Damn, he was late. Well, only by a few minutes. Nobody would be missing him anyway. Besides, watching the new first years to be sorted wasn't such a big event anyway.

So, Severus Snape slowed his ascent of the stairs to accommodate his still aching and tired body. He had been summoned by the Dark Lord almost daily, and then sent on missions to recruit new followers or to one or the other opponent disappear.

These errands were merely time-consuming and led to sleep deprivation – but that he could deal with. No, it was the new advanced training methods, the Dark Lord had so cunningly introduced that had done him in, he thought sarcastically.

Gruelling duels between the Death Eaters under the Dark Lord's supervision that went on for hours.

Snape had tried not to appear too powerful, less his Master felt threatened by him. So he was the unfortunate receiver of numerous painful, humiliating and disfiguring curses. Not only was hit attacked by his many opponents, of which there were up to five at the same time, but also by the Dark Lord himself when he saw the need to show his displeasure with his once most formidable duellist.

Snape was still one of the best among the Dark Lord's ranks but in a more conspicuous way.

Well, now that the school year had started, he was hoping for a little reprieve from the summons; he really needed some time to recover. Even Poppy could hardly keep up with his many appearances in the hospital wing. She was probably sick of seeing his battered body on an almost daily basis.

Even if the summons lessened, he still had his many school duties to attend to. No – recovering time will be hard to come by. He was probably looking forward to the weekends as much as the students, he thought with a wry smirk.

He put a more neutral expression as he reached the Great Hall and noticed that he was only ten minute late. It seemed to be rather quiet behind the closed doors, which probably meant that the sorting was in full swing.

He breathed deeply before opening the small teacher's door right behind the head table, and slipped quietly into the room. He tried to hide his slight limp, but needn't have bothered, as no teacher or student even so much as glanced in his direction as he made his way to his seat.

Only his iron self-control allowed him to swallow a relieved moan of pleasure as he sat down, allowing his aching limbs to recover.

The sorting was almost finished, he noticed, but concentrated nonetheless on the remaining new students. Only one boy among the handful was sorted into his own house, but it didn't matter that he had missed the others as he would see them all later in the common room.

Fixing his eyes on a far point on the far side of the Great Hall, he let Dumbledore's usual speech wash over him, not even noticing when food appeared in front of him. Not even the appreciative hum of hundreds of students brought him out of his near trance.

He stared doggedly at the wall, his vision swimming before his eyes, not disturbed by the sudden silence his found himself in. Only the sounds of eating and the occasional chatter and laughter flitted through the air, yet the only things Severus concentrated on was to breath through his lingering pain and trying not to fall asleep.

A gentle nudge from Minerva brought him back to his senses. "Severus, you should eat something, you're only skin and bones," she said. Her concern was evident in her face and voice.

Half-heatedly he put some mashed potatoes and a few vegetables on his plate and stuffed the first tiny bite into his mouth. He couldn't deny that his body hungered for sustenance, but his aching jaw and wrists, which were still recovering from having been broken, made eating a rather unpleasant task.

He managed to shovel a few spoonfuls into his mouth, seemingly satisfying Minerva. As soon as she looked away, he gave up eating and let his eyes roam over the room. Seeing the Golden Trio did nothing for his mood, but at least the irritation he felt kept him from nodding off.

There was Potter, bane of his existence, and his idiotic sidekick Weasley. And of course the bushy-haired beaver that… that wasn't even there, he finally noticed. Severus scanned the entire Gryffindor table, but Granger was nowhere to be seen. He felt some mild concern, no, curiosity, he amended mentally.

That rule-breaking little chit was probably too good to come to the Sorting. She might have hauled herself up in the library already. He grimaced as he had to admit that she would behave like that. At least, he thought she wasn't like that. Well, in truth, he had no idea what she was like…

What he knew, though, was that the library was still locked, and she had no chance of getting into it even if she tried. Then again, the trio was known to beark rules if they saw the need for it, perhaps she had found a way into it anyway…

Snape faintly shook his head, trying to end these thoughts that only sent him deeper into a labyrinth of presumptions and unanswered questions.

