The Birthday Present

by Excessivelyperky

Disclaimer: All belongs to Rowling and various assigns, including Warner Brothers, Scholastic Books, and so on. Once more, thank you to my betas Snape's Nightie, duj, zafaran, Technomad, and coalboy. Read their stories, too.

By now, many of us have read HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. However, some of us have not. Please do not put spoilers in reviews. Some readers live in countries where the book has not been released yet or have been unable to purchase it. Thank you. I have my own opinion of the book, which is expressed on my LJ, under the name of excessiveperky (they didn't have room for the 'ly').

It's been over two years since I start posting this story. It feels really strange for this to be the last chapter—well, for now. I have been stunned and pleased by the reviews I've gotten. I need to go back to writing stuff I can send out to magazines and such for a while, but I won't abandon you; Widow's Walk is in the planning stages, and it will take a while to write the first draft. I hope you will not be disappointed.

Snape's Nightie, I'm glad you kept me on the straight and narrow with your knowledge of the English (as opposed to the American) tongue. May you find a flat you never have to move from! Duj, without you I would be bereft of commas and many times, accidentally dropped words. Your knowledge of canon is superb (and, at time, slightly irritating. But it was good for me, and for the story, and that's what counts). Zafaran, here's hoping your health improves. Technomad, you have the nastiest mind, and I think you understand I mean this in the nicest possible way. Coalboy, you pointed out things I missed. This story would have been much less fun for the rest of you to read without them. Applause!

The canon saga is over for Severus Snape. Ours is just beginning.

Chapter 85: Expecto Patronum Slytherin

Dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Severus Snape

He stood just inside the Forest, a basket in his hand, while his broom lay against the trunk of a tree. Gathering mushrooms, especially the little green-caps that were so useful in a number of potions, was an excellent excuse to be out here. Fortunately the basket had compartments, which made it easier to keep different species separated. Snape remembered the taste of the ones fried in butter, along with the sliced cucumbers, that had graced the table at Molly's party last night. It would be easy to teach Winky how to prepare them, so she wouldn't be offended by the sight of her master cooking.

The air was cool, but warmer where the sun filtered down through the tattered limbs of the trees. Piles of leaves were limp on the ground where early morning rain had dampened them. He leaned against an aging oak, and ended up slowly sitting down and enjoying the sun on his face. His eyelids began to droop.

They sprang open again when he realized that he was surrounded by the Forest's herd of unicorns. They weren't all white; some had apricot markings, while others were a sandy color. It didn't matter. They symbolized innocence that he had long lost, if indeed he'd ever had it.

Severus forced his breathing to slow, despite several horns now being pointed at his chest and neck. He had never harmed one in his life, and he wasn't going to now. I was much calmer than this in my dream of the garden last night, he thought. If they want payment for their doomed comrade, it is only their right.

He slowly pushed himself up to his feet. The horns remained ready to gut him. "I did not murder any of you," he said softly, holding out his hands to show them empty of wand or weapon. "Yet I gained my life from your companion's blood. I allowed it to heal me, though I knew the price that one of you had paid."

The unicorns closed in. Snape felt the point of one horn push into his right side, though it didn't pierce the cloth or break the skin. "I will not fight," he said. "If you are perceptive as legend says, though, then you should search my heart first. I would rather you did not take my life, for I find it sweeter than I ever have before. Yet I have drunk of your blood, however unwillingly, and I know the penalty." The Potions Master prepared himself for death. He allowed himself to dream of Molly Weasley and her kisses, and last night's dream of her embraces. If I must die, let me do so loving her. For every drop the unicorns take from me, let them feel me burn for her. Let them know her generous hearts and love her as I do.

Innocence. Suddenly, he found himself tossed back in time. He was small, and walked from their tenement by himself across the street to the gin shop. He stared down at the few coins in his hand, and knew they weren't enough. Mum won't be happy if I don't bring her something, he remembered thinking. Soon after he gazed up at the shop-keeper and offered his money for the gin. Folben shook his head, then changed his mind and nodded. "Help me move a few things in this back room, lad, and we'll call it even. You can bend a lot better than I can." As Severus followed along, the older man turned and patted him. "Such pretty hair," he said.

Innocence. He was at Hogwarts now, as miserable here as at home. The only bright light in his world was Lucius Malfoy, the rich sixth-year student that everyone in Slytherin followed. For some reason, the older boy looked after him and told the others to leave him alone. Severus followed him around like a puppy, and tried to be useful. One night he'd stayed up in the Common Room, having been overlooked at evening rounds by the prefects. It was late, later than he stayed up in summer, even, and Prefect Malfoy had finished his rounds and was sitting before the fire. Snape crept out from behind one of the old chairs, wrapped his arms around the other Slytherin's shoulders, and said, "I love you, Lucius."

Innocence. Lily had married James, in a ceremony he'd been forced to attend. He had been happy to intervene when Black leaned over Petunia Evans and leered at the horse-faced Muggle girl. That night, he'd been taken to a Death Eater celebration. "If you want a Muggle slut, Severus," Lucius had said, "then you shall have one of your very own. Consider it an early birthday present." He'd accepted anything given him to drink, and had done terrible things to the red-haired girl, though his memories of that night were scattered. The next morning, though, he'd been so ashamed he'd puked up everything from the night before—no, the week before. Once done, he'd quietly Apparated away with the evidence of his crime and left the poor thing near a Muggle hospital after dumping some healing potions down her. I hope she lived, he thought, though he'd never been able to find out. In fact, when he'd returned, the others had commended him for ridding the place of such rubbish.

Innocence. He stood on the plains of Bosnia and efficiently murdered a virgin, taking first and last blood. Snape relived the penance, knowing it was only beginning. The events of the weeks after tumbled through his mind in a blaze of pain. Perhaps I ought to beg you to end this, he thought, not knowing if the unicorns could hear his thoughts.

Innocence. He sat at a warm kitchen table, being kissed by Molly Weasley. His arm ached, and he finally protested out loud against a summons. Snape remembered the horror of those little snakes…and the faces of those who urged him to drink the sticky unicorn blood.

He opened his eyes. One unicorn's point lay against his right wrist, but did not pierce it. Severus held still, and gazed into their eyes. So far, apparently, they were still undecided. He let the tree support him, and smiled as he remembered the card game last night. It had been a marvelous treat Molly had arranged for him. The punch had been smooth, and the food delicious. Her hands had sometimes touched his when passing cards. Such beautiful hands, so wonderfully plump and speckled, just like the bosom she'd shown in her low-cut dress. No wonder he'd dreamed of her last night without either one wearing anything silly in the way of clothes. In that dream, her breasts had been so soft, and her thighs even softer. But I shall let Gerte attend me, he thought, rather than cause Arthur any pain. He remembered watching two unicorn stallions fight about a year ago, till one lay on the ground panting and bleeding. Even then he had not approached the beast, though he had been severely tempted by the availability of the rare potions ingredient.

He held up both wrists. "If you must strike, do so. If I am to live, then let me go." Snape was certain he was hallucinating now, though, as he saw the shade of his Inner Circle sacrifice materialize on the other side of the herd. Then again, a couple of the unicorns craned their necks in her direction, so perhaps he wasn't seeing things all by himself.

A silver one, the largest of the herd, shouldered its way forward. Snape knelt, then, and opened his coat and shirt. "Make it quick," he said.

The horn touched the skin of his chest, but did not pierce it. Instead, a surge of heat and power flowed up into him, as if all his hurts were to be healed, and last night's agony erased. In fact, he felt stronger than he had all day. Maybe it's a good thing I brought a few Galleons for Gerte after all!

He heard another mental voice, nearly as deep as his own. It was I who was lost in mindless lust and fury, the pale beast said. I left my rival in the dust as if I was no better than the Evil Snake himself. I let my own mating instincts overwhelm me. Perhaps it was his blood you drank last night, as I paid no attention to what happened to Eyebright's body.

Other members of the herd shifted restlessly as the stallion backed off, allowing Snape to stand more freely. He looked down at his chest. A small silver spot shone there, though mostly hidden by the narrow line of black hair that ran down his sternum. "Thank you," he said, and bowed to them formally, as one wizard to another. The stallion, who was pure white, nodded his head. They went around him after that, as if he were a rock in a flowing river, and allowed him to feel the softness of their coats with his hands as they passed by.

At last they were gone, with no sign of their presence save the peace in his heart and the spot on his chest.

He buttoned his shirt and cloak, and then sat down again. Severus wasn't sure how long he bathed in the late autumn sun, with his back against a tree, and not thinking of anything. It was restful to lay down his burdens, if only for a little while. Out here, now, he didn't have to plan, or think, or do anything but just be. He let himself become part of the sunlight, the trees, and the layer of leaves and earth beneath.

He gradually realized how much there was to the Forest; the slow wisdom of the trees, the angry bickering of the centaurs, and the chill logic of the Acromantulas who thought more clearly as their hot blood cooled with the season. The smaller plants were beginning to die, though many seeds remained to be reborn in spring; the unicorns still roamed like a wave of silver fire, though he suspected the mares of the herd were already picking out their winter sanctuary—and the unexpected touch of metal from that wretched auto, apparently more at home here than with the Weasleys. He was the only one of his kind here, he suspected, even if one counted the tiny strain of satyr blood, and the remaining influence of Molly's maenad sweat in the salve Winky had used on him last night. Now, there's a job for me—luring unsuspecting maidens to a pool hung with vines laden with fruit by the light of a summer moon…even werewolves are wary of that kind. Unfortunately, we really are too far north for that to be remotely practical. I would surely freeze my balls off in the winter, no matter how much fur I ended up growing.

He smiled to himself. I'd probably be the only satyr in existence with a house elf, though. Snape knew he could count on Winky's loyalty.

