Chapter 3

It took them nearly fifteen minutes to reach the front doors, even hobbling as fast as they could. Both boys continually glanced over their shoulders, paranoid that the werewolf might escape the tunnel and run them down. But Lupin was nowhere in sight when they finally reached the huge oak double doors. Severus used an Unlocking Charm and they rushed inside. Potter shut the doors quietly behind them and they collapsed on the flagstones.

"It won't get us in here," Severus panted.

"He," Potter corrected. Severus stared at him blankly. "*He* won't get us in here. Look, obviously you wouldn't understand, but Lupin's still our friend no matter what shape he takes under the full moon and he doesn't deserve to be dehumanized by ignorant gits like you."

"Fine," Severus said shortly. "I don't care."

Potter put a hand to his heart as if he could slow its hammering. Severus glanced at him briefly; then he muttered, "Thanks."

Potter looked up in surprise, with some suspicion in his eyes. It vanished when he realized Severus was being sincere, if grudging. He smirked. "I guess you owe me a life debt now."

They both froze as the full weight of Potter's flippant words struck them. *I guess you owe me a life debt...* Severus wanted to scream. A Snape owing a Potter his life! It was unthinkable-there was certainly no precedent for such an atrocity. And not just any Potter: James Potter, the most obnoxious and detestable wretch on the face of the Earth, impelled by vainglory or delusions of courage to remedy his best friend's malevolent deed. Severus felt very small and pathetic. He desperately wished it was all a vivid, horrible nightmare-but not even his subconscious could treat him so cruelly.

And in the more honest parts of his heart he knew Potter was right: he *had* saved his life tonight, very directly. But life debts were very old magic, impossible to avoid. He was doomed to have to go on watching out for Potter for the rest of their lives, trying to repay this stupid debt. And now he would *never* be allowed to kill Potter in cold blood! Not until he could sever this odious bond between them.

He sighed miserably, seeing the vast years ahead of him, each day filled with Potter's smirk and a single task: *pay back life debt*. "Whatever you say. I just want to get to the hospital wing."

They looked at each other, then at the marble staircase, and groaned simultaneously. The hospital wing was on the third floor-that was *miles* away. They wouldn't get there till dawn at this rate. "What are we going to do?" Potter asked dispiritedly.

"Sleep where we fall, I suppose," Severus sighed.

Potter's eyes widened and he started to crawl towards the marble staircase. "I can't be found here, I can't."

"Look, it's not going to reflect very well on me, either," Severus said irritably, watching Potter's ungainly progress. "I mean, a sixth year Slytherin prefect, and a Snape to boot, found sleeping in the middle of the Entrance Hall, looking like I've just had a run-in with a gang of mountain trolls. If only I could get up to the hospital wing, Madam Pomfrey could fix me up good as new and no one would ever have to know about this foolishness. Then I could hunt down Sirius Black and eviscerate him." Potter turned and glared at him. "Well, I don't owe *Black* a life debt."

"No, you don't understand," Potter wheezed, clawing at the banister in an attempt to haul himself to his feet. "I'm on quintuple probation with McGonagall! I just used up my fifth second chance rescuing you! If I'm caught breaking the rules once more I'll be expelled for sure!"

"Should've thought of that before you broke the rules," Severus started to say coldly, but a noise like a latch dropping attracted their attention, and they both spun quickly, wands raised, to see the door on the right of the marble staircase creak open.

Standing at the top of the stairs was Lily Evans in her nightgown with a glass of milk in her hand. Her eyes widened when she saw them and her mouth opened, as did the hand holding the glass.

Potter froze up, but Severus quickly took aim and whispered, "Silencio! Wingardium Leviosa!"

The first spell rendered Evans mute, and the second caught the falling glass. Evans stamped her foot and pointed at her throat.

"I can't give you back your voice unless you promise not to scream," Severus warned. Evans shook her head. She deftly plucked her glass of milk from the air and scowled at him.

"No, really Evans, you must promise not to scream and wake up the whole school," Severus said, trying not to sound frantic, but a note of pleading must have entered his voice because Evans smiled haughtily. She pointed at them and raised her eyebrows, questioning. "What are we doing here?" he guessed. She nodded.

"We- we're-" Potter stammered, red-faced. "Ah, we, er, that is to say, he- I didn't- erm."

Severus couldn't understand what was making Potter blush idiotically and stumble over his words. He'd heard the unruly Gryffindor lie himself smoothly out of trouble on thousands of occasions, to everyone from the Head Boy to teachers. Stuttering in front of Evans, who after all was only a prefect, and a girl, and a *Mudblood*, was ridiculous.

Severus was about to blurt out the whole story to Evans, who as a prefect would certainly be obliged to help him to the hospital wing, when suddenly he took a closer look at Potter's goofy, sheepish expression and groaned inwardly.

