A/N: Thanks for hanging in there gang! This is a double chapter for being so patient while I've been off playing pirate!
Dumbledore said not a word, but when his eyes locked on Snape's, the images began to surface, rapidly at first, like someone letting the pages of a book flutter through their fingers.
Here was tall, angry man with dark hair and beard, seeming to be shouting. An image of himself, several years younger nodding encouragement with a smile. Blips of color, sound, and movement and next a hazy, smoke-filled room that looked like a tavern, followed by an intense image of pain, and what was probably Snape's own voice screaming.
Dumbledore had braced himself for the worst already and continued on.
The light dimmed and here was an attractive olive-skinned woman, walking toward him and letting her robes slip off her shoulders to the floor. The dim light became bright daylight and he was hanging upside down, a young James Potter nearby pointing his wand and taunting.
More images rippled by.
The face of Voldemort appeared, laughing in perverse pleasure, then the face of a young man in Auror's robes, screaming in agony.
Another Auror, too weak to scream anymore, possibly dying.
Soon the onslaught slowed, as those images the seeker had deemed most relevant began to emerge.
Here was Snape, a short while ago, struggling on his knees with his arms bound behind his back, while two Death Eaters dragged his head back by his hair and forced him to drink something that resembled congealing blood as they laughed.
Here was a long table, with several people seated around it. He sat across from a man with white-blonde hair and pointed features. Lucius Malfoy. His attention was focused intensely on someone who was speaking and seated to his left and to Snape's right.
Voldemort was finishing something he'd been saying. "….and when the Potters are found, you are to do nothing…..nothing to harm them, especially the child. I will deal with them myself….am I clear?"
A chorus of assent went around the table.
"Good." Voldemort rose and all the others were instantly on their feet and bowing their master out of the room.
The scene changed again. He was being dragged bodily up and out of an opening in the ground near the base of the whomping willow. He turned on James Potter, barely hearing the verbal berating that Potter was giving him, hate in his eyes as he realized that his nemesis had just saved his life from a werewolf.
Dumbledore was finding everything that Snape had said was true, but he dug deeper, instinct telling him there was something else of significance he needed to see.
Colors rushed by again, and here was the same olive-skinned woman, wearing the robes of a Death Eater and standing over the ragged body of a dead wizard. Now, pain seared across his forearm as he was summoned yet again to the Dark Lord's side, now a little girl with raven hair was screaming. He was sitting in Horace Slughorn's class, passing a note to a young Lily Evans…..Dumbledore backtracked and homed in on the dark corner of Snape's mind that the little girl screamed from.
Dumbledore found himself in the same smoke-filled tavern he had glimpsed in an earlier memory. He was standing next to Snape, who had seated himself at a table in a dim corner from where he was able to watch both the entrance, and the door at the back of the room that led elsewhere in the tavern. A drink that had barely been touched sat in front of Snape as he watched the entrance intently, taking note of anyone that passed by the small, dirty windows.
"It's a bloody waste of time, is wha' this is," a deep coarse voice grumbled. Dumbledore's attention was drawn to the person seated across the small table, most likely another Death Eater.
Snape's eyes snapped impatiently to his brawny companion, and then back to the doorway. "He'll be here," he said he said curtly.
"Yeah, well we been waitin' all effin' day for t' bastard now, an' 'e ain't shown 'is effin' face yet," the large man complained. He took a great draught from the tankard in front of him and smacked it back on the table.
Snape's voice dropped to a dangerous whisper as he leaned across the table. "Yes, and you'll wait all effin' night if necessary," he said, wondering if the brute across from him wound notice the verbal jab. "Unless, of course, you feel your time is more important than……."
The other Death Eater was on his feet quickly for such a big man, and followed where Snape had jumped out of his chair and made his way quickly toward the door, drawing his wand as he went.
Dumbledore followed, noting the man that had paused in the narrow street outside.
It took the two Death Eaters a few seconds to dodge their way between and around the numerous occupied tables between them and the door, and when they finally reached the door, there was no sign of the man they'd been watching for.
