Sticks and Stones

by Phantom (phantom1313 at tfrid dot com)

Author's note: This story takes place shortly before the end of Harry's Fifth Year. This story is rated PG-13 for mild swearing and mild violence. . Spoilers for Sorcerer's Stone through Goblet of Fire.

“On saura jamais ce qu'on a vraiment dans nos ventres
Caché derrière nos apparances
L'âme d'un brave ou d'un complice ou d'un bourreau?
Ou le pire ou le plus beau?
Serions-nous de ceux qui résistent ou bien les moutons d'un troupeau,
S'il fallait plus que des mots?”
-- Né en 17 a Leidenstadt -- Freddericks, Goldman, Jones

//No one ever knows what is in our guts
Hidden behind our appearances
The soul of someone brave, of an accomplice or an executioner,
Or the worst or the most beautiful?
Will we be those who resist or just sheep in the flock,
If more than words were needed?//

Chapter One

The entire student body of Hogwarts was assembled in the great hall, causing their usual annoying racket. The Potions Master paused inside the entrance, wincing and rubbing his temples. Great. Just what he needed. He swept past the inanely jabbering students to take his place at the head table, favoring a few of the louder ones with a cold, icy glare. He allowed himself a brief flash of savage triumph as they quailed before him. The tight-lipped Professor McGonagall silently shifted to the left with a curt nod as he approached, giving him room to slide in. Not that he really needed it -- he had always been on the thin side, and these past few months had caused him to become scarcely more than a rail. He had never been exactly happy with his looks, but now he looked positively ghastly. He had fine, prominent features that usually bore an unhealthy white pallor, but his eyes had acquired a sunken look, and his cheeks had become pinched and hollow, casting his admittedly large nose into even stronger relief. In short, he looked as bad as he felt, and that was saying a lot.

Snape looked down at his plate with a heavy sigh. Not that there was anything wrong with the food, of course. The Hogwarts house-elves always managed to outdo themselves with scrumptious meals. He simply was not hungry. A quick glance across the head table told him that he was not the only one. While Hagrid and Dumbledore sat merrily devouring their food, the other professors were eating sparingly. Some of them winced when an especially loud laugh broke out from a student table. He turned his patented glare on them, but they utterly failed to notice him boring holes in the back of their skulls. Useless, each and every one of them. If they could not sense that danger was near, how would they ever survive the rise of the Dark Lord?

He dropped his fork on the plate with a clatter at that thought, causing a few of the professors to glance at him questioningly. He stubbornly avoided their gaze, staring fixedly at his plate until they turned away. No need to turn his malice on them -- they had enough worries at the moment. Final exams were approaching, and while the students had the luxury of cavorting about and shrieking at the top of their lungs (but not so loudly when he was around, lest their houses lose more precious points towards the House Cup), the professors were not so fortunate. There was the usual pre-exam tension around the staffroom as each teacher struggled to put together a formidable and challenging end-of-the-year culmination of all the knowledge that had been crammed into their students' heads. Snape knew without a doubt that that knowledge had leaked out of the ears of his Potions pupils the moment he had poured it in. The majority of his pupils were hopeless gits. There were only a handful that actually made teaching worthwhile. Draco Malfoy was one of them. He was attentive and bright, always impressing Snape with his grasp of complex mixtures. It was nice to have a sharp Slytherin around to keep those God-forsaken goody-goody Gryffindors on their toes. Then again, he had to keep a sharp eye on Malfoy. He knew all about his father's activities, and from everything he'd seen so far, Draco was a chip off the old block.

Snape took a small morsel of food and forced himself to swallow it. His stomach cramped painfully in complaint, but he managed to take a few more mouthfuls before it gave serious signs of rebellion. He then rested the fork against the plate and sat back slightly, giving his digestive system time to adjust before attempting to repeat the procedure. He could feel McGonagall's eyes upon him and resolutely avoided her gaze. It was none of her business how much he ate.

“Are you feeling all right?”

Snape instinctively scowled at the inquiry. “Fine,” he spat, shooting her sharp look of warning. She nodded briefly and returned to picking at her own meal. The sallow-skinned man rested his head against the chair and closed his eyes briefly. At least she had stopped bothering him. Unlike most of the other people in the school, she could take a hint. Severus Snape had a few unwritten yet very rigid rules that his coworkers had learned to accept very quickly. First off, no inquiries of a personal nature. Secondly, no remarks on his appearance, especially his hair, greasy though it may be. And lastly, under no circumstances, must he be touched. Hagrid, a rather touchy-feeling man by nature, had unfortunately had to learn this lesson the hard way.

He felt another pair of eyes sizing him up as well, as he scowled at the plate before him. He wondered if he could get away with a spell to clear the plate of its contents. He was sick of the stares, the murmurings. This time Dumbledore was the one eyeing him. 'Dammit, old man, can't you just leave me alone?' he seethed inwardly. 'You have no right to pity me! After all, it was *you* who put me in this impossible situation in the first place!' He angrily speared another chunk of food and chewed it thoroughly, the anger distracting him from his nervous stomach, wondering idly if he could arrange to take his meals in his private chambers. He hated feeling like an insect primed for dissection. All those eyes on him. Knowing. Judging. Some accusing, some pitying. It was the pity, above all else, that he abhorred. He was doing what he did of his own volition. Yes, he knew he was putting himself in grave peril. That was nothing new. But he did not go into this blindly. He knew the risks far better than anyone else, and he had survived this long. He was merely making the best of a bad decision he had made in the past, and would spend the rest of his life atoning for.

A fierce burning on his inner forearm finally permeated his distracted mind. He froze, every muscle paralyzed, unable to accept what was happening. What it signified. No. Dear Lord, no! It was as if the crazy, zigzagging thoughts in his mind had brought the Dark Mark to life. 'Please, not yet!' he begged internally. 'I need more time!' It was only half a lie. Part of him had prepared for occurrences such as this since his assumption of his post of Potions Master at Hogwarts. The other part of him knew that he would never be ready, no matter how many times he was Summoned. The pain then overcame his shock and he curled forward, hissing sharply, clutching his arm with his other hand. His eyes squeezed tightly shut, blocking everything else out but the agony radiating outward from his branded arm. 'Control it!' he berated himself. 'You've felt pain on many different levels. This should be nothing!' But it was what the pain symbolized than the sensation itself that so upset him. Voldemort was calling him. He had no choice but to respond.

The diminutive Professor Flitwick approached and placed a hand on the shivering man's shoulder in a show of concern. It was exactly the wrong thing to do. Snape immediately jerked away from the gentle touch, jumping to his feet, upsetting his chair. It fell to the floor with a loud clatter. 'Smooth move, Severus,' a detached part of himself observed dryly. If everyone hadn't been looking at him before, they certainly were now. This time his eyes actively sought Dumbledore's, scarcely realizing that he was massaging the searing mark on his forearm, thankfully concealed under his robes. The aged Headmaster gave him one sage nod of understanding and permission. It was all he needed. Pivoting neatly, he swept majestically from the hall, his head held high, mouth frozen into a foreboding scowl to anyone who dared look his way.

Once outside the room, however, he allowed his expression to change into a grimace. His feet wanted nothing more than to take him back to his chambers, where he could safely curl up in bed with a good book and the comforting thought that Lord Voldemort was far away from this haven. But if he had learned anything at all in his professed service to the dark wizard, it was to never underestimate Voldemort. He had found his way into Hogwarts before, and he could undoubtedly do so again. This was why Snape could not afford to relax his guard. He had to keep tabs on the one most commonly referred to as You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named. It simply would not do to ignore the summons. 'Is this it, then?' Severus wondered, as he did each and every time he was called to his lord's side. 'Is this the time he discovers my deception? Is this the time I die?'

His musings were cut short rather abruptly as he collided with something solid and unyielding. A quick glance on the floor offered an explanation. The old, familiar scowl reformed as he beheld the figure sprawled on the floor, glasses askew, unruly dark hair cascading everywhere. “Get up, Potter,” he spat. “Get out of my way. I'm already late.”

He followed the young man's shocked gaze down to his own arm, where the sleeve of his robe had slid aside to reveal the Dark Mark. It had formed into an ugly black splotch, the way it always did when the evil Lord summoned his followers. Curse him, he knew! Potter *knew* what that sign meant for him! He hastily shoved the sleeve down, clamping his hand over the throbbing mark as another bolt of pain shot through the appendage. He bit his lip, tasting blood, and yet he refused to cry out. Never would he show weakness before this whelp, who was so like his father it made Snape want to smack him in retribution for all the harsh things James Potter had said and done. Never would he yield! Not to Voldemort, not to Potter, not to anyone!

“Don't look at me like that! Five points from Gryffindor,” he snapped. And still Harry did not look away. His horrified gaze slid from his branded arm to Snape's face. It took everything the professor had not to shrink away. There was pity on Potter's face, to be sure, but there was more as well -- understanding, and sympathy?! It was too much! “Don't look at me!” he gasped, tearing away from the searing stare and stumbling towards the nearest exit. Those eyes followed him mercilessly until he had finally darted out of sight. He ran as fast as he could toward the broom shed -- he'd need a broom to fly to the edge of the school grounds. Once beyond there he could safely Apparate to his master.

He shuddered, his stomach lurching at that word. How had he allowed anyone, especially someone as revolting as Voldemort, to hold dominion over him? The mark still throbbed, but he could not bear to look at it any more. Potter's eyes upon him had made him feel ashamed, dirty and low. Why shouldn't the boy think that way? It was, after all, what everybody said about him when his back was turned, and had been that way ever since he had begun his own schooling at Hogwarts. The only difference was now everyone had a tangible reason to fear and loathe him. A Death Eater…. '*Former* Death Eater,' he insisted. Now a Death Eater in name only.

The words echoed in his head as he kicked off, sending the rather battered Shooting Star broom into the air. He clutched it, leaning forward a bit more than was necessary. He had always hated flying! He wished with a sudden pang that he had had the chance to summon a coach, but they weren't nearly as fast as a broom, and speed was of the essence. Still, he was a rather poor flyer and could certainly never pull off any of the amazing stunts that the Potter brat had managed to make look easy, just like his father before him…. He wrenched his thoughts violently away from that subject. He needed his mind to be clear and sharp for the coming confrontation, his thoughts quick and agile, always one step ahead. It was the only way to keep Voldemort from guessing his true intentions, always maintaining a double feint.

Try as he might, he could not shut out the voices from his head. They echoed within the confines of his skull, building into an insistent crescendo: “That Snape Boy! I always knew he was up to no good.” “Didn't I tell you it's always the Slytherins that go bad?” “Knew from the moment I saw his greasy hair and bony face that he wasn't someone to associate with.” Always talking about him, whether they realized he was there or not. It was a fact of life, something he had come to accept as inevitable as the sun rising every morning. Very well then. Let them talk. But if they could be harsh and petty, so could he. He could cut someone off at the knees with the best of them. He had an endless store of hexes and razor-sharp barbs that had kept him well-defended through his school years and beyond. But somehow, they now seemed empty. He was an adult now, a professor, no less! Shouldn't he have been able to leave this behind him somehow? He laughed aloud, but it was a bitter, short sound. There was no escaping who he was. As long as he was Severus Snape, he would be mocked and ridiculed. The only answer was to strike first, strike fast, strike hard. To not give them a chance to hurt him first. His face sometimes felt as if it had frozen into a stiff, cold mask. All the better, for what lay ahead.

* * * * *

He returned nearly two full days later, feeling an overpowering wave of relief as he stepped foot inside the Hogwarts castle. Amazing. He had survived once more. Then again… maybe it was an ominous sign. Lord Voldemort had called him to his side merely to brew a few simple potions that surely even that spineless Peter Pettigrew could create. Why had he summoned Snape for such a piddling task? The answer was all too obvious. It had been a test. The Potions Master could only cross his fingers and pray that he had passed. His heart was still beating, wasn't it?

A shudder ran through him at the memory of seeing his old class “chum” kneeling at his master's feet. 'All this time… Black really *was* innocent…. It was Peter who betrayed the Potters,' he marveled. He had not believed the news when it had come from Lupin and Black, and those wretched Gryffindor children. He had honestly believed that Voldemort would have told him if Pettigrew was involved. It seemed that, even back then, Voldemort had hedged his bets with his Death Eaters. Black had finally had his name cleared after nearly a year of wrangling and hearings.

Still, Snape thought he had known Peter, as twisted as that sounded, for they surely did not get along. The boy always struck him as shifty yet cowardly. It was painfully clear to him now that he was the reason for Voldemort's resurrection. All the more reason, of course, to bring him down. Snape's mouth curled in its characteristic sneer. It seemed that yet another of his classmates had found a way to bring him torment.

He stepped up his pace a bit, realizing that he just might be in time for his last class. Dumbledore would surely allow him some time to recover from his latest visit to the dark side, but Snape would have none of it. Madame Pomfrey had been kind enough to volunteer to cover his class, having a small amount of knowledge in potions, but he found that his class needed an iron hand to guide them along. Shame that he hadn't been able to arrive a bit earlier -- the class with the Potter brat and his Gryffindor friends was just ending. Tormenting them always seemed to lift his spirits. Ah well, tomorrow was another day.

It must have been the sheer relief at having returned safely and in one piece to Hogwarts that distracted him. Normally he was aware of everyone around him, but for the second time in two days, he ran smack into someone in his path. He flashed a quick snarl at the offender, certainly not offering remotely like an apology, and turned to hasten to the dungeons. A large, strong hand clamped down on his bicep with a force that made him wince. Severus tilted his head, staring in horror at who had seized him. Of all the people…!

A rather sunken face glared at him fiercely, the man shaking his long hair out of the way with a quick flick of his head. The man's appearance wasn't quite as wasted and neglected as it had been when he'd first returned to Hogwarts, at Dumbledore's insistence. The aged Headmaster had bade them to shake hands and make their peace, but it looked like the tenuous truce was about to be ripped wide open. “Let go, Black,” the raven-haired professor hissed. “I don't have time to spar with you. But I can promise I'll make it up to you another time.” Just because the man had been pardoned was no reason for him to strut around as if he owned the whole blasted castle!

“Very funny,” the other man drawled, gripping Snape's thin arm even harder. Severus choked off a gasp, not wanting his longtime adversary to know the degree of discomfort he was feeling. This was quickly getting out of hand! Sirius was a fool to pick on him. He was not much stronger than he had been in his teenage years, but Sirius was diminished from his years in Azkaban and subsequent life on the lam, so the stronger man had lost much of his edge. Plus, Severus had always been renowned for his wide knowledge of curses and hexes, and that skill had only grown in the years. If it was a fight Black was spoiling for, he just might get his wish.

'Keep calm, you're a professor! You can't just go brawling in the halls any time you feel like it! Just put your icy mask back on… yes, that's it….' He forced himself to take deep breaths, trying to get a handle on the rampaging fury that boiled just beneath the surface. What was it about those blasted Marauders robbed him of his sanity? “Let…me…go….” he said in soft yet dangerous tones, letting Sirius see that his hand was inching for his wand, concealed within his robes. And for a moment, it seemed that Black would back down, as the crushing grip on his arm relaxed.

“Go then,” Black spat, shoving him against the wall, and he clipped his head on a statue of an owl. The sharp spike of pain very nearly shattered his tenuous hold on his control. He hissed threateningly, dark eyes flashing an unmistakable warning. Black tossed an offhand comment as he turned to leave, “Surprised you even came back, since you're such a good pet of Voldemort's.”

With an inarticulate cry, Snape launched himself on his longtime enemy, pummeling him with blows. His advantage of stunning Black was brief, however, as the stronger man managed to kick him aside. A bony yet powerful fist caught him on the shoulder as he half-turned, but in that instance he had whipped out his wand. He knew he could never win a fight with fists alone, but with his wand in his hand he was unmatched. Snape yelled out a vicious curse in defiance, and a bolt of bluish energy shot from the end of his wand. Black was unfortunately more on his toes than Snape had anticipated, for he dodged and just barely missed the streak as it sizzled past his ear, striking a statue and causing it to sizzle and melt slightly.

As Snape positioned himself to deliver a second curse, Black struck his outstretched hand, sending the wand skittering across the floor, out of reach. Any advantage the smaller and frailer man had had was gone, but it hardly mattered for him. The emotions that had been roiling in him ever since Voldemort's return simply erupted, and his hands locked around Black's throat, mindless to everything but exorcising all the rage that burned inside him. Sirius gave a rather satisfying choking sound but managed to land a blow on his jaw, loosening his grip. The next strike was to his stomach, causing him to lose his balance. The pain he received felt nearly as good as the kind he inflicted. It reminded him that he was alive, that he had to keep fighting, that he was not completely dead inside.

Accio wand!” he called as he knelt on the floor. The slender bit of wood responded automatically, soaring to meet his outstretched hand. Just as his fingers brushed the surface, a large boot stomped down on his hand, causing stars to swim past his vision. He was trapped, on his knees before an attacker! As he tried to work the wand between his fingertips, to aim it and use it, Black's mighty fist swung downward and caught him directly across the bridge of his prominent nose. A sickening crack was audible to both of them, and then his black robes were coated with a rush of red. He clapped his free hand over the injury, a shrill cry of pain escaping him. Black had never been this vicious before! This went beyond their adolescent fistfights and duels of the past. He had been right along not to trust Black -- the years in Azkaban had clearly unhinged him.

Black effortlessly plucked the wand from his now limp hand, smirking at the defeated man at his feet. “Shall I snap this in half?” he mocked, seemingly unmoved at the growing streams of blood that leaked from underneath Snape's hands onto his robes. “You have no right to be here, Severus. Dumbledore may be fooled by your lies, but I'm sure not. I know exactly how deceitful you can be. But at least without this, you won't be quite as dangerous.”

Snape followed the wand in Black's grip with wide eyes. He had become very attached to that particular wand. It was said that the wand chose its owner, but in time the owner surely became accustomed to the wand's quirks and idiosyncrasies, so that no other wand would do nearly as well. He tried to move his hand from under the boot, but Black merely ground his foot down harder, waving the wand out of his reach. Snape glared at him balefully. “I see some things haven't changed.”

“But some things have.” Sirius stared meaningfully at the hand trapped underneath his book, the Dark Mark concealed by the arm of his robes.

Snape flushed an angry red. “How dare you judge me?! You know nothing of who I am!”

“Come now, break it up!” a firm voice called out, followed by a brisk clap of hands. Snape looked up to see Professor McGonagall approaching, a look of disapproval on her face, pushing through a throng of students. Her expression changed to one of shock when she beheld exactly who had been fighting. “Mister Black! I expected better of you! Let him up this instant! Your childish behavior shames our house.” She held out her hand expectantly, and he reluctantly handed back the wand, removing his foot only after grinding the trapped hand one more time. “Now go somewhere else. Far away from me, preferably.” Throwing one baleful glare over his shoulder, Black stalked off for the nearest exit. He moved a bit stiffly, revealing that Snape had gotten a few good licks in after all.

“My gracious, Severus, what has he done to you?” she breathed as she saw the amount of blood that spattered his clothing and still dripped from his hand. She reached for his elbow to help him to his feet, but he gave her a cross look and pushed himself up with his other hand, already bruised and swelling. It was then that he fully realized that he had an audience of stunned students. He fixed them with his fiercest glare, which was somewhat mitigated by the hand that still was clenched over his nose. “Get lost!” he roared, and they scattered like a flock of startled birds, but already they had started to whisper. Great. Just great. He had put all that effort into cowing and intimidating them so they would leave him the hell alone, and now they had seen him whipped into a bloody mess. With his luck, Potter would have been watching too. Watching and smirking. Just like his insufferable father. Damn them both.

“Come on,” she said briskly. “I'll walk you to the hospital wing.”

“I'm fine, Minerva, honestly,” he sighed. “I can manage on my own.”

She shook her head at his stubbornness, handing his wand back, which he stuffed angrily back into his robes. “Dumbledore will have my head if you pass out from loss of blood on the way.” They set off together, him grumbling some rather colorful things under his breath as she worked a brief charm to staunch the bleeding. He was irked that one of his coworkers had found him in such a humiliating predicament, but if it had to be anyone (besides Dumbledore himself), it might as well be Minerva McGonagall. Despite their continual house feud, she was one of the few professors he could actually converse with for more than two minutes without feeling the need to rip out his hair.

“Do you know two Hufflepuffs nearly fainted when they saw you bleeding? I believe they were under the misguided assumption that you were… nosferatu.” Her usual stony, no-nonsense expression does not change in the slightest, but he caught the smallest of twinkles in her eye. He allowed himself a brief smirk, and wonder of wonders, a slight chuckle vibrated in his chest. The stern woman nodded. “I thought that would amuse you. Did you start that particular rumor?”

The smirk reappeared. “I can't take credit for that one. However, I have also made no effort to discredit it.” He found it highly amusing that some of his students were gullible enough to think he was a vampire. Maybe he should've bitten Black's neck for effect. Served them right for gawping at him getting trounced.

McGonagall stepped in front of him and flung open the door to the infirmary, calling out, “Got a patient for you, Poppy!”

Madame Pomfrey turned from her herbs and vials, her jaw dropping as Professor Snape entered, both hands clasped firmly over his nose, more to cover the injury than to assuage its pain. She gasped and shooed him into a chair, tapping her foot impatiently until he reluctantly removed his hands. Both McGonagall and Pomfrey winced at the bruising and swelling that surrounded the broken bone. The Transfiguration professor lingered for a moment longer, then turned and silently left. Severus was clearly uncomfortable and embarrassed about the situation as it was. He didn't need a larger audience.

The nurse began to very gently poke and prod at the injury, marveling as he patient held stock-still, showing no sign at all of pain. She opened her mouth to ask how it had happened, then shut it with a snap. He would view such inquiries as intrusive. She was relieved that he had at least come to her this time -- he had a habit of treating his injuries himself, and while he was extraordinarily talented in the art of potions, he wasn't nearly as good at healing. Muttering a few soft words under her breath, she reduced the swelling as best she could. Then she grasped his nose and pushed it upward in one quick jerk, waving her wand above it with her other hand. “There! Good as new!”

Snape took the hand-held mirror from her and gave it the briefest of glances. His reflection scowled back at him, mocking him. His injury looked immeasurably better, though there was still some noticeable swelling around his nose and surrounding tissues. 'Just great. Now it's even more prominent than ever.' He tossed the mirror aside, unable to bear the sight another moment. With a slight nod, he swept out of the infirmary. “You're welcome…” she said faintly.

Chapter Two

“You only see what your eyes want to see
How can life be what you want it to be?
You're frozen when your heart's not open.
You're so consumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret
You're broken when you're heart's not open”
-- Frozen -- Madonna

Professor Snape beheld his last class's worth of students departing, a scowl firmly affixed on his face. Unbidden, his mind cast back to last night's discussion with Dumbledore. They had rehashed the unpleasant fight, naturally, and Severus was gratified to note that Black would be in for quite an unpleasant dressing-down from the Headmaster. However, the old wizard had other things to discuss, and in fact had presented him with a request -- an order, really, but Dumbledore had a way of making the harshest demand sound like a polite entreaty. Snape had argued with him, grumbled and growled and even yelled a few times, but both of them had known that he would do it. His little display of temper was just to keep the status quo, so the Headmaster would not think that his will could be bent so easily.

“Tutor the Potter boy,” he growled. Tutor him indeed! And teach him what? The many ways the Death Eaters liked to kill? How they relished every scream of their victims?

“Teach him, Severus,” the shrewd old wizard had told him. “Arm him with the knowledge of what he is about to face. Steel his resolve for the coming battle. And, above all, teach him how to fight back. There is no better man for the job than you.”

And it was thus that, despite his better judgment, he had cornered Potter after class and told him, in clipped tones, to meet him at eight o'clock in the classroom. Potter, having already spoken to Dumbledore, did not question, merely nodding a bit in resignation. The boy obviously could not bear the thought of being with him for a whole extra hour. The feeling was wholeheartedly mutual.

As much as he dreaded the eighth hour, the time seemed to simply fly by. After dinner, he busied himself concocting a mixture, letting the familiar routine soothe his nerves. And, before he even realized what time it was, a timid knock sounded. Snape briefly consulted his pocket watch and uttered a soft curse. Already? “Come in,” he snapped, and the door creaked open just enough to allow a young teenage boy with glasses and slightly unkempt hair entered. He brushed away an errant lock from before his eye and said in a voice that wasn't quite as steady as he hoped, “I'm here, Professor.”

“So I see.” Snape left his bubbling concoction and turned to face the intruder. He gestured to one of the classroom chairs, and Harry fell into it gratefully, as he positioned himself to lean against the large desk. “I can tell that you are less than thrilled to be here. I myself can think of about a hundred other things I'd rather do, swallowing ground glass being amongst them.” He sighed and ran his hand through his dark, eternally greasy-looking hair. “But we cannot turn from the face of duty. I will teach you what you need to know, and you will learn and not ask too many questions. As for the rest of the time, you stay out of my way and I'll stay out of yours. Agreed?” The nod of an ink-colored head was good enough for him. “Very well. Just so we understand each other. Now, if you are prepared--“

Suddenly Potter jumped to his feet, mouth open, finger pointing. “Professor! Your potion!” he exclaimed. Snape turned just in time to see his painstaking efforts of the past few hours roiling in its cauldron, then surging upward in a spectacular eruption, showering the surrounding area with smoking whitish liquid. He looked at it for a moment, speechless, then uttered an extremely vulgar curse and dove at the mess, trying to salvage the remnants of the mixture. “Dammit! A total waste,” he growled. Glaring at the mess, he pulled out his infrequently-used wand and cast a cleansing spell. That took care of the spattering, but the cauldron still sat smoking and burnt. “My favorite cauldron, too,” he lamented, setting it aside.

He swiftly turned his head and pinned Harry with a venomous look. The young man forced his mouth to work, then managed to choke out, “I-I'm sorry, Professor. It was my fault.” It hurt his pride to say it, but the furious glint went out of the Potion Master's eyes. Snape knew that it was really his own fault for allowing himself to become distracted, but he would certainly never admit that to that rotten Gryffindor whose head was far too swollen already. “Very well,” he said grudgingly. “I fear our first lesson will be slightly delayed. I'd best get started on a new potion straight away. Your precious werewolf is depending on it.” The last few words were practically spat from his mouth. Harry stiffened at the tone but wisely held his tongue. This mixture would help his dear friend, who had returned to Hogwarts as well at Dumbedore's request. He knew how Lupin depended on the Wolfsbane Potion to keep his sanity during the full moon.

Harry shifted from foot to foot, then blurted out, “Can I help? It might go faster if the both of us worked on it.”

The professor's face formed a sneer, then relaxed as he genuinely considered the offer. “I won't let you help create the actual potion. It is extremely complex and requires precise doses. However, you can assist in passing me the ingredients I require.” He stalked around the room, gathering a clean cauldron and a large spoon to stir with. Without looking up, he began to call out ingredients. Harry had no trouble finding them -- Snape kept his supplies very neatly ordered, alphabetized and sorted by potency. He watched in reluctant awe as Snape poured the ingredients from each bottle directly into the cauldron without bothering to measure them. There was no doubt that, if the amounts had been placed on a scale, they would exactly equal the required amount.

“Wormwood,” the other man called out, hunched intently over the cauldron. Harry dutifully turned to fetch the ingredient. He looked on the shelf on which he expected it to be, but it was nowhere in sight. He even peeked behind the other bottles to see if it had gotten pushed aside somehow. No such luck.

“Umm… it's not there.”

“What do you mean it's not there? Are you looking in the right place?”

Harry bristled but managed to keep his temper in check. “Positive. I see witch hazel, wolfsbane, but no wormwood.”

Snape stalked past him, finger outstretched and ready to point at the blatantly obvious bottle… which wasn't there. There was nothing but an open space. His finger wavered in the air, and Harry felt a surge of defiant triumph. “Where could that blasted bottle have gone to? I had it this morning!” Grumbling under his breath, he made a brief circuit of the room, dark eyes roaming in search of the bottle. Finally he uttered a locating charm, and his wand tugged in his hand, pointing downward at the far corner of the room. He stomped over to the area and bent down, practically lying down on the cold stone floor, craning his head to see. There! It was there, underneath the desk, lying in the shadows. He strained and managed to snag it, dragging it out, and he straightened, nearly cracking his head on the desk. “Blasted first years!” he ranted. “Can't be trusted to treat anything with respect!” In this respect, Harry had to agree. It was rather careless of whichever student had been sitting there. For a brief moment, he understood Snape's anger toward those who did not take potions seriously, then it faded. Who would actually be interested in mixing together a bunch of smelly chemicals anyway?

The glowering professor returned his attention to the cauldron, adding the infusion of wormwood. He called out a few more ingredients, then demanded dragon-hide gloves. Harry handed them to him wordlessly, a question in his eyes. Ignoring his curiosity, Snape headed for the furthermost rack and selected a thin decanter. “Stand back,” he snapped as he approached. “I don't want you getting in the way of this.” Harry was only too happy to back away as the sallow-faced man uncorked the bottle, noting how its contents fizzled and bubbled ominously. Snape took a large amount of care as he poured its contents into the cauldron, and even wiped the bottle after capping it once more. He busied himself with replacing the ingredient as Harry idly thought that that particular item would surely never find itself on the list of classroom potions.

The boy watched his professor working away at the mixture bubbling merrily before him, rather interested to see that Snape muttered to himself occasionally as he stirred it, making random notes on its consistency and hue. As he worked on the potion, his normal abrasiveness seemed to fade, leaving him to appear almost content. Potion-making was a subtle and unappreciated art, and it seemed to pacify the taciturn man. Harry blinked in surprise. He had never seen Snape so calm and relaxed in his presence. Finally the man stepped back, allowing the spoon to stir on its own in a circular rhythm. Their gazes locked, and Snape seemed a bit startled, as if he had forgotten that he had company. “All right, Potter,” he muttered. “I suppose we have a bit of work to do.”

“But what about the potion?” he asked nervously, certainly not wanting a repeat of the episode from earlier.

“It will be fine for an hour as long as it is constantly stirred. After that, I will work on the second phase.”

“Second phase?!” Harry goggled. Just how long did this thing take to brew anyway? It must kill Snape to waste so much energy for someone he despised.

Snape allowed himself a smirk. “I told you that it was a very complex potion. It contains three stages and must be handled very delicately.” That fact seemed to please him to no end. Harry quickly revised his previous thought. The Potions Master clearly enjoyed the challenge that such a complex task presented.

He suddenly clapped his hands together in one brisk movement. “We have precious little time left. We had better begin the lesson while we still have the opportunity. Today we will practice avoiding hexes and curses. I know that Moody -- or rather, the one who was impersonating him -- has introduced you to the Unforgivable Curses. I also know for a fact that you have well-mastered the disarming spell.” His eyes narrowed, and Harry flinched guiltily. He, in conjunction with Hermione and Ron, had used the Expelliarmus Charm with enough force to knock Snape unconscious two years ago. He really was hoping that Snape wouldn't bring that up. He realized that Snape was still speaking and dragged his mind back to the lecture at hand. “…I may cover some of the same ground, but I want to make sure that your training is thorough. The first spell we are going to work on is the reflecting spell. This will allow you to turn an opponent's curse back on himself.” Harry nodded, wishing he had learned this one a lot sooner. It would have protected him a lot better than ducking and running! “The command is reflectus. The trick is to execute it at the proper moment to redirect the incoming curse. Ready?”

Before Harry could even nod, Snape whipped out his wand and shouted “Cerinus!” His skin promptly turned a shunshine-yellow color. Again Snape moved and called out. Harry yelped “Reflectus!”, but the spell was a bit late, and he was suddenly seized with a nasty crawling sensation. Snape looked rather irritated, shifting back and forth slightly, and Harry bit back a nasty grin. He had been able to reflect at least a portion of that one. The next twenty minutes passed in very much the same manner, Harry reflecting each curse and spell as it came hurtling toward him, until he could turn back each and every one. Snape was a rather interesting sight, skin a mottled red and blue, covered in alternating scales and boils. “Finite incantatem!” With that, the both of them were restored. After that they moved onto several other similar methods of deflecting, dissipating, and dodging dangerous curses.

After some time, the Potions Master surveyed him with a critical eye. “I think we've done enough for today. Return at the same tomorrow night. We have much to accomplish.” He then turned his back on the young man, checking on his bubbling potion, leaving Harry to scowl crossly. He'd done a good job, and Snape knew it! Would it kill the man to say a kind word to him? It wasn't as if Harry was enjoying this any more than he was. He stomped off, unconsciously doing a very good imitation of Snape as he stalked back to the Gryffindor tower.

Chapter Three

As promised, Harry met Professor Snape in his dungeon classroom at eight o'clock the following night. His feet shuffled into the room, wanting to take him almost anywhere else, even off to the library to do homework. How did Snape expect him to get all his Potions homework done with all this extra training? Then again, how did the Potions Master manage to get his papers graded with so little free time?

This time, instead of preparing potions or marking papers, Snape had been overtly awaiting his arrival, leaning against his desk, arms crossed in typical fashion. “You're on time,” he observed in a sardonic tone. Harry was forced to bite back a sharp retort. He made it sound like an insult! Would the professor have been happier if he'd been late? Then again… maybe Snape would have appreciated an excuse to postpone their little rendezvous, if even for a few extra minutes. And of course there would be the added pleasure of taking points from Gryffindor.

Harry nervously pulled out a stool and sat down behind one of the desks, preferring to have the small barrier before him and the creepy Potions Master. He licked his lips nervously. “What will we be studying tonight?” he said in a voice that was almost steady.

Without removing his burning gaze from the boy, Snape reached behind him and drew forth a large golden cup filled with a viscous black fluid. “Today, Potter,” he said in a languid tone, “we will study pain.”

“Pain?!” Harry could not keep the shock and fright out of his voice.

“That is correct.” Snape's expression was stony. “The Death Eaters are masters at administering pain. Some view it as an amusing pastime, others as a work of art. If you want to survive another encounter with them, it's time we built up your resistance.”

Harry shuddered visibly. He had felt pain of varying degrees, from a broken arm to the Cruciatus Curse itself, and the more he had felt, the less he ever wanted to feel. Amazing how much agony the human body could feel…. He looked up, realizing that Snape was watching his reaction very closely. “Is—is this really necessary?” he stammered. “I mean… there's no way out of feeling the pain, is there? What good would it do to study it?”

The black-clad professor sneered at him. “Foolish Gryffindor. Your house may be vaunted for its bravery, but that alone will not save you from torture. Listen very carefully, for I will not repeat this.” Snape leaned forward, and Harry became perfectly still, realizing that something crucial was at stake. “It is true that there is no escaping the pain. The trick is to function despite it, to shove it down into an isolated part of yourself and manage it, control it. In this lies your best hope for survival.”

The boy found himself becoming hypnotized by Snape's voice and the intense look in his eyes. He found himself nodding, understanding beginning to dawn. He spoke hesitantly, not liking the taste of the words as they left his mouth. “When Voldemort hit me with the Cruciatus Curse, I was helpless. It was the most awful pain I have ever known, and if he had then used the Killing Curse on me I would have been very grateful. Even if I had not been tied up, I would not have been able to act.”

Snape's expression flickered slightly at Potter's mention of the agonizing curse that was put upon him. Harry set his jaw. 'Didn't think I had experienced that kind of pain, did you?' he mocked silently. He blinked in surprise when the Potions Master passed him the goblet.

The professor's eyes were cold once more as he icily beheld his student eyeing the potion warily. “I'm so relieved you finally see the point of this exercise,” he said sarcastically. “Of course, to properly master pain one must experience it. The mixture you hold in your hands is most commonly known as the Agony Serum. Not a very inventive name, although it is a very apt one. The duration of its effects can be modified. I have adjusted this particular brew to last for approximately two minutes.”

Potter stared at the potion in abject horror. “You really expect me to drink this?!!” Merlin, but Snape truly was a sadist! He suddenly quailed, allowing nerves to take over. How could Dumbledore have possibly entrusted his safety to such a monstrous person?

Snape's expression was carefully neutral. “It is your choice, after all, Potter. But consider what it is that I am offering you. The mixture will cause you considerable pain, true, but it will help fortify you for the future. Best to explore your tolerance in a controlled, safe atmosphere than to learn about it at the mercy of Voldemort's followers. You Gryffindors are always posturing about bravery – find it within yourself and use it!”

Gulping, forcing himself not to think, Harry grasped the goblet and drained its contents swiftly. He had expected its contents to be acrid, but the liquid was cool as it spread down into his stomach. He scarcely noticed as Snape turned and produced his wand, uttering a silencing charm on the room. For a moment there was a blessed feeling of numbness – then it was overwhelmed in a fireball of pain. He doubled over, the goblet falling from his nerveless fingers as he let out a shrill scream. Tendrils of pain shot out from his abdomen, radiating through his limbs, licking at his fingers and toes, threatening to eat him alive. Tears squeezed out of his eyes, trickling down his cheeks, bringing with them a stinging shame. An agonized moan tore from his throat. How could he possibly hope to master this awful sensation? He was drowning, suffocating in it!

His hands twisted on his thighs, bunching the material of his trousers in his sweaty fists, seeking to exorcise the terrible pain, his mouth twisted in a grimace. Slim yet strong hands closed over his own, squeezing with surprising strength. “Focus!” a voice hissed harshly. “Control the pain! Gather it into a ball and use it, channel it! You are stronger than it!” Harry opened his eyes and raised his head, locking gazes with Snape. Glazed green eyes met smoldering black, and as Harry stared into the depths of Snape's eyes, mesmerized, he felt the pain begin to subside. Realization dawning, he struggled to manage the pain, to gather it deeper inside himself, trying to shut it away as his body trembled violently under the strain. The pain became distant, almost unimportant, and his mind began to clear. The Potions Master watched him carefully, noting the control as it was asserted, and Harry's hands began to relax their fierce grip on his thighs. His breathing became less labored, and the tension eased out of his body. The two minutes had passed. He had done it.

The hands that were clutching the boy's were removed, and Snape leaned back, the accustomed scowl returning to his features. “A minimal attempt at self-control,” he growled, but the cross words made Harry feel somewhat lighter. Coming from the taciturn professor, it was practically a glowing compliment. “I think I could manage to better control my pain next time,” he said a bit breathlessly. He was still rather winded from the experience.

“Unfortunately, that kind of control comes only with experience,” Snape said flatly. “It is possible to build up a small measure of tolerance to the Cruciatus Curse, but never to fully resist it. It is in your best interest to either avoid that curse whenever possible.”

The words tumbled out of his mouth before he could bite them back. “Have you ever experienced the Cruciatus Curse?” 'Stupid, stupid!' he cursed mentally, seeing the professor stiffen. 'He will be furious with you now!'

