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Amid the crowding stacks, Hermione coughed as she reshelved yet another book before wiping her hand on her skirt. Touching the cover had left her skin feeling tacky, as if coated by some sort of aural dust.

"Ridiculous," she murmured. Books don't emanate spectral energy. They're not alive, no matter what magical enhancements they carry.

All the same, she wasn't fond of working in the hauntingly claustrophobic area of the Restricted Section in which she found herself; there was a malign undercurrent to the room's stale air that she didn't like, and it kept her from wanting to examine the books stored there in any great hurry.

Ron and Harry would never believe it, she thought, shelving the last book that she held. All the same, I don't think I'll mention my squeamishness to them this weekend.

"Granger?"

The unexpected whisper startled Hermione. Her hand dropped and she reared back into a shelf, smacking her head as she caught sight of Severus. She might have exclaimed, but he didn't tolerate sudden, loud noises any better than the books did.

Stop anthropomorphising them, she chastised herself, pushing herself up from the floor and into Severus. Rubbing her head, she asked, "Yes?"

"Why are you in here alone?" he demanded, flushing.

Hermione raised her eyebrows; she'd never seen him blush before. "Madam Pince doesn't like Secure Storage."

"Neither do I. The books here are..." Severus waved a hand as if at a loss for words.

"Disgruntled?" Hermione suggested.

Severus snorted.

Better, Hermione thought, enjoying the sudden smirk on his face and the warmth emanating from his body. Checking herself, however, she asked, "Did you want me, Headmaster?"

"Did I wha—oh, yes—for the list. This list," he replied, emphatically waving a piece of parchment at her. "I want these books. And I believe I've told you more than once to call me Severus."

Hermione took his list and walked out of Secure Storage into the Restricted Section with Severus following her. "Just as I've suggested that you call me Hermione."

The door to Secure Storage closed itself behind them with a reassuring snick! and Severus said, "Yes. Well."

Hermione raised an eyebrow at his uncharacteristic response, and Severus nodded once, sharply, before proceeding towards the exit to the main library.

He's completely forgotten about his books! But wait, Hermione thought, glancing down at the titles on the list, he's already requested these.

It was obvious that Severus had used the list as a pretext to see her, perhaps because he was worried about her being alone with so many temperamental books. Of course, it didn't matter to Hermione why he'd done it; that he was inventing excuses to see her at all made her bold.

"Severus?"

He stiffened and stopped walking but didn't turn around. "What?"

"I'll see to your needs as soon as possible."

(;,;)

Emerging into the general stacks, Severus permitted himself a smile. She's flirting with me.

This pleased him, but it made him nervous, as well; no one had flirted so pointedly with him in years. The last person to do so, in fact, had been Barty Crouch, Jr on the Occasion Best Forgotten, but that didn't count because Crouch had been a titless imbecile and Hermione was bright and busty.

Hermione.

She counted for reasons other than her tits, and therein lay his problem: having somehow allowed himself to rate her among the women he'd like to get to know rather than merely fuck, it didn't bode well for his chances. Shaggable women rarely made it into his bed. Oh, up against the odd wall or behind a hedge—that had always been possible with a certain sort of witch, a witch who knew that she'd never have to be public with him because the Potions conference would end or she'd return to her husband—it wasn't having sex that was Severus' problem.

It was having it off with a witch who might actually desire more than that. Decent, unattached women never seemed to want anything to do with him, but Hermione wasn't the sort of woman who indulged in discreet, no-strings-attached relations; Hermione would want a relationship, and there would be strings.

Strong ones. Possibly even bonds.

Severus' cock twitched at the thought.

So why is she flirting with me? he wondered, idly running his fingers over the spines of the books shelved along his path.

He was hardly a catch, and even though Hermione had taken it upon herself to look after him to some extent since the business in the shack, he didn't suppose that her intentions were romantic. He'd never enjoyed that sort of luck. Perhaps she wasn't flirting with him; perhaps she was merely being nice to him.

He stopped walking and stared blindly into the shelves. I hate it when women do that.

They didn't often bother. Narcissa certainly never had. When they did bother, Severus found that it only added an unwelcome element of hope to his near-perpetual state of arousal, a state that he was certain he should have grown out of long ago.

"Fuck."

A face appeared before him through a gap in the shelf. "Don't give the books any ideas, boy."

"Must you lurk?" Severus accused, feeling his erection, which had already been wilting under the weight of his self-doubt, achieve total flaccidity. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, what?"

Severus' eyes slid over the room; no one else was present. "Goodnight, Aunt Irma."

"Better, and before you go on with your great sulk, tell me: is the girl attending to her duties, or is she reading again?"

The "girl." Of course. Irma thought that he was old, as well. "See for yourself," he retorted, storming off.

No, Granger's not flirting with me. She's merely attending to her sodding duties. And why not? She's got her own titless imbecile in Ronald bloody Weasley.

(;,;)

"You can't be serious," Ron said, wiping strawberry preserves from his chin. "You are serious, aren't you? Have you been drinking anything unusual lately?"

"No one's slipped me a love draught."

"Who said anything about love?"

"I didn't, and I don't. I just, he's, and we're—you and I, I mean—we're not, anymore, but even so, I thought that I should—"

Ron's laughter startled Hermione out of her babbling. "You, you sound like, oh, Hermione," he gasped, pausing to collect himself. "You sound like I did."

"What are you talking about?"

"After I asked Fleur to the ball. You sound like that." Ron shook his head. "This is bloody weird. When we broke up, I was only teasing you about Snape, but you really do fancy him, don't you?"

"Does it bother you that I do?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "Since when have you cared if I were bothered about anything you did? But you're mad, I think. Snape!"

"What's this about Snape?" Harry asked, returning from Grimmauld's pantry with a box of muesli.

"You owe me a Galleon, mate," Ron said, nodding towards Hermione and making a flapping gesture with his hands.

Harry's eyes widened. "No! Really? Merlin, I was sure it would be Krum!"

Hermione blushed; it had been Krum, at least, it had been until Ron had come to his senses, but she had no intention of ever sharing that.

In some things, she knew, Ron needed to be first.

Harry and Ron began positing various annoying theories about what could have possibly attracted Hermione to Severus, and she sighed, remembering the first time that she'd seen him conscious in the Infirmary after bringing him up from the Shrieking Shack.

"You might have left me there," he'd said.

"I might have, but I didn't."

"Go away."

"I will," she'd told him, "but I mean to come back."

Each time that she'd returned, he'd told her to go away—but not before demanding information of her. She'd told him that Harry had survived and won, that many of the students and professors had survived, that Hogwarts wasn't beyond repair; she'd given him an answer to every question that he'd asked save one: "Why? Why didn't you just leave me there to die?"

After he'd asked that question one too many times and her guilt had become too much, Hermione had reminded him that she had left him there to die, that in fact it had been several hours before she'd thought to come looking for his body, that the only reason she'd even bothered to do it was to spare someone else the shock of finding his bloodless corpse. She'd been trying to make him angry, to make him behave like Professor Snape again, but instead, he'd become Severus to her.

"You were supposed to think I was a bastard," he'd said, his mouth trembling. "It wasn't your job to rescue me."

"Your own spells saved you—and you're still a bastard," Hermione had asserted, moving to embrace him—but she'd lost her nerve as she'd leant over him and begun fluffing his pillows instead.

When she'd straightened up, he hadn't attempted to hex her.

"If I'm to be forced to endure your attentions, Granger, you might as well fluff a bit more vigorously."

Her "attentions"—yes, she supposed that she'd forced them upon him.

He needed someone to care about him, and I didn't see anyone else volunteering.

Well, except for Harry, of course, but Severus hadn't been as pleased by the Order of Merlin, First Class as they'd imagined he'd be, and Professor McGonagall had practically forced him to resume his duties as Headmaster before he'd had time to enjoy his return to health. That had been good for him; he liked being active, but it had also isolated him. The students were taking lessons in Hogsmeade in temporary tent-lodgings, and he wasn't teaching Potions.

Once the library's back up and running, I won't have a reason to stay at Hogwarts, Hermione thought, half-noticing Harry passing Ron a coin. Who'll look after him, then? I've got to find a way to—

"Hermione?"

"Hmm?"

"Galleon for your thoughts?"

Harry sputtered as he took a sip of pumpkin juice. "Leave her alone. Can't you see she's in planning mode?"

"Shagging mode, more like. But you know, it's not as if it takes much to catch a bloke's notice. Even Snape must enjoy a nice pair of—"

"Not another word!"

"Thank you, Harry," Hermione said, resolving to nip in the bud any further desire by Ron to discuss her future sex life. "He's right, though. All I'd have to do to get Severus' attention would be to flash my tits at him."

"Oi!"

As red-faced as Harry, Ron still managed to share an amused glance with Hermione.

Pleased, she thought, I can't wait to get back to Severus.

(;,;)

Asenath Whateley, a wraith-thin, dour-faced academic, had presence, but it was the sort from which most men fled. Unfortunately for Severus, such was not an option.

"Good morning, Headmaster Snape," Whateley greeted him nasally as she approached him outside of his office, blinking rapidly at him with dark eyes that were far sharper than her chin. "I've just come from a meeting with Governor Malfoy at his home, and we've drawn up some proposed changes to the House system."

"Have you?" he asked, falling into step with Whateley, who seemed to scuttle more than walk beside him.

It was no doubt an illusion of the dimly lit corridor and her excessively long robes, but he found her gait almost as unsettling as the fact that Lucius had entertained her at the manor; he sped his steps.

Apparently unfazed by his behaviour, Whateley tugged at Severus' sleeve and stopped, which obliged him to do the same. "I believe that you'll find our ideas sound ones, and I expect that we, that is to say, the Salem Institute, will also benefit from our renewed exchange."

The hair on the back of Severus' neck rose. "What do you mean by that?"

"Hasn't Governor Malfoy explained?"

"Obviously not," Severus said, glaring down his nose at Whateley. What did Lucius promise you?

Whateley's lips pulled back to reveal her teeth; Severus expected that the gesture was what passed for a smile from the woman and decided that any promises that Lucius had made to her weren't as the result of a seduction.

"Our generous donation to the repair fund doesn't entitle us to tell you how to run Hogwarts, of course, but we have brought many offerings to replenish your library."

"And?"

"And we did intend those in trade rather than as direct gifts."

"Did you."

"I thought the arrangement was understood, but that it isn't would explain why Pince hasn't been at all useful to me."

"Madam Pince never fails to perform her duties admirably."

"Madam Pince hasn't been at all helpful, but we do require—that is, we would like," Whateley corrected herself, "access to certain texts. As you know, we have our own library-related deficiencies to correct."

So throw more of your money at the problem, you officious little cow.

"Well, Headmaster? What do you say?"

"Apply to Miss Granger with your list of books. If they weren't damaged or destroyed in the battle, then—"

"She's always 'too busy' to help me, it seems."

No doubt with good reason, Severus thought, frowning. "Just what books are you interested in, Ms Whateley?"

"They would be in your Restricted Section."

"Ah."

"'Ah'? That's all you have to say?"

"Yes," Severus replied, walking on with Whateley in rapid scuttle beside him. "Now what's all this nonsense about changing our House system?"

(;,;)

"Of course I understand your concern, Snape," Professor Gideon Andrews of the Salem Institute told him, "but Asenath's been auditing courses at our institution for over a year and knows full well how to handle sensitive materials."

"Did she learn that from you, or was it during her time at Miskatonic University?" Severus asked, sniffing to think of that institution's reputation.

"Oh, I know how it is over in Arkham, but I can vouch for Asenath's skill. I wouldn't have had her accompany us otherwise. If you'd just be good enough to relax your materials restrictions—"

"What is it that Mr Masters and Ms Whateley are so anxious to research?"

"The history of certain misunderstood practices, nothing more."

"What 'misunderstood practices'?"

"Severus, is this interrogation truly necessary?" asked Lucius Malfoy, as he Summoned the pot of tea the three men were sharing.

"Oh, that's quite all right," Andrews said, waving his hand. "It's reasonable that the Headmaster should be curious." He turned towards Severus. "Salem doesn't make a habit of allowing its students to delve into the Dark Arts. The fire was a result of, shall we say, an ill-advised bit of hands-on research. Those students were, well, are no longer interested in their old pursuits, and what Asenath and Eddie seek to discover is the history behind other, similar attempts to work such spells. They have no intention of casting them, you understand, but surely you can appreciate their academic interest in—"

"Demons?" Severus interrupted.

"Severus!"

Andrews chuckled in the face of Lucius' ire. "No such thing, of course. Eddie would have it, however, that uncontrolled pockets of magical energy can account for 'demonic' possession and other related issues. If he can find treatises to that effect, it would greatly support his thesis."

"And Ms Whateley's interests are similar?"

"Asenath is interested in how magic is contained for long periods of time. Curse-breaking is her area of study, and she believes that to understand containment is to be one step closer to understanding the responsible dispersal of such energy."

Lucius exhaled forcefully. Severus could tell that he was bored.

"This is an excellent luncheon, Headmaster," Lucius noted, emphasising Severus' title as if to remind him of his duties as host.

"So it is," Severus replied. "In any case, Professor Andrews, I'm sorry to say that several of the texts to which your students would like access have been destroyed or are being repaired. We will, however, do what we can to accommodate their needs during your visit."

"I see. Well. Excellent. So, shall we discuss the ideas for updating your House system?"

"That would suit me," Lucius said.

Severus shook his head. "They won't do."

"I beg your pardon?" asked Andrews.

"We cannot group the students by year. Pragmatically, we don't have room for seven houses, and—"

"Come now, man, are you a wizard or aren't you? This is a magical building!" Andrews exclaimed.

"One under repair. There have been too many spells cast on and around it in recent months to allow for its safe expansion. More than that, enrollment being as uneven as it is from the first to the seventh year, the Houses would be unable to engage in competition arranged as you would have them." Severus saw that Lucius was about to speak and raised a hand to stop him. "You know that younger students can't be made to compete against older ones academically, and the system that Andrews proposes would mean an end to both the House Cup and Quidditch." Ha! Severus thought, as Lucius frowned. You didn't think of Quidditch, did you?

"If you insist on prizing a game above scholastics," Andrews said, "then the use of an age-appropriate merit system for the formation of teams would—"

"Forgive me," interrupted Lucius, "but the only merit-based system at play in the fielding of a Quidditch team is one of athletic merit. Academics rarely play a role in that."

Severus leant back in his chair and repressed a smirk, expecting that he wouldn't be called upon to speak for some time. Thank Merlin for Quidditch!

Lucius may have re-established the connection between the Salem Institute and Hogwarts so that he wouldn't have to invest so much of his own money in repairing his reputation and the school, but Severus knew that, no matter how badly Lucius wished to promote himself in the public eye, he'd never spend tradition at the expense of sport.

And as far as Severus was concerned, this would be the first and last time that he agreed to host visiting scholars, no matter what the Board had to say about the benefits of such hospitality.

(;,;)

It had been an excellent visit, but Hermione was growing tired of Harry's unexpected interest in the Salem delegation. She was relieved when Ron had to leave for Hogsmeade; it gave her the opportunity to change the subject.

"So, when are you going to ask Ginny to marry you, already?"

"Can't."

"Why not? You've been dating for—"

"Can't," Harry repeated, reaching for a ham roll, "because she's already done the deed."

"Ginny proposed to you? Why didn't you say something?"

"No' so mu' pro'osed—"

"Chew, would you?"

"—as offered a pointed suggestion."

"Which was?"

"That we should go jewellery shopping once she finishes her apprenticeship with Nimbus Racing and I've earned my Auror's license."

"And what did you say to that?"

"What do you think? I agreed."

"Good for you," Hermione replied, grinning. "Poor Molly, though. She looks more expectant with every family gathering. I don't know how she's going to wait so long for another wedding. As it is, she's barely forgiven Ginny for deciding to become a broomwright."

"She'll survive, and you know she'll forgive us when we give her grandchildren," Harry said, raising an eyebrow at her.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I was just wondering if you wanted kids with, er, with Snape. Do you?"

"Harry, we haven't even had our first date. It's a bit early to be thinking about children."

"Right, but you will, have your first date, I mean." Harry began picking at his fingernails. "It's just, well, I don't want you to think that I disapprove or anything, but it's Snape. He's never seemed like someone who liked children, and I always imagined that you'd want a family, or at the very least, someone nice."

Hermione gave a little laugh. "Niceness is overrated."

"If you say so."

"I do."

"So, about the Americans. Is it true that they're trying to bring the school in line with current international wizarding educational standards?"

"I'm impressed that you got all that out in one breath." Hermione rolled her eyes at Harry's conversational persistence. "Yes. The Board of Governors seem to think that putting on a modern face after, well, everything is important."

"But why'd they decide to work with Salem? Why not Beauxbatons? It's closer, and modern, too, or so says Fleur."

"Because there's history there. Hogwarts and Salem were sister schools until some point during Armando Dippet's tenure as Headmaster. We used to have student exchange and share academic materials."

"What stopped that?"

Hermione bit her lip and frowned.

"You don't know, do you?"

"Not yet, but it's one of the things that I've been meaning to ask Severus."

"What's stopping you? Don't you see him every day?"

"Well, we're all taking meals together because there are so few of us, but that means eating with the Americans, and Eddie rarely allows me the chance to talk to anyone else."

