A/N: Many thanks to Kamots, the husband who consents to suffer through my fanfiction, and to Sophrani, friend and beta who takes time away from her own tales to poke about in mine. All recognizable characters are part of J.K.Rowling's genius and are borrowed with respect and affection. Feedback – both praise and critique – welcomed! This is my first full-length fic in the Potterverse and it looks like quite a long but magical road ahead.

This takes place immediately after Goblet of Fire, and although it will not follow canon after Book 4, it may contain minor elements (spells, creatures, etc..) from all 7 Books eventually.

To Meet the Black Crow

"We have to a great extent lost the sense that still lived in the medieval and renaissance alchemists, that this darkness contained all possibilities. Like children we fear the dark, and for twentieth century humanity, darkness often holds only an existential dread . . . In alchemy, to meet with the black crow is a good omen." – Adam McLean, "Animal Symbolism in the Alchemical Tradition"


"You were seen."

The low, sardonic voice had no effect on the room's single occupant. Sprawled luxuriously in an armchair by the fireplace, Lucius Malfoy lifted a glass of blood-dark wine to his eyes and gave the crystal stem the briefest delicate twist. His gaze followed the heavy red liquid as it swirled within the glass, ignoring the visitor who leaned in the doorway. After a long moment, he touched the glass to his lips to sample its contents musingly. "And you were not," he replied. "Why is that, Severus?"

Severus Snape stalked into the room, pushing long, rain-drenched hair back from his sallow face. "Do I answer to you now, Lucius?" The words held only a quick hint of anger. He pulled his cloak from his shoulders and tossed it over tone of the wingback chairs before the fire. The quality black wool glittered with damp, dripping noiselessly onto the lacquered hardwood floor. Snape muttered a quick drying charm, the tip of his wand briefly visible in his hand before it vanished up his sleeve again. He stared down at the other man for a moment and the corner of his mouth turned upward in a grim ghost of a smile. "You know where I was, in any case. The Potter brat had vanished and all bloody hell broke loose at the tournament. Where else would I be but corralling dunderheaded teenagers and feigning ignorance to the old man himself?"

"Answering the summons of your Lord, perhaps." Lucius watched him now. His long silver-blond hair and the rich green of his dressing gown glowed in the firelight, patches of brilliance and color that only accentuated the cruel shadows around his eyes and mouth, and splashed against the darkness of the enormous library. He sipped his wine again, making no gesture toward the other chair for his guest. "It was not a gathering to be missed, old friend." The affectionate appellation failed to mask the underlying sarcasm. "He was not pleased."

Snape snorted, his lip curling derisively. "You're not nearly so narrow-minded as that, Lucius. And I'm not so careless as to ignore a summons unless it means losing my valuable position at the High Table of Hogwarts." He, too, placed an ambiguous stress on the word 'valuable,' twisting it with measures of pride and distaste. With a small sigh, he pressed the bridge of his nose with two fingers and narrowed his eyes against an encroaching headache before continuing to speak, settling uninvited onto the arm of the second chair. "But that crowd of morons who had the honor of seeing our Lord's return was careless indeed. Potter escaped and of course he named names. Yours. Others." As he spoke, Snape schooled his face into a mask of indifference touched with the faintest hint of personal concern for the man across from him, a man with whom he once attended school, whom he once might have called a distant friend. The man who had eagerly pointed him down the dark path to Voldemort's Inner Circle so many years ago.

Snape let the silence stretch between them with studied nonchalance. His stomach churned less with disgust at the dangerous charade and more at the natural ease with which he fell once again into the performance. After thirteen years, he reasoned, it should be harder. Even with most of the past year to prepare, as the brand on the inside of his left forearm had stung and burned, a portent of Voldemort's imminent return, this act should have felt vaguely foreign. It sickened him that his body knew the motions so well, that his mind and his tongue should betray him with the perfect ease with which they slipped into the habitual role of Snape the Death Eater.

Feeling Malfoy's eyes searching his face, he stilled an involuntary shiver by concentrating on the warm play of firelight. This was madness, he knew. Lucius was dangerous but simple enough to bluff; he had done it time and time again. But it had been thirteen years since he'd faced Voldemort in person. Thirteen years since his mind had been rifled by one of the wizarding world's most talented Legilimens, since his body had been wracked and broken by friendly tortures, since his hands had dripped the figurative and literal blood of innocents. He could feel the bile roil at the base of his throat and wrestled with his revulsion and fear, working to bring them rigidly under control while his audience was comprised only of the elder Malfoy.

