Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, and I do not make money off it.

Chapter 10 – Will the New Evil Overlord Please Step Forward

"You have got to be fucking kidding me," Ron grumbled and jabbed at his mashed potatoes until the thin gravy seeped out of the well in the middle and flooded his plate.

"'Fraid not," Harry said, watching absently as Ron's gravy stained his green beans brown. It was murky and pallid, made by his own hands; not at all the rich flavorful stuff that Ginny had made… He shook his head and shoveled a forkful of potatoes into his mouth, swallowing them without tasting them and trying not to think about how long Ginny had been missing.

Ron's mouth twisted in disgust before he stuffed half of a thickly buttered slice of bread into his mouth. Chewing noisily, he pointed the tines of his fork at Harry. "Couldn't you have just told them to find their own bloody hideout?"

Sighing loudly, Harry dropped his fork onto his plate with a sharp clatter and placed his fingertips on his temples, rubbing in firm circles. He had had this conversation with Ron three times in the last two hours, ever since Hermione had asked that Malfoy and Snape be allowed to stay at Grimmauld Place while they planned their next course of action.

Having simply passed Hermione a note through the Floo with Number 12, Grimmauld Place's address jotted on the back of an old receipt, he had yet to see the two men. He didn't know what to expect, especially from Malfoy. That Hermione had pleaded for sanctuary for him was mind-boggling in its implausibility. As for Master Snape, well… Harry was eager to mend fences with the man who had spent a great part of his life working in his mother's memory, but was nervous to face him. Just the same, he thought she might like that idea. Whether Master Snape was amenable or not had yet to be seen.

At first, Ron had thought it a joke, albeit a bad one. He had given Harry a courtesy laugh for friendship's sake until he'd realized that Harry wasn't laughing with him. Then came denial in the form of shouting and cursing, a bout of wheedling to convince him to rescind the offer, then threats to go to Hermione's place to jinx some sense into her and curse her houseguests while he was at it. At that point, Harry decided that an early dinner was in order, and sure enough, Ron's stomach had taken that cue to rumble.

"I mean, Malfoy has an entire Manor to slither back to, and he can take that greasy git with him. Why must they come here? I'm telling you, Hermione is going daft in spinsterhood."

"Ron," Harry snapped, dropping his hands to the table with more force than necessary, but not near as much as he would've liked to have used, "I'm not chuffed about having Malfoy here either, but Master Snape is a hero and his house just burned down. Have a heart, will you?"

Ron stopped chewing long enough to pull a face, and then stuffed the rest of the slice of bread into his mouth, washing it down with a long pull from the bottle of beer at his elbow. "I'm just saying—"

"Well, I don't want to hear it."

"Merlin, Harry, you don't have to bite my head off—"

"Then DROP IT!" Harry smacked the table with the flat of his hand. Immediately regretting losing his temper, he folded his arms and dropped his head into the crook of one elbow. His voice muffled by his clothes and flesh, he said, "I'm sorry, Ron. Can we talk about something else, please?"

Ron stared at the top of his dark head for a long moment, then took another swig of beer. "Alright, mate. Who do you suppose those blokes are?"

"What?" Harry raised his head, his forehead creased in confusion. Ron gestured with his beer toward the Foe-Glass that had been modified to display the lawn and street in front of Grimmauld Place. "Shite."

"That's what I thought," Ron said, finishing his beer in one long gulp.

In silence, they watched a humanoid form prowl into view, almost crouching as it eyed the houses along Grimmauld Place. Even with the distortion of the Foe-Glass, they could distinguish the faint red glow of his pupils. The rest of the street was deserted, save for an older model automobile parked on the curb and another figure lurking near it. Harry couldn't remember if that was normal for this time of day or not; the week seemed to have consumed and twisted his life into something unrecognizable.

"You really want Hermione out there with those things?" he said when the silence had become too much to bear.

Ron belched loudly and levitated his empty beer bottle to the rubbish. "It wasn't Hermione I was objecting to."