Harry perked up. "Edward Masters, twenty-seven, assistant to Professor Gideon Andrews?"

Hermione gaped at Harry. "Are you trying to sound like a stereotypical Auror?"

"Shouldn't I sound like one? But what's this Eddie like, anyway?"

"Oh, let's not talk about him. He's boring."

"Is Asenath Whateley boring?"

"Harry, I don't want to discuss the Americans, but you should feel free to introduce yourself to them on your next inspection. Speaking of inspections, will there be many more? I've noticed that Aurors seem to be thin on the ground of late. Why's that?"

"No threats this month. People seem to have become resigned to Malfoy's involvement in the rebuilding."

Hermione wasn't one of those people. "Have they."

"Sorry," Harry said quickly, obviously having registered the flatness in her tone of voice. "I shouldn't have mentioned—"

"And the inspections? Will you still be volunteering for those?" Hermione interrupted, not wishing to discuss Malfoy or anything related to her "stay" at his home.

"Yeah, patrols are to be kept up until the reopening. March is a bit suspicious about all the 'outside assistance'."

Harry began to fidget again, and suddenly, Hermione thought she knew why he was so interested in the Americans. "Harry Potter! Have you been questioning me about the Salem delegation all afternoon because Christopher March requested it?"

Harry winced.

"You sneaky git! You might have just asked outright. I'm not one of your subjects."

"It's for practice," Harry insisted, busying himself with the tidying up.

"Give me those!"

Harry sighed, surrendering the dishes he held. "Andrews' name came up in March's enquiries."

"How?"

"There are rumours that he's been involved in artefact and rare book smuggling."

Hermione sent the dishes to the sink with a flick of her wand. "Auror March thinks that Professor Andrews wants to steal some of our books to replace those he lost? Harry, that's ridiculous."

"Well, has he asked to see anything, you know, Restricted?"

"Of course, but..." Hermione paused, remembering how suspicious Pince was of the Americans. But Pince is suspicious of anyone interested in her books.

"'But'?" Harry pressed.

"There are some titles that I'm not allowed to share."

"If Andrews really wanted something, it wouldn't be that hard for him to get into the Restricted Section, would it?"

"It's secure enough."

"You got in there when you needed to."

"True, but Madam Pince has since set up our Secure Storage Department, and it's blood-warded."

"Pull the other one! Blood magic? At Hogwarts?"

"Yes," Hermione replied, understanding perfectly well Harry's discomfiture regarding such magic but pressing on, "which means that only Madam Pince, Severus, and I can get in."

Harry frowned. "I'll bet Andrews' students have been pestering you for access, though, haven't they?"

"Yes, but it's nothing I can't manage, and no one's going to be stealing any books under Madam Pince's watch. You know how she's always lurking about the library, and when she isn't there, that awful cabinet of hers patrols it. Now, can we please talk about something else?"

Harry sighed and then smiled slightly. "From what the portraits tell me, Snape's in the library a lot, lately, too."

"Yes, Harry, overseeing the repairs to the books so that things will be ready for the Seventh Years when they return. That's part of his job."

"Right. His job."

(;,;)

It was difficult to run Hogwarts properly without ever having had a traditional orientation to the position, but Minerva, who'd semi-retired once Severus had returned to duty, had insisted that he didn't need her advice because she hadn't been Hogwarts' Headmistress long enough to be useful to him.

"It's Albus to whom you should apply for help, not me," she'd told him.

Before that evening, however, Severus hadn't spoken to Albus in months because he'd been unable to forgive the manipulative old bastard's lack of trust in him, and he'd been certain that he couldn't be his own master if he were to permit himself to be guided by his old one. What had changed his mind about the matter was Lucius' appallingly eidetic knowledge of Hogwarts' by-laws. Severus had read everything he could about the by-laws, but he still wasn't certain how best to deal with the Board's interference. He'd learnt enough to put an end to Lucius' unannounced visits to the school, which he'd done for Hermione's sake, but he hadn't learnt enough to prevent Lucius from spearheading the "necessary changes" that he and the other Governors appeared to believe Hogwarts required. Something had to be done about that because, to Severus' mind, Lucius was the last person in whom to entrust the educational future of the students; to protect them, he'd decided to make use of all resources available to him.

As well, there was one other issue that had contributed to his decision to speak to Albus.

Hermione. She's always so frighteningly competent at anything to which she puts her hand. She won't want me if I can't—

"Severus, have you fallen asleep on me?"

Severus looked up into the sparkling eyes of Albus' portrait. "Forgive me, but I think I have enough information about the role of the Governors."

"And we've spoken long enough about paperwork and Ministry educational grants for now, haven't we? So then, here's a pleasant change of subject: I understand that Miss Granger is getting on splendidly here."

"Would you have imagined otherwise?"

"No, but it seems as though you've taken quite an interest in that young lady."

"Albus, just because we're on speaking terms again, don't presume to—"

"Encourage you towards a healthful pursuit?"

Severus crossed his arms.

"Come now, dear boy, not allowing yourself to be happy is a great waste of talent."

Smirking in spite of himself, Severus retorted, "There's no need for you to go noticing my 'talent'."

Albus chuckled. "Miss Granger certainly has, if what the other portraits have to say is any indication."

"What have you—never mind."

"I agree with Irma. Self-doubt looks ridiculous on you."

"You've been discussing me with Aunt Irma?"

"She believes that you're well-past an age to be married. The fact that you're not, to the uninitiated, might imply that you're more interested in 'talent' than witches—or so Dippet would have it."

Severus clenched his fists and stood up, sending the curtain hanging from Albus' frame skidding across his portrait to obscure his infuriating twinkling. "I will not be discussed!"

Seconds later, Albus appeared next to Phineas Nigellus in his frame. "I don't see how you can avoid it, not when surrounded by so many friends."

"'Crowded by', is more like it. You're as bad as Dippet, man!" Phineas said testily, before regarding Severus. "Well? Are you going to go after the girl or aren't you? From what I've heard, that young American chap appears to be halfway in there. Don't give him an inch, Snape, or he'll take your Gryffindor."

The other portraits snickered at this, and Severus, mortified, fled the office.

(;,;)

It was difficult having a "reading season," as Harry had once called her position, without ever having time enough to examine the books properly, but Hermione intended to make the most of her rare leisure time while she had it; she'd got back to Hogwarts earlier than intended, and it was a gorgeous Saturday night for a picnic. The moon waxed high above her as she stretched out more comfortably on her blanket under a canopy of dripless candles. The susurration of the Giant Squid's passage by the shore soothed her, and the parchment under her fingertips felt smooth. With her picnic hamper filled to bursting with treats from the welcoming house-elves—they'd forgiven her presence at Hogwarts after she'd begun putting her knitting skills to other use—she was happily prepared for an orgy of reading, her reward for having put up so long with the demands of Madam Pince, an enchanted card catalogue cabinet determined to bite everyone but Pince, and endless questions from the members of the Salem delegation. After all that, she felt she deserved some time alone with the fascinating volume that was Kitab al-Azif.

She'd found the codex months previously in a pile of books near the collapsed entrance to the Restricted Section and still didn't know where it should be shelved, or even if it should be. It appeared very old, but because of its bizarre content, she suspected that some former student with a knack for preservation charms and a taste for hallucinogenic compounds had authored it. Written in the style of a compendium of fantastical astral creatures called, collectively, the "Old Ones," it was part history, part grimoire and told tales of great and terrible beings, all of whom had the funniest names. So far, "Yog-Sothoth" was the silliest of these.

Why anyone would want to open the gates freeing him from the endless night of his prison is beyond me. Old Yog sounds perfectly dreadful, Hermione thought, beginning to chant one of the many, near-consonantal strings on page seven hundred fifty-one over which she'd been puzzling: "'Phinglooee moggleywinaph Kootoolu—'"

The splashing in the lake suddenly became more pronounced, but Hermione read on.

"'—Rilyeah wogahinaggle phtagon'."

A smacking sound, as if of several heavy ropes falling into water, caused Hermione to glance over her shoulder, the book sliding out of her hands as she did so. "Goodness!" she exclaimed, surprised to see the violent flashing of the Giant Squid's chromatophores, its tentacles gesticulating wildly, and one of its large, unblinking eyes fixed upon her.

For a moment, it looked as if a fluttering congeries of smaller eyes appeared on and disappeared from its body with every frantic motion, and Hermione had to rub her eyes to banish this trick of the light.

"What's got you so riled?"

At her question, the animal's chromatophores dimmed in time with the descent of its tentacles into the murk, and then, as if the Giant Squid were an elderly gentleman shaking his fist at her, it raised a lone, shivering appendage and flexed it before disappearing into the cyclopean depths of the lake.

I believe that I've just been insulted, Hermione thought, frowning as she turned back to her book to discover that she'd lost her page. "Well, what's this, then?" she asked herself, spying a list of what appeared to be Potions ingredients.

They weren't savoury ones.

The hair on the back of her neck rising, Hermione decided that perhaps the horror genre wasn't quite the thing in which to be indulging while alone at night on Hogwarts' grounds. She knew from speaking with Severus about it that the school was now warded within an inch of paranoia, but she felt that Hogwarts had seen enough Dark magic.

Real or not.

She closed her book and selected another, one with a title that didn't require translation, called The Book of Doors.

"Damn."

Like so many of the other books that she'd found in the half-destroyed library upon being made Pince's assistant, this text was full of nothing save seemingly blank pages. Annoyed, Hermione sat up and yawned. She knew better than to attempt to force the volume to reveal its secrets when she was tired; that would have to wait until morning.

So much for my orgy of reading. Rising to her knees, Hermione began to rifle through her picnic hamper. "A snack, I think, and then to bed."

"What an excellent idea."

The familiar low masculine voice made gooseflesh of Hermione's arms as she whirled about to greet Severus. "You meant the snacking, of course, and good evening."

"Whatever I may have meant, it seems as if it's a good night for cataloguing out of doors. How did you manage to liberate so many books?"

"Biscuit?" Hermione asked, offering Severus a chocolate one as he sat down next to her on the blanket. "Pince had an engagement with Filch tonight, and the catalogue only bit me a few times during check-out." Hermione smiled ruefully and held up reddened fingers. "I trade it knitwear in exchange for the cards."

"That menace of a card catalogue enjoys knitwear?"

"No, it enjoys hiding what I've allowed it to believe are students' hats and mittens from them, the spiteful thing."

Severus snorted.

"In any case, I'm not so much cataloguing as attempting to read."

"Only attempting?" Severus asked, taking another biscuit.

"Some of these don't make for as pleasant a perusal as I'd hoped."

Severus looked down at the scattering of books. "If Understanding the Arcane Lore of Britannia and The Moste Blacke of Artes: A Treatise on Their Avoidance are examples of your taste in pleasure reading, then I'm not surprised," he told her, before popping the biscuit into his mouth and slowly chewing it while watching her with hooded eyes.

Hermione shivered under his gaze, enjoying the sensation. "They're not all so 'boring'. I've just been leafing through the most interesting guide to extra-astral mon—"

"Written by?"

"The cover's a bit the worse for wear, actually," Hermione said, repressing her irritation at Severus' having interrupted her; he'd become better about that, and she didn't want to provoke an argument with him over something so trivial. "It's going to need a new binding, I'm afraid."

"Well, I'm sure you'll repair it beautifully."

Made happy by this unexpected compliment, Hermione settled down cross-legged near Severus and hoped that it wasn't too near. They'd formed something more than a cordial working relationship of late, true, but she wasn't certain how far to push matters.

"I'm glad to have found you," he said, just as Hermione heard a soft splish! in the lake.

They both watched as the Giant Squid surfaced in a kaleidoscope of chromatophores, and Hermione was glad to have an excuse not to look at Severus, afraid that her pleasure at having been found might be too easily perceived. "You were looking for me?"

"I was. Albus suggested it."

Caution be damned, Hermione leant forward to regard him more closely. "You spoke to his portrait?" Severus nodded, and Hermione found herself profoundly curious. "Why did he suggest it?"

"There's another library in need of being set to rights. It seems that this fact is only one of many that Albus neglected to mention before having me murder him."

Oh, dear. Hermione clasped her hands.

Severus reached out to touch them. "Don't concern yourself. We've made our peace."

Hermione took a deep breath, exhaling it as she asked, "So that means he's finally agreed to tell you everything he should have, er, beforehand?"

"In point of fact, he's taken to telling me entirely too much, but," Severus said, pausing briefly as if to correct the irritation in his tone, "today, he seems anxious about Dippet. The meddlesome codger's been portrait-hopping in an attempt to spy on our visitors, and the other portraits are annoyed by the intrusion."

"That's interesting."

"No, it really isn't," Severus replied, abruptly changing the subject and his position.

Hermione missed the pressure of his hand on hers as she listened avidly to his explanation of the secret library, which was also something of a museum.

"So there's a collection of secret papers, records, and other items that were passed down from Headmaster to Headmaster?" she asked, barely able to contain her joy at the news of this unexpected historical treasure.

Splash!

Severus nodded, smirking in the direction of the Giant Squid. "He seems animated."

"I was reading aloud earlier," Hermione told him, shifting to mirror Severus' reclining position. "He didn't seem to appreciate it at all—but getting back to the topic at hand, are you really going to make me the collection's archivist? I'd love that!"

"You seem rather animated now, yourself, Hermione."

Oh. Hermione felt herself go deliciously tense; Severus had never called her by her first name before.

His mouth seemed to soften as it formed a slight, genuine smile, and then he leant closer to her, so much closer that Hermione caught the scent of his aftershave and heard the sound of his breathing, which had become as uneven as hers.

She had barely enough time to think, He's going to kiss me, before their lips met, and for a time, Hermione's delight at the prospect of becoming an archivist transformed itself into another form of excitement entirely.

(;,;)

"Argus, look!" Irma insisted, pointing to the shore hard by where Severus and Granger were sitting, well, were situated, completely oblivious to the small coruscation of gelatinous light emerging from the water.

"What in hells is that?"

"Some sort of spell, I should think."

"Damned odd one, if you ask me."

Irma sniffed. "She's not even noticing, the ungrateful girl."

The spell-ball progressed onto their blanket and then, with glistening, expanding and retracting protuberances, pulled the neglected books into Granger's gaudy beaded bag before secreting itself within it, as well. Suddenly suspicious of the provenance of the books, Irma made to discover it.

Argus stopped her. "Oh no you don't, woman! I didn't bring you out for a walk to 'walk', or play walking card catalogue, neither."

"But Catalogue should have prevented her from taking them out. Catalogue doesn't like her."

"Catty don't like anyone save yourself, but it ain't that blasted cabinet you need right now. It's a bit of," Argus said, pausing to leer at her in that way of his that he found seductive, "of Vitamin Eff."

Irma pushed him away. "What you do with language is appalling."

Argus scowled. "So says you, Miss Words."

"I'm going down there. It's my job to keep the books safe."

"But you promised we'd spend some time together tonight. Don't you ever tire of them poxy books of yours?"

"What did you just say?"

"Aw, don't be like that, I was only funning."

Incensed by Argus' lack of respect for her professional concerns when she'd listened patiently to his seemingly endless screeds on the proper care and use of manacles, Irma strode back towards the castle.

"Irma?"

They must be the girl's own books. Catalogue surely wouldn't have permitted her to check them out!

All the same, it wouldn't take but a moment to see to it that her watch-cabinet was in good working order.

"Irma, come back!"

"No! 'Poxy books', indeed!"

(;,;)

Eddie stood on the far side of the lake close to the treeline and smiled as he lowered his binoculars, pleased that everything had gone as planned in spite of Snape's unexpected presence. He'd known that Granger would be outside; she liked reading on her own at night, and she was never without that beaded bag of hers. Getting the creature into it had been his object, but he'd needed the servant to focus on Granger, not Snape, and for a few upsetting moments, he hadn't known if his plan would work.

That was Gideon's fault, and his, he supposed, for allowing the old man's doubts to infect him. Gideon was too old, too weak, to take the necessary steps, and his influence on Asenath was stronger than Eddie had previously thought before that evening because Asenath hadn't approved of his plan, either. They'd both refused him.

Well, we'll see who refuses whom once the book is in my possession, Eddie thought, placing his binoculars back into his case and beginning to pick up after himself.

He'd never understood why some rituals included so many damn candles. Of course, to make his five-pointed star with its central pillar, he'd only needed six, but they were large candles that couldn't be Shrunk lest the enchantments set upon them be destroyed. The jar of oil with which he'd anointed them had also needed to remain untouched by magic in order to work properly, and the result of this was a pain in his back from carrying a heavy bag as he'd fearfully skulked through the castle and out onto the grounds to conduct his ritual. He was glad it was over and content to wait for his plan to come to fruition.

I just hope those idiots don't try anything foolish in the meantime.

(;,;)

By the time that Argus had managed to achieve the entrance of the library, he'd long lost sight of Irma and had begun to believe that she was right about the state of his colon being the source of his breathlessness.

Because it couldn't be the occasional pipe, he told himself, ducking into an alcove and lighting his. Let her complain if she can pull herself away from her precious books!

"Mrrreow?"

"Well, well, well, I wondered where you'd got to. Been fighting with that ol' orange half-breed again, I reckon. Here, have a treat."

