Part Two

Ron woke, not knowing where he was. He lay as still as he could, trying to remember, and was not surprised to find that, yet again, he couldn't. He ached and hurt as he always did after these bouts of amnesia.

He opened his eyes and was stunned by the discovery that he was not in his little room but in a bed with a canopy. He stared at it and found that feelings seemed to flash through his head. Feelings of warmth. Of comfort. Of security.

He forced his head to turn. Severus Snape was fast asleep in an armchair that had been pulled up close by the bed. Greatly relieved, Ron knew where he was.

Home. He was home.

With some difficulty, he rolled over onto his side and managed to prop himself up on an elbow. The tremors were not at their most inconveniencing and he was in the process of getting himself up and out of bed - he needed to piss in the worse way - when hands suddenly grasped his shoulders and held him still.

Ron forgot where he was; his eyes no longer saw the loft and he could only whimper with fear at the touch.

"It's only I. Snape. Look at me, Ron. See me."

And he did. And with that, he could push aside the terror which had inexplicably overwhelmed him.


"Nothing to be sorry about." Snape's voice was working its usual magic on him. It soothed his ragged nerves and allowed him to take control once more.

Ron looked into Snape's face and saw the shadows under the eyes, the beard that darkened the cheeks, the concern - not pity! - in the eyes. "It happened again. How long was I gone this time?"

"About two days. Were you getting up for a reason?"

Ron nodded and Snape helped him to the bathroom. Help, thought Ron: he'd almost had to carry him here. How badly was he hurt this time?

But Snape had other things in mind before answering Ron's questions. There was salve to spread on his injuries. Hands and face to wash gently. Ron thought back to his days as a student at Hogwarts, and wondered if Snape had been that gentle back then and they had never noticed. Or was this, too, another product of the War?

Medicated, nightshirt on, propped up in the safety of his own bed, Ron shook too hard to bring his mug to his mouth without Snape's help. Normally he hated the fact that he needed help, but Snape was so matter-of-fact, it took the sting away.

"Better?" asked Snape, moving back into his chair.

Ron nodded.

"All right. Last time, I made the mistake of not questioning you on these incidents, but no more. I know that you were taken with an Accio, that you were controlled with an Imperius, that your memory was wiped with a minor Erado, and then you were sent back to the food bank with a Remitto. Is there anything you can add to that? Anything at all."

It took time but Ron explained about the dreams and the darkening Death Eater's mark which had appeared on his arm after he had woken from the first of these spells, about three years ago. Yes, he had always been injured in some way. Yes - he couldn't meet Snape's eyes - he had always been penetrated. He was usually disoriented for several days after. He had moved from Manchester to St. Helens to Liverpool, hoping to leave whatever it was behind. With no success.

No, he had never gone to anyone for help. Whom could he have gone to?

"Your family."

Ron shook his head on purpose. "No. They would take away what freedom I have in the name of protection and love. When I did live with them, I couldn't try doing anything for myself without one of them hovering over me. Wanting to do for me. And Mom cried a lot. It would have been better for the family if I had died with Fred and George. They would have mourned me and gotten on with their lives. Going to them with this would only have made things worse."

Snape nodded and Ron knew that was the end of that subject. Unlike Miss Jones, Snape never dropped hints, heavy-handed or otherwise, that his family should be contacted.

"These nightmares, what are they about?"

Ron had to think, which wasn't easy. His head hurt and his body ached. But Snape needed information, and Ron was going to do his best to give it to him. It was all he could do.

"Darkness. Being called, and not wanting to go. I know that I don't want to obey but I have no choice. Then hands touching me and pain. That's why I don't want to go."

Snape nodded. "The Erado wipes out immediate memories, but not to the subconscious level. Your dreams are important. They may reveal information. For example: how many hands?"

Ron looked confused.

"Touching you in the dreams. Two? Four? More than that?"

Ron thought hard, his face grimacing with concentration. Snape said nothing and allowed him to work his way through what he did remember of the nightmares. "More. But how many more, I can't tell."

"More or fewer than a dozen?"

Ron looked surprised. "Fewer. I think."

Snape smiled at him. "I've been working on the Quietus Potion while you were gone. Care to try the latest version?"

Ron nodded. The last batch had stopped the tremors for a full hour, though his muscles were still like jelly. He had some control but not enough to do more than open his eyes and whisper.

Snape sat by him and slipped his arm under Ron's shoulder for support as he drank the potion. He dropped his head forward onto Snape's shoulder and then, out of nowhere, the sobs began. Ron wasn't aware when Snape joined him on the bed, but when the weeping fit was over, he found himself on Snape's lap, his head nestled in the crook of the man's neck and shoulder, his arms around him, and a soothing blather of nonsense in his ear.

He slept.

Snape's ointments healed Ron's body. His mind was a different matter.

He made the mistake of telling Snape that he hated the fact that his mind, specifically his ability to concentrate, seemed to be deteriorating more since the disappearances had begun. Snape made him deal with that.

He couldn't read. It was hard to focus on a page when he never knew when his head was going to jerk and blur everything. Yes, Snape agreed, not something that was going to change until they had found the right ingredients for the Quietus. But that excuse was no longer acceptable for his not exercising his brain.

So, in the evening, Ron stretched out on his bed after taking his night-time version of the potion, his attention not distracted by the uncontrollable movements of his body, and listened while Snape read to him. First he'd read the Quidditch book that Ron had carried around with him, but when he'd seen the tears streaking down, Snape put it away and found a Muggle history to read instead. The next morning, while Ron struggled to feed himself, Snape would question him on what he'd read the night before, forcing Ron to use his memory.

Ron hated it. He hated not remembering, and it was occasion of their first argument.

"No, I do remember who Ga...Ga...Ga...FUCK! was!" he bit out, almost screaming, "And...I...don...don't care!"

"Galileo. And I have to admit that I also don't care, but you are not going to get out of this, Weasley."

Ron wanted to spit. The Potions instructor was back in full force. This was something that, to Snape's mind, was important - like knowing how to put together some stupid potion that none of them would ever use out of the classroom - and, by Merlin, they were going to get it down pat!

Snape's tone gentled and Ron knew that this was a fight he was not going to win. "It's helping, Ron. Memory is like a muscle. It has to be used to retain its ability. And already, if you're honest enough to admit it, there are results. If I give you a set of instructions in the workshop, you remember them better."

Ready to deny that, Ron caught himself. He stared at the man watching him and forced himself to think. Damn it! Snape was right. The last time he'd been upstairs and had done something, Snape had only had to tell him what to do twice.

The result was that, though he hated the process, he forced himself to concentrate on whatever it was Snape read to him.

During the day, Snape would often toss out a question about his disappearances. Had he noticed a pattern to them? Was there a time in the year when they always occurred? Had he noted the length of his disappearances? Taken unaware, Ron often found he had answers that he hadn't realized he had.

Over the weeks, it appeared there were patterns. More often in the summer than in the other seasons. Twice the first one. Three in the last two. Each with about a month in between. Time enough for him to heal, Snape pointed out. Christmas time was a definite. And this year, he had been taken in spring. As he had been the last. And now again this autumn. Oh, and Hallowe'en. Twice.

Snape was frustrated by the potion, which was not really improving. Oh, it stopped the uncontrollable shaking for longer and longer periods of time, but left Ron unable to do anything other than lie there and speak in whispers.

Depression was unavoidable. The times it hit Ron hard, Snape would hold him while he wept. Which he now did with embarrassing frequency. Snape never acted as though this was anything more than emotional release. "You need to do this, Ron. You can't continue without letting some of the anxiety and the frustration out. It's all right."

And Ron thought that, now and then, he could feel Snape's cheek resting on his head as his arms tightened around him.

Once, after a particularly lengthy crying fit, Ron asked, "Favour?"

"If I can, Ron."

"If something happens and I start dying, please, don't do anything to keep me alive."

Snape was silent for a long time, long enough that Ron had begun slipping into sleep. "I won't. You have my word on that."

At first, after the bouts, he slept. But lately, he just lay in Snape's arms and felt comforted. For some reason, the crying jags left him relatively quiet, physically. They used the time to talk about things they never discussed away from these moments. Never anything very serious.

Whether, in an equal match, Miss Jones would win out over McGonagall for obstinacy and tenaciousness.

