Dinner in the Great Hall had come and gone by the time Severus made it back to the castle, and, although Minerva would be berating him for not attending it as a Head of House should, he was glad he didn't have to suffer through it before being able to study the book he had borrowed from the Lestrange vault. He did make a detour to the Slytherin common room on his way down though, but the prefects still lounging about assured him nothing out of the ordinary had happened during his absence. He always chose his prefects very carefully as it made his own job of Head of House a lot easier. Satisfied, he resumed his walk to his own quarters.
The book felt heavy with promise in his pocket and his fingers twitched in anticipation the closer he got to his destination, so he was a little peeved when he noticed a bundle abandoned in front of his door. Giving it an experimental nudge with his foot, the layers of cloth shifted with a groan and Hermione Granger's face peeked out of a cloak. She had, by the looks of it, fallen asleep, curled on herself like a cat, right there on his doorstep. Severus smirked. He was certain she had tried to break into his quarters again but had failed since her embedded wand had been removed. She must have been unknowingly slipping by his wards using her wand before, but couldn't do it any more without a wand to channel the magic. Still, it proved that her magic still worked, and that she was intuitively connected to it, despite her propensity when she had been a student to rely solely on the knowledge of books. Eventually, he stopped gloating about having thwarted the witch's invasions of his private rooms and wondered what he should do with her.
"So much trouble for such a little thing," he muttered as he picked her up easily from the ground.
He decided he would just let her in for now as he wasn't about to carry her all the way back up to the infirmary. Poppy could probably guess where she was anyway. The nurse seemed to have accepted that Hermione sometimes ran off for hours at a time now, usually to annoy him or Minerva.
But it was lucky people rarely came this far down in the dungeons, and, for once, he was more concerned for the witch's security than for his reputation. Some of the younger students stumbling upon a Hufflepuff sleeping in the corridors might have pulled some harmless pranks on her, some of the older ones… Let's just say not every witch or wizard attending the school were saints as Dumbledore had liked to think they were.
"Wiggenweld," he whispered to the carved snake that doubled as a knocker. It hissed, accepting the password, and swung the door open for him.
But Severus stood there, frozen for a minute, with the sleeping witch snuggled in his arms, as a blush crept up his cheeks. He didn't believe in coincidences, so it was with dawning horror he realized he had chosen such a password only to find himself in such a situation.
Indeed, the Wiggenweld potion was used to revive someone from the Draught of the Living-Dead, but what popped into his mind was the infamous tale of Sleeping Beauty that was associated with it. Once upon a time, an unscrupulous wizard tainted a spindle with the draught of the living-dead to trap a muggle princess into a near-death sleep, then promised the king to revive her in exchange for her hand, smearing his lips with the Wiggenweld potion to do so with a "miraculous" kiss.
And Severus did, by some strange twist of fate, have a sleeping beauty in his arms.
For the life of him, he couldn't remember why he had picked that particular password last week, except that it was obscure enough that the students wouldn't think to try it to break into his quarters or say it by mistake while walking by his door.
Shaking off his stunned bewilderment, he stepped in his rooms and couldn't get Hermione fast enough out of his arms and onto the couch. It's not that she wasn't kissable, he thought despite himself, staring at her delicate lips, parted in sleep, because she most certainly was, but it felt so wrong to even think of it. It would be like taking advantage of a very drunk witch, or well… an amnesic one, he supposed. She just wouldn't know any better.
So it was in a foul, self-deprecating mood that he settled himself in his favourite armchair in front of the fireplace to study the book, looking pointedly away from the couch.
First, he tapped his wand to the cover, muttering "Revelio" under his breath to get rid of the ludicrous cooking-book disguise and found out the title was actually Dark Mythical Beasts and Where to Avoid Them by Barnabold Stump.
Wait a minute… That name rings a bell... Someone I met, maybe? A Student? No… Oh right, Stump, Grogan Stump. He had been a Minister of Magic. The one who created the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures if I'm not mistaken. So, dark creatures is an interest that runs in the family, then? Strange hobby but good to know since I would otherwise question the author's credibility - Merlin forbid he was another Lockheart fraud.
