Obligatory Disclaimer: If I owned any of them, believe me, things would have ended rather differently. I'm just borrowing them for a while; sadly, I have to give them back eventually.

Warnings: Eventual SS/HG romance (only once Hermione is of age), eventual M rating, some bloody bits and bad language, eventual lemons. Don't like, don't read. 'Eventual' again, because this is another insanely long one and because these two are insanely stubborn.

Author's Notes: This story is canon compliant up until the end of Goblet of Fire, and begins in the summer between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. I will be missing out many of the canon scenes unless I have a reason to want that scene from Severus' or Hermione's point of view; you all have the books, you all know what happens. Chapter lengths will vary; I write novel-style so parts don't always break down easily into separate chapters. I tend to update on average every three days or so, but I probably won't always be able to stick to that. I will respond to every signed review - please note, you now need to have private messaging enabled for the author to reply. And remember, every 1,000th review wins an SSHG one-shot. Criticism is accepted if it's constructive. I hope you enjoy.

"The storm is upon me
But I'm chasing the sun..."

– The Calling, 'Chasing The Sun'.

It had been a very long summer.

Severus sat in his living room in semi-darkness; the threadbare curtains were drawn and the only source of illumination came from the dim embers of the fire, kept burning out of necessity rather than for heat in the dim, stifling room. He stared blankly at the glowing, half-consumed logs, his dark eyes empty, and occasionally drank without enthusiasm from the bottle held loosely in one hand. Bringing his other hand up, a little stiffly, he pinched the bridge of his hooked nose with long fingers and closed his eyes for a moment.

Flames leaped up in the fireplace, and he sat forward in his chair, eyes narrowing as he drew his wand smoothly from his sleeve; a moment later the flames turned green, and he relaxed fractionally with an unsteady sigh, flicking his wand vaguely at the coloured fire. "Yes?"

"Ah, Severus. I'm glad I caught you at home. Is this a good time?" Albus Dumbledore's gratingly cheerful voice echoed oddly, disturbing the melancholy silence of the house that could pass for peace if you didn't let yourself pay attention.

Where else would I be, you tiresome old goat? It's not as if I can go away on holiday, and I won't be Summoned until after nightfall. Not that he had any clear idea of what the time was at the moment, admittedly. "Of course, Headmaster," he replied tonelessly, taking another drink and replacing his wand, slumping back in the battered armchair and closing his eyes.

"I wanted to speak to you before I talk to the rest of the staff. I am sorry, but once again I must decline your application for the Defence post..."

He hadn't expected anything else; he only applied out of habit, now, or maybe stubbornness. Certainly it wasn't because he thought he would get the job; Dumbledore had never actually explained his reasons, but he hadn't needed to have it spelled out to him. "And how are you going to top your previous triumphs?" he asked the flames ironically, not even bothering to open his eyes. "You've had two minions of the Dark Lord, an incompetent petty criminal and a werewolf, on top of a long string of useless idiots and certified mental patients. What next?"

"This year's appointment was not my doing."

That statement, combined with the loss of the cheerful note in his employer's voice, made Severus frown and lift his head a little to stare at the flames. "I don't have the energy for riddles. What do you mean?"

"The Minister has insisted on appointing a Defence teacher."

"What? The Ministry don't have the authority to interfere that strongly..."

"They do now," Dumbledore replied, a little grimly. "There were no other applicants, naturally, but I don't think it would have mattered if there had been... Harry's story wouldn't have been enough, by itself; Merlin knows they have had enough practice at ignoring the boy. But you confirmed his tale, Severus, although I am sure you never wished to support him; you showed Cornelius your Mark in my presence and thus made it clear that Hogwarts believes Harry. The Minister wants to keep an eye on us. Not to mention that certain members of the board of governors will not be displeased if we are kept occupied with the delights of bureaucracy for the foreseeable future."

I might have known it would be my fault. Sourly, he took another mouthful from the almost-finished bottle. "Fine. Who are we being saddled with? Some quill-pushing flunky?"

"Not at all. The Senior Undersecretary to the Minister herself, in fact; an august personage who goes by the delightful name of Dolores Umbridge."

