Chapter 11 : Full Circle

They would leave. With no time to be lost and already rushed for time as Lee hadn't anticipated this extra journey, Lee decided that they would leave for Hogwarts that day. "Too much can happen if we wait," he'd told Severus as soon as he'd announced his plans to go. "I understand that you want to see Umino-sensei healthy before we leave, but there's so little time. As it stands, I'll have to have more of that stuff you made before – that stuff that made me so fast. With it, I'll have you back at your school before anything else can endanger my deadline." He looked sad, though, and said with a sigh, "I wish I'd had more time to train with you. It would have been great fun."

While Lee went to say his farewells to Gaara and the stern Temari, Severus sat by Iruka's bedside.

"You mustn't look so grim." Iruka smiled up at Severus, fondly. "I'm not about to die the minute you turn your back, little boy."

"I am NOT a 'little' boy. I'm the tallest in my class." It felt like a childish, stupid thing to say as soon as it left Severus' mouth and he flushed as he heard himself saying it.

Iruka laughed, weakly. "As you like, then. All the same, I'm not so poorly that you need to be so bleak. Hinata and I will rest here until I'm ready to return home. You're welcome back, you know. I'd like you to meet my boys properly and without such a battle as I'm sure you gave them at your first encounter."

"Well! A battle is all they could expect, really. I should hope big, brave killer shinobi wouldn't expect their helpless victims to just meekly roll over for them!"

"No. I suppose they'd have been disappointed if you had." Iruka pushed himself into a sitting position, grimacing with pain as he did.

"I'm sorry it still hurts. I did my best." But it wasn't good enough. It was never good enough. Severus bit his tongue and dug his fingernails into his palms. Why was nothing he ever did good enough? He was only trying to help and he couldn't even do so simple a thing as find a way to heal both the injury and the pain caused by it when his potions book was sitting right in front of him! Stupid! He berated himself. Dim-witted troll!

Iruka barked, "Now, then! I'll have none of that! I know that look – don't think I don't! I can see the self-hate boiling inside of you." Such a grave look Iruka gave him! "Poor child. Do you think everything you do must be perfect?"

Severus opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed his mouth and shrugged, hugging himself. Truth was, he just wasn't sure. His ma and pop were perfect and, in his memory, they would always be perfect. How could he be any less? And, yet, he was. He was laughed at, despised for just being himself. At times, he felt as if he were nothing but an inconvenience to the people around him. Surely it would be better if he could be like his parents. If he could be strong and good-looking like his pop or if he could he be calm and wise like his ma, then life would surely be better. Severus said, "If I could have done just a little better, you wouldn't be in pain now."

Iruka chuckled. "You saved my life and I don't think Tsunade-sama herself could have done a finer job. I have no complaints. You saved a village. No! Don't mention those who couldn't be saved!" He took Severus' hand, petting it like one would a cat. "You can't save everyone. Be thankful that you had the power to save those that you could. You have nothing – absolutely nothing – to be ashamed of." He went silent for a moment and then smiled. "I know you're eager to go home, but I meant what I said. I want you to feel free to come back and visit. My home may not be large and it'll feel even smaller if you visit while the rest of my family is actually home, but you have a place there."

If a sword had split him in half, Severus couldn't have felt more pain than he did when Iruka smiled at him so sincerely. It was such an agonizing, sweet pain deep in his chest, so deep that it felt as if he were somehow breaking. Something inside him or surrounding him was breaking, cracking like the shell of an egg. "You…you WANT me to come back?" Mister Hagrid wanted him about, but so few other people did. No one ever wanted him. He was tolerated, but nothing more. That Iruka, who'd known him for only a few days would think so well of him… it was indescribable. It felt like something was glowing inside of him.

"I would be disappointed if you didn't. But it is your choice. I had wanted you to have time to sit in on a few of my classes at the Academy. I think, when I tell Tsunade-sama about this trip, she will want to talk to you about wizard healing and how it might benefit the village. The shouting between you and Naruto will wake the dead, I think, and I tremble to think of you and Sasuke will get on!" Despite his words, he seemed more amused than worried. "Yes, I would be very happy if you came back. Still, nothing has to be decided now. If you decide you'd like to come for a visit, you send me an owl. I'm sure I'll get it and I'll come for you." Iruka's smile was honest and open. "Perhaps here, you might be able to shed some of that pain that's gnawing at you."

