AUTHOR'S NOTE:

This story is part of my complete, fall 2003 revision of the original "Darkness and Light" trilogy, significantly altered from the form in which it first appeared on the web in the spring and summer of 2001. In order to fit with HP canon up to and including OotP, new scenes have been added, others moved to different times and locations, and others trimmed or excised. I have also smoothed out what I considered to be uneven or poor characterization, corrected errors in usage and style, and fixed two or three minor but annoying Flints.

I am profoundly grateful to everyone who assisted me in the process of revision, tracking down and identifying discrepancies between D&L and OotP, as well as making helpful suggestions for improvement: first, my long-time betas and dear friends Teri Krenek, Alec Dossetor, Liz Barr, and Erica H. Smith; and second, the members of the "D&L Revisions" mailing list, particularly Christy/Sabrina, Sarah Izhilzha, Kim Krajci, Sannali a.k.a. Morwen, Emily Bytheway, Carole a.k.a. Snape's Witch, Laura Page, Elaine Lahey, Liz E., Julia Steinberg, Manda, and Zebee Johnstone. My heartfelt thanks to you all.

Comments and criticisms are always welcomed.


Darkness and Light 3: If We Survive

by R. J. Anderson (Revised 10/2003)


PART ONE

A hush lies over the countryside this evening, a mystical stillness that hints at the coming of rain. A rumpled blanket of cloud, heavy with warmth and moisture, unfolds itself from the east; to the west the sun sinks toward the horizon in an ecstasy of purple and gold.

As she walks across the downs toward the ocean, she is acutely conscious of the musky scent of the grass beneath her feet, the taste of sea-salt on her lips. Every cell in her body seems to tingle with heightened awareness; she throws back her head, breathing deeply of the electric air.

At the cliff's edge she pauses, watching the waves surge against the rocks below, fingers of foam raking the pebbled beach. Her ears echo with the roar of the breakers, a gull's passionate, falling cry. The breeze pulls at her robes and her hair with mounting persistence; she sinks to her knees and sits motionless, gazing out across the sea.

And remembering...

#

Chapter One: Though I Must Go

"Snape's giving back our assignments today," said George, and then, innocently, "Wonder who'll get the top mark?"

Maud sighed and leaned her head back against the wall of the travelling closet. Cramped as it might be, it was one of the few places at Hogwarts where she could relax - though not, it seemed, today. "George-"

"Took him long enough to grade them, didn't it? Ah, well, suppose all that snogging's bound to tire a man out."

"Don't," she said very softly.

For a moment George's mouth took on a stubborn set: then he seemed to remember who he was talking to, and relented. "Sorry. I'm in a bit of a mood. Not fair to take it out on you, though."

"What's the matter?" asked Maud, laying aside her quill and giving him her full attention. If George were in bad enough temper to be snarky with her - especially about her relationship with Snape, a subject he normally avoided - it must be serious.

"What do you think? That cow Umbridge again. Fred and I are both fed up, and thinking we might not hang about much longer if things don't change soon."

"You mean... leave Hogwarts? Without your NEWTs?"

"Why not? We're banned from playing Quidditch, the DA's broken up, Dumbledore's gone - who cares about school now? Besides, Fred and I reckon we're just about ready to make a go of Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes, and we don't need our NEWTs to do that."

"True," said Maud with some reluctance, "but I wouldn't limit my options, if I were you."

"Good thing you're not, then," said George cheekily. "Anyway, you don't know what you're going to do after Hogwarts either - do you?"

"No," she admitted. "I've thought about a few things, but... nothing quite seems to fit."

"Well, I'd hire you." He grinned. "Pity Fred's too cheap."

"Oh, yes, pity," said Maud with heavy sarcasm. In the last few months, she'd learned to be sceptical of anything George claimed was his twin's fault. Since Fred knew nothing of their meetings and therefore couldn't defend himself, blaming him for everything had become George's standing joke.

"Mind you," George went on, "if one day we just happened to bump into each other at the Leaky Cauldron..." He raised his eyebrows hopefully.

"You never know," said Maud. "I might even decide it's not beneath my dignity as a former Slytherin to talk to you."