To his astonishment, Snape turned his head to intently study the top of his desk. “More times than I care to remember.” His head jerked up and he fixed Potter with a lethal glare, causing the student to shrink back in his seat. He was clearly furious with himself for revealing so much.

Harry stammered under the weight of that stare. “I—is it really possible to master pain? To put it to use, as you said?”

“With a bit of training, yes, it is possible.” Snape bent and retrieved the goblet, heading over to a cauldron sitting docilely on a table off to the side. He sighed in irritation. “Since it is so difficult to convince you, it seems that a practical demonstration is in order. I have just enough for a second dose.” He grumbled under his breath, yet loud enough for Harry to hear, “Albus, you don't know what you ask of me.” He ladled the remnants of the concoction into the goblet, and Harry could not help but notice that the dosage was actually greater than what he himself had been offered. With a sarcastic semblance of a smile, the Potions Master tipped the glass at him in a perverse salute and neatly swallowed its contents.

Harry watched in morbid fascination as Snape spluttered slightly, clutching his stomach and nearly dropping the goblet, finally setting it down on the desk with an unsteady hand. He saw the pale jaw clamp down, the ebony eyes fix in a determined stare, the long fingers curl into fists. There was a barely audible hiss of pain, then the pallid man forcibly pushed himself away from the desk and began to wander about the classroom, straightening the desks and rearranging his potions stock. His discomfort was betrayed only by the tremble in his hands, the clenched jaw, and the slightly uneven gait that made his usual swoop-and-stalk a bit less intimidating.

At last the slender man breathed a soft sigh of relief and straightened, the potion having finished its work. He made his way to the desk and pulled the chair around to sit in front of Harry. The boy gaped at him unabashedly, awed at what he had just seen. He had *felt* the blazing agony that the concoction had sent through him, yet Snape had barely given a sign of discomfort. “That was brilliant!” he breathed.

Snape allowed a smirk to cross his features, the closest he would ever get to a smile. “It *is* possible to function while experiencing a great deal of pain. This is the advantage you will have over the Death Eaters. They expect their victims to crack and surrender to them. If you manage to keep your wits about you, you will most likely come out on top.”

“You make it look so easy.”

The man grimaced slightly, looking down at his slender hands. “I've had a lot of experience. I sincerely hope this is one lesson you will never need to use.” When he lifted his head, the stern Potion Master persona had returned. “We will return to this lesson at a future date. There is another matter I would like to cover: survival in a hostile environment.” Harry sat back in his chair, scowling slightly. This was going to be a Potions lesson, he just knew it. For the remaining time, Snape fired out random questions, such as “Which herb is beneficial for blood clotting and can be found in many forests?” Harry was forced to scour his memory, only half-paying attention to Snape's action as the professor lined up five cauldrons and began to concoct different potions. It wasn't until they had begun to bubble and froth that he bothered to pay attention to the ingredients that still lay out. It was obvious from one glance that nothing on the table could be purchased at Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. It was far more likely that they had been procured from the creepy Knockturn Alley….

“Potter! Are you listening?!”

The irritable voice broke through his stupor, and he looked up to see Snape glowering at him. The professor followed his gaze to the dark potions brewing. “Those… those aren't for…”

Snape gave him a sneer. “They certainly aren't for the infirmary, nor will you find the recipes in any book that is not in the restricted section. I've been… requested… to produce them. They do take quite a bit of time, so I hope your *delicate sensibilities*” -- he fairly snarled the words -- “are not offended if I begin now.”

Harry swallowed, his throat suddenly tight. “I take it that Dumbledore was not the one to request this of you.” He was fervently glad that he did not recognize any of the foul substances before him. He was sure that they served no good purpose.

A short, derisive bark of laughter was his answer. “Hardly.”

Harry glanced down at his wrist at his magic-powered wristwatch. He could hardly believe that the hour had passed so swiftly. “You're dismissed.” Snape did not even look up from his cauldrons.

“See you tomorrow,” he tossed over his shoulder as he prepared to close the door behind him.

“No, you won't,” the Potions Master corrected. “I have an appointment that it is imperative to keep.” Harry noticed the man's gaze flicker to the cauldrons, and his blood ran cold. The Death Eaters. “And seeing as the weekend comes next, I will next see you on Monday.”

“Okay. Monday it is, then.” Just before he closed the door, he added swiftly, “Good luck.” Then the door slammed and there was the sound of scampering feet fleeing the dungeons. Severus shook his head, looking at the closed door with something bordering on amusement. The lad had actually wished him well.

Chapter Four

The weekend passed by in a pleasurable blur for Harry. He had actually finished his homework early and spent the rest of the time playing Wizard chess with Ron and sharing Hermione's stash of sweets from Hogsmeade. He shared what he had learned in Snape's lessons with his two friends. They were absolutely open-mouthed in horror over the pain lesson, though Hermione, after she had recovered from the shock, realized how valuable such an experience could be. Although they had certainly not planned to do any work over the weekend, the blocking and reflecting spells were actually quite useful, and they spent a lot of their time turning back the curses they flung at each other. Ron gave Harry a wolfish grin. The Slytherins had better watch out! Their very own Head of House had given the Gryffindors an excellent line of defense against their sneaky, underhanded tricks.

Harry caught himself almost looking forward to tonight's lesson. He had learned more about the Defense against the Dark Arts in two days than he had in his entire second year. Then again, Lockhart had never actually taught anything of use in that class. Perhaps the greasy Potions Master would actually be a good fit for the job….

He fidgeted through his classes, hardly interested in something as pointless as peering into a cloudy crystal ball or turning kittens into balls of string. What possible application could they have on the real world? He still dreaded Potions, of course, but at least it gave him a chance to see how Snape had fared on his “appointment”. As usual, at the precise moment the class began, Snape burst through the doors as if fired out of a cannon, stomping to the front of the room, and briskly scrawling the day's assignment on the board. It wasn't until he turned to face the class that Harry saw how badly things had gone. His heart stopped for one painful second as he took in the dark circles under the fathomless eyes and the shadows across the pale cheeks. Oh, Merlin…. However, Snape quickly proved that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his sharp tongue, promptly taking away ten points from Hermione for being ahead of her classmates in preparing the day's potion. He then reamed Ron for his sloppy handwriting on last week's report and threatened to make him write twice as much if the mistake was repeated. Neville managed to upset his cauldron fifteen minutes into the class, causing the Potions Master to harangue the red-faced boy mercilessly, cursing his entire lineage. Of course he reserved his best, most pointed barbs for Harry himself. In swift succession, his brain capacity was criticized, his parentage insulted, and his dismal future projected. Harry bit his lip fiercely, forcing back a furious reply. 'He's baiting you, looking for an excuse to give out detention…. This is probably a catharsis for him, just let him get it out….'

He nearly went limp with relief when the class finally ended, the snarling beast of a professor allowing them to report with a parting insult or two, and the usual mound of homework. He growled when Harry passed by, seemingly disappointed that the boy had not given him the satisfaction of punishment. “Eight o'clock, Potter!” he ground out as Harry tried to slink past him. “Don't even dream of being late!”

Of course, after that the time just seemed to melt away. In order to get as much of his Potions homework done as possible, Harry worked with his quill and parchment while shoving bites of food into his mouth over the dinner table. He darted quick glances at the teachers' table, but Snape never looked his way once. He did note that the sour Potions Master did not seem to have much of an appetite that night. He was not particularly surprised when the man excused himself from the table early into the meal, retreating in the direction of the dungeons.

Harry approached the classroom with trepidation, trying in vain to stifle the scowl written on his features. He was not wild about spending yet another hour cooped up with the bitter, sardonic professor, but he didn't really have much choice, did he? He was jolted out of his thoughts as he pressed against the door and found it wouldn't budge. “Wha…?” he muttered. Where was Snape? He should be here waiting for him! He had insisted that Harry be on time! What was going on? A quick glance underneath the door told him that the room was completely black. He was not in there, unless he was lurking in the blackness for some mysterious reason. Harry scratched his head. Was this some sort of twisted test of Snape's? He'd hardly put it past him, but this particular scenario didn't seem to be Snape's type. The man usually liked to push him to his limits and grind his nose in his shortcomings. If there was some sort of test to be passed, Snape would want to be visibly present.

'He can't be in his office… that's through the classroom, and I'd probably see the light. Even if he had closed the door in there, it doesn't make sense, unless he's avoiding me for some reason. But if he was, I'm sure he'd have no problem sending me away. Why ask me to come tonight and then not show up?' Harry began to pace up and down the corridor restlessly, unsure of what to do next.

Suddenly he saw a slightly stopped figure slink by. The man whirled to face him, suspicion written all over his face. “What are you doing here?” Filch growled.

Harry was actually somewhat glad to see the irritable caretaker for once in his life. “Looking for Professor Snape, Mister Filch,” he said as politely as possible.


Harry didn't like the gleam that word brought to the man's eyes at all. “No, sir!” he said hastily, scrambling for an explanation that Filch would accept. Couldn't exactly tell him that Snape was schooling him in Death Eater DADA, could he? “The professor is giving me some private tutoring.”

Filch gave a snort of disbelief. “That'll be the day!” His expression then grew thoughtful, perhaps realizing that Snape had indeed been keeping Harry after hours in the classroom for the past several days. “Well, I suppose he's in his chambers. Can't think of anywhere else he'd be.” He gestured down a side corridor. “Third door on the left. You'll recognize it – it has the Slytherin crest engraved on it.” Harry ran off, a grateful look on his face, relieved both to have an idea of where to find Snape and to get away from Filch. True to his word, the door was exactly where it should be, a magnificent engraved snake marking Snape's living quarters. It wasn't until he had actually knocked that he had grave misgivings. What was he doing knocking on Snape's door? If the man was indeed inside, it was certain he didn't want to be disturbed. He couldn't imagine anything worse than a boiling-mad Snape bursting out of his room, armed with a week's worth of detentions. He braced himself, but after a moment the tension drained out of him. Snape wasn't here, pure and simple. Harry should be going before anyone caught him here…. Just as he turned to go, a low voice called out, “Who's there?”

Harry cringed and clenched his hands nervously. Damn! “It's Harry Potter, sir. Um, you requested me to meet you for our lesson…” his voice trailed off uncertainly.

Another excruciating silence. Then a series of muttered words, and the door swung open. Harry stepped forward as if underneath a spell, drawn forward by horrified fascination. He'd never seen the inside of Snape's chambers before. Come to think of it, he doubted very many people had. The interior was quite dark, the curtains pulled against whatever moonlight could filter through the windows. The only light in the room came from a brightly burning fire in the fireplace, throwing eerie shadows onto the walls. Harry shivered from nerves. It had been a rather chilly night, despite the time of year, and the fire looked welcoming. An eerie song played from an invisible source, and the boy realized with dread that it was a requiem. His eyes darted everywhere, trying to take in the entire room as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. The sitting room was decorated in Slytherin house colors (and black, of course), with a green and silver rug on the floor and similar tapestries on the walls. A large Slytherin banner covered a third of the far wall. He could spy several doorways that lead elsewhere, probably to the bedroom and bathroom. Several towering bookcases stretched all the way to the ceiling, laden with thick, heavy volumes. It was evident that the man who resided within was an avid scholar. There were several framed diplomas and awards on the walls as well, but it was too dark to make any of them out, except the one that proudly bore the Hogwarts crest – most likely his graduation diploma from the very school he now taught at. Harry's curiosity was most certainly piqued. A slight movement caught his eye, and he jumped, startled nearly out of his wits. Snape sat in a plush green chair, staring fixedly into the flickering flames. That cursed man had an incredible talent for blending into the shadows!

“Why are you here?” the voice was soft yet still threatening. Snape had not even bothered to turn his head.

“Th-the lesson, sir,” Harry stammered, surprised his mouth was still working. He noted with even greater shock that Snape was holding a nearly empty glass in his hand, which was no doubt related to the half-empty bottle of scotch on the table in front of him. This did not gel well at all with his vision of the vitriolic Potion Master. He knew that the Hogwarts teachers occasionally indulged – he'd seen them himself in Hogsmeade – but Snape had never been among them. Somehow the bottle of liquor before him just looked… wrong.

“Canceled.” The voice was flat and expressionless. Finally Snape turned his head to peer at Harry crossly. “Didn't you get my note?”

Harry did an admirable job of holding his ground, while all the while he wanted to dash out of the room screaming. At least Snape was fully attired, save his boots – his feet were encased in thick black slippers as protection against the icy floor. Harry wouldn't have been able to handle seeing the eternally bundled-up professor in something as “revealing” as a dressing gown. He should never have come here! “N-no, sir. I'm sorry, I didn't.”

Snape rose abruptly and crossed the room to a small desk, and this time Harry was unable to keep from jumping back. His nerves were totally frayed. The stern man growled as he picked up a piece of paper lying right on top. “Oh, nice one, Severus,” he griped. “You write the boy a note but forget to deliver it. Stupid git.” The boy couldn't help but wince at the cutting tone with which Snape addressed himself. Nice to know that the man got angry with himself, as well as the rest of the world, over mistakes.

Harry bit his lip, partly out of nervousness, and partly in an effort to hide a smile that threatened to burst across his face at his taciturn professor insulting himself. Snape fixed him with a glare, and Harry shrank back instinctively. “I am hardly up for teaching a lesson tonight. We will continue from where we left off tomorrow.”

“Yes, of course, sir,” the boy murmured, moving backward until he impacted with a chair, cursing under his breath. At least Snape hadn't started to scream or breathe fire. He probably had the alcohol to thank for it – it seemed to have a calming effect on the temperamental man. “I'll just be going now….”

Snape stared at him for a long moment, his expression inscrutable. He absently caressed the Dark Mark on his arm, his eyes holding Harry's hostage. The boy felt as if he were drowning, suffocating, unable to extract himself. “Young people do foolish things, Potter. Make your choices carefully, for they will follow you for the rest of your life.”

Harry gaped. “Sir?”

The professor turned away, walking with measured steps back to his chair. He seated himself methodically, facing towards the flames once more. Seconds ticked away, and Harry feared that the man had forgotten all about him. Then the voice spoke, soft and filled with a bitter regret. “I was not much younger than you when I became a Death Eater. At first, I thought that all of my dreams had been answered. I had everything I ever wanted at my fingertips. But one day I awoke to the realization that my dream had become a nightmare. I have spent the rest of my life trying to atone for the sins of my youth. A moment of impetuousness can haunt for an eternity.”

The boy cleared his throat nervously, positive he shouldn't be hearing this. “And just what was it that drew you to Voldemort's side, if I may ask?”

The voice grew cold and harsh. “You may not. Please leave me now. We will not speak of this again.” It seems that whatever maudlin, reflective mood that had struck was gone.

“O-of course, Professor. Good night.” Harry fairly raced out of the room, pulling the door closed with a loud thud. He darted through the halls, not stopping until he was safely in his own bed, ignoring the stares of his roommates. Fortunately, they seemed to understand his need for solitude, a precious rarity. He had a lot to think about. Merlin, what a strange night.

Chapter Five

The next morning found the three young Gryffindors huddled together, whispering to each other about the previous night's odd events. Harry cast occasional curious glances towards the empty chair at the professors' table that was noticeably devoid of a black-clad presence. “He's still not here,” he said, knowing that he was merely stating the obvious.

Hermione shrugged, sending her bushy brown hair cascading over her shoulders. “Maybe he's sick. Or he's overindulged.”

Ron allowed a broad smile to cross his face. “God, I hope so!” he breathed. “A whole class without Snape breathing down our necks! It would be heaven!”

Harry tried to feel as delighted with their professor's absence as his best friend did, but his conscience pricked at him. “I can't say I'd cry if he didn't show up for class today… but I'd feel better if he did. I have the awful feeling that things aren't going well for Snape with the Death Eaters. And that can't mean anything good for us.”

Ron snorted, but a veil of worry fell over his eyes, extinguishing the usual impish twinkle within. But before he could respond, the door on the side of the Great Hall flew open, and the subject of their furtive conversation swept in, albeit a bit slower and less stately than usual. The man's head was bent, a slight grimace on his face, as he headed resolutely to his usual place at the head table. He plopped himself down gracelessly, took one look at the hotcakes before him, and pushed them roughly away. His normally pale skin tones had faded to a grayish cast, and his eyes were pinched and nearly half-closed, as if the light pained him. The Gryffindor trio watched him surreptitiously as he sipped at a glass of orange juice, nibbling at a piece of toast while he rested his head on his hand. Harry spared Hermione a slight nod. As usual, her suppositions had been dead-on.

Ron could not suppress a groan. “Damn. He'll probably be even worse-tempered than usual.”

Harry smirked at him. “Perhaps not. If Snape is as hung-over as he looks, I doubt he'll be able to stand raising his voice too much. Perhaps he should get drunk more often.”

“We'll find out in a few minutes,” said Hermione matter-of-factly, rising and gathering up her school bag. “We've got Double Potions first thing today.”

The two boys emitted twin groans of despair as they stood to join her. “I hate Tuesdays!” Ron wailed as they exited the Great Hall on their way to the dungeons. Double Potions was a chore under any circumstances, but having it first thing was an especially difficult hardship to bear.

When Snape entered the classroom, it was with much less fierce energy as usual, and he actually closed the door behind himself, rather than letting it bounce back into place, as was his usual habit. His pace as he stalked to the chalkboard was slow and deliberate, and the hand that wrote the day's potion recipe was slightly unsteady. It was not until this little ritual was finished that he turned to sneer at the assembled Gryffindors and Slytherins. “Today you will be concocting an Endurance Potion. While this is not a particularly difficult potion, it does take strict concentration. Therefore, you must all *pay attention!*” He winced slightly at his own vehemence, the throbbing in his head reaching an unbearable level. “Anyone who causes trouble will have points deducted from their house in mass quantities.” This time his glare was leveled squarely at the small gang of Slytherins, who gaped at him, their expressions of wounded pride almost comical. Harry covered his mouth quickly to smother a snicker. They certainly weren't used to having Snape point his vicious temper in their direction! Beside him, Ron was shaking his head slightly in amazement. Snape had actually threatened to strike points from his own house! “I wonder if we can arrange to spike his pumpkin juice?” he murmured in Harry's ear, and the boy had to bite his cheek sharply to avoid bursting out in laughter. Such a loud noise (especially a happy one) was bound to grate on Snape's raw nerves.

With a long-suffering sigh, the Potions Master turned and began setting up his own cauldron. Eyes watched him in mild surprise, for Snape did not often prepare potions himself during class time. “Miss Granger, do make sure that Mr. Longbottom does not destroy this classroom,” he muttered without turning. Neville threw the girl a supremely grateful look as she scooted closer to help. He could tell that Snape was a little off today and hardly wanted to risk provoking him with one of his usual mishaps. Hermione watched the dour man as he added ingredients to his bubbling cauldron, mixed it together, and finally ladled some into a small goblet. “Hangover treatment,” she murmured to the round-faced boy, who looked down at his seething caldron, pressing his lips together until they turned white, not wanting the object of his anxiety to see his amusement. The tiniest smirk curled his mouth upward as he watched the haggard professor down the concoction in one massive gulp. A small spark of spiteful joy burned in his gut at the sight of his tormentor's misery. Serves him right….

To the class's mutual disappointment, Snape seemed to swiftly recover his wits and energy after downing his undoubtedly superbly crafted potion. In fact, the morning's miseries made him even more waspish and foul-tempered than usual. He quickly warmed up to an admirable level of tyranny, snapping at students left and right. And then he whirled and stalked over to Neville Longbottom. The hapless boy shrank back, cowering against his seat, visibly shaken. His potion couldn't be bad, Hermione was actually allowed to help today….! Snape bent over the cauldron, peering at the mixture with a practiced eye, looking for the slightest deviation in color or consistency. Neville was seized by a sudden attack of nerves, and his hand jerked, knocking soundly against the cauldron. It tipped over in spectacular slow motion, fountaining its contents all over the suddenly shocked and silent Potions Master.

Snape stood rooted to the spot, mouth agape, greenish-brown liquid dripping from his robes, which were smoking in an alarming manner. A pained yowl escaped from his lips, and he whirled and dashed for the door of the classroom, long white fingers already tugging frantically at the buttons of his high-collared shirt. The class as a whole turned to gawk at the open door through which the professor had bolted. A nervous silence followed as all eyes swiveled to focus on the hapless Neville Longbottom, who was quaking as he knelt to try and mop up the mess. Hermione stood and took the rag from his numb hand. “Best fetch Madame Pomfrey,” she murmured, and the boy raced out of the room in search of the school nurse, grateful for something to do.

Meanwhile, Snape fled to the safety of his private chambers, mercifully so close by. He swiftly shed his spattered and most likely ruined clothes right by the front door, grateful to note that his billowing robes had absorbed most of the scalding liquid. The house-elves that cleaned his quarters were well-versed in the handling of dangerous substances and could dispose of the garments. The ice-cold shower was a miserable shock to his body, and he shivered uncontrollably, glaring crossly at the bright red patches that were appearing on his abdomen and thighs. One day that Longbottom was going to be the death of him! Merlin, he had left the class unattended… who knows what kind of mischief those children would get into…. He muttered a quick drying spell as he exited the shower, going in search of his large bottle of burn salve. Adept fingers long-used to such treatment spread the mixture over his angry-looking burns, then quickly wrapped gauze bandaging around the wounds. After donning a change of clothes, he was ready to assume the tortures of teaching.

Neville burst into the classroom a few minutes later, followed by an alarmed Madame Pomfrey. Both of them gaped at Professor Snape, who had been in the middle of a lecture, looking for all the world as if nothing had happened. “Professor!” she said breathlessly. “Are you injured? Mister Longbottom told me—“

The man glowered at her, then trained the full force of his malevolent gaze on the hapless boy, quaking and trying to hide behind the nurse. “I am fine, Poppy,” he informed her in icy tones, his head tilted upward with an air of quiet dignity. “My robes protected me from the worst of it. You needn't concern yourself, for I have already dressed my wounds.”

The woman gave him a shrewd look. “All the same, I would prefer to inspect the injuries myself.” She stood her ground as the Potion Master's glare intensified and his lips pressed into an angry, thin line. “I will expect to see you in the infirmary before lunchtime.” With those victorious parting words, she turned and headed back to her domain, sparing a sympathetic pat on the shoulder for the shivering wreck of a boy.

Once Pomfrey had departed, Neville was left standing alone in the doorway. He slunk back into the classroom, head bowed and shoulders slumped, as if desperately trying to make himself smaller and less of a target. Snape's lips twitched, wanting to form themselves into an awful smile, but he restrained himself. It was not good to let his expression give him away – rule number one for a spy. “Mister Longbottom,” he purred silkily, and Neville froze, having just reached his desk. “I believe a deduction of points is in order. Thirty points will be removed from Gryffindor for assaulting a professor. And another twenty for making your friends clean up your mess.” His glare shifted to Hermione, Harry and Ron, who all looked outraged. They had tidied up as a favor to Neville!

“But that's not fair!” Ron exclaimed heatedly. “It was an accident! And he went to get help for you! How can you be so bloody—“ A feminine hand clapped itself over his mouth, stifling the damning words that threatened to spill forth. Hermione gave him a stern look, silently warning him not to make the situation any worse. Harry settled for glaring wordlessly at their tormentor, allowing his eyes to speak every vile curse that lay in his heart. He didn't care what Snape had gone through that weekend! He had no right to take it out on someone as fragile as Neville Longbottom!

But Snape was not finished. “Get out of my sight, Longbottom,” he said with deadly calm. “You are spared from detention because I want you nowhere near my dungeons.” He turned to sneer at the class as a whole, most particularly at his Slytherins, who looked gobsmacked. “A word of advice. Should any of you choose to attack me in such a fashion, you best finish the job the first time. There will not be a second chance. You are dismissed.”

Those words seemed to break a terrible spell, and the students leapt to their feet, all racing to be the first to escape the hellish prison that the classroom had become. The Gryffindors all clustered around a flustered Longbottom, who was valiantly choking back tears, at least until they were out of the line of sight from the professor from Hell. Harry spared a glance over his shoulder as they hastily exited the room, just in time to see Snape bury his head in his hands. His stomach performed a disconcerting flop, and he found himself fiercely quashing a streak of sympathy. If Snape couldn't handle the heat, he should get out of the kitchen. It was as simple as that.

* * * * *

The next few days passed in a blur. It was a relief to Harry not to dwell the evenings he spent with Snape, who worked him harder than ever, seeming to take a rather sadistic pleasure in pushing him to his limits. Still, the boy could not help but notice the dark smudges under the man's eyes and the slightly pinched look on his face that betrayed Snape's own fatigue. These lessons took a lot out of both of them, and Harry would have been more than pleased to have a day off, but he knew better than to broach the subject. He had no doubt that the foul-tempered Potions Master would extend the lessons simply to make Harry miserable, even if he himself suffered in the process.

* * * * *

It was with great joy that he left on the trip for Hogsmeade with his friends. At last, a day free of worries, a day to be spent mindlessly wandering from store to store, stuffing his face with sweets and chatting about nothing of consequence. Even the oppressive heat that warned of approaching summer could not dampen his spirits. The butterbeer they shared in the Three Broomsticks tasted especially fine. The day, in fact, had been as close to perfect as possible… until Seamus Finnigan bolted outside the pub and doubled over, becoming violently ill on the flagstones. It was painfully obvious that he had managed, at last, to turn his beverage into rum. The worried exclamations of his classmates summoned Professor McGonagall from within the establishment. She tutted in a disapproving manner as she helped him get cleaned up. “Of all the spells to concentrate on!” she lamented. Seamus nodded wholeheartedly, entirely regretting his experimentation. She looked past the shivering boy to a tall, dark figure that was stalking past the far end of the road. “Professor Snape! Thank heavens you're here! I need your assistance.”

Harry froze, his blood turning to ice as the mini thundercloud on legs approached, the man's demeanor as foreboding as his attire. He hadn't even realized that the Potions Master had accompanied them…. He growled in silent frustration, feeling his cheer evaporate. Couldn't he ever escape this hateful man? What was Snape doing here anyway? He had half-thought that the bad-tempered wizard spent his time either hiding from the sunlight or hanging upside-down from the dungeon ceilings like an overgrown bat. He had certainly never thought that someone as bitter as Snape would come on a fun outing such as this.

The dour professor shifted his large sack to the side, reaching into his robes, a soft clanking of glass bottles chiming from the within the bag. Potions ingredients, then. Figures. Snape withdrew a slender vial and held it to the rather green-looking Finnigan, who was holding his head and moaning softly. “Drink this,” he growled, his scowl growing deeper at the boy's hesitation. “It will settle your nauseous stomach. I expect you will have a hangover in the morning, which is entirely your fault, and for which I refuse to provide the antidote. You foolhardy Gryffindors have to learn the consequences of your actions.”

“Thank you, sir,” Seamus murmured, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. He *was* feeling tremendously better, but being indebted to the vitriolic head of Slytherin House was unbearable!

Snape turned his dark eyes on Professor McGonagall. “He should remain prone for the return journey. The potion I gave him will be useless if he vomits it out. And if there's one thing I hate, it's a waste of a good potion.” He glared fiercely at the young Gryffindor, as if silently daring him to have the gall to void his stomach of the carefully-prepared concoction.

With a beleaguered sigh, McGonagall muttered under her breath, summoning the carriages that would carry them back to Hogwarts. Their outing had been nearly over anyway, and there was nothing like an ill student to put a damper on things for everyone. “Into the carriages, everyone!” she said sternly, clapping her hands. They went, to her relief, with a modicum of fuss. She was privately pleased to see Harry linger behind, helping Seamus get settled on the padded seat of one of the carriages. It wasn't until everyone had gotten settled that a problem arose – there simply wasn't an extra seat to be had. Harry had been squeezed in between Ron and Hermione on the trip down, having endured the discomfort in anticipation of the day's adventures. But with Seamus taking up a bench for himself, Harry had no place to sit at all. If only he had his broom! He'd be able to fly back to Hogwarts in record time!

He darted a quick, nervous glance toward Professor McGonagall, wondering how she would solve this dilemma. The reluctant gaze she shot him, which then slid over to Professor Snape, made his entire body freeze in horror. Oh no… she wouldn't! Harry wearily kissed his pleasant day goodbye. “Mister Potter,” she addressed him in a voice that was calm yet firm, “I am afraid that the student coaches have already been filled. However, you are quite welcome to ride back in the professors' carriage. I assure you that your return trip will be much more comfortable than the one that led you here.” His sole pleasure was the look of horror on Snape's face. He was going to hate this even more than Harry himself. The boy allowed a small measure of spite to rise within him. At least he wouldn't be the only one to suffer!

McGonagall fixed the Potions professor with a steady gaze. “Is this arrangement acceptable to you, Severus?”

The man pressed his lips together in a thin line, looking very much like it was not acceptable to him at all. He breathed a silent sigh, looking the Potter boy from head to toe with a bit of disdain. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” he growled in resignation. Knowing that the students and other professors were becoming restless, McGonagall ushered them into the remaining carriage, which Harry was relieved to see, was reserved for the three of them alone. He wasn't up for making much small talk with his other teachers. The Transfiguration professor diplomatically took her seat next to Harry, leaving Snape to sit by himself on the opposite bench, which was no doubt how he preferred it. It was no small relief to Harry when the carriage started up. The faster they got going, the sooner they would be back at Hogwarts, and he could lament his latest Snape encounter to a sympathetic Ron and Hermione.

The scowling man muttered a few soft words under his breath, and the air in the carriage cooled by several degrees, as if a fresh breeze had blown in. Snape reached into his robe and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping his forehead, which was dotted with fine beads of perspiration. “What a miserably hot day!” he lamented. Harry could not help but gape slightly. He had never seen the man do something so… human. He had thought that Snape was above feeling anything, even changes in the weather.

The woman across from Snape shook her head. “You would not be so uncomfortable if you did not wear such long clothing, Severus. I'm sure you are aware of this.” Harry cast a sidelong glance at her. Her attire was still dignified and appropriate, but her robes were lighter and more airy, definitely more comfortable for hotter temperatures. The Potions Master, on the other hand, wore exactly the same type of outfit year-round: high-necked shirts with far too many buttons, long pants that reached down to his shoes, all covered by his swishing black robe.

Snape sighed. “I hardly have a choice, Minerva. With my complexion, I would burn to a crisp within ten minutes were I not covered properly.”

McGonagall raised a questioning eyebrow. “Surely there are potions for that.”

“There are.” The man snorted lightly. “But they are very time-consuming to brew. The Wolfsbane takes up a good deal of my time as it is. This way is simply more expedient.” Harry pressed his lips together and stared fixedly out the window, trying not to laugh at the absurd topic of conversation regarding the amount of clothing his most loathed professor chose to wear.

“You need not worry about sunburn indoors,” McGonagall pointed out quite reasonably.

“The dungeons are much cooler,” Snape argued.

Minerva smirked. “You are just too set in your ways to change.”

The man's thin, pale lips twitched, betraying his amusement. “Perhaps.” Harry was thunderstruck. This ride could prove interesting after all! He was privately relieved that he didn't seem expected to participate in conversation. He felt awkward as it was.

McGonagall favored her colleague with a small smile. “Speaking of summertime, Severus, what are your plans this year? Will you stay at Hogwarts and continue your research projects?”

The dark-clad man steeped his fingers together contemplatively, surprising Harry, who had expected Snape to let fly with one of his sarcastic barbs. “I haven't yet decided. There's always the annual Potion Masters convention, which is in Strasbourg, France this year. It's beyond me why they chose that place this time around…. Anyway, I have been publishing my efforts to improve upon the Wolfsbane potion, and they are behaving as if Christmas has come early. I am quite certain they will not forgive me if I decline to make an appearance. Though the last time I went, Master Grayson was livid with me for suggesting a possible improvement for his somnolent potion. I dare say he would have strangled me but for the severe arthritis in his fingers.”

McGonagall could not hide her amusement. “Are these gatherings always so eventful?”

Snape rolled his eyes theatrically. “Aside for the occasional scuffle, no. Most of the attendees are quite along in their years. Most have taken to the unfortunate habit of calling me 'sonny'. It is really quite irritating.”

Minerva's smile broadened at the mental image of a scowling Snape accosted by feeble elderly colleagues, asking to be escorted here and there. “Well, you *are* young enough to be a grandson to most of them,” she pointed out. “Not everyone makes Potions Master at twenty-five. If I recall, you made quite the stir with that accomplishment.”

“Yes,” Snape replied, thankfully not registering that Potter's mouth was once more agape at this news. “Before that, the youngest person to ever pass the exam was thirty-four. And he had to take the test three times.”

Minerva tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, leaning forward slightly. “Enlighten me on this exam. I've heard so much about it that I don't know what is fact and what is fiction. Is it really as awful as I've been told?”

The man tilted his head to the side slightly, reflecting. “It's quite a bit like the Cruciatus Curse, actually. Both seem to involve agony that continues for hours, and just when you think it will end, it only becomes worse. The exam typically lasts for eight hours, so by the time it is over, those who have taken it no longer have much capacity in the way of coherent thought. Thankfully, there is a retired Potions Master in the vicinity that owns a pub and lets all test-takers take their drinks and a nap at his establishment free of charge.”

“And it is not unusual for students to take the exam more than once?”

Snape shook his head, all traces of hostility fading in the discussion of his profession. “In fact, nearly everyone takes the exam two or three times. The first is merely a practice run, to get a feel for the type of questions asked. The test itself is revised every few years – I myself have helped with several of those – but the general type of questions and their phrasing does not vary much.”

Minerva arched an eyebrow at him. “But you only took the test once, correct?”

“Yes.” He nodded briskly. “I was determined not to suffer through that monstrosity more than once. I crammed for an entire month beforehand. There is no age restriction on those who take the test, so long as they have completed their basic studies. There is also no limit on the number of times the test may be taken, so the age of the test takers can vary widely. I stood out in no way from anyone else, save that I finished a bit early. After I emerged from the exam, I felt as if my brain had turned to pudding and was dripping from my ears, so I stopped in to the pub and ended up sleeping for fourteen hours on a small pallet on the floor. I was quite happy to be shut of the entire affair…” his eyes darkened and flashed dangerously, “… until I got a summons from the Board of Potions Masters to appear before them the following week. It seems that they thought someone of my youth was incapable of scoring such high marks without some form of *aid*.” The word was spat as if it was something distasteful. Harry found himself awed by the expression of indignation on the professor's face. “Never mind that the testing facility is full of wards, spells and other protections against cheating of any form. Due to the sheer difficulty of the exam, the pressure to cheat is immense, and the various attempts over the years have been very creative, but no one has ever successfully committed fraud on the test in its entire history.”

Professor McGonagall sat back, folding her hands neatly in her lap, a look of fascination on her face. “Gracious, Severus, I had no idea that you had gone through such an ordeal for your Potions Master certification! The Transfiguration exam is quite trying but nowhere near such a nightmare as you describe.”

Snape's lips twisted into a smirk of sorts. “There is a great deal involved in becoming a Potions Master. For many, it is the peak of their career. The board has to be absolutely certain that those who obtain certification are quite worthy of the title. To do otherwise could prove quite catastrophic. Longbottom's little displays in my classroom are but a very mild example of what could go wrong if the experimenter weren't fully versed in his craft. The extreme nature of the exam is quite justified, I assure you.” His fathomless eyes got a faraway look as he resumed his train of thought. “Naturally, I was quite offended at the suggestion that I had come upon my marks through dishonest means. The board insisted that I retest, which I was quite averse to, but I could not argue with them on the matter. Rather, I named some conditions of my own. If I were to go through that hell-on-Earth again, it would be on my terms.” He absently ticked off the points on his long, white fingers. “First, they would have to come up with a different test. A harder one. I wanted no questions about my ability. Second, it would have to be ready in a week's time, for I was not about to let the efforts from my month-long study session fade from memory. Third, I wanted two Board members present at all times throughout the entire exam to observe me first-hand and thus eliminate any possible grounds to accuse me of cheating once more.” His wry smirk grew. “Needless to say, they were not at all eager to accept these terms, and instead administered their own impromptu exam on the spot. They delivered an oral exam that posed some very thorny questions, and also had me brew some very tricky potions, one of which was the infamous Draught of the Living Death. After all of that, they were still not quite satisfied, until I happened by chance to notice the latest edition of Precious Potions that one of the Board members happened to have brought with him. I'll never know why he bothered – that rag is nothing but garbage and doesn't deserve to bear the word Potions anywhere in the title.” The boy nodded to himself; he had heard Snape rail against that particular publication several times in their classes. “I picked it up and began to list all the oversights and inconsistencies covered in the articles. By the time I had finished, I had succeeded in thoroughly convincing them. I was given my certification on the spot and was told that if I neglected to appear at the next Potion Masters' convention I would never be forgiven.”

The normally stern woman favored him with a smile. “And so you became the youngest Potions Master in history by nearly a decade.”

Snape's expression became unreadable. “As well as one of the youngest professors.”

McGonagall shook her head slightly. “Your abilities were never in any doubt at Hogwarts. Professor Grout nearly cried with joy when he found that his most prized student would be replacing him after his retirement. He told Albus that if he had his choice of successors, there would be no other that he would choose.”

Harry watched with rapt fascination as the stern lines around Snape's mouth smoothed. “I was unaware of that.” His voice was softer than usual.

Minerva was looking at him with an unusually kind expression. “I'm sure you have made him quite proud.”

A deep scowl creased his features once more. “I would feel more gratified if the students would actually *pay attention* in my classes! I have done everything in my power to drill knowledge into their thick skulls, and still they are unappreciative of my efforts. I dread unleashing them on the rest of the wizarding world.” He rubbed his temples wearily.

McGonagall allowed herself a smirk of her own. “Come now, Severus. You know very well that Potions is a difficult subject that few excel in. It is the same for every other subject taught at Hogwarts. For example, I remember a certain young Slytherin whose Transfigured bottle obstinately continued to sport feet.”

Snape snorted. “Perhaps I could have fixed it if the blasted thing would have stopped trying to run away!”

“You might have had more success if you had not poked it so roughly with your wand.”

“The bloody thing just wouldn't hold still!”

Harry made a small choking sound. Snape had been McGonagall's student!!! That meant either that McGonagall was older than he had originally believed, or Snape was younger. He just barely restrained himself from smacking his forehead. Snape had gone to Hogwarts with his father, Black and Lupin! He had to be roughly the same age as them! It was just the man's hostile demeanor that made him seem so much older. Listening to the exchange between his professors, he had to bite his lip to keep from laughing out loud. So the great Severus Snape had had difficulties in Transfiguration? Good to know that he had some shortcomings after all!

