Story Summary:

1997: Having risen in the ranks of the Death Eaters and having acquired more responsibilities in the Order of the Phoenix, Severus Snape has yet again been passed over for the position of DADA instructor for another questionable figure, and is well on his way to having a breakdown. Draco Malfoy, ostracized by his fellow Slytherins, looks for confidence elsewhere. And Neville Longbottom might just push Harry Potter out of the spotlight.

Chapter I

The Sixteenth Year

The noises of the harbor die, the smoke is petrified

Against the thick but vacant, fading light, and shadows slide

From under stone and iron, darkest now. The last birds glide...

"As if you would find him anywhere else, Martha." Flitwick pointed across the lake to the lone figure sitting cross-legged on the stone bench, his head in a book. The professor levitated to match their heights, revealing the smug smile he enjoyed wearing.

"Well, I haven't stayed here at Hogwarts over the holidays in several years," Martha huffed. "I did not know Severus would still follow the same routine." A meadowlark tweeted its way to her shoulder. Madam Sprout did not seem to notice. Such things were a common occurrence. Wild creatures were drawn to the woman, mostly due to the fact she smelled like earth and greens.

"Snape is a creature of routine." Flitwick tweeted at the bird and gently stoked its feathers. After a pause he added with a disquieted air, "I believe it is the only way he can manage his chaos."

Distilled from some sad, endless, sordid period of time,

As from the language of disease might come a consummant rhyme;

It tries to impose its values on the port and on the lime---

The droppings that by chance and from an uncontrollable

And savage life have formed a patina upon the skull;

Abandoned, have blurred a bodied vision once thought spare but full---

Martha sighed heavily as both stared across the lake to the potions master. "I admire his stamina. Anyone else would have been obliterated long ago or gone mad! I hope the war will be over soon, for his sake at least."

"Yes, Martha, who knows how much more he can take?" The lark sang through the silence between them until the tiny professor spoke again. "Let us leave him be. If his appetite demands it he will come to supper." Martha nodded and brushed the lark off her shoulder as both professors returned to the dining hall.

As though there dominated this sea's threshold and this night

Not the raised hooves, the thick snake neck, the profile, and the might,

The wrought, eternal bronze, the dead protagonist, the fight...

Having spotted a new audience across the lake, the lark flew to the lonesome creature on the bench. It tweeted around Severus' head, begging for attention. It circled several more times, its chirping growing incessantly louder at each turn until it reached a fevered shrill before giving up and landing on the edge of the bench.

"Are you daft or simply incompetent?" Severus asked, finally acknowledging the bird.

The bird cocked its head and blinked several times, as if unsure of the man's point. Severus finally took his nose out of his book and brought his attention to the bird beside him.

"You are a meadow lark," Snape explained to the little bird. "Larks are traditionally the song birds of the morning. As you can see," he said, gesturing to the sky, "it is sunset, time for the nightingales to sing the song of dusk." Severus laid a finger near the bird and it perched upon it.

"If you had come earlier I would have sung with you." Severus tapped his classical guitar. "I was in the mood for a duet."

He brought the little lark close to his face and caressed its soft feathers. The bird in turn nipped at his nose, bringing a quiet chuckle forth from Severus. "I have something far better tasting, young one." With his free hand, Severus rifled through the satchel at his side and retrieved a half eaten biscuit. With his thumb he crushed it in his palm, and then he invited the lark to the treat. The lark fluttered its wings and in two or three flaps landed at the heel of the man's palm and began pecking excitedly at the meal.

With the bird eating out of the palm of his hand, Severus returned his attention to the book at his lap. It was well worn with age and use. The spine had fallen away long ago and the corners were very brittle, barely holding the leaves together. Severus refrained from putting preservation charms on the books from his personal library, for he rather liked the feel of the authenticity of their age. The book he read from now was old, but new compared to the rest of his collection, and one he was drawn to around this time of the year. He had accumulated quite a collection over the years, the bulk of which were works of the ancients, still in original form, some which had the distinct quality of imminent disintegration. This 'vice' of his was a secret kept well-hidden from fellow Death Eaters, and especially from Voldemort. In fact, barely a handful of people knew it.

