This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and situations elaborated herein.
It was almost midnight when Professor Snape entered his private rooms. He had gathered a basketful of hyssop, stripped the leaves and separated the blooms from the stems. They were lying in three separate drying trays in his laboratory. As he warded the door behind him he allowed his shoulders to slump from their forced erect posture. It was late but not too late. Albus would still be awake.
After turning the matter over in his mind for hours as he worked he still had no words but he knew that upon interrogation the words would come; whether convincing or weak-sounding he'd find out as he heard himself say them. The night would bring him neither rest nor comfort till he'd spoken to Albus so he might as well get it over with.
He walked into his bedroom and warded that too. Standing in front of his mirror he stuck out his tongue, stretched his mouth with a finger at each end pulling one side up and the other down, and opened his eyes as mad-staring-wide as they would go. He looked like a gargoyle – or a witless fool.
The mirror was keyed to him alone. Transmission was triggered by the impossible-to-counterfeit involuntary expression of mortified disbelief that always flashed in his eyes. Neither Veritaserum nor Imperio could force that look out of him because both disabled the critical analytic function and self-awareness that combined to produce it. He had to admire Dumbledore's genius even as he cringed.
The mirror's frame was silver and enamel with an embossed design of butterflies and flowers. Albus's eyes had danced with mischievous delight as he'd presented it to him. Its communication spell was masked by the other stronger spells by which talking mirrors are made and by the silencing charm he had immediately cast upon first inspecting it. Looking into a mirror was bad enough without having to hear it echo his thoughts.
Twinkling blue eyes behind half-moon spectacles came into focus, then a long crooked nose, a quantity of silver hair and beard and slightly pursed lips.
"Severus. Another emergency?"
"Of sorts. I've terminated the Occlumency lessons." He met the headmaster's frown with the numb resignation of a condemned prisoner.
"I assume you have a reason that you deem satisfactory." Dumbledore sounded as if he'd bitten into a lemon drop filled with caustic soda.
Snape's eyes fell. Thin shoulders were squared. Long fingers clenched into fists, nails digging into palms.
"You'll recall accepting my condition that Potter have no access to certain of my memories. I was called away from tonight's lesson – Montague was found obliviated and jammed in a toilet – I returned to find Potter in my Pensieve," he said, hoping he didn't sound whiny.
Dumbledore's eyes opened wide.
"You hadn't dismissed him from your office?"
"I had, of course, but I didn't stay to see him leave." A note of bitterness crept into the deadened voice. "My mistake for expecting scruples from his father's son."
"Severus!" the tone was a reproof.
Snape folded his lips and waited in resentful silence.
"You know how important it is that Harry learn Occlumency," the older man said. Important enough that he'd unhesitatingly handed over the school to Umbridge and the Ministry rather than let Harry be separated from the opportunity.
"I know," he muttered.
"You know also that you are in more danger than anyone from his connection with Riddle. Your secret's in his head for the taking." Let Riddle catch one glimpse of Severus baring his Dark Mark to Fudge or leaving an Order meeting at Grimmauld Place and he'd know the Potions-master for a traitor. Fortunately it had never occurred to him to rifle through Harry's mind.
The lessons are just as dangerous," Snape argued. "If the Dark Lord looks through the boy's eyes he'll see me teaching how to evade him and he could make him execute me on the spot." Under normal circumstances Potter was too inexperienced and untrained to be a match for him but Potter possessed by the Dark Lord was another matter.
"But that danger exists only for the short time they span. The other is continuous and indefinite," Dumbledore insisted.
"I know," Snape growled.
"And yet you refuse to teach him?"
The younger man shook his head and swallowed a few times. Here it came.
"When have I ever refused you anything? If you order it I will teach him. But if I have to teach him again I believe I'll end up killing him. Probably quite soon." There was no defiance in the weary voice. It was a prediction not a threat.
There was a short charged silence then Dumbledore asked in a too quiet voice, "You believe you'll kill him?"
Snape's shoulders sagged as if the weight on them had suddenly doubled.
"Albus, for fourteen years I've never raised violent hands against a student! But when I found him tonight – I pushed him to the ground, Albus! I threw a jar of roaches at his head!" He gulped. "I'd have thrown a jar of Nundu's breath if it had come to hand."
"You don't have a jar of Nundu's breath," Dumbledore retorted. It was far too dangerous. Shattering such a jar would kill everyone in Hogwarts, possibly everyone for miles.