Feeling uncomfortably like a third wheel, he reached into his robes and pulled out a device not unlike a Muggle Rubik's Cube. It was something that he had purchased from Zonko's nearly a month, and he had worked at it whenever he had a dull moment to pass. He had almost lost himself in the intricate puzzle when a deep, throaty voice intruded. “What's that you've got there, Potter?” He jumped slightly, looking up with a wary look on his face. Snape couldn't possibly punish him, could he? It's not as if he was playing with it during class! It took a moment for him to register that Snape's tone was astonishingly free of any sarcastic or harsh overtones. Indeed, the man's voice sounded almost… curious? Not wanting to risk his infamous wrath, Harry handed over the item. The Potions Master turned the curious object over in his hands, studying it with overt fascination. “It's a puzzle of sorts,” Harry explained a bit hesitantly. “The object is to change it from a triangle into a sphere. It's more of a mind game than anything. The Muggles have a similar game that was quite popular at one time.” Snape continued to study the distorted shape before him with intensity. Harry had succeeded in forming an odd sort of trapezoid, which he hoped was a nice intermediary shape and could be further coaxed into a sphere.

Professor McGonagall's lips twitched upwards, threatening to break into a smile at her colleague's behavior. “I confiscated one of those from the Weasley twins. It took me nearly two weeks to solve it. Quite a diverting little toy, I daresay.” Harry darted a look her way, surprised that she had played with the twins' contraband and had even found it enjoyable. “I suspect that you shall have no trouble with it, Severus.” Her words fell on deaf ears, for Snape was already moving the toy within his strong yet supple hands, his long fingers deftly manipulating the moving parts into place with exacting precision. The other two occupants watched him with rapt fascination, nearly hypnotized by his movements, every one of them swift yet deliberate. And within the space of several minutes, Snape held a perfectly-formed sphere in his palm. “I had hoped for more of a challenge,” he grumbled. He glanced sidelong at the boy. “I suppose you want me to restore it for you?”

“No, thank you, Professor,” Harry replied, feeling more than a little inadequate. He hastily stuffed the toy into his robe pocket, knowing he would never touch it again. The sheer ease with which his most hated professor had solved the puzzle had sapped it of all its allure. Did Snape always have to make him feel so incompetent?

An awkward silence fell over the carriage. Professor McGonagall finally broke the tension by choosing what she hoped to be a neutral topic. “So what are your predictions for the Quidditch Cup, Severus? I dare say the Gryffindor team has given your Slytherins a run for their money this year.”

The familiar sneer returned to the face of the Potions Master. “I would rate our chances much higher if our Seeker had actually managed to catch the Snitch at some point. I told Flint not to sacrifice talent for a bribe, but he is notoriously thick-skulled and paid me no heed. I believe he is now seeing the error of his ways as the Cup recedes further and further from his grasp. As Gryffindor is possession of quite a talented Seeker, the outcome of the final match is in little doubt.” Harry was absolutely thunderstruck. Snape the ever-snide had actually paid him a compliment, and insulted his precious Malfoy in the same breath! As if suddenly realizing who was listening, the stern man pinned him with a sharp gaze. “Don't go getting a swelled head, Potter.” “N—no, sir!” he stammered, not wanting to risk the man's wrath.

McGonagall gave Snape a smug look. “So you concede that Gryffindor has a better team?”

Snape's face formed itself into a smirk, yet one that was devoid of malice. “Hardly. Ten points from Gryffindor for your temerity, Miss McGonagall.”

His smirk was mirrored by her own. “And ten points from Slytherin for your cheek, Mister Snape.”

By this point, Harry had decided to just let his mouth hang open for the rest of the ride. It would be a lot more expedient then closing it, only to have it fall open a moment later. He had always assumed, along with most of the student population of Hogwarts, that Snape and McGonagall couldn't stand each other. He was floored to see that not only did they get along fairly well, they had turned the points system into a private joke! He began to wonder if there had been something wrong with his butterbeer. He had never heard Snape volunteer so much personal information, and with scarcely a trace of animosity. Perhaps he was just hallucinating, and in a moment he'd find himself sitting in the Three Broomsticks, flanked by Ron and Hermione.

A nearly soundless gasp caught his attention, and he looked up to see Snape rest his head in a trembling hand, his skin taking on an even unhealthier pallor than usual. “Too hot…” he gasped, tugging at his high collar. It was then that Harry realized the cooling charm had worn off, and his own back was slick with sweat. McGonagall shot her colleague a concerned look. “Severus, you look faint! For once, won't you sacrifice that stubborn pride of yours and make yourself more comfortable? I promise it will be less embarrassing than keeling over at our feet.” He stared at her wordlessly for a long moment, his lips pressed into a thin line, and Harry held his breath, waiting for the inevitable explosion. Then long white fingers were scrambling at the black buttons of that ridiculously high, tight collar, popping them free, and darting downward to fumble at the buttons that fastened his shirt sleeves. Snape smoothed back the opened folds of fabric at his throat, then rolled his sleeves up to his forearms with slightly shaking hands, being painstakingly careful to not expose the reviled Dark Mark that marred his left arm. McGonagall murmured under her breath, and the soothing breeze of the cooling charm was restored. The man's piercing ink-black eyes closed as his head fell back against the seat cushion, the dark lashes curling against the stark whiteness of his face, as he breathed what could only be a soft sigh of relief. He looked so different in that one split-second of relaxation, the tension drained away, and it suddenly hit Harry that the man was not nearly as repulsive as he had believed. It was Snape's harsh manner and eternal scowl that made him so unattractive after all.

In the next instant, the spell was shattered. Snape's eyes snapped open and his head jerked upward. He crossed his legs and folded his arms tightly around him, glowering at his surroundings indiscriminately, his posture having gone from slightly slumped to ramrod-straight. His sudden actions were in such contrast with the relaxed demeanor he had exhibited just moments ago, and it served to confuse Harry even further. Not that anything Snape ever did made sense, of course… but surely there was a reason for it? He seemed so uncomfortable, so defensive. Was Snape embarrassed by exhibiting a weakness? Was he uncomfortable with unbuttoning his clothing before an audience? Or could it be something else entirely? Harry's mind strained to grasp at a thought that itched at the back of his mind. McGonagall's observations of Snape's attire came back to him. Something didn't fit… only an utter moron would wear thick layers of black clothing when summer approached, and the Potions Master had proved himself a good deal more than just clever. Perhaps his discomfiture had more to do with the unfastening of the clothes themselves, and not just the presence of himself and the Transfiguration professor? He gave himself a mental shake. Snape was a tangled mess of double meanings and false clues. Who could say, save the man himself, what motivated him to do anything?

At this point Harry wanted to say something, anything, to erase the fiercely defensive look in Snape's eyes. The tense atmosphere inside the carriage was strangling him! He didn't care if Snape snapped at him, or gave him a detention for a week – anything was better than this! Truth be told, he'd be glad to have points stripped from his house if it meant the return of the grumbling, ill-tempered Potions Master. Seeing Snape like this, off-balance and vulnerable, completely unnerved him. “Erm, Professor Snape,” he began hesitantly, quailing as he was pinned by the man's intense black eyes, “I know you've made quite a few improvements to the Wolfsbane Potion, and Lupin is more than grateful for it, but… well, I don't think it tastes very good to him. It may seem like a petty complaint, but what good could a potion be if the drinker has trouble keeping it down?”

“So…” Snape drawled in a deceptively calm tone, allowing the threatening undercurrent to build, “am I to understand that my potion is not good enough for our dear ex-Professor Lupin? It is not bad enough that he and his unholy partner in crime continue to hang around the castle in a laughable effort to boost its wards, but he mocks my exhaustive efforts to save him from his own feral nature?”

The look on McGonagall's face would have frozen lava. “Severus!” she said sharply, the commanding tone breaking into his rant. Perhaps something in her voice harkened back to his own school days, for it was enough for him to fall silent, resigning himself to a sulky glare.

Harry wriggled uncomfortably in his seat. “Please, Professor, don't blame Professor Lupin for this! He *told* me not to say anything to you about this! Believe me, he's grateful beyond words. It's a blessing for him to keep his own mind when he's in werewolf form. But if the potion tastes half as bad as it smells…” he grimaced. “He has to take it fairly often… and you *did* say you were looking to improve upon it….”

An aggravated sigh was his response. “Even Mister Longbottom could see the logic in creating a palatable potion. I was aware that the Wolfsbane Potion had a displeasing taste, but not to such an extent as you describe. You understand that flavor takes a backseat to more important aspects – however, I have addressed most of the major flaws in the original design and can now afford to concentrate on the more aesthetic points.” Harry's breath caught. Had Snape just admitted that he was right?! “Unfortunately, sugar renders the potion inert, and other popular flavor enhancers, such as ginger and honey, will most likely paralyze anyone who consumes it. I'm afraid 'Professor' Lupin will have to be patient until an appropriate sweetener can be found.” Well, it was certainly more than Harry could have hoped for. He felt a fierce pride burn inside him – he had challenged Snape on behalf of one of his friends and won!

After a few minutes of idle conversation between Harry and Professor McGonagall, with only a random comment from Snape, the Transfiguration professor found herself staring out the window, admiring the lush greenery. “I've always found Hogwarts to be quite beautiful in late springtime. When I leave the window open, my classroom is filled with the most pleasant scent of honeysuckle. Pity your potions don't smell half as pleasant, Severus,” she said in a gently teasing tone, ready to engage her colleague's special brand of sarcastic wit.

Snape stared at her, slack-jawed, a faraway look in his eyes. She wondered if perhaps she had pushed too far – after all, Severus could be touchy about the oddest things – but he didn't seem angry, precisely. She had seen him in *that* state of mind plenty of times! His mouth moved, finally giving voice to one word, as if it had never heard that word spoken before. “Honeysuckle,” he breathed. “Of *course*! How could I have not thought of it before? It just might work… if I adjusted the amount of wolfsbane in concert with….” His voice petered out, his mind already racing far ahead. In a dream state, he fumbled in his robes and withdrew a folded bit of blank parchment and a quill. Tapping the end briskly with his wand, he caused the tip to become filled with ink. He moved his crossed leg slightly, balancing the piece of parchment on it, bending over it studiously and beginning to scratch out notes at a furious rate. He paused now and then, running the top of the white plume across his lips thoughtfully, before resuming his task.

Harry watched the suddenly preoccupied professor with a bemused expression. McGonagall nodded in the man's direction. “It seems that he has had some sort of brainstorm. It's safe to say that we will not hear from him for the remainder of our journey. He loses track of the rest of the world when he gets like this.” The boy was more than content to make small talk with her about the OWLs, Quidditch, Transfiguration, and whatever topics crossed their minds. Harry was startled when the carriage ground to a stop in front of the large oak front doors of Hogwarts.

“Here we are!” McGonagall announced briskly, she and Harry preparing to disembark. Snape, however, remained oblivious to their surroundings, intent as ever on the parchment on his lap, which had nearly been completely covered in neat handwriting. “Severus,” she said gently, but the man did not move. Harry reached out to give him a quick nudge, but the woman quickly grabbed his wrist. “Best not to do that. He doesn't react very well to touch, especially when he's absorbed in his work.” She leaned over until her lips were near the Potion Master's ear. “Severus! *Pay attention*, young man!”

Harry bit his cheek to keep from grinning as Snape jumped at the words. “What is it?” he said irritably, annoyed both at the disturbance and his colleague's patronizing words to him.

Minerva's expression was smug. “We're here,” she said flatly.

Blink. “Oh.” He set aside his quill and parchment with notable reluctance and began swiftly buttoning up his shirt sleeves and collar. A quick glance at his clothing assured him that everything was once again in place, but he smoothed down his shirt front just to be on the safe side. Grabbing his purchases and his notes, he swept out of the carriage and across the walkway to the castle entrance, sending students scattering out of his way. Harry and Professor McGonagall stood watching his departure. “He didn't say so much as goodbye,” he said wonderingly.

“He rarely does,” she confirmed.

Chapter Six

“What's wrong?”

Harry looked up from his position on the floor, rubbing Neville's back consolingly, to see his beloved godfather looming above him. “It's Snape,” he growled. “He practically tore Neville to pieces in class today for melting another cauldron. Can't he see that it's his own fault? Neville wouldn't make so many mistakes if Snape didn't frighten him so much!” A fresh bout of sobbing tore from the hapless boy.

Sirius folded his protesting joints, sore after years of disuse, until he was sitting next to Neville Longbottom. He placed a strong hand on the boy's shoulder, and Harry felt a surge of pride as his friend gazed upon the man with a grateful look. He was quite glad that others were starting to see his godfather for the man he truly was, instead of the mad murder that Pettigrew had made him out to be. Although the Ministry had finally acquitted him of any wrongdoing, the world at large seemed to hold him in suspicion. It was beyond good to have him and Lupin coming by the castle from time to time, and quite openly winning the support of the students, though he knew deep down that the visits boded nothing but ill, for their preparations were to counter any advance made by the Dark Lord.

“Don't you mind that greasy old git!” Sirius said as soothingly as he could, feeling a bit out of practice. Neville's eyes grew wide at the blatant insult. “I went to school with him, and believe me, he's as much of a slimeball now as he was back then. Nobody liked him except the Slytherins, and even they didn't want to have much to do with him until Sixth Year. He may have been brilliant in potions, but he couldn't fly a broomstick to save his life. Got the shakes every time he went near one! So much for pureblood wizards, eh?” His laugh was sardonic, causing both boys to look at him with a bit of discomfort. “And he wasn't anything special in Transfigurations, either. The only reason he got such high marks on his NEWTs was because he had his gang of Slytherins tutoring him. Here's something that should help, Neville. Next time he starts in on you, just picture him with pink hair and Gryffindor Quidditch robes.” He winked at Harry. “That was one of James' better pranks!”

That forced a shaky laugh from Neville, who found that mental image almost as amusing as the boggart-Snape in his grandmother's dress. “S-so he was mean to everyone when he was in school too?”

Sirius nodded. “He'd hex anyone who came within a foot of him! Not that anyone wanted to get that close, mind you. He was just as greasy back then, too. You could probably oil all the suits of armor in Hogwarts by wringing out his hair!” They all wrinkled their noses at that thought. “He used to wear it in a ponytail that stretched halfway down his back. Thank Merlin he's cut it since then, otherwise the amount of grease would probably weigh down his entire head.”

He suddenly frowned. “Oh, I almost forgot! Harry, I've been meaning to give this to you.” He held out a rather dog-eared book. “It's one of the few possessions I managed to regain. Thought you'd like to have a look at it.”

Harry took it and turned it over in his hands, studying it thoughtfully. “It's a yearbook!” he exclaimed. “Wow! I didn't know Hogwarts made these.”

“I think they stopped during Voldemort's reign. Wasn't very much worth celebrating back then, and I guess the yearbook became rather frivolous. Still, it's a shame they haven't brought it back.” Sirius sighed. Harry made a mental note to speak to Hermione. She'd know how to go about such a task, but then again, judging from SPEW, she tended to get carried away from time to time.

He found himself caressing the book's cover, tracing the large numbers of 1978 emblazoned on the front, eager to dive in and see the young faces of his parents once more. Hagrid had given him such a marvelous gift of photos of his parents, but he knew those by heart. Seeing some fresh ones would be close to nirvana. “Um, are you going to be okay, Neville?” he said hesitantly. “If you don't mind, I'd like to go look at this by myself. It's rather private.”

Neville gave him an understanding smile, drying his tears on a handkerchief. “You go ahead, Harry,” he said in a firm voice. “I'm feeling lots better. See you later tonight!” He pushed himself up and wandered off the hall. Sirius gave him a nod and headed off as well. Harry could not suppress a wave of relief. He couldn't bear sharing something so intensely personal with them, as much as he cared about them. He hurried off to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, knowing that no one save him, Ron and Hermione had ever been crazy enough to disturb her haunt. Poking his head in, he noticed that the usual sobbing was absent. 'Must be wandering about the pipes somewhere,' he thought idly, seating himself inside a stall. He opened the book and thumbed the pages with trembling fingers. His lips formed into a sad smile as he beheld his parents in their Seventh Year, so close to graduation, preparing to take their place in the world as full-fledged adults. Here was James transfiguring a dog into a table, his brown eyes shining with triumph. Another page showed Lily executing a complicated-looking charm, her brow furrowed in concentration. James looked on in the background, his expression undeniably proud. He jumped and nearly dropped the book when he turned the page to find a solemn-faced boy bent over a cauldron, its contents roiling ominously. His black hair obscured his face, and he impatiently swept it back behind his ears before turning back to stir the potion before him. Harry's heart lurched in his chest, and he hastily turned the page, not wanting to let the image of a younger Snape ruin his mood. And yet the scowling Slytherin continued to crop up here and there. There was a photo of James and Severus glaring at each other from behind outstretched wands, poised in traditional dueling positions. A notation mentioned that Snape had been vice-president of the dueling club that year. Harry had had the occasion to view Snape's dueling skills and wasn't at all eager to be on the business end.

Towards the back of the book, Harry discovered perhaps the best picture he could have asked for. There were photos of the graduating class separated by their Houses. His eyes were riveted on the Gryffindor graduates. There were a few faces he did not recognize, and a quick glance at the captions showed that they were no one of consequence. A youthful Sirius grinned broadly and waved at Harry until it seemed his arm would fall off. It was quite a shock to see how healthy and tanned he had been back then. Harry felt a rush of anger towards the shyly grinning Peter, knowing that it was because of him that his godfather had lost twelve years of his life and was still fighting to regain his spirits and his health, not to mention how he had betrayed Harry's father and mother. Remus pumped his fist in the air triumphantly. James and Lily stood in the center of the picture, arms around each other's waists, sneaking affectionate looks from time to time. Harry noticed that they wore black dress robes with a Gryffindor-red sash. However, they each sported a mantle of sorts that seemed to differ. Sirius, James, Remus and Peter wore blue mantles that he assumed were for Transfiguration, while Lily's mantle was green for Charms. Their mantles had a symbol or two painted on them, which were probably for some kind of academic achievement. Several were no doubt for Quidditch. Harry was pleased to note that his mother had the most honors out of the group. He sniffled slightly and swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand, becoming choked up with emotion. He missed them so much it made him ache! He had never even gotten to know them properly! It was so good to have Remus and Sirius around to tell him stories, but it could never truly replace the loss that he had suffered. He flipped the page over, no longer able to bear the cheerful smile, knowing that several years after that photo was taken, two of their group would be dead, one would be thrown in Azkaban, and one would turn traitor. Not a very happy ending, was it?

The photo on the next page chased all thoughts of the Marauders from his mind. He stared numbly at the graduating Slytherin class, recognizing more faces than he had expected, because the next generation was at this school at this very moment. There were others that he did not recognize at all, glancing down at the text to identify them. He knew their names far too well, from Sirius' slighting remarks about them, and from Voldemort's assembling of his faithful Death Eaters after he had regained his body. Avery, Rosier, Wilkes, Crabbe, Goyle… but it was the two young men in the center that had him so dumbfounded. From that moment frozen in time, eighteen-year-old Severus Snape and Lucius Malfoy beamed triumphantly, arms flung around each other's shoulders, looking every bit as chummy as the Marauders had been. Snape's mantle was purple, obviously denoting his Potions studies. Its color was barely discernable, however, under the countless symbols and swirls of academic achievement. One in particular caught his eye. It was one that Hermione had drawn for him, one that she hoped with all her heart to earn. Valedictorian. Top marks in the entire graduating class.

“My God!” he breathed, watching a grinning Lucius slap Severus on the back. The dark-haired boy rewarded him with a smirk that was probably as close to a real smile as he would ever get. Gavin Crabbe gave the long black ponytail a strong tug, and Severus shot him an irritated glare. Crabbe merely grinned in return, not seeming intimidated in the least. Probably was used to it after seven years with the git. “This explains *so* much!” No wonder Snape favored Draco; he had been best friends with his father in school! And he had been mates with the boys who had spawned those morons Crabbe and Goyle as well. How stupid of him not to have seen it before! He had *known* that Snape had gone to Hogwarts as a youth (but seeing him so young was another thing entirely!), but it had never registered that he might have friends from that time as well as childhood enemies. A wave of outrage swept through him, leaving him shaking. How typical of Snape to coddle the second generation of Slytherins while slighting him because of who his father was! He slammed the book shut, no longer able to bear the sight of Snape and Malfoy together. The whole thing made his stomach turn. Death Eaters, the whole lot of them. His jaw clenched in outrage. He could not bear to look at the pictures one moment longer, knowing the fate of all the smiling, beaming faces inside, Slytherin and Gryffindor alike. For too many of them, there was no such thing as a happy ending.

Chapter Seven

Snape stalked into the staffroom crossly, taking his usual seat at Dumbledore's left-hand side, sparing a curt nod to McGonagall, who sat across him at Dumbledore's right. He was tired, his nerves were frayed, and he was hardly in the mood for the petty annoyances of a staff meeting. Especially not since he needed all his attention focused on the recent rash of Death Eater activity. He'd been summoned nearly three times this week alone and was thus quite on-edge. Voldemort had most unfortunately kept him informed of only bits and pieces of whatever plan was brewing in that dark mind of his. It was a reminder of just how precarious his position had become among the Death Eaters. Dammit, he needed to know what was going on! His hands curled into fists, twisting the black cloth of his robe in frustration.

Scowling at nothing in particular, hoping that his disagreeable expression would keep idle chatter to a minimum (not that it seemed to have much of an effect on his colleagues – they seemed to have developed a tolerance to it), he reached for the tea kettle and poured himself a cup. The heated liquid eased its way down its throat to pool in his stomach, which cramped slightly, reminding him that he had skipped both breakfast and had barely eaten more than a forkful of lunch. He nibbled absently at a biscuit and then set it aside, his stomach no more happy with this sustenance than with the lack of food. How could he eat when his stomach was tied in knots?

He set down his teacup in resignation, hoping that the beverage would be enough to sustain him until dinnertime. Albus shuffled a few papers in his peripheral vision, a signal that he was preparing to begin. He forced back a sigh. The sooner that they got started, the sooner he could retreat to the dungeons and brace himself for the next Summoning. It was not far off, he was sure.

Accio teacup!”

Snape jumped in surprise as the cup was snatched from his grasp and flew across the table, into the waiting hands of the thin woman seated at the far end, weighted down with numerous necklaces and bracelets, her spectacles giving her an insect-like appearance. Professor Trelawney peered at the bottom of his teacup, studying the remaining tea leaves intently. “Oh my!” she gasped softly. “How tragic… a most bleak prediction indeed….”

The sallow man allowed his lips to curve into a sinister smile. “I've got a prediction for you, Trelawney,” he purred with a slight hint of malice. He saw McGonagall's lips twitch in a movement suspiciously like a smirk.

The Divination professor took no notice of her colleague's insult. She swirled the cup in circles, studying the new pattern that the tea leaves formed. “Yes, it is quite clear… the signs are unmistakable….” She fixed the Potions Master with a teary gaze. “Severus, you must prepare yourself for the worst.”

He leapt to his face, his features twisted in a snarl of fury. “You old bat! How *dare* you?!” he cried, lunging across the table. It was all Professor Vector could do to hold him back. The assembled teachers seemed astonished at his reaction. They were all quite used to Snape's fits of temper, but this display of rage was extreme, even for him. Snape was even more on edge than usual, and the reason was obvious. Trelawney was provoking him at her own peril.

“Severus! Sybil!” Dumbledore's voice was calm, but there was an undercurrent of steel that made them both freeze. “There is no need for such confrontation. Kindly take your seats; we are ready to begin.” They both sat down, looking abashed. Snape stared sullenly at his hands folded in his lap. Why was it, after teaching at the school for ten years, that the Headmaster could still make him feel like a first-year hauled in for a scolding for casting hexes?

He listened with only half an ear as Dumbledore began to speak, his mind awhirl with the events of the past few weeks. Slight revisions to next year's class schedule, possible activities to foster inter-House camaraderie (Snape snorted aloud at that -- nothing short of a strong psychotropic drug would persuade Slytherins and Gryffindors to socialize)…. In a way he was relieved that the meeting was so mundane. His concentration was strained to the max as it was.

His meandering thoughts were yanked viciously back to the present as his left forearm tingled, then burst into a flame of agony. He hissed softly, pressing the Mark against his chest and curling over slightly, cradling the throbbing arm. He pressed his lips together firmly until they turned white, determined to keep from making another sound. Not now! Please, not here!

Professor McGonagall looked up in surprise at the soft sound. Her stern expression smoothed into an odd combination of sympathy and concern. The man across from her was hunched over in obvious pain, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth forming a silent plea of “no”. In that moment he looked eerily like the sullen, awkward yet brilliant student that had skulked around the halls of Hogwarts a generation ago. For a single heartbeat he looked so young and vulnerable, and her heart went out to him, despite her misgivings. She glared accusingly at the rest of the teaching staff, who were all gaping at the suffering man with nervous expressions, the closest moving their chairs back. None wanted to be close to the power of Voldemort which summoned him. A few eyed him with ill-disguised distrust. Hot rage filled her to the throat. Couldn't they see that he was just a pawn in a greater game? They'd never seen him crawl back to Albus after a Summoning. She had borne accidental witness to such a scene only once, but it was enough to put all doubts of his allegiance from her mind.

Severus jumped as a gentle hand touched his arm, pulling it carefully away from his chest where he had kept it pressed to assuage the pain. Albus Dumbledore pierced him with an inscrutable look, his hands unfastening the cufflink and rolling up the sleeve to expose the Dark Mark, which was a blazing black against the porcelain-white skin. Faint gasps of horror reached Snape's ears, but he was past caring. A slightly wrinkled yet firm hand wrapped around the mark, and immediately the pain dimmed as if someone had flipped a switch. He could breathe, he could think… he realized that Dumbledore was eyeing him with concern, and his lips were moving….

“Severus, are you all right?” He frowned, hesitating. “If you feel you cannot—“

Snape leapt to his feet, upsetting his chair onto the floor and forcing the old wizard to release his throbbing arm. His demeanor was once again tense and guarded. “I – I must go,” he stammered slightly. “I dare not be late.” With a brisk flare of black, he stalked through the door and was gone, leaving the rest of the Hogwarts staff to stare after him uneasily.

* * * * *
“And I never really sleep anymore
And I always get those dangerous dreams
And I never get a minute of peace
And I gotta wonder what it means”
-- “It Just Won't Quit -- Meatloaf

Harry pushed open the portrait of the Fat Lady slowly, trying to make the least amount of noise possible. He clutched his Invisibility Cloak tightly around him as he made his way silently through the darkened castle corridors. His nights were getting more and more sleepless as the week wore on. His dreams were filled with half-formed horrors that terrified him. He had not had any clear visions, as he'd had in the past, but his nightmares were enough to keep him from feeling properly rested. And the violent storm that raged outside, punctuated by stark bursts of lightning and deafening claps of thunder, assured him a sleepless night.

He didn't need the vision/nightmares to know that Death Eater activity had been sharply accelerated. Snape's repeated absences were enough of a hint for him. The caustic professor had explained them away to the rest of the class as an urgent project presented by the Ministry, but Harry doubted that many were convinced. He couldn't help but wonder just how many people knew of Snape's shady past.

He vigorously quashed a vague feeling of worry for the Potions professor. Madame Pomfrey had to take over his classes for the afternoon, and the man had not made an appearance in the Great Hall for dinner. Not necessarily cause for alarm… certainly someone as ornery as Snape could look after himself… but Harry could not help but feel concerned. He simply couldn't see how Snape could stand to infiltrate that den of snakes time after time… that is, if Snape was really spying in the first place. A tiny part of him whispered that no one was that good.

He crept towards the Astronomy Tower, taking care to avoid some creaky floorboards. Unlike most of his late-night forays, all he really wanted to do tonight was to find a bit of privacy and quiet. Pity that Filch would never see it that way. He'd have a weeks' worth of detention if he were caught. Not to mention what Snape would do to him….

He clapped a hand over his mouth to smother a gasp as the object of his ruminations came into view. Harry pressed himself against the wall, standing at the top of the steps of the Astronomy tower, willing his knees to stop shaking. Seeing Snape so abruptly after having such conflicted thoughts about him was quite disconcerting. What was he doing out at such an awful hour? Surely he wasn't out to strike house points from rebellious students out of bed! The man stood with his back to the door, staring sightlessly across the grounds. Harry could just see his profile, and the contemplative expression took him by surprise. He would have thought that the sneer was permanently stamped on that face. Snape's hair was slicked to his head by the driving rain, and his robes were plastered to a body that was too thin. A goblet was clutched in one long-fingered hand, which was slowly lifted to pale lips. Harry recognized the contents with a start – Dreamless Sleep potion! A small part of him was pleased that *something* had sunk in from Potions class. It seemed that he wasn't the only one having difficulty sleeping these days. If his dreams were bad, he'd shudder to even think about what Snape's were like.

“What are you doing out there?!”

The cross words, spoken from directly next to him, made Harry jump. Filch! He held his breath, realizing after a paralyzing second that the caretaker was not addressing him at all.

The tall man turned around very slowly to fix Filch with an icy stare. “Does it make a difference? I'm not a student any more, Argus. You can't slap me with a detention and order me back to the dorms. I have every right to walk about the castle at night. In fact, I've caught quite a few rule-breakers for you. I'd have expected a small bit of gratitude.”

Harry watched the exchange with fascination, seeing Filch's lip curl. The two usually seemed to work as a team; seeing them trade barbs was definitely a surprise. “Don't flatter yerself. I know why ya walk about at night, and it's not only to catch students out of bed. Yer a fine one to talk about rule-breaking – I caught ya outside yer dorm after hours more than any other student in your class. I'd a' thought that one o' your precious potions” -- he made the word sound like an insult -- “woulda cured yer insomnia at some point. Pity I can't give ya detention anymore. Yer as much of an obnoxious brat as ya ever were.”

“I'm touched.” The words were as cold as his expression.

“Don't give me any of yer lip!” Filch spat. “If I had a Galleon for every time I hauled yer scrawny carcass out of the Restricted Section, I'd be a rich man! Not to mention yer habit of hexing your classmates several times a week! I had to invent new punishments just for you, since I ran out of the traditional ones! Didn't like scrubbing out the hospital bedpans without magic too much, did ya?” His voice was thick with mocking pleasure. Harry's eyes grew wide. That was the punishment that Snape himself had inflicted on Ron in their third year! He muffled a snort of laughter, realizing exactly where Snape had gotten the idea. This was rich! The strictest teacher in Hogwarts, forever stripping points from all houses but his beloved Slytherin, had broken more than his fair share of rules. He wondered if Filch still had a file on Severus Snape in his office. The Weasley twins would give just about anything to get their hands on that!

Snape snorted. “If you're quite finished, Filch….”

Filch huffed crossly. “Anything I say to ya is wasted air. I know you'll do exactly as ya please. So long as ya catch a few students along the way, it's none o' my concern. But I'm warning ya, Snape. This is my domain, one I control as I see fit.” He turned to go, then paused. “Oh, and do try not to drip all over the floors. I've just had them mopped.”

Fathomless black eyes watched the rather rumpled-looking man stalk away. Snape swallowed the last of the contents of his goblet, his throat moving convulsively. Harry strained his ears, just barely making out the words “Sod your rules, you overbearing bastard. You have no control over me.” He swept past Harry, who flattened himself against the wall once more. He paused to deliberately shake himself like a dog, spraying the floor with rain water in defiance, before drifting off in the direction of the dungeons like a black thundercloud. It was not until he had completely disappeared from sight that the boy allowed himself to breathe fully. He was rather surprised to learn that the Potions professor stalked the corridors after dark more out of restlessness than a desire to administer detentions. At this point, it would be a wonder if the man could sleep at all. He certainly didn't look rested. Things seemed to be gearing up, and he had a sickening feeling that it would come to a head all too soon.

* * * * *

The Dreamless Sleep potion seemed to have only granted Snape a marginal amount of relief, judging from the dark circles under his eyes as he strode back and forth like a caged tiger, addressing his class. Harry had not seen him appear for breakfast and had worried that he had been Summoned again. He seemed to have a good amount of energy, despite his obvious signs of fatigue. Perhaps he had ingested a Pepper-Up Potion. Still, he looked as bad as Lupin did after his monthly transformation. From time to time he sneezed and buried his considerable nose in a handkerchief. It seemed that he had managed to catch a cold from lingering in the storm the previous night. The man seemed on the verge of collapse. Harry's conscience pricked at him. It was partially his fault that Snape was so tired. On top of his classes and Death Eater gatherings, he had to conduct their private DADA tutoring as well. Perhaps he could persuade Snape to cancel a class or two, at least until he was stronger, but he doubted that someone as stubborn as the Potions Master would give in to a petty thing as fatigue.

To his surprise and pleasure, the antibiotic potion that he and Ron were concocting seemed to be more or less on target. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Malfoy curse and desperately dump something in his cauldron. It was nice to have one up on Draco in this class for once. Snape swept up and down the aisles, offering little barbs of less-than-constructive criticism here and there. Neville's cauldron emitted an ominous-sounding belch, and Snape hastened over to investigate before a major disaster occurred. The look on his face showed that the last incident was all too fresh in his memory.

“Purple.” The word was flat. “Longbottom, your potion is supposed to be *green*. You added the lacewings before the boomslang skin, didn't you? After I *specifically* warned against it! How can I possibly make it any plainer to permeate that thick Gryffindor skull? Imbecile!” The boy cowered under the tirade. “You… you….” Suddenly Snape lurched forward, grasping the desk with white knuckles, his face draining of what little color it had. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he crumpled to the ground, striking his head against the stone floor.

Absolute silence reigned. Then the room exploded in a confused jumble of screams, shrieks and gasps. Neville sobbed, covering his face. “I didn't do anything! I didn't!” he wept. Hermione shook him. “He's fainted! It wasn't your fault. Hurry and fetch Madame Pomfrey!” Neville took off in a mad dash, relieved to escape the oppressive atmosphere of yet another of his spectacular failures.

Harry gaped at the prone man, his mind refusing to corroborate the image before him with the one of the usually snarling, stalking Potions Master. It didn't seem to be the same person! “Hermione,” he rasped, “is there anything you can do for him?”

She bent over Snape and carefully turned him face-up. A fine line of blood trickled from his temple where he had struck the stone floor. Harry was eerily reminded of that terrible night in the Shrieking Shack, where Snape had also been sprawled out, unconscious and bleeding. Hermione gingerly felt the pale neck with two fingers, deciding that the Muggle way was best in this case. “He's got a steady pulse,” she breathed in relief. “I could use the Ennervate charm on him but it might be best to wait for Madam Pomfrey to arrive. I don't want to do anything that will make matters worse.”

Draco stormed over, his face twisted in anger. “Get away from him, Mudblood! I won't have you pulling another low-down Gryffindor trick on him!”

“Get a clue, ferret-brain!” Ron raged, his fists clenching instinctively. “We didn't do anything to your precious Head of House. Though I can't complain with the results….” The cocky smile faded very quickly as the Slytherin half of the classroom began advancing on him threateningly.

Hermione stepped in to halt the burgeoning quarrel. “Stop it, both of you!” she scolded. “Professor Snape is ill, and shouting at each other won't solve anything! Malfoy, help me loosen his clothing.” Draco gave her an incredulous look. Hermione met his gaze evenly. “Obviously you haven't been paying attention to the First Aid chapter of our Muggle Studies book. A fainting victim needs to have all restrictive clothing loosened.”

Draco knelt and reached out for the insensate man's high-necked collar, but his hands faltered and fell into his lap. “I – I can't do this!” he cried. He glared at the Gryffindor half of the room as if daring them to taunt him. “It just feels… wrong. Professor Snape hates to be touched. He nearly took off Hagrid's over a pat on the back – I saw it! I won't have him angry at me!”

Hermione sighed loudly, air hissing through clenched teeth. “You won't do this much for him when he needs your help?! Very well, I'll do it myself! Seems I'm the only one in this room with a shred of common sense!” She shoved Malfoy aside roughly and grasped Snape's tight collar.

The door flew open to admit a bustling Madam Pomfrey, tailed by Neville, who was wringing his hands in despair. This scenario was becoming a habit of late, and he was so terrified of what Snape would do when he awoke! Anyone else would have known without a shadow of a doubt that they had not done anything wrong, but for Neville, magic never seemed to work for him the way it should. The most innocuous action of his seemed to end in disaster.

The nurse made disapproving noises under her breath as she approached. “Neglecting his health again… that man is going to be the death of me!” She knelt and briskly examined the prone professor. Satisfied, she produced a small wand and pointed it at him. “Ennervate!” Eyelashes fluttered and lids slowly opened to reveal midnight-black orbs that struggled to focus on their surroundings. Snape sat up, pressing a hand to his head, looking rather dazed. “Uhh… what am I doing on the floor?” he rasped, sending an accusing glare around the classroom. Gryffindors and Slytherins alike shrank away, unwilling to incur his wrath. “If this is someone's idea of a sick joke…!”

“Nonsense, Severus, you've only fainted!” Madame Pomfrey snapped. “Tell me, how much sleep did you get last night?”

He bit back the sharp retort that rose to his lips. He knew better than to talk back to her. The more stubborn he was, the more heavy-handed her treatments would be. “Three hours, I suppose… perhaps four.”

She shook her head in disgust and pressed a bottle to his lips, his own elegant script on the label. After he had drained its contents, she continued her interrogation. “What did you have for breakfast?” He looked at his lap. She continued, “Nothing, I suppose. And what about for dinner last night?” “…half a sandwich.” His voice was almost meek.

“Half a…!” Her voice petered out as she angrily choked on her words. “It's a wonder you were able to get out of bed! I'm restricting you to the hospital wing for the rest of the day.”

“But I'm *fine*!” he growled. “Now if you will stop mollycoddling me, and those blasted students will give me some breathing room, I have a class to teach!” He pushed himself to a standing position, took two determined steps, then wavered. Pomfrey was by his side instantly, supporting him until the wave of dizziness passed. “Hospital wing,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument. “You need food and rest, and you've got a head wound that needs patching up. I will cover your classes for the rest of the day.” She cast a black look across the class. “It seems that the students need a refresher course on basic first-aid potions.”

“If so much as *one cauldron* explodes…!” His angry mutter faded away as Pomfrey escorted him out of the classroom on their way to the hospital wing. Once they had departed, the students looked at each other uncertainly, talking in hushed whispers, as if Snape would overhear if they spoke any louder. None of them had ever seen the forbidding Potions Master so weak and vulnerable. Most of them seemed to think he had gotten what he so richly deserved… but Harry could not find it in him to feel glad. He had found the spectacle frightening. If Snape could not manage to keep himself together in class, how could he ever survive another meeting with the Death Eaters?

