Tokens and Memories

By tearsofphoenix

Standard disclaimer applies: it's all JKR.

Many, many thanks to Whitehound, who edited this new story with patient, precious care and to Lady Memory who previewed it with tireless attention.

Everything had proceeded well, during the seven years since Voldemort's demise - quite well indeed until one damnable Friday evening on which all the surviving members of the Order had been summoned to Grimmauld Place.

After their wedding, Harry and Ginny had chosen to live there, and many changes had been made to the interior of the house, which now looked very comfortable and welcoming.

Since the end of the war, the Order had scheduled regular meetings to keep each other informed of even the slightest rumour relating to their old enemies: who was trying to regroup; who was the latest to be captured… nothing, however, had presented a real danger up to that day, and everything had remained under control. Little James Sirius had been born just a few weeks ago and that was probably why, that Friday, many had been surprised to gather again for a reason other than congratulating the young parents.

Having recently begun to doubt many of her past and even her future life-choices, Hermione had welcomed the sudden call, because she could feel a strange sort of excitement about that meeting, in spite of the possible forthcoming danger. While joining the little crowd approaching the doorway, she shivered in anticipation, and the hope of changing the routine that was slowly threatening to cancel her vital dynamism grew stronger in her mind. Then, when she entered the kitchen, where as always the meeting would be held, an unexpected sight overcame even her highest expectations, leaving her thrilled and utterly surprised.

After seven years in which nightmares and rumours had been her only news of him, the dark and still-imposing figure of Severus Snape, oddly at ease in the middle of the little crowd gathered around him, stood in front of her incredulous eyes. Suddenly she felt the need to sit down, in order to compose herself; and as she stared at him, memories that had been sleeping for too long in the most hidden corner of her mind overwhelmed the young witch…

It had been the day after Harry and Ron had won the Sword of Gryffindor and destroyed the Horcrux hidden in the locket… she was still very angry and confused about her reaction to Ron's return, so she hadn't joined the boys in their walk through the woods; instead, she had decided to stay close to the tent, reading the tales of the Bard and trying to figure out the dangers that would be part of the task that they were facing. Then, suddenly, she had felt magical ropes restraining her movements and, after a moment, a no-longer Disillusioned Snape had appeared in front of her.

"You'll forgive this precaution, Miss Granger, but what I must tell you is too important to be put at risk by an uncontrolled reaction to my visit," he had murmured, adding Muffliato for good measure before coming any closer, "however understandable."

Hermione's dilated pupils showed her fear all too well, so he had made an evident effort to be kind as he explained.

"I'm speaking to you in the hope that your celebrated brilliant mind will be able to see past surface appearances and prejudices…" he said, and then, with a few words, he explained how his intervention had granted Potter the ownership of the Sword.

"It was necessary for him to win it 'under conditions of need and valour' so I couldn't deliver it any other way, of course. I'm sure that you see my point. The knowledge of these facts is enough to give me some credit," he ended.

Up to that point Hermione had experienced for the first time what speechlessness truly meant, but now she whispered, "You could have found out those facts by spying on us or used some information given to you by the Headmaster before you murdered him, something that would allow you to discover our latest movements… Sir," she concluded, unable to restrain herself from using his title in spite of the emphasis she had put on his predecessor's role, a role that, in her opinion, Snape was now usurping.

"I could, and I must add that you should always be vigilant like this, because this is exactly the approach you all need. Believe it or not as you please, but I've been informed of Dumbledore's requests to the three of you, as well as of the fact that no one of us actually knows the whole picture regarding his secrets … and I'm wondering if the blind faith with which we are following his plans still has a raison d'être… Wait!" he urged, seeing a righteously indignant reply rising to her lips.

"Like you, I've always respected his authority… I always did," he sighed. Then, looking at her distrustful eyes, he concluded bitterly, "But maybe his grand plan wasn't as infallible as one would suppose… since it resulted in his own death. I'm beginning to consider other possibilities, especially after having found this," he ended, and saying those words he placed in her hand a piece of parchment that he had kept carefully concealed about himself.