At last he perceived the wholeness of the Forest. He was a part of it, too, as was Hagrid and Grawp. All living things were, if only they would let themselves realize it. Even the dead had their uses here, as fodder for those who came after them. I could do worse than find my ending here, Snape thought. Better that than to end wrapped in stone.

Severus 'woke up' when he heard the happy voices of some of his students, including Draco. He was glad to hear no acrimony or sniping. He'd expected a great deal more whining at the loss of a hundred points and the forfeiture of next week's game against Gryffindor. The Potions Master reluctantly stood and picked up the basket.

Four of them walked into the clearing, his godson in the lead. They also held baskets. Snape raised one eyebrow.

"Oh, sir, don't you remember? Part of our punishment for yesterday was a detention with you in the Forest, gathering horrible little plants that try to kill us in the process," Draco said.

Both Rosier twins and Mr. Zabini murmured agreement. "Sorry we're late," Zabini said.

"It's your fault, too, for making us stop so you could leave Edgecombe a note," Libby Rosier said. "Everyone knows she spends Sundays fagging for Binns. I can't believe she actually volunteered for it."

"Yes, she must be mad even for a Ravenclaw," her brother Charles added. "Especially if she tolerates this idiot over here."

Zabini flushed red, but otherwise held his composure. ""The reason we really came out here was to tell you that all of us have had a meeting, everyone but Goyle or Miss Edgecombe. We left first, because we have the best excuse. You should have heard Malfoy complain all the way across the grounds. Half the school must have heard him."

Draco smirked. "I can't behave too civilly or people will notice. My audience wouldn't appreciate it."

"The others will be out here soon," Charles Rosier said. "Miss Parkinson came up with a plan to bind us all more closely. For some reason she thinks at least one of us might follow some other master—or mistress."

His godson grimaced. "You'll notice how often she looked at Nott. And when she had us say something, she always kept him for last."

Zabini smiled. "I saw that myself. I thought only my grandmother knew that little trick."

Snape was impressed despite himself. "That…that agrees with my own observations," Snape said. "Avery is less dangerous unless he falls under his father's influence, while it appears to me that Mr. Macnair is not interested in his uncle's views."

"Won't it be a mistake to include the ones…I mean, those who have made up their minds the other way, in anything we do?" Draco asked.

"It is utterly necessary for them to be part of any ritual," the Potions Master said. He wanted to take a look at whatever amateur ceremony Miss Parkinson had found or pieced together before risking anything, though. "In fact, Mr. Malfoy, you are at more risk for any adverse reaction to this kind of rite because of your multiple loyalties. Some of them were forced upon you, but you could feel spread thin, to say the least." He still remembered how his godson had nearly strangled because of the Phoenix Breath's reaction to the apprenticeship change.

"Then I need it the most. I need an anchor. Between being a Malfoy, being your godson, being your apprentice for a while, and belonging to Madam Lestrange, I need one place where I can stand that doesn't shift around."

That made sense. "We must stand together," Snape said. "All of us. Or we will fall." He had understood this from the beginning, but it warmed his heart to learn that his apprentices had learned this, too.

"All of us but Goyle worked together that Friday night at Malfoy Manor," said Draco. "I think that's what gave Pansy the idea."

The Potions Master nodded. The others fidgeted. "As long as we're waiting," he said, "you may as well help me look for green-cap mushrooms. They are invaluable in Clearing Potions, which are not the same as Cleansing ones. Any of you recall the distinction?"

"Cleansing Potions are for physical messes, and Clearing ones are for magical ones," Zabini said. "For instance, if Mr. Longbottom melts a cauldron, it leaves a physical mess. We'd use a Cleansing Potion on the floor, the ceiling, the walls, and so on. Now, if some of the potion that Longbottom made lands on Malfoy and gives him a set of warts that won't quit, he'll need a Clearing Potion. Too bad none of them work on er, certain other problems."

"I do hope you haven't tried, Mr. Zabini…" Snape said.

"No, sir. Merely speculating. However, Miss Parkinson says her mother sent her a cream that would cover up some…things, and make it look like only skin is there. When the weather's really warm again, that could come in handy."

"A proper detection spell would still reveal the presence of such things, but fortunately most of the students here wouldn't know them," the Head of Slytherin said, wondering why he hadn't heard of it. No doubt old families had old family recipes, and he wouldn't mind learning this one. "I would like to see a sample," he said. "Now, about those mushrooms…"

The students hastily bent to work looking for them. Libby Rosier had actually found a couple, while Zabini had found a somewhat more poisonous kind, when they all heard Pansy Parkinson laughing. For a brief moment, naked longing flashed on Draco's face. The boy will have to learn to be more careful, Severus thought.

Miss Parkinson and Vincent Crabbe walked into the clearing, also holding baskets. Snape quickly put them to work as well, and hoped Miss Bulstrode did nothing unfortunate about the apparent pairing off. I should talk to the girl soon, as I did to my apprentices. Even without open brawling in class, I should not like to see Miss Bulstrode distracted in Potions, or Mr. Crabbe with a Beater Club wrapped around him. Perhaps he was starting at shadows, but he had often stayed alive because of the tendency.

Soon Nott and Avery arrived, while Macnair came in last. Snape looked around. The number of apprentices here was nine. Though he felt the gaps, it was still a sacred number. He turned and made sure they were paying attention to him. "I understand that we are here for more than gathering mushrooms."

"Yes," Miss Parkinson said. "We need—we need something to hold us all together. We need something to hold on to, for all of us. We're afraid, Professor."

"I know." If the unicorns had not shown him more mercy than he deserved, they would have found his eviscerated corpse here this afternoon, instead of their Head of House. Why hadn't he considered that when the herd had surrounded him? He must learn to fight harder for his life for his students' sake, even when he considered it of little worth. He owed it to these children to protect himself better than he had, especially recently.

"I'm afraid, too," he said, stunning them with the truth. "I want to see this conflict over, and each one of you well and happy. I'm tired of being hurt. I don't want to die. I don't want any more of you to die, either. The stronger our bond, the more of us will survive the times to come. There is a war on, and worse to come. We must arm ourselves for any eventuality. You may repeat that to anyone you like." The Dark Lord had to know some of this already, especially after last night.

Pansy nodded. How had she become so dominant? He sensed the terror that lay beneath her apparent confidence. She'd seen for herself what had become of Miss Edgecombe with no one to protect the Ravenclaw girl. Like any good Slytherin, Draco's betrothed had found a way to ease her fear, while still promoting her interests.

She gave him a copy of the proposed rite. He scanned it quickly. "You used the first part when I was so…so ill?" he asked.

"Yes, Professor," she said. "Actually, Malfoy did, and we followed. I found all four bits together in a book Miss Edgecombe lent me. We need all four elements in this binding."

Snape agreed. Four Houses, four elements, and four sturdy legs to hold a weight of duty and fellowship. Like the 'ring' that he and Harry Potter had boxed in during that vision earlier today, a square was one of the most stable forms.

"You need to be in the center, sir, while we surround you," Zabini said. "We were in a circle the other time, but in a way you were in the middle, too, since we sent all the energy we raised through the Mark to you. We all ate just before we came out here, too."

"Good. You will need your strength," Snape said. He mourned the empty places, but didn't know what to do about them. Both the Ravenclaw girl and Mr. Weasley should be here, but he was uncertain at how to contact them.

They began. He stood in the middle while the children—his children, the only ones he would ever have—began chanting.

"Earth is our beginning, earth is our final end,

There is it we spring forth, there we learn to bend—

Cradle us and hold us, we will ever be your friend."

Severus felt his Dark Mark grow warm, as well as the spot on his chest where the unicorn's horn had touched him. He could almost see the golden lifeline reach out to him again.

Then he did. He felt their love and respect, even from Nott. The Potions Master chanted inwardly, Fill the missing places, and fly home to me. I call you to my side, dear ones, come and follow me. It wasn't too bad for spur of the moment, but he would have to come up with something better if this didn't work.

Percy Weasley

The young wizard felt his Mark tingle. He rubbed his shoulder peevishly, reluctant to leave the comfort of his little flat on a Sunday afternoon. Even if Pettigrew only wanted someone to whine to about how he was so little appreciated, Percy didn't like being called.

Moody coughed. Apparently he didn't have anywhere to go either. Percy enjoyed the compliment, most of the time, but right now he could have done without the old Auror's company. Most Sundays, he simply wanted to wallow in how much he missed Mum's dinners and the rest of the family.

"Something going on?" Mad-Eye asked.

"Well, yes," Percy said. "I think, anyway. I don't know if Pettigrew can use the Mark the way that er, he does, but I think he's trying to. It doesn't feel quite like a summons, but I can't imagine what else it would be." He grimaced as he finally recognized the sensation. His Mark had felt the same way at Malfoy Manor when Snape had been dying. He told Moody that. "Perhaps I ought to go," he said. "I hadn't heard anything about the professor being summoned or hurt, but that doesn't always mean anything."

"But Dumbledore said he was better," the old wizard said. He looked ghastly, even though he'd slept at the flat for several hours after showing up early this morning.

"Well, if something's gone wrong, I'd better find out," Percy snapped. "Did something happen last night? How am I supposed to be helpful if I don't know what to look for?"

"You'd better leave, then. I'll fill you in later." The older wizard bowed his head, as if he thought someone was going to kick him.

Percy left the room and found a cloak, as it was a bit chilly for shirtsleeves outside. I wonder if this will work the same way as a regular summons, or if I'll have to Apparate on my own and hope for the best. Well, why not? That bastard Malfoy obviously could find his way, or he never could have come back for the rest of his Snakes that horrible night. It doesn't seem like it was only a week ago. Well, no time like the present to find out if I can do it, too.

He closed his eyes—Apparating with them open usually made him sick to his stomach—and with his cloak tucked under his left arm, he reached over and touched his Mark on his shoulder.

