In Loco Parentis 12/?

FEEDBACK: Oh yes. Concrit especially welcome. Also, after so long a silence on my part, abuse would be understandable and deserved. More constructive would be suggestions on how to bring the story to a close.

DISCLAIMER: The characters are the property of J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Books, Warner Brothers, and whoever else may have a hold on them. I own nothing in the Potterverse, or anywhere else, for that matter. Strictly for entertainment, and no profit is being made. Please sue somebody else.

A/N: Sorry for the excessively long time between updates. This story is not abandoned; I am just getting to a place in my life where I can make time for it again. Thanks for all the reviews and other nudges during this time, especially the Valentine's Day Potter's Place 2010 Wishlist remembrance. Thanks finally to Whitehound and Betina for being willing to pick up their beta mantles after so long. I really appreciate their being willing to devote the time, not only to this section, but to trying to remember what happened in earlier parts. All remaining mistakes are, of course, my own.

Last on "In Loco Parentis": Hermione has been seduced by the Dark Magic volumes in her trunk, and Snape has had to tell her some distasteful truths about Dark Magic in general, and himself in particular. She has been tasked with reading through Harry's records to see what is coming next for him. And Snape has been left with his own uncomfortable memories.

The next days were an exquisite torture for Snape. Somehow, telling the Granger girl his sins had unlocked that part of his mind behind which he had kept most of those memories carefully hidden. Intellectually he knew all his sins. He could number them better than the most pious of monks. But he had managed to go on living, and living with himself, by carefully compartmentalizing his various roles: teacher, Death Eater, Head of House, spy, betrayer of friends.

A few short days ago, some of the layers had been peeled away by his irrevocable decision to throw in his lot with Potter and his idiot friends. Now he found that even more of the protective layers which had buffered his old life were being stripped away. The result was that, even during the day, watching his young charges and his uneasy companions as carefully as ever, he found visions of the past superimposed upon his sight. Visions of a much younger Severus Snape, one who had all too easily been seduced by the attentions of a monster, as much as by the power he promised and the Darks Arts themselves.

He remembered the day he had first met the Dark Lord face to face. The older wizard had been handsome then, powerful and so seemingly wise.

"I hear that you are quite clever," he had said. "Sectumsempera. Tell me how you created that spell."

Snape began describing his youthful spell "for enemies" dispassionately at first, but gradually, under the Dark Lord's perceptive questioning, revealing not just the magical but the darker emotional considerations which had fueled the spell. As he finished, he glanced at the older wizard, seeking to gauge his reaction.

The Dark Lord was looking him in the eye. There was a small hint of a smile on his lips, and — approval? More than that. Respect. Understanding. A hope kindled then in Snape. So few people understood the finer principles of magic, content to use household spells to make their lives easier, but not to try to go much beyond what was already known. Snape had always wanted to explore, to see farther than anyone, to know not just how to cast the spells, but why they worked. Why he could work magic but the Muggles could not. Why everything was the way it was.

It had been a lie, of course. But the Dark Lord had possessed the rare ability to seem all things to all men; it was no wonder so many people had fallen under his influence, back before and during the First War. Then, he had seen an insatiably curious and needy boy, and he had encouraged him, given him just enough rope to hang himself. "Here, Severus. I have a few books you might wish to read. See what you make of them, and come back here in a week's time. We will discuss what you have learned, and I will teach you more."

The books he handed over had been relatively tame, compared to the ones Hermione had read upstairs. But they had led to others, each set darker than the last. Until finally, the day had come, as the Dark Lord had known it would, when Severus Snape, filled with venom and inspired by unspeakable evil, had begun creating a new curse.

Snape had never been exactly sure where the age regression idea had come from. If he'd had to guess, he thought his regrets about the past, about not being able to turn back the clock and make things right between him and Lily, had probably taken up a great deal of his imagination and dreams at the time. He knew intellectually, as everyone did, that a Time Turner could not be used to alter the past. But that did not stop him wishing.

And wishing, as he had so often found, led him back to the awareness of the frustrating limitations placed on him by upbringing and circumstance since childhood. Those memories, in turn, kindled his rage at all the pain he had suffered, all the humiliations. Until the day when he had closed a book on ways to fuel Dark Magic with acts that would corrupt an innocent, and— it had just come to him. A way to fuel the spell by involving the victim himself in the Darkness. The elegance of the solution of energy transfer had diverted him from the implications. And a part of him had reveled in how he could humiliate and hurt adults who had once mistreated him. Those were the people he imagined as he had woven the spell over a period of almost a week.

