I'm back with another Hermione/Snape story! This was actually written for RenitaLeandra over on LiveJournal -- she bid on a story from me for the Support Stacie auction (to raise money for a gal who has breast cancer and no health insurance). Renita is graciously allowing me to post the story here. It's actually complete, but I'll be posting a new chapter every few days.


I

The lights of Hogwarts castle glittered against the snow. Hermione had never really expected to return here; her life lay elsewhere these days. But the urgent summons had come from Minerva McGonagall just this morning, and Hermione knew it was her duty to respond.

I must consult with you on a matter of utmost importance, Professor McGonagall had written. Kingsley has already approved your reassignment to Hogwarts for as long as necessary. Come at once.

It was Hermione's responsibility, as an investigator with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, to go where her superiors sent her, but she couldn't help feeling a slight trickle of unease as she lifted her valise and trudged uphill through the snow to the castle's entrance. This obviously wasn't a matter for the Aurors, or no doubt Harry or Ron would have been sent in her place. However, the urgency of McGonagall's request couldn't be denied. Hermione was the Department's top investigator, despite her youth. Her presence here wouldn't have been requested unless there was a very good reason for doing so.

It had been a long time. Five years, to be precise. Unlike Harry and Ron, she'd felt compelled to return to Hogwarts after Voldemort's defeat to finish out her seventh year. It had been an odd time; the school seemed hollow and just plain wrong without her friends at her side. But Hermione had never been one to leave anything unfinished, and she soldiered her way through as best she could. Still, at the end she had been more than ready to be quit of Hogwarts. It was a changed place, one that no longer felt like home.

But what does anymore? she thought, and quelled the sigh that tried to escape her lips. Now was not the time to be dwelling on hers and Ron's problems. She had more pressing matters to attend to.

Despite the lights that shone out, warm yellow against the castle's gray stones, the place felt deserted. True, it was the Christmas holiday, and many students had probably returned to their homes. But there were always those who stayed on, the ones who had no real family to go home to. Sadly, more students were probably in that situation now than when she had attended Hogwarts, simply because of all those who had perished in the war with the Dark Lord.

But there was Professor McGonagall waiting for her just inside the entrance. The Headmistress looked much the same as she always had, although the knot of hair at the back of her head seemed a bit thinner and greyer.

She stepped forward at once. "Welcome back to Hogwarts, Miss Granger."

"I came as soon as I could." Hermione glanced past the Headmistress to the open double doors which led into the Great Hall. The hall should have been filled with light and students taking their evening meal, but the enormous room was dark and empty, devoid of life and activity.

"The students have all gone," McGonagall said. "Under the circumstances, I thought it best to send them away. A few of the staff have stayed on, but most of them have gone home for the holidays as well."

"Perhaps you should tell me what the problem is," Hermione said. There had been talk of closing the school when the basilisk had been freed from the Chamber of Secrets, but even then such drastic measures had eventually been avoided.

"Let us go up to my office," replied the Headmistress. "I am still awaiting the other half of the investigative team. It would probably be better to hold off the explanations until you are both here."

McGonagall's words were both unexpected and unwelcome. Other half of the investigative team? Kingsley Shacklebolt had said nothing to Hermione about working with someone else on this investigation. She preferred to go about her duties alone. It was so much simpler that way. Even in Magical Law Enforcement she'd had a difficult time finding anyone who could keep up with her thought processes.

Questions bubbled to her lips. From the set of Professor McGonagall's chin, it was clear that those questions would go unanswered. Instead, Hermione bent down and picked up her valise, then followed the Headmistress to her office.

Hermione had had her share of times wandering around Hogwarts after hours, but something about the empty corridors and deafening silence that surrounded them as they made their way to McGonagall's office made the hair lift on the back of her neck. Torches flickered in their sconces, lighting the way. The torchlight, however, didn't do much to relieve the inky shadows in the corners, or the gloom overhead in the lofty corridors.

Just stop that, she told herself. It's perfectly clear that whatever is going on here, it's not anything directly threatening, or I doubt Professor McGonagall would be walking about quite so casually.

Good, no-nonsense words. Hermione just wished she believed them.

But they reached the entrance to the Headmistress's office quite without incident, and once they were inside Hermione felt a bit more normal. The place was refreshingly familiar. The only difference she could see was that Dumbledore's little silvery devices sat silent and still, all traces of magical life gone.

"Tea?" Professor McGonagall asked.

Hermione nodded. She thought she might as well do something to fill up the time until her mysterious "partner" appeared. Besides, the cold had begun to seep into her bones, and she realized she'd had nothing yet to eat today save a piece of toast. The cup of tea and plate of biscuits the Headmistress handed her were more than welcome.

