Part One: Severus & Amelia

A secluded glen somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland:

The morning mist was just rising off the tender shoots of new spring grass and the heather was blooming in lavender clumps across the floor of the glen, a sure sign of the coming of spring. Several thickets of gorse and gooseberry hid the pretty spot away from chance travelers happening on it.

To the west rose sheer rock cliffs and somewhere off to the east burbled a mountain stream, its crystal clear depths icy from the snowmelt. Meadowlarks and thrushes warbled in the dawn in chorus and a family of rabbits nibbled at the clover cautiously at the edge of the glen.

This quiet mountain retreat was far from the everyday hustle and bustle of the modern world, a place to sit and ponder, to be still and reflect, a place where Severus Snape could be assured no one would find him.

He had discovered the peaceful glen by chance one day, hiking up there for potion ingredients, and had claimed it for his own—if one could say such a thing of this wilderness retreat, pristine paradise that had known the touch of only one man in all the centuries it had stood there.

The young wizard considered this spot his refuge, the one place he could go to where he would be undisturbed, where his fellow wizards would not come, a place he could count on to soothe the troubled spaces in his soul.

Of which there were many, more perhaps than any twenty-one year old should be expected to carry.

But that was nothing new. Sometimes it seemed to Severus that his life was one long chain of missed opportunities, lost chances, and mistakes—mistakes beyond number, some of them unforgivable.

Such as the one that had led him to join the Death Eaters—that secret society of Dark Wizards dedicated to the support of Lord Voldemort—otherwise known as He-Who-Mustl-Not-Be-Named—who sought to spread a reign of terror and destruction through the world of wizard and Muggle alike that rivaled Armageddon.

Most of the members of Voldemort's band were fanatics who believed inherently in the superiority of pure-blooded wizards over those who, like Severus, bore Muggle blood in their veins. They also believed that their leader—called the Dark Lord by his loyal followers—was destined to rule the world. And in order to fulfill their master's grand vision, the Death Eaters were prepared to do anything.

Lie, cheat, steal, torture, even kill—whatever was necessary to satisfy the needs of their Dark Master. Power-hungry and conscienceless, selfish and eager to dominate those who were helpless, such were the followers of Lord Voldemort.

All except one, that is.

Severus alone did not bear the fanatical drive of the other Death Eaters. He had joined the group as a teenager, out of an unfulfilled adolescent need to belong somewhere, to ease the ever-present loneliness in his heart from watching his former childhood friend, the vivacious Lily Evans, whom he'd loved from afar, marry Snape's nemesis—the arrogant obnoxious prat, James Potter.

Not that Severus was surprised Lily had chosen James over himself. James was everything Severus was not—popular, handsome, charming, rich and possessed of a carefree spirit and sense of adventure that would appeal to any girl in the country.

In contrast, Severus was a loner, shy and lacking in social amenities, a brilliant scholar and a strong magician, but not even his mother would have called him handsome. He was pale and lanky, with a thin face dominated by a rather hooked nose, dark eyes that saw everything, and long hair that persisted in falling in his eyes.

He hated sports, especially Quidditch, regarding it as the pastime of strutting boys with more muscles than brains. The true power of a wizard lay in his ability to use his mind, not flying on a broomstick over a field chasing a stupid winged globe.

James Potter, everyone's favorite troublemaker, the golden boy of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Snape thought with a sneer.

No, he could not blame Lily for choosing James, especially since Severus lacked the nerve to admit he was attracted to her, even to himself. No sense in humiliating himself by wishing for something he could never have. Lily deserved better than Severus Snape, social outcast, who had nothing to offer her besides his wits and his magic and a house that had all the charm of a broom cupboard and was nearly the size of one too.

He had been a fool to even entertain thoughts of himself and Lily, such was the stuff of fairy tales. Severus had outgrown fairy tales at age seven. True love and happy endings did not exist—he'd learned the harsh truth of that during his childhood, the first time he saw his father slap his mother into a wall.

And yet, even knowing that bitter lesson, still his heart sought, time and again, love and acceptance. As a child, he had sought desperately to gain Tobias Snape's love and approval, only to be ignored or labeled a freak by his Muggle father, who feared his son's and wife's magical abilities.

