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The Boy Who Died A Lot

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The first time Harry Potter died, he was eleven years old.

In hindsight, Severus considered it nothing short of a miracle that the blasted boy had lasted this long in the first place. Between ill-advised flight stunts without a single lesson in actual flying, trolls in the dungeon and traipsing around the castle at night whenever he damn well pleased—no proof does not mean it didn’t happen—Potter should surely have shuffled off this mortal coil much, much sooner.

The jinxed broom didn’t count, because for once Potter’s fabled luck had not been responsible. No, Severus alone had saved his hide in that instance, paying for the privilege by nearly going up in flames, for all the good that did. Because here they were, less than six months later: Potter lying stone-cold dead on an infirmary bed whilst Severus wondered why he’d bothered at all.

What a waste of a fine set of robes. They’d been expensive, too.

“‘S all my fault,” sobbed the overgrown oaf who was ultimately to blame for this mess. “Shouldn’ta made ‘im switch teams. Should never’ve sent ‘im off with Malfoy. Shouldn’ta—shouldn’ta—”

The rest of Hagrid’s words got lost in a fresh flood of tears as he threw his arms around Potter’s motionless torso, shuddering so hard it rocked both the bed and the chair he sat on. The movement dislodged the sheet Pomfrey had drawn over the body, exposing the garish slash across Potter’s throat where blood and life had drained out of him.

“Now, now,” Minerva said, tucking the sheet discreetly back into place. “It’s no use blaming yourself. You weren’t to know that this... this horrible tragedy,”—her voice wobbled just slightly on the last word—“would come to pass. If any of us could truly predict the future—well, I most certainly would never have assigned this detention. I’m as much to blame as you are.”

Oh, for the love of... Severus crossed his arms, fingers drumming against his bicep, and glanced heavenwards in supreme irritation. By the time he looked back down, Minerva was glaring at him.

“Would it kill you to at least pretend to have some modicum of respect?”

“For the preposterous pity party you’re so intent on throwing? Yes.”

“For the fact that an eleven-year-old boy lies not two feet from you, dead! For the fact that three more children, one of whom belongs to your House, might I add, are sitting just beyond that door,”—she thrust a finger towards the room that Pomfrey had led Draco, Longbottom and Granger into upon arrival—“probably traumatised for life!”

Hagrid sobbed harder.

“All very touching, I’m sure,” Severus said, “except that, as usual, you are entirely missing the point.”

For a moment, Minerva seemed liable to leap over the bed in between them to ensure Severus’s throat soon resembled Potter’s. She might well have done, too, if not for Dumbledore’s hand coming to rest on her shoulder. “And that would be...?” he asked, as though he hadn’t spent the past ten minutes quietly analysing the information Hagrid had provided before dissolving into a blubbering mess.

“I am certain you’ve already arrived at much the same conclusion as myself, Headmaster.”

“Be that as it may, I would still like to hear your interpretation of events.”

Severus sighed. “One: Hagrid confirms that something is indeed killing the unicorns, some creature unlike any he’s ever seen before. Two: Said creature is drinking the unicorns’ blood. Three: Said creature has killed Harry Potter by cutting his throat with a knife, a most interesting choice of murder weapon for a supernatural creature of any kind. Conclusion: Said creature is not a creature at all; it is the Dark Lord returned. He was weakened enough to have to rely on unicorn blood to sustain his life, but now that he has killed the one person who almost saw him vanquished, we’re dealing with a completely different equation altogether. He has Potter’s blood; it is only a matter of time until he finds the spell to match, if he hasn’t already. How well the Stone is protected is irrelevant now, because he no longer needs it. In short: we’re all of us doomed.”

For long seconds, silence reigned. Minerva’s features had shifted from outrage to profound concern during Severus’s speech. Even Hagrid was no longer crying, instead sitting straight up in his chair once again.

“You-Know-Who,” he said, sounding equal parts horrified and disbelieving. “But it can’ be—mind, never believed all that claptrap abou’ ‘im bein’ gone for good, but at Hogwarts? With Professor Dumbledore here? Surely he wouldn’ dare!”

“Perhaps my presence is not as much of a deterrent as all of us had hoped,” Dumbledore said, with a nod to Severus. “You are certain?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. If you could come with me—no, not you, Minerva, just Severus.”

“But if he has truly returned—”

“Then I will trust that I can call on you when the time is right,” Dumbledore said, with a light squeeze to her shoulder and a smile which, for once, did not reach his eyes. “But for now, you can best serve us all by assisting Pomfrey in looking after the children.”

The twist to Minerva’s mouth made it clear that she was far from pleased. Under any other circumstance, Severus would have taken the opportunity to smirk at her, but as it was he simply followed Dumbledore out of the infirmary.

“Do not look so glum,” Dumbledore said, as they were ascending the stairs. “I do have a plan.”

“A plan,” Severus said. “Are we conveniently forgetting something of major importance? Something, oh, I don’t know, orb-shaped and glowing, slumbering safe and sound on a shelf at the Ministry? Something that begins with the capital letter P?”

“Really now, Severus, there is hardly a need for sarcasm. Besides,”—Dumbledore’s eyes narrowed a fraction—“I fail to see why you believe that the Prophecy would be relevant.”

“Oh, come off it! If it begins by stating that ‘the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches’, and you make it perfectly plain to me how crucial protecting Potter is, then it hardly takes a genius to deduce that it contains further information marking Potter as the only one capable of fully defeating him. So yes, there is a need for sarcasm. We have lost our ultimate weapon. As I’ve already stated, we are all doomed.”

“Brighton rock,” Dumbledore said, and the gargoyle slid aside to reveal the staircase to his office. “Please don’t forget that the ‘weapon’ you are talking about used to be a young boy with hopes and dreams like any other. A young boy whose friends mourn his passing even as we are speaking.”

“And whose fault is that? Who gave a bumbling idiot with less common sense than a flobberworm the authority to supervise detentions by taking said young boy to the Forest, when it is expressly forbidden to students? For that matter, who encouraged Potter’s constant rule-breaking and gallivanting about the castle at all hours, granting him special dispensation to join a preposterously dangerous sport, etcetera, etcetera? How many times in the past year did I come to you, demanding that Potter be kept in line, and get brushed off?”

“I don’t see your point, Severus,” Dumbledore said with a distracted air, rummaging around in a drawer. “Ah, there it is.”

“My point is that any normal child his age would have seen something sucking the life out of a unicorn and run screaming, much as Draco Malfoy did. Potter, however, was almost guaranteed to run straight towards it! As I warned you, repeatedly, except that you failed to listen!”

“Hmm,” Dumbledore said. “Perhaps. Do take a seat, would you.”

Severus slumped down into the chair by Dumbledore’s desk, burying his face against his hand.

“And please do not sulk.”

“I’m not sulking. I’m despairing.”

“Then don’t despair. Hold out your hand.”

Severus complied, albeit with a great deal of reluctance. A soft clink echoed through the room as Dumbledore dropped something metallic into his palm, before sinking back into his own chair, smiling. “What do you say now?”

Severus stared at the object, all the wind knocked out of him. “A time-turner.”

“A time-turner,” Dumbledore said. “Highly illegal, of course, and somewhat dated, but it will have to suffice.”

“You want me to go back and prevent the Dark Lord from killing Potter.”

“Yes.”

“Well, that should be easy enough. All I need to do is stop this blasted detention from ever occurring—”

“No, under no circumstances can I allow you to do that. There is no telling what would happen if we interfered too early in the time-stream—it’s such a delicate balance, you see. Besides, I believe it is crucial that Harry should encounter Voldemort tonight, just not with this consequence.”

“On the grounds that?”

“Call it gut feeling,” Dumbledore said with one of those damned twinkles in his eye.

Severus’s teeth clenched. “Very well. I shall swoop in, then, at just the right moment and leap to Potter’s rescue like a white knight in shining armour.”

“No, you cannot do that, either.”

“Oh, for the love of—”

“Where were you, tonight, when I called you to the infirmary?”

“Supervising detention,” Severus said, with a sigh. “Yes, I do take your point; it would be impossible to keep this a covert operation if people can vouch for seeing me in two places at once. Although that does seem rather inconsequential, given the stakes.”

“And if it comes to that, that’s how it will be. But there’s no reason not to aim high—it really will be much better if Harry doesn’t see you. As a matter of fact, it would be ideal if his rescue did not seem suspicious at all, but... natural, shall we say.”

“With all due respect, Headmaster, if you’ve got such clear specifications for this mission, why don’t you bloody well go and do it yourself?”

“Oh,” Dumbledore said, reaching for a quill and parchment and beginning to write. “I have always been excellent at formulating plans, but I trust that your... creative problem-solving skills will make you a much better executor on this occasion.”

Severus snorted. There was no doubt in his mind that Dumbledore himself was equally, if not far better, suited to the task at hand. No, the true reason had to be something else, something he was deliberately obfuscating...

Narrowing his eyes, he watched the man write for several long moments, before deciding to set aside speculation until later. Right now, practical concerns seemed far more pressing than uncovering Dumbledore’s ulterior motives. “Anything else?”

Dumbledore held up a finger, scribbling several more lines onto the parchment, then signed it and rolled it up. “Yes. As I mentioned, this model is somewhat dated and, as such, allows for some compensation of temporal paradoxes, but only up to a point. Which complicates matters a little.”

“Naturally.”

“The basic paradox is this: if you are successful, this timeline will cease to exist, or, should I say, will never have existed at all. Consequently—”

“—I, too, will cease to exist?”

“Quite correct,” Dumbledore said. “Which in turn means you could never have gone back to fix the situation. Consequently, the new timeline you’ll have created would collapse, Harry would die as before, and we’d end up right back here. I’d send you back, and the process would repeat in perpetuity—we would end up stuck in a sort of... closed temporal loop.”

“Sounds marvellous.”

“Now, a more powerful time-turner can accommodate such a paradox indefinitely—there would simply end up being two of you in the new timeline. However, this one can only sustain the paradox for a limited period. So you will need to inform yourself—past-you, I mean—of how you resolved the situation, so past-you can go back as you did, and save Harry. Then—”

“Wait,” Severus said. “I was following you up to this point, but now you’ve lost me. If he goes back in time, won’t I already be there, fixing matters?”

“No, because of the paradox—that part of the timestream will have already begun to degrade. In essence, if he goes back, he will then turn into you—the time-turner will facilitate that process—and you will be free to go forward in the new timeline you’ll have created.”

Severus frowned, parsing and reparsing that sentence before giving it up as hopeless. “I’ve already got a headache.”

“Try not to overthink it too much,” Dumbledore said. “It’s simply how these things work. Regardless, I’ve just written myself a letter which will explain the situation, so that past-me can give past-you the time-turner at the right moment.”

Severus nodded absent-mindedly. “And if he and I essentially... merge, what will happen to my memories?”

“Based on my research you should retain the memory of both the original and the new timelines.”

Fantastic. More headaches. And actually, on second thought, herein lay the answer to his earlier question about Dumbledore’s motivations for sending Severus, did it not? Creative problem solving, ha. More like Dumbledore’s reluctance to recall the vivid image of Potter’s ghostly-pale face and gaping throat, the heavy stink of blood soaking through his robes.

Severus closed his eyes briefly, swallowing. Staring death in the face when it was right in front of you, continuing to focus on what needed doing whilst standing over someone’s dead body, that was the easy part. The memories, though, the way that they lingered—

“You will be fine,” Dumbledore said, misinterpreting his expression. “Well, provided you don’t go and kill yourself, that is.”

Severus shot him a look that communicated just how very far from funny he considered that comment, then snatched up the parchment and left the office.

“Good luck, my boy!” Dumbledore called after him.

Severus did not need luck. He needed a plan.

---

Tracking down whom he sought, once the time-turner had spun him into the past, turned out to be the easiest part. There was something to be said for having friends in unusual places.

“Mars is bright tonight,” said the centaur, when Severus stepped into the clearing.

“Good evening to you, too.”

Firenze turned towards him, one hoof pawing the ground. “You swim outside your stream, Severus Snape.”

Perhaps this had not been such an inspired idea. “Do I.”

“You reek of tomorrow. By all rights, I ought not to be speaking to you.”

“And yet you’re still here,” Severus pointed out. “If you give me five minutes, I can explain what I—”

“You seek to undo what is done. It is unwise.”

“Some would beg to differ. Tonight—”

“It is unwise,” Firenze repeated. “What has come to pass shall come to pass. It is written. Return to whence you came and abandon this foolishness.”

“I cannot do that. Besides, was it not written also that Emily Smith should have died less than a year ago, when I could not locate the star-blooming moss for the potion that she required? Was it not you who led me to it?”

Firenze’s blue eyes slid away from Severus’s face. “That was far different,” he said, before fixing his gaze on Severus anew. “Whatever you seek to undo now has already transpired. You will—”

“It has not!”

“You will only delay the inevitable, mark my words. The streams of time have a way of rerouting themselves.”

“Then I will delay it. Three hours from now—”

“I have no wish to know.”

“Three hours from now,” Severus continued, raising his voice as Firenze shook his head and turned, setting off towards the trees at a trot, “three hours from now the Dark Lord will kill Harry Potter and rise again! Is that a future you wish to protect?”

Firenze ground to a halt. He looked skywards, his hair shimmering white in the moonlight. “Mars is unusually bright tonight,” he said. “It is written.”

But he sounded troubled.

“You don’t believe that,” Severus said, striding across the clearing to face him. “You never have and you never will. You’re not like the rest of your kind, or you would never have assisted me last year. Mark my words, now: I will keep this from happening, with or without your help.”

“You may find that you do not enjoy the consequences. Time shall oppose you, be in no doubt about that. It abhors any imbalance and shall seek to redress it.”

“At any cost,” Severus said.

A ghost of a smile danced over Firenze’s features when he next met Severus’s eyes. “You are persistent.”

“Can you blame me? You’re old enough to remember what life was like, when he first ruled. If Potter dies, slain unicorns will be the least of your worries. There won’t be a part of this forest, of this whole island, that will remain unaffected by open war. And without Potter, we stand no chance at all. My people will die, your people will die, all of us will die. We’ll have a carnage on our hands. Is that what you want?”

Firenze pawed at the ground, nervously.

“The future is not set in stone,” Severus said. “Not yet, at any rate. Now, I came to you for assistance, because I find myself in the unenviable position of being in two places at once—if I save Potter and he sees me, word will soon spread and the truth of my actions will be revealed. There is no telling what chain of events I might set in motion—”

“But one reason why this is unwise.”

“However, if you intervene in my stead,” Severus continued, unfazed, “then no one need ever know.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then I will do what I must, and accept the consequences.”

“I do not believe you grasp how far they may reach, nor that you will until you have become hopelessly ensnared and entangled and there is no way back. Time can be as subtle as it is persistent.”

“I don’t care,” Severus said.

Firenze sighed. “You ask much.”

“Much is at stake.”

“Most of my kind would already have refused you. Centaurs don’t interfere in that which is human, nor in that which is writ large in the sky.”

“But you are not like most of your people.”

“No,” Firenze allowed, after a long moment’s silence. “I have often been what they would call foolish.”

“Others might call it insightful.”

Firenze straightened his shoulders, stamping a hoof on the ground harshly. “Do not attempt to flatter me, Severus Snape,” he said, and there was no humour in his features. “I will do as you say, but not for your sake. I will do it because the darkness which roams this forest cannot be allowed to roam this whole land. Now take me to where the boy will be tonight, and then never seek me again.”

Losing friends in unusual places, Severus reflected as he set off for the location he’d extracted from Hagrid before departing, seemed like a very small price to pay.

---

He did not rest easy until it was done, watching Firenze gallop to Potter’s rescue from a safe distance, his wand-hand twitching all the while. Even then, his sigh of relief was a temporary one—after all, he still had a paradox to attend to. He went straight up to the Headmaster’s office and handed over the letter without so much as a byword.

“How remarkable,” Dumbledore said, once he had finished it. “How truly extraordinary! Never in my life have I—”

“Yes, yes,” said Severus, still feeling irritated from having to steal about the castle like a thief in the night. He hadn’t done that since he was seventeen. “Could we get to the point?”

“Naturally. I take it your presence here means you’ve been successful?”

“I don’t know,” Severus said, spreading his arms wide. “Are there any dead brats lying about that I’ve happened to miss? No? In that case, yes, I think we can safely say that I’ve been successful.”

Dumbledore sent him a stern glance over the rim of his spectacles.

“Of course,” Severus continued, “I may disappear at any given moment, thus spiralling us into a neverending time-loop of eternal damnation.”

“Well then,” Dumbledore said jovially, “we had best ensure that doesn’t happen. Now, where did I put it?”

“That drawer.” Whilst Dumbledore was busy finding the time-turner, Severus checked the clock on his desk. “I won’t be in my quarters yet. Still supervising detention.”

“For how long?”

“Ten minutes. Fifteen at most.”

“In that case, it will be best if we Floo straight through to your quarters and wait for you there,” Dumbledore said. “No sense in confusing the House Elves by asking them to summon someone who’s in two places at once.”

“No sense in—you are remarkably blasé about the impending destruction of time as we know it, don’t you think?”

“Calm yourself, Severus. It’s true that the time-turner does have limitations, but it ought to sustain you for several hours, at least. A couple of days, even, I’d wager. It will most certainly uphold the paradox until the moment you originally departed—was it that early?”

Severus ground his teeth so hard they ached. “No,” he admitted. “I believe it was about four in the morning.”

“There you go,” Dumbledore said, beaming. “Everything will be fine, don’t you worry. Do you still have the Pensieve which I gave you?”

He made it sound as though it had been a gift, and not a tool he had furnished Severus with after his return to Hogwarts—a tool for the express purpose of getting reliable information out of a spy, for all those times when fear had made his recall a tad hazy.

Of course he had kept it.

It did not take long to set up the Pensieve inside his rooms and extract the memory of his conversation with Firenze. Exactly ten minutes later, the door to Severus’s quarters flew open, and Severus promptly found himself at the business end of his own wand.

“What is the meaning of this?” snapped Snape, and Severus’s irritation vanished into thin air, replaced by the joyousness of finally, finally seeing someone jump to a potentially dangerous situation with alacrity.

“What does it look like?” he asked himself, already knowing the answer.

“It looks like all my precautions to keep my hair from falling into the wrong hands were in vain, because a Polyjuiced imposter has clearly invaded my quarters.” Snape’s eyes narrowed. “An imposter who has the nerve to sit in my favourite chair.”

“Oh no, your precautions worked perfectly,” Severus said. “You see, I am no imposter. I am,”—he leaned forwards slightly, steepling his fingers before him and dropping his voice on the next words—“the ghost of Christmas future.”

Snape blinked, looking quickly over at Dumbledore, then back at Severus. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged.

Severus couldn’t help it; he smirked.

“Honestly, Severus,” said Dumbledore. “No, not you, the one sitting down—please refrain from goading yourself. And Severus—dearie me, this is all rather confusing, isn’t it?”

“I’m calling him Snape,” Severus said. “I find that it helps.”

“Will someone just tell me,” Snape burst out, jabbing his wand towards Severus’s face, “what in the blazes is going on?”

“Of course, my boy, of course. Please, take a seat. And please, do put away your wand. No matter how trying you find, ah, Severus, threatening him is hardly the answer.”

Snape sank into the proffered chair much as Severus had done in Dumbledore’s office not twenty-four hours earlier. Or half an hour from now, depending on how one looked at it.

“This is preposterous,” Snape said, when they had finished relaying the tale and what still needed to be done. “The whole damn thing from start to finish—sheer madness!”

“You’re telling me,” Severus said.

Snape glared at him. Severus might have started, if he hadn’t become intimately acquainted with that expression through years of looking in the mirror. “I’m not talking to you,” Snape said. “Your overly dramatic introduction to this whole farce was completely unnecessary.”

“And yet, you would have done exactly the same.”

“I believe we have wandered a little off topic,” Dumbledore cut in.

“Quite,” said Snape, rising from his chair and walking over to the Pensieve. He sighed. “I don’t suppose I get much say in the matter.”

Severus laughed, though there was no humour in it. “Do we ever?”

The look Snape sent him then was far less familiar, a strange reflection of empathy built on shared understanding. It continued to rattle him even when Snape turned to thrust his face into the Pensieve.

Half an hour later and he was standing beside the Headmaster, the sole Snape in Hogwarts once more.

“Well,” Dumbledore said. “That went swimmingly, don’t you think?”

“Hmm. The real question is, how will I know whether we’ve been successful?”

He’d no sooner uttered the words than a wave of dizziness came over him, forcing him to grip the back of a chair to keep from falling.

“Steady, there,” Dumbledore said, grasping his arm until the lightheadedness passed. “It seems you’ve answered your own question?”

“Yes.” The twin memories left behind felt nothing short of bizarre; it was a challenge for Severus to keep them apart lest they merge back into a strange sort of muddle.

This would take some getting used to.

“I shall take my leave then,” Dumbledore said. “You should go and get some sleep—you’ll need it, after the day—days—you have had.”

“Wait.” Severus dug through his pockets, then held out the time-turner, dangling it in front of Dumbledore by its chain. “You forgot to ask for this back.”

Dumbledore smiled. “I did not forget,” he said, grasping the time-turner only long enough to wrap Severus’s hand around it, folding his fingers tightly over the cold metal. “You keep it, for now. Just in case.”

Severus stared at him in disbelief.

“Mind you, I only want you to use it for the same reason I gave it to you in the first place,” Dumbledore continued. “Time is far too fragile for us to play around with at our leisure.”

“Don’t be preposterous,” Severus said. “Potter won’t die again. He can’t. I won’t let it happen.”

“Let us hope you are right,” Dumbledore said, already by the door. “Oh, and Severus?”

“Yes?”

“If you do ever find that you need to use it—there is no need to inform me of the details. In fact, I would much rather you didn’t. Simply to avoid unnecessary complications, you understand. Good night!”

Finally alone in his quarters, Severus stared at the small hourglass in the palm of his hand, feeling distinctly unsettled. It didn’t help that Firenze’s voice was stuck on a loop in his head, The streams of time have a way of rerouting themselves.

For the sake of his own sanity, Severus hoped he was sorely mistaken.

---

“He made his way through each and every one of the protections set in place for the Stone.”

“With Mr Weasley and Miss Granger’s assistance, yes.”

“Unscathed.”

“Well, Mr Weasley—”

Potter remained unscathed.”

“Yes.”

“He then encountered Quirrell, who has been harbouring the Dark Lord all this time, in his very body—and, by the way, did I not tell you that he was suspicious?”

“You did, Severus, you did.”

“He encountered Quirrell and the Dark Lord, and in the end, he remained unscathed as ever, whilst Quirrell is dead and the Dark Lord himself has fled?”

“As I said, I arrived just in time. Lemon drop?”

“You should never have left in the first place! With everything that had happened—”

“I know, Severus,” Dumbledore said. “Believe me, I’m aware that it was a grave miscalculation. But all’s well that ends well, no?”

Severus scowled.

“I would have thought you’d be happy that the boy survived,” Dumbledore said. “Especially after the trouble you went through very recently.”

“Happy?” Severus said. “Happy? That he narrowly avoided death by scraping by on nothing but sheer dumb luck?”

“Oh, it wasn’t just luck,” Dumbledore said. “The fact that Quirrell could not touch him due to—”

Severus rose to his feet. “Spare me,” he spat. “Hearing you wax poetic about Lily’s sacrifice”—his hands clenched—“once was quite enough. As a matter of fact, I take it all back. I am happy; I’m ecstatic! Here I was, assuming the worst, thinking that Potter’s luck had run out, when clearly he still has it in spades. How convenient that this time Quirrell did not have a knife. How convenient that you happened to arrive at just the right moment. Call it what you will; I call it nothing but sheer dumb luck!”

He slammed the door to Dumbledore’s office in his wake. It wasn’t until much later, after calm had found him in stages, that the true meaning of his words began to fully sink in. If Potter had his much fabled luck back, then Severus didn’t need to lose any more sleep worrying about his survival—or at least not more so than he had before that disastrous night in the forest.

The streams of time have a way of rerouting themselves, ha.

Centaurs knew nothing. Because Potter had his luck back, and Severus—Severus was done.

---

The Second Year

To say that Severus was incensed when Potter didn’t even make it to the beginning of the next school year would be putting it mildly.

“Oh, but this is terrible,” whispered Flitwick, wringing his hands.

Severus did not respond. He was too angry for words. As a matter of fact, he’d been so thoroughly enraged the instant he encountered the spectacle that he’d sent his Patronus off to the Great Hall without thought, when calling for help was both futile and counterproductive.

That’s how angry he was.

“I don’t understand,” said Minerva, sounding utterly gutted. “What on earth could have possessed them?”

Before them stood the Weasleys’ blue Ford Anglia, its roof completely caved in. No, not caved in so much as crushed into a flattened mass of twisted metal. It reminded Severus of nothing so much as the old scrapyard that used to be right next to the mill in his hometown. They’d crushed whole cars there, too. They’d probably have loved the Whomping Willow—one thing could be said for it, most certainly: it was effective. Severus had already confirmed with a few select spells that the occupants of the car were no more. As if the slow trickle of red oozing out from the ruined front door didn’t speak for itself.

Behind them, the courtyard was rapidly filling with people; a female voice started screaming hysterically. Probably Granger.

Severus took a deep breath. He pondered as he watched the Whomping Willow sway innocently in the wind, abandoning the first plan that occurred to him. Certainly, freezing the tree at the right moment might appear like the obvious solution, but it was too risky by far. He could neither be spotted by Potter or Weasley, nor provide them with additional information to prompt further escapades. Besides, the damn louts quite rightly deserved a good scare—just not one which saw them permanently expired.

He began casting spells on the car, instead.

“What are you doing?” Minerva asked.

“Testing a theory.”

“This is hardly the time!”

“Shush,” Severus said. “Ah yes, just as I thought—enchanted to fly, but not much besides. The Weasleys always did lack imagination.”

And with the information he needed under his belt, he turned, striding back to the castle.

“Severus Snape!” said Minerva. “Just where do you think you are going?”

“To pick up something I forgot in my quarters,” Severus called back, over his shoulder. “I find I rather need it, seeing how I’m not, in fact, done.”

The crowd parted before him, mixed bewilderment and horror plain on their faces.

What a shame that none of the students would remember any of this. The wonders it would do for his reputation...

---

He sat up through the night crafting the spell, adjusting it until every last flaw had been ironed out. After all, creativity only took one so far—true mastery always lay in the execution, in paying attention to detail.

By the time Severus emerged from the dungeons, the sky bled with the pink-orange hues of sunrise. He made his way through the deserted grounds of the castle to a well-secluded spot, and several turns of the hourglass and an Apparition later, all around him was dark once more.

He found the car in the garage, surrounded by broken toasters and other mismatched Muggleania.

“You, my dear,” he murmured, running his fingers over the bonnet, “are in for a treat. You see, he may have granted you the power to fly—but I will give you a sense of self-preservation.”

Which naturally required a sense of self in the first instance. Bestowing sentience on an inanimate object forever remained a tricky endeavour and, watching the curls of light he cast sink into the bodywork of the car, Severus had to admit he’d surpassed even himself on this occasion.

Nevertheless, he still ran several diagnostic spells. Just to make sure that the changes had definitely taken hold.

“Don’t disappoint me, now,” he said, patting a headlight in parting. “I’m counting on you.”

The car did not respond. But that was all right, because he’d designed for sentience to come to it gradually; any drastic leap in awareness would only confuse the poor thing and likely lead to erratic behaviour, which, in combination with two already erratic prepubescents, would only spell disaster.

Now he only had to wait.

---

The car performed beautifully in the end—albeit with an alarming delay. From his hideout, Severus watched it get tossed to and fro for several agonisingly long seconds, fearing nothing so much as that his spell had been a little too subtle, that all of it had been in vain and that he’d have to loop back a second time. Then the engine leapt into action and his heart started beating again; when the car promptly spat a bedraggled pair of idiots out onto the ground, he damn near cheered. The elation was short-lived, however, morphing straight back to the boiling rage that had held him in its grasp since he’d discovered the wrecked car. That he should have to do this at all—spend hours slaving away over a fiendishly complex bit of magic, lurk about like some common criminal for close to a day, experience this heart-stopping terror—

Unacceptable.

There was a simple solution to the problem. He’d worked it all out whilst waiting for evening to fall: Potter needed to be expelled. If he was not at Hogwarts but back in the arms of his adoring relatives, he couldn’t possibly get himself into trouble. Eleven years he had spent in Little Whinging and without a single report of danger to his person; a single year and a day at Hogwarts and he’d racked up more near deaths than the whole student body combined. The evidence was overwhelming—if Potter was not at Hogwarts, he could not find new and inventive ways to get himself killed.

And all of Severus’s headaches would instantly disappear.

Armed with the certain knowledge that the Flying Car Incident finally gave him sufficient leverage to achieve this nirvana, he found Snape and relegated him to their quarters for the time being.

Then he swooped down on Potter and Weasley.

An uninformed observer might have considered his glee at the sight of their crumbling faces cruel, when surely it was nothing but justified.

---

Dumbledore refused to expel Potter, and Severus felt like Christmas had been cancelled.

No, that wasn’t right. Severus did not even like Christmas. He felt like...

...like he felt pretty much every day of the year.

Severus hated his life.

---

Less than two weeks later, disaster struck again. He was on his way to the Infirmary to drop off some potions when he turned a corner and a small, frizzy-haired figure barrelled into him.

“Oh, Sir!” Granger said, and Severus’s blood ran cold in the face of her huge, brimming-wet eyes. “You have to come, quickly! Something t-terrible’s—”

Severus was moving before she could finish.

Two corridors down, the late afternoon sun streamed through the windows, casting a not-at-all-picturesque scene in a picturesque golden glow. Potter lay on the floor, crimson-stained foam dribbling out of his mouth. Beside him stood Weasley, white as a sheet and still gripping his broken wand with trembling fingers.

Severus fell to his knees, but two fingers pressed against Potter’s neck only confirmed what he’d already gleaned from the vacant, glassy eyes: there was no pulse.

“What happened?”

“I k-k-k-killed Ha-harry.”

“Yes, Weasley, that much is self-evident,” Severus said. “But how? And for Merlin’s sake, put down that blasted wand!”

“I m-m-murdered my b-b-best friend,” Weasley stammered in the same toneless voice. Clearly, no answer would be forthcoming from that end—although at least the dolt did comply with the direct order, his arm sinking down to hang weakly at his side.

Severus fixed Granger with a glare. “Well?”

“We were... practising charms, expanding charms—I’d done mine, and then Ron went and his wand went haywire, and it hit Harry and he just... keeled over. But sir, he can’t really be dead! There must be something that you can do!”

Severus sketched a spell of his own over Potter’s body. “Congratulations, Weasley,” he said. “You successfully managed to explode Potter’s lungs.”

Weasley whimpered. Granger pressed a hand to her mouth, muffling the sob which spilled past her lips.

Severus rose to his feet. He shot a last glance at Potter, then turned on his heel and walked off.

“Where are you going?” Granger called after him. “Sir? Sir!”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. “Away,” Severus said, and kept walking.

But Granger had already caught up with him, persistent as ever. “I don’t understand. You’re supposed to—to help us! What are we meant to do with the—with the—” Her words were cut short as a fresh sob wracked her body.

Severus whirled towards her, thoroughly displeased with her tearstained face. He’d be damned, damned if he was going to waste his precious time playing counsellor, when neither of them would even remember it. “I don’t give a rat’s arse what you do with the body,” he said. “Bring it to the hospital wing. Cover it in flowers. Sodomise it, for all I care.”

Admittedly, he did feel a twinge of guilt at Granger’s shocked gasp as he strode away, but he swiftly shoved it aside. Hardly his fault that the precocious bint had memorised the definitions of words that no second year should rightly be aware of.

---

“Have you gone utterly mad?” Snape said, when Severus pulled him out of a dungeon corridor and into a shady alcove several minutes earlier. “I could have killed you!”

Severus pointedly released Snape’s wand arm from where he’d pressed it against the wall. “It was the best place to waylay you.”

Snape shot him a dark look. “You just enjoy pouncing on unsuspecting people so much you don’t even care if you’re traumatising yourself.”

“And you,” Severus said, “harbour secret fantasies of being dragged into dimly lit alleys by cloaked men. So stop pretending.”

Snape stared at him. “Sometimes, I honestly don’t believe... myself.”

Severus sighed, his mind flickering back to his parting shot towards Granger. “Me, either,” he admitted, then shook his head. “I don’t have time for this. You stay put and,”—he waved a hand in the air—“Disillusion yourself, or something. I have to go.”

He arrived at the upstairs corridor just in time.

“Thirty points from Gryffindor!”

Weasley dropped his wand with a look of bewildered outrage and Severus breathed a private little sigh of relief.

“But that’s not fair!” Potter said, glaring at him. “What for? We haven’t done anything!”

“For practising magic in a public corridor.”

“That’s not a Hogwarts rule,” Granger said with a frown. “I know, because I’ve read them—”

“It is, now,” Severus cut her off. “As a matter of fact,”—he stepped closer until he was looming over them all, but especially Weasley—“I’m going to extend it: no magic outside of a teacher’s supervision at all for you, Weasley. Not until you’ve found yourself a new wand. Your present one is a menace.”

Suddenly, they were all speaking at once in a babbling mass of noises, the general theme of which still remained quite clear.

“Silence!” Severus snapped. “Are you, perchance, questioning my authority?”

For an answer he received three quiet, mutinous glares; Potter’s was by far the angriest one. Ungrateful whelp.

“I thought not. In that case, off with you three—and remember, Weasley, if I see you using that wand outside of class I will confiscate it, myself.”

It was an empty threat, of course. Oh, Severus had cause enough to deprive Weasley of his weapon, but not enough proof in his favour; even teachers could not confiscate the key tool of a wizard without the rest of the faculty consenting. Not to mention the family.

As he watched them scurry away, Severus felt rather like this was only a temporary solution to an ongoing problem. But one could hope.

---

“Very well,” Minerva said, shuffling the papers before her into a neat pile. “I believe that covers everything on our agenda, so I officially declare this staff meeting clo—yes, Severus?”

The surprise in her voice was reflected in the faces of everyone around them, and with good reason. Severus had long since given up on participating in staff meetings beyond the odd desultory comment and derisive snort; in his experience they were nothing but a pointless exercise in futility.

But enough was enough, so here he was, clearing his throat and folding his hands before him in a forced attempt to radiate consideration and calm.

“I would like to propose a motion for the staff to join forces in order to purchase Ronald Weasley a new wand.”

In the ensuing silence, the proverbial pin would have echoed like an avalanche.

“That is... remarkably generous of you,” Minerva said.

“Generosity has nothing to do with it. Weasley’s wand presents a clear and present danger to the safety of every last person inside this castle—”

“Surely you exaggerate.”

“—or at the very least of every individual foolish enough to step within five feet of the boy. Something needs to be done about it, and sharply.”

“Excuse me,” Septima Vector said. “But what is wrong with the boy’s wand? This all sounds rather alarming, and yet as someone who teaches electives, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’d wager I’m not the only one, either.”

Murmurs of acknowledgement rose from her side of the table.

Minerva sighed. “The situation isn’t nearly as dire as Severus paints it. Mr Weasley regrettably broke his wand during an accident—”

“A flagrant display of disregard for the rules, you mean,” Severus said.

“—an accident involving the Whomping Willow just prior to the start of term. It’s true that his wand is malfunctioning as a result, but I hardly think it presents a danger to anything other than Mr Weasley’s grades.”

“Then you’re a fool,” Severus said, ignoring the way Minerva’s lips compressed into a tight line in favour of shooting a piercing look in Flitwick’s direction instead. “Did Weasley not lose control of his wand in one of your lessons quite recently, causing it to assault and damage you in the process?”

“Well, yes,” Flitwick said slowly, “but—”

“There you go,” Severus said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. “We already have our first victim.”

“It was only a little boil,” Flitwick protested. “Nothing to get upset over. Why,”—he chuckled—“compared to the stories I could tell of years gone by, it barely registers. Such accidents will happen if one teaches magic, damaged wands or not. It’s all part of the risk of working with children, isn’t it?”

At least three people nodded. Severus wanted to scream.

“I quite agree,” Minerva said. “Now, Severus, unless you can provide me with specific instances in which a student’s life was placed in danger...”

“It is only a matter of time!”

“Shall I take that as a no, then?”

Five times, Severus thought with an edge of hysteria, five sodding times Weasley had killed Potter, and Merlin knew how many more lay ahead. He’d exploded Potter’s lungs and accidentally turned him into a stone; then, for a change of scenery, he’d exploded his lungs again. Severus still didn’t know how on earth he’d managed to turn Mrs Norris into a creature ten times her size, but she’d swallowed Potter whole, nevertheless. And as for the straw that broke the camel’s back—Severus didn’t even want to think of it. Because that had just been... unpleasantly messy.

And yet he couldn’t mention any of them. “If you refuse to listen to reason, then for f—” He barely cut himself off, clenching his teeth before continuing, “Surely you’ll consider my proposal in light of the impact this will have on Weasley’s schooling.”

“I’d dearly love to,” Minerva said. “But for any expenditure the faculty makes on behalf of a student, the regulations quite clearly state that the benefit to the school at large must outweigh the appearance of favouritism. I, for one, do not consider these criteria met, and I rather suspect the parents of other students would feel similarly. It would be nothing short of improper.”

Severus narrowed his eyes. “And Potter’s broom qualified as essential to Hogwarts in its entirety, yes?”

At the far end of the table, Sinistra rolled her eyes. Minerva’s cheeks, meanwhile, flushed a dull red, as they always did when Severus made a point of highlighting her utter hypocrisy.

“Mr Potter’s broom was not purchased with school funds,” Minerva said. “If you feel so inclined, you are, of course, at liberty to purchase Mr Weasley a new wand by yourself, although I fear Arthur and Molly are unlikely to accept it.”

As if Severus hadn't tried that already. The anonymous donation he had sent to the Burrow had been returned post-haste, alongside a letter stating that 'Ronald got himself into this mess, and we've told him quite clearly that he is to live with the consequences, instead of relying on charity to get him out of it'. His equally anonymous letter to Ollivander’s had been similarly rebuffed; the man refused to send out a wand without it 'meeting the wizard first, because it might get upset if they're not its first choice'. Short of grabbing Weasley by the scruff and dragging him to Diagon Alley himself, Severus was all out of options, and how would that bloody well look?

“Could we possibly draw this to a close?” Sinistra said.

“Certainly,” Minerva said. “All in favour of—”

She was interrupted by the door to the staff room slamming open to reveal a dramatic swirl of chartreuse satin.

“Oh dear,” said Lockhart. “It appears I’m late to the party—or, rather, you were all early! But don’t worry, I’ll forgive you for starting without me. How keen you must have been, seeing how it’s not yet four—”

“The meeting started at three,” said Sinistra, tapping her quill on the edge of the table.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Minerva, with such a straight face that Severus might have admired her for it, if he hadn’t been busy hating her guts right at this moment, “I must have mistakenly given you an incorrect time.”

Lockhart laughed. “Never mind, never mind. After all, not everyone can possess a memory as impeccable as mine.” He swept himself into a chair. “No harm done, after all, I am here now—and just in time for the main event! You were voting, of course, on the subject of...”

“Ronald Weasley’s wand,” said Minerva.

“Weasley’s wand. Naturally!” A pause. “But why would you do such a thing?”

Severus buried his face in his hand. “It is broken,” he said. “It will destroy us all.”

“I have essays to mark,” said Sinistra.

“All in favour of purchasing Ronald Weasley a new wand, on the grounds that his current one presents a danger to the student body, please raise your hands,” Minerva said. “And all against? Very well, that’s two yeas, five nays and two abstentions. Motion denied.”

“Never fear, my dear Severus,” said Lockhart. “I only abstained because, as it so happens, I know a thing or two about wandlore. I will personally repair the boy’s wand and very soon it shall be as good as new! Better, even!”

Severus glanced up, horrified. “For Merlin’s sake, don’t. Please don’t. I beg of you.”

“Now, now,” said Sprout, who was sat next to him, patting him on the shoulder. “You seem a touch overwrought today, my boy. How about a nice infusion of valerian to calm your nerves?”

“What a splendid idea!” said Lockhart. “I happen to make an excellent calming draught, based on valerian but with a couple of special touches to refine—”

“I know how to make a calming draught!” Severus said, rising from his chair so abruptly that it trembled behind him. “I am the Potions Master!”

And he fled from the room before he could call every last one of his colleagues an incompetent dunderhead.

---

Miraculously, Weasley managed not to kill Potter over the course of the following week. On the downside, if one believed the writing on the wall, the Chamber of Secrets had been opened—and Potter, of course, was smack in the middle of it all.

Try as he might to pass it off as a childish prank, Severus’s unease only grew.

---

He despised Quidditch. A sport, they called it, when it was nothing but a foolish dance with death, a dance that held him in trembling thrall all through the Slytherin-Gryffindor match and, for once, not on account of house rivalry.

By the time it happened it was already too late; the poor visibility ensured by torrential rain allowed him no chance whatsoever to save Potter. He crashed to the ground in a flurry of red-golden robes, one side of his skull completely caved in.

Chaos broke out. Amidst the heaving, hysterical masses, one message rang loud and clear, repeated ad nauseum by the Weasley twins: “Rogue Bludger,” and “Kept going for him,” and “Didn’t we tell you that someone had messed with it?”

And none of this, none of this would have happened if they’d suspended Potter from playing, as Severus had suggested the week before.

---

He’d just worked out how to dismantle the wards to Hooch’s quarters without raising an alert when the door swung open from the inside.

“Severus,” she said, yellow eyes narrowing a fraction. “And what brings you here so late in the night?”

Severus refrained from informing her that she ought not to be bloody awake in the first place to ruin his plans. He’d been caught; now it was time to improvise.

“I have reason to believe that somebody has tampered with the balls for tomorrow’s match.”

“Rubbish. I ran the usual in-depth checks just a few hours ago, and they haven’t left my sight since then.”

“Somebody will, then.”

“Again, rubbish. They may try—don’t they always?—but I’ve made it a habit to sleep with the boxes at the very foot of my bed. Not to mention that my wards are impeccable.”

They were certainly more accomplished than Severus would have given her credit for. “Still,” he said. “In the interests of keeping the students safe, a goal which I am certain we are agreed on—perhaps it would be for the best if I kept watch over them for the night.”

For a moment, Hooch stared at him. Then she threw her head back and laughed. “I think not,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I think I can do without my nightcap just the once. Rest assured, Severus,”—she gazed at him unblinkingly—“nobody will interfere with any equipment that’s in my charge. Irrespective of who they may be. Good night.”

And she slammed the door in his face, leaving Severus fuming. How dare she imply that he might have ulterior motives? None of the other Heads of Houses would have been met with equal suspicion, and completely disregarding the preposterous idea that he might try to sabotage equipment whilst it was demonstrably in his own hands—he had ethics! Why in the merry fuck was this concept so inconceivable to anyone who crossed his path lately?