Severus screwed his eyes shut, trying to think. "A dumpy woman with a face like a toad?" He had only met her once or twice that he recalled; he didn't spend much time at the Ministry if he could avoid it.

"Please don't insult the woman before she's even started, Severus. You'll have nothing to work your way up to." Dumbledore paused, before adding quietly, "I must ask you to show a little restraint, Severus, please. I have no doubt your temper will be strained, but the Ministry can make things very tiresome. I am urging everyone to co-operate with Dolores."

"May I be present when you tell Minerva that?" he asked dryly, before sighing. "Why did you agree to this, Headmaster? The very last thing we need is the Ministry sniffing around. Tell Fudge to take his paranoia and stick it up "

"Severus, please. We cannot afford to antagonise the Ministry, at least not now. We will need them, although admittedly I sometimes find it hard to recall why."

"All right, all right. Just keep her out of my way. I'm going to have more than enough to do without having to play nicely with Fudge's pet."

"How are you, Severus?" Dumbledore asked seriously, and Severus opened his eyes to give the fire a venomous look. He really hated that question. It wouldn't be so bad if it were sincere, but he knew all the Headmaster's reasons for asking, and if there was any real concern for his health on that list it was a very long way down.

"Surviving, as always. The next meeting is on Tuesday?"


"I'll see you then, unless something important happens before then." He drew his wand once more and flicked it at the fireplace, cutting Dumbledore off before he could respond. "Bastard," he sighed, finishing his beer and leaning sideways to set the empty bottle down on the floor next to several others. So, a Ministry flunky. What fun. It was going to be difficult enough for him to juggle everything as it was, without the sodding government trying to interfere. He had a feeling there was more to this than the Headmaster was saying; nothing new there, though.

He had just settled down once more when the fireplace once more flared with green flames. "God, I'm popular today," he muttered irritably, finding his wand again and snapping ungraciously, "What?"

"Hello, Severus. It's lovely to hear your voice again as well."

He grimaced. "Poppy, I've told you, when I am back in Hogwarts you may mother me endlessly purely because I will not be able to stop you. Until then, I am on holiday. Leave me alone." Severus frowned at his unfriendly tone and tried to rein in his temper; he actually liked Poppy Pomfrey, and he didn't have so many friends that he could afford to alienate any of them.

Fortunately, the Hogwarts mediwitch had known him since he was eleven years old and was more than used to ignoring his fits of temper. "If only I could, but I need to speak to you about next term. A student has approached me about taking on an informal Healing apprenticeship, and since you are likely to be in the hospital wing a great deal I wanted to discuss it with you."

"It's not possible," he replied shortly. "End of discussion."


"Poppy..." he mimicked. Sighing, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and staring into the fire. "You know it's not possible as well as I do. I don't know why you are even asking."

"This particular student is already aware of certain details and has reasons for making this request at this time," the nurse replied carefully. Severus' black eyes narrowed as he stared at the dancing green flames, his mind clearing and his thoughts suddenly crystallising with painful clarity.

"Oh, you can't be serious. Granger?"

"How did you know that?"

"Give me strength," he muttered, glaring at the fire. "You know I'm not an idiot, Poppy. Who else would it be?"

"Yes, then, it's Miss Granger. She knows we are at war and she wants to help. It's not a bad idea, either; she is certainly capable, and I could use some help, and you can't deny that it would be useful to have someone close to Mr Potter who knows a bit about treating injuries given how often the boy seems to hurt himself. Especially now."

He scowled at the fire and didn't answer, pinching the bridge of his nose tiredly. Granger, indeed; she never could seem to learn to leave well enough alone. Still, it could have been worse. It could have been Potter. Now there was a thought to send a shudder down his aching back. "No."

Poppy spoke again, her tone brisk and businesslike. "If you can give me a good reason, Severus, then I shall write to her and tell her that it isn't possible. If it will jeopardise your safety, or disrupt the Order's plans, or if it will put her in danger. But if the only reason for your objection is that you just don't want her to do it, then be quiet."

He scowled again, knowing that there wasn't anything he could say. That was the only reason, but he considered it quite a good one. He was the one who was going to have to face the reality of it, after all, letting the know-it-all learn to poke at him and fuss over him. She was unbearable enough as it was. No, that wasn't really fair... he didn't dislike her as much as some of his students, after all, and even he admitted that she was intelligent, albeit grudgingly. Still, there must be some way out of this...