Severus looked up, sharply. He glanced over his shoulder to make certain they were alone, then he moved a little closer to Iruka and whispered, "Do you know how to stop the hurt? Your parents were killed, too. Can you tell me how to stop the hurt?"

Iruka put a hand against Severus' cheek and got such a sad look on his face that it made Severus looked away. "Is it so very bad?"

"I can't stop it. The anger and pain and… and…" Severus pressed his lips together. "I'm so tired of it." He felt a chill at the words and swallowed hard. The sickening feeling of treachery nearly swamped him and he quickly said, "I don't want to forget my parents, really! But when I think of them… everything hurts and I'm always angry. Even if it's something stupid and I know it's stupid and doesn't matter, just about everything makes me angry. I… I'm just tired! All the time. I can hardly remember ever being happy." He didn't realize that he was shaking until Iruka took his hands. He tired to pull away, but Iruka held on. "Sometimes," Severus snarled, though he didn't know why he was suddenly so angry. "Sometimes I feel so lost and I don't know what to do and it all hurts!"

A hug.

Severus was stunned by the sudden embrace, pulled into Iruka's arms and held tightly against the man. He shook a moment, then tired to relax - Iruka wasn't hurting him. He knew Iruka would hurt him no more than Mister Hagrid would – but he couldn't.

"Easy, now." Iruka gave him a tight squeeze, then moved far enough away to look at Severus' face. "I think you've had too few of these, lately." After a moment, Iruka released Severus and looked at him, closely. "Look at you shake – like there's something shifting around inside of you, trying to get out." He regarded Severus with a keen eye. "I think it's more than all your anger. There's something still inside you, something that seems big and dreadful and frightening. It needs to be looked at, to be faced. Let it out. Talk about it."

"I can't."

"Just open your mouth and let it out. Have I been shock by you before now? Come, now. Let that clever tongue of yours settle those trembles. You're safe, here."

The other person Severus would have felt safe talking to about so intimate a matter was Mister Hagrid and he never had. He would have had to see Mister Hagrid every day and what he wanted to say, what caused the shifting inside of him, was something so unspeakably vile that he felt sick just thinking about it. Mister Hagrid was so gentle and kind – if he knew the kind of things Severus thought, then even he would turn away. There would be no more breakfasts together and no more walks in the forest, no more fishing trips and no more sitting by the fire with Mister Hagrid's dreadful home-made cookies and tea. He couldn't bear that. It would kill him if he lost Mister Hagrid. So, he'd never spoken of his darkest nightmare.

But Iruka…

If Iruka turned away, then Severus could simply never see him, again. Severus felt another twinge of pain at that thought. He wanted to go back to Konohagakure. He wanted to stay visit Iruka and sit in on class at the Academy. Maybe he'd even like Iruka's sons. It was far-fetched, but it was possible. But, if he had to chose, he knew he couldn't lose Mister Hagrid and he HAD to say something, anything to settle the shifting.

"Shall I help?" Iruka asked, kindly. "Perhaps this has to do with that uncle of yours?"

Severus nodded.

"You're angry with him."

"No. I hate him."

"And you fear him."

Severus felt suddenly lightheaded. "Every time I see him. He comes to the school, you know. He never announces it, just shows up. Once, he was just there when I looked up. Just standing in the doorway of the classroom – watching. He keeps smiling at me. I think, if he gets me alone, I think he'll kill me, too." Severus turned his face away from Iruka when he felt the threatening burn of tears. "I don't want to die. He's my uncle. He's not supposed to want to hurt me." The something big and frightening inside of him became an aching pain. He HAD to tell. It was hurting too much to keep silent. "But, that's not all the shifting. I hate him and he scares me to pieces, and I want him to suffer for what he did, but… " Severus nearly choked on his words – the cause of his shaking. "Why did they have to die? They left me. Pop was bigger and stronger than anyone and ma was powerful and shrewd so why weren't they strong enough?" He slapped both hands over his mouth then jumped to his feet and started to furiously pace the small room.

"Severus, you need to stay calm. Take your hands off your mouth and let the words out."