Some evergreen branches and a red velvet bow decorated the mantel, but despite the attempt at holiday cheer, Hermione couldn't help thinking this would be a very dreary Christmas. The holiday was only a few days off. There was always the possibility that she could solve the mystery quickly and be back in London before Christmas Eve, but somehow she doubted it. Anything that had caused Professor McGonagall to summon her here had to be serious.

Perhaps it's for the best, she reflected, and sipped her tea. No chance of a scene with Ron about the holiday if I'm hundreds of miles away.

But that thought somehow made her feel even more desolate, as if the realization that she'd rather spend Christmas alone than get in another row with Ron had suddenly brought home to her just how fractious their relationship had become. It shouldn't be like this, should it? To feel the absence from the person you supposedly loved as nothing more than a relief?

She was saved from following that depressing line of thought by a sharp knock at the entrance to the office.

"Excellent," said Professor McGonagall, who set aside her own teacup and saucer and went to open the door.

Hermione swiveled in her seat so she could get a clear glimpse of the newcomer. She still couldn't quite understand why the Headmistress hadn't just told her outright who her investigative partner was to be.

When he entered, however, Hermione thought for sure she must be seeing things. That shock of black hair, that swirl of dark robes -- no, he hadn't changed at all.

There was just the little matter of him supposedly being dead.

Professor McGonagall smiled down at Hermione. "I assume you and Professor Snape need no introduction."

Hermione could only stare up at him, a man she had believed to be dead all these years. The tea and biscuits seemed to roil within her stomach.

What the hell?

***

He'd wanted to ignore the summons. He had ordered his life -- what was left of it, anyway -- as best he could during the past five years. The wizarding world, save for a select few, thought him dead, and he wished to keep it that way.

But he also knew that this precious isolation was his only on sufferance, at best a loan that could be recalled at any time.

"I know you need time to heal," Kingsley Shacklebolt had told him. "But there may come a time when we have need of you."

What had lain unspoken between them was an admission the Minister of Magic seemed loath to make -- that with Voldemort and Albus Dumbledore gone, there was a distinct likelihood that he, Severus Snape, was now the most powerful wizard in Britain. A pleasant irony, or at least it would have been, if he'd desired anything except to be left alone.

Which, to do them credit, they had. He'd been given a small plot of land in a forgotten corner of Cornwall where he could tend his herbs and brew potions to his heart's content. Not that his heart had ever been particularly contented.

Still, it had been a refuge, something he had sorely lacked up until then. Just how many people knew he had survived Nagini's attack, he wasn't sure -- Kingsley, of course, Minerva McGonagall, the healer at St. Mungo's who had patched him up. Snape had never bothered to ask where the small stipend he received each month through Muggle post came from. For all he knew, it came out of Kingsley Shacklebolt's personal account.

When the owl had fluttered to his doorstep earlier that day, Snape knew it couldn't mean anything good. It meant the wizarding world was reaching back out to him, when he had done all he could to leave it behind. But he had retrieved the piece of parchment tied to the bird's leg anyhow. It was not in him to shirk responsibility, no matter how onerous it might seem.

The message, in Kingsley's heavy, slanted hand, was cryptic at best. Minerva McGonagall requests that you come to Hogwarts at once. Prepare for a stay of several days. No other explanations. No hint of what might possibly be so urgent. The note's brevity seemed more in line with the paranoia of the war with the Dark Lord, when communications were compromised and no one could be trusted. That Kingsley should apparently be exercising those same precautions now did not bode well.

So Snape had come to Hogwarts, bag packed with the necessities for a short stay. He tried not to think of what it would be like to see the place again, that looming structure of gray stone which had been home for the greater part of his life. And he tried not to think of what the implications of his appearing so publicly might mean for the quiet future he had envisioned. There was no time to alter his dress, but a quick Invisibility Charm should be enough to get him safely to the Headmistress's office. After that --

Well, after that it might not matter very much whether people discovered he was alive after all.

He Apparated a few yards outside the gates to the school's grounds. A fresh snow had fallen. The freezing air bit at his exposed face and hands; he would be glad enough to get inside, even if he had not desired this meeting. After pulling his traveling cloak a bit more tightly around himself and striding inside the gates, he murmured the words of the charm.

Nothing happened.

In consternation, he looked down at himself. An Invisibility Charm was not quite as foolproof as a magical cloak, of course -- one tended to still be there as a sort of watery, transparent blur if an observer looked hard enough. But in no way should he have looked as solid as he had before he cast the charm.

A scowl pulled at his brow, and he spoke the words again, this time as slowly and carefully as a first year practicing his first spell. Still nothing happened. How was this possible? To be sure, it had been some time since he'd cast an Invisibility Charm, but he was certain he couldn't have forgotten it. After all, he had cast much more obscure spells at his home back in Cornwall, and he'd never had difficulty with any of them.

Frown deepening, he strode to the castle's entrance. Perhaps with only a few days to go until Christmas, the school would be mostly deserted. And it was the dinner hour. With any luck, the students would all be safely at their evening meal, and no one would notice the return of their supposedly late, unlamented Headmaster.

