Miss Granger's last day at Malfoy Manor did not arrive soon enough, in Severus' opinion.
He had eaten little and slept even less while at his friend's home, completely ground down with the fear that Miss Granger might inadvertently trigger some hidden curse in the Manor meant only for Muggle-borns. And so when the morning of September 1 dawned bright and clear, and she made for London with the Malfoys, Severus felt the relief off his shoulders like a literal weight.
He apparated to Hogwarts immediately, hoping to spend the day in his own miserable solitude before the students arrived that evening. But as he stalked past Hagrid's cabin, he soon realized that hope had been in vain.
Gilderoy Lockhart emerged from the cabin, red cheeked and puffing like a pompous penguin.
Severus hurried up the hill.
" - get you an autograph at anytime, my dear Hagrid! You have but to ask! Oh, ho there - Severus?" Lockhart laughed loudly, turning his attention on him. "Severus Snape, I daresay it is you!" Lockhart sauntered over, clearly tipsy from drinking, and as Severus pressed on up the hill, he clapped his hand on Severus' back. "A pleasure to finally meet you, I'd say!"
Severus turned and slapped Lockhart's hand off him. "If you ever touch me again, Lockhart," Severus seethed, "I assure you it will be the last thing you do on this earth."
Lockhart had the audacity to grin like an idiot. "Not a touchy person?" He hiccuped. "Why, that's quite fine, of course. When I was in Burma - have you ever been? - and negotiating a peace treaty with the dwarves, I met this fellow," he paused, and his brow furrowed as he fought to remember, "by the name of Bork, if I recall - yes! Bork! That ginger beard! How could I forget?"
Severus cursed to himself and set off for the castle once more.
"You see, he didn't much like being touched either." Lockhart followed Severus happily up the trail, and it took every sheer ounce of willpower Severus possessed to not turn around and curse the idiot into oblivion.
" - Of course, that was after I wrestled that dragon in Peru. Can you believe it, good sir? A dragon!" he laughed loudly. "I have the photos, of course. I had been living in Machu Picchu for about two months when suddenly - "
Severus ignored him. His sanity depended on it. He feared if he listened to one more word from Lockhart's mouth, he'd either kill the idiot or himself.
Either would be a mercy, he mused, pressing forward.
As if running into Lockhart on his last day of freedom hadn't been torturous enough, as Severus swept through the courtyard and toward the main castle doors he suddenly recalled his meeting with Albus a few weeks earlier regarding the very man he was fleeing.
"Lockhart, Albus? Gilderoy Lockhart?" Severus had slammed the parchment bearing Lockhart's name down on the Headmaster's desk. "Is this some sort of perverted joke? Or are you purposefully punishing me?"
Albus had feigned that thrice-damned innocent look on his wrinkled face.
"I believe even you can appreciate his credentials, Severus. Have you ever read any of Lockhart's work?" The Headmaster had pulled out a copy of Magical Me from his desk and scanned for an entry. "It's quite impressive."
"He's a sham, Dumbledore! How is it that you, who professes to see all, are blind to that? He's afraid of his own damned shadow!"
Albus had folded the book and marked a page with his index finger. He looked up at Severus curiously. "I wasn't aware you and dear Gilderoy knew one another, Severus?"
Severus gritted his teeth. What he had wanted to do was stamp his foot like a lunatic in a tantrum and grab the old man by the robes to shake some sense in him. "I do not know him personally, Albus," he said slowly, "as you are obviously aware, but it's clear - "
" - If you have any evidence to prove the man should not be around children, is not qualified, or has any legal entanglements, then speak, Severus. If not, the decision has been made."
Severus had bit his lip to keep from shouting. Instead, he paced in front of the Headmaster's desk like a caged animal. "How is it," he managed after a moment, trying in vain to control his temper, "that you took no thought to even consider me?"
Albus put down Lockhart's book altogether and looked up at Severus with a sad smile on his face. "You know I have need of you elsewhere, Severus."
"In Potions? If you have need of me, put me as Defense professor! You know I am the most qualified!"
Albus had the audacity to actually smile. He pulled out a lemon drop from his candy jar, popping it into his mouth and sucking on it loudly. "You are the most skilled in Potions."
"Are you trying to flatter me?" Severus snarled. "It won't work, Albus." He paused then. Breathing loudly, he turned on the Headmaster and asked quietly, sincerely, "Why is it that you hate me, Albus?"
That seemed to take the old man by surprise, "Severus ... "
"No, Albus. Stop." Severus held up his hand. "If you are not going to say something besides the absolute truth, I will not have it. Don't you dare coddle me or whisper empty words of assurance to further your own plans, Dumbledore," he spat. "For hating Slytherin as much as you do, you damn-well fit the stereotype."