Confused, Hermione read the unbelievable words written by Lily Potter: "…could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindewald."

"She was referring to Dumbledore, you know," he added, and Hermione noticed a slight blush colouring his sallow cheeks, while his eyes glinted, as if daring her to question why he had only a piece of a letter which, as his words hinted, he had read in its entirety.

Hermione suddenly realized that she knew the missing part of that missive… Harry had shown it to her during the days in which they had used Grimmauld Place as a shelter! Now that she could see how that letter ended, she began to consider the possibility that there was some truth in the recent rumours about their former Headmaster.

Looking at Snape's forbidding expression she kept silent, though, and concealed her emotions; but she felt quite sure now about the honesty of his words, if not of his intentions, and waited for him to tell her more.

"Don't blindly trust in everything Dumbledore said or every order he gave you…" he continued. "This is what I want you to bear in mind as you continue to help Potter… I can't reveal any more than this and I can't expect you to trust me, but do remember my advice… and, of course, do not tell Potter of my visit… even though he, obviously, wouldn't believe a word I say," he ended, while, for the very first time since she had known him, his voice had sounded less sure and intimidating, but rather almost pleading.

"That's a lot to ask, Sir…" she muttered, and her wrinkled brows betrayed her uneasiness in the face of the wizard who, after all, had murdered the man whom he was calling into question.

He didn't answer but, tucking the paper back between the folds of his robes again, he raised his head as if in challenge; then, with a non-verbal spell, he released her and Disapparated.

Dazzled and stunned, Hermione stared at the now empty space for a while, not knowing what to make of that vague advice which could have easily been a trap planned by her former teacher along with his evil master… and yet, a trap to what purpose?

She hadn't told the boys of that surreal encounter, anyway… thus implicitly acknowledging that telling Harry wouldn't do him any good. But she had remembered everything Snape had said, every word, so she had questioned more than ever each one of their choices, suggested the visit to the Lovegoods' house, and persisted in trying to keep Harry focused on the task of the Horcruxes…

She had, in the end, suspected that, of all Dumbledore's follies, the Hallows had been, possibly, the one which Snape's warning related to and, of her own free will, she had decided that in that matter she could safely follow his suggestion, especially when Harry had seemed so enamoured of the new trail.

Since then, she had always associated mixed feelings with her memory of that meeting with Snape, until the moment in which the whole truth of his sacrifice had been revealed, marring victory and rousing a sorrowful remorse for her own actions – or, better, for the lack of them - towards the man who hadn't survived.

Except he had… and now, still standing in the middle of the room, he seemed to have noticed her arrival without missing the emotions she was feeling.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

Everyone had greeted Snape with unconcealed emotion, because even though many had suspected for a long time that the absence of a body or of a portrait of him meant that, somehow, somewhere, he was alive, no one had known it for certain until now.

Kingsley Shacklebolt had introduced Snape's presence, making everyone aware that he had known his whereabouts all along, and this information had helped to make Snape's re-acquaintance with the little group easier.

In this way, Severus Snape came to be meeting those people for the first time in a very long while and, just as he had done with everybody else, he acknowledged Hermione's arrival with a slight nod. He didn't like to be the centre of attention, and yet he knew it was unavoidable.

But his main focus, at the moment, wasn't on anybody's emotions, not even his own; he was actually concentrating on the reason he had been unable to refuse this call, after all the years in which he had preferred to be left alone. All of a sudden he had been forced to think over the events of the past, having been diverted from his chosen solitude to find himself once more part of the secret group gathered at its old headquarters.

Seeing Hermione Granger's reaction, now, had also brought to his mind the strange meeting they had had all those years ago, and all the previous events that had led up to it.

He had remembered how, after Dumbledore had told him about the fragment of Voldemort's soul inside the Boy, he had felt that such an astonishing and hurtful revelation had nearly erased any hope of success in a task that had been his main reason for living through all those long years of atonement.