Still, as he opened to the first page, Severus was having difficulties believing weeping angels actually existed. They didn't even sound all that Dark, or so he thought before he read the passage where they would relentlessly hunt their prey in packs and sometimes snap your neck or rip you to pieces instead of merely sending you back in time. That last part at least explained why people didn't seek theses creatures out in order to be sent into the past to change events to their liking. Merlin knows he would be tempted to try otherwise. Severus thought of having a second chance to stand up to his father, to protect his mother, to refuse the Dark Mark, to save Lily… Aah, so many regrets! On second thought, I'm probably exactly the kind of person these angels would kill on sight.
Severus made a mental note of where to avoid these creatures and his eyes lingered on the sleeping witch. At least, he had done one thing right in his life.
Scolding himself for daydreaming like a dunderhead, Severus turned the next page, and the next, carefully reading the descriptions of the creature each time or studying the few that were illustrated, until he was already halfway through the book without having found a match to the thing that had attacked Hermione. Exasperated and his eyes burning with fatigue, he finally decided to call it a night. He would simply set the next morning's class to reading a chapter ahead instead of brewing and be done with it. Hermione was still sleeping soundly, emitting a soft snore from time to time, but he felt bad about waking her up now, only to throw her out, so he modified his wards, allowing her to leave whenever it was she woke, and he went in search of his own bed. Unfortunately, it wasn't the peaceful slumber he had hoped for but a restless night full of terrible creatures hunting him mercilessly. It was when he felt like a troll was sitting on his chest to choke him to death that he awoke with a start, only to be faced with a flash of white teeth. Hermione was kneeling on his chest and looking at him curiously, giving him that dazzling smile that annoyed him so much. He wasn't even surprised to see her where she shouldn't be. Worse, he should have expected it. Fate seemed to take a sadistic pleasure of throwing the poor thing at him.
"Get off of me, witch, before I hang you upside down by the ankle." He growled, a Levicorpus already at the tip of his tongue.
Hermione looked nonplussed but seemed to get the meaning, because she jumped off his torso with the agility of a cat, forcing all the air out of his lung with a loud "Oof!".
Severus grumbled as he was forced to lie in his bed to catch his breath. I should've thrown her out last night... He thought, searching where she had fled to, only to find her curled up at the foot of his bed like an obedient little puppy. Definitely should have thrown her out.
Being the kind of person to believe a day could only go from bad to worse, he waited expectantly for another catastrophe to come, like Minerva bursting into his quarters and finding him in bed with her precious Gryffindor cub. It might even be worth it to see the look on her face, but he wasn't that suicidal. After the longest minute of his life had ticked by with no disaster in sight, he decided nothing would happen just yet, so he prepared for his day, glowering only a couple of times at Hermione.
Five minutes later, he snatched Stump's book, opened his door and, feeling like a teenager up to some mischief, glanced into the corridor to make sure there would be no witnesses of Hermione exiting his chambers in the small hours of the morning.
Fortunately, it was early enough that the hallway appeared empty all the way to the first flight of stairs. His Slytherins preferred to go down fashionably late, not that the other Houses noticed, or even cared. He pulled Hermione out by the arm and lead her at a brisk pace to the upper floors and was relieved to bump into Poppy near the great hall.
"Oh, hello Severus! Hello Hermione!" he greeted them, too cheerily in his opinion. "I thought she might be with you. She wakes even earlier than I do and that's saying a lot. I hope she wasn't too much of a bother."
He snorted. He wasn't about to correct her false assumptions about when exactly Hermione had seeked him out, and gently pushed Hermione towards the nurse.
"Just take her off my hands, would you?" he said.
"Actually, she is due to start taking her meals in the hall with us."
"Whatever for? With that many people around? What if somebody recognizes her?" he objected immediately.
"We can't keep her away from crowds forever, you know? It's not healthy to keep her isolated any longer than she has already been. Besides, Minerva agreed to this," the nurse said crossly. "As for being recognized... Well, she hasn't been so far. Everyone thinks she's... passed on a long time ago, and she doesn't exactly look like the pictures of her you find in books now, does she?"