The Dark Lord had been pleased when Snape shared it with him. Snape felt the shame keenly now, at how proud of himself, how clever he had felt, never imagining the horrors to come. For of course, someone had to test the curse. On live subjects. During the months before Lily's death and the Dark Lord's disappearance, there had been no lack of test subjects: unlucky Muggles, wizards and witches captured off the streets of their home villages. Not all had been random victims, though. There had also been a number of aurors and others who set themselves up deliberately to oppose the conquests of the Dark Lord. All had been regressed, and Snape had been tasked with performing endless rounds of experiments on them and reporting his findings to the Dark Lord, not to mention fine tuning the spell itself.

But those were not the worst memories. Over the next few days, he spent his time trying to behave normally with his young charges. The irony of his serving as surrogate father to young Potter was not lost on him. The boy lapped up his distracted attention with such pathetic eagerness. At the same time, he played watchful mentor to a young witch who had taken her first steps down a road he knew all too well. All that time, he saw them watching him. Looking to him for guidance, answers. And all he could think about were the eyes of those other children. Near the end of the First War. The small test subjects whose vital signs and symptoms and performance on standard tests of intelligence and magic had been recorded dutifully on rolls of parchment by his assistant while he himself had cleaned them, fed them, changed them, comforted some of them. When the experiment had called for it.

He remembered the worst case. The child who had somehow lived through all the mishaps of her youth, all the illnesses. The Dark Lord had taken a particular interest in her early on, lavishing paternal affection on her, treating her to his uniquely charismatic personality, undermining her memories, turning her against her family, her comrades, her life's work as an auror, her sacred honor. He had only killed her after ensuring she knew fully all the crimes and depravities he had led her to.

A lesser man would have crumpled under the heavy weight of regret and guilt. But Severus Snape was made of sterner stuff, and he still had an overarching purpose in his life. He would bring about the Dark Lord's ultimate defeat. He would avenge Lily's murder and at the same time expiate his guilt for her death. He had been hanging on to this purpose for so long, he almost did not know how to do anything else. He took on the added pain now, of having to feel the regrets more keenly, knowing that these two children who looked on him now with such fondness and love would soon know exactly what he had done, the kind of man he had been. It took more courage now, to return little Potter's goodnight embraces, to force himself to speak normally and even somewhat kindly to Granger, knowing it would all be shattered soon. All the bonds he had forged in his life had been torn asunder by his old choices and mistakes, and this would be no different. But he owed both these children whatever they needed from him, for as long as they needed it. That, and his dreams of revenge, kept him going.

Hermione could not help but notice her mentor's distance in the days that followed. But in some ways, it was a relief. She had seen behind his cold facade these past few days, first catching flashes of the man himself, vulnerable, protective, loving and careful with Harry and to some extent herself. But now, she knew that all the evil she had imagined about him also lay there, under the surface. The contradictions confused her, but she was old enough to realize now that people were not always what they seemed, and that good and evil lay within all human hearts. She only had to look within her own heart now to know the truth of that.

The experience with the Darkness had shaken her to the core, and she was grateful that Snape's own preoccupations left him little inclination to do more than ask perfunctorily about her health and wellbeing. He was making more effort with Harry, she noticed, though she also could not help seeing now that each time the boy reached out to him in innocent affection, a flicker in Snape's eyes betrayed the pain it caused him. As it should, a part of her thought spitefully. He was responsible for Harry's condition, and all the terrible things that would happen as the boy moved through Snape's curse. If Harry managed to survive it at all. But another part of her, try as she might to avoid it, reminded her that she, too, had tasted the Darkness, and only Snape's intervention had saved her from creating something far worse.

She busied herself with reading Harry's medical scroll, as Snape had charged her. She found that Snape had, if anything, understated the extent of the Dursleys' neglect and abuse. But she found herself a good deal more angry with Dumbledore, who had not only known about it, but had allowed even more to happen to Harry after he had come to Hogwarts. Because there was no escaping the knowledge, now, that Dumbledore had known. The scroll in her hands was proof of that.

