little too shrill, and he could sense Hermione's emotions spike— and that was a dangerous thing for a girl who summoned beasts to comfort her.

Snape stood, cracking his neck before walking over to her. He said nothing, allowing his gaze to say everything for him. He sat down beside her, daring Molly or Arthur to say something. Hermione scooched over to press her body into his, not an obvious thing like clinging to his hand or anything disgustingly obvious. Just that soft warmth of closeness seemed to be enough.

Hermione squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.

Ah, there it was. The defiance. The courage. How easily it came to her when she felt the closeness of those she could rely on— as twisted as that seemed that she could gain that from him of all people.

"I appreciate everything you have done for me, Mr and Mrs Weasley," Hermione said firmly. "But, I will not lie to Headmaster Dumbledore about the sequence of events that Ginny's letter drove me to."

Fenrir snorted awake from the place by her feet, and he rose up into a sitting position, laying his huge head on the table top. Hermione stroked his ears fondly, and the werewolf's tongue lip, lip, lipped as he tried to peg her hand as she went by. Ginny had become a codeword for tears in Fenrir's vocabulary, and he didn't like his mistress crying any more than Snape did— probably for different reasons, or maybe not so much.

Molly's eyes grew very, very wide as she eyed Fenrir— and how Hermione playfully put her wrist in his mouth, and he grabbed it, playfully "gnawing" on her but never once breaking skin.

Even knowing that he wasn't contagious anymore— it was more than a little unnerving to watch. The rat hadn't known that either, and everyone had just let him think he was going to turn furry on the full moon as they dragged him away to gaol. Pity that the rat's being alive meant that Sirius wasn't guilty of murder, so he was going before the Wizengamot, again, to sort out what he was guilty of— escaping Azkaban, being an unregistered Animagus— and how that rated to the time he'd already served for the wrong crime. Obviously if the rat wasn't dead, there was some suspicion on if he'd really killed those thirteen Muggles that he'd sworn he hadn't.

Sadly, Severus had to admit, if Sirius Black was going to go killing a bunch of Muggles after killing one of his former best mates, he probably wasn't going to leave them pristinely skewed about in a orgy of excessive evidence. He'd had too much experience avoiding the rules to do something that… contradictory. Especially since he and Potter had gone into the Aurors after school.

That was an irony that made Snape's skin crawl.

Arthur, the voice of reason, was nodding. He put a hand on Molly's arm. "Molly, love, you have to face the fact that Ginny did some bad things, and she's going to have to live with detentions and not being in the right. You can't always be there to defend her, and she has to learn that bad things come when you do bad things. We wouldn't be much for parents if we taught her that and then rescued her every time she did."

Molly wrung her hands again, staring at Fenrir like he was rabid.

Fenrir licked his chops— intentionally.

"But she was scared, Arthur! Scared of the Dementors!"

Arthur scowled. "Now, look, Molls. Dementors are scary, yes, and it doesn't help that all we hear about them is 'suck out your soul' and 'drains all the happiness' and then we teach our kids that Dementors will get you if you don't behave. It's partially our fault— no not just us, but everyone— for painting them as pure evil. Still— boogeymen or not— Ginny should have known better than to steal, and she most definitely should have known better than to forge a letter from you to drive Hermione into the woods on a full moon to find herself a werewolf."

Fenrir looked at Hermione, and she pressed a kiss to his nose. He tail wagged in appreciation— had it been anyone else, they might have gotten their face bitten.

Snape snorted at the 'find herself a werewolf.' Arthur made it sound like she went out moonlighting to shack up with a werewolf. The truth was far more comical. Fenrir wanted to play fetch— surely why else would he park himself in places where children were all the time? But sadly, until he met Hermione, regular human children only triggered his need to bite and infect. None of them wanted to play with him. He was probably frustrated. Angry even. He wondered, if the human Fenrir knew that his wolf only wanted to fetch sticks, if he'd not be so keen on the entire werewolf thing.

Hermione seemed to appreciate Arthur's gravity when it came to respecting her position. It hadn't been her fault that Ginevra had decided to go completely gung-ho on the shun-Hermione train, and Ginevra did need to learn that that her actions would beget consequences.

Molly, of course, seemed utterly despondent over it, as if the end of the world was coming because her baby girl wasn't perfect.

News flash, Molly. No one is. Not even your children.

"But— Dumbledore said it was up to her if Ginny had to have any further punishment!" Molly protested.

The air seemed to get colder as Hermione's body stiffened. "Mrs Weasley, I appreciate what you have done for me in the past, but I'm going to ask you something that I want you to answer honestly. If Ginny was the one who had been hurt, had she been the one who had been ostracised and had her things stolen and cursed, would you be even entertaining the thought of someone getting away with it for any reason?"

"NO!" Molly said immediately— and then her eyes got terribly wide as she realised what she had just admitted. "No, no, no— Ginny is different. She's so young and impressionable.!"

Arthur put his hand over Molly's hands. "Molly, just stop. We came here today to make peace with Hermione, not attempt to browbeat the girl into letting Ginny get away with what she chose to do of her own free will."

"Arthur!" Molly's voice became full-on shrill.

"No, Molly. Don't make us hypocrites, now," he said sternly. "Ginny's going to have to learn that she will always have to pay a price for her shameful deeds. Just as we both are for pressuring Dumbledore into letting Ron keep Percy's old rat as a familiar— and we see how well that worked out."