"So you wouldn't mind staying on as a consultant? Unofficial, of course."

Maud smiled. "You mean unpaid, of course."

"Hey!" George scowled at her. "No, I didn't. We might be just starting out, but we've got a few Galleons to rub together - and we've got our pride."

"Sorry." She was taken aback by his fierceness. "No offence meant. But really, George - there'd be no need to pay me just for an occasional bit of advice on potions ingredients. I've come into my inheritance now, I'm really quite well off-"

"Belt up and don't argue," said George. "I don't care if you're rich as Malfoy: fair's fair. Besides, if anyone gives you trouble for talking to us - not that it's likely, but you never know - you can say it was business, plain and simple."

"All right," said Maud, still surprised, but not displeased. "It's a bargain."

George leaned over and grasped her proffered hand as though to shake it: then a devilish gleam came into his eye, and he raised it to his lips instead.

"Stop that," she told him sternly, relieved that her voice did not waver. Undaunted, George waggled his eyebrows, murmured something in a mock-sultry voice, and pretended to nibble her fingers.

Maud burst out laughing, and shoved him away with her foot. "Interloper."

He rolled over, flushed and grinning. "Can't help it," he said. "It's the Weasley pride - just can't admit defeat."

Her smile faded. "George-"

"It was a joke. Don't worry about it." He spoke lightly, but the warning in his voice was real. "Anyway, we'd better get to class. Just - I meant it, about Fred and me doing a bunk if Umbridge pushes us any more. And now she's got rid of Dumbledore and appointed herself Head, she probably will. So if we don't get the chance to talk again, take care of yourself, OK?"

She wished she dared to hug him, to show him just how grateful she was for all his kindness to her. She longed to tell him that of all her schoolmates at Hogwarts, he was the only one she called friend. But in the end, all she could do was look into his eyes and say, with quiet conviction, "I will."

"Right, then," he said, tweaking her ear. "See you in class, Maud Moody."

And just like that, he was gone.

Maud waited the traditional two minutes before she, too, left the closet and closed the door behind her. For a moment she lingered, her fingertips resting against the rough, age-pitted wood: then she turned and walked away.

#

"Given the dismal record of this class when it comes to the real subtleties of potion-making," said Snape coldly, "I was not surprised to see how very few of you proved adequate to the challenge of inventing a simple medicinal potion. Winthrop, may I point out to you that Cassia senna is by no means an acceptable substitute for Cinnamonum Cassia, unless you happen to be fond of violent purging? And the leeches must be dried, Miss Szabo - not boiled, as the victim of your tender ministrations would no doubt discover when he began to asphyxiate." With thumb and forefinger he plucked two parchments from his desk and held them up by their topmost corners, as though unwilling to sully his hands further with them. "You have both earned a zero."

The two students hurried up to collect their papers, then slunk back to their seats. "As for the rest of you," Snape continued, "who fared scarcely better..." In a flat voice he began to read off the names of Maud's classmates one by one, followed by their marks. Many of the students looked worried, some even stunned: next to the Potions NEWT itself, this was the most important assignment of the year, and a low mark did not bode well for their success on the final examinations.

Fred Weasley's Anti-Nausea Nostrum and George's Stop-Bleeding Serum, however, earned them both an E - although Snape's lip curled in obvious distaste at having to give it to them. He would have been even less pleased, thought Maud, if he had known how little effort the twins had actually put into the assignment, having perfected the recipes earlier in the year as part of their Skiving Snackboxes.

"Miss Moody." Snape pushed his chair back with a slow, deliberate movement and rose to his feet. "Your Migraine-Relieving Mixture received the highest grade - an O."

Someone - probably Muriel Groggins - made a soft derisive noise, and Maud's desk-mate Lucinda snickered. Ignoring them both, Maud rose and took a step forward, only to hear a small but distinct voice buzzing in her ear: "And now, the Philomena Philtre Memorial Award for Service to a Potions Master Above and Beyond the Call of Duty goes to..."

Maud stopped dead, colour burning up her cheeks. The voice was George Weasley's.