Before he could continue, a silvery Patronus in the shape of a badger bounded through the ceiling and landed on the table. A moment later, Chief Griswold's voice growled out of the badger's throat. "A makeshift hospital has been set up at the Museum of Wizarding Fashion. Direct all casualties— get your ugly mug out of my face before I break it! —all casualties to the museum no matter the seriousness of the injury. Any captured Infected should be sent to the holding pen erected in Hogsmead. Stand by for further orders."

The badger dissolved into a silver cloud and vanished. Harry and Ron stared at where it had just stood, each man wrapped up in his own thoughts.

"Museum of Wizarding Fashion?" Ron finally asked. Harry just shrugged. Ginny had dragged him to it years ago, but he didn't remember much of it. For one thing, it had been about as boring as de-gnoming the Burrow's garden. For another, he had been watching Ginny's backside almost the entire time.

A thump and a clattering sounded through the ceiling. Both men glanced up, one grimacing and the other sighing with relief. Springing out of his chair, Harry strode toward the stairs. When he realized that Ron wasn't on his heels, he turned to frown at him.

"Coming, Ron?"

"What about them?" Ron jerked his thumb at the Foe-Glass. "The Chief said—"

"I heard what he said, but they don't seem to be going anywhere, and they can't get in here." Crossing his arms over his chest, Harry gave him a pointed look. "They can wait. Are you coming or not?"

"No, uh…" the redhead glanced around, then sat straighter in his chair. "No, I'll just wash up. Yeah."

When Harry burst into the living room, Malfoy was studying a curio cabinet that held various odds and ends that had belonged to the Black family for time immemorial. His hands were clasped behind his back, and he had the air of one who had long been welcome in the house. Master Snape was standing dark and awkward near the fireplace, sneering at nothing in particular – or everything in general. It was impossible to tell.

"Harry!" Pouncing on him, Hermione wrapped him in an enthusiastic embrace. "Thanks so much for letting us stay!"

"Of course! I wouldn't have it any other way," Harry said, patting her back until she released him, but unable to drag his eyes from Master Snape, in the flesh, standing in his living room. Master Snape, the man who had spied on Voldemort and almost died for love of his mother. He remembered his hatred of the ex-professor with a deep abiding shame and hoped that he could make some sort of amends by showing him the best of hospitality. He cleared his throat nervously. "Master Snape, welcome back to Grimmauld Place. I'm very happy to have you here."

The Master turned hard black eyes to him and sneered, "I'm sure you are, Mr. Potter." He felt hurt, though why he expected graciousness, he didn't know. Harry frowned slightly.

"Harry," Hermione hissed out the corner of her mouth, and he glanced questioningly at her. She raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes, jerking her head toward Snape.

Realizing his faux-pas, Harry was quick to add, "I'm just sorry that it has to be under these, uh, circumstances. I'm really sorry about your house." It sounded paltry and petty, and he grimaced. "Erm… would you like some tea?"

"Yes, we'd like tea," Malfoy said from his place near the curio cabinet.

Harry was less than pleased to have Malfoy as a houseguest, and his old school rival was far too much at ease for a man wearing borrowed clothes who had just escaped an attack. His blond hair was attractively mused and his pale skin was as flawless as ever. Gray eyes slid critically over Harry and his house, assessing and cataloguing.

"Right," Harry said, staring hard at him. "I'll just go get that. Hermione?" he asked, intending that she join him so that they could catch up in relative privacy. Malfoy was already in motion, escorting his best friend the short distance to the sofa with a hand at the small of her back and seating her before he sat himself.

"Yes, please, Harry," she said, as if being touched by Draco Malfoy was an every day occurrence.

Blinking down at her upturned face, Harry flushed and felt distinctly wrong-footed. Chancing a glance at Snape, he saw the older man watching the pair on the couch with veiled menace. 'What on earth is going on?' Harry wondered as he nodded mechanically and wandered toward the stairs that led down to the kitchen.

Ron was still sitting at the table and staring moodily into the fire, the dishes unwashed and a bottle of beer in his hand. He jumped guiltily when he noticed Harry on the stairs, but Harry just waved at him to stay seated.