He was stunned to find it worked, and found himself in the Forest. Many of the other apprentices stood around, along with Professor Snape. "Mr. Weasley," the Potions Master said. "I am glad you were able to join us."

The professor didn't look injured or ill, save for a slight pallor and his usual gauntness. "I'm happy I could," Percy said. "I didn't know anybody but um, well, you know, could use the Mark to summon anybody."

"I didn't know that either," Snape said. "Miss Parkinson, could you charm another copy of the ritual? Mr. Weasley, we are binding all the apprentices and myself closer together today. It would be appreciated if you could join us."

"Of course," he said. His family was forbidden to him now, save for rare visits from Dad. Moody, and now these others, would have to be it. Only till the war is over, and then I can return. Oh, please, let it be soon.

The blonde Slytherin girl handed him a paper. "We're in the second part of the Earth ritual, the one we did last summer at the Manor."

"Thank you," Percy said, who had been taught to be polite to ladies, or else.

They began chanting again.

Severus Snape

The section for Earth was finished. If Snape hadn't known better, he would have been content with this. The golden lifeline still had empty strands reaching out, but that couldn't be helped. He felt warm, happy and strong as he had not for a long time. Even the dazzling light when Hogwarts had brought him back to life had not fully restored him the way this ceremony now did. Severus let the power surge out of him and back into the circle around him. This glory belonged to all of them.

He noticed, as the glowing light circulated, that some of his apprentices seemed more affected than others. Joshua Avery, Vincent Crabbe, and Percy Weasley seemed to shine brighter. Snape wondered what their birth signs were, and if that really mattered.

Then Miss Parkinson stepped forward. She led the chant in the next section in the ritual, the one for water, and by concatenation, the bond of their blood. The golden lifeline that bound them grew darker and more fluid. The girl's voice grew more vibrant and liquid with each syllable.

"We are born in water, brought forth in joy and pain.

Blood fills our hearts in hate and love, showers like crimson rain.

Then the tide grows still at last—we rest, to rise again."

Snape thought both girls would be strong in the element of water, only to realize that Miss Rosier's twin brother Charles would naturally share that heritage. Yet Draco's betrothed glowed the brightest of all the apprentices this time. Water seemed weak, but could be stronger than steel. Everyone knew how water poured down tiny cracks expanded in the cold and broke things over time that no spell could shatter.

Water was the living spirit of Slytherin, just as Earth was for Hufflepuff, Air for Ravenclaw, and Fire for Gryffindor. None could exist without the other, and sustain life. Water sought the lowest places, but only to cleanse them. Everyone contained varying amounts of all four, much of they tried to deny it. Perhaps that meant every student held a bit of each House, too, no matter where the Sorting Hat actually put them.

The circuit closed. A different kind of power held them now. All could feel each other's emotions, from Pansy Parkinson's love for Draco, to Theodore Nott's tremulous hope that there really was a place for him somewhere.

Yes, there is, Snape thought, reaching out with invisible arms to hold the bitter young man. I was the same way once. Don't take as long as I did to realize that some will hold you close no matter how hard you try to shove them away, especially when you can't believe anybody really cares.

He was so proud of the smile on Nott's face then, as…well, as Dumbledore probably was when he managed to cheer up a dour Potions Master. The hardest victories were the most cherished.

Marietta Edgecombe

Why didn't I borrow a broom? Marietta Edgecombe hurried as fast as she could on foot. Nobody would have noticed or cared, and I wouldn't have to go high or fast. Madam Hooch had understood why she hadn't wanted to be in the same Remedial Broom class as Granger, and let her put it off till next year.

A few moments ago, her arm had felt warm and pleasant, the way it had at the Manor last summer. She'd palmed the unsigned note left for her without reading it, and knew now she probably shouldn't have. Once her forearm felt funny, though, she panicked. Was something wrong with Professor Snape? A couple of people had told her that he'd been carried into the infirmary last night, but Luna had blinked and said, "He was at the staff table for lunch and talking with Professor Flitwick. He looked all right to me."

Marietta had skipped the meal, having had a late breakfast, and had gone directly to Professor Binns for the afternoon. He'd let her go as soon as she'd asked him, though. I wonder how much he knows, she thought.

She finally saw the other apprentices, just inside the Forbidden Forest, though not till she was really close. I wonder if I would have seen them at all if I wasn't one of them.

She broke into a run and was glad to stop inside the clearing. Marietta panted for breath as she took her place, though she blinked a minute to see the red-haired man there. She remembered when Percy Weasley had been Head Boy—Penny Clearwater of her own house had been Head Girl that year, with no time for anyone but her counterpart. For all Cho's short temper now, she hadn't forgotten her friends. He looked older now, though, more than only two years would account for. No doubt she'd look older than her years once this was over, too.

But Professor Snape looked better than he had on Friday, no matter what people said about last night. Something had put more heart into him, and it felt like she was walking into the edges of it now. If only I'd read the note!

Pansy Parkinson gave her a piece of paper. "Here," the Slytherin girl whispered. "We're just starting on the bit for Air."

Marietta wished she hadn't been late, but was happy she was here anyway. She felt surrounded by warmth and closeness once she took the sheet. It frightened her. Any closeness did. Then Snape smiled at her, a smile that made her feel safe for the first time since Walden Macnair had taken her.

Severus Snape

He was overjoyed when the tardy Ravenclaw began the chant for air. She shone brightly in the sky blue light falling through the trees, as did Jake Macnair and Blaise Zabini.

"We take our breath from our first day, and then we learn to give,

We walk upon this earth and speak, and somehow learn to live.

Our voices fuel the magic spark, and chanting forms the sieve."

Severus heard other voices, then, the many tongues spoken by those going to Hogwarts. The speech of boys and girls slowly turning into men and women through the years they had spent here resounded against the lectures and heartfelt speech of their teachers. He nearly drowned in the babel of words, whether used in spells or in simple conversation. Shouts of excited or despondent Quidditch fans mingled with cries of pain, whispers of answers in the middle of tests, the weeping of those deep in sorrow, the joyous calls of happy students, hidden sighs of passion, and the occasional murmurs of love.

The voices of Hogwarts filled his mind till he felt Draco's hand on his shoulder.

"Professor, are you all right?" His godson's voice was enough to distract him from the others.

"Can't you hear them?" Snape asked.

"We heard something, but they faded away," Nott said. "We're ready for the next part now, sir."

"They're so loud," he said. As he focused on the apprentices, including a puzzled-looking Percy Weasley, the noise dwindled away for him as well.

The others shuffled and tried not to stare at him. He revolved around slowly, still in the middle of their circle, till he was certain that order was restored. "I fear I was distracted. As you can see, our rite can have unexpected effects. Let us move forward."

Miss Parkinson allowed thought to wrinkle her normally serene face. "It does say that the Air one can be tricky," she said.

They began the final stage of the ritual.

"The spark inside my soul flares up, my body set to burn—

Then I reach out to others, my heart begins to yearn.

Not even death puts out the flame. This is what we learn."

Harry Potter

His forehead felt warm again, the way it had this morning. Harry played with his broom, thinking it was just the kind of day he would enjoy flying. He'd missed practice last night and this morning—well, so had Ron and Ginny—but felt drawn to go out into the Forest. I know, I'll redo that run I gave to Snape! he thought, grinning to himself.

He stood and walked down with his broom to the Common Room, only to meet his friends, when he really wanted to fly alone.

"There you are!" Ron said. "Team meeting in ten."

"But we don't need to practice," Harry said. "The Snakes forfeited their game with us next week, and we can catch up during the week."

"That's one of the things I want to talk about," his friend said. "And we still have homework. Nobody forfeited that last I heard," he added glumly.

Harry knew what to do, then. His practice as Seeker involved going after a practice Snitch, with someone taking the place of a rival, or a couple of Beaters hitting Bludgers after him to give him practice dodging. He could slide off the to the Forest then, maybe. He nodded agreement, knowing he was going to do what he liked.

"Ron, he has that look in his eye again," Hermione said as she passed by. "Whatever he just promised, he doesn't mean it."

"Aw, mate, not again," Ron sighed. "Where were you planning to fly off to while our backs were turned?"

"Nowhere," Harry said, looking down at his boots. "Just the Forest. Buzz a few of the Acromantulas, that kind of thing." He knew he was missing something, and wished he knew what it was.

"Then we're coming with you," Hermione said. "No matter where it is. I thought we'd settled that already."

Harry looked up at her. He wanted to tell her that even with her training, she couldn't keep up. Then again, when it counted, she always had.

"Did you see anything funny like you did last summer, you know, when You-Know-Who was making mincemeat out of Snape?" Ron asked.

"No. My scar feels warm, is all. It doesn't hurt or anything." Harry paused. "Funny you should mention Snape, though. I had a lesson this morning from him. I can't talk about that much, but he said he'd be seeing more of you two." He glanced around, and moved them off to a corner. It'd look more suspicious if they left. "Hermione, I hope you've had lots of rest. I heard you'll be helping with the Wolfsbane Potion this next week. Ron, the Headmaster had another brilliant idea. He wants to assign assistants to Heads of Houses, except from different ones. I can't remember who is going where, except you. Once Quidditch is over for the winter, you'll be running errands and such for Snape."

He watched his friends' reactions. Hermione was close to jumping up and down with joy, while you'd think someone had kicked Ron. "I knew life was too easy lately," Ron said with a groan of dismay.

"I'll think of you while I'm doing Remedial Potions," Harry said.

Hermione nodded. "I'll need to go over my notes."

"It won't be all fun and games for you either," Harry said. "Malfoy's going to be there, too. Try not to hex him too badly."

She grimaced. "He hasn't been too horrible this year. I'll live."