She should have known better than to take his kissing her hand at face value, especially coupled with the unintelligible murmur and that odd tweak of her ear as he said goodbye. Of course he'd had his wand up his sleeve the whole time, and now he was sitting ten feet away on the Gryffindor side of the room, subvocalising a wicked running commentary that only she could hear.

It was all she could do to keep her face composed as she walked the final few steps to the front of the classroom. And when she saw Snape holding out the parchment to her, she had to brace herself before she could take it.

"Excellent work, Miss Moody," said Snape.

"But what I really want to know is, was it good for you too?"

"Shut up," hissed Maud between her teeth, but to no avail: she could hear George, but there was no way he could hear her. Snape's black brows lifted a fraction of an inch, and Maud blushed again.

"Ooh," said George. "I love a woman in red."

Snape's hand clasped hers in a dispassionate handshake -

"Don't forget to let go, now."

Whipping her hand free, Maud ducked her head, mumbled an acknowledgement, and hurried back to her desk.

"What is wrong with you?" stage-whispered Lucinda as she sat down. "Anybody would think you were terrified of Snape."

"Or in love with him," said Muriel from the next desk, her small dark eyes alight with malice.

If Snape heard either one of them, he gave no sign of it. "This class is dismissed," he said, and stalked out of the room as though heading for some urgent appointment.

Maud took out her wand and touched it to her ear. "Finite Incantatem," she muttered, and the sound of George's chuckling faded away.

"Oh!" breathed Lucinda. "Somebody put an Exaudio Charm on you? And you fell for it?" Her eyes flicked to Muriel, who was shoving books into her schoolbag and no longer appeared to be listening. "What did she - I mean, whoever - say?"

"Guess," said Maud shortly.

"Oh," Lucinda repeated in dawning comprehension, and then she started to giggle.

Now that the worst of the embarrassment was over, Maud was tempted to laugh as well, Muriel's remark notwithstanding. It had been a typical Weasley twin prank, after all, and it hadn't really done any harm. On the other hand, if she was going to let Lucinda continue drawing the wrong conclusion about who had tricked her, she'd better keep a straight face: so without looking back at Muriel - no point overdoing it - she closed her textbook and began packing her things away.

Trust George, she thought wryly, to find a way to turn what was probably their last Potions class together into an unforgettable experience...

#

And it was, indeed, the last class they shared. During the Easter holidays which followed, she caught occasional glimpses of George, but their paths never crossed. And the first day classes were back in session, he and Fred made good on their word and left Hogwarts altogether.

The next few weeks would have been difficult, had Maud and her schoolmates not been too busy revising for NEWTs to bother about anything else. Even Muriel's spiteful vigilance had lapsed while she laboured over her textbooks, so Maud could move a little more freely about the school. Which turned out to be a good thing, because around that same time her occasional evenings with Snape turned into twice-weekly Occlumency lessons.

She had already guessed that Severus must be skilled at shielding his thoughts and emotions from magical intrusion - he could scarcely have gone back to Voldemort otherwise. Nor was his determination to teach her that same skill surprising, given that she would soon leave the protection of Hogwarts, carrying with her the knowledge that her mentor, her lover, was a spy. She was not prepared, however, for how difficult and demanding a craft Occlumency would prove to be.

"Lamentably transparent as you are," he said to her on the first night, "you have an advantage over... some students I have taught... in that you are able to master your emotions, and to act on thought rather than impulse. All that remains is to strengthen your mental barriers through exercise, and that we will continue to do until you can successfully bar me from your mind. Then we will refine your technique to the point where your resistance is no longer obvious, so that even a skilled Legilimencer cannot tell if you have anything to hide."

He had offered her the use of Dumbledore's Pensieve - though what it might be doing in Snape's office was a mystery: surely he hadn't petitioned the Headmaster to lend it on her account? - but she had declined. He had used it himself, drawing three separate strands of memory from his mind and depositing them in the basin, but he did not tell her why, and she knew better than to ask.

"Now. If you are ready... Legilimens!"