He barely heard Iruka's words. He pinched his arms and slapped both hands against the walls, stomping his feet. It was senseless and pointless, that bizarre attempt to chase away the guilt for his feelings. He'd never abused himself in front of other people, not even in front of Mister Hagrid, but he couldn't stop. He had to do something to stop himself from thinking such evil thoughts!

"Severus, can you hear me? You haven't said anything naughty. You're not bad. You're a good boy and talking about how you feel is good, no matter how you feel."

He longed for a pain greater than what he was feeling, something bigger to run off the pain that had haunted him since the night of his parent's murder. He was fairly consumed by hate and anger and pain and it was shifting inside of him, moving about like a furious animal that he couldn't tame. He began to claw at his forearms.

"Enough!" Iruka was suddenly on his feet and holding Severus by the wrists. His thunderous expression made Severus feel so small. Iurka took a deep breath. "You will not hurt yourself. Do you understand?"

"You shouldn't be out of bed." Severus sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. "You'll hurt yourself."

Iruka stared, then shook his head. "You are the limit, boy. Sit with me, then, and we'll both be safe."

They sat together until Severus realized he wasn't shaking, anymore, and said, "I don't want to be angry with them, I just can't stop. I tried so hard, but nothing's working and I think I'm going to be angry forever." He suddenly looked at Iruka. "How miserable can I be? How low? I'm angry with my parents for dying."

"When my parents were killed," Umino-sensei said, softly. "I found myself hating them. I knew it wasn't their fault. I knew they'd loved me. I knew they didn't chose to die, but all the same… they'd left me behind. I was suddenly alone. The village took up the expense for my care. I was allowed to stay in my family's home and I never went hungry. But the nights were so quiet without my dad singing. My mom had the most beautiful laugh. It was the quiet that was the worst. I was so angry at them for leaving me alone in the silence. And I felt so guilty for feeling that way."

Severus froze. It felt as if he'd been thrown in a vat of ice water. He couldn't breathe or move and he was sure his heart had stopped. Guilty.

Iruka took Severus' hand and patted it, lightly. "They'd died in a terrible manner. The pain they must have felt… they'd died to protect me. I would have died to have them back. To see them for just a moment, to hold them, I would have killed myself."

How was it possible? Severus wondered, unable to look up from his knees. How was it possible that anyone else had known how he felt? He hadn't even really understood it until Iruka uttered that dire word - guilty. He hadn't killed them, no matter what rumors had spread, but the guilt was agonizing. They'd died because Marcus Prince wanted him. They'd died and Severus had lived and, ungrateful wretch that he was, he couldn't stop the anger that they'd left him so utterly alone.

"I feel certain, that no matter how angry you are at them, your parents will want you to be happy. After all, you love them so much that I know they must have been very good people. It's okay that you feel guilty, even if you've done nothing to deserve it." Iruka began to rub Severus' back. "There's nothing wrong with how you feel. You can feel angry and bitter and hurt and anything else that feels right. I wish I could make life better for you and wash away your pain. I'm so sorry I can't. But," he took Severus' chin and turned Severus' face to make sure Severus was looking at him. "I want you to listen and really hear this : you are a good boy. No matter what lies other people tell you and no matter what the darkness inside you whispers, you are a good boy. I say so and I have never lied to you."

"We've only known each other a few days."

"Every relationship has to start somewhere and I think ours has gotten off to a fine start. We haven't got a single lie between. Let us keep it that way, my good little boy."

And inside Severus, there was hate and anger and pain, but in a small corner, guarded with high walls and a deep moat, there were two spots of light – one for Mister Hagrid and, now, one for Iruka.


Lee's idea of using Severus' potion to increase his speed never would have worked – there were none of the ingredients in the desert – but, luckily, Gaara offered to help. Severus had never seen anything like it. Even the remarkable fighting power of the shinobi that he'd seen was nothing compared to what Gaara was capable of.

It was another thanks, Gaara had said. Temari was well enough to guard the village while Gaara was gone, so he would take them to Hogwarts. The three of them – Severus, Lee, and Gaara – stood at the outskirts of Sunagakure after all the farewells had been said and there came an ominous shifting sound, like the noise a snake might make slithering across dry sand.

