*creeps in silently, submits update, creeps out again before author gets lynched*

So, terribly sorry, it has been, I think, well over a year since this fic has been updated. Please accept my humble apolgies!

Anyway, please enjoy the next chapter.

You will see that I have stolen... er, borrowed a rather large portion of canon for this chapter, and tweaked it slightly to fit the plot and alternative pov (Sev and DD's rather than Harry's onlooker through the penseive) and it needed some emotion, thoughts and justification. It's not mine, I'm not making any money from it (damn it!) and it always shall belong to JK. I'll put it all back properly when I am done, promise!

If you've forgotten, someone was desperately calling Severus through the floo in the middle of the night. Those of you who are astute will have already worked out who it is... let's see what happens...

xx

Chapter 9Much More Straightforward

Still half dazed, his heart pounding with the abrupt flood of adrenaline, Severus tried to identify where the desperate plea had come from. Glancing once around the room he at first believed himself to be quite alone…

'Did I dream it?' he questioned disconcertedly.

But then the orange glow from Madam Pomfrey's office fireplace registered in his mind. He had not left the fire burning… someone must have activated the floo. He took a few steps toward the dancing flames.

"Severus…?" the voice echoed in a whisper.

The dark man could not see the person's face in the flames, but he knew who owned that voice, whispered or not.

"Headmaster…" he spoke, if only to acknowledge the man.

"Severus… help…"

"I'm coming through," he stated. "Your office?" he queried at the last minute.

"Yes… hurry, please!" he heard in response, which made him move that tiniest bit faster. He'd never heard the Headmaster plead with such desperation before… and it frightened him. The old man had always been the rock, the pillar supporting all of his own charades… the place Severus could seek security, stability and to some extent comfort. To hear the weakness was unnerving and brought out his own insecurities, for he knew that if Dumbledore fell… he himself would not be far behind.

He stepped into the flames and immediately whirled away to his destination, his wand held at the ready.

H.P.S.S.

Harry stirred from his deep sleep, his eyes fluttering open briefly; some vague noise had woken him from his restful and peaceful slumber…

Not detecting any further disturbance he closed his eyes again hoping to slip back into the comforting darkness of his mind… but it was not to be; with every second his mind became more aware and lucid as it emerged from sleep.

He sighed in disappointment, he'd felt so snug, warm and comfortable… and whilst he was submerged in the shadow of sleep he did not have to think. He did not have to worry about the prophecy or Voldemort; he had no cares for the stress of his studies or the ache of grief for his Godfather; he could ignore the stab of anxiety for the continued safety of his friends and members of the Order; he could push away the biting sting of the unfair and callous treatment by his relatives, and the burn of humiliation that Snape, of all people, had witnessed the extent of his Aunt's disdain…

'Oh, God… Snape knows how I'm treated at home!' his mind snatched hold of the vague sentiment; twisting it into a solid thought. His eyes flew open in alarm and his gut did a sudden back flip. God that was humiliating!

Great… he would never get back to sleep now!

H.P.S.S

Severus practically burst through the floo in his urgency to get to Dumbledore; his wand held firmly and ready in his hand ahead of him.

The Headmaster was sprawled rather haphazardly over the small armchair that a visitor would ordinarily occupy, and the dark man spotted him at once; racing to the elderly wizard and kneeling beside the chair.

"Albus?" Severus called anxiously, glancing over the older wizard's frame. "What is it, what happened?" he asked, before his eyes eventually identified the man's blackened, shaking hand dangling off the side of the chair.

"What is this?" he asked again, shocked, and if he admitted it, a little afraid. His immediate thoughts settled on believing the damage was caused by a very dark, magical origin.

Immediately he lifted his wand and evoked the candles lighting the room to brighten so he could see much better what he was dealing with. All of Dumbledore's digits, and half his hand were blackened, and Severus could see that the darkness was slowly creeping further up the limb even as he observed.

"This is a curse," he whispered softly, talking to himself; trying to overcome his shock and jolt himself into action.

He looked to Dumbledore and realized the man had lost consciousness. His breathing was steady for the moment, but Severus knew the situation was very grave and the man might not even survive the night if he didn't act now!

Raising his wand again he directed it toward the diseased limb and began to chant a very melodic, yet intense mantra. He had to at least contain this curse; otherwise it would eventually consume the old wizard and kill him. Severus could not lose him. Not now… not yet!