Molly paled significantly.

Hermione stood to leave, lightly brushing her fingers against the skin of Snape's wrist in the silent signal that she was done. Severus nodded silently, turning to take up his place slightly ahead of her and lead her back to the safety of the DoM.

Molly, however, saw the gesture and promptly misinterpreted Hermione's silent appeal for him to lead her away from her for something quite inappropriate.

"You think he's so safe to latch onto?" Molly cried in outrage. "Him? He's nothing but a bloody Dark wizard. A Death Eater!" Her wand was out and in her hand, a hastily-aimed spell flying after them.

Severus stood in front of Hermione, his arm braced to catch the curse with a shield, but it was a hair less strong that he was expecting to need in such a public place.

His left robe sleeve was sliced away as it caught his bicep, and blood began trailing heavily down his arm.

"Master!" Hermione cried, catching him as he crumpled against the bench in pain.

Arthur had wrestled the wand out of his wife's hand— but it was already too late.

Hermione quickly pulled the amulet from around her neck and hissed out the incantation. It blazed with light even as time seemed to slow down.

Hoarfrost began to spread across the floor as Dementors floated in from random directions. Their black robes flickering by invisible wind as the air sucked all the heat from the warmth it touched.

"Master," Hermione cried again, her eyes began to glow a startlingly bright white-blue.

The Dementors placed hands on Snape's arm— the blood began to slow. Hermione took a vial of glowing liquid from one Dementor's fingers, uncorking it as she dipped a tiny dropper into it and fumbled over Snape's arm. Her hands were shaking badly, and she dripped in more than a few drops in her haste— guiding the drops into each laceration.

Green vapour rose from his arm as Snape hissed sharply, his body convulsing.

"Mind his head!" Hermione cried, her fear rising.

Fenrir propped himself up against Snape's back to keep his head from hitting the floor as he shook himself off the bench. The Dementors hissed and whispered, their cold covering his arm as the tincture did its work.

Black tar oozed from his lacerations like ink— foul and unnatural. It tried to go back into him, but the potion was not allowing it. His flesh was sealing closed, cutting off all reentry portals. The foul tar condensed into a ball as the hoarfrost surrounded it, and the ball crackled and froze solid. After a few seconds, the ball shattered as the what sounded like the faint scream of some far-off man was abruptly cut off.

POP!

A fluffy spider the size of a grapefruit landed on Snape's arm, looked about, and wove him a new robe sleeve. The spider had velvety black "fur" and a skull-like marking on its abdomen.

"Oh hai!" it greeted. "I'm Blodwyn! And you look like you could really use some tea and biscuits!"

The cheery female spider conjured up a large tray with hot tea, sugar, cream, assorted biscuits, pastries and stacks of dainty tea sandwiches.

Amelia and a small squad of Unspeakables descended upon Snape, quickly looking him over. Amelia pulled Hermione toward her. "Shh, shh, love, he'll be fine. We're just making sure everything is okay after you used the potion."

The Dementors pulled away from Snape, allowing the air to warm up again. Severus wordlessly poured himself some of the blessedly fortifying tea and drank it straight, picked up the cream, and drank that down too. He then ate a sugar cube, then a biscuit, and let out an almost-hysterical cackle of laughter.

Blodwyn eyed the tray of refreshments with curious multiple eyes. "I really don't think that's the normal way to drink tea but okay!"

Hermione clung tight to Amelia, unsure of just what was happening.

Snape rubbed his arm, his fingers feeling the smooth, unblemished skin under his newly-mended sleeve. "You silly, wonderful girl," he choked on another laugh as he praised her.

"Master?" she said, kneeling beside him even as the Unspeakables worked over him.

He pulled her hand over to his arm, allowing her small hand to rest over his pale, pristine skin.

The fluffy spider scurried over to settle over their joined hands. "You're keepers. I'm adopting you."

Snape lay his head back on Fenrir and closed his eyes.

Hermione, who had her head on his chest as she listened to the beating of his heart. She guided Fenrir's head down to listen too. The werewolf cocked his head, lay it down on Snape's chest, and then his tail wagged joyfully. Hermione smiled with relief. "I'm so glad you're okay, Master."

Snape's free hand gently touched her curls. "It will take much more than a mere slicing curse to be rid of me, Apprentice."

Hermione let out a long sigh. "I find I am gratified that this is so."

As Hermione stood, allowing the Unspeakables to do their work even as the Aurors did their job to keep the drama-hungry crowds from invading, she saw Molly—

Hermione's eyes blazed white as the chilling cold of the hoarfrost swirled around her. Her jaw tightened. Her small fists clenched. She scowled as her body seemed to slough off her respect and emerge anew. Her curls seemed to rise up and writhe like they were alive.

"You— attack me because I trust my master?" Hermione hissed.

Fenrir growled next to her.

She waved her hand, and a swarm of angry budgie-sized bees zoomed by her head and towards a white-faced Molly Weasley.

"You think just because he made some mistakes in his youth that he's automatically damned forever? Didn't you only just plead to me that Ginny had just made one mistake and that she could be better— that she was worth giving another chance?!" Her eyes flashed, and small lizards started to crawl off the random foliage and towards Molly en masse. One made it to her ankle and bit her, and she screamed as though a thousand acidic hypodermics were being shot into her at once.

