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March 12, 1995


Severus slogged down the muddy road from Hogsmeade, clutching the small brown bag more to keep his hand occupied than because he really meant to eat the leftover food later. He was not one to fidget, but it was only natural to occasionally lay a hand on one’s leg or brush dirt off of the lapel of one’s robes, and he already felt skeevy enough as it was.

Polyjuice had never been one of his favorite potions. Anyone who didn’t know him very well might think that a man as ugly as he was would relish the chance to look like anyone else for even a short time. But Polyjuice didn’t actually change who he was, only who he looked like. Though, granted, there were times—now, for instance—when the opportunity to actually be someone else was one he would jump at, should it truly present itself. He wouldn’t mind at all not having to be around whinging brats all day, not living in a heart that was cold and cracked due to the actions of a foolish youth, and currently, not having his arm ache constantly with the reminder that said foolishness was not something he could ever really escape.

It had started soon after the school year did. First it was only a slight tingle, something he brushed off for nearly a month before he noticed the first shadow of ancient lines retracing their paths on his forearm. By Christmas, it was obvious what was happening. The Dark Mark was returning, and that could only mean one thing: the one who’d given it to him was returning as well.

Karkaroff was no help. All the coward wanted to do was hound him for information he didn’t have so that he knew which direction to run when the time came. And for good reason, Severus supposed. Karkaroff’s odds of convincing the Dark Lord that his cooperation with the Ministry had all been a ruse were about as high as the odds of Fenrir Greyback becoming a Muggle pop star. Along with being a coward, the Bulgarian was a terrible liar and even worse Occlumens.

Still, he had the right idea in one thing. Information was needed. If someone had found a way to resurrect the Dark Lord, Severus wanted to know how. More than that, he wanted to know who. Which of his former colleagues had the wherewithal, cunning, and desire to bring their former master back from the grave? A few names came to mind: the Lestranges, Crouch, Rookwood . . . possibly Mulciber. And all of them, the ones who truly had nothing to fear from the Dark Lord, were in Azkaban, where they were deprived of wands and anything else that might conceivably be used to perform any but the most basic magic. That meant it had to be someone who had managed to escape imprisonment. The problem was that most of the Death Eaters who fit into that category did so by giving information to the Ministry or claiming Imperio, neither of which the Dark Lord would look too kindly on. Of course, Malfoy was an obvious choice. He had mostly avoided Azkaban with a few well-placed Oblivates and large amounts of gold.

But it might not necessarily even be a Death Eater. There were certainly a number of sympathizers to the cause who, for various reasons, didn’t go as far as to take the Dark Mark. Unfortunately, spending nearly all his time at Hogwarts, Severus was too far away from any of them to get a lay of the land, so to speak. He needed to know what was going on among the free Death Eaters and others who might have any reason to want the Dark Lord back in power. He needed someone he could trust, someone on the inside, someone who would have noticed if any of her reluctant acquaintances had been acting strangely.

Which was why Severus currently found himself disguised as a fourteen-year-old girl.

Sneaking into the girls’ dormitory and rooting through a teenager’s belongings for a bit of stray hair had made him feel fully the creepy, slimy git that so many of the students seemed to think him. But he sucked it up and did what he had to. Spying was a dirty business and he’d been out of practice for too long. He was just glad that Miss Rosier had such a distinctive hair color. It would not have done at all if he’d accidentally found himself transformed into one of her classmates—one that he hadn’t made sure to send on an important errand for the duration of the afternoon.

Things would have been so much easier if he could have met Henrietta Rosier as himself. Unfortunately, if she did pick up on anything going on with the Death Eaters, she knew far too much about them (her husband having been one) to think that Severus would end up as anything but dead or Dark by the time the dust settled. It had been a difficult task getting any information out of her even in this form, but in the end he’d been able to establish only that the other Death Eaters seemed to be feeling their Marks return, as well. If there was anything other than that, Henrietta didn’t know anything about it. It was less information than he’d been hoping for, but enough that he felt it worth the effort.

He scowled to himself, remembering how close he’d come to not being able to pull off this little deception at all, thanks to Harry-bloody-Potter. If he’d waited another month to brew the potion, he would have been forced to track down more boomslang skin, since the last of his supply had been recently stolen.

He’d suspected Potter as soon as he detected the gillyweed missing from his store, and now that he’d seen it used for that asinine Triwizard Task, he was certain of it. He’d be willing to bet a large sum that it had been Potter—or one of his cronies—that stole the boomslang skin as well. The last time some of that had gone missing, Granger had ended up in the hospital wing coughing up hairballs. It seemed the miscreants were giving Polyjuice brewing another try. Severus thought Potter’s time would be much better served trying not to get himself killed in that pointless competition—though he wouldn’t put it past Potter to do just that merely to spite him.

Severus’s internal grumbling was disrupted by a sudden sound off the road to his right. He pulled his wand, instantly on guard and visually scanning the surrounding area. There was no one around that he could see, though there was a small shack near the wooden fence that ran along the side of the road. By the sound of things, something was moving beside it.