Potter was in *love*- with Lily Evans!

*How positively revolting*, Severus thought disdainfully. That explained why Potter was babbling foolishly, looking immensely embarrassed while she simply rolled her eyes irritably. On the one hand, Severus was pleased to have figured out something he could hold over Potter's head, but on the other, he'd had enough of these Gryffindors for one night. It was strange, really: for six years he'd stalked Potter's gang, trying to learn their secrets to find grounds for their expulsion; and now that he was finally finding out those secrets he was rediscovering how loathsome they all were.

He dwelt for a moment on the hugely satisfying thought of letting Potter go on with his blushing and stammering, but then a little voice in the back of his head rebuked him, remarking, *He saved your life!* Potter was in trouble and he was supposed to help him out, no matter how irrepressibly nauseating it felt. The damage this would do to the proud Snape name. Now seemed as good a time as any to start repaying this preposterous life debt, when no one was around to witness it.

Heaving a sigh, he pointed his wand at Evans and said, "Finito Incantato. Potter and I had a small altercation."

"Small?" Evans repeated in disbelief, staring at their broken limbs.

"All right, a rather grave one."

"You look like you've been torn apart by a gang of mountain trolls!" Evans exclaimed. "You've got broken limbs!"

Severus sighed. "I suppose your Potter isn't as dense at curses as he seems in class." Evans snorted, and Potter reddened even more. Severus silenced his impending objections with a kick to his broken leg. "Look Evans, we need you to help us to the hospital wing."

"She can do better than that," Potter gasped, clutching his bandaged leg, "she's been studying up on medical magic with Pomfrey, she can probably repair our broken bones."

"And why should I do that?" scoffed Evans.

"Because we're both prefects," Severus said tightly, trying to hold back his impatience. Evans began to sip her milk calmly. He sighed. "We're really desperate!"

Evans smiled and licked away her milk mustache, remarking sarcastically, "You hide it well."

Potter gave a moan, though whether it was from his broken leg or his heartsickness over Lily Evans, Severus didn't know. He closed his eyes wearily. Life debts called for sacrifice, sickening sacrifice. "Please," he said crossly.

Evans began to whistle idly as she strolled off to the marble staircase. "No- no!" Potter squeaked, falling over wretchedly. "Evans!"

"Evans, heal us and I won't call you Mudblood for a month," Severus said very fast, glowering at the floor.

"No great feat on your part," commented Evans, "seeing as summer holidays start in a week."

"For two months!" Severus called with a wince as pain rocketed up his broken arm. "Six months! Till Christmas!"

"You shouldn't call me a Mudblood at all," Evans said coldly. "You're not exactly giving up a privilege."

"Fine," Severus gasped. "We won't speak or look at each other for all of seventh year."

Evans brightened. "You mean that?"

"Provided you both pass your sixth year exams," Potter joked weakly. They ignored him.

"You and I don't have to see or speak to each other for the rest of school?" Evans said eagerly.

"Except if we're forced to," Severus stipulated. "The teachers wouldn't approve."

"And you can't so much as glance at me without my permission," Evans added.

"Fine," Severus said through clenched teeth. "If you heal us up and don't breathe a word about this to anyone, I won't speak to you without your permission for all of seventh year, and you don't ever have to say a word to me."

"Don't worry, I won't," said Evans, setting her empty glass on the banister and dropping to her knees between them with her wand drawn. She hesitated. "And if you break your promise?"

"Then you can re-break all the limbs you're about heal," Severus replied.

Evans smiled and ripped off Potter's bandages with one fast swipe of her wand. When he yelped, she tutted, sounding exactly like Madam Pomfrey. "Don't be a baby, Potter."

Potter bit his lip, clearly suppressing an idiotic grin, while Evans used a complex spell to mend his broken leg. Severus watched in fascination, wishing he'd taken the time to learn medical magic as well. Healers probably had quite good salaries.

"Going into Healing?" he asked Evans.

She shot him a searching look before answering warily, "No, it's just an interesting subject. I want to be an Auror."

"An Auror!" repeated Potter, the first complete sentence he'd managed to utter directly to her. "Same as me!"

"Although Healing is starting to sound better," Evans muttered. Potter coloured. Severus couldn't understand- he could think of about a million mordant comebacks to that. Where had the eloquent, abusive Potter gone? This new faltering Potter was immensely off-putting. What was it about Evans that stymied him? He hoped he wouldn't one day go so mad for a girl that he couldn't think of nasty replies to the silly things she said.

Potter's leg flashed blue and Evans drew back. "Finished. Go away."

"Thanks, Evans," Potter said gratefully as he stood up, but she had already turned and begun peeling back Severus' bandages.

