There had been no one around for so many weeks that the echoing sound of footsteps in the deserted Dungeon made the skin on his neck tingle.
Autumn was nigh, but Hogwarts had yet to fall victim to the students' brawls, and even the teachers were few and far between. Severus Snape had thought he was alone, as he found himself most often.
But this time he was wrong. Despite the initial start, he resisted the old urge to draw arms, and let his wand rest peaceably in his pocket. He found it easier these days. Once upon a time, he might have slipped into a dark nook and waited for his pursuer to fall victim to a sharp impediment jinx, but he was not that person any longer.
Besides, the sound was that of tiny feet. They skipped along in his wake with innocent frankness, and so he stopped and turned around.
His pursuer caught up to him and smiled bravely with a missing tooth. It was a child – a small girl with fire in her hair. She carried the scent of sunlight and grass.
He allowed the tension to bleed out of his posture. The time of lords and snakes was long gone. It would do him good to remember.
She smiled brighter still. "Good afternoon," she said precociously. "I know who you are."
A Gryffindor then, in a few short years. He noticed she was dressed like a muggle. "Oh, do you now?"
"Yes." She looked up at him with light brown eyes. "My Uncle Harry has told me many things about you."
"Uncle Harry, is it?" Severus frowned. "Did he really?"
"He did." Her bright mood was not to be quelled. She started counting off her hand. "For one," she said, holding up her index finger, "he told me you dressed in all black. Then-" She raised her middle one, "he told me you were his teacher and that you were really, really strict. And then-" She struggled with the third, "he said your teeth were yellow." She peeked at his mouth curiously, giving up on the tally. "And lots of other things that I can't remember now."
Severus grunted. He suspected her memory was somewhat selective. "Your uncle sure is–"
"Oh!" she interrupted. "He told me you had greasy hair as well." She grinned proudly. "I recognised you right away."
He shook his head, letting his gaze drift over her stained knees and the snot beneath her nose. She reminded him of someone.
"You look scruffy, miss." He offered her a handkerchief. "And you have quite the big mouth."
She watched him, fascinated. "Your nose is big, too." She looked like she wanted to reach out and touch it, second-guessing herself at the last minute. "And it's all bent…"
Severus straightened. "So you're here with Uncle Harry then?" He glanced down the corridor.
"No." She wiped her face haphazardly. "Uncle Harry is out chasing villains."
"Of course he is," he said with a subtle sigh. "Then where is your mother and father?"
"Daddy is away on Quidditch." She thought for a moment. "But I wouldn't be with him even if he was home. This is Mum-week."
Severus rolled his eyes. "Mum-week, hm?"
"Yes." She smiled.
"Take me to your mum then," he said. "You shouldn't be down here alone. This castle likes to play tricks on little dunderheads like you."
"I already know," she said, handing the dirty handkerchief back at him before skipping off. "Mum said so as well. But I'm not little."
Severus followed at a more sedate pace. He had to raise his voice slightly as she had already covered some ground. An energetic thing, she was. And chatty. "What's your name then, little girl?"
She turned her head in indignation, tripping over a loose stone. "I said, I'm not small!"
"Watch it." He reached out an arm to steady her, but she brushed him off.
"I'm already five-and-a-half. And my name is Rose."
She must belong to one of the new staff. There had been two retirement parties that spring, something that had happened with increasing frequency of late, dividing the teachers into two segments.
There were the old and ageing ones. Those who had been there during the war and haunted the hallways as bleak imprints of their former selves. They were like ghosts now, grey and translucent, many of them prone to nerves and other undignified ailments.
He included himself in this group. He had been lucky to get his old position back, and would be fine as long as he lived a quiet and stress-free life. Which he did in a way, in this solitary dungeon of his.
Then there were the replacements. Young, inspired, and dedicated to the profession, they took over when the old ones caved. There would be one after him as well, in not too many years. He only needed to settle his affairs.
"How old are you then?"
The girl was jumping along ahead of him, making a game out of avoiding the cracks between the tiles.
"I'm fifty," he grumbled. "And a half."
"You're old," she said in awe. "I don't have to ask your name though, because I already know it."
"You already said as much."
She continued as though she had not heard him, "it's Sev'rus. Albus got his second name from you."
"Aren't you the know-it-all?" They had reached the Entrance Hall, and he grasped her shoulder to steer her clear of the second-to-last step, which was prone to swallow one's foot to the ankle.
"Is it true?" she asked out of nowhere.
He released her when she leapt across the tricky spot with ease. "What is?"
"That you were bitten by a snake?"
"Yes," he said, relieved. He had almost been afraid she was going to ask about his Death Eater days.
"Do you have a scar as well?"
She was watching him with wide eyes. He nodded, flustered to be dedicated such rapt attention. If only his students would pay him the same regard, he might have been more generous in his grading.
The girl stretched her neck. "Can I see it?"
"Not now, child." She had lead him to the Infirmary and he reached over her head to push open the heavy door. "Is this where you belong?"
"Yes." She ducked beneath his arm, sprinting ahead. "Mum!"
A woman was inside, and he was suddenly able to place this new girl.
Because he remembered another one. One with busy hair and a need to prove herself that rivalled most of his Slytherins back when he was Head of House.
But that girl was gone, and Granger was all grown now. And how quickly the years had gone by.
Hermione straightened when she heard Rose call, quickly jotting down a few notes in the margin of a thick paper folder. No matter her occupation, bookkeeping seemed forever to follow her around, especially when the numbers refused to add up. But despite the unpleasantness of the task, it had to be done before the start of term. Quidditch season was merely weeks away and she expected her days would soon become busy.
She put the paperwork down and stood. She would have to file an inquiry about the lethal potion ingredients with the Headmaster. But that could wait until morning. She already suffered a headache.
"Oof!" She staggered when the red tornado that was her only child hit her side like a bludger. "Rose, will you watch it?"
She peeled her daughter's hands off her arm to straighten the ink bottle that threatened to spill. Scourgify could make a real mess out of the financial records and it wouldn't do to foul them up already in her first week.
Only when crisis was no longer imminent did she become aware of the third person in the room. "Oh." She surreptitiously untangled a quill from her hair. "Professor Snape?"
The man was standing in the doorway, watching them with a blank expression.
"Did she disturb you?" She waved in Rose's direction. "I'm sorry if…"
Rose groaned. "Don't mind Mum, Severus," she told the Potion's Master. "She always thinks I'm a bother to everyone. But I wasn't bothering you, was I?"
"Of course not." Snape smiled at Rose, if only with his eyes. The gesture was so fleeting that a heartbeat later, Hermione thought she might have imagined it. "We ran into each other in the corridor, that's all, Miss…" He faltered.
Hermione expertly concealed her surprise at their familiarity. Her daughter was sociable to a fault, and this here was cited evidence. "Please," she said, "it's Hermione. I'm taking over after Poppy."
"Hermione, then." He glanced at Rose. "And Severus."
"Mum?" asked Rose. "Can I visit Sev'rus tomorrow?" She looked up at her mother with doe eyes. "He lives in the dungeon, and there are windows to the Black Lake down there…please?"
Hermione looked up at the man apologetically, searching for signs of annoyance. To her surprise, there seemed to be none.
"Oh, all right then," she said, dragging the words a bit, "but only if he says you can."
"It's fine," said Snape, and Rose shone.
It seemed her daughter had found herself a new friend.