"Severus," Ablus said, a hint of warning in his voice.
"No," he shook his head. "Enough. I'm done here. I can see that reason cannot dissuade you."
And he had walked out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
"Bloody Dumbledore," Severus cursed to himself, now in the main castle entryway, even as he deftly side-stepped around Lockhart and made for the dungeons. "The classic fool."
Hermione was admittedly worried when the Hogwarts Express pulled away from Platform 9 3/4 and she hadn't seen any sign of Harry or Weasley. She searched through a few of the compartments, much to the annoyance of their inhabitants, until she stumbled upon Neville, Seamus Finnigan, and Dean Thomas.
"Hello," she said breathlessly. "Have any of you see Harry or Wea - er, Ron Weasley? I didn't see them out on the platform."
Dean and Seamus eyed her warily, but Neville responded happily, "No, Hermione. I didn't see them, at least. But they've got to be on the train, haven't they? Anyway, I saw a girl who had to be Ron's little sister with some of the other first years. Ginger hair. Looks just like him. I'm sure they're here."
Hermione perked up at that. "Really? Thanks, Neville!" She rushed forward and gave him a small squeeze on the shoulders. "I was starting to wonder if they had missed the train."
Neville blushed a bit and ducked his head. Seamus coughed awkwardly while Dean looked interestedly out the window.
"Er, well ... I guess I'll see you all at the feast tonight," Hermione said, suddenly mortified that she had made physical contact with a boy, and one she hardly knew at that.
"Er, yeah. Brilliant," said Neville, ducking his chin to his chest, equally embarrassed.
Hermione bit her lip and exited the compartment as quickly as she could.
The remainder of the ride to Hogwarts was both long and uneventful. Hermione sat in a compartment with Millie and Theo Nott, and they all shared exchanges of how their holidays were. Millie had gone with her parents to Norway. She said that her family had Viking ancestry (this didn't surprise Hermione), and they still had relatives in the country. She showed them photos of herself and her family waving by a beautifully breathtaking fjord. Millie's mom looked like she had been a rugby player, and her father was positively massive. She had an older brother who looked like three men had been smashed into one. Regardless of their awkward appearances, they were all smiling and happy.
Hermione knew less of Theo. He was quiet and shy, and not at all unlike Neville Longbottom. After a few hours on the train together, however, he spoke more and talked of his family. He had an older sister who married a high ranking Ministry official. Millie seemed to know the name, while Hermione did not. Theo's father apparently did some sort of work for Mr. Malfoy, or at the very least, associated with him; Hermione didn't care to press the matter. The less she thought of Mr. Malfoy and her experience with him at Malfoy Manor, the better.
"How was your summer, Hermione? Did your Muggles treat you all right?" Millie asked sincerely.
"Yes," said Hermione, fidgeting with a copy of The Daily Prophet. "It was fantastic to see them. They're doing really well. We didn't do any big trips or anything, but I spent the last two weeks of the holiday with Draco's family and - "
"You - what?" Millie gasped.
Even Theo looked up at her, surprised.
Hermione frowned. "What?"
Millie leaned forward. "You spent two weeks at Draco's house? Are you mad? Does anyone else know? Does Pansy know?"
Hermione swallowed. She hadn't thought of Pansy and the possible repercussions of spending time alone with her purported boyfriend over the holiday. "Er ... I don't know. I didn't think about it, actually. I forgot they were sort of ... a thing."
Theo snorted at that. "It's more than a thing, isn't it? I heard they're meant to be married as soon as we're of age."
Hermione folded the front page of The Prophet nervously. "Look, I didn't mean anything by it. Draco invited me. I don't ... " She blushed, and then said in a rush, "I don't like Draco ... like that. At all." She looked back and forth between the pair of them, pleading with her eyes for understanding. "Sometimes he drives me mad just as a friend."
"Opposites attract," Millie said in a knowing air, sitting back and picking at a thread in her robes. "You never know. Maybe Draco fancies you."
Hermione blushed again. "He doesn't," she said, quickly. "Trust me. I'm ... well," she paused, fumbling for the right words, "... well, look at me. He - there's no way he fancies me."
"He might," Theo said, looking at her intently.
"He doesn't," Hermione assured them. "And I certainly don't fancy him."
There was an awkward silence as the train rattled along.
"Well," said Millie at length, "regardless, if Pansy finds out - you're dead."
Hermione looked out the window, bleakly.
Hermione waited on the platform for Harry and Weasley, picking her way through the crowd of students as they poured off the Hogwarts Express. Strangely, she couldn't see either of them. She lingered as long as she dared, and then anxiously followed after her classmates to a row of carriages that were pulling themselves toward the castle.