"I think you should join us for tea," he said, his voice sounding hollow and uneasy to his own ears. Walking to the sink, he pulled the kettle from a cupboard and filled it with water. Once he had set that on the range to boil, he shook several measures of dried tealeaves from the can into a strainer and dropped it into a cracked ceramic pot. "Ron?"

"I heard you," the redhead muttered. "I'd really rather not."

"Something funny is going on," Harry said, shaking his head. Unruly black fringe dropped into his eyes and he combed it back impatiently with his hand.

"Other than having two ex-Death Eaters for tea?" Ron gave the kettle and teapot significant glances.

Harry shook his head. "For fuck's sake, Ron…" he said tiredly. "It's something to do with Hermione. You'll see."

"You've gone around the bend, you have," Ron muttered, but lugged his body out of his chair and downed his beer. With a belch and more clattering than was necessary, he started pulling down mugs and setting them on a tray, ignoring the more formal cups and saucers. "Where is she, anyway?"

"Sitting on the sofa next to Malfoy," he deadpanned.

Ron almost dropped the mug he had been holding, only saving it from an early death on the kitchen floor with a fumbling scramble of his hands. "Shite, mate, don't say things like that!"

Harry remained silent, deciding to let Ron see for himself.

Draco leaned back into the cushions of the cheap sofa, hearing a spring creak under his and Hermione's combined weight. Gracefully, he stretched both arms along the back of the sofa, one just happening to rest behind Hermione's back, and crossed one ankle over his knee. She didn't notice, being too busy staring after Harry with a slight frown of confusion, but Uncle Sev did. He gave the old man a quick wink. Severus, seated in one of the two wingback chairs, merely glanced away, as if it were of no importance to him. Draco knew better.

He hadn't missed Harry's stunned expression when he'd seated Hermione on the sofa. 'Priceless,' Draco thought as he basked in self-satisfaction. He hadn't exactly relished the thought of staying at Grimmauld Place when Hermione had suggested it, but he also hadn't considered the potential for entertainment.

"Oy, you ferret-faced bastard, you get your bloody—"

"Ronald!" Hermione rose from the sofa to confront the wizard that had just barged into the living room in a blaze of lug-headed ginger glory. Draco smirked at him behind Hermione as she read him the riot act. "That is no way to treat a guest! If you haven't forgotten, we were just attacked by red-eyed creatures and his home was burned to the ground. Have you no sense of decency or good manners? Your mother will hear about this!"

She paused for a deep breath, glancing down at him, and Draco schooled his face into pained indignity. Weasley had flushed red at the mention of his mother and was now simmering with resentment and humiliation.

"Hermione," he began to protest, but she jabbed a sharp finger at him.

"Not a word, Ronald, unless it is in apology," she hissed.

"Fat chance of that," Ron muttered under his breath as he set the mugs and pot of tea on the coffee table, then dropped gracelessly into the unoccupied wingback chair.

Smothering a laugh as only one trained in deceit from birth could manage, Draco rose politely and captured Hermione's fingers in his hand.

"Hermione," he said, careful to pronounce her name clearly in a tone of respect, "it seems that I am not welcome. Perhaps I should—"

"No, no. Harry has made you welcome, hasn't he? And it's his house." She directed a sidelong glare at Ron. Severus harrumphed from his chair. "I'm sorry that he's acting like such a boor, but his sister has gone missing."

Draco grimaced prettily and gently squeezed her hand, guiding her to sit again and retaking his place on the sofa. "I am sorry to hear that." He didn't need to feign his sympathy; Weaslette was a fine little thing, completely wasted on a prat like Potter.

Harry entered with a platter of biscuits, obviously the pre-packaged store-bought kind, as Hermione was pouring the tea. Because the sofa and chairs were occupied, Harry remained standing, though as far as Draco could see, he was too wound up to sit still anyway. Wrinkling his nose as he accepted an uncouth mug of orange ceramic, he selected two chocolate biscuits from the platter and sipped delicately.

