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Final Examination

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The grey stone was massive. Crystalline flecks sparkled in the blazing sun, and Harry Potter squinted as he flew a bit to his left, his beloved holly wand extended and aimed directly at the hewn stone hovering in midair. Witches and wizards standing on top of the partially reconstructed wall were bellowing instructions, and the ones on brooms were doing their best to comply without losing their tenuous hold over the massive stone.

"Harry, go straight up. Slowly!"

It's not a bloody helicopter! thought Harry, but he pulled up on the Clean Sweep's broomstick and drifted up into position, managing not to wobble the stone too much. On the other side of the stone, Ginny floated up a couple of feet and raised her side as well.

"Move east on three, everybody," shouted Flitwick from somewhere nearby. Harry wasn't certain which way was east, but Terry was waving and pointing, and Harry gave a sharp nod. The giant stone moved slowly through the air, supported by the charms of a dozen witches and wizards and, a few minutes later, they lowered it gently into place. It was not nearly as easy as it looked.

Thighs burning and body shaking from the effort, Harry flew in a graceful arc back to the ground, where flagons of chilled pumpkin juice awaited. He watched as another team started to levitate another block of granite and mopped his sodden brow with a handkerchief. His face was bathed in sweat, his bare torso burned bright red from a relentless sun on rare clear summer's day.

"You ought to be wearing robes," chided Ginny as she pressed a goblet of juice into Harry's hand. "You're red as a pygmy puff."

Harry drained the goblet in a single pull, the cold liquid running in a cool stream down his throat. "Not a Gryffindor banner?" he asked with a grin. "I could wear it like a cape."

Ginny was not amused. "You'll be burnt to a crisp, Harry. Put something on." She locked eyes with him as she finished her drink. Harry was the first to look away. He shook his head and walked off to set his empty goblet on a wobbly picnic table, mulishly refusing to clothe himself. Madam Pomfrey had several potions that would cure his sunburn. It would be nice if she had some that would work on his guilt.

The weeks they'd spent working on the castle had done little to ease Ginny's grief, and Harry wished fervently that she'd go back to the Burrow to rest and heal. But Ginny wanted to be where he was, and Harry knew he wasn't ready to live in close proximity to that many people.

He and Ron were sharing their old dormitory, and on the nights Harry was feeling social, he'd join the other Gryffindors in the common room, curl up with Ginny and listen to the conversations swirling around him. The arduous days of hard labour kept him from reliving the last days of the War, but once the sun set and a hush settled over the dormitory, the ghosts of those who had died would invade his dreams, and he'd wake in a panic with sweat dripping off his forehead, trickling down his back.

There was no peace to be had in slumber.

"Harry! Harry Potter!"

Harry's head came up at hearing his name, and he was surprised to see the headmistress walk briskly down the short flight of stairs, towards the cluster of people resting under the dappled shade of a beech tree until it was their turn to move the next stone into place. "Hello, Professor," he said as his brow furrowed.

A world-weary sigh escaped Minerva McGonagall's lips as her narrowed eyes travelled over Harry's bare skin, and he felt his colour rise under her examination. "A shirt would not go amiss, Mr Potter," she said briskly. "Even in this heat. But that isn't why I'm here. I have a favour to request of you. Would you mind coming up to my office for tea?" She paused. "My old office."

"Not the headmaster's office?" asked Harry, his eyes widening.

"No, but we'll discuss that when I see you." McGonagall's eyes followed the flight of half a dozen mounted brooms as a few more people joined to move the next stone into place. "I do wonder if we'll be ready to open by the first of September."

Harry turned, his eyes following the demarcation between old stone and new. They'd rebuilt much more of the outer walls than he thought, but half of magical Britain were working on rebuilding Hogwarts. "We'll be ready," he said confidently. "The wall is nearly finished and Professor Sinistra says that the upper floors are nearly all repaired. I don't know about the basement or dungeons, though."

"We'll discuss those at tea as well." There was something mournful in McGonagall's tone, a deep sorrow in her eyes, and Harry's breath caught as an angry swirl of black robes filled his mind. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek and closed his eyes against the sudden pain. He'd been such a fool. "Do put on a shirt before you burn any further," she said briskly, becoming once again his stalwart Transfiguration professor of old.

"Very well," sighed Harry as someone shouted for Group Four to mount up. "I'll see you later, Professor," he called over his shoulder as he jogged off to fetch the school broom he'd been using and help levitate the next stone into place.

~*~

Harry ran nervous hands through his hair and over his ill-fitting school robes as he stood outside McGonagall's office, wondering for the umpteenth time what could be so important that she asked to meet with him in her old Transfiguration office instead of the office that was rightfully hers. Steeling himself, he knocked politely and entered at her command.

"Professor," he murmured as he took the offered cup of tea and sat down in the prim chair next to hers. He blew on it and took a sip, finding it hot and milky with just a touch of sugar, the way he liked it best. They chatted for a few minutes about the repairs, about the spells Harry had learnt during the rebuilding, about the gloom that hung over Hogwarts like a shroud.

"Now we come to the reason I asked you here, Potter," said McGonagall with her usual crispness.

"Professor, would you please call me Harry? I'm not a student here anymore, and Kingsley's already promised me and Ron that we can start Auror training in September." Harry lifted an eyebrow. "He said you were dead set against it."

"I am a teacher, Mr...Harry," she said, though her tone wasn't nearly as frosty as it might have been. Some of the life left her eyes, and she seemed to age before Harry's eyes. "Nevertheless, that is not why I asked you here." McGonagall sipped her tea, stalling for time, and Harry's eyes narrowed a bit as he waited. What had McGonagall so concerned?

"I cannot get into the headmaster's office," said McGonagall abruptly. "The gargoyle refuses to move aside, and none of us have been able to get in. As far as I know, you were the last one to visit it, and Filius suggested that perhaps the gargoyle might allow you to pass."

Harry set down his teacup. "You can't get in?" He stared for a moment before turning his head in the direction of the headmaster's office, his thoughts racing. "After Voldemort fell," he said slowly, "I went up with Ron and Hermione to tell Dumbledore how it ended. I...the portraits started cheering, and we thought we were being attacked again." His heart pounded, and he wiped trembling hands on his robes. "We weren't there long, Professor. The gargoyle wasn't even guarding the door when we went up."

But was it when we left? Harry couldn't remember, and he hadn't been back since.

"After that, I went up to my old room in Gryffindor Tower, had Kreacher bring me some food, and slept for—" Harry sighed and shook his head. "Around the clock, maybe more. It was a couple of days before I came down. I remember that much. It gets all jumbled up after that."

Too many funerals. Too many interviews, with the Ministry, with the Auror Corps, with the fucking press. He couldn't ask anyone to shield him from it; the Weasleys were mourning Fred, Luna was searching for her father and Neville had gone with her. Remus was dead. Tonks was dead. Hermione was off to Australia. All Harry could remember about the month that followed was a pervasive numbness that had never entirely gone away. He felt old, used up.

McGonagall's face gentled into a smile. "All I am asking is that you try. We are no worse off if you cannot get past the gargoyle."

Harry's brow furrowed. "Professor," he said slowly, "this doesn't mean you're not the headmistress, does it?" The last thing Harry wanted was for the castle to decide he was now in charge. He'd done enough, thank you very much, and had no intention of becoming anything other than an Auror-trainee.

"Not at all. Rather, we believe that Snape," something about the way she snarled the name made the hairs on Harry's arms stand up, "made it so you would be the only one allowed to enter the tower, but that the spell didn't cancel when it should have."

Harry sat very still for a moment, forcing air past the sudden lump in his throat. Thoughts of Snape were inevitably linked with memories of that night on the Astronomy Tower, the full body-bind ending when the bright green light of the Killing Curse enveloped Dumbledore's body. The memory in the Pensieve.'Do you mean to say you have developed feelings for the boy?' 'Always.' The blinding light of Snape's Patronus. Thoughts of his mum. Tears filled his eyes, and he swallowed convulsively. His heart ached.

McGonagall said nothing. She filled his cup before adding to her own and sat quietly whilst Harry composed himself. Tears served no purpose. They never had. "We cannot get into the dungeons either," she added quietly. "That is why no one has started repairs there. Not even Horace can enter, and he is still Head of Slytherin House."

Harry found himself nodding. "I'll see if I can get through." He wiped his hands on his robes again and found solace in his cup of tea. "When did you want me to do it?"

The sympathy in McGonagall's eyes made Harry uncomfortable, and he squirmed in his chair a bit. "Tomorrow," she declared. "After the teams have started work. We'll be alone and I suspect you'd rather not have an audience."

"Thanks," said Harry, smiling wanly. They finished their tea in silence, both caught in the steel-trap of memories that refused to let go.

~*~

"I'd like to go up, please."

The gargoyle eyed Harry, its stone eyes filled with suspicion. "Let me see your wand," it croaked, tilting its head arrogantly, and Harry shivered. The gargoyle was doing a damned fine impression of Snape's worst sneer, and Harry wetted his lips as a wave of guilt tore through him. If he had a Time Turner, he'd go back and find Snape's body at the very least.

Harry exchanged a look with McGonagall and then pulled his wand. "Holly and phoenix feather, eleven and a half inches," he said as he displayed it for the stone gargoyle, feeling a bit idiotic as he did so. But who was he to question magic?

"Idiot boy," growled the gargoyle, and Harry bristled at hearing a very Snape-like voice emerge from the carved granite face. Better anger than fear, and he chuckled mirthlessly at reaching that conclusion. "Touch me with it."

Standing as far back as possible, Harry did as directed, touching the end of his wand to the middle of the gargoyle's forehead, right where, were there any justice in this world, a lightning bolt scar ought to be. The gargoyle glared at him, though how it managed to accomplish such a feat was a bit beyond him. As far as Harry could tell, it hadn't moved a figurative muscle.

"You may go up," the gargoyle said begrudgingly. "Alone."

"But she's the headmistress!"

"Alone—or not at all."

Harry's eyes narrowed as he studied the gargoyle, its face as stony as Snape's ever was. What did you expect? It's made of rock. Harry mentally added the 'idiot' just in case the gargoyle was adept at some bizarre form of Legilimency. Given Snape's paranoia, it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to believe he'd somehow managed to enchant it to do that. "I'm sorry," Harry said to McGonagall. "I'll see if I can't get this sorted."

~*~

With a last glance at McGonagall, Harry rode the staircase up to Dumbledore's office. He paused at the doorway, his hand raised to knock as he always had done before remembering there was no one inside to answer. Not Dumbledore. Not Snape. He waited until the grief that seemed to plague him a dozen times a day had subsided to manageable levels and quietly opened the door.

He stood in the centre of the room, inhaling deeply through his nose as his eyes travelled over familiar territory. How had Snape managed to spend a year in here and leave no sign of himself behind? It was almost as if the man had left it intact knowing his occupancy was temporary, that he wouldn't survive the conflict.

"How are you, Harry?"

The gentleness of the voice from the portrait took him by surprise. Harry nodded to it. "Headmaster."

"I see Minerva finally asked for your help. I had wondered if she knew you had been here before." Dumbledore's eyes were steady, his expression fond. "Severus was a private man and shared his secrets with no one—except you, of course. He would have to have done, wouldn't he?"

Harry pulled a chair up to the portrait and slumped into it. "He loved my mother," he whispered. "He loved her, and hated me. Even at the end, he hated me."

"Do you truly believe that, Harry? After all he did for you?"

"We'll never know, will we?" said Harry bitterly. "You kept his secret. You told no one that he was a good man, like he asked. All you ever said was 'Trust him, Harry', but you never explained why I should." He turned baleful eyes on the headmaster. "It could have gone terribly wrong, you know. If Professor Snape hadn't bled memories, I never would have walked into that clearing."

"It was your empathy that saved us, Harry," said Dumbledore. "Your compassion for a dying man, even one you did not care for—"

"I hated him, Professor," interrupted Harry. "More than I ever did Voldemort. I watched him murder you in cold blood, the way you knew I would do. And then you wanted me to trust him. After that?" His voice rose, and Harry discovered that he was nearly shouting.

"Harry..."

"I understand. I do." Harry sagged back into the chair, head in hand. After a few minutes of reflection, he looked up. "Why am I here, do you know? Why me?"

Dumbledore regarded Harry for a long moment. "This is conjecture, but I believe you know Severus better than any person alive. The memories he shared with you were the most personal recollections of the most insular man I have ever known. You have witnessed some of his worst moments, events that brought him to his knees. Knowing he played a part in the death of the only person he ever loved was crippling." Dumbledore's gaze sharpened. "I am certain you can appreciate, if not understand, how devastating a loss such as that can be."

"Sirius," whispered Harry. How many people had told Snape that it wasn't his fault Lily Evans was dead? Had anyone? Not that it mattered; Snape wouldn't have believed them any more than Harry believed the people who told him he wasn't responsible for Sirius' death.

"Severus never recovered from that."

"And there I was, a constant reminder of my dad, who he loathed, and my mum, who he mourned." Harry wondered how it would feel to see a little miniature Sirius running amok, knowing his own actions were the reason the child didn't have a father, and he suspected he'd find the resultant guilt debilitating. "I wish I could forgive him in person."

"And that, I believe, is 'why you'. In allowing you access to his office, Severus is seeking absolution from the only one who has the power to bestow it. I can think of no one else Severus would trust with sorting through his belongings and disposing of them properly. Almost anyone else would be tempted to destroy all his possessions."