Rejected by his father, he had in turn sought solace among his peers, only to discover that they too regarded him as different. Too smart and awkward, he did not make friends easily, his natural reticence was read as "getting above himself". His sudden darting glances were often taken as sly and furtive, they were a defense mechanism he'd developed in childhood, when meeting the eyes of his father would bring down the older man's wrath. He quickly became the target of bullies—among them James and his friends—Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew and Remus Lupin.

Bullies like his father, who delighted in tormenting and humiliating him, day after day, until he resorted to studying Dark magic out of self-defense.

Some of the minor hexes and jinxes he'd learned before he'd attended school, shown by his mother as a means of protecting himself from his abusive father. But others he picked up by studying restricted texts in secret and some he invented out of sheer frustration.

None of these magics were truly evil, they were designed to hurt and humiliate, to get some of his own back, but those that did real harm he studied but never cast.

What they did do was draw attention to him. The attention of Lucius Malfoy and his gang of rebels—malcontents looking for just such a mark to corrupt. Powerful and feared, their invitation was impossible for the impressionable lonely boy to refuse.

Thus Severus Snape became a Death Eater by default.

My first mistake, he thought bitterly as he climbed up the rocky trail to his hidden refuge. Though not, unfortunately, my last.

His second mistake was agreeing to spy on Dumbledore and the other members of the Ministry of Magic, who were old foes of the Dark Lord.

It was then he had overheard Sybill Trelawny predict that one day there would come a "Chosen One" who would bring down the Dark Lord, born as the seventh month died.

Not understanding the full impact of the seer's words, Severus had reported the information faithfully to his dark master, or rather he spoke of it to his old schoolmate, Lucius Malfoy, who relayed them to Voldemort.

Little did Snape realize that the prophecy was not complete, there was more to it, but he'd been interrupted before he caught the whole thing. But even that half was more than enough to doom James, Lily, and their baby son, Harry.

Severus had resigned himself to forgiving James for his cruel pranks, though he never forgot, because James had saved his life, preventing the young Snape from being bitten by Remus Lupin in werewolf form and killed. That one act created a life debt between them, a debt that Severus was honor bound to repay one day.

Instead, all unwitting, he betrayed the Potters, leading Voldemort to believe the "Chosen One" of the prophecy was Harry. Harry Potter, who would someday rise to challenge the Dark Lord, must not be permitted to live.

Voldemort sent his minions out to find the Potters, who were betrayed finally by Peter Pettigrew, their Secret Keeper, and who died trying to save their son, foully murdered by Voldemort himself.

That had been Severus' last and greatest mistake, and it had cost him the lives of two innocent people, one of whom he was indebted to and the other whom he'd once loved.

Sickened and horrified by what he had done and become, Snape abandoned the Death Eaters, turning traitor to them forever. He had admitted all to Albus Dumbledore one early spring evening in the Headmaster's office. The elder wizard had then offered the remorseful Severus a choice.

"You cannot undo what you have done, Severus, but you can help our cause in other ways. You are in a unique position to gather information from Voldemort's inner circle, information that is vital to our cause. We need someone to be our eyes and ears in the enemy camp, someone they will never suspect, someone strong enough to resist Voldemort's mind probes, someone known and trusted by them."

"Me."

"Yes. You alone have a chance of succeeding. A slim chance, perhaps, but better than none," Dumbledore looked at the younger man questioningly, his eyes filled with pity and compassion. "It'll be dangerous, though I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that."

"So's breathing, Headmaster," rasped Severus, his mouth twisting into a bitter smile.

"I will not order you to do this, Severus. Not even I have the right to demand this sacrifice of you, for I refuse to force a man to his death."

"You won't have to, sir. I'll do it, no matter what it costs."

"Are you sure, Severus? Once you called some of them friends . . ."

"They were never my friends!" Snape spat, his eyes blazing with leashed fury. "They used me, that's all. I hate them, more now than I ever did before. They turned me into an oathbreaker, made me kill poor Lily . . ." he gulped sharply, tears blurring his eyes, though he resolutely blinked them aside.