"How DARE you assume that since you did me a good turn once or twice that you have somehow earned the right to direct my life when you weren't there defending me against your own children. How dare you!"

Hermione's arms and exposed flesh began to glow with her runes and tattoos. Trails of fire and ice slithered across her skin as she stormed towards Molly, each step leaving hoarfrost— and lava in her wake. Dementors were floating towards them. A horde of Volcanic Nightmare hounds were crawling up out of her lava-filled footsteps. The shape of her body seemed to waver between the fully human and distinctly other, occasionally blurring between the lines as the elements danced.

Arthur stood in front of Molly, his face twisted with an inner turmoil. "Please, Hermione. Please. Be merciful? I cannot speak for her, only for myself, but I deeply regret what has been done to force your hand, and she's always been so protective of our children. I know that doesn't make it right— but I beg you not to take away the only mother our children have."

Hermione slowly stopped her advance, her face frozen somewhere in-between rage and sympathy.

A hand pressed against Hermione's shoulder. "Apprentice."

Hermione's eyes flickered and she looked up at him. "Master?"

"She's not worth it," he said quietly. "I am fine. Everything we care about is fine." He was propped up between two Unspeakables, but his familiar gaze was as it always was. That alone brought her comfort.

Hermione closed her eyes, taking in a long, cleansing breath and letting it out. "Yes, Master," she said, and the stinging lizards and unnervingly large budgie-bees disappeared as if they had never been there. The Volcanic Hounds rubbed up against her before vanishing into the floor, and the Dementors lingered.

Hermione touched each one, leaning in to their twisted, gnarled hands and giving them a hug around the waist before they floated away.

Fenrir took Hermione's hand in his mouth and chewed slightly to get her attention.

Hermione soothed his ears and smiled.

"Mrs Molly Weasley," Amelia said sternly as an Auror grasped her firmly by the upper arm. "We have some questions for you. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in Wizengamot. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."

Arthur approached Amelia with a sombre expression. "I'm sorry, Amelia. I wish I could say I knew what was going on, but I don't. I really—I have no idea."

Amelia sighed. "We were pulled out of Wizengamot for this, Arthur. I'll be honest that anything that brings us out of Wizengamot is not good for you if it isn't life and death— and since Molly's ill-advised actions here made it a case of life and death— at least to a young child who watched her master bleeding out in front of her… "

Amelia frowned. "I cannot tell you what is going to happen once Molly is questioned, Arthur. It all depends on what she says— and what she doesn't. She may have hurt Severus, but she could have just as easily hurt Hermione— and from what I saw on Severus when we arrived on the scene, she could have vivisected her. This is very serious, Arthur."

"Oh, Molly," Arthur moaned. "Molly, Molly, Molly." He rubbed his thinning temples.

He looked up to where he saw Snape watching over Hermione as she fed the fountain fish, giggling as the fish delicately nipped at her fingers.

How is that Snape manages to make child rearing look so ruddy simple?

Arthur frowned as a Dementor floated in, and Hermione smiled up at it with such trust that he wondered if it had been all too easy to be betrayed when she had such faith in those around her.

She grasped its finger and guided it over to the water, putting pieces of food it its hand. The spectre spread out its fingers and loosed the cargo of food into the water, and the fish immediately gobbled it up. She beamed at the Dementor and laughed, grasping its hands and putting in more food. The Dementor fed the fish again, and they hungrily devoured.

Hermione went back to watching the fish, her legs kicking up into the air with a carefree enthusiasm. "Master?"

"Hn?"

"If you mix Margoni's base with PepperUp, will the resulting reaction increase the effect of the PepperUp or cause the potion to become too alkaline and destroy both effects?"

"Margoni's base is was made for salves and topical tinctures. Mixing it with PepperUp would make a highly-energised salve that would not necessarily sink in through the wound or skin to be effective."

Hermione pondered for a while. "So, I would use Woodward's base instead."

"Yes."

Hermione beamed. "Thank you, Master!"

Severus stood. "We must report to Amelia to be poked and prodded. I believe I have promised not to overdo it."

Hermione seemed to pout, but she smiled again soon after. "Yes, Master."

She hopped off the edge of the fountain and waited for Snape to stand up. He started walking away, and she took her place beside him— the Dementor following behind as it left a trail of Hoarfrost in its wake.

Arthur hung his head, wondering if there was any salvaging the mess his family had dug itself into.


Know-It-All Dementor Lover Attacks Old Pureblood Family

Muggleborn know-it-all showed her face in the Ministry Atrium today, attacking none other than Mrs Molly Prewett Weasley, wife of Arthur and mother of Bill, Charlie, Percival, Fred, George, Ronald, and Ginevra, and trusted member of the pureblood Weasley family.

Molly Weasley, tears in her eyes as she plead her case to the unemotional witch, begged for Hermione Granger to take pity on her innocent, weak, cruelly manipulated, impressionable young daughter, Ginevra Weasley. Her daughter, peer pressured into performing certain tasks to avoid being bullied herself, was set to suffer the shameful injustice of more than a month's worth of grueling detentions if Hermione Granger didn't accept her heartfelt apology.

But heartless Hermione Granger not only refused to speak with Ginevra Weasley, she forced the poor girl's parents to meet her in the Ministry only to turn them down in public.

