Albus Dumbledore liked to think that he was a smart man. In fact, he knew that he was fairly intelligent, above average even. But sometimes, he forgot how young children could be.

As a Legilimens, he could brush against their minds without their noticing. He knew from the feel of them how far he could push without breaking them. The problem was the damage. He often didn't take into account the damage the pushing could cause.

Shaking, Dumbledore picked up his drink with his damaged hand. He would have to get used to it before term commenced, for appearances. He was entirely without sensation in his fingers, though the dark withered look of it extended almost to his elbow. He'd decided to keep it hidden, no need to frighten them unnecessarily, but otherwise he wouldn't concede to it. He would pretend it didn't bother him. He could move the fingers well enough; he just had to watch what they were doing.

The hand—that stupidness with the ring—had been the start of it. His biggest mistake in many years. (But also a blessing; it would make things easier for Severus, probably.) He had had to recalculate. The girl was brilliant and resilient, but he had forgotten how brutal those first lessons often were.

Severus was searching for a word. He couldn't seem to find the right one.

Amazed. Appalled. Guilty. Surprised. Terrified.

He poured himself another drink, looking at the Patronus, his Patronus. It wasn't doing anything, just standing there on his rug waiting for instruction.

For as long as he could remember, his Patronus had been a doe. A beautiful thing, lean legs and huge eyes. It had been Lily. It had represented the love he had for her, the longing, the pledge he had made when she died. And his guilt, too. There was always guilt tied up in any thought of Lily.

Now, looking at his Patronus, he couldn't pinpoint the moment it had happened, the moment things had changed, and it alarmed him. He knew it had happened, though. The evidence was right there on the carpet.

At some point since he'd last had occasion to cast his Patronus, he'd stopped loving Lily.

No, that wasn't it. He'd stopped loving her, actively loving her, a long time ago. Before her son even arrived at Hogwarts. It had started when he'd realized he had a closer friendship with Minerva McGonagall than he'd ever had with Lily. A competitive, bickering relationship as Heads of House; a cooperative relationship with their association with the Order; and, every once in awhile when the students weren't being abominable, a simple friendship that involved sharing articles from trade journals and mocking Sybil Trelawney.

Alcohol wasn't one of his usual vices, considering his experiences with the effects of drink at the hands of his pathetic excuse for a father. He usually favored recreational potions. This particular evening was a night for whiskey, though. Ogden's Finest. A bottle from one of the many Defense teachers that had passed through the halls of Hogwarts over the years, a Christmas gift for a colleague they didn't know.

He'd been in love with Lily; that was the truth. But she hadn't been in love with him. She'd been his only friend, and he'd held her close to his heart. She had made friends easily, and she'd been too polite to drop him entirely without an excuse. Then she'd had her excuse, and then it had just been him yearning for her. And then him guilty about overhearing the prophecy, him guilty about not being able to prevent her death no matter how hard he'd tried.

So he'd hung onto her memory. He'd held onto what he thought was love for her. He'd let his guilt torture him, let Dumbledore jerk him around by that guilt like a leash.

And then he'd realized he wasn't doing anything for Lily anymore. He'd realized, when Dumbledore had asked something difficult of him, using veiled references to Lily's memory as incentive, that he was rolling his eyes (internally, of course) and doing it anyway. He would obey because it was the right thing to do, because the Dark Lord was mad as a hatter and bent on genocide.

But it really hit home when he'd been thinking of Lily, the way she'd changed in his thoughts, and he'd cast his Patronus on a whim, and it hadn't been a doe. It was a fox. A mangy thing, one ear tattered and a hunted look in its eyes.

AN: Hello all, and welcome to the longest story I've ever written. It's currently over 230,000 words, and I'm still writing. I've finished editing the beginning, though, so I thought I'd start posting as incentive to get myself to finish up. (I'm aiming to update twice a week, FYI.)

This is HGSS. This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is the standard action/adventure/drama you expect from Harry Potter. There's also time travel, and more smut than I've ever written before, and a bit of gore, and made-up medical advice for wizard-folk, and family stuff, and spy stuff, and angst, and then some more time travel to round it all out.


— M