Dumbledore's voice, cool and concerned, flitted through his thoughts. "If you are ready …if you are prepared." There was no way to prepare for a return to utter darkness. The clutch of guilt, the lingering stain of cruelty, had remained even during years of seeming peace. But the calculating, savoring darkness of the Dark Lord ran deeper still, violating the soul and scarring the mind. No. There was no way to be ready. There was only need—the desperation of an old wizard and of the others who relied on him to survive within the viper's nest. The need for information and for absolution in equal parts, equally tenuous and perhaps, in the end, impossible.

He pushed Dumbledore, the Order, the faces of the colleagues and the children who depended on his cunning, to the back of his mind and, with the twist of a sneer on his lips, Severus Snape allowed himself to plummet deeper into darkness.

Malfoy was speaking again. "You're a fool to come here, Severus."

"And where else should I go, Lucius? I need to see him."

"Why would he be here?"

"Why would he be elsewhere? Your dungeons are unplottable, unless my memory deceives me. Which is unlikely. And it's not as if Fudge will come banging on your door, is it? Is it you who controls his Imperius, or someone else? I rather doubt Macnair ever actually learned anything of subtlety." He sniffed disdainfully. "Even if Potter exaggerated about his supposed duel, I imagine our Lord needs somewhere secure to recover after such a dramatic resurrection. Particularly since he allowed that cretin Gryffindor to oversee the process."

A faint skittering along the flagstone of the hearth resolved itself suddenly into a genuine anomaly in the rich, baroque setting of the Malfoy library – a single grey rat, its patchy, moth-eaten pelt stretched over its bones. The creature scrabbled onto its hind paws, chittering madly for a moment and Snape could see the tell-tale glint of its metallic silver forepaw in the fire's glow.

Snape smirked. "Pettigrew. As articulate as ever, I see."

With a soft implosion of air, the rat transformed into a small, narrow-faced man who waved his hands impotently and shook with indignant splutters. He clenched his magical fist, a gift from the Dark Lord for services rendered, anger reddening the pock-marked face between its patchwork of badly-shorn whiskers. "You should watch yourself, traitor. The Dark Lord will put you in your place, he will," he sputtered, stepping down from the hearth to meet Snape's languid gaze. "You're a marked man."

Swallowing his sudden chill at Pettigrew's words, Snape channeled fear into the quiet aggression that came so easily again, slaking his words with disgust. "And you're suddenly a potions master, I hear," he replied, eyes narrowing dangerously. He leaned forward, his expression contorted as if he confronted a particularly unsavory stench. "You, who spent the last decade hiding in Weasley's sock drawer, uselessly wallowing in your own filth."

"Shut up!" The rodent animagus trembled with fury. "You didn't find him! You didn't help him! You should've come but you didn't." A slow, malicious grin spread across his face, his oversized teeth gleaming wetly in the dim light. "And now, he knows all about you. Crawling after your new mentor, eh? Toadying to Dumbledore as soon as my Master fell!"

Snape's fingers buried themselves in the front of Pettigrew's robes, twisting and choking with a small gesture. "Have a care, Wormtail," he seethed, venomously biting out the name and glaring into the vile little face as it began to giggle.

"You –" Pettigrew sucked in air and giggled again. "You wouldn't have given him what I gave him!"

The potions master's grip tightened. "Of course not, you bloody idiot. And he would not have asked it of me. My role to him has always been more subtle than such stupidity." He allowed himself a thin smile in return, the expression unnatural on his well-lined face. "He's marked you for the slaughter with that trinket you're calling a hand now. The first time Aurors run across your path—"

Concentrating on baiting the smaller Death Eater, Snape almost failed to see the sudden flash of silver cut across the red-gold of the fireplace. Even with a split second's forewarning, he found he could not avoid the blow as Pettigrew's living metal fist slammed into his jaw. The coppery taste of blood spilled into his mouth as he staggered, only keeping his feet when the wingchair behind him pressed into his back. He growled, shaking his head, feeling at least one lower tooth loosen. At least he missed the nose, he found himself thinking incongruously. It's crooked enough already.

