Chapter Fifteen: No Words

He was bent over his desk, a thin and dark figure bowed by the heavy cold of the dungeons. He had not looked up at the creaking of the door as she opened it, and his hands went on, dipping his quill in severe, red ink and scrawling across the pieces of parchment arrayed before him.

Lili froze in the doorway, watching, teeth bit hard into her lip. It was very late, but she'd known he would still be here, working.

He gave no indication that he was aware of her presence. She leaned forward, looking past the black hair hanging limp about his face, trying to find the dark of his eyes. Somehow, she thought, if she could get even a glimpse of his gaze, she would know exactly what she was in for: she would know what it meant to take that last option Dumbledore had offered her: --and she could wisely and whole-heartedly refuse.

"Mister Potter, don't you think it's a bit late to be wandering the castle?"

His voice startled her, and she jumped back as if to hide.

The quill clicked lightly against the desk, his robes shuffling towards her. She stood, cowed in the doorway.

His voice was low and dangerous as he rounded on her, seeming to expect a terrific triumph. "After all, you've stolen my fairywing alread—"

His taut smirk and arched eyebrows crashed back into the dark-lined frown of his face, and, for a moment, Lili wished she had been Harry Potter just to save him from the disappointment.

"Oh, Miss Lee," he stood taller, clearing his throat purposefully and doing his best to seem annoyed rather than startled. "It's too late to be roaming about empty classrooms, Miss Lee. I expect that sort of thing from Potter, not from you." He turned away and rounded the corner once more, reclaiming his seat and plucking the quill from its well decisively. It was not an invitation.

It was the same act he'd been putting on ever since she'd returned; pretending nothing had happened, acting as though she was just another seventh-year Slytherin he put up with in Potions. She shuddered even harder, wondering how he could do this—wondering if she had been foolish to assume he was...looking out for her.

She wasn't certain whether it was because of the late hour or because they were alone, but he seemed to be having a more difficult time of pretending than usual.

"Actually, Professor, I was hoping to speak with you." Her voice seemed to rise small and timid, freezing in the dark air just as her breath did. She stepped into the room far enough to see him fully, hunched over his work, trying to pay her little mind.

"If I'm not mistaken, Miss Lee, our powers of speech will still be here in the morning. I was just about to retire for the night, after I grade the remainder of these essays." He didn't look up.

Part of her wished to grab him and shake him, demanding that he stop pretending and act as he had at their meetings on Malfoy Manor. She stepped forward, thinking of laying a hand on his shoulder, but quickly decided against it. "Professor, I—" She swallowed. "I spoke with Headmaster Dumbledore this afternoon."

He paused a moment, the mad scrawling of the quill falling silent. For that brief moment, she knew he was processing and understanding what she said.

For that brief moment, his mask slipped.

He picked up the quill again and continued. "I see."

"He said I should come speak to you."

He tried to seem unperturbed, but Lili noticed him shift in the chair, breathing in deeply. "And what did you do? Do I need to arrange a detention?"

She closed her eyes, surprised to feel tears wetting her lashes. "Please—Professor. I need to speak with you. About—" Her throat was wrung. "Please." The last word shook itself from her, so frail in the heavy air that it cracked, half-twisted in a sob. She opened her eyes again, praying that no tears would fall.

But Snape was looking at her now, quill abandoned on his desk, pale face glowing at hers in the dark. He searched her, and she steadied herself, doing her best to imitate his stoicism.

After a moment, he swallowed deeply and nodded. "Please, take a seat, Miss Lee."

Too tired to reach for her wand, she opted for the more pedestrian act of carrying a chair to the front of the class. Hesitating for a moment, she laid the chair beside him rather than across the imposing surface of the desk. If he objected, he gave no sign. She sat, laying her hands in her lap lightly and doing her best not to fidget. Just tell him. Tell him, and for Merlin's sake, don't go to pieces about it.

His eyes met hers, and, for the first time, Lili felt it-- the full weight of what he carried. He hadn't given it away all at once, but, piece-by-piece, she had understood his burden. It stared at her now, cool and questioning, and, she realized with some dismay, afraid.

Snape was afraid.

She swallowed again.