Whether Muggles originally had any magical skill of their own that their beliefs had sublimated to the point that they could no longer find it.

Whether Hagrid's animal cross-breeding programs would ever produce a creature that was not dangerous.

And then, of course, one day, sex.

"No, none since the War began," said Ron. "Had a lover before. You?"

Snape ignored that last bit. "Hermione?"

Ron moved his head so that he could see Snape's face. "No. I'm gay. Is this going to be a problem?"

Snape's eyebrow rising high was the only answer he got to that. "Harry, then?"

Ron sighed and tucked his head back against Snape's shoulder. "No. Harry is het. Very het. At one time, I thought of trying but...well, I valued his friendship more than I lusted for his body."

Snape agreed. "A wise decision. So if you will allow my indiscreet curiosity, whom did you find to alleviate your youthful hormones?"


"Longbottom? Now you truly have surprised me, Weasley."

Ron smiled, remembering. "He was pretty sexy there that sixth year. He'd grown over the summer. Slimmed down. And he lusted over Harry as well. We consoled each other." Then he grew serious. "He was a good kid. Kind. I don't think I knew just how much I cared for him until I found out he was dead. I didn't love him, and I don't think he loved me either, but we were good friends and we did have some good times together." He laughed softly. "We shagged like rabbits anytime, anywhere we could."

"Did anyone know?"

"Harry knew. He covered for us if we lost track of the time or if someone commented in the common room about our absences."

"And no one since?"

"No." Ron tipped his head back to watch Snape's face. Nothing that indicated disgust or disapproval. "Hard enough to jerk off, who would have the patience to fuck me..." And he stopped, his breath catching, because he had been fucked.

Snape knew where his mind was going. He raised a hand and stroked the sudden tension on Ron's face. "There are many who would find your courage attractive."

Ron leaned into the hand reminding him where he was. "Yeah," he scoffed, "I'm sure there are people who feel it's their duty to fuck poor cripples, but I prefer celibacy to that."

"But are you so certain it would be a pity-fuck?" Snape's finger, under Ron's chin, tilted his face up. Eyes holding, watching for his reaction, Snape claimed Ron's mouth.

Snape's lips were warm against his. At first, Ron was stunned and then, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, he opened his mouth in invitation. Their tongues were getting acquainted when he was jarred with a sharp shudder and he nearly bit Snape's tongue.

He snorted, watching Snape rub his tongue against his teeth as if verifying it was all there. "See. Not very conducive to intimacy."

Snape actually smiled. "Only yet another reason to find the right combination for the Quietus."

Suddenly more contented than he could remember feeling, Ron leaned back into the warmth of the man holding him.

Snape also insisted that he play games. Solitaire with Muggle cards while Snape was busy with some work. Good for concentration, for dexterity, announced Snape. He set up a table for Ron by his own worktable thereby keeping an eye on him as he worked on the Quietus as well as other potions.

"You're cheating again," he casually commented one afternoon.

"I win this way," Ron grinned. Snape shook his head and didn't bother to correct his `cheatings'.

Miss Jones visited every Thursday evening when the food bank came to restock. Snape wouldn't allow Ron to work alone in the warehouse any more, but brought some work with him while Ron labouriously did his. Ron had to admit that this Snape seemed to have located a mother-lode of patience. He never hurried him, never tried to help Ron, never corrected the awkwardly made numbers on the inventory board, never commented. Snape just sat in the office, reading, making notes or writing some report, and let Ron get on with his work.

When the food bank people left, Miss Jones came to the second floor for supper and to keep Ron company while Snape went out to do whatever errands needed to be done. Miss Jones always brought some of their groceries with her and, though she allowed Ron to put them away, he knew she was sitting on her hands in order not to jump up to help him. That made up for the fact that most weeks she had some wizarding gossip for them gleamed from the pages of the DAILY PROPHET, which she was now getting from her cousin Minerva.

"She means well," said Ron, cuddling in Snape's arms during their now nightly discussion sessions on his bed. Snape had not been pleased when she had reported that Hermione Granger was now a Section Head in the Department of Aurors, that Ginny Weasley - here she had looked meaningfully at Ron - was making a name for herself as Granger's assistant.

"She's a pain in the ass, as was Minerva," snarled Snape.

Ron grinned. "Hey! That's my old House Head you're bad-mouthing."

"I forgot," Snape sneered dramatically, "once a Gryffindor..."

"Once a Slytherin..." countered Ron.

Snape became serious. "I just don't want her upsetting you. You're doing so much better these days."

"Yes. I only spilt soup on myself three times at supper tonight."

Snape smiled. "Well, it is an improvement. Wasn't so long ago that you bathed in it."

Their kisses were tongue-less, but no less satisfying. Ron wondered why he had never noticed how sexy Severus Snape was. Maybe it had to do with the fact that they weren't professor and student any more. Or that now Ron saw Snape as a man, through a man's eyes. Though he did find it hard to see how Snape could be attracted to a scarecrow.

But Hallowe'en was approaching, and with that the nightmares began once more.

This time, Ron told Snape immediately and Snape made certain that the anti-Accio wards were renewed. He pushed his bed so that one side was against the wall and moved Ron into it at night - it was larger - to sleep between Snape and the wall. He saw to it that Ron swallowed the night-time dose of Quietus and began sleeping with Ron spooned into him.

The Death Mark grew clearer each night

The nightmares grew worse until, the night of Hallowe'en, Ron woke, gasping, the Mark hot against Snape's hand. Ron tried hard to fight against the effects of the potion and answer whatever was summoning him. The call was so strong that he almost managed to overcome the Quietus.

Snape threw himself onto Ron's body, keeping him from injuring himself, and chanted calming charms until Ron, exhausted, wept himself to sleep.

As a precaution, Snape kept Ron drugged all the next day with the Quietus, sitting by him, reading a Muggle novel to him when Ron wasn't sleeping.

The second night was a repeat of the first.

Afraid that any more would affect Ron's condition, Snape spent the third night watching, wand at the ready to use some restraining spell on Ron if that's what it took to keep him here.

But it wasn't necessary. Whatever time the summons covered, it seemed that it didn't go beyond the two nights.

Snape carefully noted the time and dates on a chart that he had set up in the workshop for that purpose and looked at it thoughtfully. Something was lurking just out of reach of his mind, but he knew that if he left it alone, he would find it.

Ron spent that day in bed, sleeping soundly, and then woke, with only his memories of the nightmares. These had been like the others, with the exception that he knew the voice summoning him was livid that he wasn't obeying.

"Well, that should be it until Christmas," he said as he carefully placed a red seven on a black eight.

Snape growled as he focused on a reaction between two sets of ingredients that some Potions Master swore would grow hair on a billiard ball. Snape wondered why this was desirable, but he was being paid to test out the wizard's claims, and so he was. He sighed, feeling as he had when the seventh year students had been made to invent a new potion for their final year project...

He froze. Final year.

He rushed up to the chart that hung in midair near the library. He checked the dates and swore. To himself at first, then more and more loudly.

"What's wrong?" Ron thought Snape was having a rather strong reaction to his placing the red knave on a red queen.

"It's the school year. Your disappearances follow the school year at Hogwarts!"


"See," Snape pointed to the months and dates that Ron and Miss Jones had given him. "High frequency in the summer. Summer holidays. Then Christmas. Again holidays. In spring, during Quidditch playoffs. According to Miss Jones, McGonagall now allows classes to end on Thursday for a long weekend. There was another break this year at the end of September. Something about the heating system blowing up. Remember? A Friday night. It was in the DAILY PROPHET. Miss Jones was surprised that we even used boilers. The system was so ancient that school was cancelled for the Monday and Tuesday following that weekend while the maintenance crew installed new ones and checked the whole system out. That's the time you disappeared from here. And now Hallowe'en. Which fell on the Friday before a weekend this year. During which you were again `summoned'. Damn it! It's someone at Hogwarts!"

Snape turned to Ron who was looking at the chart in stunned amazement.

"Ron, who's at Hogwarts who would hate you this much?"

Ron shook his head. "No one that I know. Snape, I haven't been there since the end of sixth year. That's a good twelve years ago. Every one I know is gone. All the students. Probably even most of the professors. I left the wizarding world almost five years ago. Apart from Miss Jones and you, I've not encountered any others connected to that world."