From the other chair, Lucius chuckled. "You know, Severus, I rather hope the Dark Lord doesn't kill you."

Snape licked at the blood pooling in the corner of his mouth and glared.

Malfoy returned his empty wineglass to a small side table and rose, brushing at non-existent flecks of dust on his immaculate green robes. He stepped across the hearthrug and slid one hand through Snape's arm in a parody of affection, his fingers hard and cool despite the warmth of the fire. Snape flinched at the contact, but before he could pull away, Pettigrew closed in on his other side, still giggling raggedly to himself.

Without warning, the Dark Mark on his inner arm flared into exquisite pain. Burning with a bone-charring heat that seemed to wind sinuously up his arm and around his neck, it seared as it had not in the long years since Voldemort's fall, staggering him. Dimly, Snape knew the two wizards had dragged him up between them, and felt the short, nauseating rush of forced apparition before he fell into impenetrable blackness.

They released him immediately, his knees thudding against stone as he stumbled forward, clutching his arm to his chest. Unrelieved black air wrapped around him like a shroud, pressing against his open eyes in an almost tangible fashion, close and suffocating. With effort, Snape directed his attention outward through the stifling shadows, pushing the Mark's pain into a manageable throb that served to clarify rather than muddle his thoughts. The air was warm, fetid, smelling strongly of earth and ozone. Rain thrummed against his face and hands, soaking his robes almost immediately, plastering his long hair in rivulets across his face.

Outside, then. Not the Malfoy dungeons, after all, he thought. The ground beneath him felt sporadically level, like paving stones. Perhaps a courtyard. Or a ruin. The arcane dark seemed to muffle sounds, but a few crept through to him as if from a great distance – Pettigrew's labored breathing, the scuff of dirt beneath boots, the rhythmic whisper of his own fingers gripping the cloth of his sleeve in a mindless attempt to soothe the burning black mark. Focusing on these sounds, staring down the darkness, Snape set his jaw firmly against the low groan of pain and fear that threatened to rise unbidden in his throat, and cautiously rose to his feet.

An achingly familiar voice breathed in the darkness, simple and emotionless. "Crucio."

In an instant, the pain of the Dark Mark vanished, subsumed as every nerve in his body ignited. White-hot blades screamed through his veins, bones seeming to blister and rip from muscle and tendon, skin alight with invisible electricity. Unlike the slow, creeping burn of the Mark, this mindless conflagration of pain blotted out thought and routed self-control. Distantly, Snape was aware that he had fallen again, fingers clutching the ground wildly, tearing on the rough edges of the slick stones. His body twisted and writhed, mouth open in a breathless shriek, heart straining to burst and every sense in him clawing toward an oblivion that refused to come. Despite a history of frequent subjection to the Cruciatus Curse, the intense pain was always blindingly fresh. Unlike so many other horrible things in life, no one ever became inured to this.

Thought slammed back to him, splitting his skull as the curse released. Snape lay panting on ground for a long moment, twitching uncontrollably as the secondary tremors wracked him, groaning but almost savoring these quieter aftershocks. When he could again feel the lukewarm rainwater trickling down one side of his face and the grit of stone cutting the other, he slowly pushed himself to his hands and knees and lifted his head to scour the darkness. "Master," he gasped, normally silken voice cracking. He crawled forward, hesitant, hoping he moved toward the hidden figure.

"Ah, Severus." The sibilant whisper coiled through the darkness, seemingly without source, echoing softly.

A courtyard, then, Snape thought mechanically.

The voice continued, inexplicably gentle. "My once loyal lieutenant, my brilliant potions master, my prodigal son come home to die." Almost affectionate, the words caressed and teased, reminding and promising, soothing and threatening. "I had thought you to have left my service forever, child. And yet, penitent, you seek me tonight, groveling on this hallowed ground." A low exhalation, a grim sigh perhaps, touched with the faintest breath of a hiss. "Do you come to me of your own volition, I ask myself? Or does some other command you now?"

Blank red eyes flared in the darkness and Snape hesitated only as long as might be respectful, staring up into the faceless, terrible eyes. "Master," he grated again, licking his lips and swallowing to relieve his parched throat. "I came as I could."