Hermione quickly summarized their earlier conversation and conclusions, followed by the attack of infected thralls and burning of Spinner's End. Ron endured it in sullen silence, shooting Draco defiant looks when Hermione wasn't watching. Harry listened intently, asking questions about the Dark Lord's project and requesting specifics regarding the thralls' behavior. Draco allowed her to tell most of the story, making sure he received credit where credit was due and filling in details when she lacked them. Near the end of her tale, Miss Lovegood wandered into the living room, looking slightly rumpled in a matching pajama set, and took a seat on the floor, smiling at both himself and Severus. A small scattering of purple welts speckled her face, but they seemed to be in the final stages of healing. Draco just smiled back, nonplussed. His godfather ignored her.

"So this new Dark Lord, whoever he is, has the same agenda as the old one," Harry said after Hermione had finished her tale.

"We don't know that for sure," Draco said quickly. "My father said that they were unsuccessful transferring the Dark Lord's essence. Even assuming that he experimented on his own, we have no idea how successfully he was able to move something as abstract as his politics."

"His goons attacked Master Snape, a known traitor to the Death Eaters," Harry pointed out, sloshing tea over the rim of his mug as he gestured to make his point. "And he's taken Ginny to get to me."

Severus snorted from the depths of his chair. "As always, Potter, you assume that everything is about you."

"There are goons lurking on the walkway outside this house," Ron said, his first addition to the conversation since Hermione had stymied him. "Good thing this place is secret-kept."

"If this Dark Lord is anything like the previous one, then you can stop worrying about Ms. Weasley," Severus said darkly. "She would already be dead."

Harry jerked as if he had been struck, but before he could start shouting, Miss Lovegood spoke quietly from the floor. "I don't think she's dead."

"Of course she isn't!" Harry agreed quickly. "What use would she be to him dead?"

"What use would she be to him at all?" Draco asked rhetorically. "This isn't the Dark Lord that we knew. Besides, I don't remember him ever mentioning her. Uncle?" Severus shook his head jerkily in the negative. "If anything, her disappearance is the same as all the others that have been mentioned in the Daily Prophet."

"Then why did the Infected attack Spinner's End, and why are they outside Grimmauld Place now? The Ministry, Hogwarts…" Hermione trailed off, cocking her head. "There seems to be some sort of connection to Voldemort's agenda…"

Draco shook his head, not wanting to believe that a piece of the Dark Lord might still exist. From Severus' drawn brows and tight frown, he guessed that his godfather didn't want to believe it either. If Hermione was correct, then his parents were also in danger, his mother having betrayed the Dark Lord to save her son's life. He hoped that they were sunning themselves in Spain by now.

Harry paced beside the coffee table, ruffling his unruly black hair with a nervous hand. "I think it's safest to assume that this new Overlord has enough of Voldemort in him to target those who defeated or betrayed him. I'll inform the team that the Infected might be under the control of a central figure that may want to subjugate and kill Muggles, Muggle-borns and anyone who participated in Voldemort's fall.

"Hermione, we need as much of that cure of yours as possible, and we have to be able to dose them as they are attacking us," he said, turning toward Hermione with eyes that glittered feverishly.

Hermione set her mug of tea on the coffee table. "Yes, I think I have a solution for that, but I wanted to go over it with Master Snape. Between the two of us, we should be able to come up with something ready to test fairly quickly.

"But Harry," she said as she ran her thumb along the rim of the mug, smearing the mark of her lip gloss, "they used Muggle means to start the fire at Spinner's End. I don't think anyone but Muggle-borns would use Molotov Cocktails. And besides, Muggle-borns are not immune to the Rash. There were several at St. Mungo's that progressed to stage two."

Harry stared at her, a mulish expression beginning to form in the pinch of his mouth.

'There is a reason that Hermione was considered the brains of the Trio,' Draco mused to himself. It relieved him to know that Muggle-borns hadn't been excluded from the infection; it leant credence to the idea that this new Overlord had nothing to do with the Dark Lord.

"Good point," Draco drawled, earning him a quick smile from Hermione and another glare from the Weasel. "In the meantime, however, you should stop thinking like an Auror and deal more decisively with these thralls. They are dangerous, and they are out for blood."