There were no tearful farewells for Gaara. He allowed his sister to hug him even though he seemed uncomfortable with the touch. He stood there and accepted the hug and nodded when she whispered something, but then stepped away from her without any change of expression. The remaining villagers didn't move too close to any of them, but watched cautiously.

The gourd released its sand, but this time it didn't go into the ground as it had before, but into the sky. Somehow, it floated around Gaara's head like a cloud and grew bigger and bigger until it was the size of a car, then a truck. It flattened out like a pancake then sank until it hovered a few inches above the ground. Gaara stepped up and stood on the sand. It held his weight easily. He stood there with his arms crossed and waited until Lee and Severus joined him.

What a strange feeling it was. The sand was malleable, but firm enough that Severus wasn't afraid of falling through it. It moved under his feet, ever so slightly, like a living thing. He supposed it was rather like standing on a carpet of insects.

There were no spells or anything else that might have been familiar to Severus, but the sand carpet began to rise. Up and up they went until the village was well below them and then, moving into the distance. Severus watched until he could not longer see Hinata or Iruka waving at them.

However Gaara managed it he kept his sand carpet afloat far above the earth. A full day they flew, soaring above rivers, mountains, and a sea until the land below them became a forest. The sun was getting close to setting when they came to the edge of the Forbidden Forest.

Severus wasn't looking forward to going back to Hogwarts – school was just something he had to do. The forest, though… that was different. He'd never been allowed into it without Mister Hagrid as escort, but that was only sensible. Still, he'd spent a great many hours sitting at the edge of the forest and watching the trees and the few small animals brave enough to venture into sight of Hogwarts. He'd loved the special outings with Mister Hagrid, going to collect nuts or fish in the little river. He'd missed the forest dearly.

Gaara lowered his sand carpet at the edge of the forest at Lee's request. "We'll never find the others if we're floating above everything and I'm afraid it won't fit well in this crowded forest. Thank you for the ride." He gave Gaara a bow.

Gaara nodded in response, but said nothing else. When Lee and Severus were on the ground, he raised a hand in farewell, then flew away, back the way they'd come.

Again, through the forest Lee ran with Severus on his back, far more willingly than when they'd left the forest. It didn't take long for them to find Lee's Cellmates – Gai-san, Tenten, and Neji - and fall in with them. Soon, they were all running through the canopy of the trees. Lee drew up beside Gai-san, and exchanged a greeting, though Gai-san didn't smile.

"There was an unexpected complication," Gai-san said. "Itachi turned up."

Lee didn't hesitate, though he did flinch and looked worriedly over to where Sasuke as running. "And…?"

"And all turned out well!" Then, Gai-san did smile. He gave Lee a thumbs-up. "Young Uchiha-kun did very well, much better than most would have done in his position. We'll have to be careful from now on as I'm not certain if he followed us here or if the meeting was nothing more than coincidence, but the Hokage's test has been passed."

Lee looked relieved, but neither he nor Gai-san elaborated on what the test had been and Severus got the distinct impression that if he asked, he wouldn't get much of an answer.

He had to hold on tightly, but it was an easier trip than they'd taken after he'd given Lee the potion to speed him up. He was able to keep his eyes open and look at the other Shinobi who ran with them. At once, his attention settled on his double – Uchiha Sasuke. How strange. To see himself so quiet and moving so smoothly, so gracefully that Severus knew he would never be able to move in such a way. It was even stranger to see him and know him. He knew that Sasuke had been orphaned by his own big brother and he knew that Sasuke was both hated and feared by his own village. They hated what he'd done to them, but their fear of what he was capable of and respect for his family, which had obviously been held in high esteem, was undeniable. For all that Sasuke was to be pitied; there was also much reason to feel joy for him. He had family. He had Iruka, who clearly treasured Sasuke as much as he would if Sasuke had been his own flesh and blood son, as well as Naruto, a brother. There was also Iruka's husband, Kakashi, who apparently supervised these dangerous missions to keep their two sons safe.

After a time, Severus became aware that Sasuke was staring at him. "Staring is rude, Uchiha-san." Severus turned to look at Sasuke. "Your… guardian sends his regards." Thinking about his uncomfortable arrival and the overheard discussion between Iruka and Lee was almost enough to make Severus laugh. "I believe my arrival took him by surprise."

