Holy crap on a cracker! Is this for real? An update? Wow. So after five years I've finally gotten around to picking this story back up. That's longer than Snape was supposed to be in jail! Hope everyone enjoys!

Chapter Seven: Return

For several moments of startled eternity, utter silence reigned over the basement-kitchen of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place. No one moved or even seemed to breathe. All eyes were riveted on the tall black figure standing in the hearth. Snape took a small amount of pleasure in the instinctual flash of fear he saw go through the youngest Weasley boy's eyes at his appearance. Even though he was no longer his student and at least nineteen years old by now, Snape was glad to see that the boy still had the presence of mind to fear him even after all these years. Trying not to be too obvious about it, the boy discreetly slunk behind Harry as if to use the other boy as a human shield against the Potion Master's intimidating presence.

The other Order members seemed no less startled by Snape's appearance and stared at him in open disbelief. Snape returned their stares with a dark glower.

"Severus…" Dumbledore whispered as though too stunned to immediately say anything else. His voice sounded unnaturally strained. Unbidden tears appeared in the corners of the old headmaster's eyes and gleamed wetly in the flickering light of the fire. "You came back…" As though in a daze Dumbledore took a step towards him, his hands held out as though to pull the estranged Potion Master into a hug.

Snape could not deny the surge of revulsion that went through him at the misty gleam of happiness and relief in the older man's eyes, and immediately took a step backwards out of Dumbledore's reach. Firelight from the hearth cast his still prison-haunted face into deep shadows, making his sneer of resentment somehow even more menacing and dark. Four years of remembered hurt, hatred and betrayal flared to life in his heart. "Do not touch me," he hissed with unbridled venom. He retreated several feet into one of the room's darker corners to put more distance between himself and Dumbledore and glared at the old headmaster with unveiled contempt. Wreathed in shadows he crossed his arms across his narrow chest, hugging the darkness and his heavy black cloak around him like a shield. "Just because I returned does not mean that I have forgiven you in any way for what you've done." Baleful black eyes glared at Dumbledore from out of the pervading gloom.

Dumbledore froze in the middle of the room at Snape's harsh rebuke. The headmaster's expression was anguished as though he'd just had a knife driven through his heart. The immediate happiness of seeing the estranged Potions Master was snuffed from his twinkling blue eyes as quickly as a Nox spell extinguishing a flame.

Despite his simmering resentment for the old man, Snape felt a small pang of guilt at the sight of arguably the greatest wizard of their times reduced to such a pitiful state of disappointment. The feeling, however, was not long lived.

"Why did you come back, Snape?" Lupin asked from the other side of the room, breaking the awkward standoff between the two former colleagues and comrades. "If you haven't forgiven Dumbledore for his mistake, why have you come back here?"

Snape shifted his black gaze from Dumbledore to the werewolf. "As I already said, I've returned to aide the Order of the Phoenix in its fight against the Dark Lord."

"So you thought about what I said?" Sirius said from the table.

Snape sneered at his former enemy with restrained disdain. "Despite my own disbelief for such a thing being possible, you were rather insightful about several things, Black, and I have decided to take your advice to heart. You were right: I am not helping anyone - least of all myself - by secluding myself away from the world. I want to see the Dark Lord defeated and this war finally brought to an end. In whatever way I can, I wish to be a part of the resistance again. I was part of this war when it started six years ago, and I wish to be a part of it when it ends whether in victory or defeat. Although I was betrayed by the ones I was trying to help I will return and give what assistance I can, although under several conditions."

"What conditions are those, Severus?" Dumbledore asked in a hollow voice. His eyes swam with lingering hurt and disappointment, although he did his best to hide his sorrow.

Snape's eyes narrowed, his scowl deepening as he turned to once more regard Dumbledore. "First: that I will not be contacted by anyone in the Order of the Phoenix unless the information being discussed strictly has to do with Order business. I want no more-" he glanced at Sirius with a sharp look "-uninvited social calls. Second: that I will not be asked to directly engage in any fights with the Dark Lord or any of his followers. I feel I have sacrificed enough for this cause already without being expected to lay down my life in battle. My contributions to the war effort will be strictly relegated to backline support. If either of these stipulations are unacceptable or ever infringed upon in the future, then I will immediately retract my offer of service and leave, never to return. Are those terms agreeable?"

"They are," Dumbledore affirmed with a nod. He gazed at Snape longingly like a parent staring at an estranged child who'd drifted too far away to ever be physically or emotionally reached again. "Thank you for coming back to us, even if you can never bring yourself to forgive me or anyone else for your incarceration. You have every right to hold a grudge against me although in time I hope I can prove myself worthy of your trust again."