"She's a child."

"I told her that when she first approached me," Poppy said dryly. "She wrote back and told me, and I quote, 'Okay. Please tell You-Know-Who that we're too young at the moment and could he please postpone his reign of terror for a few years until we're of age'."

Despite himself, he snorted quietly. The girl had a point there, irritating though it was; the three of them were going to be heavily involved no matter what anyone else thought of the idea. Bollocks; he didn't have a leg to stand on, and he knew it. There really was no logical, rational reason to deny the request, but he really didn't want any of the children to know what was really happening. He wanted it kept private, and there was no way she wouldn't report every detail to the little vermin she called friends. God, it would probably end up all over the school...

"What have you already told her?" he asked coldly.

"Don't you take that tone with me, Severus Snape," she snapped. "The Headmaster informed her about the Order of the Phoenix himself, so if you have a problem with that, then take it up with him. I haven't told her about you yet; I wanted to discuss it with you first. As I said, if you can come up with a reasonable objection then it won't happen, but if you can't then I will sit down with her when term starts and explain what it really means to be a Healer in the Order."

Severus gritted his teeth; he really hated being backed into a corner. "There will be certain conditions," he growled, conceding defeat with heavy reluctance.

"I'm only going to tell her as much as she needs to know. As you so astutely pointed out, Severus, she is still a child, and I want to keep her out of the worst of it if I can. And if you're going to insist that she be sworn to secrecy, don't be insulting; do you really think she's the type to gossip? Or that I would let her?"

That was another good point. He wished it wasn't. All in all, this was not shaping up to be one of his better days. Glaring at the fire in helpless frustration, he shook his head. "We will try it," he said finally with ill grace. "If it's not working, then it stops."

"Thank you, Severus." After a pause the nurse asked gently, "Are you all right?" and he bit back a sigh. That was a slightly better question than the Headmaster's – at least he thought she actually cared a little about the answer – but not by much.

"I'm still here, aren't I?" he replied irritably. "I suppose I shall see you in school. Please try to remember that you are not my mother." His lips twisted into a bitter smile at the thought as he half-heartedly responded to her farewell and closed the Floo. So, it seemed that next term he would end up serving as a live teaching aid for Granger in her endless quest to learn everything about everything in between walking a tightrope stretched between two masters, all the while dodging the Ministry's clumsy interference. What fun.

Even as the fire died down and the room turned dark and gloomy once more, agony flared in his left arm, an all too familiar sensation that started as a burn and became a deep almost stabbing pain. "Oh, that's just bloody wonderful," he spat, rubbing his arm as he stood up and Summoned his robe and mask. "A perfect end to a perfect sodding day."

Hermione wasn't sure what she had expected the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix to look like, but a terraced Georgian house in the heart of London wasn't really it. Professor McGonagall had explained before they arrived that it was Sirius' house and that it had stood empty and neglected for some time while he had been in prison and later out of the country, but even so, she had expected something... grander.

To her pleased surprise, Ron was waiting on the steps outside; he'd grown again, she noted absently as she hugged him. "You didn't have to wait out here for me."

He grinned at her. "Yes, I did. Mum's got us all cleaning the house. It's grim. I was glad to get away."

"Gosh, thanks."

"No problem. Okay, so you need to know a few things... there's a portrait of Sirius' mum stuck in the hallway, and she's a right miserable old –" He glanced guiltily at his Head of House, who returned his gaze steadily, and continued, "– woman. We have to be very quiet in the hall because when she wakes up she screams abuse at everyone. I guess everything else can wait until we're upstairs with the others." He made a face. "There's not much more to say, to be honest. Nobody will tell us much."

"Because you do not need to know, Mr Weasley," McGonagall told him crisply. "Here we are, then, Miss Granger; I will leave you to your friends."

"Thank you, Professor."

Ron led her into the gloomy hall with exaggerated caution and straight up the stairs; pausing in the corridor while Hermione opened Crookshanks' carry box and let him go to explore, he listened and grimaced. "They're still working at the end of the hall, I think. Let's not go in there yet."