Increasingly, as event after event had unfolded, showing him that his room for manoeuvre was getting narrower and narrower, Snape had realized that he had to do some research of his own, as he couldn't carry on his mission without any useful clue as to what was really going on.

That was the main reason why one day he had gone to Grimmauld Place, along with the fact that right then he wasn't feeling like he could go back to the castle… not yet.

After the air battle in which he hadn't been able to prevent himself from hurting one of those whom he had sworn to protect, he couldn't face, so soon, the place in which he would certainly have to watch, helpless, as more harm was inflicted on his students during the months to come… he knew that George Weasley's wound hadn't been completely his fault, even less his purpose, but the ever-present feelings of guilt were making it very hard to resume his cool façade as if nothing had happened. Bound to his task, knowing how close to failure the events of the night before had come, he not only needed to calm his mind, but he also had to come up with a plan of his own, some independent action in which he could be something other than a dutiful puppet.

At that time, he hadn't yet found any references to split souls, soul fragments or whatever else could enlighten him about what the Boy was carrying inside his head, neither in any book of his own collection nor at Hogwarts, the Restricted Section included. And, of course, he hadn't had free access to Malfoy's collection, given who was currently residing at the manor.

In the end, he had impulsively decided to make a final exploration of Black's house, collecting every scrap of useful information he could find in its Library; so he had searched fruitlessly amongst their old tomes and wandered from one room to another until, eventually, he had found something essential right in Sirius Black's bedroom. What he had discovered wasn't exactly what he was searching for, but when it suddenly appeared in front of him it confirmed his suspicions, written on the most unexpected piece of evidence.

He hadn't come for that. He hadn't had the tiniest clue that he would find those words and that photo… but there they were, and they seemed to be a hint, a helpful suggestion meant for him and left neglected until the day in which he, and only he, would find it.

He hadn't reacted with satisfaction though. That unexpected find had violently stirred up the memories and the guilty feelings that he had hoped would have grown less during the years in which he had acted as a spy, to protect Lily's son. But, like a thunderous wave, they had washed over him, until it had become impossible to keep his composure. Lost in his torment, he had knelt dejectedly on the floor, unaware even of the burning tears that were trickling down his cheeks and that he had restrained till that moment.

That day he had felt very close to losing the very last bit of the faith that had sustained his life… tired to the bone to see how, failure after failure, his existence had become a never-ending chain of useless, helpless attempts… and nothing else.

Then, once more, he had raised his worn-out body, collecting his emotions and concealing them in his heart. And he had hidden on his chest the ripped pieces of the letter and of the photo that he had so unexpectedly found; he didn't know whether they would become a reminder or an armour to him, yet he treasured them lovingly about his person, incomplete tokens of something that had never been his except in his delusions.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

Ending his reverie abruptly, Snape realized that he didn't really know if his warning had been effective in helping Granger and through her, Potter.

It had probably been useless; in the end, it had been something else that had made the difference, the memories given to the boy in Snape's direst hour… but whatever had happened, it was history at the moment, and he didn't blame the young witch for her old distrust, not even for the way in which she had deserted him in his most desperate moment. However, he didn't carry his understanding so far as to comfort the witch, no matter how pale she had become… much more pressing matters were at hand, and it was her turn, this time, to wait and see if trust could be reinstated and make them allies.

The Minister had started speaking, and Snape noticed that what he was saying now was clearly addressed to him: "… and the highest praise for the vital role you played in our victory! Really, your sacrifice can never be honoured enough. I'm sure I speak on behalf of all the Order when I say that at the very least we are extremely grateful to have you with us once more, Severus!"

"Hear, hear!" someone exclaimed, and spontaneous applause showed the group's full approval of the little speech just made.

Still dazed and abashed, Hermione dared glance at Snape and saw that, even if a slight flush had coloured his pale cheekbones, he had accepted the praise without being greatly affected by it. He didn't seem inclined to speak yet, and a courteous nod seemed to be the only reply he was willing to give.