Chapter Eight

The weekend could not have arrived any faster for Harry. The teachers seemed determined to split their skulls open with relentless revisions and pop quizzes before exams. Snape in particular was in fine form, armed with more snarky comments than ever. Every Potions student left the dungeon classroom shaken and nearly in tears. But there had been an unexpected, heavenly gift – another trip to Hogsmeade! Peeves had been on a destructive streak and had ended up destroying a good amount of the professors' materials that were essential for final exams. Most of the items could be replaced in town, and it was not much of a stretch to allow the students to accompany their professors to make some pre-exam purchases of their own, in their case mostly candy or gag-toys for the purpose of stress relief.

Harry had found the pressing bodies and stifling atmosphere inside Honeydukes to be quite oppressive, and he fought his way outside, desperate for a breath of fresh air. Ron and Hermione were still torn in their candy selections, and he knew that it would take awhile. He was quite content to wait outside.

Suddenly he felt eyes watching him. He turned his head to see a beautiful woman peeping at him from underneath her lashes. His heart did a lazy flip-flop. She bore a passing resemblance to Fleur Delacoeur. She gave him a teasing smile and turned on her heel, darting down a small side street. Harry turned and gave Honeydukes a fleeting glance. Hermione and Ron would worry if he left…. The soft, enchanting giggle came again, and he turned to follow without another thought on the matter. In fact, thinking was overrated, if the thought involved anything other than this lovely creature that eluded him. He had to catch her at all costs!

He caught a glimpse of shimmering blond hair and began to run. Soft tinkles of laughter floated back to him, and he forced his legs to go faster. Reaching this fascinating maiden had become the most important thing in his life. He simply knew he'd die if he lost her! He scarcely noticed as the streets grew more narrow, the buildings more shabby and spaced closer together, as if for comfort. He darted around a corner into an alleyway and paused, his eyes probing the corners frantically. For one awful moment he thought that he had lost her entirely. Then a giggle sounded from at the end of the alley, and he saw a flash of blonde disappear into a doorway. He followed mechanically, as if his feet had a life of their own.

He stepped inside the small, dreary-looking building, his eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness. For the first time since the chase began, rationality began to return. What was he doing, running after a stranger and entering such a strange place, without a clue of his whereabouts? A Veela… the woman must be at least part Veela, to make him lose all control of himself. But why would a Veela tempt him into chasing after her? Suddenly the shadows seemed to move, and his mind cleared as fear began to grip his heart.

“Who's here?” he said sharply with a bravado he didn't feel. “What do you want with me? Why have you brought me here?!”

A dark chuckle was his only answer as three figures stepped out of the darkness. Three hooded figures cloaked in identical billowing black robes. Three faces covered in white masks…. “Death Eaters!” he yelped, taking a hasty step backward. In no time they were upon him, and he struggled as they fought to hold him still. A sharp blow connected with his skull, and his world went fuzzy and grey. He could just make out the sickeningly familiar pull of a Portkey, and then he sank into the welcoming velvet darkness in his mind.

* * * * *

“The children of England would never be slaves
They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation”
-- “Children's Crusade” -- Sting

He awoke to searing pain. At first he thought that it was from the blow to his head, which still throbbed mightily as if it had a pulse of its own, but that pain was eclipsed by one much greater and horribly, awfully familiar… his scar blazed an unmistakable warning. Voldemort!!

It was not until the crowd of black-robed figures turned to stare at him that he realized he spoken aloud. “He's awake, Master!” a voice spoke. A voice he had heard two years before. A voice that stabbed at his heart. The voice of a traitor.

“I can see that, Wormtail,” a high-pitched yet icy-cold voice hissed. That voice was far, far worse. It was the embodiment of every nightmare he'd ever had, every sorrow he'd ever felt. His guts twisted. He had been captured! He had let himself be drawn right into their trap! Professor Snape was right – he was forever getting into situations over his head because he didn't *think*!

'Stay calm,' a rational part lectured him. He tamped down on the fear, forcing it down until he felt that it would no longer smother him. The next step was to take stock of his situation. He tried to move his hands and discovered that they were restrained above his head. The same seemed to be true for his feet. His position was far too close to what it had been in the graveyard the night of the final task in the Tournament, the night that Cedric had been killed and his own blood had been used against him… he fought against a stronger wave of panic.

“How nice of you to join us, Potter,” Voldemort drawled. The barely-human being was seated on an ornate, plush chair that suspiciously resembled a throne. A semi-circle of Death Eaters were clustered around him, the balding, pudgy figure of Peter Pettigrew at the center, his silver fist a mark of his betrayal, of his true allegiance. “We've been waiting ever-so-patiently for this phase of my plan. You see, as powerful as I have grown since last we met, it is not quite enough. When the curse that tried to take your life all those years ago rebounded, it drained me while protecting you, infusing you with a bit of my own power. Time and time again you have thwarted me, denied me my rebirth, until last year. Last year I turned the tables on you and showed the world that not even the great Harry Potter can keep me from claiming power that is rightfully mine. And yet you stubbornly continue to draw breath! That all ends tonight.” His lips twisted in a sick parody of a smile. “Tonight I put an end to the boy-hero of the wizard world who has dared to stand in my way. Tonight I throw the gauntlet at Dumbledore's feet. Tonight I will regain the power that you robbed from me!” His hand reached for his wand, caressing it thoughtfully, and Harry flinched. His eyes darted to Wormtail's belt, seeing his own wand secured there. His fingers itched. Could he possibly summon it and free himself? As if sensing his intentions, Pettigrew covered the wand with his hand, securing it against his person.

Voldemort threw his head back and laughed, the terrible sound echoing in the room, sending chills down Harry's back. “Revenge is sweet, is it not, my dear Death Eaters?” They nodded as one, and despite their masks, Harry could feel their eyes crawling over him, burning with malice. “Ah, but I have learned my lesson from our past encounters. I could not kill you through proxy, nor with my own wand. Your death will be agonizing, but it will not be by my own hand. I have reserved that most venerable task for another. Your death will serve a double purpose – to restore to me the power that you stole, and to restore one of our own to a place of favor.” A dry, rasping chuckle rattled in his throat. “I trust that I am not the only one who has burned for the chance of revenge.” His head turned as another dark-robed figure stepped into the room. “Come, approach me, my loyal servant.” The man approached slowly, eyes cast downward. As he neared, Harry could see locks of midnight-black hair falling to either side of the mask. His breath caught in his throat. The Death Eater's manner was respectful, but every move was smooth and filled with a steely pride and self-possession. The other drew back slightly, either out of revulsion, fear, respect, or perhaps an odd mix of the three. He knelt, gaze fixed firmly on the stone floor, and kissed the robes of his master. “You honor me with your summons, My Lord,” he murmured. Harry's stomach lurched. There was no mistaking the silken tones, delivered by a tongue sharp enough to cut glass.

The Dark Lord's lips twisted into a malicious smile. “Rise,” he said casually, gesturing with a hand. “Now that the last player is here, we may begin in earnest. Remove your masks, all of you. It is better for the boy to see exactly what he is up against. In this case, the enemy you know is much worse than the enemy you don't.”

One by one, the Death Eaters reached up to remove their masks. There were a few unfamiliar faces – drawing on his past experience, he figured that two of them must be Avery and Nott; and a man and woman who were most likely the Lestranges, freed from Azkaban when the Death Eaters had raided it – there was Macnair the executioner, Crabbe and Goyle (whose sons bore more than a passing resemblance), and Lucius Malfoy, who had given away his identity ahead of time by his flowing blond hair. Then the figure in the center of the circle removed his mask, and Harry stopped breathing. He had known, *known* who it was, but the proof in front of his eyes was just too much. Before him stood Severus Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, dressed in full Death Eater regalia and wearing a smile insane enough to ensure him a padded cell at Saint Mungo's.

Voldemort watched him closely, drinking in his horrified reaction. “It's so good to have you back where you belong, Severus,” he purred. “You understand why we've been a bit cautious with you, I'm sure. One can never be too careful. It was somewhat… suspicious… that you went to work for Dumbledore so soon after my downfall, and that he vouched for your loyalties. But you have proved yourself to me, and I am greatly pleased to have one so guileful in my employ, monitoring that old fool's every move and grooming future Death Eaters for our noble cause. Complete this final task and my faith in you will be fully restored. Kill the Potter boy, and avenge us all.”

Snape bared his teeth in a savage parody of a smile. “I am honored beyond words, my Lord, to be the instrument of your revenge. I have been anticipating this moment for many years. Do I have your permission to explain things to the boy?” The Dark Lord nodded, his inhumanly red eyes glowing with delight. Snape looked absolutely unholy, his moment of vengeance at hand. “Do you know how long I have been waiting for this, boy?” he spat. Harry shook his head, trying to shut out the soft yet menacing words. Snape's hands clenched reflexively, as if they wanted to wrap themselves around his throat. “Twenty years. Two decades since that accursed Black tried to have me killed, since your sweet Lupin tried to devour me whole, since your father humiliated me by a lifedebt owed, since Dumbledore turned a blind eye to everything!” His voice had risen from a whisper to an enraged shout. “I have sat in the same room with that codger for years and listen to him slight my house again and again! No more!” Suddenly the screaming stopped, and the mad smile returned, an eerie parody of calmness stealing over him. “They will regret casting me aside. I found friends in Slytherin house, friends that have helped me rise to power and glory with the Death Eaters, as is my right. This time our Lord will be victorious, and I will have my place in his new world order. One day soon, very soon, I will not have to bow and scrape before Dumbledore, teaching his dunderheaded children with sieves for brains!” A long-fingered hand ghosted over Harry's cheek in an obscene gesture of gentleness. “You look just like him, you know. Except for the eyes, I could believe that James himself stood before me, tied up for my pleasure. You will suffer the same fate that he did, but it will not be as quick or as merciful as an Avada Kedavra. No,” he purred, “I want your pain to last. Your screams will be the currency that pays me back for all those years of humiliation, all those years that they laughed behind their hands and tried to hold me back from the power was rightfully mine!”

Harry's thoughts were racing a mile a minute. 'Oh God, he's mad, drunk on whatever power that Voldemort has promised him! Dumbledore was completely wrong about him – he's going to betray us all! And to think I trusted him!' If only there were some way to get free, to warn Dumbledore… but this time there would be no miraculous rescue, no last-minute advantage to present itself. This was it. These were his last minutes to live.

Snape reached into his robes, withdrawing a vial. He uncapped it, holding it out for his maleficent cohorts to see. “Do you know what this is, Potter?” Harry shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. A disgusted sneer twisted the man's features. “Of course not. That would require you to actually use your brains for something other than Quidditch or sneaking around the castle after hours. This, Mister Potter, is a clever poison consisting of mostly aconite, but with subtle additions of belladonna, hemlock, and holly. It is an experimental poison, and I am much obligated to my master for granting me such an excellent test subject. It is almost a shame that your death will be relatively quick – I had hoped to see you suffer a bit longer, but it is not my place to question the decisions of my master.”

Harry saw Voldemort nod in approval, no doubt pleased with the obedience of his pet Death Eaters. The reptilian-like mockery of a man spoke, drawing all eyes in the room to him. “That is quite enough, Severus! Get on with the main event – I believe I have earned this moment more than anyone.”

“Of course, my Lord,” Snape murmured, bowing his head respectfully. Then, quick as a striking snake, his hand shot out and grasped Harry's jaw, trying to pry open his mouth. The boy clenched his teeth forcefully, the pressure causing stars to fire in his field of vision. Snape leaned over him, an awful leer marring his face, until his lips brushed the boy's ear. A soft breath caressed him there, and a hushed whisper stole forth, so soft it was barely audible…. “Harry… trust me….” Harry's jaw dropped slightly. He was scarcely sure he had heard the words at all. He was going mad himself, imagining things that couldn't possibly be true. In that moment, Snape slipped the vial in between his lips almost reverently, tipping it so that its contents slid down his throat, burning a path of fire into his belly. He swallowed heavily, feeling the burning ease slightly. Nothing. He felt fine. And then all hell broke loose.

His back arched as his hands scrambled against his bindings. Despite his best efforts, screams tore through his throat, echoing through the room. He barely noticed as the Death Eaters clustered around like wolves eyeing a prospective kill. Oh god he was on fire the agony was unbearable it was tearing him apart please please someone make it stop! It was so very much like liquid Cruciatus coursing through his veins, searing him and consuming him whole! He sobbed, tears blurring his vision as they flowed freely down his cheeks. He writhed and struggled against his restraints until his arms and legs were bruised and bloody. His vision began to dim and his limbs ceased their struggle. It was with a measure of relief that he felt himself tumbling down a dark tunnel, the torment mercifully coming to an end. He spared a thought of regret for Dumbledore, who had shown so much faith in him, for Sirius, who had given him a sense of family, for Lupin, who had taught him to defend himself and have pride in his abilities, and for Hermione and Ron, his truest friends. “I'm sorry,” he whispered as he felt Death reaching for him with icy fingers. So much for the Boy Who Lived. “I've failed you all. I'm so sorry.” With that, the last of his consciousness ebbed away, and he was gone.

Chapter Nine

“Breathe! Goddamn you, breathe!” A sharp slap. A pause. Another. Muffled curses. The dark figure hunched over the limp one on the floor, shaking him violently. Another litany of curses, then his head bent and caught the supine boy's lips, forcing air into the lax pair of lungs. Another forced breath, and another. Then a cough, a whoosh as air filled the lungs, and the bluish tinge began to fade. Severus Snape sat back, wiping his mouth absently, as Harry fought to bring air into his oxygen-deprived body. Several realizations hit the young wizard at once. He was alive. He felt like he had been run over by the Knight Bus repeatedly. Snape was here. Snape!!

A strong hand clapped over his mouth as he drew air to scream. After a moment, the irrational impulse faded, and the hand was removed. Harry looked at the figure kneeling over him with bewilderment. He asked the first question that came to mind. “How come I'm not dead?”

The man's lips quirked into an ironic smirk. “Think back to your first lesson, Potter. I can put a stopper in death itself. On the whole, Death Eaters – like a good portion of the wizarding world – are rather ignorant of the fine points of potion making. It is a foible that I have exploited to the utmost for many, many years, enabling me to foil Voldemort's plans while maintaining my cover.” Harry jumped slightly, shocked to hear Snape voice the name aloud, though he supposed after hearing him use the terms “lord” and “master” fall from his lips, the name Voldemort was hardly difficult for him to speak aloud. “They believed that I was using a rather torturous poison on you, while in actuality I was giving you a mixture of Agony Serum and the Drought of the Living Death. The former was to give you the requisite amount of suffering to satisfy Lord Voldemort, and the latter was to give you the semblance of death. The Dark Lord was quite delighted with my services,” he looked faintly sickened, “and rewarded me with your body, allowing me to dispose of it any way I liked.” He broke off, his eyes probing the corners of the dark and dusty room. A sense of paranoia seized Harry. He still felt weak and more than a little nauseous, but he couldn't afford to rest. He was in mortal danger as long as he remained in the compound.

Snape seized his head, forcing Harry to look him in the eye. “Listen to me,” he hissed. “You've got to get out of here as soon as possible. I'm going to create a diversion. Once the Death Eaters are distracted, you should be able to make your escape. Use this--” he thrust a black cloak at him “--to disguise yourself. Wait half an hour, then make your escape” Snape stood and tugged at his robes until they swirled around him menacingly, looking every inch the intimidating Death Eater. He stalked to the door, then paused to give Harry a look that pinned him to the spot. “And Harry… good luck.” It was not until he had left the room that Harry realized that Snape has called him by his first name. Snape himself did not notice the slip, already immersed in his churning thoughts, working on a way to create a diversion without compromising his position in the Dark Lord's inner circle. Neither noticed a soft scuttling noise as a rat darted out of the corner, streaking down the corridor, nails clicking across the stone floor.

* * * * *

Harry forced himself to be patient, waiting out the entire half-hour that Snape had recommended. It was very difficult to judge the time, since he had no watch, and time seemed to expand as if it were stretched taffy, each minute lasting an eternity. He shrugged his way into the cloak, which hung on him like a sack. He realized with a sickening jolt that it was standard Death Eater issue. He felt something large and circular in the pocket and withdrew a mask. The thought of putting that on as well made his stomach rebel, but he fought down the feeling ruthlessly. It was the perfect disguise.

Just then the sound of screaming reached his ears. Was this the diversion that Snape had mentioned? It sounded as if someone was being tortured – surely that wasn't what his professor had had in mind? He had a strong, undeniably Gryffindor-ish urge to save whoever was being tortured, but he reined it in forcefully. Snape was the master spy here, and he had already proven himself capable of rescuing those that incurred Voldemort's wrath. For once, Harry would follow the plan to the letter and make his own escape. He wiped the inside of the mask, wondering with morbid sense of curiosity who it had belonged to, and settled it over his face. Taking a page from Snape's book, he stalked threateningly (he hoped) out into the corridor.

He hadn't gone two feet before three Death Eaters stepped out in front of him. He nodded at them and tried to squeeze past. One grabbed his arm while the other landed a solid punch to his jaw. His head snapped back, connecting with the stone wall. The trauma was too much for his insulted body, and he slumped to the floor, out cold.

* * * * *

He came to an interminable length of time later. It took several minutes to gather his muzzy thoughts. 'Somebody turn down the TV,' he thought vaguely, until he realized that the screams were real. That knowledge brought full awareness crashing down around him. He was trapped in a nest of Death Eaters and was sure to be executed. He looked around him, forcing his slightly hysterical mind into calmness, taking stock of his situation. He was in the same room that Snape had left him in. Other than the bruise on his jaw and the massive goose egg on his head, he had not incurred any more injuries. He was not restrained, nor were there any Death Eaters in sight. He stood, his legs as wobbly as a newborn colt, and staggered his way over to the door. Locked, of course, and the crackle underneath his fingertips let him know that it was extensively warded. It seemed that this was enough to keep him imprisoned.

He paced restlessly, his thoughts returning again and again to the screaming outside. He could not have been out long if that sound was still going… he hoped, anyway. He had the terrible thought that Death Eaters could torture their victims for hours. The sum of many hours with Snape came to bear, and he began to work on his perceptions as Snape had taught him. “Use your senses, gather as much information as you can from your environment,” he had advised, and Harry had taken it to heart. He sat in the far corner of the room, willing his limbs into stillness, focusing on the sounds. It was a man they were torturing, but as to whom, he had no idea. Perhaps some Muggle or mudblood wizard they had found for their amusement. From time to time he could hear the word “Crucio” uttered, by several different voices. The tortured man's voice was hoarse, as he had undoubtedly been screaming for quite some time. The sound faded, then rose again. Harry's guts churned. They were toying with him, then. Probably not interrogating him. They were taking turns casting the Unforgivables, as if it were a sport!

A sudden wave of fatigue swept over him. He knew that sleeping would be a very bad idea – he had to be as alert as possible, and he knew as well that sleeping after a head trauma was dangerous – but surely it couldn't hurt to rest his head for awhile? He rested his head on his folded arms, balanced on his knees, and allowed his body to slip into a relaxed state, gathering its forces.

He had slipped into a very light dose when a voice outside the door jolted him out of his daze. He barely had time to lift his head when the door swung open and a limp body was tossed in, hitting the stone floor with a sickening thump. The shadowy form of a Death Eater hissed a curse and closed the door. Harry leapt to his feet, charging the door, but it was too late. He pounded ineffectually on the door, but the wards were already fully in place. He rested his head against the door, cursing himself for his lapse in concentration. Had he been paying attention, he might have rushed the Death Eater and… and… he didn't know. Even if he got out of his improvised cell, there was no guarantee that he could evade the other Death Eaters, who were in a heightened state of alert. Since they had stopped torturing the man, their diversion was over, and… the man!

Harry hastened over to the prone form on the floor. “Be all right, please be all right,” he muttered, feeling a sickening dread rising within him. It couldn't be, it just couldn't be *him*…. As gently as he could, he rolled the figure over onto his back, exposing a pale face, framed by lank, greasy hair and crowned with a large, hooked nose. He clasped both hands to his mouth, fighting down the bile that was rising in his throat. He would not be sick, not when Snape needed him to be strong! He fought his horror and revulsion, feeling a spark of anger burn at those who had done this to him. He clutched at the spark, breathing life into it, letting the adrenaline of his rage fuel him. He had a sudden, crystal-clear understanding of Snape's eternal anger. He felt the man's neck for a pulse, which was thready, unnaturally rapid but still present. His breathing was too shallow for Harry's liking. From time to time his limbs twitched spasmodically in the aftershocks of the Cruciatus curse. Harry made him as comfortable as he could, loosening his clothing and trying to halt the nosebleed that refused to be fully staunched. Guilt was eating him alive. 'First I get Cedric killed, now Snape is tortured… because of me, his cover is blown… he'll be killed for certain… we both will.” He was lost in a moment of sorrow, admittedly feeling pity for both himself and the man who had tried to protect him.

“Potter…” a raspy voice cut into his gloomy thoughts. Harry jumped. Snape was awake! He knelt by his side, leaning over to better hear his words.

Snape coughed weakly, bringing up a bit of blood. He glared weakly up at the figure looming over him. “Should have known you'd come to mock me…. Saint James, everyone's hero, laughing at the scrawny, greasy Slytherin…. You like having me in your debt, don't you?” Another bout of coughing. “How I hate you… you should have just let me die… you'd have done the world a favor….”

Realization dawned. 'He thinks I'm my father!' “Professor, it's me! Harry! Please, please, snap out of it!” He would have shaken the man if he weren't afraid of the damage it would inflict.

Fathomless black eyes blinked slowly, seeming to focus more clearly. “Harry?” he said uncertainly.

“Yes, that's right!” Harry exclaimed, encouraged.

“The Potter boy, yes….” His voice was weak but his tone was firm and certain. “Fifth year, Gryffindor, quite impudent, abominable in Potions….”

Harry's mouth twitched into a grim smile. “Glad to see you're back to normal, Professor.” Well, as normal as the man ever got….

Snape pushed himself up to a sitting position, grimacing and clutching his side. “They put us in here together… a foolish miscalculation on their part. Together we may stand a chance.” His gaze grew cloudy and unfocused, and for a moment Harry feared that he had once again sunk into delusion. Soft mutters reached his ears, and he realized that Snape was *thinking*, planning their escape. “They took my wand… more fools they… do they really think I need a wand to do magic?” He smiled in a way that chilled Harry. “We must prepare… they will come for us soon.”

Harry frowned. “I don't understand. Everything seemed to be going so well. How did they realize I was still alive?”

Snape rubbed the bridge of his nose, his features forming a grimace. “I grew careless. I knew all along that this was a test of loyalty. I believed that I had passed this particular trial quite admirably. More fool I to believe the test was over. I should have realized it was too easy. Voldemort must have had me followed. Once it was discovered that you were still alive, it was painfully obvious whose side I was truly on.” A deep sigh. “I wish I had been able to get you away safely, but there was so little time. The potion I gave you put you in a state of suspended animation, but only for a very short while. If I had not revived you, you would have died for real.”

Harry clenched his hands in his lap to stop their trembling. “Professor,” he said in a voice that wasn't quite steady, “whatever are we going to do?”

As if on cue, the door burst open. Harry and Snape both jumped, badly startled. Harry made a small squeak and clapped a trembling hand over his mouth. He jumped again as a strong arm closed over his shoulder, registering through the haze of panic that was closing over him that it was Snape's arm, that Snape was trying to push him behind his body, to shield him from whoever was in the doorway.

A dark chuckle seemed to reverberate through the small, dark room. A cloaked figure stepped inside, reaching up to remove its mask and hood. Harry whimpered and squeezed his eyes shut, praying fervently that this was just some awful, awful dream. But the Death Eater seemed to have very little interest in him. “Severus,” he breathed, advancing toward the pair slowly, the meager light glinting off of his thinning hair and silver hand. “How it delights me to see you humbled. I have waited for this moment for a very long time. Lord Voldemort was very kind in letting me supervise your… interrogation.” His mouth stretched into a feral smile that seemed quite incongruous with his unassuming, chubby features. “I told him all along that you were not to be trusted. He rewards those who please him… and punish those who do not. As you have learned tonight.”

Snape wiped at the corner of his mouth, his pale hand coming away streaked with blood. “Pettigrew,” he spat. “I have no patience for your prattling. I'm not surprised that you have chosen to toady to the strongest wizard you could find. Even in school you found those stronger than you to serve, to grovel to, to kneel and kiss the feet of.” His laugh was short and bitter. “I never fought with you the way I did with the other Marauders. I saw you for what you were – a scared little coward who was too weak to make his own way in the world. In short, you were beneath my notice. I couldn't be bothered to hex someone who hid behind others instead of fending for himself.”

A pudgy fist flashed out and caught Snape squarely on the chin, the force knocking him over to sprawl on his back. “Not beneath your notice now, am I?” he sneered. “You always thought you were better than everyone else. You with your brains and those clever hands of yours.” He knelt and took the blood-streaked hand in his own, rubbing his thumb over the slender fingers in a perverse parody of gentleness. “I wonder what kind of Potions Master you would be with every bone in your hand shattered beyond repair?”

All color drained from Snape's face, leaving him white as a ghost. He uttered a choked cry and jerked his hand back, thrusting both of them behind him, his black eyes as wide as saucers, brimming with fear and loathing. Harry's heart squeezed in sympathetic horror. He had no doubt that such a fate would be worse than death in Snape's eyes. He crouched, preparing to jump the former Marauder. Before he could even begin to spring, several black-clad arms seized him. He yelled and struggled against the small group of Voldemort's followers, a quick glance over his shoulder showing that Snape had been taken as well. Pettigrew chuckled low in his throat. “Let us see what the Master has in store for you.”

Harry fought his captors as best he could, dragging his feet and trying to trip them from time to time. One of them cursed and slapped him roughly. Beside him, Snape walked unhurriedly with his usual grace, somehow managing to put a menacing stalk in each stride. His eyes stared straight ahead, his features fixed into an inscrutable mask. It struck Harry just how long the man must have spent perfecting that mask.

His drifting gaze caught a slight tremble of long, slim hands. No doubt a reaction to the multiple rounds of the Cruciatus curse. Harry suddenly didn't feel so bad about the way he had reaction to Snape's potion, when he thought he was truly dying. Everyone had a limit of pain tolerance, and it seemed that Snape was nearing his. Thinking back over the past few weeks, Harry realized that it had started earlier than this, that Voldemort had to have been wearing Snape down, bit by bit, in anticipation of tonight's events. It was a wonder that Snape was even able to stand under his own power, but Harry had learned since entering the Wizarding world that there were always untapped reserves of strength within when all seemed lost. But what good would it do them now? Harry's eyes darted into each dark corner, praying for salvation, but none was to be found.

He winced and tried to narrow his eyes against the comparative brightness as he and Snape were dragged back into the main gathering room. His heart sank when he beheld the murderous gaze of the assembled Death Eaters. But this time, they had another target for their wrath. Every eye in the room was focused on the stiff, defiant Potions Master. The turncoat. The traitor. The spy in their midst, exposed at last.

“Ssssssso,” the serpentine features of Lord Voldemort remained calm and placid, except for a tic just above one blood-red eye, his words nearly slipping into Parseltongue, “the rumors were true after all. One of our kind has broken the sacred vow. I must admit that I had my doubts about your loyalty, Severus, but I had fervently hoped to be proved wrong.” He shook his head sadly, displaying an air of a father disappointed by the actions of a wayward son, but Harry was not fooled for a moment. There would be no forgiveness here tonight. Their fate would be neither merciful nor quick.

Voldemort's features twisted into a hideous grimace of hate. His assembled followers took a step back, each having experienced the fallout personally from such a reaction. “How *dare* you?!” he shrieked. “How dare you betray me, to Dumbledore, of all people! He never cared about you; he never cared about any Slytherin! You have turned your back on your rightful place in our new order for the very wretch that will destroy Wizardkind by allowing the Mudbloods to breed until no pureblood wizards will be left! You will *pay* for turning your back on me!! CRUCIO!”

The reaction was immediate and violent. Snape twisted in his captors' grasp, writhing with the fire that licked at his nerves. He fell upon the floor in a crumpled heap, his forehead resting against the cool stones. Small mewling sounds came from his throat as he bit down on his lip, refusing to give his former master the satisfaction of hearing him scream once more. His throat was already chafed raw from his earlier experiences.

“STOP IT!!” Harry screamed, kicking at his captors, trying to free himself. “He can't take much more!” A thin trickle of blood ran from the professor's mouth as the man gasped harshly. Voldemort lifted his wand, momentarily ending the torment. He chuckled in Harry's direction, who found himself filled with a white-hot rage. What gave him the right to treat people in such a way? Now, more than ever, Harry felt the need to rid the world of such a creature. If only there was a way…!

“I'm not the only one you have betrayed tonight.” Voldemort flicked his hand, and a Death Eater stepped out of the shadows. With the flowing blond hair and superior sneer, the only thing missing from the picture was the trademark snake-head walking stick. Voldemort watched the scene with undisguised relish. “You have a lot to answer for, my young snake.”

The lord of Malfoy Manor nudged the hunched figure at his feet, an expression of revulsion on his face. Snape rose unsteadily, his features set in grim determination. Lucius seized his arm and pulled him close, his eyes flashing with barely-contained menace. “How *dare* you?!” The aristocrat's cold, fine beauty was marred by the ugly snarl on his face as he unwittingly parroted Voldemort's words. It was plain that Snape's betrayal had struck deeply. “I vouched for you! I defended you! I befriended you when no one else would, and what do you do? You stab me in the back!” A slender finger cupped his chin, turning it so their faces were scant inches apart. “You are a traitor to all of Slytherin, Severus. I'm sure that our lord will be only too pleased to make an example out of you.”

Steely black eyes met storm-grey ones in an intense battle of wills. “You are so full of it, Lucius,” Snape murmured, his tone soft but filled with malice. “Everything I did since our Sixth Year was for you! I was your bloody right-hand man! I joined the Death Eaters with you; I took the Mark with you. And you're a fine one to talk about friendship, especially since you betrayed me first!” His mouth twisted into an angry snarl. “You sold me out and blamed me for missions that *you* botched! You took our friendship and threw it in my face. Forget it, Lucius. Whatever we had between us is dead. There's no salvation for either of us.”

The sheer emotion on both faces was amazing to the young boy. For a moment, the sheer horror of the situation faded slightly, as Harry watched two decades of friendship come to a disastrous end. He had seen both men coolly composed, haughty and disdainful of the world, but their relationship had clearly meant more than either wanted to admit. The expressions that flitted across their faces were telling: anger, betrayal, frustration, sorrow, bitterness. The smiling, excited boys in the yearbook photo, embarking on a great adventure, were long gone. Tonight was merely the last handful of dirt thrown on the grave.

Malfoy's fingers tightened on the throat of his former best friend. “Do I have your permission to begin, Master?” he asked deferentially, not entirely able to keep the note of anger from his voice.

Voldemort's satisfied, sickening grin was wider than seemingly possible. “Indeed, my faithful follower. Such a shame,” he clucked, looking indulgently at Snape, who glared at him defiantly. “You know that you two were always my favorites. So young, so impressionable, so eager to please. You both have come so far under my tutelage. But I have never been one to allow sentimentality to hold me back. Lucius, you may proceed at your own discretion.”

Harry inhaled sharply, his breath catching in his throat. Malfoy's smile was the embodiment of sadism, promising endless hours of torment. Several other Death Eaters approached him as well, and his stomach lurched. They raised their wands on Malfoy's cue, the moment seeming to freeze in a heartbeat of unreality. Snape's eyes met his, and Harry knew all hope was lost. This was it. There was no way out of this. They were both going to die.

Chapter Ten

“I gave you everything
On a silver tray
Could've been a fool forever
But I'm not made that way….
And after all these twisted roads
That we've been down together
I think it's time we said goodbye
And believe me
If you think I'm gonna get down and crawl
You don't know me
You don't know me at all”
-- “You Don't Know Me at All” – Don Henley

Screams began to ring out in the distance. At first, Harry thought it was the memory of his parents' death, awakened in his third year by the dementors and revived now by his own impending demise. Slowly it dawned on him, as the Death Eaters began to trade wary looks and adjust their wands to cover all entrances to the room, that the screams were very real. Pounding footsteps added to the cacophony. Harry tensed, wondering if he should try making a break for it. But where could he go to escape? Where could he go where he was safe?

Several masked and caped figures burst into the room, their breathing ragged and uneven. “Run!” several of them cried. “Before they get you too!” Snarling and growling echoed down the corridor. The reason for the panic was soon evident as two mad creatures thundered into the room. One was a giant black dog, with great white teeth, shiny with saliva and ready to snap the bones of any prey hapless enough to be cornered. The other was a brownish-grey werewolf, whose teeth were even sharper and more menacing. Its eyes gleamed with predatory delight as it lowered its head and clearly began stalking its prey. “Merlin help us! A Grim!” one Death Eater screamed. Another one visibly shaking. “A werewolf! It'll kill us all!” He tried to aim his wand, but his hand was trembling so badly that he was in danger of dropping it.

Harry grinned broadly. His father's best friends had come to save him! A scrutinizing glance revealed the humanity behind both pairs of eyes. Thankfully, the wolf seemed to be more interested in threatening and intimidating its prey rather than in actual bloodlust. Wait a second… the next full moon was nearly a full week away! How was it that Lupin could transform without the light of the full moon? He was not a true Animagi – such a feat should be impossible!

A quick glance around him revealed that his captors were much too busy fleeing the arrival of the terrifying beasts to occupy themselves with him. He cast a triumphant grin at Snape, which withered as soon as he caught sight of his professor. Snape was backed against the wall, face turning an ashen white, a look of plain terror in his eyes. His lips were pressed together tightly as he slowly shook his head back and forth, as if denying what his eyes were showing him. It was then that Harry realized just how much the incident so long ago in the Shrieking Shack had to have affected him. For Snape, it was a nightmare come back to life. He hurried over to Snape, grasping his arm and trying to drag him toward the entrance. “Come *on*, Professor!” he grunted. “They've come to help us! Let's go, quickly!”

“Fools!” snapped a surprisingly authoritative voice. “They are Animagi! They pose no threat to you!” Pettigrew brandished his own wand and cast a rather complicated spell. Harry groaned softly as the two animals were forced to resume human form. The Death Eaters, finally catching on that their lives were not in danger, recovered their composure and began to surround the newcomers. Snape and Harry were grabbed roughly and shoved next to the Animagi. The pudgy, balding man pushed his way into the circle. “Hello, old friends,” he sneered. Sirius and Remus glared at him defiantly, pointing their wands at him. “Isn't this a nice little reunion?” A well-placed hex shattered the ornate dog collar around Black's throat.

“The portkey!” Sirius moaned, holding the shattered remains in his hands. “Peter, you bastard! I swear I'll make you pay for this! You little coward, why don't you face me like a man?”

Pettigrew smirked, unafraid with the Dark Lord and his disciples gathered around him. “I'm not that foolish, Sirius. I know that you can best me in a one-on-one fight. Funny, isn't it, how I've come out on top? Sirius Black, all-around charmer and ladies' man, reduced to a fugitive on the run! I wanted for so long to have what you did. You all let me tag along like some kind of bloody mascot, but you never wanted me to be an equal! Well, I managed to do just fine for myself!” He threw a smug glance Voldemort's way. “I know which is the winning side.”

Remus looked stern yet sad. “I doubt that very much, Peter. You faked your own death to avoid being associated with the Death Eaters. If they were to lose power, you'd deny all affiliation with them. You're a follower, not a leader. We've all known that and it never bothered us. We always treated you like one of the group, and if you felt inferior, I'm sorry, but that's your own damn fault.”

Pettigrew sneered at the tiny group. His demeanor was vastly different from that night two years ago in the Shrieking Shack. Apparently the powerful Death Eaters behind him had given him some sort of pseudo-spine. “That's about what I expected from you. Boring and predictable right to the end. Now, there's one bit of business to tend to before the festivities begin.” There was a collective shudder at those words. Black and Lupin gripped their wands with white knuckles, and Harry wondered idly why they had not been disarmed. Perhaps they would be granted a wizard's duel? Pettigrew turned his attention to him, and Harry felt a streak of hatred burn through him. “The young Potter boy. You look just like James, really you do. It's just uncanny. Because of the wizard's bond that I owe you, I shall give you the chance that I never gave your father. I offer you the opportunity to join us.” Harry turned to regard Voldemort incredulously. The mockery of a man smiled. The sight was sickening. The dark wizard spoke. “For once I will indulge you, Wormtail. Accept his offer, boy, and you will have power and glory beyond your wildest dreams. Decline and Wormtail will kill you where you stand.” The portly man flinched slightly.”

Harry could feel the stare of every person in the room boring into him. Snape's hand rose to firmly grasp his shoulder. He knew what that gesture meant. Agree, and save himself. Agree, and live to fight another day. But he simply couldn't. To be a Death Eater, even as a farce, would betray the sacrifices his parents made for him. He could never follow the same path as Snape. He knew that he didn't have the guile and cunning to become a spy. He set his jaw stubbornly and looked Voldemort straight in his fiery eyes. “I will never serve you. Murderer!”

Voldemort sneered at him. “As I expected. Very well, you had your chance. Wormtail, consider your bond to him dissolved. Now, I give the greatest honor to you. Kill the boy!”

Pettigrew raised his wand, his hand trembling, his face white, but the look in his eyes was manic. Voldemort tapped his wand impatiently in his hand. The implication was obvious: if Wormtail failed to follow through, his punishment would be extreme. Voldemort was going to use this experience as an experiment – if Harry did not die from the Killing Curse, if something went wrong, then only Pettigrew would suffer. And if it worked… well, then everyone gained, right? Peter gave Harry and his old friends one desperate, pleading gaze, then lifted his wand and spoke the words. “Avada Kedavra!”

The curse was imprecise, its course a bit unsteady. The streak of bright green light wavered back and forth on its path to Snape and Harry as if unsure of its target. This particular curse depended immensely upon the mindset of the caster, and Wormtail had been plainly torn between the two targets. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Snape drew himself up to his full height. He flung an arm out, shoving Harry behind him. This was it. At long last, he could give his life truly for the cause of Light. The death of a martyr would wipe the slate clean of all his sins. He could finally die with a clear conscience. The searing green light bore down on him, and he met it unflinchingly.

Through the haze of slow-motion (Lupin! That sly mutt must have cast a Tempus curse to buy them some time!), he saw a hand fling itself in front of him. “Accio wand!” Harry cried, and both Snape's and his own wands jerked free of Pettigrew's waistband to fly into his hand. With a mighty cry that would impress Merlin himself, the boy cried, “REFLECTUS!”

It should not have worked. Nothing, absolutely nothing on Earth should be able to deflect the Killing Curse. But Snape watched in horrified fascination (What was the boy playing at? He was going to get himself killed and make Snape's sacrifice futile!) as the lethal curse hit the two wands, rebounded, and struck Pettigrew squarely in the chest. The man fell backwards, staring blankly at the ceiling, a ridiculous expression of surprise on his face.

