Book Four and Three Quarters
by Maeve "Mab" Roberts

~

< >Harry and Hermione were ushered out by Snape, who sent them to look for ingredients for his potion. Sirius accompanied them.

< >"Will Ron be all right?" asked Harry, pulling a face as he picked up a handful of slugs from underneath the shadow of a gorse bush. Sirius shrugged.

< >"He should be," he said shortly. Harry got the impression that Sirius was still brooding over whatever it was that Snape had done to Lupin, and they finished searching for the rest of the ingredients in silence, returning to the little hut after two hours and giving Snape the slugs, three shed snake skins, eleven and a half minnows (Sirius had spent the better part of the time outside lying on his stomach wiggling his hand about in the stream) and two frogs that Hermione had been too squeamish to disembowel herself. Snape took them all wordlessly.

< >Ron, it seemed, was making a good recovery. Although still unconscious when Harry and the others had returned, he looked much healthier now, and more peaceful. Snape told them that he should wake up soon: after drinking the potion, he said, tossing the frog's liver into a simmering cauldron and wiping his hands on his robes, it would be a matter of hours before he was back on his feet. Harry and Hermione shared a heartfelt look of relief.

< >Harry still wasn't quite sure what to make of Snape's rather violent mood swings. As he had grown accustomed to nothing but difficulty with the Potions master over the last four years, he discovered, like Ron, that this sudden change of heart was intensely disturbing. One minute he would be the same old Snape they knew and - well, Harry wouldn't say loved, as such - but then the next he would be visibly trying to act pleasantly.

< >Harry decided that this 'nice' side of Snape only really emerged when he was talking to him, Ron or Hermione. The tension between Sirius was thick enough to be cut with a knife, and Snape also, it seemed, had not got around to forgiving Lupin for whatever it was he thought he'd done. Harry sighed. He didn't know what had happened back in the shack between the three men that had caused Sirius to get so angry with the professor, but he knew that it must have been something beyond the normal bickering. Oh well. Harry turned to look at Ron: his friend was still pale, but at least he was no longer blue; and, perhaps more importantly, he was most definitely still alive. Perhaps things were improving after all.

< >Ron woke up an hour later, just in time for the tea that Sirius had made. Harry, who had been sitting at the foot of his bed watching him, stared at him in concern as he raised a hand to his head and ran it through his hair experimentally.

< >"Yesss…" he hissed.

< >"Ron," began Harry, hoping with all his might that this wasn't another Brollachan he had to deal with.

< >At his voice, Ron suddenly stared at him, unblinkingly. "Harry!" he said. Then: "The Selkie! The - what happened? It wasn't a Selkie, Harry, it was a horrible thing, a - a - "

< >"A Brollachan," supplied Harry helpfully.

< >"A what? What happened to it?"

< >"Lupin killed it, I think. How are you?"

< >Ron sank back into his pillows and groaned. "Terrible," he said. "Horrible. I don't think eating all that Hubble gum was good for me…"

< >"You get indigestion if you eat too much gum," said Hermione, who had suddenly materialised out of nowhere and was standing there next to Ron, peering at him with concern plastered all over her face. "It gets stuck in your stomach. You aren't meant to eat it."

< >Ron nodded, glumly. "I realise that now," he said. "But what happened? What did you do after I - after I went in the stream?"

< >Harry considered, unsure of how much to tell him. "The Brollachan made itself look like you," he said. "We thought it was you, come back… only you were blue, and then you grew teeth, and then we realised it wasn't you after all and Lupin killed the Brollachan and we went and found you and brought you back here, and… well, here you are."

< >Ron looked confused. "OK…" he said.

< >"I'll get Snape," said Hermione, and hurried off. Ron's eyes widened.

< >"Why's she doing that?" he asked, panicking. "What have I done? Why…?"