"That you know of."

Ron shrugged. "That I know of."

Miss Jones very thoughtfully took a turn about the floor that Thursday night when they told her. She scowled at the windows then faced them. "Minerva must be told. And if you don't, I'm sorry, I will."

Minerva McGonagall looked at the two men watching her from the comfort of the couch. Her cousin, Alys, had contacted her, asking for her presence on a very important matter. Alys was not one to ask for favours so that she had known this had to be important.

She had apparated late as requested in Alys's house only to be driven into a part of Liverpool that she couldn't associate with her cousin in any manner. The warehouse with its provisions was a bit of an explanation, but the identity of the two men living on the upper floor absolutely stunned her.

They allowed her a few minutes to absorb the fact of their existence, that they were here together and then, with Alys corroborating their story, she went beyond stunned to speechless.

Still, she had not been a House Head for twenty years, a Headmistress for twelve, for nothing.

"Have you any idea as to the identity of these...persons...who summon you, Mr. Weasley?"

Ron shook his head. She ignored the fact that his body also shook. Instead she focused on Snape who was sitting back, arm stretched out on the top of the couch, ready to provide Weasley with any support should he need it. His eyes were black and ready for her disbelief and scorn.

She dropped her eyes to her hands, folded on her lap.

"There has been...something occurring in the School which I have not been able to track down. A feeling that something is going wrong. A feeling that I remember far too well from the time of Voldemort's original uprising. I asked the staff to be particularly vigilant, but no one seems to have found anything out of the ordinary. Sprout is still at Hogwarts and she thinks it is only I growing old. The newer members of the staff are humouring me, but Filch also senses something. But even he has not been able to locate the source of this disquiet on our part."

"Once," said Miss Jones, "when Ron returned after a disappearance, he spoke in a rambling manner about Death Eaters coming back."

Ron lay snug in Snape's arms, head resting on his shoulder. It had become his favourite part of the day, this nightly cuddling. Normally, they were both more at ease with each other at this time. Ron, because he had only taken enough of his nightly dose so that it stopped all but the faintest of trembling. He could lie relaxed in Snape's arms, talking with him, though his voice was only a whisper. Snape was probably more relaxed, thought Ron, because his face was hidden in the shadow cast by the bed hangings. Ron thought Snape was still a little uncomfortable with their relationship - such as it was. He'd finally gotten it out of Snape that he had never had a regular lover, that, apart from masturbation, when he did allow himself to satisfy his need for sexual release, it was with a quick fuck at some gay bar, whether wizard or Muggle.

"I was not a popular student, and then when I did wander into the world of Death Eaters, apart from some stupid initiation ritual now and then, it was my ability with potions that was desired, not my body. Later, there were all those hormonal students, but I valued my position and what little reputation I still had much too much to succumb to that temptation."

Ron had whispered back, "Besides, you were far too scarey back then. With all that double-life crap, you were more of..." he managed a wicked grin, "...a dragon than inspiration for a love sonnet."

Tonight, they were both tense. The dosage wasn't working its usual magic and Ron wasn't surprised. He knew what they had to do to catch the ones behind his disappearances and he knew that Snape knew it too. And wasn't any happier about it.

Ron tipped his head back. "It's the only way."

Snape closed his eyes, not bothering to ask what. After a minute, he sighed loudly, his lip curling as it had in the classroom at Hogwarts when someone hadn't followed his instructions. "I don't have to like it."

"I have to admit I don't, either, but I want them caught and stopped one way or another. I have a life as a guinea pig that I want to continue."

Snape frowned and Ron weakly raised a trembling hand to rest his palm on Snape's cheek. "Joking. But I do want to live,, especially now."

Snape turned his face into Ron's hand. "We'll find a way to keep you safe." And a way of getting himself there, thought Snape, so he could kill them.

"So," explained Snape to the two women who were staring at him, mouths agape, eyes wide open and with protestations caught before they poured out, "the next time, Ron is `summoned', he will allow himself to be taken."

"No!" Alys Jones was shocked that Snape would even suggest what they were presenting. "Minerva, say something."

Minerva McGonagall had been watching Snape's eyes as he had proposed this plan. There was an intensity in them that reminded her of the days before the War. Ron Weasley, damaged as he was, had the same intensity in his. She sat back and silently evaluated the plan.

Ron was to allow himself to be drawn wherever it was he was called to, ready to face whatever was going to be done to him, while Snape accompanied him, in a manner yet undetermined, and deal with the situation.

Minerva had no trouble producing a list of reasons why this should not be done, but Snape and Weasley were right: it was the only way.

"How do you intend to accompany him without being seen?" she asked, ignoring Alys's stunned gasp.

"This is why we need your help. I need an Invisibility Cloak."

Minerva looked at Snape over the top of her glasses, in a fashion very reminiscent of the previous Headmaster. No names needed be mentioned. Only one person had such a cloak that would be easy enough to borrow if she but asked.

"The owner is not to be told the reason for the request. Nor who wants it. And no one else is to be told. I want your solemn oath as a witch on all of that, Minerva, or we will move without your knowledge."

Alys Jones shut her mouth with a snap and glared the famous McGonagall glare at her cousin.

She waited until they were in her car, driving back, two elderly women in a similar outfits - Minerva had changed into Muggle clothes so that she would pass for someone coming to help with the food bank - to vent her disappointment.

"Alys! Alys!"

Miss Jones growled but stopped expressing herself.

The Headmistress turned sideways so she could watch her cousin's face. "I may have promised, my dear, but you haven't."

Miss Jones thought about that for a moment and then a slow, rather wicked smile chased her anger away. "You always were the tricky one, Minerva."

Minera McGonagall's smile was twin to her cousin's.

Nothing was left to chance. Once the Invisibility Cloak had been borrowed, McGonagall used the Accio spell to summon Ron Weasley from the warehouse to Miss Jones's small house. It took several trials but finally they found a way that Snape could accompany Ron without anyone being the wiser. The difficulty had been that Snape had to carry or support Ron without doing anything that would alert a viewer to his presence. Finally, the solution was for Snape to carry Ron on his back, releasing him with a drop and roll movement so that it looked as though Ron's legs, wobbly at the best of times, were failing him.

Snape charmed the cloak securely to his robe to ensure that he remained covered during any unforeseen activity. He made certain that he had the latest version of the Quietus securely pocketed inside his robe in case Ron needed some. His wand was also secured in an inside pocket, easily accessible under the protection of the Invisibility Cloak, ready to be used.

While Ron slept at night, Snape spent time in his workshop, refreshing his skills with restraining spells, defensive manoeuvres, and even, if necessary, Unforgivable Curses.

Ron had suffered enough, thought Snape; he wouldn't suffer a millesecond more at the hands of these...goons.

He wanted Ron to carry a wand but Ron somewhat sadly rejected that. "I can't hold it steady: I could aim at one of them and hit you. Same for a spell. My speech isn't steady enough to cast one."

Christmas was fast approaching. McGonagall kept track of all the staff members who were spending the holidays at the school. And of all the students, even though she found it hard to see any with sufficiently developed powers to use an Accio or a Remitto over great distances. She went through all the files, trying to discover who had been at the school when Ron's disappearances had occurred. Not that she could accept this as a sign of involvement: whoever it was could have pretended to go home - easy enough to do as not all students used the Express for travel. But she felt she needed to do something besides sit and wait.

Miss Jones also refused to sit and wait. She found she had paperwork that needed doing, and so spent as many nights at the warehouse as she thought she could safely get away with, working on that. She had the impression from what Ron had said that someone knew where he was at all times. After all, it made sense, she told herself as she worked on the end-of-year accounts: Ron had been left alone for the first couple of years of his coming into Muggle territory. Someone must have become aware of him and where he was for all of this to have begun in the first place. Maybe their spy would become sloppy and she would glimpse him.

Ron spent the time doing what he always did: he played with the Muggle cards while Snape worked in the workshop. Miss Jones had provided him with a book on different methods of playing solitaire. Snape read him a new one every day, and he practiced while Snape experimented with the Quietus. Ron found the variety was helping with his concentration, his ability to focus and to remember. He had a sneaking suspicion that he would soon need all the strengths he could drum up.

