Disclaimer: I don't own any of it; just borrowing. Any paragraphs ending in "++" contain dialogue from DH.
They left at dawn. In the garden at Grimmauld Place, many of the plants were still slumbering noisily. Hermione's mind felt heavy and numb, Snape's revelation and the loss of her parents leaving her exhausted. She stared straight ahead at the back wall of the garden, which was covered in creeping ivy, the brickwork crumbling where the plant had worked its way into the mortar. She was reluctant to look at the man beside her, knowing it might well be for the last time. The thought made her insides spasm with a sense of loss so profound she felt it as a physical pain.
In hindsight, Snape's bizarre behavior towards Harry, even from their initial Potions class as Firsties, made sense, and Hermione felt like a bit of an idiot not to have put two and two together before now. Not that she'd have had any reason, prior to this last year, to suspect him of being in love with Harry's mum, but after being in his memories-after learning he'd at least had a crush on Lily Evans during their time together at school-she should have realized what it meant that he'd been, by turns, so cruel and so protective towards Harry. Snape had protected Harry because he was Lily's son, but he'd hated Harry because Harry wasn't his.
How could Snape have room for her, still consumed as he was with a love like that, so lasting, so enveloping? It was humiliating that she'd thought, even for a few minutes, that he might actually have liked it when she kissed him. Worse than the embarrassment, however, was the intense, thrumming desire to kiss him again, and properly this time; and the piercing knowledge that he didn't feel the same way. She sucked in a breath, then exhaled shakily.
Snape had been standing silently beside her, his gaze fixed fiercely on an indeterminate point in front of them. Now, he turned slowly to look at her, and in the pale light, she could see that his face was creased and shadowed.
"I should go," he said, and glowered at her as though this was her fault. But then his shoulders slumped and he looked away.
Impulsively, Hermione reached out and grabbed his sleeve, forcing him to face her.
"May I contact you sometimes?" she asked. "Just to-just to know you're all. . . you're still. . ."
Snape's face twisted with some nameless emotion. "Miss-Hermione," he said, amending his first words when she shot him a warning glance. Hermione bit back a slightly hysterical desire to laugh, wondering if he realized he sounded like a House-elf.
"Yes?" she said instead.
Instead of answering, Snape raised a hand and reached towards her, his fingers grazing her clavicle where the chain from her pendant bisected it. Hermione went still, taking only the smallest of breaths through her nose. In-and-out, in-and-out. His face was difficult to read as he lifted the chain with one finger, the others resting warmly, lightly, against her skin.
"It would, perhaps, be wise if we were to destroy these," he said. He allowed his words to hang between them for a moment-a moment in which Hermione, stunned, felt her mouth fall open-before he let the chain drop back and removed his hand.
"You're not serious," she said.
A pained expression crossed Snape's face, but he didn't otherwise respond. A sort of surging anger rose from somewhere in Hermione's belly, and she fought to control her temper, her voice rising until it bordered on shrill.
"How could you even suggest that?" she demanded. "After everything-"
"I don't know!" he snapped, then made a noise of frustration and raked his fingers through his hair. "Miss Gra-bloody fucking hell!" He shot her a wild glance, then closed his eyes in an obvious attempt to calm himself. When he opened them again, he drew in a deep breath.
"Hermione," he said then, and Hermione shivered. "I was foolish to think. . . It was rash, for you to want to charm our pendants-for me to allow. . ." He grimaced, brows drawn and mouth pinched, but didn't continue speaking.
"Prof-" Hermione began, then cut herself off, abruptly realizing that she didn't have any idea what to call him anymore. They stared at each other for a moment before she said tartly, "Would you mind very much if I called you Severus? Only it seems silly to still be formal after-everything-"
There was a measured pause before he replied. "If you must," he said, in a strangled sort of voice.
His agreement deflated some of her anger, and she let out a breath. "Severus, then," she said, and if her voice was less steady than she'd like, he at least didn't let on that he'd noticed. "I know-I know the chances that we can actually help each other with whatever's coming are slim, but even if we can't. . ." She swallowed, and said, "I don't think I can face it all without having some way of knowing you're all right."
Snape stared at her for a long moment before saying, "Very well," his voice so quiet she nearly didn't hear him.
It was Ron's lanky figure that greeted Hermione outside the Burrow. He was in the process of tossing a gnome over the back garden wall; at the sight of her, he was arrested, the ugly little creature struggling against his grip in mid-air before it finally managed to twist away, drop to the ground, and dart off into the hedgerow. Ron ignored it in favor of staring at her, open-mouthed.
"Hermione!" he said. "What're you-I didn't think you were coming yet."
She shrugged, attempting a smile. "Something. . . came up. I was hoping your parents wouldn't mind having me a bit earlier than expected. I thought I could make myself useful with the wedding preparations. . ."
"Yeah," he said. "Sure. Mum's going spare." For a moment, his eyes flicked over her, lingering a touch too long on the way her Muggle T-shirt skimmed her torso, and Hermione's breath whooshed out of her in a surprised gust. Little sleep and the events of the previous day had left her feeling more than a little emotionally unstable, and she fought the sudden rise of frustrated tears. Why did he have to look at her like that now? Now, rather than six months ago, when she'd have given anything to have him see her as a girl and not just his swotty friend?
"Great," she said, a little too loudly, and Ron wrenched his eyes back up to her face. He looked embarrassed, but reached over and pushed open the garden gate to let her in.
"Mum should have breakfast on in a few minutes," he mumbled, and led the way into the house.
Mrs. Weasley was just dishing up eggs when they entered the kitchen, and the surprised pleasure on her round face when she saw who was with Ron nearly had Hermione in tears again. She'd been afraid her presence would just add to the strain the Weasley matriarch was feeling.
"Hermione, dear!" Mrs. Weasley said, hurrying forward to give her a one-armed hug, the other hand still clutching a spatula. "It's so good to see you!" She leaned back and looked hard at Hermione's face, then said without turning around, "Ron, go wake Ginny. I'd like a moment to catch up with our Hermione, here."
Once Ron was gone, taking Crookshanks' carrier with him, she led Hermione over to the scrubbed kitchen table and said, "Sit." Hermione sat, fidgeting with the strap on her handbag, as Mrs. Weasley returned to the stove, dishing up the rest of the eggs and waving her wand to turn the potatoes. "Now then," Mrs. Weasley said, "Tell me what's happened."
A lump appeared suddenly in Hermione's throat, making it difficult to speak. "I-um-I sent my parents away," she said. "It just seemed too dangerous for them here, being Muggles."
Mrs. Weasley turned and looked at her. "Oh, dear," she said, and those two words were so full of sympathy-and not the condemnation she'd feared-that Hermione broke, great, hiccoughing sobs escaping as she curled in on herself.
The next thing she knew, Mrs. Weasley's arms were around her and her face was pressed against the softness of the older woman's chest, and though Mrs. Weasley felt and smelled nothing like her own mother as she leaned into the embrace, it didn't seem to matter.
Severus had not communicated with Hermione-Miss Granger-Hermione-since their awkward parting at Grimmauld Place, except for one brief message in which she confirmed that the Order would be using the idea he'd planted on Fletcher for the move. He had, however, relived in his memory more times than he could count the way he'd felt for those brief seconds when her lips touched his, and the look in her eyes when they said good-bye, one of the first times he had been utterly incapable of deciphering her expression. The way she'd taken his hand at the last minute, small, dry fingers curling around his palm, and squeezed, before letting go and Disapparating.