"Because they think he was a Death Eater."

"That, and because Severus endeared himself to no one. He claimed no one as friend."

"You were, though," said Harry. "You were his friend, even if he didn't believe it."

"Yes, Harry," replied the portrait. "I regarded Severus as a dear friend, though I doubt he saw me as anything more than a meddling old fool. I regret the many tribulations I laid upon his shoulders, but there was no one better to see them through."

"I should think he found it incredibly frustrating to discover he was fond of you," said Harry, his eyes gleaming. "We're a bit alike in that respect."

Dumbledore laughed, and his eyes twinkled brightly. "My dear boy, I imagine you and Severus are more alike than you know." Dumbledore settled into his chair. "Now tell me about Ms Granger and Mr Weasley."

Harry spent the better part of an hour chatting with Dumbledore's portrait, bringing the headmaster up to date on the rebuilding project, on the doings of the Ministry, speaking about Ron and Hermione's blossoming romance, confiding his reluctance to enter into a serious relationship with Ginny, and feeling a wave of relief when Dumbledore seemed to give him permission to wait a little while longer before making a commitment of that nature.

"Ms Weasley has another year of school, and you have Auror training starting soon, not to mention the task Severus set you. As I have said all too often: you have quite enough to be going on with, Harry. There is no need for you to rush any further into adulthood."

"It's a bit late for that," said Harry with a snort. He lifted his hand and offered Dumbledore a rueful grin. "But I do understand. Take my time with Ginny, don't rush into anything I'm not ready for, and go through Professor Snape's things." He gnawed on his lip for a moment. "You were here whilst he was in charge. Have you any idea where I ought to start?"

Dumbledore rested a long, gnarled finger against his cheek as he regarded Harry. "Severus spent much of his time at that desk." He gestured to the familiar desk standing sentinel in the middle of the room, resolutely guarding the secrets it contained within. Even Harry could feel it bristling with power. "Paperwork is eternal, I'm afraid. Even great adventures must be catalogued somewhere."

Harry smiled. Even a King's Cross Station devoid of people still had timetables along the platform. "And the dungeons? Professor McGonagall says no one can get down there, not even Slughorn."

"Interesting." Dumbledore's eyes cut towards a space on the wall where Snape's portrait should have been. "A last-ditch effort to save his Slytherins, perhaps?" An air of sorrow surrounded Dumbledore, his shoulders slumping as he meandered through his abode. "Severus confided in me very little, I'm afraid. He preferred to vent his spleen before seeking my counsel. It would not come as a surprise to learn that he kept his rooms in the dungeons. He knew them better than anyone, even Filch."

"They are a bit creepy," said Harry, his brow furrowing as he revised the scope of his task. "So, desk, dungeon, rooms. Forgive me, sir, but where are the headmaster's private rooms? I reckon Professor Snape would have used them as well."

"If you say 'Quarters' as you step onto the spiral stair," said Dumbledore, "it will stop halfway down where you will find a discoloured stone. Press your hand against it and whisper 'All Is Well', and a door will appear. The password cannot be changed, but it is likely that Severus enchanted the doorway. He was always a suspicious man."

~*~

Suspicious didn't begin to cover it.

The desk bit Harry twice and burned his fingers three times. It gave him a shock when he rested his elbows on it, and he was positive it tripped him when he got up to pace. "You asked me to do this, you berk!" he shouted at it. A titter of amusement ran around the room, and he glared at the portraits. Finite Incantatem did nothing, but he felt better for having pointed his wand at the accursed thing.

His eyes fell on a bookcase behind Fawkes' old perch where a shaft of sunlight illuminated a row of Defence Against the Dark Arts textbooks. On a whim, Harry selected Confronting the Faceless, the book Snape had required during the year he taught Defence, and read through the table of contents, finding a chapter on Detection Spells. "This might work," he murmured.

He quickly read through the section, lifted his wand and spoke the incantation whilst waving his wand in a slow circle over his head. He brought it down in a quick slashing movement. Green sparkles surrounded the desk and coalesced, revealing three keyholes and a latch hiding behind some sort of Disillusionment spell.

Extending his hand cautiously, Harry touched the latch lightly, pulling his fingers away briskly until he was certain the damned thing wasn't going to eat him. He slid the latch over and heard tumblers fall. "Alohomora," he said from a safe distance away, thinking it couldn't possibly be this easy.

It was.

The centre drawer slid open enticingly, but having been burnt—literally—Harry was in no hurry to test Snape's magic. Behind him, the portraits watched intently, making Harry feel as if he was giving a performance. He rolled his eyes, uncertain about whether he was doing so for his benefit or theirs. "Accio parchment," he said finally and found himself deluged by reams of paper. There was a quickly stifled laugh, and Harry sighed.

Harry gathered up the bits and bobs of parchment, wishing the wizarding world believed in standardisation—what he wouldn't give for this mess to be on A4—and carried them to a nearby table, his relationship with the desk too adversarial to consider for a moment dropping the folded sheets and thick rolls onto its surface. When he returned for a second armload, he spotted a single sheet of parchment in the centre drawer that hadn't been there a moment ago.

Curious, he pulled it out, his eyebrows climbing into his hairline as he read.

1 May 1998

Potter,

So you succeeded, and I am presumably dead or entombed in Azkaban, which amounts to the same thing.

You had no plan, no strategy, blundering as you did from one inept catastrophe to another, dragging your hapless companions into danger whilst you now reap the accolades you believe you so richly deserve. Do not think for a moment that you've earned any of it, trusting as you have to sheer dumb luck, as your Head of House calls your inexplicable ability to emerge unscathed from one disaster after another.

I have no doubt the Ministry is, in its infinite wisdom, rewarding you for completing your fool's errand by ensuring its Saviour need never work again. Surely the defeat of a Dark Lord deserves some reward. If you accept their kind offers, Potter, you will prove every criticism I laid at your feet. Only the arrogant feel they deserve everything they have not earned. Only the mediocre feel they have nothing to prove. I am not so easy.

By now, even you must have noticed that the dungeons are no longer accessible. This is your N.E.W.T., Potter. This is your opportunity to prove me wrong. You will need to demonstrate your abilities in the areas of Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Herbology, Potions, and Transfiguration to break the enchantments I have set upon them. Do not think you can deceive me by having your little friends do your work for you. I know you too well, the mistakes you consistently make, the short-cuts you attempt rather than learn anything. And you know me well enough to know that I will see through any of your little deceptions.

If you have managed to read to this point without destroying this message, then know that I do nothing without a purpose. It may surprise you to know that your mother was my best friend. Amongst my belongings you will find a few precious keepsakes: notes from her, some photographs, an essay we wrote together for Muggle Studies (a ridiculous course). You are welcome to keep anything you find.

Amortentia is the key.

Severus Snape

Harry went white, then red with blinding anger, and then felt his throat tighten as Snape dangled mementos of his mother in front of him as bait. Mostly, though, he felt guilt for having left Snape on the floor of the Shrieking Shack to die forgotten and alone. He crumpled the parchment in his fist, then smoothed it out again.

A postscript appeared.

P.S. I left a letter for Minerva in the middle left drawer. If you can manage to remove it without incinerating the contents of the drawer, please deliver it to her hand.

Sitting on a low stool, Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook perched precariously on his knees, Harry cast spell after spell at the drawer, trying to decipher the enchantments Snape had placed upon it. He was so intent on his work that he didn't notice the thick sandwich and goblet of pumpkin juice that a house-elf delivered.

The drawer glowed blue every time he cast a detection spell, but Harry didn't know what it meant. The book was no help. He scratched his head and thought. A memory surfaced, Snape snatching the Marauders' Map out of his hand and poking it with his wand. It was worth a try. "Reveal your secrets," he said in an authoritative voice.

Smoke came billowing out from behind the edges of the faceplate, and Harry grimaced as he coughed and choked. "Don't be an idiot, Potter. Think!" It was Snape's voice, and Harry felt his cheeks burn, wondering if there was anything inside left to save.

He slumped back and noticed the presence of food. "I am thinking, you git," he growled as he came to his feet, but there was no heat behind it. Snape was dead and he couldn't change that. "You didn't teach us protective charms." Harry groaned. "Charms." He took a bite from the sandwich and wandered back over to the bookcase. Protecting Your Possessions From Friend and Foe appeared rife with possibilities, so Harry pulled it down and started to read while he ate.

As he read, it became evident that Snape was incredibly good at magic. The vast majority of protective spells could only be broken by their caster, but sometime during the battle, Snape had managed to set up a series of charms that only Harry could break. "How, though? When did you get some of my hair? Or my blood?" That last couldn't have been too hard. Harry had spilt blood in nearly every part of the castle during his six years in residence here.

Acting on a hunch, he pricked his finger and smeared a drop of blood onto the drawer. "Finite Incantatem," he said, flicking his wand decisively. It slid open without a sound. Hearing a slight susurration of robes, he glanced back at Dumbledore's portrait and found it smiling warmly at him. "You knew?" he said as he turned to face it.

"Yes," replied Dumbledore simply. "But I gave Severus my word that I would not assist you." Some of the twinkle left Dumbledore's eyes. "In his own way, Severus loved you as much as he hated you, and loathed himself for feeling anything about you at all."

"The last thing he said was, 'You have your mother's eyes,'" said Harry quietly. "I know how much he loved her. I hope she forgave him. Before she died, I mean." He returned to the desk and found two envelopes in the drawer tucked away between a sneakoscope and a bottle of Old Ogden's. One of them had Minerva's name on it. The other was unlabelled. He broke the seal on that one, pulled out a short length of parchment, and sat heavily, his mouth suddenly very dry.

I, Severus Tobias Snape, being of sound mind and body, declare this to be my last Will and Testament. I hereby bequeath all my worldly goods to Harry James Potter, to include the contents of my Gringotts vault should the dunderheaded whelp ever find the key, all deeds and properties, and all future earnings from all patents registered in my name.

It was signed, dated and witnessed by Argus Filch and Firenze. Harry set it down and rested his head in his hands, weary and heartsick beyond measure.

~*~

Kreacher, Winky and another pair of house-elves Harry didn't know proved their worth over the next few days, moving anything Harry thought belonged to Snape out of the headmaster's rooms and office and storing it safely away. The bloody gargoyle refused to allow anyone into the tower until Harry had removed every last item, and it took him over six hours to locate a broken quill that had wedged itself under the cushion of a chair in Snape's private study. Only after it had been physically removed from the tower would the gargoyle allow McGonagall to go up.

"You'll find everything organised and labelled properly," said Harry, his eyes shadowed from his labours. "Professor Snape made certain I couldn't see anything I wasn't meant to." He had found a cabinet full of student records that had proved beyond his powers to resist. He had reached for the folder marked 'Malfoy, Draco' and yelped in pain when it sliced his finger open. It was no accident; the same thing happened when he reached for his own. The experience made him far less curious when he stumbled across the files for the teachers. He valued his fingers too much to discover what Umbridge might have written about Trelawney.

"Thank you, Harry," said McGonagall as she gazed at the gargoyle through narrowed eyes. "I expect you'll want to get started on the dungeons next."

Harry nodded. "I was going to take Ron down to help me figure it out." He hesitated. "Do you know why no one can get in?" It was a stupid question, but Harry couldn't think of a better way to ask it.

McGonagall's eyes opened in surprise. "Have you not been down there yet?" She continued when Harry shook his head. "A gate appeared three days after Vol—demort fell. Fortunately, the dungeons were empty at the time. Otherwise, some poor sod would have been trapped inside. Not even the house-elves can get in."

"They can't Apparate into the dungeons?" If Snape had set up a barrier that was impervious to house-elves, how in the name of Merlin's socks was Harry supposed to get past it? A flash of anger seared him. "It's just like the greasy git to give me something impossible to do."

The lines in McGonagall's face softened. "Or he set it up so only you could do it," she said gently. "Filius and I have examined the enchantments, Mr Potter. There are several ways through them, but we're not you. We could blast a hole through the floor above them, I suppose, but heaven only knows what the result may be. Knowing Severus, we could very well bring down the entire castle."

"I reckon he's more likely to flood the dungeons than destroy Hogwarts," said Harry. "This was his home, after all." He studied her for a moment. "You don't seem nearly as angry with him as you were earlier. Was it the letter?"

McGonagall looked up the spiral staircase for a long moment, her lips pressed into a thin line. Harry understood. He'd felt that way about both Snape and Dumbledore more often than he cared to admit. "Severus explained everything." She gave him a sharp glance. "It appears Severus wasn't the only one with secrets, Mr Potter."

Harry swallowed and nodded. "I'll go start on the dungeons, Professor." He hurried down the Grand Stair, collecting Ron on his way.

"I still don't get it, mate," said Ron as they trotted down the stairs. "Why you? It's weird enough that he loved your mum." He pulled a face, appearing for a moment as though he'd walk happily into a memory modification spell. "But he spent six years tearing down your dad."

"I reckon it's his way of getting even with me for not being here last year. Figures he'd find a way to make up for not being able to give me detention."

"From beyond the grave? That takes dedication." Ron grabbed the newel post at the foot of the stairs and swung round towards the entrance to the dungeons, Harry hard on his heels. From this angle, the entrance appeared as it always had done, a stone archway leading to a wide tunnel that snaked its way through the bowels of the castle. They turned into the passageway and found it blocked.

