"Ah, Mr. Potter, you're awake! Excellent."
Harry blinked once, twice, three times. His head was pounding and his mouth felt like it was full of cotton. Groggily, he sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. When his vision cleared, he found himself meeting the gaze of Albus Dumbledore, who was perched on the edge of one of the hospital wing's many beds. Harry saw a goblet of water on the bedside table and took several large gulps of the cool liquid before speaking.
"Professor?" he asked uncertainly. "What...what happened?"
"That, Harry, is a rather interesting tale," the old wizard replied, "but I think there are a few others who'd like to hear it as well." He nodded towards the hospital wing's entrance, and the door burst open, revealing Hermione, Draco, Ron, and Neville.
"Harry - oh, Harry!" Hermione rushed forward, followed closely by the others, and nearly strangled her friend in a hug.
"We were so worried-"
"Thought you'd died-"
"When you didn't come back-"
"If I may interrupt," Dumbledore said, "I would like to know what happened, if that's alright."
"We tried, Professor, I'm so sorry," Harry began. "We tried to talk to you, but Professor McGonagall said you weren't at the school, and she didn't believe us when we said the stone was in danger-"
"Hold on a minute," Dumbledore interrupted. "What's this about a stone?"
"The...the philosopher's stone, sir," Harry said, deciding it'd be best to tell the truth. We'd worked out that it was here at Hogwarts, and I'd already accidentally run into the dog back in first term and guessed it was guarding something, and we thought that was it. When we heard about the attack on the unicorn, we knew the person who'd done it would probably go after the stone next, and that was the day you were gone." He quickly gave Dumbledore the details of how they'd figured everything out - the Gringotts break-in, the chocolate frog card and the subsequent revelations about Flamel, the first encounter with the dog, and the connection between the unicorn and the stone. To everyone's surprise, Dumbledore chuckled heartily when Harry finished his tale.
"I must commend you on your thoroughness," he began, his blue eyes twinkling merrily, "but you got one crucial detail wrong."
"What's that, sir?" Harry asked.
"The stone was never down the trapdoor," the headmaster replied.
"Wait...what?" The children all started chattering at once. Dumbledore held up a hand to silence them.
"The stone was never down the trapdoor," he repeated. "It was indeed at Hogwarts - you got that part right - but it was never kept there."
"Then...where was it?" Draco inquired. "And what was down the trapdoor, if the stone wasn't?"
"I'm afraid I can't answer your first question, Mr. Black," Dumbledore said. "It was stored somewhere that only I have access to, somewhere that I can assure you is far more secure than a simple Alohomora charm." That did make sense - after all, the Alohomora charm was first-year material; in theory, anyone who knew where the door was could access the forbidden corridor. Now that they thought about it, the children agreed that it wouldn't make sense to hide something so important there.
"As for the second question..." Dumbledore paused, and his eyes twinkled even more. "You saw everything that was down the trapdoor - or at least, Harry did."
The children looked confused.
"Wait...Headmaster, are you saying there wasn't anything down there at all?" Hermione asked suddenly. "Nothing being guarded, I mean."
"That is correct, Miss Granger."
"What on earth is all that doing in the school for no reason?" Ron asked.
"Ah, but there I must beg to differ, Mr. Weasley," Dumbledore said. "Just because there was nothing being guarded doesn't mean the course was there for no reason."
"Yes. The obstacles were set up as a challenge course to test the incoming class at the Auror academy - candidates have been using it all year. It's tradition that the location of the course, which changes every year, be kept an absolute secret - it's too easy to cheat otherwise, which defeats the purpose of testing the Aurors' ability to face the unknown."
"Which I suppose is why you didn't tell the school why the corridor was off-limits, only that it was," Hermione finished.
"Precisely. The only people who knew exactly what was down there and what it was for are the Heads of Houses and I. The dog, as I'm sure you could guess, I borrowed from Hagrid, but I didn't tell him why I needed him, nor did he ask."
The children were stunned - after all that, they'd merely been doing an oversized obstacle course?
"And now, if you don't mind my asking, how did you fare with the challenges?" Dumbledore asked. It seemed like an odd question, but the whole conversation had been so strange that they didn't mind telling him.
"I think I might have to tell Alastor to make next year's course a little more difficult, if first-years - albeit very capable ones - got through this one so well," he said with a smile once they'd finished.
"I failed the last one, though," Harry pointed out. "I never did figure out what I was supposed to do with the mirror, since Quirrell showed up and...um, what exactly happened?" Dumbledore's smile vanished.