He cast an additional net of spells over Hooch’s quarters, standing guard in a recessed alcove for the rest of the night. Nobody ever came, but Severus knew better than to assume that the Bludger had been tampered with during Hooch’s visit to the kitchens in the original timeline.

He’d just hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to... active participation in order to complete his mission.

Flying had never been one of his strengths. Flying amidst gale-force winds and slippery rain, Disillusioned but still at the constant risk of discovery whilst attempting to cast subtle spells to redirect a mad Bludger—it was sheer hell.

So if, in the end, his aim wasn’t quite perfect enough, and Potter ended up with a broken limb, that was simply tough luck. And if Gilderoy sodding Lockhart upped the ante by de-boning Potter’s arm entirely, as Severus huddled beneath the stands, soaked through, sleep-deprived and exhausted...

It only stood to reason that Severus loved Lockhart the tiniest little bit. Right?

---

The Chamber of Secrets was definitely open. Fuck this whole damned miserable excuse for a life.

---

A month slid by uneventfully. Weasley only killed Potter a couple of additional times, but Severus remained far from reassured. Whatever—or whoever—had petrified the cat and the boy could reemerge at any moment; if it got Potter, Severus could hardly go back and save him without any knowledge of what he was fighting. And what was he supposed to do if somebody besides Potter died? Dumbledore might have no qualms restricting use of the time-turner to Potter alone; Severus was less decided.

He barely resisted the urge to follow Potter around the school like a ghost, and threw himself into researching the Chamber, instead. Trying to separate fact from fairytale, however, proved just as fruitless as the endless staff meetings during which everyone urged him to watch the Slytherins with a close eye.

As if he wasn’t doing so already. As if he didn’t make it a habit to study each of his students for tells during their very first weeks at school, so he would know for the remainder of their studies when they were hiding something. Oh, most of them would play at subterfuge and some of them would grow to excel at it, but Severus always made certain to stay one step ahead of them; it was only common sense.

Right now, they knew nothing and Severus knew nothing, either. Nothing but an ever-increasing list of creatures and spells capable of petrifying a living being, none of which rang quite true. With each day, the tension inside him wound tighter.

And then Potter had the nerve to cause an explosion. In Severus’s classroom, no less. Right there, under his nose. As the brat looked him straight in the eye, pretending at innocence he had never possessed whilst Severus threatened expulsion, he couldn’t help but wonder if some part of Potter wanted to die.

When he found his stores ransacked a little while later, he knew it for certain. But as usual, he had no concrete proof.

---

Snape was marking papers when Severus stole his way into their office; he looked up only long enough to scowl.

Again? And what misfortune has befallen—no, let me guess. A piano fell on his head.”

“Not quite,” Severus said. “I need to take your place at the Duelling Club this afternoon.”

Snape kept writing. “No.”

“No? You must have misheard me. I need to—”

“I heard you just fine, and the answer remains ‘no’. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. I shan’t let you spoil it. I won’t sit in my quarters like some housetrained puppy when I could be—”

“Adoring the cut of Lockhart’s new robes? Basking in the aura of his ever-sparkling wit? Honestly, Severus, a full-blown narcissist? I thought we had better taste than that.”

The quill dropped to the table, splattering red ink everywhere. “How dare you,” Snape said, glaring at him. “Any enjoyment I plan to derive rests solely in the chance to take him down a peg or two, in front of an—” He cut himself off, nostrils flaring whilst Severus smiled. “As you damn well know already.”

Severus lifted an eyebrow.

“Don’t,” Snape spat. “Dubiously attractive narcissists aside, it takes a spectacularly twisted mind to get off on antagonising oneself.”

“Pot,” Severus said. “Kettle. But getting back to the point at hand—I fail to see what your problem is. It isn’t as though you won’t remember the delights of knocking Lockhart on his arse.”

“Perhaps, just the once, I’d prefer to experience said delight unsullied by memories of you swanning in and ordering me about like a dog on a leash.”

“Trust me. You don’t.”

Snape sighed, slumping back in his chair. “Not Weasley again?”

“Oh no. I took great pains to remove Potter from his vicinity right at the start. I paired him with Draco.”

And an excellent plan it had been, too, because Draco, for all his boisterous talk, simply didn’t possess the backbone to inflict serious damage on another person. Perhaps when he got older that would change, but Severus doubted it. Narcissa’s soft hands had left an indelible imprint on the boy.

“You cannot expect me to believe that Draco Malfoy killed Potter,” Snape said.

“Of course not.” Severus picked up the quill, brushing flawless black barbs over his palm pensively.

“Then how did it happen?”

“If I told you, you would only insist that you had sufficient knowledge to intervene in my place.”

“And I’d be correct. Don’t you think it’s a little unfair that you’re the only one who’s permitted to execute plans, whilst I have to memorise Pensieve contents and retrace every last one of your convoluted steps? Don’t tell me no. I know better than that.”

“And it’s fair, is it,” Severus said, slamming the quill onto the table, “that I should have to wait around, cogitating on the latest fantastic memory which I could do without?”

Snape looked rather taken aback. “That bad?”

Severus shrugged, turning his back on him. Farcical, he thought, as the scene unspooled anew in his mind, that’s what it had been. Longbottom’s pale, sweaty face as he stood trembling before the crowd: farcical. His poor aim sending his spell careening across the Great Hall, shattering the leg of a table: farcical. The table-leg flying straight back into the crowd and unerringly towards Potter, stabbing him clean through from the back: beyond farcical. Lockhart’s high-pitched shout of “I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it!” and ensuing spell which caused the makeshift stake to explode, and Potter right with it—

Preventable, that’s what it had been. Severus should have seen it coming a mile off, would have, if he hadn’t been momentarily stuck on Potter’s wide eyes, the look of shocked surprise on his face as a trail of red spilled over his bottom lip.

It had been the first time he’d been present as Potter died. For fuck’s sake, it shouldn’t rattle him so—

“I’ll stay,” Snape said softly, and Severus felt absurdly exposed for a moment, unused to being read so easily.

Ridiculous. What kind of person feared himself?

He resolutely pushed away the image of Potter’s face, nodded sharply at Snape, and left his office.

---

“Let’s have a volunteer pair,” said Lockhart. “Longbottom and Finch-Fletchley, how about you?”

“A bad idea, Professor Lockhart,” Severus said. “Longbottom causes devastation with the simplest spells. We’ll be sending what’s left of,”—his eyes darted briefly towards Potter—“Finch-Fletchley up to the hospital wing in a matchbox. How about Malfoy and Potter?”

Nothing could go wrong, now. By guiding Draco through the duel, Severus could remain in complete control, the countercurse to whatever spell he chose on his lips at all times. He might even be able to work in an additional chance to teach Potter a lesson, in the hopes of discouraging further rule-breaking and reckless self-endangerment.

What he hadn’t expected was that Potter would start talking to a snake.

“A Parselmouth,” Snape said later, as soon as he’d emerged from the Pensieve. “You don’t think...”

Severus shook his head, having already dismissed that idea on his way to the office. “One of these days the brat will die because he forgot to tie his laces. Does that strike you as someone capable of masterminding attacks with such precision that not a single trace is left in their wake?”

“No,” Snape said, “but it must signify something.”

Severus couldn’t agree more, but, even between two of them, they utterly failed to decide on what that something might be.

---

Christmas brought more disconnected shards of the mosaic: a further attack and a Hermione Granger who clearly knew a lot less about potions than she always assumed.

Why did Potter need Polyjuice Potion? Why, for that matter, did Dumbledore let him get away with it? Severus wasted precious hours of his life trying to argue the point with the Headmaster and got nothing but equivocations in return, as though there could be any doubt that Potter was the driving force behind Granger’s dangerous experimentation. Severus fondly remembered her first months at Hogwarts: she’d been an obnoxious bint then, too, but at least she’d been an obnoxious bint you could trust to obsessively follow the rules.

He spent the following months in a daze, researching and meeting dead ends, enduring an atrocious Valentine’s Day that was only marginally improved by the fact that nobody managed to poison Potter with a poorly brewed love potion. Whilst the rest of the school seemed to breathe much easier in the absence of further attacks, Severus felt less inclined towards optimism. When early May rolled around and even Deaths-By-Weasley—a feature of his life he was becoming alarmingly used to—ground to a halt, he was, frankly, unnerved.

Proverbs were not rooted merely in superstition. And right now, everything was just too damn... calm.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have breathed a sigh of relief when the next victim turned out to be Granger; he did, regardless. He was far less enthused with Dumbledore’s subsequent dismissal—apart from the fact that, with Lockhart as the Defence teacher, adequate protection for the students was in short supply, a crowing Lucius Malfoy was the last thing on earth he wanted to deal with.

He never once believed Hagrid to be the true culprit. Like Potter, he didn’t possess the brains.

And then, on a Tuesday morning, the unthinkable happened: Minerva reported Potter and Weasley as missing.

“What do you mean, missing? There’s a curfew on! We’ve teachers patrolling the corridors at all hours!”

“I cannot explain it, either,” Minerva said. “They weren’t in Gryffindor Tower when I came to escort the students to class. Neither their classmates nor any of the portraits have seen them since last night—it’s as though they’ve vanished into thin air.”

She sounded calm and collected as ever, but Severus saw the truth in the tense line of her shoulders, her jaw. To say nothing of Minerva seeking him out of her own accord in the first instance.

“I confess to finding myself at a loss,” she said. “I’d hoped that you might have some other idea of how to find them, before I alert the families.”

Severus nodded. “I do, as a matter of fact,” he said, already turning and walking away. “You needn’t accompany me. I shall report back in the event that I am unsuccessful.”

“As if I could sit idly by whilst two of my students are unaccounted for,” Minerva said, easily keeping up with his stride. “I’ll stay.”

Severus debated forcing the issue whilst he unlocked the door to his office, before deciding it wasn’t worth the bother. Chances were, she wouldn’t even remember this.

He found the glass vial right where he’d left it: in the bottom drawer of his desk, heavily warded. Its contents shimmered a deep purple crimson in the light.

Minerva gasped. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Probably,” Severus said, grabbing a silver bowl and crushing seven rowanberries inside it. Now where had he put the powdered moonstone?

“I don’t suppose you’d care to explain to me how you came by Mr Potter’s blood?”

Ah, there it was. Severus sprinkled a fine layer into the bowl, and emptied the vial over the mixture. “Not really.”

“Or why you feel the need to keep a twelve-year-old boy’s blood in the first place?”

Severus shrugged distractedly, swirling his wand in a winding pattern through the mixture, before using it to slice his palm open. One drop, two drops, three drops...

The mixture hissed; around them, the walls of the castle seemed to shiver.

“And is that blood magic you are—”

“Evidently,” Severus said, and shot her a glare. “Do try to keep up, Minerva.” Four drops, five drops, six drops...

Minerva glared back. “I was merely attempting to point out that it is—”

“Dark magic? I assure you, I’m well aware.” Seven drops.

“Then you know that I cannot allow you to—”

“Do you want Potter found or not?”

“There must be another way.”

“There isn’t. So kindly do me a favour: either shut up or leave my office. Because, as it so happens, I would quite like to find Potter myself, and I will achieve this through whatever means may be necessary. Reperio.”

The mixture bubbled and foamed. When Severus thrust his cut hand into the bowl, submerging it beneath waves of red, the walls didn’t shiver so much as groan. Books rattled on their shelves, and for a moment Severus felt nothing beyond the sickening lurch of his stomach, nearly enough to make him heave.

Gods, but he hated tracking spells of this nature. The only relief lay in knowing that the sensation would be temporary, that the dark tendrils which licked their way through his veins would eventually vanish to nothing.

“Well?” Minerva said, as he looked up, her face a shade paler. “Did it work?”

Severus lifted his hand from the bowl. By the time he’d spelled it clean and closed the cut, he could already feel the pull.

---

Minerva’s insistence on accompanying him turned out to be a godsend. Severus probably could have bested the seemingly infinite swathes of giant spiders on his own, but it wasn’t a theory he much cared to put to the test.

They found Weasley and Potter’s bodies amidst the melee and barely dragged them to safer ground. Perhaps it was the camaraderie of fighting back to back which drove him to rest a hand on Minerva’s shoulder as she sank to her knees before the desiccated corpses, her fingers pressed to her mouth. Perhaps some of Potter’s insanity had finally begun to rub off on him—what twelve-year-old willingly walked into an Acromantula’s lair? The boy was certifiable.

And so was he, trying to comfort a colleague, playing at some sort of bizarre simulacrum of a normal human being.

He withdrew his hand and left Minerva to grieve.

---

“...and that’s why I need you to help me,” Severus said.

The Ford Anglia rumbled disquietingly. Its headlights flashed quickly several times; the bonnet lifted and slammed back down.

“I don’t understand,” Severus said.

The engine revved, causing the car to rock back and forth on its mud-encrusted wheels once, before it fell still. Severus could have sworn it was looking at him expectantly.

“I’m afraid I still don’t understand.” What on earth had he been thinking? What person in their right mind spoke to a car?

The shudder that ran through the metal body then was far easier to interpret: annoyance. Before Severus could reach a similar state of vexation, the front windows rolled down and the radio turned on. A brief hiss of static later and a gratingly high voice over an even more grating beat filled the Forbidden Forest.

No, no/ No, no, no, no, it sang, no, no, no, no/ No, no there's no limit!

Severus blinked. “Wait. Does that mean ‘no, you won’t do it’, or ‘there are no limits to what you will do for me’?”

More static. Oh, I would do anything for love, belted a male voice, I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.

Blast it. “Why not?”

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black.

“You are... depressed?”

The car bobbed. They're out to get you, better leave while you can, it sang. Don't wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man/ You wanna stay alive, better do what you can/ So beat it, just beat it.

You have to show them that you're really not scared/ You're playin' with your life, this ain't no truth or dare/ They'll kick you, then they beat you/ Then they'll tell you it's fair/ So beat it, but you wanna be bad.

Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it/ No one wants to be defeated!

Severus stared.

Clearly the car took this as incentive to clarify. Your cruel device/ Your blood, like ice/ One look, could kill/ My pain, your thrill.

“Now wait a second,” Severus said. “That’s hardly fair. I never mistreated you! I was the one who gave you life!”

I was drowned! declared the car, I was washed up and left for dead/ I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled/ I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread/Yeah, yeah, yeah/ I was crowned with a spike right through my head.

“And I’m sorry that happened to you,” Severus said, feeling more than a touch ridiculous. “But that was Potter and Weasley, not me. I am your friend and I—”

The radio’s volume increased. You got a lot of nerve/ To say you are my friend/ When I was down/ You just stood there, grinning!

For one utterly paranoid second, Severus actually wondered if the car could have witnessed his anticipatory glee over seeing Weasley and Potter expelled. But that was sheer madness.

The car had already switched stations again. First I was afraid/ I was petrified/ Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side/ But then I spent so many nights, thinking how you did me wrong/ I grew strong/ I learnt how to get along.

And so you're back, from outer space/ I just walked in to find you here, with that sad look upon your face/ I should have changed that stupid lock/ I should have made you leave your key/ If I had known for just one second, you'd be back to bother me.

Go on now go! Walk out the door/ Just turn around now, 'cause you're not welcome anymore!

“This is preposterous,” Severus said. “All I want you to do—”

You can’t always get what you want, sang a voice whose gender Severus couldn’t even begin to pinpoint. You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get—

“Besides,” he said loudly over the singing, “you’re sending conflicting messages. Either you’re depressed, or you’ve learnt how to get along. The two are rather mutually exclusive, in my experience.”

The song cut off; the car’s features seemed to fall with it—if that was even possible for a car. Here comes the rain again, it sang sadly, falling on my head like a memory/ Falling on my head like a new emotion.

Dear heavens, the thing switched states of mind quicker than the average first year. Which actually made a certain amount of sense, given that it was less than a year into its newfound sentience. Severus wasn’t simply talking to a car, oh no—he was talking to an infant car.

“I’m very sorry you’ve been hurt,” he said, trying his utmost to sound reassuring. Bizarrely enough, it seemed to come far easier than when he was forced to talk to distraught students. “It shouldn’t have happened. And believe me, I can completely understand any animosity you feel towards those idiots who flew you into the tree.”

A good heart, these days, is hard to find/ True love, the lasting kind.

“Uhm. Yes. I suppose so.”

What is love, wailed the car, its engine revving alongside the beat, baby don’t hurt me/ Don’t hurt me/ No more.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Severus said. He cautiously reached out with one hand, but before he could rest it on the bonnet, a wave of sound blasted towards him, nearly exploding his eardrums:

Can’t touch this/ Can’t touch this/ Can’t touch this!

Make that an extremely neurotic infant car. Evidently the apple had not fallen very far from the tree.

“Sorry,” Severus said, then shook his head. “Very well, if you’re so completely opposed to the idea, I shall have to take matters in hand, myself.” He rubbed at his temple, but it didn’t banish the headache which had been brewing for days. “As I’ve been doing all bloody year,” he muttered. “For fuck’s sake, I’m so fed up with all of this.”

He’d just turned away when the car burst into sound again, a mournful tune this time, the volume starting out hesitant before amping up. If I could turn back time/ If I could find a way/ I'd take back all the words that have hurt you.

Severus froze, then turned back. “If you really want to save me some pain,” he said, “then help me. The spiders pose no risk whatsoever to you, you realise.”

Silence.

“If you’re depressed, there must be something you want, too. Something to make you feel better. Something I could do to recompense you.”

You got a fast car/ I want a ticket to anywhere/ Maybe we can make a deal/ Maybe together we can get somewhere.

“You want to get away from here?”

I want to break free, confirmed the car, I want to break free!

“I can facilitate that. Anywhere in particular?”

The car rumbled for several moments, as though deep in thought. Then the passenger’s side front door flew open and a map fell to the ground before Severus’s feet. He picked it up and stared at the page it had opened on.

“The Arctic tundra?” he said, in complete disbelief.

Feels like heaven, enthused the car. Feels like heaven!

“Actually,” Severus said, “on second thought—the Arctic tundra does sound rather lovely.”

Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims, suggested the car, And strap your hands across my engines/ Together we could break this trap/ We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back.

“I’d love to,” Severus sighed. “But I can’t. Who knows what new and imaginative ways of dying Potter will discover in my absence? The world as we know it may well collapse if I’m not here to save him.”

The car seemed to contemplate this for a moment. Who's gonna drive you home, tonight? it asked mournfully. Who's gonna pick you up, when you fall? Who's gonna hang it up, when you call? Who's gonna pay attention/ To your dreams? Who's gonna plug their ears, when you scream? You can't go on/ Thinking nothing's wrong. Who's gonna drive you home, tonight?

Severus swallowed. “I don’t need anyone to ‘drive me home’. I never have done, and I never will,” he said. But for some reason, his guts seemed to have twisted into heavy coils with the sombre melody, and the words did little to unwind them. “I’m just fine on my own,” he said. “Regardless, does that mean you will help me? You’ll go and rescue the idiots from the spiders, if I promise to send you to the Arctic tundra thereafter?”

You can do magic/ You can have anything that you desire/ Magic, and you know/ You're the one who can put out the fire/ You know darn well/ When you cast your spell you will get your way/ When you hypnotize with your eyes/ A heart of stone can turn to clay.

Severus barked out a laugh. “Excellent. I shall meet you here tomorrow morning, in that case. You’re certain you’ve understood what it is you need to do?”

The car bobbed anew, this time energetically. Never gonna give you up, it sang cheerily, Never gonna let you down/ Never gonna round around/ And desert you.

Severus inclined his head, and watched the car drive off into the forest, shaking his head bemusedly as it started up a new song: I was born in a cross-fire hurricane/ And I howled at my ma in the driving rain/ But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!/ But it's all right. I’m jumpin jack flash/ Its a gas! gas! gas!

Snape was never going to believe any of this.

---

“Are you quite all right, my dear boy?”

Severus, who had been staring at Dumbledore in increasing stages of stunned incomprehension, shook himself out of his stupor.

“A Basilisk,” he said, cursing himself an utter fool. Of course the monster had been a Basilisk; how could he have failed to even consider that option? He’d focused so much on Petrification he’d missed all the glaring signs, like some imbecilic first year who couldn’t tell the difference between antimony and aconite.

“Yes,” Dumbledore said, with a smile. “And such an exemplar of its species, to boot—at least twenty-five feet in length, if not thirty. I’d be astounded that Hogwarts harboured such a creature for nearly a millennium without it being detected, but evidently Slytherin must have suspended it in a sleep which only a Parselmouth could break. A remarkable piece of magic.”

At any other time, Severus might well have agreed, and their conversation would have turned towards the theoretical abstractions involved in linking a spell to a rare gift of this type. Right now, however, he was a little too stuck on other details.

“A thirty foot Basilisk,” he repeated, tonelessly. “Awakened by a memory imprint of the Dark Lord. And Potter... fought them both. And... won.”

“With a little help from dear Fawkes, here,” Dumbledore said, beaming up at the Phoenix. It lifted its head to trill out a high note, then resumed grooming its shimmering feathers with its beak. “That any twelve-year-old boy could display such outstanding valour and loyalty whilst fearing for his very life—now that will never cease to astound me. Harry truly is one of a kind.”

“Valour,” Severus said, images of Potter’s dead body flickering past his mind’s eye in quick succession. Even to his own ears, his voice rang out oddly: too calm and too distant. His features felt frozen.

Dumbledore’s smile shifted into a frown. “Are you certain you are quite well? You don’t sound like yourself. A spot of tea, perhaps, to combat the shock?”

“I am fine,” Severus said, rising from his chair on wooden legs. “If you will excuse me, I have marking I must attend to.”

“Of course, my boy. I should return to completing the paperwork for St Mungo’s on Professor Lockhart’s behalf, myself.” Dumbledore shook his head. “A sad, if rather fitting end. But better him than two pupils. How lucky that Mr Weasley’s wand has been malfunctioning!”

A muscle near Severus’s eye twitched sharply. “Yes. How lucky.”

“At least have a lemon drop on your way out,” Dumbledore said, standing up and pressing one of the sticky sweets into Severus’s hand. “The sugar will do you good.”

Naturally, Severus banished the damn thing in a puff of smoke the moment he was out of the door.

He did not get any marking done that night. Instead, he got blindingly drunk.

---

The Third Year

Severus was halfway through his second cup of coffee, debating whether to put the warm August morning to good use by foraging for ingredients in the forest or indulge his desire to stay down in the dungeons with a book, as he had done for most of July, when the knock on his door came.

His high spirits instantly took a nosedive. They fell further when he laid eyes on lilac robes cut through with disgustingly cheerful swirls of golden thread.

“If you’re here to cajole me into taking breakfast in the Great Hall for the remainder of summer, you’re wasting your time.”

“And good morning to you, Severus,” Dumbledore said. When Severus simply held his gaze through the sliver of open door in return, he sighed. “It was not my intention to discourage you from your... self-imposed isolation, no. Although I dare say I’ve missed our theoretical discussions over kippers and bacon. There’s so little time for them during the school-year.”

Severus’s eyes narrowed. “Well then,” he said, enunciating each word as clearly as if he was speaking to a particularly dim-witted first year, “perhaps you ought not to have appointed a slavering beast to the Defence post.”

“Really, now—”

“One which attempted to kill me, in case you’ve conveniently forgotten this inconsequential fact.”

“I haven’t forgotten anything. But I do so wish you could let go of this grudge you hold against Remus—you will be colleagues in less than a month, and have to cooperate as such. Why not at least give him a chance, for your benefit as well as his? No, no,”—Dumbledore raised a hand as if to ward off the words which flew to Severus’s lips—“don’t answer that. I have no wish to rehash our last conversation; that is not why I came. We have a much bigger problem on our hands. I take it your absence at breakfast means you haven’t seen this?”

Potter, was Severus’s first thought. He grabbed the Daily Prophet Dumbledore was holding up the next instant. The flashing headline—Boy Who Lived Murdered by Escaped Convict!—confirmed his worst fears.

The unfolding tale, as narrated by “eyewitness on the scene, Stan Shunpike,” revealed more incoherence than fact, however. “Threw ‘im right in front of me bus, din’t ‘e, Ern?” he was quoted in the article. “Under ‘e went, crunch, and it were only when I stepped out to help coz poor Ern was all in shock that I saw ‘im, Sirius Black. Never seen nuffink like it, I din’t, sat on the curb wiv that mad gleam in ‘is eye, starin’ at the poor boy’s neck under the wheels. Laughin’ he was, so I stepped back and tripped on the steps, and he jumped to his feet and stared at me. Thought me last hour was struck, but he jus’ stared, and then he ran off.”

Severus was doing a fair bit of staring himself, trying to wring any pertinent detail from the overly embellished prose of the rest of the article, to no avail. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Why would Black murder Potter by throwing him under the Knight Bus, when he could have killed him any number of different ways without any witnesses?”

“Curious, isn’t it?” Dumbledore said. “I cannot make head or tail of it, either. Of course, logic does not necessarily apply to the motivations of madmen.”

“And what was Potter doing outside the wards of the house?”

“That I can answer,” Dumbledore said. “An alert for underage use of magic in Little Whinging was raised with the Ministry last night. It appears that Harry blew up his aunt to the size of a balloon, which must have prompted his running away. Unfortunately, Mrs Figg had already retired to bed, as it was late in the evening—”

The paper crumpled inside Severus’s fist.

“—and as you can see from the article, the actual incident took place in Magnolia Crescent, too far away for her to hear the commotion. I checked in with her and the Aurory this morning, but the report in the paper was the first I heard of this.”

“And now you want me to fix the mess resulting from everyone else’s incompetence.” Naturally.

“I would not have thought you’d object to the chance to be the one to capture Black,” Dumbledore said, managing to sound both coaxing and disapproving. Not for the first time, Severus reflected that the Sorting Hat had made a grave error by not placing the Headmaster in Slytherin.

Reluctantly, he inclined his head. He despised being manipulated, even more so when he was aware of it happening every step of the way.

“Now,” Dumbledore said, “as we regrettably lack some key facts, due to Stan Shunpike hardly being what I would call a reliable witness, there are multiple ways Harry’s encounter with Black could have come to pass. If Harry had already called the Knight Bus, and Black acted opportunistically, I suggest you focus on preventing Black from doing so, and capturing him. Let Harry drive off, and if he remains none the wiser, all the better for it.”

“Do you believe that’s a good idea?”

“The Ministry will soon catch up with him,” Dumbledore said. “And Harry must have had a reason for leaving the Dursleys—he’s never run away before. I would rather not antagonise the boy further, just in the event that you are unsuccessful at imprisoning Black.”

Severus scowled. “The faith you place in my abilities is astounding.”

“Of course,” Dumbledore continued, unfazed, “the other option is that Harry called the Knight Bus accidentally, whilst he was already struggling with Black—obviously, in that event, you will have to ensure he be brought to a place of safety. It will raise uncomfortable questions—as, indeed, will you finding Black in the first place—but there is no way around it.”

“I’m sorry,” Severus said, not feeling sorry at all. “But judging by those options, either I’m incapable of capturing Black, or I’m capable of managing both him and Potter at the same time. Which is it?”

Dumbledore frowned at him over the rim of his spectacles. “I have no wish to fight with you, my boy. I trust I’ve made our objectives quite clear? Harry’s life must take precedence at all times.”

“Of course,” Severus said, sketching an exaggerated bow in the air between them. “One knight in black armour coming right up.”

And he slammed the door to his quarters in Dumbledore’s face.

---

Truth be told, once he’d shoved his resentment at being played like a well-tuned instrument firmly aside, Severus rather looked forward to this particular instance of Potter-resurrection. No, that was too mild a phrase by far, not nearly sufficient to describe how his very being thrilled at the task. To know in advance where Black would be, to be the one to put him to justice—

It changed everything.

He’d hardly been in a fit state to delight in Black’s imprisonment when he was sent off twelve years ago, caught in a grief-soaked guilty rage which made Azkaban seem like just another twisted joke for Black to throw in his face. A lifetime amidst the Dementors had been too lenient a sentence. Avada Kedavra would have been too lenient; the rankness of Black’s betrayal demanded he suffer before he died.

Severus knew all about suffering. 'Capture Black' might have been Dumbledore’s order, but what if, in the process, Severus’s wand hand just so happened to slip into patterns of spells he’d not used in over a decade, yet still knew in his dreams? Black was vicious, and self-defence—just for once—lay on Severus’s side. Capture Black, Dumbledore said, but the posters said Dead or Alive!, so if Severus accidentally cut him to ribbons in the process, what of it?

No one important would care. And the looming spectre of Lupin on Severus’s horizon instantly morphed into a delight of its own: the chance to repay a lifetime’s worth of torture by continuous references to Black, Lupin’s failure to stop him, and Severus’s ultimate success.

He was already mentally composing remarks which would casually flow into everyday conversation, yet cut to the quick, when he arrived in Little Whinging.

In hindsight, that was his first mistake. It must have been, because later he could not account for how his detection spell could have failed to pinpoint Black’s location or arrival. Crafted by himself many moons ago, it reacted to the presence of certain constituents of all human blood within a limited radius; unlike Homenum Revelio it did not unmask disguises but gave a target to aim for with incredible sensitivity. Thus far, it had not failed him once, and it certainly lit up the Muggles inside their houses like fairy lights on a Christmas tree.

It also lit up Potter the instant he came within range and, safely Disillusioned amidst two giant rhododendrons, Severus simply assumed the spell’s infallibility and waited.

That was his second mistake. He should have burst from his hideout the minute Potter cast Lumos and glanced over his shoulder, because something about that struck him as off. But there was nothing there, nothing—

In the next instant, Potter stumbled over his trunk, falling backwards into the road, and with a loud crack the Knight Bus appeared. Severus barely had the wherewithal to throw a propelling charm at the boy, which sent him rolling towards the pavement and out of harm’s way.

Except that wasn’t how it was meant to happen. Allowing confusion to get the better of him was his third major mistake. He wasted precious moments wondering whether Stan Shunpike had simply lied before recalling the corroborating statement by the bus driver, then wondering desperately if Black could have seen him, somehow—but that was impossible, given the precautions he’d taken. The only way Black could have known Severus was there was if he’d smelled him, and that was... absurd.

By the time Severus Apparated into the alleyway Potter had stared at, mere eyeblinks after the departing Knight Bus shook him from his reverie, there was nothing there. He searched high and low, combed the whole area, but he found not a single sign of Black ever having been there.

The longer he searched, the hotter his blood boiled, until every last muscle in his body seemed to tremble, tight as a whipcord. No. This was simply unacceptable; he wouldn’t allow Black to hoodwink him in this manner. He could fix this; he would fix it—all he needed to do was inform Snape of the mistakes he had made, so he could get it right the next time around. Black wouldn’t evade him twice. Snape could find him, and he would pay.

He practically flew to Hogwarts, racing the distance between Hogsmeade and the castle faster than he could recall ever doing before. Through some twist of rotten luck, he got as far as the entrance hall, running into Dumbledore halfway to the steps to the dungeon.

And there he made his fourth, and most crucial, mistake: when the Headmaster quickly deduced that he was not, in fact, Snape, and then had the gall to tell him to calm down, Severus burst out with the whole sorry tale. Including, of course, his most sensible plans to resolve it.

“No,” Dumbledore said. “I cannot allow you to do that.”

Severus’s fingers clenched around his wand; it hadn’t left his hand since his arrival in Surrey. “You have got to be joking! Which part of ‘Black got away’ escaped your comprehension? He is still out there, whilst we are speaking!”

“As he was this morning, and yesterday, and the day before. I admit that it’s regrettable that you were unable to—”

“Regrettable?”

“—to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, but I believe you’ve rather lost sight of the bigger picture, here.”

I have lost sight of it? Do please excuse me, Headmaster, but it appears to be you who has—”

“You saved Harry, did you not?”

“And I will save him again!”

“I think not,” Dumbledore said solemnly. “Or, I should say, I have little confidence in your capacity to choose Harry’s life over Black’s capture, right at this moment. You are too blinded by hatred—had my other self been aware of just how much it would affect your ability to retain a sense of perspective, I am doubtful that he would have given you this task at all.”

Severus stared at him, nostrils flaring. Several choice words immediately sprang to mind, but they stuck in his throat like ashes or clay, held there by a bright flare of rage.

“Besides,” Dumbledore said, “if Sirius Black managed to avoid detection to a point where even you cannot discern his methods, I may have underestimated him. Your attention will be split either way, and if you provoke an open fight and he bests you, not only will he then have a fresh opportunity to kill Harry, but he may end up in possession of the time-turner. I hardly need to tell you why that must be avoided at all costs. The whole affair is too risky by far.”

“I will not,” Severus ground out past clenched teeth, “stand here and be insulted. I will do this, whether you sodding agree with me or not!” He pushed past Dumbledore, getting about two good strides in before he hit an invisible wall.

“You shall not speak with Snape. I forbid it.”

“Or what?” Severus snapped, eyes flickering towards Dumbledore’s wand, where it rested, suspiciously lightly, inside his palm. “You will hex me? I can assure you, I’ve had worse.”

“Oh, but can you?” Dumbledore said mildly. “Truly?”

There wasn’t a hint of a twinkle in his blue eyes. Severus stared into them, wavering; in the end, he dropped his wand. A second later, the time-turner flew from his pocket.

I shall speak with Snape,” Dumbledore said, catching it neatly. “And keep this safe, for the time being. You, meanwhile, will do your best to track Harry. Report back to me; if he’s in a reasonably public or safe space, don’t bring him here just yet.”

“Yes,” Severus said. He barely swallowed the Master, turning instead on his heel.

“Oh, and Severus?”

“Yes?”

Dumbledore stepped around him to face him once more. “I truly am sorry that this experience has upset you this much. Had I known,”—a wizened old hand reached out, brushing Severus’s hair gently down—“I would have spared you this pain.”

Something inside Severus’s guts flipped violently. He might have called it revulsion, but it was nothing so simple.

He should have twisted away. But like a fool—if just for a fraction—he leaned into the touch.

---

Severus spent the remainder of his holidays shadowing Potter during his stay at the Leaky Cauldron, Polyjuicing into a new disguise every few days to avoid being detected. The Ministry might consider Diagon Alley safe enough territory, but Dumbledore insisted on caution in the face of Black’s unpredictability. Severus himself was hardly inclined to argue, especially knowing Potter as he did; unsupervised he’d surely sneak off to Knockturn Alley or worse places the instant he got the chance.

Mysteriously enough, he did not. Not once in over three weeks did Potter venture beyond the bounds of Diagon Alley, as if whatever he’d glimpsed that night in Little Whinging had put the fear of Merlin into him, when Severus had been unsuccessful in achieving the same over the course of years. Relieved as he was by Potter’s sudden change in behaviour, it also made his job dreadfully dull, because the boy, he quickly discovered, had absolutely no class. He avoided all the shops which were of actual interest—the used bookstores bursting with rare volumes, the apothecaries stocking obscure ingredients—and instead trawled pointless gem displays and entertainment and games stores. He hovered over a set of solid gold gobstones as if they might actually be useful; he stared at a moving model of the galaxy as if it wasn’t well known that stars shifted and changed over time. Worst of all, he spent hours each day staring into the front window of Quality Quidditch Supplies, regarding the new Firebolt with such longing that Severus had unpleasant flashbacks to teenage girls cooing over their latest crush, when they should have been focusing on not melting their cauldrons. To top it all off, he ate so much ice-cream that Severus’s teeth began to throb dully just from watching him.

It was all rather sickening, really, and Severus breathed a sigh of relief when the Weasleys’ arrival gave him leave to return to Hogwarts—just in time to lay the finishing touches on his lesson plans for the start of term. Thank Merlin he always completed the bulk of this work at the beginning of the holidays. If Potter’s interference had forced him to endure the arrival of hordes of unruly students—not to mention Lupin—in a sleep-deprived state, he might have strangled someone by accident.

Even with a full night’s sleep behind him, he ended up sorely tempted. Rumours amongst staff spread nearly as fast as inside the student body and, although Severus had deliberately seated himself as far away from Lupin as possible, he couldn’t escape tales of Gryffindor heroism during the Welcoming Feast.

“Dementors on the Hogwarts Express,” said Minerva, frowning and shaking her head at Madam Pomfrey. “What have we come to? If Professor Lupin hadn’t intervened...”

“I quite agree. I dread to think of what might happen to any student who is caught unawares during the year—I’ve already topped up my emergency supply of chocolate, but there is only so much I can do. I have no treatment for the Kiss.”

“Well,” Minerva said. “At the very least we can rest assured that we finally have a Defence teacher who is more than capable of protecting the children.”

“There is that,” Pomfrey said. “He saved the boy’s life; I’m sure of it. Probably not what he expected before his first day as a teacher...”

“Oh, Remus was always willing to go above and beyond,” Minerva said. “I shall have to thank him in person later. Between Dementors and Black on the loose, I cannot imagine a better person to keep an eye on Mr Potter so we can ensure he stays safe.”

Severus speared a carrot so hard his fork screeched on meeting the plate.

How dare Lupin. Saving Potter was his job, and he’d be damned, damned if he let some flea-infested monster steal it away from under his nose. If anyone knew how to keep Potter safe, surely it was Severus—he had the expertise and the practise. Most important, he understood Potter’s penchant for rule-breaking.

Besides, Severus didn’t trust Lupin. Save Potter once, to be given enough leeway to then throw him at Black’s feet at the first opportunity? A neat plan, but Severus was not so easily hoodwinked as others; no matter how pleasant Lupin acted, he wouldn’t pull the wool over Severus’s eyes.

Severus would treat him just as pleasantly, simply to avoid Dumbledore’s ire. But he would watch; he would wait.

Inevitably, Lupin would fall.

---

The feature Severus loved most about his quarters at Hogwarts was the panoramic window taking up an entire wall of his living room. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a window as such, but a complex spell established long ago; rumour had it Slytherin himself had designed it. It afforded the occupant an underground view of the Black Lake, limited somewhat by the lack of light breaking its surface, but enhanced enough by charmwork to see more than a few inches deep. Blessedly, the window only went one way—Severus would probably have attempted to unravel even ancient spellcasting, had this not been the case—so one’s privacy remained unimpeachable. If nothing else, watching the algae wave softly in the current was a soothing pastime, and Severus had taken to casting a look out the window for a minute or so whenever he was feeling particularly stressed.

He was always most stressed on the first day of term. No longer accustomed to the sheer idiocy of first and fifth years alike, it always crashed over him like a wave. When he dropped into his quarters for a brief breather between classes and saw the giant squid float past his window, he was initially delighted; the creature rarely surfaced beyond the depths of the lake, and it had a certain elegance about it which appealed to the eye.

Except that this time, it elegantly cradled something distinctly odd in its arms, as though embracing a lover, something that upon closer inspection looked suspiciously like...

Severus was going to kill Potter. But first, he had to find out how he had died. And resurrect him.

---

The culprit turned out to be Hagrid, once again. Three hours, one convoluted rescue attempt and much hysteria later, Severus managed to extract the following sequence of events: Hagrid had used Hippogriffs for his first lesson (a bad idea); Potter had been the first student to approach one of the creatures (a terrible idea); and then Hagrid had compounded an error by encouraging the boy to mount the damn thing and letting it fly away with him (an idea so atrocious that Severus wanted to bury his face in his hands and weep). The Hippogriff had taken Potter on a merry ride across Hogwarts’ grounds, and naturally Potter had had the good sense to lose his hold right above the Black Lake, falling from such a height that he was most likely dead upon hitting the water.

The Giant Squid seemed most disappointed to lose its newfound companion. Even long after the Merpeople had managed to wrench Potter’s body from its jealous arms, it kept rising to the surface, flailing its tentacles in the air as if searching for something.

Severus spent the rest of the night and most of the following day adapting a Calming Draught to work on Hippogriffs. Then he laced a particularly juicy steak with the result, which hopefully would be enough to at least stop the thing from being quite so spirited, went back in time and bowed as though he was facing the Dark Lord himself.

Funny, how he’d never really expected that skill to come in useful one day. Join the Death Eaters, be loved by all creatures great and small!—no, that slogan didn’t have the right ring to it.

He still got his robes torn to shreds, mind. But that was the price one paid for placing a sticking charm on a Hippogriff’s back.

---

September and October slid by in a haze of irritation. Even the fact that Weasley’s new wand had the effect of decelerating the frequency of Potter’s deaths did little to improve Severus’s mood; after all, he was still surrounded by cretins everywhere. First there was Draco and his spectacular feat of getting slashed by a sedated creature, as if he was overly keen to follow in Potter’s footsteps. Then there were the resultant hours spent entertaining Lucius and his preposterous fixation with seeing the Hippogriff slaughtered, hours of his life which Severus would never get back.

Not that he especially cared for Buckwheat, or whatever the thing was called, but he’d long since lost his taste for Lucius’s company. Years ago, when he’d been young and oh-so-very foolish, he’d hung on the man’s every word, drawn in by his charismatic aura and elegant, clipped vowels, overly eager to rid himself of the sour taste of Cokeworth which soaked through every word Severus spoke. Lucius had been the sweetest kind of poison, everything Severus was not: not common, not bloody Northern, for a start. And certainly not tainted by Muggle blood.

With age and experience, however, the shine had worn off. These days, Severus saw Lucius for precisely what he was: an arrogant, pompous twit who’d never had to so much as lift a finger to advance in life, whilst Severus had kicked and clawed and sometimes crawled his way to some sort of status. Lucius’s charm was like overly sickly jasmine which bloomed at night, and once Severus had managed to untangle himself from its vines, he preferred to stay well away whenever possible. But as Head of Slytherin House, he had to play nice—not that he would ever have contemplated doing otherwise. If nothing else, Lucius possessed enormous reserves of power, and power was always to be courted. So Severus smiled and nodded and agreed that Hippogriffs were vile creatures best destroyed; he broke out the Reserva he’d saved for a special occasion and did not tell Lucius that Draco had inherited all his arrogance but none of his wit or subtlety. He danced the dance, and as always, he danced it well.

Sometimes, Severus hated being a Slytherin.

And then there was Lupin. Lupin, who was growing increasingly popular with the student body, no doubt in large part due to his attempts to ridicule Severus without even a hint of remorse or consideration for the consequences. The Boggart incident and subsequent lack of discipline led to five more cauldrons melted in one week alone, and that wasn’t counting the one that Longbottom exploded—right in Potter’s face, naturally—which forced Severus into another merry-go-round with the time-turner.

Lupin. Lupin, who smiled affably and thanked him profusely on the first two occasions that Severus brought him the Wolfsbane, seemingly content with the fact that Severus insisted on watching him drain the goblet until it was dry. Two days later, Dumbledore turned up on Severus’s doorstep with a frown, insisting that handing over the potion was quite sufficient, and ordering him not to “harass the poor fellow” any further.

Lupin, who was a tattle-tale, no matter how much Dumbledore denied it, claiming that the matter of Severus watching him like a hawk had come up quite casually in conversation. Lupin, who presented an unacceptable risk to all the students, and Potter most of all. Lupin, who could do no wrong.