Mrs Norris seized upon the block of compressed fish that he tossed to her as Argus took a few puffs.

Constant lecturing, that's my reward for payin' court to a woman! Constant lecturing and blue—

"Evening, Mr Filch."

Argus grunted to cover his surprise at finding himself face to face with Professor Andrews. Bad enough a man can't get a leg over without having to manage so many unwelcome visitors into the bargain, but at least they'll be off soon.

"I thought I might do a bit of reading, but since you're here, would you mind some company?" Without waiting, Andrews removed a packet of fags and lit one.

"Bad for you, those are."

"And pipes aren't?" Andrews replied, with a laugh.

Argus puffed away and glowered, hoping that his message was clear, but the poncing Andrews merely inhaled deeply and smiled at him. "What's that you got there?"

"This?" Andrews asked, looking down at the book he carried under his arm. "Oh, just Morphin's Booke of Forms. Madam Pince was good enough to lend it to me, but I'm afraid that it hasn't been as helpful as I'd hoped."

"Terrible thing, that."

"Oh, not at all! There's nothing Dark about Morphin's, but you British do seem preoccupied by such notions."

"We're mostly English here, at present," Argus said, thinking, you daft Yank, "and I meant that it's too bad that book wasn't helpful to you. Sir."

Having to be polite was going to kill him faster than his aching nethers, he just knew it.

"Ah, well, it's no great matter. I was going to return it, but—"

"She's busy," Argus said, turning to look at the library doors wistfully and wondering if Irma had managed to calm down; it wasn't yet so very late for a "walk" if she were prepared to be reasonable. "I was just, er, going to see Irma about a broken shelf. Come back in the—"

"Hisshisshh!"

At Mrs Norris' warning, Argus whirled about and saw that Andrews had the book raised above his head. "What—"

"It was your cat. She startled me."

"Really? Because it looked to me like you were about to brain Mr Filch."

"Potter!" Argus exclaimed, as the spying brat appeared from beneath an Invisibility Cloak and pocketed it. "What are you doing here?"

"Patrolling," Potter told him, relieving Andrews of the book with a flick of his wand.

"You lot were supposed to be gone hours ago."

"Not so, actually, but getting back to the apparent near-braining—"

"Now just a minute," Andrews said, his expression all uncertain, smarmy smile, "I'm afraid that there's been some sort of misunderstanding."

"Well, as I understand it, no one in the Salem delegation is supposed to be removing any books from the library, so let's just go find Madam Pince and ask her about this, shall—"

An unearthly, strangled shrieking interrupted Potter then, and Argus dropped his pipe.

"Irma!"

(;,;)

"Ahem."

Dimly, Severus heard the sound of a throat clearing. "I'll manage," he assured Hermione, damning her blouse's tiny buttons.

Her tits felt as magnificent as he'd imagined they would, and he wanted to see them.

"Ahem, hem!"

The cough grew more insistent and was accompanied by the unexpected sound of faint, childish laughter, but Severus ignored it for the soft hand pushing its way into his trousers. Yes, squeeze. Feels goo—

"Miss Granger! Have a care!"

The laughter exploded then as Severus and Hermione shot to their feet, tugging at various loosened articles of clothing.

"Professor McGonagall, what is the meaning of this?" Severus shouted, horrified to see a group of what appeared to be Seventh Years gaping and pointing at him. At me and Hermione, he told himself, quickly moving to shield her from their sight.

"Well, it was supposed to be the Spring Squid Watch," Minerva said tightly, "not—"

"Spring Snape Watch," a student interrupted.

"But a bit more of her would be all right."

"Oh, do shut up!" Hermione snapped, lunging out from behind Severus and drawing her wand. "Haven't you ever seen a man and a woman snogging before? No, of course not. You're only Third Years, aren't you?"

"Oi!"

"Miss Granger, I hardly think—"

"Eyes up!" Hermione shouted, raising her wand.

Severus was impressed to see that everyone, even Minerva, obeyed her, but something in Hermione's tone made him turn his eyes to the ground.

There was a flash of light and an "Obliviate!"

Severus looked up into the slackened faces of Minerva and her students. This isn't good. He then looked at Hermione.

Head hanging, she had her arms wrapped around herself and was shaking.

No, not good at all. Please don't— "Don't cry. Now that you've done it, simply make them think that—Hermione! Are you laughing?"

"Did you, did you see, did you see their faces?"

Severus moved forward and raised her head by the chin. "You are laughing. Stop it!"

"But it's so, it's so funny!"

"It most certainly isn't fu—"

Severus fell silent as Hermione, giggling madly, threw her arms around his neck.

Tits.

Unable to help himself for the happiness he felt, Severus began laughing, too.

(;,;)

The screaming grew louder as they approached the Restricted Section, but the door, leading to which Harry saw bits of bloody charred and splintered wood, was closed.

"Alohomora!"

The screaming became incoherent shrieking, punctuated by the ghastly, wet sounds of ripping.

"Damn it!" Harry shouted, trying every other unlocking spell he knew.

"Hex the door off its hinges, you idiot!"

"No!"

Filch and Harry spun about at the same moment.

"Irma!"

"Madam Pince! You're all right!"

"Well, of course I am," she snapped, repairing a rent in her dress with her wand. "From the sounds of things, it's that horrible girl who isn't. Try to steal from me, will you, you grabby little bitch?" she shouted, shaking a fist at the door.

"Irma."

"Don't you 'Irma' me, Argus Fil—"

"What happened to you? Who the hell's in there?" Harry demanded.

"A thief. I told you."

"Harry! Why's there a man Stuck to the wall outside? And what in Merlin's name is all that scream—"

The sudden silence stopped Ron's questioning. Everyone stared at the door.

"Madam Pince?"

"Yes, Potter?"

"Who's that?"

"And, er," Ron said, one hand pinching his nose, "shouldn't we see if there's anything left of her?"

(;,;)

"Mmm, I love this smell," Hermione murmured, picking up an exploded puffapod and inhaling from it.

She and Severus had decided to spend what was left of the evening in Greenhouse Three while Professor McGonagall and her students completed their squid-watching.

"They're messy," Severus said, of the puffapods.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Many good things are."

Severus smiled. "Oh?" He took a step closer to her. "What things? Because I believe that I might be persuaded to indulge in a bit of messiness, for the right reasons, of course."

Hermione dropped the flower. "Why Headmaster, are you flirting with me?" She took a step backward. "I'm shocked."

Severus took another step towards her. "If this is shocking, then how have you recovered from our activity by the lake?"

"Speaking of the lake," Hermione said, taking another step backward into the edge of a table with a reassuringly sturdy feel, "thank you for gathering up my books while I completed the Obliviatus."

"Our activity," Severus murmured, leaning forward and just barely touching her body with his own, "must have addled your wits."

Hermione laughed and jumped up onto the table, pulling up her skirt so that she could wrap her legs around Severus; he gasped at the contact. "What makes you say that?"

"Hmm?"

Hermione laughed a little more softly, this time into Severus' ear, and then began nibbling on its lobe. "The books, Severus. We were talking about the books."

"Sod the books." Severus rolled his hips forward, and it was Hermione's turn to gasp.

"Oh! Does this—oh, that's lovely. Do it again! Does this count as our first date?"

"Give me enough time," Severus whispered, moving his hands over Hermione's breasts and squeezing them lightly, "and I'll make it our second."

"Tomorrow's Sunday," Hermione said, reaching down to cup Severus' arse and pull him more firmly against her. "Give me time, and I'll make it our thir—"

The creak of the door, and with it, someone's call of "Hello?" interrupted them.

Damn it! Hermione inwardly exclaimed, as Severus shouted, "Go away!"

"Er, sorry to disturb," said the speaker, whose voice grew louder as he drew nearer to them through the maze of plants.

Hermione and Severus hastily composed themselves.

"It's just that Auror March asked me to come find you, sir—it is the Headmaster, sir? Oh, yes, so I see. Hello, sir. My name's—"

"Why," Severus said, ignoring the Auror's outstretched hand, "does March want to see me? There are no inspections scheduled for this hour."

The Auror dropped the hand he'd been extending and swallowed as it dawned on him, Hermione supposed, just why she and Severus had been alone in Greenhouse Three. "No, sir, but there's been an," the Auror paused to look at her and then back at Severus, "a disturbance, sir, in the library."

Annoyed by being treated to such an entirely unnecessary display of courtesy, Hermione said to Severus, "I'll come with you."

"No, ma'am, you won't," the Auror said, his tone rather firmer than it had been. "The scene's not yet been Sealed."

(;,;)

Ignoring the Stuck Andrews' exclamations of innocence and outrage as he stepped over some shattered bits of clay and entered the library behind Auror Gordon Boynton, as he'd since learnt the man was called, Severus ruthlessly repressed his gag reflex as he followed a tremendous stench unlike anything he'd ever smelt before into the Restricted Section. Boynton waited outside the door; Auror Christopher March stood just inside of it next to a man wearing worn, drab robes.

Ministry functionary, Severus thought, wondering what had possessed March to bring him to the school as he caught sight of Potter, Weasley, and Irma.

They were standing around the damaged, spasming card catalogue cabinet, each wearing wide eyes and Bubble-Head Charms.

"Wha—" Severus choked out, before casting the charm on himself and taking in the room.

A sizzling iridescent sheen covered the stones; where it was darkest, the floor appeared pitted. The same substance, Severus assumed, also slid off in mucoidal globs from the surrounding shelves, books, and cabinet, leaving them in various states of smoking disintegration—and through Severus' Bubble, a variety of unidentifiable olfactory notes still reached him. There were obvious signs of an altercation, but of the combatants, Severus could see very little evidence save some torn pieces of fabric and one half of a wand, which dangled from Weasley's hand; his own wand, he held in the other. Irma and Potter also had their wands drawn, but while Irma was pointing hers at Weasley and Potter, they were pointing theirs at the cabinet. It reared up and shuffled back, behaving very much like a dog guarding a bone.

Severus turned to March. "What did it do?"

"Its job!" Irma protested, as Weasley asked, "Is that a, an arm?"

The Ministry functionary pushed past everyone, pulling a glass rod from his sleeve and poking at the fleshy appendage that protruded from one of the cabinet's jerking drawers. Suddenly, all of its movement stopped.

Silent Stunner, thought Severus, casting his own spell. "Lumos!"

"Well, no," the functionary said, poking at the flesh, which Severus could now see appeared vaguely squamous. "It's not an arm, per se. Without a sample, however, my best guess is that it's some form of pseudopodal protrusion, or a, hmm, yes, a malformed tentacle."

"Tee is for tentacle," Weasley said, rather breathlessly, and Severus followed his gaze to the relevant cabinet drawer.

It was indeed the 'T' drawer, and this knowledge was something of a nauseant for Severus as he saw that several other drawers appeared to contain more than cards. Fuck.

The functionary straightened up and addressed March. "Sir, if you'd clear the room?"

"Just who are you?"

"Forgive me, Headmaster," the man said, making as if to shake Severus' hand with the one in which he held the rod and then apparently remembering himself and stopping. "My name's Beakman. I'm a teratologist with the Department of Mysteries."

"You see, sir," Potter began, but March silenced him with a gesture before snapping, "Get 'em out."

"I'm not leaving Catalogue!" Irma insisted.

Severus reached out a hand to her; she took it, and he walked her to the door. "Make certain that the other books are safe," he said, and with a little nod, she left.

Turning back, Severus saw that Beakman had found a clean surface on which to set his case and was pulling from it an assortment of phials. Only he, the teratologist, and March remained in the room.

Teratologists study monsters, he thought, feeling as stunned as Weasley had looked. No, not monsters: odd physiological forms, defects. He shook himself. "What did Potter report?"

"That after witnessing Gideon Andrews attempt to assault Argus Filch with a heavy book outside the library, he heard screaming from inside of it. He used a Sticking Charm to secure Andrews, and he, Filch, and Weasley entered the library. They encountered Madam Pince outside this room. She told them that she'd been attacked by Asenath Whateley, and that the cabinet defended her and dragged Whateley in here. Pince had warded the door and wouldn't open it at first, but when she did, my trainees discovered some bizarre," March jerked his head towards the cabinet, "remains and summoned me."

Severus frowned at the leaking cabinet. "It doesn't appear to me as if it attacked a person."

There was a small fizz! then, and Beakman, holding up a phial of steaming, ichorous material, said, "Oh, don't be too quick to say that, Headmaster Snape. Because this," he continued, shaking the phial, "is almost human blood."

Chapter Text

Almost human blood, a deranged card catalogue, a murderous aunt, a suspicious visiting professor, and one horrendous mess—Severus wasn't certain how he'd keep any of it from the Board of Governors.

Lucius will have me sacked when he learns of this, he thought, walking with March back to the library's entrance.

So far, however, March hadn't sent a report to Headquarters. Instead, he'd left Beakman to investigate the scene in the Restricted Section, sent Boynton to wait with Irma and Filch, and ordered Potter and Weasley to locate Masters before suggesting that Severus observe his interrogation of Andrews.

The man wasn't pleased to see them. "How dare you leave me here like this? Get me down!"

March conjured two chairs in front of the wall to which Andrews was Stuck—Potter had done an excellent job of it; all Andrews could move were his eyes—and sat. Severus did the same.

"Professor Gideon Andrews, thirty-nine, of the Salem Institute, is that correct?" March asked, removing a notepad from his robes and beginning to write.

"Now see here, I'm a citizen of the United Magical States of America! You have no right to detain me like this!"

March smiled, an expression, Severus thought, of deceptive pleasantness. "And you're visiting Hogwarts with two student assistants, er, Edward Masters and Asenath Whateley?"

"You know that," Andrews practically growled, attempting to pull his head from the wall but failing. "Where is Asenath? What have you done to her?"

"Masters is twenty-seven?" March persisted, his smile remaining fixed.

Andrews merely scowled.

"Ah, perhaps I'm wrong. Twenty-six, is it? My notes are a bit sloppy. Let me see," March said, conjuring a table in front of himself and Severus and placing his pad, over which he set his pen to hover, upon it. He then removed a small case from his robes and re-sized it. "Ah, here we are," he continued, pulling from it a sheaf of papers. "No, I wasn't wrong. Masters is twenty-seven."

"Of course he is!" Andrews shouted. "Who the hell cares? What have you people done to Asenath? I heard the screaming!"

March turned to Severus. "Snape, you're in the Potions line, isn't that right?"

Severus, who'd been through an Auror interrogation or two and thought he knew what March was up to, nodded.

"So you'd know something about physiological processes, I'd imagine?"

"An understanding of the body is necessary to the formulation of most potions," Severus agreed.

"Don't you dare threaten me!"

Severus glanced at Andrews; he looked a bit pale.

"Right," said March. "So you'd agree that undue stress is bad for the body?"

Andrews huffed.

"Indeed," Severus said.

"Well, there you go, Professor Andrews. You heard it here from an expert."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Don't take on. It's bad for you." While Andrews spluttered, March continued, "So, we've established that Masters is twenty-seven, but I don't seem to," March said, leafing through his papers, "have anything that gives Whateley's proper age."

"Asenath's twenty-five, you idiot."

"Is she?"

"Check her damn passport. Twenty-five, I said!"

"Well, you see, Andrews, it's like this," March told him, finally seizing, it seemed, upon the document for which he'd been looking, "you're right about Whateley's passport, of course, but when I contacted my counterpart in Salem and asked him to Portkey Whateley's birth certificate to me, there was a slight discrepancy."

Severus furrowed his brow in response to the sudden slackness of Andrews, whose face had drained utterly of colour. Interesting. Glancing at March, he saw that his expression of polite interest hadn't changed, but that his attention was now firmly fixed upon Andrews.

March continued. "If this copy of her certificate is accurate, then Whateley is, or perhaps I should better say, was, only fifteen-years-old."

"I don't know what you—wait, 'was'? 'Was'? What have you done to Asenath? Asenath!" Andrews screamed, clearly attempting to struggle again. "ASENATH!"

March shook his head. "Yes, I know. It's got to be most disappointing for you, but there it is: Whateley's not going to be of much use to you anymore."

"Asenath, the gate! You know it! You know the key and the guardian, Asenath! Yog-Sothoth is the gate! You must, Asenath, you must—the gate, the gate! The GATE! Yog-Sothoth is the gate! ASENATH, HAVE YOU FAILED US? ASENA—"

"Stupefy!" March cast, before turning to Severus. He re-sheathed his wand. "Well, that's a sodding cultist for you."

(;,;)

Hermione stood in the greenhouse, so angry at Severus that she hadn't moved for twenty minutes. He might have had good reason not to allow her to accompany him to the "disturbance," but he'd had no right to order her to wait for him in the kitchens while he sorted matters. Oh, he'd couched it as a suggestion, of course, but she knew better: he'd been trying to protect her nonexistent delicate sensibilities. She was a witch; she could stomach unpleasant scenes and look after herself just fine, thank you very much. She didn't need protection.

And there aren't going to be any dates if Severus thinks that I do! The hell with waiting! Shaking the stiffness out of her limbs, she decided to walk back to the lake.

As she drew near the shore, she saw a group of boys pointedly not squid-watching. Professor McGonagall, who was usually so good about keeping her students on task, was halfway around the lake, speaking to someone.

Oh, Eddie. Can't he leave anyone alone?