"I was never really one of them," he continued with a slight hitch in his tone. "I will swear to any oath you wish, Dumbledore, that I will do all in my power to see the Dark-—Voldemort—" Snape corrected himself swiftly. "—and his followers destroyed. For what they have done, there can be no forgiveness. I will become your spy, sir, the shadow in the corner, unseen yet seeing all. Perhaps this way . . .I can redeem myself for the part I played in Lily and James' death."

Dumbledore nodded slowly, a pleased gleam coming into his eye. "Perhaps. Would you swear an Unbreakable Vow with me then?"

"Yes," Snape said quickly. "Whatever you require, sir."

Dumbledore sighed. "It is not I who require it, Severus, but my colleagues. I trust your word, but they will require something more . . . tangible, I fear."

An Unbreakable Vow was the most binding magical agreement in the wizarding world—if you broke it, it cost your life.

"I understand. Were I in their place, I'd not trust me, either. Not after what I've done." He sniffled sharply, remorse stabbing through him, twisting in his guts like a hot knife. "Poor Lily. She looked so happy the last time I saw her . . .at our class reunion . . .Motherhood becomes me, don't you think, she asked me . . . she had just found out, you see . . ."

He shivered suddenly, though the day was warm. "I never meant to hurt her, sir. Never! Even James, that utter idiot, didn't deserve to die like that. Damn that bloody prophecy! If only I had known . . ."

He gazed up at Dumbledore, his eyes black pits of despair, as if begging for absolution.

Dumbledore patted his arm. "You made a mistake, Severus. A terrible mistake, but not one that is unforgivable. I can see that your remorse is genuine. If you take the Unbreakable Vow with me, I will convince the Ministry to drop the charges against you. Furthermore, in recognition of the extreme danger of your position, I will give you a post at my school as a teacher and Head of Slytherin House."

Severus' jaw dropped.

"Why would you do that, sir?"

"Because I think you deserve it. It is the least I can do for you."

"The least you can do . . .? Headmaster, I don't understand you. I told the Dark Lord of the prophecy, I pointed the finger at the Potters . . .betrayed them to their worst enemy . . .and you're worried about compensating me?" Snape laughed harshly in disbelief. "Were I in your place, sir, I'd be looking for the nearest tree to hang me."

"I know," the other said sadly. "Poor Severus. You've known precious little compassion in your life. Or forgiveness. I think it's time you learned about them. I will give you the position of Potions Master, if I recall correctly, that was one of your best subjects at school, wasn't it?"

"Yes . . .but I'd make a terrible teacher, Professor. I'm too impatient, too quick to criticize, I have an awful temper . . ." Severus began. Dumbledore held up a hand. Snape trailed off awkwardly, though he continued listing objections in his mind. I'm a perfectionist, I don't really like kids . . .

"You'll learn, Severus. You have a great talent as a Potions Master, it'd be a shame not to share your knowledge with others. The children would benefit greatly from your instruction."

Snape snorted. "Somehow I doubt it, but if you really want me to teach, I'll do it. It'll be a good cover anyway. I just hope we both don't regret it."

"Oh, I don't think I will. I have faith in you."

"Even without the Unbreakable Vow, sir?" Severus asked, his tone softly mocking.

Dumbledore nodded calmly. "I don't need the Unbreakable Vow to know that you're an honorable man, Severus Snape. If you weren't you wouldn't be here now, overflowing with guilt and the need to atone for your sins. You'd be back there, with the others, plotting to find him, or at the very least, resurrect his dream of destruction."

"How do you know that I'm not planning to return to the Death Eaters and tell them everything you said tonight?" Snape demanded angrily. No one can be that naïve! "How in hell can you trust me, sir?"

"Because Lily Potter did. And she was one of the best judges of character I ever knew."

"How can you say that? She trusted me and I caused her death!" Snape pointed out ruthlessly.

"Did you? If you had known that the prophecy had targeted Lily's son, would you have told Voldemort of it?"

"No!" Snape howled. "They were my friends . . .at least Lily was, once . . .I owed James too . . .I loved her, you know . . .she never knew, no one did, but I loved her . . ."