Molly Weasley, understandably emotional and distraught over such painful inconsideration for her innocent daughter's plight, succumbed to temporary insanity and tried to use a spell to attempt to stop Hermione Granger from walking away from her, only her state of emotional instability at the time warped her spell and gave notorious ex-teacher Severus Snape a few completely non-fatal cuts to his person.

The Granger girl completely blew off the handle and summoned a virtual stormcloud of terrifying Dark magic illusions to torment Mrs Weasley for having supposedly been "unreasonable." Illusions you say?

Yes, apparently the little Dark witch in training has developed a fascination with an entire host of imaginary creatures and has been working on creating convincing illusions to scare innocent law-abiding citizens into doing whatever she so desires.

According to ex-colleague, Sybill Trelawney, "Severus Snape would never have left Hogwarts if it wasn't for that unseeing little goodie-goodie who obviously has no real talent."

Well, I don't know about you, but anyone who conjures up fake Dementors and a variety of other purely imaginary monsters is someone we need kept far away from Hogwarts and our innocent children!

The Wizengamot is supposed to meet this Friday on the fate of Molly Weasley. I recommend that everyone attend this farce to protest this unconscionable humiliation of a good witch who has obviously been put through the ringer by a twisted and manipulative Muggleborn wanna-be witch.


Rita smiled as she listened to the people gossiping about the little trollop who had somehow wrapped herself around the man everyone knew was an evil Dark Wizard. She loved how easy it was to turn the masses against people who richly deserved to have their cages rattled.

Normally, she would have much preferred to torment Snape himself, but torturing his precious little apprentice was just as good.

She wanted to dig up even more juicy tidbits on that little Dark witch wannabe, but somehow she kept ending up in the very boring waiting room. Apparently too many people had to wait, and it was so terribly frustrating.

Rita finally found someone on the move heading deeper into the Ministry, at long last, and she latched onto the man's sleeve, hiding in the folds of fabric. The Ministry was so terribly annoying to navigate. It was a treasure trove of dirt and story ideas, but most of the people she had dirt on she'd already gotten under her thumb after witnessing their after (and during) hours liaisons, plots, and dirty little secrets. It was how, even after writing the most embarrassing things to people, she could still escape being brought up on charges. Too many people feared what she might say if they confronted her.

Now, this Granger chit—

Rita was determined to get more dirt on her and finally get her hooks into Snape and make him writhe. He never had the right amount of respect for her power over everyone, least of all him. She would prove that she could make his life miserable, and she would enjoy it.

There she was!

The stupid girl was sitting in the Slapping Peach grove. A spotted kitten was in her lap of some indeterminate feline species— she was never good at telling one feline from another.

The Slapping Peach tree was hanging fruit just out of the kitten's reach, and the girl was laughing as the kitten leapt up to try and grasp the fruit only to get a face full of leaves.

The girl had a basket next to her, and ever so often the tree seemed to stupidly lower branches too close to her, and she just picked the peaches right off the tree. Ever so often she'd cuddle the kitten and rub it under the chin, and it would wiggle its spotted butt and playfully pounce her hands.

Rita tried to get a little closer, but that stupid tree—!

SMACK!

The tree sent her tumbling into the grass.

Damn if that stupid tree wasn't like the Whomping Willow.

The girl stood up and proved her stupidity by hugging the tree. Who did that? She held up the kitten to the tree, and the kitten pawed at a branch playfully. The tree rustled.

"Ah there you are Apprentice Granger," an old woman said as she trundled into the groove with a watering can. "Did you succeed where many have failed?"

"I'm not sure, Master Merriweather," the girl replied, setting down the fuzzball. "I did fill the basket though."

The crone laughed. "Child, usually the only one that can get a few peaches from the grove is me. You are a true breath of fresh air."

Granger beamed. How disgustingly transparent, Rita thought.

The girl passed the basket over, and the wrinkled old woman took it. She was a witch, why didn't she use some of Balemont's Wrinkle Eraser or something? What a horrible-looking old woman.

"Would you mind watering the trees, my dear?"

"Of course, Master Merriweather," the girl gushed, taking the watering can. She wandered through the grove, watering each tree as the older woman sat down at a table and sorted through the basket of fresh-picked peaches.

By the time the little swot came back, Merriweather had sorted them all by size. "Do you remember what I said about slapping peaches?"

"Smaller are sweeter," the know-it-all answered.

"Yes, very good. And do you remember what it makes best?"

"Sweet tea and sympathy," the chit answered. What a disgustingly arrogant little bi—

Merriweather smiled. "Would you like to gather some honey from our new friends, the budgie-bees?"

Hermione bounced on her heels. "They were busy yesterday, but they said today they would have enough to share."

"Excellent, my dear. Why don't you go check on them and bring back what they can spare?"

"Okay, Master Merriweather!"

The young witch bounced off with the spotted kitten in hot pursuit.

Rita pondered finding whatever food bowl she had for the dumb beast and spiking it with something to make the girl cry. She buzzed over to crawl into the colourful fruit on top of the woman's gaudy hat. This should be a safe enough place for now, she thought.

She'd just settled in between some grapes and an apple when the girl came bouncing back. She had a giant bee perched on her shoulder as she carried a bucket filled with honeycombs. Amber ambrosia dripped from the combs— and unlike other bee-products, it was absolutely pristine without bits of odd destris trapped in it.