She supposed, however, that his presence by the lake meant that whatever had happened in the library was due to one of Hogwarts' other guests.

It'll be such a relief when they leave, she thought, as Eddie walked away from McGonagall in the direction of the castle and she sat down to glower at the water.

It felt good; she needed a proper sulk, but she regretted her decision not to sulk somewhere more private when she noticed that one of the boys had broken away from the others and was approaching her.

Oh, no.

He was holding a Chocolate Frog Card.

He's going to ask me to sign it, she thought, smiling tightly at him to cover her embarrassment.

"I don't mean to bother you," he said in accented English, pausing as if he weren't certain that he should continue.

"Yes?"

"The thing is, Her—Miss Granger, my little sister has about fifty of your Chocolate Frog Cards. She doesn't even eat the candy anymore, and I was—"

Hermione reached for the card. "What's her name?"

"Er, well, could you just autograph it? I think that would work best for trading purposes—not that I think she would trade you, of course, but—"

"When she does grow out of keeping cards and decides to trade them, collectors will prefer having cards not dedicated to other people. Of course, I understand," Hermione said, handing him his card. "Here you are, er?"

"Oh, I'm Francis. Frank. Frank Morgan. And, thanks, thank you. That is, my sister thanks you."

"Of course, and she's welcome."

"Er, yeah," Frank said, practically running back to the waiting group of boys; this was followed by a great deal of whooping and shushing.

Fifty Galleons! Hermione thought, mortified by how much it cost to collect Chocolate Frog cards and relieved that Severus hadn't been around to see her autograph one.

She knew well enough what he thought about his own card, and she strongly suspected that he'd never signed one for anyone. The very idea of it made her laugh, and then she sighed.

I'm being unreasonable. Of course he couldn't let me come with him.

It occurred to her that if she did wait for Severus, he might tell her about it when he joined her. Undecided, she looked at the boys, who were passing around Frank's card and, from the sounds of things, teasing him about having asked her to sign it.

Damn, I shouldn't have done that. Now when the Seventh Years return to help with the smaller reconstruction charms, some of them might feel free to ask for my autograph, too.

She shook her head; what was done was done, and if she didn't want to do it again, she supposed that she should go wait for Severus.

As she began walking to the kitchens, however, she murmured, "If I could, I'd gather all the cards up and hide them."

At her words, she felt an odd commotion in her right sock, followed by something slippery oozing around it.

"Oh! Ew!" she exclaimed, shaking her ankle and reaching down to rub it.

Her fingers came up damp with something slippery, and she immediately Scourgified them, her ankle, and her bag, which she'd tucked into her sock, for good measure.

Damn it! Trust me to step in something vile when I want to be presentable!

Unreasonably, she found herself blaming the groupie.

(;,;)

"A cultist?" Severus asked March.

"I'm afraid so, and a sorry cultist this one makes, too. He should have made with the 'Cthulhu fhtagn', but I suppose it disturbed him a bit more than it should have, learning that Whateley was dead. That's what comes of shagging one's student, I suppose."

Severus rose from his chair so suddenly that he caused it to skid backward. "Just what the hell's happening here?"

"Aside from the ill-advised furniture modification, you mean?"

"March," Severus said, his tone a warning as he worried about his aunt's continued freedom.

They'd never got on well. Irma hadn't approved of her baby sister's marriage and had for the most part ignored Severus during his student days—that is, until he'd become a Death Eater. Severus didn't know how she'd discovered it, but during the latter half of his last term, she'd approached him and, under pain of exposure, demanded that he swear an Unbreakable Vow never to reveal their familial connection. The choice had been easy to make. Albus knew about their relationship, of course, but then he was the party responsible for erasing any record of "Irma Prince" from existence. That he hadn't removed more than one letter of her old surname in formulating her new identity only implied to Severus that the spell work involved had been powerful enough not to have warranted greater subterfuge. He knew that Irma regretted her decision now, of course, by the way in which she insisted upon his calling her "aunt," and as his only remaining family, he felt duty bound to protect her.

March shook his head. "Please sit down, Headmaster Snape, and I'll tell you what I know. A moment," he said, fishing through his case and producing yet another document, which he handed to Severus.

Severus took it and read:

Professor Armando Dippet
Headmaster's Office
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Hogsmeade, Scotland
United Kingdom

Professor Curtis Whateley
Department of Comparative Anatomy
Salem Witches' Institute
Salem, Massachusetts
United States of America

1 March 1913

My Dear Curtis,

Forgive my delay in responding to your last missive. So deeply troubled was I by your request that it has taken this long for me to formulate my reply, which I give now: Generally, it does one honour to feel bound by a sense of familial duty; in this specific instance, however, I take leave to tell you that your loyalty is misplaced, and your trust, disastrous—it would be better for you to cut from your family tree the entirety of that branch represented by your importuning relation than to continue your association with it. Yes, Curtis, I know that your request was made to satisfy not your own good researches but the perverse investigations of John.

Although study of the branch of "magic" to which you alluded has long been discouraged by your institution, your father's alma mater has been irredeemably lax in its own duties with regard to it. For this reason, perhaps, you have allowed John's convoluted logic to work upon you. You should know better! Your father's experiences at Miskatonic should have taught you better. Indeed and upon our friendship, I must believe that you cannot be interested in such evil as the tome in question represents—and no good will ever come of your serving as countenancer of John's fascination with regard to it.

In the strongest possible terms, then, I entreat you most fervently to wish John the joy of his grandson, and encourage him to spend his declining years in the proper rearing of young Wilbur. One may hope that the boy will grow into a manhood untainted by the curse of your decayed relations, and such a hope is, as I believe you must agree upon further, sober reflection, one better nurtured in a sane breast than that which tempts such as John to contemplate Dark work.

As you love me, do not dare ask again for so odious a loan. If you do, I shall be forced to accept that your own mind has been overturned by that which has long afflicted John's and end our correspondence and friendship. As I love you, I must make your superiors aware of your interest in the book, no matter that such interest is yours by proxy alone. Do not worsen the matter by making the same request of other scholars. Leave off trying to claim an unabridged edition. Quit your association with John. He is most unworthy of your attention, and engaging much with him must needs inflame your worse judgment to vile action.

Remember your father's fate!

In stern friendship, I remain, your devoted

Armando

"Where did you find this?"

March squared his shoulders and sat back in his chair. "Before I answer that, would you mind giving me your impression of that letter?"

"It's rather personal for formal stationary," said Severus, frowning, "but I expect that Dippet wanted to make his point clearly. What book?"

"The book that Dippet's referring to is the Necronomicon."

Severus frowned. "Never heard of it."

"It's more properly known as Kitab al-Azif."

Severus stiffened.

"Which you have heard of?" March asked, his eyes boring into Severus' intently.

"Yes, but only by title. Irma had it on the list of books that she believed we shouldn't share with the Americans."

"Is that so? I'd like to speak to Madam Pince about that."

"Why? It isn't unusual for a librarian to have knowledge of the books in her care, and Hogwarts houses many volumes of arcane lore."

"That may be, but most scholars would have it that there are only five extant copies of the Necronomicon. Having done some checking—and by 'checking', I mean that I've seen each edition with my own eyes—I know that they're each where they should be: in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the British Museum, the University of Buenos Aires, Miskatonic University in Arkham, and Harvard's Widener Library in Cambridge."

"Clearly, there are other copies."

"Yes, but with great good reason, most of them have been destroyed, and no one with whom I've spoken about the Necronomicon has ever mentioned a copy being here. After reading Dippet's letter to Whateley—"

"Which you came by, how?"

"My Salem counterpart found it in the home that Whateley shared with Morgan."

"You appear to be remarkably well-connected for a trainer, March." March merely smiled pleasantly at him, so waving the letter, Severus continued, "I take it that the precocious Miss Whateley was a relation of this Curtis Whateley?"

"Something like that, but I expect you're aware that it isn't Whateley's 'precocity' that's of interest to me."

Remembering the gruesome scene in the Restricted Section—and that the Dark Lord had also twisted his physical form in unnatural ways—Severus nodded. It made sense that the Ministry would wish to keep tabs on anyone interested in such magic.

"In any case," continued March, gesturing for the letter, which Severus surrendered, "I felt it best to investigate your visitors. Given what I've learnt of their extra-scholarly associations, it would be deeply troubling for me to find that your edition of the Necronomicon is a complete copy of the original."

"I would appreciate it if you'd tell me exactly why that is."

"Let's just say that I'm in a position to know that no other copy of the text is complete."

Unimpressed by this explanation, Severus cocked an eyebrow at March. "So what you're telling me is that you're in the censorship line?"

"Snape, I'm telling you what I can. I will say that each known copy is missing a certain page, a page upon which are inscribed incantations of such Dark power—"

"That to invoke them would rend time and space itself, flooding the world with an evil so malevolent that to look upon it would mean madness, despair, and death?" Severus interrupted, growing impatient with March's evasive dramaticism.

March's expression smoothed into emotionlessness. "Are you certain that you've never read the text?"

"Do you truly work for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, or are you on loan to it from some other, obscure department?"

March grinned again and casually flicked a wrist, which caused his scattered papers to return to his case, and his case, to Shrink. He pocketed his notepad and pen. "You're quick, Snape. I knew you'd have to be. Yes, I'm an Auror, but no, I didn't begin my career as one."

"And you're not going to tell me what Mysteries had you doing early on, are you?"

"Ah, now you're just fishing for information, not that I blame you for it." March held up a hand as Severus made to speak. "No fishing, Snape. I'll tell you what I can, and you're going to be satisfied with that."

"Am I?"

"Yes, because you don't want this mess to become common knowledge, either." March rose and Vanished the table he'd conjured; he did the same to the chairs as Severus stood. "Now, where the hell are my trainees with this Masters fellow?"

(;,;)

"I'm a bad Auror," Ron said, pulling his head out of the toilet.

"Don't be so hard on yourself. It was disgusting," Harry told him, from the other side of the door.

"No, I'm—oh, bloody he—"

Ron retched again, trying to banish the scent of the room and the image of that awful tentacle from his memory; he was unsuccessful.

I'm going to be drummed out of training, at this rate. "Bad," he said, once the spasm had passed, "such a bad Auror."

It was quiet for a moment, and then Harry spoke. "Ron?"

"What?"

"You know, you're really not a bad Auror."

Ron grimaced into the bowl, turning away his head as he flushed. "All evidence to the contrary."

"You feeling better?"

"Some, but could we wait a bit? I don't want to start—"

"Yeah, no worries. Waiting's fine," Harry said, "and really, you're not."

"A bad Auror?" Ron asked, wishing that his throat didn't feel so raw.

"Right, because you can't be a bad Auror."

Ron warmed to Harry's compliment. "Thanks, Ha—"

"And neither can I," Harry continued, "because neither one of us is an Auror, yet."

Harry snickered, then, and Ron scowled. "Get stuffed, you prat."

"I wouldn't say things like that if I were you. It might cause those rumours to start up again."

"You arse!" Ron exclaimed, upsetting both his throat and stomach.

He just managed to get his head over the toilet in time.

He blamed Harry.

(;,;)

"It's all their fault!" shouted Eddie, in his fury at Asenath and Gideon for having attempted to get to the book on their own.

Upon his return to the castle, he hadn't been able to find them and assumed that they'd gone to the library to attempt to break into the Restricted Section. Seeing Gideon Stuck to the wall, not to mention what he'd overheard of Snape's conversation with that Auror, had been enough to prove his suspicions correct.

"Why? Why didn't you listen to me?" he shouted, sending a spell flying towards a table.

It cracked and fell into two pieces.

Yes, time was growing short, but that hadn't meant they'd needed to be so damned stupid, not when he'd had a perfectly workable plan.

"You never listen! You should have listened!"

He sent another table flying into the far wall, laughing with satisfaction as it shattered.

But no, they didn't listen, and now Asenath's dead, and Gideon, captured, he thought, storming up and down the hall, blasting apart more tables as he went. Now, the authorities are involved, and getting home is going to be difficult! "Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuckity, FUCK!"

Panting in exhaustion as his rage spent itself, he bent over and placed his hands on his knees.

The Society has already begun the preparatory rituals. The beast is being fed. The energy, raised. All is almost in readiness. "I have to get home! I cannot fail!"

He had to get home, even if he returned without the book. There were other copies; he'd find them.

"I have to find them!"

(;,;)

Hermione had been waiting in the kitchens for over an hour, poring over Arcane Lore of Britannia and finding it, as Severus had implied, no fun at all.

Sighing, she placed it back into her bag and fished out The Book of Doors. Having become an adept bookbinder under Pince's tutelage, Hermione recognised that Doors was handmade; she was intrigued by this fact because the volume didn't appear to be particularly old, at least, it wasn't anywhere near as old as some of the books that she and Pince had been restoring. She opened it.

And you're still blank, she thought, of the pages.

They were made of flawless vellum, and from the texture and quality of the skin—upon which Hermione could detect that no smoothing or bleaching charms had been employed—she knew that the vellum was uterine. The very idea made her feel vaguely nauseated, but it also implied that the book's maker had been wealthy, or more likely, that he or she had created the book for a wealthy client. As she flipped through its identically blank pages, however, Hermione could find no other clues as to its intended purpose.

"Well, this is annoying."

Stretching, she laid her wand down on the table and rose from it to pace the room.

A house-elf materialised in front of her with an ear-clearing pop! before she'd taken more than a few steps.

"Oh! Hello."

"Is you having any hats, Hermione Granger?"

"Pardon me?"

"Hats? Scarves? Mittens? Is you having any of these?" the young female elf asked, her ears quivering. "We is thinking," she continued, as two other elves appeared next to her, "that if we is giving him a hat, he'll leave."

One of the other elves, a male one, shook his head as if in disgust. "'We' are thinking no such thing!"

Confused, Hermione asked, "Whom do you want to leave? Is someone bothering you?"

The third, and to all appearances, eldest elf, a female one, answered, "Edward Masters is being strange and ranting in the Great Hall. Ranting, Hermione Granger, and throwing things!"

Oh, dear, Hermione thought, bending down so that she could look the first elf in the eye. "What's he throwing?"

"Tables!"

The male elf coughed. "We can repair those, but the wizard is ill. He needs help."

"You'd do well to leave that boy alone."

Hermione looked around for the speaker.

"Here, Miss Granger, on the wall."

"Headmaster Dippet," Hermione said, seeing him standing amid the tables inside a painting of the Great Hall, "do you know what's wrong with Eddie? I know that you've been following him."

Dippet exhaled forcefully in apparent annoyance. "It's the lack of privacy here that I've always so detested! One can't even—"

"Pardon me, Headmaster, but there really isn't time to waste. I need to know what's going on if I'm to help."

"Oh, you think you can help, do you?" asked Dippet. "Well, yes, of course you do. That's the problem! You need to steer clear of Mr Masters. He's not unwell, he's unhinged, and I doubt that even a young woman of your accomplishments could set him to rights. The boy is the most dangerous of them all. He's a seducer, a most vile seducer!"

"Hermione Granger," one of the elves said.

Making an abrupt gesture with her hand for silence, Hermione pressed Dippet. "Eddie's been seducing people?"

"Both of them—his mentor and that idiot's doxy! And why? Why, you ask?"

Hermione hadn't, but she'd been going to, so she let Dippet continue to rant.

"For power! The dream of unlimited power, the foolish, evil boy! Better to beg to be eaten first, the way he's been going on. Perhaps he may be if their plan succeeds, but does anyone listen to me? No!"

"Forgive me, but what plan? And who've you applied to for assistance with regard to Eddie's?"

Dippet froze, glaring at her. "Come to think of it, no one. We're really not supposed to interfere, you know, not that anyone ever heeds me—but aren't I the one who contained it?" he shouted.

"Cheeky, no!" the male house-elf exclaimed.

Hermione turned to see the youngest elf rooting through her bag. "Yes, a hat! Cheeky will give it to him!"

The older elves gasped and pulled their ears.

"She is a bad, stupid house-elf! Laddy is sorry, so sorry, Hermione Granger!" Laddy exclaimed, while the older female elf recovered first and rushed Cheeky in an attempt to wrest the hat from her.

"Stop. Stop that!" Hermione insisted, going over to the table and waving her hands at the fighting elves. "You'll hurt yourselves!"

In response, they merely levitated above the table and continued to struggle with one another.

With Laddy still apologising, Hermione leapt upon the chair in which she'd been sitting and prepared to launch herself at the fighting elves.

"Not over that book!" Dippet shouted.

But Hermione was already in the air; she missed the elves and came slamming down into—and then through—The Book of Doors.

(;,;)

"Damnation! This means the turpentine for sure!" Armando Dippet exclaimed, fleeing his frame.

The kitchens went absolutely and momentarily silent as the astonished house-elves stared at the book through which Hermione Granger had fallen; the page that had swallowed her now showed an illustration of an open wooden door.

"Rally?"

"Yes, Laddy?"

"Hermione Granger is in that book."

"Rally isn't blind."

"Yes, but, but I don't know that door!" wailed Laddy.

Still holding Cheeky, Rally floated down to the book, landing carefully on the edge of the troublesome page so as not to touch the door. "Rally is waiting right here for Hermione Granger to come back." She turned to Cheeky. "And Cheeky is—"

Pop!