Overcome with grief and guilt, hurting past bearing, Severus buried his face in his hands and began to sob.

The older wizard said nothing, simply let him cry. He felt keenly the younger man's pain and wished there was something he could do to assuage it, but he knew no mere words would bring comfort to Snape's tortured soul. Poor lost child, I cannot give you what you want most. I can forgive you your mistakes, Severus, but the one thing I cannot do is teach you to forgive yourself. That, I', afraid, you must learn on your own. To forgive yourself . . .and to love yourself. A hard task, far harder than the one you have agreed to, and not one you can learn by yourself. I can only hope and pray you will meet one who can help you, who you can trust . . .for only then will you be whole.

At last the younger man's weeping ceased and he sat up and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief Dumbledore handed him. He did not look the Headmaster in the eyes for a moment.

Severus was appalled at his loss of control. He hadn't cried like that since . . .he couldn't ever remember crying that way, not even as a boy after one of his father's beatings. He'd learned early on not to give in to tears, they only made his father angrier.

Only cowards cry, boy! He could hear his father growl in his head. Are you a coward, boy?

No, Father, I'm not. And I'll never become one, he answered defiantly.

Disgusted at himself, he shook his head sharply, sending the awful memories back to the shadows where they belonged. He was no longer a child, he reminded himself sternly, struggling to please a father who would never be satisfied, searching for a reason to love a man who was a tyrant.

Tobias Snape had died three years ago and Severus was free of his looming presence forever. Or so he had thought. But there remained times when he felt his father's shadow still hovered, grim and disapproving, looking for an excuse to punish his worthless son.

Get out of my head and leave me be! He snarled at the phantom memory. I put up with you my whole life, I'll be damned if I'm going to let you haunt me after you're dead too!

The specter retreated, and Severus slammed the door firmly behind it, caging it in the recesses of his mind.

Lily Potter was one of the best people I ever knew, and if I want to cry for her I will, so there! He shouted defiantly at the closed door. The specter remained silent and Severus drew in a breath, let it out slowly, and wiped his face.

Composed once more, he lifted his head and met Dumbledore's gaze. "I apologize for that outburst, sir. It won't happen again."

"It's all right, Severus. You need to grieve . . ." Dumbledore began.

"That's done now," Snape cut him off, one hand slashing down abruptly. "If you're ready, I'll take the Unbreakable Vow right now."

"Are you sure you're all right? The Vow can wait a bit. You look exhausted, like you haven't slept in days."

"What does that matter? I've gotten by on less sleep before. I'm ready whenever you are."

"Very well. If you're sure?"

"Absolutely. No time like the present, Professor."

Dumbledore drew his wand, clasping Severus' hand firmly in his other one. He laid his wand across both of their clasped hands.

Then Severus pledged his loyalty and his life to Dumbledore and his cause, promising to do all in his power to defeat Voldemort and any who allied themselves with him, for as long he lived.

Strangely, after the spell had been cast, binding him to fight Voldemort unto eternity, Severus felt better than he had in a long time. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his soul. This was right, this was what he was meant to do. For the first time in years he felt . . .at peace.

Despite the danger of his mission or the fact that he'd just doublecrossed the most evil wizard in the world, Severus was relaxed and calm.

The peaceful feeling last a total of about five minutes, until Dumbledore brought up his acceptance as Potions Master at Hogwarts.

Then it fled wailing in terror.

"Do I have to accept the position immediately?" he queried the Headmaster. "I need some time to prepare myself, plan out a curriculum, that sort of thing."

Dumbledore favored him with another of his famous smiles. "Of course. Take all the time you need, Severus. Why don't you take a little vacation? Say, for six months? We still have this term to finish and the summer holidays. And I need to inform Professor Slughorn that he can finally retire. Then you can start fresh at the beginning of the year. Will that suit you, Severus?"

"Yes. Thank you. That should be more than enough time, sir."

"Excellent. I'm really looking forward to this, you know. I think this could be the beginning of a wonderful new career for you."