Almost forgotten on the floor, Miss Lovegood spoke up again. "We don't want to hurt them. They have become infected because they have a talent for Dark Magic, yes?" Hermione nodded beside him. "But they aren't necessarily evil."

'If Hermione hadn't cured Severus, he would be one of those things,' Draco realized in horror. Still, if it came to his life or theirs, he would pick his every time.

Rising from the sofa, Hermione tugged at her jeans to smooth the creases. "Then we really don't have time to waste. My lab is already set up to work on the Rash." Pulling her leather satchel from its resting place against the side of the sofa, she slung the strap over her shoulder. Turning toward Severus, she asked, "Shall we? There is a Floo connection from this fireplace to my office in the clinic."

His lip curling in a sneer of distaste, Uncle Sev rose slowly out of his chair. "If I must," he said, his voice thick with reluctance. Abandoning his second biscuit and ugly mug, Draco rose as well, offering a hand to Hermione to lead her to the fireplace. She shot him a look, but allowed his attentions.

"Where do you think you are going, boy?" his godfather sneered.

Draco frowned at him, irritated by the diminutive form of address in front of the current audience. Severus was doing it on purpose, he was sure. "To the clinic, Uncle Sev, where else?"

"I think not," Severus snapped. "You will only get in the way, and I've already got one former student to baby-sit. I will not abide another."

Hermione rolled her eyes and pinched a measure of Floo powder from the pot on the mantle. "Hermione's office!" she said clearly and cast it at her feet. Turning his back on Draco, Severus followed her lead and disappeared in a blaze of green flame.

Standing indecisively for a moment, Draco considered disregarding Severus' words and following after him – or, more accurately, Hermione. The memory of the dull empty clinic and Hermione's creepy lab made up his mind. Poor company or no, he would stay at Grimmauld Place where he could indulge in creature comforts, though paltry they may be.

After the flames had died down to cinders that glowed a pale green, an uncomfortable silence fell on the living room in Grimmauld Place, broken occasionally by a half-hearted popping from the hearth and muffled crunching as Miss Lovegood chewed on a lemon-filled biscuit. Draco resisted the impulse to shift his weight nervously or draw his wand; he could veritably feel the threat radiating off Weasley. Now that Hermione wasn't around to keep him in line, he might try something imprudent. Draco wasn't particularly worried; he could hold his own against the git, but he didn't want to incur the wrath of Hermione. It wouldn't do anything to further his plans.

Draco assessed the redhead still slumped in the wingback chair. 'If I let Weasley land a punch, Hermione might feel inclined to play nursemaid…' He smirked to himself as he calculated how much reciprocal damage he could do and still appear to be the injured party.

"These are good biscuits, Harry," Miss Lovegood said conversationally after washing it down with a gulp of tea. The tension in the room dissipated like the air in a punctured balloon. "A bit dry, but pretty good." Draco stared down at her, once again thrown off balance by the odd woman. "Would you like another one?" she offered to him, gesturing to the platter still heavy with cookies.

"No, thank you," Draco said politely, wondering what his next move was to be. Weasley was now watching Miss Lovegood with calf eyes, so a fight no longer seemed to be an option.

"How about a beer?" Harry asked, disrupting his musings. Draco glanced up, surprised by the genial question. Harry smiled tightly, obviously uncomfortable with present company but determined to play a good host.

"Sure," Draco agreed. A beer did sound pretty good.

"Good, because I have something I want to ask you." Harry's eyes narrowed fractionally, and Draco was fairly sure that his questions had to do with Hermione. Well. This could be fun.

Standing stiffly at the mouth of Ms. Granger's office Floo, Severus glanced around with carefully concealed curiosity. It was a smallish space for such a successful businesswoman, but it was well appointed. A desk of dark polished wood and many drawers faced the door, and it held several neatly stacked piles of papers. A lush white area rug lay underneath it, and tucked under the desk, almost hidden by the leather upholstered office chair, was a pair of white fuzzy slippers with what appeared to be animal ears and a red bow. On the mantle above the hearth were several framed photographs, some motionless Muggle photos and some with subjects that waved cheerily to the viewer.