"Oh, my dear! That's a beautiful set of combs you have there, Hermione," Merriweather gushed. She took them with a smile. "Shall we make some sweet slapping peach tea for the festival tonight?"

Hermione beamed. "Okay!"

"Okay, fetch the drink barrel, and we'll get started."

Hermione came back with a large barrel— or rather she walked back and the wolfen beast rolled it over with his head.

Werewolf, Rita mentally scoffed. Utterly preposterous. That's just some trick beast made out to be a werewolf because its muzzle is so dinky.

They sat together chopping the peaches up into small bits and throwing them into the barrel, carefully setting aside the seeds in a separate pile.

Merriweather pulled out a tin and opened it, measuring out enough to fill a cloth bag. She tossed it into the barrel. "Now, drop a few of the combs in, that's a girl. Perfect."

"Now, the beauty of slapping peaches mixed with our special bee honey is that it makes a fantastic drink in just a few hours. If we let it sit for a month, it'd be a spectacular honey mead, but we wouldn't want everyone getting drunk at the festival, now would we?"

Hermione smiled as Fenrir licked his chops, eyeing the peach closest to him with avid interest.

"May I?" Hermione asked.

Merriweather nodded. "Go ahead, just take care to mind the seed, please."

Hermione cut the fruit carefully, extracting the seed for the pile before passing the fruit to Fenrir. He inhaled it into his mouth and licked his chops, tail wagging.

"You're like a vacuum," Hermione said with a laugh.

The werewolf tilted his head and wagged his tail.

"Well, I think it's time we took this down to the festival and then you can tell your master that I did not force you to do everything at wand point, hrm?"

Hermione grinned. "Yes, Master Merriweather."

Hermione took the basket of seeds and patted Fenrir on the head. "Would you mind carrying these down for us?"

Fenrir whuffled, snuffling her hands and opening his mouth for the basket handle. Hermione lay the basket into his mouth, and he clenched his teeth around it, tail wagging.

The bright blue and white bee on her shoulder buzzed to get her attention.

"Oh!" Hermione said. "I'm so sorry, I forgot." She walked over to one of the large slapping peach blossoms and stroked its branch. The tree lowered the branch and unfurled the blossoms, dripping with waiting nectar. The bee buzzed loudly and promptly dove into one blossom, getting pollen all over itself as it took in the nectar. She then walked over to another tree and did the same, and the bee repeated its actions, happily pollinating the other tree from blossom to blossom. Laden with precious nectar, the bee could barely fly, and Hermione cupped it in her hands with a smile. "Silly thing. Overdid it, yeah?"

The bee buzzed, unapologetic for its sad state of nectar blissful overload. She carried it over to the entrance of the hive, setting the worker down by the soldiers. Hermione held out her fingers, still wet with nectar from helping the drone saturate itself, and the soldiers gratefully lapped up the precious nectar and pollen from her fingertips.

"Thank you for the extra combs today," Hermione said.

The bees cleaned her fingers, pausing to groom themselves clean before having another go at it. Hermione chuckled and waited until the bees were done, and she pulled her hand away. "Most people don't think bees have soldiers," she said with a smile. "You're rebels keeping your honey safe."

The soldier bees wiggled their abdomens as they did a little dance in seemingly random patterns in response.

"You're welcome."

Hermione walked back to where Merriweather was standing.

"Ready to go?"

"Yes."

"Excellent. Off we go then."

Rita brooded as they walked deeper into the Ministry. The girl seemed to have charms over the insects too, and she wondered what kind of insidious Dark Magic she wielded that bent these adults who should see her as a threat into nurturing her like some prized protegé. Or maybe— the Ministry could be breeding these strange insects for nefarious purposes. That would make a really good spin for the Daily Prophet.

After passing through quite a few security checkpoints. Rita was convinced she was finally on the right track for a great story.

They arrived at a large arboretum and indoor lake that spanned far greater than what Rita had ever seen before. There was a falls in the distance, and had it been outside the Ministry, she would have said it would have commanded a high price to live there.

Funnelling off Ministry funds for pointless landscaping projects, she thought. That was another angle she could use.

Large groups of important-looking individuals mingled together under the trees, and others, dressed in casual robes, chatted around the lake.

Rita looked up to see an enchanted sky not unlike the one she remembered from Hogwarts' Great Hall. More time and money spent on even more useless things, she thought. Besides, what good is having something like this hidden behind countless checkpoints so no one else can see them? Harrumph.

Rita flew over to a new perch, determined to get in the middle of things and find something really juicy that she could use. She heard some familiar voices—

"I don't know Kingsley," a man said as he rubbed a hand over his balding head. "I'm sure you know your Auror stuff, but there has to be a better way than causing a massive panic in Britain that some rampaging psychopath is going to attack them in broad daylight."

Kingsley frowned, his dark brows knitting together. "And you would choose to leave people wholly ignorant instead, Edwards?"

"Well, no, of course," Edwards sputtered. "I'm just saying that needless paranoia would hurt the state of affairs."

"The Ministry's view is that the Dark Lord is but a myth," the younger wizard said with a scowl.

"Come, now, Kingsley," the other man said. "The Dark Lord died by his own hand. This pointless fear-mongering only makes for paranoid people and discontent when there is no reason to be. Just because some person had some weird dark cloud spew out of his arm does not mean the Dark Lord is set to come back to life. It's all a bunch of unsubstantiated rumours. Silly theatrics."