It would be naive to think that she would not be part of the move, and it was that fact that held Severus rigid with terror on the edge of his bed at the Manor, awaiting the Summons that would indicate it was time to join his brethren and fly to Little Whinging. Beside him were his Death Eater mask and robes, but he had yet to don them. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, trying very hard not to be sick at the thought that shortly, he would have to fight against her. If he was lucky, she would not be among the Order members disguised as Potter-though when, he thought bitterly, had he ever been lucky?-and he. . . He would be just another faceless Death Eater.
The plan to move Potter was, Severus knew, flimsy at best and disastrous at worst: Many Potters for the Death Eaters to attack rather than only one. Many more opportunities for Order members to die, and for Severus to betray himself one way or another-as a traitor to the Dark Lord if he slipped up and one of his fellow Death Eaters noticed that he was not aiming at the Potters to kill; or he could just as easily betray himself by doing as Dumbledore might wish, and, if necessary, allow circumstances to force his wand, thus preserving his cover and his place within the Dark Lord's ranks.
He reached into the pocket of his frock coat to withdraw Lily's picture, and sat gazing at it for several minutes. He had taken it with him, intending it to be a talisman of sorts, something tangible to look upon in the coming months to remind him of what he was doing, and why.
But now, he found he didn't want it. It was a feeling Severus did not wish to examine too closely, for losing the all-consuming need to atone, to make things up to Lily as best he could, would once have been akin to losing his lungs or his liver or some other vital part of himself. Now. . . Now he had new reasons to continue, and those reasons, unlike Lily's memory, made him want to live. Unconsciously, Severus reached into one of the deep pockets of his robe and touched the tips of his fingers to the little bottle of Felix Felicis he now kept with him, always, along with the scrap of parchment upon which Hermione had penned her note to him, all those weeks ago when she'd left him asleep in his quarters. For a moment he considered taking the potion but some fear stopped him, as though by using it tonight he would be relinquishing the protection she'd sought to give him.
"Irrational," he muttered, "ridiculous"; but he withdrew his hand from his pocket, leaving the bottle behind.
He glanced back down at the picture he still held, and suddenly found himself crossing to the sitting room, his legs working without his conscious thought, opening the middle drawer of the desk there and placing the torn photograph inside. Then he shut the drawer and placed both palms flat on the desk's top, leaning his weight heavily upon them, and closed his eyes.
Seconds later, his Mark burned.
It was exceedingly odd to be inside Harry's skin. Slight as her friend was, Hermione still felt clumsy, her hands and feet larger than she was accustomed to. And it was strange, too, not to have her own bushy hair getting in her face, though dealing with Harry's glasses constantly sliding down her nose was a distraction in and of itself. Her mouth felt coated with the funky tang of Polyjuice Potion, and she had the urge to give her teeth a thorough brushing.
But she had very little time to dwell on any of this, for Moody was saying that they should move out, and the terror that had temporarily eased upon seeing Harry again returned in force as she scurried after the others, keeping close to Kingsley, with whom she'd been partnered and who moved with long, purposeful strides toward-well, toward nothing in particular as far as Hermione could tell, though she knew from the Order's logistical discussions that a Thestral must be waiting there.
And then, with an apologetic smile, Kingsley hoisted her onto the Thestral's bony, invisible back and climbed up behind her; and then Moody gave the signal and with a frightening lurch, the Thestral began to fly, and for several minutes, all Hermione could do was cling to it with all her strength, grateful for the solidity of Kingsley's body behind her, his legs clamped around the Thestral's sides as its wings beat powerfully on either side of them. Squeezing her eyes shut to avoid the unsettling sight of the ground moving further and further away from them, Hermione breathed slowly through her nose and tried not to give in to panic, trying very hard not to remember that the last time she'd ridden a Thestral Sirius had died and she had ended up with a brand-new scar.
Behind her, she heard Kingsley swear under his breath. Her eyes opened and she just barely had time to palm her wand, instinctively ducking lower over the Thestral's back, before the air around her exploded with the light of curses and screams. She felt Kingsley's arm clamp around her waist, holding her firmly in place as he shot off curse after curse at the hooded, masked Death Eaters into whose ranks the Order had risen.
The fighting was so thick Hermione was having trouble differentiating between the combatants, and she was terrified of firing off a hex or jinx and hitting an Order member. Kingsley seemed far more sure of himself, as, for that matter, did everyone else; the sky was so thick with the smoke from spells fired too enthusiastically that she could scarcely breathe.
She lost track of the other Order members entirely as Kingsley urged the Thestral higher, trying to get out of the Death Eaters' range. Hermione clung to the creature below her with her left hand, and with her right, aimed her wand at the Death Eaters pursuing them. There were four or five, and as she sat paralyzed by terror, Kingsley managed to get off several hexes in a row. Two of them found their targets; those Death Eaters screamed and fell back out of wand-range. Then Kingsley steered the Thestral sharply away from the remaining Death Eaters and for long minutes, all Hermione could do was tangle her fingers in the Thestral's mane and pray wordlessly that she wasn't about to plummet to her death.
From behind her, Kingsley suddenly swore, clamping his legs more tightly around the Thestral's ribs and his arm more tightly around Hermione's waist. She twisted around to see what was the matter and nearly screamed; a lone Death Eater was pursuing them, so closely that had his face not been concealed behind that horrific mask she could have made out his features. He raised his wand, heavy black robes flapping around his body in the wind created by the speed of his flight, and, not consciously thinking, not conscious of anything beyond a sort of full-body terror, she sent a Stunner in his direction and watched in horrified detachment as he fell from his broom, lost within seconds to the darkness below.
"Thanks," Kingsley said in her ear, and Hermione nodded shakily, looking ahead once more-and then her lungs seemed to seize up and she couldn't breathe properly, for the Thestral was visible, it was right there, its dark, bony back beneath her, its neck stretched out in front as it strained to fly faster, its mane whipping out in a tangled frenzy, and Hermione suddenly understood exactly why so many people hated the creatures.
I killed someone, she thought, and was dimly grateful for the strength of Kingsley's grip keeping her upright. Oh God, I killed someone.
And then, suddenly frantic, she thought, Severus, and twisted her head to look behind them as if she could see the man she'd killed, and reassure herself that at least it wasn't him. But of course there was only black sky.
It can't have been him, she told herself. It can't have. He wouldn't have pursued any of the Harry look-a-likes with that sort of single-minded intensity; he could keep his cover without shooting off after one of them alone. Right?
It seemed a very long time before the Thestral began its descent.
The waiting, Severus thought, not for the first time, was the worst bit of any attack, but this time seemed even worse than usual. Circling slowly above Little Whinging on his broomstick, he could hear the gentle whoosh of displaced air as his fellow Death Eaters, Disillusioned, made lazy arcs around him. It was difficult to breathe behind the silver mask he wore, and despite the chill of the air at this height, he could feel sweat trickling down his spine under his heavy robes.
Then the Order rose straight into their midst, the distinctive rumble of Hagrid's motorbike giving the Death Eaters a few seconds' warning before they were upon them. The air was suddenly thick with colored lights and the acrid smoke that resulted when a spell was cast too forcefully. Severus leaned forward over his broom, dodging curses as he flew. In the chaos, it was difficult to focus, even with the help of his mental Shields; he had the impression that the world was nothing but quick flashes of light and swirling dark robes and Potter's face everywhere he turned. His disorientation was compounded by the fact that he knew, without question, that Dumbledore would have preferred he harm one of the Order members than reveal himself as a traitor to the Dark Lord-but his Shields were not strong enough to completely cut off the paralyzing fear that it might be Hermione he killed.