"That's odd," Ms. Granger said at his side. "The lighting is off."

Severus waited for her to elaborate, but she only frowned and peered through the window in her office door, cupping her hand above her eyes as if that would help somehow. The lighting was a bit dim, hardly enough to create a glare, and one of the bulbs down the hall was flickering in a menacing manner that candlelight simple didn't possess. He had never liked fluorescent lighting; it was ugly, vulgar and ruined the occasional potion.

Pulling open the office door, Ms. Granger called out, "Hello?" Craning her long shapely neck as she peered down the hall, she glanced back at him and shrugged. Severus stared at her impassively. He did not want to be there. His only comfort was that Draco had been left at Grimmauld Place. Half-hoping that Potter and Weasley would gang up on the spoiled prat, Severus watched her closely for a sign that she might miss his godson's presence. What was between those two? The question was gnawing at him, undermining his carefully constructed reserve.

"Anyone there?" she called again. The light down the hall sputtered and hummed, but otherwise, the hall was empty and silent.

"Is something the matter, Ms. Granger?" he finally asked impatiently, injecting as much disdain into his voice as he possibly could, as if to imply that only a fool would consider it, and if there was something wrong, it was surely her fault. The woman glared at him, but he could see apprehensive hesitation lurking behind her deep brown eyes.

"I shut off all the lights except for the emergency back-ups to save electricity costs while we were closed. Someone has changed them… and knocked my paintings off the wall."

"Vandals?" he asked as he stepped over the white rug and joined her in the doorway. Sure enough, three ragged piles of wood and canvas littered the hallway like forlorn corpses of giant butterflies. A black skid mark marred the otherwise spotless linoleum and a splatter of something dark and viscous had dried as it dripped down one wall.

Ms. Granger made a frustrated sound in the back of her throat, reminiscent of a cat's growl. Severus tried to pretend that he didn't find it intriguing as she stalked past him, heading straight for the stain on the wall. "What on earth?" she murmured to herself as she bent down to examine it, then straightened quickly and backed away. "It's blood."

"Are you sure?" Severus strode toward her, his borrowed sneakers' rubber soles squeaking against the linoleum and echoing down the empty halls that stretched ahead of him and to his right. At least, he assumed that they were empty; Ms. Granger had explained that she had closed her clinic shortly after the epidemic had gained momentum and had locked it up.

Still staring at the stain, she snapped, "I think I can recognize the sight of blood. I am a trained Healer, after all."

"One wouldn't know it," he sneered, but couldn't help but agree with her. It was, indeed, blood, and it had been there for no more than a day at most. Dried to a dark rusty brown, it had the vague shape of a large hand that had brushed carelessly against the wall.

Swearing under her breath, Ms. Granger stomped to the nurse's counter that was positioned right outside her office door. She eased the strap of the leather satchel off her shoulder, setting it on the floor, and then leaned over the counter, affording him an indecent view of her backside in a pair of distressed denim trousers. With her hair twisted into a bun, he could see the long line of her spine start at the base of her skull, arch through the fabric of her thin sweater, and disappear into the waistband of her jeans. She seemed incredibly fragile and breakable at that moment, and he didn't like the tugging feel it inspired in his chest.

Rummaging around with something that was out of sight, but sounded like paperwork, she muttered under her breath, "By all that is… they've dumped the drawers and scattered… This will takes hours, maybe days to organize… Bloody hell."

She righted herself and propped her hands on her hips, glaring at him as if he had somehow been responsible. Severus raised his chin and gave her a superior blank stare, offering nothing resembling sympathy or comfort.

"At least they didn't get into my office," she said, continuing darkly as if she didn't expect a response, "and when I find out who 'they' are, I'm going make them wish they'd been stillborn."

He didn't doubt it; the chit might have been sorted into Gryffindor, but she had a mean streak, disguised by self-righteousness, a mile wide. She also had a cunning that would have made any Slytherin proud had it been tempered with subtlety. Severus kept all of this to himself, choosing to curl his lip with distaste and gesture at her open office door. "Then if your famed Gryffindor courage has failed you, perhaps we could end this charade and return."