There was a tall gate of twisted iron rods set so close together that Harry thought his arm might get stuck between them. Three heavy bars served as crossbeams. There were no hinges that Harry could see. Nor was there a lock to be found. No place to use a key. Rails and bars vanished into the stone surrounding the gate. He grabbed one of the bars and shook, but the gate didn't so much as rattle. "Any ideas?" he asked as he stepped aside to let Ron take a look.

There was a loud bang the moment Ron's hands touched the bars. Sparks flew. Ron was hurled the length of the short passageway and found himself on his back in the Entrance Hall.

"Ron!" Harry dashed over to find Ron blinking madly and trying to catch his breath.

"Bloody hell. What do you reckon that was?" breathed Ron.

"Snape's way of saying 'I told you so'," growled Harry. "He didn't want anybody to help me." He reached down and pulled Ron to his feet. He stalked back to the archway and cast the detection spells that a week spent in the headmaster's tower had guaranteed he master. The bars of the gate were limned with green spell fire, and Harry blew out a deep breath. "I have no idea what that means."

"Dunno, but it looks deadly enough," said Ron, eyeing Harry thoughtfully. "The gate didn't do anything when you touched it, though. There is that."

"And McGonagall said there were a few ways to get past it," added Harry. "You don't suppose there's a lock on the other side?" He sidled up to the gate and reached out slowly, almost afraid to touch it given what had happened to Ron. Snape had already proven to be frightfully adept at timed spells.

Harry pushed his bare arm between the bars just above the centre crossbar and felt along the broad rail, reaching with his left hand as far as he was able. He pulled his arm back out and turned to put his right hand through, wand still clutched firmly within his grip. He leaned against the bars—and nearly fell through. Panicked, he leapt back, nearly dropping his wand in the process.

Harry pushed past Ron and ran through the tall oak doors, stopping only when he felt the sun on his face. He sat on the wide granite steps, staring blankly at the Forbidden Forest at the end of the path.

He barely glanced up when Ron sat down beside him. "Would you do all this just to have some bits about your mum?" he asked quietly.

"It's hard to say," admitted Ron. "I'm here because mum wanted a girl, not because they wanted me particularly."

Harry didn't know what to say to that. "The locket?" he ventured after awhile.

"Yeah." Ron sighed. "I try not to let it bother me, but what if it were true?"

"You've never had to wonder if your mum and dad would be proud of you. They are." Harry turned to face Ron. "Your family loves you. Even Percy, I suppose. They don't care you're not a girl. They never have done. They just wanted you to grow up to be a decent person and you are."

"Then I'd move mountains," said Ron. "Especially if all I had was half a letter she wrote and a couple of photographs. I mean, yeah, my mum can be bloody annoying, but she's my mum."

Harry watched as another huge stone floated through the air, lifted by a team of flyers on broomsticks. What he wouldn't give to be working with them again instead of being stuck in the musty old dungeons figuring out how to dismantle the spells Snape had set. At least up there he was productive, doing something important. His eyes followed the hewn stone as they manoeuvred it into position, remembering how his magic seethed and crackled under his skin as he poured his strength into his wand.

All around them insects hummed and birds flapped their wings, whilst high above their heads they could hear the wordless shouts from the construction crews. Out in the lake, the Giant Squid raised a lazy tentacle as if enjoying the wake it left behind. "Why'd you run?" asked Ron into the quiet. "You were nearly through."

"Remember Nick's Deathday party?" asked Harry, leaning back on his elbows to better watch the stone's progress. "When that ghost walked through us?" Gooseflesh rose on his arms, and Harry felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. Thinking about ghosts led to thoughts about the Forest, and he didn't want to remember. "Felt like that, and then I started to wonder what would happen if it became solid again and—"

"Yeah," interrupted Ron with a shudder. "That could get pretty ugly. Like Apparating into the middle of a wall or something." He grimaced. "Being Splinched was horrible enough. Still," he continued, "you were very nearly through. I don't reckon you noticed a lock?"

Harry shook his head. "I was a bit too freaked out to notice anything." He sat up swiftly and came to his feet, brushing the dirt off the seat of his jeans. "I wonder if was something like that barrier Malfoy put up when he let the Death Eaters into the castle."

"When Malfoy what? When?"

"Sixth year, the night Dumbledore died." Harry was careful not to say the night Snape murdered the headmaster. He glanced in the direction of the Astronomy Tower, seeing with his mind's eye the Dark Mark hanging ominously over Hogwarts, a far more frightening omen than any Grim could ever be. Then he rose and walked silently back into the castle, standing just inside the Entrance Hall until his eyes adjusted to the shadows there whilst he considered what set him apart from other witches and wizards.

There was his curse scar, certainly, but he wasn't a Horcrux any longer so maybe it was just a scar now. He was shorter than average, but so were a lot of wizards. He wore glasses, as did Trelawney. He snorted as soon as that thought entered his head, willing to lay odds that Trelawney hadn't set foot near the dungeons since claiming the North Tower for herself. Laughter spilled out of him as he imagined the look on her face had Snape invited her down to help him set up a few defensive spells. Funnier still would be the sour lemon expression on Snape's.

"Okay, I could use a laugh," said Ron, mystified. He gazed around the empty Entrance Hall and stared at Harry as though he'd gone completely around the twist. "You're sounding a bit mental."

"Sorry, I was picturing Snape and Trelawney," said Harry with a snicker. It was amusing any way he sliced it. "I guess you had to be there. Let's try the gate again," he added as Ron snorted, clearly more horror stricken than amused if his expression was any guide.

"There's a thought I never wanted in my head," muttered Ron as he followed Harry back into the corridor.

Hands on hips, Harry stood in front of the gate. "I had my right hand through, and I tried to look enough around the bars to see if there was a lock of any sort back there." He put his right hand back through the bars and pressed against it. This time, the bars stopped him. "What am I doing different?"

Ron walked around Harry a bit, studying him from several angles. "Weren't you holding your wand last time?"

"Was I?" Harry couldn't remember. "I'll try it...no, you try it. First with your wand, then with mine."

"Me?" Ron backed away. "Look, even McGonagall said it had to be you. Snape set this up so you'd be the only person who could get past this gate. You saw what happened when I touched it. I'm not keen on finding out what would happen if I stuck my wand through there, or yours either, come to that. Especially yours."

"Okay. Bad idea. I get it." Harry drew his wand and took a deep breath. It had felt a little too much like walking through a cheese grater the last time he slipped through the bars and the sensation wasn't one he was in a hurry to repeat. Poking his wand through the bars, he pressed his forehead against them. They seemed to dissolve the moment they touched his skin, and he stepped through, shuddering as they closed behind him.

It had been well over a year since Harry had been in the dungeons last, and whilst they had never bothered him before, this time was different. The damp seeped into his skin, the musty smell of crumbling mortar clogging his nose. The air hung heavy around him like a mildewed cloak, and other than the steady drip drip drip echoing into a shallow pool of water, the dungeons were eerily silent. Harry shivered and turned his attention to the gate, hoping to find a way to let Ron through.

There was no lock on this side either, no obvious means of opening it, or Vanishing it, or blasting a hole in it. After his experiences in Dumbledore's office, Harry was reluctant to try using any of the bog-standard defensive spells: Confringo, Reducto, Expulso, Bombarda. Snape's enchantments were charmed to fight back, and Harry already knew Snape was more Slytherin in his thinking than anyone he'd ever met. "Lumos." Harry ran the glowing tip of his wand along the crossbeams and around the upright bars and shook his head.

"Well?" asked Ron.

"Nothing." Harry blew out a breath and peered down the long tunnel leading deeper into the dungeons, the torches set in the great iron sconces barely throwing enough light to reach the wall opposite. "I don't think there's anything you can do yet," he said, gazing at Ron through the gate. "Tell McGonagall I'm down here. I'm going to see if I can figure out what Snape was trying to protect."

Ron looked past Harry, his worry written on his face in letters large enough that Harry couldn't miss it. "What if it's a trap?" he asked as he levelled his gaze.

"A trap? To do what? Portkey me back to Malfoy Manor? Drop me back in the graveyard again?" Harry offered up a nervous smile. "Look, I know there's a chance that I might blow myself to bits, but Snape wanted me down here. There's something he wants me to find. Me. No one else. He might hope I manage to lose a finger or two, but I don't think he wants me to get hurt. He said it himself: this is my N.E.W.T."

"He's a right old bastard and a Death Eater," Ron pointed out. "Or was. In six years, I think he was nice to you once. Or, at least not utterly vile."

Harry's eyes bugged out and he blinked. "Nice? Snape?" He snorted. "When was this one time? Was I even conscious?" It would be in keeping with Snape's character to express relief that Harry hadn't died yet when he wasn't awake to hear it.

"After the tournament," said Ron. "He wasn't nearly as horrible as he could have been."

"He was about to start spying on Voldemort, Ron. A bit nerve-wracking, don't you think?" Merlin! How had Snape done it? How had he found the courage to Apparate into the graveyard, not knowing if he was about to walk into the bright green spell light of the Killing Curse? At least Harry had known he was walking to his death when he entered the Forbidden Forest. And he hadn't been alone the way Snape had been.

"I have to do this," said Harry quietly. "I'll see you at dinner." Flexing his fingers around his wand, Harry descended into the dark labyrinth that Snape once called home.

The light died at the first turn, and Harry Summoned a torch, breathing a little easier when it smacked solidly into his hand. Now he had both wand and weapon, though he wasn't positive he'd need either. He explored behind each door he encountered: the Potions laboratories, the student stores where ingredients were kept, broom closets, and toilets. He found the entrance to the Slytherin common room, but didn't know the password and couldn't get in.

The same was true for Snape's old office, but Slughorn's opened at a single touch. Other than a coating of fine dust, everything was as he remembered it. Harry kept walking, following the metronomic plink plink plink coming from somewhere deeper in the tunnels. He had never been this far into the dungeons, and the musty odour was filling his head and causing his nose to stuff up. It was cold. It was damp, and Harry wished he had thought to wear something heavier than a simple t-shirt.

Harry heard something skittering past his feet as he cast a Warming Charm over himself, and he started violently, nearly dropping the burning torch in his hand. "Lumos!" he shouted as his heart thundered in his chest. A rat froze for a moment, speared by a sharp beam of blue-white light, and Harry wished he knew the spell that forced Animagi to shift back into their human forms.

"Hominem Revelio." Harry cast the spell with all his strength, and the rat let out a piercing shriek as the spell light wrapped around its body. It bounded down the tunnel, and Harry swore it was spitting like an enraged cat as it disappeared. He slumped against the wall for a moment, resting his hand over his hammering heart and panting as he waited for the fear to pass.

As Harry rested, his eyes drifted over the wall in front of him, and he pushed himself up to standing when he noticed a faint light seeping out from under the wall. If he hadn't stopped when he did, he would have missed it entirely. He set the torch in a nearby sconce and went through his entire catalogue of revealing spells, learning nothing more than that magic was concealing a doorway.

"Great. I found a doorway, but no door," muttered Harry. All he had was a faint archway and a hint of a door set into it. He traced a section of the line with his finger, the latent magic making the hair on his arms rise. Harry threw a few more spells in the direction of the doorway, including Finite Incantatem. "Some wizard you are. I don't think Merlin has anything to worry about," he sighed. It was unsurprising that Snape wouldn't let him off that easily.

"I still don't know what you mean by 'Amortentia is the key'," Harry told the door in frustration. "Couldn't you have left me a hint or something?" The torch hissed and crackled as the flames bit into a pocket of sap, and Harry marked the wall with a bright red, glowing X, hoping it would last long enough for him to find his way back to.

The dripping was beginning to grate on his nerves, so Harry picked up the torch and set off in search of it. He trudged through the tunnels, his mind working on the puzzle Snape had left for him, and he tried to organise his thoughts the same way he'd seen Hermione do it a thousand times before.

The gate, the potion, the door. That's what it boiled down to in the end. Harry had no ideas about the gate. It had materialised out of thin air three days after the battle, at roughly the same time McGonagall tried to get into the headmaster's office. The door was no different from the desk, except in scale. He'd find a way to open it. The potion, though... Harry knew he was capable of brewing Amortentia, or would be if he had the Half-Blood Prince's book, but he was nearly positive it had burned up in Crabbe's Fiendfyre, along with the rest of the Room of Hidden Things.

Harry reached the end of the dungeons, a bit disappointed to discover there were no cells to hold and torture prisoners, no manacles attached to long lengths of chain. No racks or iron maidens to punish recalcitrant students who refused to complete their homework or caused their cauldrons to explode. There was only a long crack in the ceiling, zigzagging between stones set close together.

Water dripped steadily and, judging from the colour of the stones and the worn depression in the floor, the ceiling had been leaking for years. Harry raised the torch and threw as much light up there as he could manage, watching each drop as it swelled, gathered, and released its tenuous hold only to speed through the air and become part of the puddle below.

Though sorely tempted to try his hand at some of the construction spells he'd learnt working on the restorations, he decided against it. If the stones over his head were the only thing between him and the Black Lake, he'd rather they stay in place. Besides, if the leak had been there for as long as he suspected, it could wait until he knew what he was doing.

~*~

It took Harry a week to find all the revealing and unlocking charms necessary to turn the merest suggestion of a doorway into a formidable barrier made of wood and iron surrounded by heavy stone. It was cold and uninviting, much like its former resident, and as Harry picked up the next book from the pile and opened it to a marked chapter on detecting protective enchantments, he despaired of ever opening it.