"But it is why you came that intrigues me, my evasive Severus." The voice continued, slow and thoughtful, lingering over each phrase as though over a lover's body. "Do you come as did Wormtail, dreaming to stand in the shadow of greatness? No? Then perhaps like Nott and Avery, simpering of love and respect but reeking of terror? Or perhaps your tastes these days run more to those of Lucius, licking at the hand that offers blood and secret corporeal delights?"

Snape thought he heard Malfoy make a small noise of protest at the description, but it was stifled quickly.

He shook his head, inching forward painfully toward where the Dark Lord loomed above him, abject, drinking his own humiliation like wine. "As always, Lord," he responded humbly, "I come for knowledge and the freedom to wield it without restraint. You promise power. To that, as to you, I remain willingly sworn and bound, however long the years." Silently, he hoped the Dark Lord still thrilled to the old arrogance and the promise of submission, of leashed and tractable skill. Deadly half-truths, he thought in passing as he offered the litany; Voldemort would expect a measure of rehearsal from his potions master. "I still serve the stronger side, the one that best provides for the pursuit of my craft. I am yours, as before. I have not changed."

Mirthless laughter cut through the air above him. "So sure, Severus? Such pride."

Snape's bleeding fingertips brushed against rough velvet robes in the darkness and, lifting the cloth, he bowed his head to press his lips to it with fervor. "It has served me well in your service before now, dread Lord," he murmured, forcing himself to savor the damp scent of decay that rose from the fabric. He inhaled deeply, lingeringly, worshiping at the hem of the Dark Lord's robe.

"Enough." Voldemort stepped away, turning from where Snape huddled and twitching his garments out of reach. The potions master closed his eyes briefly, grateful for even a momentary respite. "Look at me, Severus."

Snape stilled, but raised his gaze obediently. For one dizzying moment, the world narrowed to the unnatural gleam of crimson eyes. The sensation of skeletal fingers probed his mind, skittering spider-like over his memories, searching for loose edges around the shields he so diligently maintained. Voldemort made no attempt at subtlety as he applied his wordless, wandless magic to its task, but deepened the search forcefully, pressing with an almost physical touch. Cautious and controlled, Snape filtered fragments of memory toward that intrusive presence – a burst of temper in the potions classroom directed at an angry red-haired boy, a trusting glance offered by a man with an enormous white beard and twinkling blue eyes, his own sense of manipulative eagerness in the face of such trust, memories real and staged in reality, forced into experience in order to be relayed in trickles to the Dark Lord. The skill had taken Snape years of practice and rigid discipline; if he could have allowed a stray thought, he would have prayed to gods in whom he never believed that his talent had not deteriorated in the intervening years of peace.

"You are a liar, Severus Snape," Voldemort said softly after several long minutes, a flicker of his glance severing the contact. "But an exceptional one. Finite Incantatem."

The magical darkness cleared to be replaced with the sodden grey darkness of evening. A massive stone-framed courtyard appeared as if through fog, moss-encrusted columns, a gaudy sculpture that had once served as a fountain, glassless arched windows that looked out into dense, shadowed forest. Malfoy Estate? Unlikely. Perhaps anywhere, Snape noted idly, resisting the urge to rest his forehead weakly against the ground and instead seeking the figure of Voldemort.

The man – the creature, Snape's mind intoned – stood several feet away, wrapped in soot-black robes that hung unnaturally still despite the soft drizzle of rain and the wind that gusted around them in fits. Within the depths of the hooded robe, the flesh of his inhuman face and hands was thin, drawn like overstretched parchment and the grey-white color of long-exposed bone. His lipless mouth was set in a line, flat nose barely detailed by nostrils. His steady gaze burned, slit-pupiled and alien, untouched by mercy or pity. Long, thin fingers twined with each other, held lightly before him, flexing with a terrible readiness. At his feet, a massive serpent coiled and recoiled itself, its unblinking eyes fixed on him, its tongue tasting the air. It shifted its huge coils slowly, scale rasping on scale in a dull, halting hiss.

"You – you said you would kill him," Pettigrew squeaked, shuffling from foot to foot behind Voldemort. The fingers of his silver hand hovered at his mouth and he nibbled at the metal nervously between statements. "Why don't you kill him, Master? Kill him for us, for your loyal servants. Make an example--"

"Peace, Wormtail." Voldemort's quiet voice cracked across the empty courtyard like a whip and the animagus quailed, sinking to his knees with a visible shudder. "I have already gifted you for your part in my re-embodiment. Now, be silent and understand that this man's loyalty is not for you to critique."