Hermione grinned at him. "Big spiders?"

He shuddered. "Huge. It's not funny."

She patted his shoulder and looked around as they entered the bedroom she would be sharing with Ginny. "So this is the home of the Order of the Phoenix?"

"Yeah, it's not much, is it?" he agreed wryly, dropping onto his sister's bed. "None of this is really what we thought it'd be. We've been talking about it all summer, but... I dunno. All we've done is clean manky rooms, and we all get sent to bed every time there's a meeting. Fred and George have been working on something to let us listen in, you'll see later, but it's not really working. We're being kept out of the way." He sighed. "The only person who's said anything except 'hello' was Dumbledore, and he just told me not to say anything to Harry, but he wouldn't tell me why."

"He wrote to me and said the same thing, too. Poor Harry... after everything that happened to him, he shouldn't be stuck there on his own."

They exchanged awkward looks before Ron changed the subject. "Did you ask Madam Pomfrey about the Healing thing?"

"Yes – she said she needs to okay it with a couple of other people first but that she thinks it should be all right. I suppose Professor Dumbledore has to agree, but I don't know who else. I should hear from her soon."

"That's good, then, I guess."

"So Sirius is here?"

Ron shrugged. "He is, but... well, you might see him later. He spends most of the time shut up in his room. He's a bit depressed – he can't go anywhere, what with being a wanted criminal and all, so he's just kind of moping around. Or fighting with Snape."

"Professor Snape's here?"

"No, thank Merlin." He shuddered and grinned wryly at her. "Nah, we've only seen him twice. He never stays long. Shows up for the meeting, then gets out of here as fast as he can. The others come by for meals and stuff sometimes, but not him, luckily."

"So who else is here?"

"Full time, just Sirius, and now us until term starts. Lupin's here quite a lot but we think he's off talking to other werewolves, you know, trying to get them not to follow You-Know-Who. We're not sure what everyone else is doing, really. There's a couple of Aurors, Kingsley and Tonks – Tonks is cool, you'll like her – and Mad-Eye's around somewhere, the real one this time. Dumbledore and McGonagall are here quite a bit. Hagrid's been once, but now he's off somewhere secret too. Nobody will tell us anything. I'm about ready to strangle Bill to be honest, because he's part of it and the rest of us are just treated like little kids who get sent to bed so the grown-ups can talk."

He sounded frustrated, but she didn't get a chance to reply; a voice yelled outside, "Ron!"

"What?" he yelled back, very nearly deafening Hermione, who glared at him.

"Is Hermione here yet?"

Rolling her eyes – she loved the Weasleys as if they were her own family, mostly, but she did occasionally want to kill them – she went to the half-open door and stuck her head out. "You could try asking me yourself."

Over the next few days, she understood Ron's frustration. They were all kept well away from anything remotely important, and the hours crawled past in a haze of dingy rooms filled with grimy and in some cases quite dangerous objects. She was very impressed with the Extendable Ears, but unfortunately they had only managed to use them properly once; after that, one of the adults had worked out what they were up to and laid better charms on the kitchen door. She only saw Sirius once or twice and was shocked at the change in him; he had become uncharacteristically apathetic.

Mrs Black's portrait quickly became the bane of her existence. Hermione liked sitting at the bottom of the stairs to read, where she could watch the comings and goings, but if the portrait saw her then the whole house was treated to ear-splitting screams about Mudbloods polluting the house. Nobody had worked out how to shut her up except by wrestling the curtains back over her.

Towards the end of July, Madam Pomfrey arrived at Grimmauld Place and promptly hauled Hermione into an empty room. "All right, Miss Granger, you'll get your wish. If you are still willing, you will begin working with me at the start of term and training to become a Healer."

Her first impulse was to yelp with joy, but immediately the euphoria faded; she wasn't doing this for the fun of it but in case her friends were hurt. She smiled a little nonetheless. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me. You don't know what you've signed up for, not yet, but I won't deny that I could use the help." The nurse eyed her for a moment before smiling. "Enough doom and gloom for now; believe me, you'll have plenty of time to be depressed later. For the moment, allow me to introduce you to the other member of our little team..." She reached into her bag and pulled out something small and square, drawing her wand and resizing what turned out to be a portrait frame. "This is Dilys Derwent, former Headmistress and a Master Healer. Dilys, this is Hermione Granger."