In fact, it was still growing. The last few inches contained the moment of the curse itself, and the growth spurts that had followed. The sudden fevers, the painful rapid growth, the symptoms which read like accounts of torture, were all there, each time resolving back to "Subject returned to normal health." The scroll was long and extraordinarily complicated to follow, and she was at first so appalled at the maladies her friend had suffered that it took her a few days to notice something odd about the new record, which should have been nothing more than a repetition of the earlier entries, but wasn't.

She was sitting in a corner of the living room, with the boys playing once again with their interlocking blocks, and Snape sitting watchfully by. The Dursley parents were in the kitchen at the table glaring through the doorway at times at them, but otherwise not inclined to interfere in their son's fraternization with his unnatural cousin.

Hermione was reading through the scroll, trying to identify the source of the feeling she had, that something was just not adding up. When she saw it, it took her a few moments to find her voice. "Professor, I think I've found something."

Snape looked slightly irritated as he turned her direction, but she saw him cover it quickly as he said, "What have you found, Miss Granger?"

She got up and held the scroll out to him. "Look at Harry's record, between the age he was a few days ago and the age he is now."

Snape scanned it quickly, though she knew he retained a perfect image of it in his mind already. He looked up at her questioningly.

She took the scroll from him and rolled it to the end. "Compare it with this." She found herself feeling the same acute nervous doubt she always felt, when he was judging her work on a potion or looking over her shoulder as she worked on a Dark Arts assignment. His face changed— he saw it too.

"This is impossible," he said slowly. He turned his eyes accusingly at her, as if she were the source of the impossibility. But there was hope in his eyes, too; the first she had seen in some time.

"What's impossible?" Dudley said, looking from one to the other curiously.

Snape was reading again, so Hermione explained "The curse is supposed to make the victim age more rapidly than usual, but stop and live through, in real time, all his old illnesses and injuries."

Snape added, rolling up the scroll, "But Potter is, as usual, an exception. He is missing all or most of them, due to the way he is aging so rapidly in each growth spurt."

"What does that mean?" Dudley asked. Harry was watching them all with wide eyes.

"I am not sure. Potter, come here."

Snape pulled his wand from the loop inside his left sleeve and cast a spell Hermione could not quite follow. He looked equal parts dumbfounded and amused at the result. "Potter, why are you the exception to every rule?"

The boy looked warily at him. "Is that bad?"

"Not at all. Potter, we may not need phoenix tears for you after all. Your unique metabolism and magical signature have combined to turn this curse on its head."

Hermione felt a rush of hope, but also a rush of that other familiar feeling: curiosity. "How is he doing it, Professor?" she asked.

Snape shook his head. "Possibly it's related to that phenomenon we noted earlier— his magic has been tuned to help him heal from illness and injury…." His face changed suddenly, and he cast another spell, which Hermione caught as some type of diagnostic one.

"Professor, what is it?"

Snape was frowning in disgust. "Dumbledore," he spat. "If I had known all this…." He stopped, but Hermione could see the depth of anger in his eyes. Harry saw it too, and he took a step back toward her, a horror dawning on his face.

"You killed him," the boy breathed. "I remember it."

Snape looked at him, obviously startled. He swallowed hard and said quietly, "Potter, you have a number of memories which are no doubt confusing…."

Harry was shaking his head, still backing away. Hermione put her arms around him as he reached her. "I can see it. You hated him."

Snape looked him in the eye. He hesitated a long moment, and the Hermione saw him come to some sort of decision. "Yes. And I hate him more now, when I know exactly what he did to you. But at the time, I was not killing him because I hated him, or even because I wanted to. I was following his wishes."

Harry looked at Hermione, and she nodded confirmation. He looked even more confused. Hermione hugged him close and said, "Just trust us, Harry. When you get back to your right age, things will make more sense. We won't let anyone hurt you."

Harry hugged her back, and she could feel his small body trembling. "I think I should get ready for bed," he said, after a long moment. He let go of her and mustered a brave smile, so like ones she had seen on him at an older age, when he was trying to be strong for someone else but was secretly terrified inside.

"I'll walk you up," she said, and he nodded gratefully. He did not look at Snape, or even at Dudley as he said goodnight and headed for the stairs. She looked back at Snape, though, from the doorway, and his face bore a deep sadness, and an even deeper resignation.