Lupin, who let Black into the castle.

And even then Dumbledore wouldn’t hear a word against him, even then Severus was silenced, choked, condemned to watching hundreds of students snoring away on the floor of the Great Hall, responsibility weighing on him like a stone.

“Look at them,” Lupin said, coming to a halt next to Severus beside the main doors. “They were so agitated just a few hours ago, and now they’re out like a light. Makes you want to be thirteen again, doesn’t it?”

“Hmm,” Severus said, thinking not bloody likely.

Above them, white pinpricks of light glimmered against the night sky.

“Strange, is it not,” Severus said, eyes flickering over to Lupin, “how Black managed to find his way into the castle, with the Dementors patrolling the perimeter.”

There was no response.

“Stranger still, that there was no trace to be found of him afterwards,” Severus continued. “Not so much as a hair left behind, almost as though he had never been here. How do you suppose he managed that, when he’s not in possession of a wand?”

“I wouldn’t hazard a guess,” Lupin said, and although he held Severus’s gaze, there was something off about it. “Really, Severus, I know exactly as much as you do.”

Liar. “But you knew him so well.” Severus narrowed his eyes. “Surely someone who used to be on such, ah, intimate terms with a person is bound to possess some insight into them that others may lack?”

Lupin’s mouth tightened, his lips curving downward. “That was a long time ago. And I don’t much care for you referring to it now, so I must ask you not to do it again.”

Severus smiled.

“I will go do another sweep. Provided that you can spare me?”

“But of course,” Severus said. “Rest assured, all the children will be safe, so long as I’m here.”

If guilt had a scent, Lupin would have reeked of it as he walked off, Severus was sure.

---

He felt them before they arrived. That he did not respond with more alacrity was no doubt a failing, if easily justified: he had not felt truly warm since the beginning of term. Even in the depths of the dungeons a pervasive chill followed his steps, as though it had sunk into his very bones the moment the Dementors arrived. Nobody else seemed similarly afflicted, and Severus hardly felt inclined to share that he sensed them so much more keenly, that distance did not afford him the same degree of protection which others enjoyed. It was fitting, after all, that his regrets were woven so deeply into his being that no matter how tightly he locked them away, they sang away just under the surface of his skin.

So it made perfect sense for him to feel that little bit colder out here on the stands of the Quidditch pitch, amidst the howling wind and the pounding rain; it made sense that his thoughts felt strangely loose, scattering away on tangents and evading his reach. When the temperature seemed to drop just another notch, he put it down to his sensitivity rather than any appreciable threat.

By the time the cloaked figures glided onto the field, it was already too late. He could no more have conjured a Patronus than he could have recalled his own name. His last conscious thought was that his fingers looked strangely like claws as they clutched at the edge of the box. Then it hit him like a wall of deafening sound, like a smothering blanket of silence, in flickering snatches too fast too make out, spreading before him like eternity:

The smell of coal-tar. A crack and a whimper; peeling wallpaper unfurling like thorns in his hand. The stain on a dress which will not rub out and he scrubs and he scrubs and he—stop that Severus/not in my house you don’t!/never learnt nothing from—red, red, red dripping off his own—I don’t know you; you’re not my son; a ball-point pen and a Muggle doctor, sign on the dotted—house is yours, now. Crucio, Crucio, Crucio!; greengreengreen; crimson eyes. Dumbledore’s lips shaping a sentence, a word, soundlessly: she is

He came to with a sickening lurch, disoriented and shaking as chaos exploded around him. Down on the field, Minerva was lowering her wand; beside her, Flitwick still held his aloft, silvery streams trailing from its tip. Brooms, haphazardly dropped, sank into the mud around a crowd that was congregating in a circle.

“Somebody call Madam Pomfrey!”

Severus stumbled his way out of the stands faster than his liquid legs should have allowed, elbowing students and staff out of the way to get inside the circle where Potter lay motionless, Hooch at his side. She was just raising her wand when he arrived; he shoved it aside.

“Let me,” he said, finding his voice thready and weak. “Advanced diagnostics.”

For once, she wordlessly complied; there was something to be said for the medical training that came part and parcel with gaining Mastery in potions.

His wand hand, mercifully, obeyed despite the ice still crawling through his veins, but it hardly made much of a difference. The internal bleeding alone was far too severe to be dealt with anywhere outside of St Mungo’s, and they would never be able to get Potter there in time.

He should have stood up and walked away. But for reasons he couldn’t fathom, when he shook his head and Granger sobbed “No!” fighting her way out of Wood’s grasp, when Potter’s eyelids began to flicker, he looked at Hooch and said, “They don’t need to see this. Take them away.”

He was only distantly aware of Hooch and Minerva herding the students away, because right before him Potter eyes began to open. When he coughed, red stained his lips. His head jerked once, sharply, and Severus slid a hand underneath it to cushion any further abrupt movements, not knowing why, knowing only he had to.

“Shhh,” he said.

Potter blinked, very slowly.

“Snape?” Another cough, then a full body shudder. “Hurts.”

A moment’s thought felt too long, the time required to cast the strongest numbing spell he knew even longer. It would slow down Potter’s heart, but, really, that was only a blessing. A kindness.

“—happened?” Potter slurred. Already, his eyelids were beginning to droop.

“You took a bit of a fall. But it’s all right. You’ll be fine.”

“Still hurts.”

“I know,” Severus said, smudging a line of dirt away from Potter’s temple. “But not for very much longer. It’ll be over soon. I promise.”

“—be dreamin’,” Potter mumbled, each word coming more sluggishly. “Nev’r nice to me.”

Severus had to lean in close to hear him at all now, but at least Potter could no longer see him; his eyes had fallen completely closed. The wind carried away most of his whispers, so Severus only caught snatches: “dreamin’ earlier, too,” and “don’t understand.”

He brushed a hand over the boy’s rain-slick hair. “What don’t you understand?” he asked, not really expecting an answer.

It came nevertheless, in copper-scented breaths close to Severus’s cheek. “Woman in my dream. Why she was... screaming.”

And Severus’s blood ran cold, although the Dementors had been driven away. Through thick curtains of rain he watched the boy’s breaths grow shallow and faint, watched as Potter fell still in his arms.

He did not let go for a long time. Not until Minerva’s fingers gently pried his own loose from where they had dug into Potter’s icy, unmoving arm.

---

Severus refused the chocolate that Pomfrey offered him. Ten minutes later and many hours earlier, he was striding through the dark corridors of the castle, his hair still plastered to his face in wet disarray, his soaked robes dripping mud on the flagstones. Filch would no doubt have a conniption, but Severus did not care.

This was all Minerva’s fault. Out there on the pitch he’d been cold, so cold but placid in shock, almost as though he were floating, apart from his body, utterly cut-off from any emotion. Then she’d had the unmitigated gall to embrace him, and something inside him had snapped. For the first time since he’d begun saving Potter, there’d been no consideration for matters like changing his robes or taking time to regroup, only an urge to fix this, and fix it now. The more he thought on Potter’s last words and his own helpless incompetence in the face of the Dementors, the more agitated he seemed to get; by the time he reached the stone gargoyle, he was half-running. He ignored the brass knocker, pounding on Dumbledore’s door with both hands, again and again and again until—

“Severus?” Dumbledore said, and opened the door wider. He was wearing fluffy red slippers and a matching bathrobe. “What happened, my—ah. You are he.”

“Obviously,” Severus said, already shouldering his way past him. He stormed towards the desk, stopped, turned and stalked back to Dumbledore. “You must—must cancel your engagement tonight.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes! The match, you have to be—it has to be you! I cannot—cannot—” He broke off, breathing heavily.

“Slow down,” Dumbledore said, grasping his arm. “You sound very upset. Why can you not intervene?”

“Because!” Severus shouted, wrenching away with a hysterical laugh, “It appears I’m allergic to Dementors!”

And just like that, it all came rushing back. He managed to turn, barely, but lost his balance, his hand scrabbling uselessly at the edge of the desk as his legs folded under him like so much paper. He crashed to the floor in a thoroughly undignified heap, shivering, shaking, and the humiliation alone was too much to bear. That Albus should see him like this—again—and over something so inconsequential...

Pathetic, that’s what it was; that’s what he was. He pulled his legs to his chest and buried his face against his knees, trying to breathe. His throat was full of lead.

Eons slid by before something soft, something warm, settled over his shoulders. A blanket. A moment later Dumbledore pried his fingers loose from his robes and folded them around hard ceramic. “You’re in shock,” he said. “Drink this. It will help.”

Severus lifted his head just enough to take a small sip. It turned out not to be the tea he was expecting, but bitter, rich chocolate. He let it trickle down his throat, and swallowed, and kept his eyes closed.

“There is no shame in this, my boy,” Dumbledore said gently.

Severus laughed, feeling the sound like a knife. When he blinked, he noticed that his face was wet. He turned his head and brushed the dampness away with his knuckles, but it was already too late.

“You knew,” he rasped, into the silence. It sounded remarkably like an accusation. “My trial, you—they never took me to Azkaban, whilst I was waiting. Overflow issues, they said, but it—it was you.”

“Perhaps.”

Severus forced himself to look up, staring into Dumbledore’s solemn eyes and dared not ask how.

“Call it gut instinct,” Dumbledore said. “You have been through much. It stands to reason that the Dementors should affect you more than others.”

“It’s unacceptable! I cannot allow myself to,”—fall apart—“I must be able to—”

“Defend yourself? Yes, that is indeed a consideration. But not all in one day.” He reached out, stroking a hand through Severus’s tangled hair, smoothing it back into place. “The first time is always the worst. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Severus closed his eyes, shivering as he leaned into the touch.

“I will attend the match, of course,” Dumbledore continued softly. “And perhaps... just this once, we can relax the rules slightly. As a matter of fact, I will go and tell Snape myself that he should stay away—one set of memories seems quite sufficient in this instance, wouldn’t you say?”

Severus nodded. As if he could disagree.

“Good, good,” Dumbledore said, and rose to his feet. “I shall do so right now and fetch you clean robes whilst I’m at it. You wait here. And do drink up. It really will help.”

Burrowing deeper into the blanket, Severus lifted the cup to his lips and listened to the muffled sound of slippers against granite as Dumbledore strode away.

---

It preyed on his mind more than it ought to have done. In the safety of his quarters he remembered a perfect summer day, the smell of freshly mown grass and bare feet tickling his side. He watched the doe canter before the fire, thought of Potter hearing Lily’s screams as she died, and the ethereal creature bowed her head before dispersing into chill air.

He was a sentimental old fool. That Potter recalled the last moments of her life should not have mattered; it altered none of the facts. And yet, Severus caught himself staring at the boy during odd moments in class and at mealtimes, haunted by his confused voice, by the echo of shallow, wet breaths trailing away into silence. He could never seem to muster the usual anger in those moments, only a strange sort of ache which bloomed beneath his sternum, and that alone was... disquieting.

He should never have stuck around to watch Potter die. There was a reason he chose to remain on the sidelines and watch from a distance; getting involved only ever upset his equilibrium. If he wasn’t careful he’d soon be hopelessly entangled, and where would he be then? No, better to let everyone else wind themselves in webs of nonsensical social interactions; Severus functioned best one step removed.

He banished stray thoughts of Potter as soon as they appeared. And if they kept cropping up repeatedly, well, he’d just have to banish them harder and better next time. His objective was simple, and he would not be deterred.

Practical matters, of course, formed an exception. When Minerva confiscated the suspicious broom Potter received for Christmas—thank Merlin that at least Granger appeared to still possess a modicum of sense—Severus insisted on being involved in examining it. Whilst both she and Flitwick were competent enough, as he grudgingly had to admit, he simply could not have rested easy otherwise; even the most accomplished of wizards could make mistakes. Minerva, to give her credit, welcomed his input readily, but by late January they nevertheless butted heads.

“Whilst your concern for Mr Potter’s welfare is touching—”

“It is hardly concern.”

“—what more do you expect?”

“Another week, at the least.”

“We’ve had over four,” Minerva said, “and nobody has found anything wrong with the broom.”

“My point exactly! Whatever spell Black has put on it—”

“If it came from him at all, which I fairly doubt at this point.”

“—is clearly too subtle to be revealed with such a cursory examination!”

“Severus,” Minerva said, leaning towards him over her desk, “the stringent checks that broom has been through can hardly be called ‘cursory’ by any stretch of the imagination. I stripped it down to every last twig myself. As did Flitwick, and Lupin—”

“Oh yes, Lupin. How thoroughly encouraging.”

“And because I knew you would say that, I ensured he did it prior to you. Do you really mistrust your own abilities that much?”

“Don’t be absurd. My appreciation of my own faculties is simply tempered by reason.”

“Obsession, more like,” Minerva said, sitting back in her chair. She stirred her tea for a moment, gazing into the cup. “I wish I knew where it came from. Or,”—and here she looked up to fix Severus with surprisingly steely eyes—“that you could use it to find some empathy and compassion for the boy, instead.”

Severus resisted the urge to fling his own cup at the wall. “I hardly believe that is necessary,” he said, forcing a smile to his lips. “You cosset him enough as it is.”

Minerva sighed, setting her spoon down on the saucer. “Regardless, Potter will get his broom back tomorrow. I’ve discussed it with the Headmaster, and the decision is final.”

“How conveniently timed it is, too, with the next Gryffindor match up on Saturday. One might draw the conclusion that you care more—”

“Do not dare finish that sentence, Severus Snape,” Minerva said tersely, with an accompanying glare. “One might equally point out how convenient it would be for you to retain Potter’s broom for another week, thus depriving Slytherin of competition.”

Severus laughed. “As if I have any need of such insultingly obvious tactics. With the way the scores currently stand, Gryffindor will be out of the running for the eighth year in a row if you lose another match. So by all means,”—he got to his feet and headed towards the door—“let Potter fall off his broom once again. By now, he’s almost got it down to an art form, wouldn’t you say?”

And he left the room without giving Minerva a chance to reply.

---

Despite Draco’s childish, transparent attempts to achieve otherwise, Potter miraculously managed to stay on his broom. But Severus did not have long to reflect on whether this was a blessing, because it saved him another trip back in time, or a curse, allowing Minerva to gloat and reprehend his control of the Slytherins in one fell swoop. Because that night, Black once again invaded Gryffindor tower.

Severus would not let him get away a third time. His fingers clenched around the time-turner all the way through the staff meeting, and when it let out, he was on his feet faster than lightning.

Somehow, Dumbledore still managed to catch him at the door.

“No,” he said simply, although the gaze that captured Severus was far from straightforward. Minerva shot them a curious look as she walked past them, and the door closed behind her with a note of finality. “Must we go over this, yet again?” Dumbledore continued. “I do so dislike having to confiscate the time-turner from you.”

“Then don’t do it!”

The first time, it had been Severus’s fault, if unexpected and not entirely predictable. The second time, he had reasoned that as soon as Dumbledore returned the object to him, he would go back despite orders, and catch Black as he approached the Fat Lady.

He had tried... and discovered that Dumbledore had imbued the device with a spell which blocked the hourglass being turned the necessary number of revolutions, limiting him to a mere twenty-four hour window. By the time it had faded, the natural limits of the time-turner had been well surpassed.

“This is nonsensical!” he said, feeling it dig an imprint into the palm of his hand. “If you’re concerned about students being caught in the crossfire, I need not even enter the dormitory! I shall wait in the common room, which utterly nullifies any risk!”

“There’s always a risk, but I am not inclined to argue this with you. You know my reasons; they have not changed. Now, please—hand it over.”

Severus could feel his pulse in his throat, hammering wildly.

“What more,” he burst out impulsively, “do I have to do to get you to trust me?”

He wanted to take the words back as soon as they’d left his lips, because in Dumbledore’s expression instantly shifted to something Severus did not like, something which looked altogether too much like pity.

For a long moment, they held each other’s eyes. Then, softly, “Are you giving me much reason to trust you, at this moment? How can I, when you question my judgement at every turn? Trust, my boy, has to go both ways.”

There was something resoundingly wrong with that statement, but under Dumbledore’s gaze, Severus could not seem to figure out what—or why. He stared at the floor, chastised as though he was all of five years old.

“And have I not extended you my trust, time and again? Does acknowledging that you lose sight of reason where Sirius Black is concerned render void and invalid the tasks with which I have entrusted you? I could ask you to swear on her grave, of course, because I believe you would honour that, whatever the circumstances—but that would be cruel. As I said, it gives me no pleasure to have to confiscate the time-turner from you. But if you refuse to trust me—is it not kinder, then, to simply remove the temptation?”

Severus drew his hand from his robes and stared at the tight clench of his fist, torn, undecided.

“You don’t need to,” he said eventually, consciously relaxing his fingers as he met Dumbledore’s blue eyes. “I swear that I won’t use it. I swear,”—he swallowed heavily, feeling absurdly like a traitor—“on her—”

Dumbledore pressed a finger over his lips, cutting him off. “Shh,” he said. “I believe you.”

For long seconds, Severus felt him, deep, deep in his mind. Then the contact broke off, Dumbledore glancing down as he folded Severus’s fingers over the time-turner. “I am glad we were able to resolve this,” he said. “Now, we really have to be getting on with searching the castle.”

Severus nodded, fruitless though he knew the endeavour to be.

“Odd, is it not,” Dumbledore said whilst opening the door, “that Black should have been so ineffectual in his attempt on Harry’s life that all he achieved was slashing Mr Weasley’s bed curtains.”

“Probably confused them in the dark,” Severus said, clenching his jaw. “Too hasty, too eager.”

“Hmm,” Dumbledore said. “Perhaps.”

---

The single advantage to Black still roaming the land was that Potter’s movements continued to be monitored closely by every member of staff. Not only did it relieve Severus of some of the pressure of being the only one to track his whereabouts, but he fancied the close observation had reduced Potter’s usual escapades and thus kept his deathcount to a tolerable level.

Not that Potter stopped dying altogether; no, that would have been far too simple. Firenze had been correct on one thing: time was indeed persistent and clearly wanted Potter dead, even though it was hardly what Severus would have called subtle. But between November and February all of Potter’s deaths were accidents of such remarkable stupidity that they were easily fixed. He stumbled and fell between a gap of the moving staircases, so Severus waited at the bottom of it, arms crossed, and glared until Potter decided that he’d rather take the long way around. Trelawney purchased new incense, which sent Potter into anaphylactic shock during a divination class, so Severus ransacked her rooms in the dead of night. When she failed to take the hint and re-purchased the incense, he repeated the process, which sufficiently terrified her into compliance (“A sign!” he overheard her telling Sinistra, “A dark omen—something terrible is about to occur!”). Potter even managed to trip and impale himself, eye first, on a sharp shard of ice—that one turned out to be surprisingly fun, since resolving it clearly meant that Potter needed a light shove of magic to send him sprawling into a flurry of snow, instead. One had to take one’s amusements where one could find them, in such trying times.

Severus’s biggest worry, however, remained Black. After all, what if Black chose not to kill Potter on the spot but abduct him first? The prospect threw up potential problems a mile wide, and Severus did not relish trying to explain to Minerva why he needed to trail a thirteen-year old student as far as the toilet. Somehow he suspected that would... not wash.

So when Draco reported the apparition of Potter’s head in Hogsmeade mere hours after Severus had sent the blasted boy off to Gryffindor Tower, he was nothing short of incensed. And when Potter, confronted, had the nerve to give him lip and lie to his face—

He recovered every last shred of the anger which had been missing since the incident with the Dementors, easily. More fool he; Potter might hear Lily dying and have her eyes, but he was nothing, nothing like her. Lily had been sensible and forthright, but Potter was James all over again, doused in arrogance and self-importance. That the boy clearly worshipped his father only made it that much sweeter to let slip a few details as to the truth of the man, and Potter’s heated denial of them proved testament to how much they stung.

Good.

Lupin, alas, was not so easily riled. If Severus had not despised him quite as much as he did, he might have been impressed with how smoothly he lied. As it was, his victory over Potter turned sour in his mouth as he watched Lupin take away the not-so-spare bit of parchment that the boy carried.

Still, Severus got the last word. That night, whilst doing his usual rounds of the castle, he took a brief detour to knock on Lupin’s door.

“Severus,” came the bleary-eyed greeting. To judge by the threadbare pyjamas, Lupin had already been in bed. “Can I help you?”

“Oh no,” Severus said, with a smile. “I merely wanted to drop in to commend you on your spectacular performance this afternoon—almost worthy of a Slytherin, one might say. Almost.”

Lupin frowned. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But of course not,” Severus said.

“Well,” Lupin said. “Thanks for that, then. Now if you don’t mind, it’s late. I really do need to sleep.”

Severus caught the door with his boot, before it could close. “A word of advice,” he said, as though he hadn’t heard Lupin at all. “You may have Potter eating out of your hand, but not everyone is as gullible. I may not be present during your... private sessions with him on Thursday nights, but I can assure you, I am watching you.”

“For what it’s worth,” Lupin said, rubbing his knuckles across his brow, “I’m teaching him to cast the Patronus charm. Not that it concerns you.”

“Of course you are.” Severus ran a finger down the doorjamb, slowly. “So long as we’re clear on one matter: I’m very well aware of your true motives.”

“I sincerely doubt that.”

“And I sincerely doubt that someone as gifted at potions as myself could ever make a mistake even with as complex a brew as Wolfsbane, but,”—Severus’s shrug was deliberately exaggerated—“if I discovered that somebody so much as laid a finger on the boy... my own might just slip.” He stepped away from the door, straightening. “Sleep well, Lupin.”

---

He was running through an underground tunnel. The walls seemed to cave in on him, rough earth looming above and around him, pressing dank darkness into his sides. They morphed with the labyrinthine twists and turns of this maze, reverberated with the thunder of his own heartbeat like a drum, pounding, pounding, pounding. His sweat-slick palms caught on lichen and moss as he raced through the black, always one step from being buried, unseeing, yet never colliding with a wall.

What he was running from, he couldn’t have said. He was fleeing, yes, or perhaps trying to find it; it was hard on his heels, slithered beneath him; it was waiting for him beyond the next corner. He had to get out, track it down, he had to, he had to—

He did not recall stumbling, but then he fell, nevertheless, a sickening, helpless tumble down the mouth of an abyss. His fingers sought purchase, but there was nothing, nothing but the endless air that bit at him on his way down, slicing his arms to shreds. He seemed to be falling forever, was surely plummeting to his death, and when he hit the ground he would—

He landed on softness, not making a sound. His limbs trembled with fear, but not pain; a rank stench assaulted his nostrils. He rolled away, fingers sinking into mud, and opened his eyes, and although there was no light he could suddenly see, in sharp, distorted flashes...

Pale skin and long streams of blood-red hair, spilling over shaggy, dark fur. The monster lifted its head and snarled, fangs dripping wet and Severus recoiled in horror but could not look away, could only stare at the white gleam of ribs, could only listen to the crunching of bone as it bent down to resume its meal. In the next instant, Lily’s dead eyes snapped wide open. “There was a woman,” she said, mockingly, “she was screaming,” and on the last word her features began to flicker, morphing and shifting until only the eyes remained the same.

“You’re too late,” Black whispered into his ear. “Always, forever, too late.”

“No,” Severus gasped. “No, I can still—I can fix this!”

“Really?” Black said, from where he was kneeling beside Potter’s corpse, casually stroking a hand through raven-black hair, watching the werewolf continue to feed. “You had better be quick, then, because time’s running out. Tick tick tick...”

And Severus watched in terror as he lifted the time-turner. He lurched forward, but it crumbled to dust under the press of Black’s fingers, and he opened his mouth and—

...came to in a tangle of sheets on the floor next to his four-poster, sweat-soaked and heaving.

He failed to make it to the bathroom in time.

---

As always, spring seemed to set time to racing. Or perhaps it was the nightmare-induced sleep deprivation; all Severus knew was that one day bled into the next, too full of tasks. He taught and watched Potter and Lupin; he prepared exams and saved the boy from the most commonplace deaths—a poisonous plant in the greenhouses, a Cheering Charm gone wrong which had him laughing himself into cardiac arrest. He marked essays and gave detention and, encouraged by the first rays of sunshine, approached the task of growing inured to the Dementors. Each week he ventured more closely to where they floated and practised the Patronus charm; each week he returned, shattered and weary to the bone.

Sometimes, he even remembered to eat. Always, always he remembered the Wolfsbane, and if he occasionally had to resort to stimulating draughts to stay alert enough to ensure it was perfectly brewed, well, that was a small price to pay.

He could rest later. He could rest once the spectre of Black had been forced to relinquish its hold on his dreams, once he was safely locked away—or, better yet, Kissed. But Black seemed to have vanished as though he’d never been there, and as the end of term grew increasingly near, Severus grew more and more frantic.

So when he barged into Lupin’s office on the last day of exams, potion in hand, and found no one there, found nothing but the map, when he watched the small black dot labelled Lupin progress through the—ha!—underground passage...

He was ready. He was so very ready, and this time not even Dumbledore could stand in his way.

---

“Well, there you have it, Severus. Unless you are suggesting that Harry and Hermione are able to be in two places at once, I’m afraid I don’t see any point in troubling them further.”

The true meaning of Dumbledore’s words did not sink through the incandescent fire of his rage until Severus had already fled from the hospital wing. He was leaning against the wall, breathing, breathing, trying to get the black spots to cease dancing across his vision, when the pieces of the puzzle slowly clicked into place.

The harassed air that Granger had carried about her throughout the year. The dark circles under her eyes which Severus knew intimately from looking in the mirror. The snippets of conversation in the staffroom he’d not fully registered at the time, but which now burst into colour; did Muggle Studies not run in parallel with Arithmancy?

That bastard. Hands shaking, Severus rifled through his robes for the time-turner—screw trust, this was simply too much—and came up empty.

It was all he could do not to fling himself bodily at the Headmaster when he and Fudge came walking down the corridor seconds later. He did grab Dumbledore’s arm rather more firmly than not; his voice, when he spoke, came out in a snarl. “A word. Now.”

Fudge’s eyebrows lifted. Dumbledore took one glance at Severus, said, “Excuse us,” and promptly led him into the nearest classroom.

Severus did not wait for him to finish laying down privacy spells. “I know what you have done.”

“Ah,” Dumbledore said. “Yes. I had thought that you might.”

“You won’t even bother denying it, then?”

Dumbledore frowned. “And insult your intellect, whilst you are already in such a st—”

“You’re damned right I’m in a state!” Severus exploded. “How could you? Never mind, I don’t care—just give it back to me! Now!”

“This?” Dumbledore said, lifting the time-turner from his pocket. “By all means, do have it. But I fear it may not be of as much use as you—”

“Then I’ll bloody well die trying to break through your preposterous spell!” Severus ripped the chain out of Dumbledore’s hand only to stop short, confusion breaking through his anger. The hourglass, usually pristine even after the Headmaster had done his worst, was encased in a strange, bluish glow. When he attempted to touch it, his fingers slid off as if it was buttered glass.

He stared at the thing, utterly confounded.

“It will not work,” said Dumbledore, “not because of anything I did to it—but because it senses the paradox.”

“Paradox,” Severus said. His insides felt hollowed out, as though they had been scraped raw.

“You had not got quite that far, then, in your deduction? Yes, a paradox, and a most complex one at that, one which this device could never sustain. The Dementors hardly left of their own accord. Something drove them off. Someone, I should say.”

The very thought forced bile up Severus’s throat. “Potter.”

“Saved your life tonight, yes. As well as his own, and—”

“It should have been me! It would have been, too, had you not—how dare you!” He took several steps closer, fingers clenching around metal. “You speak to me of trust, and then you go and do this, let Black walk free, when you know, when you know—”

“I know that he is innocent.”

“He’s guilty as sin!” Every muscle in his body seemed to tremble, clenched tight and ready to snap. “I should walk out of this door, right this second, tell Fudge everything!”

“And prove it, how?” Dumbledore said, quite calmly, nodding towards Severus’s hand. “With this?”

“Yes,” Severus hissed. “Why the hell not? Has it ever occurred to you that I might be sick of this? Do you have any idea how many times—” He broke off, heaving a breath, then another; the room suddenly seemed to be spinning around him.

Dumbledore steadied him for several long seconds. Then, “Let Potter die,” Severus rasped, “I am done.”

He got as far as the door. Dumbledore never stopped him, just watched him stumble towards it, placid, silent, unmoving. Whether he’d ever have intervened, Severus would never know, because the moment he turned the handle, the memory of green eyes flashed to his mind, sharply accusing, and he dropped his hand as if scalded.

The most wretched part of it all was that he couldn’t tell for certain whose eyes they were.

He pressed his forehead into the rough, wooden grain of the door.

“I thought not,” Dumbledore said, very softly. “You’re understandably overwrought. Perhaps, the best thing you can do now,”—he laid his palm on Severus’s back—“is to rest.”

Severus wrenched away from the touch with a snarl and ripped the door open, shouldering his way past Fudge without a second glance back. He ran down the steps and to his quarters, slammed the door behind him, and flung the time-turner into the furthest corner, but it wasn’t enough, could never, ever be enough. He swept every last paper off his desk and then hexed it, for good measure. It groaned as it toppled over, but he was already moving again, towards the drinks cabinet. When it refused to open immediately, he smashed the glass with his fist and blindly grabbed the first bottle, not caring if he cut his hand.

Then he sat in the wreckage of five classes worth of exam papers, tilted his head back and he drank and he drank and he drank.

---

The Fourth Year

He did not speak a word to Dumbledore for the duration of summer. Whilst Black’s failure to make any further attempts on Potter’s life appeared to suggest that the Headmaster—damn it!—might well have been right, a cautious note of doubt still remained in Severus’s mind. Even had it not, Severus would never have admitted as much; he still had his pride.

The nightmares of Lupin tailed off with his resignation and departure, a small enough victory to which Severus clung. He continued to dream, however: strange and unsettling dreams in which Lily shifted into Potter and back again; nebulous visions in which the two of them merged and bled into one being.

Severus did not quite know what to make of them, except that they left him uneasy.

Halfway through the holidays, Minerva broke through his self-imposed isolation and visited for tea. They spoke largely of inconsequential matters, and to his surprise, Severus found that he rather enjoyed himself. When she made a particularly barbed comment about the Ministry towards the end, he actually smiled. She smiled back, taking a sip of her tea, and then regarded him silently for a moment.

“It is good to see your spirits have lifted a bit,” she said. “You have been rather... quiet of late. Reserved.”

Severus raised an eyebrow. “And as my natural state is to be the life of the party, this clearly marks a momentous change.”

Minerva’s lips quirked at the corners. “Well, no,” she said. “But it has been notable. More so than usual.”

Severus dropped his gaze to the teacups.

“I hope you’ll forgive my remarking on it. But sometimes... I worry about you.”

“You needn’t.”

“Be that as it may; I do.” She paused for a moment, as though giving time for the words to sink in, and stirred her tea. “I would never presume to ask what has passed between you and the Headmaster to cause quite such a rift—”

“Good,” Severus said, looking straight at her. “Because I’d never tell you.”

“I know,” Minerva said, not unkindly. “And I am certain that whatever it was, you have good cause for your anger. Albus can be... quite a handful, if he chooses to be.”

It must have been the sheer unexpectedness of that acknowledgement which froze Severus’s tongue. He could find no other reason for why he had not yet shown her the door.

“It is not my place to intrude,” Minerva said. “But I do hate to see you struggle so, and—do with it what you will, but if you’ll listen to the words of an old woman: whatever you’re fighting so hard against—can you change it? Because if not, it may be easier to try and... accept it.”

Severus opened his mouth, although he had no idea what he planned to say, but she waved him off before he could speak. “No,” she said. “I don’t want an answer. It is a question only you can ask yourself.” She rose to her feet. “I have imposed on you long enough for one afternoon. I shall see myself out.”

He dismissed her words, in the first instance. But on the day that the Dark Mark blazed across the headlines of The Prophet, he sat by the lake and thought of Lily and Potter, of the thankless task he had been given. He did not move for long hours, did not move even when Dumbledore walked up and came to stand by his side.

“There’s a storm coming,” Dumbledore said.

Severus looked out on the lake, at its smooth, placid waters, only the faintest of ripples chasing over their surface beneath the breeze. He had not asked to take responsibility for Potter’s life; he carried it, nevertheless.

“Yes,” he said.

---

Like all storms, this one brewed quietly.

Well. As quietly as was possible, when a school of this size prepared for receiving two foreign delegations, and when one carried the onerous duty of being a Head of House.

The fact that the new DADA teacher was an ex-Auror who’d prefer to see him in Azkaban did not exactly help matters, but, frankly, anyone was an improvement on Lupin. Severus would never in a million years come to call Moody ‘friend’, but at least with him, what you saw was what you got. Where others mocked the man’s paranoia, Severus could grasp it entirely. Like him, Moody was above all else a survivor, and that alone made him deserving of a certain kind of respect.

It also made it much easier not to take any barbs personally. So when Moody came to his office on the first day of term, Malfoy firmly in tow, Severus let the sly references to his past bounce off him like water off a duck until the man had his fill. Right now, he was far more concerned with Draco’s continued lack of subtlety.

“I confess to finding myself very disappointed in you, Mr Malfoy,” he said, once the door had shut behind Moody. “Attacking Potter, of all people, in broad daylight? Have I not taught you better than that?”

“He insulted my mother!”

“And your urge to defend her is most admirable, I’m sure. But to do so in plain sight of teachers, to act rashly, on impulse, does your house—my house—a disservice. Firing off a hex the moment it springs to mind takes neither cunning nor guile; any Gryffindor could do it. In fact, they frequently do. Have you, perchance, been missorted, Mr Malfoy?”

Draco’s face turned ashen. “No!”

“Then prove it!” Severus said. He stalked around the side of his desk, and came to a halt just beside the boy, leaning in. “I expect better from you, and I know you can deliver it. Act like the Slytherin you are, and we shan’t have a problem.”

Draco’s bottom lip quivered. “This isn’t fair,” he muttered. “You can’t just imply I’m like—if my father hears—”

“Your father,” Severus said, “would be appalled at your behaviour, and you know it. So by all means, tell him about it—it is your choice. But do not expect me to varnish the truth on your behalf.”

Judging by the way the boy’s shoulders tightened, perhaps that had been a bit harsh, if, given Draco’s propensities, unfortunately necessary. Severus withdrew, moving over to his desk, and leaned back against it.

“If, however,” he said, more softly, “you choose not to tell him... then I see no pressing reason to inform him of your little lapse, either. The matter can stay entirely between us. After all, you are still learning. Certain allowances have to be made.”

He could see the fight play out on the boy’s face, before he cautiously looked up. Then, “He—he turned me into a ferret!”

Severus’s eyebrows shot up in astonishment. “Potter?

“No, Moody!”

Severus tilted his head. “Did he.” His respect for Moody had just dropped a significant notch; there were some lines which simply ought not to be crossed. “In that case, Mr Malfoy, I can assure you that I will take this matter straight to the Headmaster, and protest it to the fullest extent. And should you ever find yourself transfigured by a teacher again, you will come directly to me, so I can handle it. Yes?”

“Yes,” Draco agreed, although the relief in his voice was still tempered by fear. “He doesn’t seem to like you very much, sir.”

“No,” Severus agreed, with a slow smile. “But I have it on good authority that he was in Gryffindor and unlike them, I know how to fight dirty. Run along, now. And try to do better next time, hmm?”

“Yes,” Draco said. “Thank you, sir.”

In truth, Severus rather hoped he’d not have occasion to fight Moody, ever. The man might be mad, but he would make a formidable opponent, and any true Slytherin knew how to stack probabilities and risks, knew his own limits and when it was wisest to quit.

But Draco hardly needed to know that.

---

Draco did not do better. In fact, he did significantly worse.

Less than three weeks later, whilst Severus was walking through the courtyard, the boy barrelled straight into him as though hell itself was hard on his heels. He was trembling so hard that his teeth chattered wildly, his face tear-streaked, his robes covered in snot. Between the sobs, hiccoughs and broken-off stammering, Severus could not hear one word. In the end, he had to shake Draco hard by the shoulders to force him into some semblance of coherency.

“Calm yourself!” he said, and any harshness in his tone was solely due to alarm. “Take a deep breath first, and then tell me what happened.”

But Draco did not listen; he had already grabbed Severus’s hand and was tugging him frantically in the direction of one of the older greenhouses, which had long since fallen out of use. He ducked into the gap between its grimy glass walls and the solid foundations of the castle, and now Severus knew where they were headed. Just around the corner lay a familiar stone alcove, a much favoured trysting spot for students, shielded both by the greenhouse and the bushes which grew at its entrance.

Two feet away from it, Draco stopped, and spun around. “You have to help me,” he gasped, “I didn’t mean—”

Severus’s alarm grew. He pushed past the boy, ducked through the bushes, and promptly ground to a halt. But not for long—in the next instant, he was on his knees beside Potter, where he lay with wide-open, glassy eyes.

“He’s not—” Draco stammered behind him, “please don’t say he’s—”

Severus dropped his hand. Unsurprisingly, there was no pulse.

“Oh God,” Draco sobbed. “Oh God, I’m a murderer, they’ll send me to Azkaban, they’ll have me—”

“Silence,” Severus said. He rose to his feet and turned, fixing the boy with a stare. “How,” he said, very slowly, “did this happen?”

Draco hiccoughed, swallowed, then hiccoughed again. “It was an accident!”

“An accident.”

“Yes! No! I mean—oh God, this is all my fault.”

And the sobbing returned, with a vengeance. They would get nowhere like this, and Severus had not the patience to wait until the boy had cried himself out. He rifled through his robes for the calming draught he usually carried and tipped it down Draco’s throat. Draco sputtered, then swayed; Severus guided him down until he sat with his back to the wall, hugging his knees to his chest.

The tears continued to flow, but more quietly now, reduced to an intensity which would at least allow the boy to speak.

“Let’s try again,” Severus said. “Tell me what happened, from the beginning. In detail.”

“It really was an accident. I didn’t plan—I didn’t plan for any of this!”

“You expect me to believe that you and Potter just so happened to run into each other, here, out of all the possible locations in Hogwarts?”

“I swear! I didn’t think he’d be here, either. I came to spy on... uhm. You know.”

Severus momentarily closed his eyes. A murderer and a voyeur. Marvellous.

“But instead there was Potter sitting there, sulking. So I thought about what you said, about not starting fights where teachers could see...”

A muscle near Severus’s eye twitched. Sharply.

“And I just goaded him a little, at first. The usual. He got all wound up, and told me to fuck off and get my ferret-face out of his space, and then I—”

“Yes?”

“I didn’t really think!” Draco said, his breath hitching. “It wasn’t meant to—I just thought about how we’ve been covering the Unforgivables in DADA, see, how Moody put us all under Imperius yesterday and how stupid Potter looked and how he jumped on the table quicker than anyone else, and I—”

Severus stared, in mixed horror and amazement.

“It was only meant for a laugh!”

“A laugh,” Severus said, frozen in perfect stillness. “You cast Imperio. For a laugh.”

“I only meant to scare him! I didn’t even think it would work! Father constantly goes on about how difficult it is to master Dark—”

“I’ll pretend not to have heard that.”

“Oh, like you don’t know, already. He’s told me all about how you two used to—”

“I’ll pretend not to have heard that, either,” Severus said, more sharply. “So you cast it, and then? Where was the joke?”

“I told him to... I told him to...”

“Yes?”

Draco’s next words were lost in a mumble. Severus, quite at the end of his tether, grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him up. “You told him to, what?”

Draco’s eyes twisted shut. “Suck my cock.”

Of course. Of-bloody-course. He should have seen that one coming, miles away.

“But then,” Draco continued, all in a rush, “he actually started to do it, and I freaked the fuck out,”—thank the heavens for small mercies, Severus thought—“so I pushed him away, and he hit his head on the wall, and then he started shaking and seizing, so I freaked more and ran to get help, and now he’s dead and I’m going to be sent to Azkaban and mother’s going to be so upset, and I never meant for this to—” A fresh wave of sobs, strong enough to break through the potion, curtailed the rest of his sentence.

Severus watched him cry for a minute, glanced back over at Potter, then back to Draco. He could not even muster an appropriate level of rage, already ruminating on the dangers which Potter’s surprising susceptibility to Imperius presented for the future. If even Draco had managed to compel him through what essentially equated to sheer force of wishful thinking...

“By all rights,” he said, taking a step back and lifting his wand, “I should inform you at length about what a simpering, idiotic dimwit you truly are, Mr Malfoy. But as it turns out, you’re in luck. Stupefy.”

He Obliviated Draco whilst he was still unconscious, thus buying himself time to dispose of Potter’s body somewhere safe. He could not waste precious hours dealing with overwrought colleagues and students alike, as would surely occur if he brought the corpse to the infirmary. He had research to do.

---

Halfway through the night, Dumbledore popped his head through the Floo to inform him that Potter had gone missing.

“I know,” Severus said, turning a page. “I am attending to it.”

Dumbledore took one look at the tomes and reams of old parchment spread across every surface in Severus’s living room, and vanished without another word.

For once, Severus was glad of his insistence on not knowing. At least half of the books on his table were highly illegal, the other half at least marginally so. Throughout most of the year they slumbered, quietly, in the hidden cavern beneath his four-poster; he preferred to ignore their existence entirely, in spite of how useful they were. Merely touching them sent shivers and chills up his spine, a heavy, sick longing roiling beneath the surface of his skin.

The one he was currently reading was written in blood. It nauseated him as much as it compelled him; few texts on the Dark Arts were composed without added enticements woven into their pages, their bindings, their lines. To read them at all was unquestionably dangerous, but not more so than a Potter whose will bent like blades of grass in a breeze; Severus could not allow that to happen.

He finally found the reference, ironically enough, in one of the less dubious scrolls. It was so old that magic alone held the paper together, one of the rarities he had scavenged years ago from the Room of Requirement. The language itself was equally obscure, so brief and oblique that unless one fully grasped the twain concepts which underpinned it, one could easily have read past it.

It did, however, explicitly state the price that had to be paid. And although some part deep inside him recoiled instinctively, Severus already knew that he would pay it.

---

“Detention!”

“What?” Potter’s eyes blazed with fury behind those ridiculous glasses. “But I didn’t do anything!”

“You whispered, when I expressly told you to work quietly.”

“I did no—”

“Silence! One more word from your lips, Mr Potter,”—he loomed over the boy, one hand poised on his desk—“and it shall be a week’s worth of detention. My office, tonight, eight pm sharp.”

Potter glared at him for the remainder of the lesson, but Severus ignored him. As soon as class was dismissed, he fled to his quarters, where he paced the length of his living room, full of nervous tension.

Snape watched him for several long minutes, frowning. Then, “You will still not tell me what you intend to do?”

“No,” Severus said, and continued to pace. “You will find out soon enough. Once I’ve achieved it.”

“Because,” Snape said, setting his book on the table, “you seem highly strung, even for me. Perhaps, if you only cared to share the burden...”

Severus stopped abruptly, and swivelled towards him with a glare. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” Severus said, “you may attempt to talk me out of it, knowing you.”