Spell after spell sparkled and died against it. Every once in awhile, the door would flicker a bit, appear a little less substantial, but a quick Finite Incantatem usually undid anything that threatened to transform the door back into a stretch of wall. In a fit of madness, Harry even got up off the floor and paced back and forth before it, chanting, "I need the room where Snape lived. I need the room where Snape lived. I need the room where Snape lived."

Nothing happened.

"Maybe you should make the potion," suggested Ron one night after Harry admitted defeat. "Or work on the gate instead."

Harry shook his head and flopped down on the couch, one arm draped across his forehead. "The gate is last. I don't know why, but I have a feeling that it will come down when I've finished whatever it is that I'm supposed to do."

"So, what have you done so far?"

"I have every book that mentions locks or doors. I have books on protective spells and enchantments. I have books on breaking protective spells and enchantments. I have books on every thief ever caught at Gringotts, just to see if there's an angle I've not thought of yet."

"Like tunnelling under the door?"

"Have you tried blasting it?" asked Ginny as she tucked herself under Harry's arm. "Sometimes brute force works."

"This is Snape we're talking about," said Harry, lifting his head long enough to glance at the top of Ginny's head. A tiny frisson of anxiety prickled under his skin as she rested a knee against his leg, and he resisted the urge to shift away. "And yeah, I tried blasting it. Nearly cracked open my skull with that one."

"What about a password?" asked Ron. "There are loads of enchantments that won't budge an inch without one."

Harry sat bolt upright, his head turning in the direction of the gargoyle before he turned back to stare at Ron.

"You're a bloody genius!" he said with a broad grin. "A password! Why didn't I think of that?"

"Because it's Snape, and he knows about a million more words than you do?" teased Ginny as she pulled Harry back into the couch.

The next day found Harry sitting on a thick blanket in front of the door to Snape's room, surrounded by books, a small hamper packed with food, and a lantern. "Okay, then." He picked up the book on the top of the pile and began to read aloud. "Aconite. Acromantula venom. Agrippa. Antimony. Armadillo bile. Ashwinder eggs. Frozen Ashwinder eggs. Asphodel. Asphodel root. Powdered Asphodel root. Powdered root of Asphodel."

Seven hours and forty-two sips of pumpkin juice later, Harry had made his way into the 'D's and needed desperately to use the toilet. Some of the things he'd read had been interesting, though he'd rather not write fifteen inches on any of them. When he returned from the bathroom, he picked up the book and began again. "Dahlia. Dahlia rhizome. Rhizome. Daisy. Dalmatian spots. Spots of Dalmatian." Harry didn't care to think about what collecting that might entail. "Damask rose. Rose of Damascus. Dandelion. Dandelion fluff. Dandelion root." Who knew so many things could go into potions?

"Jaborandi. Jabberknoll feathers. Jabberknoll wings. Jacamar leaves. Jacaranda pods. Jack-in-the-pulpit sap. Jaguar whiskers. Jasmine. Night-blooming Jasmine."

When it reached the point where Harry was seeing lines of text with his eyes closed, he called it a night and joined the others in the Great Hall for more research and a bite to eat. "Professor," he asked as he sat down, "is it possible to open a door if you don't know the password to it?"

A glint of amusement entered Flitwick's eyes. "In theory, yes. What spells have you tried?"

Harry rattled off a number of blasting spells, exploding spells, vanishing spells and a couple of incendiary spells that he really wished he hadn't tried. The backlash from those had resulted in a quick trip to the infirmary. Pomfrey had even been kind enough to grow his eyebrows back. He hadn't told Ron and Ginny about that one. Ron would have laughed and Ginny was getting too good at imitating her mother.

"And what did you learn from that?" asked Flitwick.

"That brute force doesn't work very well against passwords."

Flitwick laughed. "Yes, exactly, though a Gryffindor would have tried them all, just to be certain." His expression took on a note of sympathy. "The only other way to get around a password, Mr Potter, is by using the blood or saliva of the person who set it." His eyes dimmed. "Fresh blood. The presumption is that the person is either deceased or injured to the point where the password cannot be spoken."

Harry sighed and began eating automatically. "Thank you, sir."

"Ocelot saliva, Saliva of ocelot, Octopus powder, Powdered octopus." Harry took a deep breath as he quickly scanned the list of oils. "Agar. Ajwain. Angelica. Anise. Asafoetida." The list went on for pages. "Dill. Elecampane. Eucalyptus….Hickory. Horseradish. Hyssop….Mandarin. Marjoram. Melaleuca….Rose. Rosehip. Rosemary. Rosewood….Yarrow. Ylang ylang. Zedoary." There. Now back to the plants and animals.

"Okapi tail, Oleander, Olibanum, Olingo claws, desiccated olm, Opossum breath….Salt. Salt water. Saltpetre. Sardine. Scrabab, I mean Scarab Beetle." Harry was exhausted. Words no longer made sense and his voice no longer sounded human to his ears. He wasn't certain he was even speaking English anymore. But he knew Ron was right. The door required a password, and he'd sit here until the end of time if that's how long it took before he figured it out.

On and on it went, day after day, hour after hour. By the time Harry had finished reading aloud the title of each entry in Cornucopia Pharmacologicae: A Potions Master's Guide, his voice was a thin tattered sheet of sandpaper scraping over rough stone. The door hadn't so much as flickered, much less opened.

When Harry finally read the last entry, zoysia seeds, and stumbled up to Gryffindor Tower, he discovered Ginny waiting for him, her hands on her hips and her dark eyes flashing angrily. He gazed blearily at her and let out a breath while trying to pull together enough energy to work out why she was mad at him. When nothing appeared to be forthcoming, he pushed past her and headed for the dormitory stairs.

"You're not even going to say hello?" she demanded.

Harry paused, his foot on the bottommost step. "I'm not sure what I've done," he said uneasily. "So, I thought it best to go up to bed." He turned back and gave her a weak smile. "I'm really tired, Gin."

"You've been spending every waking minute in that dungeon, and when you've finished for the day, you get something from the kitchens and go straight up to your room. Ron says you're asleep by the time he comes up, but you've gone again when he gets up."

"I have to figure this out, Ginny. You know I do."

"But, you haven't any time for me. Or for Ron either." She exhaled forcefully, her nostrils flaring. "I know you want to find out more about your mum, but it needn't take all your time." Ginny took a step forward and rubbed her hand along Harry's arm. "You'll be heading for London soon and I'll still be here waiting for you."

Harry tried to smile at her but his lips refused to cooperate, and he found himself taking a step back towards the stairs. "I'll try to remember to come up for air," he promised. "But the sooner I finish this, the more time I'll have for you."

Ginny's expression shifted, the fire fading from her eyes and leaving little but guilt and grief behind. Harry knew that feeling well. "I don't think it will end for you until you've finished with this," she said stiffly. "Just... Try not to lose yourself down there." She stepped forward and kissed him, and Harry found himself struggling to return it.

"Go upstairs, Harry," she said coolly. "You're knackered."

Harry shifted uncomfortably. He had no intention of hurting her, but his brain felt full of mush and, despite doing nothing but read aloud for the past few days, he was worn out. "What are you going to do?" he asked.

"Play Quidditch, I suppose. There's usually a match down at the pitch after supper." She arched her brows in silent question, but Harry shook his head. "I'll see you later," she said, but her eyes followed him all the way up to his room and, Harry felt, crawled in bed beside him. It wasn't until he closed the curtains and set a mild repelling charm that he felt truly alone.

~*~

It wasn't until Harry was about a third of the way through the list of Potions in the Potioneer's Compendium that a thought occurred: Snape wanted Harry to be able to open the door. It stood to reason, therefore, that the password would be something Harry was familiar with, and given that Snape thought Harry was only a small step above Neville in the ability to brew a decent potion, it was unlikely to be potions related.

"Think, Harry." He stood up and paced in front of the door, his mind whirling with new possibilities. The password would be something Snape knew Harry would know, but very few others would even consider.

The answer slammed into him, and he felt his throat tighten in response. He turned, faced the door and said quietly, "Lily Evans."

Nothing happened.

Harry gave the door a hard smack. "Dammit, Snape!" His hand throbbed and he stared sullenly at the unyielding door. There had to be something he was missing. Something obvious, simple. Something that would make Harry feel like the dunderhead Snape always accused him of being.

Afterwards, he wouldn't be able to say what made him try it, but he rested his forehead against the door and murmured, "Harry Potter." He heard a subtle click, felt the magic give way and the door opened a crack. He leapt back as if scalded, wand out and eyes wide.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Harry pulled the door closed, felt the protective charms snap back into place and tried again. "Harry Potter." The door stood resolutely closed, so he laid his hand on it and repeated the password. Once again, there was a click, more felt than heard, and the door swung inwards an inch.

Grabbing his lantern, Harry took a cautious step into the Potions Master's rooms and looked around. A worn brown couch sagged lazily against the wall; the depressions in it suggesting that Snape had slept there more often than not. A tattered wing chair sat near a tall fireplace that must have served as a Floo. A squat table had been placed to the right of the chair, the height perfect for a cup of tea. A large desk was shoved unceremoniously into a corner. Empty bookcases lined the walls.

Harry shivered as he pressed his way inside. The room felt isolated, lonely, as though its prior inhabitant had occupied it but never really lived in it. There were no pictures on the mantel, no works of art on the walls, not even a portrait to keep Snape company. The furniture was coated in a thick layer of dust, adding a layer of neglect to the air of melancholy that hung over the place like a shroud.

Two doors flanked the fireplace. The one on the left led to Snape's bedroom, empty but for a spacious wardrobe and a narrow canopied bed. A small bathroom lay beyond a narrow archway on the far side of the room, the countertop no less dusty than the rest of the small suite.

Harry found Snape's private laboratory behind the other door, and his brow furrowed when he stepped inside. It hadn't come as a surprise that the rest of Snape's quarters were empty; Harry had already gone through Snape's personal belongings when he cleaned out the Headmaster's private rooms, but he had expected to find Snape's brewing equipment and personal stores of ingredients here in the dungeons. This room, though, was as empty as the others.

It didn't make any sense. Why would Snape want him to spend days breaking into an empty set of rooms? Why would he have set up such elaborate enchantments if there was nothing here to find? "What are you hiding?" said Harry aloud as he turned in a small circle, his eyes travelling over empty counters and shelves. He crouched in front of a cupboard door and opened it, disturbing a spider who beat a hasty retreat into a dank corner.

It was as he walked back into the sitting room that he noticed something odd. There were no footprints. In fact, the floor was nearly pristine. The night Harry had met Slughorn flashed through his mind and a slow grin curved his lips. "You bastard," he said as he snorted out a laugh. He strode over the bookcase and dragged his finger through a pile of dust, feeling the unmistakable tingle of magic against his skin. "Very clever." Harry gathered up his things and set off in search of McGonagall.

Transfiguration was as much a mental discipline as a magical one, which was why they spent time transforming things into familiar objects like needles and matches and frogs. Everyone knew what a teacup looked like, but it was also why no two teacups appeared exactly the same. Hermione's transfigurations were always beautiful; delicately wrought and elegantly decorated. It wasn't enough for her to change a toadstool into a toad. It had to be a specific species of toad, whereas Harry and Ron were satisfied if it had four limbs, two eyes and croaked.

It was a thornier issue to remove a transfiguration spell if one wasn't certain what the original object had been. The pile of dust on the desk—had it been parchment or ink? A quill or a candle? Harry wanted to be certain he knew what he was doing before he pointed his wand at any of the piles of dust and inadvertently destroyed the very things Snape wanted him to have.

Harry found McGonagall in the headmaster's office and he looked around as he stepped through the door. Instead of the pleasant jumble of magical instruments that were as much a part of the office as the portraits of former heads of Hogwarts, he found a well-ordered desk, somewhat Spartan by Dumbledore's standards, but much in keeping with McGonagall's astringent personality.

McGonagall's head came up in surprise as Harry approached the desk. Her eyes narrowed for a moment, her head tilted thoughtfully. "How did you get in, Mr Potter?"

Harry glanced over his shoulder at the door as he mentally retraced his steps. "I touched the gargoyle with my wand, same as I've done all summer." It occurred to him that it shouldn't be possible, but Harry discovered that Snape's magic was subtle, masterful, nearly a work of art.

"I see." A trace of a smile softened the lines of McGonagall's face. "And the purpose for your visit?"

Harry described what he'd found in Snape's rooms and told her of the night Dumbledore had introduced him to Professor Slughorn. "What I don't know," said Harry, "is how to undo a Transfiguration without ruining the original object if I don't know what the object used to be."

Instead of answering Harry's question, McGonagall handed him a slender book. "Read it, Mr Potter, and then I will answer any additional questions you might have."

~*~

Harry sprawled out under an ancient oak tree, its heavy branches twisted and gnarled, the roots making the ground underneath where he lay lumpy and uneven. Still, it was more comfortable than being cooped up in the dungeons, and he lifted his face into the soft breeze, inhaling the scent of mown lawn and freshly turned earth.

It was quiet out here. The outer walls had been repaired and the crews had moved inside the castle to fix the stairways and corridors that had been damaged during the last battle. While a part of Harry wished he was with them, the problems Snape had set proved to be more interesting than casting Reparo after Reparo and watching as gravel knitted itself into stone.