"I—Well—" She stopped herself, realizing that she was already fidgeting, wringing her laced fingers wildly. She blinked long, trying to clear her thoughts. Just tell him what Dumbledore said. Just tell him and watch his eyes…

She pressed her lips together, forcing herself to sit straighter. "It seems, according to the Headmaster, I have three options."

Snape nodded, silent. He had turned towards her, his own hands in his lap. He did not fidget.

"It seems I can run away--"

His eyes were flat and motionless.

"Or try and play my way out of the Dark Lord's favor—"

His stare was steady.

She gave a long, meaningful pause. "Or, I can remain a Death Eater and become a double agent, telling the Ministry everything I find out while in the Circle." The words tumbled out, and she cursed herself for letting them slip so desperately.

The strange cloud that rolled over Snape's eyes reminded Lili of the loud and horrible thunderstorms they'd had during the spring in China, when the skies grew so black she thought the sun had been drowned. The lines of his face darkened, opening channels of shadow that seemed to run as deep as veins. The corners of his mouth sank, and, for a moment, Lili feared he might send her away. But he merely sat, silent, looking like a man utterly lost in the darkness of his own thoughts.

For a long time they sat, neither watching the other. Lili rubbed her palms together, going over in her mind all the things she could say: none of them seemed appropriate. After all, what did she want from him? What could he say? And, more pressingly, would he even be willing to say anything? The chill of every breath sat heavy in her lungs.

Snape sighed, his long fingers raising from his lap and bracing against the desk gently. "I see."

The cold air lay between them as thick and severe as a wall, and Lili felt the heaviness within her redouble. He's not going to say anything, she thought biting her tongue in frustration, but refusing to give up. She wasn't going to let him stay quiet, not this time. She straightened even more. "I—I'm thinking of taking that last option."

He still would not look up, dark eyes now sunk on his own hands, fingers delicately tracing along the edge of the desk.

"But, I—" She stopped.

He looked up now, dark eyes flashing with the glint of a distant torch.

Just tell him. "I'm very afraid."

Now that he was watching her, she wished he wasn't. His eyes had given over to tracing, examining every inch of her face, and she could feel the weight he carried in his gaze. Someday, she thought, with a fluttering of her heart, someday my eyes will be like his. Black, clouded, and barely able to lift from the ground. Suddenly, she stood, desperate to break from the scrutiny.

"I—I want to," she turned away from him, trying to talk her way out of the discomfort. "I want some good to come of this: but—I—I don't think I can do it." She ventured a look over her shoulder, and saw that he too had turned away, eyes once again, dark and pained, on himself. "I don't think I can be as brave as you."

They were strange words, and not ones she had planned to say. But watching him, long, thin neck arched down from the weight of his gaze, the words sprang from her mouth, and she knew them at once to be true.

He gave a small, sarcastic chuckle and shook his head sharply. "Oh, Miss Lee. You do have a lot to learn if you call it 'brave.'"

She stepped towards him, only vaguely aware of what she was doing. She reached out, quivering, and touched his long-fingered hands. "Well, then, teach me. Please."

He recoiled quickly, pushing away from her, his hooked nose turned and silhouetted in the little torchlight that danced through the room. "Miss Lee—" He paused. "Lili."

It jarred her not only to hear him say her name but to hear how he said it. The word itself seemed almost too heavy for his lips.

"What do you want to know?" It was a whisper, but it seemed to echo from the dungeon walls.

It hit Lili's ears with a soft force, and she sat down once more, leaning in towards him, though not close enough to make either of them uncomfortable. "I want to know whatever you'll tell me."

He nodded, and sat back in his chair, stiff and looking more troubled than Lili had ever seen him. He seemed to be fighting himself with every word, and, all at once, she wished there was some way she might spare him.

But she could not.

His fingers had gone back to tracing the edge of the desk, and she watched them, long and thin, shaking ever so slightly. "I can only tell you of my experience, Lili. And even of that—I cannot tell you everything."

She kept her eyes on his fingers. "You can trust me," she said quietly, trying as hard as she could to make it less painful for him.

"I know," he said, with a sigh. "I know I can trust you. I havetrusted you. But there are some things a man—cannot—let pass his lips."

"'There are also some things he won't reveal even to his friends, only to himself perhaps, and even then, in secret,'" she quoted gently, remembering Notes.

He nodded.