"You cannot tell me that man writhing in agony on the ground as darkness spews from the wounds on his arm was nothing more than happenstance and theatrics, Edwards," Kingsley said.

Edwards shook his head. "Kings, I know you mean well, but do you seriously expect people to believe that some wisp of a girl just happened to purge something as deeply Dark as a Dark Mark and then saunter off like nothing happened? I just don't believe it."

Edwards curled his lip as he looked at the young girl standing beside a dour-looking man whose hair hung about his face like oiled cords. His hands, delicate as a pianist's fingers, drummed against his crossed arms as he listened to something a scowling man with a wildly spastic eye was saying.

"Moody isn't believing it."

"Alastor doesn't believe the sun rises or falls until he actually sees it rise or fall," Kingsley replied. "That doesn't make it impossible."

Edwards scowled, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "I don't approve of him being here," he said, eyeing Snape with a critical eye.

"You will not find a finer potioneer anywhere in the world," Kingsley said. "His knowledge of the intricate weave of spellcraft is unparallelled."

"Dark magic, you mean."

"Grey is grey, Edwards," Kingsley replied. "As I recall your family did a lot of… interesting spellwork before the Ministry took a stand against what would in time be called Dark magic."

Edwards wrinkled his nose. "Family magic is different."

"Is it?" Kingsley didn't wait for an answer because an adorable spotted cub had latched onto his boot. "Hello there."

Mrowl!

The cub laid on its back and batted and chewed on his boot.

"There you are, you naughty boy," Hermione came and picked the cub up. He mrowled and wriggled and licked under her jaw before placing one large paw on her face. Hermione giggled and smiled. "Sorry, Auror Shacklebolt."

"Who do you have here, Apprentice Granger?"

"This is Zorion," Hermione said. "My master says he's entirely too happy."

Shacklebolt laughed. "Severus thinks everyone is too happy, I think."

Hermione made a face and then realised he was joking.

"Would you like to hold him?"

"Would he allow it?"

"Oh! Of course. And he knows better than to breathe yuck in people's faces." She handed the cub to Shacklebolt.

Kingsley stroked the Nundu cub with pleasure, causing Zorion to puff up like a bottle brush and flop on his back in Kingsley's arms. "Well, aren't you adorable, my young friend?"

A buzzing caught the cub's attention and suddenly one paw reached out and smacked a bug out of the air with one swat. The cub snapped his teeth around the tasty intruder, his baby teeth crunching noisily.

Shacklebolt grinned at the cub, massaging its head fondly. "More than a hundred wizards to take you out— but I'm thinking you'd just charm them over completely, hrm?"

Zorion chirp-mrowled, thumping a clawless paw against Kingsley's face. He began to rub his cheek against the wizard when a startled insect dove down into Kingsley's robes. The cub bat, bat, batted the budge on Kingsley's robes as Kingsley writhed and tried to dislodge bothersome the robe-invader.

"Kingsley, what are you doing?"

"I've got a—" Kingsley hopped around. "GAH!" He moved the very curious cub away from his body as the insect had made its way down to places where he definitely did not need Nundu paws, claws, or any other things that might potentially damage his vulnerable privates. He placed the cub down on the ground as he did a frantic amount of shimmy-stomping—

Snape had arrived along with Moody, attracted to the uncharacteristic hopping and gesticulating of one Kingsley Shacklebolt.

"What the—" Moody barked. "What's going on here, Kingsley?"

The Auror's magical eye scanned Kingsley wildly, and then he scowled as he pointed his wand at Shacklebolt.

"What are you DOING?!" Edwards cried, standing in the way.

Snape sneered at Edwards, his face twisted into an expression usually reserved for the likes of Neville Longbottom, and Edwards staggered out of the way with instinctive recoil.

Moody spat out "Stupefy Insectum," his wand flaring as a red beam zapped Kingsley's left leg.

Snape quickly moved Hermione out of the way, tugging her behind him and then standing in front of her as he pulled his own wand as well. Others were coming to investigate, drawn by the sudden kerfuffle.

Moody cursed, having missed his aim, and a pale blond-colored Goldsmith beetle went shooting out of Kingsley's trouser leg and took to the air.

THUMP!

One highly-excited Nundu cub smacked the beetle down with one claws-out paw just before its many, sharp kitten teeth crunched down upon it.

There was a loud, shrill, feminine shriek as the Nundu cub went flying off in a random direction. The poor, startled cub landed with a bounce and skid, puffing out a small cloud of distress, and Severus had immediately slammed a shield down over it as Hermione rushed to pick him up. The cub immediately spat out what his teeth had sunk into, choosing cuddles over being bounced around.

Two beetle legs lay forgotten on the ground where the cub had been— at least until they jerked around like beads of oil on a hot skillet. They expanded, twisted, and jerked into the lost leg and arm of a woman.

A few bystanders screamed while others yelled. Some wizards shielded their witches, while some witches shielded their wizards— all of them having been treated to the very grisly sight of one Rita Skeeter bleeding out as her right arm and left leg were very much missing.

Moody was immediately in action, sending out a Patronus, and Shacklebolt had one going at the same time. Healers in lime green robes appeared almost immediately, rushing in, wands waving and making the crowds part for their passing.

"Was this a Spliching?" one of the healers asked.

"Animagus beetle chomped on by a feline," Moody replied.

"Do we have the limbs?"