"Damn!" Snape swore under his breath. He snapped at his partner. "You go that way, I'll go this way, and you'd better pray we don't lose him!" The two of them split up, and Dumbledore followed after Snape, as he hurried down what was now recognizable as a section of Knockturn alley.
The scene blurred a for a moment, and then Dumbledore was standing next to where Snape had just apparated, a little out of breath at what had turned into a fruitless search. They stood together at the edge of a small park bordering a nicer neighborhood that was obviously some distance from Knockturn alley.
Snape was agitated. He was growing weary of this.
Bugger Malloy. The man was little more than a common thug, and if he hadn't been so busy complaining, he might have spotted their target a couple of seconds sooner. It would have been all he needed to get a clear shot at the man.
Well, if Malloy hadn't found the man by now, then he could bloody well explain himself why they hadn't succeeded. It certainly wasn't Snape's fault. But of course, when it came to the Dark Lord, that didn't really matter a great deal, did it?
Snape flung himself on a nearby park bench to catch his breath. What he wouldn't give to not have to report back to The Dark Lord; not to worry about which wrong answer might have him writhing in agony on the ground, or which small failure might get his ass AK'd into oblivion. He was contemplating the sun well on it's way toward setting, and which poison he might just happen to slip into Malloy's next pint, when he heard the cry echo across the park.
Looking up he could see what appeared to be a group of children gathered together not far off. He rolled his eyes and let his head fall back against the bench wearily, and then another cry, one of pain, reached his ears again. Curious, he lifted his head and looked to see what the children were doing with mild interest.
It became obvious as he watched, that the group of five or six kids, who appeared to be about eight or nine years old, were gathered in a circle, looking at something on the ground. When one of them moved swiftly to kick out at what was in front of him, he shifted enough for Snape to see that the next cry that the kick elicited was from another child, sobbing on the ground.
Not that he had time to waste on some playground brawl, but when the next tormenter snarled the word 'witch' as she reached into the circle and slapped the girl who was trying to get up, Snape took enough interest to get up and walk slowly toward the commotion.
He could see the girl who was the target now, dressed as a well-to-do child would be, but with clothes now dirty and torn. She was trying desperately to get off the ground. She kept shouting back at the group. "Leave me alone! It's not my fault!" The gang around her taunted her and struck out at her.
"It's all your fault, you no good lying witch."
"Your whole family's a bunch of wackos."
Snape had made it half the distance to the flock of angry children, and saw enough to surmise what had happened. Every child standing in the circle bore evidence of having had a severe nosebleed. It made sense. At this age the young witch on the ground would have little control of her recently emerging talents. They must have done something to her to elicit an emotional outburst and suffered the consequences. Snape smiled to himself to think that in a few years nosebleeds might be the best this gang of muggle punks might hope to suffer from.
One of the girls in the circle, a large girl with tight curls, yanked a handful of the young witch's long raven hair, and she cried out again in fear, and pain and frustration.
Curly-top screamed and yanked her hand back as if she'd been burned. Indeed, her hand did appear to be deep red.
'Good girl', Snape thought.
"You filthy……!" One of the larger boys yelled, and swung a long stick back over his shoulder, obviously intending to hit the girl on the ground.
Snape's anger rose instantly. "Accio!" He cried as he closed the short distance between himself and the children quickly. The stick flew out of the boy's upraised hand, and Snape caught it deftly and flung it to the ground. It burst into flames.
He caught up the boy by the front of his shirt and yanked him off his feet. "So, you want to play with sticks, do you?" he snarled. "Well, let me show you mine." He raised his wand and brandished it in the boy's face.
The other children stood riveted to the spot in terror for a moment when the wizard in billowing black robes descended upon their companion. The little dark haired witch on the ground had scrambled to her feet and away.
Snape narrowed his eyes and stared at the boy who was now being held by his shirt at eye level, tapping his chin thoughtfully with his wand. "Hmmm, let me see….perhaps I should turn you into a toad……."