Utter silence reigned. For nearly a full minute, no one moved, stunned into inactivity. Voldemort finally broke the stupor, reaching into his robes and whipping out his wand. “Finish them!” he roared. It was unclear if he was brandishing his wand at the intruders or at the Death Eaters themselves, but his followers weren't about to take chances. As frightening as Pettigrew's death was, what Voldemort had in store would be far, far worse.

//“We can't go on
Just running away
If we stay any longer
We will surely never get away
Anything you want,
We can make it happen
Stand up and turn around
Never let them shoot us down”
--“Never” -- Heart

“Ah, you should have killed me
cuz you always looked so good in black”
-- “You Don't Know Me At All” – Don Henley//

As his former comrades began to close in, something inside Severus snapped. White-hot rage began to build, and for once in his life, he surrendered to its tide. None of this was going as he hoped! Not this night, not anything in his god-forsaken *life*! “ENOUGH!” he roared. A blood-red haze settled around his vision, and his breathing quickened until he was practically panting. He drew the feeling around him, holding it close like a blanket, like a lover, as he gratefully let instinct take over. His hand rose of its own accord and delivered a devastating volley of red energy, hitting Malfoy smack in the middle. He fell with barely a sound. Crabbe and Goyle, ever the loyal bodyguards, leapt to his defense. Snape's mind barely registered their presence, his psyche busy dredging up every awful memory and experience he had ever had, using it to fuel his suddenly inexhaustible supply of fury. He dispatched with the two goons with scarcely a twitch of his hand. He rounded on three Death Eaters that had been creeping up on him, delivering a devastating blast from the palm of each hand.

“Wandless magic!” Lupin gasped. He had seen many things in his life, but nothing like this, on such a grand scale!

“How is he *doing* that?!* Black murmured next to him. It was a truly remarkable display for a man who should have by all rights been half-dead.

Time was speeding up, moving in pace with Snape's pounding heart. His fists clenched spasmodically, as if itching to wrap themselves around someone's throat. “I have had enough of this! I'm tired of being kicked around and degraded! And I am *sick* of people thinking that they have my measure! I am no one's to control!” His ebony gaze locked with Voldemort's, proverbial sparks seeming to fly. Voldemort raised his left arm, pressing his wand into the flesh, and Snape stiffened. His face contorted in a rictus, and he bit down on his already abused lip. Agony coursed through his veins, radiating through his Dark Mark. 'He's using it as a channel!' a part of him thought distantly. 'Well, two can play at that game!' He gathered up his boundless rage, feeling almost ecstatic with the feeling of release, of letting go, and funneled it through the mark that bound him as Voldemort's servant. Decades of bitterness and anger raced through his veins, boiling through the Mark and erupting on the other side. “Now, Master,” Severus hissed in a deadly cold voice, “now it is your turn to scream.” Pulling a silver, bejeweled dagger from his cloak, he viciously stabbed the Dark Mark.

Voldemort screamed, a high, reedy noise, as he writhed and fought to break the connection. Snape bore down harder on the blade, snarling as the blood coursed down his arm, his eyes unblinking. The physical and emotional pain was focused as a weapon, spearing at the one who had promised him the world but given him less than dust. “You should be pleased!” Severus laughed, his voice a bit unsteady, almost hysterical. “You taught me well. Allow me to show you how much I've learned!” He assaulted an approaching Death Eater without even looking. He was heedless to the horrified gasps around him, mindless to anything but the overwhelming satisfaction of payback – it was so little, compared to all the disappointments and betrayals in his life, but he no longer cared if revenge was petty. In a way, he had waited all his life for this moment, to lash out and DO something against those who held him back! He never wanted to stop… he felt his energy draining away, but he paid no mind… this was the only thing that mattered, the only thing in the world….

With an agonized howl, Voldemort finally broke the connection. He raised his wand but his hand was trembling too violently to aim it. The spell was broken. Snape stood panting and trembling, the blood-fuelled hatred finally draining away. The reality of the situation smacked him full in the face. Despite the massive powers that he and Harry both exhibited, the Death Eaters could cast the Killing Curse at any moment. They were still in mortal peril! To stay and fight was foolish; while Voldemort was weakened, he was nowhere near finished, Snape himself had about reached the limits of his powers, and Harry still was not skilled enough to participate in a final, all-out battle. They would have to make their stand another day. Abruptly, he turned and dashed for the doorway, taking advantage of the momentary confusion amongst the Death Eaters. Thankfully, the three Gryffindors caught on quickly and followed hot on his heels, dodging the multicolored curses and hexes that had started to fly.

“Fat lot of use you two were!” Snape growled as they made a mad dash through winding corridors, working their way towards the exit. “Albus must be mad to have sent you in without backup!”

“There's Aurors on the way!” Remus breathed, sounding like he was out for an early-morning jog. The nights as a werewolf had given him a good amount of exercise. “We forced Dumbledore's hand by making him send us in as the first wave. We couldn't bear to wait a second longer than necessary. The plan was to distract the Death Eaters and get Harry to safely, so the Aurors could attack without concern.”

Snape's wordless sneer was evidence of his opinion. “And what a rousing success that was!”

“Hey!” Black snapped irritably at his elbow, “It would have worked if Peter hadn't destroyed the portkey! We would have been in and out before those losers knew what hit them.”

“Just like a foolhardy Gryffindor to believe he can attack head-on and win! Can't you see that such a situation requires Slytherin cunning and subtlety?”

“Oh, and it was working so well! That's why Malfoy was ready to tear your throat out!”

“Shut *up*!” Harry spat. The others looked at him in surprise, almost coming to a stop before realizing that that, in fact, would not be the best thing to do. “You're behaving like children! Can't you at least wait until we're somewhere safe before you start that garbage?” Snape made a “hrrrmph!” sound that seemed almost impressed.

Harry took only a moment to savor it, before something occurred to him. “Professor Lupin? How were you able to turn into a werewolf when it isn't a full moon?”

Remus smiled and reached underneath his shirt, pulling out a white stone on a pendant. “Moonstone,” he explained with a wry smile. “Not just any moonstone, though. Dumbledore enchanted it with light from the full moon and somehow managed to charm it to work in harmony with my body. When I am wearing it, I can transform at will, and thanks to Professor Snape's wolfsbane there is no danger of losing control. However, it is of no use when the genuine full moon rises.” He grimaced. “I never would have done such a thing for anyone else, Harry. Bad enough that I have to become such a creature once a month. But I would do anything to keep you safe.” Harry felt a warm feeling spread through him, tears of gratitude beginning to prick at his eyes. Remus' sacrifice meant much more to him than he could ever say.

With a great feeling of relief, they burst through the door and into the starlit darkness of the forest. “My wand, boy!” Snape growled impatiently. With a questioning look, Harry handed it over. The Potions Master held it aloft and exclaimed, “Morsmordre!” The others could not suppress a cry of horror as the large symbol of skull and snake hovered over the secret base.

“My god, have you gone mad?” Sirius gasped. “What did you do that for?”

Snape gave him a withering glare. “To draw attention to this place. That symbol is a flashing sign, announcing, 'Here are the Death Eaters! Come and find us!' At the very least, it will ensure that this will never be a viable base again.” With a swift look around, he started off through the trees at a sprint.

Lupin easily kept pace. “It doesn't sound as if we are being pursued.”

“That's because we aren't.” Faint screams and swears drifted up to them. “It seems that the cavalry has arrived.”

“Great!” Harry grinned. “Let's go back and help them.”

“NO!” Severus darted another look around him. “Our priority is to get you out of here as quickly as possible. There's no telling what will happen if we drag you back into the fight. Your time will come quickly enough.” He picked up the pace, now moving at a dead run.

“Wait! Stop! What are we running for? Surely we're almost home free?!”

To Black's surprise, Snape obeyed, skidding to a stop and whirling to face him. The man's face was bone-white, his black eyes wide and wild, flickering with an alien emotion – fear. “Are you daft? Do you think that Voldemort would entrust his safety to the Death Eaters alone? There are far worse creatures in these woods!” A nervous glance around him punctuated his statement.

Sirius shivered, a terrible premonition tickling at the back of his mind. “You surely don't mean….”

Severus visibly shuddered. “Dementors.” His voice was soft and slightly hoarse. The two adversaries faced each other, wearing identical expressions of fear and horror, sharing a solitary moment of unity and understanding. Only someone who had been in Azkaban could truly understand the wrenching sorrow that the dementors could bring. As one, they turned and dashed off through the woods, smacking away branches and weeds as fast as they could in an effort to put some distance between them and the Death Eater compound. Lupin and Potter did their best to keep up with the near-frantic men, both of them far from eager to encounter a dementor, but not nearly as panicked as their companions.

Suddenly Snape's gait became weaving and unsteady. He paused to rest against a massive oak tree. Black paused, eyes darting from his childhood nemesis to the beckoning forest, plainly torn. Harry and Lupin drew up beside him, all giving Snape concerned glances. “Go on…” he wheezed, waving a hand impatiently. “I'll be right behind you… just need to catch my breath.”

“Don't be ridiculous!” Lupin said firmly, wrapping an arm around the man's waist. “We are not leaving you behind. With your injuries, it's a miracle that you're standing at all.”

“Dammit, just go already!” he roared as best he could while trying to balance against the tree. “I'll just slow you down.”

“Now who's being a stubborn, self-sacrificing Gryffindor?” Snape glared at him wearily, finally giving in and leaning on Lupin heavily as they made their way as swiftly as they could through the undergrowth. Black transformed into his canine form and made his way swiftly ahead, showing the best path.

A paralyzing, chilly feeling spread through all of them, and they stopped short, clustering together instinctively for protection. Black turned back into human form, whimpering slightly and fairly ripping his wand out of his pocket. The other three followed suit, brandishing their wands, scanning the woods for signs of movement.

“There!” They followed Harry's finger and saw them. Five dementors, gliding silently toward them. Harry felt his blood turn to pure ice, and his grip tightened on his wand. 'I can do this! I've done it before!' He lifted his wand and spoke the words. “Expectro Patronum!” Beside him he heard Lupin echo his chant. Twin bursts of silver shot from their wands, causing the dementors to stagger, but not to retreat. Apparently they had been denied sustenance for too long. Black raised his wand with a trembling hand. “Expectro Patronum! Expectro Patronum! EXPECTRO PATRONUM!” Tendrils snaked from his wand but did not coalesce into a solid form. Still Black kept trying with gritted teeth, and eventually his Patronus began to solidify.

Snape stood in the middle of the ragtag group, fighting the terror that was rising within him. 'This is not Azkaban! You can fight them! Fight, goddamn you! Or they all will die!' He raised his wand. “Expectro Patronum!” Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. He glared desperately at his wand and tried again. “Expectro Patronum!” Still nothing. As much as his heart threatened to hammer through his chest, he forced himself to close his eyes and concentrate. A Patronus needed a happy thought to work. Surely he could find something that would do the trick? He frantically scanned through his memories, searching for something suitable. It was a daunting task, especially since the most bitter and painful memories were forefront in his mind, due to both the dementors' presence and his own violent outlash earlier.

Fragments of memory began to drift through his consciousness, but the moment a wisp of silver began to waft from his wand, it would die out, for every one of his memories were tainted …

- his very first potion //his father had scorned potions, forcing him to conduct his experiments in secret during the summer holidays//
- his acceptance letter to Hogwarts, which was framed in his living quarters to this day //Hogwarts had been a torment as well as a blessing, thanks in large part to two of the men beside him. It had shown him just how different he was, how impossible it was to deal with his peers, how he would never be accepted//
- graduating top of his class // what had his grades ever gotten him anyway, besides mockery from his fellow pupils for being so much smarter? and what use was his knowledge when he had used it to kill and destroy?//
- the spectacular night he had lost his virginity to a gorgeous brunette Ravenclaw, the most beautiful girl in the entire school //the vixen had only been after him for his family fortune that he had so recently inherited, and he had dumped her in front of the entire Great Hall when he had found out, and sworn off monogamy (and back-stabbing females) forever
- the day he passed his Potions Master exam // he took great pride in being a Master, but what difference did it make to snot-nosed brats who despised Potions and loathed him even more?//
- the day Albus forgave his sins and set him on the path of Light //Albus' forgiveness was a benediction, but it had set him on the hardest path he had ever known, with nothing but hatred from those he tried to protect//
- the day Voldemort was defeated by a toddler in nappies //every time he looked at Potter he was reminded of James and that infernal life-debt, and how everyone loved Potter for something he couldn't even remember, while he had dedicated nearly half of his life to Albus' cause and gotten nothing but a thankless job//

“Severus? Severus! Are you all right?!”

Snape opened his eyes. Dammit, this wasn't working! Even that mangy cur Black had finally managed a passable Patronus! What the devil was wrong with him? Feeling another surge of anger, he directed it through the wand held outstretched before him. Very well. He had tried being 'good'. Now he would do what came naturally. “Mortalis Telum!” A red serpent erupted from his wand, hissing and snapping at the dementors, who began to back off in uncertainty. The others took advantage of the distraction, all casting their Patronus in unison.

“It's working!” Remus cried excitedly. It was true. Under the combined assault, the dementors were forced to break off and flee, their meal denied. The small band let out a tired yet victorious cheer. Their high spirits were quickly grounded when Snape's knees began to buckle. The last of his strength was tapped. Without missing a beat, Lupin supported him as they made their way out of the forest. Harry tagged behind, shooting worried looks at the Potions professor from time to time.

Sirius watched them go with narrowed eyes. Snape's little curse had not been lost on him. Mortalis Telum, or Soul Weapon, was very dark magic indeed. Spy or not, Snape was not to be trusted. He would have to keep his eye on the shifty man, and if the opportunity presented itself, press him for his true motives. Once a Dark wizard, always a Dark wizard. He was confident that he could expose Snape for the fraud that he was. And then… then Snape would get what he truly deserved.

Chapter Eleven

“Everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach at Malibu
And everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
-- “Everybody Knows” – Don Henley

The small band trudged through the woods, trying to keep up their pace for fear of encountering any Dark creatures. A soft noise came to Harry's ears, and he cocked his head to better hear it. Yes, there it was again…. “A train! I hear a train!”

Remus grinned. “Trains mean civilization! We must be close to a town!”

“Yes, there's a Muggle village in the valley,” Snape said, his voice betraying more of his weariness than desired. “Voldemort enjoyed the irony of being stationed so close to the Muggles. He believed that no one would think to look here. Pity that I ruined his plans.”

Harry pulled a face. “Uh, I hate to sound really ignorant… but why can't we just Apparate out of here? I mean, I know I can't do it… but isn't it possible for one wizard to Apparate with another?”

Remus smiled gently, using his teacher's patience to explain the situation. “It is possible for one wizard to Apparate with another, but it's just too risky in this case. None of us are at full strength to make the attempt. Plus, Professor Snape's injuries would be exacerbated by Apparating.”

Sirius sighed. He had had enough of this blasted forest and the dementors. “So what do you suggest, Moony? Should we wait until Albus fashions another Portkey? Or maybe until the Aurors are finished mopping up?”

“Don't be ridiculous!” Snape said roughly. “We mustn't stay in one place. You are all fools if you think Voldemort kept his troops all in one place. He would have managed to get word to the rest of his other operatives by now, and they will be on the lookout for us. We cannot afford to use the Knight Bus or any other form of wizard transportation.” He swept his arm toward the valley. “The train will have to do.”

Black looked as if he would like nothing better than to jump down Snape's throat, but he merely grumbled to himself, apparently unable to find fault with the Potions Master's logic. The rest of the walk was spent in silence, each wizard trying to conserve his strength. Snape's eyes swept the forest from time to time, unwilling to lower his guard. The stiffness in his shoulders showed just how little he liked relying on his one-time rival. Against his will, he found himself leaning on the other professor more and more as his own strength began to desert him. Lupin did not make any gesture or comment, wordlessly helping Severus through the woods.

It was nearly forty-five minutes until they reached the valley and followed the train tracks. They came upon the train station just as a train was approaching. A quick glance at it revealed its destination to be King's Cross. It was a sleek and modern train, nothing like the old steam engine of the Hogwarts Express.

Sirius frowned at the train. “I suppose it will have to do.” At least it would take them far away from… well, from wherever they were.

They boarded the train and wearily stumbled toward a compartment. Out of nowhere, a conductor appeared. “Tickets, please!” he said tersely, looking scornfully at their smudged faces and rumpled robes.

Harry fumbled, “Ah, well, you see--”

Snape made an irritated sound. “Obliviate!” Black gave him a dark look, which he completely ignored, staggering down the hall, leaning against the wall for support, until he came to a vacant compartment. The others followed him to find that he had already collapsed onto one of the bench seats. Remus knelt beside him, touching his shoulder gently and turning him over. “He's fainted. He's finally reached his limit.”

“Will he be all right?”

Sirius looked irritated at his godson's concern. Who cared what happened to the slimy bastard? Fortunately, neither Harry nor Remus noticed his expression.

Lupin's deft hands swiftly examined the insensate man. “What he needs most is rest, and a bit of first aid.” He gently touched Snape's right side, near his hand, and held up his hand, tacky with drying blood. “I'll wager that some of the Death Eaters prefer an old-fashioned beating to the Cruciatus.” Harry winced in sympathy. Lupin gestured to him. “Come help me. We've got to treat his wounds.” Harry paused, looking at Snape doubtfully, recalling the man's fainting spell in class that seemed like an eternity ago. What would Snape do to him over the indignity of being stripped? He shook his head. That was a foolish thought. Snape was unconscious, and he could do little with both Professor Lupin and his godfather on hand. With slightly unsteady hands, Harry helped his werewolf-friend remove the heavy outer robes, classic Death Eater issue. The boy moaned softly as he saw that Snape was wearing his usual frock coat underneath, full of small, fiddly buttons. They both set to work, wondering how Snape managed to navigate the garment on a daily basis. It was Lupin's turn to sigh as he removed the frock coat, revealing a high-necked white shirt with just as many buttons. He saw Harry reach for his wand and held up a hand in warning. “We mustn't do magic, Harry. It will draw attention to us, not only from Muggles, but from possible Death Eaters that are searching for us.”

“But Snape…”

“…was tired and on the verge of collapse. He acted out of desperation.” Harry nodded, resigning himself to freeing Snape from his cloth prison by hand. By the time they were finished, their fingers were beginning to cramp in protest.

Lupin gingerly peeled the fabric away from the wound, grimacing. The injury did not appear to be too deep, but it still looked quite painful. He pulled Snape forward slightly, slipping his arms out of the sleeves. He paused, hissing in surprise. Harry's eyes were bulging out of their sockets, and even Black sat forward to see what the fuss was about.

“My God…” Remus whispered.

“What *is* that?” Harry said in a soft, nervous voice. “That's not from tonight, is it?”

Lupin shook his head, running a fingertip over the rows of angry, mottled scar tissue crossing the man's back. “These scars are quite old. I'll wager that he got them even before he came to Hogwarts.” A strange, contemplative look crossed his worn features, as if he was starting to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

The body in their arms suddenly thrashed, shoving them both to the floor. Severus sat up, his black eyes wide and filled with some fundamental emotion that Harry could not quite discern. “What are you doing to me? What do you want? Where the bugger are my clothes?!”

Harry jumped back, gratefully allowing Black to stand in front of him. Remus remained as calm as ever. “Severus, you are injured. We were merely trying to dress your wounds.”

“Don't touch me, dammit!” He slapped away the hands that tried to help him, snatching his frock coat and drawing it around his shoulders defensively, like a blanket. He was generating defensive vibes that the trio could practically see. Snape seemed to visibly reign himself in… or perhaps he was merely too tired to fight. “I have some antiseptic ointment in my potions pouch.” He nodded towards his outer cloak. Black snagged it and poked through the pockets until he came upon the small kit. He fumbled about with the small jars and vials until he came upon a viscous yellow fluid. He passed it over to Snape, who busily smeared the goop on a handkerchief and set about cleaning his wounds. Another dizzy spell struck, and Lupin took the cloth from him, taking up the task without a word. He also took the time to wrap the thick outer cloak around the thin man's shoulders, trying to preserve some body heat. Snape barely had the energy to glare at him wearily.

Lupin spoke without looking up. “Padfoot, see if he's got any Healing Elixir in there. You know, the amber stuff.” Harry noticed several other wounds and pulled out his own handkerchief, offering his assistance. Neither of them paid Black any heed as he removed the stopper of the Healing Elixir and carefully mixed in three drops of a clear fluid. He would never have a more perfect opportunity….

“Severus,” Remus murmured in his most soothing voice, “who hurt you?”

Snape looked at him with a confused expression, which promptly changed to a combination of rage and… shame? “That's none of your bloody business!”

Remus was unfazed. “Perhaps not, but I am making it my business. Those marks on your back are some serious work.”

Snape sneered. “If you must know, I was attacked by a bear in my youth.”

Remus sighed inwardly. “I would expect a better lie from a spy such as yourself. No animal could have made those marks.” Being an unwilling predator himself, he was quite aware of what such damage could look like.

“Oh, really?” The look on the sallow professor's face was thoroughly unpleasant. “How about this, then?” He twisted to show Lupin his left side, which was marred by two inches of claw marks. “There's an interesting tale behind this one. It was inflicted by a werewolf during a harmless little prank. But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”

Lupin recoiled, a hand clapped over his mouth. He forced himself to remove it and speak. His voice was raspy, and he looked nauseated. “James told me that I hadn't hurt you! He told me that you were all right!”

“He lied.” Snape's tone was matter of fact, matching his detached expression. “I expect he was just trying to spare you a guilt trip, not that you didn't richly deserve it. Though I suppose I should thank you. After all, you forced me to become acquainted with the Slytherins that became my best friends.”

Black banished a nagging sensation of guilt to the far reaches of his mind. He had known full well that Snape had been injured – James had railed at him for hours on that point, asking him how he thought Remus would have felt if he had killed another human being, or succeeded in turning one into a werewolf. Black had weakly argued his point, that Snape could not pass for human, and he would never wish such a fate on dear Moony. James had been livid and had threatened to end their friendship then and there unless he swore to make things up to Remus. Above all, he must never let Remus know how close it had been with Snape. Looking at his friend's stricken expression, Black felt horrible. He had never meant to hurt Remus, only give that smug bastard of a Slytherin a good scare.

Snape! That bastard, all of this was his fault! He was up to no good, Sirius was sure of it. At the end of it, he was a Dark wizard and should never be trusted. Perhaps the showdown tonight was just an elaborate plan to ingratiate himself further with Dumbledore while distancing himself from his true alliance with the Death Eaters. Well, Sirius wasn't about to fall for it! Suppressing a smirk, he handed over the Healing Elixir. Snape took it from him with a dark look and downed it in one gulp, swallowing the honey-like concoction. He rested his head against the seat, allowing the potion to work its way through his veins, spreading its healing warmth.

Black waited patiently for several minutes, drumming his fingers on his leg. Finally he could stand it no longer. “So, Snape, how many illicit ingredients do you have lying about your storeroom right now?”

Snape got a faraway look in his eye. “Well, there's Veritaserum, runespoor eggs, several highly toxic variants of nightshade…” He broke off abruptly, eyes widening in horror. He was venting his spleen to his most hated childhood foe! “What did you give me? You mangy cur, what did you do?!”

Sirius allowed himself a smirk of triumph. “Veritaserum. I slipped it in with the Healing Elixir. Now, you treacherous bastard, you won't be able to lie to us anymore!”

“You witless prat!” Snape roared. “There's no telling what effect it will have when combined with a healing potion! You better not have used more than three drops, or the effects will be quite disastrous, I assure you.” He glared at Black balefully, somehow making it seem like the effects visited on Black would be twice as bad.

Harry glared at his godfather reproachfully. “Sirius, how could you? He risked his life to save me! He could've died tonight! Isn't that enough for you?” He was frightened by the look in his godfather's eyes.

“No, Harry, I am not convinced. I've known Snape a lot longer than you, and nothing will ever make me trust him. He's a devious, lying bastard. How fitting to have him as Head Snake. This way he will be forced to own up to everything he's done.”

Remus looked more sad than anything. “Sirius, you've always had a blind spot when it comes to Snape. Granted, none of us ever liked or trusted him, but you have to admit that he has performed far beyond the call of duty. It's time to leave our grudges in the past if we will ever have any hope of defeating Voldemort.”

Sirius' laughter had a near-hysterical edge. “He's gotten to you too, Moony! Can't you see? He simply can't be trusted! I let Peter blind me to his loyalties, and I won't be fooled again! Snape was always famous for his knowledge of the Dark Arts, you know that! There's no redemption for someone like him!”

“Idiot!” Snape growled. “If I had wanted to be a Dark wizard, I would have gone to Durmstrang! I was the first Snape in eighteen generations to refuse that privilege. Father nearly disowned me.” He laughed hollowly. “As if that meant anything. He threatened to disown me at least twice a week. I told him to bloody well go ahead. I had no use for his fortune. He was stuck with me as his sole heir, and he knew it.”

Harry realized dimly that he was gaping. Snape certainly didn't act as Crouch had under the Veritaserum. Snape seemed a lot more alert and disagreeable, whereas Crouch had acted as if he was in some sort of dream world. He wondered if it was due to Snape's strong will, or because of some sort of interaction with the Healing Elixir. Whatever the reason, the Veritaserum was still having a powerful effect. Snape seemed unable to stop the words that fell from his lips.

Remus looked intrigued. “So why did you choose Hogwarts? Surely you received offers from other institutions.”

“Why do you think? Hogwarts had the best education to offer, especially in the subject of potions. The Snape family had always gone to Durmstrang, and my mother's family, Rogue, had always attended Beauxbatons. Durmstrang's curriculum was too rigid and stifling, and Beauxbatons was too prissy. I told my parents it would be Hogwarts or nothing at all. They knew that I did not make idle threats.” He smiled bitterly.

Black made an incredulous noise. “Enough of this garbage, Snape. You can't avoid answering my questions.” Snape looked distinctly ill-at-ease. For a man who kept his life shrouded in mysteries, full of lies and half-truths, the situation was anathema. “First off: are you a loyal Death Eater?”

“No. I was a Death Eater until today, but I was not loyal to Voldemort.”

“When did you join the Death Eaters?”

“When I was eighteen, directly after graduation. You're not being very original, Black. All of this can be found in the Ministry archives. This is hardly the first time I've been interrogated under Veritaserum.”

“Humor me.” Black looked anything but amused. “Why did you join the Death Eaters in the first place? What did they offer to sway the great Severus Snape?”

To his astonishment, the Slytherin smiled. It was a crafty smile, a self-satisfied smile, a smile that said that Black had somehow asked a question that he had been dying to answer. “I'll tell you… if you're ready to listen. Interestingly enough, it was you yourself who pushed me down that path. You and your harmless little prank. You thought that nobody would care if little Severus would live or die. And you were very nearly right. But as usual, you didn't think things through. You didn't take… other factors into account.” He gazed out the window, allowing his memory to wander, nearly twenty years into the past….

* * *
Sixteen-year-old Severus Snape lay sprawled out on the bed in the Slytherin dorm, fully clothed, heedless of the fresh scratches that still oozed beneath his shredded clothes. His chest heaved with sobs as he poured out a seemingly endless supply of tears into his pillow. He had nearly died! Black had tried to feed him to a werewolf! *Remus* had tried to attack him! That monster was Remus Lupin! His beleaguered mind struggled to comprehend the night's disastrous events.

Severus felt heartsick. It was frightening to think that someone hated him enough to kill him, especially in such a horrific manner. He hated Black beyond reason, but he would never dare make an attempt on the Golden Gryffindor's life. It was even more galling to be saved by James Bloody Potter, Saint James, who was probably in on it from the beginning! The Gryffie was probably laughing up his sleeve at the debt that poor pathetic Severus owed him. It was humiliating enough that he had had to be rescued from such a situation, a trap that his instinctive paranoia should have sensed a mile away, but after James had pulled him from the Shack, he had made it so much worse by falling to his knees, covering his face as he sobbed, completely overwhelmed by his near-death experience. He was rather surprised that James hadn't taken the opportunity to rub his weakness in his face, but perhaps even the Saint hadn't expected things to take such a lethal turn. It was not to be borne! He would hate James until the end of his days, for two reasons: he had forced Severus into a life debt, and, worse than anything, he had seen him cry.

But there was a deeper betrayal at work here, deeper by far. When James had shamefacedly escorted him to Dumbledore's office, he had expected justice to be swift and unyielding. It was no secret amongst Slytherin House how Dumbledore favored his beloved Gryffindors, but surely a crime of this magnitude could not be brushed aside so lightly. Or so he thought. It seemed that he was naïve, both in allowing Black to manipulate him, and in ever trusting in the great Albus Dumbledore. He had sat numbly in the chair before the Headmaster's desk, all feeling draining out of him, leaving him with an only empty despair, a void of horror, as Dumbledore had quietly explained things to him. It had only been a prank, a cruel prank to be sure, but merely a prank gone horribly wrong. Remus was the real victim here, and he needed to be protected. Black would only be given a slap on the wrist: a month's worth of detention, and twenty-five points from Gryffindor. And James, the sainted one? Never mind that he had to have some advance knowledge, never mind that he was in on it from the very start! He was given fifty points for bravery! But the worst, the very worst, was when he had been forced to give his word never to divulge Remus' secret. There was a monster living in the castle walls, eating and sleeping and breathing along with the rest of them, and he was powerless to protect himself! He made the promise, silently dying inside. 'You were supposed to understand!' he screamed inside. 'You promised you would help!' The scars on his back burned. It had been a foolish hope. He was alone in this, as with all other things.

Of course, Dumbledore had tried to smooth things over, gave the usual platitudes. Severus would have none of it. The great Headmaster had shown his true colors. When weighed next to the life of a monster, that of a Slytherin meant less than nothing. Part of him wished that he had died in that dirty, crumbling shack. A part of him had certainly died today. There was still a small, stubborn part of him that refused to roll over and die simply because his enemies wished it, but that spark was all but extinguished.

He had spent the rest of the day hiding in a dusty, unused classroom, sobbing as if the end of the world had come. It may as well, for all he cared. Still, pride was all he had left, and Slytherins did not cry (at least not where anyone could see). He had returned to the dorm at nearly two in the morning, wrung out and lethargic. But as soon as he had fallen on the bed, a fresh bout of grief had struck. It was all he could do to stifle his sobs and wait for exhaustion to strike.

“Severus?” A voice in the darkness. “Sev, are you all right?”

Snape stiffened, every muscle going rigid, holding his breath. Damndamndamn why hadn't he thought to cast a Silencing Spell? The only thing that could possibly make this day any worse was to have another witness to his misery. Crybaby, he would be branded. It was hardly as bad as some other things he'd been called.

He waited, silently counting in his head, finally daring to slowly inhale a much-needed breath. A hand touched his shoulder, and he jumped, jerking away. He looked up to see a sleep-tousled blond head bending over him. He ducked his head, trying to hide his dirt- and tear-streaked face, but it was far too late. Of all the people, Lucius Malfoy would have to be the one to find him. Lucius, prince of Slytherin house, holding court among his peers with a majestic air, who tolerated no weakness in his House. Severus had been ordered to make friends with the boy because of his influential family, and he suspected that Lucius had been told the same from his father towards Severus. But Snape had never listened to anyone and told Lucius flat out that he found him to be a conceited, vain prat. Ever since then, there had been a quiet power struggle between them. Snape was the rogue element, the one Slytherin that Malfoy did not have under his thumb, and he knew it drove Lucius crazy.

“Sev?” For once, the nickname did not grate on him. “Sev, what's wrong?” He gasped, taking in the scratches and blood. “What the devil's happened to you?”

It was the boy's tone that won him over. It was not mocking or sarcastic, but seemed genuinely surprised and concerned. A Malfoy first. “They tried to k-kill me!”

Malfoy wrinkled his elegant brow. “Who?”

“*The Marauders*!” He couldn't keep the sob out of his voice.

“What? Are you serious?! How did they do it? You usually hex them into next week!” He sat down at the foot of the bed, giving the dark-haired Slytherin his undivided attention.

Snape wriggled uncomfortably, feeling torn. He wanted so badly to just blurt it out and damn Lupin for the savage that he was, but he simply couldn't. He had given his word, and as little respect as he had for his ancestry, the word of a Snape was golden. He indulged in one of his better skills – twisting the truth. “Black… he tricked me into going to the Forbidden Forest. He let slip that there were some rare potions ingredients… I should never have listened… but he knew all along that there was a feral werewolf in the woods! He sent me in there to be eaten or Merlin-knows-what, and if bloody James hadn't lost his nerve and came after me, Black would have gotten his wish!”

“You mean James hauled you out and had the nerve to play the hero?! How touchingly noble!” Lucius had heard enough. He turned and called behind him. “Avery! Avery, wake up!” Sleepy muttering came from across the room. “Crabbe, Goyle, wake up NOW! The Marauders tried to kill Sev!”

The dorm room began to come alive with somnolent bodies beginning to stir. “Wha?” Rosier muttered, rubbing his eyes.

Lucius bent over Severus, his storm-grey eyes burning. “Does Dumbledore know?”

Snape set his jaw angrily. “He does. And he chose to do nothing. Except, of course, reward his dear Potter for his selfless heroism.”

“That son of a…!” Lucius spat. “Good-for-nothing Gryffindor-lover! I knew he'd sell us out one day!” He began to pace back and forth, then paused in the middle of the room, looking for all the world like a king addressing his subjects. “Listen up, all of you! Tonight things have been taken too far. The Gryffindors have threatened the life of our own. Do you know what this means?” Unsurprisingly, Crabbe and Goyle looked blank. “Think, you thick-skulled morons!” The duo looked abashed. They were Malfoy's most loyal followers and never wanted to let him down. “Severus is the strongest of any of us. He's the best at Defense Against the Dark Arts, and he can whip up a potion to bring any fool to his knees. His hexes are the most wicked that I've ever seen. If they've tried to hit him first, then any of us could be next.” The message was finally beginning to sink in. Rosier and Wilkes looked frightened, while Crabbe, Goyle, and Avery looked furious. “This is more than an attack against a lone Slytherin. This is a strike against our entire House!” Murmurs threatened to drown him out. With a pointed glare, they fell reluctantly fell silent. “Listen to me. Now is the time that we must come together. We can no longer afford petty squabbles that undermine our effectiveness. As I said, Severus is the most skilled of any of us. It is in our best interest to keep him safe. In return, I'm sure he'd be willing to tutor us in Potions and DADA so that we can better ourselves as well.” He turned to Severus, one white-blond brow raised in question.

Severus sat silently, pondering the olive branch that Lucius was extending. It took him a moment to realize that the others were gathering around him. “Cripes, Sev, they really did a number on you!” Avery looked aghast. Evan Rosier handed him handkerchief to mop his face. “Dirty damn Gryffs! Always knew they were up to know good. Hypocrites, they are.” The others echoed his sentiments. Goyle offered him a sugar quill, and Lestrange surrendered his last square of German chocolate. For the first time, Severus, the eternal loner, felt accepted. He had no illusions as to why. He knew that he was being used for his talents, for what he could offer. Well, that was fine with him. For once, he was needed. At least he could put his skills to good use. It also meant that he would not have to hide his face when he walked down the hall, hearing the Marauders' jeering laughter. He would have the protection of Lucius Malfoy. The regal blond Slytherin clasped hands with him, and Severus allowed a rare smile to cross his face. Lucius smiled in return, a real smile, not his usual superior smirks. The first seeds of friendship had been planted.

* * *
“Aww, how touching,” Black sneered. “The lonely little snake made some equally slimy friends.” Behind him, Harry sat slumped in his chair, dazed with the knowledge he had just gained. All this time he had never considered what the prank had been like for Snape.

Lupin frowned thoughtfully. He didn't seem to enjoy the questioning but also was not lifting a hand to stop it. “You thought we were out to get all of you? Forgive me, Severus, but I find that rather hard to believe.”

Snape barely blinked. “Believe whatever you like. You know nothing of the way the Slytherin mind works. We take such attacks very personally. And the violent nature of your 'prank' was enough to frighten us into banding together. I helped design some intricate protection wards and early-warning spells around our dorm, many of which I still maintain today. We practiced casting hexes and defense spells every spare moment dwe could find. Rosier was so nervous that he began to carry an amulet.” Remus winced – he remembered the boy's strange necklace but had never divined its meaning. He also remembered that the Slytherins traveled in groups of twos and threes after that fateful night. It seemed to have no significance until now. “Lucius and I tried out best to make a go of it – at first it was just an alliance of convenience. We never expected to become real friends.” He looked at his hands. “No one ever understood me the way Lucius did. I never had to explain myself to him. He was a conceited git, but he never judged me. He could have had anyone as his best friend, but I think he liked me because I wasn't afraid to tell him to his face what I thought of him.” Snape looked exhausted, as if everything had weighted on him at once. His usually stoic mask was eroding, letting slip just how much he missed the elder Malfoy, his first and best friend.

He reached down and pulled an item from the pocket of his cloak. Harry shuddered as it glinted in the light. It was the very same silvered dagger that Snape had used to cut open the Dark Mark. It was a work of art, dual serpents twining about the handle, with emerald jewels for eyes. Its pristine beauty was marred by stains of dried blood on the blade. Severus began to idly pick at them with his thumbnail. “He gave this to me a few days after the Shack incident. It's pure silver. He said it was something I could use to defend myself against werewolves.” He caressed the blade with a thumbnail, looking a bit wistful. “It was the nicest present anyone's ever given me.”

Lupin looked crushed and horribly guilty. The nightmare of that event had come back to him threefold with Snape's tale. The sight of his friend in pain only served to infuriate Black further. “Boo-hoo-hoo. You haven't answered any of my questions. If you think you can distract me with some sob story from memory lane--”

The look of complete scorn on the Potions Master's face made them wonder if they had simply imagined his earlier melancholy. “How typical of you, Black. You have abused a strictly controlled potion without fully understanding its effects. When someone under the effects of Veritaserum is questioned, he has very little control of what comes out of his mouth. Any information that may be relevant must be divulged. An open-ended question like yours could take hours to fully answer. As it is, I was just getting to that bit of information. And for once, keep your mouth shut, or this will take all night.