Lili laid her hands in her lap once more, but had given over to fidgeting unashamedly.

Snape let out a long sigh and began.

"My life before Hogwarts was, shall we say, unimportant. Suffice it to say, my family –or rather my father and I, for my mother had died giving birth—were neither poor nor excessively rich, the Snapes, of course, having had an adequate sum of money left from dealings with the goblins some years back. I was never in want of anything—well, anything material." He paused for a breath, and Lili understood that, though she wanted to pursue this, it was not a door that would be open to her.

"I arrived at Hogwarts and was sorted into Slytherin. It would not have surprised those who knew me if, indeed, there had been anyone who knew me. I am not, as you might have noticed, of an exceedingly social nature, and had no childhood friends before Hogwarts. I had spent most of my younger years locked in my small attic room in the wizarding town of Blattersfield reading books and practicing my hexes. Oh, and I was ambitious; by Circe, I was. I practiced, wanting nothing more than to be the Minister of Magic, or, more if possible. I imagined my attic room as a lavish palace, with me as a benevolent but powerful ruler." His eyes darted to her, and she saw, even in the cold of the dungeons, a blush shoot through his sallow cheeks. She gave only a small grin, trying her best not to embarrass him further. "Yes, well, as a young boy, such dreams don't seem as foolish. Ambition can be limitless—and mine was, even if it was in secret. So, I suppose, it was no mistake that I ended up in Slytherin."

"But things weren't easy for me. I excelled in academics but had little success making friends. I told myself I didn't need friends, but, secretly, I planned ways to impress the other Slytherins, especially one Lucius Malfoy who was, then, the most popular Slytherin in my year." He sighed, leaning back. "And eventually, towards the end of my second year, I managed by casting a rather nasty curse on a fourth-year Hufflepuff." His eyes met hers briefly, as he explained. "Slick Soles Hex as he was standing up from the table in the Great Hall. He slipped and slid all over the place, nearly broke his leg." He looked away again, eyes clouding over at the memory. "He had been rather unpopular with Malfoy at the time, having stolen from him the heart of a rather lovely first-year Slytherin girl by the name of Narcissa Balin. After this spectacle, Narcissa redirected her affections, and Malfoy and his gang proved very grateful new friends."

"These new friends were ambitious like me," he continued, his fingers no longer tracing the desk's edge, but lazily draped across the end of his knee. "But I had never been around people like this. Walden Macnair, whose father held a prestigious Ministry position in the bureau of Magical Law Enforcement. Jeremiah Avery, of the illustrious Avery house: that family had money left over from times no one could recall, though by this time they had squandered much of it. Patricia Parkinson—then Patricia LeDann. The LeDanns owned a very popular chain of wizarding stores: I'm sure you've never heard of them, but travel down Knockturn Alley sometime—you'll see what sort I mean. And then of course, there was Malfoy. I needn't tell you anything about that family, for I'm sure you've either been told or guessed at enough on your own."

She nodded, trying not to think about that black castle so far away, still casting shadows deep in her mind.

"I surrounded myself with a very powerful crowd, telling myself that this was the best way to achieve the goals I had set. But I also knew that, without them, I was nothing. It was difficult, to feel at once powerful and powerless. Even then as 'friends,' they treated much as they still do. I was a runt. I couldn't fly to save my life, and I certainly wasn't interested in much of the gossip. I was always quiet and bookish—and that's a mark against you in those circles. Lucius Malfoy may collect a good deal of books, but he's never unfashionable enough to be caught reading them."

Lili grunted, having thought the same thing many times sitting in his vast and yet dust-veiled library.

