Sticks and Stones

by Phantom

Author's note: This story takes place shortly before the end of Harry's Fifth Year. This story is rated PG-13 for mild swearing and mild violence. . Spoilers for Sorcerer's Stone through Goblet of Fire.

"On saura jamais ce qu'on a vraiment dans nos ventres
Caché derrière nos apparances
L'âme d'un brave ou d'un complice ou d'un bourreau?
Ou le pire ou le plus beau?
Serions-nous de ceux qui résistent ou bien les moutons d'un troupeau,
S'il fallait plus que des mots?"
-- Né en 17 a Leidenstadt -- Freddericks, Goldman, Jones

//No one ever knows what is in our guts
Hidden behind our appearances
The soul of someone brave, of an accomplice or an executioner,
Or the worst or the most beautiful?
Will we be those who resist or just sheep in the flock,
If more than words were needed?//
Chapter One

The entire student body of Hogwarts was assembled in the great hall, causing their usual annoying racket. The Potions Master paused inside the entrance, wincing and rubbing his temples. Great. Just what he needed. He swept past the inanely jabbering students to take his place at the head table, favoring a few of the louder ones with a cold, icy glare. He allowed himself a brief flash of savage triumph as they quailed before him. The tight-lipped Professor McGonagall silently shifted to the left with a curt nod as he approached, giving him room to slide in. Not that he really needed it -- he had always been on the thin side, and these past few months had caused him to become scarcely more than a rail. He had never been exactly happy with his looks, but now he looked positively ghastly. He had fine, prominent features that usually bore an unhealthy white pallor, but his eyes had acquired a sunken look, and his cheeks had become pinched and hollow, casting his admittedly large nose into even stronger relief. In short, he looked as bad as he felt, and that was saying a lot.

Snape looked down at his plate with a heavy sigh. Not that there was anything wrong with the food, of course. The Hogwarts house-elves always managed to outdo themselves with scrumptious meals. He simply was not hungry. A quick glance across the head table told him that he was not the only one. While Hagrid and Dumbledore sat merrily devouring their food, the other professors were eating sparingly. Some of them winced when an especially loud laugh broke out from a student table. He turned his patented glare on them, but they utterly failed to notice him boring holes in the back of their skulls. Useless, each and every one of them. If they could not sense that danger was near, how would they ever survive the rise of the Dark Lord?

He dropped his fork on the plate with a clatter at that thought, causing a few of the professors to glance at him questioningly. He stubbornly avoided their gaze, staring fixedly at his plate until they turned away. No need to turn his malice on them -- they had enough worries at the moment. Final exams were approaching, and while the students had the luxury of cavorting about and shrieking at the top of their lungs (but not so loudly when he was around, lest their houses lose more precious points towards the House Cup), the professors were not so fortunate. There was the usual pre-exam tension around the staffroom as each teacher struggled to put together a formidable and challenging end-of-the-year culmination of all the knowledge that had been crammed into their students' heads. Snape knew without a doubt that that knowledge had leaked out of the ears of his Potions pupils the moment he had poured it in. The majority of his pupils were hopeless gits. There were only a handful that actually made teaching worthwhile. Draco Malfoy was one of them. He was attentive and bright, always impressing Snape with his grasp of complex mixtures. It was nice to have a sharp Slytherin around to keep those God-forsaken goody-goody Gryffindors on their toes. Then again, he had to keep a sharp eye on Malfoy. He knew all about his father's activities, and from everything he'd seen so far, Draco was a chip off the old block.

Snape took a small morsel of food and forced himself to swallow it. His stomach cramped painfully in complaint, but he managed to take a few more mouthfuls before it gave serious signs of rebellion. He then rested the fork against the plate and sat back slightly, giving his digestive system time to adjust before attempting to repeat the procedure. He could feel McGonagall's eyes upon him and resolutely avoided her gaze. It was none of her business how much he ate.

"Are you feeling all right?"

Snape instinctively scowled at the inquiry. "Fine," he spat, shooting her sharp look of warning. She nodded briefly and returned to picking at her own meal. The sallow-skinned man rested his head against the chair and closed his eyes briefly. At least she had stopped bothering him. Unlike most of the other people in the school, she could take a hint. Severus Snape had a few unwritten yet very rigid rules that his coworkers had learned to accept very quickly. First off, no inquiries of a personal nature. Secondly, no remarks on his appearance, especially his hair, greasy though it may be. And lastly, under no circumstances, must he be touched. Hagrid, a rather touchy-feeling man by nature, had unfortunately had to learn this lesson the hard way.

