Disclaimer: I hereby solemnly swear I am not JK Rowling. I am making no profit on her remarkable characters nor her fantastic plot. I simply wish to take them out for a quick stroll through my imagination and promise to return them before dark and unharmed.

A/N: This story may or may not be finished before the end of the holiday season. If not, I hope you will stay the course with me until it comes to its natural conclusion. Reviews are always welcome.


Chapter One

Hovels of varying sizes and states of habitability sprouted like drought-ravaged weeds in the empty lots between the abandoned warehouses of Tumbledown Rookery. The broken ampules and other bits of discarded paraphernalia associated with the trades of the red light districts littered the derelict pavement. Some glistened with the essence of the previous night while others were fossilized reminders of the days when the Muggle kingpins started their rise to dominion over all things illegal and illicit.

As those sex and drugs industrialists rose in power, their goods becoming more mainstream than deviant, they moved their bases of operations into more fashionable districts nearer London proper. The shacks and tenements left behind were fertile grounds for the dregs of wizarding society. The likes of Mundungus Fletcher and his associates mingled with the Muggles too damaged to follow the opiate gods and scarlet goddesses from the gutters. Together, they formed a cohesive and dangerously vile new species of humanity sharing the dark crevices of squalor and despair.

Severus curled his nose in disgust and neatly sidestepped a used prophylactic indelibly glued to the curb. One would think growing up in such circumstances, as well as the last three years of exposure to such cesspools as part of his joint position with the Ministry and the British government's Department for Children, Schools and Families rendered him immune to these unsanitary conditions. A gust of early October wind tousled his hair and aroused the aroma of putrefaction from the belly of the sewers. A wave of nausea crested near the back of his throat urging him to swallow vigorously until he could retrieve the scented handkerchief from the interior pocket of his mac. The gentle, familiar perfume of vanilla and herbs slowly infused the stench, constructing a palatable bouquet. Immune, no. A stalwart student of experience, yes.

And experience he had. Tasked with intervening when Muggle-born or the offspring of exogamous unions were endangered by either the Muggle or the wizarding faction, he'd been in palatial mansions where pureblood parents inflicted the most grotesquely antiquated punishments on children thought to be inadequate to carry on the family name and in ramshackle corrugated outbuildings that made a shanty in Mumbai's Dharavi look like the Taj Mahal. Yet nothing seemed to offer immunization for the shock in seeing the continued decay of the dung heap that prompted him to begin the journey along a new tightrope—one stretched between the world of Merlin's descendants and those of Arthur's.

He'd been a year from his union with the Department of Witchling and Wizardkin Protection when he first encountered this particular slum. A year from realizing just how deep his desire to protect those whose childhood resembled his own from becoming the errant young man he'd been when he took Voldemort's Mark. The vanilla scent held prisoner in the weave of the square of fine white lawn slowly gave way to the undertones of lavender, calming him almost as effectively as the wearer's touch. His Anam Cara's touch.

He ran his thumb along the cool smoothness of the platinum band encircling his left ring finger, its surface still unmarred after nearly three years. Anam Cuplach was the more appropriate term for his beloved. At least according to Minerva. The old witch twinkled brighter than Albus bloody Dumbledore each time she reminded him she'd been the first to recognize the link. "Twin souls," she beamed the night the girl materialized out of thin air inside Hogwarts' teacher's lounge. "The rarest of all soul mates, Severus," she said, patting him on the back. "And I can think of no two more deserving of the bond."

Deserving or not, he was grateful for the chance to love and be loved by the most amazing witch of her age. Grateful for the changes loving her had brought to his life. Grateful the Creator of the universe seemed willing to watch over and protect her that Halloween night four years earlier. The one that found Severus stumbling from his recovery bed in Hogwarts' hospital wing just days after a near-fatal encounter with a rogue Auror hell bent on doling out the justice denied the Potions master.

Religion thought long abandoned resurfaced in the hour it took to use the witch's magic stirring in his soul to pinpoint her. Every prayer learned at his mother's knee as well as those from the Book Of Common Prayer passed his heart's lips from the moment a frantic Harry Potter stumbled out of the Floo near Poppy's office until the moment he knelt in front of the chair the ginger haired fool had bound her to and carefully removed the tethers of ordinary rope and grey industrial tape. She'd fallen into his arms, exhausted but unharmed and untouched save a bruised cheek where the boy had manhandled her into one of the fireplaces at number twelve, Grimmauld Place during the abduction. It could have been much worse.

A shiver of gratitude raced down his spine as the memory swirled. He'd found her. Flashes of the other members of the motley crew assisting him filtered through his brain. They'd found her. Before the demented wizard could do more than secure her to the chair and make her watch as he stood across the tiny, dingy room and stroked himself to readiness.

Unharmed and untouched, physical wounds healed quickly. Emotional ones followed more slowly, mending fully only after he followed her back into a mostly Muggle existence—the impetus for his current position on the joint task force. His lips twitched as thoughts of their home in London's Belgravia washed over him. Indeed, it could have been so much worse.

An empty glass phial clattered against the side of an ancient wheelie bin in the alleyway to his left. His companion trembled, her gloved fingers clinched against his arm.

Damn.

Severus' brow furrowed of its own accord. Instinct insisted he leave straight from his office. He, however, felt it more prudent to make a quick trip home to change from his suit to something less conspicuous. Something that would offer enough anonymity to keep Rita Skeeter or one of her lackeys from following him into the field. He owed it to Potter to at least attempt to abide by the request to keep this case from the press. And the Ministry. And the Weasley family. Unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the return of his bride from an abbreviated day of classes at King's College.

Once his compassionate witch uncovered the destination and the wizard involved, there was no dissuading her. "I owe it to his family, Severus. And to Harry," she said, buttoning up the coat she'd been ready to discard the moment she crossed the threshold from the garage. "If we truly want to keep Ronald's name from appearing on the Ministry registry again, to give his family a chance to get him the help he needs, then you can't call anyone from the office to provide support. And the place is too dangerous for you to go alone, so...

Thus, her presence at his side. While he coveted her nearness perpetually, it wasn't worth the nightmares that would plague her for weeks after the day's adventure. The doubts it would stir. The attempt she'd make to keep him at arms length.

"Hermione—"

"I'm fine, Severus."

And so it began.

She was far from fine. He gently disentangled her hand from his arm then wrapped the long limb around her shoulders, drawing her as close to his warmth as possible given the layers of cotton and wool. Offering her as much strength as he could spare.

Severus glanced up at the grimy windows just visible above the roofline of The Three Dragons Pub. Behind them, perhaps, another life potentially ruined by young Mr. Weasley's selfishness. A Muggle female resembling Hermione in almost every aspect, according to Harry. Or at least that's what the ginger menace confessed as his best friend committed him to St. Mungo's Addictions unit for the hundredth time since that horrid Halloween. With any luck, the young lady was a figment of the boy's drug-addled imagination and they'd find the apartment empty. Devoid of any life forms beyond those of the cockroaches and other vermin indigenous to such places. And if luck was not on their side...

He tightened his grip on his wife and trudged toward the tenement's decaying stoop. No need to borrow trouble. He drew as deep a breath as he dared given the putrid air swirling about them. They were sure to find it soon enough.