The woman in the portrait looked Hermione up and down thoughtfully through narrowed eyes; she was a stout witch with curly grey hair and a no-nonsense air that was utterly ruined when she grinned cheerfully. "So, Hermione, we meet at last. I've heard a lot about you. Are you half as good as they say?"

Startled, Hermione blinked before finding herself grinning back. "It depends who you've been talking to, I suppose."

"Ha. Good answer. I'm glad to meet you; welcome aboard."

"Thank you."

"You won't get a moment's peace from now on," Madam Pomfrey warned, smiling as she put the portrait back in her bag. "Dilys chatters constantly about anything and everything, she's an incurable gossip and unbelievably nosy, and has a wicked sense of humour that would shame a whore at times. But she has a good heart, can keep a secret, won't stand for nonsense and has forgotten more about Healing than I ever knew. She has been a good friend to me and I hope she will be the same to you."

"I hope so, too," Hermione agreed; she had taken an instant liking to the portrait.

"All right, that was the fun part over. Now we need to discuss this, seriously." Madam Pomfrey's smile faded as she sat forward. "This is going to be hard on you, Miss Granger. I will be calling you at odd hours in the middle of the night, and you're going to have to learn very quickly in order to be able to do everything I will need you to do. It won't be anything like a Healing apprenticeship should be. As of now, you are a wartime Healer; I won't have much time to teach you how to deal with children's sniffles and Quidditch scrapes. You'll be dealing with wounds, hexes and curses, and bad ones at that. You'll also see far more clearly than anyone should have to what long-term effects this war will have on some of the Order; you'll pick up a lot of rudimentary psychology, especially trauma-related.

"Most importantly, Hermione, if you choose to do this, you will be spending a great deal of time with Professor Snape."

"Professor Snape? Why?" she asked blankly. She was vaguely aware that the Potions master brewed most if not all of the medical potions for the hospital wing, but very few Healers learned their own brewing, so she didn't see why she would need to spend any time with him.

Madam Pomfrey looked around with a troubled expression. "What I am about to tell you is one of the most important secrets of the Order of the Phoenix," she said finally, turning an intent stare on Hermione. "You cannot breathe a word to anyone."

Confused and incredibly curious, and wondering how this related to Snape, Hermione nodded slowly. "I won't, I swear it."

The nurse nodded and sighed. "You know that Professor Snape was once a Death Eater?"


"Well, as far as You-Know-Who and the other Death Eaters are concerned, he still is."

She blinked and frowned, mulling this over, before staring at the mediwitch. "A double agent?" she whispered, shocked; she hadn't really sat and thought about why Snape was in the Order or why he wasn't a Death Eater any more until now.

Madam Pomfrey nodded, her expression rather grim now. "Yes. Professor Snape turned to the Order of the Phoenix many years ago and became our spy. You-Know-Who believes that he is a loyal Death Eater who is lying to us and spying on the Order for him. We foster this belief by passing on information occasionally, to convince him that Professor Snape is loyal, while he collects information for our side about what the Death Eaters are up to."

Snape was some bizarre James Bond character? This was so insane that she couldn't think about it just yet. Shaking her head, Hermione looked rather aimlessly around the room. "...How do you know?" she asked finally in a rather small voice. Harry and Ron had been saying for years that Snape was a traitor, and she had always defended him, but she had to admit there had been times when she had wondered, a little.

The nurse gave her a stern look. "I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear that, Miss Granger," she said quietly. "On this occasion I think it would be best if you accepted that you don't know the real story and that it has nothing to do with you."

Guiltily, she nodded, accepting the rebuke. "Sorry. I just... No. I'm sorry."

Holding the stern look for a moment longer, Madam Pomfrey nodded slowly and relaxed. "All right, then. I am perfectly aware of the image Professor Snape presents to people. So is he. A great many people doubt him, but I am not one of them."

The quiet certainty in her voice made her feel even more ashamed as she nodded again. "What does this have to do with me?"