He circled back to where the fighting was thickest-though more dangerous, it would be easier to maintain his cover within a group-and there was no more time for thought, only action. He barely got a Shield Charm up in time to block the worst of a blasting curse that nearly knocked him from his broom; only just maintaining his grip on its handle, he watched as the pieces of his shattered mask fell to earth, and then felt something surge past him and looked up just in time to watch three other Death Eaters tear off after Remus Lupin and the Potter who was seated behind him. One of them-perhaps Mulciber, by the broadness of the shoulders under his robes, but really, who the fuck cared?-raised his wand, and behind him, Severus felt suddenly wild with fear and raised his own, flinging a Sectumsempra toward the other man's outstretched wand-hand.
His aim was off, the adrenaline coursing through him making his movements less controlled than they would otherwise have been. An agonized scream, and the Potter on Lupin's broom was clutching at the side of his head, and even from this distance Severus could see the darkness of the blood streaming between his fingers. He nearly slipped from the broom, Lupin catching him around the waist at the last moment, before turning the broom sharply enough that the other Death Eaters were brought up short, flying too close together to maneuver as easily as a single broom could. Moments later, Lupin and his charge had disappeared from sight, and Severus was left with a ringing in his ears.
No, he thought blankly, and then, panicked, No! His breath felt constricted, his entire body clammy under his robes, and he was only dimly aware of other Death Eaters calling out to him as they flew off in another direction.
And then, like some gruesome nightmare made real, Severus realized that something was moving towards him through the night sky, a skeletal figure whose robes streamed out behind his outstretched arms, giving him the appearance of wings. He could only stare in horror as the Dark Lord flew past him, broomless, his mouth open on a howl of triumph.
Automatically, Severus followed, streaking with his fellow Death Eaters after their leader.
Please, he thought, incapable of greater coherence, palms slick on his broom handle, heart lodged somewhere in his throat. Please.
Hermione sat at the Burrow's kitchen table, her hands curled around a mug of tea that had long since gone cold. She was trying to pay attention to the conversations carrying on around her, but it was difficult to focus on anything beyond her own mounting panic. She'd sent a message to Severus the first moment she could, and had yet to receive anything from him in return. Her mind jumped against her will to the image of the Death Eater she'd killed as he fell through the air, and the room seemed to tip and sway around her.
She glanced across the table to where Harry sat, glaring into his mug of tea. His eyes were red, and Hermione's heart caught at the thought of Hedwig, dead in her cage. God, she thought furiously, illogically, there'd been no reason for a Death Eater to kill an owl. So senseless. . .
Beside her, Ron shifted so that his leg pressed gently against hers. Hermione glanced at him, startled, but he was carefully not looking in her direction. After a moment, she allowed her calf to rest more firmly against her friend's, taking comfort in his warmth, in the solid realness of him so nearby. The image of the man she'd killed, whose name she didn't-Please, God-even know, faded for the time being. But she still couldn't relax, anxiety rippling through her; it was all she could do to keep from jiggling the foot that lay so near Ron's, or drumming her fingers on the table. Or screaming. How had Severus ended up cursing off George's ear? She knew-of course she knew-his position that evening would be tenuous, dependent as it was on his ability to balance between playing his part successfully and not actually hurting anyone. But the man she knew, normally so controlled, even in the most extreme circumstances. . . She clenched her jaw, staring down at the table. The only times she'd seen him truly out of control were in the Shrieking Shack her third year, and after she broke through his Shields that night after the winter holiday. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them, forcing herself to focus on the present moment.
Mrs. Weasley, having finally stopped the bleeding where his ear had been, had bundled George off to bed, his head swathed in bandages. She'd forbidden Fred from following, insisting George needed his rest, and so Fred sat beside Ron looking, to Hermione, rather lost without his twin to finish his sentences. And Moody's absence was nearly tangible; they'd even unconsciously left a space for him on the bench beside Tonks, whose hair was once again a mousy brown, her face red from crying. Hermione met the Auror's eyes for a moment and tried for a sympathetic smile, but suspected she hadn't quite managed it.
It wasn't until nearly an hour later that her pendant finally warmed against her chest. With a gasp, she jumped from her chair, and was already halfway to the door when she saw Ron's questioning look.
"Loo," she said, and dashed.
The relief Severus felt when his pendant grew hot was so profound that he stumbled as he crossed the Malfoys' expansive lawn, catching himself with his palms against the grass. He breathed deeply for a moment, eyes closed, and answered one of his fellows' calls of, "All right there, Snape?" with an impatient wave of one hand as he levered himself upright with the other. He forced himself to set a reasonable pace as he entered the manor, affecting a nonchalance he most definitely did not feel as he followed the rest of the Death Eaters into the dining hall where the Dark Lord was waiting to vent his wrath at having lost Potter once again.
Several hours later, Severus escaped to his quarters. The pendant was still warm, reminding him-as though he could forget-that he had yet to read the message it contained. He pushed open the door to his sitting room, too edgy even to feel gratitude that he had not been blamed for the failure to apprehend Potter, and threw himself into one of the chairs before the hearth. With fumbling fingers, he unbuttoned his coat and withdrew the necklace. It took two attempts to actually touch his wand to the pendant's face, his hands were trembling so badly.
Are you alive? her message read.
Severus blinked and exhaled the breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
"Yes," he said, the word coming out as a croak he was just as glad she couldn't hear. He waited a beat, then added, heart pounding painfully, "Are you well? Did I-I didn't-"
He stopped talking, choked by his own horror at the thought that his idiocy might have harmed her. He was too deeply involved to extricate himself now, but he could not help thinking of Dumbledore's warning about allowing himself to get close to Hermione-or anyone, for that matter-and feel the utter folly of allowing himself to get involved with her in any way beyond the academic.
He might have killed her. Severus let his head fall forward into his hands, fingers twisting in his hair. Or if not her, someone else-someone fighting against the Dark Lord might have been accidentally killed by his wand. He shuddered, horrified by the memory of how his Shields had seemed to dissolve the moment he thought she might be in danger; even more horrified by his own rash response.
It was only a minute or two before she responded, but it seemed like an age. I'm okay, she sent, and then there was a pause in which Severus tried to get his mind working again, to force his lips to part and say something, anything-
But she beat him to it. Thank God you're all right, she said. I was so scared that I'd-I mean, I might have, or someone else might have. . . Oh, thank God. I was so terrified. I can't seem to. . . I'm shaking, I-the last few hours have been awful, not knowing if-
Severus stared, bemused, at the words blooming across the little notebook's pages. He felt his heart rate slow, vaguely conscious of the rush of pleasure that accompanied her words. Thank God you're all right. He could almost hear her speak them, the way they'd tumble from her mouth; he knew without being able to see her just how her mad hair would look after her flight; knew how her small hands with their bitten-down nails would be clutching at her wand; and knew that on her face would be the familiar expression of mingled apprehension and determination, her jaw set, her dark brows furrowed, a question in her eyes. He knew what it felt like, however chastely, to kiss her. Severus shuddered, though the room was warm.
He knew her, in a way he realized now he'd never known Lily. The thought should have hurt; instead, it merely frightened him with its implications.
"I am-I am grateful that you are unharmed," he said then, realizing that if he did not interrupt her babbling she might go on for some time. He paused. "There was. . . an accident. Who did I. . . Who was injured?"
George, came her immediate reply. He lost his ear.
Severus was grateful that he'd had no appetite for dinner, for he'd have lost anything left in his stomach. "Is he-"
He'll be okay.
"Thank Merlin for small mercies," he muttered.
What happened? I could hardly believe it when Professor Lupin told us-
"It was an accident," Severus repeated, unwilling to say more. His face burned, and he was acutely conscious, now that the agonizing wait to learn whether she was well or not was over, that this method of communication could lull him too easily into betraying himself in more ways than one.
This time the pause before she responded was longer, long enough to fill him with fear that she might think he'd purposely-
I don't have a lot of time, she sent. I'm in the loo, they'll think something's seriously wrong if I don't come out soon. I don't know-I'm not sure when we're going to be leaving on the task we've been set, or where we'll go-
"Don't tell me!" he snapped. "You mustn't commit anything to parchment."