After many long minutes of concentrated wand work Severus collapsed backwards, breathing heavily; unable to sustain the intensity for the moment. However, instead of resting there, he immediately gained his feet, shaky though he was, and made for the floo. He threw in a handful of powder, called out his destination exhaustedly and stepped into the flames.

Once he'd practically tumbled out at the other end he scrambled to the adjoining room and snatched up a variety of phials and bottles as quickly as he could and thundered back to the floo. As he again stumbled from the fireplace in Dumbledore's office he had to take a moment to catch his breath before pushing himself on once more.

Severus knelt back at Dumbledore's side, dumped the potion containers down in an untidy pile, quickly assessing the man's discernable vital signs. His pulse was fortunately still strong under Severus' fingers at his throat and he was still breathing, but the man was sweating profusely and his whole body had begun to shiver… and upon closer inspection of the cursed hand Severus noted the blackening had crept up the flesh and was now nearing the old Headmaster's wrist.

The curse was advancing at an astonishingly rapid rate and Severus began to doubt his ability to save the old man.

Not feeling he had a choice Severus resumed the chanting to contain the curse in Albus' hand. He would sustain it as long as he could, and then he would dose the old man with some of the potions he'd retrieved from his personal storeroom.

He lasted around half an hour that time before collapsing back to the ground with fatigue; almost fifteen minutes less than before. And he couldn't find the strength to move for several more moments; sucking in deep, desperate breaths. But again he pushed himself to continue, crawling to his knees to reach the phials he had piled less than three feet away.

Holding them to Albus' mouth, Severus first cast an Enervate charm and wakened the Headmaster and then tipped a total of three potions down his throat. A Pain-Reliever, a Strengthening Solution, and a measure of special brew of his own concoction that supported the function of one's vital organs. It was largely untested, but Severus was confident in the results he had achieved and was sure that at worst it would not poison the old man.

"Albus," Severus said breathily, "I need some clue as to how to cure you," he requested pleadingly. "How did this happen?"

Albus was weary, and barely lucid, but he did manage an answer. "A curse… Tom's …Flesh Decay…' he whispered, so softly Severus had to strain to hear over his own pounding heart and heavy breaths.

Severus was shocked. 'The Flesh Decay curse? That is one of the Dark Lord's inventions," Severus realized. He'd seen it before… seen the carnage it could create. 'But it is incurable… vicious, repugnant,' he thought further in dismay. There was nothing he could do.

He took up his wand again and resumed the chanting to contain the decay to the hand. At best he could hold it at bay for the moment, and give himself time to think… sort of. It was difficult to have lucid thoughts when you had to be so focused on another task, but he would try. The Order couldn't afford to lose Albus Dumbledore yet… they just weren't a formidable enough force yet.

The effort cost Severus more than physically; he was exhausted mentally and had a splitting headache when he'd finally wrangled a temporary solution nearly thirty more minutes later. And not only had it cost him, but the decay had managed to advance a further inch up the Headmaster's wrist whilst Severus' focus was not entirely intent on his containment charm.

However, with a few intricate flicks of his wrist of the hand that was guiding his wand and a stream of Latin, that although was not as musical as his previous charm lent a soothing rhythm to both the strained men in the room, he had the curse provisionally trapped in the already contaminated extremity.

He fell back against the leg of the desk behind him utterly spent, staring down at his sock covered feet. He could not get up this time, and scrunched his face against the strain and fatigue. He rubbed a hand over his face and found it also soaked with sweat.

As he slowly, automatically cooled with the cessation of the strenuous activity, his body shivered slightly at the damp chill that seeped into his skin. He was exhausted; thoroughly drained and weary. He rested his head back and allowed his eyes to close.

As much as he believed he'd be able to sleep anywhere right now, he knew he ought not to allow himself to fall asleep propped against the Headmaster's desk on the cold, stone floor. He'd required respite before all of this had happened, but now he was in urgent need of that rest. But first he ought to ensure the Headmaster was indeed out of immediate danger.

"Albus?" he said quietly.

"I am here and awake, my boy," the old man answered, the fatigue equally discernable in his voice as Severus'. "Are you alright?" he went on to ask, concern edging his tone.