"The life of a double agent is very dangerous," the nurse said flatly. "Professor Snape is frequently injured. Life amongst the Death Eaters is unpleasant and painful, the more so for a man who is never fully trusted and who occasionally has to disobey direct orders. This war has only just begun, but if it follows the same pattern as the previous war then he will be spending a great deal of time here in the hospital wing. The most important task of a Healer in the Order of the Phoenix is to keep our spy alive and functional; that is the main role I play in the Order. And frankly I could use some assistance every now and then; at the very least, someone else should see the truth of what we do."

She sighed. "I won't lie to you, Hermione. It is going to be extremely unpleasant. Not only will the work itself be extremely bloody and unpleasant, but Professor Snape... well, you know his general disposition," she said with careful diplomacy. "He is under a great deal of stress at the moment, understandably, and is frequently in some pain. To be blunt, Hermione, he will take it out on you."

"Because he knows that Poppy won't stand for him taking it out on her," Dilys interjected cheerfully from the nurse's bag.

"True," the mediwitch agreed with a slightly sad smile. "So, there you have it, Hermione. If you're determined to do this, you'll see the ugly truth of war. It's bloody and brutal and senseless and violent, and it will be very hard on you emotionally and mentally. You won't be able to discuss it with your friends. You'll see truly terrible things and you'll help me pick up the pieces, and you won't be thanked for it. Do you still want to help?"

This, at least, she didn't have to think about. Meeting the older witch's eyes squarely, Hermione nodded.

In the midst of all the worries about Harry after his near-miss with the Dementors and the constant frustration when nobody in the Order would tell them anything, Hermione was caught off guard in early August when she saw the Potions master leaving yet another mysterious meeting, his thin black frame standing out in the midst of the crowd of witches and wizards crossing the hallway to the front door. Over Mrs Black's ravings, she stood up from her seat on the stairs where she had been reading and called before she could stop herself, "Professor Snape?"

As the others filed out, her teacher turned and glared at her as she approached him. Unlike the others, he was wearing his normal teaching clothes, black robe over black coat and trousers; irrelevantly Hermione wondered whether he ever overheated, wearing so many layers of black during the summer. "May I speak to you for a moment, sir?"

"Miss Granger," he said coldly, contriving to make his voice sound even less friendly than usual, "Until September the first, I am not obliged to listen to you or any other student. Go away."

Inwardly quailing at his expression, she swallowed and reminded herself sternly that she was a Gryffindor. She also tried to remind herself that Professor Snape was on her side; looking at the expression on his face, that seemed quite hard to believe, since the look in those black eyes said eloquently that he hated her and everything she represented. "I – I just wanted to thank you, sir. I know I wouldn't be able to train with Madam Pomfrey if you hadn't agreed."

She hesitated, wondering if she should say something about what he was doing for the Order, but he took the choice out of her hands by asking with a sneer, "Was that all?"

Deciding not to push her luck, she nodded meekly, and his lip curled before he turned away and stalked out.

Well, that could have gone better, she decided ruefully as her frantic heartbeat slowed down to something approaching normal.

Severus wasn't quite sure whether to laugh or throw up. He watched somewhat incredulously from the fragile shelter of his usual corner of the staff room as Dumbledore proceeded to introduce Dolores Umbridge to the assembled teachers, who all wore similar expressions. The woman couldn't be real, he decided hopefully; surely the human race hadn't deteriorated quite this far. Even the Headmaster's cheerful expression looked rather strained as the impossible vision declared in a high-pitched breathy voice that it was absolutely delightful to meet them all at last and she was sure they were going to get along splendidly. If she giggles I'm going to stab myself, he decided, trying desperately not to catch Minerva's eye – had his colleague been in her other shape, her expression would have indicated a hairball would shortly be making an appearance.

When Umbridge approached him with her bright, shiny and absolutely fake smile, Severus was aware that everyone else was watching intently. Dumbledore's gaze warned him to behave himself; the others were all looking at him with barely-disguised anticipation. The cheerful smile on the toad-like face faltered as the newest teacher took in the view, and Severus allowed a very thin smile to touch his lips for a fraction of a second as he watched her; he was well aware of what he looked like, thank you, and he had been saving his best scowl for just this moment.