Pettigrew whimpered. "Of course not, Master. But –"

The dark wizard made a small gesture, too quick to see as it patterned the air, and Pettigrew's eyes bulged suddenly. The little man choked, spluttering without sound. "I have tolerated your whining, Wormtail, but now you try my patience."

Snape watched with a mixture of wariness and surprise as Voldemort lectured his minions. "It suits us to keep a wolf among the lambs, to house a traitor at Albus Dumbledore's very elbow." A venomous hiss accompanied the name. Snape was unsure whether it rose from the man speaking or the snake at his feet. "Such a Death Eater must be a man of circumspection, with a talent for keeping his thoughts to himself, capable of calculating each expression and decision. He cannot always jump when bidden. Indeed, it might be wiser for him to risk his Master's wrath and not abandon so useful a position." The infernal gaze bored into his and Snape could once again feel the cold fingers of the Legilimens spell groping about in his mind. "Nevertheless, I expect my Inner Circle to come when I call. If the Muggle-loving old fool is wrapped around your finger, Severus, surely you could have made your excuses."

Snape bit down on a sudden wild desire to apologize and, after a moment of silence, Voldemort continued. "Still, your place has been a useful one. Traitor among the ranks of the ignorant, maintaining even during the long years of my absence. Playing your role by denying yourself my company on that most important of evenings. Watching, instead, for the significant reactions of my enemies." Another thoughtful pause. "Tell me, Severus, have I divined your intended supplication?"

Feeling exposed as the Dark Lord listed his carefully prepared excuses as if plucking them from his mind, Snape searched desperately for something else to add, some reason for mercy that was not already weighed and measured. You did not return for mercy. Move on."You have, my Lord."

Voldemort glared down at him, a darkly cowled incarnation of Fate itself. "Do you think me a fool, Severus?"

"Never, my Lord."

"Tell me how I am to believe you, then," continued the cold, hard voice, "when you come bearing the only explanation that might stay my hand from killing you outright? Such perfect reasoning, precise, sterile, untouched by the chaos of the everyday. Almost … too perfect. You should speak, Severus, while you still have your tongue and a mind to wag it."

"Master, you know my mind and my motives." Snape lifted his eyes in a calculated balance of restrained confidence and deep-seated humility, carefully subduing the quaver in his voice. "And what is more, you know my uses."

The lipless mouth curled in a grimace of black humor. "It is not your usefulness that I question, but your loyalty and your desire for forgiveness."

Snape restrained the impulse to throw himself on the wet ground and grovel hopelessly. "Forgiveness is for lesser men. Loyalty can be proven. I am willing to earn my place as I did in the past."

"Proud as ever, Severus." The Dark Lord glided closer, leaving his monstrous serpent swaying and coiling behind him. "A reasonable stance since you well know that I do not forgive. As I told your brethren, who likewise abandoned me all those years, I also do not forget. I expect thirteen years worth of repayment from them for such callous neglect of duty. From you, sweet Severus, I think I will need more. Much more if you are to indeed earn your place."

"You will have it, my Lord."

Snape closed his eyes as one emaciated, white hand reached for him, sliding through the rain-damp hair that fell across Snape's forehead, tracing down the side of his face, cupping his jaw in a parody of a caress. One icy finger rubbed over the crusted blood at the corner of his mouth. "I will, indeed, my treacherous Death Eater. So, tell me, what have you to share after thirteen years of such loyal servitude?" Mocking.

The potions master began a matter-of-fact recital, well-rehearsed in the long days leading up to this moment, a litany of details about Hogwarts and its population. "Dumbledore knows you have returned, as you will have guessed. The Potter brat saw to that." Snape twisted Potter's name with the ease of familiar loathing. "You can be certain he will recall the Order, but they are scattered and distracted, and will be forced underground by Fudge and the Ministry's avid denial. They will be ill-prepared, lost, out of touch." He and the headmaster had carefully chosen kernels of useful truth to sacrifice for the rebuilding of Voldemort's trust, and Snape embellished with both useless fact and promised fictions. After several uninterrupted minutes, he finished with the most recent events. "The old man will invite a handful of students to the castle over the summer, know-it-all types who want a leg up for their OWLs or NEWTS, no doubt. They arrive in a few weeks."