But that unmoving, pale but living shape that drops no tears,

Ridiculous and haunting, which each epoch reappears,

And is what history is not. O love, O human fears!

Dumbledore stood in the shadows awaiting Snape's arrival from his meditation at the lake. Lamppost light from the immediate vicinity of the School reflected off the summer dress of Severus, and produced an almost angelic silhouette of the man against the darkness. A breeze, billowing through the shirt loosely draped upon him, signaled the advent of the autumnal season. He entered through the greenhouse doors, where the Headmaster stepped out from his hiding place to greet him.

"We missed you at the faculty dinner, Severus." The potions master had not expected to be ambushed by a six and a half foot tall wrinkly wizard, but he pretended not to be startled. Dumbledore pretended not to notice that he was. The Headmaster approached Snape slowly, folding his hands behind his back as he continued to speak. "I gladly tell you that your absence was the discussion of choice, a topic of great concern, mind you, until of course our eyes and stomachs were distracted by the marvelous feast appearing before us."

"Well, it is nice to know how easily I can be forgotten." Severus adjusted the straps of his guitar and satchel around his shoulder and prepared to move on.

"Now, now, it was not meant that way." How typical of Snape, nipping back against any sting to his pride. This always amused Dumbledore, because Snape delivered his remarks so dryly that he never was quite sure if he was joking or not. Just a few more musings and he would unlock the mystery of Severus' mood. "Do not pretend to think that if you indeed were in need of assistance we would not drop everything to come to your aid." Dumbledore, finally entering Snape's personal space, patted the man's shoulder affectionately. "Even if fresh ham glazed with royal jelly and pumpkin-elderberry biscuits were being served." The Headmaster licked his lips at the thought of it.

Unable to resist his quirky charm, Snape revealed a reluctant smile. He looked up at the absurdly purple Dumbledore. "Must have been quite a feast, Albus."

"Indeed it was!" Dumbledore smiled back at Snape and nodded. He was glad that the man was in a decent mood after all. A smile was hard to come by these days. Dumbledore considered this quite an achievement. The Headmaster continued in his usual jovial tone, "The very definition of Scrumptious. I was in danger of having to be carried out by house elves. However, being headmaster and all, one has to mind one's manners and allow the others to enjoy the meal as well."

"Yes, I am sure Minerva would have petrified you if you had gotten out of hand." The smile peeked out a little more from the corners as Snape pictured Professor McGonagall smugly spouting the Petrificus charm, and Dumbledore frozen, mouth gaping open for an extra large pumpkin-elderberry biscuit.

Dumbledore chuckled, his beard laughing along from his chin. "Thank Merlin for Minerva." He looked his potions master over through half moon glasses, and noted how different Snape looked during the summer holidays. His hair was clean and pulled back, healthy color touched his cheeks, and his attire was that of the whites and khakis of linens instead of the rigid black woolen garments he wore during the school year. He was thankful that Severus allowed himself to relax sometimes, though he wished it could happen more often. Dumbledore made a mental promise to his potions master to allow for a long and leisurely sabbatical after the war was over, perhaps to a place with white sands and golden palm trees or tall junipers and wide fields, miles worth for satisfying rides on horseback. Knowing Severus, however, his dream vacation would be a treacherous hike up the Himalayas with tea biscuits as his only source of nourishment.

Snape shifted his stance; he was growing rather uncomfortable at Dumbledore's long thoughtful gaze upon him. He did not know what the old man was thinking, nor did he want to. He could have been pondering upon a thought he'd had years ago that had just come back a moment ago, for all he knew. But those piercing eyes and silly grin left Snape minding the exit.

Dumbledore realized he might have stared a bit long at him when Snape squirmed beneath his skin. He let out a quiet chuckle and took one last once over. Dumbledore spotted the worn out book in his hands and reached for it. "May I?"