"And this is Severus Snape, our Potions master," Dumbledore said somewhat unnecessarily, trying to sound cheerful and pretending not to be mildly anxious about what was going to happen.

Her handshake was about as bad as he had expected; barely resisting the urge to wipe his hand on his robe as he drew it away from her, he suppressed his scowl long enough to give her a look of neutral, slightly unfriendly disinterest, watching the flickers in her eyes as she looked him up and down – with some difficulty; he was more than a head taller than she was. Disapproval, certainly, focusing briefly on his dirty hair and oversized nose, but – yes, there it was, the split-second glance at his left arm. Fudge had told her, then... And she was scared. First point to me, I think. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all, especially with the looks on the faces of some of his colleagues.

Dumbledore courteously escorted her out of the staff room, nodding and smiling and pretending to listen as she spoke about wanting to review the individual subjects. Once the door had closed, Minerva exhaled heavily through her nose and said to nobody in particular, "Has the entire country lost its mind?"

"You liked her, then?" Filius asked dryly, earning himself a snort and a glare.

"She seemed familiar," Severus said thoughtfully. "When I was young my mother briefly attempted to make me attend a local Muggle playgroup..."

"And how long did that last?" Rolanda Hooch asked.

"About a week and a half," he responded mildly, smirking a little at the memory. Even as a very small child he hadn't had any social skills and quite emphatically Did Not Play Well With Others. "Anyway, the woman in charge was very like her. Same hideously breathy voice, same unbelievably patronising way of speaking, same ghastly pink cardigan. She probably has tissues stuffed up both sleeves," he added with a faint shudder of distaste. "She does realise that we're not four and five years old, doesn't she?" I can't wait to see how she deals with the students. The little bastards will eat her alive.

"You haven't heard the best of it yet," Minerva said darkly. "The Ministry have managed to gain all kinds of ridiculous concessions. The power they have given to that woman is disgusting, frankly..."

As she began to outline a fantastical nightmare of inspections and interviews and censorship, Severus felt a faint chill of foreboding ripple down his back as he understood the Headmaster's warning. The Ministry were doing their utmost to close Hogwarts down, or at least to remove most of the teachers. They could make things so much harder... He had a very bad feeling about this.

Once the meeting was over, he intended to slink off down to his nice quiet dungeons and try and relax and get a bit of peace, since peace was likely to be in very short supply soon, but he hadn't even made it to the door before Poppy cornered him and all but dragged him up to the hospital wing for a health check. Resigned to her bullying after this many years, he didn't bother wasting his breath arguing, and submitted surprisingly meekly; half an hour later he stood in the middle of her office in just his underwear, trying not to twitch as her wand poked him.

"I don't know why you're bothering," he told her, shivering slightly – August it might be, but it was still a stone castle in Scotland, and it wasn't warm enough to be standing around in his shorts. "I can tell you what you'll find." He assumed a bored expression and started ticking points off on his fingers. "I've lost weight, my nervous impulses are abnormal, my heartbeat is slightly arrhythmic, my metabolism and thyroid activity have both increased, there are signs of strain and inflammation in my joints, my digestive system isn't functioning the way it should..."

"But sadly your sarcasm reflexes are just fine," Poppy said irritably, jabbing her wand up under his ribs warningly. "We're going to do this every month. If you keep arguing with me, I'll make it every week. Hold still and don't blink." She shone the illuminated tip of her wand directly into his eyes, gripping his chin to hold his head in place, then examined his ears, his nose and his throat briskly. "All right, we're done for now. Get dressed and stop glaring at me."

Rolling his eyes, Severus did as he was told, watching her face as she sorted through the results while he did up his shirt and pulled his coat back on. "Well?"

"Yes, yes, you were right, as if that's anything to be proud of." She shook her head and gave him a despairing look. "This is a lot of damage for just a few months, Severus."

"It was always going to be bad over the summer," he pointed out, sitting to do his boots up. "Now that I'm at work again I won't be Summoned anywhere near as often."

"Even so, this is too much for such a short time." She sighed. "You've got to look after yourself better, Severus. You know as much if not more about the effects on your health as I do and you're not stupid." She clicked her tongue, looking down at her notes. "In particular, you've got to stop drinking. You've lost better than thirty five per cent liver function since last term. You must have spent most of the summer in an intoxicated coma to achieve that."