In the aftermath of the war, and knowing that all his most painful secrets had now been revealed, Snape hadn't been able to face anyone anymore; so, after having realized that the precautions he had taken to survive had worked - though they had left him barely able to leave the place of his supposed death after some long hours during which nobody had come to retrieve his body - he had gone into hiding, trying to heal himself and recapture the sense of his life, of how he might live now that his task was completed. When his long convalescence had ended, he had revealed his sanctuary to just one man, and that man had been Kingsley Shacklebolt himself.

The ex Auror's skills in protecting Sirius Black when he was in hiding hadn't gone unnoticed by Snape, as well as his inner wisdom; so, since the moment Snape had searched for Shacklebolt to clarify his position, the two wizards had been in touch, keeping each other updated through an almost friendly correspondence which had, however, taken a completely different turn now that a new threat had arisen.

Perceiving the growing curiosity of the people gathered in the house, the Minister didn't dawdle and asked Arthur Weasley to introduce the matter.

"Seven years might seem a long time or a short one, depending on what happened at the outset… I for one know that there are wounds left by the war that have never been healed and never will", he said, and couldn't help but glance at his family, who had no longer been the same after Fred's death.

"However, it seems that not everyone had grown tired of fighting, since odd skirmishes have been reported and several of them don't fit the usual pattern of minor disturbances… Senior officers at the Ministry have begun to be seriously worried about them, and it seems that these incidents involve young people, strong and determined individuals who apparently have no connection with our old enemies, even though they seem to hold the same absurd convictions about the purity of the race."

"Something similar is happening in many countries in the Muggle world, too," Hermione couldn't help but comment. "It seems unbelievable, but many young people are attracted by violence and the same old evil theories are finding willing new recruits, even though it's well-known that during the Second World War the same dictators they are idolizing committed terrible atrocities which affected most of Europe and Asia."

"Exactly, my dear," Kingsley said in agreement. "However, I think that by exploiting our different roles and opportunities, each of us could really make a difference in stopping all this before it's too late. Preserving the school and our students is paramount, Minerva, and it's imperative to identify any possible activists who may be already at the school and stop them from proselytizing others while they are still relatively few, in order to neutralise their influence on the students."

The Headmistress thinned her lips and nodded while determination shone in her eyes… age and war had left their signs on the old witch, but she was still there, proud to have been called and ready to take her place once again.

"As well as this," Kinsley continued, "there is more that needs to be done, because these arrogant senseless ideas are always the same: pureblood superiority, supremacy over Muggles…

"Andromeda," he went on, looking at the witch, "teaching Muggle Studies can be useful to identify those who show little respect for the discipline and the ones who are openly intolerant, so this will be your field of investigation. Any further suggestions?" he asked, looking around, after having received the woman's assent.

George and Ronald Weasley proposed themselves as recipients – and inducers - of all the gossip going on in Diagon Alley; Bill said that he was well-placed to monitor Gringotts' customers, to see if anybody was sponsoring the groups and their activities. Only Snape didn't say a word.

Kingsley Shacklebolt resumed his speech.

"Checking the usual suspects at the Ministry – because we are not so naive as to trust that the whole matter won't appeal to those in search of power, once they find out about it – we have also found some further evidence, some symbols drawn at the sites of crimes, whose meaning still baffles us. We'll hold off from telling you the details until we know more about it. Of course, Harry, you will pay special attention to the Aurors, since it is well known that military and police corps often attract the type who's looking for an excuse for violence."

The Minister sighed and went on, this time looking directly into Snape's eyes. "But there are other ways to know more and this is where we need your skills, Severus, to have a chance at success. You already know since our previous encounter how much I loathe asking you to do this. But your role in the demise of Voldemort and Dumbledore is too great an opportunity not to use it as a bait to lure those who are reinventing the myth of power. Plus you've been in hiding all this time and people know nothing of your true current intentions."