He felt another pair of eyes sizing him up as well, as he scowled at the plate before him. He wondered if he could get away with a spell to clear the plate of its contents. He was sick of the stares, the murmurings. This time Dumbledore was the one eyeing him. 'Dammit, old man, can't you just leave me alone?' he seethed inwardly. 'You have no right to pity me! After all, it was *you* who put me in this impossible situation in the first place!' He angrily speared another chunk of food and chewed it thoroughly, the anger distracting him from his nervous stomach, wondering idly if he could arrange to take his meals in his private chambers. He hated feeling like an insect primed for dissection. All those eyes on him. Knowing. Judging. Some accusing, some pitying. It was the pity, above all else, that he abhorred. He was doing what he did of his own volition. Yes, he knew he was putting himself in grave peril. That was nothing new. But he did not go into this blindly. He knew the risks far better than anyone else, and he had survived this long. He was merely making the best of a bad decision he had made in the past, and would spend the rest of his life atoning for.

A fierce burning on his inner forearm finally permeated his distracted mind. He froze, every muscle paralyzed, unable to accept what was happening. What it signified. No. Dear Lord, no! It was as if the crazy, zigzagging thoughts in his mind had brought the Dark Mark to life. 'Please, not yet!' he begged internally. 'I need more time!' It was only half a lie. Part of him had prepared for occurrences such as this since his assumption of his post of Potions Master at Hogwarts. The other part of him knew that he would never be ready, no matter how many times he was Summoned. The pain then overcame his shock and he curled forward, hissing sharply, clutching his arm with his other hand. His eyes squeezed tightly shut, blocking everything else out but the agony radiating outward from his branded arm. 'Control it!' he berated himself. 'You've felt pain on many different levels. This should be nothing!' But it was what the pain symbolized than the sensation itself that so upset him. Voldemort was calling him. He had no choice but to respond.

The diminutive Professor Flitwick approached and placed a hand on the shivering man's shoulder in a show of concern. It was exactly the wrong thing to do. Snape immediately jerked away from the gentle touch, jumping to his feet, upsetting his chair. It fell to the floor with a loud clatter. 'Smooth move, Severus,' a detached part of himself observed dryly. If everyone hadn't been looking at him before, they certainly were now. This time his eyes actively sought Dumbledore's, scarcely realizing that he was massaging the searing mark on his forearm, thankfully concealed under his robes. The aged Headmaster gave him one sage nod of understanding and permission. It was all he needed. Pivoting neatly, he swept majestically from the hall, his head held high, mouth frozen into a foreboding scowl to anyone who dared look his way.

Once outside the room, however, he allowed his expression to change into a grimace. His feet wanted nothing more than to take him back to his chambers, where he could safely curl up in bed with a good book and the comforting thought that Lord Voldemort was far away from this haven. But if he had learned anything at all in his professed service to the dark wizard, it was to never underestimate Voldemort. He had found his way into Hogwarts before, and he could undoubtedly do so again. This was why Snape could not afford to relax his guard. He had to keep tabs on the one most commonly referred to as You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named. It simply would not do to ignore the summons. 'Is this it, then?' Severus wondered, as he did each and every time he was called to his lord's side. 'Is this the time he discovers my deception? Is this the time I die?'

His musings were cut short rather abruptly as he collided with something solid and unyielding. A quick glance on the floor offered an explanation. The old, familiar scowl reformed as he beheld the figure sprawled on the floor, glasses askew, unruly dark hair cascading everywhere. "Get up, Potter," he spat. "Get out of my way. I'm already late."

He followed the young man's shocked gaze down to his own arm, where the sleeve of his robe had slid aside to reveal the Dark Mark. It had formed into an ugly black splotch, the way it always did when the evil Lord summoned his followers. Curse him, he knew! Potter *knew* what that sign meant for him! He hastily shoved the sleeve down, clamping his hand over the throbbing mark as another bolt of pain shot through the appendage. He bit his lip, tasting blood, and yet he refused to cry out. Never would he show weakness before this whelp, who was so like his father it made Snape want to smack him in retribution for all the harsh things James Potter had said and done. Never would he yield! Not to Voldemort, not to Potter, not to anyone!

"Don't look at me like that! Five points from Gryffindor," he snapped. And still Harry did not look away. His horrified gaze slid from his branded arm to Snape's face. It took everything the professor had not to shrink away. There was pity on Potter's face, to be sure, but there was more as well -- understanding, and sympathy?! It was too much! "Don't look at me!" he gasped, tearing away from the searing stare and stumbling towards the nearest exit. Those eyes followed him mercilessly until he had finally darted out of sight. He ran as fast as he could toward the broom shed -- he'd need a broom to fly to the edge of the school grounds. Once beyond there he could safely Apparate to his master.