As she approached the last of the carriages, she saw Weasley's older twin brothers laughing with a fourth year Gryffindor girl she didn't know. As they were about to climb into the carriage, she rushed over to them.
"Er ... Fred? George?" She looked back and forth between the two of them, having no clue which twin was which.
They both turned and looked down at her from the carriage. "Hey there, Granger, was it?" said one of the twins. "Rotten luck you got sorted into Slytherin last year. If you were in Gryffindor, we could have snuck you all kinds of stuff to get you out of class - "
"Careful, George," said Fred with a smirk. "Filch is just over there. We don't want our stash vanishing early this year."
The unknown girl laughed as she seated herself.
Hermione looked over her shoulder and saw the Squib yelling at a few older students from Hufflepuff. His limp, long hair hung around his face and his eyes were gleeful as he was likely threatening future possible detention punishments. She turned back to the Weasleys. "Er, have either of you seen your brother? Or Harry?" she asked, politely ignoring their Slytherin rebuff. "I never saw them on the train. Did they come to King's Cross with you?"
Fred - at least, Hermione thought it was Fred - laughed loudly. "Ron was right behind us before we crossed into Platform 9 3/4, and Harry, too. You don't think he's trying to steal our thunder and pull off a prank, do you George?" He asked, turning to his brother.
George seated himself next to the girl as the carriage started to move forward. "Not likely. Ol' Ronny's got a long way to go if he thinks he's up to our level yet."
"Later, Granger!" Fred called as the carriage pulled away, leaving Hermione standing alone.
She walked back to the last of the carriages, where Draco, Pansy, Victor Crabbe, and Gregory Goyle were settling in one of the few remaining.
"How do the carriages pull themselves?" Crabb was asking slowly.
"Magic, you halfwit," Draco grumbled.
Hermione walked past them as she made for the last carriage, where Millie and Theo were currently climbing in.
"Hey, Hermione!" Draco called, turning around and watching her climb in with her classmates. "There's room in ours. Come on."
Hermione laughed hollowly. With both Crabbe and Goyle's massive bodies occupying an entire bench, and the little room remaining being next to Pansy as she cuddled close to Draco, Hermione shook her head. "I don't think there's enough room, Draco," she called, pulling herself up. "Besides, it's only Millie and Theo here. It's more comfortable."
That, and I don't want Pansy to murder me while I sleep.
The carriage lurched forward. Draco was about to retort as they moved along ahead of them, but Pansy pulled him onto the bench and scooted close to his side, linking her arm with his.
"See," Millie said, as their carriage picked up speed. "He does fancy you."
Hermione massaged her temples in frustration. With both Harry and Weasley missing, and Millie's insistence that Draco was somehow pinning over her, her temper was running short.
"Millie, he doesn't. And even if he did, I do not fancy him, so there's no point in bringing it up."
Hermione frowned. "Why not, what?"
Millie leaned forward. "Why don't you, you know, fancy him? He's ... well, he's rather good-looking. And he's rich. His father is very powerful and works for the Ministry. His family is one of the oldest Pure-blood families in Wizarding Britain; what's not to like?"
Theo observed Hermione closely, clearly interested in what her answer might be.
Hermione looked back and forth between the two of them, keenly aware that she was becoming increasingly irritated.
"Plenty," she offered after a moment, pushing her hair out of her face and looking at the castle as they slowly approached. "Look, can we just drop it? I - I just want to get to the castle."
The carriage went over a series of large rocks and began to bump and sway irregularly. "Potter and Weasley weren't on the train," Theo said quietly.
Hermione turned to him. "What?"
Theo turned his head, even as a flush of red appeared on his pale cheeks, and he looked up at the castle spires, embarrassed. "I know you were looking for Potter and Weasley earlier. They weren't on the train. I don't think they'll be at the castle."
"How do you know they weren't on the train?"
Theo blushed. "Well, he's Harry Potter, isn't he? Everyone notices him. He wasn't there. And Weasley's always with him."
Hermione frowned and began chewing on her thumb nail. Theo did have a point. Harry, whether you liked him or not, was rather noticeable. He was, after all, probably the most famous wizard in Britain - let alone the known Wizarding world. Being the only person to have ever survived the killing curse tended to make one noticeable.
At length, they reached Hogwarts, and the students began to loudly spill out of the carriages, pushing and shoving and laughing as they crossed the courtyard toward the main entrance of the castle. Hermione climbed down after Theo and Millie, and the three of them set across the courtyard, picking their way along as they caught up with Draco, Pansy, Crabbe and Goyle.
