Note: The characters here represented are the property of JK Rowling. Absolutely no profits have been derived from this work, and no copyright infringement is intended.

February 16th, 1997

Hermione rose early on the following Sunday, when the sun was just nestling in the valley between the tallest mountains in the distance beyond the lake. She dressed in her warmest robes, so dark and voluminous that they concealed, she fancied, her very soul. She passed out of the dormitory, leaving the warm sleepy snuffles of her housemates behind.

Hermione made her way through Hogwarts' silent hallways to the familiar stretch of stone wall which began to crumble and change as she approached. She turned the handle and pushed, and entered the Room of Requirement.

Gone was the cavernous hall with its stone floors and tall ceilings. Gone were the table and the weapons and the torches. Gone were the enemies whose deaths had brought such catharsis. All that remained, all that she required this morning, was a small portal in the opposite wall. Hermione ran towards it, her cloak billowing out behind her as she moved, and disappeared into the little tunnel, leaving nothing but a flourish of robes and a crackle of magic in her wake.

Miles away, the door to the linen cupboard of The Iron Legion Inn creaked open ever so slowly, and the raven-haired young girl stepped tentatively into the hall. She looked right and left and listened, and then proceeded down the stairs.

The bar was deserted, as Knockturn Alley would have been if not for a few beggars and drunks. The Leaky Cauldron was a bit more cheerful with its crackling hearth. It warmed the girl for a teasing moment before again she ventured out into the freezing cold of Muggle London. She made swift progress to Purge and Dowse, Ltd, into which she vanished without a moment's hesitation.

Inside, all was chaos – well managed chaos, but chaos nonetheless. The girl proceeded toward a large waiting area, dodging and skirting mediwitches and mediwizards and the patients they ferried as she went.

She picked through the rows of seats and the small sea of mildly ill and mildly injured witches and wizards who occupied them. Magical triage was much the same as its Muggle equivalent – those who were at risk for loss of life or limb went straight through, anyone else had to wait. The girl took a seat in the corner with a clear view of the entrance. She curled herself up, quietly cast a disillusionment charm over her cloaked body, and went still.

00000

Thorfinn Rowle cursed nastily as he sat up in bed. He cast aside the sheets and blankets and stood, stretching his huge arms over his head, seemingly immune to the chill in the small dingy room. Cold and damp was a state of being for the fallen aristocrat. He could still remember a time when house elves bustled about the old place, before most of them had been sold off for gold. The days of tea in bed were long gone.

His mother had wondered quite shrilly whether gambling was an inherited disease shortly before her death. Thorfinn had considered the question many times since then, but halted the conversation in his mind at the philosophical level. It was never allowed to interfere with his recreation.

He dressed quickly and shouted for Gnarl, the last remaining elf in the historic house of Rowle. Tea was brought, and sausages, and Gnarl's vile but rather useful hangover concoction. Thorfinn threw it back without a wince, so familiar was the taste, and so preferable was it to the agony it banished. He donned a pair of impossibly worn dragonhide boots, and began the journey to visit dear Uncle Mathis.

Mathis was a pompous old fool. The only difference between him and Thorfinn's own father was a much better relationship with Lady Luck. She'd favored him enough over the years to make his estate worth something, here at the end, and Thorfinn intended to secure his piece of it, even if it meant spending every Sunday morning in that foul hospital, located even more repulsively in a filthy Muggle gutter.

Dressed as well as could be managed after a very late evening, Rowle stretched enormously once more, and made for London.

000000

"Good morning," greeted the mediwitch at the triage desk.

"Mathis Rowle," Thorfinn grunted, putting a nice dent in her pretty smile with his nasty tone.

"And you are?"

"His nephew," he snapped, his head smarting with the rise in volume. He'd have to speak to Gnarl about his tonic's efficacy. If he couldn't be as snappy and rude as he wished, he might as well stay home.

"Room 7, third floor down," the mediwitch said, shifting her parchments. He turned without a word of thanks, and commenced the unattractive errand.