"By my ears! Laddy is—I am angry at that elfling!" Laddy shouted.

Rally flexed her now-empty hands and shook her head at Laddy's attempt to speak like a wizard. Laddy is spending too much time with Headmaster Snape, she thought. Laddy is being all addled now. But as there was no time to worry about the bad behaviour of the others, she ordered, "Laddy is going to go tell Headmaster Snape that he is being needed in the kitchens!"

(;,;)

Harry and Ron were just leaving the bathroom when they heard the shouting.

"That's coming from the Great Hall," said Ron.

"Right," Harry replied. "Let's go!"

(;,;)

"Let go! Give it back!" Frank shouted, tugging at his Chocolate Frog Card.

He'd just returned from the bath tent to see his card disappearing into the writhing covers, and it didn't take a genius to know what the thieving bastard in his bed had been doing with it.

"So help me, If I have to Scourgify this, I'll—"

Suddenly, there was a fearsomely strong pull by the thief, and then he was off the bed and on the floor by the other side of it, taking the blanket with him. Frank leapt upon his mattress and looked down, but he didn't see a person. What he did see was the slouching suggestion of blinking, rolling movement emerge from the covers and make its way towards the opening of his tent.

"Hey! Come back here with my Hermione!"

Rushing after the thing, he stopped short in front of his tent as he heard similar howls and saw several other slouching suggestions of blinking, rolling movement. Each "suggestion" held, well, contained, a card or cards, and all of them were moving pretty fast.

"Okay, that's just fucking weird."

"Never seen the like," another Gryffindor, Bell, said, standing in front of the tent next to Frank's. "It took my cards, too."

"Let's follow it, uh, them," Frank suggested, watching the suggestions converge into one large, card-containing fact. "I mean, it."

"Er, do you know what 'it' is?" asked Bell.

"No, but Hermione signed that card for me, and I'm not letting some, some enchanted ball of Jell-O steal it!"

"Okay, Action Hero, just how do you suggest we stop it?"

Bite me, you limey ponce, Frank thought, briefly considering Bell's question and the undeniable gelatinous horror in the distance. He shook his head. "Don't know yet."

As he went sprinting off, he barely registered Bell's call of "Stupid American!"

(;,;)

"Well, no, you ridiculous excuse for an Auror, I don't belong to any apocalyptic cults! Why in Merlin's name would you ask such a thing?"

Christopher smiled blandly at Madam Pince, who had to be, he thought, some relation of Snape's. "How did you come by the Necronomicon, then? And if you don't mind my asking, where is it?"

Pince laughed, a strained, ugly sound. "My poor catalogue's been wounded. Its cards, scattered. How should I know where it is? Shelved, I suppose—that is, unless the girl's taken it to read. She does that, you know, reads them."

"It is a library, my pet," said Filch, patting her hand.

"Shut up, Argus!"

Snape said, "March, Madam Pince is overset, perhaps—"

"'Overset'? Is that what I am, boy?" She rose, shrugging off Filch's attempt to stop her. "I'll tell you what I am, furious, that's what! How dare that little thief harm my cabinet? How dare she try to steal from me? Who is she? What does she want? Where did she go? Why are you questioning me like—"

Suddenly, Pince sagged; Filch caught her.

"Take her to her rooms," Snape told Filch, re-sheathing his wand. "We'll continue questioning her tomorrow."

"Agreed," said Christopher, thinking, Yes, definitely a relative.

As Filch shuffled out of the office holding Pince, Snape said, "This book in which you're so interested, it's the focus of some sort of doomsday cult? One of which Andrews and his students are members?"

"Apocalyptic cults are something of a nightmare in my line of work," Christopher replied agreeably. To put Snape off asking anything more pointed, he continued, "But I suppose you're more interested in just how we're going to keep things quiet?"

"Yes," Snape replied, "Irma didn't intend to—"

He was interrupted by the pop! of a house-elf appearing in the room.

"Headmaster Snape," the elf said, stopping when he saw that his master wasn't alone.

"Don't mind me," Christopher said.

Ears quivering, the elf continued, "You're needed in the kitchens, Headmaster Snape, needed most urgently."

Christopher could see that Snape was about to refuse the elf, so he said, "We can continue this discussion later. I should consult with Beakman." And I need to contact Armitage.

"You're not running an investigation in my school without me."

"I haven't done anything without you, have I?" Christopher replied, noting how the elf's ears were practically vibrating. "There's really nothing more that either of us can do before Beakman completes his tests. After I talk to him, I'll secure Andrews as we agreed and won't involve anyone else from the department in my," he paused to correct himself, "our investigation. And when we meet for breakfast tomorrow, I'll bring you up to speed."

"What about Masters?"

"When he's found, I'll hold him for questioning until morning. Will that suit?"

Snape sighed. "Very well, but I'll want to be fully informed of any developments."

"Of course," Christopher agreed.

"Headmaster Snape," the elf said, "the kitchens."

"Laddy, stay with Auror March and see to it that his needs, and those of his staff, are met."

Christopher raised an eyebrow in amusement as Snape left him and looked at Laddy. And you're how Snape plans on ensuring that I do share everything.

(;,;)

No one ever mentioned this! Hermione thought, clutching the arms of the chair into which she'd fallen and gaping at her surroundings.

Shelves—there were two massive ones on either side of the corridor in which she was sitting, taller than she thought possible and stretching into the distance farther than she could see.

So many books! Hermione stood up and approached one of the shelves, reading off a list of titles. All written by or concerning former headmasters, and here are collections of papers!

Hermione was gobsmacked to be amid so much historical information.

"But this library is far too large to be the Headmasters' library that Severus was telling me about. I don't understand."

"Well, of course you don't. You're not a proper librarian, are you?"

"Headmaster Dippet?" Hermione asked, looking behind her at the seemingly endless shelves. "I don't see you."

"Follow my voice, girl. There's a break in the shelves back here."

Walking a bit, Hermione saw that some of the shelves were actually missing about ten feet behind her chair on the left side of the corridor; their absence formed a door of sorts, through which another, narrower shelf-lined corridor appeared. At the end of it, there was a desk; Dippet's portrait hung above it on the wall.

"Good, you can follow directions after all," he snapped.

"That's hardly fair. You might have been a bit earlier and more specific in your warning. I didn't know that the book was a Portkey."

Dippet retorted, "In point of fact, it's not a Portkey. It's The Book of Doors. One would imagine that its title was caution enough for anyone of sense!"

"Oh, stop being so insulting and tell me where I am and how to get back."

"I don't see why I should."

"Because if you don't help me, when I—"

"Ook?"

Hermione looked up in time to see a dark shape go flying overhead from one shelf to another and then disappear.

"What was that?"

"That's just the Librarian," Dippet said. "Don't worry about him."

"Madam Pince is our librarian."

"Yes, Miss Granger, at Hogwarts, but this isn't Hogwarts, not entirely."

Hermione glanced nervously up at the top of the bookshelf over which the shape had gone and then looked back at Dippet, putting her hands on her hips. "You know, even without my wand, I might be able to conjure paint thinner. Would you like that?"

"Don't get testy with me. I'm not the one who went diving into a book!"

"But you're in here, too, which means that we have to be in Hogwarts."

"Only tenuously, which is why I am here. I'm sure Snape will blame me for your book-diving, and I don't want a 'cleansing' coat of turpentine!"

Hermione changed tactics. "Well, as you said, I was the one who dived into the book. You didn't tell me to. It wasn't your fault. I won't tell Severus."

"'Severus' is it? So it is true. Odd, I would have thought he'd prefer someone prettier, and with a pe—"

"Headmaster Dippet!"

Dippet's portrait took on a reddish stain about his cheeks. "Forgive me. It's been a stressful few weeks. They're here, they're trying to do it again, and I can't stand to see them—especially that awful Masters boy who reminds me so much of Curtis!"

Trying to do what again? Hermione wondered, as she pulled the desk chair out and sat down. She looked at Dippet and decided to start with an easy question. "Who's Curtis?"

"Who was Curtis, you mean, and I don't feel inclined to share that information."

Hermione took a deep breath and smiled in what she hoped was an encouraging manner. "You're the one who wants to hide. We might as well pass the time while you do, and I'd truly like to know what's bothering you."

"Well," said Dippet, "if you mean it..."

(;,;)

Severus stared at the page upon which the house-elf was perched. "You're sure? She fell through that illustration?"

"Rally is sure, Headmaster Snape. Hermione Granger is being inside this book!"

Oh, hells, Severus thought, noticing Hermione's wand and bag laying next to it.

He knew that he should summon March, but if he were to do that, the Auror would probably spend too much time running tests on the book before allowing anyone to search for Hermione inside of it. Severus' own testing charms hadn't revealed anything more than a steady magical pulse of the sort that one would expect to emanate from a Portkey.

And who knows where it took Hermione? he thought, coming to a decision. "Rally, I'm going after her. If we don't return in an hour, you get help—but don't lose the page!"

Taking Hermione's wand and bag, he leapt.

(;,;)

Pop!

"Edward Masters?" someone squeaked.

Fucking elf, he thought, straightening and training his wand on the creature. "What do you want?"

"I is having a hat for you. Here, be taking it!"

Eddie stared at the creature's outstretched hand. "You want me to have a hat? Why do you want—" Oh, oh for the love of— "You can't get rid of me like that, elf. I'm a human being, and I'm already free." He laughed, thinking of the freedoms to come if he could just find a way home, just survive to find another copy. "Now, if you happen to have a Portkey through which I could disappear, then that would be different."

"Is you needing to disappear?" the elf asked, her ears going rigid.

"Are you deaf? Didn't I just say so?" he spat, flicking his wand in the direction of another table and grinning as it exploded in a shower of splinters. "I know where they broke through. I must behold that place again!" Oh, fuck. To have come so close and yet be so far from the goal! How could I have allowed them to fail me? "How has it come to this?"

"I isn't knowing that!" the elf exclaimed, "but there is being a hollow book in the kitchens. You can be having it if you promise to go away!"

Eddie went still and narrowed his eyes. That sounds like some form of Portkey. "Show me. Take me to this 'hollow book'!"

(;,;)

The Great Hall had proved empty. Oh, something unpleasant had clearly occurred there as evidenced by the general destruction, but the shouting that Harry and Ron had heard, they'd decided, had actually been emanating from the grounds through the open doors of the castle. They were now standing on the steps and staring into the distance in amazement.

"Hagrid never said anything about there being great big rolling balls of eyes in Care of Magical Creatures."

Ron sounded gobsmacked, and Harry fervently hoped that he wasn't going to sick up again.

"What the hell is that, anyway?" Ron asked.

"I don't know."

"Harry, what the hell is—"

"I told you, I don't know! Hey, is that a student?"

"Oh, shite. I think it is," Ron said, pulling his broom from his robes and re-sizing it.

"What are you doing?"

Mounting his broom, Ron replied, "Going to stop that idiot from messing with, with whatever that thing is. Start the doors closing. I'll be right back."

(;,;)

Severus fell for what seemed an unreasonably long time before coming to an abrupt, rather soft landing in a chair that faced another, identical one. Without hesitating, he rose and took in his surroundings.

Books. Why did it have to be books?

In a library of this size, there was no telling where Hermione might have gone. Under any other circumstances, he knew that he'd happily lose himself in such a place. Pocketing Hermione's belongings but keeping his own wand in hand, he tried to decide in which direction to search. He would have called to Hermione, but there were odd noises in the distance, and he wasn't willing to draw the attention of something unknown to himself or to her.

Two chairs. I'll go in the direction the one opposite mine is fa—

"You're not serious!"

Hermione!

Severus moved quickly towards the sound of her voice.

(;,;)

"You needn't shout like that. Of course, I'm serious. Why don't you believe me?"

Because I think you're mad, that's why, Hermione thought, saying, "But that book's just a work of fic—"

"You've read it? When? Where did you find it? Curtis and I used to study it together until his interests changed, but as soon as they did, I put it in here. It should still be on the desk!"

Hermione frowned and rifled through the documents and books on the desk; she couldn't find any trace of Kitab al-Azif; there was, however, one decrepit, alarming-looking volume into which was set the impression of a grisly, open-mouthed face. She elected not to touch it. "It's not here."

"It has to be! Thieves! Thieves have come to the Headmasters' library!"

"Dippet, do stop raving!"

"I'll thank you to give me my title! Now, hold them up so that I can see them."

"The books?"

"No, the murderous bunnies. Of course the books, stupid girl!"

Hermione sat back and crossed her arms. "That's never been my title."

"Merlin's foreskin! Why should you be so cross with me? You're the one—"

"No one uses that expression," Hermione interrupted him sharply, beginning to hold up one book after another in order to shut him up.

"No."

"This one?"

"No."

"And this one? Ew!" Hermione exclaimed, dropping the book that had just licked her.

"And you call yourself a librarian?"

"I never did, and you were the one who said I wasn't a 'proper' one, anyway. That's the last of them, well, except for the one with the face, but I don't—"

"Yes, that one! Oh, thank goodness. I thought someone had stolen it. That," Dippet said, peering down at the book that Hermione now unwillingly held up, "is Kitab al-Azif. The original. The one, apparently, that Curtis translated because there were no copies of it here when I was in residence. Where's the copy that you've been reading? I want to see it!"

"Why?"

"Because I'd know Curtis' handwriting anywhere, and if he didn't translate your copy, it means cultists must have brought another one here. Cultists, Miss Granger, are not welcome at Hogwarts!"

"Oh, for Merlin's sake! It's in my bag," Hermione said, reaching down to her sock and then remembering. "Er, which is in the kitchens. I left it by The Book of Doors."

(;,;)

Harry stood just inside Hogwarts' entrance by the locking wheel, prepared to turn it upon Ron's return.

He shouldn't have flown off without me, but he's right, we've got to secure the school. That thing can't be allowed in here.

Not taking his eyes off of Ron, who was arguing with the student, a male one, Harry could see now, Harry sent a quick message via his Patronus to March. He and Ron were going to need all the help that they could get, and soon.

(;,;)

It was as good a moment as any to interrupt; Severus stepped forward. "Do you mean this bag?"

"Severus!" Hermione exclaimed, racing down the corridor towards him and grabbing her bag. "I'm so glad to see you!"

"I'm happy to—"

He stopped speaking as Hermione abruptly returned to Dippet's portrait and clambered up onto the desk, being careful, it seemed, not to step on anything it held. She rooted through her bag and came up with a leather-clad, be-stringed volume.

Her bag fell to the desk, making an appalling racket as it settled.

"Look," Hermione demanded, holding open the book. "Is this his handwriting?"

"Damnation! That little bastard. I knew he was lying. Curtis never enjoyed walking that much."

"So what you're saying is that, while a guest of yours, your, er, friend, sneaked around behind your back to translate Kitab al-Azif?"

"Yes, Miss Granger, that is precisely what I'm saying—and you needn't be so delicate. Curtis was my lover. I'm not ashamed of it."

"Of course you aren't," Severus said, reaching up to offer Hermione a hand down off the desk. He was surprised when she narrowed her eyes at him and batted away his hand. "What did I do?"

"Tried to protect me, that's what."

"Helping you off a desk is 'protection'?"

"Severus, do be quiet. This is important," Hermione said, jumping down and tucking the copy back into her bag, which she then slipped into her sock. "Headmaster Dippet was just telling me about the Society for Esoterica and Dominion."

"Not willingly, but the girl is relentless."

Severus almost smirked at Dippet's irritation but didn't dare. Instead, he said, "Oh?"

Dippet opened his mouth to speak again, but Hermione spoke over him. "It seems that Curtis Whateley, with whom the Headmaster was lovers, was part of a family involved with the Society and its works."

"Tell him that I didn't know that Curtis was involved in the evil!"

"Didn't know, got it," said Severus, looking at Hermione.

"Apparently, Curtis' father—"

"Died a most horrible death!" Dippet exclaimed.

"Died a most horrible death," Hermione repeated.

"Which was avoidable!"

"Headmaster."

"Oh, fine. It's my story, but you tell it if you think that you can do a better job."

"A faster one, at any rate," Hermione said, pressing on. "Curtis had the Headmaster convinced that he wanted no part in his family's unsavoury activities, and so they continued their friendship—until Curtis asked for the loan of Kitab al-Azif, which is—"

"As it happens," Severus said, "I'm familiar with that title, and the fact that you," he continued, looking at Dippet, "wrote to him telling him never to ask for the loan of it again."

"And what gives you the right to go reading my private correspondence?"

"Please go on, Hermione."

"Well, some time after his refusal of the loan, Curtis wrote to Headmaster Dippet saying that something awful had occurred, that he'd made a mistake and needed his help."

"Yes," said Dippet, "and I can continue from here unless you have any other impertinent objections?"

Hermione rolled her eyes at Severus and sat down at the desk.

"There are servants these cultists sometimes call upon. They have no business conjuring them from the depths in which they sleep, but sometimes, they—"

"Headmaster, please," Hermione urged.

"Oh, very well. After Curtis' second cousin John failed to see his half-breed grandchildren successfully open a portal to the Old Ones, to Yog-Sothoth—"

Severus wanted to interrupt, but at Hermione's shake of the head, he didn't speak.