"Several months into our Seventh Year, Lucius showed me an empty journal that he had acquired from Merlin-knows-where. He refused to relate to me where he had obtained it. Being the resident DADA expert, he asked for my opinion. I could tell right away that it was a product of Dark magic. The only sign of its original owner was the inscription of T. M. Riddle on the inside cover.” There was a choked cry. “Mister Potter certainly realizes the significance of our discovery. We spent a number of months writing in the journal, learning about the experiences that Riddle had had as a Slytherin in Hogwarts over a generation ago, and telling him about what was happening to us. We both kept it our little secret, not even telling the other Slytherins, though they were dying to know what we were up to. We thought it was the best discovery ever. Riddle's spirit knew exactly what to say to two angry, disenfranchised Slytherin youths to turn them to his side. Gradually, I found myself getting more and more tired as the year wore on. I thought that I had been pulling too many late nights, but nothing I did seemed to help me regain my energy. One day I realized it was that awful book that was draining my strength. I gave it to Lucius and told him to dispose of it by any means necessary. He swore to me that it had been destroyed. I suppose I should have known better – he would never have gotten rid of such a powerful artifact.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. “That poor little Weasley girl. If only I had known about the book… if only I had seen it… I would have recognized it immediately. I spent most of that year trying to worm information out of young Draco, but Lucius was smart enough to have kept him in the dark.” He shuddered. “He never was like that before. Voldemort has twisted him into something awful. I know first-hand how manipulative he can be.

“To finally give you an answer to your horrifically broad question – we joined Voldemort because of what he offered us. He promised power, prestige, recognition. He promised a quick rise to fame and glory, a return to the ways of pureblood wizards. He used his influence to poison us against the 'Gryffindors of the world' that would hold us back from our destiny. And we believed him. After Dumbledore showed exactly what he thought of the value of Slytherin life, none of us were willing to follow him.” Black snorted. Snape continued, blithely ignoring the interruption. “Did you not think it singular that nearly ever member of Slytherin house from our graduating class chose to join him? We admired him, the Slytherin who defied the Headmaster, seizing power for himself and fulfilling his ambitions. We were honored to follow him. Lucius and I were two of his favorites.” He uttered a sharp, bitter laugh. “Lucius was the one with the connections and the charisma. And where potions were concerned, I made the impossible look easy. He took sick pleasure in twisting us into soulless monsters, tools to serve his goals.”

Lupin was looking sicker by the minute, every line etched clearly in his face. “Do you mean to say that the night in the Shrieking Shack is the reason for joining the Death Eaters?”

The sallow man grimaced as he struggled to find words to express himself within the demands of the Veritaserum. “I cannot say for sure. It certainly was a catalyst for that decision. It helped me wake up and see exactly what the world thought of me, how no one would look out for me, how they would only hold me back. It was up to me to look after myself. I was very bitter and angry at the world, and most especially with Dumbledore. I wanted nothing more to throw my decision in his face. Of course, I ended up hurting myself a lot more. But it is still possible that I might have joined the Death Eaters on my own, had your little prank not taken place. After all, I was an ambitious Slytherin looking for a place where my skills would be appreciated. I joined because they asked me to, because I knew I was wanted. I still did my apprenticeship at Worm-Cooke Potions Institute, but I learned much more during my own experiments for the Death Eaters. I may very well have joined them on my own, but I would have probably approached it differently, and I might not have risen to the vaunted Inner Circle without my righteous rage against those who had slighted me. It is difficult to say how things could have turned out. But since the attack, I was burning for revenge, to secure my own place in the world. My motivations for joining were certainly a lot stronger than they would have been if that incident had never happened.”

Harry bit his lip. There had been something weighing on his mind for a long time, which had worsened ever since he had heard about his father's role in saving Snape. “Sir… do you hate me? Are you angry at something I've done, or simply because of who I am related to? Are you angry at me because of the debt you owe my father?”

“Contrary to popular belief, Potter, this is not all about you.” The usual tone of contempt was back. “I find you highly annoying, immature, and unruly. When I look at you, I see the typical Gryffindor, jumping headlong into risky situations without thinking of the consequences. You have the possibility of being something great, but content yourself with only mediocrity in your classes. You have made my task of protecting you ten times harder with your foolish shenanigans. You have certainly proved yourself to be your father's son by inheriting his most obnoxious traits, but never fear, all the disgust I feel for you has been well-earned by your own actions.”

A look of outrage replaced his contemplative look. “One thing is sure, however. Your actions have more far-reaching repercussions than many realize. I have worked in the background, doing my best to covertly convince my Slytherins to make their own decisions, to think before they commit themselves irrevocably to Voldemort's side. But neither Dumbledore nor yourself have made my job very easy. Again the Gryffindors claim the glory and leave us with the stigma. You are permitted to sneak around with your invisibility cloak and wreak all sorts of havoc, while Mister Malfoy is punished merely for reporting the infraction. I favor my Slytherins simply because no one else will. I have hoped that at some point, someone would catch on that my harsh treatment of the other houses is in reaction to the subtle prejudice against my own House, but it seems that no one is willing to look beyond the surface. I had hoped to strengthen the students against the cruelties that they will face later in life, but for you, Mister Potter, I fear that there is no hope. You have caused nothing but trouble for me for the past five years. Still, I cannot saddle you with all of the blame. That stunt that Albus pulled with the last-minute House points in your First Year was intolerably cruel. He could have posted them ahead of time, or at least given some warning before proclaiming Slytherin House the victor and then promptly snatching it away. Albus simply doesn't see what damage he is causing! He might as well gift-wrapped my charges and presented them to Voldemort with a bow around their necks.”

Harry's mouth was dry, and his palms were clammy. He had never stopped to think about it from a Slytherin perspective. Gryffindor had won those extra points fair and square, but perhaps Dumbledore had been a bit harsh in the way he presented them. He had been so happy about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and rubbing it in the Slytherins' noses that he had never considered how it had felt for the other side. Another question burned at the back of his mind. It had been a crucial one that Dumbledore had refused to answer. Now Harry would be sure to get his answers. “Why does Dumbledore trust you so much? How can he be sure that you won't betray him again?”

The look on Snape's face turned truly harsh and ugly. “You want to know, do you? Can't ever leave well enough alone, never realizing that maybe there are some things you shouldn't be messing with. Here! Here is your answer!” He thrust his right forearm under the boy's nose. Harry was confused at first – the Dark Mark was on the other arm – then he saw it. A thin, white scar running right across the wrist, directly on top of the pulse. He shuddered and drew back, not wanting to see any more. “I had been content with being the Dark Lord's follower. He gave me plenty of opportunity to hone my skills, and as long as I didn't think too hard about what was being asked of me, I was able to perform flawlessly. But one night my so-called mates decided I wasn't involved enough and should see my potions in action. I watched as a young halfbreed woman was tortured to death, grace of the marvelous concoction that I had so lovingly developed. I was heartsick. I could no longer lie to myself about what I was doing. I was quite literally brewing death. I couldn't live with myself and what I'd done. I knew there was no way out of the Death Eaters, so I took the only route I knew.” He massaged the scar absentmindedly, and by squinting carefully, Harry saw a matching scar on the other wrist. “I didn't even allow myself the luxury of a potion that had brought death to so many innocents. All I remember is laying in a pool of my own blood, thinking that this was a rather cowardly way to atone for my sins. It was then that I decided to go to Dumbledore. I fully expected to be turned over to the dementors after I told him everything I knew. In fact, a part of me was looking forward to the punishment I so justly deserved. But the sly old fox had a completely different idea. I have to admire the sheer genius of it. It was much harsher a penance than even I could have imagined, but at least I was able to try to make amends by becoming a double agent and feeding information to the Ministry. Dumbledore trusts me because I came to him when I had no other options left. I had shown him that I would rather take my own life than continue on the path that Voldemort had led me down. Essentially, I had nothing left to lose, except my life, and even that had no value for me anymore.”

Black looked incredulous. The greasy git was trying to put a guilt trip on both his godson and his best friend! He wouldn't put it past him to be subtly feeding them a pack of lies, sprinkled with just enough truth to make it palatable. If Snape's previous responses hadn't been so obviously involuntary, he would believe that the potion was faulty. He wouldn't put it past Snape to have a neutralized version of the potion, or to have found a way to defeat it. Snape was an excellent actor – was it possible that he was enacting another of his charades. “Those aren't the only marks that interest me. Tell me,” he said mockingly, “were the scars on your back made by this bear of yours?”

Snape's face was the color of curdled milk. He bit his lip until the already-bruised flesh began to bleed once more. “No,” he choked, biting down further in an attempt to distract himself.

“So you lied.”

“Yes! Yes, you cretin! It's none of your business! I won't tell you! I've never told anyone, dammit! Not even Lucius!” He curled into a ball and rocked back in forth in agitation.

Black's eyes were hard and pitiless, as if prying Snape's secrets from his mind was a personal crusade. Remus cried, “Stop this, Siri! You're just being cruel. You're not even sticking to the topic!” Sirius shut the voice out of his mind. He had to do this. He had every right to do this! “Answer me, Severus Snape! Where did those marks come from?”

The three Gryffindors watched in sick fascination as Snape struggled to keep from speaking. He bit his hand violently, drawing rivulets of blood. He closed his eyes and clenched his other fist, focusing on something deep within, denying the question, trying to distort the answer in his mind. But eventually the serum won out. “My father,” he said dully, staring out the window at the countryside. “My father hit me. With a belt, a plank of wood, anything on hand. It took me a long time to realize that it didn't matter what I did. Anything was a good excuse to him. He hated me. He was ashamed of me because I was too smart, not athletic, and so very sickly. He told me he should have drowned me the moment I was born. Merlin, I wish he had!” His voice broke slightly, and he turned anguished black eyes on his tormentor. “I hate you. I hate you so much. You have no right to do this to me. I have already been judged for my sins.” The words were barely a whisper.

“I've heard enough.” Remus loomed over his old friend, an uncharacteristic look of subdued fury on his face. “Sirius, you've done a lot of foolish, boneheaded things in your time, but this takes the cake. You have allowed Azkaban to twist you, turn you into someone uncaring and merciless! This isn't about Snape at all, it's about you needing to prove yourself to James' memory, to make up for what happened with Peter! You're allowing guilt to eat you alive, and destroy others in the process!”

Sirius' mouth moved silently, then he bowed his head, his eyes filling with tears. “Merlin help me. You're right, as always, Moony. I just want to keep Harry safe! He's the only family I've got, and I don't want anyone to hurt him. But I don't want to become a monster either. I'm so scared of what I've become. I'm willing to admit that I've been wrong. Please, help me. You and Harry are all that I have in the world.”

Harry folded him in a silent hug, tears pricking at his eyes. He was touched that Sirius cared about him so much, but it hurt to see how the years in Azkaban had affected him, mentally as well as physically. It really had been frightening to see how cold and unforgiving his godparent could be, even though it was supposedly on his behalf. He would try to help Black heal and absolve himself of some of his guilt.

Remus hugged his friend from behind. “Padfoot, you have to let it go. Peter had every one of us fooled: you, me, James, even Dumbledore. But I wager that Severus always had his measure.” His tone became firm. “You have done something unpardonable tonight. You have attacked an innocent and wounded man who has risked his life to protect not only James and Lily, but their only son as well, who just happens to be your godson. It's time you recognized that. You owe him an apology.”

Black opened his mouth to speak, but no sound emerged. For once, he was completely speechless. Snape beat him to the punch. “Don't bother. No apology of yours will ever be accepted.” He stretched out on the train seats, wrapping his torn and bloodied robe around him like a blanket, burying his face against the cushion. He squeezed his eyes together, breathing shallowly. He would be calm. He would not lose control of his emotions. He would do his best to shut out the avalanche of painful memories that Black's interrogation had unleashed – memories that he had never wanted to relive. Above all, he would not cry. Not now, not ever. Slytherins simply did not cry. And neither did Snapes.

Chapter Twelve

The three Gryffindors talked quietly, mindful of the huddled figure on the seat. It was unclear if Severus was sleeping or unconscious, but they were loath to disturb him either way. Medical attention was nowhere in sight, and he needed rest above all else. It was also difficult to gauge the extent of his injuries, and what damage that prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus Curse may have caused.

Remus and Sirius discussed the good old Marauder days with James and Peter, trying to reconcile it with the betrayal of their good friend and the death of another. The talk seemed to do Sirius a world of good as he realized that there was very little sign of Peter's true allegiance. “I have to tell you something, Moony,” he said, looking shamefaced. “It was the Shrieking Shack incident that led me to give up my role as Secret Keeper. Peter pointed out that I had foolishly endangered you as well as Snape, and I didn't want such a massive responsibility on my shoulders once more. I didn't even see how thoroughly he had manipulated me, until Voldemort had already struck. I've had twelve long years to think about it, and I'm still not sure exactly why he turned against us. I mean, I have a few ideas, but I just can't understand it in my gut.”

Remus looked at him sharply. “Is that part of the reason you hate Snape so much? Perhaps you blame him for your choice to replace yourself with Peter as Secret Keeper. That's hardly fair to him, and to James. In the end, it was James' choice. Tonight Harry avenged his father's death, and while I wish Peter had sided with us, he made his choice and gave his life for it. There's no further need to berate yourself over it.”

Sirius gave a somewhat watery smile, squeezing Lupin's hand and groping for Harry's. “I know I really don't deserve it… but I'm damned lucky to have friends like you. It feels as if the Marauders aren't really gone. With Harry here, perhaps we can keep the group alive.”

Harry squeezed the hand in his grasp. “I'd be honored to be a Marauder.”

Remus looked pleased with the exchange, but the smile faded from his face as a sobering thought struck. “Harry, I hope that Professor Snape didn't hurt your feelings too badly. He rarely has a good word to say about anyone, even the ones that he cares for. I don't think he's really learned the art of tact. Plus I think he'd choke on the words if he ever had to compliment anyone.”

Harry looked thoughtful. “It does hurt a bit, but not as much as I thought it would. Snape doesn't know me well enough to judge me properly. I've thought for awhile that he has a blind spot when it comes to Gryffindors, and the name Potter in particular. He may not think much of my actions, but he doesn't know my reasoning behind them. I suppose I can forgive him for it – after all, I judged him pretty harshly for years. I never tried to understand his actions until recently. I think with a little more training, I can prove to him that I'm not just some foolish Gryffindor.”

“I'm proud of you, Harry. That's a very mature observation.” Lupin glanced at the huddled form across the small compartment. “Sirius and I have each other. You have your friends Ron and Hermione. But Severus has practically no one. He's succeeded in pushing away everyone around him, and now he has what he wanted. He is alone in the world, and I can't help but wonder if he doesn't get lonely sometimes.”

Harry didn't quite know what to say to that. As pondered this new concept, he felt a giant yawn threaten to crack his jaw apart. “I'll second that,” Sirius murmured, already wrapping himself in his cloak. “Harry, you take the other seat. I'm fine right here.” His sentence was barely out before soft snores filled the air.

Remus chuckled. “Padfoot always did have a talent for sleeping through anything. Still, sleep sounds like a heavenly idea. We all could use some rest – we're going to need all the strength we've got to get back to Hogwarts in one piece.” And, for a time, there was nothing but the sound of deep breathing and the occasional snore or mutter.

* * * * *
“You woke up screaming aloud
a prayer from your secret god
You feed off our fears
and hold back your tears”
-- Building a Mystery – Sarah McLachlan

Harry jerked violently out of sleep, startled and disoriented. He hadn't been having a particularly pleasant dream, and his mind was a bit clouded as his eyes darted frantically, seeking to identify his surroundings. He relaxed slightly as the memories returned to him. The train, Lupin, Black… he was safe. Then a noise caught his ear, and he realized that it wasn't the nightmare at all that woke him. He stiffened once more, focusing on the sound. There it was again, it was a… whimper?

He listened in mute horror as the whimper transmuted into a full-throated scream. The abrupt noise startled Lupin from his slumber, as he jerked his head up and blinked owlishly. Black jumped and fell from his precariously slumped position, falling to the floor with a thud. He grumbled crossly, rubbing his sore posterior. A second scream brought him back to the situation at hand. Everything suddenly snapped into focus. “Professor!” Harry exclaimed, hurrying over to the thrashing figure. He touched the man's shoulder timidly, unsure of what to do.

In a flash, Lupin was by his side, looking Snape over with a critical eye. “Wake up, Severus!” he said firmly, shaking him as gently as possible. “It's just a nightmare. Wake up!”

Eyes snapped open, but they held no recognition, no clarity. Inky-black orbs stared unseeing at the ceiling. “No!” A soft moan tore from his lips. “Stop! No more!”

Sirius frowned from the other side of the compartment. “What's wrong with him?”

Remus put his hand on the pale, sweating forehead. A deep line appeared between his eyes, reflecting his concern. “He's feverish. Whatever ails him is causing him to become delusional. There's really not much difference between when he's awake and when he's asleep.” He winced at a low, despairing cry.

At Lupin's approving nod, Black pulled out his wand and placed a Silencing Charm on the compartment. It was a real risk to use magic and attract attention from any Death Eaters, but the screaming could summon nosy, interfering Muggles, and that was something they certainly did not need.

Snape stared up at Lupin, looking right through him. “You can't punish me, Father, you can't! I've done nothing wrong!!” His plaintive tone caused the trio to wince. Harry stared at his feet, wishing he was anywhere but here. It wasn't right for him to hear the uncontrolled ramblings of such a private man.

Lupin knelt, loosening the ill man's clothing as gently as he could, Snape's earlier reaction still fresh in his mind. “Padfoot, fetch some damp paper towels from the lavatory. Harry, see if there's anything in Professor Snape's potions case that will help him.”

Harry poked through the case as Sirius hastened out of the room, no doubt relieved to escape the oppressive atmosphere. He did his best to shut out the sounds of misery as he picked through the assorted bottles and vials. Most were labeled, and he warily avoided those that were not. There was undoubtedly a reason that Snape did not want these potions to be identified. Finally he gave up with a sigh. “Sorry, Professor, there isn't much here to work with. There's Dreamless Sleep, but I don't it should be taken with a fever. There's still one more vial of Healing Potion. I don't think this one's been tampered with.”

“Hold it up.” Lupin eyed the meager contents of the bottle. “We'd best save it for tomorrow, when the train arrives at King's Cross. Severus will need every ounce of it to make it off the train.”

Black returned with a pile of damp paper towels in his hand. Remus took one and began to mop the pale brow, waiting for his patient to stop flinching from his touch. His look of sympathy was mirrored by Harry's own, and even Sirius looked rather grim. “I guess he doesn't like to be touched for a reason.” Harry took the clammy hand hesitantly in his own.

The huddled, sweating form took no notice of his surroundings, his head turning restlessly, as if searching for something. “Maman! Maman, où êtes-vous? Je me suis perdu, et il fait froid. Il est très noir, je ne vois rien! Maman?”

“Is that French?” Harry took another wet towel and began dabbing at the small slices of flesh that were visible of Snape's neck and chest. “What is he saying?”

Sirius shrugged, looking at Lupin for explanation. The ex-professor obliged them. “It is French, but I never learned much of the language. I think he's recalling a memory of being lost and calling for his mother. I gather she didn't find him for a long time.” A light of recognition began to dawn in his eyes. “This makes a lot more sense now! I think I remember hearing somewhere that Snape's mother is from the Rogue family. That would certainly explain how he learned French.”

Sirius broke in, “That greasy git, a Rogue? You must be joking! The Rogue family is one of the most established families of noble breeding in all of France! If he were related to the Rogues, you can bet he'd play it for all he's worth, like the Malfoys.”

Harry did not look up from his ministrations. “Maybe he didn't want people to know. He doesn't seem to like anyone knowing anything about his personal life.”

“True enough,” Lupin agreed, moving to change the dressing on a wound that was seeping rather ominously. “Severus never liked to talk about himself when we were in school. The Rogues and Snapes are both very powerful pureblood families. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an arranged marriage involved with his parents. Such unions are rarely happy ones.”

Harry locked eyes with his former professor. “I wonder what Draco's home life is like,” he said quietly. “If his father is half as cruel as Snape's must have been, it may explain why he's so horrid.”

“You never seem to amaze me, Harry,” Lupin beamed at him. “It is not an excuse for Draco's behavior, but it is important to understand what he must go through and what pressures may influence him. Knowing this may make it easier to deal with his kind. Compassion goes a long way, Harry, even if the target does not seem to appreciate it.”

“How is he?” Sirius inquired gruffly, trying to squelch the feeling of guilt that was creeping up on him. What did he know of the concoction he had slipped to Snape? That could be the very reason the git had taken such a bad turn. As much as he loathed the man, they needed all members in top form, and the slimy Slytherin did help Harry to get out of a bad spot….

“Not so good.” Lupin fretted over another open wound. “His fever isn't breaking fast enough. There's no way we can get him the medical treatment he needs. I just hope we can keep his illness under control until we get to safety.” He resolutely ignored the near-incoherent mumblings of his patient.

Harry tried to recall what little he knew of Muggle first aid. It was the best hope they had right now of healing the Potions Master. He reached out to feel for the pulse and jumped in shock as a bony yet powerful hand closed over his wrist. A squeak came from the boy's mouth. Snape lifted his head, his intense gaze boring holes into Harry's head. “Albus, the Potters! The Potters are in danger! Voldemort will strike them next… you must warn them… find need a Secret Keeper... choose wisely… keep them safe….” The coal-black eyes closed, and his head fell back against the seat as if the strings of a puppet had been cut. That last memory/delusion seemed to have drained him of his remaining strength. Other than the occasional cry or murmur, there was silence.

The three Gryffindors groped for something, anything to say. “It was him,” Black finally rasped. “He was the spy who tipped off Albus that Lilly and James were in danger. He risked his life to save them, and I ruined the sacrifice… I allowed Pettigrew to sway me and put their lives in his hands. No wonder he thought I was a murderer. He's not far wrong. How could I have been so blind? Tonight he risked his life again to save Harry, and I didn't even see it, couldn't believe that he could be selfless.” He stared with a mixture of horror and guilt at the slashed-open Dark Mark on Snape's pale arm, exposed to the air for the first time in decades. Rather than a symbol of evil, it seemed to him to be a badge of sacrifice. Snape was prepared to risk everything to bring down his former master. Could Black do any less?

“I thought he hated my father,” Harry said dully, massaging his wrist where the strong grip had left marks. “Maybe he tried to save my parents because of the debt he owed. But he still hasn't stopped looking after me, as much as he seems to despise the Potters. I don't think I'll ever understand him, but I can at least try to treat him with a bit more respect, and see that others do as well. The reputation of the Boy Who Lived has to be good for something, after all.”

Lupin tucked in the edges of Snape's voluminous robe around the comatose figure. “It's good to know that he has a champion in you, Harry. And Sirius, I doubt there will ever be more than animosity between you, but I hope that you can at least ease up on him a bit in the future. He's got enough on his mind without any of us making it worse.” Black looked more than sufficiently abashed. He doubted he could ever bring himself to say the words, nor would Snape believe them, but deep inside a pervasive feeling of shame was taking root.

“I think he's worn himself out,” Lupin said softly. “We'd all best get some shut-eye while things are quiet. However, I'm afraid to leave Severus unattended. We'd best take turns looking after him.”

“He'd hate being coddled like this,” a slight smirk twitched at Black's lips, “but it's not as if he's in a position to argue.” Checking one last time to make sure that the ill man was comfortable, Lupin assumed a rather uncomfortable perch nearby to begin the first watch. Exhaustion claimed the others immediately.

The strong sunlight woke them hours later. A quick glance out the window revealed that they were quite close to King's Cross. Black stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his back after his turn watching over Snape. He still hated the man – there was a part of him that couldn't help that, the sensation had been a part of him for so long – but now at least he had a sense of the person lurking behind the cold mask and sharp tongue. Snape wasn't the inhuman monster that Black had always imagined him to be, and he wasn't quite sure how to take that realization.

Harry smiled ruefully as his stomach gurgled. “Guess I'd better see about getting something to eat.” He pulled out a sizeable billfold. “Good thing I managed to get a bit of money converted to pounds, back when I though I'd have to go back to the Dursleys.” Unfortunately, he produced only a few small bills and coins – the rest of his stash was wizard currency. “I should be able to get us all something small. Be right back!” He wisely shed his outer robe to avoid curious stares, heading for the dining car clad in his rumpled sweater and slacks.

Once Harry had departed, Lupin and Black turned their attention to Snape, who had begun to stir. Remus knelt beside him and spoke. “Severus, wake up. Do you know who we are? Do you recall what happened?” There was only a low mutter as Snape turned his head away, saying something about Potions finals. It wasn't clear if he was referring to taking them as a student or administering them as a professor. Black approached with the remnants of the Healing Potion. Lupin tried to coax the pale man to drink. “Come now, Severus, it's one of yours. It hasn't been tampered with, I promise you. Drink it, please, you need to get well.” He tried to gently turn Snape's head, who whimpered and pulled away.

Black couldn't stand the worried, near-desperate look in Lupin's eyes. He snatched the bottle, bending over Snape, and grabbed a fistful of his shirt, pulling the pale man up to face him, glaring at the unfocused eyes. “Listen, boy,” he snarled, “you take your medicine and stop giving your mother trouble, or I'll give you a beating you'll never forget!” The horrified gasp, combined with the look of terror in the normally guarded black eyes, was enough to twist at even Black's heart. He squelched the feeling and quickly dumped the contents of the vial down Snape's throat, holding his hand over the man's nose and mouth, withholding oxygen until he was certain that the entire potion had been swallowed. Only then did he let go, meeting Remus' look of horror with one of guilt.

“Gods, Moony, don't look at me like that!” he cried. “I didn't enjoy that one bit, and believe me, I know that it was low of me to use Snape's fears against him. But it was the only thing I could think of to get him to take that damn potion!”

Harry's return bearing sustenance was enough to settle the topic, for the moment. The boy wore a look of confusion as his gaze darted from Black, to Lupin, to Snape. He could sense tension in the atmosphere but could not fathom what had transpired during his absence. The incident was forgotten, for the moment, as they all tucked in hungrily, devouring the scones and apple juice as if they had not eaten for days.

They paused in their chewing as the dark figure on the bench stirred and began to rise shakily. Remus was by his side in an instant, feeling his forehead. “Take it easy, Severus, you're still rather feverish. Lie down and rest awhile.”

“Can't.” Lupin was flummoxed to see a faint pink tinge on the man's cheeks. “Need… need to use the loo.” Snape grimaced and glared fiercely at his shoes. Having to ask for help in such a private task was nothing short of degrading! He'd never have even mentioned the problem if his back teeth hadn't been floating. If he left it for much longer, he'd have a serious problem on his hands. Already his bladder was screaming at him to get up and do something to relieve it.

“Ah,” Remus replied simply. “I'd best accompany you to make sure you don't fall along the way.” To Snape's disgust, an arm wound its way around his shoulders, supporting him as he made his way, shuffling and weak and hesitant, down the hall to the lavatory.

Sirius suddenly had a mental image that caused him to guffaw out loud, a rather absurd sound of amusement. Harry jerked his head up in surprise. Black explained, “I just had the most bizarre mental image of Remus trying to help ol' Snape in the loo!”

Harry giggled. “I'm sure that Snape would force him to wait outside, but it would be really funny if he needed help! Boy, I'd love to have blackmail pictures of that! Perhaps you should have packed a bedpan!” He suddenly wished for Colin's irritatingly omnipresent camera. Where was the blasted thing when he needed it?

Snickers greeted the two on their return from their quick sojourn. Snape gave them an evil glare, but his illness had diminished its usual quelling power – that, and he was still leaning heavily on the blasted werewolf's shoulder. He thanked him for his troubles with a deep scowl. Remus smiled cheerfully in return. “You'd best eat something, we're almost there.”

Snape accepted an apple juice with shaking hands, drinking it in small, measured sips. He outright refused the scone, knowing that he would never be able to eat it after all the stress his nervous stomach had been subjected to. Lupin decided to save it for a future meal, since they would be hard up for food later on. The next half-hour was spent on making themselves presentable-looking to disembark. Black collected everyone's robes, knowing how strange they would look in the Muggle world. Despite their snickering over the loo, no one was foolish enough to refuse a quick pit stop before leaving the train.

Exiting the train was a messier affair than anticipated. Snape was weak and unsteady on his feet, and it was an arduous task helping him down the stairs. Lupin held him upright, but he stumbled and fell face-forward. Only Black's quick reflexes saved him from a broken nose. Snape gave the animagus a weary glare, and Black responded with a sneer as he supported the limp weight until Lupin and Harry could finish making their way to the platform. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, the two men balanced Snape between them, while Harry walked in front, trying to block curious stares. A strange frisson passed through all of them, and even Snape picked his head up slightly to look around him. King's Cross station brought back a lot of memories for all of them. It was a bizarre meeting of worlds, the place that heralded the beginning and end of each school year, and the adventures to be had. Each privately wished to have more time to wander, to remember, even if for just a moment.

Black was relieved when they reached the barrier to Platform 9 ¾. His face was as well-known here as it was in the Wizarding world, due to the Ministry's manhunt after his escape from Azkaban, and although his name had been cleared, he still got the most awful stares. He had kept his head down the entire time to avoid unwanted attention. Getting a weakened Snape through the barrier proved to be mercifully easier than anticipated. It wasn't until they were on the other side that Harry paused to think. “How are we getting back to Hogwarts? Surely the Hogwarts Express doesn't run all the time.” The fact that they were utterly alone on the platform was a telling clue.

Black explained as he had Lupin lowered the professor to an empty bench and donned their robes once more, “There is an unmanned car that runs between here and Hogwarts on occasion. There was very little call for it until recently, when the Order reactivated it for missions that required travel without magic. Few know about its existence, and Dumbledore himself has placed protective wards on it.” Lupin busied himself by tapping his wand in a certain pattern on the wall, summoning the car. “Now we just have to wait. With luck, it should be here within the hour.”

By the time the car arrived, Snape was clearly the worse for wear. His head rested upon Lupin's shoulder, seemingly too sickly to even raise a fuss about it. He didn't even raise a murmur of protest when the two men fairly carried him into the car. The ride was uneventful but tense, as the Potions Master's condition steadily worsened. He slipped into unconsciousness and would not wake, and his breathing became irregular and raspy. His temperature climbed steadily, and his thin frame was alternately seized by sweats and chills. The ride was faster than that of the Hogwarts Express, due to the car's smaller size and cargo, but the journey still seemed to last an eternity. The others were ravenous and divided the remaining scone between them, casting worried glances at Snape. He was the one that needed to eat the most. By the time the train arrived, they were afraid to move Severus at all. His face had taken on a waxy coloring, and his hands were clammy and bloodless. It was quite cramped in the single horseless carriage leading back to Hogwarts, but the trio did their best to make their patient as comfortable as possible by draping him over their laps and stirring up small breezes to cool him.

There was a massive stir in Hogwarts as the main doors were flung open to admit a very bedraggled and exhausted Harry Potter. Classes had just let out, and the hallways were packed with students and professors, all immediately surrounding Harry, chattering excitedly and touching him as if they were not certain he was real. Rom burst through the crowd and hugged his friend fiercely. “Harry, we've all be scared out of our minds! We hadn't heard from you in days! We were afraid you were dead!” He stepped back just in time for Hermione to launch herself at Harry. Professor McGonagall came up behind Harry and placed a hand on his shoulder. “It's good to have you back, Mister Potter.” A slight smile of relief tinged her usually stern expression.

The doors burst open again to admit a bone-weary Sirius Black. The assembled group fell silent, staring at the abrupt entrance of the former convict. On his heels followed their beloved ex-Professor Lupin, carrying a deathly ill Snape. “Oh, merciful gods!” McGonagall exclaimed as she beheld her stricken colleague. “Quickly, we must get him to the hospital wing!”

From seemingly out of nowhere, Dumbledore appeared and took the ill man from Lupin's arms, hefting him effortlessly. The entire school goggled as one, shocked into silence by the sight of their most reviled professor brought low and cradled in the arms of their revered Headmaster. Poppy Pomfrey hastened over and began giving her patient a quick once-over as Dumbledore whisked him away to the hospital wing, the other three Gryffindors following submissively after a commanding glare from the nurse.

The Slytherins followed at a subtle distance, worry and confusion written on their expressions. They were a close-knit group, and despite their mentor's prickly demeanor, they held him in the highest regard. What in the name of Merlin had struck down their Head of House? And how was Harry Potter involved? There was nothing more tempting to the Slytherin mind than a mystery, and they were determined to get to the bottom of this one.

(A/N: WARNING!! This chapter is especially disturbing and contains graphic violence!)
Chapter Thirteen

“It's all or nothing
And nothing's all I ever get
Every time I turn it on
I burn it up and burn it out
It's always something
There's always something going wrong
That's the only guarantee
That's what this is all about”

-- “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back” - Meatloaf

After about a week, Harry was ready to scream. His close friends had been patient and understanding, but the rest of the school had mobbed him, badgering him for details of his latest adventure. Being in the limelight made him extremely uncomfortable. The silver lining of the situation was that he had the opportunity to tell others of Snape's heroism. He was very hazy about the particulars of their experience, partly out of his reluctance to relive the whole awful experience, but mostly out of respect for the Potions Master's privacy. All anyone knew was that Snape had helped Harry out of a very dangerous situation.

Hermione and Ron were blessedly patient about the ordeal. They waited until Harry had fully recovered and was willing to talk. Harry favored them with an almost-complete recount of his nightmare. He even told them about Sirius' trick with the Veritaserum but wisely omitted Snape's coerced responses. All he would say was that Snape seemed to have little reason to be kind to the world. His two best friends were astonished that their surly, detested professor had been the one to try to protect Harry's parents. They couldn't quite reconcile that with the Snape that they knew.

Harry found similar reactions in his classmates. They had all listened incredulously to his tale, then shaken their heads in disbelief. It simply made him want to pull his hair out. After talking to Dumbledore, it was agreed that he should give away as little detail as possible regarding Snape's double role. He had learned the hard way that anyone could secretly be a Voldemort sympathizer, and Snape would be in danger if the truth leaked out before he had fully recovered. It hurt Harry to see the way the treated someone who should have been regarded as a hero. If it felt that way to him, how must it be for Snape? He was no doubt used to it by now, but that didn't mean that it hurt any less. He remembered how it had been to be ostracized when the whole school thought he was the Heir of Slytherin. At least then he had had Hermione and Ron. Lupin's words came back to him. Who did Snape have to turn to?

His kidnapping and near-death had left Harry feeling strange, as if he was now slightly out-of-sync with the rest of the world. He felt greatly changed, while life continued as if absolutely nothing had happened. He had difficulty relating to others, even his friends, who fortunately remained as supportive as ever. When Snape finally emerged from the Infirmary, a bit weak and shaky but as surly as ever, Harry had hoped for someone to relate to. But Snape wanted nothing to do with Harry, or anyone else, it seemed. The man had never been a social butterfly, but he seemed to draw into himself even more, spending most of his time locked in the dungeon, only appearing for meals or classes. Harry was certainly not familiar with the man's habits, but something about him seemed… off.

Hostilities with Slytherin House had reached a new level. The House of the Serpent wanted answers – all they knew was that their beloved Head was ill, and he had been in the presence of three Gryffindors with a known grudge. They were not about to listen to any of Harry's carefully-edited explanations. They had been relieved when Snape resumed his teaching duties, but the tension remained in the atmosphere, and scarcely a week passed without some kind of inter-house conflict. Strangely enough, Severus remained apathetic. He seemed to give his Slytherins far too much leeway in the classroom, but he knew how to manage his rebellious charges and had made it plain that any rule-breaking would be punished quietly but severely. Most shocking of all, he had cancelled his office hours and turned all detentions over to Filch. His door had always been open to his charges in the past. They were bewildered by the change and lashed out at its perceived cause.

Snape's shift in behavior did not go unnoticed by the staff. Being used to the prickly professor's moodiness and occasional outbursts of temper, they saw it as nothing to remark on. He had gradually formed a casual working relationship with his colleagues, occasionally joining them for tea or intellectual debates, but his private life was strictly off-limits. They still shuddered at the vicious hexing Snape had heaped on Lockhart after a few blatantly invasive remarks. If anything was troubling Severus, it was certain that he would not discuss it, and would fully resent the intrusion of anyone foolish enough to try.

Harry entered the Potions classroom with an oddly heavy heart. It was the last Potions class of the year, and while the rest of his classmates were beyond elated, he couldn't help but feel somewhat sad. He was never very talented in Potions, and certainly their professor's sharp tongue and irrational stripping of points had made the class a living hell in the past. He couldn't help but wonder if he was starting to lose his mind… but Potions with Snape had forced him to push his limits, helped him to learn patience and attention to detail. Gradually, he had become adjusted to the acerbic comments flung at him. It was just Snape being his usual irritable self. He tried to console himself with the thought that he would be spending the summer with Sirius, at last! No more Dursleys to torment him!

To his astonishment, he spotted Snape already seated at his desk, staring blankly at a thick, dusty tome. A shiver of apprehension ran up the young man's spine. The Potions Master was a creature of habit and had started nearly every class since Harry's first year by bursting through the door in a flurry of ferocious energy. To see him sitting quietly just seemed… wrong. He took his own seat, darting glances at the front of the room through lowered lashes. His fellow Gryffindors took their seats around him, chatting softly, not quite daring to risk Snape's ire. None seemed to find anything out of the ordinary.

As the time for class arrived, the students all dutifully got out their quills, parchment, cauldrons, and potions ingredients. They sat in total silence, wondering if this was some sort of test. None would hold it past the foul-tempered professor to strike points for the smallest cough or fidget. They sat and waited… and waited. After several minutes, despite their best intentions, the room was filled with quiet restless movement. At long last, Snape looked up from his text, as if noticing their presence for the first time. “You are prepared for once, I see. Very well. Today we will be reviewing what you have learned of basic first aid potions.” He stepped over to the blackboard, and for a short time, an air of normalcy returned. Snape lectured on the origins and primary applications of the most useful potions, then assigned them an anti-inflammatory draught for the practical part of the lesson.

The fifth-year Gryffindors and Slytherins bent to their task, expecting to feel a looming shadowy presence behind them, hot breath falling on their neck as a silky voice insulted their latest attempt (for the Gryffindors, anyway). But nothing came. Snape sat behind his desk, idly flipping through a few thick, dusty books, or slashing away at an unfortunate essay. From time to time he would glance up, frightening the students back to their work. They weren't sure which was scarier. At least they had grown accustomed to Snape's stalk-and-swoop. This was something unusual and unexpected, and when it came to their Potions Master, the unusual and unexpected was very much feared. Instead of seeing it as a chance to goof off, they found themselves on their best behavior, waiting for the axe to fall. But it never did. When Longbottom's cauldron erupted in a spectacular shower of failed potion, Snape barely glanced up. “Clean it up, Longbottom,” he said in a weary tone, flicking another page aside in his book. The hapless Gryffindor scrambled to comply, and the rest of the class relaxed. They had expected another massive eruption from the front of the room.