"Understand this, Dumbledore," Snape hissed from the safety of the room's shadows. "I did not come back for you or anyone else in the Order. I am doing this for me so that once this war is over I might have closure to the horrors I was forced to endure and maybe even some small measure of peace. You were never a factor in my decision to return. Nor can anything you do ever regain my trust in you. I know how you play the game now and I will not naively be your pawn again. While helping the Order, the less interactions I have with you the better. So it would benefit you to refrain from seeking out my company unless it is strictly for Order business."

Dumbledore's face fell as he solemnly nodded his head. "I understand," he murmured in a hollow voice. There was no longer ever the faintest hint of a twinkle in his eyes.

His mission now complete, Snape stiffly nodded and in a swirl of long black robes turned back towards the fireplace. "I have reopened my floo connection to Grimmauld Place as well as opened the wards to my residence to allow messenger owls in and out. Please send all Order communications by either of these two ways." Gliding towards the hearth like a tall black wraith, the ex-Potions Master took a handful of floo powder from the canister on the ledge and was just about to throw it into the fire when a meek voice called out behind him.

"Severus, would you like me to make you a spot of something to eat before you leave?" It was Molly Weasley. The red-haired matriarch looked Snape's withered frame up and down like a worried mother inspecting one of her own children. Even in his billowing black robes the Potions Master looked emaciated and sick. He'd never been particularly robust in health or appearance even before his stay in Azkaban, and the last four years spent in the company of Dementors had not helped in any way. "You look like you could benefit from a good hot meal."

Snape's answering sneer was consciously toned down to a mild curl of his lips. Despite his general disillusionment towards the Order, he held no real ill will towards the plump homemaker. She was just too kind and innocent in her motherly ways to hold much of a grudge against her. "My house elf is overseeing the restoration of my health," he assured her with a formal dip of his head. "Now if you will excuse me…" Turning back to the hearth, Snape raised the handful of floo powder over the flames. But just as he was about to throw it in and take his leave, an anguished scream of pain pierced the air behind him.

Harry Potter - who'd just spent the entire time Snape discussed the terms of his return to the Order in silence - was suddenly screaming as though he were in the midst of being tortured and clutching his forehead with both hands. Blindly writhing in agony, the boy fell out of his chair onto the hard stone floor. His body wildly thrashed back and forth against the ground, his spine bending backwards as though the teen was trying to fold himself in half. His screams of pain were breathless and seemed to come from the very center of his being.

"No! Not again!" Sirius wailed as he dropped down onto his knees beside his godson. He tried to pull Harry into his arms to calm him, but the boy just screamed louder and violently thrashed out of his hold.

"Quick!" Lupin cried as everyone jumped back from the screaming teen. "Move everything out of the way so he doesn't hurt himself on something." Chairs and the main dining table were all scooted out of the way by a quickly incanted spell. Together, Mr. Weasley, Sirius and Lupin all stooped down beside the convulsing boy to try and still his violent thrashing.

"Oh Merlin," Molly Weasley moaned with tears in her eyes. "Please don't let this attack be any worst than the last one. I don't think the poor boy can survive another one like that…"

Hermione and Ron huddled together off to the side, helplessly watching their best friend scream and writhe on the floor. The Granger girl looked even closer to tears than Mrs. Weasley did.

Snape stared in startled horror. He turned to Dumbledore who had yet to make any move go near the boy or aide him in any way. "What's going on?" he demanded.

The old headmaster's eyes were filled with distress. "It's Voldemort. Over the last few years he's begun to attack Harry with increasing frequency through his scar. The last time he mentally attacked Harry, he was unconscious for almost two days afterwards." Utter helplessness tainted his voice. "There's nothing we can do to stop it, least of all me."

Without even a moment's hesitation to question his own sanity, Snape swept across the room towards the howling teen. "Move!" he roared at the three men holding Harry down as he came up to them. He roughly pushed Lupin out of the way when the werewolf did not comply fast enough. Stooping down beside Harry, the ex-Potions Master wrapped his spidery hands around either side of the boy's face and pinned his head down against the ground. The boy's scar was a violent shade of red. Snape could actually feel heat radiating off it like he was holding his hand up to an open stove. Keeping the boy's head still, the Potions Master used his thumbs to peel Harry's eyelids up so that he was staring into the boy's green eyes. There was no sign of awareness in the boy's gaze. Only unrelenting, soul-numbing pain.