Snape concentrated on the potion, playing with the ingredients, refining proportions. He felt that, like the dates, the solution to his problem with the effectiveness of the potion lay just at the edge of his knowledge. His patience was sorely tested as he waited for that bit of information to move a little closer into his grasp.

School was in its final week of classes and tests. Hogsmeade weekend came and went, with the students and the staff purchasing last-minute gifts.

Ron lay next to Snape on Snape's bed. For the last couple of nights, Snape had insisted that Ron sleep next to him, just in case the nightmares began. He had improved the Quietus to the point that, though faint, Ron had more control over his voice: it was clearer, with less stuttering or stammering. He also had a bit more control over his body. He could turn his head slightly at will, raise a hand and clasp Snape's, hold it; now and then he even managed to caress Snape's face. Their kisses were more involved, as Ron could control his tongue and his teeth. Snape's tongue could come visit without fear of being bitten.

"Make love to me," Ron said one night.

Snape shook his head.

"Why not?" He tried to hide his hurt. "Do I turn you off that much?"

Snape hurried to reassure him with a slow, toe-curling kiss. "No. Feel that?" He rubbed his erection against Ron's thigh.

"Then why not?"

"Because when we do make love, it will be with you fully able to participate, Ron. With you as turned on as I am. And without this hanging over our heads. I want to take my time. I want to taste every inch of you." Snape's slow drawl made Ron's cock twitch, something it hadn't done in a long while. Ron had thought there would be a good chance that, even if Snape was successful with the potion, he might well prove to be impotent. Since the Subitomoves, he couldn't remember ever getting an erection. Now, he didn't think that would be much of a concern if he could get Snape to speak to him in these erotic tones. "I want you to scream my name. I want to make you come so many times that your voice will be hoarse from screaming it. And then," Snape growled, his mouth mapping out the contours of Ron's face, "I want you to do the same to me."

"I think," croaked Ron, "that you'd better find us a potion for stamina because I don't think I'll ever get enough of you, Snape, once I get started."

"Ah, Gryffindor threats," teased Snape, stroking the hair from Ron's face.

"Gryffindor promises," Ron swore.

The next night their conversation was less playful.

Ron knew there was something bothering his lover. Strange, he thought, when had he stopped thinking of Snape as a Potions Master and started thinking of him as his lover? He smiled against Snape's shoulder. Lover. He liked that.

"Are you going to talk about it?" he challenged.

Snape pulled back and glared at the man waiting for his response. The eyes were less pained, less confused than they had been when he'd arrived. More determined. More focused. Not due just to his potion. This plan had given Ron something to focus on and, even though his life was at stake, it seemed to have purpose. He had caught Ron forcing himself to walk across the floor in as straight a line as possible, face fierce in its determination. In the warehouse, at first, it had taken all of his resources to carry one can or bag of stock to its shelf. Now he filled his arms with at least three and, though he still trembled enough for Snape to have to restrain himself from jumping up to help him, Ron had more successes than failures. And when he did drop something, he would bend and carefully pick it up, holding on to the rest of his load.

Snape was frankly in awe of Ron Weasley's strength and determination. He wondered how he would have fared if he had been the recipient of such a fate. He found that his respect for the younger man fueled his own determination to find the right Quietus for him to return to a normal life.

Snape propped the pillows up so that Ron could sit up comfortably. Their conversation would be anything but. He sat cross-legged next to Weasley and stared at his folded hands, trying to find the words.

"Snape? Please."

Snape looked up, his knuckles white from the pressure he was exerting on his hands. "There is a Death Eater ritual that, if whoever is conducting these disappearances knows about it, will mean that he - or she - won't appear immediately on your arrival."

Ron swallowed and nodded. He had an idea of what was coming and, truthfully, he liked it no more than Snape was enjoying explaining to him.

"Voldemort used to like to watch before he put in an appearance. Give the Death Eaters time warm up the game. So far, the person in charge of this seems to have some knowledge of Voldemort and his behaviour. You bear a Death Mark, a crude copy, but still a Death Mark. It fades when you're not wanted and becomes noticeable, even less crude, when you are called."

Snape bent his head, hiding his expression. "As a Death Eater, I participated in these...these `warming up' games. I continued to do so after I became a spy for Dumbledore. If I hadn't... The marks you bore when you returned... It became obvious to me..."

Ron reached out and placed his hand on top of the two whose bones were threatening to break through the skin. "It's all right, I understand. It was War, and we all did things we're not exactly proud of. But you brought us time and information." He squeezed his hand on top of Snape's as hard as he could. He knew that no matter what punishment anyone might have assigned to Snape for his activities as a Death Eater, they were probably less weighty than the guilt he carried around from those times.

"I understand that you will have to wait until the ringleader arrives to step in. It won't be easy, knowing that you're watching, but I'll remember that it's necessary to catch him. But I also want you to remember your promise about not keeping me alive if I'm dying. I love you, and I'm willing to wait for the Quietus to make love to you. But if I'm... If I'm broken, you are not to fix me."

Snape's face was as white as his hands, his eyes bleak. He swallowed with difficulty and finally managed to nod. "I gave..." He had to clear his throat. "I gave you my promise on that, once, and I will not go back on it. But I will make you another now. If you are hurt, I will stop it then and there. We can go after the ringleader through his people."

Ron shook his head. "No. Once and for all. I don't want to have to live under protection twenty-four hours a day, not even for a short time. And you know that if we don't get him, McGonagall will call in the Ministry and that's what they'll do.

"If it gets to be too bad, once we have him, use the Erado on me, or something stronger if necessary. But I want him caught, Snape, and I want your promise that you won't do anything to protect me until he's there."

Snape inhaled deeply and then slowly released his breath. "All right. Together, we'll bring the bastard down."

Snape sat up in bed watching Ron mutter in his sleep. He was obviously in the grip of a nightmare. This was the second night and Snape knew that, from the pattern they had determined, the next would be the one on which they would have to accept the summons.

They were both ready, as ready as one could be in these circumstances. He had endured many of these moments as a double agent. He was well aware of the detached self-control needed to walk willingly into a situation that might end with death. But then, it had only been his own life at risk. Now it was that of the man who had curiously found a way under his supposedly thick, impenetrable skin.

He had been serious when he'd told Ron that his courage was attractive. That he wanted to wait before they engaged in sex so that Ron would be an equal participant.

He didn't fool himself into thinking that Ron would stay much beyond that. No matter how he had changed, he was still Severus Snape, and there were too many negatives associated with him. If they came through all this, there might well be an Erado to wipe Ron's mind of what had been done to him, but Snape would see to it that there would be no erasure of his confession of his own participation in these games which had delighted Voldemort. He had been a Death Eater, a torturer, and he doubted that the fact that he had been a double agent was going to cancel that once Ron really comprehended what he had done to Voldemort's prisoners and victims.

He reached out with a light touch to smooth the grimace on Ron's face. Whoever was doing all this had powerful magic. He, like Miss Jones, was certain that Ron was being watched at times. He'd set up a wider perimeter of safeguards around the warehouse, including a system that let him know if anyone with the merest touch of magic in them approached. It was so strong that it signalled him even when Miss Jones arrived.

"Ron Weasley," he whispered and shook his head. He was twenty-one years older. Closer in age to Ron's parents. Even if they were both wizards with expectations of life that could near the 200 mark, that still was a good chunk of time between them, made longer by his experiences.

No, he thought, sliding down to hold his yet-to-be lover, they would deal with this little problem. He would find the right ingredients for the Quietus. They would make love once, maybe twice. And then Ron would move on. Back to his own life.

Snape snuggled close to the now quiet man, holding him tightly in his arms, imprinting the feel of Ron's thin body against his own, absorbing the scent of him.

They were both prepared the following night.

Ron was sitting in his bed, propped up on pillows, dressed in his usual Muggle clothes. He hadn't taken any of the Quietus and his body was trembling. Snape was dressed as he had been back at Hogwarts, already wrapped in the Invisibility Cloak, only his head visible, as though floating in the air.

Snape had earlier removed the anti-Accio spell from the warehouse. Both men were quiet, waiting.

"Now," Ron broke the silence. With Snape helping him, they made their way in the dark down to the main floor. By the door, Snape covered his head, stooped so that Ron could drape himself as they had practiced over him and then reached out and opened the door.

No sooner open then they were gone. Drawn through the air so rapidly that neither could breathe. Not that it was a problem as the entire trip barely took the time of a breath.