"Here, Adept," another healer said.

"Create the sterile field," another healer said.

"On it," the other healer said.

The senior healer did some frantic wand movements. "Blood replenishing, now!"

A flask was put in her hands, and she poured it down Rita's throat.

"We need to slow the bleeding, but we need to replenish the blood— something is— was she somehow poisoned?"

"Nundu cub," Kingsley inserted.

"Those aren't poisonous, but it does explain the lack of coagulation," the Adept replied. "Was she exposed to anything previously?"

"No idea."

Rita was going into convulsions, pink foam forming around her mouth.

"We need a Legilimens! NOW! We need to know everywhere this woman was! Emergency clearance 45-Z-22. I don't care who does it. Someone do it, now!"

An elderly witch stepped up. "I'll do it, Freesia."

"Excellent," Adept Freesia barked. "Thank you, Winifred."

The elder witch pointed her wand at Rita. "Legilimens!"

There was a hushed silence save for the convulsing Rita, and Winifred jerked back out of the link. "She's been everywhere in this damn Ministry short of the DoM in the last few hours, but she hid in the botanical gardens on level five for most of that time."

"Neurotoxic pollens and moulds in there. Perfectly safe for humans— not for insects. Gods only knows what it does for beetle Animagi. Merlin, save me from sodding idiots," Freesia cursed. She cast a few spells. "Martin, give her the anti-toxin potion. Charles, get that bloody leg back on. Carol, the arm."

The healers swarmed over Rita.

"She's still bleeding— we need coagulants, stat!"

"Has the toxin cleared?"

"Yes, Adept."

"Great, so she's been exposed too long. Some of these effects are lingering. Carol, how is the arm?"

"Attached, Adept, but—"

"But?"

"The flesh isn't mending together well either."

"Use the anti-fungals. Charles, make her drink the anti-venom and toxin purgative!"

The other healer forced the potion to Rita's lips, and her body shook even more as a sickly fluid came oozing out of her pores.

"It's working! More blood replenisher. Carol, I need you on the liver. She's probably going into failure. Charles, the spleen. I'll get the fluids into her before she has too many blood factors concentrating— there! She's stabilising. Keep doing what you're doing!"

Rita's body finally stopped shaking.

"Prepare for side-along to Mungos!"

"Ready."

"Ready!"

"Ready!"

"And three, two, one—"

CRACK!

The team of healers and Rita Skeeter disappeared simultaneously in the Apparate.

Shacklebolt looked Moody squarely in the eye. "I'm going to go shower in boiling hot water now."

Moody grunted and nodded. "Don't blame ye a bit, laddie."

Snape thrust a largish blue vial into Shacklebolt's hands.

Kingsley raised a brow.

"My own Magical Mishap Solvent," he said. "It will scrub away any… residual anything she may have left on your person."

Kingsley nodded gratefully. "Thank you, Severus."

Moody's smile was not kind as he extracted memories into a vial. "I've been wanting to nail that witch to a wall for many, many years."

"Next time you want some random vagabond caught, Alastor, kindly send them to someone else's crotch," Kingsley muttered as he stormed away to scrub himself raw.

Zorion mewled.

Hermione hugged him tight against her body.

"I quite agree," Snape said, curling his lip.

Moody gave Snape an appraising stare. He then turned his gaze to Hermione, who was calming the cub in her arms with soothing pets and nuzzles. "I would like to continue our— discussion after this mess with Skeeter is completed."

Snape, whose eyes seemed to swallow all the light, nodded curtly.

"And you, lassie," Moody said.

Hermione looked at the old Auror somewhat suspiciously.

"Be sure to give that furry little bug-hunter a right fine dinner tonight."

Hermione brightened. "Yes, sir."

Moody smiled at her, and Hermione seemed to glow with her happiness.

Whispers turned to avid conversation around them, all of them forgetting about the black cloud that had come from Snape's arm that morning in favour of the more immediate reveal of Rita Skeeter, illegal beetle Animagus. Many speculated on what she had seen, where she had been, and who she had dirt on.

"Master?"

"Yes, Apprentice?"

"Do you think Auror Shacklebolt will want a cub of his own?"

Snape looked down at her, his hair falling around his face. "I think there is nothing wrong with Kingsley that a few steaming hot showers and an Obliviate won't fix."

Hermione hugged Zorion and rubbed his velvety ears. "That seems a bit extreme," she said softly.

"In this case, nothing short of necessary," he replied. "Come, there are others Amelia wishes for us to speak to."

Hermione nodded. "Yes, Master."


Alastor's infamous "mad" eye was strangely unmoving as the Scottish wizard sat back in the chair. "I'll admit, lad, I never thought I'd see the day when you'd take an apprentice or that the Mark could ever leave anyone. That was the Darkest magic we could see inflicting on someone— that taint living under the skin, even after his supposed death."

"He had always said that he had ways in which to ensure he would not remain dead," Severus said.

"That taint acted like the old, forbidden magicks, from long before now. Horcruxes they called them. When a person shattered their soul and forced a piece of it into a vessel— but those have always been non-living things. To see it come from a living person— that is even darker magic than—" Moody shook his head. "I canna even wrap my mind on something so terrible."