Severus huffed out a chuckled breath. "I am not the one crisping inch by inch," he responded, amused, yet anxiety still sitting like a heavy lump in his gut.

The dark man heard a huffed chuckle returned to him. "No, my boy… not you…" he said, and with those words he seemed to imply a whole lot more than he'd spoken. Severus stared up at the Headmaster's profile, creasing his features as he tried to discern the hidden meaning.

"Help me to my desk," the old man requested softly.

Severus himself did not yet wish to move, so it mystified him why and how the Headmaster had found the will. Nevertheless, he dragged himself to his feet and steadied and guided the old man around the desk and into his own throne-like chair.

Once settled, the old wizard retrieved his wand from his sleeve and aimed it toward the clear part of the stone floor near the door. Severus followed his aim in time to see the sword of Gryffindor and a small, curious, yet ominous looking artifact levitate and float toward the desktop. They both clanked down onto the surface as the Headmaster lost control of his charm from fatigue.

Severus turned to him and witnessed the show of agony sweep across the man's features and ripple through his body. The black skin covering the damaged hand writhed and bubbled momentarily; the curse apparently fighting its confinement.

The younger man grimaced slightly and cringed away minutely, horrified by the entity trapped in the older wizard's limb.

His eyes were drawn back to the artifact; a ring, the black jewel cracked, sitting upon the desk and suddenly clarity hit him.

"It was the ring? You put on the ring?" he asked, aghast and confused. But another look at the Headmaster and he realised the man was once again struggling against the curse that was doggedly attempting to overcome its victim. With his eyes closed, he sagged sideways in the throne-like chair, apparently semi-conscious; his right hand dangled over the side.

Severus returned quickly to his pile of potions and selected another potion; an Invigoration Draught. He transfigured one of Dumbledore's quills into a goblet and decanted a dose from the larger bottle into it.

Again he quickly made his way back around to the older wizard's side and drawing his wand once more began muttering his incantation, pointing his wand at the wrist of the hand, while with his left hand he tipped the goblet full of thick, golden potion down Dumbledore's throat. After a moment or two, Dumbledore's eyelids fluttered and opened.

"Why?" said Severus, without preamble, "why did you put on that ring? It was what carried the curse, surely you realised that. Why even touch it?"

Dumbledore grimaced.

"I… was a fool. Sorely tempted…"

"Tempted by what?" Severus queried, confused.

Dumbledore did not answer and Severus began to feel angry.

"It is a miracle you managed to return here!" he said, now furious. "That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power," he added, looking again at the hand that looked malevolent in its blackened state, "to contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being-"

The Headmaster raised the hand and examined it with mere interest and curiosity that seemed out of place to Severus.

"You have done very well, Severus. How long do you think I have?" almost conversationally, which confused the dark man even more, making him forget his anger and frustration. He hesitated before answering, deliberating what he knew.

"I cannot tell. Maybe a year. There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread, eventually; it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time."

Dumbledore smiled. The news that he had less than a year to live seemed a matter of little or no concern to him.

"I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, that I have you, Severus."

"If you had only summoned me a little earlier, I might have been able to do more, buy you some time!" said Severus, furious once more at the man's lack of regard for the seriousness of the situation.

He looked down at the broken ring and the sword, finally comprehending what had most probably caused the Headmaster to delay calling for help.

"Did you think that breaking the ring would break the curse?" he suggested questioningly.

"Something like that… I was delirious, no doubt…" the old wizard replied. But Severus recognised the dismissal well enough.

With an effort the Headmaster straightened himself in his chair, the Invigoration draught having its desired effect, Severus surmised.

"Well, really, this makes matters much more straightforward."

Severus was utterly perplexed and allowed his confusion to show to the old man.

Dumbledore smiled at him.

"I refer to the plan Lord Voldemort is revolving around me. His plan to have the poor Malfoy boy murder me."

Severus took a seat in the chair across the desk from Dumbledore's trying to ignore the headache, though slightly improved, still throbbing inside his skull. He wanted to return to the subject of the Headmaster's blackened hand… he still wanted to understand how it had happened, but Dumbledore held up his good hand to halt him.

Frustrated again, Severus scowled. "The Dark Lord does not expect Draco to succeed. I believe Narcissa's fears are correct; this is merely punishment for Lucius' recent failures. Slow punishment for Draco's parents, while they watch him fail and pay the price."

