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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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—
"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."
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 we did intend those in trade rather than as direct gifts."
"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'? 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.
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?"
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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.
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."
"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—"
"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."
"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.
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.
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!
"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—"
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.
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.
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?"
"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.
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.
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!"
Filch and Harry spun about at the same moment.
"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.
"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.
"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?"
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."