Another pause, and he could almost picture her injured expression when she responded, As if I'd be that thick.
Severus snorted. "Indeed," he said, deliberately noncommittal, knowing how that would irritate her. A small smile played about his mouth for the briefest of moments.
I've got to go, she said. Stay safe. I'm so glad you're safe.
He ought to reciprocate, Severus knew, but staring at her words all he could manage was a slightly strangled, "Thank you," and though the words sounded inadequate, even stupid to his ears, he meant them. A profound sense of gratitude was blooming in his chest, warming him, spreading gently out over his entire body. His limbs felt molten. It was an odd thing, so be so utterly undone by her show of concern-pathetic, really, but Severus found that at the moment he didn't particularly care.
. . . . .
Several days later, Severus was interrupted in the act of packing his few belongings by a quiet rap on his sitting room door. He crossed the room and opened the door to find Lucius leaning against the doorframe in a sort of parody of his former, perpetually languid body language. Now the sooty circles beneath his eyes, the slight tremor to his hands, the unshaven patches on his jaw that he had clearly missed that morning, all belied his relaxed pose.
Azkaban had not been kind to Lucius; he'd looked like hell when he was sprung, thin and haunted in a way that made Severus shiver. His own time at the prison was something he rarely allowed himself to remember, the bleakest, most horrendous time of his life. The months since he'd gotten free of the place hadn't improved Lucius' appearance much; his clothes were finer, but though his eyes were not empty, they were filled with a constant fear. The horror of having his every happiness sapped by constant contact with the Dementors had been replaced by the strain of living with the Dark Lord's constant scrutiny and disapprobation. It was little wonder the man appeared shattered.
Wordlessly, Severus stepped back, motioning Lucius into the room, and closed the door. "I've only a few minutes, I'm afraid."
"Ah, yes." Lucius clasped his hands behind his back and took a few steps about the room, pausing before an ornate vase, which he studied with an odd intensity, given that the vase was, in fact, his-had probably, in fact, been in his family for generations. "You're leaving us."
Lucius turned slowly, glancing at Severus with an air of appraisal. "I am sure you are eager to begin the process of implementing the Dark Lord's plans for educational reform."
"Indeed," Severus said, carefully not displaying any of the unease he felt at this line of questioning. "There is much to be done before September. I imagine my. . . erstwhile colleagues will not be easily persuaded of the wisdom of the new curriculum." He forced a sneer, though the thought of facing those colleagues had kept him from sleep for the past two nights, his stomach heavy with dread.
"Mmm. Yes. I don't envy you that scene." Lucius trailed one hand idly over the back of one of the armchairs, then stilled. He seemed to be weighing something in his mind, and Severus raised his eyebrows, waiting.
"Draco will not be returning to school." Lucius' voice was pitched low, as though the walls of Malfoy Manor themselves might be listening.
"I see." Severus folded his arms and considered the other man. He had never particularly liked Lucius, not even at school, but. . . "As the newly-appointed headmaster, I must object to the notion of such a promising young man throwing away his last year of schooling."
Again, that calculating look. They gazed at each other in silence for a long moment, and then something appeared to break inside Lucius, and he visibly slumped, folding in on himself.
"It was not my decision," he said.
Severus nodded slowly, feeling as though he were about to leap off a precipice. "I thought as much," he replied, and though his tone was neutral, the older man could not possibly miss the implied criticism of the Dark Lord.
Lucius' expression flooded briefly with relief. "And so I find I must ask. . . a favor. I believe. . . I should like. . . for Draco to finish his education."
Severus raised one eyebrow; Lucius made an impatient noise.
"Yes, well, and the Dark Lord prefers to keep him. . . here."
Slowly, Severus nodded. "What is the favor?" he asked, though he already knew.
"I-" Lucius licked his lips, looking visibly nervous, and Severus tightened his arms, gripping his own elbows, for before Azkaban Lucius would never have displayed his emotions so clearly. "It has become apparent that the Dark Lord has no further use for me," Lucius continued after a moment. He resumed trailing his fingers along the back of the chair. "Short of delivering Potter to him myself and ensuring he's successful in killing the boy, I cannot imagine I will survive this war. Nor, I'm afraid, will my family. I fear. . . I fear that the Dark Lord prefers to keep Draco nearby to further punish me."
Severus had to say it. "Surely being close to our Lord is not a punishment, but an honor."
Lucius' lips turned up in a nasty smile. "Of course." He paused. "It was Draco who had the honor of torturing Olivander after my wand failed to defeat Potter."
Severus hadn't known this, though it explained the recent tightness to the younger Malfoy's expression. "The sins of the father," he muttered.
Lucius cocked an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"
Severus closed his lips quickly over his automatic response- "Muggle thing,"-and shook his head. "Nothing," he said instead. "I-I regret the pain that must have cost Draco. And you, and Narcissa. I know Olivander has long been intimate with your family."
Lucius shrugged. "Well. There is intimacy, and there is being kept in a dungeon for weeks at a time. I suspect the torture has merely. . . hastened the end of our already tenuous friendship."
Severus choked on a laugh, and after a minute, even Lucius' mouth turned up in the faintest of amused smiles, though it quickly vanished.
"I would. . . count it as a very great favor, if you would speak to the Dark Lord on Draco's behalf," he said.
Severus turned away, thinking rapidly. Everything Lucius was saying was undeniably true, and it was very likely that the order that Draco remain at home was as much an indication that the boy-like the rest of his family-had outlived his usefulness in the Dark Lord's mind. Lucius' failing with the prophecy, Draco's failing to kill Dumbledore. . . Severus' lips thinned. He ought to stay out of it. Putting forth yet another request on Draco's behalf would only serve to undermine his own position as an unquestioningly loyal follower. He could practically see the fury in Albus' blue eyes.
When he turned around, Lucius was watching him, expressions of hopelessness and distaste warring on his face. Lucius was not accustomed to playing the part of the supplicant, and while it must be injurious enough to his pride to do so before the Dark Lord, before Severus it would be significantly more mortifying.
And yet-"Narcissa and I are already. . . very much in your debt, where Draco is concerned," he said, his voice raspy as though it physically pained him to speak the words. "But I must ask. . . I haven't a wand any longer; I cannot hope to defend my family. Draco, at least, can be made safe. I am entirely-entirely at our Lord's mercy." He swallowed thickly, face averted. "And you know he is not the merciful sort."
"Merlin damn it all to hell," Severus muttered. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, where a headache was beginning to pound, then looked back at Lucius. The man's impotence was painful to see.
"Very well," he said. "I'll speak to him. But I can make no promises, you understand?"
"Yes," Lucius said. He stood a little straighter. "This is-"
Severus cut him off. "You also need to understand that Hogwarts will not be the same as it once was. The Carrows are taking over two classes. Draco's Mark and blood status will afford him significant protection among some of the students and staff, but I expect resistance from others. And while discipline will be. . . harsh, in accordance with our Lord's wishes, I cannot guarantee that Draco will not be challenged."
"I understand," Lucius said. He shook his head and a strand of blond hair, escaped from the neat queue tied at the nape of his neck, drifted across his eyes. "It does not-that is, I believe he has. . ." He paused. "Thank you," he said.
"Don't," Severus said. He felt as though he might be ill. "And now, I really must resume my packing and take my leave of our Lord."
Hermione hovered at the fringes of Bill and Fleur's wedding reception, watching the other dancers and trying to catch her breath. Ron had whirled her around the dance floor like a man possessed, his arm clamped possessively around her waist until she finally begged off, unable to hold back her laughter when he trod on her toes for the fourth time. Ron had grinned good-naturedly and disappeared to get them both drinks.