< >"Because you need to drink this." Snape's oily voice drifted down to them. "Out of the way, Potter… this has some peculiar side-effects…"

< >Ron backed up against the headboard, gripping at his bed coverings with white-knuckled hands. He looked petrified. Harry, grinning with sheer relief that his best friend was back to normal, walked slowly out of the room with Hermione to the sound of Ron's protestations and what were possibly soothing noises coming from Snape. Harry's smile widened. He was glad he wasn't in Ron's shoes.

< >"We should reach Hogwarts before lunch tomorrow," said Sirius, over dinner that night. "We'll leave as soon as Ron's feeling better."

< >"I'm feeling fine now," said Ron immediately - then spoilt this declaration by rushing out of the room to be sick.

< >"Are you sure you were meant to put the minnows in, Professor?" asked Hermione suspiciously. Snape glared at her.

< >"Are you suggesting I don't possess enough knowledge of my own subject to know the ingredients for a simple reparative potion, Miss Granger?" he snarled. "You ought to be grateful. If I hadn't been here, your friend would still be in excruciating pain."

< >Hermione looked doubtful that Ron wasn't at the moment, but wisely decided against saying so. Harry dived into his plate of potatoes with a vigour that he didn't really possess: spending the last two days with no escape from Snape had exhausted him. He pitied any future Mrs Snape. How Dumbledore and the other members of staff could bear to spend each and every day in the man's company bewildered him: the teachers at Hogwarts had risen considerably in his estimation since he'd learned just how hard it was to put up continuously with the Potions master.

< >He - and all the others, with the possible exception of Sirius - had given up rising to the baits that Snape provided. But even this didn't seem to help much: Harry's Lupin-style politeness served to make Snape's eyes flash just as much as Sirius's short retorts to his jibes.

< >It was decided that they would leave in the morning. Hogwarts was, apparently, only four or five hours away: Harry didn't understand how they'd managed to walk from Surrey to his school in under three days, but didn't bother asking. All that mattered now was getting there in one piece - and then hearing whatever mysterious things it was that Dumbledore had to tell then. That night, he lay awake, wondering at all the secrecy. Why had Dumbledore told Sirius not to tell them? Did he not trust one of them? Could it be that serious? Harry pondered these thoughts long into the night, and when he finally drifted off into a fitful, troubled sleep, the sky had begun to lighten and the first tentative notes of birdsong had erupted into the sky.

~

< >Ron's quick recovery astonished Harry. He hadn't asked what had happened with the Brollachan and Ron didn't volunteer any information, so Harry was just left with his imagination as to what had happened in the water: he still had the disturbing image of Cedric Diggory imprinted firmly in his mind, and on the whole he decided that the topic was probably better of being left alone. So that day they talked instead of how nice it would be to see Hogwarts again, and eat proper food instead of the rather bland supplies from Sirius's house - which had begun, at any rate, to now run out.

< >"And the library!" said Hermione, enthusiastically. "I can't wait to re-read the book list for next year - of course, you're going to have to go to Diagon Alley, aren't you, Harry, before term starts? I wonder if Dumbledore will take us. It's too dangerous for Sirius… Have you gone, yet, Ron?"

< >"Yeah," mumbled Ron, obviously hoping that Hermione didn't delve too deeply into what exactly he'd bought: Ron's family was very poor, and he frequently found himself being given second-hand thises and thats that caused him a great deal of embarrassment. But Hermione was too sensitive to probe him; tactfully, she changed the subject.

< >"How far do you think we are now?" she enquired. "It's almost lunch time. We should be - Oh…" Harry and Ron looked at her, surprised, as she gasped. Then, following her gaze, they saw what she was looking at and gasped themselves: for there, in front of them, rising out of the midday mists was Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

< >Ten minutes later saw the six of them stood at the great door, and two minutes after that they were all making their way up to Dumbledore's study, each with a mouthful of out-of-season Christmas cake that had suddenly appeared floating on plates in front of them. Harry ate his with relish. He hadn't realised just how hungry he was.