He emerged again a mere twenty minutes later with his spirits much improved. Old Mathis' mind was going with spectacular speed, and it was nothing at all to get him to part with fifty galleons. The weight of the coins clanked comfortingly against Thorfinn's enormous thigh as he made his way toward Knockturn Alley.

He found the doors of The Mata Hari open as usual – the place was never closed and never empty, for its temptations were far too alluring. It was part whorehouse, part gambler's den, part bar – a sin for every taste. The moment he darkened the door, Scarlett, his preferred whore, made a beeline for him.

"Rowle," she crooned, bearing the flesh of her corseted cleavage.

"Not this morning," he said with a haughty wave of his thick arm.

"Flush, are you?" she asked, a bit impolitely he thought. He stepped towards her threateningly and she cowered.

"Mind that fucking tongue of yours," he growled, "for now anyway. We'll see what I have left for you later on."

Scarlett brightened mechanically, the glamour shimmering like a protective shield before her true face. She wished him luck with a hollow smile and retreated again into the shadows.

0000

Twelve full hours later, Thorfinn Rowle found himself unable to make good his promise to Scarlett – for two reasons. First, he had no money, and second, he couldn't have bedded her if he'd wanted to, so disgusted was he with the unfairness of things. Not that the latter was of much consequence; while some men found comfort in the arms of whores, Thorfinn had always preferred a good and nasty fight.

He burst out of the small gambling parlor and into the bar, and ordered a double dram of Ogden's Old. It wasn't enough to make him drunk, only to make him a little crazy. Ogden's was known to have that effect, along with dulling one's pain. He plunked the glass down on the counter, and stomped out of the bar and into the night.

His rage was building nicely – he felt it rumbling through his veins, warming him up, as he thundered along Knockturn Alley. He made a random turn, and continued his ramble without thought or plan, simply following the path that his feet chose for him. The boots thudded against the snow slickened cobblestone, and then suddenly stopped.

He looked up and around the dead end into which he had unknowingly charged. He cursed again, his gruff voice ricocheting off the stones, and turned to find the way blocked by a small cloaked figure.

"Stupify!" it said, and Thorfinn flew back against the brick wall behind him, his head smacking hard against it. He slumped down to the ground, unconscious. The small figure approached him where he lay, grabbed him by the arm, and Apparated.

With a crack, the two bodies slammed to earth in an isolated clearing somewhere east of London. The sleepy town was silent, the landscape dotted with only a handful of distant glowing lights. The quarter moon shone down softly, giving shape to their dark forms.

Thorfinn stirred sluggishly, slowly coming to after his crack on the head. His movement went unnoticed by the small figure beside him, who gave a great whine of agony as she rolled onto her side. She tore down her velvet hood to reveal a head of raven hair, and pulled the hem of her long black robes up over her knee, exposing a vicious rip in the skin of her thigh. It was a splinch wound – deep and grizzly. Her shaking hands darted into the collar of her robes, and produced a tiny bottle on a silver chain. With a whispered incantation she expanded its size until the vial filled her palm. She withdrew the dropper with difficulty, and dripped some of the liquid on the awful gash.

It sizzled and stung, but that was nothing compared to the pain of the blow that fell across her face. Her body went limp as her mind struggled to recover from the force of it. As the taste of blood filled her mouth she grabbed for her wand.

"Expelliarmus," Thorfinn barked, and the wand flew into the darkness.

She watched it fall, her eyes wide with terror.

Thorfinn climbed on top of her, pinning her legs down with his weight, and pressing her arms to the grass beneath her.

"Who the hell are you?" he asked, peering curiously into her strange pale face. She struggled and he backhanded her, hard.

He peered at her a moment longer, and then seemed to make some decision. He reached down between their bodies, and squeezed the thigh that he'd seen she had splinched. She shrieked in pain, and he smiled. This wasn't exactly what he had been hoping for, but it would have to do.

"I'm going to torture you," he growled, "and then I'm going to kill you."

She writhed against him, her face a rictus of fear and pain. Thorfinn raised his eyebrows as he watched her hopeless little fight. She sure did have a lot of strength in her, he thought, for one so small. He raised his wand and pointed it at her desperate face.

"Crucio."