"It was only by being around them that I wasn't completely shunned in Slytherin. And they tolerated me for my knowledge and my utility, despite my lack of social background and my tendencies toward academia and melancholy. And then, I did something even worse. In my fifth-year, I was partnered with a hopeless Gryffindor girl, Lily Evans, in Potions. She was horrible, and the Professor at the time asked me to tutor her. She was—very pretty, very sweet, and very open: things I told myself I hated. But, unfortunately, she was also incredibly understanding. And she could listen: she listened to every story I told her about Slytherin, and every story I told her about Malfoy and what he'd said or done to me. And she always said I should stand up to him—I shouldn't let him treat me that way. She often threatened that if I wouldn't, she would. It was something no one had ever said to me: as if I was worth standing up for. Well, it wasn't long before I was head-over-heels, of course. I watched her in the halls, in those afternoon study sessions, and during meals—watched her with him--" Snape's voice became suddenly quite fierce. "James Potter." The name shot from his mouth too fast and hot to freeze in the thick cold of the dungeon air. "He was after her too, and everyone knew it. He was a star Quidditch player and the most popular boy in the school. His family had money, Merlin knows from where. That bastard wouldn't have known a dark thought if it had fallen from the heavens and bit him in the arse. Of course she'd choose him, I told myself. And more's the pity for her." He shook his head, fierceness in his eyes dulling. "Well, I told myself this again and again. And again and again I tutored her in the afternoons and saw her smile at me, and lean next to me as we stirred the cauldrons—" He stopped, as if it was only now he realized he was speaking to Lili, a student. He seemed to stiffen and continued on, glossing over what she knew to be the painful or tender parts. "Well, perhaps she might have felt something towards me, but, I—eventually I came to terms with the fact that Potter would get the girl; as he got everything else. So, I turned my shoulder to her, I even—I even played some rather nasty practical jokes on her. This played out very well in the eyes of the Slytherins, but I—I don't think I'll ever—Well," he sighed, and Lili could hear the quivering of his breath as he fought back some deeper sadness. "Potter ended up with her. I told myself to forget about her and concentrate on keeping my relations in Slytherin. I sunk myself deeper and deeper in—into the inner workings of the House, and into my own resentment and hate—and eventually, I found myself graduating and at a very secret meeting."

"It was the sort of meeting I'm sure you now understand; the sort of meeting where everyone wears black and hides their faces for fear. It was, Lucius assured me, the way everyone who knew how to get anywhere was turning. And that was when I first looked on Voldemort." Snape swallowed, his left hand balling loosely in a fist. "Of course the name had been whispered about Slytherin. Deaths had already begun, and the Mark was known. In the protected stone walls of Slytherin these were whispers of a nameless fear; but, face to face with him, we were promised power, prestige, honor—the chance to change the face of the wizarding world." Snape's black eyes darted to her, piercing. "I have no doubt you heard much the same words yourself."

She nodded, her mouth going dry to remember.

"At that time, I licked up every damned word that fell from his lips. I wanted those things: I wanted to get things as easily as some Gryffindor Quidditch star. I wanted to be able to teach people like James Potter and his friends that I had power too: that, even without a throng of followers, I was a force to be reckoned with. So I joined the Dark Lord, and I took the Mark with relish." His voice was growing fierce again, but this time, it was harsher—directed at himself. "I climbed the ranks quickly—climbed in ways I won't ever speak of: only Dumbledore knows the full horror of it all, and even he will never really know. I will tell you nothing of the years between except that, had you met me then, you would not have recognized me. I was lean and hungry and the most despicable of men."

His fist was balled tightly now, and, for a moment, Lili feared he might actually physically strike at himself. She wondered to herself if he ever had. Quivering, she laid a hand out and touched his flexing and corded arm. He pulled away, but more gently this time, his lips white as chalk. "No, please, Miss Lee, let me finish."

She wondered why he had switched back to her last name but decided not to press it.

He seemed to calm a bit, sitting back and letting his hand fall loosely across the edge of the desk. "And then, almost twenty years ago, something quite odd happened. Lily Evans—now Potter—came back into my life. Not in person, of course, but her name popped up quite suddenly one night, in the midst of all those hoods and black. The Dark Lord wanted Lily and James Potter. He wanted everyone to be listening for where they might be hiding. Everyone was to be seeking them—in every way possible. I had no idea what he might want with them—especially with her; but I knew it couldn't be pleasant. The thought brought back so many memories, and, more importantly, it brought back a part of who I had been. Suddenly, I began to look at what I was doing. I couldn't sleep. I pictured what they might do when they found her."

"But why did I care, I would tell myself, trying to shake it off. What did some stupid Gryffindor Mudblood matter to me? I was successful; I was powerful. If she had ended up on the wrong side, why should I care?"

He sighed. "But I cared because she had once cared. I cared because that stupid Gryffindor had, so long ago, cared enough to want to stand up for me. The thought tormented me and then, one night, the memory brought back enough of my former self that I was determined to do it, to turn myself in. Somehow, however, I ended up back here. Back at Hogwarts, standing in the Entrance Hall, dripping from rain and well, to be honest, crying."