Severus had to admit she didn't. The books she figured in were mostly history books and unofficial biographies, but every single last one of them used the picture of her at the Yule Ball, no doubt because it was more selling than the usual bushy-haired bookworm image she presented. Today, however, she was an athletic looking woman with striking features highlighted by impressive scars. She looked more like a fierce dragon-handler or an auror of Mad-Eye Moody's calibre to be honest
"I suppose not," He agreed reluctantly, still uneasy at the idea of all the students' eyes on her. "But, just in case..." he added, with a flourish of his wand.
And before either woman could react, he had changed her fake Hufflepuff robes into flowing ordinary black ones, and darkened Hermione's eyes until they were almost black while lightening her hair to a golden blond. He thought she looked horrendous like that, although he guessed she was very much to the taste of a majority of the schoolboys if the dumbstruck stares she was receiving as they crossed the hall was anything to go by. He guided her gently by the arm to the staff's table, careful of steering her away from any redheads in attendance just in case she reacted violently like she had with Weasley. Really, they should have consulted him instead of rushing head first with this half-baked plan.
Hermione waved cheerily at a wide-eyed Minerva and patted Filius head affectionately before taking a seat next to Poppy and eating voraciously everything she managed to get her hands on. After an awkward silence, the headmistress cleared her throat.
"What's the meaning of... this?" she asked, waving with a disapproving gesture at Hermione's appearance.
"Precaution," Severus grunted after a sip of his burning black coffee, strong and bitter, just the way he liked it. "And before you start criticizing my poor performance at human transfiguration, which, as you very well know, is not my speciality, might I point out you could have thought of such a subterfuge yourself before sending the poor girl out in this… Hellion's pit," he finished, glaring at the assembled and noisy students.
"You make it sound as if I was sacrificing her to a pack of rabid hippogryphs. She's just having meals with us. For her own good, might I add."
"And what about the other students' well-being, then? Or should I specify, our ginger students? Seeing how she reacted to Weasley, you and I both know Hermione can be the rabid hippogryph herself if something triggers her memory."
He watched with satisfaction as the headmistress opened and closed her mouth without being able to come up with a valid retort. She glanced nervously at Hermione, but the young woman only had eyes for the juicy bangers and fat strips of bacon. Although there weren't as many red-heads as before, what with the Weasleys all having graduated until the next batch came along, this was still the main school for students from Ireland and Scotland to attend, and, as such, had a fair number of gingers in every house.
"Right then, Severus. I'll admit you're right and that I hadn't considered this all the way through. As such, you'll be responsible for Hermione's meals in the Great Hall from now on," Minerva said curtly, but he could see the corners of her mouth twitching upwards ever so slightly. She'd better not dare smirk at him or he'd be out of here before she could say Quidditch. Old biddy, thinking she outsmarted him.
As retaliation, he opened the book on mythical dark creatures and began reading where he took off last night, sipping his coffee and nibbling on a piece of toast.
Minerva managed to restrain herself for five full minutes before asking:
"It's a book, Minerva. Surely you've heard about them by now. Useful little things, books."
"Don't be such a snark, Severus. I meant," she replied more tersely. "Does this have anything to do with... You know..." she indicated Hermione who was trying to sneak eggs off Hagrid's plate without the half-giant catching her.
"Maybe. I won't know until I find a clue and I won't find it if I keep being interrupted."
The headmistress rolled her eyes but left him in peace for the rest of the meal.
Severus still had his nose in his book when he entered his classroom. He didn't need to look where he was walking because he knew every stone in the castle by heart and the students always gave him a wide berth, no matter how crowded the hallways were. Without bothering to look up from the page he was perusing, he lazily flipped his wand at the blackboard with instructions to read the chapter on nourishing potions and choose which, in their opinion, was the best. It was a trick question of course, but a good way to separate those students who had a real affinity to potions from the rest. He was satisfied to hear the rustle of pages and then blessed silence.
He had ruled out several other mythical creatures as possible from the book when he heard a polite cough.