She had not been ready, that first time, and his mind pierced hers like a knife through butter. No sooner had the contact been made, however, than he withdrew: if he had seen anything of her memories, she could not tell, and he did not remark on it. She was grateful for that, though after half an hour of this pitifully one-sided battle she was exhausted and longing for the session to be over.

The second night, and the third, it was the same. Each time she left the dungeons feeling bruised in both mind and body, and collapsed into her bed as though drugged. But on the fourth she felt his mind skitter across the surface of her thoughts, and knew that she was learning the trick at last.

"Good," said Snape softly. "Very good. You are a still pond, Miss Moody -" it was always Miss Moody when he was teaching her, even outside of class - "sink your betraying thoughts and emotions to the very depths, and allow only calmness to remain. When you have mastered that, you may learn to bring select feelings to the surface that will give your mind the illusion of openness. If the Dark Lord should ever attempt to read you, I suggest that you allow your fear of him to dominate, like a layer of ice upon the surface of your mental lake, and in your case he will likely be satisfied."

"Does he try to read you often?" It was a question she had wanted to ask for a long time, but only now did it seem appropriate.

"Not as often as he once did," replied Severus after a moment. "Nor as... forcefully." And that was all he would say.

By the sixth session she was able to resist him nine times out of ten, and only a sudden hammer-blow from his mind, ruthlessly delivered, succeeded in shattering her at the last. She stumbled and fell to hands and knees, the breath heaving out of her in dry sobs; and in an instant he had gripped her arms and lifted her back to her feet, only to pull her into a crushing embrace.

"You should have struck back at me," he hissed into her hair. "You were meant to strike back."

"Your thoughts are your own," she said, her eyes closed against the threatening tears. "Even if I had the power - I couldn't do that to you."

"This is no time for mercy, Maud." And by his use of her first name she knew how much she had shaken him. "If an enemy attacks your mind in the same way -"

"Then I will resist him, with all the skills you've taught me. But you are not my enemy. And if you want me to learn Legilimency, you'll have to find me a different teacher."

He released her then, and turned away as though she had displeased him. "As you wish." That night he dismissed the lesson early, with barely more than a word in farewell, and she went to bed with a heavy heart.

But the next time she came to the dungeon, the Pensieve he had borrowed was gone.

#

"Whoo-HOO!"

Annie's shriek of delight echoed through the Slytherin dormitory. She spun around, arms wide, scattering parchments everywhere. "No more assignments! No more NEWTs! We are done, ladies!"

"I know I've got a P on my Arithmancy," moaned Lucinda, sitting down heavily on the end of her bed.

"I don't care what I've got," announced Annie with airy triumph. "I'm just glad exams are over."

Maud walked slowly past them, not speaking, and began to pack her things away in her trunk. Part of her knew she ought to share Annie's exultation, or at least pretend to; finishing their last year of wizarding school was indeed a major achievement, and unlike her dorm-mates, Maud felt reasonably confident that she had done well. Completing her final Occlumency lesson, earlier in the week, had also been gratifying. But still, leaving Hogwarts was not something she even wanted to think about right now, let alone celebrate.

"What about you, Muriel?" asked Annie. "Got any plans?"

The corners of Muriel Groggins's mouth turned up in a slow, nasty smile. "Plans?" she said. "Oh... you could say that."

She did not look at Maud as she spoke, but there was no need. They both knew, even if Annie and Lucinda didn't, exactly what she meant.

"I wouldn't count on it, if I were you," said Maud calmly, layering robes and cloaks in the trunk.

Muriel made a scornful sound. "You think too much of yourself, Moody. As usual."

"Er... yes, well..." Lucinda cleared her throat. "Can't we be half-decent to each other for a while? It's the last day of school."

"I have no idea what any of you are talking about," Annie declared, "and furthermore I don't care. I'm going down to get one last good look at Draco Malfoy before dinner-"

"Eurgh," said Maud, Muriel and Lucinda in unison, and then looked at each other with surprise.

"I think that would put me off my dinner," said Muriel sourly.

One thing that could be said for Muriel, Maud had to admit, was that there was nothing wrong with her taste in men. Not that either Fred or George Weasley had ever bothered to speak to Muriel, even when they were still in school, but still...