The Gryffindor half of the classroom was fairly grinning by the end of the class. They had managed to go an entire period without a single point deduction or threat! The Slytherins seemed rather bemused but unwilling to rock the boat. Snape's eerie calmness might just be the eye of the storm, and they certainly did not want to be around when the tempest broke. “Wow, that was incredible!” Ron observed, smirking at Malfoy on the way out, who glared. “Something sure has changed Snape, and certainly for the better. He should have near-death experiences more often!”

Hermione scowled at him sternly. “That's an awful thing to say! Although, I have to admit that today's lesson was particularly enjoyable. If I manage to stick to my study schedule, I should be able to do fairly well on the final exam. I do feel bad for whatever Professor Snape suffered, but I can't argue with the results.”

Harry frowned deeply. He wouldn't presume any familiarity with the irritable Slytherin, but the professor was certainly behaving oddly. It really had been nice to have a peaceful class period, but part of him almost missed the sharp comments that had kept him on his toes. He watched Neville shuffle past and was surprised to see a groove of worry carved into the chubby boy's brow. Of all people, the shy Gryffindor should be pleased at the class's outcome, but he seemed upset and unsettled.

Harry deliberately placed himself by Neville's side at dinnertime. The boy's behavior after Potions had piqued his curiosity. Thankfully, Ron was too embroiled in a discussion with Seamus about the Chudley Cannons to pay much attention to him, and Hermione was busy creating yet another draft of her study notes. Neville made small talk easily enough, though he was self-effacing on any personal topic. Harry was trying to think of the best way to broach the topic when his eyes wandered to the Head Table. Snape was there, his head bent over his plate, greasy black hair partially obscuring his gaunt, hollow cheeks and perpetual lines that grooved his face. 'Ooh, he does not look good,' Harry thought, and then mentally kicked himself. How could he expect Snape to look?

“He looks awful.”

Harry jumped, his jaw falling open. Of all people, he'd never expected Neville to notice. Then again, Longbottom had probably developed a survival instinct where Professor Snape was concerned. “Yeah, he really does,” he said rather lamely.

Neville's round face took on a thoughtful look. “Something's not right with him. More so than usual, I mean. Something bad's going on. It's a wonder that no one else has noticed.”

“I think they noticed, but most of them just don't care.” Harry could not keep the tone of anger from his voice. No matter how horrible the man had been to all of them, surely he deserved better than this?

“Maybe we should tell someone.” Neville began to tear his napkin into little shreds. He was not looking forward to such a meeting. Even around the teachers who liked him, he felt clumsy and stupid.

After dinner was over, they found themselves in McGonagall's office, nervously shifting before the Transfiguration professor's desk. Neville twisted his hands, suddenly wishing he could be anywhere but here. The little bit of courage he'd managed to muster was gone. Was Snape really worth all this? Surely they were all overreacting, and the Potions Master would be absolutely livid if he ever caught wind of it.

“I fail to see your point, Mister Potter,” the stern-faced woman said pointedly.

Harry just managed to stifle an exasperated sigh. “The point is that there's something wrong with Sna – erm, Professor Snape. He hasn't been the same since we managed to escape from the Death Eaters. I wondered if there was anything that we could do for him.”

“And do you feel the same, Mister Longbottom?” Neville cringed but nodded timidly. He hated calling attention to himself! McGonagall was not as cruel as Snape, but she was certainly almost as difficult to please. She harrumphed and arranged her robes about her, taking a moment to find the appropriate words. “While your concern is appreciated, it is unwarranted. Professor Snape is well-accustomed to looking after himself. He would not appreciate students meddling with his private affairs, and I am not about to encourage such behavior. As I am sure you well know, recovery from illness does not happen overnight. I assure you that your Potions Master will be fully mended before long and resuming his usual habits. Any action on our part could very well worsen his condition. I suggest you focus your attention on your upcoming exams and do not waste your time worrying over things that are not your concern.”

Harry hung his head, chagrined. “Yes, ma'am. Thank you, Professor McGonagall.” Neville unglued his tongue long enough to murmur his own apologies, never lifting his eyes from the floor. They left the office silently, not speaking until they had reached Gryffindor tower. They did not see McGonagall close the door behind them, sighing and rubbing her face tiredly.

* * * * *

Snape entered the staffroom with a heavy, dragging step. He dropped his slight frame into his usual chair and sat staring at his clasped hands. Gone was the usual flowing grace; the stalking, measured step that was his trademark. It was enough to earn him a few surreptitious glances, but no one was courageous or foolish enough to comment. As reclusive as he was, Snape was still known to participate in the odd conversation or two, especially where Slytherin House was concerned. Even if he chose not to offer commentary, he still obviously listened, occasionally offering a nod or a sneer. Today he seemed determined to shut out the entire world, and when Severus got into one of his moods, it was just best to let him stew. No one was in the mood to be verbally eviscerated… although Snape did not seem to have his usual spit and fire. In fact, he looked positively morose.

All chatter ceased as Dumbledore entered, trading brief greetings with the staff. Snape barely acknowledged his presence with a grunt. After a few pleasantries, the staff meeting began in earnest. The usual topics of curriculum were discussed, as well as disciplinarian issues and other pressing business. Once the general issues were out of the way, attention sharpened and backs sat a little straighter. It was time for Albus to announce the appointment of next year's DADA professor. After a few teasing remarks, the Headmaster finally broached the topic. “As you all know, Professor Handley's one-year term has come to an end. While he has been quite a satisfactory professor, it was never his intention to accept the position on a permanent basis. Considering the recent change in political climate within the Ministry, we are now free to explore options that had previously been unavailable to us. In the interest of cooperation in the escalating war, attitudes towards supposed 'dark creatures' and unfavorable genetics have come into a more favorable light. After quite a bit of wrangling and maneuvering, I was able to secure the services of a most eminently qualified educator. My friends, it is my great pleasure to announce the return of Remus Lupin to the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts.” He fell silent, allowing the news to sink in.

Murmurs of approval were exchanged across the table. The various professors of Hogwarts looked at each other and nodded, for once quite pleased with Dumbledore's decision. Then, inevitably, all eyes swiveled toward Snape, the sole naysayer, the eternal pessimist. Without fail, he had vetoed each candidate on a yearly basis, and vehemently so. His animosity against the werewolf was certainly no secret, as was the reason for Lupin's abrupt resignation at the end of his single year of teaching. There were always the whispered rumors that Snape secretly lusted after the position himself and would stop at nothing to get it, despite being passed over year after year. If there was one to rock the boat, it certainly would be Snape. They waited silently, practically holding their breath, for the tirade to begin. For Severus to pound the table, offer half-curses in that cultured yet blade-sharp tone of voice that held his students spellbound with fear. They waited for something that never came.

Severus lifted his eyes from the table, looking slowly at each of his coworkers in turn. His eyes were carefully hooded, his features arranged in a neutral expression. After he had garnered their undivided attention, he spoke softly, forcing the others to lean in to hear his words. “I doubt there is anything I could say to sway your decision. For once, I suppose I will save my breath. Give the position to Lupin; he is welcome to it.” He did not utter another word for the remainder of the meeting.

* * * * *

“Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance
For a break that would make it okay
There's always one reason
To feel not good enough
And it's hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction
Oh beautiful release
Memory seeps from my veins
Let me be empty
And weightless and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight

In the arms of an angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage
of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort there”

-- Angel – Sarah McLachlan

Once the gathering was over, he stalked back to the dungeon, head held high. He did not know why Albus bothered pretending as if his opinion mattered. The old man was kind enough to allow him to vent his spleen in private, slandering and cursing the latest DADA appointee, until he was reduced to angry sputtering. Then Albus would con him into taking a cup of tea or a lemon drop and make some inane comment, until Snape had quite forgotten the original reason for his pique. Of course, his misgivings had always borne fruit. Just look at the recent parade of losers: a host body for Voldemort, a charlatan, a werewolf who could have easily bitten any hapless student, and a Death Eater posturing as a loony old Auror. If only Albus would listen, just once! No matter what Dumbledore said to smooth things over, it still hurt.

He took refuge in his dungeon sanctuary, his hands busying themselves in the calming rhythm of potion-making while his mind whirled. Truth be told, Lupin's return was just the icing on the cake. He had to grudgingly admit that the man was a capable instructor, and of course everybody loved him. He was kind and patient and so goddamn loveable. It was enough to make Severus sick. Dumbledore's censure had hurt so damn much after Lupin had resigned. It was the only time in his employment that Albus had formally reprimanded him. The man had been gentle but firm with him, his eyes and voice illustrating just how disappointed he was. Snape had felt thoroughly sick. He had worked so hard to redeem himself, to protect the ungrateful wretches under his tutelage. Couldn't anyone see what a threat Lupin posed? How disastrous the night's events could have been had the werewolf come upon some unsuspecting student? The blasted man had been protecting Black all this time! The man may have been acquitted of murder, but Snape knew that he harbored the instinct all the same. Why could no one see it but him?

Then again, he supposed it should not come as a surprise at all. Albus had always favored his golden boys, the revered Gryffindors. He had been an absolute fool to think anything had changed, to think all the sacrifices he had made had been worth a damn. Dumbledore had tried to help him find worth, to believe that perhaps he deserved a decent life and could be worthy of a second chance. But it always came down to the same thing. Where his golden boys were concerned, Albus would forever have a blind spot. Severus could never hope to compete. As Dumbledore had shown him all those years ago, when he was still trembling from his brush with glistening fangs and blood-hungry eyes, his life was worth less than nothing. Who would care about a greasy, socially inept, ugly Slytherin?

He supposed it was not their fault. Being loved was what the Marauders did best. No matter their ridiculous pranks or cruel jokes, they were smiled upon by all. Despite their diminished number, it seemed that little had changed. Within the walls of Hogwarts, they were near-gods, free of the rules of mortal men. Black could slit his throat right in Dumbledore's office, and the Headmaster would chide the man to play nice and send him on his way with a pat on the head. The Slytherins, however, were slighted and regarded with suspicion. With a single word from the Sorting Hat, they had been branded with a label, a name stained by previous generations. Snape knew that he was the only one who dared to stand up for them. But he could only do so much.

His work was done here. He had finally fulfilled his obligation to both James Potter and Albus Dumbledore in safeguarding their precious chosen one. He knew in his heart that he could never come close to redeeming the horrors he had wrought in the name of Voldemort, but he had worked his fingers to the bone all the same. He had spent half of his existence leading a double life, until not even he was sure where the truth ended and the lie began. All debts were paid. Harry was safe. Lupin had the skills to pick up where Snape would leave off. The boy would learn to defend himself properly, even if it killed him.

He had never expected to have the luxury of choosing his own death. He had prepared himself for the near-certainty of prolonged torture at the hands of his former colleagues, and then a very painful and messy death. At his lowest points, when the stress of spying was taking its toll, death seemed like a welcome respite. He had never dreamed that he would survive his unmasking. To him, death seemed to be a welcome companion, close but just out of reach. On the few times that he had let the fancy take him, he had chosen his ideal death. He had wanted his death to have meaning and purpose, in some way to make up for the sins of his life. When Pettigrew had raised his wand against Harry, he had seen his chance to wipe the slate clean, to balance the scales once more. If only that foolish boy had not gotten in the way! Such thoughts were undoubtedly foolish, but he cared little. He had been cheated of a noble death, but he would not be denied for long. This method was far from noble, but it was all that was left to him.

At last, the potion was ready. He held the ladle aloft, watching the golden liquid drip lazily into the cauldron, forming gentle ripples. He had been preoccupied by death from a rather young age. When his home life had become unbearable, he would weep for an end to his existence, for an angel to carry him on golden wings to a land that knew no pain or loneliness. He had long believed that he was undeserving of the smallest measure of love. He had been called a mistake, a disappointment, a freak; first by his parents, then by his peers. The bleak feeling had lifted for awhile at Hogwarts. Despite the regular teasing and ostracism, he had thrived. He cared little for the opinion of others, and although their rejection hurt, he had learned to bury it deep inside. Nothing mattered to him but his studies and his overwhelming drive to succeed, to prove himself. It was a lonely existence, but he was used to being alone. He accepted the fact that friendship and belonging were things not meant for one such as him. He had managed to get by, using his dream of becoming a Potions Master to fuel him. But then that awful night in the Shrieking Shack had shattered the world as he had known it. In that moment that he spotted the small boy on the floor, writhing as he changed into a feral werewolf, Snape had been frozen. A morbid part of him wanted to resist as James dragged him away, wanted to feel the stinging pain of fangs sinking into his neck. He had wanted to die. It was only his stubborn streak, his refusal to give in, that had kept him alive. How different things might have been if he had not survived.

He had never expected to live as long as he had. When he had realized the true meaning behind the skull and snake tattoo on his arm, he had surrendered to the darkness within him, beckoning him to oblivion. He had realized midway through the act that it was a foolish wish and for once resolved to do the right thing. He had gone to Dumbledore to confess his sins fully aware of what awaited him. Azkaban, eventual madness, and perhaps the Dementor's Kiss. He would suffer for his actions before his death. He was more than happy to become Dumbledore's double agent, gladly suffering and sacrificing for the side of Light. That he had arrived at this point was something unanticipated. He was still alive. It was not to be borne. So many had died, a number by his own hand, so why should he continue to exist? Dumbledore had instinctively known that he would not take his life while trying to find redemption. And for half of his life, he had given everything to that goal. Now he was left feeling hollow. What did he have to show for his life? His academic honors, of which he had been so proud, now seemed cheap. He had come upon much of his knowledge through Dark means. What was left to him now? Students who despised him, staff who barely tolerated him? The only people who had accepted him had tried to warp him into a monster and now actively sought his head. With Harry safe and his career as a double-agent over, there was nothing more for him.

It was time. At long, long last. He felt a heavy weight lift from his heart. He had imagined this moment for so long, craved it in the darkest night of his soul. Every Christmas he had had a private little ritual, kept carefully hidden from even Dumbledore himself. Every year he would brew a little potion of hemlock and arsenic, ladled himself a goblet, and admired it. He would swirl it around, watching the patters form and break. He would hold it to his nose and inhale, admiring how the most deadly poisons could smell so sweet. He would tip the goblet until a drop hung by a very thread, poised above his hungry mouth. He would lick his lips, imagining the biting kiss of the first drop, how its honeyed sweetness would spread across his palate. And every year he would cast it aside and weep bitter tears, denied the release he so craved. It had not yet been earned. But now. Now was the time. Death had been waiting so patiently for him all this years and would no longer be denied.

He carried the goblet into his bedroom and sat down on the mattress, feeling it give beneath him. He no longer cared that school was not yet out. He no longer cared what impact his death would have. The students would no doubt be elated by his demise. His Slytherins… well, they would survive, it was what they did best. By the next term, they would have forgotten all about their creepy former Head of House. He no longer cared what Albus would think. With his golden boys returned, the loss of one lowly Slytherin would barely cause a ripple. Life would go on. But not for him.

His lips touched the rim of the goblet, the touch cool and welcome, almost like that of a lover. The deadly elixir lapped at his mouth, and he parted his lips, drawing it in and swallowing it down. His throat worked until the entire cup was drained, and his tongue lapped up the remnants. Great Merlin, it tasted even better than he had imagined. Release was at hand, and it was sweet. It was not every man who could brew his own destruction, his own liberation.

Still, it was not perfect. There was something missing. Even now, as his vision began to dim and his heart to slow, his hand groped about until it bumped against a sculpted handle. A bitter smile crossed his face as he lifted the dagger, the light glinting off its surface. In one brutal movement, he moved the blade downward, slashing through skin and tissue. Blood erupted in a sudden fountain, staining his surroundings in a crimson spatter. It felt somehow right, finishing the job he had begun nearly twenty years ago. He could feel his pulse as it fluttered unsteadily, forcing yet more blood from his body. He sighed, his head falling back, sinking completely into relaxation. He had dreamt of this moment for so long….

A soft cry tugged at his dwindling consciousness. He forced his heavy eyelids open as an arm cradled his head, forcing him to sit up. “Where is it?” a voice demanded harshly. He turned his head away, unable to bear the deep disappointment and sorrow in Albus' blue eyes. He could deny Dumbledore nothing, not even in this. A trembling hand gestured toward his desk. In a flash, the elderly wizard was back at his side, placing the bezoar that normally served as a paperweight under his tongue. A surprisingly strong hand gripped his sliced flesh, working feverishly to staunch the flow. A small voice within cried out in angry protest. No! He would not be denied! He had waited for so long! Had he not earned this? There was no more time for reflection, as blackness licked at the edge of awareness, and he surrendered to it gratefully. Farewell.

Chapter Fourteen

“Who's gonna hold you down
When you shake
Who's gonna come around
When you break”
-- “Drive” – The Cars

The tone of Albus' voice was as placid as ever but carried an undercurrent of urgency. Not a single member of the Hogwarts' staff dared to dawdle at his urgent summons. The atmosphere when the Headmaster finally entered the staff room was tense and nervous. For him to have summoned them in this matter, shortly after their routine meeting, was an ill omen.

The look on the old wizard's face swiftly silenced the few murmured conversations. Dumbledore had always carried with him an air of eternal youthfulness, a spring in his step and a jovial twinkle in his eyes which he used to his advantage with disarming charm. Today every year seemed to weigh down his stooped shoulders, and his eyes were dull and spiritless, framed by dark circles. He wasted no time in getting down to business. “My friends, it is my sorry duty to bring you grave news. It seems that tragedy is no stranger these days, and that burden has weighed heavier on some than I had realized. Severus had become overwhelmed and has attempted to take his own life.”

Dumbledore watched the reaction of his colleagues with a heavy heart. Madame Sprout gasped and covered her mouth with a trembling hand. Trelawney dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, mercifully silent. Even she would not dare to boost her ego with a disastrous prediction. Flitwick wailed and buried his face in his hands, his slight body trembling. Hagrid's sobs were near-silent, but the half-giant was nearly overwhelmed with grief. Sinistra looked pale and shaken. McGonagall bit her lip fiercely, forcibly reigning in her emotions. In this, he thought sadly, she and Severus were so alike. If only he had seen the warning signs for what they were. If only Snape had reached out… he shook his head. It was too late for such things. The only thing that mattered now was the present. He hoped that it would be enough.

The only one who looked unmoved was Professor Handley, the departing DADA professor. “Honestly, I don't know why you are all overreacting. Snape is obviously trying to get attention with this lame stunt. Pomfrey should be able to ascertain if he's taken the Draught of the Living Dead or some such nonsense. He's just sulking because he didn't get the Defense position again. The best thing to do would be to just ignore the whole thing and not play his game.” He recoiled at the openly hostile glares directed at him.

Dumbledore's voice was firm and icy as he spoke in a tone that seemed impossible from such a friendly spirit. “I highly doubt that this was a farce, Mister Handley.” The lack of proper title was a deliberate slap in the face. “Severus was quite thorough in his efforts. As it is, it took Poppy nine hours to stabilize him, and she is yet uncertain if he will make a full recovery. If I had been just moments later--” he choked. There was a collective shudder as the others imagined the scene that Albus had stumbled upon.

Handley rose stiffly. “I take it that I am excused, then.” He felt the angry stares on his back as he exited the room. He had a feeling that they were all too glad to see him go.

Sprout asked tearfully, “What will happen to him, Albus? Is there anything we can do to help?”

Her concern was a balm to his heart. “I wish I knew. He would receive the best care at St. Mungo's. They are equipped to deal with situations such as this. If it were anyone else, I would gladly send him there. The doctors are very skilled and professional, and they have an excellent bedside manner. However, I don't think it would be the right choice for Severus. He does not trust others easily and may be intimidated by unfamiliar surroundings. Paranoia has become a necessary evil for his line of work, and it is a factor that must be taken into account. He has a long-standing rapport with both Poppy and myself, and we hope to build upon it. But to make any real progress, he will have to want to recover. I believe that that will be the hardest task.”

Minerva rubbed the bridge of her nose wearily. “Whatever shall we do with the Slytherins? They will want to know what happened to Severus. I admit I had my doubts about him as Head of House, but he's done a remarkable job with the most troublesome of houses. They will feel lost without him.”

The Headmaster nodded. “Agreed. I will speak to them at the first opportunity before addressing the rest of the school. They will not react well to Severus' latest… illness, but it is best that they do not find out through the gossip mill. Sinistra, you are appointed Acting Head until further notice.” The witch nodded, still looking rather shell-shocked but relieved to have something constructive to focus on.

Flitwick blew his nose loudly in his handkerchief. “Albus, if there's anything we can do….”

Dumbledore smiled faintly. “I will let you know directly. All of your support is appreciated. I fear that the coming days will be taxing in the extreme. I pray that we will be up to the task.” His expression sobered. “It is important to maintain a positive outlook. I want no self-recriminations or second-guessing.” How hypocritical of him, asking something of him that he himself could not obey.

McGonagall wrung her hands. “Potter and Longbottom. They knew something was wrong, and I did not listen. I told them it wasn't their business. Perhaps I should have made it my business. But Severus is such a private person. I thought he'd be fine if given enough space.” Her nails dug furrows in her palm.

Remus bit his lip, staring down at the table. Albus had hoped to welcome his former student back on happier terms, but just having him here was a positive step. Still, it was obvious that the young man was also feeling plenty of guilt. “We were always so awful to him. Jamie and Sirius especially, but I could have been nicer too. On the train a few days ago, Sirius did something really cruel, and I didn't stop him. I let a grudge interfere with my better judgment and allowed Severus to be hurt. We unearthed skeletons and opened old wounds. I can't help but feel responsible.”

Albus favored them with a compassionate look. “I know that each of us feels to blame, but in the end this was Severus' decision to make. I'm sure that he would be quite insulted to hear that we think so highly of our influence over him. Instead of dwelling on the past, we must focus on what we can do in the present. Our first concern must always be for the students. They are curious and observant by nature and will know immediately that something is amiss. Out of respect for Severus' privacy, I ask that the circumstances of his 'illness' remain confidential. It should suffice to say that he has suffered a relapse of his earlier sickness. Poppy has volunteered to administer the potions finals in his stead, so we should be able to finish the school year with minimal disruption, academic-wise. I am loath to think any further ahead than that.” He rose, signaling the end of the meeting. “We must remain strong and united during this dark time. Severus needs us to stand together and provide a network of support, should he ever choose to use it. All we can do is hope.”

* * * * *

Harry knew something was immediately wrong when he entered the Great Hall. There was usually a soft babble of voices and clink of silverware, but today the entire room was strangely subdued. The students had picked up on a sobering vibe and were reacting in kind. Eyes darted back and forth, from each other to the faculty table, where the teachers sat with stony expressions. A shiver went down his back. The last time the atmosphere had been so heavy and somber was after Cedric's death.

His feeling of dread was magnified when Dumbledore stood and addressed the room. “If I may have your attention?” The gesture was moot, as all eyes were already upon him. “The end of the year is always a busy time, and a bittersweet one for many. It means the end of one phase, and the beginning of another. It is my sad duty, however, to inform you that one of our group will be unable to take part in the usual end-of year-preparations. Professor Snape has fallen gravely ill, and while he is receiving the best treatment available, it is uncertain if he will recover before the end of the term. This comes as a particularly harsh blow to Slytherin House, and every effort has been made to accommodate the needs of those students. Visitors are strictly forbidden at this crucial juncture of his care, but I am sure that any letters or messages would be appreciated. Madame Pomfrey has agreed to proctor all Potions exams, so please do not see this as an opportunity to slack off and neglect your studies.”

His words were drowned out by an eruptive cheer. To Harry's great horror, the majority of the school was smiling and smacking each other on the back, as if this was some kind of unexpected gift! Neville seemed to be the only one who echoed his sentiments. Meanwhile, the Slytherin table was eerily silent, its occupants glaring hatefully at the rest of the room. Some of them fairly trembled with anger. Several first- and second-years were quietly crying, trying to hide their tears behind a handkerchief. Others merely sat expressionless, staring vacantly at their untouched meals. The pride in their house and was palpable, and they were trying to brace themselves against a crippling blow. The news did not seem to come as a surprise to them, so Harry surmised that they had had some forewarning, but it seemed to do little good.


The hall fell abruptly silent as the students turned to face the Headmaster as one. The sight was frankly frightening. Dumbledore's cheeks were flushed with anger, and lighting flashed from his normally placid eyes. “I am gratified to see that the illness of a respected professor has brought you such joy,” he said coldly. “Since you are in such high spirits, I am sure that you will not mind missing the final Hogsmeade outing of the year. Mister Filch also has some chores that need attending to, I believe.” The grizzled caretaker smiled cruelly. His collection of manacles and chains could use a good oiling.

“Twenty points from Hufflepuff!” Madame Sprout said furiously, further shocking the student body, who had never seen the good-natured witch so cross. “I had hoped that you would have learned the value of life this past year. It saddens me to see how cheaply you esteem those who would protect you.”

“Twenty points from Ravenclaw House,” Flitwick echoed, standing on the table so as to be fully visible. “And twenty more from the first person who complains.”

Professor McGonagall rose to stand beside Dumbledore, her features tight with anger. “I am removing thirty points from Gryffindor House. Quite frankly, your reaction disgusts me. I am ashamed to be your Head of House.” She turned on her heel and swiftly exited the hall.

* * * * *

Snape's true condition did not remain secret for long. The ever-enterprising Slytherins snuck an innocent-looking first-year down to the hospital wing for an investigation. The house members were heartbroken by the young boy's findings. Somehow word leaked out to the other three houses as well. The Slytherins were frustrated and angry – theirs was a house of secrets, and they had sought to protect their mentor's reputation as best as possible. Several fistfights broke out daily, most of them unsurprisingly with Gryffindor House. The big surprise, however, was Neville, who threatened to punch Ron in the nose if he made just one more snide comment to the Slytherins. Ron, shocked, had demanded how Neville could defend that bastard. Neville had replied that he knew what it was like to be lonely. No one had had an answer to that. Afterward, the shy boy found Draco staring at him from time to time, but the pranks and jokes had stopped.

Harry was at a loss for what to do. A part of him wanted to help Snape, while his rational mind knew that such a proud man would never accept it. The students continued to chafe under the new chores imposed on them by Dumbledore, but they were a lot quieter about it once they learned what had befallen the Potions Master. Harry was aghast to hear some of his classmates talk – some of them felt that the man deserved every terrible thing that could possibly happen, and taking his life could only be for the good. Harry had treated them to the rough side of his tongue, and a few of them had met with the business end of his wand. There were a growing number of students that were a little more sympathetic. Though it was unanimously decided that Snape was an all-around git (even Harry shared that viewpoint), he did not deserve this fate. They were willing to forgive some of the man's bitterness when glimpsing the misery that fuelled it. Harry spent several long nights curled up in front of Remus' fireplace, trying to help the returning professor come up with a way to reach Snape. Although the talks made him feel a lot better, they were rather unproductive in the long run. Sirius had dropped by a few times to spend time with his godson, but Snape remained a sore issue. Harry wasn't sure what to make of it. He could tell that Black harbored a lot of guilt, and yet could not put his hatred aside to address it. Remus and Harry were very careful not to mention his name around Black for fear of causing a scene. Quietly, Hogwarts waited. It seemed that the very castle held its breath, not wanting to disturb Snape's convalescence. It was up to him now.

* * * * *
“When your day is long
And the night
And the night is yours alone
When you sure you've had enough
Of this life
Hang on
Don't let yourself go
Cause everybody cries
Everybody hurts
-- “Everybody Hurts” -- REM

The pale man stirred weakly in his hospital bed, his lanky black hair a sharp contrast against the crisp white linen. He opened his eyes a crack, and quickly squeezed them shut. The sunlight was far too bright for the dungeons. Where was he, then? And why did he feel as if he'd been stampeded by a hippogriff?

“Severus Snape! You ungrateful, miserable git!” He winced at the loud noise that reverberated through his pounding skull. Madame Pomfrey loomed over him like a Valkyrie seeking to do battle. “Of all the stupid stunts! Do you know how long it took for me to put you back together? Two days! Not to mention how much work it took to heal you of that cursed fever just last week. What the devil were you thinking by scaring us half to death?! Why, I've got a mind to--”

Snape groaned and rolled over, pulling the pillow over his head to block out the sound. Alive. He was alive. Great Merlin, what had he done to deserve this? He listened idly to Pomfrey's irate droning, blocking it out until it was nothing more than a distant buzz, like a pesky fly. Eventually she gave up and wandered away. As soon as she was gone, he pulled all the curtains shut with sluggish moves and curled up in the darkness. Just those small movements were enough to make his uncooperative body exhausted, and he gratefully sank into sleep.

* * * * *

“Three days, Albus. He's been like that for three days. All he does is stare out the window, or lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. It's just awful. I practically have to sit on his chest and shovel food in his mouth to get him to eat anything.”

“I see,” the old wizard nodded soberly, placing a hand on the mediwitch's arm. “I'm certain that you're doing the best you can for him, Poppy.”

“That's just the point!” The fiery nurse looked so despondent that it tore at him. “Physically, he's fine. There's nothing more I can do for him. But he's not emotionally there at all. He's determined to keep from interacting with the rest of the world. I don't know how to get through to him; it's like I'm talking to the wall. I'm starting to wonder if keeping him here is doing any good at all. Plus, I've got other patients who I fear will only end up disturbing him. I think he'd be more comfortable in his quarters, but I'm afraid to leave him unsupervised.”

Dumbledore set his jaw determinedly. “I think I can help in that department.”

Severus sat glaring at him fiercely several minutes later, as the powerful wizard sat holding his wrists lightly yet with surprising strength as his wand passed over them. He shuddered but did not make a sound, scarcely blinking, his stare full of silent hate. Albus felt his insides twist as he performed the binding spell. He knew that Severus would see it as just another betrayal, but Dumbledore was at the end of his rope and out of options. The spell was borderline Dark, used here for the purpose of Light, but it was not without its sinister aspects. It would ensure that Severus could not knowingly cause himself bodily harm. It was Light in that it preserved Severus' life, but Dark in that it took away his right to fully control the fate of his own body. He prayed that this act would not drive Severus further away, beyond all reach. It was the only way he could think of to keep Snape alive, until he decided that that was what he wanted for himself.

It was a relief to Snape to finally be back in his old quarters. Here he could wallow in his solitude, with no irritating sunlight or prattling children to disturb him. He still trembled with anger at the residual tingling from Albus' binding spell. How dare he?! Hadn't Snape done enough for him? He had given the man so many years of blood, sweat, and tears; didn't he deserve to die in peace? He had paid his price. What use was there in continuing to exist?

House Elves were sent periodically with small trays of food. He picked at them, knowing full well that the creatures would not leave until he had consumed at least a small portion, but sent the majority back uneaten. He flipped through his collection of academic lore, and even a few amusingly trashy novels, but nothing could hold his attention. Even his beloved potions had lost their allure. Potion-making was the one thing that had kept him going in the past. It was a craft that had never deserted him, but now it left him hollow. Everything seemed so superficial and meaningless. What point was there to anything?

He was grateful to Poppy for forbidding visitors during his recovery. The moment he was safely in his own quarters, he constructed the most powerful, menacing wards he could manage. Whoever tried to breach them would receive a nasty shock. He reinforced them every day, until he was certain that none but the Headmaster could penetrate them. If he was going to suffer, he was going to do it alone.

As pointless as it seemed, the potions did help a bit. Especially the Draught of the Living Death. He could sink into a sleep so powerful it mimicked death itself, which was somewhat reassuring, as it was as close as he could come at the moment. He was half-tempted to throw himself at Voldemort's feet and ask to be killed. Knowing the sadistic bastard, however, he would let him live simply out of spite. Perhaps he could arrange to be 'caught' while at Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley and taken to the Dark Lord as a trophy. Anything had to be better than this.

One night he awoke groggily, the residuals of the Draught still coursing through his veins. He dimly realized that there was something wet on his face, and thought that perhaps he had been crying in his sleep, until something warm and damp swiped him again. His eyes cracked open to see a large animal with sharp fangs, its tongue leaving sloppy trails across his face. He sat bolt upright, yanking the covers up to his chin as his hand groped for the wand hidden underneath the pillow. It was a scene plucked directly from his nightmares, a vision that had played night after night. Werewolf!

The furred animal began to shift and blur and was quickly replaced by the slight form of Professor Lupin, clad in his customary patched and frayed robes, the moonstone pendant around his neck. Snape scrubbed at his face with a corner of the sheet in revulsion. Dammit, why had he not realized that his wards would be ineffectual against animals? “What the devil are you doing here? Get out!”

Remus tugged his shabby robes around him and perched on the end of the bed. “Severus, I've just come to see how you're getting along. Everybody's worried about you, you know. They want to help; they just don't know how.”

Snape growled and threw his pillow across the room. Unfortunately, it did not hit anything breakable. “I'll just bet. You've come to mock me, haven't you? Busy gloating at what I've become? Well, take a good long look. I'd hate to deny you the opportunity of a laugh at my expense.”

The man carded his hands through his sandy-brown hair, which was slightly graying at the temples. “Severus, that's the last thing I want to do. Merlin knows that I'm probably the last person you want to see right now, but I couldn't just stand by and let you fall apart with no one to turn to. You're always going on about how we're Albus' darlings, but why can't you see that you're the one he dotes on? He thinks of you as his adopted son, do you know that? He cares about you so damn much, and you won't come out of that miserable shell of yours to see it. He's been sick with worry over you and I just know he blames himself for what has happened. You are not alone in this. There are so many people who will show you kindness, if only you are open to it.”

“Ha!” Severus spat, throwing as much venom into that one syllable as possible. He felt his body begin to tremble with fatigue and lack of food, and he cursed his weakness. “That's easy for you to say. Everybody loves you, the poor little lamb of a wolf. What do you know of my pain? How can you possibly think to understand me?”

Remus reached out and took his hand in his own, stroking lightly over the long, elegant fingers. Severus shivered but did not pull away. The contact was gentle and warm, and he felt himself leaning into it. It had been so long since he had allowed anyone close to him, without fear or anxiety. It was foolish of him to feel this way now. Surely this Dark creature had nothing good to offer. Somehow, that seemed unimportant. What did it matter if he was hurt again?

“You're wrong, you know.” Snape lifted his head, startled. “I've been lonely a lot. For almost all of my life, in fact.” Lupin's face was lined in pain, a pain that nearly mirrored Snape's own. It was enough to take his breath away. “I was bitten when I was very young. I didn't have the time to form many friendships, and the ones that I had disappeared pretty quickly. No one wanted anything to do with a werewolf. When I met James, Peter and Sirius, it was like a dream come true. When they learned to become animagi to keep me company, it was like the gods themselves were smiling upon me. But all too soon, it all fell apart as if it had never been at all. James was dead, we believed Peter to be dead, and Sirius was branded a murderer. Even know, with the truth known, it can never really be the same. I have Sirius and I'm grateful for it, but there will always be an empty spot in me when I remember the Marauders and what used to be.”

Severus bit his lip, staring intently at the far wall. “I almost had a brother, you know.” Remus had the eerie feeling that Snape was talking more to himself than to him. “After I was born, my parents kept trying to have another child. I imagine it was because I was such a disappointment and they wanted a more suitable heir. Finally, Mother became pregnant, and she and Father were delighted. She lost the baby two months into the pregnancy.” He closed his eyes, and his voice shook slightly. “I had looked forward to being a big brother so much. Who knows, maybe the kid would have hated me. He would have definitely been spoiled. But I would have had a playmate, someone to keep me company. Mother and Father were never around. All I had were the house elves, and all but Lucky were forbidden to play with me. When the baby died, my parents hated me more than ever. I thought that for the longest time that babies were made to order. I could never figure out why my parents didn't just exchange me for something better. Mother did that all the time in the stores. I figured I was just defective merchandise somehow. How I envied that little baby. He would never know how awful the world could be. I wanted more than anything to go where my little brother had gone. I asked Mother if I could be with him, and she said that Heaven was only for good little boys and was a place I'd never see. I guess she was right on that account.”

Remus scarcely dared to breathe as Severus continued his monologue. It seemed to be a purging of sorts. “When I arrived at Hogwarts, I was surprised at how many children there were of my age. I had always taken my lessons from private tutors. My family lived on an island, and I was not allowed to venture to the mainland very often. I had been raised to act like an adult, and my classmates confused me. They seemed to enjoy doing the most frivolous things together. It was as if we were different planets. I had always been naturally curious and found myself watching my classmates endlessly. They had something called Friendship. I couldn't understand how they all came together so easily, as if they had always known each other. Your band of Marauders fascinated me to no end. I spent hours and hours pondering it. What did you have that I didn't? I figured it out eventually. I was Different. I was too ugly and too smart to have any friends. You'd think it wouldn't matter, not having something I had never experienced, but it hurt. I don't think it ever stopped hurting. I came to terms with it long ago, but it's never totally gone away. So there. Go back to your friend and laugh. It doesn't matter anymore.” He sank down on the remaining pillows, feeling deflated. Despite the ache in his heart, his eyelids drifted closed, as if weighted down. His instincts screamed at him to stay awake; he was practically offering his throat to the werewolf, but what did it matter? He had nothing to lose, and he felt too worn out to care.

As he fell asleep, Remus sat stroking his hair, tears streaming down his face, hidden in the darkness. “What have we done? Merlin, what have we done?” He tucked the blankets around the frail figure. “You are not alone, Severus. I am here for you, whether you like it or not. I'll make this up to you, I swear it.”

Chapter Fifteen

“I pull you from your tower
I take away your pain
and show you all the beauty you possess
if you'd only let yourself believe”
-- “Adia” – Sarah McLachlan

Harry pushed open the door to Lupin's quarters and slipped inside. The professor had modified his wards earlier to admit him, in case Harry needed some privacy away from his “adoring public”. It was good to have Remus living in the castle again. Dumbledore had been more than happy to allow the DADA professor to move in before the start of next term, so that he could save what meager funds remained. Right now, Harry just wanted to rest after the last of his draining exams. It had felt very wrong to have Madame Pomfrey proctor the Potions final, and Harry had put some serious effort into it, hoping to prove that Snape's lessons had had at least some small effect.

Voices sounded from the other room, and he froze. He hadn't realized that Remus had had company. He turned to leave, when he recognized the other voice. Sirius! A wide grin crossed his face. His godfather had been so busy lately, and their time together had been strained by recent events. His grin faded when he began to make out bits of the conversation. It was clear that the discussion was very intense, bordering on argumentative.

“Gods, Padfoot!” Remus murmured despairingly. “He only wanted to be friends with us! No wonder he's so bitter.”

A heavy sigh. “How could we have known that, Moony? He was just a creep, staring at us all the time, like he wanted to dissect us for a Potions experiment. We had no reason to think differently.”