"I've told you that I'm ready, Minister," Snape answered, interrupting the wizard briskly. "We can't afford to risk what we have all gained, and there's no excuse for wasting time by indulging in useless pleasantries."

Hermione winced at those words that had a strange echo in her memory… but, before she could wonder further, Harry protested loudly in disagreement.

"Whatever your plan is, Kingsley, it isn't fair! He has already given everything, making the highest sacrifice for all of us!" Many nodded, and nobody seemed to feel the wish to contest Harry's anger… nobody except the object of his tirade.

"Albeit that I'm impressed by your passionate defence, Potter, don't you think it would be better at least to hear what the plan involves and what my role in it will be - a role which I've already accepted, by the way?"

"Yes, and I suppose it is to be our spy amongst the 'usual suspects', to be our double agent again and be the target of all the danger and hate anyone can throw at you, am I right?" Harry counteracted, vainly trying to match the elder wizard's ironic tone. "Do we really want that? Again?" he ended, looking around.

"Not exactly, Harry; if you would please sit down, I'll try and explain why this part of the strategy could turn out to be our best weapon," the Minister finally succeeded in saying, while everybody else, shifting on their feet, felt grateful for the chance to listen rather than having to intervene.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

If Snape had known that, after the meeting, his friend and superior would have forced him to accept the added assistance and protection of a teammate, he would probably have taken advantage of the opportunity offered by Potter's outburst, and given the spectators a piece of his mind on the prospect of being associated with the particular witch chosen to provide said assistance.

Now, on the contrary, he was stuck. His new place amongst the highest Ministry ranks required an assistant, and who better than the insufferable Granger to fill that role, since she was already working there? Thinking of the occasions on which necessity would probably require them to discuss even the smallest details, sure as he was that such a relationship would involve a lot of questions and answers, he already felt an imminent headache.

But, if he would be allowed to have his way, those exchanges would certainly not be the first thing on which he would focus. Not when he had a good source to consult, before everything else.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

The signs which had been spotted, the ones to which the Minister had referred, were perhaps the symbols of the so-called "Deathly Hallows", a line, a circle, a triangle, but it was hard to be sure because each time only one Hallow had been drawn and nobody could fathom the meaning of the choice, case by case. The situation was baffling. Snape hadn't known of the existence of such a myth until the very moment of his last encounter with Voldemort, and even then it had been just the Elder Wand that had been mentioned to him.

Probably, not even the Dark Lord had known of the other two items and of the power that they carried, if owned together. Potter and Weasley had recalled how harmless people like Luna's father had sported symbols like these on medals and similar accessories, quite nonchalantly, but the Order had considered them to be just an odd coincidence, and had focused mainly on the increasing episodes of fighting or other violence.

It was just because his knowledge on the matter had been quite recent that Snape had decided to learn more about the cult of such symbols as soon as Kingsley had mentioned them; that's why a visit to an old comrade might be the way to fulfil this half-formed notion.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

"Delighted as I am to receive a visit after all this time, Severus, I'm still wondering… to what do I owe it?" Lucius Malfoy asked, greeting him with his usual condescending formality… and perhaps using it like a shield to cover his emotions, as his last encounter with Snape had been one he hadn't wanted to remember over all the intervening years, knowing what had followed it.

"I've heard that the things that you had to concede in order to make amends after your trial included allowing free access for Ministry Officers to your esteemed library, Lucius."

With a slight nod, the blonde wizard confirmed it but, from the flicker in his grey eyes, Snape could easily perceive the affronted reaction that such a demand still elicited in his friend's feelings.

"Mmm…" the other man purred. "Is this what you are now? An Officer? Or a researcher?"

"Not exactly," Snape answered without rising to his bait. "And if you cooperate, maybe I'll tell you something more about it. For now, however, I'd rather know who took advantage of that access, and which volumes they consulted…"

So Lucius led Snape to his celebrated collection and showed him the register in which he could find the answers he needed. Then Malfoy crossed his arms in what very much resembled polite impatience. Seeing that he didn't seem to be intending to leave, Snape spoke again.