Snape’s frown deepened. “If that is so, then it may be wisest to—”

“No!” Severus slammed his hand on the table, and it reverberated beneath him. “It is crucial; it is essential. I am committed to this, and I cannot afford to have you... doubting me every step of the way. As a matter of fact, this would be a damn sight easier without your prying and nagging, so do me a favour and get the hell away from me. Go to the bedroom, take a nap, do a crossword. I don’t care.”

“Fuck you,” Snape said, enunciating each word very clearly.

But he disappeared into the bedroom regardless, even if he muttered about split psyches and Muggle analysts having a field day on his way.

---

Potter eyed him with suspicion from the moment that Severus swept them past the usual classroom in which detention took place and headed up the stairs, instead. By the time they were traversing Hogwarts’ dark, silent grounds, he was shooting looks at Severus every other second.

“Where are we going?” he asked for the third time. Severus had ignored the first two enquiries altogether, but it did not seem sensible to do so again. He couldn’t have the boy running off before he had started.

“I have need of certain ingredients, which can only be harvested at night.”

“Right,” Potter said, sounding like he didn’t believe the lie for one minute. He cast a skittish glance back at the castle.

“Ingredients,” Severus continued, in his most icy tone, “which alas, can only be collected by a virgin.”

That shut him up for a good while. Long enough to get them to the clearing Severus had decided was distant enough from the castle to prevent unexpected disruptions. He watched Potter’s eyes dart about the ground in confusion for a moment, reflecting on how he truly possessed not an ounce of self-preservation.

Then Severus disarmed him with a wordless spell.

Well. Perhaps not an ounce, but a dram, because at the loss of his wand Potter immediately whirled about and began to back away.

“What are you doing?” he said, voice high-pitched and thready. Severus advanced on him and Potter’s pace quickened; he stumbled over a root and fell back against a tree.

“I have no intention of harming you,” Severus said.

Potter looked up at him, eyes wide with fear, or with anger. “Oh, really?” he said. “Fuck you, fuck you, I knew it all along! This is why my scar has been hurting again! You’re trying to bring him back to life—so what, are you going to kill me right now, or just hand me to him on a platter?”

Potter’s scar, hurting? Interesting. But now was not the time; later, later.

Severus lifted his wand. “Imperio!

He had forgotten. It had been years since he had last used the spell, well over a decade. Over a decade, and now that he threw his whole force into the casting, it burst through him like starlight, like fire; it danced through his blood, enfolding him in the most brilliant of songs, each note pitch-perfect and pure. Absolute power. Control.

For a moment, as Potter’s eyes grew glassy below him, Severus swayed, drunk with it, dizzy. He could do anything, anything to the boy. He could crush him, break him, shape him to his every wish, his every will; he could—

No. That was not what he was here for; he could not, would not abandon his purpose. He clung to it, desperately, and thrust himself headfirst into the boy’s mind; from a distance, he heard Potter screaming, but he did not care. He dove in and flung open all the doors, until he was awash in a flood of fast-spinning colours; then he found all the trapdoors, too, and burst through them, digging deeper, down, down, into the stillness. There, he twisted and pulled, gathering gossamer threads and shaping them into a knot—but delicately, only enough for his purpose. There, he left a part of himself, weaving it into the space between thoughts, as though it was almost not there at all.

It hurt, coming back to himself, dropping both spells. It clearly hurt Potter, too, because he groaned, shuddering weakly where he lay on the ground.

“What,” Potter gasped, “what have you done?”

Staring down at him, Severus did not need to wonder if he’d been successful. He could feel the cracks in the walls of his defences like a gaping hole, the fissures through which Potter—only Potter—would forever be able to slip through from this point onwards.

It did not matter. Potter was no Legilimens. Chances were, he never would be.

Obliviate,” Severus said.

---

Although he did not require confirmation, he received it nevertheless, carried on students’ hushed whispers through the corridors: Have you heard? and He’s resistant to Imperius! and Stopped himself from jumping and smashed straight into the desk!

Excellent. That left only one loose end to tie up from the whole Draco-prompted affair, one which he’d much prefer not to tie up at all but which he could not, in good conscience, simply let slide.

By the time he had gathered the Slytherins, fourth through seventh years, in one of the larger classrooms on the first floor, he would have given a limb to be anywhere else, any place at all. He did not allow it to show, however, keeping his features impassive and his back straight as he watched them settle down. It did not take long until they were eyeing him with curiosity, and he played on the tension, surveying them coolly for several minutes as he walked the breadth of the classroom with slow, measured steps. Only when they were regarding him with rapt attention did he come to a halt, taking care to swivel just sharply enough for his robes to flare outwards.

It never hurt to put on a show.

“No doubt you are wondering why I’ve summoned you here,” he said. “Or, for that matter, why your younger housemates are not present.” He paused, and took another couple of deliberate steps. “You are here because it has recently—much to my distaste, I can assure you—come to my attention that each and every one of you is about to enter—or, in many cases has entered a fair while ago,”—a glance at the sixth and seventh years—“that particular phase of your lives in which hormones are apt to warp every last ounce of your reason.”

A few of the younger students tittered whereas the older ones looked mostly exasperated or affronted; one rolled his eyes.

“Silence,” Severus said. He leaned forwards, fingertips poised on the surface of his desk. “Let me be perfectly clear: I care not one whit for whatever hopeless romantic entanglements you are bound to engage in over the coming years, nor do I care about whether they lack romance entirely. This lecture’s purpose is not to inform you about,”—his lip curled—“the birds and the bees.”

Now they simply looked confused.

“There is only one matter I intend to discuss with you,” Severus said, straightening and flicking his wand at the blackboard.

A single word appeared, in large, white letters: CONSENT.

“I realise,” Severus said whilst they were still busy staring, “that this may be a novel concept to many of you. Others may feel that it should not apply to members of this house. You are wrong. If I ever, ever catch word that one of you has engaged a fellow student—whatever their house—in sexual acts against their will, I shall personally see to it that the person in question is expelled.”

He paused long enough to take in their frowns and tense faces. “This includes all use of love or lust potions, and any,”—his eyes flicked to Draco, who paled—“coercive spells. It is not cunning to induce unnatural attraction by brewing a draught; in fact, it is such a blatantly obvious option that it should be beneath you all. Likewise, if your greatest ambition is to rely on flicking your wand every time you seek... company, you possess no true ambition at all. To put it quite simply: no means no.”

Halfway through the sentence he became aware of the door opening in his peripheral vision. Profoundly irritated and equally uncomfortable, he turned towards it and glared at the intruder.

Minerva stared back at him, mouth slightly open. Severus resisted the ridiculous urge to squirm and forcibly willed down the heat which threatened to rise to his cheeks. “Yes?” he said.

Minerva blinked. “Pardon me,” she said, “I was under the impression that this classroom was vacant.”

Severus scowled. “Evidently, it is not.”

“Well,” Minerva said, the beginnings of a smile playing over her lips. “Seeing how no means no...” And she closed the door.

Thoroughly thrown off balance, Severus straightened his robes and turned back to the class. “Where was I?”

“Love Potions aren’t cunning,” Pansy Parkinson muttered, sounding less than pleased.

“Quite,” Severus said. “Now, if any of you should have questions...”

Across the room, thirty hands instantly shot up into the air. Inwardly cursing, Severus steeled himself against query after query about morally grey territory, projecting an air of confidence when surely he was the least qualified person on earth to answer any of them.

If only he were standing in front of a bunch of Gryffindors. Or, even better: Hufflepuffs.

---

At least the Goblet of Fire had the good sense to choose a Hufflepuff over one of his Slytherins. Severus, who had quite enough on his plate between Longbottom’s renewed efforts to melt Potter into an early grave and Karkaroff’s unfortunate presence, breathed a sigh of relief as Diggory smiled modestly and disappeared from the hall.

And then the flames shifted to red and his relief turned to horror, because before Dumbledore caught the paper, before he read out the name, he knew what it would be.

That reckless, glory-hungry fool. Here Severus was, bending over backwards, forced to use magic he’d forsaken for reasons, risking the very integrity of his mind and cracking himself wide open, all in order to protect Potter’s life—only for the child to go and throw himself into danger’s jaws with conscious intent, against everyone’s explicit advice.

In the heat of the moment, even acceptance failed to temper his fury.

---

“There is an alternative, of course,” he said to Dumbledore, after everyone had duly aired their protests and walked off, leaving them—briefly—alone.

“I know,” said Dumbledore. “But I am not certain it is wise.”

“Potter may believe he is up to the task, but—”

“Harry did not enter his name into the Goblet, of this much I am sure.”

“It would not be the first time that Potter has courted death, because he’s desperate for fame.” Severus narrowed his eyes. “Just like his father.”

Dumbledore sighed. “I find it remarkable how someone who has spent as much time as you watching over the boy could still cling to the notion that he is anything remotely like James—especially someone as keenly perceptive as you. Harry does not seek fame; he fairly loathes it, I suspect. If you took the time to speak to him...”

“I have,” Severus said. “He is arrogant, disrespectful and insubordinate.”

“And is that his natural state, or because you treat him as though it is so?”

“If not Potter,” Severus said, quite through with the topic, “then who, pray tell, would have entered his name?”

“Ah,” Dumbledore said. “Now that is the real question, is it not? I fear I cannot answer it either, but whoever it was, they want Harry in a contest which poses a great deal of risk to his health and wellbeing. This alone is cause for concern, wouldn’t you agree? At the same time, I fear that were you to go back and stand guard over the Goblet, we might lose our only chance of determining what their true motivations may be. I suspect they are far from straightforward, but may well be... the key.”

Severus’s blood tingled with unease. “Potter’s scar has been hurting,” he said, after a moment’s deliberation.

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. “Yes; I have received similar reports already.”

“From whom?”

But Dumbledore did not answer. “Interesting,” he said instead, watching Severus shrewdly, “that you should be aware of it.”

Severus met his gaze evenly, and although he knew it to be pointless paranoia, threw every last inch of his will against the cracks in his wall.

---

Not keen on fame, pah! Potter couldn’t seem to scramble out of his class fast enough less than two weeks later, clearly eager to leave the moment that Creevey boy mentioned the word ‘photography’. He even went so far as to seek adulation from Weasley who, for once in his life, appeared to be acting as though he possessed the vestiges of a brain and blanked Potter entirely.

The article in The Prophet the following day only proved it, Potter milking the public perception of his sad, lost orphan tale for all he was worth. And if Rita Skeeter had a tendency to sometimes veer slightly off the truth, well, that didn’t mean anything. Merely that, this time, far less effort had been required of her. After all, Potter’s little duel with Draco prior to class demonstrated one thing incontrovertibly: he thrived on being the centre of attention.

Severus selected pickling rat brains for detention very deliberately, with a dual purpose in mind: to subtly cheer Weasley on in continuing to make use of his, and to prompt Potter to perhaps think a little on why he appeared to possess none whatsoever.

As teaching strategies went, it was likely to fail, but it amused Severus nevertheless.

---

Something, somewhere had gone horribly wrong, and it had been when some imbecile decided to pick dragons for the first task.

Half-collapsed over the desk in his quarters, Severus wanted nothing so much as to screw his eyes shut and ignore the certain doom that was playing out right before him, but he could not, for the life of him, look away.

What a momentously fucked up train-wreck he’d got himself into.

“This is all your fault,” snapped Snape, across the room. “If you hadn’t missed the mark with your spell and cut the damn thing loose—”

“Oh really?” shouted Snape number three—or was it four? “If you’d got it right the first time around, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place!”

“And if you,” interjected another, “hadn’t turned up at precisely the wrong moment and got in my way—”

“No, that was him,”—a finger went pointing—“not me. Don’t bring me into this, I am completely blameless.”

“Because it was such a fantastic idea to get yourself discovered by Skeeter, was it?”

“You’re confusing me, again. That preposterous fuck up was entirely down to him.”

“And I would never have turned up at the wrong time if it hadn’t been for that,” said Snape number—oh fucking hell, Severus had completely lost count. “Mind you, you’ll both do it, not too long from now.”

“And entangle ourselves hopelessly, as you did? Not a chance in hell!”

“This doesn’t even make sense,” said another Snape, crossing his arms; at least three others followed suit. “The very fabric of space-time should have collapsed by now! None of us should be here!”

“What a profoundly helpful perspective! Why, if it wasn’t for your incisive reasoning—”

“This is your fault!”

“No, it’s yours!”

“Could somebody,” interjected a Snape who Severus strongly suspected belonged to the timeline they were in, “kindly inform me what the ever-loving fuck is going on?!”

A deafening cacophony of ten Snapes shouting at once followed his enquiry.

Severus slammed his hands on the table. “Shut up!” he yelled into the chaos. “Shut up, all of you, or I swear, I’m going to kill someone any bloody second now!”

They all paused, turning to stare at him. Then, “You’d only be killing yourself,” said the fourth Snape from the left.

“Which one are you, anyway?” said the one next to him.

Severus dropped his forehead to the table. “I have a headache.”

The fire in the hearth sputtered; a moment later Dumbledore’s head poked through it. All the Snapes—Severus included—swivelled towards him at once, fixing him with a combined glare.

“Oh dear,” Dumbledore said, stroking his beard. “Perhaps I ought to have protested the use of dragons more strenuously than I did.”

“You think?!” they shouted, in unison.

And although the Headmaster was a Gryffindor, he was old enough to be wise. He instantly disappeared.

---

How Severus resolved the First Task of Fuckery, he later couldn’t have said. All he knew was that it involved some thoroughly convoluted Arithmancy and many more confusing sketches, peppered with plenty of yelling and threats of bodily harm.

A truer miracle there never had been.

He spent the rest of the week in his darkened quarters, drugged up on pain potions and under constant cooling charms, suffering the fiercest headache in the history of the universe as twelve—or maybe thirteen—sets of separate memories vied for their place inside his pathetically limited brain.

---

November slid into December uneventfully, and for a month the most exciting thing to happen was Potter being blasted to death by one of Hagrid’s misshapen crossbreeds. This one required some lateral thinking, as no literature existed on Blast-Ended Skrewts. The problem of a gaggle of girls trampling Potter into the ground whilst fighting over who was to claim him as their date for the Yule Ball was more easily solved; Severus simply took care to whip them into a frenzy before they ever got to the boy—their claws did the rest.

He did not look forward to Christmas. At all. This year, the seasonal decorations had grown more aggravating than ever, the corridors flanked by caterwauling suits of armour and damn fairy lights twinkling everywhere. How this presented anything but appalling lack of taste to their foreign visitors, Severus failed to grasp, but his opinion was soundly ignored at staff meetings

Even his intention to draw some small measure of enjoyment from the dreadful spectacle of the ball by terrorising amorous students fell flat on the night, because Karkaroff stuck to him like a barnacle.

“You must have noticed it, Severus,” Karkaroff said in hushed tones, as they trailed past the bushes. “And if this goes where I believe that it will...”

Of course Severus had noticed. Hard as he’d tried, he had never been able to learn how to completely avoid looking at his own arm and even if he had, he’d still have known the imprint there was changing. In the dead of the night, it sometimes seemed to crawl inside his skin, shifting as though it had almost—almost—awoken.

It unsettled him deeply, but revealing that to Karkaroff equalled suicide.

“Merely a trick of the light,” Severus said. “A single shadow and you imagine the worst. Myself, I don’t see what there is to fuss about, Igor.”

“Severus, you cannot pretend this isn’t happening! It’s been getting clearer and clearer for months, I am becoming seriously concerned, I can’t deny it—”

“Then flee,” Severus said, sharply. “Flee, I will make your excuses. I, however, am remaining at Hogwarts.”

If only the man would shut up. Severus refocused his attention on the movement behind the bushes, blasting several of them apart, but he could not even find delight in the embarrassed squeals of the students who raced past him. They only made him angrier.

“Ten points from Hufflepuff, Fawcett!” he snarled. “And ten points from Ravenclaw, too, Stebbins!”

To say he was less than thrilled to glance up the path and see Potter and Weasley there, nosying about as usual with overly curious looks on their faces, would have been a vast understatement. “And what are you two doing?”

“We’re walking,” Weasley said, in a most insolent tone. “Not against the law, is it?”

“Keep walking, then!” Severus said, and brushed past them at speed.

But his hopes of losing Karkaroff were in vain; all night he stuck to Severus like glue.

---

He started keeping a diary of Potter’s deaths, if only so he would have something to remind him, in darker moments, of how far he had come and what he’d achieved. Naturally, he keyed the text to his touch—should it fall into wrong hands all they would see were boring accounts of potion ingredients.

Gored by a unicorn, he wrote, early in January. When his mind slipped onto contemplating whether folk tales were simply mistaken in insisting that unicorns only ever killed those already polluted, he stared at the page in outright horror for a second, and then swore to never, ever think such thoughts again.

Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the rest of the world appeared disinclined to allow him such oblivion.

Severus avoided the staff room during peak times as a rule, preferring to rise early and get there before the chattering hordes in order to attend to paperwork. (The messenger-pigeons which delivered said paperwork to the teachers unfortunately flew directly into their named holes at the far end of the room; Severus had unsuccessfully attempted to redirect them to his office, many times.)

So when a knock came on the door at the crack of dawn on a Friday morning, whilst Severus was sorting through pointless memos, he was the only one present to open it.

“Oh, thank Merlin, I thought nobody might be here,” said Cedric Diggory. He was pale as a sheet. “Sir, you have to come, quickly. Something dreadful has happened.”

Now there was a Hogwarts champion, Severus thought, as he followed the boy out of the room and up the stairs. Calm and collected in the face of an emergency, retaining enough rationality in spite of shock to speak in coherent sentences—it only proved Severus’s existing (guarded, silent) liking of him. True, Cedric was disgustingly popular, but unlike Potter, he never carried his fame like a torch; he was modest, hard-working and always addressed teachers with appropriate deference and respect. It did not hurt, either, that he wasn’t half bad at potions. In short, he was one of those select students Severus had gladly welcomed into his N.E.W.T. classes.

He even had the courtesy to attempt to soften the blow, unaware that Severus was unlikely to feel it. “It’s bad,” he said, as he opened the door to the Prefect’s bathroom. “I still can’t believe...”

Severus stepped over the threshold. Beside the ornate pool lay Potter, a towel draped over his unclothed body. Checking a pulse was clearly a waste of time—to judge by the rigid clench of Potter’s fingers, rigor mortis had long since set in.

Severus knelt down, regardless, already looking for clues. “You found him like this?”

“No,” Cedric said. “When I came in from my morning run he was...” he paused, swallowing heavily, “...floating. So I pulled him out, of course, and tried to resuscitate him, but—”

“...he’d already drowned,” Severus said. His fingers found a bump at the back of Potter’s head. They returned sticky with old blood, diluted by water and he traced the faint smear of it across the tile. Most of it had been washed off the edge of the tub, but enough remained to determine where Potter’s head had struck it.

“If I’d come sooner...” Cedric said.

“You would still have been too late,” Severus said, glancing at him. “Judging by his skin, I’d estimate he died hours ago.”

But Cedric did not look relieved, not in the slightest; he was pressing a hand to his mouth, eyes wide and horrified.

“What does interest me,” Severus said, trying to recall who the Gryffindor prefect was, “is how Potter came to be here at all.”

Cedric shook his head and heaved a shuddering breath, shutting his eyes. Severus felt strangely compelled to walk over and soothe him, but that was absurd.

He waited long seconds, instead, resolved to give the boy some chance of reaching calm.

“This is my fault,” Cedric said, when he opened his eyes again, tears spilling over his cheeks. “I—I take full responsibility. I gave him the password.”

As Severus’s mind helplessly flashed to unicorns and rose bushes, any compassion he’d felt a second ago instantly died. “You are aware,” he said, quite sharply, “that Potter is—was—fourteen years old.”

“What?” Cedric said. “No, no, you’ve got it all—it wasn’t like that, it was,”—he pointed at something shielded from Severus’s view by the corner of the bath; when Severus bent around, he discovered it to be the Triwizard egg. “The clue!” Cedric said. “I gave him the password so he could figure it out, but I never thought that something like this would happen, or I wouldn’t...”

Severus sighed. “You hardly had cause to,” he allowed, as he rose to his feet. “Merlin only knows how Potter managed to—”

“I almost forgot!” Cedric interrupted him. “When I arrived, he wasn’t alone—she disappeared so quickly that I don’t think I fully took her in, but—”

“Who?”

“A ghost, that girl, the one with the glasses? Haunts the girls’ toilet, I think, what’s her name...”

“Moaning Myrtle,” Severus said, cursing his rotten luck.

“Yes!” Cedric said, and then visibly deflated. “Not that it’s going to matter. He’s dead, and how am I meant to... I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget how he—”

“Oh no,” Severus said, hand on his wand already. “You’ll forget easily. In fact, all you’ll remember is running into Potter during your jog this morning. You’ll practically feel compelled to inform the first Gryffindor you meet that he told you he would skip classes to work on the clue. Obliviate.”

If Severus reminded himself a little of Lockhart with the number of memory modifications he engaged in these days, then surely that was well within the realms of acceptability. After all, he wasn’t interfering with the mind of anyone who’d live to... not remember it; that was a process he still thoroughly detested.

And besides, it was just so much easier to do the necessary research when one did not have to contend with mourning students and staff at the same time.

---

“Go away,” said the ghost, floating in the girls’ bathroom. “I’ve heard all about you. You’re that mean one; you’ll only make fun of me.” She hiccoughed. “They all do.”

“Then perhaps,” Severus said, subtly drawing his wand from his cloak, “you had best get it over with quickly, hmm?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, and took off for the cubicles.

Severus stepped in her path before she could get very far, raising his hand. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you. Because I can assure you, being as mean as I am, I am fully conversant in spells that can hurt even a ghost.”

She hovered uncertainly, her eyes wet and shimmering. “Oh, you’re horrible! What have I ever done to deserve this? Poor mistreated Myrtle, not even safe from the teachers, harassed, victimised at every—”

“Bullshit,” Severus snapped. “You know exactly what it is you have done. Out with it. Potter. What did you do to him?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. How could I, when nobody ever bothers to pay me attention?”

“Remember those spells?” Severus said, flicking his wand so that sparks shot from its end. “Nasty ones, they are, too, and I am one second away from—”

“It wasn’t my fault,” said Myrtle. “I was only trying to be,”—her gaze turned sly—“friendly, that’s all. A girl does get lonely, you know.”

For heaven’s sake, what was wrong with this school? Why was everyone around him suddenly obsessed with sex?

“You tried to molest him?”

“Oh, how insensitive,” Myrtle sobbed. “As if I could molest anyone, in this state!” She swept a transparent hand through Severus’s chest, as if her being incorporeal required demonstration. “I just wanted a little peek, really. He’s got such nice eyes...” She smiled. “And his thighs weren’t half bad, either, when I watched him undress. Nor was his—”

“Yes, yes,” Severus said hastily. “So you watched him get into the tub, and then?”

“Well, he had his back turned to me, didn’t he? So I thought, I’d better dive into the water, to get a proper look whilst I could...”

Severus’s lip curled in distaste.

“How was I to know he’d recoil and bang his head on the edge? I thought about calling someone, at first, but then I figured, if he drowned... maybe he’d turn into a ghost, too, and I wouldn’t have to be on my own anymore. But I waited and waited,”—her eyes filled up again—"for hours I waited, and he wouldn’t turn into a ghost, so I’m still all alone. All the other ghosts shun me, you know—"

“I cannot imagine why,” Severus said.

Myrtle hiccoughed. “There’s no need to be cruel. Why can’t you be more like him? He was the only one who ever took time to listen to me, and now he’s gone, too, oh, this is terrible—"

Severus had heard enough. As he turned on his heel and strode out of the room, Myrtle flung herself over the top of the cubicle walls with a wail and then there was an immense splash, torrents of water flooding the floor.

Luckily, Severus had already reached the door.

---

Contrary to what he’d told the ghost, his spell repertoire did not in fact contain a plethora of ghost-repelling spells. He knew the basics, but had never been overly concerned with finding ways of manipulating those already dead. The living were plenty enough to contend with.

He most certainly had never come across a spell to deter overly amorous ghosts; frankly he doubted whether such a thing existed at all. Had Myrtle been a human being—or a Hippogriff, for that matter—the solution would have been obvious: there were a vast number of anti-lust potions and draughts to choose from, each of them easily adapted.

But he needed some kind of charm and for once his encyclopaedic knowledge appeared to fail him. Truthfully, he’d found himself so frequently tempted to hex hormonal teenagers into some state of sanity that he’d decided it was best he remain ignorant of a fast-track route to achieving such. Dumbledore would never have stood for it if he accidentally sterilised one of the little beasts.

And so the early afternoon found him in the Restricted Section, selecting a collection of titles which should provide him with the grounding he required. What he had not counted on, however, was running straight into Granger in one of the aisles.

Or more like, Granger running straight into him.

“Sorry, sir,” she said, and promptly bent down to pick up the books she had knocked out of his hand.

Severus’s eyes widened in alarm, but he was a fraction too late to prevent the disaster. Granger had already grasped the books, and was skimming their spines out of sheer habit.

She froze. Her eyes turned wide as saucers, then flicked towards him, horror writ large in every line of her face. She looked as though she desired nothing so much as to sink straight through the floor or, failing that, spontaneously combust on the spot—anything to unsee what she had seen.

Severus could entirely relate. Flushing crimson, he ripped 101 Lust-Curbing Charms, Lull Your Libido!, and, worst of all, Mastering the Urge to Perversion from her hands and covered them with his robes, all the while fighting a desperate drive to explain that there was a perfectly innocent explanation.

“Foolish girl,” he snapped instead, because he didn’t need to justify anything. “Watch where you’re going!” He moved to brush past her, but Granger leapt to her feet in the same instant, causing their limbs to get hopelessly entangled in the squashed space between bookshelves. She stumbled, would have fallen if not for her hands instinctively clutching onto his robes; Severus’s face burnt even hotter.

“Don’t touch me!” he snarled, and pushed her away. Granger squeaked, pressing herself flat against the shelf as he rushed past her and fled from the library as quickly as his feet would allow.

The knowledge that she wouldn’t remember any of this was a faint consolation on his way to the dungeons. He’d better find a solution in those damn books and fast, because the last thing he needed was an outraged Minerva knocking on his door to accuse him of accosting her most prized pupil like the worst sort of deviant.

---

Innocent explanation or not, he still felt like the worst sort of deviant as he hovered inside the Prefect’s bathroom hours later, blending into the wall under a powerful disillusionment spell. But without knowing if the spell he had used on Myrtle had fully taken hold—he’d had to merge a standard chastity charm with the arithmetic formula underpinning common ghost-banishing spells—he could not risk staying away. If the experiment failed, he needed to be there to stop Potter from drowning.

He felt all the more like a pervert when Potter finally entered the room. Although Severus caught only the barest flash of skin, looking away the instant the boy began to undress, the rustle of clothes hitting the ground was torture enough. Fixing his gaze to the far wall, he prayed that Potter would never, ever have cause to die naked again, because this was simply not to be borne. Severus did not spy on students. He broke apart courting couples on the Astronomy Tower and in other secluded spots, certainly, but that was his duty, and the only thrill he got out of it derived squarely from their embarrassment at being discovered in flagrante. If it were up to Severus, none of them would discover such dubious pleasures at all.

Myrtle still showed up and still flirted, but to Severus’s relief she appeared much subdued. Nevertheless, his skin fairly crawled by the time Potter finally departed; the restless urge to move when he couldn’t didn’t ease his discomfort, either. He had just taken his first step in what felt like hours, when the ghost who’d zoomed up the tap as Potter left re-emerged from it and hovered by the side of the pool.

“He didn’t even seem happy to see me,” she murmured sadly.

Oh for fuck’s sake. Frozen in stillness, Severus debated whether it would be easier to just blast her with a banishment charm now, but in the end decided against it. He was stuck with this timeline, and no matter how unlikely she was to report it, he did not fancy having to explain why he was lurking in the shadows of bathrooms frequented by students.

A good hour must have passed before the coast was clear. By then, having been forced to listen to the ghost’s thoroughly aggravating wails of self-pity, Severus was itching with irritation. Matters did not remotely improve when he let himself into his quarters, only for Snape to barge out of the bedroom, wand in hand.

“Oh not, not you,” he said. “And here I thought tonight couldn’t get much more atrocious than it’s already been.”

Severus’s attempt to glare fell short beneath confusion. “What do you mean, atrocious?” As far as he remembered it, he’d slept soundly—well, as soundly as he ever did.

Snape looked equally perplexed. “You mean you don’t know? Potter broke into our office, stealing again, and then I had to contend with Moody harassing me on top of—”

“He did what?” Severus said, anger rising sharply inside him. “When?”

“Just now! Managed to drop that blasted egg of his—the screeching woke me. But of course, by the time I got out there, he’d already scarpered beneath his cloak. If it hadn’t been for the map, which he also dropped, I might never have known. Naturally,”—his mouth twisted in a scowl—“Moody covered for him and, as I had no concrete proof and he seemed remarkably keen to divulge my past allegiances to Filch, I was forced to retreat.”

Severus did not respond. He was too caught up in a boiling wave of hot rage to speak. Once again, he’d saved Potter’s life and this...

This was how Potter chose to repay him.

---

Bookshelf collapsed on his head, Severus wrote, and pondered the miracle of Potter actively studying.

In spite of his anger, he could not fail to pick up on how the tournament seemed to be wearing on the boy. The signs were simply too plentiful to dismiss, painted all over him in lurid colours, from the ever-darkening circles beneath Potter’s eyes to the nervous drum of his fingers against a table; from the yawns and perpetual distraction to the increasing number of meals during which Severus observed him eating not so much as a scrap.

In his quieter moments, Severus thought of Dumbledore’s words earlier in the year, and wondered if maybe there was not some truth to them, if Potter had been just as forced into this farce as Severus himself. In his quieter moments, when he wasn’t watching the wider signs of this tale coalesce into darkness through hints in the newspapers, when he wasn’t busy warning Dumbledore and making plans for the worst, he sometimes chastised himself for being so harsh.

Whilst Potter died during the second task, as Severus expected, solving it was no hardship; all he needed was a last push propelling him towards the surface of the water. That night, Severus lay awake, thinking of Potter’s refusal to leave the other hostages, and wondered if maybe, just maybe it was not glory that drove him, but something far more dangerous, something a little like compassion. He fell asleep only to dream uneasy dreams full of green eyes, and, for the first time, they featured not a strand of red hair.

Whatever his private contemplations of Potter, they seemed to vanish the moment he came face to face with the boy, as though the lack of physical distance shattered the fragile spell that held them aloft, allowed them to exist at all. The moment Potter glared at him, as he did routinely, as though it came as naturally as breathing, something inside Severus snapped and he saw the truth of it all. Then he cursed himself a billion times a fool for ever daring to think otherwise, for not seeing the obvious: the dark circles and yawns only attested to Potter’s exploits—clearly he considered himself above bedtime rules. The distraction and finger-tapping rested in boredom and arrogance, not nerves or agitation—evidently, potions was not entertaining enough to keep him enthralled. And as for the lack of dinners... well, it must be that Potter was vain enough to dread putting on a few pounds; Lockhart, too, had skipped meals from time to time, overly concerned with appearing thin and svelte for the inevitable newspaper spreads.

Early March proved that once and for all, with Witch Weekly spreads on Potter’s lap during class. Severus took great delight in reading the article as it ought to be read, emphasising each mock-worthy note, each overwrought passage. Potter needed to learn that fame equalled nothing but hypocrisy, and that such articles weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. That he reacted to being separated from his two biggest fans by sulkily bashing valuable ingredients about only spurred Severus on.

“All this press attention seems to have inflated your already overlarge head, Potter,” he said.

Potter refused to look at him. Ashamed, most likely, which meant that the lesson was beginning to sink in.

“You might be labouring under the delusion that the entire wizarding world is impressed with you,” Severus said quietly. The boy continued pounding his scarab beetles, though they had long since passed the threshold of being useful for the potion. “But I don’t care how many times your picture appears in the papers. To me, Potter, you are nothing but a nasty little boy who considers rules to be beneath him.”

Potter started chopping his ginger roots—extremely messily—hands shaking. Perhaps not shame after all then, but anger; frankly, Severus no longer cared. He thought of everything that Potter had put him through, and some part of him thrilled darkly at the chance to repay him.

Within reason, of course.

“So I give you fair warning, Potter,” he said. “Pint-sized celebrity or not—if I catch you breaking into my office one more time—”

“I haven’t been anywhere near your office!” Potter burst out, glaring hotly.

“Don’t lie to me,” Severus said. “Boomslang skin. Gillyweed. Both come from my private stores, and I know who stole them.”

No, not shame at all. Judging by the way Potter was staring at him, he’d probably never heard of the word. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lied, not even blinking.

And to think that Severus had almost begun to feel something like concern for him—outrageous. “You were out of bed on the night my office was broken into!” he said. “I know it, Potter! Now, Mad-Eye Moody might have joined your little fan club, but I will not tolerate your behaviour! One more night-time stroll into my office, Potter, and you will pay!”

“Right,” Potter said, turning back to his ginger roots as though he had the power, the authority to dismiss Severus just because he fancied it so. “I’ll bear that in mind if I ever get the urge to go in there.”

For a moment, Severus saw red. For a moment, he was one instant away from reaching out and strangling the little pest with bare hands, but no, that would be unwise. He’d only have to go back and have an aggravating chat with himself. He plunged his hand into his robes, instead, rooting around for the vial he had begun to carry as a precaution, lately.

“Do you know what this is, Potter?” he said, holding it up.

“No,” said Potter.

“It is Veritaserum—a truth potion so powerful that three drops would have you spilling your innermost secrets for this entire class to hear.” And oh, wouldn’t that be lovely? Potter, stripped, not of clothes but of pretence, exposed. “Now, the use of this potion is controlled by very strict guidelines. But unless you watch your step, you might just find that my hand slips,”—he shook the vial slightly—“right over your evening pumpkin juice. And then, Potter... then we’ll find out whether you’ve been in my office or not.”

Potter said nothing, but his silence spoke volumes. Severus watched as he pretended to return his focus to brewing, watched fear creep into his features, outright panic, almost, and for long moments, he soared, on top of the world. If nothing else, he could still get under Potter’s skin, and although it hardly made up for the nightmares and everything else, the knowledge took some of the sting from the experiences Severus had fought with all year. A few further well-placed remarks during this class, and he might almost reach some sort of balance. He sat, planning them out in great detail, weighing each line and its delivery for the best impact...

And then Karkaroff came and forcibly burst his bubble. Because in Severus’s life, not even the petty pleasures had the decency to last.

---

Swallowed a bug which turned out to be Rita Skeeter in—unlicensed—animagus form, who transformed out of panic and promptly ripped him apart from the inside, Severus wrote.

He found no joy in the words, when surely he ought to have done. As deaths went, it was completely absurd and, moreover, provided him with outstanding blackmail material should he ever require it in future. True, the sight had been unpleasant, but he considered himself inured to such inconsequentialities. (That he dreamt of them at times was beside the point.)

It had been the only death in almost three months. Each day, the mark on his arm sharpened further. Potter keeled over in Divination, clutching his scar, and Severus’s dreams increasingly filled with red eyes. Bertha Jorkins remained missing, and Crouch...

Who knew what had happened to Crouch? If only Severus had not been so quick to dismiss Potter when he had tried to gain entrance to the Headmaster’s office. If only, if only...

The date for the third task was rapidly approaching.

---

June 24th arrived. At breakfast, Severus found himself lacking in appetite. Somehow, he equally found no taste for the article defaming Potter in The Prophet; as he set the paper down he felt only regret at not handing Skeeter in when first given the chance.

Strange, the effect worry could have on one’s perceptions.

All day he invigilated exams, but his mind refused to stay on task. By the time evening rolled around and the crowds began to swell, every muscle in his body seemed to vibrate with tension.

“What do you mean, I won’t be patrolling the maze? You can’t simply relegate me to the stands!”

“I am afraid Alastor protested your unsuitability to Ludo Bagman himself,” Dumbledore said, sounding regretful. “It is out of my hands.” He grasped Severus lightly by the elbow. “Come, sit with me.”

“Don’t,” Severus said, without knowing fully where the words came from, “don’t let him walk in there. Please. I have a terrible feeling about all this.”

Dumbledore studied him closely, frowning. “Do you have any further knowledge that I remain unaware of?”

“No,” Severus said. “It’s merely—” He broke off, shaking his head.

It was merely a feeling. Feelings, he reminded himself, were not fact.

“You know that I share your concern. But I cannot call the tournament off without good reason. Come,” Dumbledore repeated, “sit with me.”

As spectator sports went, watching an impenetrable maze ought to have been resoundingly dull, but his trepidation kept Severus spellbound. Eons trickled by, slow as molasses; when red sparks shot over the top of the hedges, Severus jerked.

Dumbledore rested a hand on his arm. “It will be attended to.”

Severus nodded but felt no relief until at long last Minerva appeared in the distance, floating a body before her.

“It’s Krum!” shouted a witch with omnioculars three rows down and Severus collapsed back in his seat.

Mere seconds later, he felt it. He grabbed Dumbledore’s arm, his fingers not resting lightly as the Headmaster’s had done but digging in, clutching convulsively.

“Did you not—” Dumbledore broke off the moment he caught sight of Severus’s face.

Or so Severus presumed. He could not see much through the dizziness which shook him.

“No,” he said, just one little word, but it was enough. Prying Severus’s fingers loose, Dumbledore rose. To an outside observer he would have looked perfectly calm, Severus thought, as he fought the urge to claw at his own arm.

“Stay here,” Dumbledore said, and smoothly exited the box.

For long moments Severus sat, frozen. All around him, people were talking in hushed, excited whispers and murmurs, but their voices seemed to echo from far, far away through the dull roar of blood in his own ears. No, he thought, no.

He had forgotten how much it hurt, as though his skin was being flayed to the bone. He had forgotten the pull, how much it felt like a yearning, so darkly bittersweet.

No. No. This could not be happening. What was he doing, just sitting here? It didn’t feel real. Perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe he’d finally cracked—with the strain he’d been under lately, it did not seem so absurd.

He rose to his feet and slid past faces that blurred, out of the box, down the stairs. In the shadows beneath the stands he stood in a sliver of light, lifting his sleeve with trembling hands.

It leered back at him, black, black, black, burning. He dropped his sleeve and shook, and his body chose that moment to repay him for not eating all day; in the cover of darkness he heaved and he heaved and he—

He needed to get a grip of himself. It was real, but he could not let it touch him. He could do this, he had to. He’d done it before.

He emerged from the stands at the very moment that Potter slammed to the ground, cup in hand, bleeding, clinging to Cedric who stared at the sky with dead eyes. In the ensuing pandemonium people leapt over the ground-level boxes and Severus got lost in the crowd; by the time he had fought his way out, Potter was nowhere to be seen.

“Who took Potter?” he yelled.

---

He raced towards the castle beside Minerva and the Headmaster. He watched Dumbledore blast Moody across the room. He fetched the Veritaserum; he listened to the tale of Barty Crouch Junior.

In the first quiet moment, whilst Potter was being wrapped up and tended to, he stood in the corner of the Infirmary and gazed helplessly at the golden hourglass in his hand.

Dumbledore came to a halt at his side. For long seconds he watched Severus in silence.

“It was always going to happen,” he said. “We both knew we were living on borrowed time.”

Severus swallowed.

“At least this way, we know that the boy survived,” Dumbledore said.

“Yes,” Severus said, very quietly. He closed his hand.

“You know what is needed,” Dumbledore said. “It will be soon. Prepare yourself.”

Severus nodded. He reached over and grasped Dumbledore’s hand; the time-turner clinked softly as he dropped it into his palm.

“You had best keep hold of this,” he said. “Chances are, I shan’t be successful. We cannot risk it falling into his hands.”

Dumbledore grasped his chin, tilting Severus’s head towards him. His eyes were blue, so very, very blue.

“I shall keep it safe,” he said, “until you return.”

---

“Severus,” Dumbledore said, “you know what I must ask you to do. If you are ready... if you are prepared...”

“I am,” Severus said.

“Then, good luck,” Dumbledore said.

Severus turned away from him and from Potter, and headed for his death.

---

He walked through Hogwarts’ darkened grounds. The night air was chill; he did not feel it.

He walked up the stairs. His fingers trembled; he did not feel that, either.

“Sugar pops,” he said. He did not knock on the door. Dumbledore, sitting behind his desk, looked up as he entered, relief blooming on every line of his face.

Severus felt that least of all.

“My boy, you are a sight for sore eyes,” Dumbledore said, rising. “Sit, sit.”

Severus sat. “He was not pleased,” he said.

“But he believed you.”

“I am here, am I not?”

Dumbledore studied him with a deep frown. Severus had not glanced at a mirror, but he knew what he would see.

“Perhaps you ought to go see Poppy, before we—”

“I am fine.”

“At least,” Dumbledore said, already halfway around the desk, “let me heal you.”

A high note issued down from the ceiling; with a flutter of wings the Phoenix descended, landing on Severus’s shoulder. Softly, it began to sing. Severus closed his eyes and did not cry.

“I ask much of you,” Dumbledore murmured, running his wand along the gash on the side of his face.

“You ask what is necessary,” Severus said, and tried to believe it.

---

That night, at the Leaving Feast, he sat at the high table and observed the subdued crowds. He stared at the empty space at the Hufflepuff table and thought of Cedric Diggory, of his diligently crafted essays and easy smile, of his well-thought-out, insightful questions in class.

“Thank you, sir,” his last words to Severus had been. “I’ve learnt a lot from you.”

Severus had given a curt nod in reply.

When he glanced over at the Gryffindor table, Potter was watching him. There was no hatred in his green eyes but a flatness, as though they had forgotten how to burn. His face was pale, his features unmoving, reflecting the same unnatural coldness that Severus felt clinging to every inch of himself like a veil. He held Potter’s gaze, acutely aware of the whispers, the hurried, suspicious glances blanketing him from the sidelines, and thought that whatever Potter had done, he did not—would never—deserve this.

He looked away.

---

The Fifth Year

Yes, my Lord. Of course not, my Lord. I am yours, my Lord.

Summer blasted past in a heatwave that failed to warm him. The days were too short and the nights endless. He bowed and he knelt; he drank elf-made wine with the Malfoys. He flattered and lied; he read between all the lines and then later reported.

There was some joy to be found: in the dark, dank house that reeked with memories of Regulus he needled Black about his enforced inactivity, his complete, utter uselessness, and he felt a little lighter for it.

He wondered about Potter at times, shut away in the suburbs of Surrey in much the same manner, but he could not muster the same kind of enthusiasm. He remembered Potter’s face at the Leaving Feast and thought of how new he was to this starkness, of how he himself might have felt, locked up without knowledge, without even a word.

Black deserved it, unquestionably. Potter... Potter...

He was less sure.

But Dumbledore had his reasons. Dumbledore always, always had reasons. And as for Severus himself...