Around him lay scattered a half a dozen objects McGonagall had transfigured so Harry could practice the spells he was learning. It was delicate work, and he'd already destroyed a feather, a pincushion and a handkerchief, but he whooped with joy when he managed to remove the transfiguration from a snail to reveal a thimble underneath.

It was the last chapter in the book that caused Harry to sit up and take notice. The chapter dealt with glamours and illusions, spells that let people see what they expected to see instead of what was really there. It would make sense for Snape to hide his vast collection of pickled frog spleen and powdered moonstone behind a veil rather than risk his stores to a clumsy Transfiguration spell. And by the time Harry had made his way into Snape's laboratory, he hadn't expected to find a damned thing. Given his experience with cupboards, the presence of a spider was all but required.

By the end of a week's hard study, Harry felt ready to return to Snape's quarters. Armed with the Transfiguration text and his wand, he made his way to the dungeons, slipping easily through the gate and making his way with sure steps to Snape's door. He coaxed the door out of hiding, laid his palm on the wood and whispered his name.

Once inside, he doused the light, plunging the room into inky darkness. "Revelare Incantatem," he said, flicking his wand decisively in the direction of the desk. The dusty surface glittered like ice, the pale blue spell light cold as frost. Harry repeated the spell several times. The bookcases and mantel sparkled with the same cool light, but the chair, couch and table did not.

Harry started small. He worked on the places where the accumulation of dust was thinnest. He managed to transfigure Snape's red ink, but messed up the inkwell so that a bloody pool spread out over the scarred finish of the old wooden desk. As he watched the pool of ink grow wider, he could practically feel Snape breathing hot fumes of rage down his neck. He fixed the inkwell and siphoned the ink back into it and his cheeks heated under the imagined scrutiny. Unfortunately, the spell picked up some of the dust as well and Harry wondered what had been lost.

By the end of the day, Harry had managed to restore the books to the empty bookshelves and the bits and bobs of an academic to Snape's desk, and he considered it time well spent. To his surprise, the desk wasn't spelled against him and the drawers slid open easily. They were also empty, which explained Harry's lack of injury.

After dinner, Harry sank into an overstuffed chair next to the fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, the Transfiguration book open on his lap. As he read through the final chapter for the seventh time, Ginny sat down on the arm of the chair and started playing with his hair.

"Knock it off, Ginny. I'm trying to read," said Harry irritably. He swatted at her hand and shifted away from her, shooting her a withering glance as he did so.

Ginny pressed her lips into a thin line. "I'm beginning to think you'd rather not have me for your girlfriend." She moved off the arm of the chair and sat on the table in front of him. "What's going on, Harry? You've been...it's like I don't even exist."

Harry removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes as he smiled half-heartedly. "It's not that," he said. "This is a lot harder than I thought it would be, and I've not even started on the potion yet. I finally got into Snape's rooms last week and he's Transfigured or disguised everything as dust and dirt, so I've had to learn how to undo the spells without ruining whatever it is he Transfigured. I still don't know how to get rid of the gate and I have to finish all this before school starts again and Ron and I move to London."

"Your birthday is in two days and Mum expects you at the Burrow." Ginny reached out and touched Harry on the knee when he blinked. "Yeah, it's the end of July already." She gave a little huff and shook her head. "I should have known you'd have forgotten."

"I didn't forget," protested Harry. "I just didn't know it was that soon." The entire month of July had slipped by without notice, and Harry felt the press of panic against his chest. He collapsed into the chair and watched the play of firelight in the deep red of Ginny's hair. "I've been a crap boyfriend," he said.

"You never do anything halfway," Ginny replied with a bit of a smile. "That's one of the things I like best about you." She stood over him and leaned over to give him a kiss, which Harry returned with more eagerness than he felt. "Come with me to Quidditch. Please?" Deciding that there were worse ways to spend an evening, Harry agreed.

On the first day of August, Harry started sleeping in Snape's rooms.

~*~

By the end of the first week of August, Harry had turned Snape's rooms into a very cosy nest for himself. He started his unveiling project with the tiny bathroom, discovering nothing more than a few half-empty potions phials, a couple of threadbare towels and other assorted linens. The wardrobe held several worn teaching robes, a stained white shirt, and, inexplicably, a short red satin dressing gown.

It couldn't possibly be Snape's was Harry's first thought as he pulled it out and ran the silky fabric through his fingers. It flew in the face of everything he thought he knew about the man. But the aroma that clung to it wasn't the soft, sweet smell Harry associated with women. It was musky, almost smoky, tangy and nearly as bitter as Snape himself. He set it carefully back inside the wardrobe, his thoughts too jumbled to make any sense of them, and allowed his feet to carry him to the sitting room to work in there for awhile.

It was more challenging to remove the spells in Snape's laboratory, but at the end of a gruelling night's work, Harry discovered that the shelves in the laboratory were laden with bottles and jars filled with ingredients, though he thought some of them might be spoilt. The newts eyes were cloudy and slimy, and Harry was very nearly sick when he opened it. It had taken over an hour to get the smell out.

His days were spent in Greenhouse Three or in the Forbidden Forest, gathering the ingredients he needed for Amortentia. It wasn't enough to know that he needed to select jasmine petals under a full moon; he also needed to know that there was a difference between Whispering Jasmine (a magical plant) and Night Blooming Jasmine (the Muggle variety). That he needed to harvest the leaves from Weeping Primrose without making it burst into tears. That the aster used in Amortentia was most potent when grown near daisies.

On the first full moon following his birthday, Harry pulled on his Invisibility Cloak and stepped through the gate barring the way into the dungeons towards the Forbidden Forest. On his arm he carried a woven basket, and in his pocket was a silver knife he had found in one of the cupboards in Snape's laboratory. His wand was clutched tightly in his hand.

As the lights from the castle faded and Harry stepped under the eaves of the Forest, he saw the glowing tip of his wand quivering and he swallowed heavily, the bitter taste of fear drying the inside of his mouth. The further he wandered into the Forest, the harder it was to convince himself that a Death Eater wasn't behind every rustle of leaves, that an Acromantula with a grudge wasn't dogging his every step.

Yet Snape had made a similar journey every time he was Summoned, had tamped down the heart-stopping terror of discovery to deliver (mis)information to Voldemort time and time again. The closer Harry came to The Clearing—it would always be capitalised in his head—the more he found himself wishing he had the Resurrection Stone so he could call up Snape and try to have a conversation with him. The thought made him equally happy he had lost it, and it wasn't until he stepped into the open that his fear overwhelmed him.

Hagrid had been tied up over there. Voldemort and his Death Eaters had been under that tree. Harry had stepped out from between those two saplings, alone and terrified. "Quicker and easier than falling asleep." Fred. Colin. Lupin and Tonks. Sirius. Dumbledore falling, falling, falling. Snape lying in a pool of his own blood, bleeding memories; his death had been neither quick nor easy. Guilt choked him and crushing grief wrapped iron bands around his chest. "I'm sorry!" he blurted before he was blindsided by tears.

After some time had passed, he wiped his eyes and picked up the basket he hadn't realised he had dropped, then walked the rest of the way through the clearing, keeping his eyes averted, inordinately relieved no one had been around to witness him falling apart.

He walked along the trail where he and Draco had come across the murdered unicorn and found himself thinking about the last time he had seen him, huddled up with his parents after the battle had ended. Harry tried to muster up some sympathy for Draco, but he found himself falling short. If Dumbledore had been right, and it was our choices that defined us, then Draco had chosen to be a prat. Still, Harry was a bit surprised to discover he could no longer muster up the energy necessary to loathe him properly. Life, he had learnt, was too short to waste time on people who meant nothing to him.

The moon was rising, and by the time Harry found the pasture where the unicorns grazed, it appeared no larger than a Knut in the sky. A fallen tree was covered with vines, and Harry crouched down to study it for a moment. It was some sort of petunia, which made him snort as he harvested flowers. When he stood, he noticed some burrs clinging to his jeans and plucked those off to add to his basket, certain there'd be some use for them. He found a clutch of quail eggs and tucked them in around the flowers.

It took another twenty minutes of crawling on his knees to find what Harry was searching for—a type of plant called Sparkling Ambrosia, which the unicorns devoured much in the way thestrals ate meat. The edges of the leaves were rimmed in tiny dots of red spell light, and Harry made certain not to touch them as he took each leaf by the stem and severed it as gently as he could.

It occurred to him as he crept through the meadow, clipping berries here, stripping bark there, that Snape must have spent many a night out here doing much the same thing, and Harry felt the stirrings of a sort of kinship with a man he once thought he'd known as well as the back of his own hand. Harry glanced at his hand, the I must not tell lies shining faintly in the moonlight, and chuckled a bit. "Turns out I don't know the back of my hand nearly as well as I thought," he said in a voice as soft as the moonlight.

Harry returned to the castle, his basket laden with flora and fauna that had some use in potions, and he began the work of cleaning and preserving everything he'd collected. It was delicate work—at one point Harry would have called it tedious—and he didn't finish until well after dawn. But when he looked at his little row of bottles and jars, all carefully labelled and under the proper stasis spells, he felt quite pleased with himself. He liked to think Snape would have merely rolled his eyes and compared his efforts to that of a moderately intelligent orang-utan, Snape's way of indicating Harry's work was at an Acceptable level. With that thought in mind, Harry crawled into Snape's bed and fell asleep.

~*~

Amortentia was a tricky potion to brew. There were thirty-nine separate steps and a list of ingredients as long as Harry's arm, most of which required additional preparation once he'd taken them down from Snape's stores. He had to crush the moonstone into a fine powder. The dove hearts had to be minced. Pollen had to be cleaned off the jasmine blossoms before he could crush them.

After reading through the recipe, Harry collected parchment and quill from Snape's desk and began to outline the potion. He found among Snape's books a journal that compared several different love potions, Amortentia included, and cheered aloud when he saw that Snape had annotated each article. It was almost like having his Half-Blood Prince back, and Harry's confidence rose accordingly.

It took Harry five days and three tries before he managed to brew something he thought would pass muster with Snape, but at long last, the steam rose in lazy spirals over a cauldron filled with shimmering potion. Harry leant over and inhaled deeply. The familiar scent of treacle tart and broomstick polish rushed to fill his head; but the flowery smell he remembered from Slughorn's class had become something sharp and acrid, yet sweet, like smoke from slow fire. The memory niggled, but he couldn't place it. It was familiar, and Harry breathed deeply before sitting back.

"Alright, that's done," Harry said aloud. "But what am I to use it for?" He bottled the potion carefully and set the labelled phials on a shelf before cleaning his work space, his brain working at a rate Hermione would be proud of. When Snape's laboratory was put back together again, Harry pulled out the brief letter Snape had left for him and read it again.

Amongst my belongings you will find a few precious keepsakes...

But Harry hadn't found anything he'd call a keepsake.

Deciding he could tolerate a bit of company, Harry went up to the Great Hall to join the others for dinner. The suits of armour had been repaired in the two weeks since he'd taken up residence in Snape's room. The portraits had been rehung. The Great Staircase gleamed, though none of the smaller staircases were moving yet. It appeared that Hogwarts would reopen on time—provided Harry managed to remove the barrier to the dungeons.

As Harry slipped into his usual seat, he glanced up to find Ron gazing at him, his eyes cool. "Decided to join us, have you?"

Harry froze. His eyes darted between Ron and Ginny, and he squirmed under their disapproval. "You don't understand. Snape left this for me to do, and he made it so that I can't have help. I have to find whatever it is I'm searching for, so maybe I'll have a clue how to open the gate."

"You realise we start Auror training in three weeks, right? That Hogwarts opens in a fortnight or so? We haven't bought books yet. We don't have a place to live. There have been owls for you, but hardly anyone has seen you since your birthday." Ron's tone was steely, and Harry felt a surge of guilt. "You've barely spent any time with Ginny."

Appetite vanished, Harry stared at his empty plate before saying anything. "We can go to Diagon Alley on Saturday, right? Pick up the things we need?"

Ron's expression didn't soften as he shook his head. "Hermione will be back on Saturday. I'm spending the day with her." He paused. "Alone."

Harry's cheeks burned, and he kept his eyes averted. "Right. Say hello for me." He snatched a piece of bread from a nearby basket and rose to his feet. Dark circles smudged his eyes, and his hair was more mussed than usual. He stole an exhausted glance at Ginny. "The potion is done," he said quietly. "I finished it about half an hour ago, but I don't know what I'm to do with it. I've not found my mum's things yet, either." He turned and trudged back through the Great Hall.

Just as he reached the doors he heard, "Harry! Wait." He turned to see Ron running through the Hall. "It's like this. Snape said you couldn't have help and, bloody hell, I'm not about to touch that gate again, so I reckon he meant it. But that's not the same thing as keeping everything a secret." Ron's eyes searched Harry's face. "You're hungry and you're knackered. Come back to the table, and tell us what you've been working on and where you're stuck. Maybe Ginny and I can think of something you've not thought of yet."

A tired smile lit up Harry's face and he was filled with relief as he walked back with Ron. As he filled his plate, he went through everything he'd learnt over the course of the summer: the detection spells, dismantling protective charms, removing transfiguration spells. He told them about the mind-numbing hours spent cataloguing Snape's belongings. He even told them about his trip into the Forbidden Forest, omitting only the part about The Clearing. "Amortentia is the key," he said, "but the key to what?"