Scowling, he abandoned his reading and looked up, scanning the class to find most eyes on him and one hand up in the air.
"Yes, Miss Harvey? I trust you have a very important contribution to share with us to deem it necessary to interrupt the whole class."
"Erm... Yes? I think so, sir?" the Gryffindor answered, glancing at her classmates who were obviously egging her on.
"Well? Out with it, girl! Or do you expect me to guess?" he snapped.
"Yes, sir! I mean no, sir. I don't expect you to guess, sir," she babbled while several students tried to stiffle their laughter.
The professor rolled his eyes. Gryffindors sure were brave, but not the most articulate of people. The girl took a deep breath and continued.
"It's about your... Erm… guest? We were wondering if she was going to teach us or something? You haven't… Err… introduced her," she finished, and glad her mission was finally complete, hurriedly sat back on her stool.
Severus stared at her and then whipped his head to the spot several students, mostly boys, were sneaking glances at. Drat! Hermione must have followed him after breakfast and he never even noticed, but there she was, sitting on a side table next to his desk, smiling at the class as her feet dangled in the air. He supposed she did look like a teacher in learning or even an apprentice, especially with the black robes he had hurriedly transfigured for her and were unwittingly similar to his own.
"That is none of your concern," he evaded. "She is only here to observe so do not interact unnecessarily with her. Now, go back to your reading."
All eyes darted back to their page, although some of the boys still stole covert glances at Hermione. Severus had to restrain himself from scolding her, all the while knowing she wouldn't understand why he was so angry anyway. Besides she was behaving herself, for once, so he just ignored her and returned to his desk.
His next class was comprised of those few who attempted their NEWT Potions, six in total that year, but he couldn't just tell them to read ahead, that would be just plain cruel, even for him. The NEWTs for his subject were famous for being the most gruesome of all and it would be irresponsible of him not to prepare them. So he had sent for Minerva to retrieve Hermione.
At lunch, he still had his nose stuck in the bloody book and Minerva threatened to make him Head of Ravenclaw if he didn't take his breaks seriously.
"You know how cranky you get when you don't take enough time to meditate," she chided.
"It's not meditation, woman. I'm not a pansy. I clear my mind, it's occlumency, not sodding meditation," he growled over the edge of the book.
"Always thought it sounded a lot like meditation myself," the legless DADA professor piped in. "Failed it in Auror training, of course, which explains why I was always in Operations instead of Infiltration or Intelligence."
"Yes, thank you for your... insight, Baylee. Now, ladies, if you don't mind keeping the chit-chat to a minimum," Severus said, taking another bite of his shepherd's pie and turning another page.
The two women shared a significant look but were promptly startled when they heard the potions professor stand up abruptly, knocking his chair over backwards. In fact, the entire room heard the loud clatter and turned to look in amusement as their most loathed teacher almost ran out of the great hall clutching a book in one hand and the arm of the strange new woman who now sat at the staff table in the other. A few of the older Gryffindors were thinking of coming to the witch's rescue but the headmistress advised the students to get on with their lunch with her stern no-nonsense voice that had them reluctantly sit back down.
In an unused classroom, Severus sat Hermione on a desk and opened the book to the illustration that had startled him, watching her reaction carefully.
It represented a woman with bright red hair, leathery sunken skin and closed eyes, which frustrated Severus quite a bit. According to the description, it was once a human, but sacrificed to the Gods in an ancient ritual to become one of the God's eternal servants on Earth. They were called the bog people, as the muddy pit was where the once human body was stowed away after the rituals. Bog people were said to have magical abilities although it wasn't specified of what sort, but it certainly seemed to be a good lead to check out, especially because their were several bogs to be found all over England and Scotland.
However, Hermione only narrowed her eyes at the picture, snarled once and lost all interest in it. Was it because it was an illustration and not the real thing?
Severus couldn't help but be disappointed. He had hoped this was the solution and that he could finally cure Hermione, but that prospect looked more uncertain, now.
"I'll try anyway," he promised glumly. "Come. Next class is first years. I'll even allow you to frighten them a little."