"The mirror is neither here nor there at the moment," he said. "We can always talk about the mirror later - it's a rather fascinating object, you know. Professor Quirrell, however..."
"Hang on," Draco cut in, "I don't think I've seen him at all in the last three days. Where is he?"
"Three days? I've been in here for three days?" Harry asked in shock.
"Yes, Harry, you have, and it ties in to what I'm about to say. Professor Quirrell is dead." The children gasped. Dumbledore looked solemn as he began to tell his story.
"Professor Quirrell is dead," he repeated. "When I reached the mirror room, I found the two of you lying motionless on the floor. You, Harry, had a vial and a piece of parchment in your hand. The vial contained some of Professor Quirrell's memories, and the parchment filled in the rest. Quirrell had been the victim of a modified form of the Imperius curse, which is one of the three Unforgivable curses - use of any one of the three is enough to earn a life sentence in Azkaban. The Imperius curse compels the victim to do anything the caster wishes - in Quirrell's case, his controller forced him to curse Mr. Kensington's broom, place Madam Hooch under the Imperius curse and persuade her to suggest first-years on the house Quidditch teams, and attempt to kill the unicorn. Somehow, the person found out about the stone and the trapdoor, and he - or she - came to the same false conclusion you did: the two were connected."
"Who was the caster?" Hermione asked. "And why were they after the stone?"
"As to the first question, I'm afraid I don't know," Dumbledore admitted. "The curse was modified in such a way that Quirrell couldn't reveal who was controlling him, nor is the altered curse traceable. I must admit I've never encountered the curse in this form before, which is definitely troublesome. As to the second, I'm assuming the attacker is a follower of Voldemort - whether or not they are in contact cannot be determined, but there's no doubt that Voldemort would greatly reward anyone who could present him with such a prize." The children shuddered at the thought of Voldemort holding the key to immortality.
"So how did Quirrell die, then?" Harry asked. "And what did he do to me?"
"It seems your poor professor had a conscience - from what I gather, he'd been fighting the curse all year, and he was incredibly distressed at what the other person was making him do. From the memories, I learned that he never even met the caster, which explains why he never gave a name - he simply didn't know. His final task was to kill you, Harry - somehow the caster knew you were going down the trapdoor that night, and he commanded Quirrell to get rid of you. Quirrell knew he couldn't kill anyone in cold blood, especially not a student, so he came up with a way to make it look like you were dead when you actually weren't. He forced you to drink the Draught of Living Death, which puts the drinker in a deep sleep mimicking death - if the attacker happened to witness the scene, he'd be convinced of your demise. Quirrell made us aware of this in his note, and Professor Snape provided the potion's antidote."
Silence reigned for several minutes as the children processed the information. There was rather a lot of it, and it was more than a little scary to think of how much danger they'd unknowingly put themselves in.
"And now I think it's time to let the others join us," Dumbledore said quietly once he felt the children had had enough time to think. He murmured something they couldn't hear, and a bright silver bird shot from the end of his wand, soaring majestically through the ward before disappearing. A few minutes later, the infirmary door opened to reveal Professor McGonagall, Professor Snape, and…Lily. Harry's heart sank at the sight of his mother. Had he really thought Dumbledore wouldn't tell her about this? He'd be surprised if they all weren't expelled…
"Harry James Potter, don't you ever do something so stupid ever again!" Lily cried, rushing forward and embracing her son nearly as fiercely as Hermione had done. She looked both relieved and furious.
"What were you thinking, doing something so dangerous?" she asked. "You could've died! Why didn't you talk to a teacher?"
"We…we did," Harry said weakly. He was still tired from his stint at playing 'dead' and all the talking, but he started over from the beginning, telling the tale to the three newcomers just as he'd told it to Dumbledore. Dumbledore filled them in on Quirrell's role, though he left out quite a bit – Harry suspected he'd already told the other adults most of what had transpired.
"Er…Professor?" Hermione asked timidly when all was quiet.
"Yes, Miss Granger?"
"Well…what's being done now? About the attacker, I mean." The other children gave her grateful looks – they were equally worried about this and were very glad Hermione had finally voice their concerns.
"As I already told you, we unfortunately have no concrete identity for the perpetrator," Dumbledore reminded them. "Teams of Aurors and other specialists are combing the trapdoor and various other parts of the castle as we speak in search of evidence, and though very little has been found, they hope an analysis will give us a clue. In the meantime, however, please all stay on your guard, and if you notice anything suspicious, I ask you to report it immediately – this is a case where it would be most unwise to go off on your own," he cautioned. They all nodded solemnly.