"I've other poisons almost as toxic. I threw what was closest, not what was safe."
"I'm sure you keep them locked away out of reach. You couldn't throw one by accident."
The attempt at comfort failed. Snape closed his eyes and hung his head, biting hard on the inside of his left cheek. His face flushed with shame.
"Not by accident, no," he breathed. He lifted defeated eyes to the man whose disappointment he feared more than the Dark Lord's fury. "You don't understand what it is to hate."
Blue eyes searched black. Dumbledore sighed.
"Do you hate him enough to let Tom win?" he asked softly.
"In my saner moments, no. But when I'm in the boy's head I would rip out my own bowels to tie them around his neck!" Snape spat, his voice rising and his breath coming in short sharp bursts. He covered his eyes with one roughened hand.
"I can't teach him, Albus, I can't."
The headmaster watched his heaving shoulders in thoughtful silence.
"He's not James," he pointed out after a long pause.
Snape's hand fell but he didn't meet the other's eye.
"He looks at me with the same hate. He treats me with the same contempt." And you look at him with the same love. That was a thought he'd never voice. "Arrogant, insolent – The more I guard him the more he scorns my advice."
"The lessons weren't going well," Dumbledore mused.
His friend snorted. This was well-worn ground.
"They were disastrous, he got worse not better. He's more open to the Dark Lord than he was when we started."
Dumbledore made a vague noise encouraging him to continue.
"He's only thrown me out of his head once since that first time. The more I've told him to empty his mind the more it floods with his loathing. It's the first thing I feel when I enter and it's everywhere."
He scowled and rubbed his eyes. Teaching mind shielding was like teaching a mute to speak; you had to wait for him to make sounds before you could start to shape them. Only in Occlumency that translated into finding islets of objectivity, clean passion-free memories that could be built up into a reflective wall. The Potter brat seemed to have none.
He'd rummaged through Potter's mind, steering deliberately clear of any experiences he himself had figured in, searching for a starting point. But finding his way had been like swimming through flame-gel, thick choking and sticky, scalding through his skin to leave him blistered and raw. And that time the boy had followed him back into his own head via a Protego had left a lingering scorched trail that spread after each session and made reinserting the all-too-similar memories of that other Potter prick like needles of fire.
"What can I do? I can't fashion him a shield out of nothing!" he burst out.
"I see," the older man sighed. "What would you have me do? You're the only Occlumens at Hogwarts now."
Snape gave a helpless shrug.
"I'll do whatever you tell me, you know that," he said. He hated to give up but only grim persistence had kept him at a task that had long seemed hopeless.
"Is Riddle often in his head?" Dumbledore asked.
"Every night in his dreams, I'd guess. Every lesson he's moved further down that corridor. He's barging into the trap as recklessly as ever."
"And you think even so he's in more danger from you?" Dumbledore probed.
"Yes," Snape muttered. Trawling through the unreasoning fury the brat's mind directed at him had hardened antipathy into abhorrence.
"You can't exclude him from Potions classes. Can you restrain yourself?"
"There I can ignore him. He'll probably enjoy being left alone. If he can't be bothered to learn what he needs to know," he shrugged, "then he just won't learn it."
"He's our only hope to defeat Tom," Dumbledore reminded him.
"In that case I imagine we have no hope whatsoever." Snape's Adams apple bobbed up and down a few times. "I'm sorry."
"No, this was my mistake," Albus assured him. "I should have remembered that some wounds run too deep. I'll have to think about this. I don't see any alternatives at present. And Severus? I trust you. Remember that."
Dumbledore's face faded from the mirror, replaced by a bent head of greasy black hair. Snape didn't see the exchange. After a moment he took a few jerky steps and sank down onto his hard-backed chair to stare into the empty fireplace. Hours later he was still there, dry-eyed and motionless.
A/N Real-world hyssop flowers from June to October. Night-blooming hyssop is my own invention and flowers whenever I want it to.
This chapter was written first but required major revision after chapter 1 was completed. One point that occurred to me was that Snape could have seen any of Harry's memories, proving the boy's guilt and satisfying his own curiosity, yet canon doesn't mention him viewing a single Snape-related incident in any Occlumency lesson.
Despairing of finding a wizard equivalent for napalm Ihad posted this chapter using slime instead of flame-gel but luckily inspiration hit. Hence a hasty re-post.