She hung on to his proffered arm like a hinkypuff on a sugar quill, but he didn't mind for once, as he felt obliged to make her feel better for having cut short her meal-time for nothing. As expected the first years were twice as jittery in Hermione's presence. She was unknown quantity, had a fearsome appearance and seemed completely at ease in their most feared teacher's company, which was more than enough reasons for them to be wary. Severus bit back a chuckle when Billy Watson dropped his mandrake root whole in his cauldron when Hermione merely looked his way. It also gave him a good excuse to deduct points from Gryffindor.
When the little brats filed out of their double-potions period with loud groans and complaints about the load of homework they had been given and how unfair the world was, signalling the end of the day, Severus was surprised to find Lucius waiting just outside the door. He stared at the man who was as usual groomed to perfection, and invited him in when he realized how rude he was being.
The blond man greeted him warmly and hesitated upon seeing the witch who was inching closer to Severus' back. His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized her from head to toe, his arrogant demeanour fading to shock when he understood. He glanced at Severus who nodded once.
"But," He warned. "If you cross paths with Minerva, you don't know who she is, you haven't recognized her, or better yet, you haven't even seen her. She'll bite my head off and toss it to the giant squid if she knew I told you about Hermione and her special condition."
"Fear not." His friend answered, tearing his eyes away from the young woman with difficulty. "There are some dragons in this world even I won't tickle. Although… you might want to find her a better disguise. Did you ask for a first year to charm her eyes and hair or are you still that bad at transfiguration?"
The potions master glowered at the other man, while Hermione who had become bored with the exchange decided to poke the new-comer with the longest wooden ladle she managed to find on his workbench.
"And she really doesn't recognize me, or you... or anyone?" Lucius asked, ignoring the insistent poking while trying to catch her eye.
"If she did, she would probably have stabbed you with that ladle by now," Severus replied, snatching the oversized spoon out of the girl's hands to put it back in its rightful place. "I have to admit I'm surprised Lucius, that you would come all the way out here, in public, no less. I thought you hadn't set foot out of your manor for the last five years."
"Ridiculous. Of course I go out. I'm just more discreet about it than I used to. Most everyone doesn't approve me being alive, free and filthy rich," Lucius answered, polishing his cane's silver snake head.
"You know, I do kind of understand their point. Minerva still rants fairly often about you still being on the school's board of governors."
"Tell her to blame Potter for doing an admirable job of clearing my name, then."
"That'll go over well." Severus muttered. "Hermione?"
The witch looked at him, having gotten used to her name over time, and trotted closer.
"This is going to be boring so why don't you go see Hagrid?" he said, motioning something big and round with his arms. "You can wrestle with Fang for a while before dinner."
The woman beamed and sprinted off without a backwards glance.
"Such a waste," Lucius commented. "Draco often complained about her being the smartest student in school."
"She's still smart, in a different kind of way. She did survive in the forbidden forest, alone, for five years after all."
"Did you find anything in the Lestrange vault?" Malfoy asked, tackling to the purpose of his visit.
"Only this," Severus answered pushing the copy of Dark Mythical Beasts and Where to Avoid Them towards him.
His friend flipped through it, eyebrows raised as he read some of the annotations.
"Well, that certainly explains where the Lestrange trio disappeared to so often. Not that I was complaining, uncivilized bunch they were. Did you find a match?"
Severus flipped to the page concerning bog people.
"I wouldn't bother with that if I were you," Lucius said after scanning the contents carefully.
"Why not? It's the closest match I have so far."
"For one, there are no notes by either the Dark Lord or the Lestranges in the margin to indicate they had any interest in such creatures. Secondly, I have come across references to bog people in my readings before but they are usually only regarded as nothing more than Inferis wielding magic so they wouldn't have been able to do something as finicky as affecting Miss Granger's memory in any way. And finally, I may have found something interesting."
Severus looked at Malfoy expectantly. If his smug look was anything to go by, he was more certain about this information than he was letting on.
"Tell me, Severus, have you ever heard of the albinos vampires?"