Snape leaned down closer, staring deeply into Harry's eyes. There was a small pause as Snape forced himself to ignore Harry's ear-piercing howls of agony and clear his mind of all conscious thought. Suddenly he was falling away from himself into the boy's mind like a swimmer diving into a deep pool of black water. The first thing he was aware of upon delving into Harry's mind was pain. Pure, unrelenting, merciless, searing PAIN. The boy's mind was in tatters. Like a three-dimensional piece of fabric, Harry's mind was being torn apart in a thousand different directions at once. Snape had never seen or felt anything like it before. Mental attacks by a skilled Occlumen like the Dark Lord on another mind with no mental defenses like Potter's were dangerous enough. But a mental attack of this ferocity could easily destroy the victim's mind if not leave him completely insane by the end of it. If the boy was to survive this assault he had to act quickly.

Stretching out his mental senses, Snape easily detected the invading force wrecking havoc on the teenager's mind. Even as an incorporeal, transcendent presence of nothing more than pure thought, the Potions Master recognized the invading darkness and cold of the third presence in Harry's mind.

Voldemort…

It was surprisingly easy to think the Dark Lord's name in the confines of his least favorite student's mind than say it out loud in the corporeal world.

Like a suffocating cloud of darkness, Voldemort's presence invaded the boy's mind and tore at it with malicious intent, as though trying to shred every last trace of Harry's humanity apart with razor sharp talons of psychological pain. Snape suddenly realized the Dark Lord did not mean to simply injury the boy or wear down his mental defenses, but to completely destroy his mind. This was not merely an attack on Potter, but rather the final assault on the only one who'd ever escaped his killing curse. He wanted to shatter the boy into a hundred million pieces mind, heart and soul. He had to stop this or there would be nothing left of the boy when he returned to his own mind.

Gathering all his mental strength together, Snape sent a powerful command rippling through Harry's mind like a Quidditch announcer employing a Sonorous spell. Stop! The poisonous third presence in Harry's mind paused in its attack and refocused its attention on Snape as though only now realizing his presence there. Snape felt a wave of surprise radiate off the invading cloud of darkness. Be gone! he shouted and pushed every ounce of mental strength he had at the Dark Lord's presence.

Blinding white light exploded through Harry's mind. Snape felt the third presence shriek and recoil from him in angry pain. Its hold on the boy's mind loosened. Snape could actually feel Voldemort's anger radiating across his and Harry's mental bond. Gathering his strength, Snape sent another wave of dazzling white light at the Dark Lord's presence. With a final shriek of murderous rage the poisonous darkness retreated from Harry's mind. Snape lingered for several moments in the emptiness of Harry's mind just to be sure the Dark Lord would not try to return. Around him, he felt the torn edges of Harry's mind shudder and heave like a wounded animal shivering in the wake of a violent assault. But the Dark Lord did not return.

Like waking out of a deep sleep, Snape came back to himself with a small jolt. Beside him, Harry lay unconscious on the floor - his body now motionless and still. Shaking his head to rid itself of the lingering chill of his encounter with the Dark Lord, Snape shakily removed his hands from Harry's head. As he did so, the teenager gave a murmured groan. Dazed green eyes drifted open and groggily looked around.

"Wha- what happened?" Harry asked. His voice was raw from the last few minutes of tortured screaming. Weakly, he reached up and rubbed his scar. It was no longer an angry red like it'd been when Voldemort was channeling himself through it, but its edges still burned a painful looking pink.

Utter silence answered him. Every person gathered there in the Black family basement was too busy staring at the former Potions Master in shock.

"You did it. You stopped Voldemort's attack," Sirius muttered as if in a daze. He stared at his childhood enemy in what could have almost been described as reverent awe. "No one's ever been able to do that. Not even Dumbledore. How'd you do it?"

Snape, however, did not answer, and instead pushed himself back to his feet and straightened his robes. With a dark glare he turned to Dumbledore standing on the edge of the wall of people that'd gathered around him and Harry during Voldemort's assault.

"Why haven't you taught this boy Occlumency?" he demanded with whip-like harshness. "His mind is like an unlocked house to the Dark Lord's invasion. He has absolutely no mental defenses. If I hadn't interceded just now the Dark Lord would most likely have destroyed every shred of mental facilities Potter possesses. Are you trying to make him an easy target for the Dark Lord?"

"I couldn't," Dumbledore admitted in a pained voice. "I tried to teach him years ago, but his connection with Voldemort makes him too sensitive to my presence. Every time I try to teach Harry how to shield his mind, Voldemort tries to possess him."

Behind Snape, Sirius was trying to help Harry sit. The boy still seemed too dazed from Voldemort's assault to give much assistance in the matter. As limp as a rag doll, he passively let his godfather and Lupin pull him partway off the ground.