"I don't know exactly what made me come here or at what point I decided that this was my destination," he said shaking his head, mouth stretching across his face in a flat-lipped frown. "I can only suppose it was my natural cowardice: too scared to really turn myself in but too determined not to remain where I was. So, I stood in the Entrance Hall until Minerva McGonagall found me and led me up to Dumbledore. And there I poured out my story, after which, well, suffice it to say, it ended in much the same way yours did, though after much graver discussions, I should think. I was given the same options. I chose the only one I could: the most dangerous and most sure to get me killed. For what reason did I deserve to live? And, if I would be allowed to live—if I was to be spared Azkaban—I had to have something, some punishment. So I decided to sacrifice my life in the longest and most frightening way. And I did. I did for almost two years before he finally found Lily and James Potter. And I have done my best ever since then: turning in those I could. Waiting: knowing the Dark Lord would return. I would have gone back to it, too, if I could."

Lili furled her brow, sitting up. "What do you mean 'would have'?" She had been under the impression that Snape was still acting as an informant—why else would he have been allowed in the Death Eater meeting? Why else would Malfoy have invited him to the Manor?

Snape breathed out, seeming exhausted. "Well, you see, when the Dark Lord returned, oh, about three years ago, he got wind of my working here. Apparently he also heard some rumors about my allegiance to Dumbledore. I went to him. He confronted me, asking me if it was true. Needless to say, I told him it wasn't. I tried to convince him that it was an advantage, my working at Hogwarts, so close to Dumbledore and to—Harry Potter. And my cruelty to my students and continued allegiance to Slytherin through all those years paid off. It gave the perfect illusion that I had not changed my loyalties or my ways. He did not kill me, but my days as one of the closest to him were over." His fingers tapped at the table for a moment, and he considered this. "I am still a Death Eater, but I am no longer trusted as I once was. Anything truly important is discussed without me. I pass the Dark Lord small tidbits of information—apocryphal of course—so he tolerates me. None of my former friends trust me either: once again I've been pushed to the outside and tolerated for my utility."

Lili nodded. "That's why Malfoy warned me not to trust you. He seemed to think I oughtn't be talking to you." Her heart sank, realizing that, if she did accept this option—

Snape interrupted the thought. "Yes, I'd imagine he'd warn you. And that's the reason I've been—somewhat less than cordial with you." He met her eyes with a strong severity, one he had earlier seemed too tired to muster. "Lili, in your position, to seem too close to me would be—a mistake. The eyes of Voldemort are tireless and always watching."

But she had already understood this, and was swallowing the sobs that twisted in her throat. She bit her bottom lip hard, nodding.

"The game I'm playing now, Lili, is much more dangerous than ever before." The low, conspiratorial whisper barely seemed strong enough to reach her ears. "I am no longer trusted, but I have managed to turn one of those who is. She reports to me, and I to the Ministry and Dumbledore. It is a thin rope to walk: I must be sure not to incriminate her enough for the Dark Lord to suspect." He paused, as if considering whether to say the next bit. "Junia Bell is currently playing the very game which you now consider taking up."

Lili's mind raced, and she remembered the name, matching it with a face: the dark-skinned woman from New Year's Eve. She and Snape had spoken; rather scathingly, if memory served. She looked up at Snape in wonder. Now she understood how good he was—and indeed how good that woman had been. No one could have suspected. She also understood how Snape had known so quickly about what happened after he left that night. She felt blood heating beneath her skin. "How—how can I do it? I don't think I could ever pretend that way; I don't think I want to." She wondered what she would have done in that situation, sitting across from Snape, watched. Well, she didn't have to wonder. She had gone red that night, and there had been very little indeed at stake, at least, comparatively. "I don't think I can do something so…difficult."

Snape breathed in deeply, his eyes drifting over her and then turning away towards the dark corners of the dungeons. "It is very difficult—and dangerous. You can't imagine the tortures Voldemort reserves for traitors: I've seen them." He sighed. "And felt them."

