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.
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."
"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!" 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.
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—"
"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!"
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!
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!"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
"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?"
"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.
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—"
"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!"
"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."
"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.
"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.
"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."
"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."
"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.
"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 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.
"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."
"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 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."
"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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
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, 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.
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."
"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."
"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.
The Librarian and L-space were imagined by Terry Pratchett. The Joye of Snacks was authored by Gytha "Nanny" Ogg. "The Kraken," the poem to which Hermione refers, was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.