That conversation had taken place two days ago, Severus mused as he hiked up the last of the trail that led to the peaceful glade. He wore standard hiking clothes that might be seen on any young man spending a day climbing up a bunch of boulders or navigating a set of switchback trails—sturdy brown hiking boots, a pair of black jeans, scuffed and worn from many washings though exceedingly comfortable, an ivory cable knit sweater and an all-purpose blue jacket.

His wand was tucked in a pocket inside his jacket and his untamable hair was pulled back in a tail. He also had a mini rucksack slung carelessly over one shoulder. It contained two bottles of Nymphadora's Pure Spring Water—Guaranteed To Give You Some Spring in Your Step! Also inside were three honey bars—his own concoction of high energy bars made with oats, sunflower seeds, cranberries, and chocolate chips melded together with sweet clover honey. They were perfect for a snack and they kept forever, or nearly so, thanks to the preserving spell he'd put on them.

It was in his mind to have a seat on one of the flat-topped rocks that clustered near the cliffside. They'd been warmed by the sun and would be an ideal place to relax, eat a snack, drink some water, and forget, at least for a time, the obligations he'd agreed to.

Only to find that his retreat was already occupied, and not by an animal.

A young woman had seated herself upon his favorite rock, arms clasped about her knees. She was wearing blue denims, a mint green hooded sweatshirt, and white sneakers. Her hair was a deep auburn, fiery highlights glinting in the rising sun, it curled slightly about her face, which had high cheekbones and a sharp chin. Her eyes, which were gazing off into the distance, were a brilliant turquoise blue.

He blinked and rubbed a hand across his eyes, wondering if he were hallucinating. But no, even in his wildest dreams, he could never imagine a girl like her, especially here, of all places.

He watched her a moment more, uncertain whether to be annoyed that she'd invaded his private spot, or to appreciate the unexpected pleasure of having a pretty woman appear out of thin air.

He wondered with a flash of alarm if she were a Muggle or a witch, then his eyes narrowed and he extended his magical senses outward, trying to detect any hint of power about her.

What he found nearly knocked him right over. This woman, whoever she was, had more raw power than he'd ever known in any wizard save perhaps Dumbledore and Voldemort. Power that was on a par with his own.

Who was she? For he did not know her, and if she had grown up anywhere on the British Isles, she would have attended Hogwarts in the same years he had.

Curiosity raging, he took two steps forward, emerging from the screen of gorse that hid the entrance to the glen from all but the most observant eyes. "Excuse me, miss, but what are you doing here?"

"What? Oh!" she sat up, startled by his appearance. "I didn't know this was such a popular place. I thought I'd found a good spot to, um, get away and think."

"You did. That's why I'm here as a matter of fact."

She flushed slightly, perhaps sensing his annoyance, and said apologetically, "I'm sorry if I intruded. I'll leave if you want." She began to get to her feet.

"No!" he blurted, not knowing quite why he did so. "I mean, you can stay, I don't mind. It's not like I own the place or anything."

"True, but you were coming here to be alone and now I've gone and spoiled it."

He shook his head firmly. "No, it's all right. I was coming here to relax for a bit, but it really doesn't matter that you're here."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive." He came a few more steps into the clearing, a tentative smile on his face. "Sorry, I'm forgetting my manners. My name is Severus Snape, formerly of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You're not from around here, are you?"

"No, I'm an American, as you've probably guessed from my accent," she said, grinning back at him. "My name is Amelia Amarotti, I work in New York for the U. S. Magical Association, but I was born and raised in New Jersey." She rose and shook his hand.

He was surprised to note that she was so small, she barely came up to his chin.

"Welcome to Scotland, Amelia," he said lamely, wishing he didn't sound so much like a tour guide.

"Thanks. So far I'm enjoying the view immensely. This is a beautiful country, it reminds of me the Appalachians in West Virginia back home. Are you from here originally?"

"Umm . . .no, actually I'm originally from London, a place called Spinner's End." He seated himself on another rock. He was surprised at how comfortable he felt speaking to her. Normally, his conversations with strange girls started with hello and ended in ten minutes with goodbye. He struggled for a brief minute for something else to say. "Will you be staying here long, Amelia?"