"He's only fifteen," said Lucinda. "That's - nasty."

Suppressing a sudden, hysterical urge to laugh, Maud bent swiftly over her trunk, letting her hair swing down to hide her face.

"Oh, I don't want to date him," said Annie. "I just like to look at him. Especially now his Dad's in Azkaban and he's gone all moody and tragic. It's dead sexy, if you ask me."

Muriel snorted. "I don't, thanks. But if you've got a thing for weasels, don't let us stop you."

"Better than having a thing for Weasleys," retorted Annie with unusual spirit, and skipped out.

There was a moment of awful silence in which Muriel turned very red, and Maud wondered if they would have to jump up and restrain her. But then she took a deep breath, and her face resumed its normal colour again. "I'll get her for that," she said, in a chillingly matter-of-fact tone, and turned back to her packing.

Lucinda went pale. "I... er... have to return a book to the library," she said, and hurried out.

"Coward," muttered Muriel, elbow-deep in her trunk.

But Maud was no longer paying attention; she was looking at something in her hand. It had fallen out of the folds of her dress robe, the sage-green velvet she had not worn since the Christmas feast: a small, grey-speckled owl's feather.

For the last few months, none of Maud's roommates seemed to have noticed the statuette of a little owl she kept on the bookshelf beside her bed - or if they had, they had not guessed its significance. Which was just as well, because if Muriel had known the truth, she would no doubt have taken malicious delight in stealing Athena, or even smashing her.

Gently Maud stroked the feather against her cheek. Then with sudden decisiveness she picked Athena off the shelf and slipped the little owl into her pocket. She had always meant to bury Athena at the end of the school year, in a final gesture of respect and farewell. Now, however, she had a better idea.

Which reminded her: she had an appointment to keep before dinner, and she'd better get moving if she didn't want to be late.

"Now where are you going?" demanded Muriel as she walked past.

It was always a pleasure, thought Maud, to be able to tell the literal truth, and yet know there was no danger of being believed. "To kiss Professor Snape goodbye, of course," she said blithely, and shut the door behind her.

#

She had made it only a few steps down the corridor, however, when an odd tickling sensation in her mind arrested her. Perhaps... perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to go and see Severus right away? The likelihood of Muriel following her was small, but still, it might be prudent to take an indirect route. The thought had barely formed itself in her mind when her feet began to carry her in the opposite direction, up the flight of stairs toward the Great Hall and the upper levels of the school.

For a few minutes she wandered aimlessly, not really knowing or caring where she might end up: but when she turned a corner and found herself in front of Dumbledore's office, she realised it was where she had been heading all along. How very odd, she thought. She had been wondering whether she should come and say a proper goodbye to him, but had talked herself out of it, knowing he must be busy. And now she was here after all.

She was just opening her mouth to see if she could guess the current password when the gargoyle jumped out of the way and the wall slid aside, revealing the familiar spiral stair. Obviously, the Headmaster was expecting her; in fact, he had probably summoned her here to begin with. But why?

Well, there was only one way to find out. Stepping through, she rode the staircase to the top and found the Headmaster's door wide open, with Dumbledore's starry-robed figure silhouetted against the light.

"Good evening, Miss Moody," he said, stepping back and motioning to her to come in. "I hope you will forgive the liberty I took to encourage you to come here, but I thought it best to be discreet."

"It's... fine," said Maud, a little taken aback. His face seemed graver than usual, the lines around his eyes and mouth carved deep, as though he were carrying a burden whose heaviness she could not even begin to guess.

"Sir," she said softly, "is everything all right?"

Dumbledore put a hand on her shoulder. "My dear girl," he said. "If Hogwarts is at peace tonight, it is only because we stand in the eye of the storm. And though much that was lost has been restored, much more remains in jeopardy. No, everything is not all right. But with courageous young people like yourself ready to join the fight against Voldemort, I have hope that it will be." He smiled gently at her. "Which brings me to the reason I brought you here. Have you decided what you will do when you leave Hogwarts?"

