Prologue: An Antidote for Poison

1

It was Harry Potter's thirtieth birthday, and the whole wizarding world wanted to celebrate it with him, which was ironic, given that Harry had no wish to celebrate it himself. Another, far greater cause for festivity was that this day, Harry's birthday, was also the thirteenth anniversary of the final defeat of Lord Voldemort. And yet, Harry felt no jubilation on the morning of July 31st, 2010; he had no desire to attend any of the many parties thrown in his honour, or talk to the hordes of reporters outside the door of his country cottage, though many of them had camped there for several nights. This was not merely a wish to avoid publicity, though Harry had come to bitterly detest the fame which had been thrust upon him; for Harry Potter, July 31st would always be associated in his mind not with his triumph over the most fearsome dark wizard ever to have lived, but with the deaths of his mentor, of his best friend, and of his last remaining link to the parents he could barely remember.

On that day, Harry had watched as Albus Dumbledore gave his life to reduce the Dark Lord's strength, temporarily, just enough to allow Harry to destroy him. Harry had watched as Ron Weasley and Remus Lupin battled Death Eaters, Dementors and vampires, keeping them away from Harry as the young man moved steadily closer to Voldemort. Harry had not been allowed a moment to grieve as his friends were cut down; every thought in his mind was focussed on Voldemort as he performed the final curse which ridded the world forever of its most vicious and deadly human inhabitant.

It had all been carefully planned - Dumbledore's death had been a certainty, but despite the odds, Harry had allowed himself to hope that Lupin and Ron might have a chance of survival. It was not to be, and only in retrospect did Harry recognise the inevitability of their destruction, and realise the profundity of the sacrifice they had made for the world, and for him. Harry had not expected to survive, and in his despair and grief he envied the dead their final rest.

Ultimately, it was this which made him return to Hogwarts on his thirtieth birthday, ignoring the celebrations going on everywhere around him, to find the one man who was certain not to be enjoying himself on this day. The one person who understood why Harry could not feel even a grim sense of triumph at the Dark Lord's destruction, when everyone else around Harry could not understand his silent anguish, and, after many attempts at drawing him out, had long since abandoned him.

Snape was in his office when Harry arrived at Hogwarts, presumably avoiding the Great Hall, where a tremendous feast was taking place despite the lack of pupils currently in residence at the school. It was here that the reunion of the Order of the Phoenix was being conducted, and the Hall was filled with survivors of the final battle, along with many relatives and friends. Harry paused for a moment, gazing through the open doors from the safety of shadow, watching the merriment within. The tables in the Hall had been moved to the edges of the room, leaving a large central space in which those present mingled. High Table was set with what appeared to be a sumptuous buffet. There was quite a crowd assembled; Harry spotted Mad-Eye Moody swigging from his hip-flask, and quickly sank back further out of sight, though Moody's magical eye could probably locate him easily enough anyway. Time to move on. Harry turned away from the brightly lit Hall and headed towards the dark dungeon steps, failing to notice the slight figure of Headmistress Minerva McGonagall until he was almost upon her.

"Professor," he muttered, not meeting her eyes.

"Mr. Potter," came the brisk reply. "I'm pleased to see you decided to accept our invitation after all."

Harry continued to stare at the floor, willing himself to be callous.

"Actually, Professor, I didn't come here for the party," finally Harry risked looking up at her. McGonagall stared back sharply, her piercing eyes taking in his rather ragged appearance.

"I see," was her only comment, but her tone suggested that it was not merely a turn of phrase. "Then I won't detain you any longer. He's in his office."

Harry turned to leave, but she called after him.

"Mr. Potter.if you should wish to join us later, you would be most welcome. There are a number of people here who will be very pleased to see you."

"Thanks," he said shortly, and so obviously with no intention of accepting her invitation that she shrugged, and returned to the Great Hall without looking back again. Harry continued on his way to the dungeons, stopping halfway down the familiar stone steps, pausing for a moment outside the well-remembered door he had not seen for thirteen years, since the last time he was at Hogwarts. For an instant Harry had second thoughts about his quest - then he remembered Hermione's last letter, which had contained an invitation to her wedding, and knocked firmly on the door. There was a long moment of silence. Harry had begun to wonder whether Snape had decided to go the reunion after all when a voice he had not heard for thirteen years came softly through the door.

"Come in, Mr. Potter."

2

Snape had changed very little in the years since Harry had last seen him. He was as thin and pale as ever, his eyes were still cold and glittered with their old malice, and his overlong black hair was still greasy, and tinged now with a little grey. He was working on a potion, stirring ingredients carefully in a large cauldron. He motioned Harry irritably to a chair with his free hand before adding a sprinkle of something Harry had long forgotten the name of to his concoction.

"Doubtless the wretches will all be coming to me tomorrow for hangover cures," Snape muttered, seemingly more to himself than to Harry. "Pomfrey always refuses.might as well have a batch ready. Sit there," he snapped suddenly at his visitor, "and be silent."

Harry did not reply, but sat as instructed, watching Snape work. After ten minutes, Snape ladled the completed potion into flasks, placed them in a cabinet, and laboriously cleaned the cauldron and put away the remainder of the ingredients. Finally he returned to his desk, without bothering to look at Harry until the younger man spoke.

"You didn't go to the reunion upstairs, then?"

"With whom would I wish to be reunited?" Snape shot back, with a twisted smile. "I see most of them far too often anyway. I would have thought that you might wish to rekindle old acquaintances, however."