He shuddered, his stomach lurching at that word. How had he allowed anyone, especially someone as revolting as Voldemort, to hold dominion over him? The mark still throbbed, but he could not bear to look at it any more. Potter's eyes upon him had made him feel ashamed, dirty and low. Why shouldn't the boy think that way? It was, after all, what everybody said about him when his back was turned, and had been that way ever since he had begun his own schooling at Hogwarts. The only difference was now everyone had a tangible reason to fear and loathe him. A Death Eater…. '*Former* Death Eater,' he insisted. Now a Death Eater in name only.

The words echoed in his head as he kicked off, sending the rather battered Shooting Star broom into the air. He clutched it, leaning forward a bit more than was necessary. He had always hated flying! He wished with a sudden pang that he had had the chance to summon a coach, but they weren't nearly as fast as a broom, and speed was of the essence. Still, he was a rather poor flyer and could certainly never pull off any of the amazing stunts that the Potter brat had managed to make look easy, just like his father before him…. He wrenched his thoughts violently away from that subject. He needed his mind to be clear and sharp for the coming confrontation, his thoughts quick and agile, always one step ahead. It was the only way to keep Voldemort from guessing his true intentions, always maintaining a double feint.

Try as he might, he could not shut out the voices from his head. They echoed within the confines of his skull, building into an insistent crescendo: "That Snape Boy! I always knew he was up to no good." "Didn't I tell you it's always the Slytherins that go bad?" "Knew from the moment I saw his greasy hair and bony face that he wasn't someone to associate with." Always talking about him, whether they realized he was there or not. It was a fact of life, something he had come to accept as inevitable as the sun rising every morning. Very well then. Let them talk. But if they could be harsh and petty, so could he. He could cut someone off at the knees with the best of them. He had an endless store of hexes and razor-sharp barbs that had kept him well-defended through his school years and beyond. But somehow, they now seemed empty. He was an adult now, a professor, no less! Shouldn't he have been able to leave this behind him somehow? He laughed aloud, but it was a bitter, short sound. There was no escaping who he was. As long as he was Severus Snape, he would be mocked and ridiculed. The only answer was to strike first, strike fast, strike hard. To not give them a chance to hurt him first. His face sometimes felt as if it had frozen into a stiff, cold mask. All the better, for what lay ahead.

* * * * *

He returned nearly two full days later, feeling an overpowering wave of relief as he stepped foot inside the Hogwarts castle. Amazing. He had survived once more. Then again… maybe it was an ominous sign. Lord Voldemort had called him to his side merely to brew a few simple potions that surely even that spineless Peter Pettigrew could create. Why had he summoned Snape for such a piddling task? The answer was all too obvious. It had been a test. The Potions Master could only cross his fingers and pray that he had passed. His heart was still beating, wasn't it?

A shudder ran through him at the memory of seeing his old class "chum" kneeling at his master's feet. 'All this time… Black really *was* innocent…. It was Peter who betrayed the Potters,' he marveled. He had not believed the news when it had come from Lupin and Black, and those wretched Gryffindor children. He had honestly believed that Voldemort would have told him if Pettigrew was involved. It seemed that, even back then, Voldemort had hedged his bets with his Death Eaters. Black had finally had his name cleared after nearly a year of wrangling and hearings.

Still, Snape thought he had known Peter, as twisted as that sounded, for they surely did not get along. The boy always struck him as shifty yet cowardly. It was painfully clear to him now that he was the reason for Voldemort's resurrection. All the more reason, of course, to bring him down. Snape's mouth curled in its characteristic sneer. It seemed that yet another of his classmates had found a way to bring him torment.

He stepped up his pace a bit, realizing that he just might be in time for his last class. Dumbledore would surely allow him some time to recover from his latest visit to the dark side, but Snape would have none of it. Madame Pomfrey had been kind enough to volunteer to cover his class, having a small amount of knowledge in potions, but he found that his class needed an iron hand to guide them along. Shame that he hadn't been able to arrive a bit earlier -- the class with the Potter brat and his Gryffindor friends was just ending. Tormenting them always seemed to lift his spirits. Ah well, tomorrow was another day.

It must have been the sheer relief at having returned safely and in one piece to Hogwarts that distracted him. Normally he was aware of everyone around him, but for the second time in two days, he ran smack into someone in his path. He flashed a quick snarl at the offender, certainly not offering remotely like an apology, and turned to hasten to the dungeons. A large, strong hand clamped down on his bicep with a force that made him wince. Severus tilted his head, staring in horror at who had seized him. Of all the people…!