< >Sirius strode forwards and knocked on Dumbledore's door.

< >"Headmaster?" he called. The door swung open, and there was Dumbledore, sitting at his desk behind a large pile of books scattered with crumbs and a slice of Christmas cake in his hand.

< >"Come in, come in," he called jovially. "And do sit down." He waved his wand at the space in front of him, and all of a sudden six identical rocking chairs were placed neatly in two rows. Harry, Ron and Hermione sunk gladly into the back three.

< >"Ah, Harry," said Dumbledore, peering at him over the top of his half-moon glasses. "How nice to see you. How nice to see all of you - I hope your trip was… uneventful?" From the twinkle in his eye, Harry guessed that Dumbledore had at least some knowledge of their disastrous journey: but the Headmaster's grin had disappeared before it customarily did, and he leaned forwards on his desk, fingers lacing together, looking at them seriously.

< >"I know some of you, at least," he said, glancing at Harry, Ron and Hermione, "Will be wondering why I've called you here and cut short your holiday. I regret to say that it couldn't be helped. Now - " he brushed some crumbs from his beard impatiently - "The reason is simple. Voldemort has returned - quicker than any of us had anticipated - quicker than we would have thought possible - and before we have had the time to assemble the Order of the Phoenix. I cannot do this without the aid of Severus, Sirius and Remus - ah, I see you've had the time to build up a somewhat better relationship over the last few days - " the twinkle was back in his eye - "and, of course, as it is Harry that Voldemort is after, he cannot be left alone." Dumbledore offered Harry a small, but genuine smile.

< >"I believe some explanations are in order," he went on. "Sirius, you read my note: I ought to tell Harry, Ron and Hermione what exactly happened, however… I shall try to be brief.

< >"I approved of you all staying with Sirius for the holidays," he said. "As I believed no harm would come from it. And I'm sure it came as a relief to you, Harry, to be able to have an enjoyable summer holiday for once. But then news reached me of Voldemort's rising: news that would undoubtedly affect you if you were left alone. So I sent Remus to you with a letter, deciding I had better not trust such important information to an owl - and then, thinking that it may not have been safe for him to travel alone and with a full moon approaching, I sent Severus after him. I trust you found each other all right?" he added tranquilly.

< >"He found him," said Sirius, shortly, before Lupin was given a chance to reply, and Snape shot him a venomous glance.

< >"Well, well," carried on Dumbledore, ignoring the small interchange. "I'm glad. So: I asked you to come here immediately, and now here you are." He stroked his beard thoughtfully.

< >"I can see you are still confused," he continued. "And with good reason. I asked Sirius not to tell you what was happening, Harry, simply because - as I'm sure you will have guessed - I wanted to tell you myself. I want you to understand that I do trust you to look after yourself - but you must realize that at the moment, with Voldemort stronger than he has been since that day he foolishly attempted to kill you, we are all under direct threat - and you most of all. So do not go anywhere alone, Harry. Don't wander off on one of your interesting midnight rambles - " He grinned as Harry started guiltily and Snape favoured him with a glare - "At least, not without at the very least Mr Weasley and Miss Granger to accompany you. I don't think that Voldemort will dare attack Hogwarts yet: but we shall see, we shall see. Oh, by the way; your mother, Ron, has forwarded all your school equipment you'll need for next term here… You'll find it all upstairs in your dormitories. Now," he clapped his hands together as if everything were resolved, "I imagine you are all hungry. Let us go downstairs, and see what there is to be eaten."

< >Harry traipsed back downstairs as if in a dream. There had to be more to it than that: something Dumbledore had missed out. They had all known that Voldemort had risen again - true, not to the extent Dumbledore was suggesting, but all the same… Still puzzling, he walked with Ron and Hermione into the hall where a table was laid out for eleven people. There, to his delight, he saw Hagrid sitting at one of the seats - along with Filch, the caretaker, Professor McGonagall, and Madam Pomfrey, the school's matron - and they spent the entire of the meal talking with him, all doubts and worries forgotten. After they'd eaten, they went with Hagrid down to his little gamekeeper's house, and he made them tea.