Certainly no students were evident just inside the entrance, and the Great Hall was similarly empty. Oh, the castle was well lit and warm enough that Snape shrugged out of his traveling cloak and draped it over one arm, but the odd absence of any signs of life -- human, house-elf, or otherwise -- did nothing to erase the frown from his brow. He gave the slightest shrug and headed toward the Headmistress's office. No doubt Minerva would clear up the mystery soon enough.

The gargoyle that guarded the stairway was already shifted out of the way, as if Minerva had instructed it to move aside so that she wouldn't be forced to give Snape the password. Despite the fact that she had called for his help, it seemed she didn't quite trust him. Perhaps it was that thought which caused him to knock a little more sharply than he had intended.

A pause of a few seconds, and then Minerva McGonagall opened the door. She looked strained and tired, but a faint shadow of a smile touched her lips before she turned and addressed a strange young woman who sat in one of the armchairs by the hearth.

"I assume you and Professor Snape need no introduction," said Minerva, and from the look of shock on the stranger's face, apparently she recognized him.

He wished he could say the same. Something about her jogged his memory, but he couldn't quite think where he had seen her before. Her curly brown hair was only half-restrained by a clip, and she looked at him with wide dark eyes. It wasn't until she lifted her chin and tilted her head slightly that the half-familiar planes of her face shifted into focus. Hermione Granger. What on earth was that insufferable know-it-all doing here, of all places? He didn't know what was more shocking -- her presence, or the fact that he had thought her almost pretty until he realized who she was.

Minerva McGonagall spoke. "Miss Granger is now with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. It was in her official capacity that she was sent here." She shifted her gaze from him down to Hermione, who straightened in her chair and quietly set the teacup she had been holding down on the table next to her. Minerva continued, "No doubt you are wondering at the secrecy surrounding your summons here, but Kingsley and I agreed that it was best. We had no reason to believe anyone would be intercepting our communications, but as this was a delicate matter, we decided to be as circumspect as possible."

Snape said nothing, but merely crossed his arms and waited. His long association with the Headmistress told him she would get to the point on her own time; any interruptions now would only serve to delay whatever revelations she was about to make.

Perhaps sensing the same thing, Hermione remained silent as well. Only the tapping of her fingers against the worn plush of the chair's arms revealed her impatience.

With the barest trace of a sigh, Minerva moved away from both of them and stopped a few feet in front of the hearth. Perhaps she had need of its warmth. Or perhaps she only wanted to put some distance between herself and the unlikely pair who waited silently as she collected her thoughts.

Finally she said, "We don't know what the problem is, exactly. That is why I called you in, Severus -- I know of no one else who has more knowledge of dark magic and dark wizards. And you, Hermione -- your superiors at the Ministry tell me that no one in your department has a higher success rate in solving their cases. I would have expected no less of you, of course." Again a faint ghost of a smile touched Minerva's lips.

Hermione broke her silence at last. Her voice seemed a little lower than Snape remembered. It was a woman's voice, not a girl's. "Of course I will do everything in my power to help." She hesitated, then added, "But what, precisely, is the problem? You said you sent the students home. Was something threatening them?"

"Threatening them?" At once Minerva shook her head. "No. Well, not precisely, at any rate."

"Then what?" Snape inquired. His patience, never abundant at the best of times, was beginning to wear thin. If he were going to be forced to solve this mystery -- whatever it was -- with the annoying Miss Granger at his side, he would prefer to get started immediately. The sooner he was done, the sooner he could go home.

Not that he had much to go home to. He was not the type to set much store in holidays and traditions, but for some reason the thought of another Christmas spent alone seemed even less appealing than usual.

Again a long pause, as Minerva buried her thin hands in the voluminous velvet folds of her dark green robes. Then she said, "It began slowly -- so slowly that at first no one noticed anything amiss. It was natural, after all, that certain students couldn't cast spells, especially those in the lower years or those whose talents were perhaps not as strong as those of their classmates. Even teachers have been known to make a bobble, as it were, from time to time."

Some more than others, Snape thought, his mouth twisting. Despite what had happened to Gilderoy Lockhart -- and even after all these years -- the thought that that preening popinjay had been selected as the Dark Arts teacher over him stilll rankled.

"But then it became more than the occasional bungled spell. No one, not even the professors, was able to cast a Charm, or brew an effective potion. Brooms wouldn't fly. The stairways stopped moving. The paintings became merely paintings."

For the first time Snape realized that the usual muttering convo of past headmasters in their gilt frames was conspicuously absent. Some of the frames were empty, but those which were not featured flat, unmoving portraits, lifeless as a painting in a Muggle museum. He crossed his arms and waited.

Minerva appeared to gather herself. "For whatever reason, it appears that magic has abandoned Hogwarts."