"That sounds about right," he agreed indifferently, shrugging into his robe. "Don't give me that look. I won't be drinking to excess while I'm working."

"You shouldn't be drinking at all. There are better ways of coping. I've told you all this before." Poppy shook her head. "I would like to make you promise that you'll cut back, but I know you won't. Just please be careful. And you need to watch your diet more carefully, too – you're right, you have lost weight, and you don't have much to lose."

He snorted. "I've been underweight all my life. That's not going to change. Nor is the fact that I always lose weight when I'm under stress. Besides, I haven't felt much like eating recently."

"You're not an idiot, so don't pretend to be one. You know you need to take better care of yourself, or you're not going to be able to do this."

"You're not an idiot either," he retorted, "and you know I'll keep myself functioning."

"Life is about more than just surviving, Severus," she told him sadly.

Not for me. He only shrugged in answer. "Anything else?"

Shaking her head a little sorrowfully, she looked back at her notes. "You were right about the joint inflammation and the nervous impulses. It's not as bad as I expected it to be, though; it seems your body still remembers how to cope. There have been many improvements in healing potions in the last decade or so; we should be able to treat it a little more effectively this time. If you make sure that you're strong enough."

"I got the message," he growled, exasperated.

"You and I both know that doesn't mean you'll actually listen, but I won't continue to belabour the point." She clicked her tongue again as she scanned the parchment. "I wasn't expecting it to be this bad so soon." Looking up, she met his eyes gravely. "Is this going to be better or worse than last time?"

He shrugged again. "I don't know, Poppy. It will be better in some ways, because I stand far higher now than I did then, but worse in others, because he is far less sane and seems more prone to venting emotions on us. I don't know which way the balance will shift. It's too early to tell."

"Hazard a guess."

Severus thought about it. "Better in the short term," he said finally. "But we have – at a conservative estimate – several years of war ahead of us. I think in the long run it will be worse... for all of us."

"That's not what I hoped to hear, but it's about what I expected. Very well, Severus, we're done for now. Please try to take a little more care of yourself. Hopefully I won't see you here before next month, but I suspect that's a vain hope."

And here they were again. September the first. The beginning of another year. Severus stood motionless on the battlements, staring down through the gathering darkness of the autumn evening at the carriages unloading another load of students. The Thestrals stood impassively as the unknowing children crowded around and between them, chattering and laughing as they greeted their friends, pushing and shoving playfully at one another. Hidden from their view – had any of them bothered to look up – by the deepening shadows, his hands clenched into fists as he watched them.

His dark eyes were bleak as he observed the children teasing one another as they made their way into school to begin another year, listening to their laughter with no real expression on his face. They had no idea. Only a few short weeks before, these children had sat in the Great Hall and listened to the Headmaster telling them that their world had ended, that a wizard they had only ever known in stories – little more than a bogeyman – was back; yet clearly the news hadn't had much effect. One or two of them seemed quieter, more subdued – almost against his will, his eyes sought the thrice-cursed Golden Trio, Potter and his little sidekicks; none of them were smiling – and some, unfortunately mostly from his own House, were silent in the manner of those hiding secret knowledge; but by and large the children below him were completely unaffected.

Automatically he lifted a hand to his sleeve, rubbing restlessly at his left forearm, his long fingers tracing the brand hidden under the black cloth. If they only knew. Clenching his hand into a fist as he dragged it away from his arm, he turned away and began to make his way down to the Great Hall, to take his place at the staff table and watch the Sorting before returning to the silence of the dungeons, to sit and stare into the fire and wait in dread for the increasingly familiar burn that would call him once more into hell. It had been a very long summer, and it had only just begun.

As he left the battlements, he heard again the bright, cheerful laughter of the youngsters arriving. They were so innocent, so blissfully ignorant of their world crumbling all around them.

In that moment, he hated them.

Here we go again...

Note: The issue I spoke of here earlier has been resolved. I sincerely hope nothing like it occurs again, and I want to thank all of you for your support.

I hope you enjoy my new fic.