Harry shifted uneasily. He should go, he really should. This wasn't anything he should hear. It was as if his feet were cemented to the floor, and his ears strained to hear every word. His body was betraying him by refusing to let him leave. Again, Remus spoke. “That's no excuse! We let all the usual rhetoric go to our heads. We were so busy looking out for the nefarious Slytherins that we ended up creating one. It's true about hindsight being twenty-twenty. Thinking back, I can't remember very many tricks that Snape pulled against us that weren't in response to something we had done first. I believe that if we had stopped plaguing him, he'd have been more than happy to leave us alone.”

Black snorted. “Oh come on, I bet a part of him got a charge out of trying to beat us. You have to admit, some of those pranks were pretty ingenious.”

“Yeah,” Lupin chuckled. “In a way, it was kind of fun. But sometimes we took it too far. Looking back, a lot of things that we thought were funny were just plain cruel. If someone had done those things to me, I know I would have bawled my eyes out.”

“Severus never seemed too upset.”

“Do you honestly think he would ever let us see him cry? Come on, Sirius. This is the kid who nearly cut his finger off while slicing shrivelfigs and never made a sound. Just because he didn't show it doesn't mean it didn't hurt him.” A thoughtful silence. “You know, I don't think he was ever able to get past what happened that night in the Shack. No wonder he seemed so out of control that night when we found Pettigrew. It must have been awful for him to be there. He never said as much, but I think he had gone to protect Harry and his friends. He certainly didn't get very well rewarded for it.”

“So he exposed your secret and forced you to resign.”

“Yes.” Silence, and a quiet shifting sound. “It took me a long time to forgive him for that. I finally realized that he was trying to protect the children. Though I object to his methods, I can't fault the reasoning behind them.”

“Look, I really am sorry for what happened in the Shack. I just thought it would be worthwhile to see Snape piss his pants in fear, for once. He never seemed to be scared by anything we did! But you know how I was back then, Moody. I never thought about the consequences of my actions. Even now, it's hard to look before I leap. Still, I hate to see you beating yourself over the head with this. I know we did some really heartless things, but that hardly explains why Snape would want to top himself all these years later.”

“It doesn't matter why.” Harry had to strain to catch the words. “All that matters is that someone we know is alone and hurting. So many people have died in this war, and so many lives have been destroyed. If we could make things better for one person, shouldn't we at least try? Snape isn't any less deserving of compassion. If only you knew what he said to me last night… it's so godawful, Siri, I can't even tell you.”

Harry moved closer, and his leg impacted solidly with the table leg. He suppressed his groan of pain, but the noise was enough to alert the two men to his presence. “Harry, is that you?” Remus called, and Harry sheepishly entered the room. Luckily, their attention was distracted by the book in his hand. He held it up in way of explanation. “Hermione is a godsend. She had her parents send her books on Muggle psychotherapy and treatment for suicide patients, and she also tore the library apart searching for magical treatments. She found something that may actually be worth trying.”

Lupin took the book and thumbed through it, looking at the marked pages with interest. “Hermione is a very clever witch. This may be of some use to us after all.” He shut the book with a snap. “I'll speak to Dumbledore. If anyone can pull this off, he can.”

* * * * *
“Somebody's troubled and confused
Somebody's got nothing left to lose
Not too far from here
Somebody's forgotten how to trust
And somebody's dying for love
Not too far from here”
-- “Not Too Far From Here” – Michael Crawford

Loud pounding echoed through the stone corridors of the dungeon. The impact was enough to make the door vibrate. Snape groaned and covered his head with a pillow. Why couldn't whoever it was just have the good sense to go away? The wards were supposed to deliver a mild shock to anyone who disturbed them, but apparently his would-be visitor was either too intent on his task or too damn stupid to care.

“Come now, Severus. Open up. I fear this door is looking the worse for wear.” Blessed silence reigned for several moments. Snape lifted a corner of the pillow. Albus. Dammit. Didn't the old man ever know when to quit? Dumbledore called out again. “Please don't make me force the issue. I would rather that you grant me entrance of your own accord.” Snape closed his eyes and resisted the urge to curl into a ball. “Severus, I'm afraid I'm causing a bit of a scene. There's a crowd forming in the corridor. I fear it won't be peaceful around here for some time--”

A bony arm flashed out of the opening door and dragged the Headmaster inside, causing the small group to gasp as it slammed closed behind him. “What do you want, old man?” Severus spat. “Haven't you plagued me enough already?” A flash of hurt on the kindly face caused a prick of regret that he quickly brushed aside.

“Forgive me for being a nuisance, but I am concerned for your well-being, my dear boy.”

“I'm bloody fine. Now get out.”

Dumbedore twinkled at him infuriatingly. “I'm afraid I can't do that. At least not until I am quite sure that you are on the mend. Come with me, Severus. There is something that must be done.” Before the Potions Master could protest, he was dragged over to the fireplace. Albus threw a handful of Floo powder into the flames and called out “The staff room!” He tried to plant his feet, but the elderly wizard was stronger than he looked and managed to drag them both into the fireplace with ease.

Snape tumbled out of the fireplace in the staff lounge, awkwardly trying to catch his balance. He dusted off his robes and glared fiercely at the room's occupants. It seemed that Dumbledore was determined to turn his life into a bloody circus. The majority of the staff members were seated around the table, looking at him expectantly with expressions of simpering sympathy. The only saving grace was that that mutt Black, the charlatan Trelawney and the loutish Handley had not been invited to the festivities. He felt ill. Why couldn't they leave him the hell alone? Why did they insist on meddling in the misery that had become his life?

His look of rage had no effect on the ever-cheerful Headmaster, who pulled him into a vacant chair. “It's high time you stopped lurking away in your dungeons and joined the rest of the rest of the world, Severus. I know how much you value your privacy, but you've been alone for far too long. We are all here to help you through this difficult time.”

Snape emitted a harsh bark of what could pass for laughter. “Is this supposed to be an intervention? Don't make me laugh.”

Lupin chewed his lip. This was not going well. “Severus, we all care about you. You shouldn't have to suffer alone if you need our help.”

The man snorted and began to pace the length of the room, his robes billowing from behind him menacingly. “That's rich. As if any of you give a damn what happens to me. Allow me to congratulate you, Lupin. You've found a way to properly humiliate me and extract your revenge upon me. Now if you don't mind, I'm going back to my dungeons for some more sulking.”

“Sit down, young man!” McGonagall scolded in her best authoritarian voice. For a wonder, Snape hesitated and looked uncertain. She took advantage of the moment to tug him back to the chair. “You are working yourself up over nothing. Now sit still and listen for once. We are not here to mock you or spite you. Merlin knows where you got that idea. Despite your ungratefulness, we are trying to help you. You were always a brilliant student, perhaps not the best in Transfiguration, but you came up with some very challenging questions. It was a pleasure to watch you succeed and graduate top of the class. Although I admit that I question your methods from time to time, you are a skilled educator, and I'm sure the staff would be quite dull without you.”

While Snape was busy trying to process the meaning behind that, Flitwick spoke in turn. Finally he realized that this was supposed to be a morale-booster of sorts. He found the concept rather nauseating. At least Minerva had a blunt honesty about her that was refreshing. The others seemed to tiptoe around him, wanting to flatter him but wary of saying the wrong thing. Midway through Lupin's utterly fake “let's be friends” routine, he could no longer contain himself. “You must be mad. Who do you think you're trying to fool? Are you really that hard up for a laugh that you'd try to win me over? I'm not blind, Lupin. I've seen how you used to snicker behind your hand at me. I'm not about to fall for your little tricks.”

Remus' eyes flickered despairingly over to Dumbledore, who seemed slightly smug, as if all were going according to plan. He was completely confused. How could Snape's tirade be a good thing? It seemed that instead of bringing him closer, they were only driving him further away.

Snape could not stand it a moment longer. He leapt to his feet and began to pace about like a caged animal. “I hope you're all amused,” he snarled. “You're certainly carrying this little joke to extremes. I'm sorry if my personal problems have become such an inconvenience to you but frankly, it's none of your damn business. Surely you don't think I'm going to buy all this rubbish. None of you give a damn about what happens to me.”

“Severus!” Flitwick exclaimed, looking deeply wounded. “How could you possibly think that?”

“Oh, what a very good question.” His features were contorted in fury, a marked contrast from his usual icy sarcasm. “As if you all haven't been whispering behind my back for years. I know you were all hoping I'd either quit or get sacked, and I'd no longer be a thorn in your side. All this time I've been a tool, something to be used and then discarded when it is no longer needed. Come off it and be honest for once. None of you can stand me!”

He felt something rising in him like a balloon, swelling in a wave of intensity. A part of him drew back in fear, wanting to be still and silent, but the force was inexorable. His chest heaved as he vented his spleen, allowing the poison in his heart to bubble to the surface and spill from his tongue. He had lost complete control, and for once he just didn't give a damn. To hell with the consequences. “I've never been quite good enough for you, have I? How it must have sickened you to have a deceitful, betraying Slytherin on staff, working with your precious children. It didn't matter how many years of my life I devoted to saving the little cretins. It didn't matter how much I gave in blood and sweat and tears; nothing would ever make me fit company for the likes of you.” He kicked a chair ferociously. “Most of you can afford to sit safe and sound behind the walls of Hogwarts, or behind the walls of Order headquarters, planning for the downfall of the Dark Lord, but you never want to hear what it was really like out there. You never have to sully your hands with the grunt work. That's what lapdogs like me are for, after all!

“And you!” he rounded suddenly on the aging Headmaster, who did not look in the least surprised. “You're the worst of all. You give everyone a smile and a lemon drop and send them on their way with a pat on the head. I never told you what it was like over there. I couldn't bear for you to know. I don't know why I bothered; it's not as if it would matter. I must be very convenient for you. A willing sacrifice to keep the rest of the world safe. Of what consequence is the life of one small, greasy, hated Slytherin anyway? You've shown me time and again just what little regard you have for my existence.” He entire body trembled with rage, and his voice was choked. Hagrid opened his mouth to speak in Dumbledore's defense, but Remus gripped his arm in a warning to keep silent. “My death would have been little more than an inconvenience for you. In the end, I am expendable. Do you deny it?”

Dumbledore put up a hand, his expression infinitely saddened. “You are right, Severus, on many counts. We have not provided the support that you undoubtedly needed. Too many times I remained silent when I should have spoken for you. But my worst sin was never telling you how much you mean to our cause, this school, and myself. I have failed you miserably, and I have never found a way to make it up to you. Until now.” Ignoring the ferocious burn of a pitch-black glare, he lifted his hand and caressed the sharp cheekbone.

Severus recoiled from the gesture, nearly tripping over the chair he had kicked. “Don't touch me! Don't you dare touch me!”

Dumbledore advanced slowly, as if approaching a wounded animal. “I am here to help you, my boy, whether you choose to believe it or not. You do not have to go through this alone.”

The righteous rage drained away abruptly, leaving him with a deep gnawing fear. His precious mental shields were buckling, worn down over the emotional pain of the past few days. His only thought was to retreat, withdraw behind the walls until they could be made strong once more. “Don't you get it? I don't want your help! I don't need anybody, dammit! Now leave me the hell alone!”

“No. I don't think I will. Alone is the last thing you need right now.”

The hand was back, ghosting over his brow to sweep back the limp, disheveled locks. Snape felt a quiet sort of panic set in. He felt trapped; he had to get away! Didn't Albus care what he was touching, how soiled he would become? He pushed weakly at the hand that was tangling in his greasy hair, burning him, hurting him, filling him with emotions he had believed long dead. “Stop! Don't you know what you're doing?!” The kindly gaze assured him that yes, Albus knew exactly what he was doing. His heart felt as if it were seized in a vice; his throat closed, and his eyes burned. No, no, anything but this! “Don't! Please don't, stop, please--” And then Dumbledore did the unforgivable, the unpardonable, as he drew the trembling man into a gentle hug. The sweetness of the gesture shattered the rest of his defenses, and a choked sob forced its way through his throat. Hot tears scalded his cheeks, and he lifted his hands to cover his face in burning shame. He cursed himself over and over for his weakness, but as Albus pulled him closer, he buried his face in the older man's neck and sobbed. It was beyond awful. He was well and truly lost now, his defenses in tatters, leaving him vulnerable. He would never live this down.

Gentle fingers soothed him, rubbing down his back as his head was cradled. The gentleness only made him sob harder, shaking like a leaf in a storm. An apt description, for he felt trapped in the hurricane of his own emotions. The outburst seared him, but at the same time it felt so good to let go. Even if this unexpected kindness was fleeting, even if it was a lie, he was not strong enough to refuse it. He sank into the embrace, soaking in the heat of another body holding him close, someone who said they cared. He had fallen for this trick so many times, but he did not have the strength to resist. He had deprived himself of human contact for so long that a mere hug felt like heaven itself.

Muffled through the sound of Albus' crooning (nonsense words, it seemed, but they felt good all the same) and his own choked cries, he could just make out the sounds of a spell. The assembled group slowly overcame their astonishment and drew around their heartsick colleague in a loose circle. Each put an arm around the waist of the one next to them, lifting their wands in unison and pointing them at Snape, chanting softly. This was their last, best chance. So far it had succeeded beyond all hope, but one wrong move and he would be forever lost to them.

As Severus wept, feeling like a lost child, a warm feeling began to spread. It was unlike anything he had felt before. It was warm and comforting, like a cup of hot chocolate on a freezing day, and it spread through him, chasing away the dark shadows. He stiffened slightly, wary of this new sensation, but he did not fight as it wormed its way deeper inside, filling a hole inside him that had been there so long it had become a part of him. For the first time in memory, he felt whole.

The maelstrom of grief eventually petered out, and Severus weakly pushed away from Dumbledore. Recognizing the need for a bit of emotional space, the headmaster gently maneuvered him into a chair, into which he collapsed like a puppet with the strings cut. He felt as if his insides had been scrubbed raw. A massive weight had been lifted from his shoulders, but he was left feeling wrung out. The dark eyes stared at the floor, unwilling to look anyone in the face. Events had left him quite stunned, and it would take some time to process it fully. He fumbled weakly in his pockets, and several handkerchiefs were thrust at him. He took one at random and wiped roughly at his face. Hagrid's meaty hand held out a small flask, whose contents he gratefully downed in one gulp, welcoming the burn of the potent alcohol.

Affectus germanum. There was no way to fake that particular enchantment, a rather obscure bit of magic that allowed an individual to experience the true feelings of those that performed the spell. What he had felt from his colleagues was something he could scarcely comprehend. “How?” His voice was scratchy and rough. “How can you stand to even be near me, knowing what I am and the things I've done?” He was stunned. They saw him as one of them – certainly odd and disagreeable, but they cared about him all the same. It was something he had never allowed himself to believe. How could anyone feel this way about him? “I should sicken you.”

Dumbledore laid a hand on his head. “Severus, you were forgiven long ago for your sins. The only one who has not given you pardon is yourself. You have been harder on yourself than anyone else could ever have been. In a way, you have become your own dementor, denying yourself any form of happiness. There is no reason to hold on to that guilt. Let it go and learn to live again.”

Snape made an odd noise, something like laughter that ended in a choked sob. “That's easy for you to say. I had a good look in the mirror of Erised when we were protecting that cursed stone. Do you know what I saw? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It took me some time to realize why. At first I thought it was because I did not have a soul. Then I realized that none of my dreams turned out the way I had hoped. There was no hope for me for a normal life. My deepest desire is to never have existed at all.”

A stunned silence fell. It was a statement so profoundly awful that no one seemed able to respond. How could they not have seen this? Severus was a very private man, but surely there had been some sign to his misery, some signal of the deep pain that haunted him. Minerva reached out to take his hand, and some of the returning darkness to his soul abated. He looked at her in astonishment. Someone actually cared. They were genuinely trying to help him. It was a concept that was overwhelming, and he found the foreign gesture to be somewhat frightening. To accept would make him vulnerable… but was he not vulnerable already?

Remus looked awkward. “Severus, I know that the DADA job must be important to you--”

Snape cut him off with a wave of his hand. “I don't want the job. I never wanted the job! I apply for it every year with the full expectation of being denied. It gives me another reason to appear disgruntled with Dumbledore and eager to betray him to the Death Eaters. All I want it to see someone capable in that position. At this rate I'd have to settle for you, I suppose.” A glimmer of his old scowl returned. “Not that teaching the course myself would be a bad thing. It's time the children actually learned how to defend themselves. One could always hope that they would be more attentive than in Potions, where they seem to be hell-bent on destroying my classroom.” Remus found his attitude strangely encouraging. Snarkiness suited Snape a lot better than his recent apathy.

Dumbledore took Snape's other hand, watching the young man tense slightly at the unfamiliar contact. It made the old wizard ill to see someone so afraid of a gesture of affection. “Severus, your debt is paid. You owe nothing more to me or to anyone else. I know that you have been living in a self-imposed purgatory, but there is nothing more to forgive. Nothing can erase your original mistake, but you have sacrificed much to rejoin the side of the Light. Your life is your own, to do with as you see fit.” A tingle spread up Snape's back as he removed the binding spell. “I want you to take the time and figure out what you truly want out of life. Let's see if we can't come up with a new dream.”

It was as if he had been kept in a dark, cramped room for the past decade, and had suddenly been released, blinking and squinting, into bright sunlight. His heart leapt before he could clamp down on his emotions. Freedom. He had lived for so long under Voldemort's shadow, at the beck and call of two masters, though Dumbledore did his best to couch his orders as requests. He was his own man now, beholden to no one. There might just be something out there for him after all. Perhaps this was how a bird felt taking its first flight, trying out its new wings. A feeling rose in him, unfamiliar and overwhelming. Hope.

Chapter Sixteen

Snape drew his hand up with a flourish, staining the essay before him with bright red ink. He was infinitely grateful to Poppy for seeing to his exams. It felt good to lose himself in familiar, mundane tasks, rather than dwell on the events of the past few days. His gaze flickered to his lap, where an afghan was spread across his lap. He stroked it absentmindedly, feeling a soft warmth tingle through his fingertips. It had been a present from Flitwick, who had charmed it to give “warm fuzzies” to anyone who wore it. Severus made a show of scorning the gift, but the Charms professor merely grinned. Not even Voldemort himself would ever force Snape to admit that he had spent the last few days cocooned in it. He was far too old to need something so babyish as a security blanket, but he wasn't about to reject the simplistic comfort it gave.

He snorted as he looked over Potter's essay. The boy, as usual, made sweeping generalizations without backing up his observations with details and facts. Still, it was a surprisingly good effort. He watched his hand mark an E, for 'Exceeds Expectations', as if it were totally alienated from his body. Granger's essay, unsurprisingly, earned an O for 'Outstanding'. He ran the tip of his quill thoughtfully over his pursed lips. He had been quite harsh to the best student to enter his classroom, but not without reason. Hermione reminded him all too much of himself at his age, full of knowledge and eager to share it, to the point of becoming a know-it-all. He had hoped to shrink her ego with a few well-aimed barbs and to perhaps spare her the insults he had received at her age. The rejection of his peers had stung him deeply, and he had retreated even further into his books and potions experiments, distancing himself from his classmates. He was pleased to see that the girl had a sensible head on her shoulders, making several close friends and addressing those that slandered her with a cool indifference. He also knew all too well the price of knowledge without experience, how magic could be abused and twisted by one who had become too confident, another pitfall from his youth that he wished to help her avoid. Everyone else coddled her and encouraged her without setting proper boundaries. Though his intellectual side relished her raw potential, it fell to him to cut her down to size.

His quill faltered on the next essay. Longbottom. Another Gryffindor who was protected from the outside world, a world that would tear him up and spit him out. Snape knew of the boy's background, but in his eyes it was all the more reason to build Longbottom up and force him to face his demons. If the whelp was completely undone by a harsh-tempered Potions Master, he had no hope of surviving the coming war. Only Merlin knew how he had been sorted into Gryffindor in the first place. Once could only hope that that the boy had untapped potential, skills that he had inherited from his renowned Auror father. In the coming conflict, there would be no room for weakness.

His eye fell on a flowering plant perched on the corner of his desk, and his heart constricted. It was a magnificent hybrid that survived on minimal sunlight and emitted a faint floral smell designed to improve emotional well-being. He had suspected Sprout of slipping it into his classroom, but he had discovered the truth after the Herbology professor had raved about her top student's ingenious project. Said project, an experimental hybrid, sounded a bit too familiar for comfort. Snape rested his head on his fist and studied the plant critically. It was incomprehensible that someone so incompetent in Potions would excel in Herbology, since the two disciplines went hand-in-hand. Knowledge of plants and herbs, their properties and methods of harvest, were a crucial part of potion making.

The question remained: why would someone he had treated so cruelly gift him with something so precious? Severus fingered a sunlight-yellow petal lightly, breathing in deeply as its light perfume tickled his nose. It was magnificent work, no doubt about it. He certainly didn't deserve something as beautiful as this, especially from someone he had treated so cruelly. Gryffindor foolishness, he told himself cynically, but he found the gesture touching all the same. No Gryffindor had ever shown such kindness toward him.

'What was the world coming to?' he wondered dazedly as he marked Longbottom's page with a large A for 'Acceptable'. Perhaps the lad was not quite the limp dishrag he had always seemed. He supposed that it would be too much to ask that the boy stop melting down cauldrons and exploding things left and right. After a moment's thought, he jotted down a cryptic remark: “In the future, do not leave your Herbology projects lying around the dungeons.” It was as close to a thank-you as he would ever get.

The entire school had noticed a subtle shift in the Potions Master's behavior. The man was still as biting and sarcastic as ever, but the venom seemed to have decreased. He spent a good deal of time lost in thought, and he had frightened a dozen Hufflepuff first-years by sitting motionlessly on the window seat facing the lake. They had run away as quietly as possible, certain that the professor was either possessed or had been lurking in the shadows to strip them of several dozen house points. The staff had noticed the change as well. In the past, Snape had firmly rebuffed any invitations to extra-curricular activities or anything not directly related to work. Recently, they had begun to extend casual offers to participate in a game of chess, or private invitations to tea, and to their great surprise, he had hesitatingly accepted, his eyes cast downward, glimmering with an endearing sort of awkward shyness. He was useless in social situations, but it was nice to feel accepted, and his colleagues were very careful to keep things light and casual, so as not to put him on the defensive and risk driving him away once more. Severus was like a high-strung horse, skittish and edgy, requiring a gentle hand and soothing voice to bring him around.

He had scared the children even further one day by sitting on a bench by the lake, watching the sunlight glimmer off the rippling water, the giant squid's tentacles occasionally breaching the surface. The bright sun dazzled his eyes, and he knew he could not remain outside for long without risking a nasty burn, or heatstroke due to his heavy robes. Still, he wished to enjoy the beauty of his surroundings as his mind turned over the ponderous question of his future. After nearly half a lifetime of duplicity and looking over his shoulder, he wasn't quite sure what to do with himself. The mask that he had worn to keep the world away had kept him alive, kept him safe and allowed him to conduct his spy missions with aplomb, but it had also kept him from forming close attachments with anyone. Now that the mask had been ripped away, he felt exposed yet exhilarated, given a new lease on life. The question was: what should he do with it?

He had lived for so long with the specter of Death hovering over his shoulder, expecting to be caught out at any moment. It had not mattered then, for he was merely existing, biding his time until the end. It was now as if an entirely new world had opened up to him, ripe with possibilities. He was free to seek his own fortune. He could always follow his boyhood dream of working in a research facility. Hell, he could open his own laboratory and hand-pick his assistants. He could devote himself entirely to his potions, experimenting at will, with no one to answer to. He could even devote himself to teaching graduate students, as he did occasionally over the summer. There were any number of universities and laboratories that would offer him the sun, moon and stars. Karkaroff (while he had lived) had tried to lure him off to Durmstrang for ages, offering him free reign at whatever he wished, be it Potions or Dark Arts. And yet, he had remained at Hogwarts, performing his duties for Dumbledore, held there by a mixture of obligation and guilt.

He sneered as he thought of the empty-headed cretins masquerading as his students. His talents were surely wasted on them. It took sheer, pants-wetting fear to hammer anything into their thick skulls. He had received quite a number of interesting letters over the years – while parents liked to complain about his heavy-handed methods, universities and Auror-training facilities expressed their gratitude for the students that were sent to them with basic safety and attention to detail drilled into them. Every now and then there was a student was worth his while, a shining gem amongst the lumps of coal, but so often they wasted their potential on Quidditch and other such nonsense. There was no reason for him to remain in his current capacity.

Then again… he shuddered to think of what would happen if the students had no one to keep them in line. Dumbledore was quite skilled at keeping order, but he was often too lenient. McGonagall was as stern as they came, but she had a soft spot for her charges that prevented her from being objective. The children needed someone to play the villain, someone to mold them into shape, to subtly teach them the skills needed to survive. Not that very much seemed to take root in the vast wasteland of their collective minds. If they expected him to become a big softie, filled with smiles and handing out daisies, they were in for a shock. He had no intention of changing.

And then there were his Slytherins. A small crease of worry formed between his eyes. What would become of them if he left? He remembered all too well how things had been during his student days. His Head of House had been a fool, ill-suited to the responsibilities that the job entailed. Slytherin House had been falling apart in those days. Much-needed renovation funds had been devoted instead to buying the Gryffindor Quidditch team new brooms. Being of a frail and sickly nature, he had contracted pneumonia his first winter in Hogwarts, due to the drafty and poorly heated dormitory quarters. His beloved pet snake had died from the cold. (His second snake, a gift from Hagrid, had been poisoned in a Marauder prank. He refused to own another pet after that.) His first action as Head of House had been to raise private funds from wealthy Slytherin alumnae and his own savings to finance a full renovation. Nowadays he sneered at Minerva's begging for funds to replace the outdated Cleansweeps used by the Gryffindor players. His Slytherins had always had to make their own way. They had come to depend on benefactors such as Lucius Malfoy. Let the Gryffindors feel the pinch for once.

He knew all too well what would become of Slytherin House in his absence. The house would be neglected, its students regarded with suspicion. Only a Slytherin could truly understand the needs of its house, and what was needed to channel the ambition of its members to constructive means. For most of the world, ambition equaled evil. Apparently they had learned nothing from Pettigrew's example; that even those of the vaunted Gryffindor house could turn to the Dark. He had become fond of his charges, despite himself. He was savvy enough to avoid manipulation, and while he appeared to coddle them in public, they knew not to bend the rules he had established. Slytherins had a different outlook on the world, and Severus had offered himself to them as a mentor. Watching them grow from frightened first-years to confident graduates always filled him with a sense of pride. It was as close as he ever intended to come to fatherhood. His house, more than any other, would bear the scars of the upcoming war, as it had suffered bitterly after Voldemort's initial defeat. He stood, startling a flock of birds and causing a few feeble-minded Gryffindors to shriek. There was something that needed to be done.

* * * * *

The Slytherins darted glances at the front of the Common Room as they shuffled in. The abrupt announcement of a House meeting had taken them all by surprise, and left them more than a little apprehensive. Snape's introductory speech to his First Years had always remained the same throughout the years. It was simple and to the point. Learn. Pay attention. Sharpen your skills. And above all, stand united. Slytherin House faced opposition from all sides, and divided they would fall. It was a lesson that they had taken to heart. It had been a terrible blow to them to see their Head of House so troubled. They had learned to distrust those who mouthed equality and acceptance but sought to keep them down. Snape's heart was pure Slytherin, and despite the man's prickly demeanor, they had come to respect him, even like him. There had been disturbing rumors after his illness, rumors both of his affliction and its possible causes, which left them confused and frustrated. Something had happened; something enormous that concerned them. They had been left in the dark, and the enterprising students of the House of the Snake had sought answers, but what they had discovered had only confused them further. Now, with Snape's sudden reappearance, finally there was the promise of answers.

Snape faced his charges and assumed his customary stance with his arms folded and a scowl affixed on his face. Some of the more observant students shivered as they saw white bandages peeping out from underneath the sleeves of his robe. Silence fell swiftly, and all shifting and rustling abruptly ceased. Their Head of House refused to address an audience that was not fully attentive, and they wouldn't miss this particular speech for anything.

Once every face had turned toward him, he began to speak in his measured voice, his tone betraying none of his emotions. “I trust that you have heard of my recent illness,” his lip curled slightly at the word, “but that is not what I have come to discuss with you. There is a matter of utmost gravity that must be addressed. It is an issue that has held Slytherin House apart from the rest of the school. The escalating war between the Dark Lord and the Wizarding world had put us in a very precarious position. Ours is a house of ambition and occasional subterfuge. We are scorned by the general public for what we are. From the moment the Sorting Hat was placed on each of your heads, your reputation was sealed. Few realize that our house is one that is slowly being torn in half. Do not think that I am unaware of where loyalties lie. Some of you are descended from Death Eaters,” Crabbe and Goyle stirred, while Malfoy looked at him impassively, “while others offer silent backing to Dumbledore or the Ministry.” Blaise kept his face studiously blank, while Millicent glared at her shoes. “Those of you who have not yet chosen will soon be forced to do so. I know that Lord Voldemort is actively seeking young Slytherins to join his cause. Before you choose, either way, there is something you must know.”

He slowly unbuttoned the left sleeve of his shirt, drawing up the fabric slowly past the bandages to expose the Dark Mark, seeming to glow with malevolence against the pale flesh. There were a few muffled gasps, but to their credit, his charges kept a solid grip on their composure. “I am a Death Eater. This will not come as a surprise to some of you. However, as you have come to learn, appearances can be deceiving. I have some shocking news to deliver, and I thought it best to tell you in person, before you hear from other means. Make of it what you will.” He gazed solemnly at each student in turn, his dark eyes burning into them, and they shivered one by one. “I have been a Death Eater for nearly twenty years, but I have not been a faithful follower. I have been a double agent within Voldemort's ranks, gathering intelligence for Dumbledore and his supporters.” Several jaws worked in either awe or protest, but a glare from him froze them in their tracks. “As I said, Voldemort is very eager to recruit Slytherins, who he knows are dissatisfied with their lot in life and are looking for a quicker way to success. But while his words sound golden, he speaks with a forked tongue, promising the world but delivering ashes.” His face tightened in anger. “While he preaches of the prejudice towards pure wizards and how the Ministry holds us back, Lord Voldemort himself was the one to besmirch the Slytherin name and brand us as a House of evil. He will offer you whatever you desire – fame, riches, power, influence, and much more. But it comes as a heavy price.” Snape began stalk before them, his robes swishing and disturbing the heavy air. “Your triumphs and successes will not be your own. You will be subservient to him. You will be forced to debase yourselves, to crawl before him and kiss his robes to earn his favor. He turns his followers against each other for sport, to keep their senses sharp and their loyalties focused only on him. A true Slytherin crawls for no one. Is this truly the life you desire? Will you be satisfied with his paltry gifts when he curses you with the Cruciatus for some small failing? Is this truly the kind of master you wish to serve? For that is what Voldemort asks of each of his Death Eaters – total subservience.”


The Slytherins turned as a group to stare at Draco Malfoy, who stomped to the head of the room, a letter clutched in his hand, his lips white and trembling. “It's true! I didn't want to believe it when Father told me, but it's true! You're a traitor to the cause, and they won't stop hunting you until you're dead!”

“Let them.” Snape looked scornful. Truth be told, he was surprised that the news had not broken sooner. Either the Death Eaters had been laying low after the attack, or Dumbledore had been blocking their mail to the students. “I will not prove such easy prey as they hope. It is true that I betrayed them, my so-called friends and brothers in arms, but Voldemort betrayed us first. He twisted us and turned us against each other, warping us and trying to weed out every ounce of humanity or empathy that remained within us. Tell me, Draco, do you honestly think you can perform the Killing Curse on a defenseless babe, be it Muggle or wizard? If so, then go to his side, for it is already too late for you. If he asked you to defile Miss Parkinson for his amusement, would you do so?” Pansy squeaked and shoved a hand in her mouth, eyes bulging in horror. Draco's expression faltered, allowing a quick flash of uncertainty. “This he will ask of you, and more. I know that none of you have taken the mark as of yet, but the time is fast approaching when you will be forced to decide. No matter how he preaches of Slytherin unity and achieving your destiny, he cares nothing for you. He would cheerfully sell you out to the Aurors, or kill you with his own wand, if it suited his purposes.”

Draco visibly struggled to regain his arrogant façade. “But Father--”

Snape's expression softened slightly into something resembling regret. “Your father was once a good man, Draco, and my closest companion. Vain, perhaps; arrogant, certainly; but he was not cold-blooded or vicious. Voldemort changed him, changed all of us, treating us as nothing more than lumps of clay to mold into the form of his choosing, or to destroy if we displeased him. I have used my position as Head of Slytherin House to the fullest advantage – while I appeared to groom you as his latest group of cannon fodder, I have done my best to instill in each of you the ability to choose for yourself. I cannot make this decision for you, nor can I delay its coming. Whatever your choice may be, you must prepare yourselves for dark times. I will provide protection for you the best I can, but my influence will spread only so far. It may come to pass that we will face each other on opposite sides of a battlefield. If you go to the Dark Lord's side, you best be prepared to fight to the death, for that will be your only hope for survival. Azkaban is a living torment far worse than death.”

Draco trembled from head to foot, his hand clutching a silver ring adorning his finger, an engraved snake swallowing its tail. It was an undeniable means for Lucius to summon his only son. He swallowed heavily, looking as if the weight of the world was crushing his shoulders. “I – I must go,” he stammered, trying desperately to look calm. “Father expects me home immediately.”

Snape put his hand on the boy's shoulder, feeling it tremble. “Draco, it is never too late. Those who are branded with the Mark are cursed for life, but I will provide a refuge for those who have a sincere desire to abandon his ways. As your godfather, I have tried to provide another path for you to walk on, besides the one that your father has forged for you before even the moment of your conception. You are your own man and your decisions will be judged as such. Make the decision that is right for you.” He watched with fathomless eyes brimming with concern, as the young Malfoy heir pushed him away and bolted up the stairs, unwilling to speak to a soul as he prepared to return home to fulfill his destiny. The rest of Slytherin house stared after him, long after his footsteps had faded. Snape's true alliance had stunned them all and turned their world order on its ear. What would Draco's decision be, in light of this? What would any of theirs be, when the time came?


Severus cursed prolifically under his breath as he hastened toward the Great Hall. Dumbledore had assigned him a few last-minute tasks that had taken him well into the Leaving Feast. As much as he despised such festivities, he had wanted to see his Slytherins off, and to provide moral support when they lost the House Cup once more. For a wonder, Ravenclaw had been the house to prevail this year, so the sting would not be as harsh as in the past. He blamed their losing streak strictly on Potter and his fan club that awarded him points merely for existing.

He wondered what the old man was up to this time. There was some reason that Dumbledore wanted him to arrive late. Most likely the nosy old buzzard wanted to gossip about him. He found the concept most irritating – he was used to people insulting him both to his face and behind his back, and he had much less respect for the latter.

Albus' voice carried to him as he stomped his way up the corridor. “…making uncounted sacrifices for the side of Light, and receiving little thanks for his efforts. He is an unusual sort of man, wanting nothing but the safety of his students. He has asked for nothing for his own sake. It is time that he is finally recognized for what he truly is – a hero and a protector.”

Snape opened the side door as unobtrusively as possible and slipped in, wishing to make a quiet entrance for once. It would not due to interrupt the Headmaster's speech, though he wondered idly what fool was being lauded this time. He approached his chair, wanting nothing more than to sit down and wait for the farce to be over. Thus, he was understandably flummoxed when Dumbledore turned to him, greeting him with a large smile and a nod, and began to applaud. He blinked. Perhaps he had inhaled too many fumes from the last potion. Sitting down seemed like a good idea indeed. Too bad his feet wouldn't cooperate. He stood frozen to the spot, no doubt gaping like a bloody idiot, as Harry Potter rose to his feet, applauding wildly, his sidekicks Granger and Weasley quickly standing by his side. They were followed by the rest of the Weasley clan, then all of the Gryffindor table. The Slytherin table rose as one, not applauding but standing at attention, a solemn sign of respect. The rest of the staff stood as well, and the other tables followed suit, until the Great Hall rang with applause and cheers. Severus wondered vaguely when he would wake up from this truly bizarre dream.

Dumbledore approached him and thumped him heartily on the back, shaking him out of his reverie. Snape shook his head slightly, staring at the sea of grinning faces with the utmost disbelief. “What did you say to them?” he hissed.

Albus twinkled at him. “Merely the truth, my boy. Now come and join us. You're looking a bit wobbly.” The raucous noise somehow increased as Dumbledore guided Snape to the Head Table to stand by his side. As he passed by, fellow faculty members patted him on the back and gave him wide smiles of encouragement and congratulations. But it was the sight of the Slytherin table that gave Snape the greatest reward of all. Draco had not returned, that was to be expected, but somehow he thought that the boy was not lost to them yet. Several faces were missing from all four tables, and it brought a pang to his heart, but those that remained were the real surprise. At the front end of the table stood Pansy Parkinson, a defiant sneer on her face, and Malfoy's omnipresent henchmen, Crabbe and Goyle. They had all defied their parents' expectations and chose to remain at the castle. Severus would do his best to protect them, to his dying breath if need be. They had made a very difficult decision, but it was a choice that they had made themselves and would stand by it.

“I have news for you, Severus,” Dumbledore said jovially. “The students have decided to petition the Ministry to award you the Order of Merlin.” Snape snorted, but he couldn't hide the twitch of his lips. The petition didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell, but the gesture made all the difference in the world to him. Someone cared. A lot of someones. No one had ever bothered to stand up for him before, but here was the entire population of Hogwarts demonstrating their support. He was under no illusions of the actual number who believed in him – most of them were sheep following the herd, a herd that would have cheerfully fed him to the wolves just yesterday – but it was still more than he had ever dreamed of.

Things seemed to have turned around so quickly that he was still reeling. He hoped that this adulation wouldn't become some sort of trend; he'd end up hexing the lot before the end of the week. Of course, this didn't change anything in the least. He still would take great pleasure in snarling at them and deducting House points in the hundreds. But damn if it didn't feel good to be appreciated for once! His lips twitched once more, and despite his best efforts to turn it into a condescending sneer, they began to spread in a timid ghost of a smile. The expression looked uncomfortable on a face customarily lined with pain and scowling. The cheers rose to a deafening level, and despite all his misgivings, the cynical voice in his head fell silent, and the corners of his mouth lifted until the smile was small but genuine. Great Merlin, they would never let him live it down. The transformation was stunning – with the lines of the years smoothed away, he looked… almost handsome. The cheering wasn't just for him, it was for them, for the fact that for one moment they were standing as one, they were invincible. And suddenly none of it mattered: Voldemort, the future, the escalating war. The moment was perfect and simple and Snape drew it close to his heart. Come what may, he would face it. And he would not be alone.

The End

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