"Harry," said Ginny, finally speaking up. "Did you save any of your first attempts at brewing Amortentia? Snape said he'd know if you'd found someone else to brew it for you." Her brow furrowed. "I mean, his spells would know."

"Can you imagine being that good at magic?" It was a rhetorical question, but a note of wistfulness entered Harry's voice. He could have learnt so much if he hadn't been so busy keeping his hatred alive. "But, no, I didn't. The first potion was...well, Neville could have done better."

Ginny laughed, a bright sparkling sound that raised Harry's spirits. "His potions are rather legendary," she said. She watched with approval as Harry refilled his plate and started on seconds. "And the second attempt?"

"Looked a bit like a steaming mud bath," said Harry. "It was the right colour, but wrong consistency, and the steam didn't spiral at all. This one, though...the corkscrews are a bit wobbly, and it's not quite as shiny as the draught Slughorn showed us, but it's definitely recognisable as Amortentia."

"Let's set aside the potion for now," said Ron. "You said you hadn't found anything of your mum's. Where have you looked?"

Harry enumerated them. "There's really not much left in the dungeons and nothing at all in the headmaster's tower. I've not packed up his lab yet, but trust me, he didn't keep anything in there that didn't have to do with potions."

"I don't know about Snape, but I keep things that are important to me locked in my school trunk or in my bedroom back at the Burrow." said Ginny. "Where do you keep the things you want to save?"

When Harry stayed at the Dursleys, he had kept anything he didn't want destroyed underneath the floorboards in his bedroom, but the floors in Snape quarters were stone. "I haven't seen a trunk anywhere," he said slowly. "I checked the wardrobe, but there were only a few old teaching robes in it." Harry made no mention of the scarlet dressing gown and the few restless nights that came along with it. That was one secret he was determined to keep.

"Were there any drawers in it?" asked Ron.

"What about the night table?" inquired Ginny at the same time. They shared a look and grinned.

"And under the bed," she added.

"There's no table next to the bed, or nightstand either." It was inconceivable to Harry how Snape had managed without one. Surely Snape had read in bed. With all those books, how could he not have done? "Yes, there are drawers in the wardrobe, but they're empty. I haven't looked under the bed, though."

"Are you certain they're empty?" asked Ron. "He's...he was really good at hiding things."

Harry blinked. "Well," he said slowly, "I didn't see any dust in them."

Ginny smiled over her teacup. "Did you see what you were expecting to see?"

~*~

The first thing Harry did upon his return to Snape's bedroom was check the wardrobe for enchantments. The top drawer was indeed empty; the bottom drawer was not, and it took Harry over an hour of hard work to break through the spells hiding its contents. When he had finished, though, he wished he'd left well enough alone.

He slumped down on the edge of the bed, hands buried in stifling black fabric, a pale mask staring lifelessly up at him. For one brief, insane moment, Harry thought about trying it on, but his psyche screamed in horror at the idea, and he felt the bile rising up into his throat. He carried the robes into the sitting room with shaking hands and laid them carefully in the fireplace, the mask turned face-down on top of them. "Incendio." Harry sat quietly and watched them burn.

He rolled out of bed the next morning after a night filled with terrifying dreams, his thoughts muddled and his stomach still churning. Snape had been a Death Eater. Somehow, in romanticising his past, Harry had allowed himself to forget that.

But he left after Voldemort murdered your parents, a little voice whispered in the back of his mind. One thing had been clear: whatever mistakes Snape had made in his past, he had sincerely regretted each and every one. And it's not like you're exactly blameless, the haunting voice continued.

He stumbled his way into the small bathroom and tried to shower away the darkness of his thoughts.

After another raid on the kitchens for breakfast, Harry returned to Snape's bedroom and began a careful inspection. With a wave of his wand, he plunged the room into darkness and began crawling along the baseboards, casting small revealing spells as he went. The green (or blue or purple or red) sparkles showed up much better in the dark, and Harry spelled a small x onto the wall wherever he found magical residue.

Harry's knees ached by the time he'd finished, but discovering a nightstand, a low bookcase and Snape's old school trunk made the pain worthwhile. He sat cross-legged on a thick rug transfigured from Snape's pillow and examined the contents of the bookcase first.

Back issues of a number of Potions journals stood in rigid lines along both shelves, but if they were arranged in any particular order, Harry couldn't tell what it was. He pulled one at random and flipped it open before turning his head in the direction of the sitting room, a frown of confusion puckering his forehead. He was certain he had seen this issue when writing down the tiles of every publication Snape owned.

The same held true for every issue and it wasn't until Harry started skimming over the Table of Contents that he realised that Snape had an article published in every one. He went back to the beginning of the collection and read more carefully, finding scathing letters to the editors so Snape-like that Harry imagined he felt wet spittle moistening his cheek. He choked out a laugh as he read, impressed with Snape's ability to pile on insult after insult without repeating a word or phrase, and by the time he finished reading the third such letter, the words were blurring on the page. He removed his spectacles and scrubbed at his eyes, making a note to keep these journals for himself.

The contents of the nightstand taught Harry more about Snape than he ever wanted to know. In addition to the ordinary things: scraps of parchment, old quills, several books and a sealed phial of Hangover Remedy, he also found evidence that Snape had a well-rounded private life.

Harry had had no expectations when he opened the drawer, but his jaw had dropped to his knees at a single glance inside. The presence of a magazine wasn't unusual; Seamus' collection was legendary. Finding a thing that looked like a lifelike (a very, very lifelike) replica of a man's penis took Harry by surprise and his hand shook as he picked it up.

To his admittedly unpractised eye, the rubbery prick appeared well-used, and Harry couldn't stop the low rise of colour that tinted his cheeks. His belly did a slow roll. His fingers felt icy. Heat pooled in strange places. Harry set the item aside and pointedly ignored it while he continued his exploration.

A cursory inspection of the magazine, Crossed Wands, revealed that it had absolutely nothing to do with Potions, despite the photograph on the cover with two attractive men sitting in a cauldron. One of them ran a slow eye over Harry's body and Harry knew, just knew, the man had seen him turn beet red before he'd managed to shove the magazine back into the drawer. Harry's eyes flashed to the wardrobe; perhaps the crimson dressing gown wasn't as mysterious as he had believed.

Imagination-fuelled images clung to Harry's retinas, strong as cobwebs and no easier to remove. His skin prickled and fire filled his veins. Harry spent the next few hours prowling around the dungeons, trying to work off the strange energy coursing through him. He swept the Potions classroom and dusted the student stores—after making certain it was real dust—as he ignored the thoughts parading through his skull with all the subtlety of a herd of elephants. And when Harry dreamt of Snape that night, Snape laughed at him.

~*~

If Harry had thought the desk in the Headmaster's office was a nightmare, then the most frightening magical creature he had ever encountered was a pygmy puff. Snape's trunk was layered with more spells than Harry had ever heard of, and as he tried to untangle them, he became more and more convinced he was going about this the wrong way.

He dragged it out into the sitting room and considered his options as he sat before the fire. Unless Harry missed his guess, Snape had used dozens of standard protective spells, some defensive spells and at least three curses—and those were just the spells Harry could identify. There was other magic lurking on that trunk, dark and dangerous, twisting around the sides of it like Venomous Tentacula in a bed of Devil's Snare. He couldn't even touch his wand to the keyhole without setting off a shower of sparks. The trunk had even growled at him. Twice.

Harry perched on the edge of the chair, his elbows resting on his knees, his wand dangling between his fingers as he stared into the flames. There must have been a reason Snape protected that trunk so carefully. "You didn't trust me," he said suddenly, sitting bolt upright. "You thought I'd find a way to get Ron and Hermione to help me." He launched himself from the chair and began to pace.

Harry could hardly blame him. Amongst the many recurring themes woven through Snape's endless litany of insults were Harry's laziness and penchant for breaking rules. Naturally, Snape had made damned certain Harry could do neither, not if he wanted to gain access to those things Snape considered to be most valuable. "So, which is it? Am I to break your rules or find a way to dismantle your fucking spells?" he shouted. Even dead, Snape still managed to ignite Harry's temper.

He stormed into the laboratory and snatched up one of Snape's silver knives, the blade wickedly sharp. On impulse, he grabbed one of the phials of Amortentia he had brewed so carefully and shoved it into the pocket of his jeans as well.

Standing over the trunk, he scored a line across his hand with the knife, hissing as the blade bit into his skin. The pain sliced through his anger, and he watched in grim satisfaction as the blood welled in his palm. He tossed the knife onto the couch nearby, pointed his wand at the trunk and drew a steadying breath as he turned his hand over.

Blood, crimson and hot, spilled drop by drop onto the lid, where it sizzled and smoked as if landing on a hot skillet. Sparks danced along the edges of the trunk as he watched in horror, but Harry could think of no spell to put them out. Smoke began to rise, its tendrils wafting out to circle around Harry's head. "Aguamenti!" he shouted, brandishing his wand, but the water sprayed everywhere except on the trunk itself.

Out of ideas and in desperation, Harry upended the phial of potion onto the trunk where it absorbed the charred remains of his blood as it hissed and spat like a drowned cat. The smoke vanished. The sparks died. Water ran still ran down the walls, but Harry ignored it as he crouched down in front of the trunk, his eyes wide.

He cast a low-level revealing spell, but found no trace of magic. Reaching out with an unsteady hand, Harry pressed on the latch and heard a distinctive click. Heart lodged firmly in his throat, he scrambled onto his knees and lifted the lid.

In the centre of a thick Gryffindor scarf, against broad stripes of red and gold, lay a folded square of parchment with Harry Potter scrawled across it in a familiar, spiky hand. He opened it, tilted the note towards the fire, and read:

Charms – Exceeds Expectations
Defence Against the Dark Arts – Outstanding
Herbology – Acceptable
Potions – Exceeds Expectations
Transfiguration – Outstanding

Well done, Potter.

Severus Snape

P.S. Touch the bars in the following order: 1 3 2 5 4 7 6, pour five drops of the potion onto the centre crossbar, and speak the name you undoubtedly uttered before your own.

The note was going in Harry's trunk alongside his Invisibility Cloak and the last shard from Sirius' mirror so Harry could savour the sense of accomplishment reading Snape's note gave him. He would take these marks over any assigned by the Department for Magical Education any day.

He lifted out the old-fashioned scarf, a broad smile curving his lips, and draped it across his shoulders as he imagined Snape and his mum trading scarves once they'd finished their first year at Hogwarts. He knew better than to think they'd ever be seen in public with a scarf from a rival House, but Snape would have begged and his mum would have relented, if only to dispel a little of the gloom that clung to Snape like a Dementor's cloak.

Underneath the scarf, Harry found a thick scroll of heavy vellum. It was a simple thing that declared Severus Snape had passed the examinations for Potions Master and had been admitted to the Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers with first class honours, but it was pristine and had been protected with a preservation spell. The signature at the bottom was illegible, but it was dated 17 June, 1981. Snape had been young then.

Under the scroll was a thick sheaf of parchment. The cover page proclaimed it to be Snape's thesis, ...And One Stir Widdershins, submitted as part of his mastery. The second page had three signatures; the word 'Extraordinary!' was printed next to the one in the middle. Harry read the abstract and was hopelessly lost by the end of the second sentence. As far as Harry could tell, Snape had analysed the effects of metallurgy on brewing potions, stating that the type of cauldron, knife, scales, etc., played as much a part in the potency of potions as did the direction of the stirring. It was over Harry's head, but he thought Hermione would enjoy it.

He found a collection of letters between Snape and several other potioneers, waging verbal warfare over the use of lionfish spines in restorative potions. There was a heavily marked up copy of the first article Snape had submitted to Cauldrons Quarterly. There was, as promised, an essay Snape and his mother had submitted for Muggle Studies in their third year, explaining the point of television.

Harry hit the mother lode underneath all the Potions related materiel. The Evanses had moved after his mum's first year and Lily had written to Snape during their summers apart; Snape had saved every one of her letters. She won't even speak with me, Sev. My own sister hates me. Harry could imagine the blistering diatribe Snape must have sent back, since his mum stopped writing about Petunia not long after. Instead, her correspondence was filled with advice on how to manage Snape's increasingly turbulent relationship with his father.

Sev, I know you're doing your best, but I've already worked it out with mum and dad. I know you don't get on with Petunia (who does these days?), but I hate seeing you so unhappy. Please, promise me that if it happens again, you'll come to Spelthorne. I'll have a train ticket waiting at the station.

Harry devoured the letters and watched their friendship crumble as they grew apart. Over the years, his mum grew distant and more cautious, and Harry suspected that Snape clung that much tighter to the only bright spot he had in his life. His heart ached for both of them, knowing he had experienced the same ebb and flow in his friendship with Ron--and they'd been in the same House. But through her letters he knew her better now, and he owed Snape a debt of gratitude that could never be repaid.

The last envelope contained not a letter, but dozens of photographs, some whole, some with other people torn out. Most of them were Muggle and in black and white, but there were a few faded colour pictures and even fewer Wizarding ones. He picked one up and his eyes filled as his mother gazed at him in curiosity and gave him a tentative wave. In another, Snape stepped in front of her and made a none-too-subtle gesture with his wand. They hadn't known him then--he hadn't been born yet--and their photographic selves had no knowledge of him, but Lily had been friendly, and Snape had been protective, and Harry missed them both terribly.