The Accio dropped them and, as they had drilled, Ron fell to the ground as though he couldn't find his bearings while Snape, still crouching, made for cover.

While Ron lay panting on the ground, Snape did a quick reconnaissance. He wasn't all that surprised to recognize where they were. In a clearing just the other side of Hogsmeade. Sirius Black had hidden in caves nearby during the Triwizard Tournament.

So far they were alone, though he doubted that was going to last long.

No, indeed. Three darkly robed, hooded figures suddenly appeared. Apparated. So they couldn't have come from Hogwarts itself, as McGonagall had kept up the anti-apparating wards. It would be ironic, he thought, if they were using the same caves as Black had done for their base.

Pushing aside his feelings, Snape forced himself to remain still and silent.

The three figures walked around Ron, who was trying to get to his feet. Whenever he seemed to have managed it, one of the figures would trip him and he'd fall either to his knees or, once, onto his face.

"Who the hell are you?" he screamed at them, his jerking stutter making it hard to distinguish the words.

There was no answer, only more of the circling that followed their victim as he scampered, crawled, did anything to avoid them. They seemed to have a destination in mind as the group made its way to one of the ancient trees that stood by itself. It was bare of leaves, with thick lower branches that stooped above their heads.

Ron was silent now, concentrating on avoiding their kicks, moving like an animal in the direction they wanted.

From his hiding place, Snape swore that they would pay for every bruise he found on Ron's body.

They stopped when Ron was under one of the branches. There they shook back their long sleeves and revealed their wands. One of them whispered a few words and Ron was divested of his clothing. The next figure brought him up to his feet and held him there while the third used his powers to draw Ron's arms up and manacle them to the chains that suddenly appeared dangling from the branch.

Wands disappeared into hidden pockets as hands touched, pinched, examined all the while Ron shuddered and tried to pull away. He'd stopped speaking, realizing that his tormentors wouldn't respond, and saved his breath for surviving the ordeal ahead. The figures began laughing as marks and bruises marred Ron's pale skin, his attempts to avoid them only making them laugh all the more.

One of them was behind Ron when he cried out, and Snape hoped that it was only a finger brutally penetrating him.

Snape closed his eyes and hoped that he would be strong enough to wait until the person who led this group - it was obvious that none of the three was the ringleader - had the guts to show up.

Ron was gasping, face hidden against his up-drawn arms when one of the figures pulled out a long, thin knife. The one behind Ron pulled his head away from his arms so they could all see his expression and held it steady as the first drew a red line down Ron's chest.

Snape cursed. Ron hadn't been cut in any of his prior takings: this did not bode well. From his time as a Death Eater, Snape knew that knives always indicated mutilations and death. This was confirmed in his mind when the third figure pulled out a knife as well, one with a shorter and thicker blade than the first. Snape felt his heart stop. It was a skinning knife. It was placed against Ron's cheek too near an eye for Snape's ease while the other knife was busy marking his chest with what seemed to be an unclosed circle.

Hand on his wand, Snape was ready to forget his promise to Ron of waiting until the ringleader appeared.

From out of the night, a voice rang out laughingly. "We know you're here, Professor. Professor Severus Snape. Come join us."

Snape looked around for the source of the voice. It seemed to fill the small clearing.

"No? Can't say that I'm surprised by that, Professor. After all, what are you, but a coward?"

As a fourth hooded figure slowly materialized, a voice rang out in a childish sing-song " Come out, come out, wherever you are!" Then it changed and Snape heard echos of Voldemort. "Come out, Professor, or your lover loses an eye."

The skinning knife trembled against Ron's eyebrow as his body shook uncontrollably. "No! Do...don't! Tr...trick!"

The leader turned his head in Ron's direction. "I can assure you, Weasley, that this is no trick." To the one holding the knife, he snarled, "If Snape isn't out by the time I count to three, blind him. One..."

"I'm out!"

The leader looked around the area. "I don't see you, Professor Snape. Ah, I understand. Potter's Cloak. I must admit that I'm surprised he lent you his precious cloak. Still, it will make a lovely addition to my collection." The voice hardened, "Take it off, Professor. I can arrange it that Weasley will truly never see you again."

With a mumble, Snape removed the charm that held the cloak and shrugged it off his shoulders.

"Ah, how very nice to see your face, Professor. You look, if you will allow, rather tense at the moment. I'm sorry if the game isn't being played out as you planned."

"I wasn't aware that this was a game." Snape kept his attention focused on the speaker, though he noticed that the three others remained where they were, their knives too close to Ron for him to move.

The leader laughed, and echoes of Voldemort's laughter rang in Snape's memories. After all that they had been through, had Voldemort not truly died? Had he found a way yet again of coming back?

"It is all a game" the leader mocked. "One that you played well, traitor. One that I shall play better this time." The mocking was replaced by a coldness that gave Snape the shivers. Voldemort's voice when he was displeased. "Your wand, my little traitor. Remove it from your robe and toss it over here."

When Snape didn't immediately obey, the speaker gestured to the group watching and Ron suddenly screamed. Snape's head turned to see a line of blood quickly dripping off Ron's jaw. The knife had cut from eye to mouth. Quickly he pulled his wand from his robe and tossed it to where the speaker had indicated.

"NO!" Ron shook his head. "'ec...'ed!"

The leader laughed again and this time his men joined in. Hands clenched tightly by his side, Snape waited. He would do as the leader asked. There was no way that Ron was going to be hurt again because of him.

"Now the robe. Take it off, for I'm certain, knowing you as well as I do, that you came more than adequately armed with some potion or another. And we all know the infinite possibility of pockets and hidden places in a robe."

Carefully, Snape took off his robe, dropped it on top of the cloak. He stood there, dressed in his old many-buttoned suit, hands out by his side, and tried to see the face of the man inside the shadowy hood.

"On your knees, traitor."

Snape raised his chin and openly glared his hatred.

"Do it!" snapped the leader, "Do it, or Weasley will be castrated."

From out of the corner of an eye, Snape saw the hand with the long thin knife drop to Ron's groin. As it did so, he dropped to his knees.

"Now then, see, Weasley," scorned the leader, "see the power of love. A stupid emotion, but a useful one. At this moment, your dear lover is realizing many things. That his old Master has found a way of returning. That he is not pleased with his little traitor. That, while I have a reason for wanting you to die a slow and painful death, his will be all the slower and all the more painful."

"What reason can you have for wanting Weasley's death?" Snape turned his focus fully on the speaker. They were going to die, both of them, unless he did something. He had been hampered by the knives and the thought of what they would do to Ron's body. But now that had to be pushed aside. If this were Voldemort, then he had to be dealt with, and if they both died in the process, well, the best he could do was ensure that death came quickly.

The speaker folded his arms into his sleeves, a posture that Voldemort took whenever he was about to interrogate.

"Why do I want him dead? What has he done to me?" His voice assumed the saccharine tones of Voldemort when he was going to set a trap for some unsuspecting follower who had displeased him.

As he spoke, Snape began chanting a spell in his mind.

"He had a lover before you, did you know this, traitor? A stupid, idiotic , unmagical thing with few skills other than that of his mouth. A skill, by the way, your lover learned well. As you undoubtedly know. We here have all enjoyed the ability of that mouth. We will yet again before he dies."

Merlin! thought Snape. All this because of Longbottom?

"This lover of his, a mistake who should never have been allowed into Hogwarts, let alone into the brotherhood of wizards, killed one of my best men." As he spoke, his voice grew colder but also revealed a hint of hysteria. Snape dared hope.

"The coward did not even have the mettle to do so face to face. To challenge him, wizard to wizard. No, instead he snuck up behind the man and killed him, without giving him the chance to defend himself. A brave man, a good man," he was almost screaming, "a man who would have sat at my right hand when my control had been established. A great man brought down by a sniveling," now he spat, spittle finding its way beyond the edge of the hood, "gutless, cocksucking excuse for a wizard.

"One of my people got the bastard, but it was quick. Too quick." He turned and pointed to Ron. "He will pay..."

Snape judged the moment and took it. Flinging his right hand towards the group with Ron - "Petrificus totalus!"- he threw his body to the side closest his wand and rolling, grabbed it, pointing it at the leader, "Avada..."