Ms. Granger gave him a pitying look and shook her head. "Gryffindor? Slytherin. It was just a stupid hat, Severus, and a mechanism to prevent a couple hundred hormonal teenagers from completely running amok. We are more than our houses."

At that moment, a flesh-colored blur streaked across the floor, and she shrieked, flinching away from it and leaning against the countertop.

"Obviously," he drawled with scornful sarcasm, not willing to admit that he, too, had been briefly startled. He couldn't suppress his wince when she shrieked again, this time in fury instead of fear and, snatching her satchel off the floor, took off running down the other hallway. Skidding around the corner, she didn't even look back to see if he was following. For a moment, he considered walking back into her office and Flooing to… who knew where, anywhere but her clinic or Grimmauld Place, but before the thought could congeal in his mind, he was pelting after her.

Through several neutrally nondescript corridors and around sharp corners he followed her, taking absent mental note of paintings and landmarks that distinguished one from the next. The habit had helped him as a spy, and he had never bothered to break himself of it. Two more bloody handprints had been smeared across the walls, and a scattering of droplets on the linoleum snagged his attention just in time to almost send him tumbling arse over teakettle over Ms. Granger's crouched form.

She glanced up at him, her brown eyes narrowed and snapping with anger, and he caught himself on the frame of a door that, when closed, would have blended in with the wall. Straightening, her knees popping in the relative quite, she snarled, "They've broken into my lab!"

On the floor at her feet was a small puddle of a dark substance. Blacker than dried blood, it had an almost ashy texture, as if a puff of breath would scatter it like dust. Fine dark lines radiated from the stain like tiny hairs or roots. Frowning, Severus kneeled down for a better look, wishing he had his reading glasses to magnify the odd material.

"What is this?" he asked, only realizing that he had spoken aloud when Ms. Granger's breath wafted across his cheek. She had leaned down to peer over his shoulder, her face startlingly close to his. Unnerved that he hadn't noticed her proximity until that moment, he had to stifle a wince at having her so close. When she started speaking, he fought to pay attention to what she was saying as opposed to the scent of tea on her breath.

"I'm not exactly sure," she mused. "At first, I thought it was more blood, but it's much more desiccated than the other samples, and then there are the tendrils…"

Standing suddenly because her proximity was too much to bear, Severus took a step into the corridor that he assumed led to her laboratory. "It almost appears to be a type of… fungus…"

As he said the words, anxiety closed a tight fist around his heart, and he turned to eye the woman next to him. She had straightened and backed a step away, her face pale as she stared at the blotch in undisguised horror. "They must have smashed the containers holding the mushroom samples." She groaned, pressing her hand against her eyes. "There are spores in the air! The whole clinic must be quarantined!"

"Have you been inoculated?" Severus asked quietly.

Hermione's hand fell limply to her side as she shook her head. "No, and I only have the one dose left. I left it at Harry's. Maybe I won't get ill…" she said, but her tone was neither confident nor hopeful. "I've been so careful to not come in contact with those damn mushrooms…"

"We shall return at once, and you will take that dose. I assume you have your notes on the cure," he added with a half-hearted sneer. He simply couldn't work up a believable amount of animosity under the oppressive weight of worry for the slim woman standing next to him. Pain stained red with madness flickered across his memory, followed by brief flashes of rage and blood, his blood, drawn by his hand. She shouldn't have to suffer through that.

Ms. Granger shook her head, already sidling around him as she walked toward the internal entrance of her lab. "They are in this bag," she said, patting the leather satchel slung over her shoulder. "And what's done is done; a few more minutes won't make a difference at this point. Damn," she swore explosively. "I wanted to save that last dose for an emergency. Who knows when we'll be able to make more, now. Or where."

"And this doesn't constitute as an emergency?" he inquired sarcastically as he considered the wisdom of stunning her from behind and carrying her unconscious body out of the clinic. A sudden flight of fancy captured his mind: he would vanish with her, and when she woke up, they would already be far, far away from Wizarding Britain and its unending parade of Evil Overlords. They would start a new life deep in a forest forgotten by human kind—

A string of unladylike curses jolted him out of a vision of himself turning rich soil with his bare hands in a large tidy garden as Hermione handed him a delicate bare-root seedling, her face tanned and scattered with freckles under the brim of her coarse straw hat.