He deserved all of it, none of it. (Being used, being useful.)

He just couldn’t tell in which order.

Summer sped past.

---

Potter was not dead. He was a shell, an empty husk. Barren.

“Did he not fight?” Severus said and felt something tremble to life inside him.

“He did,” Dumbledore said. “Arabella reports seeing the Patronus. But it appears that there were too many of them.”

“There were hundreds of them when Black—at the end of his third year.”

“Yes,” Dumbledore said, sounding troubled. He straightened a stack of papers on his desk and sighed. “It appears I will have to—”

“I can do it,” Severus said. “It is no longer an issue.”

“Indeed?”

Severus gazed at him in silence.

“You never cease to amaze me,” Dumbledore said, lips edging into a smile. “Very well. You must not let them see you.”

Severus nodded and rose to his feet.

“Severus,” Dumbledore’s voice caught him, when he was already at the door. “Are you... quite certain that you are up to the task?”

Severus turned. “Why would I not be?”

Dumbledore was no longer smiling. “You passed up at least three perfectly sound openings for sarcastic rejoinders just now,” he said. “As you have done, all summer.”

“I will see to it,” Severus said and walked out the door.

---

As always, Dumbledore’s insights turned out to be right: Severus very nearly failed. Hidden in the bushes and Disillusioned to boot, he watched them swoop onto Little Whinging, lifting his wand as the coldness descended.

He remembered Lily throwing her arms around him under a bright summer sun, but no matter how hard he tried to feel it, a strange blankness remained. His Patronus sputtered in vague whisps of white, and the first two Dementors slid past, unimpeded.

The smell of coal tar hung heavy in the air. He thought of Potter’s face at the Leaving Feast, but no, no, that was not helpful...

He looked back, desperately casting about for anything, and his mind flashed to Potter’s face at the Feast three years prior: younger and innocent, still, and filled with such open, unblemished joy—

The doe burst from his wand like lightning, blasting the rest of the Dementors away. Frantic, Severus half started for the alleyway, then held himself back and hovered, uncertain. Mercifully, the two that had escaped emerged long moments later, chased by a brilliant white stag.

He only caught a glimpse of the boy as Mrs Figg ushered him past. Only a glimpse, but enough to see that whilst Potter had shot up in height, he had not put on the weight to match, that for someone who had spent an uneventful few weeks, he looked haggard and drawn.

Severus watched from the shadows and thought that Potter’s triumphal close to his first year had hardly made Severus happy when it occurred.

Funny, how some memories changed colours, how their flavour could alter, given time.

---

It might have been funny, had it not been so profoundly disturbing. Given the choice between reflecting on his newfound desire to see Potter happy and pretending it had never happened, Severus chose to avoid the former like the plague. He still flitted in and out of Number 12 after Potter had been moved there, but he left as swiftly as was feasible to prevent their paths from crossing, to ensure he caught not so much as a glimpse of the boy.

His strategy might have worked, had it not been for Potter’s disastrous encounter with a cursed goblet during an unobserved moment of cleaning the drawing room. Both the timing and setting were nothing short of atrocious. Severus arrived the previous night, but Black chose to hang about the room like a bad odour, drinking and sulking until sunrise, at which point the remaining occupants of the house forced Severus to hide in the pantry.

Not for the first time, he wished he had retained Potter’s cloak for his own purposes when he first got his hands on it.

In the end, he cut it extremely fine, ducking his head around the open door just in time to shoot a wordless spell over Potter’s shoulder. The goblet shattered into a million shards and Potter blinked, startled, before reaching for the dustpan and brush. Severus sighed, dropping his wand, and although he knew he should leave straight away his eyes stuck to the boy as though he were flypaper.

In the next instant, a hand grabbed his shoulder, and he found himself pulled away from the door and slammed against a corridor wall.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?”

Severus pocketed his wand. “None of your business, Black,” he said, shaking the man off.

Black’s eyes narrowed to slits. “When you’re spying on my godson, you can bet it’s my business,” he hissed, keeping his voice low. “Why are you still here, anyway? I swear I just saw you leave.”

True enough—the last Order meeting had been scheduled first thing in the morning to allow Lupin to attend. “I found I’d forgotten something rather important.”

“Oh yeah?” Black said. “Passed up your chance to leer at a fifteen-year-old boy, that it?”

Severus couldn’t help it. Absurd as the implication was, Black just looked so deliciously angry. Languidly crossing his arms in front of his chest, he allowed his lips to curve in a slow, deliberate smile.

The reaction was immediate. Black’s fists clenched at his sides, beginning to tremble; a vein at his temple throbbed sharply in time. “I’m warning you Snape,” he said. “I’ve heard all about how you treat him, but I’m not going to let you get away with it any longer.”

“Are you not?” Severus said, enjoying himself immensely.

“No. I swear, you so much as lay one slimy finger on that boy—”

“There’s just one minor problem with your precious little threats,” Severus cut in, very softly. “You see, you appear to have forgotten that, very soon, both Potter and I shall be at Hogwarts, whilst you remain here, stuck on a leash. So do me a favour, Black—don’t bark when you know you can’t bite. Go back to your basket and practise fellating yourself,”—he patted Black on the head as he began to move past him—“There’s a good little boy.”

And he swept from the house before Black could work up the nerve to rip out his eyeballs.

---

For once, Severus was glad of the beginning of the school year and the classes it brought to fill up his days. Even the Dark Lord had to acknowledge that a teacher who missed too many lessons would appear inadvisably suspicious.

He did not usually set the Draught of Peace as the first assignment of the term, and yet the dark smudges still painted beneath Potter’s eyes during the Feast seemed to compel him, ridiculous though it was. As long shots went, this one might as well have been aiming for the moon, but if there was even a remote chance that Granger, perhaps, might grasp its usefulness...

Pathetic. What the fuck was wrong with him, these days?

He could not muster a suitable degree of loathing as Potter sidled into his class, but, conscious of Draco’s watchful eyes, Severus needled him regardless, refusing to feel guilty for it. Besides, it was a good chance to assess the true state of the boy. Potter’s initial glare at him was encouraging, but when Severus pointed out the flaws in his brewing later, Potter looked not angry but crestfallen, answering in soft, muted syllables without once giving him cheek. And that was...

It was so unlike him that Severus found it immensely disquieting.

But what on earth he was meant to do with the information was beyond him. He could hardly invite Potter round to his office for a heart to heart; the very concept was laughable. He should not even care in the first place.

What was wrong with him, for fuck’s sake?

---

“...please excuse me,” Dumbledore said. “I hate to leave you all after being the bearer of such terrible news, but I’m afraid I cannot keep the Ministry officials waiting any longer. Professor Umbridge is keeping them company in my office, but they are quite understandably eager to discuss this matter most promptly.”

For long seconds after the door had closed behind him, the silence in the staff room was so thick that one could have cut it with a knife.

Then, very quietly, “I cannot believe this,” Flitwick said.

“Did he...” said Charity Burbage, “did he seem depressed, to any of you?”

Shaking her head, Pomona Sprout drew out a handkerchief and began sobbing into it quietly.

“He missed the Quidditch tryouts,” said Hooch, “but that was because he was in detention with Umbridge. I got the strong impression that he wanted to go.”

“He seemed... very angry,” said Minerva, white as a ghost. “But I thought that was only to be expected, under the circumstances. I never thought he would go and...”

She broke off.

“You couldn’t have known,” said Sinistra. “None of us did.”

“What I don’t understand,” Hooch said, “is why he didn’t come to any of us, if he was feeling that bad. Surely we’ve made it clear that whenever a student is in need, help is at hand?”

Low murmurs of acknowledgement swept through the room.

“You’re all morons!” Severus exploded. “Every last one of you!”

All his colleagues turned to stare at him, excepting Sprout, who only sobbed harder. Flitwick moved to her side and began stroking her arm, opening his mouth. “Really now, Severus—”

But Severus did not let him finish. “Of course Potter has been depressed,” he snarled. “He’s only had it painted across his forehead in scarlet! Ignoring, for one minute, the patently obvious cause, is it truly surprising, after everything he’s been through in previous years? He has battled the Dark Lord not once, but thrice, in as many different incarnations, as well as a Basilisk; he has faced the traitor who caused his parents to die and watched him escape; he has seen his friends Petrified and possessed, oh, and let’s not forget the small matter of being repeatedly attacked by Dementors, shall we? And throughout this, you have all treated him as though he is capable of walking on water, so of course he wouldn’t bloody well go and ask someone for help!”

Absolute silence. Then, “If you truly had such brilliant insight into the boy’s state of mind all along,” said Hooch, with asperity, “then how is it you utterly failed to intercede before he could throw himself off the Astronomy Tower?”

Severus reeled backwards, as if struck by a physical blow. For a mere instant, he wanted to scratch her eyes out, but no, no, it was fair. It was only fair.

“Now, Rolanda,” said Minerva, her voice less than steady, “I hardly think that casting blame is going to—Severus, please,”—she placed a hand on his shoulder—“sit down, would you. You seem very upset.”

“I am not,” Severus said, “upset!”

“Of course you are,” Minerva said. She ran her hand down the side of his face, her mouth a curiously curved line, her eyes brimming wetly with tears. “Never in a million years would I have dreamt that you’d actually come to care for—”

“I do not,” Severus snarled, pushing her away, “care about Potter! And I am not,”—as his strides swallowed the staff room floor—“bloody upset!”

He slammed the door in his wake.

He was upset. He was extremely upset. He was so very upset that he utterly failed to plan, ducking into the first secluded spot he could find and setting the time-turner without even thinking.

Then it was night.

Your fault, your fault, your fault, his footsteps echoed, all the way up the stairs. Yes, Hooch had him dead to rights; he was the worst sort of person, the cruelest sort of person; he was nothing but an atrocity, an abomination.

By the time he reached the top, Potter already stood on the parapet. Severus ground to a halt, staring. His boots must have made a sound, or perhaps he did, because Potter turned slightly, and then they were staring at one another.

“For heaven’s sake,” Severus rasped, “don’t do it!”

For a moment, surprise held Potter’s features captive, but it vanished a split second later and Potter laughed, a harsh sound completely lacking in humour. “Like you care,” he said. “You of all bloody people. Be thrilled to finally get rid of me.”

“I can assure you, Potter,” Severus said, taking a few cautious steps closer, “your death is the very last thing I desire.”

“Oh, really?” Potter said. “Could’ve fooled me. What was it you said in class, the other day? ‘That happy moment of farewell’—well, you won’t even have to wait till next year, lucky—don’t! Don’t you dare come any closer! I swear, I will do it, I’ll jump.”

Severus, who had been inching his way ever closer, froze again. Frantically, he mentally flipped through any given number of spells that could pull Potter towards him and onto safe ground, but no, that was far, far too risky. There were numerous reports of situations like this, of spontaneous blasts of magic preventing such rescue attempts, if only the intent was sufficiently strong. And given that Potter’s magic had allowed him to plunge to the ground fully conscious, his intent was not in question.

Instead he stretched his arms out before him, raising them, as though in supplication. “Very well,” he said. “I’m not moving, see? I’ll be staying right here, and we can just... have a little chat.”

“A chat,” Potter said, and laughed again. “Right. Lovely night, isn’t it?”

Severus took a deep breath. “Nothing,” he said, “no problem is so bad that it cannot be solved.”

“Fuck off.”

Another tactic, then. “Whatever you’re feeling right now, you’re not alone. I understand—”

“You understand nothing! You don’t know what it’s like, being me! Nobody does, and how could they, they don’t have this,”—he pointed towards his forehead, and Severus feared, for a desperate heartbeat, that the movement might tip him over the edge—“ruining their lives! You think I get off on it, being famous, well, you bloody well try being me!”

“And you think,” Severus said, more heatedly than he’d intended, “that I cannot possibly grasp where you’re at, when I do. Newsflash, Potter: you’re not the only one who’s ever suffered. You think I don’t understand, but where you’re standing right now? Trust me, I’ve stood there before. You feel empty and cold, all of the time. You tell yourself that you’re happy so long as you keep busy, but you know that’s a lie; really it’s that you cannot even feel sadness anymore. You can’t cry, except maybe at night, when you have the same dream over and over again, and it wakes you up, drenched in sweat. You feel angry all the time, except sometimes when you should do, and then you simply can’t seem to care. Believe me, Potter: I know.”

Gratifyingly, Potter looked rather taken aback, sufficiently so to allow Severus to subtly creep a little closer. Unfortunately, the spell his words had woven broke shortly thereafter.

“And you’re going to tell me that it gets better, right?” Potter said.

Severus’s mouth twisted. “It does—”

“How stupid do you think I am? I mean, for fuck’s sake, just look at you. In four years, I’ve not heard you laugh a single bloody time. Oh sure, I’ve seen you smile, but frankly, if I’m going to end up at a point where I can only feel happy at the expense of others—thanks but no thanks. I’d much rather die.”

Well. That... probably should have been more predictable.

“But you’re not me,” Severus said. “For one, you have friends. Think of them for a moment—what would Weasley and Granger—”

“They wouldn’t care.”

“Are we speaking of the same individuals, here?” Severus said sharply. “The Weasley and Granger who’ve consistently raced to the hospital wing the moment you so much as received a scratch for four years? The ones who’ve leapt blindly into absurd and heart-stopping danger, simply because you were headed for it? Repeatedly? I can assure you, Potter, they’d care. You jump off this tower, they will be devastated. They’ll never forget it. Never.”

For several long, drawn-out moments, Potter actually seemed to waver. His eyes flitted from Severus to the solid ground that he stood on, then back out again, into the air, then back to Severus.

“I know what you’re doing,” he said, “and it’s not going to work. You can’t guilt-trip me out of this. Also, you’ve bloody moved! Again!”

Severus did his best to attempt to look guilty, but the fact that he failed mattered little, because with a final glare, Potter turned, staring out into the night. He lifted one foot, just slightly.

Severus stared at him, desperately. True, he had come a lot closer—he was right up against the parapet himself now, but still several feet to the side. He could probably make a leap for it, but that seemed altogether too risky—

He did the only thing he could do. He climbed up on the ledge, beside Potter.

Potter shot him a panicked look. “What—what the fuck are you doing?”

“Is it not obvious?” Severus said, straightening. “If you’re so hell-bent on jumping, there’s only one solution: I’ll have to jump with you.”

“You’re—you’re bloody mental!”

“Says the idiot who climbed up here in the first place,” Severus said. He gazed out at the moonlight-drenched vista, the dark shadows of the Forbidden Forest in the near distance. The night air was crisp, rustling through his robes; had he not been so frightened, he might have found the experience exhilarating.

Teetering on the edge always left one feeling more alive.

He glanced down into the darkened courtyard.

“It’s a long way down,” he said. “At least five, maybe seven seconds before you’ll hit the ground. You’ve fallen from your broom before, have you not, Potter? Seven seconds can feel like a lifetime, when you’re falling.”

A breath. “I’m not scared,” Potter said.

Of course not. “You think it’ll be warm,” Severus said, “when you’re there. You think it’ll be dark. Silent. The truth is: you don’t know what it will be like. None of us do.”

He glanced over just as Potter’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re giving me the religious spiel? Really?”

Severus laughed. “Hardly. I don’t believe in... anything.”

Potter stared at him. In the darkness, his eyes were washed out, more grey than green.

“Potter,” Severus said, “do you really want to die? Or do you maybe just want to stop... being in pain?”

And just like that, the boy’s face began to crumble.

Severus stretched his hand out towards him and focussed on not bloody swaying. “Come down with me,” he said. “Please.”

Potter’s fingers were sweat-damp and chilled, clammy. Severus gripped them as he had never gripped anything in his life before, and slowly, carefully, climbed backwards off the ledge. The moment both of his feet hit solid ground, he pulled Potter towards him, sharply; they tumbled to the floor in a flurry of robes.

And there Severus was, shaking but safe, with a lapful of sobbing Gryffindor. It was as though the impact had shaken loose whatever tattered walls Potter had fashioned around himself to retain his composure and ground them to dust, because he buried his face in Severus’s robes and started crying in great, wrenching sobs which shuddered through him from top to toe.

Severus lifted the arm which wasn’t keeping him propped up, but it froze, hovering awkwardly several inches above Potter’s back. Was touching acceptable, or would it be an unwelcome intrusion? What was he supposed to say, if, indeed, he was supposed to say anything at all? What the bloody fuck was the appropriate protocol here? He was—apparently—quite capable of talking somebody off a ledge, but this was a different matter altogether. Severus didn’t do crying people. He never had done; in fact, he did his utmost to avoid them like the plague. Very few of the Slytherins ever burst into tears in his office, and on the rare occasion that one did, he simply pretended not to notice. He absolutely, categorically did not... hug them.

The only person Severus had ever held in his arms whilst they cried had been his mother, and he’d never known how to comfort her, either.

But when Potter’s tears showed no sign of letting up anytime soon, it became evident that something more was called for. With a hand as stiff as a board, he cautiously patted the boy’s back a couple of times.

“There, there,” he said.

Potter’s next sob turned into a half-choked laugh, then another. “God, you’re crap at this, Snape,” he muttered.

Severus tensed, then consciously forced himself to relax. “I never once claimed to be the next Mother Teresa.”

Perhaps it would be all right to allow his hand to rest on the boy’s back. It didn’t seem to be doing much harm.

“Sorry,” Potter mumbled against his robes. “Didn’t mean—this is fucking weird, you being—” He sniffed. “Thought I was just a pint-sized celebrity to you, and all.”

“You’re no longer pint-sized,” Severus said, without thinking. “At least standard cauldron size.”

Potter choked out another laugh, and promptly dissolved into a fresh fit of sobs. Mercifully, the second bout lasted not nearly as long as the first, although it still felt like eons until the violent convulsions that shook him became smoother beneath Severus’s hand, until only a hitch in Potter’s breathing remained.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, detaching himself from Severus and shuffling away so that they were both still on the ground, but no longer touching. “Got snot all over your robes.”

Severus blinked. Bizarre, how he’d not even noticed.

Potter sniffed again. “Go on then,” he said, eyes firmly fixed to the ground, “have at it. You must be dying to, by now.”

“Pardon?”

“Have a go at me. Tear me a new one. Tell me what a self-obsessed, vapid little freak I really am.”

Severus stared at him, at Potter’s hunched shoulders, at the defeat radiating from every line in his body, and could not find the slightest shred of anger within himself.

“That would be a touch uncharitable, given the circumstances, don’t you think?” he said.

Potter glanced up, startled, and stared at him. “Okay,” he said, eventually, “that’s it, I’m definitely dreaming. This is all some kind of horrible nightmare.” He buried his face in his hands, scrubbing at his eyes. “Wake up,” he muttered. “Come on, wake up, wake up, wake—”

“Stop that,” Severus said. “I can assure you, Potter, this is decidedly real.”

Potter fell still. He dropped his hands, back to gazing at the ground again as though it was the most fascinating thing in existence. “I don’t suppose we could just pretend none of this ever happened,” he said, very quietly.

Severus wished for nothing more fervently. “Absolutely not,” he said, allowing some of the usual steel to creep back into his voice. “I am nowhere close to being done with you.”

Potter’s shoulders slumped. Severus, cursing himself roundly for not planning this better, wondered what the fuck he was meant to do with him now. He was so ill equipped to deal with this matter, surely there had to be someone better—

He rose to his feet. “Up.”

Potter shot a look at him, but failed to move. “Where—where are you taking me?”

“To your Head of House, I should think. She will—”

“Oh God, no. No, no, please, no. You can’t tell her, you can’t...”

So this was how mingled fear and shame looked on the boy. Severus enjoyed the sight far less than he might have anticipated.

He hovered, curiously torn.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Potter said. “Please, please don’t.”

“I am not certain you appreciate the gravity of the situation,” Severus said. “You attempted to take your own life. At the very least, the Headmaster—”

He broke off as Potter buried his face against his knees. “Not Dumbledore,” he said, as though the very name was causing him pain. “He’d tell Sirius and then I’d... oh God, I couldn’t bear it. I’d die.”

Severus sighed. “Notwithstanding the beautiful irony of that statement—oh no, Potter. I didn’t—don’t cry.”

“‘M not crying,” Potter said.

For fuck’s sake, Severus was so the last person to be dealing with this.

He should throw the boy to Minerva and be done with it. He should cease playing at something he was not, and yet, and yet... this was his bloody fault in the first place. Ought he not be the one to fix it, then? Where before a gulf had gaped wide between him and Potter, he now could not seem to find the necessary distance. Could he truly rest easy and entrust a matter this delicate to Minerva, to Albus sodding Dumbledore?

And why was he perennially stuck between a blasted frying pan and a fire? For fuck’s sake, he should know better by now.

“Very well,” he snapped. “If I promise to hold off on involving others, I’m afraid, Potter, that you are regrettably stuck with me. You will come with me now, and you will tell me everything that led up to this debacle. You will listen to what I have to say. If you attempt to be duplicitous at any point of these proceedings, I shall know, and this deal will be off. Is that clear?”

When Potter nodded, Severus did not wait for him to rise of his own accord, grabbing his hand and pulling him up. He dragged him towards the stairs, stopping only briefly to pick Potter’s cloak up on the way; no use in wasting resources.

Thank the heavens for small mercies—at least he knew Snape was sleeping soundly in their quarters, instead of being out on patrol.

---

Once in his office, he bought himself time by brewing tea. Minerva had mentioned the strategy during the early years of his tenure at Hogwarts, and he’d adopted and stuck to it since. Even if students failed to cry, measuring out the loose leaves and bespelling the water to heat allowed him to retreat sufficiently to gain a sense of perspective. Unlike Minerva, he utterly refused to offer milk, however. The smoked, spicy blend he favoured would suffer from it, and he was not about to start carrying a wider variety; his office was not a bloody catering establishment.

Potter did not thank him when Severus set a cup for him on the desk. In fact, he did not move at all from where he had folded himself in a chair, legs pulled close to his chest. As positions went, it not only looked uncomfortable but made Severus itch to tell him to sit straight. He restrained the urge.

“Well?” he prompted, when Potter failed to speak.

“I don’t know where to start.”

“The beginning would seem advisable,” Severus said, and took a sip of his tea.

Potter’s mouth twisted. “I don’t see the point. You just agree with everyone else—I’m the Boy Who Lied, I made it all u—”

“I most certainly did not make a statement to that effect.”

“You said you’d know if I was being duplicitous,” Potter said, eyes flashing momentarily towards Severus in a glare. “Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?”

Severus sighed. “I was referring to the—quite natural—disinclination you were liable to feel at the prospect of sharing your innermost thoughts with me, as opposed to your Head of House. I believe I have made my thoughts on the vapidity of the media extremely clear in recent years. Even had I not, consider, for one moment, my actions after events earlier this year, and tell me, Potter: do I really believe that you were lying about what occurred?”

Potter cast his eyes down. “No.”

“Perhaps the real question, then, is whether you believe what the newspapers say. Do you fear they may be right?”

A pause. “No,” Potter said, “no, I’m quite clear on what happened.”

He was rubbing his thumb over the back of his right hand, staring at it, fixedly. Had it not been for the precision of the movement, Severus might have dismissed it as a nervous tic, but—

“Give me your hand.”

“I—" Potter said, but Severus reached across the desk and caught his wrist before he could drop it in haste. The abruptness of the movement dislodged Potter from his preposterous position, forcing him to his feet even as Severus pinned his hand against the wood.

And there lay the letters, in faint traces of red: I must not tell lies.

“Who did this?”

“I—" Potter said again, and then, “Umbridge. During detention. She made me write lines with this quill—you’re angry.”

“Of course I am angry!” Severus said, ignoring how baffled the boy looked at this fact. “Contrary to Filch’s fevered daydreams of it being otherwise, we do not torture students at this school!”

“Right.” Potter tugged gently; when Severus let go of his hand he sank back into his chair. “It wasn’t that big a deal, really. I mean, I know I’m not lying. And it didn’t even hurt all that much. I’ve had worse.”

Crucio, Severus thought, quite unnecessarily.

Potter stared at his hand. “I keep thinking she made me write the wrong thing,” he said, very softly. “It should say ‘I must not get people killed,’ really.”

Ah, and there they were, right at the crux of the matter.

“Potter,” Severus said, “you did not kill Cedric Diggory. The Dark Lord did.”

Silence.

“Potter. Look at me.” He leaned forward, his eyes boring into green. “You are not to blame for his death.”

Potter’s gaze skittered away. “I convinced him to take the cup. He didn’t want to, he kept saying about how I should be the one to win, but I bloody well had to go and convince him to share, didn’t I? If I hadn’t—”

“You did not know the cup was a Portkey.”

“Well, no, obviously not, but—”

“And if you had, would you have done the same? No,” he agreed, to the shake of Potter’s head. “So how can you possibly carry any of the blame?”

“It’s not just him, though. My parents—”

“Died when you were an infant,” Severus said through the shard of ice suddenly lodged in his throat. “You had even less agency then; even if you’d known what was about to occur, you could not have prevented it. You possessed not even the words to warn them.”

“If I’d never been born,” Potter said, “they’d still be alive.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Regardless, you were born; they made a choice to bring you into this world and they made a choice to protect you. You did not ask for either of those, but you are here now. Obliterating yourself from the face of the earth, understandably tempting although it might seem, will not reset the clock; it cannot bring back the dead. Not them, and not Diggory, either.”

More silence.

“That being said, the way you are feeling is not uncommon, as I understand it. Survivor’s guilt, I believe they call it. You have seen and experienced things which nobody as young as you should ever have to see.”

Curious, how saying those words hurt, as though they rattled something deep inside him. Severus could not quite figure out why.

“I keep dreaming of it,” Potter said, under his breath. “All bloody summer, his... his eyes. Dudley kept taking the piss out of me, because apparently I was screaming, but—”

“Your cousin?” Severus said, startled. “Why would he—”

“Never mind. It’s nothing.”

But he said it a little too quickly for Severus’s taste.

“Potter...” he said, in a warning tone.

“Well, it’s just,” Potter said, glancing back up at him, “that he’s never liked me very much, all right? None of the Dursleys ever did. If it was up to them, I’d probably still be playing house-elf to them most days and not even know I was a wizard.”

Severus stared.

“What the hell did you think?” Potter said, a little heatedly. “There’s a bloody reason I’m pint-sized.”

Somewhere beneath him, Severus could feel the foundations of myriad preconceptions crumble away into nothingness. You’re too blinded by hatred, Dumbledore’s voice echoed inside him, and why did he always have to be right? How could he have failed to miss this? He had known Petunia; of course the bloody bitch wouldn’t honour Lily’s memory as any decent human being might.

“Cauldron-sized,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Or at least nothing that wasn’t utterly damning.

Potter laughed, only to choke on the sound. “Thing is, I’m used to him ridiculing me, so it normally just goes in one ear and out the other. But this time it was...” He broke off.

Severus waited a moment. “Of course it was different,” he said, when Potter failed to elaborate. “The magnitude of the situation alone would make it so.”

Potter began to shake his head, but turned it into a nod quickly, as though he’d thought better of it. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s it.”

“You sound unconvinced.”

“No! No, I am. Convinced, I mean. It’s just as you said. The magnitude of the situation made it harder to listen to, that’s all.”

Severus frowned and clamped down hard on a surge of impatience. “Potter,” he said. “How am I supposed to help you if you withhold crucial information from me?”

Potter played with the hem of his sleeve. “It’s nothing,” he mumbled. “It’s pathetic. I shouldn’t even be—”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that, hmm?”

“Oh yeah, that’s just what I need, for you to—sorry, that’s not fair. You’ve been surprisingly decent so far. It’s really fucking bizarre.”

“I shall take that as a compliment,” Severus said. He paused, tapping his fingers against the grain of the desk. “Perhaps it would help if you began by telling me what precisely it was that your cousin said.”

“He was going on about how I scream at night, how I talk in my sleep, you know, saying... well, I’m sure you can imagine, and...”

“Yes?”

Potter paused for a long moment, his breathing shallow. When he next spoke, the words came out in a rush. “And he said, ‘Who’s Cedric, your boyfriend?’” He swallowed. “And the thing is, I mean, obviously he wasn’t, but when he—I mean, I hadn’t even thought, it’s just that I—I was just so bloody confused all of last year. I kept thinking that I liked Cho, because everyone else was banging on about girls and she’s pretty and plays Quidditch and... Except I always just felt bloody awkward around her, and not in a good way at all, and Ron went all bonkers over Fleur but I never even, she was just— But I kept thinking about Cedric, when I wasn’t busy trying not to get killed in the tournament, that is, and in hindsight I think I only ‘liked’ Cho because I felt like I was supposed to like her, when I really liked Cedric instead, and I think I might be... gay.”

Severus blinked, mind still spinning from the rapidity of Potter’s declaration.

“Go on then,” Potter said. “Laugh. Tell me what a disgusting aberration I truly am.”

“That would be extremely hypocritical of me,” Severus said, without thinking.

He wanted to unsay the words the moment they tripped past his lips; when Potter glanced up at him, wide-eyed, Severus straightened with a glare, wrapping the remaining shreds of his dignity around himself like a cloak. “I swear to Merlin, Potter, if I discover that you have shared any of the information I have revealed to you tonight—in confidence—with your little friends...”

“Yeah,” Potter said. “Because that’s bloody likely. They wouldn’t believe a word I said.”

Severus cleared his throat and glanced off to the side.

“And how would I work it into a conversation with them, anyway? ‘Oh, we were just chatting about why I decided it’d be a brilliant idea to top myself, and it happened to come up, amongst other things’.” He paused, and his next words came much more quietly. “Kill the spare, he said.”

Severus looked back just in time to see Potter brush a hand over his eyes.

“Yes,” he said. “He would do.”

“Like... like Cedric was just some piece of rubbish to be chucked aside. Like he didn’t matter. And now he’s dead, and I can’t stop worrying about how I can’t even be bloody normal when it comes to... what my friends will think, when they find out. And it seems so stupid and insignificant, because he’s dead, but I keep doing it anyway, and what sort of horrible person does that make me?”

“It makes you a teenager.”

Potter’s breath hitched. “But it feels like I’m treating him just as horribly as Voldemort,”—Severus flinched—“did. Like his death doesn’t matter. Because if it did, then I wouldn’t be obsessing about... you know.”

“Potter,” Severus said. “Watching another human being die is challenging enough. Questioning your sexuality can be unsettling in its own right, if on a very different level. Combine the two, and—well, frankly, it’s no wonder you’re such a mess.”

“Thanks,” muttered Potter.

“Oh, don’t—you know precisely what I intended to convey. My point is that you watched Diggory die. If you had... feelings for him which you didn’t fully grasp at the time, of course you’d obsess about them. As for the rest—life doesn’t stop simply because atrocities happen, regrettable though that may be.”

Potter swallowed heavily. “I miss him,” he said.

“Yes,” Severus said.

A long silence fell. Then, “What you said earlier, up on... on the Tower. About having been there yourself. You were serious, weren’t you?”

Severus tapped his index finger against the desk. “Did I sound like I was joking?”

Potter fixed him with an unnerving stare. “Why? I mean, why did you want to—”

“That’s a rather personal question,” Severus said. But for some reason, the green eyes resting on his own compelled him to not leave it at that, even as his stomach filled with lead. “Suffice it to say that, unlike you, I had done certain things which made it a warranted response.”

Potter’s eyes flicked towards Severus’s arm. “You mean whilst you were...”

“Cease prying, Potter,” Severus said, not ungently. “Now.”

Potter fell silent, although the curiosity continued to bleed off him in waves. “I’m still not convinced it wasn’t my fault,” he said after a beat.

“One conversation will hardly eradicate something that complex. Give it time.” He studied the boy for a moment. “How do you feel now?”

“Exhausted. Like I need to... think about this.”

“No irresistible urge to fling yourself off absurd heights, or any other such actions?”

“No,” Potter said, meeting his eyes. “Not right now, at any rate.”

Severus dipped into his mind, just deeply enough to confirm it wasn’t a lie. “Good,” he said. “Should it return, you will come to me. Directly. Yes?”

“I—yeah, okay.”

“As a matter of fact, you will see me again in this office, regardless. Seven pm tomorrow night, and every subsequent night, until I decide that it is no longer necessary. You may bring your homework—I believe I have heard several reports that indicate you have woefully neglected it of late.”

Potter’s mouth twisted.

“Understandable as your preoccupation may have been, given the circumstances,” Severus relented.

“No,” Potter said. “That isn’t it. It’s just—it’ll look a bit weird if I come to your office every bloody night, won’t it? Ron and Hermione are bound to ask questions, and—”

“Call it detention, then,” Severus said, his lips quirking up at the corners in spite of himself. “I caught you out after hours and decided to be particularly spiteful—I am making you polish every last jar in this room individually, and by hand.”

“Right,” Potter said. “This is still fucking weird. I don’t get why you’re doing any of this. Helping me. Being... nice. Or, fine, I have a couple of ideas, but I don’t... Is it because—”

“I am doing this,” Severus said, before Potter could embarrass them both, “because, contrary to popular opinion, I am no monster.”

“No,” Potter said, looking thoroughly perplexed, “I guess you aren’t.”

Perhaps the words should have stung. But as Severus watched Potter get to his feet and walk towards the door, he saw how tired confusion filled up the space of utter despair and could only feel a sharp sense of triumph. When his gaze caught on the silvery fabric piled on his desk, he stared at it for a moment, deliberating.

“You forgot something,” he said, rising to his feet. He picked up the cloak and walked over to Potter, who stared at him as though he had grown an accessory head. “I trust you shan’t use it for further ill-advised exploits.”

“Right,” Potter said a second time, taking it from his hands. For a long, drawn out moment, he simply stared at Severus, as though he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. “I...”

“Yes?”

“Uhm,” Potter said. “Thanks?”

“Go to sleep,” Severus said, and opened the door.

---

If somebody had told him six months ago that he would come to entertain Potter in his office for hours each night without once wanting to strangle him, Severus would have scoffed. If they had told him that a part of him would come to welcome the knock on the door at seven sharp, he would have searched them for signs of a Delusionment Draught; if they had told him that Potter would come to trust him, he would have referred them straight on to St Mungo’s.

Nevertheless, all of these happened over the following weeks. Each night Potter came, and each night he sat in the chair across from Severus’s desk, spreading parchment and books out on his side.

Sometimes, he spoke: of Cedric and nightmares and a graveyard at night, of being pinned to a tombstone and sliced open, of his desperate wish to be normal. Severus listened, and with each word he felt his anger recede one step further, as though poisonous vines unwound slowly from where they had lodged inside his spine.

“Normality is overrated,” he said. “You are what you are.”

Sometimes, Potter cried. And although Severus felt the familiar surge of helplessness whenever he did, he found it increasingly easy—easier—to not retreat into making tea, but to rest a cautious hand on the boy’s shuddering back, to run tentative fingers over his hair. He knew rationally that the tears were for the best, but each time they appeared he ached with it, long after Potter had left.

Mostly, however, they simply sat in silence, Potter bent over his homework whilst Severus slashed red marks onto essays.

On the fourth day, he was acutely aware of the moment that Potter’s attention began to wander, but he did not remark on it, continuing with his work in spite of the creeping sensation of being watched. Potter always spoke up sooner rather than later, and Severus had found that giving him time to collect his thoughts meant he was less likely to snap.

When fifteen long minutes had slid past, however, he eventually looked up. “Yes?”

“I was just wondering,” said Potter, “what it is that you do for the Order.”

Ah. “What do you think?”

“Well,” Potter said. “Everyone else seems to think that you’re spying for us.”

“Do they,” Severus said, returning to his marking. “What an intriguing theory.”

“That’s exactly what a spy would say.”

Severus suppressed a smirk and corrected three atrocious misspellings of possessive pronouns.

“So if you continue to treat me like rubbish in class, like today,” Potter said, “it’s because Malfoy is watching and probably reports every bloody thing to his father, right?”

“If you say so,” Severus said.

---

“I’ve been thinking,” Potter said, the following day, after another long staring session. “About how you’ve been telling me that I shouldn’t blame myself for Cedric’s death.”

“Yes?”

“And the thing is, I think I’m getting there, slowly, but the more I feel like I am, the more I keep thinking that... you’re telling me one thing, but, really, when I run into trouble with it you won’t be able to tell me what it is I need to do.”

Severus blinked. “Pardon?”

Potter hesitated for a moment, as though unsure whether to proceed. “Because you don’t practise what you preach. Except maybe you should.”

Severus straightened and glared. “As I have already informed you, my circumstances differed vastly from your own.”

“Yeah,” Potter said, “I’ve been thinking about that, too.”

“Well, don’t!”

“Too late. Because the thing is, whatever it is that you did, if you felt guilty enough about it to want to top yourself, I reckon that in itself probably means you didn’t deserve to die. Now, Vol—”

“Do not say his name.”

“God, that really agitates you, doesn’t it? It’s just a—”

“Names hold power,” Severus said. “Beyond that which we attach to them, irrespective of whatever claptrap the Headmaster has been feeding you.”

Potter frowned. “Okay,” he said. “Anyway, my point is that he wouldn’t even think of feeling remorse, and probably someone like Lucius Malfoy wouldn’t either. But you do, or you wouldn’t be doing what you are doing for the Order. You told me I’m nothing like him, but you obviously aren’t, either, or you wouldn’t be helping me in the first place. So maybe you should try to forgive yourself, too.”

For several seconds, Severus could not find words through the bitter irony that clenched up his insides. If only the boy knew, if only he knew, he would be the first one to cast the stone—and rightly, too. In a sudden flight of fancy, he wondered what it would be like if he confessed right here and right now, if he told Potter everything, whether the disgust on his face would shift some of the load. But no—he could not, would not obliterate whatever frail optimism he’d managed to plant against all reason in Potter’s mind; he could not risk it.

“You know nothing,” he spat, instead. “You cannot fathom the things which I have done; you haven’t the slightest inkling of the kind of person I truly am. So do us both a favour, Potter: don’t try.” He picked up his quill. “This discussion is over.”

But it wasn’t. Potter continued to watch him in silence for a while. Then, very softly, he said, “You know, the more you keep telling me that, the more I trust you.”

That night, Severus drew out the aged, yellowing photograph of Lily, and stared at it until even the rough, torn-off edge began to blur.

Then he threw it into the fire and watched it burn.

---

Hem hem.”

Severus suppressed a bright flare of anger, and glanced up from the paperwork he’d been collecting, smoothing his features into blankness. “Yes?”

“A most regrettable circumstance has come to my attention,” said Umbridge, pressing her clipboard to her chest.

“Indeed?”

“Yes. You see, Mr Potter’s continued efforts to fill my classroom with spurious lies erupted past the point of what is reasonable yet again, today—”

“He does have a fevered imagination, it is true,” Severus said, as sweetly as possible.

“So you can imagine my displeasure when I attempted to discipline him by giving him detention, only for him to respond that he could not possibly attend it, as he is already in detention with you.”

“Very regrettable, I am sure,” Severus said. “However, I’m afraid that I have to confirm that for once he was not... telling lies.”

Umbridge’s eyes narrowed. “You will understand, then, why I must ask you to release him so he can be punished appropriately by myself.”

“No,” Severus said. “I absolutely cannot do that.”

“The discipline in my classroom—”

“Is crucial, of course,” Severus said. “But so it is in mine. Unfortunate for you though it may be, I got there first. Potter is in detention with me, and thus he shall be for the foreseeable future.”

Umbridge’s lips thinned.

“Rest assured,” Severus said, “that he is not enjoying one second which he spends with me. Ask around, if you don’t believe me—it is hardly a secret that there is no love lost between me and the boy.”

“The lesson I intend to impart—”

“Is one, I suspect, that I have been attempting to impart for years. Potter may have been defying you since the beginning of term, but he has defied me for much, much longer. So long, in fact, that I am determined to crush his wilfulness once and for all, regardless of how many evenings I may have to sacrifice in order to do so. So you see, releasing him, if but for a night, into your... capable hands is quite out of the question. It would render all my previous efforts null and void.”

“Why,” Umbridge said, “I have never...”

“Good day,” Severus said, and swept out of the staffroom.

---

“You must not goad Umbridge,” he said to Potter that night. “It is dangerous folly.”

Potter’s gaze heated instantly. “She’s full of shit. You said so, yourself.”

“Language,” Severus said. “And I believe I would remember using such colourful turns of phrase, had they made their way past my lips in your presence.”

“Oh, you know what I mean.”

Severus studied the boy and his glare. “I do. And it is precisely because of this that I have to warn you. You are already fully cognisant of the fact that she is a nasty piece of work; what you keep forgetting is that she is powerful, also. Please, Potter—tread lightly.”

“She keeps bloody lying! She was saying that Quirrell was an excellent teacher! Don’t you think that people deserve to know the truth?”

“I think,” Severus said, “that some truths are best left submerged, until it is their time to surface.”

To his relief, the boy actually appeared to contemplate his words.

---

“You have been spending rather a lot of time with Harry of late,” Dumbledore said. “Is there anything I ought to be aware of?”

Severus stirred his tea. “You told me some time ago that you had no wish to know of certain matters. This, I can assure you, you will wish to know least of all.”

Dumbledore regarded him for a moment. “I only raise it because Minerva dropped in, earlier. She is quite beside herself.”

“I’m aware. Minerva needs to mind her own business.”

“I hope you aren’t being too hard on the boy. He has had a difficult year.”

I’m extremely aware, Severus did not say. “I shall be as hard on him as I see fit.” He looked up. “I have it in hand.”

“Very well,” Dumbledore said eventually. “But if at any point in proceedings, you find you no longer do...”

“I shall inform you directly, of course. If that is all?”

Whom precisely he was protecting he couldn’t have said as he left the stone gargoyle in his wake, moments later.

---

He did not inform Dumbledore, because in the end the thing that caused him to lose his grasp was not one he would ever have predicted. It met none of the countless contingencies he had considered, most of which centred around the prospect of the Dark Lord discovering that Potter no longer viewed him with hatred.

It blindsided him completely.

“I don’t understand you,” Potter said, one evening.

“Good,” Severus said, without interrupting his marking.

“But I want to.”

Severus suppressed a sigh. Ever since the night which had led to the impulsive destruction of a priceless memento—an action he hadn’t comprehended then and now deeply regretted—Potter had refrained from similar personal intrusions, seemingly content to keep his thoughts to himself.

Severus should have known better than to assume it would last. He briefly debated whether it would be worth it to speak up and draw a line in the sand, but frankly, he didn’t want the hassle. He’d had an exhausting day following on from a far more exhausting night with precious little sleep and too much time spent kowtowing to dual masters. If Potter decided to be spirited, Severus was only going to snap and hurt the boy’s feelings.

Ignoring him should do the trick just as nicely.