Harry did not answer, knowing that there would be more. Snape rarely left his dungeon, but he nevertheless learned everything that went on outside Hogwarts - if it interested him. Harry had only begun to interest him after the fall of Voldemort, when the much-lauded hero had all but disappeared from public view - and from the lives of his friends.

"I gather," Snape went on, fixing Harry with his cold black gaze, "that you have little to do with your old friends these days."

"True," Harry answered simply.

"You used to have so many friends," murmured Snape, shaking his head in a gross parody of sympathy. "The Weasleys."

"Ron's family," said Harry, quietly. How could he allow himself to take comfort from the Weasleys when he had been responsible for their youngest son's death? Arthur Weasley had withdrawn from the world himself since the death of his wife and three of his sons - Bill and Percy had died early in the fight against Voldemort, while Molly had perished in the last battle. Charlie Weasley had returned to Romania. Fred and George had taken their business, the invention of magical jokes and tricks, abroad, and spent a great deal of time out of the country. And Ginny had not spoken to Harry since she discovered that the death of her brother had been no unexpected tragedy, but a planned, deliberate sacrifice.

"Miss Granger." Snape went on, watching Harry's eyes even more carefully.

"She's getting married in three weeks," Harry replied, flatly. Hermione and Ron had been going out for only a few months before Ron's death, but it had been obvious to everyone that their relationship was a serious one. They would almost certainly have been married by now, had Ron lived. Hermione had not blamed Harry for Ron's death, and that was somehow worse than Ginny's reaction. Harry had taken Ron from Hermione as well as from the Weasleys, and he could take no solace from her, either, as a result. After years of trying to help him, Hermione had given up, writing occasional letters to tell Harry news of her life. Soon she would be married to a Muggle Harry had never met. He would not be attending the wedding. "I see," murmured Snape, in the same tone McGonagall had used a little earlier. He fell silent then, waiting for Harry to make his move.

"It should have been you," said the younger man, eventually. There was no anger in his voice, merely a deep, terrible regret that was somehow worse. "You should have died, not Ron."

"Believe me," Snape growled back, "I regret the turn of events which prevented that at least as much as you do."

It had been Lupin and Snape who were to form Harry's guard in the battle, almost certainly doomed to die themselves, while protecting Harry for long enough to allow him to break through Voldemort's defences and destroy him. But Snape had been injured in a skirmish involving a group of Death-Eaters, two months before the plan was to be carried out. There was no option but to replace him - and Ron had been the one to offer himself. He had somehow convinced Harry that the chances of survival were good, but Harry recognised now that he had believed Ron's arguments because he wanted to, when there was no choice left but to sacrifice his best friend.

"I could have coped with anything," Harry almost whispered, "if Ron had made it through. Anything."

"Quite," was all Snape said, tonelessly.

"You should be dead," said Harry, bluntly. "And so should I. The prophecy."

"I thought you did not as a rule believe in Sybil Trelawney's fortune- telling, Potter."

"She made three true prophecies," said Harry. "The third was genuine. Dumbledore said so."

"So it must be true," mused Snape. "Dumbledore also said that after Voldemort's defeat, I would teach Defence Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. But he was wrong about that too, was he not?"

Harry was not listening. He went on,

"Trelawney's new prophecy was that Voldemort and I would destroy each other. It conflicted with what she'd said before, that one of us would kill the other. But she was right both times."

He got to his feet, and paced restlessly around the office. Suddenly he turned to glare at Snape.

"Because I *am* dead. In here." He placed a hand upon his chest. "I can't *feel* anymore. This isn't life, it's just existence."

"And a wretched one at that," Snape agreed, calmly. "I now know why you came here, Potter.but what is it that you want of me? To teach you to live again?"

Harry snorted. "No. If you knew how to do that you'd have managed it yourself. I want you to teach me how to survive like this, Professor. I want to understand it - to understand you."

"In order to understand yourself."

"Exactly."

"You ask a lot, Potter."

"I know. But you have time on your hands."

"I have little else," agreed Snape, softly. The skirmish with the Death- Eaters had not wounded Snape physically, but it had destroyed him - some horrendous curse, performed by Lucius Malfoy, furious at Snape's betrayal, had stripped Snape of his ability to perform magic of any kind. The making of some rudimentary potions was still possible for him; McGonagall had allowed Snape to remain at Hogwarts, in his dungeon quarters, making minor medicinal potions for Madame Pomfrey. But it was true that this took up little of his time. He had plenty to spare for sharing Potter's misery. "But what," he asked, "do I get out of it?"

Harry smiled grimly. "Absolution, perhaps," he suggested. Snape looked at him sharply, then slowly lowered his gaze, a crooked smile playing about his lips.

"What is it, precisely, that you wish to know, Potter?"

Harry leaned forward, his green eyes alive for the first time since he had entered the dungeon.

"Everything. I want to know everything."

"That may take some time," remarked Snape.

"We both have it."

"Indeed," Snape offered his twisted smile once again. "Very well, then. Since you have the kindness to be so interested, I will explain my past to you.but bear in mind, Potter, that it is private, and I would not do this to satisfy idle curiosity. You will speak of what I tell you to no one."

"Agreed."

"Very well, then." Snape rose, stretched, and made his way to the same cabinet in which he had stored the hangover remedies. He took out a dusty, unlabelled bottle, and poured a liberal amount of the contents into two glasses, handing one to Harry and taking the other himself.

"What shall we drink to?" Harry wondered. Snape raised his glass, black eyes glittering.

"What else, Mr. Potter? To Death, of course."

Harry slowly raised his own glass.

"To Death."