And was hit hard by a body that stopped his breath and him from uttering the rest of the death curse.

The clearing was suddenly filled with more robed figures, with the sound of spells chanted.

Snape fought the body off him and turned, face feral, to use his wand. And came face to face with Harry Potter.

"Sorry," gasped Potter. "We need him alive. We need to know if he truly is Voldemort returned."

Snape quickly checked out the situation. Besides Potter, he recognized Granger, McGonagall. There were three others he thought he might have taught, though he couldn't remember their names. Apart from Potter, who was helping him to his feet, and McGonagall, who wisely avoided looking at him, they all bore the insignia of the Aurors.

"I think Ron needs you," said Potter, hand on wand, ready to immobilize the man if need be.

Snape's eyes found Ron immediately, being lowered onto the ground, body shaking at its worst. One of the Aurors must have counter-spelled the Petrificus before they released Ron from the manacles. With not a word to Potter, he picked up his robe, discarding it once he had pulled out a small vial, and dropped onto his knees by the man who reached for him as he did. Snape slipped an arm under Ron's shoulders, held the vial to his mouth. He had to grip his chin to keep his head still long enough for Ron to swallow the entire contents, and then he clutched the man to him, holding him tightly, crooning quietly to him, as the potion worked its usual magic.

Potter waited until the shaking had diminished to approach the two men, holding Snape's robe before him as an offering. Snape glared at him but allowed Potter to drape the robe over the man in his arms.

Potter sat back on his heels. "We're moving all this back to Hogwarts, to the dungeon of the South Tower. Madam Pomfrey is waiting for us. I've got Ron's clothes and my cloak. Hermione's people have the others under control. The three are under Imperio and the leader, Imperio and Petrificus, with Hermione and McGonagall maintaining a Mobilicorpus on him. Do you need help moving Ron?"

Snape, still glaring, shook his head. "I can carry him."

With Potter at his side, ready to provide help, Snape did just that. He carried his now limp lover all the way to Hogwarts. Ron lay quietly in Snape's arms, the uninjured side of his face resting on Snape's shoulder, taking comfort and finding strength to deal with all that had happened and all that was going to come.

Madam Pomfrey was waiting for them at the door when they arrived. She took one look at Snape and knew that he would not release the man in his arms into her care without hovering. She gestured to a table that she had set up and Snape, though his arms had to ache from having carried the Weasley boy, gently lowered him to the padding. Ron, she noted, kept his eyes on Snape the entire time she quickly checked him over, spelled the marks and cuts on his body, and anointed them with a healing ointment. The cut on his face was a different matter. She made certain that the spell used would close up the wound without leaving more than a faint scar which would fade with time. The boy had enough to deal with; she didn't want him to carry a perpetual reminder of this day.

"I would like to give you something for the pain," she told Ron then checked with Snape. "Will that be possible with what you've given him?"

Snape thought then shook his head reluctantly. "I think it would be better if you didn't." He looked at Ron. "I'm sorry. I never thought about testing the Quietus in combination with other potions. I can spell you to sleep, if you want."

"No," Ron spoke with less control than usual. "Don't want to miss anything. Not bad. Really."

Ron smiled at Pomfrey and whispered a faint "Thank you," and Pomfrey, throat tight, could only manage a brusque, "You're welcome." But she held his hand tightly for a moment. "He'll be fine," she told the man standing by the table, holding Weasley's other hand.

"Clothes," whispered Weasley and she thought Snape was going to contest that. Instead, he merely looked into the boy's face and saw something there that made him nod. With a wave of his wand and a few words, Weasley was once more dressed in his own clothing.

While she had been dealing with Ron's medical care, the rest of the group had set up the room so that, when Snape turned with Ron in his arms, he found that Potter was ready to help them to the couch that had appeared. He sat in a corner of it, Ron stretched out but still in his arms. Pomfrey dropped a blanket over Ron, tucking it around him but leaving his hands free so that he could hold onto Snape's. Then he and Snape watched and waited as Granger, obviously in charge, directed the scene.

McGonagall was sitting on another couch, Miss Jones by her side. Snape sighed loudly. "Damn! I made Minerva promise, but I forgot about Jones."

Ron's soft, unsteady laughter surprised him. "Never underestimate a Gryffindor."

Snape rested his cheek on Ron's head. "Very true," he whispered. "Never for finding a loophole. Never..." his voice broke and he needed to take a deep breath to regain control. "Never for courage."

Potter pulled a chair up close to the two of them. Hermione wanted him at hand in case Snape got out of control. Frankly, Harry wasn't sure that if Snape did go crazy, he would be able to do much. He'd spent the years since graduation playing Quidditch; he was in great physical shape, but he hadn't been honing his wizard powers. Damn, the man had set a Petrificus Totalus, simultaneously, on four people, without using his wand!

One of those who entered the room came striding up and hankered down in front of the couch, grinning at the two men. "You always were a pain, Ron."

Had it not been for the red hair, the face covered in freckles, Snape would probably have spat out some spell. Instead, he shook his head. "Another Weasley. What are you doing so far from your dragons, Charles?"

Charlie Weasley lay his hand on his brother's, smiled unconcernedly at the man who was glaring at him. "Flying reconnaissance. Harry set a tracking spell on his cloak," Potter avoided Snape's glare, "but all it gave us was a general area. Once we had that, I took to the air to pin-point it." He grinned. "What? You seriously didn't think we'd let you deal with this by yourselves? Though, from what I hear, you probably didn't really need the cavalry. Wandless magic, eh!" He cocked his head to indicate the general room. "They're all talking about it."

Then he grew serious. "You ever need help again and you don't let one of the family know, Ron, and I swear, wandless magic or not, I will personally beat the shit out of you. Do you understand that? Both of you?"

Before Snape could snarl a response, Ron whispered, "Pr...prick."

"Brat," Charlie answered, then leaned forward and kissed his brother on the forehead. Then to Snape's surprise, Charlie's hand closed on his. "Welcome to the family. Sev."

Snape's eyebrow rose high and Ron laughed his soft, Quietus laugh. "W...who...el..."

Charlie knew what his brother was asking. Not allowing him the time to finish his question, Charlie interrupted. Snape continued glaring at him, no longer for the appellation of a nickname, but for Ron himself. Damn, all Charlie had had to do was wait a moment. Ron was perfectly capable of finishing a thought.

"Who else knows? Ginny, but she's not here yet. She and her people are going through the so-called Death Eaters' quarters, looking for whatever it is Aurors look for. Hermione decided that I needed to be brought in because of the dragon. She figured that flying high enough not be observed couldn't be done by broom. I was coming over to confer with the Ministry on an new agreement with Romania, so my arrival didn't arouse anyone's suspicion. And no, the parental units aren't aware of any of this. Yet."

He patted Ron's hand. "By the way, little brother, apart from the obvious, you're looking much better than the last time I saw you. Who would have thought it, you and the old Potions Master? Guess us Weasleys have a soft spot in our hearts for dragons of all kinds." He grinned again at Snape.

Whatever Snape would have replied was lost as Hermione Granger, looking every inch the Section Chief that she was, called the room to attention. Charlie gave Ron's hand a final squeeze, rose and went to find a chair next to Harry.

Ron's torturers were sitting to one side, chained to their chairs, each with an Auror at the ready behind him. That they were still under an immobilizing spell was obvious from the way their eyes were the only things that moved.

In the center of the room, the one who had led them was seated in a chair weighted down with chains both visible and invisible. There were two Aurors with wands pointed at him to either side.

Hermione Granger snapped her fingers and there appeared a quill and endless roll of parchment, ready to take down every word spoken.

She spoke calmly and with the certainty of someone used to being in charge of sensitive investigations. "As Section Chief, I have the full power and authority of the Ministry to deal with this matter, which is the investigation of the disappearances and torture of Ronald Weasley by..." She nodded at the Headmistress who stood up, looking with disgust at each as she named him.

"By Dilbert Swaney, seventh year, Ravenclaw. Phillip Figgus, seventh year, Hufflepuff. Newton Lestrange, seventh year, Slytherin."

She turned and glared at the fourth. "And by Mortimer Crabbe, seventh year, Slytherin."

Who managed to overcome the Petrificus enough to turn his head slightly and smirk at her.