A rather sunken face glared at him fiercely, the man shaking his long hair out of the way with a quick flick of his head. The man's appearance wasn't quite as wasted and neglected as it had been when he'd first returned to Hogwarts, at Dumbledore's insistence. The aged Headmaster had bade them to shake hands and make their peace, but it looked like the tenuous truce was about to be ripped wide open. "Let go, Black," the raven-haired professor hissed. "I don't have time to spar with you. But I can promise I'll make it up to you another time." Just because the man had been pardoned was no reason for him to strut around as if he owned the whole blasted castle!

"Very funny," the other man drawled, gripping Snape's thin arm even harder. Severus choked off a gasp, not wanting his longtime adversary to know the degree of discomfort he was feeling. This was quickly getting out of hand! Sirius was a fool to pick on him. He was not much stronger than he had been in his teenage years, but Sirius was diminished from his years in Azkaban and subsequent life on the lam, so the stronger man had lost much of his edge. Plus, Severus had always been renowned for his wide knowledge of curses and hexes, and that skill had only grown in the years. If it was a fight Black was spoiling for, he just might get his wish.

'Keep calm, you're a professor! You can't just go brawling in the halls any time you feel like it! Just put your icy mask back on… yes, that's it….' He forced himself to take deep breaths, trying to get a handle on the rampaging fury that boiled just beneath the surface. What was it about those blasted Marauders robbed him of his sanity? "Let…me…go…." he said in soft yet dangerous tones, letting Sirius see that his hand was inching for his wand, concealed within his robes. And for a moment, it seemed that Black would back down, as the crushing grip on his arm relaxed.

"Go then," Black spat, shoving him against the wall, and he clipped his head on a statue of an owl. The sharp spike of pain very nearly shattered his tenuous hold on his control. He hissed threateningly, dark eyes flashing an unmistakable warning. Black tossed an offhand comment as he turned to leave, "Surprised you even came back, since you're such a good pet of Voldemort's."

With an inarticulate cry, Snape launched himself on his longtime enemy, pummeling him with blows. His advantage of stunning Black was brief, however, as the stronger man managed to kick him aside. A bony yet powerful fist caught him on the shoulder as he half-turned, but in that instance he had whipped out his wand. He knew he could never win a fight with fists alone, but with his wand in his hand he was unmatched. Snape yelled out a vicious curse in defiance, and a bolt of bluish energy shot from the end of his wand. Black was unfortunately more on his toes than Snape had anticipated, for he dodged and just barely missed the streak as it sizzled past his ear, striking a statue and causing it to sizzle and melt slightly.

As Snape positioned himself to deliver a second curse, Black struck his outstretched hand, sending the wand skittering across the floor, out of reach. Any advantage the smaller and frailer man had had was gone, but it hardly mattered for him. The emotions that had been roiling in him ever since Voldemort's return simply erupted, and his hands locked around Black's throat, mindless to everything but exorcising all the rage that burned inside him. Sirius gave a rather satisfying choking sound but managed to land a blow on his jaw, loosening his grip. The next strike was to his stomach, causing him to lose his balance. The pain he received felt nearly as good as the kind he inflicted. It reminded him that he was alive, that he had to keep fighting, that he was not completely dead inside.

"Accio wand!" he called as he knelt on the floor. The slender bit of wood responded automatically, soaring to meet his outstretched hand. Just as his fingers brushed the surface, a large boot stomped down on his hand, causing stars to swim past his vision. He was trapped, on his knees before an attacker! As he tried to work the wand between his fingertips, to aim it and use it, Black's mighty fist swung downward and caught him directly across the bridge of his prominent nose. A sickening crack was audible to both of them, and then his black robes were coated with a rush of red. He clapped his free hand over the injury, a shrill cry of pain escaping him. Black had never been this vicious before! This went beyond their adolescent fistfights and duels of the past. He had been right along not to trust Black -- the years in Azkaban had clearly unhinged him.

Black effortlessly plucked the wand from his now limp hand, smirking at the defeated man at his feet. "Shall I snap this in half?" he mocked, seemingly unmoved at the growing streams of blood that leaked from underneath Snape's hands onto his robes. "You have no right to be here, Severus. Dumbledore may be fooled by your lies, but I'm sure not. I know exactly how deceitful you can be. But at least without this, you won't be quite as dangerous."

Snape followed the wand in Black's grip with wide eyes. He had become very attached to that particular wand. It was said that the wand chose its owner, but in time the owner surely became accustomed to the wand's quirks and idiosyncrasies, so that no other wand would do nearly as well. He tried to move his hand from under the boot, but Black merely ground his foot down harder, waving the wand out of his reach. Snape glared at him balefully. "I see some things haven't changed."