Sasuke winced.

With the wind biting at his face, Severus was quiet for a moment, but he couldn't help asking, "And how did you like life as me? Not too uncomfortable, I hope." He couldn't possibly imagine that Sasuke had had any fun. Not as him.

"I've had worse," Sasuke answered. Then he looked at Lee. "Lee, you'll want to keep him out of the way for a while. My brother… "

"Gai-sensei has all ready told me," Lee said. "Do not worry for Severus-kun. I will keep him safe and he will not try to escape me. He understands the importance of what we're doing."

Severus looked away from Sasuke's sudden, piercing stare. "Can't give away the mission. Well? What happened while I was gone?"

"Your uncle was killed."

Killed. "Ah." Dead. Severus felt a smile threatening. How awful! How evil that he could feel such joy in the death of… no. No, he decided, firmly. It wasn't evil or awful. It was a thing that had happened and that thing was a benefit to him. It just meant one less thing for him to take care of. He didn't feel any guilt. Maybe, he thought, it Iruka had been right – what he felt was okay. It was his feeling, so he had a right to feel however he felt. There was no changing it and there was no right or wrong way to feel. All he could do was to accept the way he felt and decide how to act upon it.

Severus nearly giggled. He would have a party.

He became aware of whispering between some of the others just before everyone stopped running and stood on some of the larger tree branches. They all went very still, listening, and then looked down at the ground below. To Severus' shock, they saw Lupin run into view. He skid to a halt almost directly beneath them, sending snow flying everywhere.

"He moves like Kiba," Severus heard someone whisper.

Lupin's head jerked at the words and Severus frowned. The forest was silent, but even so! At such a distance, there should have been no way Lupin should have been able to hear a whisper that even Severus could barely hear. Lupin's shoulders hunched. Very carefully, he tilted his head from side-to-side. He raised his face and sniffed. Lupin slowly moved forward, but he didn't continue on. He knew they were there.

Naruto was suddenly with them and dropped down next to Sasuke. He gave his friend a rough elbow in the side. He grinned widely and leaned close enough to whisper something, but before he could say anything else to give them away, Sakura slapped her hand over his mouth.

Naruto frowned and looked down at Lupin. Naruto pulled a scroll out of his jacket and handed it to Sasuke. He made some sort of hand gesture that Sasuke seemed to understand for he frowned and shook his head. Naruto just grinned and, with the puff of smoke that Severus remembered from their first encounter, made himself look like Severus. Then he dropped out of the tree, right in front of Lupin. The surprise might have worked if Lupin hadn't whipped out his wand and fired off a spell before Naruto had even hit the ground, it would have been the perfect plan.

Naruto's disguise was disrupted and he was engulfed in smoke, again. Before Naruto became visible as himself, Sakura dropped down behind Lupin and covered his eyes with her hands.

Lupin yelled and tried to pull away, but Sakura was nothing if not strong. She held tightly until Tenten dropped down beside her and pulled wire from a belt she wore. Quick as anything, they had Lupin bound hand and foot and laying on his stomach. He wriggled on the ground like a worm, but Sakura doggedly kept his eyes covered.

A short distance away, the smoke cleared from around Naruto. He sat on his knees in the snow with both hands clutching at his stomach and his face twisted. A soft whimper escaped from his lips.

Everyone crept closer, though no one but Lupin spoke, and he was ignorant of what was happening around him and still shouted at his attackers.

"Who are you?" Lupin demanded. "Get away from me! Get away!" His terror was real. Despite his thrashing for freedom, he was pale and shaking. When they all gathered around Lupin he stiffened and sniffed, then went very still. "Snape? You're here? The real Snape?"

How could he know? If Sasuke had been masquerading as Severus for so long, then he must have done a good enough job to fool the professors and other students. If Lupin could tell the difference between them, why had he not told anyone? Severus was still on Lee's back, so he wasn't walking around making noise, and he hadn't said a word since Lupin had come into view. Lupin couldn't see with Sakura's hands over his eyes. That only left smell… if his sense of smell was so acute, more so than most humans…

Severus opened his mouth, but Gai-san held up a hand and Severus stopped.

Gai-san spoke with Severus' voice, just as Sasuke had when he'd first taken his Severus costume. "I'm here, Lupin. What did you do?"