Screams broke out all around as the gang of children scattered frantically in all directions.
A half-sob half- giggle came from the young witch who was wiping away her tears. "He looks like he'd make a better rat to me."
Snape glanced over his shoulder at her. "A rat?"
"You're sure?" He asked casually.
"Yes," she said firmly, suppressing a giggle.
"Not a toad?" He asked, looking at the terror-stricken youth, and back at her again.
"Rat, please," she said.
"Oh, all right," Snape agreed finally. He raised his wand and watched as the boy fainted dead away. Snape let him slide through his fingers into a heap on the ground. "Filth," he spat quietly, wiping his hand on his robes.
He turned to face the young witch, who was still wiping tears from her cheeks and dirt from her torn dress. She looked none the worse for wear, as far as he could see. "You should be more careful," he admonished her, and he started to turn away.
"They should be more careful," he heard her say, disdain slipping into her voice. Snape turned his head back in time to see her give a good swift kick to the boy on the ground.
He suddenly found that he was amused by the girl's pluck. They'd better watch out for this one in a few years, indeed! He turned to address her again. "You are unharmed?"
"You should get home before it gets dark," he advised her. "You don't want anymore trouble."
"They won't be anymore trouble for me for a while," she said almost indifferently. "Thanks to you," she added.
It was Snape's turn to shrug. "What's your name?" he asked, curious about the fact that there was evidently a wizard family in the area.
"Rowan," she answered proudly. "Rowan Radcliffe." Her quick, dark eyes looked into his face without fear. Evidently, as her liberator, he did not pose a threat in her mind.
If only things were as simple as an eight-year-old saw them. The girl's surname had instantly rung familiar. If he wasn't mistaken, her father was Rupert Radcliffe, and her family was from a very old, pure wizard line, but had not yet thrown their lot in with the Dark Lord. It might be very useful to know precisely where the family could be found.
In fact, it might be the sort of information that would get Snape off the hook for Malloy's screw up.
"Well, Rowan," Snape said pleasantly, "I think it might be a good idea if I walked you home just to make sure that there isn't any more trouble."
"I told you," she repeated insistently, starting off the opposite way from which Snape had arrived, "they won't give me any more trouble." She sighed abruptly. "I can't wait until I'm older and I can do magic myself when they bother me."
"You know that's still quite a ways off," Snape said conversationally as they walked.
"Only three years," Rowan said optimistically. "Three years until I'm old enough to go to school and learn to do magic myself."
He hated to burst her bubble, but …. "Rowan, you know you won't be able to use magic against them if you're still underage."
She smiled at him. "I'd only get in trouble if I got caught," she said confidently.
"Yes, well the Ministry of Magic monitors younger wizards and witches," he replied. "They'd know if you did something to one of them with a spell immediately."
She wasn't giving in. "I could get them without using a spell," she said, a little impatience in her voice.
"And just how would you do that?" Snape asked, now getting a tad impatient as well.
She actually rolled her eyes. "I'd use a potion," she said back, her tone flippant. "Duh!"
Snape found himself amused again by his diminutive companion. He was beginning to think that she rather reminded him of himself at that age. Cunning and clever, with that raven hair and those dark eyes, she could easily have been his little sister.
Rowan carried on her education of Snape on the subject of potions. "My father says that there are potions that no one can tell are in their drink," she said in an informative tone.
"Your father is quite right," Snape said. "There are some that have no odor, no taste, no color, and yet do terrible things to the person so unlucky as to drink them."
"You know a lot about potions?" Rowan asked, brightening.
"Yes," was all he replied as they approached a group of large houses.
She was obviously impressed. "Cool."
"You live here?" Snape asked, indicating the large homes across the street.
Rowan gestured vaguely at the north end of the street. "Yeah, that one."
Snape decided not to follow her further, just in case one of her parents was around. "Well, Rowan, it's time you ran off home." He would hang back and stick around just long enough to see which address she returned to.