There was a short quiet, and Lili felt her stomach churn. Snape was fingering his left arm again, eyes fixed far away, glints of torchlight tossing across them almost as fiercely as her insides tumbled in her. "But it's more than just that danger. There's always danger from the Ministry as well. There were many at the Ministry who wanted to see me hanged—rightly so. And they never stopped insisting that I be dragged to court or Azkaban, no matter how many vital pieces of information I passed along." He paused. "And then, of course, well—it's an exceedingly lonely place, Lili. I could never attach myself to anyone, in case I was found out. Besides, even if I could have, who would have understood? Who could I have talked with and not felt as if I was deceiving them horribly? I simply—lost the ability to—"

"To lead a normal life," Lili said, her voice barely able to wrench itself through the tight, dryness of her throat. "Yes, I think I've already lost that. Ever since I came back from Malfoy Manor—I can't go back to being the way I was. I've tried. But—" She stopped, her words beginning to shake with the sobs she fought down so desperately.

Snape gave her a nod that told her he understood. "Miss Lee—" Once again he had returned to the less familiar form of address. "I don't think you should do this. I have already told Headmaster Dumbledore that, if you run, I will do my best to make sure Voldemort does not pursue you. I spoke to Malfoy after I spoke to you on New Year's Day. I pretended you had told me nothing, but did say that I thought you were not really cut out to do anything of any importance; that you simply didn't have a strong enough constitution for it. If you ran now, this would confirm what I said. You might have a chance of slipping away without seeming much of a loss or an out-and-out traitor. It's certainly the best way for you to get out of this alive." His eyes met hers, questioning.

She listened to every word he said, heart torn between joy and reluctance. She couldn't believe he'd had the forethought to do that: --she was lucky. Perhaps, with him to downplay her importance, she could get far enough away that Voldemort would give up, thinking her not worth the effort. Images of Zhong Mo Xue filled her mind, and her lips tingled with the unfamiliar feeling of a smile. She remembered the thick, sweeping red rafters; the classrooms wound in squares; the delicate feel of the bamboo chopsticks in her hand. And her friends. Perhaps with them she could go back to normal; she could sink back into that normal life and forget—eventually—about all this. To be back home seemed the most pleasant thing imaginable, and, all at once, blood pounding, she felt happier than she had in many weeks.

But somewhere, deep in the pit of her heart, she understood something else.

She could run to China. Perhaps he wouldn't pursue her. Perhaps he'd even forget. But, a war was coming: everyone in the wizarding world knew it. Lines were being drawn, the pieces were lining up on both sides of the board. And, if the war was lost to that Black King, hiding in China would do no good. His shadow would spread there, as it spread everywhere—and no one would escape.

"No." Her voice was the firmest it had been since she had told her father she would not transfer out of Slytherin.

Snape sat back, face expressionless. "No?"

She shook her head, fingers wound tightly in her lap. "No. I won't run. I won't and I can't."

He looked at her but said nothing.

She leaned forward, fear and uncertainty tingling through her veins, heart hammering against her stomach. "I can't just turn my back, not when I'm in a position which could possibly prove a great advantage to everyone—"

"Everyone but you, Lili," Snape reminded her gently.

She pressed her lips together, her heart lurching as he said this. The idea was terrifying her. She was imagining the best and worst possible scenarios, her mind rushing in blurs of adrenalin. She tried to still herself enough to think clearly. "But, I've put myself into this position: I've made a lot of bad choices. This won't be one of them." She realized that her hands were laced so fiercely that the knuckles were as white as her breath. She released them, feeling her muscles ache from the tension. "I may be carrying the mark of a villain, but I'll do my best to play the hero now, if I can; even if no one will ever know."

Snape's gaunt body leaned forward, the chair squeaking softly. "I'll know, Lili," he whispered, meeting her eyes and holding them in his. Lili understood suddenly that this was far more intimate than if he had reached for her hand. The dark weight of his gaze had been replaced with a soft love: she could feel those black eyes wrapping around her, comforting her in the way only an embrace might have surpassed. She watched him, remembering all at once the times they had spent together—how good he'd been to her. She traced across the contours of his sallow face with her own eyes; hooked nose, greasy skin, thin, pale lips that now, though still drawn in a frown, hinting at a subtle sincerity.

Love is God's mystery and should be hidden from other people's eyes, no matter what happens, she heard him whispering from somewhere deep in the recesses of her memory.