"In short, the boy has had a death sentence pronounced upon him as surely as I have," said Dumbledore. "Now, I should have thought the natural successor to the job, once Draco fails, is yourself?"

After a short moment of thought, Severus replied. "That, I think, is the Dark Lord's plan."

"Lord Voldemort foresees a moment in the near future when he will not need a spy at Hogwarts?" Dumbledore queried.

"He believes the school will soon be in his grasp, yes," Severus confirmed.

Dumbledore was nodding, still in contemplative thought, and Severus waited for him to continue.

"Ultimately then, of course, there is only one thing to be done if we are to save Draco from Lord Voldemort's wrath."

Severus was sardonic in his reply, uncertain where his superior was headed with his submission. "Are you intending to let him kill you?"

The Headmaster looked a mite amused at the suggestion. "Certainly not. You must kill me."

Shocked at the Headmaster's proposal, Severus was silent for a long moment, grappling with the expectation. Then, his words heavy with irony, he responded.

"Would you like me to do it now? Or would you like a few moments to compose an epitaph?"

Dumbledore smiled at his sarcasm. "Oh, not quite yet," he said. "I daresay the moment will present itself in due course. Given what has happened tonight," he indicated to his withered hand, "we can be sure that it will happen within a year. And this also solves our little dilemma regarding your Unbreakable Vow," he added with an amount of satisfaction.

Severus was crushed, feeling almost betrayed; it made him irate again. He'd expected a solution that would improve their situation if Dumbledore managed to find one, not simply one that would try and justify it.

"If you don't mind dying," said Severus roughly, "why not let Draco do it?" He was certainly not keen on becoming the perpetrator of this crime.

"That boy's soul is not yet so damaged," said Dumbledore. "I would not have it ripped apart on my account."

Severus was cut to the heart with that comment and found it difficult to reply.

"And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?" he managed to grate out, his chest hollow with the realisation of how little he must mean to the man in front of him.

"You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation," Dumbledore suggested. "I ask this one, great favour of you, Severus, because death is coming for me as surely as the Chudley Cannons will finish bottom of this year's league. I confess I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved – I hear Voldemort has recruited him? Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it."

Dumbledore's gaze pierced him as though he was gazing upon Severus' very soul as they discussed it. Still not necessarily convinced that his soul would remain undamaged, but reeling too much from the shock of the request, Severus could only offer a curt nod.

The Headmaster nodded his own satisfaction and set aside the topic after a slight shudder and weary sigh.

"I'm afraid your Invigoration Draught is wearing off already, Severus… and I cannot afford to rely on its affects at any rate. I need to rest. As do you, I suspect," he said, taking in the exhaustion dragging harshly on the features of the younger, dark man in front of him.

Severus nodded in agreement, almost absentmindedly.

"Harry will need to be returned to his relative's home… I trust you will be able to manage that tomorrow in my stead. I will need a few days to recover before I might be able to investigate the issue. Return him with the message to Petunia and Vernon that they will receive a visit from me soon. That should hold any chance of overzealous reprimand at bay should it be likely to occur. We shall discuss things further in the coming days."

Severus nodded again, but he was still so consumed with incredible thoughts that he was barely aware of what he was agreeing to.

The old man pushed to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on his desk. And then with his wand he transfigured an empty phial into a cane and after tucking his wand away safely, took it in his good hand and proceeded slowly in the direction of his personal rooms.

Severus, upon noticing the unstable man begin to totter away, stood up to assist.

"No, my boy," Albus insisted, pushing the dark man's hands away. "You go and slip into your own bed… I can make it to mine on my own, and you need to recover from tonight's exertions as well. Goodnight, Severus."

After a moment of uncertainty, Severus acquiesced. "Goodnight, Headmaster."

When he was almost to the floo the old Headmaster called to him. "Oh, Severus?"

The dark man turned back to face the old, wise wizard, still feeling quite dazed by the night's occurrences and revelations.

"I want you to know I am exceedingly grateful for your assistance tonight. You did an admirable job. Thank you," Albus offered appreciatively.

Severus merely nodded an acknowledgement and again proceeded to leave through the floo.