"These are Ministry affairs I'm afraid, Lucius, and both my presence and my purpose here must remain private for now. There are some matters on which I'd like to have your opinion though, so if you could arrange one of those magnificent refreshments of yours, I'll join you sooner than you expect in your parlour."

The blonde wizard knew when an honourable exit was offered, so he took it with grace. Snape didn't acknowledge it, immersed as he was in the information that he was researching and about which, later, he was still reminiscing.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

So, that was how it had started, with the events of that fateful Friday … though it wasn't long before the thrill of excitement which those who had gathered at Grimmauld Place had felt at being awakened from everyday banality began to pall, as the situation started to appear increasingly threatening.

Meanwhile, working with Snape had been a challenging and educational experience for Hermione Granger. Spotting the possible sources of risk amongst the politicians, and intercepting the attempts at interference by the old pureblood families who still influenced the main institutions of the Government, had proved to be a very useful exercises in subtlety which had given Hermione Granger an increased self-confidence for which she would forever be grateful.

It hadn't been an easy partnership, of course, and she would remember forever the first occasion on which she had crossed the threshold of his office. He had been standing in front of a window and hadn't acknowledged her presence for an indefinite period of time. When he had finally turned to face her, his expression had been unreadable.

"Let's forego the pleasantries and see what information you have for me," he had said, approaching his desk with a sigh, and she hadn't been able to decide whether she should be grateful that he had been so formal, avoiding anything which might call up memories of their past, or rather displeased by his cold manners… Then, since he was completely new to the place, she had started responding to the various things that he wanted to know, until he had dismissed her by saying that it was enough for that day.

It must be said that, after their first awkward meeting and in spite of Snape's detached attitude, somehow Hermione and her former professor had established a working relationship and a productive way of dealing with their daily routine. She had learnt to enjoy their witty exchanges; he occasionally hadn't refused a break and a cup of coffee or tea. What she still didn't like, however, was the fact that he didn't seem eager to share what he was discovering, and she had been able to provoke a reaction and shake his impassiveness on only one occasion.

It hadn't been a revelation connected to the actual danger, but it had been a revelation nevertheless. Looking at his discomfited features at the end of a particularly tiring day in which their investigation had reached a deadlock, she had felt the irresistible impulse to tell him something less impersonal than the normal comparing of notes that was their usual means of communication.

"I can't expect to know how your meetings went," she had said softly, in that soothing tone till now reserved only for her dearest friends, "since I don't know exactly what you have learned from them or what makes you so disappointed. But there is still time to make further enquiries and further searches, and surely there is still hope of finding something relevant."

He had raised his chin, looking intently at her as if her words might mean more than a simple attempt to cheer him up.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

Hope.

He had always hoped; since the days of his childhood, when he had hoped to find peace and love at Hogwarts with Lily, to the most defining moments of his adulthood, when hope had changed into wishing: the wish to die of a broken heart when Lily had been murdered, and the wish to be forgiven when he had promised to protect her child…

Yes, it could be said that he had always gone on hoping against hope all through his life, until he had clung to his last hope: the possibility of finding a way to fulfil his vow and save Harry Potter, taking every precaution to stay alive in order to do so. In the end, that was what had made his own survival possible as well: a survival which he had slowly learnt to accept when he had realised that his mission had been accomplished and, therefore, there seemed to be no further reason to go on living.

Yet Hermione Granger was right: they mustn't give in after the many risks and sufferings they had survived. So, still pondering her so unexpectedly kind words, he stood up. But, before he could answer with something irrelevant and meaningful at the same time, to reassure Granger about his intentions, she spoke again.

"I know that this is off topic, Sir, but I have been wondering since the very first time we met again…" She paused, as if at a loss for words for fear of being too daring. Was this the right moment to ask him what had nagged at her mind since then?