“You’re like one giant contradiction,”—Severus kept writing—“except maybe they’re not contradictions at all, I just haven’t figured out yet how they make sense. I think maybe you haven’t fully, either,”—Severus wrote faster—“because you keep saying one thing, and doing another. You tell me I need to forgive myself, but you refuse to do the same. You tell me not to cross Umbridge, but you didn’t hand me over to her for detention, when I know that’s what she wanted. You told me, up there on the Tower, that you don’t believe in anything, but if that were true, then nothing would matter to you. And you hide it pretty bloody well, but that’s obviously a lie, because you wouldn’t have spent all this time making sure I was okay otherwise. I think maybe you’re just shit-scared of admitting what you do believe in, because it doesn’t fit with how you see yourself. But you’re wrong, you know. You’re not nearly as horrible as you pretend to be.”

The quill was plucked from Severus’s hand and he startled; he’d been so intent on ignoring Potter that he’d utterly failed to notice him getting up and moving around the desk. He seemed, suddenly, very close.

“Potter,” he said, “what are you—”

And Potter kissed him.

It was shock that froze Severus. Shock and surprise and momentary terror; yes, that was categorically it. It had nothing to do whatsoever with how soft Potter’s lips were against his own, nor with the slick slide of his tongue into Severus’s mouth, how it brushed over his palate tentatively, then insistent. It had nothing, nothing to do with how Potter’s words had scraped him raw, leaving him grasping, desperate for touch; nothing at all with the fact that he could not recall being kissed with such aching sincerity in his life. It did not feel warm and gentle as rain, was not, could never have been a benediction. When his hand slid into Potter’s hair, it was only to pull him away, not with an aim to feel the silk of it run through his fingers; Severus would never, ever have touched him for pleasure, the boy was only a—

He thrust Potter away sharply and leapt to his feet, horrified.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled.

Potter stared at him from where he had slammed into the shelf, broken jars and glass bottles littered around his feet. He was breathing heavily; behind his glasses, the black of his pupils swallowed the green. He licked his lips and Severus’s eyes tracked the movement, helplessly.

“I thought that was obvious. I was ki—”

“And what could possibly have possessed you to think such a thing would be remotely acceptable, let alone that I would ever, in a million years, welcome such wildly inappropriate advances from a student? Have you completely lost your mind? No, don’t answer that, it’s self-evident that you have. Congratulations Potter, you’ve outdone even yourself; you’ve gone so far beyond the pale this time that I—”

“Hey,” Potter said, “that’s not fair! I admit it was a long shot, but you did kiss me back!”

“I most certainly did not!”

Potter’s eyes flashed. “Right. So I just imagined your tongue in my mouth then, did I?”

“Yes!” Severus snarled. “I would never—how dare you imply that I would—I would never touch a child!”

“I’m not a child! I am—”

“You are fifteen years old! I am thirty-five, not to mention, your teacher, and if you weren’t so confused you would—”

“I’m not bloody confused, either!”

“You clearly are, if you are throwing yourself at a man over twice your age and fail to see the wrongness in that! If you had any sense of perspective, you’d realise that you should go and bloody well find a suitable boy close to your age, like any normal teenager—”

He realised his mistake the instant the treacherous word had slipped past his lips, but by then it was too late.

“Right,” Potter said, with a grim sort of satisfaction. “Normal. The kind of normal you told me I’d likely have to accept I’d never have?”

“That was never what I intended to—”

“You’re right, I’m fifteen. But honestly, how many other fifteen-year-olds do you know who have faced Vol—the Dark Lord three bloody times, starting from when they were eleven? Who have watched someone die because of them, who have been cursed and Crucio’d and whose blood has been used to revive the person who killed their bloody parents? Who constantly have every last bloody detail of their lives splashed across all the papers, until they got so sick of all of this, all of this shit that they wondered if they might not be better off—”

“All the more reason why this is a terrible idea! Not only are you confused, but you’re vulnerable, too, and the last thing you need—”

“I need you! Don’t you get it? Nobody my age could possibly understand me, but you do, and you have no idea, none at all, what that’s been like, to know someone cares about me and gets me, at the same—”

Severus took a deep breath. “You’ve confused pity with affection, Potter, and I assure you, they are quite different things.”

“Fuck you!” Potter said. There were tears in his eyes. “Don’t you dare do this, don’t treat me like I’m some sort of idiot who can’t tell when you’re lying. Speaking of which, you still haven’t explained why, if this is all so wrong, you kissed me back!”

“I already told you—”

“And that’s another lie!” Potter pushed away from the shelf, stalking towards him; Severus quickly took several steps back, nearly stumbling over his chair in the process. “You kissed me and you enjoyed it, you just don’t want to admit it.” Another step and Severus’s back met the wall, Potter crowding in on him, lifting his chin. “And if I kissed you right now, you’d do it again.”

“No,” Severus said, but he suddenly felt far from convinced. This close, he could feel the heat of Potter’s body where it pressed against him, could smell the musk of his skin; his pulse hammered away in his throat, dizzying him. Who was to say that it was anger or fear which had set it to racing, that it wasn’t something despicably darker which caused his insides to flutter? What, for that matter, had he to fear, if not himself? Potter hardly presented a physical challenge of any kind, and yet here Severus was, backed into a corner as though he were the child, incapable of even grabbing the boy by the arm to throw him out of the door, because what if his hands chose to betray him and pull him closer, instead? They’d done it once; how was he to trust that they wouldn’t do it again?

He pressed them against the wall until his arms trembled with the strain. “Get away from me!” he said, throwing every fibre of his being into the words. “Get out, Potter! Now!”

“Why?”

“Because,” Severus snarled, “I don’t want you here!”

Potter held his eyes for a long moment, and then, mercifully, mercifully, stepped away and around the desk. He picked up his books and thrust them into his bag, flinging it over his shoulder. Severus stared at him all the while, transfixed, and watched him walk towards the door.

Just before it Potter stopped, then turned. His face was filled with the stubbornness Severus was so used to seeing there, but never before had it terrified him so, with the possible exception of that night on the Astronomy Tower.

“We’re not done,” Potter said. “I know what you’re doing. You’re just pushing me away because you’re afraid, because I got too close, because you think you don’t deserve this. But you’re wrong, and I won’t let you... I’ll make you see that. So don’t you dare think we’re done.”

And he stepped through the door.

The snick of the lock brought no relief. Severus peeled himself away from the wall, but he could not sit down despite his legs seemingly having turned into liquid; his thoughts were racing too fast. He leant heavily on his desk instead, bracing himself with both arms, trying to breathe. He felt sick to the stomach, nauseous, his skin crawling all over, as if he might—

A fluke, that’s all it had been. Some terrible, horrible nightmare that would soon be forgotten—Potter would go away and he’d calm down and then he’d see it, too. He’d come to his senses, come to be thoroughly disgusted with his actions; he’d be embarrassed and they’d never mention it again and all would be—

Severus’s nails dug into the wood. For fuck’s sake, who was he kidding? This was Potter; the boy would try and walk through stone walls just because he’d decided on the spur of the moment that it was a good idea. Once he’d dug his teeth into some madcap plan he was like a rabid dog that refused to let go, and how could Severus have failed to predict that this would happen, how could he possibly have been so blind? Of course he’d attach to Severus like a bloody limpet. He was depressed and lonely and confused, so of course he’d mistake comfort for something more, no matter what the truth—

He swallowed, heavily. That was all he’d ever intended to offer, all he’d been aiming for, right? Right? He was sure of it; he was one hundred percent certain, and yet... and yet... he had kissed Potter back. He could deny it no longer, could still feel the imprint of Potter’s teeth against his tongue, as though they had left behind venomous spikes; his mouth tasted acrid, his throat full of bile. A fluke, surely, at least this part; it had to have been. He hadn’t been prepared for the shock to his senses, but now that he was, things would be different. He could, he would, he could reject Potter when he tried again. He wasn’t... he wasn’t a monster! He wasn’t this weak. Was he?

His mind helplessly flashed to an image of Potter stealing his way into his quarters and inside his bed under the cover of night, of bare, coltish limbs twining around him as Potter whispered, “I trust you,” with all the conviction Severus had never been granted, not even by Dumbledore, and something clenched sharply inside him, even as he recoiled in horror.

No. No, no, no, he could not let this happen, but he couldn’t trust himself around the boy, either, because he was precisely that weak; only he could possibly stoop this low. This was all his fault in the first place—if he’d never made the godforsaken mistake of letting slip his inclinations during that first night in his office, Potter would never have had cause to fixate on him so. He had to undo it; better yet, he had to obliterate the chance that Potter could develop such feelings in future—the remotest risk was too great to take. Potter could not grow to like him, nor could he be allowed to retain purely sexual urges that might encompass him in future.

Severus’s fingers already clenched around metal as he sped from his office and towards the nearest concealed alcove. There, he spun the time-turner further than he had done before, so close, too close, to its very limit, back to that disastrous first night.

He caught Potter in the corridor, mere moments after he’d left Snape’s office. The boy blinked, clearly confused, eyes flicking quickly from Severus towards the door, and back.

“What—” he said. “But you were just—”

Severus lifted his wand. “Obliviate.

As with any complex spell, there were layers to its execution. One could completely strip someone of memories, tear them away and leave behind only a hole, as, Severus suspected, had been Lockhart’s favoured application of the memory charm. But one could equally suppress them, tuck them away in some quiet corner of the subconscious to slumber there indefinitely, until equally strong magic awoke them, and this was what he did, now. He shoved it all down, to the furthest recesses of Potter’s mind: the memory of the Tower and the immediate feelings which led up to it; their conversation in his office, which would hopefully work on a subliminal level to balance out what guilt did remain. And yes, this, too: any recollection the boy ever had of favouring his own gender he locked down so tightly that should the concept arise anew, he would dismiss it quickly.

He was tucking away his wand as Potter blinked again. When his eyes cleared and refocused on Severus, they did so in a glare.

“Thirty points from Gryffindor!”

“What? But I was only—”

“Out after curfew, again! Would you care to make it fifty? Because you will, if you don’t instantly return to your dormitory, where you should be!”

As he watched the boy disappear down the dark corridor, every part of him felt curiously heavy, as though his very bones were lined with lead.

---

He did not feel guilty. He did not. He told himself this as he watched Potter during mealtimes and whilst needling him in class: he had only done what was necessary. Had Potter been allowed to retain the memory of his feelings for Cedric, Severus doubted that any memory charm would have been capable of repressing the urgency of his despair, even with the subconscious imprint of their conversation as a counterweight. The boy would only have killed himself again, and Severus would have been right back at the start, left to choose between the unacceptable and the impossible: entrusting Minerva and Dumbledore with more than they could handle, or trusting himself.

He was only acting in Potter’s best interests. He would find some girl eventually and come to be... content, if not happy, so long as he didn’t know what he was missing. Much, much better than the alternative, than the worst sort of fate Potter could possibly meet—of Severus smearing his filth all over his innocence.

He did not feel guilty. He didn’t.

---

The spell held, as did Potter’s sanity, despite another full week of detention with Umbridge. Hard as Severus tried to bury himself in work on those nights, he could not banish the faint sound of Potter’s quill scratching against paper which seemed to echo through his office, lingering from the weeks Potter had spent there doing his homework.

Severus did not feel sad, either, when he recalled it. Angry with Umbridge, yes—this, he could allow.

Potter resumed Quidditch, and life returned to normal. Which, in Severus’s world, equated to absurd.

“Sir!” Lovegood shouted at him across the courtyard in early October. “Harry, he’s been—he’s been killed!”

“How?”

“It was a Heliopath!”

“Don’t be absurd,” Severus snapped. “There’s no such thing as Heliopaths!”

Ten minutes later, as he stared at the pile of ashes, having confirmed that they were indeed Potter’s remains, he was still convinced that there had to be a reasonable explanation.

“It came through there, see,” Lovegood said, pointing towards the trail of dead grass that stretched far into the distance. “I saw it; it was like a great big ball of flame, galloping right towards him.” She gazed at the ashes with a sombre expression. “It would have been quite beautiful,” she said softly. “If it hadn’t burnt him alive, you know.”

Severus opened his mouth, and then closed it again. What could one possibly say to that?

Heliopaths exist, he wrote into his diary, later. Can be corralled inside a ring of water, and then banished to the centre of the earth, where, presumably, they belong. Ensure the Dark Lord never finds out about them!

Less than a week later, Lovegood found him once more, although this time she was merely part of a whole gaggle of overwrought, hysterical students. In the end, Severus needed to shoot warning sparks into the air to get them to quiet sufficiently to extract what had happened.

“He was what?”

“Teaching us Defence,” Granger said. “Because Umbridge won’t—oh God, I knew this was a terrible idea.”

“I should think so! And it was Longbottom,”—he pointed a finger at the quivering, sobbing boy—“who killed him?”

“Well, not deliberately!” Granger said. “It was an accident! I think Harry disarmed him—isn’t that right Neville?—and his wand collided with the ceiling, and broke apart, and then Harry—oh God, Harry—”

“Yes?”

“He got hit, and it was awful!”

For fuck’s sake, why could Potter not bloody well leave him alone? Was it not enough that he sat sulking in Severus’s class whilst Umbridge stuck her nose where she didn’t belong, when Severus couldn’t even be certain if his outrage was, in part, on behalf of the boy? Was it not enough that Severus was forced to see him at meals and in the corridors? Did he really have to go straight back to dying repeatedly, without granting Severus a single moment of reprieve?

“And where,” he snarled so viciously that Granger recoiled as he stepped towards her, “did you hold this spectacularly ill-advised little session?”

He should disband Potter’s makeshift army instantly, he thought, after the Room of Requirement had made his job remarkably easy by providing an invisible alcove for him from which he could slow down Longbottom’s wand so it landed harmlessly on a bookshelf. He should report it to Umbridge himself and see it squashed, except...

It might give Potter a purpose. He might not recall what Cedric had meant to him, but he still remembered the graveyard, the ritual, the terror of facing the Dark Lord at full strength, and being able to teach others to defend themselves, however ineptly, might lend some meaning to an experience which truly had none...

Severus did nothing. Guilt, of course, did not factor into that decision. Not at all.

---

November brought the first Quidditch match of the season, and with it another chance for Potter to die. That it was one of his Slytherins who caused him to expire was aggravating, if hardly surprising; Crabbe had been a loose cannon from the moment he arrived.

As Severus huddled beneath the stands, firing off a Cushioning Charm at just the right moment to soften the impact of the Bludger so it could not crack Potter’s spine clean in two, he cursed the constraints that his position within the Dark Lord’s circle conferred upon him. Without the need to remain on good terms with Crabbe Senior, he could have come down hard on the boy for endangering another student, and right now he wished for nothing more. Well, other than, perhaps, that Potter might choose to abandon Quidditch altogether—but that was a pipe dream.

As it turned out, there was a God. It certainly moved in mysterious ways, too, because Severus would never have predicted that Potter getting into a fist fight would further his goals, nor would he have imagined that the deity he refused to believe in would choose to be represented by Umbridge of all possible people. But when he overheard Minerva crossly informing Flitwick of how their new High Inquisitor had effectively banned Potter from Quidditch for the entirety of the year...

It was probably a good thing that neither of them glanced over to see him folding his hands as he raised his eyes skywards with a smile. He probably looked completely deranged.

Bitten by a Thestral, he wrote, later that month, which carried a particularly virulent strain of Heart-Wasting sickness that St Mungo’s could not cure.

How did Potter manage to do these things? Thestrals were the gentlest, kindest creatures one could find, despite their undeserved reputation; so much so, in fact, that Severus resented feeding the herd a calming draught quite on principle. And why, out of all magical maladies, did it have to be Heart-Wasting sickness? It was almost as though Potter was trying to send him subliminal messages by catching the one disease that would have him lying in a hospital bed sobbing non-stop, that was literally causing him to die out of conviction that nobody loved him.

Accidentally swallowed mistletoe, he wrote in December, and felt all the more paranoid.

Stop, stop, stop. Why couldn’t it all just bloody well stop?

---

“No.”

“I’m afraid it was not a request,” Dumbledore said, gazing at him solemnly, “but an order.”

“I don’t care! You cannot ask this of me; it’s too much. I categorically—”

“Severus, please. Sit down.”

Severus stared at Dumbledore across his desk, hot chills chasing up and down his spine. “No, thank you,” he said. “I much prefer to stand.”

Dumbledore sighed. “It does not concern you in the slightest, then, that Voldemort appears to have access to Harry’s mind?”

“I never said that. I merely stated that I could not be the one to—”

“He must learn Occlumency. On this, at least, we are in agreement, are we not?”

“Then you teach him! You are equally qualified, if not more—”

“No,” Dumbledore said, shaking his head. “You did not see the boy when he told me of his dream of the snake. The moment I so much as glanced at him, I could see the hatred in his eyes—Voldemort’s hatred, that is. Now that he is aware of the link, he would use it to get to me as soon as I was alone with Harry, and we cannot chance that. I know too much; we cannot risk what information I possess falling into his hands.”

“And what,” Severus said, “of the risk to me? What shall I do, when the Dark Lord finds out that I am teaching Potter how to hold him at bay? That I am undermining his plans, that I am defying—”

“You shall tell him that I ordered it so, of course,” Dumbledore said. “And, perhaps, that you are not teaching him very well.”

“A marvellous suggestion, which will work up to the point that I am successful!”

“Let us cross that bridge when we come to it, yes?” Dumbledore said. “Severus, you know that I would never endanger your—”

Severus laughed.

“I would not,” Dumbledore said, with stern gaze over the rim of his spectacles. “Not at this stage of the game, certainly; you are no use to me dead, and you know that. Should it become necessary, we shall have to pull you out and—”

“Because a spy who cannot spy is so tremendously useful.”

“A spy who cannot spy,” Dumbledore said, “is, in this case, still a brilliant tactician, someone with insight into our enemy which we otherwise lack. Someone who can predict enough of their actions to guide us and whose magical ability would prove an immense asset on the battlefield, when it comes to that. Not to mention, a person whom I value and consider a friend.”

“How touching,” Severus said. “You had better get straight on to writing my epitaph, then, if you value me so much, as I predict I shall require it in the immediate future. Disregarding everything else, if the boy breaks into my mind during these sessions—”

“I do not think that very likely,” Dumbledore said. “Do you?”

And what could Severus possibly say to that, when he knew it to be not only likely, but an inevitability? When he knew that he lay flayed open before Potter, should he only care to try and turn the tables, that the boy would sink into him as though his defences were water? For a split second, he considered confessing the dreadful miscalculation he had made the previous year, the price he thought he’d been willing to pay for Potter’s resistance to Imperius. It suddenly seemed so much steeper, so much dearer a cost.

“Of course not,” he said.

“There is always the Pensieve, as well,” Dumbledore said. “You are aware of the variant of the spell to extract memories completely?”

Reluctantly, Severus nodded.

“Then I’m afraid we’ve reached the end of this discussion. Harry is spending the remainder of the holidays at Grimmauld Place, and I expect you to visit him there in due course to inform him of the purpose of these lessons. Start as soon as is feasible. First day of term.”

---

Hello, Potter. Why I am here? Oh, merely to inform you that the Headmaster has ordered me to rape your mind on a regular basis, come the beginning of term. Merry belated Christmas, and a very happy New Year.

No, perhaps not.

He could not recall a conversation he had looked forward to less, and he had plenty to choose from. That Black insisted on intruding only made the experience more delightful—delightful, of course, in a world where black equalled white and white equalled black.

Except that Black himself was about as far removed from the bright side of the spectrum as was possible; he was as much of a stain as ink-splotches on blank parchment, every bit as dirty as coal smeared all over a miner’s hands. Severus had not thought it feasible that he could hate him more, but his newfound understanding of Potter brought insight which made it so. Suddenly the way Black looked at Potter took on a very different tone.

“But surely you have noticed that Potter is very like his father?” Severus said, and yes, partly it was with the intention to rile.

But it was also a test. One which Black failed spectacularly the moment he said, “Yes, I have.”

Potter was nothing like his father, as Black should have known. And if Severus called the boy arrogant a split second later, when he knew it to be an untruth, well—he needed to provoke Black into starting a fight, did he not? Far easier that way to castrate him accidentally, to ensure that even if Black chose to confuse Potter for his father in the worst sort of way, there would be no consequence.

Bloody Weasleys, always interrupting at the worst possible time. Severus left for Hogwarts, and as much as he dreaded the start of Occlumency lessons, they could not come soon enough, now.

Raping Potter’s mind had to be preferable to leaving Potter alone with Black in that house.

---

Depositing a memory into a Pensieve did not, contrary to popular belief, remove it from consciousness altogether. It weakened its impact, certainly, siphoning off some of the intensity of emotion directly attached to it, but one did not forget the event; it simply... receded into the background, a gray-scale photograph replacing a full-colour, gloss-bright print.

Any decent Legilimens could still find those imprints, and whilst Potter wasn’t one, the risk of him stumbling into the recesses of Severus’s mind, however briefly, was too great. If he caught so much as a glimpse of the time-turner or, worse, of himself, dead...

And so as Severus prepared for the first lesson he used the variant of the spell Dumbledore had referred to. It was usually ill-advised—not because it took far more time and energy to cast, not because it hurt and was borderline illegal, but because it inevitably changed you. He sat and he tore memory after memory from his mind, ripped them clean out without a shred left behind until they swirled in ebony tendrils at the bottom of the stone basin.

Then he read the note which he had written himself prior to starting.

You cannot take many more completely, it said. Five, ten at the most, or you’ll lose yourself. Choose wisely.

It made little sense. Why should he feel compelled to remove memories in their entirety in the first place? He did not fear Potter breaking into his mind; the brat was weak and unskilled, utterly useless. No, the usual method would quite suffice.

Besides... lose yourself, really? He laughed. He felt no different; there were no holes, not even gaps in his mind. Whatever he’d chosen to temporarily cast aside, it couldn’t have been that important.

He waited for Potter in the shadows, watched him arrive. Every bit like his father, the way that he swaggered into Severus’s office, glancing about with such sullen arrogance—looking for places to stick his nose into, no doubt, not even bothering to close the door...

Oh, how Severus despised him. Still, he could not seem to recall why he had objected to these sessions so strongly—certainly, any moment spent in Potter’s company was a trial and a waste of his time, but... there could be pleasure in this.

He would show him no mercy. He would rip into the boy’s mind so he could learn to defend it, and if the process hurt... all the better for it.

“Shut the door behind you, Potter,” he said coldly.

---

Naturally, the first lesson was an abject failure. In the wake of Potter’s departure, however, Severus chose not to focus on that. Instead he sat for a while, basking in the lingering afterglow of Potter’s cries of pain, of the sight of him on his knees, so pathetically weak.

Then he scooped up his memories from the Pensieve.

---

That Wednesday, he wrote himself a different note:

Do not, under any circumstances, remove any further memories completely. You’re risking your life.

A lie, but a necessary one, the most crucial one, if he was truthful. After all, what would he be, without even the shadow of Lily? What would he become, if this... this was what he had been for so long, without noticing?

He’d sooner expose himself to Potter than find out.

He could not contemplate the thought. He could not, would not...

He refused to go there.

---

“Legilimens!”

A maelstrom of too-rapid images, spinning before his eyes: the Sorting Hat whispering ‘...in Slytherin’; that Chang girl leaning in, eyes wet and wide; a fat boy, laughing; Dementors approaching; Potter humiliated, again and again and again...

Sweet revenge, tinged with anger: the brat wasn’t bloody well trying!

“Legilimens!”

Potter’s mind tearing beneath his touch like parchment, defences flimsy as organza, soft as feathers—pathetic. Potter screaming in agony, crashing to the floor—quite delightful. Potter on all fours, glaring at Severus with such hatred from Lily’s eyes, wilfulness made incarnate...

“You’re not telling me how!”

Ingrate.

“Legilimens!”

Then the unexpected: hismemories, now, flashes straight from the recesses of his mind. His father, isolation, a laughing stock, that’s all he—

Protego ought not to have done that. A fluke, surely, an accident propelled by Potter’s despicable luck. But once it had started it kept happening, Potter spilling into his mind as if riding the slipstream of Severus’s power, and each time it got harder to thrust him back out, to pull innocuous enough recollections to the foreground.

How dare he! Potter possessed not a scrap of talent and certainly no dedication to practise as he bloody well ought; he could not even hold at bay that damnable corridor he saw at night. And yet here he was, week in and week out, skipping through impeccable walls that had kept the Dark Lord himself out, when it should not, should not have been possible.

Outrageous. Severus redoubled his efforts, forcing himself into Potter’s mind with all the harshness he could find, ensuring he felt the jagged edge of each penetration like the vicious slash of a knife. He revelled in the wound that would remain, gaping and dripping, long after Potter had left; it was the one thing he could revel in, and it would have to suffice.

Every Monday and Wednesday night, he tore empathy and compassion from himself with his wand and then tore them from Potter with his cruelty. Every Monday and Wednesday night after Potter departed he drank his memories back down, swallowed who he had become and the twisted mirror of who he could have been. Then he sat, staring at the Pensieve for a second, for hours.

He did not weep, knowing deep down that if he started, he’d never be able to stop.

And in between, in sterile, mechanical lines of quill against paper: Exploded by a Weasley firework. Accident during DA meeting. Painting frame fell on his head, dead.

Potter dying was no longer his obsession. It had become an afterthought.

---

“I hate you!” Potter snarled, and slammed Severus against the wall.

In the dark, cramped cavern of his office, all Severus could see were his eyes: green, green, green, flashing like lightning. He opened his mouth to say, “Good,” but what emerged was a laugh, sharp and derisive, and Potter’s face twisted as he flew at Severus, punching and kicking, scratching and biting. Severus shoved him away and away and away except there was nowhere to shove him to; the walls hemmed them in on all sides, as though they were stuck in some cupboard he should really recall, but he could not think through the litany of IhateyouIhateyouIhateyou, through the thundering roar of his blood. He could not seem to evade Potter’s grasp, the fingers which clawed at his robes and slid through them like water, digging like talons into his heart. He fought back, frantic, backhanded Potter so hard that his head met the wall with a crack.

“Stop it,” he said, still mere inches away, “stop it, stop it, just stop it!”

Potter smiled, wiping blood off his lip with the back of his hand. “Why?” he said. “You hate me, too, don’t you?”

And he grabbed Severus by the neck, jerking him forward and down until their lips met.

It wasn’t a kiss so much as a bite, but that didn’t matter, because suddenly everything else ceased to exist and Severus knew only the voracious heat of Potter’s mouth, the blade of his tongue as it sliced over his own, the thick taste of burnt pennies filling his throat. Suddenly, there was only the need cresting inside him like a wave, like a tsunami: the need to possess him, to have him, to own him, to sink inside him and never come back. He grabbed Potter’s hair and fucked his mouth with his tongue, pulling him closer, feeling him, hard, through layers of fabric; he swallowed a moan which might have been Potter’s, or his own. Suddenly it was him clawing at Potter’s robes, but there were no robes, they were naked, so Severus grabbed him by the hips and hoisted him against the wall and pushed home in one perfect, slick slide which shot lightning all the way up his spine. Potter’s head fell back on a gasp, and Severus watched the sweet line of his throat, transfixed even as he shoved upwards, deep inside him, then again. It was all he wanted now, the rhythm, the push and the pull, but it wasn’t enough, because on every thrust Potter rasped I hate you like a mantra, like a punctuation mark. Severus fucked him harder and harder still, nails digging into the soft flesh of Potter’s hips, but he would not be quiet no matter how harshly Severus forced him down on his cock. Shut up, he thought, and bit down on the juncture of Potter’s neck with a snarl, tasting sinew and muscle, blood, bone and marrow...

Potter sighed, clenching tightly around him. Then his fingers feathered softly down Severus’s spine, his lips brushing like silk over the shell of his ear as he whispered, “I trust you.” Severus lowered him gently onto the sheets of his bed, surging inside him, falling and falling as he came helplessly and—

He woke up from his own moan, still shuddering through the aftershocks of his orgasm. For a moment he lay shivering beneath the covers, but there was no afterglow, only sick horror clenching his guts into knots, forcing him to move a heartbeat later.

He ripped off his sticky nightshirt on the way to the bathroom and headed straight for the shower. But no matter how long he stood under the scalding spray, no matter how hard he tried to scrub the dream out of his skin, he just wouldn’t feel clean.

---

It was unacceptable, of course. It was vile, that his body should choose to betray him so; even in sleep, he could not countenance it. It was not to be borne.

But he had woken too late in the night—or too early in the morning, depending on how one looked at it—to have sufficient time to do what was necessary to put a stop to this. He had to wait until later to solve this problem, once and for all.

All day his fingers twitched with the urge. He was restless enough to snap at two Slytherins in his NEWT level classes, but by the time they stopped blinking in confusion, his mind had already wandered away from the perceived slight in their work. Because worse was yet to come: today’s lessons featured a certain fifth year class.

He did his utmost to avoid glancing at Potter. He did. But his eyes refused to obey him, sliding towards him as though gravity itself compelled them, measuring the line of his jaw and how much more angular it had become...

Potter looked up, glaring at him, and it was all Severus could do to not instantly break eye contact, but glare back at him in kind. By the time Potter bent back over his potion he felt hot, his skin prickling all over.

It kept happening. At one point, Potter stretched to grab a jar off the shelf behind him, tilting his head back and sideways, exposing the column of his throat. Severus stared at the millky white expanse of skin, such a pitch-perfect reproduction of the vision from his dream, and his stomach churned; he felt it roiling, trickling warm sparks lower, lower...

No. He spun on his heel, dug his nails into his palms. He would not permit this, this... sickness, this disease. His mouth tasted metallic, as though it were still full of Potter’s blood. Not that it ever had been, of course; it had been a dream, some feverishly twisted nightmare—never fantasy. His response was automatic, merely a flashback and yet what was equally concerning was how accurate a replica Potter’s neck had been in his dream, when surely it should have been twisted as well, morphed far from reality. He hadn’t been studying the boy that closely before, had he? He hadn’t, he hadn’t, he certainly hadn’t regarded him with the intent to commit the lines of his body to his mind to peruse at leisure later. Nevertheless, even with his back turned on him, with his eyes closed, he could picture him so clearly, too clearly, could draw the bow of his mouth, the—

No lesson in his lifetime had passed this slowly. As soon as it let out he fled to his private laboratory, where he brewed the strongest lust-dampening potion he knew of and tipped it down his throat still hot, burning his tongue.

He was better off without a libido, anyway. What bloody use would it ever be, to someone like him?

---

He continued to dream of Potter. He dreamt of struggling with him, fighting him without wands; he dreamt of accidentally killing him with his bare hands. When he reached for the time-turner, it was nowhere to be found.

Some nights he dreamt of them lying side by side on his bed, fully clothed, of Potter raining chaste kisses on his eyelids, his forehead, his temples. Whenever Severus reached out to return the favour, Potter vanished like curls of smoke.

Dreamless Sleep had a deleterious effect on the Lust-Dampening potion. He would just have to bear it.

---

“Having fun?”

He tore Potter out of the Pensieve, incandescent with rage. How dare he, how dare he invade his privacy like this, the moment Severus’s back was turned?

“So,” he said, digging his fingers into Potter’s arm, knowing, hoping it hurt. “So... been enjoying yourself, Potter?”

The boy’s lips were moving, but through the roaring of blood in his ears, sound failed to register. Not that he needed an answer; of course Potter had been enjoying himself. He’d probably got off on it, just like his—

“Amusing man, your father, wasn’t he?” he snarled, shaking and shaking and shaking the brat, but it wasn’t enough, he wanted to rip him apart, tear off his limbs, to strangle him, right here and—

He shoved the boy to the floor. “You will not repeat what you saw to anybody!”

“No,” Potter gasped, but Severus didn’t hear more, because his wand hand was twitching, his mind suddenly full of spells: Sectumsempra, yes, Crucio, even better, or perhaps something rawer, more animalistic. He felt it rising inside him already, thrumming, building to a cresc—

“Get out, get out! I don’t want to see you in this office ever again!”

Potter fled the moment he lost control of his magic, shattering a jar of cockroaches over his head. The door shut and the whole wall exploded, blasting Severus with a shower of bright shards. The shock of fragments of glass hitting him in the face was the only thing that kept him from chasing after the boy to do him serious violence.

The only thing.

---

Time did little to calm him down. An hour later he stood over the Pensieve, having reassembled what was salvageable, but mostly discarded years’ worth of ruined, painstaking work. So help him Merlin, but if Potter ever darkened his doorstep again...

He rejoined with the memories, and the burning of his blood instantly turned to ice.

Certainly, Potter had invaded his memories, but Severus doubted it had been with calculated, malicious intent. Utter stupidity seemed far more likely, combined with that blasted curious streak of his...

He did not feel angry so much as betrayed. Darkly, bitterly betrayed, which was utterly ludicrous, because he had sown the seeds for this, had he not? First he had annihilated the connection Potter had shared with him, if with good reason; then he had stamped out whatever frail respect the boy may have held him in by deliberately causing him pain and delighting in his most private humiliations. Why on earth should Potter not feel compelled to do the same?

But even that didn’t ring true, somehow. He closed his eyes and recalled Potter’s face as Severus found him in the Pensieve, and he could see it now that he was looking through a different lens: Potter had not been having fun. He’d been appalled.

At the moment, Potter hated him with every fibre of his being. And still, he’d been appalled. Simply because he’d been in the same position and knew how it—

“Gryffindor righteousness,” Severus muttered, but the words tasted bitter on his lips. Distorted.

He shook his head. All of this was beside the point. Potter needed to learn Occlumency and Severus knew that. But he was stuck—he still could not teach him with all of his memories fully intact, because Potter might see them, and where would he be then? Sweet mercy that out of all the memories Potter could have dived into, it had been that one, or Severus could be dealing with far greater damage. No, he could not teach him like this, but he didn’t trust himself—that other him—either. He didn’t trust him to agree to resume lessons simply because Severus insisted on it through a note after ordering Potter back to his office. Truth be told, he didn’t trust that he wouldn’t simply decide not to reintegrate with his memories upon receiving such a note, because he’d decided Severus had gone insane.

But most importantly, he didn’t trust him around Potter. He’d laid his hands on the boy and he’d struck him; he’d been mere inches away from beating him bloody, from doing far worse.

No, he could not permit him to be around Potter ever again. Which meant, unfortunately, that Potter would have to make do without Occlumency.

He sighed. Everything had been so much simpler when he’d still lacked a conscience.

---

Choked on an Easter egg, found in a fourth floor corridor, he wrote. Drowned in the swamp left behind by the Weasley twins.

He scrubbed at his eyes. Easter had brought him no respite, merely hours spent in the company of the Dark Lord, who insisted on knowing Dumbledore’s whereabouts.

He had not been best pleased when Severus had answered, quite truthfully for once, that he knew nothing whatsoever about them.

He did seem quite pleased, however, with the progress he was making on obtaining the prophecy, which made Severus uneasy. He thought of the corridor which filled Potter’s mind at night...

There was a knock on his door.

“Lupin,” Severus said, narrowing his eyes. “And what brings you here?”

Lupin stepped forward. “Something best discussed inside. If I may?”

“I think not,” Severus said, blocking his way. “I prefer to keep my quarters a vermin-free zone, you see.”

Lupin pointedly glanced down the corridor. “I wouldn’t disturb you if this wasn’t important.”

“What’s of import to you does not necessarily dovetail with that which concerns me,” Severus said, but he stepped aside. “Well?”

“It’s come to my attention that you’re no longer teaching Harry Occlumency.”

“Indeed, I am not. Nor will I, ever again.”

“Please, Severus, you must... please reconsider. There is nothing more dangerous than Vol—him,”—he changed tracks midstream, as though in deference to Severus, ha!—“gaining access to Harry’s mind.”

“I’m aware. And no, I will not reconsider.”

“Severus, please. What Harry did, breaking into your Pensieve like that; it was wrong—”

So much for Potter keeping a confidence. Dear God, was Severus that far gone? Had he actually started romanticising the boy?

“—but he knows that, believe me. It won’t happen again. I am sure of it. And I realise that you may not trust him and you have every right to be angry, but is that really sufficient reason to deny him—”

“You know nothing of my reasons,” Severus said softly, taking a step towards Lupin. “Nothing. As always, you believe you have all the facts, when you have none.”

“Then why? If you’d only explain them to me, then maybe I could—”

“I don’t need to justify myself to you. It’s none of your business.”

Lupin paused for a moment, wringing his hands. Then, “Do you think Dumbledore would appr—”

“Dumbledore is not here,” Severus cut him off. “And I don’t answer to you. So kindly stop wasting my time.” He opened the door. “Leave. Now.”

Lupin hovered, then, shaking his head, stepped out into the corridor. “At least think about it. I’m begging you,” he said, a mere instant before Severus slammed the door in his face.

The trouble was, Severus did. He thought of the Dark Lord and the corridor in Potter’s mind, thought of the fact that he did not know Dumbledore’s whereabouts, that he was forced to rely on other Order members who might have been entrusted with that information purely on account of not spending their spare time in close proximity to the Dark Lord.

But he was stuck.

---

Slammed against a tree by Hagrid’s half-brother, he wrote in late May. N.B.: sedating a giant not dissimilar to sedating a Hippogriff, only dosages vary.

He failed to report Hagrid simply because losing any ally against Umbridge seemed inadvisable.

The pattern of previous years held stable: Potter did not die once throughout the duration of O.W.L.s. In fact, Severus saw neither hide nor hair of him beyond mealtimes, not until Umbridge ordered him into her office, demanding Veritaserum to interrogate Potter.

“He’s got Padfoot! He’s got Padfoot at the place where it’s hidden!”

As if Severus hadn’t got the very same message already from Potter’s mind. The boy couldn’t have projected his thoughts any more loudly whilst staring fixedly into Severus’s eyes.

Unfortunately, Potter’s refusal to trust his good sense meant that Severus could not even drop a vague hint that Granger, perhaps, might be able to pick up on without chancing Umbridge understanding it, too. And so he denied any knowledge and left Potter in her hands.

He took the steps two at a time and headed for some distant, secluded corner in the far courtyard, cursing Dumbledore’s choice of communication all the while. It was all well and good to send and receive messages like this if one was outside the spectre of prying eyes; surrounded by children of Death Eaters in the dungeons, he lacked the same luxury.

As soon as he was hidden from sight, he conjured the doe. Go to Headquarters, he instructed her silently. Find any Order member and tell them that the Dark Lord has captured Black and is holding him at the Department of Mysteries. Tell them to alert Dumbledore. Now!

He watched her canter off into the night, ill at ease. Damn it, if only Minerva hadn’t been taken off to St Mungo’s. She had known where Dumbledore was, he was sure.

Time trickled by. He had just decided that he had better go check on Potter when a silvery shape descended from the sky, causing him to freeze.

“What the fuck are you on about, Snape?” it said waspishly, in Black’s voice. “I’m right bloody here! And we don’t need to alert Albus; he’s due here shortly anyway. I’ll be sure to tell him you’ve utterly gone off your rocker, when he arrives.”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, how could he have been so bloody stupid? He did not stay to think it through, taking off for Umbridge’s office at a run, instead—he needed to get to Potter immediately, prevent him from falling straight into the trap.

The office was empty. Cursing internally, he made his way back to the ground floor and through the entrance hall, and as he strode past the stairs to the dungeons, he caught a flash of blond hair in the corridor below.

“Draco!”

He consciously straightened, forcing himself into stillness as the boy ascended the stairs sluggishly, lazily. Calm, he needed to project calm.

“I need to speak to the Headmistress, but she appears to no longer be in her office. You were with her—you wouldn’t happen to know where she has gone?”

Draco’s mouth was a moue of distaste. “She sent us away, when we were doing such a good job, too. Like I’m not trustworthy, me! Took off with Potter and the rest of them, because Granger was going on about—”

“I care little for whatever drivel Granger was spouting. As I said, I need to speak to the Headmistress. Do you know where she took them?”

“I shouldn’t, really.”

“But you do.”

A sly smile crept over Draco’s lips. “Well I wasn’t going to just let her throw me off to the side like that, was I? So I snuck after them. They went to the Forest, but,”—the smile slipped into another pout—“I didn’t especially fancy going in there.”

“And how long ago was this?”

Draco shrugged. “I dunno. A while.”

“Very well,” Severus said, dismissing him with a curt nod and turning away. He made sure to keep his strides leisurely until the front doors fell shut behind him. Even then he didn’t allow himself to break into a run, lest Draco decide to snoop some more.

The forest lay dark and silent before him. No sign of Potter or Umbridge anywhere, when surely they ought to have returned by now.

As soon as he was shaded adequately by a copse of trees, he conjured the doe anew. Potter mistakenly believes Black to have been captured; obviously the Dark Lord intends to lure him to the Department of Mysteries to get hold of the prophecy. Umbridge took him to the forest, but they haven’t returned, so I shall search for him there. Gather the Order and get to the Ministry as soon as possible, and for fuck’s sake, Black, stay put like the good dog you are. Someone needs to wait at Headquarters to inform Dumbledore of what has happened.

Another reason why Patronuses were bloody useless, he thought, as she vanished off into the night—they just took far, far too long to traverse any significant distance.

He could only pray that it would get there in time.

---

He stood inside Dumbledore’s office, amidst smashed knick-knacks and broken instruments littering the floor.

“Dead,” he said.

“Yes,” Dumbledore said, looking tired and old, not at all like a man who had just defeated the most powerful dark wizard in the land.

Severus should have been happy. He should have been elated at the news of Black’s death, so desperately longed for, for so many years.

But surrounded by the evidence of Potter’s grief, he felt only hollow and vacant.

---

The Sixth Year

He had not spent time at Spinner’s End since he’d begun his tenure at Hogwarts. Why would he, when he had spacious, comfortable quarters to see him through the summer, instead of a cramped, dingy house he had never truly considered his own, no matter how many bookshelves and volumes he’d filled it with during those interim years?

He despised the place. It reeked of his mother, his father, of memories trapped in the walls which echoed back at him through the day and resounded in his dreams at night. But the Dark Lord wanted him somewhere “easily accessible” (did not trust him, wanted him somewhere the rat could spy on him with ease), and so to Spinner’s End he went.

Only the times when he reported to Dumbledore brought some reprieve, and he latched onto them as though he were drowning, and they were a raft. They purely served the purpose of conveying information, of course, but after the last few years of railing against the man at every turn, Severus suddenly remembered why he had valued him so, now that he was at a distance. The little touches: those precious seconds he allowed Severus to simply sit and breathe; the perfectly brewed, steaming cups of tea; the concern that weighed heavily in his eyes; sometimes, the fleeting brush of a hand or a sleeve.

Absence did make the heart grow fonder.

So when Dumbledore called for him again, mid-summer, he initially felt relief—relief which vanished the instant he stepped through the Floo and saw him, collapsed in his chair.

He flew into action. He summoned the strongest healing potion he had in stock from his stores. He began casting spells, first at the ring on the desk, then at Dumbledore. He worked relentlessly, shoving cold horror aside each time it threatened to intrude and break his concentration.

At long last, Dumbledore’s eyes opened.

“Why,” Severus said, his pulse quickening wildly, now it had leeway, “why did you even put on that ring? It carries a curse; surely you realised that. Why even touch it?”

Dumbledore grimaced. “I... was a fool. Sorely tempted...”

“Tempted by what?”