"This is a good splint," she said grudgingly to Severus. "Tightly wrapped. Pomfrey would like it. And did you put that tourniquet on Potter's arm?"

"Yes, I found the spell in a book," Severus confirmed. Potter lingered at the bottom of the marble staircase. Evans glanced up at him coldly as Severus' leg flashed blue, back to perfect working order.

"Is there something you want?"

"N-no," Potter mumbled. He seemed to square his shoulders and declared, "I'm not leaving you alone with Snivellus."

"Do you really think so little of me?" said Severus sourly. "My wand arm is broken and I literally have barely one leg to stand on. I don't think much of Evans' cursing skills but I'm sure I'd be dead in half a second."

"But I can't in good conscience. I mean if something was to." faltered Potter, cheeks flaming. This really was very pathetic, Severus thought contemptuously.

And suddenly his stomach lurched as he understood the next step in the repayment of his life debt. It was disgusting, it was distasteful- it was unavoidable. The sooner he finished settling this stupid obligation, the sooner he could murder Potter himself. Comforting himself with visions of disembowelling the arrogant Gryffindor, Severus said flatly, "Go, Potter. You said yourself this was the last of your last chances. If you're caught you'll get expelled."

"I thought that was what you'd want," Evans said curiously to Severus.

Severus sighed. "I *would*."

Potter peered at him and then remembered the unwritten covenant suddenly wrenched into existence between them, and seemed to comprehend that Severus was honour-bound now to aid him. Reluctantly he climbed the marble staircase and hurried stealthily away.

"I hope he accidentally falls into the Vanishing cupboard upstairs," Evans grumbled, examining Severus' shattered arm.

"Evans, you have to go out with Potter," Severus said very fast.

She jumped. "What?"

"You have to give Potter a chance," said Severus miserably.

Evans stared at him. Then she dropped his broken arm and pointed her wand between his eyes. "What are you doing?" he said in alarm.

"You've been Confounded. I don't know how, I had no idea Potter knew what a Confundus Charm was, but I can fix it."

"I have not been Confounded," Severus said impatiently, pushing her wand away. "I *know* what I'm saying! You just have to trust me."

She snorted. "There's one for the history books. Trust you? Not in this lifetime, Snape. Not even if I was dangling over the cliffs by my little finger and your hand was within reach."

"Are you completely blind in both eyes? This is different! He's very sickeningly, pathetically in love with you!"

Evans started. Then she hurriedly began tapping her wand on his arm again. "I don't have to hear any of this. You shouldn't even be talking to me."

"No, you've got to hear me out. It's really quite revolting. Evans, if you don't give him a chance he'll probably die of pining."

"Ha! He only wants me to go out with him because I'm the one girl in the whole bloody school who doesn't swoon at the sound of his voice. Arrogant twerp- but wait, if he's not controlling your mind or anything, what's in this for you? Why are you of all people trying to convince me to date James bloody Potter?"

Severus scowled. "I don't know. It just seems to me that you would be making a big mistake to snub him forever without throwing him one civil word."

"I'm perfectly civil!" Evans protested. She paused. "All right, maybe not. I have plenty of reasons to be rude. He's conceited and cruel and thoughtless-"

"Yes, fine, I completely agree," Severus interrupted. "But that doesn't change the fact that you're (ugh) in love with Potter, too."

That last remark was a gamble, but Evans flinched and Severus knew he'd hit home. These poor predictable Gryffindors! Their emotions were easier to sort out than a two-piece puzzle.

She let out a brief, bitter laugh. "This is ridiculous!" He regarded her levelly. "Why are you saying this?" she whispered.

"Because I have to," he answered, truthfully. "Look, just-the next time Potter asks you out say yes. He'll be-" Severus gritted his teeth "- extremely pleased."

"Fine," said Evans brusquely. She tapped his broken arm- certainly harder than necessary- and it gave a blue flash, showing that it was healed. "But I won't like it."

"Of course not," Severus said with barely concealed sarcasm, standing to test his legs. "I can clean my own injuries. If-"

"Stop right there," interrupted Evans. "I fulfilled my part of the deal and now you're not allowed to speak to me, remember? So go on, get out."

Severus raised his hands in desultory courtesy and descended to the dungeons. They were ninnies, those two, they were perfect for each other. Let them fall in love and go off together, and rid Severus of their foolish antics. As he crawled into bed, he reflected bitterly that Potter and Evans would probably get married and have a million babies that he would have to watch out for, too. It was a repellent thought. But a life debt was binding until both parties felt it had been satisfactorily repaid, and though Severus had taken several steps toward that end, especially in convincing the girl whom Potter would probably wed to give the oaf a chance, he knew he was far from rid of the obligation.

But before he fell asleep, he wondered whether life debts extended to spouses. Perhaps one day, long from now, Lily Evans would realize how much she owed to Severus Harry Snape.