The day had been perfect, Hermione thought wistfully, her eyes lighting on the newlyweds where they swayed close together-his hands at her nape and hip, hers twined about his neck, heads bent close together in whispered conference, mouths curled into soft smiles. Hermione's throat clogged, and she looked away.
The wedding had been beautiful, and for the most part the celebration afterwards was thoroughly joyful, but for the watchful look about some of the guests. Hermione's gaze flickered over various Order members, all of whom were keeping their wands a little too close at hand for a party. From across the dance floor, she noticed Viktor eyeing her with a faint smile on his face. Hermione smiled back, feeling once again the pleasure of being on the receiving end of a man's obvious admiration, though the pleasure was marred by a vague sense of guilt as she found herself wishing it was a different dark-haired man gazing at her so admiringly. Her smile faded almost immediately, however, as Viktor's expression darkened, his gaze flickering toward the dance floor, where Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood were moving together to a rhythm that seemed to be entirely their own-it certainly had nothing to do with the music that was currently playing. A few minutes earlier, she had been watched over Ron's shoulder as Viktor and Mr. Lovegood held some sort of argument, Viktor pointing at the older man's chest.
The sense that something was going to go wrong grew stronger. She understood why the Weasleys wanted their oldest son to have a real wedding; in some ways, it was almost a form of resistance, sticking two fingers up at Voldemort and the Death Eaters and the pervasive fear that covered Wizarding Britain like smog. And yet, Hermione couldn't help feeling that the wedding had been a terrible idea, far too risky. No matter the number of wards they'd put up around the Burrow. She clutched her handbag more tightly, twisting the strings around her fingers.
Despite Mrs. Weasley's best efforts to keep them all too busy to even think about leaving, Hermione had managed to implement a sort of rough plan. Inside her beaded handbag, she'd stashed Harry's Invisibility Cloak, the books on Horcruxes she'd nicked before they left Hogwarts-and really, Dumbledore must have wanted Harry to have them, or he'd have made it impossible to obtain them so easily-and a few items of clothing for herself as well as those she'd nabbed from the boys' clean laundry piles, which they'd left teetering at the ends of their beds where Mrs. Weasley had dumped them nearly a week earlier. Ron's bedroom was so orange with Chudley Cannons memorabilia that it fairly glowed. Hermione had to smile-it was so very Ron-though she couldn't help comparing his room to what she'd seen of Severus', with its appealing mix of dusty bookshelves and armchairs just made for curling up in. Ron's room had nothing to read except a single tattered Quidditch magazine. She'd sighed inwardly-what did he do in there, anyway?
She'd also managed to concoct a plan that even she had to concede, when Ron said it, was rather mad-but mad or not, it was the best she could come up with, which wasn't particularly comforting, but she was a bit too stressed to truly care-and made up the Weasley family ghoul to look like Ron might if he had a severe case of Spattergoit. Luckily, ghouls already smelled foul enough to be convincing on that score. She'd asked Mr. Weasley if he might let her borrow the tent for awhile, and he had looked at her steadily for a moment before saying, "Of course," and showing her where it was kept in the shed. Mrs. Weasley refused to acknowledge that the three of them had no intention of returning to Hogwarts in September, but it seemed her husband had accepted their decision.
She looked up to see the elder Weasleys dancing past her with a certain stiffness to their movements and wariness to their expressions. Hermione crossed her arms over her chest and shivered. At least the Minister had buggered off after Harry's party, she thought; she had briefly worried he might come to the wedding. He'd given the impression of being so slick she was surprised his hand didn't leave an oily residue behind when she shook it. She'd had little time to puzzle over Dumbledore's cryptic bequests, but the question of why he'd give her a book of bedtime stories buzzed like a gnat at the back of her mind.
A memory floated to the forefront of her thoughts: Sitting with Severus in his office reading a different children's book, and she shivered, though the evening was warm. Everything seemed to come back to Severus. She shook her head to clear it, glanced around, and spotted Harry in his Polyjuiced form sitting at one of the tables and staring rather blankly into space. She made her way over to him, edging between clusters of people, and pulled out a chair, realizing suddenly just how badly her feet hurt. Stupid high heels. She eased them off, rubbing her feet where the shoes had pinched.
"I simply can't dance anymore," she said, leaning over slightly to catch Harry's attention. He gave her a startled glance, and she smiled. "Ron's gone looking to find more butterbeers. It's a bit odd, I've just seen Viktor storming away from Luna's father, it looked like they'd been arguing-" She stopped talking, realizing that Harry wasn't even listening, his eyes still fixed on nothing in particular. "Harry," she said, lowering her voice, "are you okay?" ++
Harry pursed his lips, but before he could respond, a blur of light distracted them both. Hermione whirled to keep it in her sight. It was a patronus, a lynx, and her heart began hammering even before Kingsley's distinctive, bass voice boomed out over the assembled merrymakers.
"The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming." ++
There was utter silence for just a moment, before the guests were seized by terror. Both Hermione and Harry were on their feet immediately, and stood their ground in the ensuing pandemonium, stumbling only when panicked guests, rushing in every direction to get out from under the tent and away from the Burrow, bumped into her from all sides, some in the process of Disapparating. The wards around the Burrow were gone, then. This is it, she thought, quite stupidly. This is it, this is it, this is-
Stop it! she ordered herself. Just stop. They had to get out of there. She had to get Harry away. Ron-where was Ron-
"Ron!" she screamed, standing on her toes. "Ron, where are you?" ++
She felt Harry grab her hand, lacing their fingers together, and she held on to him tightly. "Ron," she gasped into his ear, "where-"
As though her words had Summoned him, Ron was suddenly at her side, his wand in one hand, the other hand gripping her upper arm. Somewhere they won't find us, Hermione thought desperately, as spells flew above their heads. She screwed her eyes shut and thought of London; someone knocked into them; several people screamed. Go! she thought, and turned on the spot.
Once they arrived at Tottenham Court Road, Hermione found herself acting mostly on instinct. Get Harry safe, get all of us safe, stay away from Wizarding centers, find a way to alert the Order when we're settled somewhere, she chanted to herself. She had far too much adrenaline rushing through her body to spare much amusement for the boys' dumbfounded expressions when she starting yanking their clothing and Harry's Cloak out of her handbag. She hadn't much experience being in London at night, and under the circumstances, the crowds were overwhelming, particularly the lewd suggestions called out to her from across the street by a group of drunken men. Out of desperation-and to stop Ron doing something idiotic-she pulled him into a 24-hour cafe, holding the door just a tad longer than necessary to ensure Harry was able to follow discreetly.
She still felt dreadfully twitchy and exposed once they'd sat down, particularly with her back to the door. After ordering drinks for herself and Ron-and, predictably enough, getting into an argument with him about why they couldn't seek news in Diagon Alley-she had to stop the anxious bobbing of her foot, and when another pair of customers entered the cafe-two large workmen who seemed oddly menacing-it was all she could do not to pull out her wand and cast protective charms around herself and the boys.