"Slytherin will definitely beat Gryffindor in Quidditch this year," Goyle was saying.
"Obviously," Draco said haughtily. "I'll be on the team. And father's got a surprise for all our teammates."
"What is it?" Pansy asked, even as she hung on Draco's arm and looked up at him with sickening affection.
"You'll have to wait. I'm not supposed to talk about it yet."
"Look, I've got to check something," Hermione said to Millie and Theo and they moved along. "Save me a seat at the feast." She slung her daypack over her shoulder and sprinted off ahead.
Once inside, she darted over toward the Main Hall and stopped abruptly, searching frantically at the Gryffindor table. The only ginger-haired students she noticed were Weasley's twin brothers, and the eldest brother whom she did not know. Weasley himself and Harry were still missing. Hermione felt her heartbeat quicken. Could something have happened to them? You-Know-Who had tried to kill Harry only a few short months ago, and according to Professor Snape, he wasn't the only one who would try to hurt her friend if given the chance.
Anxiously, she glanced up at the Head Table and saw all of her professors milling about - save Professor Snape and Dumbledore.
Fighting the urge to swear, she bolted back out the way she had come, and hurried toward the dungeons to search for her Head of House.
Flying down the stairs in the low light, Hermione passed an instant of terror as she first made out a human form a few steps below her. Her heart tightened; she was halfway to a full-on scream, even as she jumped backwards, before she realized who it was.
"Professor Snape!" she gasped. "You - scared me!"
He smirked and climbed a few stairs until they were practically the same height. "That is ... most unfortunate," he drawled, clearly not sorry in the slightest.
He likes scaring people, Hermione mused, before regaining her senses. "Professor," she said quickly, "I came to find you because I - I never saw Harry or Weasley on the train. They weren't on the platform when we arrived, and they're not in the Great Hall either. I was ... worried that maybe something happened."
His features immediately darkened. "You're certain you did not see them?"
She nodded. "Yes, sir. I searched almost every compartment on the train. No one said they saw him. Weasley's brothers - Fred and George - said they had seen him and Weasley back at King's Cross, but no one's seen them since. I was worried and thought - "
"Move," Professor Snape said, side-stepping her and charging up the stairs.
"But, sir - "
He whirled on her, "If what you say is true, Miss Granger, then Mr. Potter could be in a great deal of danger. And if he's not, he will be once I'm finished with him for deliberately disobeying school rules. I need to inform the Headmaster."
She hurried up the stairs after him, but she was no match for his speed. "Professor - wait!"
He was already off the stairway, and called over his shoulder to her, "To the Great Hall, Miss Granger!" he bellowed. "If I find you've gone anywhere else, it will be two weeks detention!"
The Sorting was bleak.
Hermione did her best to pay attention, but she found herself looking over her shoulder every few moments, hoping to catch a glimpse of either Harry or Weasley being escorted through the great doorway with Professor Snape pinching their ears tightly. As it was, neither were at the Gryffindor table, and now she was more worried than ever.
She cheered and applauded with as much enthusiasm as she could when a new first-year was sorted into Slytherin, but she couldn't pay attention. Both Professor Dumbledore and Snape were still missing, and she was suddenly certain that something was very wrong.
While her fellow Slytherins chatted happily around her, Hermione moved the food around on her plate with her fork, making no move to eat. Pansy was giggling and whispering something to Draco beside her, and Hermione worried that if she did, in fact, try to eat something that she might gag. Millie and Theo were talking rather animatedly across the table from her, though no one was currently paying her much mind.
It's just as well. I'm rotten company right now.
She glanced over her shoulder and stared at the Gryffindor table once more.
Harry, where are you?
It was at that very moment that Professor Snape swept suddenly and dramatically into the Great Hall.
Hermione dropped her fork and pushed out from bench. She was about to call out to him, to ask him if he knew anything yet, but the cold look of determination on his pale face silenced her, and she sunk back onto the bench and closed her mouth.
Every head turned and watched his brisk and effortless steps as he approached Professor McGonagall, who was still sorting the first-years. He leaned in and whispered something to her, and the reaction on her face was enough for Hermione to know it involved Harry and Weasley. She's their Head of House, after all.
Professor McGonagall nodded at him and called Professor Vector forward to finish the sorting. A moment later, both she and Professor Snape were gone from the Hall.
Around her, murmurs erupted as the student body wondered aloud what was happening. Hermione had only attended one other Sorting, but it was obvious from the older students' reactions that three professors missing during the Opening Feast was something unprecedented.
Behind her, at the Hufflepuff table, she heard a prefect murmur, "I bet Snape's just killed someone. He's told McGonagall, but when he takes her to the body, he'll kill her, too."