Ron sighed. "We still have a team meeting, mate, but somehow I don't think we'll have it outdoors. Let's grab our books and go down to the Great Hall. This way, if you still need to go off and do something stupid, we can all sit on you."

Harry reluctantly agreed. He'd put his friends in danger too often already. Even as he did what Ron said, he still looked out a window and wished he could have gone to…to whatever waited for him out in the Forest. Thinking like that is what ended up killing my godfather and seeing my friends hurt, he realized. Hermione still isn't all the way over it.

While in his dorm room with his books, he said, "We need to do more stuff with Hermione. Or she'll really think that all we ever wanted from her was help with homework."

Ron turned pale. "If we invite her down to the meeting, that's all she'll end up doing, though. Maybe afterwards we can run her through a few drills on the broom, if it's still light by the time we're done. But you're right. I should listen to you—you're captain of us."

Not a very good one, Harry thought. Maybe I can learn some things from Snape to help me be a better one.

He looked out to the Forest one last time. It's probably just another trap. But I wish I'd gone out to see what it was anyway. Oddly enough, he felt like he was still part of whatever it was that was going on. Or maybe it'd finally kicked in that he was part of the Weasley family now, and the adoption rite was just now finishing up.

Harry smiled. Between his friends, Quidditch, and the Weasleys, he never had to feel alone again. This morning he'd even felt connected to Snape. That should be enough to make anyone happy.

He had another brief vision while in the Great Hall, though. In it, he was out in the Forest, and part of another group. Malfoy was there, along with Crabbe, and a few others whose faces he recognized. That sneak of a Ravenclaw girl was there, too, but for some reason he wasn't mad at her. Snape—Snape was like a dad to them all, even him, and that didn't make sense at all, but he felt so good about it he wasn't going to argue.

Ron elbowed him. "You all right, mate?"

"Yeah," Harry said. Better than that. Sure, it was all in his head, but it was his head. Now that he was learning Occlumency, he could keep the stuff inside safe. Maybe I'll ask him what's going on. It's time I learned to trust him. He wished that the Potions Master had thanked him for what he'd done a week ago, though. Maybe he just wants to see how the shoe fits on the other foot, considering I never thanked him for anything before. It still rankled, though.

Then one of the school owls flew by and dropped an envelope at his seat. Harry prodded it with his wand, and decided he might as well open it here, considering everyone was looking at him. He read the terse, terrifyingly honest note of condolence, and blinked back tears.

"Harry? You all right?" Ron looked concerned.

"Just a note from someone who's sorry about Sirius Black dying," he said.

"Bit late in the day, isn't it?" Ginny said.

"It's the only one anyone's sent me." Everyone else had been sympathetic, but this was something he could keep. I'd better be careful with it, though, or maybe Snape will end up in trouble. Maybe the next time I'm down there for Remedial Potions I can teach Malfoy the spell for taking off the rebound hex. He folded up the paper and put it away. He'd never seen any with black borders like that before. Maybe he's just bad at saying things. It's more important what he does.

Severus Snape

Fire. They were surrounded by the illusion of it as they stood here in the Forest. Everything that lived burned with the spark. Inside the fiery light, both Draco and Theodore Nott blazed more brightly than the rest. Snape could almost make out the shape of Fawkes around his godson's head, though that was likely his imagination, while the other boy's fire was less focused, but just as intense. What does he want? Severus wondered. What does he need so fiercely that it chars him? I have to find out before the Dark Lord does. He knew the young man's family only slightly, through the agency of the Malfoys. The Notts appeared contented with their position as second only to Lucius and his kin.

But were they? Nott's real father had disappeared after Voldemort's dissolution, most said to the States. His mother had divorced him for abandonment, and then remarried her husband's cousin, no doubt the reason the other members of the Nott clan had supported her filing. The boy had grown up with younger brothers and sisters that were undoubtedly more favored than he was. As far as Snape knew, the Slytherin was more than competent in all his classes, though not excelling in any one subject—and just ripe to dedicate himself to a Cause. Oh, he knew that one!

As far as he knew, the Nott family had no bizarre practices or unpleasant problems, aside from modest greed. Mr. Nott was quite good in Arithmancy, though mainly in its more mundane applications. Perhaps I ought to encourage a friendship between the boy and Mr. Zabini—Blaise isn't terribly interested in commerce, but he would be useful introducing Nott to the members of his family who are. Besides, the old woman undoubtedly has a few spare daughters handy for unexpected alliances. He knew better than to linger too longer under those old eyes himself, having met the ancient witch a few times before.

Ah. He had it now. Jealousy. Nott had been abandoned by his father, and perhaps by his mother when she chose security with her second marriage. I chose Draco ahead of him as well, he thought. Yes. Now this makes sense. I must find a way for him to be important to me, one that he will believe. Luckily enough, Nott had no known vices that would make that impossible, merely a sneering attitude that Snape saw in his mirror. An attitude, perhaps, adopted to fit in with his relatives, and in emulation of his Head of House. They listen even when I don't think they are. And I may have only a month or so at worst to have a chance with him.

The enchanted flames died down. Miss Parkinson looked unhappy.

"What is the rest of the ritual?" he asked.

"There is no rest of it," she said, holding her paper. "I thought…I thought this would be enough."

Snape remembered the memory of the ritual that had saved him last summer, the one that Sybil Trelawney had let him borrow. For a short time, the others had thought their rite was over as well, only to discover one element was missing.

"Let us wait," he said softly, catching everyone's eyes. "Let us wait. The spell might need something else, which may occur to us if we are patient. Or perhaps we need only wait."

In alchemy, four elements were required to create the One. Quintessence literally meant 'fifth element' and stood for the primary substance, from which the Philosopher's Stone could be created. They had invoked all four. The sense of the vine that held them was far stronger than it had been before, though Snape could still feel parts of it reaching out to the rest of Hogwarts.

Would it outlast his death?

Ah. That was the key. He had to accept his mortality. Deep inside he really hadn't. It was his turn now to manage something the Dark Lord refused to do.

The poem! The poem he'd started this morning came to him, in limping lines so short of what he wanted, but it came nevertheless. It would have to do.

"On Hogwarts ground," he started. Yes. Now he knew it.

"On Hogwarts ground, the ash-clouds rise

In columned pillars to the skies—

That hide the towers;

And in the grass, the centaurs and the unicorns mass,

Listening to the battle-cries."

He could see it as if he gazed into one of Sybil's scrying glasses. The battle raged, whether he would live to see it or not. Severus took a deep breath and gazed at his apprentices. He could not, dare not shield them from the truth.

"We are the damned. Short days ago

We walked unMarked, saw sunrise glow—

Reached for the stars,

And here we stand, on Hogwarts ground."

All of them were deathly silent now. The power surged through him as if he'd drunk a jug of Pepper-Up. No wonder Trelawney courted the gods to give her this with every deck of Tarot cards she opened. He saw, now. He saw. He didn't know the time, though Sybil had told him as closely as she could. The darkness would come for him, in one form or another, but it didn't matter now. He had to warn his students, and offer the sacrifice willingly.

"Stand together when I go!

To you from failing hands I throw

The torch—now hold it high!

If you betray your friends close by,

I shall not sleep, though my bones rest

On Hogwarts grounds."

Then the glory of creation faded and his knees buckled. He would have fallen if Draco and Nott had not stepped forward to support him.

They stood like that for a few moments. The colors from each element swirled around and mixed together into a formless gray mass, but oddly enough, it was a gray full of hope and potential, not the despairing kind so familiar to anyone who had ever been to Azkaban.

Quintessence. He regained his strength, and the two students took their places in the circle around him. The substance coalesced into a dim figure in the last empty spot.

Draco looked to his left, blazing hope in his eyes, as the features became more distinct. "Greg!" he shouted. Crabbe smiled broadly.

"Mr. Goyle?" Snape asked tentatively.

"Professor," said the ghost, now clearly that of the former Beater. "I'm sorry I missed my appointment, sir. I lost the note when Peeves chased me out of Moaning Myrtle's, and I forgot when I was supposed to show up." He then began an entire litany of excuses, which Severus found all too familiar. Everyone but Miss Edgecombe and Percy Weasley had clearly heard them before, judging by their expressions.

"I suppose you think a little thing like death is going to keep you out of a detention," Snape said, trying to be stern and failing entirely.

"I know better than that, Professor. But I don't think even Filch could pick out a detention for me to do."

"Come to my office in a couple of days. I believe I'll be able to think of something," Snape said. Of all the effects the spell could have, he never would have picked this one.

"Of course, sir. But I have to tell you one thing now. It wasn't your fault. Even if you hadn't been sick, Mum wouldn't have listened to you."

For a moment, Severus couldn't speak. A burden he'd almost forgotten was suddenly lifted from his heart. "Thank you," he finally whispered. "Thank you."

Then Goyle rose up into the air. "You have to stick together, all of you!" the ghost shouted. "If the Professor doesn't come after you, I will! And so will the Baron, and every other ghost in this place." He disintegrated then, back into the formless fog he'd risen from. The gray cloud swirled, touched every apprentice, and then flowed into the middle and into Snape. From there he could feel it melt back down into the ground. No, back into the earth, for that element was both the beginning and the end.

He felt each soul in his charge then. Percy Weasley trembled with fear, but held his ground. The Gryffindor rubbed his shoulder as his Mark turned golden and gave off warmth again. Moody will never believe this, Snape heard him think. But I'll tell him anyway. I owe the old man that much. Severus envied the young man, still able to believe in the goodness of those around him. Any Weasley strong enough to give up his family for this struggle deserved an Order of Merlin right then.

Miss Edgecombe was still blank as stone. Yet instead of looking firmly ahead, she glanced from side to side as if finally realizing she could trust others once again. It would take time before she healed, but Severus believed she was on the right path. I hope it doesn't take her as long as it has for me, he thought.