"Yeah, well….bye," she said, now trotting off. She turned and jogged backwards a few paces. "Thank you!" She called before she spun back around and ran for home.
Snape was watching her nonchalantly as he started to walk away, and saw her heading for one of the three houses at the end of the road. He never got a chance to see which set of steps she actually ran up, because at that moment, there was a loud 'pop', and an agitated Malloy sprang up in front of him.
"Where t' bloody 'ell you been, Snape?" he asked tersely.
Snape dodged around the burly Death Eater trying to see which house Rowan had gone into. She was gone.
"You imbecile!" Snape snarled menacingly through clenched teeth. He firmly settled in his mind which poison was most likely going to find its way down Malloy's throat….if he made it through his report back to the Dark Lord, that was.
The scene faded in and out again for a moment, and then here was Snape again, a week later, casually walking up to the park where he could see young Rowan riding her bike. She spotted him watching her after a moment and looked up with pleased surprise.
"Hey," she called, waving to him and jumping off her bike a few yards away. She walked it over to where he waited. "What are you doing here…..oh! I don't know your name," she said as the thought occurred to her.
"My name is Severus," he answered her pleasantly, "and I came back to make sure that those children weren't bothering you again." Ok, so it was only partly true.
She shook her head vigorously with a wide grin spreading across her face. "No," she said, tossing her dark hair back out of her eyes.
There was something about her amused manner that told Snape something had happened since he last saw her.
He narrowed his eyes at her. "What did you do?" he asked with teasing suspicion.
"Well, that Belinda – the one with the curly hair," she said dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, " was really mad that her hand got burned, so a few days later she dumped paint all over me in art class." She lowered her voice even more. "But I got even with her," she said.
Snape leaned down toward her a little and whispered back, "You did? How?"
Rowan looked around furtively. "Promise not to tell?" she asked, still whispering.
"Yes," Snape whispered back, now curious about how his new friend had taken her revenge.
"Well, you know I can't make potions because I'm too young," she explained in a way that said she was making sure he was clear on that point. He nodded and she continued whispering. "That doesn't mean I don't know anything about what goes into some of them."
Snape raised an eyebrow at her.
She glanced around one last time to make sure there was no one to overhear her confession. "I put a little dried dodder in her Coke when she wasn't looking."
"You gave her Devil's guts?" Snape asked, now starting to smile at the aspiring little Potions Mistress. It was another name for the herb and the condition it caused.
"I'll bet she puked for a whole day," Rowan said proudly.
"And I'd be willing to be that the school nurse and her muggle doctors diagnosed her with probable 'food poisoning'?" Snape asked, even though he really didn't need the answer to that particular question.
"Yup." Rowan answered, obviously quite pleased with herself. "They have no idea it was me."
"Yes, well, nevertheless," Snape began with a half-hearted admonishment, "you should be more careful."
"Why?" The girl asked. "I won't get caught if they think it's food poisoning."
"Miss Radcliffe," Snape continued, in a slightly sterner manner, "while the muggle doctors may not have a clue about what really caused that girl's ailment, and the Ministry may not be aware of your…..activities, I would daresay that too many episodes of 'food poisoning' in the bullies that routinely give you trouble my well catch the notice of your parents. I'm sure it's bad enough that some of your classmates already suspect your true nature……."
"Yeah, but no one ever believes them," Rowan interrupted.
"Yes, for the moment," Snape continued. "Just as I am sure that no one believed that a dark wizard in black robes swooped in and saved you from your attackers."
Rowan's eyes went wide for a moment and then narrowed as she scrutinized the man standing before her. "You're not really a dark wizard, are you?" She sounded highly doubtful.
Snape gave her a rare smile. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Rowan frowned. "Because you're too nice."
Snape threw his head back and laughed, and then addressed the naive witch after a moment. "What makes you so sure, Rowan?"
Her frown deepened, as did her apparent confusion at his questions. Once again, the picture was black and white for the young witch. "Real Dark Wizards don't save little girls from getting beaten up by bullies," she pronounced confidently, finally letting her expression relax.