"Get me loose, Snape! Whatever's going on - "

Gai-san persisted, "What did you do?" When Lupin didn't answer right away, Gai-san added, "Tell me what spell you cast and you'll be free."

"Nothing to hurt him."

Considering how Kakashi was stroking Naruto's back to soothe him, it hardly seemed the truth. Besides, Severus knew only too well that Lupin was capable of hurting people. He may not have actively gone out to hurt Severus, but he certainly knew how to simply from his association with Black and Potter and Pettigrew. Lupin was smart and Severus believed that he would have easily been able to remember and repeat any of the terrible spells he would have heard from his three cronies.

Lupin went on, "You… aren't you. You weren't. I know it's you, now." He sniffed, again. "No. No. It's not you speaking." He stopped struggling. "I wasn't trying to hurt anyone, just find out what's going on. The spell, it was just to see the truth of what lies inside. It's to see who's masquerading as you."

Kakashi's head jerked up. He looked sharply at Naruto, then back at Lupin. "Damn." Then he said, without trying to keep his voice secret from Lupin, "Blindfold and hide him. I need all hands!"

Lupin struggled and yelled all the more at that, but it did no good. He might as well have been laying still for all the good it did him. Tenten blindfolded him with her headband with the metal plate on it and Sakure used hers to tie around his head in such a way that his ears were covered. After that Neji took Lupin by the throat and snarled,

"Speak, make any noise at all, and you'll die." Whether he meant it or not, Severus didn't know, but Lupin clearly believed him. He went silent and still. Neji picked Lupin up and tossed him over one shoulder. He carried Lupin into the forest without a word then returned a moment later.

"What's going on?" Severus asked Lee.

"Something you don't want to see. We should leave."

Naruto's low, wicked laugh drew everyone's attention back to him. His eyes, when he raised his face, were bright. His grin was broad, like a madman's. "Freeeee…. " The word hissed from his mouth. Spittle dribbled down his chin.

Sasuke made as if to go to Naruto, but Lee took his arm. "No."

"I can't leave him like this!" Sasuke pulled to get free, but Lee was simply too strong for Sasuke to break away from. "He wouldn't leave me!"

"I know he wouldn't, but you've got a mission to complete. Naruto-kun is strong. We must go." Lee tugged Sasuke's arm once more, then took off with Severus.

After a moment, Severus looked over his shoulder and saw that they were being followed by Gai-san, Tenten, and Neji. Sasuke came up to run unhappily beside Lee. Sasuke was quiet for a little while, but eventually sent a glare at Gai-san. "Go back and help Kakashi-sensei and Sakura!"

Gai-san kept his eyes focused ahead. "Calmly, Uchiha-kun. Kakashi is well able to deal with Kyuubi. I am better suited for your brother."

Neji bound from one branch to another with his long hair caught behind him in the wind. "Naruto is not our mission, nor is this unexpected development. Our mission is to see you safely to the end of yours. Keep going."

Their journey was quiet until an unfamiliar voice called out, "Little brother?" The man said. "Show yourself, little brother."

Everyone stopped and Lee, for Severus' benefit, pointed downward. There, below in a clearing, a man stood. He was tall with dark hair and wore a nice black suit. The man walked at a sedate pace. Something about him, something that Severus couldn't pinpoint, sent a shiver down Severus spine. Everyone tensed and Sasuke went eerily still. His eyes had widened dramatically and he didn't look as if he were breathing.

Itachi. Severus remembered the name from what Hinata had told him about the tragic Uchiha family. Itachi stopped walking and started to turn in a circle. "Little brother. Little brother, I know you're there."

Finally, Gai-san said told Sasuke, "Go," even as he stared at Itachi.

Sasuke shook himself and nodded. He took off running, again, this time with only Lee and Severus. They moved so quickly that Severus had little opportunity to see anything, but he did take a glance over his shoulder in time to see Gai-san and Itachi flying towards one another before they were well out of sight.

"Don't let him go until I have time to report to the client," Sasuke told Lee, his tone even and empty.

"There's no need for that," Lee said. "Severus will do nothing to endanger the mission. I could let him go now and he'd stay silent."

"You're being very corporative," Sasuke commented, looking at Severus. "Why?"