The Aurors by Crabbe held their wands at his head. They had set the Petrificus well, they were used to doing so, yet Crabbe had managed to do something that should not be possible for one under the spell. Snape growled under his breath while Harry and Charlie, wands in hands, quickly took positions behind Snape's couch, ready to protect him and Ron should it prove necessary.

Damn, thought Snape, this could well be Voldemort.

Strangely, Granger didn't seem bothered at all. She calmly walked up to Crabbe, removed a small vial from a pocket and with her wand, "Imperio!", she held the vial to his mouth. "Drink!"

There was a moment's hesitation, as though - unbelievable though it was - Crabbe were battling the power of her command, but slowly, his mouth opened and before he could close it, Granger tipped the contents in, grabbed his chin and forced it up so that Crabbe had no choice but to swallow.

"Veritaserum," she announced to the watchers. "The strongest form we have. Mixed with a potion that will keep Mr. Crabbe in his chair."

She waited a few minutes, then with care, Granger loosened the Petrificus spell enough so that the prisoner could speak. The man casually shook his head, smiled up at Granger in a way that was far too reminiscent for Snape. He tightened his hold on Ron.

Unmoved, Granger said, "Your name is Mortimer Crabbe."

Crabbe merely smiled. "It is one of them."

"Really?" Granger's tone was disbelieving. "What other names are you known by?"

"Many. But the one I think most of the people in this room will remember is Voldemort."

Reaction was a tense silence, then Granger shook her head. "That is only the name you would like to be known as. That you yourself believe is yours. We know differently. You are Mortimer Crabbe, and Voldemort was eliminated some dozen years ago by Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter, and Severus Snape, along with other members of the Order of the Phoenix who are no longer with us."

"If that's what you care to believe," mocked Crabbe. His mere tone, his attitude was alien to one who had swallowed Veritaserum. There was some uncomfortable wriggling among those watching.

Granger didn't seem in the least concerned. She turned to Snape. "The Veritaserum reveals the truth, but I think we all need reminding that it is the truth as the speaker sees it, not necessary the truth that is real. Is this not so, Potions Master?"

"Yes, that is correct," Snape answered. And felt something in him ease. Not completely, but enough so that he could breathe more easily. Without being aware of it, he loosened his grip on Ron, who was relieved both by Hermione's reminder and Snape's less tight clasp. He really didn't need more bruises.

"You would take the word of a traitor?" Crabbe mocked. "A man who not only betrayed me, his Master, but all of you when he voluntarily became a Death Eater. When he begged to join me?"

There was another ripple of unease in the room, but Granger waved that off with a negligent gesture of her hand. "Past history, and already dealt with long ago, Crabbe. Dealt with long before you were born."

"Reborn," corrected Crabbe.

"Really?" scoffed Granger. "Let me see. Crabbe is eighteen years old. That means he was what, five? six? when Voldemort was eliminated."

"I had decided long before your attempted murder of me that the boy was to be my next reincarnation."

Granger made a small scoffing sound. "Really? You would have us believe Voldemort would select a Crabbe to house him? You've forgotten that I attended Hogwarts with a Crabbe. Though, I suppose, all things considered, maybe all a Crabbe was good for was for housing."

Crabbe growled and quickly caught himself. "Ah, I see. You're trying to make me lose control. Won't work, my sweet Hermione. Yes, you were here with the boy's eldest brother. Vincent. I seem to remember him describing you at the time as an ugly, frigid cunt."

Granger ignored the insult and got back to the point. "So, why would Voldemort not select him for his reincarnated body? Why the baby?"

Crabbe smiled and Snape found the hair on the nape of his neck was rising. He'd seen that smile far too often in his nightmares to forget it.

"Because, unlike the other boys, this one is brilliant. I saw that in him the first time I met him. He was not yet two and already he had powers beyond his years. I had one of my faithful take over the boy's education. By the time of my assassination, he was more than ready to absorb me."

"If he is so brilliant," said the Headmistress coldly, "why did the Sorting Hat not notice it? Why are his marks so...average?

Crabbe laughed chillingly. "By the time we were sent here, the boy had already learned to master many of my abilities. It's not hard to play down one's intelligence. After all, what more to expect from a Crabbe than the bare minimum?

"Fooling the Sorting Hat was no challenge. He merely put a spell on himself so that the Hat would do as it was told to. Which was to sort him into Slytherin. My old House. Of course, sadly enough, the former Head of House was no longer there, but it was easy enough to track him down."

Crabbe turned his eyes onto Snape, who held himself back from reacting.

"You have, as do all mediocre wizards who think highly of themselves, a recognizable pattern in your skills. Rumour had it that you had died, or disappeared into remorse, but I, and the boy, knew better. We knew that you had developed the Wolfsbane Potion, that you published under a false name. We found it interesting that, though Snape was supposed to be gone, Potions Master Pontefract was still publishing. It was only a matter of setting someone to watch for your owl to deliver whatever report was expected and to spell it back to its previous location. You were wise never to use the same owl twice, traitor, but as you see, not wise enough to remain hidden from your Master."

"Are you saying that the boy had the forethought to plan all this?" Snape mocked.

Crabbe nodded. "Oh, yes. As I said, quite brilliant. And while he was occupied, it gave me the time to recoup my strength, to plan my return. We began working together in his fifth year here at Hogwarts, after he was taken on an outing into Muggle territory. His tutor wanted him to get a good look at what he and I were going to eliminate from our world. Imagine our surprise when who did we run into but the man he hates almost as much as I hate the traitor. Harry Potter's little shadow. His arse-kisser. His biggest fan. The man whose lover killed my best man."

"So you've said," interjected Snape with all the condescension of which he was capable. "Like Granger, Potter and Weasley, I too attended Hogwarts with a Crabbe. Was Herman Crabbe also hiding his genius under a spell? Seems to me that I remember more than a few occasions when Voldemort felt the need to punish him for his stupidity."

Crabbe went white. He screamed, "Lie! That's a lie! I never...never had to punish him. He was almost as brilliant as his son."

"He was an idiot," sneered Snape. Harry and Charlie raised their wands, ready for anything.

Granger stepped between the two men, forcing Crabbe to focus on her. She wanted more information before this Crabbe completely lost his mind. "So you saw Weasley and you decided to punish him for the transgressions of his lover, whom your people had killed."

Crabbe seemed confused for a moment by the change. He shook his head and visibly calmed himself. "Yes, he was to be punished, but it wasn't I who arranged it all. It was the boy. I still had not yet regained all my forces. I watched though, as he carefully gathered to him young wizards who would help him in this and in our return to power."

"I understand the selection of Newton Lestrange," said Granger, as though she had been thinking on the matter for some time. "After all, his aunt and uncle were two of Voldemort's most loyal and faithful followers, even if his parents were not. I can see where a chance to rebel against his parents, even after they were killed in that accident..."

"Rebel against his parents?" Crabbe laughed, a note of insanity ringing through it. "My dear Hermione, he did more than rebel against his parents. He killed them. On my orders."

There was silence as all eyes suddenly focused on Lestrange, who almost appeared to be smiling.

"Why Figgus?" Granger brought everyone back to the youth in the chair.

"Phillip Figgus is the nephew of Narcissa Malfoy. He loved his dear aunt. As she loved him. Love, I believe I have already stated this evening, is a stupid emotion, though a useful one. Dear Narcissa thought so, too. She used it to convince the Trial Judges that she had never been a Death Eater, though her husband and son were. That though she had sensed something was wrong, she had loved them too much to challenge them on it. They doubted her but didn't have enough evidence to have her incarcerated in Azkaban. They released her into the kind care of her family, who kept her confined to a room locked with one of those systems Gringotts uses.

"Fortunately, little Phillip likes to play with such puzzles and is very successful at defeating them. She could have left whenever she cared to though Narcissa was smart enough to know that she had to bide her time until I returned. Meanwhile, she was not undisposed to entertaining herself. Was she, Phillip? As I said, they loved each other until poor aunt Narcissa had a sudden heart attack. I'm certain you'll be pleased to learn, traitor, that Figgus pays careful attention in Potions classes. You would have appreciated having him in yours. Would have made up for Longbottom," he sneered, "and his ineffectualness."

Granger didn't want Crabbe getting onto that subject again so she quickly tossed out, "I suppose that Swaney has also killed someone?"

