Disclaimer: Anything you recognize belongs to the goddess, JKR

Disclaimer: Anything you recognize belongs to the goddess, JKR. This one is affectionately dedicated to Tessie and wm_law2003 as well as my own personal Potions Master and my fellow Marauders.

That First Step Back

It has only been two weeks. It feels like a lifetime.

It still hurts.

It hurts a lot.

I glance over at Lucius, who is sleeping deeply, unconcerned and carefree. He wanted this…more than anything. I thought I wanted this too. Now I am not so sure.

I am sitting up in my bed, having long ago decided that sleep was going to be somewhat impossible tonight. It has been like this almost every night since..

Unconsciously, I shudder and draw up my knees to my chest, hugging them tightly, trying to ignore the pain…the physical pain and that other pain that is so much worse…I feel trapped, claustrophobic and panic-stricken.

What have I done?

Breathing is so difficult as the silent sobs wrack my body. I dare not wake the others…I simply wait for this anguish to subside somewhat. My eyes are dry…denying me any respite from the burning…

…the burning…

What have I done?

I have to get out of here. I feel like I am going to die.

"Part of me already has," I think to myself as I get up.

When did I become so fatalistic?

I leave the others in their power-crazed dreams and, grabbing fresh clothes, retreat to the Prefects bathroom…it seems to be my only refuge from this insanity I have brought upon myself. Muttering the password quickly, I step inside. Impatiently, I place the fresh clothes on a nearby bench and, after stripping off the old clothes and throwing them in a hamper, step into one of the spacious showers.

As I let the scalding hot water pour over me, I am suddenly reminded of a muggle play…what was it called? It involved witches, ironically enough. Ah yes…Macbeth…something about all the waters of Neptune not being enough to wash clean the blood on one's hands.

There is no blood on my hands but I scrub furiously as if to try to remove this stain which is indelibly inked on my soul. Funny…if I didn't know better, I would swear the soap smells like…flowers…lilies…

I am turning into a prune, my pale skin puckering furiously at the way I am assaulting it with soap and hot water. I feel so unclean…

Finally, I cannot take any more and I step out, wrapping a towel around my waist and walking over to the sinks. I look in the mirror. I don't look any different. I have somewhat more colour as a result of the hot shower. Eyes, dark and baleful. Hair, long, black, hanging like serpents on my shoulders. Skin, pale as death. I look down at my left forearm and cringe at the sight of what is there.

What have I done?

I go over to the bench and throw on my clothes. I always did like the feel of silk. My one weakness.

"That is not true," I remind myself as I step out of the bathroom and make my way towards the Astronomy Tower.

I really don't care if I do get caught. At least, it has stopped raining.

Carefully, I make my way up the steps. They are not particularly well lit and I don't feel like stumbling tonight. As I reach the top of the tower, I quickly go to my favourite spot…a bare pedestal that once, in the mythical past, held a stone gargoyle. Now it holds me…somewhat ironic. I smile at a story I remember hearing once about the missing gargoyle…something about the founders of the school. I don't remember the details but Godric Gryffindor and Salazar Slytherin got into an argument about something and, as Godric was storming off on his broomstick, Salazar simply picked up the gargoyle and hurled it at his nemesis. He missed and it went falling into the Forbidden Forest and was never seen again. Salazar never was good at resolving conflicts…look where it got us.

"Care to share the joke?"

I nearly fall off the pedestal in shock…I had not noticed that I was not alone. The figure is hidden in the shadow of the great telescope but I would recognize that voice anywhere.

"What are you doing up here, Potter?" I sneer.

"Much like yourself, I was trying to be alone. Obviously, I haven't succeeded."

His voice is calm and irritatingly neutral.

"Tired of all your Marauder friends?" I ask, trying to get some sort of reaction out of him.

"Don't be daft, Snape."

Nothing.

He doesn't seem to be leaving, just sits there in the shadows. I can't even tell if he is watching me or watching the stars. There is some sort of irony at play here but I don't really want to dwell on that.

"Well, at least it is not a full moon..we are reasonably safe," I say snidely, crossing my arms over my chest and looking out over the Forbidden Forest. I can distinctly hear the sound of horse's hooves in the distance.

