If I Knew the Way
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
The path is for your steps alone.
You who choose to lead must follow,
But if you fall, you fall alone.
If you should stand, then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.
-Ripple- The Grateful Dead
Chapter One: Now and Then
Firelight glinted off of copper hair, setting it alight, making her as easy to locate in the crowded common room as the fire itself. She straddled a chair backward, arms thrown carelessly over the backrest and skirt hiked up beyond the point of decency.
Severus leaned on the doorframe in the shadows and shook his head slightly as he watched her, a rare smile playing around his mouth. Emily Grey was surrounded by a cloud of smoke and her usual crowd of admirers, holding an animated conversation about her latest triumph in a long line of waywardness, laughing raucously, and giving a burly boy a patronizing pat on the cheek at something he'd said.
"I swear, Goyle," she began in her warm, husky voice, "if you were any thicker..." She smiled mischievously.
"But... the runes were yours," he said tentatively, looking around for support from his fellows. His only answer was the shady laughter of amused Slytherins.
"They could've been mine, yes," she answered sweetly, the laughter still coloring her tone, "but I'm not the only one with an aptitude for rune casting at this school. Someone else could've done it."
"Someone else with a grudge against Potter and Black?" drawled a highly cultured voice from the back of the room. "I don't think so." Lucius Malfoy's entrance silenced the laughter immediately, and every face lost it's smile, save for one.
Emily turned a charming grin on the house prefect, and blew a steady stream of smoke in his general direction. "Hello, precious. I wondered when you'd crash the party."
"Put that damned thing out this instant, Miss Grey," he snapped.
She swung out of her perch and sidled toward the tall, white-blonde wizard, taking a long pull on her cigarette. Tossing it at his feet, she raised her eyebrows in invitation. With a wave of his hand, the end flared white-hot and curled in on itself in an instant. Her eyes went wide at the display of power, then creased as another laugh escaped her lips.
"Lucius, you are a nasty little gremlin, aren't you?" she purred. "What has you in such high spirits this fine evening?"
"An unruly element in my house, Miss Grey, a little girl I can't seem to control."
"Oh, I imagine you'd love to control me, wouldn't you?" she whispered, sliding closer so that they couldn't be overheard. "I can see it in those ice-cold eyes every time you turn them on me, Malfoy." She leaned in and looked up, placing her mouth mere inches from his, and he held his ground staring arrogantly down, daring her. After a moment, she smiled sweetly and walked past, holding her hand out to Severus.
"Hello, Sev," she greeted warmly. "How'd your research go?"
"Quite well, thank you," he replied quietly. "If rumor serves, you also had a productive evening."
She chuckled lightly. "They had it coming."
Severus remained somber. "They know it was you, Emily."
"I sure as hell hope so," she retorted. "It would've been a wasted effort otherwise." She steered him into a chair at the back of the room and pulled her own very close until their heads were mere inches away from one another. "Now they know, no one trifles with my Severus, and I'm sure they'll be contemplating that over many hours of detention." A small hand, rough from hours on a broomstick, cupped his cheek lovingly.
"I can take care of myself, you know," he replied seriously. "Setting that trap for them was dangerous. You could have gotten into serious trouble."
"You know I'd risk anything for you, Sev."
His eyes darted to Malfoy and a few others who looked on, some with loathing and others with unbridled jealousy. "That is unnecessary, and unwelcome." He pulled her hand away gently and held it in his own. "You know that I can't do this," he whispered, deep voice thick with regret. "Your father would never forgive me... or you."
Her smile, undaunted until that moment, melted and a look of pain that broke his heart took its place. "My father will force me to marry Malfoy or Black or that lunatic, Crouch. He only sees the union of bloodlines. He doesn't see my heart, that it belongs to you." He turned his face away before she could see the anguish in his eyes, and she turned it back with a gentle touch. "I love you, Severus. I can't just walk away knowing that there's a chance."
"There isn't," he managed to reply steadily. "Emily, you have to grow up. You must realize that, because of your family's position, what your heart feels means nothing, and love is... less than meaningless. As precious as you are to me, I can't allow you to compromise your future..."
"...future of Hogwarts is at stake. I will not risk my school, my students, or my staff because you have suddenly decided that my judgment is clouded.," Albus Dumbledore scolded the wizards at the corner of the table, the uncharacteristic sternness of his voice shaking Severus out of his reverie. "Yes. She was convicted of murder," he continued, "and she was sentenced to life in Azkaban. Yes. She is dangerous, but we need her. With the school completely inaccessible and our Runes instructor missing, we have no other option. Severus, because he is acquainted with her, and because his duties to the Order are somewhat lightened of late, will accompany her every moment. There is no need for this excessive concern."
"And how can you be certain that our turncoat can be trusted with his ex-girlfriend?"
Dumbledore opened his mouth to respond, but a black-velvet voice cut him off. "Need I remind you, Lupin, that there is only one man at this table who has blatantly lied for the sake of a convicted murderer." Black eyes glittered dangerously in the firelight as Remus stood abruptly.
"Enough!" Albus snapped. "If nothing else, I will be happy to have the two of you separated for a time while this disaster is sorted out.
"Severus, you are expected at Azkaban tomorrow morning.," he continued in more subdued tones. "The behavior analyst from the Ministry will meet you there."