"—Curtis elected to do what his father had done and attempt another portal-opening ritual. Of course, he went about it in entirely the wrong way, and from our researches, he should have known better, but he tried, he summoned his servant, and it grew! It grew too strong to be controlled, and Curtis despaired. He went into hiding while the accursed thing wreaked havoc upon the countryside and sent to me for assistance." Dippet paused, as if to collect himself, and then said to Hermione, "Show him the clipping."

Hermione passed Severus a brief Associated Press clipping making fun of the "latest tragical doings in Dunwich."

He frowned. "Well, whatever occurred, it doesn't appear as if people took it seriously."

"No," said Dippet, "but that's just the clipping that came out after the mess that John made. There were no reports out of Dunwich after Curtis' mistake. His damn creature ate the local journalist! I was there. I witnessed it!"

"Ate him?"

"Ate him!"

"Yes, Severus, it ate him. Unfortunately, it ate Curtis as well before the Headmaster could contain the creature—which he then brought back to Hogwarts."

Severus gaped at Dippet. "You did what?"

It took some moments for his voice to stop reverberating off the books, most of which, in various ways, made their displeasure at the disruption known.

After some page-fluttering, Dippet said quietly, "Ahem. Well. Yes, as it happens, that's not a giant squid in the Black Lake."

Chapter Text

The castle doors were closed now, but a viscous fluid pushed through the cracks in between and under them, bringing with it flattened eyes that rounded and grew larger to blink at them with every pulse of gelatinous goo.

Ron's stomach loudly protested the very existence of such goo.

Pop!

A house-elf appeared in the hall, stuttering, "That, that, that—"

"Just stay away from it," Frank ordered.

"You, too," Ron told him.

"That," the house-elf continued, "that is a thing that should not be!"

"Wands," said Harry. "Keep your wands on it."

"But we've tried everything, Ha—"

"Oh, hells! Is that a fucking shoggoth?" March asked, running down the stairs.

Ron spoke. "We've tried every spell we know to stop it, sir!"

"But it might be a good idea to—hey! Come back here!" shouted Harry, as Frank made to rush the creature.

Happily, he went sprawling over March's outstretched leg, and Ron was able to pin him underfoot when he attempted to get up again.

"But that might be my Hermione!"

"Your what?" demanded Ron.

"Look, he's right. Cards," said Harry. "Chocolate Frog Cards."

Ron wasn't particularly interested in the cards. "Sir? What's a shoggoth?"

"It's a servant of fuckwits and madmen," Frank said.

His eyes flying open in surprise, Ron could only stare at him.

(;,;)

"Why are you looking at me like that? What else was I supposed to have done? Besides, bringing it here meant that I could keep an eye on it—heh, an eye, get it?"

"No, actually," said Hermione. "You didn't describe it to me. Has it only one eye?"

"Dippet, you imbecile! You didn't bring a dangerous, man-eating creature to the school. Tell me you didn't."

"I can't. I did. But I changed it, so—"

"Explain about the eye?" interrupted Hermione.

Dippet exhaled forcefully and crossed his arms. "Third drawer from the bottom, right side. Look in there. You'll find a small blue box with photographs."

Hermione did so, opening the box and passing each photo to Severus after viewing it.

Nothing needs this many eyes, Severus thought, and insisted, "These pictures aren't real. They can't be real."

"If that's your reaction to the pictures, then I hope you never see one in the flesh, or, er, whatever they're made of. They're all very non-Euclidean, you know."

"I'll just have those back, Severus." Hermione put away the photos and stood. "How secure is this place?" she asked, looking at the original Kitab al-Azif.

"Oh, no you don't. That book stays here! Do you have any idea what I had to go through to obtain it?"

"I don't care what you did," Hermione snapped. "I'm fairly certain it was something you shouldn't have done, and if we got in here, then someone else might be able to do the same."

"You only got in because of my book," snapped Dippet.

"You created The Book of Doors?" Severus asked. "Why?"

"Because I wanted a shortcut to those areas of the library of particular interest to me, of course. Why else? In any case, if you put the damned thing back in the Restricted Section, you won't have to worry about anyone else getting in here. Short of Doors' use or the traditional manner—which is a far better way for nosy non-librarians to access this place—no one gets in here!"

Ignoring Dippet's outburst, Severus said, "I want to know more about this creature. How did you change it?"

"Well, I turned it into a squid, didn't I? I gave it the task of swimming the lake and being a friend of the Merpeople, who are very like, I came to learn, the denizens of its last home—but not nearly as unpleasant! Why, those foul creatures nearly—"

"The shoggoth, Dippet?" Severus interrupted.

"Can't a man answer a question in his own way? No, of course not."

"Please, Headmaster," Hermione entreated him.

"I've already explained this to you," Dippet protested.

"Yes, but not to Severus."

"Oh, very well. Shoggoths are servants, as I said. If one focusses them on a task, they tend to stick to it, at least, so I've read. It's not giving them a task that tends to cause trouble. Again, so I've read. Of course, I've also read that even given tasks, they sometimes—"

"Why on earth were you reading about such things?" Hermione asked.

Severus snorted. "Because Whateley was interested in them, and Dippet was trying to get him into bed."

"There's no reason to be crass!"

"But there's every reason for me and Hermione to return to the school," Severus replied, hastily explaining what he'd seen in the library.

Hermione went pale. "Oh, no. That's, that's dreadful."

"It's just what she deserved."

"Headmaster, don't say such a thing! No one deserves to die so horribly!"

"Even a horror, itself?" Dippet shot back. "It's Wilbur Whateley all over again, curse that evil family!"

"Enough," Severus said, unable to stand further delay. "Do you know how we can get back?"

"So long as no one's closed the book, the portal remains open. Just go sit in the guest chair and think about returning to wherever you came from, and you will."

"Come on, Hermione," Severus said, handing her Kitab al-Azif. "I've got to investigate this damned shoggoth of Dippet's and decide how best to deal with it."

"Wait!"

"What?" Severus and Hermione asked, at the same time.

"Take the Elder Sign if you're so worried about it."

"The what?" asked Hermione.

"Second shelf from the desk, my left, on the bottom. Black box—the sigil is protective against the Old Ones and their minions, but please don't hurt Squiddy if it's not necessary. He didn't ask to be awoken!"

Disgusted by Dippet's sentimental idiocy, Severus stalked off, calling over his shoulder, "I'll wait for you at the top of the corridor."

(;,;)

Hermione found the device, an odd-looking iron branch with three smaller branches jutting out from its left side, and two from its right. "Thank you," she said, putting it into her bag with Kitab al-Azif and its copy over Dippet's strenuous objections.

As she approached Severus, he said, "I expect I'll have to put a curtain over his frame now, too."

"In your office?" Hermione asked, as they turned into the larger corridor.

"It doesn't feel like my office, but yes. Damn. We've gone the wrong way. I can't see our chairs."

"You got your own when you fell in? I suppose that makes sense," Hermione said, continuing to walk forward quickly, "but I'm sure we are going in the right direction. What I can't believe is that Madam Pince's cabinet actually murdered someone, even someone like Asenath. I suppose it wasn't her fault. She didn't ask to be born the way she was. I can't imagine what it was like for her growing up with cultists for parents. How could any parent do that to her child? It's aw—"

Hermione stopped talking as she caught a glimpse of three chairs shoved into a branching corridor to her left. "Look!" she said, pointing them out to Severus.

He didn't reply.

He wasn't there.

Turning around and looking behind her, she saw nothing but an empty, book-lined corridor.

"Severus?"

Whack!

"Severus!" Hermione shouted, in response to the unexpected noise.

She ran towards it, back the way she'd come, and stopped when she heard another noise—behind her again. It was the sound of books falling, and they kept falling, as if someone were going from shelf to shelf and knocking them down. She reached for her wand.

"Damn it!"

Annoyed with herself for having left it in the kitchens, she nevertheless tore off back the way she'd come, only to skid to a halt as Eddie, his face and hands full of cuts, leapt out in front of her.

"You! You went through the shelves! What did you do with Severus?"

Eddie grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her back to the chairs. "We're going to sit down now, Granger," he said, twisting her wrist as she resisted him.

"Where's Severus? I'm not leaving him!"

"You will if you don't want the very useful book with which I left him to go to work," Eddie told her, as he snatched her bag away and tossed it to the ground.

"What do you want?"

"I want your help getting past the Aurors and into the Restricted Section. That's where the book is, right?"

"What book? Kitab al-Azif?" she asked, digging in her heels. He must not have overheard much of our conversation.

"That's right. And when I have the book, I'll be needing you to hook me up with a Portkey." Eddie threw her into a chair. "Then I'll tell you where you can find Snape."

Hermione narrowed her eyes in anger, but she did as Eddie told her. He was too confident by virtue of his larger size. He hadn't even bothered to draw his wand.

Which gives me an advantage if I get through the book first.

(;,;)

Christopher and the others were in the kitchens, having just secured the door as best they could. The shoggoth had been moving more slowly the past hour or so, thanks to Potter's idea to employ a time-warping charm upon it, but it had clearly been moving with a purpose. It had been following them. Looking at Frank Morgan, who was the reason he'd become interested in Masters and subsequently, Andrews and Whateley, it occurred to Christopher that the creature might just be following the boy.

Because there are no coincidences. "Frank," Christopher said, "you wouldn't happen to have kept any of the magical objects that you stole from Miskatonic's Mysterious Magical Artifacts exhibit, would you?"

"How'd you know about that?"

"Every magical law enforcement agency in the world knows about that, kid. It's on your permanent record," Christopher lied. Potter made to speak, but he shook his head at him.

"Bullshit!" Frank exclaimed. "And I only borrowed stuff, for my paper—anyway, it was all Eddie's fault!"

The door began to bulge. Shite, Christopher thought, Potter's charm's wearing off. "So, that's a no on the objects?"

"Of course it's a no! I even gave back most of the ones I loaned Eddie, and—"

"There is being page-turning, now!" came a high-pitched voice, from behind him.

Christopher turned just in time to see Hermione Granger emerging from a fluttering book that a house-elf had apparently been guarding, followed quickly by Masters; he closed the book on the elf's foot, but she didn't move and kicked it back open while another, younger elf, began shouting abuse at Masters. Granger appeared to be looking for something.

"Eddie, what the hell are you doing here?" Frank asked.

"Laddy!" shouted Christopher. "You and the young elf take that student to Beakman!"

Frank protested. "But I want—"

Pop! Pop!

"Rally isn't leaving! Rally is not losing the page for Headmaster Snape!"

"That's fine," Christopher told her, as Masters grabbed Granger by the throat and pulled her towards the door.

"No one move, or I'll throttle her!"

"You don't want to do that, Masters."

"Fuck you, Auror! I don't take orders from you, and soon, I'll be giving everyone their orders!"

Masters began to cackle, pulling the struggling Granger yet closer to the straining door.

(;,;)

"Stop it!" Severus hissed, waving away whatever was hitting him as he became conscious.

Sitting up and rubbing the back of his head, he saw a large, open book, The Joye of Snacks, laying across his legs. Beside him were a cauldron of bubbling water and an overflowing pot of honey, and dancing about him were several menacing meat mallets.

The sight would almost have been comical but for the fact that the implements were trying to tenderise him for the pot.

(;,;)

It was a bizarre scene before him; Christopher had seen worse.

But this is pretty bad.

Keeping his wand on Masters, he took in the straining door and Potter and Weasley circling closer to Masters.

No, closer to Granger, and there's no point in ordering them to stop.

Still, he was relieved to see how, rather than taunting Masters, they were concentrating on the situation and waiting to take their moment when it presented itself.

So I'd best do some distracting. "Look at the door, Masters. It's not safe to open it," he called.

As if to underscore his point, the boards creaked ominously.

"Don't you try to trick me!" Masters shouted, waving his wand at Granger. "Open that door," he told her, "and you two stay away!"

Some sort of signal passed among Granger and his trainees; Potter and Weasley almost imperceptibly relaxed.

What's she going to do? Christopher wondered.

There was a loud report then as the door began to crack.

"I'm telling you, Masters, it's shoggoth city on the other side. You don't want to go out there!"

"That's no worry of mine. My servant may have completed its task and come for me. It's you who needs to worry," Masters said. He addressed Granger. "Hurry up with that door!"

As Granger pulled at the handle, a board popped off the door's mid-section, and a glowing eye on the end of a glassy stalk emerged through the hole to stare at them.

"Easy, men," Christopher cautioned Potter and Weasley.

"Ha! You see? It's done it. It's got the book and come to me!"

CRRRR—

Heedless of the noise the door was making, Masters began to chant. "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh—"

Unexpectedly, Granger grabbed Masters then, pulling him closer to her; he zapped her with a shocking hex.

"Hey!" Weasley shouted indignantly.

"—Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"

"What is that incantation?" Granger demanded. "What does it mean?"

Masters zapped her again, but she didn't try to run.

"Back off!" Christopher ordered Weasley, not wanting to see Granger hexed further. Why isn't she trying to—oh, hells!

—RRRR—

Potter and Weasley looked as though they were both about to spring upon March, no matter the condition of the door; they were too focussed on the need to save their friend to notice that she'd already decided how best to save herself.

No time, Christopher thought, ordering, "Shield that door!"

—RRRRAAA—

(;,;)

AAAACK!

Severus emerged from the book to the muted sound of splintering wood hitting a shielding charm, but as it faded, the shoggoth loomed over and then engulfed Hermione and Masters. Horrified, he flew at the creature arm-first and thrust the Elder Sign into its body—which partially exploded in a shower of startled eyes, feculent mucus, and, of all unexpected things, small cards.

"Ew, ew, ew!"

Weasley, he thought, in the pandemonium of people fending off attacking eyes and animated slime. Rooting through a quivering, larger mass, he pulled Hermione free. Fuck, the damned thing's reforming!

"Damn it!" Potter shouted, firing spells at the tooth-filled maw of an eye that was attempting to bite him. "What do we do?"

March blasted another aggressive eye and shouted, "It needs a purpose!"

"Pthh—es, yes!" Hermione spluttered, struggling out of Severus' arms. "It does." Wiping ooze off her face with one hand, she seized the Elder Sign with her other one and began waving it at bits of shoggoth. "I want my cards! I want all the cards in this room! Get them for me!"

The effect was immediate.

Splat! Splish! Splurp!

Mucoidal globs of shoggoth fell to the floor and went about reincorporating the eyes.

"I want my cards!" Hermione insisted again. "Please, get me my cards!"

"'Please'?" asked Severus. "Really?"

For a moment, the only sound in the room was that of small shoggoths squelching about as if in confusion.

Severus, like Weasley and March, was staring at Hermione, but as the shoggoths began melting into one larger mass and slouching over the cards, taking them inside of itself, Severus saw Potter pull a slimy card from his robes and examine it.

"Er, Hermione?" Potter asked.

"Wh—what?"

She was shaking; Severus wanted to hold her, but given her earlier behaviour in the library, how she'd just struggled away from him, and Weasley's presence, he wasn't certain that he had the right to comfort her. Not being certain of that infuriated him.

"These are yours, these cards? These Hermione Granger Chocolate Frog Cards?" Potter asked.

"What?" Severus asked, snatching the card from Potter. "Oh, how precious. You signed it for someone. I had no idea that you were enjoying your celebrity status so much, Granger."

Thwap!

Severus rubbed his jaw and tried to think of something scathing to say as Weasley sniggered, but before anything suitable sprang to mind, March spoke.

"Where's Masters?"

(;,;)

Eddie crawled up the stairs as fast as he could, coughing up the ooze that he'd swallowed when his servant had turned on him. I don't understand. Why did it do that? I gave it its task! I'm wearing the Sign! "I'm its fucking master!"

Panting, he stopped briefly to rip from around his neck the chain holding his Elder Sign, a five-pointed star with an eye in its centre.

It's still glowing, still charged. It should have protected me!

But when he turned it towards the globs of goo flowing slowly back down the stairs, they didn't react.

Stupid fucking kid! Some researcher he turned out to be. I should have known Frank didn't know what he was talking about!

Disgusted, he tossed the amulet aside and got to his feet; there wasn't much time.

Get to the library. Get the book. Get out! he told himself, beginning to run.

(;,;)

Brian Beakman and Geoffrey Boynton were helping themselves to tea in Madam Pince's office. Just outside the door, spread out on a long table and running down its top side, were letter cards. Beneath each letter, corresponding body parts were glisteningly arrayed—some as the result of guesswork. Over other parts, Beakman had laid cloths for modesty's sake. His modesty's sake.

And the boy's, too, he thought, glancing at Frank, who was asleep on the sofa.

Brian had felt the soporific charm a necessity given how interested Frank had been in the remains. The house-elves, who'd wanted to clean and had caused more disorder in a minute than an entire moment of murderous cabinet before he'd got their attention, he'd sent back to the kitchens. Having to redo four letters' worth of rows had been vexing.

"Today, I don't like my job," he murmured, taking another glorious swallow of tea.

Boynton grunted. "I haven't much liked any day of my job since being assigned to Christopher March's roving 'Training Corps' team. Lots of shouting and running trainees, that's what I expected—not screaming in fear of my life and running towards beasties that might end it."

Brian chuckled. "At least you don't have to catalogue the beasties, and you could always request a transfer."

"Nah," Boynton replied, "I do like the travel."

"Well, if you ever grow tired of all that 'travel', come see me in Mysteries. I can always use an assistant with as strong a stomach as yours."