"Not yet," snarled Crabbe. "This was to have been his opportunity to enjoy that particular treat. No, Dilbert comes from a family with far too much money. So much, in fact, that they don't notice if any goes missing."

"What was it used for?" Granger kept her voice causal, as though she really didn't believe any of what she was hearing. "Buying ice cream at Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour?"

"No," sneered Crabbe. "There were expenses. Crabbe's inheritance had been confiscated by the Ministry. It was his tutor who paid his tuition fees here. He needed money on which to live, to cover his ...and our expenses. It cost money to keep tabs on dear little Ron. And on the sweet traitor. Until we were ready."

"Ready for what?"

"For our own amusement. We had no intention of allowing Weasley a quick death. He was going to get what Longbottom should have gotten, a slow, agonizing death. It was then that I made myself known to the boy. I let him know what role he was to play in our forthcoming victory but he was yet too young physically. During his time at Hogwarts, I suggested he assemble around him wizards whom we could trust. During the summers, I helped his tutor develop his true potential. By the time he was sixteen, he had mastered the Unforgivable Curses - his poor tutor succumbed to the Avada - and was further ahead than his professors at Hogwarts! I allowed him Ron to play with as reward, on the condition that he be kept alive until I could oversee his true punishment."

Crabbe laughed again, the note of insanity sounding louder. "And then what does our little toy do but suddenly find himself refuge with the traitor himself. What delight!"

"But you didn't get your way, did you?" Granger mocked. "The Potions Master's magic was stronger than yours. You called Weasley to you and he didn't come."

Crabbe's face grew ugly and Snape felt the two men behind him tense. Careful not to call attention to himself, he slipped his hand into his robe and pulled out his own wand.

"He tried to avoid his fate. He did so once. ONCE! But he came this time when I called."

"He came because Snape allowed him to," Granger's hand slipped into her pocket to find her wand. Though she doubted that she was speaking to Voldemort, she couldn't underestimate the power Crabbe himself had.

"NO! He came because I, Voldemort, ordered him to come. He brought the traitor with him in an attempt to appease me! But the only thing that will appease me is their deaths!"

In the moments that followed, too many people were too stunned to react as they had been trained.

Crabbe screamed a spell older than time and suddenly his chains disappeared. Enclosed in a burst of light that filled the room, he countered the spells keeping him bound to the chair and rose to his feet.

Snape threw Ron and himself to the floor and covered Ron with his body. Charlie and Harry, wands outstretched, both yelled out immobility spells which only bounced off the light. They dropped to the floor in turn to avoid being hit by their own spells.

McGonagall stepped in front of her cousin as she pointed her wand at the three students who were affected by the light and whose chains were dropping off. She alone of those in the room recognized the language Crabbe was using for his spells and quickly countermanded the ones directed at his followers. The three dropped like stones to the floor as, unfortunately, did the Aurors standing behind them.

Granger, blinded by the light, afraid of hitting one of her own people, hesitated long enough that Crabbe found his way to the door of the dungeon.

"I'll kill anyone who follows me," he screamed as he ran out the door.

The light died with his departure.

Granger was rubbing her eyes, trying to focus, when a high pitched scream penetrated the thick dungeon walls.

No one who could move did so until it ended. Then, from behind the couch, Charlie got to his knees. "Damn," he said, unconcerned, "I forgot to mention that I left the Horntail tethered by the back door. I was going to feed him tonight." He looked at Harry, who was kneeling next to him. "They fly better if they're a little hungry, you know."

It wasn't over.

Snape wanted to take Ron home before anything more happened, but there were still questions that needed answering.

In his escape, the spell Crabbe had used had killed the two Aurors guarding him. Though she handled it well, as the Section Chief she was, Granger was upset and demanded to know, rather rudely, from McGonagall just what the bloody hell spells she and Crabbe had used. McGonagall's hadn't killed anyone, but the three prisoners and their guards were in deep comas. Even though the Headmistress assured Granger that they would all wake - eventually - Granger was not pleased.

Harry and Ron, who had had occasion to be on the receiving end of Hermione's tongue in the past, winced in sympathy with those who now were. They had moved to the Headmistress's office and Harry, along with Snape and Ron, found chairs in a corner, out of the main line of Hermione's temper. Miss Jones selected a chair behind the Headmistress's desk, quietly indicating support for her cousin.

"It's the Old Language. Not taught any more, as so much of it has been lost over the ages. Albus thought it had links to Ancient Egyptian, pre-5000 B.C., as the Muggles call it. The little that has come down is so powerful that special permission from the Ministry is needed to study it. Albus was over 100 before he was allowed anywhere near the scrolls in the Ministry vault."

"Then how is it that you know of it and can use it?" Granger's voice was calm once more, and Harry exchanged a relieved glance with Ron.

"Is that a subtle way of asking my age?" McGonagall was also somewhat calmer. Hearing and having to use the Old Language had upset her more than she liked to admit even to herself. "No, we have Albus to thank for that. There was a break-in at the vaults one night. The guards were killed, and there were signs that the scrolls had been opened, probably copied, as there is no way for them to be removed quickly from the vault. We did suspect Voldemort. Albus taught me to recognize the five complete spells that still exist and how to countermand them."

She looked about the room. The evening was marked on each face. She took her wand in hand and a complete tea service along with sandwiches appeared on her desk. "Alys, dear, if you would play Mother?"

Alys Jones was astonished to find that every cup she poured had a different aroma. And that each was the favourite of the one drinking it. And that as she poured Ron his, the cup changed to a mug that would be easier for him to handle as he was trembling again, though she noticed that Snape kept a close eye on it. The sandwiches were of a variety though, again, plates filled themselves with favourites. There was even her own of cucumber with dill dressing. She took a sip of her tea and discovered that it had been fortified with a touch of whiskey. The room filled with satisfied sighs.

McGonagall got them back to the subject. "I am quite willing to accept that Crabbe is...was insane, that he only thought he was Voldemort, but the question arises: how was it that he knew that Old Language spell?"

"Ginny may have the answer to that," Granger offered.

Ron was taken aback when his sister suddenly appeared in the room. "I thought that you..."

"Couldn't apparate here at Hogwarts?" finished Ginny.

Snape found he was biting his tongue again: he was beginning to understand Ron's frustration with his loving family more clearly. Did they never allow him to finish anything?

"At the Headmistress's suggestion, we have removed the wards and spells on Hogwarts," explained Granger, "We have no idea what was affected by" she frowned at the Headmistress, "what we now know to be Old Language Spells, and so we are in the process of re-warding from scratch. The antiapparation spells will be the last the Protection Team will initiate, as we really would find it easier to remove all our people by that method."

Snape wasn't surprised: the school seemed to be inundated with wizards and witches all wearing Auror insignia. It was a good thing that it was Christmas holidays and that there were only a few residents left.

Ron noticed how much more confident Ginny appeared. She had always been the shyest of the Weasleys, the most self-effacing, and here she was, commanding everyone's attention as though it was her due. Which, when he saw the ranking on her Auror's insignia, he had to admit it was. When he had left, Ginny was still into her apprenticeship with the Department. Now she was a Group Leader. He was suddenly reminded again that he had no such future in his life. Damn, what the hell did Snape see in him that he wanted? Or had the waiting for sex been because he really couldn't see himself touching an ever-shaking cripple?

Snape sensed the change in the man propped next to him. He'd been through too much tonight, and it was all piling up. He recognized depression in Ron's eyes and knew that he had to get him away from here as soon as possible.

Ginny was reporting that they had found some evidence among the personal effects of those still prisoners which would support their arrest and, in the case of Lestrange and Fuggis, immediate incarceration for life in Azkaban. As for Swaney, it would be up to his family to press charges if they wished for the embezzlement, but they had enough with Ron's testimony and that of the eye-witnesses to send him along with the other two for a good long time. Once they woke up.

As for Crabbe's effects, they were under a series of spells that were convoluted and difficult enough to require some time. They had been moved to the Aurors' lab and would be opened there.

"Fine," growled Snape. "It would seem that our part of the evening is over. Ron and I will take advantage of the situation and disapparate back to our own residence."

"No!" Ginny shook her head. "No, not yet. Charlie and I want to speak to Ron." She cast a cold look in Snape's direction. "Privately."

Snape grew very still. In his heart, he knew that the battle for Ron had begun.

Part Three

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