Pansy Parkinson wiped tears from her face, though fluttering wings of hope beat inside her heart. It had taken much courage to organize this. Snape knew she was still afraid of what might happen, but that showed intelligence, not cowardice. She had also tried her strength and not found it wanting. In years to come, she was likely to become a power to reckon with.

The Potions Master took up the strand of Jake Macnair. The young Arithmancer was overwhelmed by an experience no set of equations could possibly resolve. It's all right, Snape wanted to tell him. There is more to life than numbers. It was amazing, though, how Macnair still tried to assign estimated factors to things he didn't understand. That trait would serve him and the others well in times to come. Keep thinking, young man. Perhaps your numbers will help save your life and the others, too. The other Slytherin felt his presence and smiled wanly.

Blaise Zabini's mind was less orderly but more enthusiastic. Together we can do anything! Snape was not so sanguine, but wanted to encourage this feeling. Mr. Zabini would soon fall back on logic and do his best to make this bond with the others work, if only for Miss Edgecombe's sake. The Potions Master always trusted a personal motive in someone above a rational or idealistic one.

The Rosiers were two halves of the same whole, yet more separate than the Weasley twins. Elizabeth Rosier was the younger by twelve minutes, but was the stronger one most of the time. Snape briefly wondered what his life would have been like if his little sister had survived. Libby Rosier was nearly as fearful as Miss Parkinson, and for the same reason, while her brother Charles felt fiercely protective. Snape hoped he would not live to see them truly afraid of anything.

Vincent Crabbe was his usual stone wall, mentally speaking, but seemed happy enough. He was still a natural Occlumens, and thus the bane of all who would seek his thoughts. Fortunately for his own peace of mind, the tall young man would never betray either him or Draco, knowing what had happened to his friend Greg.

Draco still blazed like a phoenix inside. The ritual for fire had had a strong effect on him, but seeing his friend once again had done even more. Severus couldn't help but smile himself at the reflection of so much joy. I will miss you so much, he thought. His godson had grown a great deal this last year, far more than he'd once hoped. He mourned knowing he'd never see Draco grown and with children of his own. Yet with even the most liberal interpretation of Sybil's prophecy, he had less than two years to go.

Snape turned to the others. Joshua Avery was a little frightened, but happy to be sure of friends he could trust outside of Hogwarts once he was older. Slytherin was the one house whose members honored those with parents in Azkaban, but it still left the boy lonely and worried at times. If his father became a werewolf, Mr. Avery could be tempted into following that path as well. Who knows, the skills I'm teaching Draco with the cauldron now may yet come in useful.

Then he faced Theodore Nott, and made his decision. The young man was solidly part of them now, despite his proud ways and prickly exterior. Oh, I should have known from the beginning, Severus thought. I can recite this story by heart. Despite more money and a few relatives who appeared to wish him well, Nott hurt in much the same way that Snape remembered doing at that age. The dark-haired boy wanted to smile, but was afraid to sacrifice his hard-won dignity. The Potions Master stared deeply into eyes nearly as black as his, trying to convey to this last apprentice that he was safe here, as he never could be anywhere else.

Nott felt something, apparently, as he relaxed his mental barriers—good ones for an amateur—and let his eyes light up with hope.

Professor Snape enjoyed the quiet communion with all of them for a few moments more. Then he took a deep breath. "We are joined together. Though death will divide us, as it does all who live, we are together now. We will always be part of this group no matter what happens later. I was with you in your pain when you first received the Mark, and you were with me in mine when I lay dying. Today we are here, with the sky above and the earth below to witness our bond. Any of us can call upon the others at need, for we have shared more than blood. Even death cannot truly separate us, as we saw when the ghost of Gregory Goyle came here for a brief moment. It is rare for any such to cross the borders of Hogwarts.

"Here we stand. I will remember this day with joy till I die, and after, that you so trusted me to lead you this far. Remember the glory of today yourself when things are hard. Remember that you must hold faith. This rite has no prescribed penalty for betrayal, as some others do, but I doubt it will be pleasant. Yet vague threats mean little when one is frightened or in pain." He watched Miss Edgecombe out of the side of one eyes. She looked extremely unhappy, and well she might.

"It is not a matter of house points, but of life and death now. We need no coins or signed pledges. I know what pressures can be brought to bear on any of you from your parents and from…from others. So do some of you. You cannot swear to keep faith no matter what, because there are times it can't be done. When I was held by the Ministry…it may be that I failed as well. Yet here I am." He faced that old shame square in the face, and ignored how his hands echoed with half-remembered pain.

He took a deep breath. "We must understand the difference between breaking under pressure and true betrayal. If one of you is driven to speak, say as little as possible. Then return to us and tell us what happened, so any damage might be repaired. The rest of you must not abandon this person, because it could be any of you. This bond must hold.

"If a time comes when one of you becomes a traitor, you will know, for the bond will disappear. You must gather together again and rebuild it. There was once a group of Gryffindors who ruled this school, only to quarrel among themselves. Only two of them live today. In a few years, only one, or none, will survive." He could see in Draco's eyes that his godson knew who they were.

"I may not see the end of this war. Some of you may not either. Yet more of you will live and prosper if you hold together than if you seek your own advantage without care for anyone else. When one of us falls, remember them as you remember Gregory Goyle. Hold them dearly in your heart." How he loved them now! It was as if all the locks and bars he'd raised to protect himself had fallen away, because he no longer had need of them. Oh, he'd bring them back at need; only a fool walked unprotected near the Dark Lord. It was such a relief to let go of them just now. It was almost the way he'd felt when he'd hidden away so many harsh memories, except so much better. This wasn't just removing the pain; this was living the way he'd seen other people do. He'd thought he could never belong to that happy number till now.

I'd better finish soon, he thought. Some of the apprentices were shuffling their feet. "It will be easy to forget what happened here today," he said gently. "When you're sitting at a desk and wondering what to write for an essay, you may find it hard to believe it. But there will be times when only this bond will save you."

Severus left his place in the middle of the circle, though reluctantly. He had never felt such closeness to anyone before. It didn't matter so much that he was risking his life trusting them not to betray him. It was forfeit anyway. Strange. The resentment that usually welled up whenever he thought of that was gone, if only temporarily.

The apprentices left their places as well, obviously conscious that the rite was over. Zabini and Macnair left talking together, both of them escorting Miss Edgecombe, though she walked at a short distance.

Percy Weasley came up to him. "Professor," he said. "What do I tell my, er, master?"

"Anything you like." Snape felt a brief flash of anger at Mad-Eye. I'll haunt his magical eye and see how he likes it, he thought with grim humor. "He won't believe it anyway." That was true for both Moody and Pettigrew.

"He might, from me," Molly's third son said with a slight smile. "I'm glad to see you're looking well, sir, though Mum would say you want feeding up."

She did her best last night. It wasn't her fault it didn't work. He knew better than to say so, though. "I hope your master appreciates the sacrifice you're making."

"It doesn't matter," Percy said. "You…you were talking about the Marauders, weren't you? Bill brought home stories about them, till Dad threatened to wallop him."

"Yes. We must do better than that."

"It felt strange being at Malfoy Manor last summer, and it feels strange to be here now. This whole business is nothing like I imagined it would be."

Snape inclined his head. "It never is. Send my greetings to Mr. Pettigrew. The two of us should talk sometime." If he could stand to send condolences to Bellatrix Lestrange, then he could speak to Wormtail, who had betrayed the Potters. Let them think him soft.

"Of course, sir. My master will be glad to hear it." The Gryffindor left. Though he resembled his father Arthur much more than he did his mother, Percy Weasley was still refreshing to speak to.

Pansy Parkinson talked to Draco, while Vincent Crabbe looked on. His godson reached out to touch her hand, but she spun on her heel to walk off with the Rosier twins. It would be some time before she truly forgave her betrothed, but the fact that she had engineered this meeting, and made sure Draco was included, spoke louder than words.

The blond Slytherin looked back at him, nodded, and followed Miss Parkinson, with Crabbe trailing along. Snape knew that Draco and Pansy would talk later, without anyone else to listen.

Avery was already gone. I will have to have a word with him. I don't want anyone feeling left out. Nott was the last one left. "Mr. Nott," Snape said. "I hope that you noticed certain…affinities, while performing the ritual."

The seventh year student nodded. "Why were there only two of us for the fire part?" he asked. "There were three for the other sections, though you looked stronger during the Earth bit than in any of the others, well, till you said that poem, anyway. You were like a torch then."

"Because Gregory Goyle is dead," the Potions master said gently. "It is likely he would have been strong in the element of fire as well, despite his apparent slowness when alive." He idly wondered how Mr. Potter would have shown, or if he had felt anything at all through his scar.

"I hadn't thought of that," Nott said. "Why is that important? It's not like there's anything special about me."

"I disagree. As much as I would like to favor Mr. Malfoy, as I have in the past, I cannot do so with this burden. He is apprenticed to Madam Lestrange, and not to me. The only reason the ritual worked with his presence was because of his bond to me personally as my godson, and because he was part of the other rite at the Manor."

He took a deep breath. "If something happens to me, someone must take responsibility for the others. Miss Parkinson is quite strong for a witch. To our lack, our circle has trouble recognizing it. In later years, I suspect many will learn to be sorry they didn't, but the crisis will likely come before that."

"Why not Avery? He's a seventh year, too, and his father's much higher in rank than mine. Either of mine."

"That's the problem. Mr. Avery is more likely to align himself with his father than with the rest of you if I am no longer here. If Avery Senior becomes a werewolf, he will have trouble retaining his standing, as some of our rites are carried out during the full moon. Professor Lupin is expert at managing his furry little problem, but your friend's father is not. He will require at least a year to adjust properly." If he did. Some people truly became the monsters all werewolves were reputed to be, as they let the wolf rule their minds all the time. "Mr. Avery will be more concerned with his father's health than with anything else, as he should be. However, Mr. Nott, your faith in our Lord is the strongest. You should be the one to speak for the rest if I no longer can."