< >"So," he boomed. "Sounds like yeh've been in a mite o' trouble, 'arry. Tell me," he suddenly leant forwards over the table at Ron who, taken by surprise, didn't manage to move his head in time, collided with Hagrid, and sat there stunned for a moment. Hagrid however didn't seem to notice. "Tell me - what were the Selkie like? Ah've always wanted to see one…"

< >Hagrid's voice took on the wistful tone it always did when he talked of creatures most people considered a menace and he considered potential pets. Ron, still blinking, didn't reply for a while.

< >"I don't think you'd have liked it," he said eventually. "Besides, it wasn't a Selkie, it was a - a - a what was it, Harry?"

< >"A Brollachan," said Harry, and changed the subject before Ron got upset. "So… how've things been at Hogwarts, Hagrid?"

< >Hagrid, sufficiently diverted, launched into an account of everything that had happened in their absence, and Harry and the others snuggled up in his enormous armchairs and snoozed, feeling more relaxed than they had done for a long time. Hagrid woke them up at eleven, and guided them through the dark back to the main castle: he took his role of protector seriously, and Harry was grateful to him for it. As he curled up in his bed in the Gryffindor boys' dormitory, the familiar warmth stealing over him, he decided dozily that even if Voldemort was after him, it was worth it, just for this.

~

< >The days passed easily enough at Hogwarts: Harry, Ron and Hermione saw little of Sirius, and had to content themselves with their own company. There was no homework for Hermione to do and no Slytherins to avoid; this made for a highly entertaining time as they decided - when no one was looking - to make the most of the Marauder's Map and explore the castle grounds. Ron, in particular, had seemed to decide that he wanted one up on Fred and George: now that he had access to two of the original Marauders, he felt that he had an advantage.

< >"Where d'you think this one goes?" he asked one day, about two weeks after their arrival. He, Harry and Hermione were lounging in the Gryffindor common room, plates in front of them piled high with food pillaged for them from the kitchens by Dobby, the house elf with an inordinate fondness for Harry and, since the gift of a large maroon jumper which he usually wore as an apron, for Ron.

< >Hermione wiped a finger round her now empty plate of what had been a delicious chocolate cake before sucking it clean, and peered over his shoulder. Ron was pointing a sugar quill at what looked like a tunnel: it led to the lower dungeons, and its entrance was marked as being - directly next to Snape's office.

< >"I have no idea," she replied. "And I don't want to know. Honestly, Ron. Why pick that one? Of all the possible secret tunnels there you have to go and pick the most dangerous one. Typical."

< >Ron pretended to look affronted. "Scared?" he said.

< >Hermione looked completely unabashed. "Of course I am," she retorted. "Anyone in their right mind would be. We always manage to get in enough trouble as it is without you going looking for it."

< >"But this is an ideal opportunity!" protested Ron, looking to Harry for support. Harry shrugged. "I'll bet you anything you like Fred and George haven't ever tried this one. Who knows what could be down there?"

< >"Fred and George have some sense, then," muttered Hermione. "I don't want to know what's down there, Ron. For all we know, it could be where Snape keeps all his frog liver. It's right next to his office. Why don't you just ask Sirius where it goes? Or Lupin. By the way - " Hermione turned to Harry, " - Where are they nowadays? I haven't seen either of them - or Snape - for days."

< >"Then Snape can't be in his office, can he?" said Ron triumphantly. "It would be a perfect time to go and have a little snoop."

~

< >Harry wasn't sure how Ron had managed to persuade him, much less Hermione, to sneak out of the Gryffindor common room, down the staircase and into the passageway that led to Snape's office. It certainly wasn't something he would have ever done out of choice: quite apart from the fact that it was twelve o'clock, he was tired, shivering and Hermione had not stopped talking about being expelled for the last half hour, Harry didn't even want to think about what might happen if Snape happened to visit his office for a late-night whatever it was Snape did there. They had stopped outside a horrible portrait of a goblin, that wouldn't stop shaking its head menacingly at them. Harry scowled at it.