But he had revealed it to her, fully, and she felt the drumming of the blood in her veins slow. He was showing her the most gentle and tender part of himself—he was going to be there to help her. Tears burned in her eyes.

"Professor—" Her voice was soft but burned with such earnestness that Snape seemed to hold his breath for a moment to listen. "Thank you. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I could never—I would never have survived this if it hadn't been for you. I think I might have gotten myself killed on Malfoy Manor. I—I don't know how to thank you, sir."

He straightened, breaking from her eyes and sitting straight and square, once again the Professor at his desk. "Just don't get yourself killed, Miss Lee," he said, turning his head until his face was silhouetted against a distant patch of torchlight. "That will be the only thanks I require." He was silent and seemed to think for a few minutes before adding, "It's a dangerous game we play; you'll have to learn some hard lessons—you're family for one. They'll never know. They'll think you've turned for good."

Lili nodded. She'd already considered this and was doing her best to push the idea from her mind.

"And, of course, we cannot see each other after you graduate," he said, his silhouette turning towards her, shadows dripping across his face. "Nor can you see any but your friends in Slytherin. Nor can you make any close friends." He said this wistfully, and Lili realized as he spoke that he must be horribly lonely.

All she could do was nod.

"But, I will help you when I can," he sighed, turning away from her and facing the essays stacked before him. They sat inert, seeming bleached and meaningless. "And, in emergencies, you can always contact me through the Ministry." He sneered, and his face looked oddly contorted in the torchlight. "But you'll find news travels far faster through the Circle, of course."

Lili swallowed, feeling a solid mass of sorrow rising in her throat.

"Until then, we can continue having after-hours Potions—and I can teach you all you need to know about this game you're playing," he said, picking up the quill again, letting his sad, heavy eyes fall back on the pages before him. "I will be sure you graduate with enough know-how to never need anyone but yourself."

She tried to ignore the sadness of those words. "Thank you again, Professor," she said; this was paltry thanks.

"Don't mention it, Miss Lee. Now, please, it is quite late, and I must get these graded before tomorrow." He was scrawling once again, but his eyes were fixed and shadowed, and Lili could tell his thoughts were not with those essays about—she glanced over his shoulder—ingredients of common healing potions, but lost in the past: far and deep in the shadows of the past. She stood, her chair scratching against the floor loudly.

Her legs tingled and felt weak, but she steeled them, keeping her eyes on Snape. His hair was lank, tapering down about his face, only his hooked nose protruding past the black curtain. His hands wrapped around the quill, loose and delicate, and watching him, she felt her pulse quicken. No words, she told herself. No words to offer him, to express her gratitude.

And then, suddenly, she found some.

"Professor?"

"Yes, Miss Lee?" The name 'Lili' had once again disappeared, being far too painful and personal for the cold of the dungeon air.

"I know you're a hero, too, even if no one else ever will." And she did what she knew he wouldn't ever bring himself to do again. She bent down and embraced him, trying hard not to seem too awkward or pitiful.

His body remained rigid beneath her arms. She felt her heart burst, but, for the first time since Malfoy Manor, it was not from sorrow but relief. Tears burned, and, finally winning the battle, rolled down her cheeks. Love is God's mystery and should be hidden from other people's eyes, no matter what happens.

Perhaps this was true, she mused, taking in the deep, spicy scents of his hair; but there was no one else watching now.

Snape cleared his throat softly, disentangling himself from her arms.

She stood, and met his eyes. They were gleaming, but now from a glittering mixture of torchlight and tears. He was swallowing, doing his best to banish them.

"Thank you, Professor Snape," she whispered, keeping his eyes in hers as best she could. The sight of his pale face bubbled slightly through the tears.

He looked at her, for a moment, a man completely stunned; but, quickly, finding the tears dried in his eyes, he turned back to his papers, and nodded. "Goodnight, Miss Lee."

It was as close to a 'thank you' as Severus Snape ever got.

Wiping at her eyes, Lili turned and, steeling her legs once again, walked out the door.

The halls of Hogwarts were dark—darker than they had been that first night, when she had met him and he had led her through the shadows into Slytherin. They had sat heavy upon her then, a weight not easily or gracefully borne.

She stepped into them now, ready to bear whatever might lie ahead.