"I'll have to be a full Death Eater, and not just an apprentice, if I'm going to be able to help them," Nott said.

"You are quite right. Arrangements can be made. However, even as a full member you will still be obligated to me, as I am to a degree to Lucius Malfoy. Some of us are more equal than others even in the Inner Circle, as I am sure you have noticed. If you rise to those heights, you would be free of my control over your Mark. However, if I'm dead that's rather academic."

The student looked doubtful. "There are stories…I mean, I heard our Lord say you were a member of the Inner circle even after death, the night you were initiated."

Snape nodded. "However, that bond is to the Master alone. I don't know if an apprenticeship binding lasts that way, though after this rite we may all be surprised. It is possible I may serve the Dark Lord after death, though I'm not certain how. I must admit I would rather do so alive." Too bad he's not asking the right questions yet. However, I still have a little time to help him think about what he is involved in, rather than merely jockeying for position. Look how long before Draco ever had doubts.

"But still…why me?"

"Remember to whom the Muggle Alexander left his empire."

Theodore Nott looked sober. "To the strongest."

Snape could almost see the flare of pride that rose in the young man then. "Remember what I said about betrayal. Remember what our lost friend said. You and the others must be able to speak freely among each other without fear, since that will not be possible anywhere else. Do not mistake idle comments for treachery. Perhaps Mr. Goyle deserved to die for disloyalty, but if I had been able to talk to him instead, his errors could have been corrected. Also, don't undercut Mr. Malfoy out of jealousy. His lot is not the happiest one. Even when his father finally gains his much-deserved freedom, Draco will still be apprenticed to Madam Lestrange. You will draw unnecessary attention to yourself and the others by playing Pit games in this arena."

The young man grimaced. "I'd rather—I'd rather you didn't die, sr."

"I may not have that choice." In fact, Voldemort may discover what a mistake it was to link some of his followers to him after death. He almost looked forward to showing Riddle what he truly felt. If he could find some way to detach others who had died, and be the last one left, regrets might be the last thing the snake ever felt.

"Which side do you think will be the one to do you in?"

Snape laughed harshly. "It could be either one at this rate." Good. The more doubts the boy had about what he was told, the better. "If you would honor me, avenge my death. Only, take a care for the others first. You are young and have many years ahead of you. I will not haunt you for thinking first and then acting, believe me!" He must be insane to trust Theodore Nott. Then again, no doubt the rest of the Order still thought Dumbledore was mad for depending on him. He wanted to laugh again. Albus, whatever you say about this decision, remember that I'm making it because of what you taught me. He couldn't wait to see the old wizard's face when he heard about this development!

Nott nodded. "I'll do it. You'd really come for any of us who betrays the others?"

"What do you think?" the Potions Master said, with a grin that showed too many teeth.

The Slytherin snorted. "I'd be afraid to eat, drink, or visit the loo! Well, I'm no Pettigrew to turn my own house-mates over to anyone else. I don't care that much for that dry stick of a Ravenclaw or for any Weasley, even if he's ours, but I'd be saddled with them anyway. No wonder you look so tired. You must feel the same way about us sometimes."

Snape smiled, this time more gently. "Sometimes. Having students like you helps make up for it, though." Yes. Nott needed to feel special. He needed to feel he was really wanted, not just being used. He was amazed at how much easier it was to show how much he cared for his little dunderheads.

"It's a deal. I hope I don't have to, I mean, I hope you survive after all."

"I agree. And remember, this land hears your words as well as I do." Snape shook his head. Funny how his voice had a strange echo to it.

Nott blinked, as if he'd heard it, too. "I know," he said, and swallowed. "You…you can trust me, sir. Even if every single one swears out loud that he's going to the Headmaster, I won't tell anyone else, at least till I have a chance to talk to him, and to you. You have to figure out some way to let me do that even if you die, sir."

Snape knew the young man meant it for an exaggeration. How close it was to the possible truth, he could not say. "Well, since I threatened to come back anyway, I suppose it's only fair," he said. He didn't want to become a ghost; but if that was the only way to fulfill his own promises, he'd have to try. He held out his hand. "Shake on it?"

"What, no extra oaths?" the student said nervously.

"We have enough of those already. Your word as a pureblood is good enough for me."

Nott and he shook hands. In this society, that was as binding as a contract written in the blood of the goblin who would administer it, even though they were the only witnesses. "I can't believe you're trusting me like this."

"Neither can I." It was still the right thing to do. "I know this is unlikely, Mr. Nott, but if for some reason, you have questions about the circles we now move in, you must come to me. The Dark Lord's orders are, of course, sacrosanct. However, as we have seen, some of his followers appear to take advantage of his good nature. If you see flaws in any plans, I want you to speak to me immediately. It is possible that you don't understand what is really going on, but it's also possible that you have spotted the Acromantula dung before it goes into the cauldron. It is extremely risky to speak up on your own behalf, but I will be more than happy to listen to any ideas you may have. It does not seem so now, but our Lord has been willing to listen to me in the past. Our obedience to him includes offering our own insight into matters. We should be more than fingers on his hand. However, do speak to me first." If only the boy would realize what a hellhole of idiots he'd fallen into before it was too late.

The young man turned pale, undoubtedly at the thought of so much responsibility. "Well, sir, if you don't mind, I have an essay for Potions class tomorrow that I'm not quite done with…"

Not quite begun yet is probably the truth, Snape thought, and gave Nott permission to leave. "Remember that all you learn here may yet save your life and those of the others. It's not a game for house points any more, if indeed it ever was."

"I'll remember." The Slytherin took a few steps, looked back, and said, "I won't ever forget this. None of it. I'll make you proud of me, sir."

"I already am." He was gratified by the rare smile that appeared on the young man's face. Nott walked away towards the castle with new pride in the set of his shoulders. Oh, he'd sit up nights wondering what his Head of House's angle was; he wouldn't be a Slytherin if he didn't.

Snape believed the gamble would pay off. I should make arrangements to have Nott receive some sort of formal rank among the apprentices and be recognized by the other Death Eaters. I can designate him Chief Apprentice now, or at least as soon as I return to Hogwarts.

He pulled out a notebook and pencil, which he used to make notes on unusual plants or other ingredients found on harvesting trips, and briefly jotted down his decision. He dated and signed it, then charmed it with his wand to make it nearly impossible to erase, change, or destroy. Miss Parkinson would be disappointed, and so would a few others, but they would learn to deal with it. Draco's betrothed would have to manage as all strong witches had before her. A pity he would not live long enough to watch the Gryffindor know-it-all start tilting at the Ministry windmill in regards to the status of women in the Wizarding World—though the actual statutes were reasonable enough, tradition spoke otherwise at times. If Miss Granger played her cards right, she would find support for her theories in the most unlikely places. Narcissa's salon and Molly's kitchen, he thought. If the two of them combined together behind any crusade Miss Granger might start in this arena, the result would be inevitable.

Well, as long as he was out here—there were still mushrooms to be gathered.

Theodore Nott

He went back to the common room, his head still reeling. Ted knew what a real family felt like; for a few brief years as a young child, he'd had one. It had taken till '83 before all the Death Eaters had either been rounded up, disposed of, or bought their way out, after the Dark Lord's first defeat. He'd been old enough by then to remember his father, his real father, and his mother's grief when he'd disappeared. For a few years it had just been his mother and him, living on charity from her family, and their not-so-silent disapproval. Then the divorce had been granted, and Mother married to Uncle Wellington. There were times when Ted wondered if Dad had really taken off for the States, or had ended up at the bottom of a ditch somewhere—he'd read a Muggle play once about that kind of thing. But the old man treated him well enough. Even after Jules and Jim had been born, he'd still been part of the family, sort of.

Nott sat in a chair and glowered at his Potions book. Snape had always thought the sun rose out of Malfoy's arse, ever since the blond brat had shown up in his own second year. Even he could see that wouldn't change. However, he was glad not to belong to that nutcase Bella himself. The Ferret Who Walked was welcome to that privilege! And Snape had chosen him to look after the others, rather than anyone else. Parkinson would always worship her betrothed, even if she was angry with him now. The Rosier twins came as a set, and putting one above the other just wouldn't work. Avery wasn't the brightest wand in the world, Zabini was mad for the Ravenclaw girl, and Macnair's head was full of numbers, not people.

He leaned forward in thought, Potions and his old resentments forgotten for once. That had been a good idea that Parkinson had, though, about latching onto another teacher and making them a fake confidant. Ted pulled out a piece of scrap paper and began making notes. He memorized them as he went, since he planned to toss anything he wrote once he was done.

Macnair—Vector. That only made sense, and Professor Vector would have no trouble believing it. Zabini—Flitwick Again, that was one of the easy ones. Edgecombe—Binns. That was already in place, so even if Pansy never told the girl what was up, she already had an advocate among the staff. Parkinson—Trelawney, he wrote with malicious glee. Let's see if she can take the consequences of her own idea! Libby Rosier—Sprout. She was one of the squeamish ones, having thrown up on that horrible Saturday night. It'd be natural for her to look to an older woman for help. Charles Rosier—Hooch. Rosier was coming along nicely as a Chaser, and the coach was a sucker for a tale of woe as long as it wasn't too fake. Malfoy—Pomfrey. He'd done an awful lot of detentions in the infirmary lately. Couldn't hurt to have Lockhart, Jr. learn something helpful for once. Crabbe…now who would be good for Vincent to whinge at? Ah! Crabbe—Hagrid. The two could happily grunt at each other. After all, Vince had gone out there to help look after a first year while mucking out, and it hadn't even been a real detention.