< >"Right," said Ron, business-like. "Have you got your Invisibility Cloak, Harry? Just in case…"

< >Hermione frowned at him. "Just in case what?" she snapped in a whisper. "Just in case we get attacked by whatever it is down there? Because there's bound to be something, knowing our luck."

< >Ron shrugged, looking a little bit sheepish. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Nothing'll happen… what could go wrong? We're at Hogwarts. You-Know-Who can't come here - you heard Dumbledore. We might find something interesting."

< >Harry couldn't be bothered to argue the definition of interesting. Ron had been talking about this trip all day: it was as if he had the idea planted in his head and watered so much it had grown out of control. He'd become obsessed with it - and it was proving slightly worrying. Harry decided he would borrow one of Lupin's Defence Against Dark Arts books tomorrow and look up the side-effects of a fight with a Brollachan… just in case.

< >Harry sensed that Hermione had just come along to do her best to keep himself and Ron out of trouble, and he was grateful for it: Ron had also been acting strangely around Hermione lately but Harry suspected this was absolutely nothing to do with fighting monsters and more to do with growing up. One minute he was almost embarrassed to talk to her and the next he was busily engaged bickering with her like one half of a married couple: and Hermione, Harry had noticed, was acting rather oddly whenever he mentioned Ron to her as well.

< >They had entered a long, narrow and exceedingly dark passageway. The Marauder's Map had instructed them to tap on the left-hand eye of the painted goblin with a wand and it had swung open like a door: they were dependent on the somewhat wavery light from a candle they had borrowed because one of Hermione's conditions on accompanying them was that, beyond getting into the tunnel and the use of the Marauder's Map, absolutely no magic was used whatsoever ("It's the holidays, Ron! What would Dumbledore say?")

< >And so now they were traipsing along a corridor they would never have even suspected existed: Harry wondered where it led. All the Marauder's Map had shown them was the tunnel disappearing somewhere underneath the dungeons that laced the lower floors of Hogwarts: descending a long flight of stone steps and falling painfully into Ron's back as he did so, Harry felt the sense of foreboding that had been lying uneasily in his mind grow rapidly.

< >"Ron," said Hermione suddenly, "I don't like this. I think we ought to go back… I think…"

< >But they never got to know what exactly Hermione thought. Two things happened at once: firstly, the battery in Harry's torch faltered and the light flickered out pathetically; secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, a very, very pale figure had begun to glow in front of them, too faint to see any features but just visible enough to know that it was there. It stood facing them, hazy golden aura as dim as the dying sun - and then it spoke.

< >Or rather, it laughed. The voice was deep and rather hollow-sounding: the laugh, though it had been soft, resonated around the room they had found themselves in, bouncing off the stone walls like some haphazard, crazy ball the figure had thrown. One minute the voice would seem to be coming from behind them, the next it sounded as though it was to their left, and all of a sudden there it was, laughing harder than ever - straight in front of them.

< >Harry acted quickly. He didn't know what instinct urged him to; but as the figure - whatever it was - in front of them drew an almost silent breath he charged into Ron and Hermione, bringing all three of them crashing to the ground in a bruised heap.

< >"Illuviate!" cried the voice, at the same time, and from where he now lay on his back on the ground Harry could see a blinding flash of light fly over their heads and into the wall behind them. But the invisible owner of the spell had lost his or her advantage: Harry whipped out his own wand - but before he was given the chance to try a hex there was another flash, this time a paler, less violent one, and whatever it was that had been there was gone. Harry picked himself up.

< >"What was that?" asked Ron, shaken. He helped Hermione to her feet, and brushed feebly at his clothes. "And what did it say? 'Illuviate'? What's that mean?"