Lee smiled brightly. "Severus had an interesting time in the village. He won't betray us."

"You trust him?" Sasuke asked.


Severus couldn't help the burst of pride he felt at Lee's simple answer.

A slight movement from below caught Severus' attention long enough for him to recognize Mister Hagrid. He lightly slapped Lee's shoulder. "Stop here. There. It's Mister Hagrid. Let me off here."

Mister Hagrid, indeed, was just ahead, sitting on a fallen tree with his head in his hands.

"You're still wearing Uchiha-san's clothes," Lee said. "Won't he find them odd? You should both exchange clothes before you meet Hagrid-san."

"The mission doesn't end for another ten minutes," Sasuke said. "I can't be discovered until then."

Severus shook his head, also. "It doesn't matter. Mister Hagrid will believe what I tell him. He knows I'd never lie to him. I won't lie to him now."

"Is that wise?" Lee looked over his shoulder. "If you don't lie, how will you explain yourself without giving away our mission? You did promise. You can tell him everything, but only after sunset."

"I won't break my word," Severus assured him. "Trust me. I know Mister Hagrid. I can do this. You DID say you trust me."

Lee smiled so brightly that Severus almost though his face would split. "And so I do!" Lee let himself drop to the forest floor out of sight of Mister Hagrid. He waited until Severus slid off his back and said, "Good luck to you, friend."

"And to you," Severus replied. "Iruka said I could go back and visit. Maybe in the summer…"

Lee smiled. "I'll be waiting to hear from you, then. I must go. Hurry!"

Severus was moving almost before Lee stopped speaking. He darted towards where he'd seen Mister Hagrid, moving so quickly that he caught his foot on something and tripped. Even so, he got to his feet and ran. Through the dense trees until he came upon Mister Hagrid, looking so miserable that Severus felt instantly guilty. Once he reached Mister Hagrid's side, he grabbed the man's arm while holding onto his precious school book with the other hand. "Mister Hagrid! We have to go. We have to go now!" Severus pulled for all he was worth, trying desperately to get Mister Hagrid to his feet.

It was rather like trying to move a small mountain.

"Severus, where have you been? I've been looking everywhere for you, lad!"

"Doesn't matter. Run. Please!" Severus pulled for all he was worth, glancing over his shoulder. He could see in his mind's eye the terrible battles raging just beyond the trees and imagining what those fierce shinobi could do gentle Mister Hagrid if he were to get trapped in the middle of their battle. "Right behind us… "

"Who is?"

Severus hesitated. He couldn't just blurt something like that out. Mister Hagrid would be sure to try to go back and help. "Please. Trust me. We have to go! Please?"

Mister Hagrid crouched down a little and looked Severus straight in the eye. Something he saw there made him burst out with a smile. He took Severus by the shoulders. "It IS you! I don't know what's been happening, but… it's you. You're back." He froze, then stood up straight and looked over Severus' head and scowled. "Who's out there? Someone fixing to hurt you?"

Severus fought down a smile, pleased that Mister Hagrid would worry for him. "No. It's nothing like that, but never mind that, we have to go. You do trust me, don't you?"

"Of course. Off we are, then." They hurried enough that Severus was running next to Mister Hagrid's massive strides. Shortly, with not a single sighting of shinobi or anything at all more threatening than the looming trees, there was light ahead of them. The trees thinned and the great castle of Hogwarts came into view.

It was the same as always, but, somehow, it didn't look as intimidating as it had. What he had seen! What he had done! Hogwarts would surely be as dull as drying paint after all he'd been through. How could class ever compare? And he could go back. Iruka had said so! He could go back and attend one of Iruka's classes and maybe Lee and Hinata would show him around the village more. Perhaps he could go back to Sunagakure to see how they were faring. The world was bigger than Hogwarts and bullies and the Headmaster.

"You get yourself inside by the fire!" Mister Hagrid ordered. "Wandering about out there – again! – I don't know where your head's at! And I want the whole story about who that was trying to pass himself off as you. Didn't do much of a job at it, if you ask me; he didn't act a thing like you, even if he might have looked somewhat similar."

Severus stopped on the top step. "You go in first. I just need a minute."

Mister Hagrid drew himself up and scowled. "You need a minute to stand out here in the cold? What for?"