"Oh, I'll be here a couple of months, I think. I'm on sabbatical, you see. After this last case I was really beat, so my boss told me to take a vacation. He was right, much as I hate to say it, I really did need a chance to get away from it all."

"Case? What do you do? You sound like you're a detective."

"Don't I wish. No, I'm what's called a Dark Hunter. I track down and apprehend dark wizards. Rather like a Muggle police officer."

Severus gaped at her. "You hunt down dark wizards? Aren't you . . .umm, a little young for that?" he stammered, then went on quickly, afraid he'd offended her, "I mean, over here the Ministry only approves witches to an Auror position if they're twenty-five and have passed all the entrance exams."

She was not offended by his impertinent question. "In the States, we have to pass a bunch of tests too, but we're picked based on talent and inclination, not age. Once you graduate the Academy, you work with an older, more experienced wizard for a year until you've earned full Hunter status. In case you were wondering, this is my first year working solo, I'll be twenty-two in May."

"I've always wondered, what do you do with your dark wizards when you catch them?" he inquired. "We send ours to prison for life after a quick trial, is it the same in America?"

"Pretty much. Most of our criminals go to a maximum security detainment center called the Inferno. You know, after Dante's book on hell?" Severus nodded, recognizing the reference immediately. "Those that don't prefer to go down fighting, that is." She shook her head wearily. "You'd be surprised how many criminals would rather die than go to jail. I guess the loss of freedom and magic is too much for them to handle, it's not like we torture them or anything. We're authorized to capture first, but if necessary we can use deadly force."

"You mean, you can use Unforgivable Curses?"

"A Death Spell, you mean? No. That's necromancy. But there are other spells that can kill. Inferio—Fireball—for one. But only if we have no other choice are we allowed to use battle magic. If we do use it, we have to face a board of inquiry afterwards, to determine if we were justified. It's not really like the Wild West, where you go in with six-shooters—wands, in our case—blazing."

"How many dark wizards have you brought in?"

"Five, including my last assignment. Four of them are permanent residents of Inferno. The last one chose death and I can't say I'm sorry. I'd been tracking him for months, following the trail of bodies he left." Her mouth tightened to a thin line. "He liked to target young women and children, wizards and non-wizards. He called himself the Black Widow. He was big on entrapment and S&M spells, he liked to play with his victims before he killed them. He was a clever SOB too, knew concealment and untraceable magics like the back of his hand. Even our magehounds couldn't track him."

"What's a magehound?"

"A special breed of dog that can smell magic. We train ours to sniff out contraband magic items and dark auras. They look like big golden foxhounds, very smart, very determined, they don't quit until the quarry's brought in. Unless they can't find the scent to begin with. Don't you have them over here?"

"Not that I know of. This is the first time I've ever heard of them. Why?"

"Because the first magehounds originated here, they were brought to America along with their wizard masters during the settling of Jamestown. Mystic Gaze Kennels is still in operation there, as a matter of fact. Some of our top dogs were bred from that line. Kind of strange, that you don't have any here anymore, don't you think?"

Severus looked thoughtful, then said, "Perhaps they grew too inbred and died out or something. We have stories of the fell hounds that run with the Wild Hunt and fairy cats, but magic-sniffing dogs, no."

"Too bad. Working with a magehound is almost as good as working with a human partner. Better, sometimes, because the dog doesn't complain, he just does his job."

"Someday I would like to see one," he said eagerly. He loved studying new species of magical animals. Then he continued with his original thread of conversation—the dark wizard. "But if you couldn't track him by magic, how did you find him at all?"

"I used a special ability of mine. Slade might have been able to hide his trail magically, but the one thing he couldn't hide were his emotions. I'm an empath, and all I had to do was focus on his emotional signature—everyone's is unique—and I could find him no matter what he did." She shivered suddenly.

"Are you cold?" he asked, starting to offer his jacket.

"I'm fine, thanks," she waved his offer off with a hand. "Got a couple of bad memories floating around that I need to deal with."

"Oh. I'm sorry, you came here to forget and here I am dragging it all up again."

"It's okay. Sometimes talking about it helps. Let's me put in perspective, so to speak. My Academy instructor used to say that memories only hurt if you let them, otherwise they were just a reflection of the past."