Harry took a break then, stealing off for some food and some time with his thoughts. The downside of revisiting Snape's childhood and adolescence was that it came hand-in-hand with his mother's, which led inevitably to his father and to Sirius. To Remus and Tonks. Fred. Colin Creevey, whom Harry had tolerated rather than liked. Cedric Diggory.

Dumbledore.

After an hour or so where Harry had worked through some of his anger and grief, he returned to the trunk. Under the layer of detritus that always seemed to build up (a hair ribbon, some silly illustrated notes they'd passed back and forth in class, a Gringotts key, a letter from Regulus that started out as mushy as something Lavender Brown might pen and made Harry squirm), lay a collection of journals and when Harry drew one out at random, he knew instantly that this had been what Snape was protecting.

Snape was a diarist.

A quick count revealed eighteen volumes, each of the highest quality Snape could afford. The first had been a gift from Snape's mother, evidenced by the note on the very first page.

Dear Severus,

Each night, before you go to bed, write something down about your day. It doesn't have to be much, 'Today was horrible' is enough, but you will see at the end the steps of your journey. The spell I taught you will keep this safe.

Do not worry about me. I will be fine.

Love, Mum

The first entry read, Lily's in Gryffindor. I hate my life.

But Snape had persisted and was parsimonious enough to write on every single line and use both sides of each page. It would take forever to read them all, but Harry vowed he would make time to do just that.

Harry packed the battered old trunk carefully, leaving out only the marks on his "N.E.W.T." Snape had awarded him. He restored a few of the protective enchantments, including one that would cause minor injury to anyone stupid enough to try to break into it, and stored it back in the corner by the wardrobe where he'd found it.

~*~

Harry left the gate standing when he left the dungeons. "I know how to open the gate," he said quietly to McGonagall once he'd been admitted to her office. "But before I take it down, I'd like to request a favour."

Relief flooded McGonagall's face. The first day of September was just under a fortnight away. The house-elves were punishing themselves daily and Slughorn was becoming increasingly short-tempered over his inability to access his classrooms and office. "Of course, Harry. If I can."

"I would like to seal off Snape's rooms," he said, "so that I'm the only one who can get in. I'd like to keep his things in there, the way he'd have left them. I know he had a house somewhere. I'd like to bring some of his belongings here as well. In exchange, I'll donate most of his books to the Library. You know, things we don't already have here."

McGonagall's eyebrows arched and Harry knew his request had come as a surprise. "Permanently?"

"I don't know yet," replied Harry, "but for a year or two at least. Until I know best what to do with his things. Until I figure things out."

It took a few minutes and a long glance at Dumbledore's portrait before McGonagall made up her mind. "I believe Hogwarts can manage without use of that space. Please do ask if you require assistance setting the spells. Long term enchantments can be a bit finicky, as I'm certain you've discovered."

Harry's smile conveyed his thanks and he excused himself to find Ron and Ginny, determined to salvage for himself some last bit of summer. He stepped onto the staircase that would eventually lead him to Gryffindor Tower, and Harry cheered as it swung out over the Entrance Hall.

Much like himself, Hogwarts was reborn.

~*~

September arrived before Harry was ready for it, and it was only because of Hermione's relentless cajolery that he and Ron were somewhat prepared for the start of Auror training. Harry refused the stipend Kingsley Shacklebolt offered, but Ron used his to purchase uniforms, a second wand and a stack of books tall enough to make Hermione salivate.

Harry and Ron found a small flat in a wizarding building near King's Cross the Friday before they started their training. It had two small bedrooms, a smaller kitchen, and a long, narrow lounge that they turned into a dining area and sitting room. There was even a narrow balcony that overlooked a small park. It was only a short Apparition hop away from the entrance to the Ministry of Magic, so Harry and Ron generally made it to work on time.

It didn't take long before Harry and Ron settled into a routine. Ron fixed tea whilst Harry was in the shower; Harry cooked breakfast whilst Ron got clean. Ron did up the dishes when they got home and Harry cooked dinner. Then, once the kitchen was clean, they would get out their books and read for the next day's lessons.

By the end of the first week, Harry and Ron decided to share the larger of the two bedrooms and use the second room for guests. Nightmares were frequent and neither of them was sleeping well, especially with the unfamiliar sounds of a large city all around them. It wasn't quiet, not like it had been in the dungeons, and Harry knew the sound of Ron's snoring from seven years of sharing a dormitory with him.

Every night, though, Harry made time to read from Snape's diaries. No matter how late it was, no matter how tired, he read—and related to—the struggles of an eleven year-old boy that never seemed to fit in. The only time he took a break from reading had been over the Christmas hols when he and Ron had gone to the Burrow. As much as he wanted to bring the current volume, Harry wasn't certain he could keep it from falling into the wrong hands.

It had taken him over six months, nearly seven, to read the entire series, but by the time he had reached the final volume he felt a strong bond of kinship with the man. They were mirrors of each other, a reflection of the choices they'd made—or that had been made for them. In Snape's life, the role of Draco Malfoy had been played by Sirius Black and James Potter, and by the time Harry had finished reading what he'd come to call The Lily Years, the blinders had fallen from his eyes.

Yes, Harry knew there were two sides to every story, but his experience in Snape's Pensieve tipped the balance in Snape's direction. The accounting in Snape's diary matched almost precisely the memory Harry had seen of Snape dangling upside down, displaying his worn, tattered underpants for the world to see, but that memory couldn't capture the towering rage that had sprung from Snape's utter humiliation at Sirius' hands. Nor had it shown the sniggering laughter and mocking asides that followed Snape from classroom to classroom, from dungeons to Astronomy Tower, until the day he stepped off the train at Kings Cross Station.

Nor had Snape's memories captured how lost he had been when Harry’s mum ended their friendship; how his self-loathing had sunk to new depths. Snape had done more than apologise; he had cut himself off from those same friends she had berated him for having. He tried to mind his tongue and his temper. He did everything he could think of to demonstrate his sincerity, but his mum had done worse than dig in her heels and refuse his entreaties. She had ignored him. Completely.

It was Regulus who pulled him back into the fold. Regulus who paved Snape's way into Voldemort's inner circle. Regulus who had shown Snape kindness and consideration. Regulus who loved him—as much to spite his brother as out of genuine caring. And when Sirius had engineered Snape's murder at Lupin's hands, it was Regulus who told Sirius that he would kill him the minute Sirius set foot in Grimmauld Place.

Snape hadn't loved him back.

But when Regulus disappeared, Snape had been heartsick. He poured himself into his studies, used his brewing as an excuse to escape the worst of the Death Eater raids, and tried to ignore the terror and ugliness that surrounded him.

To Harry's surprise, it wasn't his parents' murder that set Snape's feet on the path to redemption; it was their marriage. Voldemort had taken great delight in Snape's pain when he informed Snape that Lily had married James Potter. Laughed when Snape's heart had been laid open. Mocked him for loving a woman he could never have and wouldn't know what to do with if he'd won her.

Neither had Snape known Lily was pregnant until he told Voldemort of the Prophecy that governed Harry's life. He hadn't known he was endangering her until he saw the gleam in Voldemort's eye, felt the cold caress of evil behind the delighted smile. The whispered "Lily" had chilled his blood.

Harry couldn't even blame Snape for choosing Lily over him. If he'd been in Snape's place, goaded into choosing between Hermione's child and her life, Harry couldn't say for certain that he would have made a different choice. Harry understood Snape's desperation and resented Dumbledore for putting the question to him.

There was nothing in Snape's diaries that Harry hadn't felt at one point or another. He understood all too well how it felt to lose the first friend he'd ever made, even if it had turned out to be a temporary thing. He knew what it was like to have made a life-long enemy before the Sorting Hat had ever touched his head.

And sometimes, in the middle of the night when he was alone with his thoughts, Harry knew what it was like to love someone he wasn't attracted to, and would never be.

It was a truth Harry couldn't face; much the way Snape couldn't face it either.

The Brewing Years, those years between Lily's death and Harry's arrival at Hogwarts, were marked by relentless grief and aching loneliness. Harry empathised with how torn up Snape had been, knew in a way few others could the searing anger and crushing guilt that took up permanent residence in the dark recesses of his heart. The year between Cedric's murder and Sirius's death was the blackest period of Harry's life, worse in many ways than the Year of Perpetual Camping. But he'd had Ron and Hermione to lean on. Dumbledore left Snape to his own devices, allowing him to stew in bitterness and despair instead of leading him out of darkness.

Many of the journal entries of that era surpassed Harry's understanding of them, filled as they were with the theoretical underpinnings of the mystical and arcane workings of potions. Rather, Harry sought wisdom through the methods Snape used to cope with feelings of inadequacy and depression. Snape had taken up the study of Legilimency and Occlumency, had worked hard with Flitwick to learn duelling spells and techniques. And every once in awhile, once every blue moon or so, Dumbledore summoned him up to his office for a chat that inevitably left Snape feeling worse about his lot in life.

It was during The Harry Years that Harry's perceptions underwent a sea change. It was upon viewing his actions through the lens of Snape's understanding of them, imperfect as it had been, that Harry understood why Snape saw him as thoughtless and reckless. Snape had despaired when Dumbledore made a gift of the Invisibility Cloak, which Harry had used confidently and with no understanding of its protections—or lack thereof. How in hell was Snape to keep Harry safe when he couldn't even see him?

There was more to Snape's hatred than Harry appearing to be a carbon copy of James. Through Snape's journals, Harry discovered that Snape truly feared for his safety and had tried to curb the worst of Harry's excesses, but Harry proved to be every bit as intractable as his father.

Snape knew Harry had lied about hearing voices during his second year, had invaded his mind enough to hear the frightening whispers, though he, like Dumbledore, had no idea what it meant. Harry had been surprised to discover that the teachers had put together the clues well enough to suspect a basilisk, but not much sooner than Hermione had done. It would have made very little difference in the end. Ginny still would have been captured. Harry would somehow still feel responsible—and beholden to her.

During Harry's third year, Snape had been terrified by Lupin's presence and spent much of it fighting an addiction to Dreamless Sleep. While the potion had kept the worst of the nightmares at bay, it had done nothing to keep Snape's own formidable temper in check. As he waded through pages and pages of vitriol, though, Harry found himself wondering how he'd feel if were forced to work alongside Draco Malfoy or Gregory Goyle. Worse, how Draco would feel if required to work with him.

It was during Harry's fourth year that Snape came to find it impossible to loathe Harry and protect him as well. Antipathy gave way to a sort of grudging respect, though he was careful not to show any overt signs of consideration. To his students, to his Slytherins, to the world at large, he still had to demonstrate the same utter contempt for Harry, all the while being consumed by fear for his safety.

Dragons! Dragons as big as a fucking house. Malfoy's house. And Potter need only get past one and steal an egg. 'Think nothing of it, Severus. The boy will be fine.' There are moments I'd like to rip out those twinkling eyeballs and shove them down his fucking throat. Dragons, with teeth as long as an elephant's prick and that breathe fire. Has the old man forgotten that they're fucking hell on life expectancy?

I'd rather stand before the Dark Lord in naught but women's knickers and a toothpick instead of my wand to protect me than try to approach a nesting dragon.

It had only been Snape's superb Occlumency skills that allowed him to view the first task with anything approaching equanimity. He'd spent most of that night crushing moonstone into powder until his hands stopped shaking.

Everything changed the night the Dark Lord returned.

Everything.

Snape's entries became more guarded, every word chosen with care, as though even his innermost thoughts were being weighed with an eye towards the consequences of having them. He did not express remorse for having heard part of the Prophecy that set his feet on a long and lonely path, not in writing, but curiosity about what he hadn't heard gnawed at him more than it ever had done before. He didn't want to know, didn't want to be vulnerable to the Dark Lord's whims, of hiding knowledge he shouldn't possess behind a thin veil of obfuscation. Ignorance wasn't bliss; it was protection.

The Occlumency lessons were no better for Snape than they had been for Harry. Perhaps if he had done the readings, Harry would have known that the best way to learn Occlumency was by learning guided Legilimency first. Harry shuddered at the memories that Snape must have carried in his head that year and couldn't blame the man for not allowing Harry to stampede recklessly through them. Forced to start in the middle with a boy he neither liked nor trusted, it was to be expected they would fail so spectacularly.

Some of Snape's entries confused him. How is it possible he does not know? It appears he has a type—small, lithe, dark, relatively brainless—much like my own. In his defence (defending him now, Severus? That's how it begins, that's how it always begins), you turned your back on the mere suggestion no matter how often Lily pointed it out to you, for all the good it did you. The spots are set and no matter how much you wept over her, the Dark Lord was right about you.

I do NOT wish to feel fifteen again.

The Pensieve incident read nothing like Harry expected. It started out the way he anticipated:

My Pensieve! The insolent whelp was in my Pensieve! Naturally, being a Potter means he hasn't respect for anyone other than himself. Thought he was entitled to my memories, the spec-eyed bastard. How like his father he is. Nearly as bad as his loathsome dogfather.

But once Snape had filled a page describing the many and varied indignities he would visit on Sirius if given half a chance, he ended with something that left Harry in a daze.

No, Lily, I will NOT deny it. Not now, twenty years later. Yes, James was beautiful. Yes, I would have buggered him senseless, sucked him dry, tasted every inch of his skin if given even a ghost of a chance. There? Are you happy now?