"I suppose you're wondering why your Heads of House are here," he said.
"Not really," Hermione confessed. "We broke the rules, didn't we?"
"Miss Granger, I would first like to say that I'm relieved none of you are hurt," Professor McGonagall assured her, "but yes, you are correct. Honorable though your intentions may have been, all of you were out-of-bounds after hours, and that cannot go unnoticed. I shall be taking twenty points each from Gryffindor, and you will serve detention tonight instead of going to the feast." The Gryffindors hung their heads, knowing they deserved the punishment. Ravenclaw had long since secured the House Cup, but Gryffindor and Slytherin had been vying for second place for several weeks – the loss of eighty points in one go had almost guaranteed they'd come up short.
"Mr. Black, twenty points from Slytherin as well, and you will join your classmates in detention," Snape said smoothly. "All of you, six o'clock in my office – don't be late."
"Don't think that this is over," Lily warned as she glared at her children. "Padfoot and I will be punishing you accordingly as well, and we'll make sure your parents know what happened, Hermione."
The adults all left shortly thereafter, leaving the children to their thoughts.
"Twenty points off and detention, and Mum's adding something on top of that?" Harry groaned. "Whatever it is, it can't be good."
"At least your mum didn't do what mine did," Ron said bitterly.
"She sent me a Howler – a magical letter that shouts its message out for everyone to hear. Right embarrassing, it was, and I'm sure I'll get an earful when I get home as well. Percy's already cornered me at least three times to yell at me, and Mum's a lot worse."
"Gran's not too thrilled either," Neville admitted. "She visited the day after we went down the trapdoor and gave me a talking-to – I'm surprised she didn't send a Howler too, but she's a lot more intimidating in person, so she probably figured she got through to me the first time."
The children chatted quietly for another ten minutes or so before Madam Pomfrey returned. She declared Harry completely recovered and sent them on their way, and they hurried to their common rooms without a backward glance – if they were serving detention tonight, they had some serious packing to do.
"Severus, wait!" Snape inwardly sighed – he'd know that voice anywhere. Quite frankly, he was surprised she hadn't come to him sooner.
"What do you want?" he asked, turning to face Lily.
"I…" she faltered, seemingly unable to speak when she'd been so confident not a moment before.
"Spit it out," Snape said impatiently. "I haven't got all day."
"I…I'm sorry." The confession came out as barely more than a whisper, and Lily found she couldn't look him in the eye. It wasn't enough, and she knew it, but she couldn't seem to phrase it any other way.
"Isn't it a little late for that?" he snorted.
"Yes, it is." Snape looked up, surprised. He hadn't expected her to agree.
"Yes, it is," Lily repeated, her gaze moving upwards to meet his. "What I did to you was horrible, and I don't – I can't expect you to forgive me. But please – leave Harry out of it, would you? It's not his fault." Snape's dark eyes narrowed slightly.
"Lily, every time I look at Harry, it's a reminder of what I lost," he spat. "A reminder of what I lost to James effing Potter…"
"I know," Lily interrupted, "I know. I ditched my best friend for his sworn enemy – Merlin, when I put it that way, it sounds even worse, doesn't it? But Harry didn't make that decision – I did. Be angry at me all you want, but please don't take it out on him."
"Those eyes…dammit, Lily, every time I look at him, I see you! I want to forget, I need to forget, it'd be so much easier to forget – but I can't. Salazar, Lily, don't you know how much I still care about you – how much I still love you?" Lily gasped softly at his uncharacteristic display of emotion, her eyes full of unshed tears.
"After everything I've done?" she whispered. "After all this time?"
His response was equally quiet. "Always."
She smiled sadly. "You were – are – my best friend, Sev. I threw that all away over an insult, and I've regretted it ever since. I don't regret what I've done with my life since, though – I know you hated him, but James Potter did have a good side, and I learned to appreciate what he could be. Sirius is as good a friend as anyone, and Harry…Harry is my whole world. I can't imagine not having him in my life – he's made me a better person, Sev. He really has."
"Your son, I suppose I can understand," Snape admitted after a lengthy silence. "He certainly hasn't inherited your Potions abilities, but I can see that he has his…good moments." He paused, looking slightly pained. "But of all people, Lily – you could've had anyone you wanted. Why did it have to be him?"
"I can't explain it," she replied quietly, "and even if I did, you wouldn't understand – your hatred for him would override anything I could say…and I wouldn't be able to fault you for it." She paused and tentatively reached out to place a hand on his upper arm, relieved when he didn't move away.