Nott quickly counted everyone off on his fingers, just to make sure he hadn't missed anyone. The Unweasel was assisting Madam Umbridge this year, the poor swot. Okay. Malfoy. Parkinson. The Rosiers. Crabbe. Macnair. Zabini. Edgecombe. Avery. He'd almost forgotten Joshua, and that wasn't fair. Oh, I know! Avery—Lupin. Josh wanted to find out all he could about werewolves anyway, what with his dad and all.

Now who for me? He counted over the teachers that were left. No way was he going to try to make it through the little mob of True Believers around Firenze. Besides, the centaur looked at him funny sometimes. If he was the real thing, he'd soon find out too much. That wouldn't be much help, to be dragged off to Azkaban. If Snape still shook about what was done to him years ago, I know better than to think I can stand up to it. For a moment he considered Filch. The ugly Squib knew everything about the castle by now, and could be useful. Then Ted shook his head. He'd heard his relatives talk about Squibs, and what might need to be done after the Dark Lord's ultimate victory. It'd be too rotten to make up to the old man, and then watch him go off to an ugly death. All right. Who was left? McGonagall, of course, and the Headmaster. For a moment he considered Dumbledore. A short moment. That stupid phoenix of his would probably rat me out the moment I stepped into his office, he thought.

However…he was in NEWT level Transfiguration this year. He remembered when he'd become ambitious in it. The moment he'd heard Moody had turned Malfoy into a ferret, Nott had known the subject was for him. Of course, Mac had spouted the House line that Transfiguration shouldn't be used to punishment, but everyone had said that she'd smiled along with it. What she really meant is that it wasn't to be used against Gryffindors, he'd thought at the time, along with everyone else in Slytherin. He grinned himself, wishing he'd been there to see Malfoy bouncing along the wall. From that moment on, he'd worked like a house elf at the subject, and had gained the Deputy Headmistress's grudging respect.

Well, grudging respect is the best I'm going to end up with from anyone in this school, except maybe Snape. During the rite, he'd felt the Potions Master truly reach out to him as no one had for years. Ted savored that moment yet again, along with the talk they'd had. He really does care about us, even if Malfoy will always come first. Well, he was a Malfoy client, so I shouldn't grudge him that. Of course there are going to be stupid rumors about him and the Glorious Lucius. Wouldn't be surprised if they were true, not that it matters. Last year, Monty said things were different when Bellwood was Head of House, and the firsties were fair game for everyone. Damn, I miss him. He should be at camp with the highest-bidding Quidditch team, not rotting at home. At least he's writing again, even if crappy little notes are all he can manage these days. I hope the Weasley twins fry in Hell for what they did. Funny about Montague—he hadn't been all there right after the accident, but he'd been talking and everything all right. His parents had taken the Quidditch Captain to St. Mungo's, and word was a blood clot had torn loose and done more damage then.

Why didn't Malfoy call for help on the train when he found out Potter wasn't by himself? The rest of us would have come running like anything. Of course, it was still good for a laugh to know Malfoy and his friends had been turned into slugs for their trouble. Wait—that reminds me. I heard becoming an Animagus is good for an automatic pass on the Tranfiguration NEWT. Suppose I go to McGonagall and ask if I could train with her. Let's see any of her gruesome Gryffs beat that! The professor would have to outline some course of study, and he could run it by the Potions Master to see if it sounded reasonable to him. Even if she only meant to run him around in circles, he would still have an opportunity to drop little confidences in her ears and show how much he respected her. If I'm going to sic Parkinson on Trelawney, it's only fair I take a hard one, too. Besides, McGonagall is old enough that it'll be clear I don't have a crush or anything. Even if I wanted to manage the late hours with Sinistra, there would be talk because she's even younger than Snape. The whole idea is to look sympathetic, as far as I can tell. He firmly wrote down Nott—McGonagall

He crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the fire as if it was an essay turning out bad. He had another idea, based on Parkinson's. There are enough prefects this year to adopt each one of the first year students, since there aren't that many of them. We should also make sure to make the hot chocolate on Sundays if the professor can't. Girl to girl and boy to boy, too, and no nonsense. Snape would come back and fetch any of us who broke that rule.

Nott swept up his books and paper and went up to his bedroom, a single this year. He was too old to cry for a man who'd barely noticed him over the years. He only chose me because he couldn't choose Malfoy, he reminded himself once he was alone. But even trying to drum up old resentment at being overlooked didn't work. Now that Snape had asked him to look after his fellow students, it was hard for him not to think of them and what would happen when the Potions Master died, or was driven mad by one of that horrible bitch's spells.

It was easier when I could sneer at everyone and stand aside, he thought with black humor. Why did Snape have to ruin it all by showing he really cared for me?

Severus Snape

Snape stood at the edge of the Forest, and wondered if he had time to duck back inside the castle and take a quick shower before going to Hogsmeade. He didn't want to show up there stinking like a goat from rambling around most of the afternoon.

Part of him still soared in ecstasy from where the poem had taken him. Perhaps…perhaps this was the day to try something he hadn't dared to in years. Severus deliberately began totting up all the joys of the last few days. Friday's night party, of course. He'd received many reminders of how people in Hogwarts really cared for him. Madam Hooch was risking Ministry attention by acquiring a Blood Broom, and Arvid Rosier a great deal more if he became of interest to anyone at all. 'Vincent' had taken him out here in safety and comfort, and would come when he called it. The corners of Snape's mouth twitched upwards as he remembered the idiotic commercial about the Quidditch players.

He had other things to show for that night as well. The certificate Albus had purchased was in his cloak pocket, as was the candy box Lupin had given him. He hadn't opened the book of love poems from Catullus yet, but he planned to do so tonight. Minerva does have a sentimental streak, though one has to look for it. Who would have thought that I had one, too? The Potions Master remembered the odd plant both Professor Sprout and Mr. Longbottom had endeavored to grow, whose properties could help break Dark bindings. He still had little hope for himself, but the cactus could offer the road to freedom to those of his apprentices intelligent enough to take it. Sybil's reading, of course, had been ridiculously optimistic. Yet it still gave him comfort, which was why, no doubt, many charlatans died rich.

He had been stunned by Harry Potter's gift. He'd never expected anything from the boy, and to realize his efforts had not been wasted pleased him more than words could say. Perhaps the Boy-Who-Lived could learn to direct his undoubted power well enough to become the savior too many wished him to be. I still think it's a ridiculous task to set a child, he fumed. Albus knows that he only need tell me the time and place, and the Dark Lord will at least be weakened enough for him to be destroyed. If I must die to keep Riddle from nourishing himself on the energy of those of the Inner Circle who have already gone before, then it will be worth the sacrifice. Perhaps the bonds of those still living can be released by other means, but those of the dead must be severed from the other side.

But the memories he'd seen—that gift had been totally unexpected. He'd thought for certain that he was going to lose his breakfast, and possibly the next two meals after, on Potter's mad broom flight. Yet, the boy could be right. This could be a way to become used to greater heights and better technique without actually risking his neck.

Snape took a deep breath when thinking about the memory of the adoption dinner. That was not a gift, but merely a loan, no matter what Harry said. He knew from last year how few good memories the Gryffindor had, and to sacrifice one like that for him was something he never expected. Moisture filled his eyes as he 'remembered' the joy and wonder of the ritual, combined with the comfort of any kitchen Molly Weasley ruled. I can make such memories, too, he reminded himself. This Christmas would be the best one ever for him, even if he had to do it early. Talking to Flitwick today about it had been good fun as well, while Hagrid would cheerfully move the castle, stone by stone, to a different place if he thought it would cheer others up. Snape planned to use both of them ruthlessly to provide the sort of holiday he wanted for himself.

Thinking of the memory Potter had given him, though, brought him back to Molly. How wonderful her name sounded in his mind! Oh, how he'd loved seeing so many favorites on the table last night. He had gorged himself on the familiar smells and tastes.

Severus touched his cheek, where Molly had kissed him several times during the course of the game last night. It would never happen again, naturally, but he could live on memory for a long time. He smiled broadly at the thought of the dream. Albus had been right to remind him to remove that before giving lessons to Mr. Potter, but it had been joy beyond speech when he'd replaced the recollections of last night's dinner. It didn't matter what other memories had come back with it. He was whole beyond all hope, and that was what truly mattered.

He pulled out his wand and took a deep breath, still thinking of Molly. "Expecto Patronum!" Snape shouted.

A pale white light flowed out of his wand. Instead of fading into nothingness as in all his other previous attempts, it coalesced into the shape of a large matryoshka doll, whose colors glowed with crimson light. It circled around him, the painted face fixed in a gentle smile, then flew off entirely.

He gaped in wonder. He'd never heard of a Patronus doing that before! He spotted the rosy doll up in the trees. He took a deep breath, snatched up his broom, and tried to follow it. I must be out of my mind! Yet flying this time didn't bother him so much. No doubt Potter's wild ride burned out my ability to feel fear, he thought mordantly.

The doll soared off into the distance as he landed on the novice broom practice field just inside Hogwarts' boundaries. Fortunately nobody had spotted him, or didn't know who he was. On the ground he was screened by the trees, now almost bare of leaves.

Well, that was different. He was surprised again when the large doll flew back to him from nowhere, and allowed itself to be absorbed back into the tip of his wand. Snape knew that his Patronus would always come when he called it now. If Molly's kisses couldn't make him happy, he deserved to be alone.

He wanted to jump up and down with glee at finally mastering the spell. All right, it had taken him till he was nearly forty to do so, but he'd still done it!

Did he dare try for more? There was one duty of a Head of House that he had never performed. Despite all his years and all the good that he had done, anyone who couldn't perform a simple Patronus had to be out of his mind to try the other.