He inched around the shack, senses on high alert and wand at the ready, until he could see what was on the other side. He relaxed only slightly.

Just a dog, he thought with some relief. Only then did he realize that he was so on edge, he half-expected the Dark Lord to simply pop out of the bushes.

It was, however, a terribly large dog, and Severus had never been particularly comfortable around dogs of any size, let alone ones whose shoulders were level with his thighs (or so was the case, at least, in his current form).

The pathetic creature was rooting around in a rubbish bin, making the most ludicrous pig-like snuffling sounds. Severus took a step back, and his foot squelched in the mud. The dog leapt back from the bin, looking as startled as Severus had been just a moment ago. The dog froze in place and looked at him. His wand still pointed at the dog, Severus remained still, waiting to see what the animal’s next move would be.

Then, very slowly, the dog raised its nose in the air and took several short, quick sniffs, then seemed to look very pointedly at the bag Severus held in his hand.

Severus glanced at the bag, then back to the dog. “Hungry, are you?” he asked the dog, and nearly winced at the high-pitched sound that issued from his throat. He’d got used to speaking with Miss Rosier’s voice when talking to her mother, but it had been almost ten minutes now since he’d heard it, and it was a bit jarring.

In response, the dog dropped onto its belly, put its head between its forepaws on the grass, and, in a move that seemed (if Severus didn’t know better) calculated to elicit the most sympathy possible, laid one ear to the side and looked up at him imploringly.

Severus harrumphed and set the bag on a fence post. Never taking his eyes off the dog, he dug out the flimsy metal bowl of half-eaten rice and chicken, moved a few feet toward the dog, set the bowl on the ground, and backed away.

The dog leapt up and ran to the bowl, tail wagging and tongue lolling out, then dove into its meal with the enthusiasm of a starving man. Its tale wagged wildly as it ate, as if Severus’s discarded lunch was the most delicious thing it had ever tasted.

Severus should have taken this opportunity to make his escape, now that the dog was otherwise occupied. He’d meant to do just that. But suddenly he found he couldn’t take his eyes off the large animal.

With the long hair, it was not immediately apparent whether the dog was male or female, and he didn’t care to look too closely. Based solely on the size, he would guess male, but he hardly knew enough about dogs to be certain. It was terribly gaunt, like it hadn’t eaten well in months, though that fact was somewhat disguised by the long fur that swished as it moved. A certain resemblance forced itself into Severus’s awareness. Suddenly the dog reminded him of someone else, someone he knew very well . . . someone who also disguised his pathetically thin body with an imposing shroud of black.

Before he knew what he was doing, Severus found himself sitting on the wooden fence, his wand laying harmlessly beside him. He watched the dog inhale its meal and wondered what had brought it to this. Had it had a home once? A family that loved it? No, Severus didn’t think so. It looked like the sort of dog who’d never really had a home, who’d always been on the outside. Maybe it, too, had come from the wrong side of town. And yet, it appeared friendly enough. Perhaps someone had loved it once. Someone who wasn’t here anymore.

“How do you do it?” he said suddenly, surprising himself. The dog looked up at him. Severus found himself amazed that his simple words had managed to distract the dog from a meal it so obviously relished, so the least he could do was clarify. “How are you so happy?”

The dog cocked its head to the side and regarded him for a moment, then walked toward him slowly, keeping low to the ground, looking up at him. Severus didn’t know much about animal communication, but it was obvious even to him that the dog was trying to say It’s okay, I won’t hurt you. His question was whether or not to believe it.

Severus watched carefully as the dog approached him, his hand sliding to his wand, just in case. When it got near enough to touch, the dog sniffed at the hem of his robe. Severus put his left hand down by the dog’s nose, and it sniffed his hand as its tail began wagging vigorously again. When Severus didn’t yank his hand away, the dog sniffed up his arm as high as it could reach, then suddenly its forepaws came up and Severus nearly fell backward off the fence. But the dog, which had just wanted to rest its paws on the fence beside him, looked at him and barked. Its tail was still wagging and its tongue was again hanging obscenely out the side of its mouth. Severus could have sworn it was laughing at him.

The dog was big enough that Severus was now looking it in the eyes. It looked back at him quite happily, panting heavily in his face. Severus just about gagged from the foul stench coming from the canine’s jaws. He put his hands on either side of the dog’s neck, meaning to shove it away from him, but the dog seemed to think that was some signal that he wanted to play.

Before he knew what was happening, the dog had shoved its head at Severus’s face and licked him from chin to ear.

“Agh!” Severus cried, and this time he did fall off the fence.

He tried to scramble to his feet, but the dog had already raced around the fence and was leaping around like Severus had just rang the starting bell at the Quidditch World Cup. Every time Severus tried to so much as sit up, the dog would lunge at him and lick his face, then dart away before Severus could swat at it. He groped around for his wand, but it remained on the top of the fence where he’d left it.