"Easy to say, hard to do."

"Tell me about it," she laughed humorlessly. "If I knew how to follow that piece of advice, I wouldn't be here right now."

Neither would I, Severus thought, but did not say. "You must be a very powerful witch to have caught someone that, uh, depraved."

"I can hold my own. In the end it came down to timing more than power. He got careless and I took him by surprise. I did what I had to, same as any other Dark Hunter." She shrugged. "Most people think being a Dark Hunter is so glamorous, but it's not. It's a hard, thankless, dirty job, there's no glory and no rewards except a well done from your captain and the satisfaction that you've nailed a bad guy. But I'm not a Hunter to be famous. I'm one because that's what I do best."

She said that last simply, stating a fact, not bragging. He believed her, despite her age and pixyish looks, he sensed that Amelia Amarotti was no pushover. There was a core of steel in her, sharp and bright. She would make a formidable opponent, and he prayed she couldn't sense that he had once flirted with darkness, though he hadn't used dark magic for over three months now.

One thing he knew for certain—he sure as blazes didn't want her hunting him down. If the aura of competence she radiated was anything to go by, she could take him in about ten minutes.

It was a pity he couldn't introduce her to his old schoolmate, Lucius Malfoy. He'd have enjoyed watching her stomp Malfoy's privileged butt in the dirt.

"But enough about me, you didn't come here to listen to me babble about my life, which isn't really that interesting, trust me. Are you—what was that term you used—an Auror, then?"

He shook his head, eyes glinting in amusement. "No, law enforcement's not my thing. I've just accepted a position at our school for young wizards."

"You're a teacher? What subject?"

"Potions. I've got a knack for it, though I'm not sure yet how I'm going to present the material to kids who are utterly clueless."

"Start with the basics and work up," Amelia advised. "And don't be afraid to discipline. If you're too nice, kids will take advantage of you quicker than you can blink. The best instructor I ever had at the Dark Hunter Academy was as tough as a dragon's hide. He never raised his voice. He didn't need to. He could kick your butt just by looking at you. He was fair, though. If you did your best, he knew it, and graded accordingly. He had a tongue as sharp as a razor, and he'd wear you out with it if you were a smartass, but he knew what he was doing when it came to catching crooks. You either loved him or hated him, but you couldn't help but respect him."

"Then you think intimidation as a tactic works well on students?"

"Well, not all of them. Some kids fall to pieces with that approach. You have to judge the individual student carefully, it's a tricky thing. But you need to have a clear set of rules and guidelines for them to follow, and consequences if they don't. Kids need boundaries, especially wizard kids," she said, then gave an embarrassed laugh. "Heavens, listen to me lecturing you! I sound like somebody's grandmother. You probably know all of this too, from taking educational prep courses, right?"

He flushed, wanting to say something witty, but he knew better than to lie to an empath. "Ummm . . .this is my first teaching post, so any advice you could give me is greatly appreciated."

"Take it one day at a time, Severus. That's my motto. Then sit back and reflect on what worked."

"You give good advice, Amelia. Better than half my instructors at Hogwarts. You're wise for one so young."

She laughed, an infectious sound that he couldn't help but respond to. "So young, am I? And just how old are you, Mr. Snape? You don't look much older than me, unless you've been drinking Youth Potion on the sly."

"Uh-oh, caught me out," he shot back, his eyes sparkling. "I only look twenty-one, but I'm really forty-two."

"Uh-huh. And my grandmother's a kitsune." Amelia shook a finger at him. "You are possibly the worst liar I've ever met."

"Known many of them, have you?"

"In my line of work? Half the dark magicians I've apprehended could lie to your face so good you'd think black was white and night was day. Compared to them, you're a babe in the woods, Severus old man."

"And I'm sure it helps that you can read emotions too. You have a built-in lie detector," he surmised.

"Sometimes. When I'm questioning a suspect, it's damn useful. But other times. . . it can be a curse as well as a blessing. This last time, it allowed me to find that scumbag Kittrick Slade, but what I picked up from his mind . . . God, Severus, I think I'm going to have nightmares for the rest of my life. The things he did . . .the pleasure he got from torturing all those poor women and children . . .there was no way I could block it . . . If I could scrub out my mind, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

She closed her eyes, shivering uncontrollably.