Dumbledore did not respond, and Severus exploded with anger. “It is a miracle you managed to return here! That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power, to contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being—”

Dumbledore raised his blackened hand and regarded it impassively. “You have done very well, Severus. How long do you think I have?”

He sounded calm, so damned calm, when turmoil raged inside Severus, when he felt as though his very centre had been ripped out, leaving him spinning, unmoored, leaving him—“I cannot tell,” he forced himself to say. “Maybe a year. There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread, eventually; it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time.”

And Dumbledore did the unthinkable—he smiled. “I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, that I have you, Severus.”

“If you had only summoned me a little earlier,” Severus said desperately, through the fog which seemed to be wrapping around him, “I might have been able to do more, buy you more time!”

He froze the moment he said the final word. Of course, of course, how had he failed to consider it before? “Speaking of time,” he continued swiftly, already digging inside his robes, “this need not happen at all! Tell me where—”

But Dumbledore shook his head.

“Why ever not?”

Dumbledore straightened himself in his chair, but Severus could see the effort it took him. “I am old enough to live with the consequences of my own actions, don’t you think?” he said, lightly. “Besides, this really makes matters much more straightforward.”

Severus stared at him, speechless, and Dumbledore smiled.

“I refer to the plan Lord Voldemort is revolving around me. His plan to have the poor Malfoy boy murder me.”

Severus sank into the chair before Dumbledore’s desk, his legs having turned into liquid.

---

He returned to Spinner’s End, feeling as though his flesh had been flayed off, right to his very bones. He exchanged not a word with Pettigrew, terrified as he walked past him that his every thought was written all over his features.

He headed for the bathroom and looked in the mirror. His face was a mask, a perfect blank slate, devoid of anything. The dissonance jarred like a physical blow.

Good. Good. It had better remain so, because he could not afford to slip. He could not examine what he had promised tonight, or why, or how to undo it. He had to set it aside, detach it from any emotion. It was simply a fact.

That night he dreamt of chasing after Dumbledore, but no matter how loud he shouted, the man kept walking away, his back turned to him. Severus grasped and reached until he caught hold of his cloak, but as he fell to his knees it was mere fabric he held in his hands, fabric which swelled and morphed into Potter, and Severus fell on him and buried himself in him, sobbing his grief and his longing, his horror and pleasure, into his mouth.

He had become immune to the Lust-Dampening potion. Charms, he discovered the following night, did not work nearly so well.

---

Narcissa and Bellatrix visited and now he was deadlocked: him or Dumbledore, or him and Dumbledore, if he did not comply.

Or him and Dumbledore and Draco, more like, if did not remain to protect the boy.

Such a waste. Such a waste.

But that was war.

---

Potter arrived at Hogwarts already dead. Either his nose was especially weak or Draco had simply stamped on it too hard; the end result was that when the cleaning witch stumbled over his cloaked body inside the Hogwarts Express, the splintered bone had skewered his brain.

Severus did not prevent it completely. Draco was dangerous now he was fighting for his family and Potter needed to be aware of that. So he hid and merely cushioned the blow, hoping that a broken nose would cause sufficient alarm for Potter to be cautious. Then he left to give Potter some time to reflect on the danger, firing a compulsion charm at Tonks in passing to ensure he’d safely reach Hogwarts.

Her Patronus—shaped like Lupin, for crying out loud—shot past him on his way to the castle. That it was Snape who answered it was unfortunate. Severus caught him halfway through the grounds, gave him instructions and sent him off, and then headed straight back for the gates to reluctantly pick up Potter.

He had not been prepared. He had only caught a brief, distant glimpse of Potter uncloaked on the Express, and he had not... he had not been prepared. He had not been prepared for the wave of concern which rose inside him at the sight of blood spattered all over his face, at the guilt of knowing he’d played a part in putting it there. He had been even less prepared for the fact that in spite of the blood, Potter at sixteen looked like he had sprung straight from the worst sort of wet dream. The light of the swaying lantern cast dancing shadows beneath the angles of his cheekbones, refracted pinpricks of gold off eyes filled with hatred, and Severus wanted to have him right there and then against the steel gates.

So he thrust Potter away with words which had long since ceased to hold any meaning to him, but which still held meaning to the boy. He took points, he belittled and he mocked; anything to carve out a space between them.

"Potter is quite—ah—safe in my hands,” indeed.

---

“There’s no need to call me sir, Professor.”

Potter without blood on his face and in broad daylight looked even more like a wet dream: his black hair tousled, his lips cherry red, his green eyes flashing such spirit, such life amidst all the death.

Severus gave him detention and could not convince himself later that the impulse had been prompted by momentary spite.

Bitten by a Venomous Tentacula, he wrote, and frantically shoved away the thoughts of what would happen to Potter once Severus had done what Dumbledore planned. He had tried to raise the issue with the Headmaster, but he was ever stopping-in, always leaving, never had time...

Except for Potter, apparently. Severus couldn’t quite tell of whom he was jealous and attempted to focus on Draco instead, but the boy rebuffed his advances, ignored them entirely.

And Potter’s detention loomed on the horizon, inevitable, unavoidable. This was hell Severus was inhabiting; it had to be.

He set Potter the most disgusting task he could come up with: Flobberworms. He spent the first ten minutes of the evening listening intently to the wet, squelching sounds they made as Potter separated them into piles, and...

Fine, that had been an atrocious idea.

He stared at their wiggling forms for the remainder of the hour, which at least marked a marginal improvement. If only Potter’s fingers weren’t quite so deft and nimble.

---

“Severus, come quickly!”

He raced after Minerva up to the hospital wing, and from some distance he heard a high-pitched, unnatural keening which set goosebumps prickling all over his skin. But the first thing he saw as they burst through the door were wide-open, green eyes, staring unseeing at the ceiling.

“Potter,” he said, but Minerva was already tugging him onwards, towards the next bed.

“Is beyond saving,” she said, “but the girl, Severus, the girl...”

Severus cared not one whit for saving the girl at the moment, not when he could prevent both her and Potter from coming to harm in the first place. He began weaving spells over her body regardless, simply because it was the most expedient way to gather the necessary information. He asked short, sharp questions whilst working on her and listened to the tale of the necklace, delivered in stammers by Weasley and Granger and Bell’s friend, of how the girl had touched it first—he noted the pinprick hole in her glove—and how Potter, leaping to pull her down, had stumbled and fallen face first on the exposed necklace.

Then he declared that he needed to refer to some books to help her further, and disappeared swiftly.

---

He had it all worked out to the last detail. Perfectly. Unfortunately, the suspicion that the cursed jewellery formed part of Draco’s plan meant that he could not intervene too obviously. The boy could not suspect Severus of foiling him, or he would never talk. Hogsmeade was too public by far, but that should not matter: he would wait by the side of the road, Disillusioned, and Accio the package from Bell’s hands before her skin could contact the metal. So long as he ducked quickly enough—he was not yet so masterful at Disillusionment as Dumbledore—nobody need ever know of his presence.

But he slipped. Quite literally. As he lifted his wand whilst the quarrelling girls drew nearer, a sleet-slick stone caught under his boot, causing him to lose his balance and by the time he’d righted himself, Bell was already rising into the air. He barely managed to send a stabilising charm Potter’s way to prevent him from tripping.

The irony was not lost on him, but it was far from amusing. He started forward on instinct as Bell began to scream, only to grind to a halt, helplessly caught between conflicting impulses. He had to—could not leap to the girl’s rescue—if any rumour was bound to catch Draco’s ear it was of him appearing virtually out of thin air.

He forced himself to return to Hogwarts, contriving a reason to already be in the hospital wing by involving Pomfrey in a convoluted conversation about what potions she required, thanking Merlin that he’d relegated Snape to their quarters in advance. As soon as Hagrid carried the screaming girl through the door, he fell to the task with abandon, working fiendishly, doing everything, everything in his power to save her.

He succeeded, barely. There was no accomplishment in it, however, not even a hint of victory, because today had proved one thing beyond doubt:

He was flawed; he was fallible; he was imperfect.

He was everything he could not afford to be.

---

Potter did not die throughout the rest of November. Nor did he die in December, not once, in the lead-up to Christmas; it was almost as though he had decided to join Dumbledore and Draco in their combined efforts to avoid Severus like the plague.

How the bloody fuck was he meant to problem-solve, if no one would let him?

He did not know what concerned him most: the way Draco was rapidly disintegrating before his eyes, all the while refusing to come to his office, Dumbledore’s increased, lengthy absences which he refused to explain, or Potter’s sudden, bizarre refusal to die. All around him, stone walls appeared to be rising, blocking his way, leaving him... helpless.

He was helpless to aid Draco, because the boy was suddenly determined to see him as the enemy, undoubtedly due in large part to whatever poison Bellatrix had whispered into his ear. And Severus did care for him, in all his brattish, cowardly glory. Draco was one of his own; he’d watched him grow.

He was helpless to prevent Dumbledore from dying, helpless to figure out what he was working on and what significance it held for the larger picture. And yes, Severus cared about him, too, even if, too often, he wondered why.

As for Potter...

Perhaps it was a blessing that his unnatural state of living kept him at arm’s length from Severus. It did not stop the dreams nor the surges when he was near, but it made them easier to bear. Seeing him at Slughorn’s Christmas party rammed that message home to Severus’s gut like a knife, because there Potter was, not across a classroom, a hallway, down the far end of a breakfast table. There he was, like one sparkling contradiction: suddenly brilliant at potions (how?), calm and self-assured (when Severus knew what lay buried in the deep), set on becoming an Auror (like his father; unlike James Potter, squirming under the praise Slughorn tried to heap on him). When Lovegood’s bizarre commentary on the Aurory made him laugh, the sound trickled through Severus like the spiced mead he’d been drinking, and for a delirious second he wondered what it would be like to be the cause of that sound. Then Draco arrived, and his attention shifted immediately.

Still, Potter’s survival continued to weigh on his mind. Enough so that on the following day, he set off for a set of ground floor quarters he’d not visited before. The door was unlocked; the moment he crossed the threshold, the moss swallowed the sound of his footsteps as he stepped past bushes and tangling vines.

Firenze heard him regardless, turning from where he stood. “I asked you once not to seek me again, Severus Snape. I still mean it.”

Severus stopped. “I have not come to request any action on your part. Merely advice.”

Firenze stared at him, unblinking.

“Although we have not spoken since you came to Hogwarts,” Severus began carefully, “you have spent time in my presence, at staff meetings—”

“If you wish to determine whether I am aware of your continued attempts to meddle with time, the answer is yes. The taint of it clings to you like some foul miasma. You carry it wherever you go.”

“He has stopped dying,” Severus burst out. “Of late, he is no longer—I need to know why.”

“Why?”

“Because it is breaking a pattern and it doesn’t make sense! You told me, five years ago, that the streams of time have a way of rerouting themselves. But if that is true, and he kept dying in countless... ridiculous ways, because time was attempting to balance itself out, then why should it suddenly grind to a halt?”

“What do you wish me to tell you?”

“The truth!”

“There is no truth. There are only interpretations.”

“Then give me your interpretation! Anything, at this point, would be preferable to—”

He broke off. Firenze seemed to deliberate for long moments, pawing at the ground as he regarded Severus. Then, “It would suggest that time is detecting a steadier stream,” he said. “One that it not blockable by any dam. One, perhaps, that meets its ends more aptly than the trickles you have fought against in the past.”

Severus froze. “You mean...”

“I mean that you changed what was written; you changed the unchangeable. Time is beginning to know now how it shall be writ yet again, and this time with finality. The surer it grows, the clearer the path, the fewer diversions shall occur.”

“No,” Severus said. “No. I refuse to believe that.”

“Then perhaps it is not truth which you seek, but reassurance?” Firenze said, with a bite in his tone.

Severus did not react, although he felt as though he’d been struck.

Firenze sighed, shaking his head. “Or perhaps I am mistaken in my reading of the stars. I hope that I am. Out of all the humans whom I have met, the boy is by far one of the most—”

Severus did not wait for the end of his sentence. He left.

---

Firenze was mistaken, he told himself. He told himself this every time the thought occurred when Potter failed to die over Christmas and in January. He told himself this so firmly that he actually grew to believe it, so much so that when Potter died in the most stupid of ways in early February—crushed beneath a chandelier loosened by Peeves—he did not feel relief.

It was par for the course, after all. Throughout these months he focused his attention on the injustice of Dumbledore keeping secrets from him which he shared with Potter, trusting the boy where he would not trust Severus. All the while he felt torn every which way, crushed between conflicting loyalties. It wasn’t as though Potter did not deserve to know what was coming, and Severus wanted him to be prepared. He just wished that it wasn’t so lopsided, that Dumbledore would allow them to be prepared equally, to share common ground, because how on earth was Severus meant to assist the boy otherwise, in the future without the Headmaster which drew alarmingly near?

He concealed any such thoughts when he finally had the chance to confront the man one night in mid-February. Potter was his and his only. Severus had shaped him and moulded him through the years, had buried a shard of his magic, his will, inside him, had erased—no, submerged, only submerged—aspects of him entirely. He guarded this knowledge, of how he had helped, how he had damaged him, most closely of all; Dumbledore had no right to know.

Other matters, however, he needed to know about.

“You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me! You take a great deal for granted, Dumbledore! Perhaps I have changed my mind!”

“You gave me your word, Severus. And while we are talking about services you owe me, I thought you agreed to keep a close eye on our young Slytherin friend?”

Severus breathed, but he could not speak through his anger. Walls, walls, everywhere.

Dumbledore sighed. “Come to my office tonight, Severus, at eleven, and you shall not complain that I have no confidence in you...”

---

“Now, listen closely, Severus. There will come a time—after my death—do not argue, do not interrupt! There will come a time when Lord Voldemort will seem to fear for the life of his snake.”

“For Nagini?” Severus said, utterly confused. Another riddle, another fragment which didn’t make sense...

“Precisely. If there comes a time when Lord Voldemort stops sending that snake forth to do his bidding, but keeps it safe beside him, under magical protection, then, I think, it will be safe to tell Harry.”

“Tell him what?”

Dumbledore took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and chills raced down Severus’s spine at the sight. Dumbledore never shut himself off from the world like this—or at least not before Severus’s eyes—as though he could not bear the truth of it, of what he was about to say—

“Tell him that on the night Lord Voldemort tried to kill him, when Lily cast her own life between them as a shield, the Killing Curse rebounded upon Lord Voldemort, and a fragment of Voldemort’s soul was blasted apart from the whole, and latched itself onto the only living soul left in that collapsing building. Part of Lord Voldemort lives inside Harry, and it is that which gives him the power of speech with snakes, and a connection with Lord Voldemort that he has never understood.”

Dumbledore’s voice seemed to be coming from far, far away, echoing through a fog which had suddenly descended all around Severus.

“And while that fragment of soul, unmissed by Voldemort, remains attached to, and protected by Harry, Lord Voldemort cannot die.”

“So the boy... the boy must die?” Severus heard himself say.

He did not feel his lips move, as he spoke. He could not be certain he’d spoken at all. A dull buzzing sound filled his ears, sinking deep down inside him, reverberating there as though it were coiling...

“And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential.”

Avada Kedavra!

Well, he thought, blinking at his wand which he could not recall drawing. That had been... a touch precipitous.

Leaning heavily against the desk, he stared at Dumbledore’s body where it lay crumpled on the floor.

Then he threw his head back and laughed.

---

He caught Snape with one foot already on the staircase, by the stone gargoyle.

“Don’t,” he said, striding towards him. “For heaven’s sake, don’t do it. It’s too soon by far.”

Snape blinked.

“Kill him,” Severus clarified.

Snape blinked again. “Potter?” he said, sounding astonished.

“Of course not,” Severus snapped, then laughed and shook his head. “Dumbledore.”

Snape stared at him. “Perhaps you ought to go up in my stead, because I haven’t the faintest—”

“No,” Severus said. “I cannot hear it—again.” He closed his eyes momentarily. “Firenze was right.”

Snape went very pale. “No,” he said. “I don’t believe you. You have been Confunded, or—”

“Go, then,” Severus said. “Go and hear for yourself, if you don’t believe me, but for fuck’s sake, remain aware of your hands at all times. Sit on them, ideally. Whatever you do, don’t do it. Not yet.”

And he pushed Snape onto the staircase and watched him spiral out of sight, as it ascended.

He did not think of Potter or Dumbledore’s words whilst he waited. He thought of nothing but the stone wall before him, tracing its rough surface with his fingers, following the faintest of cracks which ran through it like frozen, dark veins. He’d never paid it much heed before, but now it struck him as oddly beautiful. So bare and unassuming on the surface, merely a wall; yet, inside he swore he could feel it teeming with the centuries’ worth of magic it had soaked up, with countless stories and lives, long since forgotten.

Walls cared not about death. If only he could be one.

When Snape re-emerged from the Headmaster’s office, his features did bear a striking resemblance to the masonry: blank, bare, carved in stone.

“Well?”

“I did not kill him,” Snape said. “Though by all rights, I ought to have.” He stepped aside and the gargoyle slid back into place with an audible click. “The nerve of the man! He had the temerity to—”

He broke off, shaking his head, eyes fixed on the ground.

“To what?”

Snape looked up, and suddenly there was heat in his eyes, the stone not so much crumbling as shattering open like the surface of a volcano. “To remark on how touching it was that we had come to care for the boy,” he spat, “when I dared to express my... distaste at his actions. Don’t worry—I denied it most strenuously. Conjured the doe and let him believe what he wants to believe.”

Severus gazed at him. “Curious, is it not, that we can still conjure her at all.”

Snape snorted. “Not so curious, perhaps, seeing how Potter’s Patronus is a—”

“Don’t,” Severus said sharply. “Don’t you dare even go there.”

Snape raised an eyebrow. “We’ve reached the point of lying to ourselves, have we?”

“Yes! What other option is there? What good will it do to reflect on... He’s dead. Dead already.”

“You’re just accepting it, then?” Snape said, in a tone that dripped derision and barely suppressed anger. “After everything we have been through, after everything we have done, you’re simply—”

“And what the bloody hell else am I supposed to do? What do you propose that we do? Kidnap Potter and whisk him off to some tropical island, remove his memory block and live happily ever after? Oh, I forgot; obviously we would have to kill the Headmaster again, first, or that plan would never work.”

“Don’t mock me,” Snape snapped, with a glare.

“If you persist in being mock-worthy—”

“At least it would be something, anything! Is it truly that preposterous? We have the means and the skill; if anyone can hide him indefinitely, we’re it!”

“And leave the rest of the world to burn under the Dark Lord’s reign.”

“I don’t give a rat’s arse about the rest of the world! Let it burn. Let it damn well go to hell and stay there!”

“The only problem with that statement,” Severus said, very softly, “is that now you’re the one who’s lying to himself.”

Snape’s shoulders slumped; he leaned heavily against the wall, closing his eyes.

“For what it’s worth,” Severus said, “I thought much the same earlier.”

“Of course you did.”

For several long breaths, Severus watched him stand there, looking utterly defeated. It should have rankled, it should have, to see himself so weak, but for some reason only a strange tightness bloomed beneath his sternum, a heaviness that seemed to be pulling at him. He raised his hand, slowly, tentatively, and...

Quickly dropped it, when Snape’s eyelids flickered open.

“I should go,” he said, straightening, and then he was like the wall once more, blank and impenetrable. “Close the loop.”

Severus nodded, and watched him fade out of existence moments later.

---

He avoided looking at Potter as though the very sight of him were poisonous. At mealtimes, he stared at his plate, at his fork spearing vegetables and his knife cutting meat, although he later couldn’t have said whether he’d been eating carrots or cabbage, roast beef or pork. All food tasted the same, these days: flavourless, stale, sticking dry in his throat like ashes.

He was not entirely successful. At times, the pull became too strong, dragging his eyes towards Potter against his will, and then it rose inside him like a dark swelling tide: the urge to tell Potter everything and beg him to run, flee and hide; to grab him and never let go, to gather him up and bring him to safety. Severus shoved it down, down and down, but with each day that Potter did not die, with each occasion when surely he ought to have done—failing to drink the poisoned mead given to Slughorn, suffering merely a cracked skull when McLaggen pelted a bludger straight at his head—it only grew stronger.

Time seemed to be racing. And in spite of the hourglass now resting against his sternum, its chain safely concealed beneath his robes where it wound round his neck, Severus was helpless to slow it down.

---

“Murder! Murder in the bathroom! Murder!”

Severus burst through the door, half expecting to find Potter dead in some grotesque, last hurrah. But it was not Potter who lay on the ground, blood pouring from deep gashes all over his body—it was Draco. And Potter, kneeling beside him in a pool of reddening water, the culprit.

Severus recognised the work of Sectumsempra in a heartbeat, but he did not waste time determining from where the hot flare of rage inside him came, or wondering how Potter could possibly have learnt of his spell. He shoved Potter aside unceremoniously and began to chant the counter-curse, praying he wasn’t too late.

He still did not examine it as he lifted Draco to his feet and half-carried him out of the room—the boy needed to get to the hospital wing sharp, for dittany and a blood-replenishing potion. He did not examine it as he snapped at Potter to stay, nor as he slowly made his way along the corridor and down the stairs, his arms full of wet, crying boy. He could only think of the fact that if Draco could not hold his own against Potter, he would never make it amidst the Dark Lord’s ranks. He would crack, fracture, be eaten alive.

“You see,” he said softly, as Pomfrey hustled off to find the potions whilst Severus lowered Draco onto a bed, “I want to help you. Please, Draco, let me. Come to my office, tonight and we can work on this. Together.”

But Draco turned his head away, closing his eyes.

Severus’s hands clenched as he turned on his heel and strode away, back towards Potter, the fury he’d temporarily set aside bubbling up inside him anew, incandescent. Potter using Dark magic, when Severus had worked so hard to protect his innocence—it was outrageous, the worst sort of betrayal. How dare he, how dare he use the filth that had sprung from Severus’s own mind, been woven by his own hands, back when he didn’t know better? It was, it was—

It was all Severus’s fault. Potter at fifteen, he was sure, would never have so much as glanced at a Dark spell, but Severus just had to bloody well go and break him, had he not? He’d been kidding himself, all along, assuming that suppressing Potter’s guilt-laden memories was doing the boy a favour, but who knew how much of the boy’s empathy he’d submerged alongside it, who could truly say what he’d destroyed? This, this was the Potter he had created, not quite yet but ever-approaching the monster Severus himself had been at his age, and he was furious, furious with Potter, yes, but not nearly so furious as he was with himself.

He wanted to undo it, to take it all back. But he could not—not so close to the finishing line, not with Dumbledore’s death looming. He could only force the information of where Potter had found Sectumsempra from his mind, demand the book to avoid further damage—and give him detention when, instead of handing it over, he lied.

---

Perhaps he had overreacted, he allowed much later that night, after Draco had steered clear of his office once again. After all, Potter had looked terrified, and perhaps it had not been fear of Severus’s retribution so much as fear of what he had nearly done. Perhaps he had not been lying when he’d said that he didn’t know what effect the spell would have.

Potter had always been stupid, after all, carelessly failing to think through the consequences of his actions. Perhaps Severus had not warped him truly beyond recognition. He recalled Potter’s reaction to what he’d seen in the Pensieve and yes, that had been empathy, no doubt about it. Empathy and guilt.

Severus still wished he could undo what he’d done. But failing that, he could at least draw from the lessons learnt the previous year, reminding Potter of what was right and what wrong by confronting him with the less savoury aspects of his dear father’s past.

He told himself this was the only reason he did not reassign Potter’s detention to Filch, but he knew it was a lie. It was May already, so close to the end of the school year, and much as he’d avoided glancing at Potter, he hungered for whatever last moments of his presence he could scavenge, even as he knew it to be folly. There was no pleasure in stealing glances at Potter as he bent to the task of copying out his father’s myriad offences, but Severus drank down the sight of him regardless, like a bitter draught.

It was all he could have, now. It was all he would ever have.

---

Potter did insist on one last hurrah, late in May. Severus was patrolling the corridors one night when the girl barrelled into him, eyes as red-rimmed with tears as her flying hair.

“Snape!” she exclaimed. “You have to—come quickly! Something,”—a sob—“something terrible’s—”

Severus followed her straight to the entrance to the Astronomy Tower. There, at the bottom of the stone steps lay Potter with wide-open, empty eyes behind knocked askew glasses, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.

“How?” Severus rapped out, even as he wondered if this was how Potter would look like when all was said and done, when the Dark Lord had finished him, finally, forever.

Ginevra took a deep breath. “We were just snogging,” she said through the tears which continued to flow, “at the top of the stairs, but then he must have, I don’t know, tripped or something,”—Severus caught sight of Potter’s shoes, laces undone—“and he fell and I couldn’t grab him in time and he just went—”

“Evidently,” Severus snarled, “you ought not to be kissing him, then!”

Ginevra reeled back, and in the next flash the despair in her eyes turned to fire. “Well I won’t be, anymore, will I!” she yelled. “Not ever again! How dare you, you fucking bastard, I always knew it, you haven’t even got a heart!”

And she flew at Severus with clenched fists and bared teeth, as though her punches could hurt him, as though her physical blows bore any significance compared to the knife forged from knowledge already squarely embedded inside his... heart.

---

“Thirty points from Gryffindor!”

The pair sprang apart, startled, but Severus barely even registered the girl, could only see Potter: the quickened pace of his breath, the bruised red of his lips, glistening wet in the wandlight, the green of his eyes swallowed by black beneath his arous—

“Make that fifty points, on second thought! Ten each for public indecency, ten each for being out of bed after hours, and ten to you, Potter, for not tying your laces!”

“Not tying his laces, really?” Ginevra said. “So how long were you watching then, to catch a detail like that?”

“And ten more points from you for insolence and spurious accusations, Miss Weasley,” Severus said, but he could not for the life of him stop staring at Potter as he did so. He could barely even force himself to keep his eyes locked on the boy’s face instead of following the temptation to glance down.

“Creep,” Ginevra muttered, and stepped between them, grabbing Potter’s hand. “Come, Harry.”

Potter followed her, but not without shooting one last, mutinous glare at Severus as he went.

One last hurrah, and of course Potter would use it to throw it all back in Severus’s face, everything Severus longed for against reason, everything he was not allowed to have.

Not that Potter did it deliberately. Time, then.

Time was a bitch.

---

That night, he burned the journal. He’d held on to it for far longer than was safe.

---

Chaos. Somehow, Draco had been successful in breaking the castle’s impenetrable defences, and Severus knew not how, but there were Death Eaters inside Hogwarts and the first Severus heard of it was when Minerva’s Patronus leapt through the wall of his bedroom, startling him awake.

He had never dressed faster, but still he lost precious moments. By the time he joined the fray, the battle was already in full swing.

“Snape!” Tonks said, ducking from a red jet of light behind a banister. “Thank fuck you’re here,”—she fired another spell—“A whole bunch of them took off that way, I think they were following—”

“Draco?”

She nodded and rose to take aim, then ducked just as quickly as a green blast headed her way. “I’ve been trying to get through but they’re—”

“I’ll handle it,” Severus said.

And he danced through the chaos, ducking from stray curses only, not the main target for either side. He ran down the hallway until he came to the entrance of the Astronomy Tower, where Longbottom and Lovegood were casting ineffective spells at the blocked door. He shoved them aside and blasted straight through it.

“Stay,” he said, and took the steps two at a time, and then he burst through the door at the top and—this was it.

“Severus...” Dumbledore said softly, and Severus strode forward, shoving Draco aside. His vision seemed to narrow to the man before him. Slumped against the wall, hand blackened with death and face illuminated by Morsmordre, Dumbledore looked weak, so very weak.

Severus thought of wizened hands cupping his jaw, covering him with a blanket, thought of bittersweet chocolate trickling down his throat. He thought of phoenix-song and a warm, roaring fire, of quick-witted analysis of magical theory over dinner. He thought of a promise he should never have been forced into giving.

“Severus... please...”

He thought of Potter’s dead eyes, raised his wand, and let them fill him with green.

Avada Kedavra!

It was his own heart that seemed to stop beating for one long, suspended second, as Dumbledore’s body rose in the air. Severus inhaled and watched as he fell.

Then he grabbed the hand of the boy he did not want, and he ran.

---

Potter caught up with him. Of course he caught up with him; this was Potter and his sole goal in life was to torture Severus.

Severus's sole goal in life was to teach him, one desperate lesson after the other:

Don’t flirt with Dark magic. Do not become your father. Keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, do not, do not use my spells—do you want to turn into me? For heaven’s sake, don’t—don’t ever. Don’t ever die.

But as always, Potter refused to listen.

“Kill me, then! Kill me like you killed him, you coward—”

And Severus hated him then. He hated him more than he hated Dumbledore. He hated him for hating Severus, for not understanding. He hated him for throwing himself away like this, for asking to die, for being alive, for ever existing at all. He hated him for stealing his way under Severus’s skin and worming his way into his life; he hated him for making it matter, most of all.

“Don’t,”—Severus screamed—“call me coward!”

And he lunged at the boy with magic, blind with rage. He wanted to make Potter hurt as he was hurting; he wanted to tear him apart, to destroy him, to grab him and flee with him instead of Draco. He wanted to not want the last two of those, wanted to make it not matter, to not need Potter at all.

Thank Merlin for attacking Hippogriffs bearing sanity.

Sanity. Sanity. Whatever bare shreds of it Severus had left.

He fled.

---

“You have served me well tonight.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Severus said, addressing the ground on which he knelt. “My only aim is to please you.”

“And what could be more pleasing than plucking the thorn that was Dumbledore straight from my side? The doddering old fool was proving to be quite a... nuisance.” Black robes swished before Severus, as footsteps ground to a halt. “Such loyalty, such devotion you’ve shown me tonight—deserving of a reward, wouldn’t you say?”

“My Lord is too gracious,” Severus said, not looking up. “I seek no recompense. My only reward lies in the promise of my Lord’s exultation.”

A laugh. “Such a sweet silver tongue you have, Severus Snape.” Long fingers slid under his chin, tilting it upwards, and Severus followed, gazing into red eyes. “I confess, I have always enjoyed that particular quality of yours. So delightful. But really, I must insist. Rise, rise.”

Severus flowed to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Bellatrix’s face, contorted with fury.

“Soon, very soon, the castle shall be in our grasp, and when that moment comes, I think, it shall be yours.”

“My Lord, you honour me greatly.”

“Hmm. But something more immediate is called for, too. Tell me now, don’t be shy. Your deepest desire, your wildest wish.”

“If my Lord could find it within himself,” Severus said haltingly, “spare the boy.”

“The boy?” The red eyes seemed to flash. “You care for him, then?”

Severus shot a look over his shoulder at the far corner of the room where Draco knelt, shaking, shivering, and sneered. “Care?” he said, turning back, turning the surface of his mind slick as water. “Hardly. I pity him. He is weak, just like his father. But,”—he inclined his head with a small, as though secret, smile—“as his father used to be, so... charming to look at.”

If anything, the thin-lipped smile grew wider, more grotesque. “Ah. Well, I would hate for you to lose the pleasures which his... sight brings you; the boy may stay. Bellatrix,”—a snap of the fingers brought her to heel—“see to it that your nephew is scrubbed up. He appears to have leaked all over himself and that simply will not do. Unless, of course, that adds to the appeal?”

Severus shook his head.

“Come, Severus.” White fingers grasped his elbow lightly, and Severus went without the slightest pull. “I feel like celebrating, for a while. Let us... fly.”

---

Severus was unsurprised when he entered his room later that night to find Draco in his bed. He was, however, deeply affronted at the wild look of horror he shot at Severus, at the way he pulled the covers closer to his chin, shifting further towards the edge.

“Do not be absurd,” Severus snapped. “What else was I supposed to say?”

He split the bed down the middle with a magical barrier, lest his body get the wrong idea during sleep. On second thought, he reinforced his side of the bed with a one way soundproofing charm.

Then he undressed under the cover of night, slid beneath the sheets, and tried hard to ignore the tell-tale hitch in Draco’s breathing until it lulled him to sleep.

---

The Seventh Year

He spent the remainder of summer at Malfoy Manor. Of course Spinner’s End was unsafe, the first place in which the Order would seek him, but more crucially it had been deemed “improper for one of your stature.”

“Those of us who have touched greatness,” the Dark Lord had confided over the finest of ports, “ought to always dwell in equally great halls.”

Severus had never been homesick. Not once in his life had he longed for the cramped confines of his childhood home—not until now.

Lucius haunted the edges of corridors and corners of lavish rooms like a pale, pacing shadow of his former self, dwarfed by expansive ceilings, a twitching flourish to ornate wallpaper that never quite blended in. Draco haunted Severus’s four poster like driftwood in a sea of blankets, and whatever gratitude Narcissa had held for Severus died, rotting blacker with each night he spent there.

Behind impeccable walls Potter haunted his every waking thought, his every dream at night. His seventeenth birthday was rapidly approaching and, full of faith in Severus’s abilities, the Dark Lord set him the task of determining how and when he would be moved from Privet Drive.

Mundungus Fletcher had always been the Order’s weakest link; Severus hardly needed anyone else to tell him as much. Nor did he need anyone else to remind him that he had a fine balance to strike, ensuring the Dark Lord continued to trust what information he provided, whilst at the same time foiling his plans to capture Potter as he was moved.

Dumbledore had not been the only one gifted at chess. Although, to be truthful, he’d consistently slaughtered Severus during their matches.

But Dumbledore was not here now, and so Severus unravelled all that was essential on his own, mapping out the best way to keep Potter safe for that moment when he would forever leave the warm web of Lily's protection.

“You will suggest to the Order of the Phoenix that they use decoys. Polyjuice Potion. Identical Potters. It is the only thing that might work. You will forget that I have suggested this. You will present it as your own idea. You understand?”

“I understand,” Mundungus murmured, his eyes glassy.

It was July.

---

It was August, and Potter lived. The Ministry had fallen.

Severus swept through the main doors of the castle in a flurry of robes, his footsteps echoing in the cavern of the entrance hall.

And there they stood, in a neat, tidy line, flanked by the Carrows. Severus walked past them, slowly, studying them one by one: Trelawney, casting skittering glances across the floor. Filch, harried, uncertain. Pince, sour as ever. Pomfrey, lips thinned, hands in fists. Firenze, who knew too much, who could be his downfall, who had not yet interfered. Babbling, Vector and Sinistra; only Septima met his gaze. Burbage, absent, though the afterimage of her contorted face still lingered as a ghost. Binns, confused to be here at all. Hagrid, eyes fixed on the far wall, rigid as stone. Hooch, yellow eyes blazing, narrowed. Sprout, on the verge of angry tears. Slughorn, sweating and squirming. Flitwick, back ramrod straight, for once unsmiling. Minerva, mouth twisting in distaste, every line of her body a challenge.

Severus pivoted on his heel and took several steps, then spun to face them.

“You all know why I am here,” he said, very softly. “So I shan’t waste time belabouring the obvious, save a few pressing matters. You have all become used to the affairs of this school being run in a certain slapdash manner, but from this point forward, that will change. I am not,”—he slid his gaze along each of them, in turn—“Albus Dumbledore.”

Several gasps, quickly stifled.

“With me as Headmaster, there shall be discipline at Hogwarts once more. This should not prove too challenging a task, given that this year we shall cater to a more... select clientele, one which is,”—his lips curved in a slow smile—“untainted by the poisonous riff-raff that has been allowed to infiltrate these hallowed halls in previous years. Your new colleagues,”—he spread his arms wide, indicating the snickering Carrows—“shall be of great assistance to you in making this transition; I suggest you work with them closely. However, should you ever find yourself in any doubt about how to discipline one of your students and find the Carrows unavailable for consult, you shall bring them directly to me. My authority in this castle is absolute, and my word shall be final. Is that understood?”

They nodded with varying degrees of speed or reluctance; only one head remained squarely unmoving.

Three quick strides brought Severus right up against Minerva, his face mere inches from her own. She did not flinch.

Stupid woman. “I asked you a question.”

“Oh, I understand perfectly,” Minerva said, looking murderous. “Severus.”

“Henceforth, you shall—all—address me as Headmaster, and Headmaster only. Is that clear?”

“But of course,” Minerva said. “Headmaster.”

Severus spun away from them, waving his hand in the air. “You are dismissed.”

The castle shall know you, as it knows me, he remembered a familiar voice saying, as he strode up the wide, empty stairs, as he passed through deserted corridors. He remained uncertain himself, but now was the time to find out.

The stone gargoyle slid aside at the touch of his hand; the familiar, winding steps carried him upwards without protest. He breathed once, deeply, and walked through the door.

“Severus, my boy,” said Dumbledore’s portrait, rising from its chair. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”

There was no sharp stab of pain, only a hollow ache at his core, a tightness in his throat. Like a yearning. Like revulsion.

“Headmaster,” Severus said.

---

That year, the Sorting Hat sang no song. Apart from declaring the names of the new students’ Houses, it remained silent.

---

He missed Potter.

The Dementors hovered over the castle, blanketing all like a shroud. They fed from a distance, but still he felt them, until his every footstep, his every movement, his every word seemed shackled in lead. It could not be so, did not show, because nobody else appeared to notice, but he felt it regardless. Even the walls sang his regrets.

He should never have betrayed Lily. He should never have sought that which he could never have in all the wrong places. He should never have pinned his frail hopes on Dumbledore, should never have promised him everything. He should never have hated the boy, not knowing how little he was to have of him. He should never have saved him, never have let him kiss him, should never have kissed him back. He should never have torn from Potter’s mind what was his, should have let him live authentically, whilst he had the chance. He should never have killed Dumbledore, should not have abandoned Potter, should have taken him—no: he should have told him the truth, given him a choice and stood by his side. He should not be at Hogwarts at all, should not be watching people die.

He missed Potter.

Longbottom was a poor replacement, although his fervent efforts to step into the gap left behind were among the few things which still roused Severus’s temper. Cheek during the day and graffiti at night, and Severus might have respected the way the boy refused to flinch under his gaze anymore, were Longbottom not painting him deeper into regret with each day. Did he not realise that Severus could tighten the leash on the Carrows only so far, that he could only protect him up to a limit? Was this one more death waiting in the wings, one more death he’d have to carry, silent, in his every step?

Longbottom embodied all of Potter’s worst qualities, all his flaws: his stubborn recklessness, his inability to plan, his boundless stupidity, and Severus hated him for it, because he held none of Potter’s past, none of the shared history which wove him inside Severus’s skin. Severus hated him, because he reminded him of Potter, because yes, he missed those aspects, too, all he’d fought so hard to change in the boy.

He missed Potter.

The castle was too quiet during the day, the laughter leeched from the hallways, the empty expanse of the Quidditch pitch yawning. Each day Severus watched the students file into the courtyard for the drill: left-right-left-right, herded in orderly, square lines. Each day he watched them from a distance, marching like puppets in tune: wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong.

The castle was too loud during the stillness of night, its foundations humming with one eerie, mournful note which reverberated through stone. Sometimes, when Severus knew himself unwatched—never safe, never safe—he pressed his palms and his cheek to the wall and soaked up its lament, whispering the words which he swallowed down during the day until they congealed in a lump in his gut.

It was never enough. Like a cancer, they grew.

He missed Potter. He missed him like a fire in winter, melting the snow off soaked robes and the chill from his bones. He missed him like a thunderstorm in summer, wild and terrifying and beautiful, bringing the clean wash of rain to parched earth. He missed him like a hunger, like the taste of fresh fruit, the first trickle of water after starvation. He missed him like life; he missed him like death.

He missed him like the heart he did not possess.

He missed Potter. Each morning, he woke with the knowledge, his face wet; each morning, he shoved it to the back of his mind and locked it up, locked it tightly. (Still, it whispered to him throughout the day, in curls of smoke, in the wind.) Each evening, he lay and stared at the ceiling as it burst free, filling him up to the brim.

He dreamt in black and red and green.

He missed Potter.

---

“Headmaster! They are camping in the Forest of Dean! The Mudblood—”

“Do not use that word!”

“—the Granger girl, then, mentioned the place as she opened her bag and I heard her!”

“Good. Very good!” cried Dumbledore’s portrait, even as Severus’s heart leapt in his chest, seeming to beat for the first time in months. “Now, Severus, the sword! Do not forget that it must be taken under conditions of need and valour—and he must not know that you give it! If Voldemort should read Harry’s mind and see you acting for him—”

“I know,” Severus said, the quickening of his pulse turning to irritation. How stupid did the Headmaster think him, to treat him as though he required such detailed exposition?

He pulled the offending painting open, withdrawing the sword.

“And you still aren’t going to tell me why it’s so important to give Potter the sword?” he said, not really expecting an answer. He pulled on his cloak, concealing the sword in its folds.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Dumbledore’s portrait. “He will know what to do with it. And Severus, be very careful; they may not take kindly to your appearance after George Weasley’s mishap—”

As if they would have taken kindly to his appearance after Dumbledore’s mishap. Perhaps it wasn’t so much that Dumbledore thought him dumb as the fact that a little something always got lost in the translation to canvas; Severus had been contemplating this for a while.

“Don’t worry, Dumbledore,” he said, not betraying anything of how sharply he felt tugged towards the door. “I have a plan.”

---

The Forest of Dean was not terrifically specific as instructions went, but it was enough for a start. He still had it, after all, pressed close to his breastbone beside the time-turner: the tiniest vial of Potter’s blood. Not enough for a full-blown tracking spell, however dark—they lost potency and accuracy with increasing distance, regardless—but combined with the shard of his magic he’d left inside Potter, it should prove sufficient, at close range. He Apparated from one snow-encrusted forest to the next, withdrew it and slashed open his palm, carefully tipping the contents of the vial into the wound until Potter’s blood mingled with his own; then, with a murmured incantation, he sealed it shut.

He closed his eyes and listened and listened until he felt the pull. He followed it, let it draw him through the silent, dark wood, careful to tread lightly, stiff-frozen leaves rustling faintly beneath his feet. He let it draw him through the shadows of trees, until at last he ground to a halt.

He could not see the tent, but he knew it was there, felt Potter’s presence pulse in his blood, throbbing against his ribcage in tune with his heart.

He withdrew silently and returned to the lake he had passed on his way, thankfully close enough. The ice cracked open with barely a sound and he watched the sword sink into the frigid water.

Then he resealed its surface, like his hand, and conjured the doe.

He should have left at this point. He had done what he’d planned; there was little doubt in his mind that Potter’s curiosity would drive him to follow the Patronus, wise or not. He was only staying to ensure that Potter successfully claimed the sword, he told himself as he shielded himself behind a copse of trees and waited, his breath misting in the night air.

But he could not sustain the lie past the instant Potter stepped into the clearing. How could he, when the throb turned to a thunder and the pulse to a roar; when his mouth suddenly turned dry and his eyes drank in the sight of him as though Potter were water and Severus thirsting?

Potter looked tired and drawn, as though he had aged years instead of mere months. He looked dirty and dishevelled, unkempt and unwashed, several days worth of stubble marking his jaw. Severus had never thought him more beautiful.