The former Potions Master sneered at Dumbledore in disgust. "How do you plan to win this war if you cannot even protect our greatest asset?" he demanded with a sweeping gesture towards the stunned teen on the floor. "I managed to drive the Dark Lord from his mind this time, but I doubt I will be able to do so again. The Dark Lord knows there is another Occlumens watching over him now and will attack next time with even more force - force that I probably will not be able to fight. I do not delude myself in thinking that I can take on the Dark Lord in full out mental battle. The boy needs to learn Occlumency himself. If he does not, I have no doubt the Dark Lord will kill him the next time he attacks him through their bond."

"But who's going to teach him?" Lupin asked. "Dumbledore can't even look Harry in the eyes without Voldemort trying to possess him." He and Sirius had finally managed to prod Harry into a sitting position with him propped against his godfather's shoulder. The boy still didn't seem ready to take on the task of standing just yet, and woozily swayed from side to side where he sat. More than likely he was going to have a raging headache for the next day or two.

Snape heaved a heavy sigh of resignation. "I will teach the boy."

More than a few stared at the former Potions Master in unveiled shock.

"You'll actually do that?" Sirius said. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why?"

Glancing at Harry who still seemed too dazed to be following the flow of conversation, Snape scowled. "Potter needs mental defenses of his own if there is to be any hope of him someday facing the Dark Lord on the battlefield. He will not survive that long, however, if steps are not taken to fortify his mind against the Dark Lord's attacks. And soon. Since I am the only one here qualified and-" he cast Dumbledore a condescending glare "- capable of doing so, I will take on the burden of teaching him myself."

"When do we start?" Harry surprised Snape by weakly saying from the floor. Apparently the boy had been following the conversation better than Snape had thought. Although he looked no better than the living image of a wrung out wet rag, a dim light shined in the boy's eyes. A light of determination and desperate, last ditch hope.

Snape looked Harry's haggard form up and down with calculating eyes. "Tomorrow," he curtly replied. "The sooner you grasp the concept of Occlumency, the better. You are nothing but a sitting target here without some way of protecting yourself from the Dark Lord's attacks."

Harry nodded, almost thankfully. If Snape had been looking more carefully, he might have seen that same gratefulness mirrored in Sirius, Dumbledore and everyone else's gaze. But he did not share the teen's optimism. Because in helping the boy guard himself against Voldemort's attacks, he couldn't help but feel he was somehow allowing himself to be dragged back down into the Order's - and by association Dumbledore's - full control…


Voldemort came back to himself with a violent jerk. His high backed throne shuddered from the motion. Breathing heavily, the Dark Lord gripped the armrests of his chair. Candles burned at several points around the perimeter of his private rooms in his secret stronghold, but darkness still pervaded the air.

What happened? One minute he was tearing the Boy-Who-Lived's mind apart, relishing every exquisite scream of pain from the boy through their mental connection, when suddenly another presence had appeared and driven him from the boy's mind. It had felt familiar, but it hadn't been Dumbledore. He'd seen to it that Dumbledore no longer even attempted to come near Harry anymore, let alone try to enter his mind and teach him Occlumency. Plus this presence hadn't felt as pure as Dumbledore's. Dumbledore's presence in a mental battle was like trying to go up against a living wall of pure white energy. But this presence… this presence had felt darker. It had fought him back with light, yes. But around its edges he had felt the taint of shadows and… anger. Whoever had fought him had not been Dumbledore. But then who? There were very few Occlumens left in wizarding England since the start of the second war, and even fewer who were as skilled in Occlumency as this person had been. The only Occlumens Voldemort knew of who possessed that level of skill were Dumbledore and…

The Dark Lord stiffened with realization.

Snape.

Of course. His former spy. He'd almost forgotten about the dour Potions Master over the last few years. No doubt they'd freed him from Azkaban after discovering his true spy working inside Dumbledore's Order.

The Dark Lord slowly leaned back in his chair. How very interesting… So it seemed Snape had survived his years amongst the Dementors with most if not all of his mental facilities still intact, and had against all odds gone back to fight for those who'd originally put him in prison. That might prove to be a problem. The snarky man had been a thorn in Voldemort's side before and still seemed intent on undermining his plans even now.

Well, that couldn't be allowed to happen. Not when he was so close to finally destroying what little resistance still remained and taking full control of the Ministry, and with it, all of England. The end of the war was within in his grasp. And no one - especially not his treacherous ex-spy! - was going to ruin that.

Voldemort leaned back in his chair with a snaky grin as a dark plan began to form in his head.

He was just going to have to make sure Snape was permanently removed from the equation before he could prove himself a threat to Voldemort's final push for total domination…

To be continued…

So a nice short chapter to get everyone back into the groove of the story. I just hope people are still interested in this fic. Please review if you'd like to see me continue!

Signing out,
LAXgirl