Alarmed, Severus reached out and shook her shoulder. "Hey, Amelia. You all right?" He scowled, angry at himself. "Me and my big mouth. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."

Amelia heard him from a distance, but she used his voice as a reference point to climb out of the pit of despair she'd fallen into.

God, Amelia, you know better than to let an imprint ricochet on you like that! she scolded herself fiercely. Slade's dead and gone down to the devil, he can't hurt you any more, so let it go.

She sucked in a breath, then let it out, shoving the dreadful emotions and their attendant images she'd absorbed in order to find Slade away.

Let it go.

That's better.

She repeated that mantra until she was calm again, her breathing normal, the trembling vanished.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the other wizard through her lashes. A red flush stained her cheekbones.

"Sorry. You must think I'm some kind of fruitcake now. I don't usually get flashbacks like that . . .but Slade, he really messed with my head. I thought I was over it, but I guess some things linger, no matter how hard you try and forget."

She bit her lip hard and blinked back tears. She refused to disgrace herself any further by crying in front of a complete stranger. One who was probably ruing the day he'd decided to come here, having to deal with a crazy woman, she thought derisively.

She slammed up shields, preventing her empathic senses from reading his reaction to the episode. Her emotions were always precarious after a flashback, and the last thing she needed was to pick up on someone else's emotions and add them to the ones seething in her head.

Way to go, Amarotti. You've really done it now. He'll be so impressed, big tough Dark Hunter, professional cop, falling apart over a dead guy's memories.

She started to get to her feet, embarrassed beyond words, wanting nothing more than to crawl beneath a rock and hide herself away for a thousand years. "I think I'd better be going."

"No. Please, stay," he reached out and grabbed her wrist gently. "Don't leave. I understand. It's not your fault. Anybody would be a wreck after what you've been through. Most of us wouldn't be alive to tell of it, if he's anything like the dark wizards we've known here."

"That's kind of you to say, Severus, but there's no need to sugar-coat the truth," she said stiffly. "My boss might have called this a vacation, but I know the real reason he sent me here was because he didn't think I could take the pressure any more. I'm not fit to be a Dark Hunter, so it's goodbye Amelia, nice to have known you, but you screwed up good."

He understood all too well where she was coming from. "If he thinks that, he's the biggest idiot in the world," he found himself saying indignantly. "Listen to me, I'm not trying to sugar-coat anything, I swear. I barely know you, but even I can see that you're a dependable professional who does her job and doesn't whine about it later. And if your boss wants to toss you aside like a dishrag because you've got a problem, then he needs to have his head examined."

"You really mean that." Their eyes met and something unspoken passed between them.

"I do. And if I can say that after knowing you about twenty minutes, that ought to tell you something, Miss Amarotti."

"That you're crazy?"

"Maybe." His lips quirked in a slight smile. "Seriously though, it means that you're a dedicated professional who risked your life to catch a crook no one else could touch. If that isn't impressive, I don't know what is."

Amelia sniffed, then flashed him a tentative grin. "Thanks, Severus."

Severus shrugged, embarrassed. He couldn't ever recall speaking like this to a woman before, but he didn't regret what he'd said. He'd meant every word. "What are friends for?"

"You'll admit to being friends with a screw-up like me?"

"Join the club, why don't you? I'm one of its founding members. Believe me, Amelia, no one's made more mistakes than I have."

She snickered. "Well, we're a pair of fools then, aren't we?"

"Seems that way," Snape grinned.

Author's Note: This story is AU, and does not really follow canon, save in some aspects. Therefore, Snape may or may not behave in an expected manner. During this first part, it is 1981, Severus is 21 years old. And this story was written BEFORE the last book or an official timeline or ANYTHING was known about Snape's background save for a few snippets about him and the Marauders and Lily. I invented a background for him and as for the timeline, it's my story and therefore I control time in it. I'm not changing it just to suit JKR's timeline. If you want canon, go read the HP books. If not, keep reading this.