Hermione whirled around, infuriated. Even for a Hufflepuff, that allegation was ridiculous.
"It's Harry Potter he's killed," another Hufflepuff was saying, "He wasn't on the train."
"It'll be you next, if you don't mind your business," Hermione shouted angrily.
The prefect looked up at her, startled. A moment later, he appeared positively terrified and didn't utter another word.
"Brilliant," Draco told her in approval. "Snape could kill a bloody Hufflepuff in his sleep if he wanted to."
"Professor Snape isn't killing anyone," Hermione huffed, annoyed. "I just said it to get them to stop telling tales."
"Technically, you told a tale just then," said Millie, pointing at Hermione with her fork.
"Yes," said Hermione hotly, "but it was only to get him to keep quiet. No one would actually believe that rubbish."
Draco was suddenly leaning in close to her and whispering in her ear. "He's killed before, you know," he said, his breath tickling the side of her face. "That's why everyone's so afraid of him. They respect him for that."
Hermione rolled her eyes in frustration. "Not you, too! Where do you get this stuff? If Professor Snape had ever killed anyone, do you honestly believe he'd be a teacher? There's background checks and loads of other things that go into account to put adults in teaching positions - at least, that's how the Muggle world does it. The Wizarding world has to be the same."
Draco appeared to think on that for a long moment, and then he shrugged, apparently uncaring. "I know what I know, Hermione. He's my Godfather, and he's known my father for ages."
"Who did he kill then, if you're so knowledgeable?" she snapped. With Harry and Weasley missing, her last store of patience was fleeing her.
"I don't know," Draco replied, popping a grape into his mouth. "I just know that he has killed."
On the other side of him, Pansy smirked. "What's the matter, Hermione? You're not afraid, are you?"
Hermione groaned inwardly and stood up to leave. She was at her breaking point. She'd take a detention with Professor Snape for two weeks for leaving when she hadn't been dismissed - just as long as she didn't have to listen to this rubbish.
"Where are you going?" Draco asked. "The feast isn't over!"
"To the dungeons," Hermione snapped. "And I don't care. I need some air."
It was only when she had made her way around the final bend to get to the trap door of the Slytherin common room that Hermione felt she was being watched. The hairs on the back of her neck suddenly stood on end, and she felt her heart kick up in her chest. She stood there for a panicky moment, thinking. Slowly - slowly, she carefully moved her right hand toward her wand pocket. She hesitated for only an instant, and then she grabbed the shaft of her wand and whirled around frantically, pointing it wildly out in front of her.
"Who's there?" she gasped. "I know someone's there!"
Silence reigned. Licking her lips, trying to ignore the pounding of her heart in her ears, Hermione whispered, "Lumos!"
Light burst from her wand, and she angled the beam toward the corners and dark recesses down the corridor.
"Hello?" she called out again, her voice trembling at the end.
After a few moments, Hermione finally found the courage to move. She half-ran the remainder of the way to the trap door, breathlessly muttered the password, and then slammed the door behind her. Breathing hard, she stared out at the warmly lit Slytherin Common room, taking a moment to calm her pounded heart.
You're fine. You're just seeing things, is all. No one's there.
She finally moved away from the door and made her way into the center of the common room, intending to linger for only a moment. The Feast would soon be over, and she'd rather be busy unloading her trunk than standing around idly, doing nothing.
She paused at the center of the room. Someone had evidently been here before she had; there was a fire roaring in the hearth.
But everyone's at the feast ...
She walked around two black leather couches and then nearly threw herself behind one of them as a loud crack rippled behind her. She shrieked, ducked, and then drew her wand as she whirled around to see what had caused the noise.
A piece of parchment, the edges smoking, floated gracefully in the air until it landed silently on the onyx coffee table at the center of the room. Frowning, Hermione stood slowly and walked over to it, hesitating as she picked it up. The light from the fire danced across the parchment as she read.
Detention, Miss Granger, the note simply stated. Tomorrow evening. My office. 8:00 pm.
Hermione's brow furrowed, and her gaze shot toward the trap door entrance.
But how ...
Out in the dungeons, a silent figure sheathed his wand, and disappeared into the darkness.
A/N: Thanks for the patience with this chapter, folks! It still took longer than I would have liked, but I'm glad it didn't take a year - like the last one. I'm happy to report that I am about 3,000 words into the next chapter, so I'm hoping the muse lingers and I have a new chapter to add shortly. Thank you all for the kind reviews. I truly am trying to be better at updating. A special thank you to Borgprincess for being my beta, and for having more patience than I would ever have with me. :)