As he looked closer, Potter and Weasley seemed to be looking up at Dumbledore occasionally, looking rather worried. Something was going on; but before he could think about more likely scenarios, a cramping pain shot up his left arm and leg, leaving his head devoid of any thoughts.

He gasped audibly and felt the eyes of his colleagues on him. Cradling his arm, he limped out of the Great Hall as fast as his screaming muscles allowed him to. He dimly heard the students whisper his name, realising that he must have gasped louder than he thought.

As soon as he was outside, he closed the door with his back and slid down the wall right beside it. He hissed at the pain that still lace through him and bared his teeth unconsciously.

Only moment later, Poppy and Minerva emerged through the same door.

"I'm fine," he said automatically to keep them away from him, before they even had a chance to enquire about him.

"Yes, crouching on the floor is normal for you," Minerva said wryly and knelt down next to him. Poppy did the same on his other side.

"Let us help…"

"No," he hissed and groaned quietly as his leg jerked involuntarily due to the Cruciatus-induced cramps.

"Grow up, and learn to accept help, Severus. Now give me your arm."

He had nothing to put against Minerva's insistence, and he was loathing every second of sitting on the floor helplessly. He unfurled from his rolled up position, letting the women take an arm and a leg respectively.

Expertly, they stretched his limbs, making his bang his head against the wall as even more pain made it difficult to keep from whimpering. He opened his eyes when he felt a vial against his tightly shut lips and he swallowed the given potion without caring what it was.

Judging by the softening of his muscles it must have been a muscle relaxant.

"I wish we could give you a pain reliever," Poppy lamented and stroked his leg one more time.

"Hmm," was all he said. The worst of the cramps were gone but his muscles felt raw and ached.

"I still believe that the resistance you've developed must be temporary; no wonder when you've been relying on it for several months and on an almost daily basis," she continued.

Severus had nothing to say and still sat quietly with a mild frown on his features. It wasn't the first time they had discussed the almost non-existent effect the pain-relieving potion had on him. He could still use salves and ointments – everything that only required external application.

He breathed a sigh of relief when the worst was over.

"Better?" Poppy asked, quite used to his reactions.

He nodded and made to get up but was startled by a kiss to his forehead. He blinked into Minerva's face, but before he could say anything, the two women helped him to his feet.

"Can you make it to your rooms?" she asked and wasn't angered when she was shrugged off a little impatiently.

"No need, I'll head straight to the common room to welcome the newest batch of unruly cretins," he told them and grinned a little sat the women's eye rolls.

"I thought your Slytherins can do no wrong," Minerva harrumphed.

"I never said so, but at least my students show up for the sorting. You, on the other hand, seem to have lost one of your rule-breaking cubs already," he drawled, referring to the missing Granger girl.

Minerva's wry smile vanished, obviously not finding nay humour in his remark. "Nobody knows where she is; she wasn't even on the train. That's not like her. Even if she had missed the train, we would have received a message from her by now. I'm afraid something might have happened." She looked anxiously at Snape, but if she thought he would give her any emotional support she was wrong.

"She probably got held up by some last minute book shopping, I presume," he said unconcernedly.

"Miss Granger is nothing like that," Minerva said hotly, taking his accusation as a personal affront. "She is highly responsible and she would never…"

"Oh, spare me your motherly defence of the girl," he snapped.

Minerva turned on her heels and went back into the Great Hall.

He didn't call her back. He felt some remorse for his needling; he had only done it to mask his rising concern for the missing girl.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Poppy was still by his side, her eyebrows raised and her mouth set in an odd thoughtful grimace. She said nothing but looked at him expectantly.

"Let me know if you need any competent help," he said with a sneer and quickly walked away, before his rising worry could make him appear even weaker.

He didn't see Poppy smiling at his retreating back.