< >Harry and Hermione shook their heads.

< >"Come on," whispered Hermione. "Let's get back. We shouldn't have come here in the first place."

< >Harry agreed, and led the way quickly back through the tunnel to the secret entrance by Snape's office. They were so intent on not being caught up with whatever had been in the stone room that they hardly paused for breath: up the stone stairs they went, back along the corridor in the pitch black and somehow, finally, into the tunnel that led to the goblin portrait.

< >But instead of carrying on, instead of running back through the painting and up to their nice, safe Gryffindor dormitories, their eyes were alerted to a dull square of light that looked like it came from a distant doorway. Harry frowned: he hadn't noticed it before.

< >"What's that?" he asked, pointing: and then, as he realised that the others couldn't see him do this, he began to describe it. But there was no need.

< >"I dunno," said Ron, interrupting him. "Let's go and find out, shall we?"

< >"It's in the same direction as Snape's office…" warned Hermione, rather nervously. "Do you think we ought to…?"

< >But Ron was gone, and Harry with him. Hermione followed.

< >They found themselves standing in a small room lit by one candle, and it seemed to be an annexe of Snape's study. It was full of jars of pickled things (Harry didn't dare imagine what) and bats. He moved over curiously to one and poked it, but it didn't move, and Harry decided that it was stuffed.

< >"Hey!" said Ron. "Look at these! Letters!"

< >"Ron," hissed Hermione. "We shouldn't be looking at his letters… they might be personal." But she took them, nonetheless.

< >As she read down the page, her face reddened and reddened in the soft candlelight until Harry wondered if maybe this wasn't some kind of trick letter of Snape's to turn her into a kind of vegetable or something - perhaps a beetroot - but eventually she put the letter back down onto Snape's desk and covered it with a heavy cauldron he obviously used as a paperweight.

< >"Well?" asked Ron, impatiently. "What does it say? Hermione?"

< >Hermione still looked embarrassed. "Let's just say it starts 'My dearest love'…"

< >"Oh my God!" exclaimed Ron, dancing round her to try and grab them back and being rewarded with a sharp poke in the arm from Hermione.

< >"And ends '…Forever yours, Severus,'" she finished. "And I'll leave the middle bit to your imagination."

< >"Severus. What an unromantic name," mused Ron. Harry raised one eyebrow at him.

< >"Well - " he began defensively, before it could suddenly occur to Harry or Hermione to ask him what exactly he considered a 'romantic' name - "I mean… Percy always signs his letters - I mean, I don't read them, I - "

< >The other eyebrow flew up, and so did Hermione's. Ron's shoulders slumped in defeat.

< >"OK so I do. That's not the point. The point is that he signs his to Penny at least Perce, or sometimes 'fluffy-bun' or 'pink-cuddly-rabbit' or… what's the matter? Why are you laughing? What have I…" Ron trailed off as Harry and Hermione clutched at each other, helpless with laughter at the image of the prim and proper Percy referring to himself as the 'pink-cuddly-rabbit' and trying desperately not to make too much noise as they did so. Ron joined in the laughter, but only after he had carefully detached Hermione from Harry.

< >"Thing is… Snape hasn't really got a name you can shorten, has he?" asked Harry. "I don't really think I can picture him signing a letter the 'pink-fluffy-potions-master'. I mean - how can you make 'Severus' easier to say?"

< >"Sever," said Ron at once, making an abrupt chopping motion with his hand.

< >"Severe," corrected Hermione. She gave a mock and extremely severe glare: Ron winced at the likeness.

< >"Sev?" suggested Harry.

< >"Sevvie!" giggled Hermione, and all three of them once again dissolved into fits of laughter, only too pleased to let some of the tension that had been building up slip out. It wasn't until someone swung the goblin's portrait open and light flooded through to them, and they turned to find out who that they discovered Professor Snape was standing by the door, listening to every word they'd said.


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