"But some things have." Sirius stared meaningfully at the hand trapped underneath his book, the Dark Mark concealed by the arm of his robes.

Snape flushed an angry red. "How dare you judge me?! You know nothing of who I am!"

"Come now, break it up!" a firm voice called out, followed by a brisk clap of hands. Snape looked up to see Professor McGonagall approaching, a look of disapproval on her face, pushing through a throng of students. Her expression changed to one of shock when she beheld exactly who had been fighting. "Mister Black! I expected better of you! Let him up this instant! Your childish behavior shames our house." She held out her hand expectantly, and he reluctantly handed back the wand, removing his foot only after grinding the trapped hand one more time. "Now go somewhere else. Far away from me, preferably." Throwing one baleful glare over his shoulder, Black stalked off for the nearest exit. He moved a bit stiffly, revealing that Snape had gotten a few good licks in after all.

"My gracious, Severus, what has he done to you?" she breathed as she saw the amount of blood that spattered his clothing and still dripped from his hand. She reached for his elbow to help him to his feet, but he gave her a cross look and pushed himself up with his other hand, already bruised and swelling. It was then that he fully realized that he had an audience of stunned students. He fixed them with his fiercest glare, which was somewhat mitigated by the hand that still was clenched over his nose. "Get lost!" he roared, and they scattered like a flock of startled birds, but already they had started to whisper. Great. Just great. He had put all that effort into cowing and intimidating them so they would leave him the hell alone, and now they had seen him whipped into a bloody mess. With his luck, Potter would have been watching too. Watching and smirking. Just like his insufferable father. Damn them both.

"Come on," she said briskly. "I'll walk you to the hospital wing."

"I'm fine, Minerva, honestly," he sighed. "I can manage on my own."

She shook her head at his stubbornness, handing his wand back, which he stuffed angrily back into his robes. "Dumbledore will have my head if you pass out from loss of blood on the way." They set off together, him grumbling some rather colorful things under his breath as she worked a brief charm to staunch the bleeding. He was irked that one of his coworkers had found him in such a humiliating predicament, but if it had to be anyone (besides Dumbledore himself), it might as well be Minerva McGonagall. Despite their continual house feud, she was one of the few professors he could actually converse with for more than two minutes without feeling the need to rip out his hair.

"Do you know two Hufflepuffs nearly fainted when they saw you bleeding? I believe they were under the misguided assumption that you were… nosferatu." Her usual stony, no-nonsense expression does not change in the slightest, but he caught the smallest of twinkles in her eye. He allowed himself a brief smirk, and wonder of wonders, a slight chuckle vibrated in his chest. The stern woman nodded. "I thought that would amuse you. Did you start that particular rumor?"

The smirk reappeared. "I can't take credit for that one. However, I have also made no effort to discredit it." He found it highly amusing that some of his students were gullible enough to think he was a vampire. Maybe he should've bitten Black's neck for effect. Served them right for gawping at him getting trounced.

McGonagall stepped in front of him and flung open the door to the infirmary, calling out, "Got a patient for you, Poppy!"

Madame Pomfrey turned from her herbs and vials, her jaw dropping as Professor Snape entered, both hands clasped firmly over his nose, more to cover the injury than to assuage its pain. She gasped and shooed him into a chair, tapping her foot impatiently until he reluctantly removed his hands. Both McGonagall and Pomfrey winced at the bruising and swelling that surrounded the broken bone. The Transfiguration professor lingered for a moment longer, then turned and silently left. Severus was clearly uncomfortable and embarrassed about the situation as it was. He didn't need a larger audience.

The nurse began to very gently poke and prod at the injury, marveling as he patient held stock-still, showing no sign at all of pain. She opened her mouth to ask how it had happened, then shut it with a snap. He would view such inquiries as intrusive. She was relieved that he had at least come to her this time -- he had a habit of treating his injuries himself, and while he was extraordinarily talented in the art of potions, he wasn't nearly as good at healing. Muttering a few soft words under her breath, she reduced the swelling as best she could. Then she grasped his nose and pushed it upward in one quick jerk, waving her wand above it with her other hand. "There! Good as new!"

Snape took the hand-held mirror from her and gave it the briefest of glances. His reflection scowled back at him, mocking him. His injury looked immeasurably better, though there was still some noticeable swelling around his nose and surrounding tissues. 'Just great. Now it's even more prominent than ever.' He tossed the mirror aside, unable to bear the sight another moment. With a slight nod, he swept out of the infirmary. "You're welcome…" she said faintly.