"Remus cannot help his transformations…a fact you know full well. I'd like to hear what your excuse is."

"For what?" I ask in some surprise.

"For acting like a monster all the time."

I get up off the pedestal and walk over to where he is sitting. If my approach makes him nervous, he gives no indication. I glare at him…at those eyes that are now reflecting the light of the crescent moon through those ridiculous glasses.

"I am not a monster, Potter."

He looks at me and then looks away.

"You really do need to learn how to listen to people, Snape."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"I did not say you were a monster…I said you act like one."

"And there is a difference?"

"Yes, there is."

He obviously does not feel the need to defend his statement…he just sits there, staring at the clearing sky. I walk over to the very edge of the tower and lean against the low wall that separates me from a very long fall. The wind is starting to pick up and it whips through my hair, which is still very damp. I really should have put my robe on.

"You'll catch your death of cold if you don't dry your hair."

He can be so irritating sometimes.

"What if I told you I was already dead?" I asked him, not bothering to turn around.

"I'd ask who your doctor was," I could practically hear the smirk in his voice.

I could feel the anger rise in me and turned to face him. He was sitting there, watching me with a half-smile playing on his face.

"You say I am not a monster, Potter? I am a monster…and here is your proof!"

I walk over to him and pull back my left sleeve. For a moment, I hesitate but then I show him…the cool air hitting the mark hurts me and I wince…

"There…you see, Potter? There! You see it? The Dark Mark. The sign of a Death Eater. The branding iron of Voldemort himself. Property of the Dark Lord. The very sight of it should disgust you, make you feel sick to your stomach…make you want to throw me off of this damn tower. I am a monster. Do you hear me, Potter? I am a monster…worse than Lupin. He had no choice. I did."

He stares at the insignia on my forearm as if questioning its reality. He does not draw away from me. He does not recoil in fear or disgust. He rubs his chin thoughtfully, as if considering the matter carefully. In short, he does nothing that I could have expected.

Instead, he does something completely unexpected.

He grabs my forearm, covering the mark with his hand, his skin dark against mine. The pain shoots through me like tendrils of fire through my veins.

"This does not make you a monster, Snape."

He stands up…but does not let go of my arm.

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about, Potter," I mutter, trying to pull my arm away, groaning again at how much it hurts.

"Yes, I do. You are not a monster," his voice is calm but his eyes…I blink…his eyes are full of…

…compassion?

"How do you know that, Potter? Maybe you should apply for a job at the Ministry of Deluded Saints because you look like a perfect candidate. Others would not hesitate to label me," I finally wrench my arm away from his grip and hold it gingerly.

He takes off his glasses and cleans them with the fabric from his pyjamas.

"Oh, I would not hesitate to label you if you were a different sort of person…like Malfoy or MacNair. You are not like them. I know we have never been friends and probably never will be but you are not like them."

He puts his glasses back on and looks at me. He smiles and turns to go. He pauses at the doorway and turns back to me.

"Have you forgotten the incident in the Shrieking Shack?"

"I have often tried to," I remark sarcastically.

"You asked me why I saved you and I didn't answer you at the time."

"I assumed it was because you didn't want Lupin expelled."

He chuckles softly.

"Well, I won't deny that. The real reason, oh scowling Slytherin, is that I thought you were worth saving."

I don't know what to say so I say nothing.

"I think Dumbledore is still up," he says, stretching and yawning, "You really should try his hot chocolate. It's amazing."

"Good night, Potter."

"Good night, Snape."

He disappears down the stairs. I am left wondering if he was actually here or if he was simply a figment of my imagination.

I don't know what I am feeling. Part of me is relieved but a part of me remains angry…

Damn you, Potter.

Damn you for being so right about me.

I don't think I can ever forgive you for that.

**** Several minutes later ***

There is no turning back now…

"Severus…this is a surprise. What brings you to my office at this hour?" Headmaster Dumbledore conjures up two cups of steaming hot chocolate, hands one to me and gestures towards a chair as he sits down himself, eyes watching me with kindness…a kindness I do not deserve.

I deserve nothing.

I take a sip of the hot drink. Potter's right. It is amazing stuff.

"I have made a terrible mistake…and I need your help…"

FINIS