"Are they of any use to us?" Lucius' voice rose from across the courtyard, tainted with an unholy eagerness. What you mean is can I deliver them for your amusement, Snape thought grimly, all too aware that Voldemort's tenuous pardon might be bolstered by the blood of children.

"They will be closely guarded, as always," he hedged, his tone dispassionate, "and, as you know, the wards remain in full force. I cannot touch them within the castle grounds and they will be forbidden to leave unaccompanied."

Malfoy snorted. "You're a teacher. You can arrange to accompany them."

Snape cut his eyes over to the other man and allowed his normally unreadable expression to subside into a condescending chuckle. "I thought you knew me, Lucius. Even Draco will tell you that I do not 'accompany' students anywhere. I rather cultivate a presence that keeps the little bastards far away, save a handful of the more promising Slytherin purebloods."

Lucius smirked in response. "Draco does tell stories."

The Dark Lord silenced them with a slight gesture and stood silent for some time, his serpentine face swaying slightly in the shadows of his hood, his emotionless gaze raking over Snape. "Worth the risk, perhaps," he whispered, finally. "You will come to our next gathering, Severus, and provide us with both the information you claim access to and, I think, some entertainment. While Lucius will undoubtedly hope for something young and sweet, I will express my own wish that you simply bring yourself. It will be enough for now."

A fist seemed to close in Snape's stomach, twisting as he had twisted Pettigrew's robes earlier. He felt distinctly sick. "Willingly, my Lord. Thank you for your leniency."

Voldemort began to laugh, a raspy noise like snake scales sliding over stone. "You will not disappoint me, Severus?"

"No, my Lord."

"Of course not." Still laughing softly, he lifted his wand and waited, relishing Snape's inadvertent flinch. "Crucio."

As always, the pain was unimaginable.


Hours later, Snape found himself immersed in the padded depths of one of Dumbledore's best conjured armchairs, soaking in the warmth of a roaring fire but still shivering. His old trick of folding his trembling hands into the sleeves of his robe to mask the aftereffects of the Cruciatus seemed rusty and somehow inadequate beneath the headmaster's clear blue gaze. Snape slumped further into the chair and shook his head to ward off the gentle offer of a tea cup. I couldn't hold onto it, Albus. You don't want to know that.

Undeterred, Dumbledore leaned closer and, asking permission with a slight incline of his eyebrows, turned Snape's face toward him with the lightest touch beneath his chin. "I wish you would let me call Poppy," the headmaster murmured, peering over the top of his half-moon spectacles, his normally twinkling eyes as serious as storm clouds. "You're still bleeding, child." He pushed a lock of hair out of the dark, haunted eyes with one hand.

Snape pulled away slightly, not wishing to give offense but shuddering at the memory of another hand sliding over his face. "Stop being a mother hen, Albus. I'm fine. Bit my tongue there at the end." He snorted wryly. "Lost a tooth to Peter Pettigrew, too, to my own eternal shame."

"Here, then." Dumbledore pulled a fuzzy, purple and green polka-dotted cloth out of the air and pressed it into the younger man's hand. He paused a moment, registering the small tremors in the potions master's slender fingers, then sat back to regard him steadily. "Clean up a bit and tell me how it went."

Snape dutifully applied the warm, damp cloth to the blood that had dried unnoticed on his chin. "Better than we might have expected considering that Potter's story checks out on all points."

"I doubted neither Harry's story nor Tom Riddle's tenacity," Dumbledore noted kindly, fixing Snape with a rather pointed stare. "Like some others I could name, both are quite exceptional at surviving against impossible odds. And a bit more driven than I might wish."

Snape ignored the implied suggestion. "Driven does not imply careless. Since his gaffe in that graveyard, the Dark Lord seems to be exercising appropriate caution. Allowing the boy to escape undermined him on several fronts; he'll be recovering territory now, gathering the remnants of the Inner Circle and looking for new allies. Unfortunately, I cannot say with any certainty where we were, but Pettigrew seems to be staying at the Malfoy Estate." The corner of his lips quirked. "I'm sure Lucius and Narcissa are both in raptures."