Snape considered her answer and her vote of confidence for a minute.
Actually, why had he intervened?
He hadn't known who her father was until after he'd rescued her from that gang of muggles. There hadn't been anything to gain by interfering. It was just some long-buried part of him that felt the need to protect one of his own; a part that understood only too well what it was like to be the target of insult and injury. No one had ever been there to step in on his behalf when he'd been beaten up as a child…..he'd learned to defend himself early on, and much more aggressively than his little friend here.
He looked into the eyes of the young witch that were as dark as his own. They could have easily been those of his sister, if he'd ever had a sister, but of course he'd been the last of the Snape line, which his father had pointed out to him and blamed him for nearly every day from the time Snape had been born, until his father's untimely demise.
Now it was his turn to frown. He was obviously feeling some sort of attachment to this child, and although he didn't quite understand it, he knew enough to recognize the longing for there to be someone else out there like him.
Something he'd never had, even when his father had been alive.
"Are you alright?" Rowan had stepped closer and put a hand on his arm. There seemed to be genuine concern in her voice.
Snape nodded, but was unable to answer, that small touch – the tiniest gesture of affection and concern, sealed the deal. He knew he couldn't turn her family in. As a matter of fact, he was now worried that the Dark Lord might find her family without his help, and he found himself wrestling with the foreign sensation of feeling protective of something besides his own hide.
He realized she was still staring at him with her small hand on his arm. "I'm fine," he assured her, " and evidently so are you." He gave her a tiny smile. "I should go," he said quietly, and started to turn away……..
The scene faded again for a moment, and here was the park again a week or so later. Snape sat on the bench watching the girl surreptitiously where she sat alone on a swing, letting her toes drag lazily in the dusty rut worn beneath her from so many feet dragging swinging children to a halt.
He felt that she was safe for now. His story of being unable to find the Radcliffe family had been reasonably convincing to the Dark Lord, and of course he'd been able to occlude Voldemort from seeing any more than he wanted him to see.
Although she was some distance away, it only took a few minutes for the girl to sense that she was being watched, and she looked over her shoulder to where he sat. He couldn't see the smile that spread across her face at this distance, but it was clearly conveyed in the way she sprang off the still-moving swing and ran toward him.
"Severus!" She exclaimed, out of breath, when she made it to a few feet from the bench he sat on.
"Miss Radcliffe," he replied in acknowledgement, smiling slightly when she plopped herself down on the bench next to him. "Are you staying out of trouble?"
"I haven't poisoned anyone this week, if that's what you mean," she said with a grin. She hesitated for just a beat, looking thoughtful, and then spoke again. "I like when you call me that."
"What? Miss Radcliff?" Snape asked her as she sat next to him swinging her feet under the bench and out again repeatedly.
"Yes." She said, contemplating her dusty feet.
"And why is that?" Snape asked curiously.
"Oh, I don't know. I guess you sound like one of my teachers," Rowan said with a shrug, " but I like you better than a lot of my teachers."
Snape felt another unbidden twinge of feeling for the girl next to him. "That's not saying much for the teachers you have," he replied.
She punched him in the arm.
"Stop that," she chided. "Some of my teachers are ok, but I can still like you better. Besides, none of them understand me."
"Ah," Snape said softly, " and I do?"
Rowan nodded emphatically. "'Course. You're wizard, I'm a witch, we both understand potions….. we even look alike," she observed.
Snape frowned a little in mock concentration, as if he were just considering the resemblance for the first time. "You're right," he agreed after a minute.
"Yeah. Same hair, same skin, same eyes….you could even pass for my d…."
"Older brother?" Snape interrupted. True, he was old enough in theory to have an eight year old daughter, but his psyche wasn't ready to deal with anything that remotely resembled feelings of any sort of a paternal nature. He was having all he could do to deal with his odd yet growing fraternal attachment.
Rowan nodded in agreement. "You could be like my older brother. I don't have a real brother, of course….or a sister," she said somewhat dejectedly.