"They've smashed everything! Everything!" She gesticulated wildly, coming close to smacking him in the face with a flailing hand. Her foot did make contact with a tangled pile of rubber tubing, sending it writhing into a scattering of sharp shards of glass.

The laboratory was half obscured by thick shadows, the fault of one of the overhead lights hanging wearily from the ceiling. Shattered glass covered every imaginable surface, and liquids of indistinguishable colors pooled on tables and dripped over the edges to form puddles on the floor. Several fluffs of cotton lay in the bottoms of aquariums that had had their walls smashed in and their lids thrown against the walls. In short, the room was a disaster and the woman who owned it was becoming one as well.

"Those no-good rotten bastards!" She grabbed the remains of a burlap sack and hurled it at an upended machine of questionable purpose. Sawdust burst out of the sack, filling the air with tiny golden splinters of wood. When she plucked what appeared to be a hamster wheel out of one of the aquarium carcasses, he snatched at her wrist, catching it before she could send the wheel careening into the sink.

"Ms. Granger!" he shouted over her shriek of outrage. Whirling on her toes, she rounded on him, still brandishing the hamster wheel. "I must insist that you cease this ridiculous behavior!" For a moment, he thought that she might try to brain him with it, but she dropped it instead, glaring at him in white-hot rage.

"Do you realize what this means?" she hissed between clenched teeth. She was the most furious he had ever seen her, and considering the effort he had put into provoking her when she had been his student, that was saying something. With her brown eyes snapping with golden fire and stray curls escaping confinement from the bun at the nape of her neck like tiny serpents, she was a Fury come to reap divine vengeance for the wrongs committed against her. "This will set us back days! Weeks! Who knows?"

Her eyes shimmered with pooling moisture, and she blinked quickly, glancing away from him. Realizing that he still held her wrist, he dropped it quickly. He should say something scathing, something that would cut her to the quick in this vulnerable moment and nip whatever sympathetic feelings she might hold for him in the proverbial bud. He should be cruel enough that she would release him from this pseudo-servitude, and he could disappear. This epidemic wasn't his problem. Hadn't he paid enough to save Wizarding Britain from the last Dark Lord? And what had the witches and wizards of England done with their freedom? Buy Nose Transfigurations from the witch before him. He opened his mouth, ready to let fly with a searing invective, but no sound came out. The insult lodged in his craw, and he coughed once to clear it.

Ms. Granger continued to stare at the floor, her eyes vacantly tracing a line of tubing that snaked around a leg of the workbench. He couldn't desert her, he realized. She was undoubtedly infected, and if left to the tender mercies of the Boy Wonder and his ginger-haired sidekick, she would not fair well.

"The kitchen at Grimmauld Place could be converted to a laboratory, albeit an inadequate one," he said finally, his tone gentler than he would have preferred. He cleared his throat again. "Come, we must administer that dose in case you have become infected."

"I'll wait for symptoms before I take it," she mumbled, the fight seeming to have drained out of her. "I might not even…" She sighed and then straightened her spine and lifted her chin, speaking with renewed determination. "I might not be infected. We have no way of knowing, not with most of my equipment inoperable. We should, however, go through this mess and salvage what we can."

Severus wanted to argue, but simply nodded instead. It was, after all, her lab. In any case, the resolved smile she sent him quite took his breath away.

A/N: Many thanks to my beta, ann1982, and the TPP mods for all of their hard work! Also, thanks to those of you who are still following this, despite my slow updates – and especially those who take the time to leave a note. I value your input!

A note to ffnet readers: there seems to be very little interest in this story here at ffnet. That is, frankly, quite discouraging and not worth the effort of reformatting the chapters for this site. This may be the last chapter I post here until the fic is done. For those of you who are still interested in following it chapter by chapter, I do post at the Petulant Poetess, Ashwinder and AdultFanfiction under the same handle.