"I say we find a quiet place to Disapparate and head for the countryside," she said finally. "Once we're there, we could send a message to the Order." After a minute, Ron agreed, and, wishing badly that she could whip out her wand and use a Summoning charm so as to get them out of the cafe all the faster, she began digging around in her bag for some Muggle coins to pay for the truly terribly cappuccinos they'd been served. Something felt wrong, the hairs at the nape of her neck prickling. ++
Seconds later, she found herself slammed into the side of the booth by Ron's body. The wall behind them exploded and she heard Harry shout, "Stupefy!" from his place across the table. ++
The next several moments were a blur of shouted spells and shattered furniture; one of the Death Eaters-for they must be Death Eaters-falling victim to Harry's stunner, Ron's body bound by the other Death Eater's Incarcerous. Their table was blown up by one of the large mens' spells; Hermione just had time to roll under one of the benches, flying bits of metal hitting her shoulder blades. She watched, horrified, as Harry was thrown against the wall, the Cloak slithering, seemingly in slow motion, to the floor. She pointed her wand at the remaining Death Eater, screamed "Petrificus Totalus!" at the top of her voice, and then crawled, shaking badly, out from under the bench. ++
She tried to cut Ron free of his bindings, and managed to slash up his knee instead. She was nearly in tears, her entire body shaking and her breath coming in desperate gasps, when she managed to unbind him on the second try. "I'm so sorry," she said, and the words repeated in her head, over and over. She stared at the two Death Eaters; the one she'd Petrified was unfamiliar to her, but looking at the other, an enormous blond man with a deeply lined face, made her shake all the harder. Her hand found the ridge of her scar and covered it protectively, her nails digging into the skin of her chest when Ron suggested killing the men currently unconscious before them. ++
"We just need to wipe their memories," Harry said, and she nearly sagged with relief. Even knowing who-and what-they were, she couldn't-she just couldn't kill them like this, cold and calculating, without even the comforting veneer of self-defense to allow her to pretend it wasn't murder she'd committed. ++
"You're the boss," Ron said, and Hermione closed her eyes, briefly, relieved to hear the relief in his voice. "But I've never done a Memory Charm." ++
She stepped forward. "Nor have I," she said, "but I know the theory." It had to be less complicated than what she'd done to her parents, after all. She raised her wand, her hand already growing steadier, and pointed it directly at the blond Death Eater's face. "Obliviate," she said, and felt a mean sort of satisfaction, watching his eyes grow blank. ++
Severus stood at the gates of Hogwarts and looked up at the silhouette of the castle high above him. For only the third time since he'd come to the school as a scrawny eleven year-old, Severus found the sight terrifying. The first time was when he returned to Hogwarts, knowing there was no safety for him there, the year after Black's attempt on his life; the second was when he went to Dumbledore to beg for Lily's life. And now. . . Severus' hand shook as he raised it, fingertips brushing the gates' scrolling ironwork. One side of the gate swung open at his touch.
Inside, there was no welcoming committee, though Severus had sent word of his impending arrival to Minerva by owl. Not that the lack of welcome was a surprise, and Severus was really just grateful not to have been greeted with jinxes. He made his way through silent corridors, only just stopping himself from heading toward one of the many staircases leading to the dungeons and his old quarters. Instead, he turned left, and soon found himself standing before the stone gargoyle guarding the entrance to the Head's office. For an instant, he felt panic, realizing he had no idea what the password was; and then the gargoyle moved aside of its own accord.
Of course. He was Headmaster, now.
The office, but for Fawkes' empty perch, was just as Albus must have left it, the eerie quiet broken only by the whirrings and clickings of the delicate instruments strewn across the enormous desk. Even the portraits were silent; not pretending to sleep, but still and watchful, many pairs of painted eyes fixed with unnerving intensity on Severus. He forced himself to look each of them in the face without flinching.
Until he arrived at Dumbledore.
The old man's portrait was extraordinarily lifelike, and, seeing it for the second time since killing its subject, Severus found it difficult to breathe under the pressure of those bright eyes. Albus' portrait regarded him steadily for a moment that felt like a lifetime, Severus' heart thumping painfully in his chest. And then Albus said, "Well done, my boy," his mouth curving into a small, satisfied smile.
Severus continued to stare at him for a minute longer, his heart rate slowing. He felt curiously. . . empty. How many atrocities had he witnessed-been part of-on Dumbledore's orders? How many potions had he brewed for the Order's use, under narrow time constraints and the pressure of having others' lives in his hands, all the while continuing to toil at a job he loathed? And now-how many tasks were there still to complete? There was the school to run, keeping the students safe, if at all possible, while making them, his colleagues, the entirety of Wizarding Britain believe he was a true Death Eater. There was the Dark Lord to kill, and Potter to send to his death.
For how many years had he been longing to hear those very words? Decades, really-and he found that now, it didn't matter. Even a year ago, it would have. But Severus found, standing in this office where he'd awaited Albus' approbation so many times before, that he was too tired to care.
He turned his head, pointedly ignoring Dumbledore's words. "Good evening to you all," he said, and ducked up the side staircase that led to the Headmaster's quarters. Inside, he took in the sitting room's garish ornamentation, feeling as though he were trapped in a nightmare. His knees felt abruptly weak, and he collapsed onto the settee and covered his eyes with a shaking hand.
Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow, for the sake of his own sanity as much as for appearances, he would rid these rooms of all evidence that they had once been Dumbledore's. Tomorrow, he would summon his staff and inform them of the changes the new term would bring. Tomorrow. . .
But tonight-wordlessly, Severus Summoned a bottle of Elf-made wine from the large wine rack in the corner of the room. Tonight, he was going to get pissed, and sleep the insensible sleep of the dead drunk.
Harry and Ron both snored, loudly. Despite her exhaustion, Hermione was finding it impossible to sleep, replaying all their near-misses over and over again in her mind. The disorienting crowds of Tottenham Court Road; the Death Eaters in the cafe. (How, how did they find us? she thought, over and over, but could come up with no answers). And then, here at Grimmauld Place, the shade of Dumbledore that Moody had left, the fleeting sensation of choking on their own tongues-the realization that this was what Severus had hoped to spare her, when they met here earlier in the summer, by telling her to enter through the kitchen door. Harry's fit in the bathroom, and her guilt afterward for berating him for not closing his mind, when she knew he couldn't; despite what Severus said, she still felt as though Harry's failure was at least partly her fault.
Swallowing hard, Hermione stared up at the ceiling. Above her, in the darkness, she could just make out an ornate plaster medallion surrounding the chain to a dusty chandelier, which, like seemingly everything else in the rotten old house, looked in danger of crumbling away. She trailed her fingertips across her collarbones until they found the flat coolness of her pendant. "Severus," she whispered without thinking, and then stiffened, holding herself entirely still until she was certain neither of the boys had woken.
She let out a small breath and enclosed the pendant in her fist. God, she wished he was here. Wished she could talk to him, really talk. She missed him. Severus. It should have seemed odd, thinking of him so informally after years of knowing him as Professor Snape but it wasn't, somehow.
Ron let out a particularly loud snore, and rolled over in his sleep. Hermione looked at him, thinking of his astonishment after they escaped from the Burrow, when she'd produced clothes for the two of them to change into; thinking of the way he'd tossed the sofa's cushions on the floor and announced that was where she was sleeping, end of discussion. A fond smile crept over her face.
Then he snored again and she sighed, restless, and eased herself to her feet, careful not to wake him and Harry.
The house felt just as creepy as it had the last time she was there. This time, at least, she knew for certain she wasn't alone, even if her companions did happen to be unconscious, though she felt lonely for Crookshanks, and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling warm tears trickle down her cheeks, hoping he didn't think she'd abandoned him.
The stairs and floors creaked rather alarmingly as she wandered, and dust got up her nose as she went in-and-out of the neglected bedrooms, but as Hermione was steering well clear of Mrs. Black's portrait, at least no irate screeching rent the silence. Chafing her arms to ward off chill, Hermione willed her mind to focus.
One problem at a time, she thought. Foremost in her thoughts was Harry's connection to Voldemort, but as she'd already tried to do something about that and failed spectacularly, she decided to shelve that worry for the time being in favor of others to which she might actually be able to find solutions.