Snape grabbed at the book protectively, but after a moment reluctantly handed it to him. Dumbledore carefully handled the book, considering the worn edges and much read pages. The front cover was not in better shape than the rest, but he could still make out the title despite the fade of its gold etching: The Oxford Book of English Verse 1210-1950. Flipping back through the first of its pages, Dumbledore raised a brow. "I thought you were fond of ancient works."

"I am." Severus cleared his throat, hoping this answer would be enough for the old man. Dumbledore's questioning look told him it was not. With some effort, he explained further. "It was a gift from Zora Thornworthe on my first day as potions professor."

"Ah, Professor Thornworthe." Dumbledore nodded, remembering her fondly. Snape shared many qualities with the woman, but she had been far less up tight. Zora, who had taught at Hogwarts for many years, had been an exceptional potions master. She had been a fifth year student when Dumbledore first came to teach at Hogwarts. He remembered her being a proud Slytherin, somewhat easy on the eyes, and with such a draconian nature that she could knock one off his feet with a single nasty look. Albus had come to miss their heated debates.

"She chose you as her replacement the day you entered Hogwarts, did you know that? She came to me your first year, pointed you out and said 'Observe him closely, he is my ticket to retirement.' You were a scrawny pale shadow of a boy then." Dumbledore chuckled. "Zora groomed you and taught you in All Ways Slytherin. Who knew she would be a Muggle sympathizer? Dangerous when your daughter's a Death Eater. I should think she stood defiant and proud when the Avada Kedavra was unleashed upon her by five of Voldemort's henchmen."

Severus took the book as Dumbledore handed it to him. "I read it to remind me why I became a teacher." Severus clenched his jaw and hoped this prodding into his personal life would be soon over.

"You need reminding, Severus?" Dumbledore thought he was joking and asked with a laugh.

"Always, Headmaster," Severus answered plainly. Dumbledore had only responded with a queer smile, so Snape took this as his cue to move along. The Headmaster allowed him to pass, and then followed him, allowing several moments of silence before speaking again.

"The new school year begins next week. I do not need to tell you to take the rest of your free time to prepare your lessons as usual--but please, Severus." Dumbledore thought Snape's pride would never take him up on his offer, but he continued on anyway. "If you need help, do not be too stubborn to ask. " Since he received no response from him, Dumbledore took Snape's silence as permission to ramble on.

"You have a difficult year ahead of you. An extra level of responsibility, twice the amount of work at least---"

Severus stopped short and whipped his head back at the Headmaster. What was the old man getting at? Snape thought the Headmaster was trying to talk him out of his new task for this term. That would never happen; he'd waited far too long for things to finally go his way. No amount of apprehension and lack of confidence from Dumbledore would turn his head. "When have I ever backed away from extra work and responsibility? My whole life here is more work and responsibility." He squinted at Dumbledore. "I thought you knew me better than that."

Dumbledore stepped closer to him and placed an arm on his shoulder in an attempt to reassure. "Of course I do. In fact, I believe I know you better than you know yourself--that is my job after all." Had he managed to turn his mood so quickly? There was no need for Snape to be cross. He wasn't criticizing him, he was only concerned for his well being.

"Severus, you take on what five or six men have difficulty handling together. I am only holding out a hand if you need it." Albus had thought he would take his sincerity as it was and not read any more into it. He would always be there for his friend, whether Snape thought he needed him or not.

"Yes, sir. I understand." Snape gave up his efforts to defend himself. He gave Dumbledore the benefit of the doubt that he was being earnest in his offer and not implying anything more. Besides, Severus did not want any excuse for his new opportunities to be taken away.

"Good, good, Severus. Another year! I expect many changes to come!" Dumbledore patted his back and allowed Snape to move on alone.

"Another year. Always the same." A smile crept out of the corners of his mouth, for there was at least one change this year -- one great and fantastic -- Professor Snape was also going to be the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

PN: The poem excerpts are from "The Statue" by Roy Fuller.


Chapter 2:

Returning from a grueling summer with the Dursleys, Harry's situation grows worse when he has to spend the entire train ride without his two best friends and in the company of those he'd rather avoid. But can things be looking up for him in the form of one of the new exchange students? Meanwhile, Snape pumps himself up for what he believes is finally due to him.