“Accio wand!” he cried as the dog jumped back from its latest attack. Then the dog leapt over Severus’s body, snatched his wand from mid-air, and pranced away.

“Get over here, you lousy mutt!” Severus shouted, finally finding his feet. “Bring that back this instant!”

The dog ran several meters away, back on the other side of the fence and into the field, before spinning around and facing Severus again. Severus’s wand was held firmly between its rows of large teeth.

“So help me, if you snap that, I will have your hide,” Severus threatened. The dog’s tail was wagging in furious circles now and—Wait, can dogs smile?

“Accio dog!” he shouted, but his attempt didn’t so much as make the dog’s fur shift.

The dog happily bounced around, always able to stay well out of Severus’s reach as he chased it through the grass. Sometimes it would get close enough for Severus to feel like he almost had it, then it would bound away, making what surely could not have been sniggering sounds.

After several minutes of feeling like a total fool as well as wishing he was back at his normal height, Severus realized he was only playing into the dog’s hands (well, paws) and stood in the grass with his arms crossed, staring the dog down. After a few more laps around him, the dog seemed to realize he wasn’t playing anymore and stopped running. It stood there, just out of arm’s reach, and looked disappointed.

“This is the thanks I get?” he asked it. “I give you food and you take my wand? I should have expected as much.”

To his astonishment, the dog bowed its head, crept forward, and dropped the wand directly at Severus’s feet. Then it stepped back, sat, and looked at him with its ears flat out to the side.

Severus snatched the wand from the ground and inspected it. There wasn’t a mark on it. Not waiting for the dog to take it back, he stowed it safely in his robes.

As he glared at the dog, it flattened onto its belly and looked up at him, its ears as flat out as they could get, and put both forepaws over its muzzle. Again, the meaning was clear.

Severus had never been a dog person, and this was part of the reason. They were so quick to grovel. Having had some experience groveling, he hated to see any creature willingly demean itself so . . . even one as pitiful as this dog.

“Get up, mongrel,” he huffed. “I’m not your master.”

The dog rose to its feet, tail wagging, but head still bowed, as if to say I’ll be good, really.

Severus let out a long-suffering sigh and held out his hand. As the dog started to bound over, he snapped it back and said, “No more licking! I know what you do with that tongue.”

The dog stopped, sat back, and looked—if Severus had to put a word to it, though he knew it was impossible—affronted.

He put his hand back out in front of him and the dog went up and nuzzled it until Severus started petting the dog on the head. Its fur was wiry and damp, but soft. The thought crossed his mind that the dog could use a bath . . . then he remembered how many times people had muttered similar things about him, and he thought that the dog seemed perfectly happy as it was.

Again, he found himself wondering if the dog belonged to anybody.

“All alone out here, are you, dog?” he asked, trying to make himself sound disapproving and indifferent, but the girl’s voice simply wouldn’t cooperate.

The dog started sniffing him again and poked its nose into his side.

“I suppose no one even bothered to give you a name, did they?” he asked, but the dog didn’t seem to respond to that question. It just kept sniffing him, its nose buried in his robes. The dog’s nudging was beginning to make him laugh. He mentally cursed the girl’s ticklish ribs. “How will I know who to report you to, if you don’t belong to anyone?” He also cursed the girl’s voice for sounding so weak.

At his words, the dog backed away immediately and stood straight, its ears pricked, and the fur between its shoulder blades stood up a bit.

“Oh, very well,” Severus sighed. “I will refrain from reporting you. After all, if you have no name, who shall I say is running amok on the road to Hogsmeade?”

The dog bounded toward him, wagging its tail happily, but held back from licking him. Instead, it stuck its nose into his side and continued with the short, quick sniffs, working its way up Severus’s side until its forepaws were off the ground and its nose was buried in Severus’s presently-orange hair, snuffling happily.

Severus was positive that Evelyn Rosier must have had particularly sensitive nerve endings, as the dog’s onslaught soon had him fighting back a fit of highly uncharacteristic giggles and he had to push the dog away before it totally ruined any self-respect he still had.

When the dog was safely back with all four paws on the ground and its gratitude sufficiently expressed, it sat quietly while Severus stroked its head and tried to recover from the disturbing experience.

He looked down at his hand as he petted the dog and realized with a start that the sleeve of his robe was an inch shorter than it had been a few minutes ago. Or rather, that his arm was an inch longer. The Polyjuice was wearing off. He needed to get back to Hogwarts before he changed back.

“Look there,” he said, pointing to the bowl which still had food in it. “You’ve missed some.”

The dog looked at the bowl, then loped back over to it and started eating the remainder, at a more leisurely pace than it had before.

Severus snuck around the fence, hoping the dog wouldn’t hear and come after him. But once he was on the other side and a few meters down the road, he turned back to look at the dog and allowed himself a half-smile.

“Goodbye . . . Snuffles,” he said. The dog looked up at him and met his eyes for a second, then wagged its tail happily and returned to eating. Feeling strangely satisfied and in better spirits than he had in months, Severus turned and hurried toward the school.