But now… Severus concentrated on the binding ritual this afternoon. No, he needed to go further back. He remembered how he'd given himself to the Serpent to help all those who had been Marked last summer. He saw the pillar in the common room in his mind's eye, the pillar that led to the foundations of Hogwarts. He remembered the golden lifeline that had saved him from death only a few months ago, when he had seen the other pale shapes on their way to fetch him from that dreadful beach.

He remembered the grace of the unicorns, as if in a dream. Snape would hold that moment in his heart like a shining treasure. He knew he'd wear the mark of the herd stallion's horn for the rest of his life.

Then Severus reveled in the joy the ritual this afternoon had brought him, from the first tendrils of the golden lifeline of Earth to the smiling face of Gregory Goyle, summoned from beyond death to the circle they had formed. His own death to come bothered him only a little now, though he was certain he'd whinge about it some more later.

He had long pledged his life and his honor to Slytherin. Soon it would be quarter day and payment due to be rendered. Now he had to find the courage to attempt what every Head of House ought to be able to do on his first day.

"Expecto Patronum Slytherin!" he screamed, and flexed his wand with the same power he'd used to put Gilderoy Lockhart into low earth orbit.

At first nothing happened. Snape waited. Then his own Patronus emerged, as dimpled and red as the woman he'd named the doll for. I will not be disappointed, he told himself. I have already done more today than I have ever managed before. He continued to wait, though. Being content with what one had was never a Slytherin motto and never would be.

"Expecto Patronum Slytherin!" he shouted again. He remembered the Great Hall hung with green and silver, as it had been for years before Potter's Sorting. A pity the boy went to Gryffindor, he thought. Given his ability to go around the rules, when he wasn't breaking them outright, he would have made a sterling addition to my House.

He watched in awe as a ghostly winged adder emerged from his wand, the emblem of his own family. Now he was its last representative. Severus regretted knowing his line would end with him. The agony he'd suffered last night ought to be for some purpose. Yet he still took pride on seeing the crest of his clan on the silver he ate with now. He owed Fletcher much for that. He'd manage to repay it somehow before it was too late.

Well, it was said the third time was the charm. "Expecto Patronum Slytherin!" he cried once more. He remembered having chocolate with the first year students, not only this year, but in years past. Every file with every name meant something, both to him and the student it belonged to. Why, he had anchors to the other Houses, too—Percy Weasley, Gryffindor; Marietta Edgecombe, Ravenclaw; and little Miss Marcher, Hufflepuff. He had links to all the Towers, not just to his dungeons. Hogwarts needs me, he thought.

He remembered how Potter had chanted with tears running down the boy's face just a little over a week ago. I could have died without his help, he acknowledged. I should have thanked him for it this morning. I accuse him of ingratitude, but now it's my turn.

Then he let his thoughts go to the ritual the others had performed while he was on his death-bed. He remembered the white light as all of Hogwarts gathered together to bring him back to life. Sybil had given him her recollections, too, so he knew how well he was loved by them. He would always hold the memory of Molly in the middle of the light close to his heart. I don't care if nobody believes me about that, he thought. It was her there.

Green light mixed with silver flowed from his wand. Snape stood fast, his heart beating like a drum, as a gigantic serpent twice the size of Nagini appeared.


"Yes," Snape said, as he knelt. "Yes."


"Yes. Anything I have. Anything I am."


The ghostly adder, which had been at his feet, sprang up and wrapped itself around his neck. He felt it melt into his skin. The large, wispy doll flew up and was eaten by the huge snake. Snape knew it hadn't been truly devoured, but only absorbed, if that made any sense. If he ever needed to summon his Patronus again, it would come—only with the power of the Serpent of Slytherin behind it.

He continued to kneel before the symbol of his House. He felt part of Hogwarts the way he had when Flitwick, and everyone else, including Moody, had summoned the great Light.

Then he became aware of the others.

The Head of Ravenclaw sat behind a book nearly as thick as he was tall in his office. The small wizard looked up, then hopped down from his stool and went to the window. Flitwick performed his famous flick-and-swish, and a giant Raven appeared inside the room. Dark feathers brushed against the piles of books, knocking several of them over.

Sprout was in the greenhouse repotting a small flowering plant trying to overflow the boundaries of its starter. She smiled broadly, moved several benches out of the way with her wand, and then summoned the Badger of Hufflepuff, who took up all the spare room and began nibbling on a vine. "Oh, Severus," she said. "I'm so glad."

Minerva sat before a pile of papers in her parlor, scowling almost as much as he did when he graded papers. For a moment, she held perfectly still, her red-tipped quill poised above a defenseless essay. She took a deep breath, laid down the quill as it drooled ink over the sheet, and stood. With a blinding look of joy, she waved her wand as well. A Lion appeared in her fireplace, blazing with red and gold flames.

Then he saw the Headmaster, lying in bed with eyes open, as if he desperately courted sleep that refused to come. A white light appeared around Albus, then, as Severus remembered it had for him only a few months ago. Snape could almost make out the shape of a beautiful woman inside the light. She bowed and put her hand gently on Dumbledore's forehead. Then Albus was alone again, only looking years younger and much stronger.

Yes. It is time we all gave to the Headmaster, instead of always taking. Snape took a deep breath as the scene faded and he found himself on the practice pitch again. The Serpent of Slytherin still stood high before him, supported on huge coils.

Despite everything said and done between them, Albus was his friend. Humans were imperfect, including himself—and so was Dumbledore. Friends were friends despite that. Some things—some things were still hard to forgive, yet he had too little time to waste it haring after old grudges. There were times when he would simply have to follow his own path, but their relationship was strong enough for him to do so. He was strong enough to do that now. If a wand-oath from the Headmaster of Hogwarts never to threaten him with Azkaban wasn't enough, there was no point worrying about it anyway. I will love Molly Weasley till I die, and for as long as I am allowed to after, he vowed. I am only substituting one impossible object for another, after all! My memories of Lily aren't strong enough any more, especially since I gave so many to her son. You have said over and over that only love can defeat the Dark Lord. That includes mine for my sweet Molly, too. Trust me when I say I know I can never have her, and we'll both be much happier. Trust me when I say that I love you, too. It would be wrong to take advantage of Poppy's temporary infatuation, though he did care for the mediwitch.

Severus felt as if a warm hand rested on his shoulder. Oh, he knew Albus would still fuss, but he didn't have to listen or be hurt by it, either. I know—every time he does so, I'll tell him he just needs another nap or some more lemon drops. If he's going to behave like a cranky child, I shall treat him like one. It was only fair, after all, given the way the Headmaster sometimes fussed over him for the same reasons.

He looked up at the Serpent, and could almost hear it laughing. His mind soared up into the sky, as if he were flying over the castle on his broom. All of the towers were glowing now in their respective colors. Far above, and far below, the different lights melded into one.

I wish it had not taken me so long, he thought. Yet in this race, making it to the goal is all that matters. At least I have not failed altogether.

The light faded. The Serpent slowly sank into the ground. Snape sat on the ground, suddenly exhausted. It had been worth it. How far he'd come since walking into the wreckage of Dumbledore's office late last spring, when he'd been forced to confront the monster he'd become.

He sat and rested. It felt as if part of him was drawing strength from the earth below, or perhaps from the water currents beneath. Severus Snape took a few deep breaths, and thought of Gerte's warm hands to add the fire. Four was the number, then, despite some cultures' aversion to it. Four Towers, four elements, and four basic substances formed the foundation of life. He idly amused himself by identifying which House each substance belonged to—basilisk venom for Slytherin, of course, and phoenix tears for Gryffindor. That left the purity of unicorn blood for Ravenclaw, and the passion of maenad sweat for Hufflepuff. Perhaps the last should not be a surprise; if earth was indeed that House's element, then those students and teachers who belonged to it would be closest to its influence. Hufflepuff does have the highest pregnancy rate, he thought with a laugh.

Winky appeared holding a tray with some food and the inevitable potion vials. Snape ate most of the apple and drank the potions, then cleansed his palate with a glass of juice. "Thank you," he said to the little elf. He allowed her to hug him while he sat.

"Is Master all right?" she asked timidly. "Bright lights scary, but feel nice."

"Master is better than he has been for a long time." He looked at the slanting rays, as the sun began to go down.

Just then his watch chimed. He opened the cover and heard it announce, "Time to go to Hogsmeade." He didn't remember that choice being on his watch before.

"Master should stay and talk with other House Heads," Winky said. "Never saw towers look so pretty before."

"I will talk with them when I return," he said, as he finally stood up and reached for his broom. "An appointment is like a promise in its own way. It's not fair to Gerte or the others to make them wait or cancel, when they took the trouble to find time for me so fast. Besides, I know the woman who will be helping me with sore muscles today, and she is nice. You would like her, I think."

"Not Mistress Red-Hair," the elf grumbled.

"No. Mistress Red-Hair has a husband already and doesn't want to leave him. He is also a friend of mine." How had Winky learned about Molly? "This other woman will help me remember that." As pleasant as it would be to revel in this new power, he looked forward to finding comfort for his body's needs. "I'll be late for the evening meal, I expect," he added. "I may want you to bring me a tray when I return."

"Of course, Master," Winky said. She looked happier now.

Snape flew just above the level of the trees on his way to the village, and Gerte's warm hands. The enchantment he'd just been a part of was marvelous. He was glad he'd finally reached a goal he had thought long out of reach.

Yet he had to make room for mundane things, as well. Magic wasn't everything.

Sometimes learning to be human was more important.






Devoted readers, I am so glad you came. I ask only one thing; many of you are steady reviewers, and for those I am glad. Yet if you have not yet reviewed or only do so every once in a while, please leave a note this time, if only to say hi. I am utterly delighted at how many of you have placed me on their favorite list or on story alert, and I thank you for it. (I have recently updated my profile, too, and you are more than welcome to check it.) Don't be a stranger, eh?