"You meant everything to me, once, you know," she said softly. "That's why it hurt so much, that day by the lake. I know you were angry, but it hurt more than you could ever know."
"I know," he said. "I saw it in your eyes – I knew I'd gone too far, and I knew there was no taking it back. The look in your eyes haunts me to this day – it always will." A few of Lily's tears spilled over and trickled down her cheeks.
"It's too late, isn't it?" she said sadly. "For us." He sighed.
"Too late for what – redemption? Forgiveness? Lily, I forgave you years ago, but forgiving myself is a lot harder. I crossed the line – I hurt you – and I don't know if I can get past that."
"I understand. A small part of me hopes you're wrong, though. I'd give anything to have my best friend back. I…I miss you." She sighed and released her hold on him.
"I'm sorry I can't be what you want me to be," she said. "Don't get me wrong, I do love you, Sev – I'm just not sure I love you the same way you love me, and I can't lie to you like that. I've done more than enough of that already. And I don't know how you could possibly want to be around me if I can't give you that. I just…don't know what to do. It's a lose-lose situation, isn't it?" Snape sighed again.
"Every time I see you, it's painful," he admitted. "It's a reminder of what I had, and a reminder of what I lost. I don't know if not seeing you is better, or worse. If the last few days are anything to go by, though, we'll be running into each other quite a lot, what with your son's penchant for getting into trouble, and I intend to keep the vow I made with Albus when I joined the Order. It is indeed a lose-lose situation – but it's the best option we've got, so it'll have to do. I can't lose you again, Lily – I can't."
"Oh, Sev." Lily gave him a small smile and embraced him tightly. He was hesitant to reciprocate the affection, only loosely returning the hug, but it was better than nothing.
"Are you Draco's godfather?" Lily asked suddenly. She stepped back a bit so she could see his face.
"Whatever made you think that?" he asked.
"I…er…am I wrong?" she said. "Draco was curious as to why you looked at him as if you knew him at the beginning of their first term – I knew you'd been close with his parents and told him so, and I didn't think the idea was so far-fetched…" She trailed off, feeling rather embarrassed.
"No, you're right," Snape said. "Draco is my godson, and I've known him since he was born. Narcissa didn't know of my status within the Order, obviously, but she knew of my place amongst the Dark Lord's ranks, which I assume is why she ruled me out as a candidate for his guardianship before she passed."
"What about his godmother?" Lily asked. "Narcissa never mentioned her – did he have one?"
"His godmother was a close friend of Narcissa's – I think they were in the same year at school, and I didn't know her well. She died less than a year before Narcissa from a rare disease, I believe."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Lily shifted on her feet and looked like she wasn't sure how to voice her next statement. "You can always, um…come visit Draco, if you'd like. I mean, if you'd like to get to know your godson."
"Lily, your house is Unplottable and Albus himself is the Secret-Keeper – I'm not coming over anytime soon," he reminded her.
"I…we could always bring the boys to Order headquarters, or something. I don't know…I just thought I'd offer."
"Thank you." The two words were a little stiff. "I'll…keep that in mind, then." An awkward silence reigned for several long moments.
"I…I really should be going, I suppose," Lily finally said. "Thank you…for listening."
Neither said anything more, only exchanging one last long look before going their separate ways down the corridor. The conversation was a big step, but healing the giant rift in their friendship was going to take time, and though they wouldn't dare voice it aloud, they both secretly feared it might be too late.
Thus concludes part 1 - the story continues in part 2, titled 'Secret of the Serpent's House'. Come check it out!
A/N: Sorry for the absurdly long chapter - Lily & Snape's conversation wasn't supposed to be that crazy, but they kind of ran away from me for a bit...
Thanks for the last 2 chapters go to narsil1995, hannasophia, Darman Skirata, BloodLess18, moriahhh, hemiyami, dreamerwriter15, diana prz, chrisarrington8, anmarie, TheGirlWhoEatsPie, SlytherinSilverStar, my darling ferocious105, langston love, rrussia, Orange3WhiteSkew, live4040, & noelhia for the follows/faves, & thanks to Kermit 304, KodeV, long live marshmallows, AllWasWell07, & dreamerwriter15 for the reviews!
JKR owns all things Potter, I just play. I hope you all enjoyed part 1 enough to join me for part 2 - chapter 1 is now going up on my profile, & I have a lot more crazy adventures planned for our trio! Hope to see you in 'Secret of the Serpent's House', & thanks for reading! :)