Snape frowned, his hand rubbing his arm. "Many of us— those that were Marked— believed it to be a living thing, not because it moved and burned, but because it seemed to writhe under the skin like feeling worms crawl. Later, it burned. We thought it was him reminding us who we had sworn allegiance to, but—"

Snape looked to where Hermione was studying her bookwork, surrounded by cubs, pups, beasts, Dementors, and one fluffy spider perched on her head as she peered down at the book too. "I think each time he used it, he pushed a little more of himself into it, and it started to take away from him and place it in us."

Moody scowled, his hands rubbing against ears. "That could explain the less than human characteristics you described. If that is any indicator, if he does resurrect himself, there could be rather drastic signs of inhumanity— physically."

Moody's eyebrows raised as a bunch of Monstrous Book of Monsters bounce-squeaked-growled toward Hermione and cuddled up next to her. "Is there anything she isn't friends with?"

"Most humans," Snape answered dryly. "Humans have this irritating habit of presuming she's evil. Those that don't think so shortly after the first Dementor sighting. Save the DoM— but even they had a hard time wrapping their heads around the Dementors."

Moody, watching Hermione sit in one Dementor's lap as she tried to get comfortable, snuggled into its arms as she kept reading her book. "I will admit to a certain amount of disbelief," he said. "Seeing it up close though— you can tell they really care for the lass."

Moody's eyes widened. "I would hate to see what happens if she goes near Azkaban. She'd take the whole lot of them with her."

Snape's eyebrows shot into his hair. "Fortunately, we are not plotting any picnics to Azkaban anytime soon."

"No plans to visit the rat?"

Snape's eyes darkened. "I didn't visit Black, so I'm not sure why you'd suspect me of visiting Pettigrew."

Alastor shrugged. "I'd be gloating, myself. I'll admit."

Snape seemed to look at Moody with a different light and grunted, giving a curt nod.

"Seems I've been barking up the wrong tree," Moody confessed, shrugging his shoulders as he let out a heavy sigh. "Black and Potter were as thick as thieves when they were Aurors, but they were both adamant that you were guilty of every horror they saw out there. Add that to my earlier suspicions at your trial that you were just playing us all, Dumbledore especially, as fools— seems it takes a young slip of a girl and her menagerie to get the sense knocked into me that appearances can be completely deceiving."

A Monstrous Book of Monsters cuddled up to Moody's boot, growl-purring.

Moody shook his head. "It must be a relief to have it gone when all signs pointed to it being a forever sort of thing."

"My mark of damnation," Snape said, instinctively rubbing his arm. "My great shame of stupid decisions made in the fucked-up drama of my teenage years."

"You know the truth about what they did to you came out in the Wizengamot," Moody said.

Snape startled. "What?"

"I mean, you gave back to them often time, from what we saw in the memories, but— Black's memories of a lot of their plannings, plottings, and so-called-mischief and "giving you what you deserved", including encouraging the then-Miss Evans that you were a liar and a Death Eater— it all came out while they were extracting the memories for the night of the Muggle murders."

Snape turned his head away to stare at something across the room, his jaw twitching. "It was because of her unforgiveness that I drunkenly went to that very special party and woke up with a new tattoo." He sighed, wincing in remembered pain. "Then I found out it was an all-in sort of deal that my drunken sod-self had gotten me into— and I was to blame for my stupid lack of control. I vowed then that no one would get inside my mind again, that I would never lose control again, that I would be in charge of my own destiny."

Snape clenched his fists. "It was total rubbish. I only traded one master for another, and then I ended up with two— three if you could the guilt over the death of Lily, whom after all my grovelling and begging, died anyway." His lip curled. "At least I know now it was their choice to trust Pettigrew that sealed her fate. Not that it makes my guilt over my own part of it all any less bitter."

"She seems like quite the young lass," Moody said, watching Hermione set down her book to train the pups to sit and balance a biscuit on their muzzles. The mother Volcanic Nightmare Hound sat nearby, tail swishing as she watched her pups in between chewing on a large bone as she licked and gnawed the flesh off it.

"She's changed quite a bit since her awakening to this new aspect of her— talents. We were much at odds before this. Different houses, different worlds perhaps. But— we seem to have come to an understanding I did not expect. She was wounded, hurt. It was something I was intimately familiar with, that strange betrayal that can only come from those you thought you knew only to realise you do not."

Alastor grunted. "This is a long time in coming, Severus, but—" He looked to where the Nundu cubs were pouncing the Nightmare pups while Hermione giggled over her lesson books. "I feel like there is hope in the word again, and I—"

Moody closed his good eye. "I'm glad we're on the same side and the same page for once."

The old Auror put out his hand— gleaming like some beacon in the stormy night, liable to disappear at a moment's notice.

Snape slowly clasped Moody's hand in is. "As am I, Alastor."

Blodwyn appeared with a PIFFing noise, somehow balancing a tray of proper Scottish tea and shortbread fingers. "Excellent! Snacks for you!"

The two wizards blinked as the arachnid set down the tray and popped out of existence again, reappearing on top of Hermione's head across the room.

Moody stroked his hair. "That came out of your arm, eh?"

"I stopped asking questions after the cloud of screaming Dark Lord vapour," Severus said.

Alastor wrinkled his nose. "Wise, probably," he said, picking up a shortbread and chewing on it. "My compliments to the spider chef."

The two clinked their tea cups together in solidarity.


A/N: Hey all, I'm going on a vacation here for the next week(ish), so I will not be writing. I hope you enjoyed chapter 2.