The girl's chest arched up in agony, every muscle rigid with excruciating pain. She could not even scream the suffering was so intense. Thorfinn released the curse, and she emitted an animal moan and a series of frenzied breaths. A sheen of sweat erupted on her brow.

"What the hell?" Thorfinn said, and the girl's eyes flew open in alarm. She looked right, to where some of her raven hair was pinned beneath Thorfinn's large fist, but the hair was raven no more. It was brown and curling.

Comprehension dawned on Thorfinn's face. "You're Hermione Granger, that little mudblood bitch! 'Best friend of Harry Potter,'" he mocked, sadism transforming to opportunistic delight. He leaned away from her, pulled his sleeve up to his elbow, revealing his Dark Mark.

His hand hovered over it, centimeters away from her ruin, when suddenly there was a thud as a pair of clasped fists struck Thorfinn in the side of the head, sending his body and his wand flying. Thorfinn rolled off of Hermione with a shout, his ear ringing horribly, and looked up to find Severus Snape advancing on him.

Thorfinn stood, adrenaline overcoming the throbbing in his skull. Disoriented, he made a grand swing at Snape who darted away, returning the attempted blow with a sharp jab to his kidney. Thorfinn grunted and bent, and made another uncoordinated grab. Once again he failed to make contact. Then there was a deep thunk, and Thorfinn felt the strange and foreign sensation of a blade being thrust into his chest. He looked down to the place where Snape's clutching fist met the lower apex of his ribcage, just below his sternum. The fist twisted, and that's when the pain overcame all else. Thorfinn gasped, a horrible ragged sound, and dropped to his knees. Snape pulled the blade away, and stepped back, and watched as Thorfinn Rowle bled to death at his feet. With immense difficulty, Hermione hauled herself up and stumbled backward, coming to rest against a nearby oak tree.

Snape stood frozen for a long moment, breathing heavily. Hermione leaned against the wood and panted, her eyes darting between Rowle's lifeless body and Snape's unmoving one. Finally, with a slow, terrifying, almost robotic movement, Snape turned his head towards Hermione. He was as pale as marble, the eyes aflame with a rage she had never known.

Her stomach dropped. She got that cold and terrible feeling, hugely amplified, that she had felt the moment before Snape had attacked her in the potion's office so many weeks before. Her eyes went wide as she noted with a knee weakening pulse that he was actually trembling with rage.

After an eternal pause, Snape slowly closed the distance between them, his black cloak floating behind him in an unearthly manner. The sliver of his white collar gleamed in the soft moonlight, as did his right cuff. The left hand still clutched the bloody knife, and the long fingers curled around it were smeared with crimson gore. A gust of wind curled up from nowhere, and stirred the grass before his advancing feet and the long lank hair that hung around his face.

The insane desire to scream rose up in Hermione's throat as he came closer. Her lip quivered, and she gripped the tree behind her.

He paused a few inches before her and then, with a movement like a pouncing cat, crushed her to the tree, pinning her to it by the throat. Far above her head, the bloody hand stretched up and rested against the bark. His chest was an inch before her eyes, and the hairs on Hermione's neck and arms stood up with the proximity to him, and to the magic that crackled around him like an invisible aura.

"I am trying," he began, "to decide whether or not to kill you."

His voice was like rolling thunder.

"I am weighing your potential value against the price of your stupidity." His fingers contracted, momentarily sealing off her airflow. She remained still, too frightened to resist. They slackened again, but only slightly. He breathed deeply somewhere above her head as though trying to master himself.

Suddenly, Snape shifted his weight backward, his bloodied hand sliding slowly down the surface of the tree as he lowered his glittering eyes to hers.

"You will not disobey me."

Hermione nodded, the movement inhibited by his iron grip. Then his hand was gone from her throat, and when he brought it back down to her face again there was a small incision in his thumb which bled freely. He waited for her eyes to return to his, and then pressed it against the split in her lip, producing an eye watering sting. She gasped as he dragged it down her mouth to the curve of her jaw, and the place where their blood had married tingled and grew hot. Before she could comprehend the oath she had made, he seized her roughly by her robes and Apparated them away.