Severus chewed on his lip as he debated what to say. "I have a reason. A good one."

"But one you're not willing to tell me?"

"Oh, I'll tell you. On my word. But… it can't be until after sunset. It'll just be a minute."

Mister Hagrid, though clearly puzzled and uneasy, slowly nodded. "I'll have some hot tea and soup for you when you come in. Don't stay out so long that I have to come fetch you – again."

"Yes, Mister Hagrid."

As soon as Mister Hagrid went inside, Severus turned around and found Sasuke, still dressed as Severus, waiting. Under Sasuke's arm hung Lupin, still bound and blindfolded. None too gently, Sasuke dropped Lupin in the snow.

"I didn't much care for him or his friends."

After learning how Sasuke's life had so closely mirrored his own, Severus was tempted to forgive the whole kidnapping incident. It had gone well for him and he'd truly had a better time than he would have if he'd stayed at Hogwarts. "That only proves you have good taste."

Lupin, from where he lay barked out, "What's going on? Snape!"

Neither bothered to answer him.

Sasuke put his hands to his face and, with a puff of smoke that was starting to become familiar, Severus' face disappeared. They went behind the house to exchange clothes and Sasuke handed back Severus' book bag. It felt good to have it and good to slip his potions book inside, where it belonged.

After they were both redressed, Severus said, "Tell Mister Umino I'll miss him. And Miss Hyuuga." They parted ways, then, but Severus didn't immediately go back into Mister Hagrid's hut. He paused on the doorstep and looked behind him, but Sasuke had gone. He looked up to where Lee was sitting on the rooftop. "Is it over now? Can I tell Mister Hagrid everything?"

"You can tell him what you like. The mission ended at sunset. And now," he stood up and smiled down at Severus. "I have to get going. It was a pleasure and an honor being able to know you." Then he, too, was gone.

Severus looked up at the stars just flickering to life and the moon where it partly hid behind the trees. He felt… good. There would still be problems, he knew, but still… he felt rather good. So good, that he could almost cry. Everyone was safe, he'd never have to go with Marcus Prince, and, perhaps, he would go back to visit Iruka, Lee, and Hinata. He even made up his mind to give the rest of Iruka's family a chance despite their rough first meeting.

"Mister Snape?"

The headmaster stood there in the half-darkness with such a perplexed expression as he stared carefully at Severus that Severus knew at once why he looked confused. It hurt. It shouldn't, he reasoned, but all the same…

"Yes. It's me. You didn't even know I was gone, did you?"

The headmaster chuckled. "Now, Mister Snape, really, there's no need for such a bitter tone. I must admit, I was shocked to learn about your double. He really was most convincing. I just wanted to see that you are the real one – what?" He suddenly realized that Lupin was wiggling around on the ground trying to free himself and quickly got down to help him. "Whatever happened to you, Mister Lupin?"

Realizing that the headmaster's attention had shifted to what he perceived as a more important target, Severus said, "The short answer is 'no', then. You didn't notice I'd gone." He gave the headmaster a little bow of his head. "Goodnight. I'll be in my common room well before curfew. If you'll excuse me."

He went back into Mister Hagrid's home without even glancing back at the headmaster. He had stories to tell and a warm fire to sit by. No doubt, Lupin would be telling his own stories to the headmaster before they even reached Hogwarts. Honestly, Severus really didn't care.

Life wasn't perfect – it never would be. Severus' parents were still dead and he no longer had even a hated relative to legally take charge of him. No relatives at all, as far as he knew. Perhaps he would be shipped off to an orphanage. Perhaps he might have to leave Hogwarts and Mister Hagrid. He wouldn't be sorry about having to leave Hogwarts, but Mister Hagrid… that would hurt. He couldn't lose him.

Severus shook himself and determinedly smiled. He closed the door behind him, shutting the headmaster and his worries about the future out. He was certain he could figure some plot out that would keep him with Mister Hagrid. He would send a message to Iruka in the morning. He would go back to visit, if the offer remained open. He would see Iruka's class and get news of how Gaara's people were faring. Maybe, he would even take a few of Iruka's classes. True that he couldn't really see himself as a full shinobi, but perhaps with Iruka's training, he would be a spy.

The End