"I'm not sure," Maud admitted. "I had thought I might take some medical training, and perhaps become a Healer."

"A worthy ambition, and one I would encourage you to pursue. We will need all of our Healers, I fear, before long. However..." He turned, picked up a roll of parchment from the desk behind him. "As Headmaster of this school I have certain opportunities, or, should I say, privileges. One of them is to identify students who may be useful to a certain branch of the Ministry of Magic, and to act, in a small capacity, on that Department's behalf." He handed her the scroll. "I believe, Maud, that not only your skills but also your family background make you a candidate of particular interest."

In puzzled silence Maud took the letter, broke the seal (blue wax, embossed with a stylised question mark) and opened it. It read:

Dear Hogwarts Graduate

(the last two words shimmered as she read them, vanished, and reappeared as "Miss Moody"),

It is my very great pleasure to invite you to become a part of one of the Ministry of Magic's most vital, though least publicised, departments. Your skills in observation and research, as well as your ability to interpret and report accurately what you have learned, make you a prime candidate for our work. We offer a wide range of positions to suit your interests, and I am confident that you would find working with us a rewarding challenge.

If you decide that you would like to know more about this opportunity, tap this parchment three times with your wand at your earliest convenience, and one of our representatives will contact you. If, however, you choose not to respond within the next five days, this letter will self-destruct and your memory of receiving it will be erased.

Sincerely yours,

Euphemia Glossop
Department of Secrets
Ministry of Magic

"Department of Secrets?" said Maud. "But they're not - I mean, I thought it was just a rumour that they even existed."

"They are certainly more than a rumour. Your father worked for them," said Dumbledore quietly.

Maud looked up, startled. "My father? But he was just an academic... he did research on magical artefacts..."

"Quite so. And many of them were significant and potentially dangerous magical artefacts, the secrets of whose use had been lost over the centuries. I am sure you can appreciate the need for discretion under such circumstances - particularly in light of Voldemort and his insatiable hunger for power." He sighed. "When your father was taken by the Death Eaters, his loss was keenly felt. He was a man of great intellect and, in the end, great courage."

"I never knew," she whispered. "My uncle never told me. Why?"

"He was not at liberty to tell you," said Dumbledore. "The Department of Secrets keeps not only its membership but even its very existence as privileged information. If Alastor had any idea of your father's involvement with the Department, he would have been sworn not to speak of it."

"But you're telling me now."

"Yes. Not only because I believe you have a right to know, but because it may help you to choose what course to take."

She frowned. "But sir... do you really think the Ministry can be trusted? Especially after what happened this year?"

Dumbledore looked grim, as though she had reminded him of something he preferred to forget. "For all his power and influence, Cornelius Fudge is not the Ministry. The Department of Secrets has always exercised a certain amount of independence, and even during the regrettable events of this past year they were not quick to follow the Minister's lead, nor to share all of his opinions. If you chose to work with them, I believe you would find your work meaningful, even effective, in the fight against Voldemort - which is more, alas, than can be said for much of what goes on at the Ministry these days."

Maud looked back down at the letter, not knowing what to say.

"Take your time," Dumbledore told her gently. "Think about it, and do what you believe to be right. That is all I ask."

Maud rolled up the parchment again and slipped it into her sleeve. "I will," she said. "Thank you."

"Not at all," said Dumbledore. "As I said before, I consider it a privilege." He took her hand, bending over it courteously. "Farewell, Miss Moody. No doubt we shall see each other at the Leaving Feast, but this will be the last time we speak. Still, I hope we may meet again - under happier conditions, perhaps."

"I hope so too," said Maud. She hesitated, wondering if she dared to do what was really in her heart; then, casting caution aside, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.

At first Dumbledore looked surprised; then he smiled, a warm and genuine smile that lifted the tension from his face and made him look years younger. "My dear girl," he said. "You are a treasure. Tell Severus, when you see him, that the moment he ceases to appreciate you I will have him sacked."

Maud smiled back. "I will," she said. "Goodbye, Headmaster. I'll miss you."

"And I you," said Dumbledore quietly. "Goodbye."