"What?" he urged, seeing her skin flush with embarrassment. "Whatever the matter is, spit it out before you explode!"

"Well, we haven't ever discussed it, yet I can't help but ask myself: why did you visit me that day, during the war?"

Snape hadn't foreseen that question, but of course it had always been there, hanging unresolved between them ever since.

His, he remembered, had been the feckless act of someone despairing and alone, and later he had often shivered thinking that he might have endangered his cover and his whole mission that day. Hers, instead, had always been the behaviour of a faithful accomplice of her friend, and luckily her actions had been dictated by prudence and care, even then.

Eventually, just when silence was becoming unbearable to Hermione, he answered.

"Just as I was ready to leave the Forest of Dean, after the delivery of the sword, I realized that you weren't with Potter and Weasley. And I was aware of the ways in which you, more than anybody else, had always been able to help Potter to overcome danger and threats to his life, along with a good helping of luck… It seemed a risk worth trying, therefore, to approach you and warn you while you were alone. In hindsight, it was a shot in the dark, but right then it seemed a worthwhile challenge."

"Yes, but… everything was so confused, I didn't know… what did you have in mind by giving me that advice?" she went on asking.

"I wasn't sure myself… I was simply losing hope, and carrying on my mission was getting harder, day by day … I couldn't just sit and watch the three of you wandering in the forest, unable to fight danger because of lack of information, or being manipulated into facing such tasks without being forewarned…" he replied; and, in doing so, he remembered that, amongst the memories he had given to Potter, there had been also his desolate, hopeless crying while reading the letter which he had showed to Granger. In spite of its humiliating content, he had exposed his own feelings and given that memory to the Boy with the intent of both gaining his trust and warning him… exactly as he had done during that awkward meeting with the Granger girl.

The Hermione in the present was now looking at him with concerned eyes. She had never seen him so uncomfortable; therefore she gave up her enquiries and smiled gently. "I have always remembered the words you said during the war, and tried to understand… but it was only at the end that I realised that you were trustworthy. I hope I have developed into a better listener since then," she said.

He nodded.

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

A new understanding had been mutely established between them. So, since that day, she did her best to be even more collaborative, and he probably appreciated such an attitude because his behaviour slowly became less cold and restrained… On a couple of occasions they even found themselves laughing together, after some poorly suppressed snickers at the expense of their colleagues…

All that must be the reason why she was missing him now, she thought. He had been absent from his office at the Ministry for more than a week, and though they still weren't completely confident or at ease with each other, surely he wouldn't have deliberately disappeared without a word about his intentions.

So… so perhaps he had been surprised and overpowered and maybe hurt… and perhaps now he was being held prisoner somewhere, if not worse…

She stopped that train of thought: she wouldn't even consider such terrible possibilities! Yet she was worried, and she didn't know what would be the best thing to do.

Hermione had been proposed to Snape as an assistant among other things to prevent just such situations from arising, but her wish to trust his judgement and actions had instead prevented her from alerting the Order, up to that moment. Snape, she considered, wasn't a clerk, with an obligation to be constantly present in the office; also, many of his investigations needed to be carried on in the real world, not just inside the walls of a room, and surely he would bring all his past experience and ability to bear on those tasks.

For all these reasons, she had begun to worry only in the last few days, but then that feeling had quickly increased, turning into real anxiety.

The witch shook her head, resolving to call Kingsley by the evening if there was still no news; then, once more clinging to the reassuring power of her daily routine, she entered the office. And there, for the second time in a few weeks, she staggered under the shock of an unexpected sight.

Snape was there, and Merlin knew how he had succeeded in getting into the room without being noticed. He seemed rather distressed; so, forgetting her self-control Hermione ran close to him, to where he sat slumped awkwardly on the edge of the chair. Then, bracing his shoulder with her hand as if to prevent him from collapsing further, she whispered: "You're back!"

△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△△IO△IO△IO△IO△IO△

Author's Notes:

The second and final part of this story will be posted very soon!