Snape cringed. Behavior analyst. The people who lacked so much humanity that they could readily spend every day at Azkaban "analyzing" the criminally insane were not likely to be the finest escorts. He would sooner spend the morning with a dementor.
A brief wave of nausea rolled through his stomach as he allowed himself a moment of dread for the upcoming task. Spending the summer cooped up in Hogwarts was bad enough. Doing so while playing prison guard for what was left of the only woman he'd ever cared for was enough to drive him as insane as she.
With a subtle sigh and a nod to Dumbledore, he was off.
Severus dropped his head forward immediately after apparating, allowing his hair to form a natural barrier to the early-morning sunlight. Mab's heart, these garish mornings were murder on his eyes!
"Ah, Professor Snape," called an older, unsavory-looking man from the front gate of the prison. "I'm Mr. Thomas. You're here for the prisoner, Emily Grey."
Severus eyed him warily. "I am well aware of my reason for coming, sir, and you may dispense with the pleasantries."
The older man gave him a brief nod, then led him through the gates without another word.
Down dark, twisted corridors they moved steadily, Severus forcing himself to lessen the speed and length of his usual stride for the sake of his shorter companion. Somehow, though, he didn't need direction. He found his way to her cell three steps ahead of Mr. Thomas as though he had known the way for years.
Once there, however, he froze just shy of the door, needing a few moments to stop and collect himself, to bring to the forefront of his thoughts, not the girl he had known, but the woman she had become. To forget that would be foolish, and Severus, no matter what his feelings for her may once have been, was not a foolish man.
"This is it, Professor," prompted his escort, clearly ready to be rid of the surly visitor.
Severus gave a short nod, his eyes never leaving the heavy wooden door. "Open it... then leave us alone."
The man gave an irritated sigh. "As you like, Professor, but talking to her won't do you any good. She hasn't said a word these sixteen years. Probably wouldn't so much as moan if you gave her a good, hard..."
"Finish that sentence, and they will never find your remains," Severus interrupted coldly, a deadly promise gleaming in his black eyes. Thomas took a step back, reaching for his wand, but Snape's was already in hand, glowing slightly in the dim light. "Just open the door. I will deal with Miss Grey."
Silently, the man did as he was instructed and stepped back as Severus ducked his head to enter through the low door into the tiny, stone cell.
The miniscule window near the ceiling was so heavily warded that only a hint of sunlight made it through, and Severus had to stop to give his eyes a moment to adjust. There, in the shadows, crouched a gaunt figure, silent and unmoving, and it was to this that he turned his attention.
Two steps brought him across the cell to the skeletal woman huddled on the damp, stone floor, knees hugged to her chest. Kneeling before the filthy creature, he called her name softly.
She made no response, lifeless eyes staring listlessly at the floor between them.
He took a breath. Tried again.
"Emily, it's Severus. Look at me."
A muscle in his jaw tightened, released, then tightened again as a long-fingered hand reached for her slowly, tentatively. He fully expected her to start, or raise her eyes, or even scream, but if she even knew he was there, she gave no indication. Carefully, he tilted her head back, brightened the light of his wand, and lifted her shadowed eyelid.
A second later, he shouted angrily for his reluctant escort.
The man responded quickly, but remained standing, hovering over them both as if somehow superior.
"What the hell are you giving her?" Severus snapped.
"A mild sedative," Thomas answered calmly.
Snape widened her eye and peered more closely, then looked up. "This is mild?" he questioned, a dangerous edge to his voice. "She's no good to me comatose."
"This one is... difficult to control, sir," he hedged.
"And, this is your answer?" Severus seethed.
The man crouched down and snatched her hand away from her knees, angrily jerking her bony arm to its full length and turning it over to expose the wrist. "Because this is hers," he replied heatedly.
The flesh was gruesomely scarred, marked from wrist to elbow with long, jagged lines as if cut with some object that was much less than sharp. Obviously, she had made more than one attempt at suicide. Halfway between, though, as if nothing could separate it or its associations from her, was the Dark Mark, as black and flawless as the day it was burned into her flesh.
Severus turned his head away to compose himself as the man continued.
"I keep her sedated to keep her alive," he said simply.
"And, you keep her alive to keep your position at the Ministry," Severus added sourly.
"Professor, this woman killed her own brother in cold blood." Thomas stood and brushed his robes stiffly. "If you harbor any feelings for her at all, be glad that it's my job to keep her breathing. I'm one of the many who feels that life in Azkaban is too damn good for her."
Severus stood as well and stared coldly for a moment before he felt calm enough to speak. "I'm taking her out of here, now. Send the papers to Albus. I'm sure he'll be happy to finalize this transaction while I begin the arduous task of undoing the damage your negligence has wrought."
With that, he crouched back down, cradled her in his arms, and left the man in stunned silence.
Thomas had to jog to catch up, then followed him down the hallway, arguing that he should levitate his burden.
Severus looked down in disgust at the wasted woman in his arms. "I have first year girls who weigh more than this. What are you feeding her?"
"She doesn't eat," Thomas replied with a shrug. "It happens after a while, but this one had to be force-fed from the beginning. Now, I just force a nourishing potion down her throat every other day."
Severus bit back his response, knowing that, if he allowed one word, he would shred the man to pieces. The rest of the journey was spent in silence, Severus stubbornly carrying his oldest and dearest friend through the dark labyrinth to freedom.