#

By all accounts last year's Leaving Feast had been grim, but this year's, thought Maud, could hardly be much better. Outside Hogwarts a storm was gathering, not only figuratively but literally: as they ate their dinner, lightning arced across the ceiling of the Great Hall.

The Slytherins chatted amongst themselves, putting on a show of unconcern, but most of the other students were silent and visibly ill at ease. For the last few months they had buried themselves in schoolwork and the other preoccupations of adolescence, ignoring the growing darkness outside the castle's walls. But tomorrow they would leave Hogwarts - some, like Maud herself, for good. And given the knowledge that Voldemort had indeed returned, that was a prospect few of them seemed to relish.

She glanced up at the staff table, where the teachers sat conversing in low voices. Snape appeared to be listening to something McGonagall had to say, but his gaze was abstracted and his long fingers methodically deconstructed a dinner roll as she spoke. Maud made a brief, unsuccessful attempt to catch his eye, then gave up and helped herself to another Yorkshire pudding. She would find out what was troubling him soon enough.

In another half-hour the feast had ended, much to Maud's relief, and the students filtered back to their dorms and their packing. Maud spent a token few minutes rearranging her trunk, then wandered back into the Common Room and sat down in front of the fireplace, her feet propped idly on the ottoman. At last, satisfied that Muriel was not following her and that none of the other Slytherins appeared to care what she was doing, she rose and slipped out the door.

She had been longing for this meeting and dreading it at the same time, but she could put it off no longer. Her feet knew the way to the dungeons: she let them carry her, and within minutes she was at her destination.

"Professor?" she said cautiously.

There was no reply. She glanced back down the darkened corridor, making sure that she had not been followed; then she pushed open the door to Snape's office and walked in.

As she had expected, he was alone, but he appeared to be far from idle. He sat at his desk with quill in hand, dark head bent over his writing, and did not even look up as she came in. Maud knew better than to interrupt him at work, so she simply sat down in the nearest chair, folded her hands in her lap, and waited.

A few minutes passed in silence, while Maud looked around the room - a cheerless, even forbidding place at first glance, full of oddly shaped bottles and nasty-looking creatures pickled in jars - and tried not to think about how much she would miss it. She had spent many hours here over the past ten months since she came to Hogwarts: like Dumbledore's office and George's travelling closet, it had become for her a place of enormous personal significance. It was hard, cruelly hard, to realise that she was about to leave it behind.

Snape laid his quill down, folded the parchment into precise thirds, and sealed it with a tap of his wand. Then he looked up, and his level gaze met hers. "So," he said.

"So," said Maud. Her throat was dry. "I talked to the Headmaster. Before the Feast."

His eyes narrowed a little, became wary. "Oh?"

"We discussed my plans for the future, and he suggested... a possibility I had not been aware of." She wasn't sure she ought to mention the Department of Secrets explicitly, even though he must know of their existence - her father had worked for them, after all, and it was on account of Voldemort's interest in that work that she and Severus had first met.

"Ah. Still acting in his capacity as unofficial recruiter, I see," said Snape, relaxing visibly. "Do you intend to pursue this... possibility?"

"I'm not sure yet," said Maud, relieved that he understood. "But I've got five days to consider it: that should be enough."

"For you, yes." He laced his long fingers together and stretched them, palms outward, as though too much writing had cramped them. "Of course, if you find the Department's excess of subtlety tedious, you could always go into business with the Weasley twins."

The delivery was deadpan, but it was unquestionably meant as a joke, and under other circumstances Maud would have laughed. This particular witticism, however, hit a little too close to the mark, and the most she could muster was a wan smile - which Severus, of course, noticed at once. He rose from his chair and crossed the room to look down at her, his gaze intent; and though she knew he would not use Legilimency on her without permission, she coloured and averted her eyes.

"Maud," he said, and it was both question and warning.

I owe him this. Whatever it may cost me.

She took a deep breath. "I have a confession to make."

"Yes?"