"I was an only child," Snape offered in the spirit of camaraderie that was blossoming on the park bench.
"Really?" Rowan asked with obvious interest.
"Really," Snape affirmed. They spoke for a while about what it was like to wish to have a brother or sister, or even close cousins. Snape was glad to hear that although she was an only child as he had been, that her parents, both still alive, absolutely doted on her, and that she actually admitted to being somewhat spoiled.
At a lull in their conversation, Rowan reluctantly admitted that she probably ought to be heading home. "Mum doesn't like it if I'm late for dinner," she added.
Snape nodded. "I have no wish to make you late for dinner, Miss Radcliff. I should hate to incur your mother's wrath."
Rowan giggled as she hopped off the bench. "Will you come and see me next week, Severus?" She looked and sounded hopeful.
"Would you like me to?" It was obvious that the child would, but a small selfish part of Snape just wanted to hear her say so.
"Duh!" He answer was accompanied by another punch in the arm
"Very well, then," he said rubbing his arm and wincing a little. "I shall return next week, but until then….." he reached into his robes and offered a flat item wrapped in blue twinkling paper to the girl."
"A present? For me?" Rowan took the proffered item and stared, mesmerized at the glittering paper. "Is this a book?"
"Open it and see."
Rowan tore the paper off to find her gift was indeed a book. An Early Potions Primer was printed in silver on a blue cover. She might have stood there staring at her gift even longer if it weren't for the sound of her own name being called in the distance by her mother, who was looking for her. She snapped out of her surprise at the unexpected gift. "I've got to go." She looked back at Snape where he was watching her reaction to the book. "This is the best present I've gotten in forever," she said in earnest.
"Good," He replied, genuinely please that she liked it. Anything else he might have said at that point was cut off by the young witch flinging her arms briefly around his neck.
The hug touched a nerve, but the comment she whispered in his ear before she released him and dashed for home went much deeper. "You'd be a great brother," she said, sounding like she might be about to cry.
He sat there, stunned. She ran off thinking she'd left him sitting on the park bench; she didn't know she left him there falling to pieces.
A rush of thoughts and emotions swept over him like an unexpected wave that leaves one not only chilled and wet, but off balance and in danger of being dragged under. They came at him too fast and furious to sort out, but conflict and anguish bobbed to the surface. Rowan, sister, family, darkness, danger, Voldemort.
What was he doing?
He ran a hand back through his hair as he sat there torn between his fear of the Dark Lord, and his fear for the girl. Here was conflict of epic proportion.
Voldemort, his master, represented a real and profound threat to Rowan's family. If the Dark Lord ever found out Snape knew where the Radcliffe family was, and had kept it hidden, there would be hell to pay. He knew the only way to keep her safe was to never return to see her again, even though he knew it would mean severe disappointment to a lonely and lovely child.
It took him a minute to recognize the sensation of part of his heart breaking. It had been such a long time since anything had even remotely affected him in such a way, that he'd almost forgotten what it felt like. It felt…..
Yes, it felt awful- the thought of losing his new found surrogate sibling made his insides cringe as much as any poison might, but the discovery that he had the ability to feel anything like this after being trapped for so long in the narrow, pinched realm of hate and fear was somehow strangely freeing.
Perhaps he wasn't as dead as he thought. Perhaps he had something to lose after all, and maybe, just maybe, there was a tiny part of his hard, blackened soul that he'd not yet sold to that infernal devil.
He sat there until the sun had disappeared below the horizon, finally making up his mind. As much as he knew Rowan would be disappointed, and as much as the most selfish parts of him wanted to continue to be in her life, he knew that he had to let her go.
She had, however, given him a gift far greater than he had given her. She'd caused him to see that he was not completely lost; not completely without hope. How did you ever repay someone for that gift?
He rose from the bench. He would come back once more, and once more only. He couldn't tell her much, but he could at least tell her the reason he wouldn't be back wasn't because of her. At least he could try to spare her that hurt.