"And how were you received?"

Snape grimaced. "The Dark Lord was less surprised by my re-appearance than I would have liked."

Dumbledore encouraged him with attentive silence, but Snape shrugged away the details. "We should be under no illusion that he trusts me. I am useful, however – more so alive than dead at this point. It will have to be enough."

"That isn't a line I particularly want you to walk, Severus."

"What you want hardly matters now, Albus," Snape snapped, tensing as small spasms chased from one part of his aching body to another, pinpricks and phantom fires following each other in waves. He could see errant strands of greasy hair in front of his eyes trembling and loathed the display of weakness in front of the one man he genuinely respected. Fixing Dumbledore with a neutral expression, he let silence fall between them while he repressed the shaking, concentrating instead on the little details of Dumbledore's nighttime dress. The headmaster sat patiently in the other armchair before the fireplace, his thick white beard and hair spilling haphazardly over his quilted maroon sleeping robes and escaping the purple ribbons that valiantly tried to tame the flood. His nightcap, gilt-edged and adorned with a fluffy ball at the tip, made him look something like an elderly court jester. His bony old feet were stuffed into shabby rabbit-shaped bedroom slippers.

If he had hurt less, Snape might have chuckled. Some of the more clever students believed that the headmaster's barmy old coot act was merely a performance to mask his impressive and intimidating power. Dumbledore was certainly powerful; his easy, everyday displays of wandless magic assured even the dimmest onlookers of that. But Snape knew that frequently-donned masks often melded with the reality beneath, becoming both wholly genuine and perfectly innate. Dumbledore, he suspected, was fully as barmy as he appeared much of the time and, simultaneously, remained the most formidable and cunning wizard in the world. He should have been a Slytherin, Snape thought, except for the bunny slippers and that fetish for muggle sweets.

The curse aftershocks finally settled at the base of his skull in a pounding headache and Snape closed his eyes briefly. A faint rush of air ruffled his hair, tinged with a wafting scent of cinnamon-and-ash that tickled the nose. Sun-warm softness pressed against his arm, and as the spicy-sweet smell flowed around him, some of the pain seemed to seep away. He opened his eyes to take in the brilliant scarlet and gold plumage of Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix, nestled unconcernedly in the crook of his chair's arm, leaning ever so slightly against him. He reached two fingers out to stroke the bird's dramatic crest gratefully, and received an amiable blink from the large, liquid eyes before Fawkes tucked his head beneath one wing and slept.

"Cruciatus." It was less question than statement. "More than once, I take it?" In some ways, Dumbledore's soft voice stung more than the Cruciatus itself, rending Snape's battered conscience with what he believed was undeserved solicitude. He felt himself pale but refused to analyze the reaction.

"Nothing I cannot handle," he muttered. "The least of our worries, I think."

Dumbledore's smile held a hint sadness, but he did not press. "You know, I think Fawkes has a most excellent idea. You seem exhausted and I could no doubt use my beauty sleep, as well. We can talk further at a more civilized hour. Would you care to take lunch with me –" He glanced at one of the whirring instruments on his desk. " – later today? That is, if you've nothing pressing to stir or slice in your lab? The Prewett children stopped by already in preparation for their summer studies and I promised to take a look at their latest research project in the morning, but I should be free by noon."

Snape smirked at Dumbledore's off-handed mention of his own plans for summer research. If he had nothing else to report, the remark gave him a way to escape, a handy excuse that he knew he could not accept. "I imagine the piles of botched exams covering my desk will still be there if I take an hour away from them," he acquiesced, pushing himself from the armchair without upsetting the precariously perched phoenix and steeling himself against the soreness of his muscles. This, too, seemed milder within Fawkes' warm aura. He made his way slowly to the door, pleased that he only limped a little.

"And if you don't mind too terribly much," Dumbledore added with a bit of his usual sparkle, "I'll have Poppy drop by during lunch, as well. You've done quite enough repairing of your own teeth over the years. The healing arts never were your strong suit, Severus."

Snape sighed and nodded, running his tongue over his uneven teeth. Can't deny that he's right on that count, he thought with tired amusement before pulling the door closed behind him. Slowly, he made his way down to the cool privacy of the dungeons and into a bed that promised little sleep.