The fake Horcrux. . . On the one hand, it was rather heartening to know that, at least at some point, there had been another person who knew Voldemort's secret to-apparent-immortality, and who was actively working against it; on the other, it was beyond frustrating that she hadn't been able to figure out who the person was, whether he or she was still alive, or most importantly, whether the real Horcrux had ever been destroyed. Hermione rubbed her temples and sighed, then gingerly pushed open the nearest door, flinching when its hinges let out a dreadful groaning noise.
Wand-tip lit, she stepped into the room and immediately recognized it as the bedroom in which Harry and Ron used to stay. The bedclothes smelled musty and the curtains were drawn so that the only light came from Hermione's wand. She was about to step out again after a cursory glance around when a slight movement caught her eye; she whirled, wand extended, and blinked when she realized the movement had come from a portrait hanging beside one of the beds. She stepped closer, curious, her wand's light illuminating the painted form of a rather sour-looking man in robes that were old-fashioned even by wizarding standards. She leaned forward, trying to make out the name on the plaque attached to the frame.
"Phineas Nigellus. . ." Hermione murmured, then jumped when the portrait cleared his throat. She glanced up to meet narrowed, painted eyes.
"Do you make a habit of poking your nose into others' private space without so much as a greeting?"
"Oh!" she said, and flushed. "I beg your pardon. I was just-you're-you used to be Headmaster at Hogwarts, didn't you?"
The portrait regarded her icily. "And who are you?" Then, before she could answer, his eyes widened a fraction and he began sputtering out something that sounded like, "Great Merlin-brazen chit who-with the Headmaster-!"
Hermione stared at him. "What are you-sir? My name's Hermione Granger-"
At that, Nigellus stopped speaking and peered at her more closely. "Granger," he said, tapping his mouth with one finger. "Granger. The name is familiar."
"My friend Harry is-was-godson to your nephew, Sirius," Hermione said. "He owns this house now. Harry, that is. Not Sirius. Sirius is-"
Stop talking, she ordered herself, and promptly closed her mouth.
Nigellus raised an eyebrow, looking thoughtful. "No," he said slowly. "That is not. . ." He tapped his mouth again, and then his other eyebrow shot up to join its mate at his hairline. "Might you be the Mudblood Snape goaded Dumbledore into inviting into his overblown coalition of Gryffindors?"
Hermione stiffened. "The Order of the Phoenix, you mean?" she asked coldly. "Yes, I suppose I am 'that Mudblood.' Though I prefer the term 'Muggle-born.' Or just 'witch.'"
"And I prefer not to have insolent witches disturbing me in the middle of the night," Nigellus retorted. He took out an embroidered handkerchief and touched it pointedly it to his nose, as though holding off a distasteful smell. "And I do hope you appreciate what he did for you, sticking his neck out like that for a student who is not even in his House."
Thoroughly bemused, Hermione said, "What who-you mean Sever-um-Professor Snape?"
"Sev-" The portrait stared at her for several seconds, his expression one of mingled outrage and astonishment. Then a calculating look stole over his features. "Such intimacy of address. Well, he did fear you would be a distraction, though even notwithstanding your unfortunate ancestry, I must say I cannot see the allure."
Hermione glared at him to cover her confusion. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, but you've insulted me at least twice in the last minute-and-a-half. Good-night."
She turned to go, but Nigellus' next words halted her before she'd taken more than a half-dozen steps.
"I quite remember, now," he said. Hermione turned slowly to face him, and was met with his sour expression. "He got you into Dumbledore's little club, and then you came to his defense at one of those interminable meetings-" It took Hermione a moment to translate that, and then she remembered the Order meeting, months earlier, when she'd tried to convince Dumbledore to charm all their pendants- "and then the both of you arrive in the Noble House of Black and engage in highly irregular behavior-"
She flushed hotly; Nigellus must have had a habit of making his way into one of several paintings in Grimmauld Place's kitchen.
"Not to mention," the portrait continued, his voice going high and reedy with indignation, "the disgrace of a Mudblood student speaking of the Headmaster of Hogwarts in such familiar terms!"
Hermione felt her expression darken further, though it changed to one of surprise, and then chagrin, when Nigellus added, "Your familiarity, however, leads me to believe you mightn't be entirely hostile towards Snape." He clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing the length of his frame, casting glances at her every couple of steps. "Your tender display might, I dare say, mean you actually have a care for his safety."
Shit. Hermione looked at him, her mind racing. Nigellus was a Slytherin, so he might have reason to be on Severus' side, although his 'Mudblood' comments were worrisome, as they might indicate a sympathy for the Death Eaters' rhetoric. But as a former Headmaster himself, Black must have a portrait in the Head's office as well, and from what she understood from Hogwarts, a History portraits of former Heads were bound to give counsel and keep the secrets of the witch or wizard currently holding the office, regardless of their own opinions.
She pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly, trying to read Nigellus' expression. He gazed back at her with an impassivity that reminded her of Severus; for some reason, that in and of itself was enough to make her choose honesty.
"Yes," she said. "I do."
His expression was an odd cross between revulsion and satisfaction. "Utterly inappropriate," he muttered, but his tone was one of grudging approval.
"What did you mean 'he' thought I might be a distraction?" Hermione asked quickly. "'He,' who?"
"Dumbledore," Nigellus said, lips twisted into a sneer.
She frowned. "A distraction to whom, though?"
At that, the portrait smiled nastily. "Why, Severus, of course," he said, adding, "He has always had execrable taste in women." He gave her a narrow-eyed look, which Hermione returned to the best of her ability; and then he muttered, "Nosy little trollop," and pointedly turned his back on her.
Back in the hallway, Hermione nearly smacked straight into Ron.
"What're you doing?" he hissed.
"I couldn't sleep." Hermione shivered. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't," he muttered, and rubbed the back of his neck. "But something did-probably that bloody Elf sneaking around-and you were gone, and I. . ." He trailed off, shrugging awkwardly.
"That's sweet," she whispered, and smiled.
It was hard to tell with only their wands' light to see by, but she was fairly certain Ron blushed. "Well, I'm still tired," he said, and after a second's hesitation, reached out to grab her hand. His own was big and warm, and Hermione didn't resist as he led her back to the drawing room, skirting Harry where he still slept curled up on his side. Ron lay down again on the floor, and Hermione lay upon her cushions, and she didn't pull away when he fell asleep almost immediately, failing to relinquish her hand.
She lay awake for a long time, trying and failing to ignore Phineas Nigellus' voice in her head, saying over and over again that Dumbledore feared she had the power to distract Severus Snape.
Hermione felt like a prat the next morning when Harry announced he'd discovered the identity of R.A.B. Of course it was Sirius' brother, they'd known he was a Death Eater who turned. . .
She hadn't known, however, the depths of the affection Kreacher felt for his one-time master until she watched him break down under their questions, his usual surly demeanor dissolving into pitiful wails that were difficult to witness. Once Harry finally calmed him down a bit and sent him off after Mundungus Fletcher-the sneak, stealing from Harry's house!-Hermione, Ron, and Harry sat looking at each other for several seconds without speaking.
"Well," Harry said finally. "That was intense."
"Mad, is what that was," Ron said, shaking his head. "And by 'that,' I mean that barmy Elf."
Hermione, who had been staring at the place where Kreacher disappeared, recalling the way he'd recoiled from her touch as though she were dirty; the thwack of his forehead against the kitchen floor as he punished himself; his pathetic sobs as he recounted his horrifying tale, whipped her head around to glare at Ron. She was tired and irritable and overwhelmed by the realization that they'd had access to the real locket all the time they'd been at the Black house during that awful summer before Fifth Year, and that now it was gone, and she had no patience to deal with Ron if he was going to act like a. . . like a racist pig.