(;,;)

Hermione only felt a little queasy as Severus lightly applied a Healing balm to her head. Her injury wasn't severe; no lingering spell-damage was expected. Severus had deigned to tell her that much after they'd washed the shoggoth off themselves and changed into robes, but since then, he'd not said a word.

That suited Hermione; she hadn't yet been able to shake the sensation of drowning in jelly and couldn't stop thinking about what Dippet had told her about shoggoths: they were made of extra-astral matter, they were controlled by psychic link, they could be made to bud. Hermione assumed, based on other things Dippet had said, that Eddie would have known about such creatures through Asenath. Her family had been in the shoggoth business for some time, it seemed.

I can't believe we have one here. I can't believe that it almost—

The shaking of Severus' fingers pulled Hermione out of her reverie. She knew that he was angry with her, but she suspected that his anger stemmed from his concern for her rather than from her having slapped him. If not, he wouldn't be caring for her now. Because she wanted to show him that she cared about him, as well, she broke the frigid silence between them.

"Do you suppose they've found Eddie yet?" she asked, glad that her voice remained steady.

Severus continued to rub in the balm, his back straight, his eyes, unreadable. "I'll get a bandage," he told her, turning away to the little table by the cot.

Hermione sighed and stood up. She knew better than to press him; doing so always made his moods worse.

"Where are you going?" he demanded.

"Just here," Hermione told him, moving to the next cot, the one full of shoggoth and Chocolate Frog Cards.

She'd placed the Elder Sign at the bed's end, just in case. The shoggoth seemed perfectly content to remain a smallish, seventeen-eyed blob and sit on his treasure of cards with the sigil so near him.

You're almost cute like this.

As if he understood her, the shoglet extended an eye-stalk towards her and jiggled.

Hermione smiled, that is, she did until Severus barked at her.

"Sit down!"

Hermione's fragile sense of calm broke. "No!"

The shoggoth stopped jiggling and began to expand.

"No, no," Hermione said more softly, waving the Elder Sign in the air above it. "Be nice, Squiddy, be nice."

"'Squiddy'?"

"Don't start. You don't want to upset him, do you?"

In reply, Severus said, "I'm going to send into Hogsmeade for Madam Pomfrey. Perhaps you do have a concussion from the spell, after all."

"Oh, for Merlin's sake!" Hermione exclaimed, clenching her fists. "Dippet told us his name."

Severus began bandaging her head, accusing, "You talk to it as if it were a pet."

"Well, he is one, in a way, isn't he?"

"Be still—please."

"Severus," Hermione said, somewhat mollified by his request and keeping her voice soft so as not to disturb the shoggoth, "you weren't a party to my complete conversation with Dippet. According to him, shoggoths can take any form to complete a task and are controlled by a master's thoughts. This one obviously believes that I'm his master."

"Then why did it try to eat you?"

"Because I willed him to, well sort of. It's not as though I've had much practice at telling shoggoths what to do. I just thought about it cascading down upon us, down upon Eddie. Without my wand, it was all that I could do without putting Ron and Harry into more danger than they already were."

"Masters called it, not you," Severus said, smoothing his fingers over Hermione's bandages.

"About that," Hermione said, trying not to wince and making to sit down next to the shoggoth on the cot.

Severus took her by the elbow and gently pulled her over to the other one. Hermione rolled her eyes.

"Remember how I told you that I was reading aloud to the Giant Squid?"

"It wasn't you."

"Well, it's obvious that Eddie thought he called it, and that he sent it to me so that I'd carry it into the library, but what if his spell didn't actually work? I did read from the book. It might have been me."

"You're not that stupid, Hermione."

Hermione stood up again, clutching the Elder Sign so tightly that it hurt, and stepped away from the cot. "Oh, well, thank you for that. Not 'that' stupid."

"Jiggling," Severus said, nodding towards the shoggoth.

"Jiggling" did not seem an appropriate word for Severus to say, and in spite of her irritation, Hermione laughed—but then just as abruptly, she scowled as she remembered her anger. "You know, I shouldn't have smacked you, but what you said about my signing that card was beyond rude. I won't be spoken to like that, Severus! Even if we weren't dating, the fact that I'm on staff should earn me the right to be treated with common courtesy!"

"Ha!" one of the portraits in the ward called.

"Go away, Headmaster Dippet!" Hermione shouted, not breaking her gaze with Severus as she stepped back towards the shoggoth's cot.

Severus, his eyebrows disappearing into his fringe, stared back at her. "We're dating?" he asked. "You think we're dating?"

"What do you think, that I was trying to take measurement of your inside leg by the lake? I'm not your tailor! Of course we're dating!"

As if Severus had been waiting for some signal, he was suddenly pulling her up onto her toes and into an embrace. Hermione didn't yield to his kiss; angry at him for needing permission to kiss her, to reassure her and himself, Hermione took his mouth with her tongue, thrusting hers against his with all the frustration and fear and desire that she felt, and pulled him down onto the cot behind them.

(;,;)

Frank sat up. He felt groggy, and he was alone. At least, in the office, but he heard shouting emanating from the stacks.

"Mr Beakman?" he called, walking into the library and giving that awful table a wide berth.

He hadn't been able to stop looking at it earlier, but now, it was just too gruesome to contemplate. There was no sign of Mr Beakman, Auror Boynton, or the elves, so he quietly made his way through the shelves towards the sound of the disturbance.

Oh, this is the Restricted Section! he thought, happening upon the open door.

Under ordinary circumstances, Frank would have been thrilled to have access to the sorts of books that were kept in that room; Eddie, who'd been Frank's History of Magic teacher back at the Salem Institute, had shown him loads of cool grimoires, and Frank loved to read. However, after an evening of shoggoth and Auror March, who apparently knew exactly why his mom had sent him away to Hogwarts, Frank wasn't prepared to do anything that might get him sent someplace truly awful—such as Muggle reform school.

Muggle reform school was his mom's favourite threat in response to his "difficult" behaviour and interests. Still, he was curious.

Who's shouting?

He pressed on until the shimmer of a warded door caught his eye. Eddie was standing in front of it and swearing.

"Fucking blood-ward! I hate you! I have to get in there! Stupid fucking books! Stupid fucking useless fucking stupid, stupid, stupid minion!"

Total nutjob, Frank thought, shaking his head.

Back in Salem, he'd suspected that Eddie wasn't right in the head, but that had been worth ignoring for the ancient lore. Now, however, Frank wasn't so sure.

Anyone crazy enough to mess around with shoggoths is someone I shouldn't be hanging with. He backed away. And the freak really shouldn't be yelling like that. He's pissing off the books!

The books—that gave Frank an idea. He ran back to the office. Before he'd sat down on the couch, Auror Boynton had Scourgified some blood off the cushions; Frank hoped to discover some of it still there.

Yes! he thought, conjuring a phial and performing a charm to reconstitute the bit of blood he found on the couch's arm. That'll be good enough for the blood-ward, and once I lock him in with the books, I can get the Aurors.

To Frank's way of thinking, Auror March was bound to put in a good word with both Professor McGonagall and his mom if he helped them capture Eddie.

This'll work. It's a good plan.

(;,;)

When he'd insisted that Hermione allow him to see to her wound, Severus hadn't expected to have it off with her in the Infirmary. Now that they were both mostly nude and tangled in a lovely pile of limbs, however, he wasn't about to stop.

"Good," he murmured, sucking one of her nipples into his mouth; Hermione gasped. So good.

He loved how responsive she was, how brazen, loved the silken heat of her skin—he loved it all so much that he didn't think he'd last long enough to shag her, but he didn't care.

Hermione's rhythmic grip upon his prick made it impossible to care.

He shifted position to kiss her, liking very much the way that she brought up her hands and tangled them in his hair, tugging at it; the pain made the pleasure she was causing him feel that much better. She squeezed him again, her hand sliding promisingly up and down his prick; she wasn't going to stop, either.

"Like the way you do that," he murmured, against her lips, "like it so—"

Hands. Hands in his hair. Hand on his prick.

Hermione doesn't have three hands! "Fuck!" Severus shouted, throwing himself off the bed and looking down.

Seventeen eyes on waving stalks jutting out of undulating, animated gelatin stared up at him.

"Get it—fuck! Get this, this monstrosity off me!"

(;,;)

The screaming abruptly stopped. In the resultant silence, Frank began to doubt the soundness of his plan.

Shit, maybe I shouldn't have done that after all.

The books were just supposed to have distracted Eddie, to have kept him occupied; it hadn't occurred to Frank, when he'd convinced Eddie to let him "help" him, that the books might actually hurt the freak.

No way is Mom going to understand this. She'll send me to Muggle reform school for sure. She'll disown me!

That is, if he wasn't sentenced to Azkaban for attempted murder first. Fighting back tears, Frank fled.

(;,;)

"Damn it! Frank's run off," said Geoffrey. "I thought you said that charm would hold."

Beakman frowned into the empty office. "It should have. I use it on my own children all the time."

"When I woke up to March's message, you were gone. Where the hell did you go?" Geoffrey asked.

"The loo. I was only gone fifteen minutes. What did March want?"

"To tell me that there was a shoggoth in the kitchens."

"A what? No!"

"Yeah, I know, another beastie, and Masters is missing, too. When March finds out that Frank's gone, he'll—"

"Auror Boynton?"

"Frank!" Geoffrey exclaimed, turning to see the unhealthily pale teenager shuffling his feet outside the door. "What did you do, now?"

(;,;)

"He was only doing what I wanted to do!" Hermione protested, as she followed Severus out onto the grounds. "He's attuned to my thoughts, remember?"

Severus said nothing and continued to storm towards the Black Lake; he was holding her bag and the Elder Sign out in front of himself. Squiddy's eye-stalks bobbed out the top of the bag.

"I wanted to touch you, and he was just trying to help."

"I don't want to think about what it was doing!" Severus shouted. "I don't want to talk about it, either! In fact, neither of us will ever speak of it again!"

"But Sever—"

"No, Hermione! Not one more word! This, this, this thing is going back where it came from!"

Hermione sped her steps and grasped one of Severus' arms. "And how do you propose we do that?"

"We have everything we need: the Elder Sign, the book, and the, the, Squiddy," he spat, stopping on the shore of the lake. He thrust the Elder Sign into her hands. "Make it go away!"

"Hello, there!" called someone.

Hermione turned to see someone running towards them, and then back to Severus, who was setting the bag down.

He leapt away from it. "Not one word, Hermione. Not one. Not one word."

"He wasn't trying to eat you. He was just—"

"I know exactly what it was doing—being entirely too fucking 'helpful', that's what!" Severus shouted, looking over Hermione's shoulder. "Promise me. Promise me that we will. Never. Speak. Of. This. Again."

"I prom—"

"Whew! Glad I caught you there. So, what're you doing with that shoggoth?" March asked.

When Severus said nothing, Hermione supplied, "Well, we thought we might reunite it with its larger self. Doesn't that seem like a good idea?"

"It does if you know how to do it without generating additional shogs," March answered. "Do you?"

"Not as such."

"May I have the Sign?"

(;,;)

Granger took the sigil from Snape and passed it to Christopher, smiling down at the shoggoth bud, which appeared expectant. At least, Christopher assumed all that wiggling and straining towards the lake meant some form of expectation on its part.

He went to the very edge of the water, removed the necessary object from his robes, and held it up to them: a small, bizarrely shaped device with no readily apparent purpose. "This will bring it to the surface," he said. "Please be good enough to step back."

"I'd like to say goodbye to it."

Christopher turned to Granger. "Really?" Merlin, you people are strange.

Snape said nothing; he was striding back towards the castle.

"What's up his arse?"

Granger murmured something unintelligible and shook her head, bending down to peer at the shoggoth, and Christopher, bemused, activated the summoner and threw it into the lake.

"You be good. You be a friend to the Merpeople and swim in the Black Lake. Don't hurt anyone, and don't try to leave yourself. Eyes should stick together!" Granger said, brightly.

Yeah, very fucking strange, Christopher thought, watching the "Giant Squid" break the surface of the water. But she has been through a great deal.

It had been a trying night for everyone. By dawn, however, Christopher wanted to be shot of Hogwarts; he wasn't sure he'd be able to wrap things up that quickly, but he was going to try: he needed to get to Dunwich to deal with Whateley's twin.

There's always a fucking twin—always chanting and cultists—and sometimes, a shoggoth.

The squid form unfurled a tentacle over the shore; small eyes in a variety of colours popped open as the shoggoth wiggled down to the water's edge and spread itself over the appendage before melting into it.

Yes, there were shoggoths, and often dangerous books, as well, but this was the first time that Christopher had ever known them to murder a person. Boynton's Patronus message hadn't been particularly clear, but he'd gleaned enough from it to know that he'd have to do something about Frank Morgan.

That kid's a menace. He needs a firm hand.

(;,;)

Severus stood, fists clenched by his sides, glaring at Morgan. He could barely believe what he'd been told, or what he'd seen for himself in Secure Storage. Irma was going to kill him when she discovered the condition of her books. And Lucius wouldn't be content with seeing him out of a job; Lucius would see to it that he was sent to prison.

Getting rid of me has been his object all along, I suspect, but only as part of a larger plan.

Lucius always had a larger plan, but in that moment, Severus couldn't think about what his current one might be; he had a student to discipline. Closing his eyes, he pushed down his fear and allowed himself to feel only anger.

"Francis Morgan, you useless dunderhead of a Gryffindor! What were you thinking, helping a known criminal enter Secure Storage—sending Masters to his death? What? What could possibly have motivated you to do something so incredibly stupid?"

"I was just trying to help, sir."

It was, although Morgan had no way of knowing this, the worst possible thing that he could have said.

(;,;)

"Think we should go in there, sir?" Weasley asked Christopher.

"No."

"But sir," Potter said, "Snape sounds apoplectic. He might—"

"Potter, do you really believe that Headmaster Snape, who by all accounts spent most of his adult life protecting your arse under circumstances that were far beyond trying, would suffer an apoplexy during the routine disciplining of a student?"

"That sounds routine to you, does it, er, sir?"

Weasley snorted. "Does to me."

"That's not fair!" Hermione protested.

"Severus is quite right to remonstrate soundly with the boy," Minerva McGonagall said. "I don't know what he's threatening him with, but whatever it is, it's warranted: students have no business experimenting with Dark magic, and Morgan should never have left the protection of his tent in the middle of the night!"

"Well no, of course not, but—"

"Oh, don't you start, Ronald Weasley. You and Mr Potter never followed the rules, either. It's a wonder that you survived your schooling."

"It is, isn't it?" Granger said tightly.

Weasley and Potter both grinned.

"I didn't mean to insinuate that—oh, do stop it, all of you! This is a very serious situation."

"Yes, Professor McGonagall, it is," Christopher said.

The door flew open then. Frank Morgan, looking positively ashen, walked out.

"I'm done for. The Headmaster's sending me back to America."

"Well, that's not so bad. I'll take you home, kid. I'd like to speak to your mother about a special educational opportunity for you."

"Really?" asked Potter. "I was thinking he'd make a cracking Auror."

"Belt up, Potter, and get everyone else in here—including Andrews. Professor McGonagall, if you'd be good enough to take Frank back to Hogsmeade, I'll come down to speak to him later this morning."

As Potter, McGonagall, and Frank left, Christopher knocked on Snape's office's door and went in before he was invited, closing it behind him.

"How do you do that?" Snape asked.

"What?"

"Get Potter to obey you. He never listened to me."

Christopher grinned. "Perhaps not, but you definitely made an impression on him. He talks about you all the time."

"Pull the other one."

"Let's just say that he probably never wanted to be a student as much as he wants to be an Auror, and he knows that he won't be licensed without my recommendation."

Snape snorted.

"Now then, when Potter's got everyone assembled, there's something that Beakman would like to show you."

Snape sat down behind his desk and sighed. "I'm not certain that I want to see it. What I would like to discuss is—"

"How we're going to sort this mess?" At Snape's nod, Christopher shrugged and said, "My, er, primary department will handle the particulars of explaining Whateley and Masters' disappearance—I expect that they'll elope—Andrews' interests will have changed by the time he returns home, and the device I placed in the Black Lake should ensure that your shoggoth continues to exist peacefully as the Giant Squid."

"And Frank Morgan?"

"I'm going to enroll Frank into a training programme, one that will suit his interests and channel them appropriately."

"It occurs to me that Andrews' friends might object to any change in his interests," Snape said.

"Yes, they probably will, but do you really give a damn about that?"

"Not particularly, March, but I do have one question."

"Yes?"

"Why this pretence of being a trainer?"

Christopher paused before answering, deciding that it could do no harm to be honest. "It's not a pretence, but I find that recruiting new members to my primary department is greatly aided by working for Enforcement."

"Potter's been through enough."

Christopher bit back a laugh at the sudden anger he could read in Snape's eyes. "Don't fret about Potter. You did a good job with him, and as I said, he very much wants to be an Auror. He's not the sort of young man for whom Teratology, say, holds any appeal."

(;,;)

Brian had returned to the library and was just completing his Seal of the scene when March joined him. "That went well, sir."

"You always were a dab hand at memory modification."

"Spare me the compliments and tell me we can go now. My wife might forgive me for working on my weekend off if I make it home in time for Sunday dinner."

"You've left no traces?" asked March.