I was fifteen fucking years old and my father would have beaten me bloody had he any idea his son was a fucking ponce. I had no hope. Lupin was too busy baring his throat to Black to rein the mongrel in, Pettigrew incited Black to new levels of idiocy at every opportunity, and James was always with them. I've seen your temper, Lily. You'd have done no better had your Frankie been a witness to a similar humiliation.

I can only hope your spawn overlooked the finer details.

Snape had fancied his father.

Harry went back to the entries written around that time, searching for any indication that Snape felt anything but intense loathing for his dad, but found little beyond vague references to some dreams Snape refused to acknowledge. Dreams of the sort with which Harry was becoming all too familiar.

Sleep refused to come and Harry supposed he was grateful for the respite. He was too young to want second chances, but he wanted, no, needed a chance to speak with Snape. To apologise, he told himself firmly. Nothing more than that. They were too different to become friends; the animosity ran too deep for that.

But you're just like him, supplied the tiny voice who tangled Harry's thoughts in razor wire, slicing his psyche wide open and exposed ideas best kept hidden. And what you want isn't friendship.

Scowling, Harry punched his pillow and flopped down onto his side to stare at the wall until dawn.

~*~

Sixth year had been complicated, but it wasn't until Harry read the journals from that year that he had the smallest inkling about the horrors of Snape's situation, of the dangers Snape faced. 'Here, Severus. I need you to develop some rapport with Draco, keep your Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa, appear to kill me in cold blood to further your credibility with the Dark Lord, and oh, lest we forget, inform Potter that he must die at the Dark Lord's hand now that he no longer believes a single word to come out of your mouth.'

If Harry were to go by what he was reading, it was almost as if there were three Harrys in Snape's life: the brash, reckless Gryffindor who did whatever he damned well pleased without thought to the consequences; the 'Chosen One' who was burdened by prophecy and isolated because of it, and the Harry Snape hated as much out of habit as genuine dislike.

It was on the occasions when Snape's entries took on a conversational tone, when he wrote directly to Lily, that Harry went from being 'Potter' (always used as an epithet) to 'Lily's son' or, 'your son' when Snape was worked up about something. It was as if Harry stepped out of James' shadow and began to exist as a person in his own right. Though Harry had been pants at nonverbal spells, and still was if Auror training was any indication, he had a gift for defensive magic, and Snape recognised that. Underneath the sarcasm lay a grudging respect—if one turned the journal sideways and squinted a bit.

Snape's journals weren't an endless exposition on all things Harry Potter. They were a doorway into the life of a Potions Master, much as The Brewing Years had been. Of a teacher. Of a man who was weary to the bone and hungered for solitude, yet ached from loneliness. Who had no patience for human frailties because he'd been crippled by them. Here, in these pages, the Half-Blood Prince still lived, with the same keen intellect, the same dry wit, the same scathing observations that marked every single exchange Harry had ever had with the man.

Harry learnt that Snape despised aubergine, thought Draco a bigger dunderhead than Harry, felt guilty about the Longbottoms, and had schemed with Flitwick and McGonagall against Umbridge in small, yet delightfully wicked ways. Snape had also embarked on several relationships, mostly for the sex, and Harry gave some thought to tearing those pages out. The realisation he was jealous of a dead man's lovers did not sit well.

It took Harry almost a month to pick up the journals again after that and, to his chagrin, even Ron noticed he'd stopped reading them.

"Have you finished them, then?"

Harry looked up from the treatise on The Restrictions on the Use of Underage Magic and stretched. Merlin, the readings they had to do for their training classes was almost as dull as anything Binns had ever assigned. He glanced at the chapter and shook his head. "No, I've still got another three or four pages to go."

"Not with that," said Ron. "With Snape's books."

"Not yet." Harry took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. "I haven't been able to bring myself to read about That Night." He slipped his glasses back on and gazed at Ron, who was sprawled out on the couch in their tiny sitting room. "Do you find it odd I'm reading them?"

Ron gave Harry a speculative look. "Not really. He knew Sirius and your parents, your mum especially. And he was your Half-Blood Prince, wasn't he?"

"He wasn't my Half-Blood Prince," muttered Harry.

Ron arched an eyebrow. "You go on telling yourself that. Doesn't make it true, though. Look, you and Snape have a history, but it's not like him and his Slytherins. It's you, and your dad, and your mum, and You-Know-Who, and Dumbledore, and the whole bloody world all rolled up in this great package, and there's no way to pull it all apart and look at each one of you by yourself. As yourselves." He took a deep breath and tilted his head, studying Harry for a moment.

"If he had lived," he continued quietly, "I'm not certain you'd be going out with Ginny."

The room grew very quiet. Harry was certain it was because his heart stopped, though he wasn't certain why the blood was still rushing through his ears "What do you mean by that?" he asked after a long minute.

Ron said something under his breath that Harry couldn't hear and shook his head. "Nothing. It doesn't matter. Say, have you finished that essay Dawlish wants on surveillance of unplottable buildings?"

Harry gave Ron a crooked smile, feeling strangely light-headed all of the sudden. "Why? So you can copy from it?"

Ron flashed Harry two fingers and they both went back to their studies, but that night, Harry picked up the journal again and started reading.

There was a long break between the last entry before Dumbledore's death and the first entry afterwards. Snape hadn't returned to Hogwarts until after the fall of the Ministry, and if he'd kept any sort of record during that time, which Harry thought he must have done, Harry didn't know where it was hidden. But as he read, Harry began to suspect that Dumbledore would know.

The portraits had not been idle during Snape's year as headmaster. Dumbledore guided his steps as much as a charmed portrait could and Phineas Nigellus had proved to be an invaluable source of information. If Hermione had any idea how much Snape learnt through Phineas' observations and interrogations (even as a portrait Phineas was every bit as cantankerous as Snape), she would have set the picture on fire.

Somehow, though, Snape had managed to have a replica of the Sword of Gryffindor made to pass along to Bellatrix Lestrange right under the noses of the Carrows. He kept McGonagall and Flitwick off balance and they remained convinced that Snape was firmly in the Death Eaters' camp, yet still managed to keep the younger students from harm and the DA from being discovered. "And to think I thought you a coward," muttered Harry as he turned off the lights. He didn't hear Ron sigh.

It wasn't the goings-on at Hogwarts that caught Harry's attention. Between dancing attendance on Voldemort and running the school in such a manner that some learning was taking place, Snape was brewing potions to cure every malady under the sun, including extreme blood loss and poisoning by all manners of Dark creatures. There were vague references to renovations Snape needed to make at some cottage near a wood, and long rants involving Madam Pomfrey and some house-elf named Einbee.

It also appeared that Snape was developing some rather complex Portkey charms that intrigued Harry enough to ask John Savage, head of the Department of Security, about their use. If Harry was reading it right, Snape was trying to tie the activation of a Portkey to his vital signs. If Snape stopped breathing or his heart gave out or his blood pressure dropped precipitously, his body would be transported to this mysterious cottage he'd mentioned. "And you're clever enough to manage it," whispered Harry.

I will take the modified Portkey when I deliver the Sword. Given Potter's unwillingness to Stop and Think, much less Listen, I have little hope of surviving an encounter with him with my limbs, much less my dignity, intact. I can only pray the boy refrains from using Unforgivables or this will go badly wrong. I still believe using the Patronus is the better plan, though Dumbledore continues to put faith in Potter's ability to see reason. After six years, I have yet to witness any sign of reasonableness on his part.

Phineas had best discover where they are before too much longer.

Harry snorted. Snape had been right to worry, though in a moment of clarity Harry recognised that, in all likelihood, he would have Apparated away rather than be disgraced and humiliated for a second time. Snape was...had been too quick, too powerful for Harry to overcome when Harry had rage and justice on his side. If caught off guard, he wouldn't stand a chance.

Why the fuck did Weasley pick now to be the hero? With him out of the picture, there was a chance! One fucking chance. Place the Sword in the pond. Wait for Potter to act without thinking. Save the impudent whelp from himself, earn back a small measure of trust and aid him. Offer him and that Know-It-All Granger a decent meal, deliver the message and disappear. But no. For the first time in his pointless life, Weasley has to be useful.

He's a man now and he's fucking beautiful. Too thin by half—he and Granger must be starving. Without those wretched spectacles, there's not much of James in him; not much of Lily either. Merlin, what I wouldn't give to worship every inch of that skin? Swallow him to the root. Shag him until he no longer knows his name. Hold him close and breathe him in.

Keep him safe.

On those few occasions when I allow myself a moment to fantasise, why did the fucking bastard have to wear Potter's face?

Harry slammed the volume shut, hands trembling, his cheeks burning. "Get out of my head, you slimy git," he snarled in a low voice. He growled as he tugged at his hair, blaming hormones for the heat pooling low in his belly, for the sudden throbbing of his prick.

That night, Harry wrote a long, chatty letter to Ginny filled with details about his struggles with Auror training and passing along the rumours he and Ron overheard while at the Ministry. He ignored Ron's long, drawn-out sigh. He knew what he was doing, and he wasn't going to let Snape keep him from having the things he really wanted, no matter how fascinating Harry found him to be.

Voldemort began to Summon Snape regularly to Malfoy Manor not long after the fiasco in Godric's Hollow, sending him back to Hogwarts with orders to torture more Gryffindors for information. Dumbledore's Army resisted, enabling Snape to trot out various memories--Neville with a broken nose, Ginny with a blackened eye hissing her defiance--to give the appearance of compliance.

It was only good fortune, or an Act of Providence, that kept Snape from crossing paths with Harry and Company when they'd been captured by the Snatchers, so frequent were his visits to Malfoy Manor becoming. The tightrope Snape walked grew thinner and thinner until it was no wider than the edge of a scalpel, and he was under strict orders to report every mention of Harry Potter at his earliest opportunity, no matter how innocuous the reference might be.

And still Snape prepared, travelling regularly to who-knew-where with the house-elf he had pressed into service, consulting Dumbledore's portrait a dozen times a day, yelling at Phineas to find that wretched boy so he could deliver the final message. He had, Harry learnt, even practised withdrawing memories wandlessly since he knew Harry was an unmitigated disaster at the mental disciplines.

At the end, Snape worried that he'd played his cards too close to the vest. Neither Filius nor Minerva trusted him. Dumbledore refused to tell him whether anyone else had been tasked with delivering the message to Potter if Snape was unable to complete his last mission. The strain was beginning to take its toll. His handwriting, never very good to begin with, grew spikier, more illegible, and Harry found himself struggling to decipher the words.

The boy's Patronus has been seen in Hogsmeade. He is coming. I can only hope he is every bit as hot-headed now as he was a year ago. I need his anger if this is going to work. How else will I find the courage to send him to his death?

By the time he reached the last page of Snape's journal, Harry was more Snape's man than Dumbledore's—and his loyalty to Dumbledore remained undiminished. Through his efforts, he would see to it that Snape received every accolade to which he was entitled; it was the very least Snape deserved.

"I didn't die," whispered Harry to the swiftly scrawled words. "I lived--and I suspect you did as well." He trailed his fingers over the page, the heavy paper smooth under his fingertips. "I wish I could thank--" Harry's eyes widened as more words appeared on the page.

Potter,

Spare me from your mawkish sentimentality. The purpose in giving you my journals was not to engender any sympathy nor try to humanise myself in your eyes. I'm quite beyond giving a damn what you or anyone else thinks of me. I promised you knowledge of your mother and I have given you that.

It appears we are indebted to each other and no matter how many times I attempt to clear the life-debt owed to your father I somehow manage to earn another in its place. If you lack understanding, consider asking Trelawney to read the portents to determine precisely what I mean. I've accepted that I will be forever tied to you, no doubt in payment of some cosmic debt that will require several lifetimes to fulfil.

I know you have read the diaries and, unless I have no understanding of you whatsoever, you are already planning to seek me out. Do not come looking for me. You are not ready. I require you to Live first--and you have not done that, not yet. At this point, you have done little more than survive, to live up to the expectations placed upon your shoulders by the acts of a madman when you were far too young to truly comprehend them.

When you know who you are, when you are Harry--not "Harry Potter," not the Boy-Who-Lived--when you are honest with yourself and comfortable in your skin, find me.

Find me then, Harry, and become the man you were meant to be.

Severus Snape

P.S. Don't bother Trelawney. It is one of your few saving graces that you cannot abide her, either. It was the dittany that saved me, you fool.

P.P.S. It is the 12th of March 1999 as I write this and it is charmed to appear thirty minutes after you open to this page. The headline of today's Daily Prophet indicates the Weird Sisters have disbanded. How ever will we survive?

Stunned, elated, Harry read the entry three times, and then once more for good measure. The greasy git had survived. Snape was still alive and he wanted Harry to find him. Scrabbling through his desk, he found parchment and quill and began to write out the steps he would need to follow in order to find Snape. He would start with Snape's vault at Gringotts, and then go through the house at Spinner's End. He would read the diaries again, this time with an eye towards finding where Snape was hiding and find the house-elf Snape had conscripted. Kreacher should be able to help with that.

First things first.

Hermione and Ginny were sitting N.E.W.T.s in about six weeks. Harry and Ron still had three more months of Auror training to survive and then Ron and Hermione would be getting married. Ginny was trying out with several Quidditch teams as Chaser, which left Harry free to, well, live. But after he had survived his first year in the Auror Corps, after he had lived a little as Snape required, after that...

Then Harry would go hunting.

THE END