"I can't stand you when you get like that," she muttered, shoving away from the table. Both Ron and Harry looked up at her blankly as she snatched up her bag and headed for the door. "I'm going to try to do something productive," she shot over her shoulder, and headed for the library to look over the Horcrux books. When Kreacher returned with Mundungus and the locket, someone ought to have an idea how to destroy the wretched thing.
Severus' staff arrived in his office just after breakfast, just as he'd ordered. Meals between terms were informal affairs, for which he was grateful; he'd been able to take his food in his quarters, neatly avoiding the absurdity of having to face them all over eggs and kippers. A craven part of him longed to avoid facing them at all, longed to remain in his tower and let them wonder what he was playing at. But there were administrative matters to attend to, revised syllabi to distribute, formal introductions to be made. He wondered just what his former colleagues had made, thus far, of the Carrows-mincemeat, he hoped.
Later meetings would be held in the staff room, but for this first gathering Severus was determined to make a formidable impression, ensconced behind the Headmaster's desk and surrounded by the changes he'd made to prove that the office was truly his, now. Gone were Dumbledore's silly little toys and Fawkes' perch, banished to some storage closet in the bowels of the castle. The desk was bare of all ornamentation except a Foe Glass and a particularly fine quill and ink stand, worked in silver. The room's shelves were filled with his books; the chairs' upholstery changed to a plush, muted grey; the elaborately woven rug from his old quarters had been brought up, and in the bright sunlight streaming through the office windows, it looked antique rather than shabby.
There was a grinding noise, stone-on-stone, from below, and Severus pulled his Shields firmly into place and straightened his shoulders, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves as the door handle turned.
Pomona entered first, followed closely by Rolanda and Filius. Hagrid came next, crouching to avoid hitting his head on the lintel, his face a stony mask. Then the Carrows, talking to one another in inappropriately loud tones; then Binns floated up through the floorboards. Poppy, Aurora, and Septima arrived and huddled together near the back, whispering, and then Minerva, bizarrely arm-in-arm with Sybil and looking straight at Severus as though attempting a wandless, nonverbal Avada Kedavra. Horace, Irma, and Argus arrived last, all three watching him warily, though Horace, at least, seemed intent upon taking in the changes Severus had made to the office since the night before.
Severus forced himself to look at each person in turn, his heart shrinking at the hatred in nearly every expression. He'd been reviled for most of his life, but this-
He set his jaw. "As most of you know, I have never been one for unnecessarily long meetings, so I will make this brief. This new term brings with it a bit of reordering. There have been changes made to the syllabi of all classes." A muttering rippled through the room-teachers generally wrote their own lesson plans, running any changes by the Headmaster or mistress-and he held up his hand for silence. "Most classes shall be only minimally affected, but others-such as Muggle Studies and Defense-have been overhauled. Your new syllabi are here," he said, indicating a stack of scrolls piled on the edge of his desk, "and I ask that you take them with you after the meeting is concluded and come to me with any questions or concerns before term commences.
"Additionally, two new members have joined our staff: Amycus Carrow, who will be taking over for me as teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and his sister Alecto, who will be filling the Muggle Studies position."
"What's happened to Charity?" Pomona asked, her chin raised defiantly.
Severus' mouth filled with the taste of something dry and spent. Ashes. "Professor Burbage deserted her post, leaving no indication of her destination or when she intended to return. She is derelict in her duty to the school, and therefore her whereabouts are not our concern." He gave her a withering look. "Is that understood?"
Pomona didn't respond, but crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared at the floor. Severus let the moment of silence stretch out, then nodded in the Carrows' direction.
"I expect you all to welcome our new staff members and help them as they learn the ins and outs of their new positions."
Under Dumbledore, such words would have given rise to a smattering of applause from the staff, or at least a murmuring of assent; even his own appointment as Potion's professor only a few years after he had graduated had merited a lukewarm welcome. Severus' speech, however, was met with stony silence.
"Very well," he said, sliding his eyes from one staff member to the next. "Lastly, while we are speaking of your new colleagues. . . I must address the subject of school discipline. I wish you to refer students to the Carrows regarding all matters disciplinary. They are. . . well acquainted with disciplinary techniques, as it were, and I believe their. . . expertise. . . will serve to keep the students in line during this time of change."
"You cannot be serious!"
The outburst came from Minerva. Ah. Of course. Striving to keep himself from feeling like a schoolboy who had disobeyed his teacher, Severus raised one eyebrow coolly.
"I am, indeed. What is your objection? I would have thought you relieved to have your workload lessened."
"You know very well what my objection is, Severus Snape! These-these-professors"-waving a hand furiously in the Carrows' direction- "are De-"
Someone-Rolanda, Severus suspected-gave Minerva a shove between her shoulder blades, startling the older witch into silence. Minerva pressed her lips together furiously, closed her eyes, and then continued in more measured tones, though the thickness of her accent betrayed her heightened emotions.
"You are rendering the rest of us impotent," she said carefully, "and, forgive me, but it seems as though you are creating unnecessary work. Not to mention, I find it unfair to allow Hogwarts' two newest staff members free rein over student punishments-"
"Now that," Severus said, glancing at the Carrows, "they shall not have. You shall refer student infractions to Amycus and Alecto, but I shall review each of their disciplinary decisions before they are carried out."
Alecto opened her mouth, almost certainly to protest, but Severus spoke quickly before she could get any words out.
"So you see, Minerva, it is my authority, my judgment, in which you must place your faith. And as for any additional labor created by this new system-it is not your labor, so you have no say in it. Have I made myself clear?"
There was a pause as the older witch stared at him, something flickering behind her eyes. Severus felt a flare of panic at the realization that he might have already given himself away-and then Minerva's expression reverted to one of fury and resentment, and he felt his heart, which had sped up alarmingly, begin beating normally again.
"Perfectly," she bit out, each syllable crisply enunciated.
"Very well. If there are no further questions. . .?"
No one spoke.
"Then you are all free to go. Do remember to take your syllabi."
They filed out in sullen silence, but for the Carrows who each flashed him a sidelong grin as they left. When the door had closed behind the last of the lot, Severus stood silently for a moment and then allowed his Shields to fall, dropping backwards into his chair and clenching his fingers to still their trembling.
"Impudent bunch, are they not?" came the snide tones of Headmaster Black from his frame.
"Quite," Severus muttered.
"I'd say you put them in their place," Black continued. "As well you ought; a Head cannot allow insubordination."
"Speaking of which. . ." The portrait's tone changed, and Severus turned his head to look at it. "I had quite the interesting tête-à-tête with Harry Potter's Mudblood friend."
Severus' heart seized in his chest. "Do not call her that," he snarled, scraping his fingers through his hair. He looked back at Black, who was gazing down upon him with a superior expression. "Interesting how? She is-she is at Grimmauld Place?"
"Hmmph. Yes. And she appears to be on quite familiar terms with you," the portrait sniffed. "Very concerned. Referring to you by your given name! And don't think I was not privy to that repulsive display at the house of my forebears-"
"What is he talking about, Severus?" Albus broke in from behind him. "I was under the impression that you had cut off contact with Miss Granger-"
Severus ground his teeth together and stood slowly. Concerned, he thought, trying to ignore the southward rush of blood caused by Black's words.
"Severus," Dumbledore said again, his tone brooking no refusal. "I must insist you explain-"
"Sod off, old man," Severus said, and left the office for his quarters.
A/N: I just wanted to thank everyone who has continued to review, and to apologize for not being as good about answering your reviews as I used to be. Please know that I truly appreciate them, and they are a huge motivator for me to keep writing (and to write as fast as real life will let me!) Also: Thank you to my beta, Ivy Amelia!
Also: Thank you to my beta, Ivy Amelia!