"I was friends with George Weasley for the last few months of school, right up until he left Hogwarts. But," she added in a rush as Snape's lips tightened, "we kept it absolutely secret, I swear. We did all our talking in a place that nobody but the twins knew existed - and even Fred didn't know George and I were meeting there. I didn't mean it to happen, I certainly didn't want to be sneaking about with George behind your back, but I was in an awkward situation, and, well-" She spread her hands helplessly. "I'm sorry."

For a long moment Snape was silent, arms folded and head bent. Then he said in an expressionless voice, "How much does he know?"

"Not as much as he thinks he does," said Maud, "but he does know about you and me. I didn't tell him anything, of course: he figured it out on his own."

"And he didn't make capital of that knowledge?" His brows lifted. "Most unusual. If I didn't know better, Maud, I'd say you must have either threatened him, bribed him... or seduced him."

He paused just long enough for Maud's mouth to form an O of astonished outrage; then he quirked a half-smile at her and continued, "But since I do know better, I can only conclude that he must value your friendship - or at least your expertise with Potions - quite highly."

Maud was startled, then nonplussed. Earlier in their association, he had made it plain that she could be seen with either him or the Weasley twins, but not both; and she had taken him at his word. But had she misjudged him? Had his warning been more literal and less harsh than she realised?

"Excuse me," she said in a cautious tone, "but I seem to have missed the part where you fly into a jealous rage and forbid me to ever see him again."

His look of amusement deepened. "Why should I? If you'd wanted George Weasley I suspect you could have had him. And you are far too artless to cultivate two lovers at the same time, or to pretend to stronger feelings toward me than you do in fact possess: so I am left with the conclusion that you chose me over Mr Weasley a long time ago, and have yet to regret it." He tilted her chin up with his fingers. "So tell me... do I have reason to be jealous?"

A casual observer might have taken his words for arrogance; but Maud knew better, and it shook her to the core. "You..." she whispered. "You trust me that much?"

He took her hands, drawing her up to stand before him. "You are the most fundamentally honest person I have ever known," he said. "Never think that I trust too easily, Maud, any more than your uncle does: it is simply that you have proven yourself to both of us beyond all reasonable doubt." His black eyes held hers, unwavering, unblinking. "I need no Legilimency with you. If you say your friendship with George Weasley was a secret unknown to anyone else at Hogwarts, I believe you. If you say that it is only a friendship, I believe you. And when you tell me that you love me, absurd as it seems..." He drew the backs of his fingers down her cheek. "I believe that, too."

"I love you," she said, her voice shaking a little. "I love you so much."

He pulled her against him then, his mouth finding hers with the ease of five months' familiarity, and for a long breathless moment there were no words. She clung to him, trying desperately to impress the shape of him onto her lips and her arms and her hands, yet knowing all the while that it was futile. No matter how tightly she might hold him now, when she left this room she could take nothing away with her but memories.

When he loosed her at last, it was with obvious reluctance. She laid her head against his shoulder, listening to the quick, steady beat of his heart; he wrapped his arms around her, and for a few moments they did not move or speak. Then at last he said, very quietly, "You should go, Maud."

She understood his reasons, even agreed with them: but tonight was her last night at Hogwarts, and who knew when they might see each other again? Maud took his hand, pressing it against her cheek. "I want to stay with you," she murmured into his palm. "I don't want to leave."

Severus closed his eyes, the lines of his face deepening. His fingers tightened against her skin a moment; then he drew back his hand and let it drop. "One day, perhaps," he said. "But not now."

She knew when she was defeated; that silk-over-steel voice would brook no argument. Slowly she drew Athena from her sleeve, held the little owl out to him. "Keep her for me," she said. "To remember me by."

For a moment he hesitated: then his fingers closed around the gift, and he set Athena on the desk by his side. "I will," he said, "because you ask it. But where you are concerned, Maud... I have no need of reminders."

There was a rawness in his voice she had never heard before. Maud's vision blurred; she took his face between her hands and kissed him, hard. Then she turned, fumbled the door open, and walked blindly out into the darkness.

She was halfway to the Slytherin dormitory, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped around her stomach to hold in the pain, before she realised she had never asked Severus what was troubling him at dinner. For a moment she hesitated, part of her yearning to take the excuse to go back; then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and kept walking.