"You know how I work. Library's done. Kitchens are taken care of, as well, and I told Boynton to walk the grounds to be sure that nothing was missed before he returned those damn Chocolate Frog Cards to the students in Hogsmeade."

"Thank you," said March. "How's Geoff going to explain having the cards?"

"He'll blame Frank Morgan, of course. Given the reason Professor McGonagall has for his having been up here, I don't suppose his 'thievery' will come as much of a surprise to her. She'll just be grateful to have the cards back."

March nodded. "Good thinking. And I expect that Geoff will thank me for leaving him in charge of the trainees while I'm gone."

Brian closed his case with a snap! and said, "The trainees will thank you, as well. When can we expect your return?"

"I've sent a letter to Armitage. He'll no doubt have matters wrapped up in Dunwich long before I arrive, but I still—"

"Want to be sure, as usual—not to mention that you're about to start breaking in a new apprentice."

"Frank's too young to be sent to Azkaban. I hate seeing potential go to waste, you know that."

"And Andrews? I missed how you took care of him while I was working on Granger. She was difficult."

"And Snape wasn't?" March laughed. "About Andrews: let's just say that he's suddenly developed a deep desire to become a florist, and if Armitage's people have anything to say about it, there'll be a boom in that profession before long."

"Cultists," Brian muttered. "Don't you ever hate this line of work?"

"Oh, hell no! Stimulating people, interesting reading, exotic fauna—what's not to love?"

Brian shook his head. "Being privy to the secrets of the universe is a bitch, my friend."

"Yes, well, that's why there's Firewhisky."

(;,;)

"You know," said Ron, as Harry brought the drinks to the table in the Three Broomsticks, "I'll be glad when inspections are over. That was a long, boring stretch, wasn't it?"

Harry frowned and shook Hermione awake while he placed a glass in front of her. "Er, yeah, I guess," he said to Ron.

"What?"

"I suppose I must have drifted off for awhile. I don't remember much of the shift."

"Mind's on other things, I expect," Hermione said sleepily, nodding towards the door.

"Hi, Harry!" Ginny called, making her way over to them.

"Oh, I see how it is," Ron grumbled, as Ginny kissed Harry and Hermione rolled her eyes. "I'm just the brother, is that it?"

"Shut up, Ron, and look!" Ginny pulled something from her pocket and cast a Muffliato. "I'm not supposed to be bringing samples out of the workshop, but this one's my prototype, the one I've been working on for months. Behold, the Ginevra One!"

A broomstick, a gloriously fast-looking, highly polished broomstick of red wood and golden bristles re-sized itself on the table before them.

"Merlin, Gin! That's yours?" Harry asked.

"It's beautiful!" he and Ron exclaimed.

Hermione's only comment was "Lovely," but Ginny didn't appear to have taken offence at such faint praise.

Never understood that, Ron thought, of Hermione's lack of enthusiasm for flying. To Ginny, he said, "You didn't actually name it after yourself, did you?"

"No, of course not," she told him, looking nervously at Harry. "I'm actually calling it the Dobby Defender."

"The what?"

The smallness of Harry's voice made Ron nervous, as well.

"You don't mind, do you, Harry?" Ginny asked, her eyebrows furrowing.

That was always a sign that she might cry, and it upset Ron. He better not mind.

But Harry smiled and reached for Ginny's hand. "It's, er, it's—I'll just get you a butterbeer, shall I? And then you can tell me all about it."

Ginny turned to Ron as Harry abruptly walked to the tap. "It upset him. I didn't think that it would upset him."

"It's all right. He's pleased, I know he is," Hermione reassured her. "He's just being Harry."

"Right," said Ron. "You know how he gets—but weren't you going to wait until his birthday to show him your broom?"

"I was, but with our luck, you'll be on some assignment then. I didn't want to wait."

"Good plan," Hermione murmured, in that way of hers that indicated she wasn't really paying attention.

What does Snape have you doing up at the school to make you so tired, anyway? Ron wondered, almost immediately wishing that he hadn't. Ignoring several disturbing ideas that had sprung to mind, he said to Ginny, "Well, I think it's a smashing broom, truly beautiful."

"Oh, it's more than beautiful. Wait until you hear about its features," she said.

"How fast does it go?" asked Hermione.

Ron snorted. "Too fast for you, I imagine."

Hermione stuck out her tongue at him, and before Ginny could expound on the wonders of her broom, Harry returned to the table.

He looked wistful as he handed the butterbeer to Ginny, and then he reached out to stroke the broom's handle. "The Dobby Defender—that's just perfect, Gin."

Relieved, Ron smiled at the pair of them as Ginny began explaining the broom's advantages over various other models and Hermione yawned again. "You really need to get more rest, 'Mione."

"I need a bit more of something, true."

"Don't we all," Ginny quipped.

"Oi, none of that!" Ron insisted, again being treated to unwanted mental images.

"You're just upset because you don't know how to knock," Ginny said, as Harry flushed.

"For the last time, Mum said that you were alone in your workshop!"

(;,;)

As she left the Three Broomsticks with Ron, Hermione was happy; with the Salem delegation gone, Hogwarts would finally seem like home again.

It's amazing how such a large place can seem so crowded when strangers visit, she thought, gazing up at the stars that were only just becoming visible in the darkening sky. Impulsively, she traced the pattern of a swirl of them, murmuring, "'The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee', er, how does it go? "'About his shadowy sides...'"

"What's that?" asked Ron.

"Tennyson, I think, from a poem about a monster in the sea. I was just imagining what life might be like amongst the constellations, or beyond them, for that matter."

"Which just goes to show," Ron told her, "that you've been reading too much poetry."

"Obviously not if I'm having trouble remembering the poem," Hermione replied.

"Then let's get you back to the school," Ron said, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze as he began to move off.

Hermione, suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for Ron's friendship, pulled him into a hug.

"Not that I'm complaining, of course, but what did I do to deserve this?"

Hermione pulled away a bit. "It's just, well, I'm just glad that we're still friends. I don't know what I'd do if things broke between us."

Ron grinned. "You say that now, but wait until I'm in a relationship. Then we'll see how fixed we are."

"Ah, so no worries on that score for me, then?" Hermione teased, beginning to run.

"Oi!" Ron exclaimed, as he chased her back towards Hogwarts. "Be nice!"

(;,;)

Irma had made several unpleasant suggestions as to what to do with her watch-cabinet's destroyer as she circled it amid the array of tools, cloths, and varnishes spread out in her office. Now, however, she seemed content to fret. "I don't know that I'll ever be able to repair this mess. Catalogue is quite ruined!"

"I'm surprised that you're giving up so easily," Severus said calmly. "I thought you loved this old horror, but if that's the way you feel, we could simply order a better one."

"There's nothing wrong with Catalogue!" Irma exclaimed, wrapping her arms around the cabinet. "Oh, you poor thing. You know I'll repair you!"

Severus rolled his eyes at Irma's strange obsession, but then he proceeded to encourage it. "Perhaps what you need is an assistant."

Irma shot him a suspicious glance.

"One whom you could train your own way? One devoted entirely to you?"

Straightening, Irma said, "Are you speaking of a house-elf? You know what I think of them."

"Yes, but this is a young elf I have in mind, a very young, very devoted elf. Cheeky!" Severus called.

Pop!

"Cheeky is here, Headmaster Snape!"

"Severus," Irma said, the irritation plain in her tone.

She had despised having house-elves in the library since the battle because their idea of tidying up was very much not hers.

"You asked about the student who did this," Severus said, before Irma could protest further. "Well, given the gravity of his offence, I've sent him away."

"You what?"

"Sent him away. He is no longer a student at this school."

"Quite right, too, but that doesn't mean I'll accept a house—"

"That is being," Cheeky said, almost on cue, "a very beautiful broken cabinet, Madam Pince, but Cheeky is willing to help you make it—"

Severus looked at Cheeky sharply.

"—him all better."

Somewhat surprisingly, Irma relented immediately. "Aren't you a dear, clever little thing? Do you know much about magical woodworking?"

"No, but Cheeky is being able to learn everything!"

(;,;)

"And Laddy and Rally, what about them?" Hermione asked, over the dinner that she was sharing with Severus in his office's sitting room.

He looked exhausted, which wasn't a surprise; he hadn't got any more sleep than she had since March and the others had left.

"I've instructed them never to speak of recent events, and they'll obey me," Severus replied. "Cheeky, I hope, will forget about them. She's easily distracted, but I did issue her the same instruction—and I expect that Irma will keep her in line."

"Well, then that's everything sorted, isn't it?"

"No, not everything. March took Kitab al-Azif and its copy with him, but there is still The Book of Doors with which to deal."

"Oh, as to that, I returned it with the Elder Sign to Dippet's section of the Headmasters' library before going along to the Three Broomsticks."

"You did? How did you get out again without the book? For that matter, how did you get in?"

Hermione smiled. "By the door. Headmaster Dumbledore was good enough to tell me where it was while you were escorting Hogwarts' guests off the grounds. I'll show you after dinner."

"No," Severus said. "That won't be necessary."

Hermione supposed that she understood his lack of desire to see the place again so soon given that Eddie had attacked him there. Still, she was surprised that he could resist the lure of so many books.

"It's not as daunting, not when you enter it in the 'traditional manner', but then, I didn't stay long."

"That was for the best, and I assure you, Hermione, the vagaries of wizard space hold no appeal to me right now."

They do for me, Hermione thought, saying, "Yes, well, it has been a trying few weeks, hasn't it?"

(;,;)

"If we'd allowed them to Obliviate us, we wouldn't remember them that way."

When March had left him to wait for Potter to return with the others, Albus had taken the opportunity to remind Severus of the anti-Obliviation charm that he'd taught him years previously; he'd suggested that Severus employ it on both himself and Hermione before mentioning something else rather useful and quite unexpected. Needing to remember that second piece of information, and wanting to remember everything else, Severus had done as Albus had suggested. He was, therefore, still quite able to remember recent events—and one, in particular.

I may never wank again.

"Yes, and a decidedly difficult weekend, too. I'm glad it's all over, but I've been thinking: Auror March must have once been an Unspeakable. There's no other explanation for his knowledge or behaviour. What do you think?"

"I don't care," Severus replied. "I'm just glad that it's almost Monday."

"Are you? Why?"

"Nothing interesting ever happens on a Monday," Severus said firmly, willing this bit of nonsense to be true. "Although, I have sent word to Lucius to expect me at the manor tomorrow."

"I see."

"I won't stay long. I merely intend to impress upon him some home truths."

(;,;)

"By-Law Five, Lucius, are you familiar with it?"

"'The Headmaster, Governors, professors, and staff of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are forbidden to conduct themselves in any manner that might bring harm to the school, its students, staff, or protectors. Anyone found engaging in such deleterious activity will be removed from his or her position and banned from Hogwarts and its grounds'," Lucius replied. "What of it?"

Severus swirled the Firewhisky in his glass, concentrating on how the light from the fire hit it and silently thanking Albus as he spoke. "I expect that a hereditary membership in the English branch of the Society for Esoterica and Dominion, coupled with an introduction to the school of various American members of that same society, would more than constitute grounds for your banishment—not to mention renew the Department of Magical Law Enforcement's interest in you." Severus looked up into Lucius' pointedly blank expression. "What say you to that?"

Lucius raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly, reaching for Severus' glass. "I say, old friend, that you've been imbibing a bit too freely."

"Lucius."

"And that we need never speak of this again."

"Stay out of my school."

"Hogwarts is hardly yours, Severus, and it requires—"

"'Proper and vigorous stewardship'. Yes, I know. I also know how very much you enjoy the freedom to be a Governor, and if you content yourself to conduct your relevant, related duties, you and I, 'old friend', should continue to get on quite well."

"Severus, I—"

"Will be staying out of my school. Will be staying away from Miss Granger. Will be staying out of my way... Is all that quite clear?"

Now visibly annoyed, Lucius raised Severus' glass and tapped it.

Clink!

"Excellent," Severus said, rising to take his leave and glancing at the portrait of Narcissa that hung above the hearth as he did so. A smug impulse caused him to say, although he was wise enough to keep his expression neutral, "Do give my best to your wife."

(;,;)

Upon his return, Severus found Hermione in Secure Storage, staring at the bloated books straining against each other on the narrow shelves.

"I can feel Eddie's aural energy even though I don't know how the books absorbed it," she whispered. "I don't like it."

"Then come away," he said, gently turning her to face him and seeing that the wound on her head was now a mere reddened patch of skin.

Leaning forward, he kissed it.

"Mmm," she murmured.

"I've asked Laddy to take charge of all shelving in this area. Madam Pince is no longer as averse to the presence of house-elves in her library as she once was."

"That's something of a surprise, isn't it?"

"It was certainly one for Rally," Severus said, "but she consented readily enough to the new arrangement."

Hermione smiled. "I don't think that she approves of the younger house-elves."

"Perhaps not. Have you eaten, yet?"

"No, I'm not really hungry. How did your meeting go?"

"Lucius and I have achieved a rare clarity."

"I'm glad." Hermione yawned. "I know it's early, but—"

"I have a suggestion," Severus began to say, but he stopped speaking at Hermione's sharp look.

"I wish you wouldn't do that. Don't you care what I have to say?"

"Very much. More than I should, perhaps," he admitted.

Hermione's expression softened, and she pressed up to kiss him, very lightly, on the lips.

"That was nice."

"Flatterer," she replied, smiling.

"I apologise for interrupting you."

"I accept your apology, Severus, because I have a suggestion."

"Oh?"

"I didn't sleep very well last night."

Hermione paused, but Severus waited, not wanting to offend her again by speaking out of turn.

"I didn't sleep very well last night, and..."

This time, Hermione's pause was long enough to seem to indicate her willingness to have him speak, so he said, "Neither did I."

"And it seems," she continued, looking down, "that I feel rather, er, comfortable with you."

He kissed her head again, moving his hands to her shoulders and massaging them. "I'm happy to hear that."

Playing with the buttons of his coat, Hermione looked up at him. "So I was wondering, would you like to go to bed? To sleep? With me? I know it's early, but I'm terribly exhausted, and I think that I'd be able to sleep. With you."

Severus could barely believe what he'd heard. "With me," he said, "in a bed?" His heart began to beat a little faster. "My bed?"

"Yes, yours or mine, whichever you prefer."

Severus pulled Hermione into his arms then and held her tightly, hiding his face in her hair so that she couldn't read his expression.

She was a tremendous reader, his Hermione.

My Hermione.

The thought made him cling to her all the tighter. She'd come to her senses soon enough, but for now, she was his. Hermione shifted a bit, and in response, he lightened his hold upon her, but only just.

"Severus?"

"Hmm?"

"Severus, don't think I don't know what you're doing."

Blinking rapidly but not releasing her, he asked, "Do you?"

"I know that you're a breast man," she said, amusement thick in her tone. "And of course, if you'd prefer not to go immediately to sleep, I suppose that we might, well, read a little first."

Severus pulled away and arched an eyebrow at her. "What have you in mind?"

She grinned. "It's just a little thing, but I'd rather not show it to you in here."

He allowed her to pull him away, saying, "You're not too tired for reading?"

"Oh, in spite of everything, I've decided that I'll never be too tired to read." They left Secure Storage and the Restricted Section, and Hermione, still grinning, pressed something into his hand.

"What's this?" he asked.

"Look at it."

Severus looked down. It was a card. A Chocolate Frog Card. His Chocolate Frog Card.

Fuck.

Before he could destroy it, Hermione snatched it back again and read, "'To Mary Flint on her first day as a Slytherin. I expect great things of you. Severus Snape'."

Severus found himself wishing again for the fragrant privacy of Hermione's hair. "Surely I don't have to explain that."

"Ahem," Hermione replied.

"I didn't mean what I said to you about your card. Our experience with the shoggoth left me feeling rather overwhelmed."

"Ahem, hem."

"I apologise for mocking you, and," he paused, realising that Hermione wasn't truly angry with him, "it was very mean of me, Miss Granger, and I'll never do it again. I'll be a good boy, I promise."

Hermione made a smacking gesture at him but continued to grin. "Good," she said, "and I'll just see to it that Miss Flint gets this back."

"I could do that."

"Yes, but would you?" Hermione asked, pocketing the card and sliding an arm around his waist.

Some of Severus' mortification was eased a great deal, as Hermione led him to the library's exit, by the warm heaviness of her breast pushing against him.

Side tit, he thought, missing most of what she'd been saying.

"—was a lovely thing to do for her. I'm touched."

You will be, he thought, feeling suddenly more awake than not. "My bed, I think."

"Do you?"

"Yes, it's large enough for 'reading', and if we can't sleep, there are bookshelves built right in."

Hermione stopped and looked up at him, an impish expression on her face. "Handholds are good, but how do you feel about restraints?"

I don't have this sort of luck, do I? Severus thought, deciding, in that moment, two things: the first was that he just might have that sort of luck. The second was that properly bedding Hermione would have to wait because he couldn't any longer.

(;,;)

Oh, Merlin's balls! I did not need to see that! Argus thought, backing hastily out of the library and trying to forget the sight of the Headmaster's bare arse.

Even the afterimage of Granger's shapely legs wrapped around Snape's waist didn't help ease his mind; he blamed the books.

Dangerous, perverting things, books.