He watched Potter glance about, his face cast in blue by wandlight, watched him sink to his knees by the pool, drawing deeper into the shadows as Potter’s eyes skimmed the edges of the clearing once more. He watched him reason it out, slowly, in stages, and all the while his muscles strung tight as a whipcord, screaming with the urge: go-to-him, go-to-him, go-to-him.

Then Potter began to undress, and Severus's heart stopped. He should look away; he knew that he should...

An owl hooted somewhere, startling him and he dug his fingers into the tree, clung to the wood, unable to tear his eyes away, to do anything but stare. Potter continued to undress, revealing reams of bare skin glowing white in the moonlight—but no longer pristine, its smoothness interrupted by shadows of bruises and faint traces of scars, offset by the dusting of hair on his chest and the dark trail below his navel. His muscles, sculpted and sharpened by running, shifted as he moved and it was heresy to keep watching, it was torture, perfection, the cruelest gift ever granted a man. Severus watched Potter crack the ice and when he dove into the pool Severus’s skin prickled all over. He waited and watched as Potter...

Did not resurface. Did not resurface. Surely, by now he should have broken through the water, gasping—

He did not think. He lost all reason. He knew only the impulse, branded into him through years of practice and action: he needed to save Potter. He burst into the clearing and threw himself headfirst into the water. The cold stabbed him like a thousand knives, but it did not matter, nothing mattered besides Potter. His fingers slid over flesh, an arm or a leg or a waist, he did not know which, and he grabbed it and pulled upwards, but something seemed to be pulling them down; his feet found the bottom of the pool and he pushed and wrenched Potter up in his arms with every last ounce of his strength, tearing him from the water and dragging him onto solid ground…

Potter wasn’t breathing. There was a gold chain around his neck which appeared to have tangled; it felt wrong when Severus touched it but he had no time to pay it much heed. He tore it off and pressed his lips to the boy’s, breathing air into his lungs and Potter jerked, coughed and sputtered...

“Snape!”

Severus froze and whipped towards the sound, because it was not Potter who had spoken, but someone at the edge of the clearing. He had a mere instant to recognise Weasley, wand pointing straight at him, before he had to duck and roll to avoid the jet of red light. His waterlogged robes slowed him down, his body an agony of ice as he stumbled to his feet, but he forced himself to duck again as he ran for the trees, thinking fuck fuck fuck long past they had swallowed him up, thinking it still as he reached for the chain round his neck with trembling fingers.

---

He grabbed Snape by the arm just before he could leap into the clearing, whispering, “No.”

Snape startled at the touch—dangerous, how easy it had been to sneak up on him—caught sight of his face and tugged; for a moment, they struggled.

“But he is dr—”

Severus pressed his stiff-frozen hand over his mouth. “No,” he said. “Watch.”

And together they watched Weasley run into the clearing and jump in the water, watched him drag Potter from it faster than Severus had managed, as though he knew what he was fighting against, watched him lift a round, glimmering object over Potter’s head, cursing, complaining that Potter had worn it...

“Come,” Severus murmured, fighting hard to keep his teeth from chattering, “quickly. We can’t be seen. Vanish our footsteps.”

Snape complied, although he seemed torn, following Severus until he’d led them a safe distance away.

“What was that thing?” Snape said, the moment they stopped.

“I d-don’t k-know,” Severus said and shuddered; now that the danger was gone, the cold finally caught up with him. He had spun himself back in time too hastily to spell himself dry. “D-dark,” he said, his fingers fumbling, clumsy and numb, for his wand. “W-would l-love to—”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” snapped Snape and arced his wand. The wave of warmth rushing through Severus’s body felt so blissful that he shuddered anew as he collapsed against a tree, closing his eyes.

When he opened them again, he could not read Snape’s expression at all. “Whatever it is,” he said, heavily, “Dumbledore will never tell us.”

Snape gazed past him, to whence they had come.

“At least,” Severus said, casting about for anything to hold the tide he felt rising inside him at bay, “at least Potter is safe now.”

“Safe,” Snape said, his voice cracking on the word, his facade cracking with it.

And he looked at Severus and Severus knew, in that instant, precisely what he was thinking, what he was feeling, knew that they were for once perfectly in synch.

It was too much. It was too much, when surely it should have been so on all of the days previous, but it was different, somehow, seeing it reflected like this in a mirror, polished darkly. It was too much, and Severus could not bear it; he reached for Snape’s face with both hands, cupping his jaw, resting their foreheads together. Snape echoed him and so they stood, eyes closed, leaning against each other, breathing, breathing.

It did not help. It only strengthened the tide swelling inside him, until it crested in one great wave: everything he’d submerged, everything he kept hidden, every longing, every curse right there at the surface. He sought for an anchor, desperately, surging forward with his lips...

It was all wrong. They were all awkward angles and bone, all teeth and nose; they did not fit. They both wanted the same and it made for a terrible kiss, neither giving, neither bending. Snape’s lips were too thin and his tongue too insistent: it felt more like a struggle than a kiss. Everything about it jarred.

They broke apart and stared at each other.

“That,” Snape said, wiping at his lips just as Severus did the same, “never happened.”

“No,” Severus said very quickly. “No, it did not.”

“I’m glad we are in agreement.” Snape straightened and pulled the chain from beneath his collar, drawing it over his head. “I had best go and...”

He paused, staring at the time-turner.

“I believe,” Severus said, “that the world should keep revolving if you do not repeat... the thing that never happened.”

“Oh, fuck off,” said Snape, and walked off into the dark.

Severus watched him go, stunned, head spinning as he sank back against the tree.

It was official: he had well and truly lost his mind.

---

He waited.

He waited.

He waited.

(He despised waiting.)

---

It was May, and his Mark burnt black with the message he had been dreading: Potter was here. In the castle. Back at Hogwarts.

He closed his eyes, taking a breath. It threatened to rise inside him like a torrent, like an avalanche, but he refused to let it. He shoved it down, shoved it aside; he let it bleed away into the ether, stepped away from it, floating above it. He detached himself utterly.

He was five, hiding in his bedroom from the sounds. He was fifteen, home for the holidays, the door spilling open on a sliver of red. He was twenty, watching a body jerk and twitch under the lick of Cruciatus.

He was perfect at this.

He moved through the corridors in the shadows, wand at the ready, knowing that Potter would not come willingly for a chat.

“Who’s there?”

“It is I.” Severus stepped out from behind the suit of armour, towards Minerva. “Where are the Carrows?”

“Wherever you told them to be, I expect, Severus.”

Liar. He could have smelled it on her from a mile off, and with that knowledge came another. Potter was with her, was here. Close by, at the least, probably beneath his cloak.

“I was under the impression that Alecto had apprehended an intruder.”

“Really? And what gave you that impression?”

Severus flexed his left arm, both in answer and as a reminder; she could not forget who she was dealing with.

Perhaps he was not quite so perfect at this as he once had been.

“Oh, but naturally,” said Minerva. “You Death Eaters have your own private means of communication; I forgot.”

Dangerous, dangerous. Severus stepped closer, still looking for the faintest sign of Potter. “I did not know that it was your night to patrol the corridors, Minerva.”

“You have some objection?”

“I wonder what could have brought you out of your bed at this late hour?”

“I thought I heard a disturbance.”

“Really? But all seems calm.”

Severus gazed into her eyes. Now, then, there was nothing for it. Cards on the table.

“Have you seen Harry Potter, Minerva? Because if you have, I must insist—”

She was fast, but he was faster, his Shield Charm blasting her off balance. In the next instant, however, she had recovered and fire flew at him in a scorching circle. He morphed it into a serpent which she burst into smoke; the smoke turned to daggers, and for fuck’s sake, he did not want to hurt her—

He threw the suit of armour between them to welcome the knives instead of shooting them back.

“Minerva!”

Fuck. No, no, no; he needed to get to Potter! He could not let this stop him—

“No!” shrieked Flitwick. “You’ll do no more murder at Hogwarts!”

The suit of armour lunged at him and he struggled with it, threw it off, at them, and for a split second he froze, undecided. He needed to get to Potter; it was essential, but how much use would he be to him, dead or unconscious?

Minerva alone he could have taken, if at a stretch. Flitwick alone, similar odds. Sprout, definitely, but all three of them at once?

He knew when he was outmatched.

He did the only thing he could do. He fled as he had last year, with the bitterest sense of déja-vu, Minerva yelling the worst of all invectives at his back, the same one which Potter had used.

If only she knew, he thought as he flew.

It was only after he’d landed that he acknowledged the truth: he might have been able to take them, had he gone straight for the kill. But he’d been too concerned with their welfare for the idea to even cross his mind.

He was so far from perfect at this that it was absurd. The very realisation seemed so unreal that he could not decide whether he felt horrified or relieved at it. Perhaps a bit of both, and yet now was not the time for either emotion. Both were a weakness.

What if he’d lost his sole chance of getting to Potter?

---

“Give me Harry Potter, and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter, and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter, and you will be rewarded. You have until midnight.”

Any fool could have told the Dark Lord that he was wasting his time. Naturally, nobody did, and least of all Severus. Each second they waited gave those inside Hogwarts precious time to strengthen their defences against the forces that continued to gather and swell outside the front gates.

That was Severus’s sole reason for not urging a more expeditious attack. That, and the fact that challenging the Dark Lord was reckless at best and downright suicidal at worst, and for now Severus needed to stay alive.

It had nothing to do with knowing that each second they waited was another second Potter, too, did not die.

Severus felt poised on the brink of a cliff, stepping forwards even as he pulled back. He welcomed the chance Minerva and Flitwick and the rest of them had to build their resistance, even as he barked orders at his fellow Death Eaters to disperse and fall into strategic positions, even as he knew that breaking through that resistance was his only chance of getting to Potter.

And he needed to get to Potter. The urge sang under his skin, in tune with the restless impatience emanating from the crowd behind him, surging as the Dark Lord paced before the iron-cast gates, his every movement sharp and coiled as the snake around his neck.

Severus needed to get to Potter, and yet he never wanted to get to him at all. He wanted it over and done with, now; he never wanted this battle to begin. He was balancing on a knife’s edge, and it was as though it had already cut him clean down the middle, sliced him into two halves which barely connected, which tore him towards opposite poles, miles apart.

Midnight struck and there was no sign of Potter.

The Dark Lord smiled, turning towards them.

So much for him not wanting to spill magical blood. Once, Severus had believed him, had clung to the notion blindly, ignoring all the facts.

Once. A lifetime ago.

“Kill whom you wish,” the Dark Lord said very softly. Severus heard the thundering echo of his voice a split second later, amplified without the need for Sonorus. “Kill whomever you wish, except for the boy—he is to be captured, but left alive. Harry Potter is mine, and mine alone.”

And he lifted the Elder wand, and—almost casually—began to dismantle the wards.

Severus had helped to build them. Many of Hogwarts’ more accomplished professors had, over the years, weaving their unique strengths into them to fashion a whole that went far beyond the sum of its parts. Flitwick was in there and Minerva and Vector; Armando Dippet and Phineas Nigellus Black and countless wizards and witches long since deceased, but celebrated in their day for good reason. Through it all, Dumbledore’s magic ran like a thread, tying strong, recent currents and fainter traces fading with age together.

Hogwarts’ wards were legendary. They were formidable, as close to perfection as any Severus had ever seen, and now he watched them unravel beneath the Dark Lord’s hand, shattering apart one by one, in bright showers of sparks.

It was breathtaking. As though from a distance, he felt himself tremble with awe; behind him the crowd hovered, utterly silent.

And then the last link in the chain gave and the gate slowly swung open, creaking on its hinges.

“Go,” the Dark Lord commanded, stepping aside.

And they burst forward with a roar, like an unstoppable tide, so swift that Severus barely moved out of their way in time. He watched them race past him, some nearly stumbling over their feet in their eagerness to fight, those who deserved to die and those who, perhaps, merely needed to learn that power was not the cure to all ills.

In the end, they were all the same. Cannon fodder.

Severus followed them at a reasonable distance. He needed to get to Potter, and so he could not be with the front rank, as it died.

---

He kept to the fringes as the battle raged, kept himself safe. Patience would see him through; he only needed to wait for a wide enough hole in their defences to slip into the heart of the castle, where no doubt they kept Potter shielded, right at the calm eye of the storm.

The moment drew ever closer. The giants had joined them, smashing the gargoyles to pieces. The front doors of the castle had been breached, and now, now was the time—

He could have screamed when Lucius drew him away, just as he was about to leap into the fight. For a split second he contemplated rank disobedience, but no—the instant the Dark Lord learned of it he would have them all out for Severus’s blood, every last one of the Death Eaters.

He flew towards Hogsmeade, gripped by fury and fear. He burst through the doors of the Shrieking Shack at a run, breathing heavily.

“My Lord wished to see me?”

“Yes.” Two fingers beckoned from across a table. “Come.”

“My Lord,” Severus said, shutting the door behind him and stepping forward, into the gloom, “surely I should be out there, fighting your battle? Am I not best placed to assist you there? We are getting so close, now, my Lord, their resistance is crumbling—”

“—and it is doing so without your help. Skilled wizard though you are, Severus, I do not think you will make much difference now. We are almost there... almost.”

“Let me find the boy,” Severus said, desperation cutting straight through his fear. “Let me bring you Potter. I know I can find him, my Lord. Please.”

He stepped closer, skirting the snake floating at the centre of the room, safely ensconced in a glittering, protective sphere. He needed to get to Potter. If only he could find the right words...

The Dark Lord rose, his movements flowing like silk. “I have a problem, Severus,” he said softly.

“My Lord?”

Long, white fingers raised the Elder Wand. “Why doesn’t it work for me, Severus?”

The snake hissed slightly, writhing in its cage, the sound a perfect counterpoint to the static which suddenly filled Severus’s mind. “My—my Lord?” he stammered, through his confusion, remembering the spectacle of the wards, undone. “I do not understand. You—you have performed extraordinary magic with that wand.”

“No. I have performed my usual magic. I am extraordinary, but this wand... no. It has not revealed the wonders it has promised. I feel no difference between this wand and the one I procured from Ollivander’s all those years ago.”

He sounded contemplative, calm. Too calm, and inside Severus something twisted, winding his stomach into ever-tightening knots.

“No difference,” said the Dark Lord.

Severus sought for the words, any words that might reassure, but he had none. He watched as the Dark Lord began to walk about the room, his every movement tight and coiled, his eyes narrowing to red slits. He had never more closely resembled his snake.

The snake. Severus stared at it, helplessly. He needed to get to Potter...

“I have thought long and hard, Severus... do you know why I have called you back from the battle?”

“No, my Lord, but I beg you will let me return. Let me find Potter.”

“You sound like Lucius. Neither of you understands Potter as I do.” Severus’s guts clenched, sharply. “He does not need finding. Potter will come to me. I know his weakness, you see, his one great flaw. He will hate watching the others struck down around him, knowing that it is for him that it happens. He will want to stop it at any cost. He will come.”

Damn him for being so perceptive; that was precisely what Severus’s feared. Not to mention why he lov—“But my Lord,” he said, hastily cutting off the thought, “he might be killed accidentally by one other than yourself—”

“My instructions to my Death Eaters have been perfectly clear. Capture Potter. Kill his friends—the more, the better—but do not kill him. But it is of you that I wished to speak, Severus, not Harry Potter. You have been very valuable to me. Very valuable.”

“My Lord knows I seek only to serve him. But—let me go and find the boy, my Lord. Let me bring him to you. I know I can—”

“I have told you, no!” the Dark Lord said as he spun towards Severus. “My concern at the moment, Severus, is what will happen when I finally meet the boy!”

“My Lord, there can be no question, surely?”

“But there is a question, Severus. There is.”

The Dark Lord ground to a halt, and Severus belatedly realised that he had effectively cut off the only path towards the door, leaving him cornered, captured, caught.

“Why did both the wands I have used fail when directed at Harry Potter?”

“I—I cannot answer that, my Lord.”

“Can’t you?”

The damnable thing was, Severus could not. Beyond the fact that time... time had been waiting. For this.

“My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter. Twice it failed. Ollivander told me under torture of the twin cores, told me to take another’s wand. I did so, but Lucius’s wand shattered upon meeting Potter’s.”

Severus’s eyes stuck to the snake. Whatever task Dumbledore had set the boy, whatever darkness had been in that locket, whatever purpose he’d needed the sword to fulfill—time had seen fit to grant Potter the chance to see it through. But now everything hinged on Severus adding the final piece to the puzzle...

“I—I have no explanation, my Lord.”

“I sought a third wand, Severus. The Elder Wand, the Wand of Destiny, the Deathstick. I took it from its previous master. I took it from the grave of Albus Dumbledore.”

And with a jolt, Severus knew what conclusion the Dark Lord had arrived at, whether correct or erroneous.

“My Lord,” he rasped, gazing straight into red eyes, “let me go to the boy—”

“All this long night, when I am on the brink of victory, I have sat here, wondering, wondering why the Elder Wand refuses to be what it ought to be, refuses to perform as legend says it must perform for its rightful owner... and I think I have the answer.”

And Severus had walked straight into the trap. Like a fool, he’d allowed himself to be caught, but it was too soon—he could not die now, he couldn’t, not after all he’d done, after everything he’d worked for, not when he’d given up—

“Perhaps you already know it? You are a clever man, after all, Severus. You have been a good and faithful servant, and I regret what must happen.”

No way out. “My Lord—”

“The Elder Wand cannot serve me properly, Severus, because I am not its true master. The Elder Wand belongs to the wizard who killed its last owner. You killed Albus Dumbledore. While you live, Severus, the Elder Wand cannot be truly mine.”

“My Lord!” Severus gasped, raising his wand, knowing it to be futile. He could never win. He stood no chance at all.

“It cannot be any other way. I must master the wand, Severus. Master the wand, and I master Potter at last.”

He slashed at the air, and for a split second, as Severus felt nothing, he knew a sliver of hope. Perhaps the wand refused to harm him…

Then the snake’s cage fell over him and he knew only the terror in his heart, holding him captive. A terrible hiss and the creature lunged at him and agony tore through his neck, crashing over his senses, obscuring all else. As though from a great distance, he heard a scream and felt himself struggling, felt his legs give way into nothingness.

“I regret it,” a cold voice came, through the roar of his blood.

The spinning lights before his eyes drifted away and Severus crashed to the floor, not feeling it, feeling only the pain. He needed to master it, needed to move, but his limbs would not obey him, heavy as stone. He fought the fog that descended on him and succeeded in bringing weak fingers to the wound, but they could not staunch the flow.

Wasted, the wetness whispered, sliding over his fingers. Failure. Failure. Failure.

The pain was receding now, fading away into coldness. He stared at the ceiling and his vision blurred, and like a dream a familiar face swam before his eyes—

Not a dream. Real. With some last shred of strength he grasped at Potter’s robes, wrenching him closer, forcing speech from his torn throat in a heavy, sick gurgle.

“Take it... Take it...”

And he thrust them towards him: every last memory he held of saving Potter and all the memories that had grown from them, were tied to them by feeling, like vines. He did not know how, knew only that he had to, but they spilled from him regardless, like tears long denied, like his blood, like his life.

Until at long last, he was drained dry.

So cold, he was so cold. Everything seemed so slow, from the dull echo of his heartbeat to the dim shape of Potter’s head bending down to the flask; he seemed to be floating, suspended, underwater.

He moved his lips, barely hearing his own whisper. “Look... at... me...”

Potter’s eyes, green as the sea, drowning him in a murmur of waves. The sweetest. Of deaths...

All went black.

---

His first conscious thought was that hell was surprisingly bright. It pained him, however, the brightness piercing like lances through his flickering eyelids, so that part, at least, seemed to be right.

When he opened his eyes to find Potter gazing straight at him, elation blazing all over his face, he knew two things incontrovertibly:

If Potter was here, this had to be heaven, could not be hell. And if Potter was here, if Potter was dead, then Severus had succeeded. He’d succeeded.

He’d failed.

And he could not bear to look at him for one second longer, could not bear to see Potter bounded by white light, so happy in death. He shut his eyes against the sight, but it had sunk deep inside him already, tearing something vital asunder on its way, a thread, maybe, or a chain, something which held Severus together. Without it, there was no stopping the feeling that rose from his core, not this time. It crested beneath his sternum and ripped up through his throat, spilled from his lips in a sob, spilled wet from his eyes. He turned his cheek into softness, but, for the very first time in his life, he did not fight it, letting the darkness flow from him with his tears, thinking that maybe, just maybe, it was all right. If he was in heaven—against logic, against every reason—then perhaps he was finally allowed to cry.

He couldn’t have stopped, now that he’d started; it hurt far too much to gain even a modicum of control. It hurt so much that he could only gasp through the pain, that he shuddered with it, crushed beneath the tight vise around his ribs, stealing his breath. It did not get better, brought no release, because there could never be enough tears to match the ocean that had slumbered inside him all these years. Perhaps it would never stop. Perhaps this was not heaven after all but hell, and this was his penance, to be condemned to an eternity—

“Snape? Snape? Fuck, what’s wrong, are you,”—a touch to his shoulder, quickly withdrawn, offering no relief. “Are you in pain?”

Severus could have laughed, had he been able.

“I—don’t move, okay, I’ll be right back. I’m getting a Healer.”

The incongruity of the word cut through his despair where nothing else had, confusion dampening grief. Why would a dead person need a Healer, be they in heaven or hell?

He forced his eyes open to see Potter stride away as though through a blurred pane of glass. Instinctively Severus leapt into motion, trying to follow, wrenching himself up, but his limbs seemed sluggish and weak, and he only succeeded in nearly tumbling out of bed. He would have, too, had Potter not spun around at the sound and caught him.

“Careful,” he said. “Jesus, don’t hurt yourself—didn’t I tell you not to move?”

But there was no censure in his voice, his eyes radiating concern, his hands gentle as they levered Severus back into the bed.

On second thought, the afterlife shouldn’t come with those, either. Severus drew in a shaky breath and grabbed Potter’s wrist, gripping it tightly.

“I—” he rasped, then coughed and swallowed. His vocal cords felt raw and unused, as though they were brand new. He tried again. “Where am I?”

“St Mungo’s.” Potter frowned. “Look, are you sure you’re not in any pain?”

“I’m... not dead.”

And Potter’s frown lifted, like rainclouds giving way to sunshine. “No,” he said, with a smile. “Well, you kind of were, but then I went back and saved you. Came bloody close anyway; you’ve been in a healing trance for the last two weeks. Wasn’t sure you were ever going to wake up.”

Severus’s hand flew to his throat, finding a bandage there, softening the dull ache behind it. “But you’re—you were supposed to—”

“Oh,” Potter said, still beaming, “I did die. Kind of. A little. But then I came back.”

Severus stared at him, utterly confounded. He... came back.

“Voldemort’s definitely dead, though, if that’s what you were going to ask next.”

Severus tried to respond, but his throat, parched and dry as dust, insisted on enforcing its limits: when he tried to speak, he broke into a coughing fit. Potter held him through it until Severus found enough breath to croak, “Water.” As Potter turned away, Severus surreptitiously wiped the tear-tracks off his face, sniffing away the last evidence of his treacherous weakness.

“Here,” Potter said, shoving soft pillows behind Severus’s back even as he pressed a cool glass to his lips, and all thoughts of humiliation promptly fled. Severus leaned back and gulped the water down in long, sweet swallows, as though it were nectar.

“I should really go let the Healers know you’re awake,” Potter said, when he was done. He set the glass onto the small bedside table.

Severus shook his head. “Please,” he said, and the words came somewhat more easily now. “I don’t—I need to understand.”

Potter gazed at him for a long moment, then perched on the edge of Severus’s bed. “Okay,” he said.

And he told Severus of everything Dumbledore had withheld and of that which the Headmaster could not have foreseen: of the Hallows and Horcruxes, of walking to his death and returning, of how his willing sacrifice had protected his friends, of the true master of the Elder Wand and of the Dark Lord, vanquished by his own Killing Curse.

He did not mention the memories until the very end.

“And then I thought of how you had saved me, all those times, and it didn’t seem fair. And the thing was, I’d just assumed you were dead in the Shack when your eyes closed, but I’d never bloody well checked if you’d just passed out and were about to die, so I decided to chance it, and got a bunch of dittany and antivenin and blood-replenishing potions and went back to get this.”

The familiar gold chain clinked slightly, as Potter set the time-turner down on the bed.

“And I was right; it was almost as though some part of you was still clinging to life, like a piece of your magic was keeping you—”

Potter broke off, shaking his head. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about the loop. I closed that because past-me arrived just as I’d got you stabilised. He took the time-turner you were wearing, because this one...”

He stared down at the small object. Severus followed his gaze, and now that he paid closer attention he could see the split in the hourglass where the sand had poured from its confines. Not a single grain remained.

“It cracked the moment I arrived,” Potter said softly and fell silent. When he glanced back up at Severus, a curious sort of smile played about his lips, sadness tempered by acceptance. “Probably a good thing it did. Would have been too tempting, otherwise, to try and go back to save everyone else.”

And Severus could not help it. Here Potter was, alive, alive when he should never have survived. Here he was, brimming with regret and empathy and resilience, looking at Severus with kindness instead of hatred, despite all he had been through; he was Potter; he was alive...

Severus could not help it. It rose inside him like the sadness, but warmer, more delirious, until he felt as though he were floating with it, drowning in Potter’s eyes. It would not be denied, and Severus surged forward, sliding his hands into Potter’s hair as he drew him close and kissed him.

For one heartbeat, Potter froze, but then his lips parted on a sigh and he melted into Severus’s hands like butter. Severus drank down the sound and traced its path into Potter’s mouth with his tongue, lingering over his teeth, his palate, chasing a lingering hint of acidity until he tasted only warm wetness. He was dimly aware of the need for breath, but it hardly mattered, not with his heart thundering so wildly it might beat straight out of his chest, not when he felt like he would split apart at the seams any moment from the force of his elation. That Potter was alive and in his arms, that Severus should be permitted to have this...

He jerked away, as though stung. What the fuck was he doing?

“I...” he said, breathing heavily, still mere inches from Potter. He hastily withdrew his hands. “I apologise. That was... extremely presumptuous of me.”

Potter stared at him from behind smudged lenses.

“Yeah,” he said. “No. I mean...” He ducked his head on a laugh, shaking it. “God, you confuse me so much.”

Severus did not respond. He wouldn’t have known what to say, even had his throat not closed up at the sight of Potter running a hand through dishevelled hair, not meeting his eyes.

It did not help when Potter at long last did look back at him. Probably because Severus could not for the life of him have deciphered what now lay behind his eyes.

“So,” Potter said seriously. “Turns out I don’t actually like girls.”

And the knowledge slammed inside Severus when surely it should have done so moments ago, when surely it should have been obvious from the start. “You... remember.”

“Yeah,” Potter said, his mouth twisting in something not quite a smile. “Everything. The moment I came out of your memories it was like some sort of lock snicked open, and... bang.” He shook his head. “Hell of a time for it.”

Severus stared down at the white sheets, his hands clenching around the fabric. Speech seemed impossible and ill-advised. After all, what could he say that would hold any meaning? Words could not undo what he’d done, so perhaps he should simply pretend—

No. Potter deserved better than this and Severus could give it, wanted to give it. At the very least, he could acknowledge it.

He forced himself to meet Potter’s eyes, and it felt harder by far than it ought to have done, as though he were fighting gravity itself, to shape his lips into the words.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Potter gazed at him evenly. “For what?”

“For taking something from you which wasn’t mine to take. Twice.” He grimaced. “Three times, if you’re counting the fact that I did... kiss you back. Four, if you’re counting what I did just no—”

“Okay, no,” Potter interrupted him, holding up a hand. “That last one I can’t give you. It was a bit of a shock, true, but I decided to run with it. Number three was at least in part my doing, though I take your point. And as for one and two...”

“You have every right to be angry with me,” Severus said very quickly. “I do not... expect your forgiveness.”

And the damnedest thing was, he didn’t. In spite of how much it hurt.

Potter sighed. “I was, for a while. Not immediately afterwards, I think I was too shocked, then. And not so much about,”—he waved a hand in the air in a spiralling motion—“whatever it was you did to make me resistant to Imperio, because hell yeah, that did save my life. I really don’t want to think about what Crouch would have done without it, so that one’s already forgiven.” He glanced away, momentarily. “The second Obliviate, though... that hurt. That was... me.”

“Yes,” Severus said. “You have no idea how much I wished—”

“I do, actually. Your memories—it was the weirdest fucking thing; I don’t really understand it. They weren’t like any memories I’ve ever seen in a Pensieve—and sorry for that, by the way, whilst we’re at it, really—but when I was watching them it was like I was... inside your head. I knew what you were thinking, what you were feeling.”

Severus paused, mind spinning for several seconds. “Probably because they were unfiltered by a wand. Combined with the fact that—”

“—I’m kind of your Horcrux, too?” Potter’s mouth twisted. “Forget that I said that, that was a terrible joke.” He rubbed at his neck. “What I was trying to say was that I get why you did it. I don’t think you were giving yourself half enough credit at the time, but I also understand why you freaked. Because you were right; I was bloody confused and if we’d... it would have been a terrible idea. And I’m really not happy with how you dealt with it, but I also don’t want to stay angry with you, knowing why you did it. So, I do. Forgive you.”

Something clenched sharply inside Severus at the words. “I sent you to your death.”

Potter’s eyes flashed. “And it’s not like Dumbledore gave you much of a choice about that, is it?” he said. “Don’t even get me started; now, him, I am angry with. Not so much on my behalf but because the way he treated you was... disgusting. I told him as much, when I saw him after I’d died at King’s Cross. Or inside my head, wherever it was.”

Severus blinked. “You... did.”

“Of course I bloody well did!”

“You needn’t have,” Severus said. “Regardless, it hardly compares to what he expected of you.”

Potter gazed at him for a moment. “Funny how we both do that.”

“Do what?”

“Dismiss others treating us like shit so long as they’ve also been nice to us, sometimes. And yet, get really pissed off when they do it to somebody else.”

Severus said nothing. He’d never thought of it quite like that, before.

“You were there, you know,” Potter said very softly, eyes fixed on the blanket. “When I used the Resurrection Stone, you were... you were there. You didn’t say anything and you kind of stuck to the background, as though you weren’t sure you were supposed to be there. But you walked with me anyway, all the way, even if it meant trailing after my dad and Sirius and Remus. You looked so... so bloody sad.”

Of course Severus had walked with him; as if he ever could have done otherwise. But Potter looked so sad himself as he spoke that Severus could not bear it; he reached out, trailing his fingers down the side of Potter’s face, cupping his jaw. Potter sighed, closing his eyes, and for long seconds he leaned into the touch. Then, slowly, he grasped Severus’s wrist and drew it away, setting it down on the bed.

Severus tried not to feel the rejection. He tried telling himself that Potter’s forgiveness was more than he could ever have hoped for, ever have expected, because it was true. Still, he was not entirely successful.

It must have shown on his face, because when Potter opened his eyes, his forehead shifted into a frown. “Look,” he said. “I’m not—I know I must be giving you a whole bunch of mixed signals, what with kissing you earlier, and all.”

“I kissed you,” Severus said.

“And I kissed you back,” Potter said. “But the thing is, I am still confused. I meant what I said earlier; I do forgive you. But there’s also a part of me that’s still angry, however much I want to let it go, a part that’s a little afraid to... trust you. And I don’t want to jump into this whilst that’s still there, because it wouldn’t be fair, least of all on you. I’ve thought about it a lot, actually, over the past couple of weeks and it’s like—I feel like I know you because of the memories, but I’m not sure I really do, or that you know me, either. Hell, I’m not completely sure I know who I am, right now. God, that sounds horrid.”

“No,” Severus said, a tight knot unspooling somewhere inside him, even as another held fast, one of his own making. “No, it makes perfect sense.”

“Oh, good,” Potter said with evident relief. He looked startlingly young as he said it, just for a flash; then it shifted and he looked the same as always, older than his years. “I would love to, though. Get to know you. Learn to trust you. I’m not saying never. But I need... time.”

“Time,” Severus said, glancing down at the broken hourglass between them. “I suppose we have that, now.”

And Potter gripped his hand tightly and smiled at him with green eyes, and it lit Severus up from the inside, like pure, distilled sunshine.

It was enough, to make Potter happy. It was far more than enough.

---

Coda

The first time Harry Potter died, he was eleven years old.

The first time he kissed Severus, he was fifteen. The first time Severus kissed him, seventeen.

The first time they kiss each other, unencumbered by guilt, by shame, by anger and confusion, is also the first anniversary of the end of the war.

“God,” Harry says, collapsing against the wall of Severus’s quarters the moment the door shuts behind them. “Finally. I’m so fucking glad to be out of there.”

Severus can hardly fault him. They’ve only just managed to escape the raucous celebration still going strong in the Great Hall, and not for want of trying to leave.

“You mean you didn’t enjoy it then?” Severus says, arching an eyebrow as he walks over to the sideboard to pour them both drinks. Scotch, one neat, one with a dash of soda water. Severus used to consider the latter a crime, but Harry likes it that way. “The inspiring speeches? The fireworks shaped like lightning-bolts? Not to mention, the dramatic unveiling of that stunning statue depicting your ultimate triumph over evil?”

“Oh, don’t even,” Harry says, face twisting. “I swear, I’ve never been so embarrassed in my whole life. That thing is—”

“A wholly inaccurate representation of reality? A travesty to truth?”

“Yes! For one, I wasn’t that bloody tall! I’m not even that tall now! I wasn’t shimmering in gold, either, and I sure as fuck didn’t throw my arms to both sides when I went to see Voldemort in the Forest. It’s—”

“Gaudy? Garish? Grotesque?”

Harry’s lips twitch.

“Ludicrous? Libellous? Licentious?”

And Harry laughs, the remainder of his tension melting into genuine relaxation. “Thanks,” he says, pushing himself away from the wall and walking towards Severus. “I needed that. I swear, one more bloody toast to the Boy Who Lived Twice...”

Severus sneers. “What a load of claptrap. They know nothing. To me, you’ll forever be The Boy Who Died A Lot.”

“And you,”—Harry smiles, his fingers tripping over the buttons of Severus’s collar—“my dark Prince.”

Severus should really have a comeback to such an atrocious pun, but his mind stutters into a blank as his pulse leaps in his throat. Harry’s so close to him, all of a sudden, his face mere inches from Severus’s own, so that Severus can feel the warm gust of his breath on every exhale.

“You asked for time,” Severus says very softly.

“Hmm,” Harry acknowledges, still toying with the buttons. “And I’ve had a year. That’s plenty of time, don’t you reckon?”

It’s true. They’ve been dancing for a while now. They danced during Severus’s convalescence and throughout his—mercifully brief—trial. They’ve danced at numerous restaurants and cafes and out on the streets. They’ve danced over dinners and breakfasts and lunches, whilst out shopping and over drinks at the pub; lately, the drinks have increasingly moved to Severus’s quarters or Grimmauld Place. They’ve been dancing around each other in ever-tightening concentric circles, so much so that Minerva has begun to drop sly remarks every other time she visits Severus’s office.

Severus has never done this before. He’s never waited for anyone. He first fell into Lucius’s and then Regulus’s bed on impulse, with nary a thought for the consequences; then, for a while, he fell into a string of unnamed men’s beds purely for physical gratification. He’s desperately glad that neither Dumbledore nor the Dark Lord ever offered (demanded), because in hindsight he probably would have fallen (obeyed) there, too.

Harry is new in all ways, and he’s opened Severus up, like a hand turning the cover of a diary to reveal its first, pristinely blank page. The previous volumes still rest on a shelf, somewhere, but each new entry has been a revelation in how sweet the waiting can be, a reward in and of itself. It seems absurd, therefore, that now the waiting is over, some fragment of Severus remains deathly afraid.

“If you are certain,” he says haltingly, “that you—”

“I trust you,” Harry says, and apparently that was all Severus needed to hear.

They meet halfway, their lips brushing softly. It’s as gentle as their first kiss but not nearly as shocking or hesitant: more like a welcome. When Severus traces the bow of Harry’s mouth with his tongue, Harry sighs and instantly lets him in, and Severus follows the flicker of his tongue as though drawn, sinking into warm wetness. Harry tastes faintly of the champagne he has been drinking and, as his hand curls around the back of Severus’s neck, Severus feels a little like champagne himself, like golden bubbles are rising inside him, everywhere. He tries to savour every moment but the slowness is almost too perfect to be borne, amplifying each touch, each sound. Then Harry deepens their kiss, taking over, and Severus cannot for the life of him resist it, cannot even recall why he should want to. Before long the languorous slide of their tongues has turned into something sharper and hotter. Severus sways with it, pressing himself against Harry and kisses him until he’s dizzy with it.

Only the need for air drives them apart. For a moment they rest, forehead to forehead, breathing in gasps, the hard line of Harry’s cock a brand against Severus’s own, even though layers of robes.

Harry withdraws. “Bed,” he says, his eyes dark, and pulls Severus by the hand towards the room as though he’s been there countless times before.

They undress each other, lingering over buttons between kisses—or at least until Harry’s fingers stall on a particularly recalcitrant one for the third time in a row.

“Fucking bloody useless—how many of the damn things are there, anyway? What bloody purpose do they serve?”

And he looks so thoroughly enraged, glaring at the object as though it has deliberately set out to offend him, that Severus cannot help it. He laughs.

Harry stops glaring long enough to kiss him, slow and deep and hot. “You have to do that again, sometime. Soon.”

Severus licks his lips. “What? Wear overly elaborate articles of clothing?”

“No,” Harry says. “Laugh.” He frowns at the buttons. “This will take me—hey! You could have told me there was a spell for that.”

Severus sets his wand on the bedside table.

“You’ll have to teach it to me.”

“Hmm,” Severus says, shrugging the fabric off his shoulders before pulling Harry’s hands to his belt. “Perhaps. But later.”

The rest of their clothes are easy work, after that, and then they spill onto the bed, mouth to mouth, hip to hip. As it turns out, Severus finds himself rather thanking the buttons, because the brief interruption has blunted the edge of his arousal just enough to allow him to explore Harry more leisurely, taking his time. He’s waited this long, so it seems fitting to wait just a bit longer. He traces the angle of Harry’s collarbone with his fingers, sucking kisses into the hollow of his neck; he finds the jut of his hipbones with his palms, the small of his back and surges against him, once, twice, and again, moving on before the sweet friction can grow overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming, regardless. It’s nothing, nothing at all like that first terrifying dream which slammed him into awareness, an adagio of discovery instead of a brisk, broken chord, and Severus’s heart leaps with it as much as his pulse. His hands refuse to stay still, can’t get enough of Harry, of touching, but they’re not driven by a need to possess nor to lose himself utterly. It’s not a culmination to their first kiss, either, because this isn’t about surcease from suffering—his or Harry’s. Though Severus’s fingers are grasping, it’s not about reaching for the only pure thing because he is filthy; it’s not about seeking redemption. It’s about knowing, about giving, and as Severus follows the winding path of his fingers with lips and tongue, he feels all the richer for it. To call what he is doing worship would be facile; Harry isn’t perfect and Severus seeks out his flaws: the mole beside his navel, the exaggerated dip beneath his sternum, the slight bend to his cock, sliding under his hand. They only make his blood boil hotter, and knowing that makes it easy, somehow, to accept Harry returning the favour, to not flinch from the fingers skimming Severus’s ribs and scars, from the lips ghosting over the faint shadow of the Mark.

And perhaps that is also what this is about: receiving, accepting what is willingly given without questioning if he deserves it. It is almost like taking but infinitely warmer, more dizzying. Severus has offered his body before, but as he follows the nudge of Harry’s hip and lies back to let him explore for a change he knows he’s not done this. He’s never shared himself. Amidst all the newness, this is the strangest, the most unfamiliar—to trust that Harry won’t find him wanting. The realisation shakes something loose inside him, leaving him breathless and aching, and he sinks his fingers into Harry’s bicep, hanging on for dear life as a sure hand pulls him right to the brink. Only then does he urge them back over, nipping gently at the locket-shaped scar in the centre of Harry’s chest even as Harry’s hands find the curves of his arse.

He could do this forever, learn Harry in stages, have Harry learn him, except that inevitably something has to give. When he licks a wet stripe up the underside of Harry’s cock, Harry makes a noise like he’s dying and drags him upwards.

“Fuck,” he gasps. “Fuck, Severus, you have to fuck me. I’ve been thinking—”

Severus cuts him off with a kiss, because the idea of Harry imagining this is too much, might just tip him over the edge. Still, he does this slowly, too, watching Harry’s face as he slides one finger inside him, then two and three.

“Good?” he asks, and his own voice startles him, so thick with something he dare not name that it is near unrecognisable. Then Harry moans, pushing down on his fingers, and Severus forgets all about it, lost in the ripple of slick flesh clenching impossibly tight, clinging to his skin. He barely resists the urge to rock himself to a delirious climax against Harry’s thigh—it would be so good, but this has to be better, Harry’s fingers digging into his shoulder as Severus withdraws his fingers and buries them inside him, again and again and again, a little deeper each time. He’s never wanted anything more than seeing Harry unravel and come apart and he can wait for this. He can wait.

He’s entranced by it: the curve of Harry’s neck tilting backwards, the white teeth digging into his bottom lip, his green eyes, narrowed to slits. He twists and strokes, curling his fingers far beyond what is necessary, and drinks down every sigh, every sound that spills past Harry’s lips, drinks in the sight of him, utterly undone. He could grow addicted to this, if he’s not already way past that point; every nerve in his body seems to thrum, tight as a whipcord. He could probably come from this, just from watching the pleasure written all over—

“Stop,” Harry rasps, breathing heavily when Severus stills instantly. “God, if you don’t... Now. Please. So close.”

Suddenly Severus cannot wait, either, cannot possibly draw this out any further. His fingers slip on Harry’s hip, trembling with barely suppressed need as he fits into the v of Harry’s legs, positioning himself, and then he’s sinking inside him in one sharp slide and, fuck, he’s not going to last. That’s okay, though, because Harry’s nails are chasing fire across his back, and on the third thrust he breaks beneath Severus like a wave, shaking himself apart. Severus swallows his cry, kissing him, kissing him, and he only gets another handful of tightperfect strokes in, and then he’s coming so hard that the world greys around the edges.

“Sorry,” he mumbles against the side of Harry’s neck when speech has found him again, but his limbs still refuse to obey, turned into liquid. “Crushing you.”

“Hmm,” Harry says, his fingertips trailing whisper-soft over Severus’s spine. “No. ‘S nice.”

Later, much later, after they’ve found their way through cleaning spells and under the covers, he blinks up at Severus from where he’s resting against his chest.

“The Boy Who Died A Lot?” he says, words slurred with fatigue. His laugh turns into a yawn. “Really?

Severus winds his fingers into black hair and watches green eyes succumb to the weight of sleep. In spite of the lassitude melting his muscles, he’s not tired at all. Every inch of him feels lit up, desperately, desperately alive.

“Harry,” he whispers, and smiles.

-The End-