Once the dark man had spun out of sight, Dumbledore paused a few moments longer before continuing to his bedroom, glancing with melancholy into the dying flames.

"And Severus, despite what I must force you to do, I do care… I promise you," he said quietly, and then added in a soft whisper, "and may you find salvation at the end of all of this."

S.S.H.P

When Severus stepped out into Madam Pomfrey's office he noted the time on the wall clock hanging above her desk. It read 3:38am and Severus sighed. He rubbed at his face, feeling weariness creep malignly through his entire body.

He was quite used to late nights and minimal sleep, but this was excessive even for him, especially considering the enormous effort and energy he had expended tonight. He glanced toward the ward and wondered whether the Potter boy was a normal teenager who would take the chance to sleep in given the opportunity. He sincerely hoped so… for even in the time it had taken for him to acknowledge his body's rebellion over the strain it had endured this evening, it had developed into a disturbing shiver that made him feel a touch nauseous.

He turned toward his camp bed and practically fell into it; too tired to even pull up the covers and despite a mind full of qualms and reservations he swiftly sunk into slumber.

H.P.S.S.

Harry had lain awake for well over two hours. Oh, he'd tried to return to sleep, but the comforting oblivion evaded him. Perhaps he'd had altogether too much sleep during the past day? So he was aware when the floo in Madam Pomfrey's office surged with a roar of flames and flashed with bright light through the gap at the bottom of the door.

Nobody emerged from the office, and nor did he hear any conversation, so he assumed it was Snape leaving through the floo rather than arriving.

'Odd?' he thought, considering the probable time of the morning. But then he cleverly decided that that was to be entirely expected. Snape was odd, after all.

'Oddball!' he thought, amused, remembering something that Sirius had once said about the Potions Master from his time at school with him. He said Harry's dad and Snape had hated one another right from their first meeting. Harry didn't know if the abhorrence Sirius and James had apparently felt for their classmate was justified back then or not, but judging by Harry's experience with the man this afternoon he was a hard person to work out… quite unpredictable. He could easily see how Snape must have earned their mistrust and wariness as children.

It was a curious thing to look on all these people he'd come to know and realise that they'd all been children together; Hogwarts students together… they must have known one another quite well.

His Godfather, Remus, Snape, Peter Pettigrew, Harry's father, his… mother.

Snape knew his mother from school… that much was already known, for Harry had seen at least one interaction inside Professor Snape's memories when he'd snuck into the penseive for a look, but recalling the happenings from the previous afternoon it appeared that Snape had known his Aunt Petunia too. And the woman had indeed remembered him.

'But just how well did they know each other and from where?' Harry wondered, giving it some earnest thought, trying to dredge up what was actually said that afternoon to lend him a clue; for Aunt Petunia was only a Muggle after all.

"Don't you dare 'woman' me, Severus Snape! My sister might have felt sorry for you for a time, but-"

Harry now recalled that Aunt Petunia had hinted at a much more familiar relationship between Snape and his mother than he'd initially realised. She'd suggested his mother had felt sympathy or pity for Snape, so much so that Lily had apparently discussed the Slytherin at home.

No… not just discussed him, Aunt Petunia had recognised Snape on sight. She knew him too. And by the way she'd glared at him Harry deduced that at one time she'd felt quite comfortable with him or even superior toward him. Petunia had looked at him like she'd sometimes looked at Harry; like he was mud on the bottom of her shoes.

'Just how long ago had this been?' the young wizard thought. Because to Harry, even a seventeen/eighteen year old, fully trained, black clad, menacing looking wizard, such a Snape was, would have to have been considered intimidating to a Muggle. Especially as Aunt Petunia seemed well enough aware of what he was. So they all must have been much younger… right?

And what else could Harry glean from the words? "My sister might have felt sorry for you for a time…"

'For a time…?' Harry thought, bemused. So, Lily had felt sorry for Snape at one point, but then not?

Why not? – was the next obvious question. Had something happened? Had things improved for Snape… or had they fought?

It sounded decidedly like Aunt Petunia had never felt sorry for Snape, however. But then again, Harry hadn't thought her capable of sympathy anyway, so no surprise there.

And Snape had shown little tolerance of Aunt Petunia as well, he remembered, and in fact had swiftly cut off her tirade with a quick word and menacing close proximity. Seemingly reminding the woman, or demonstrating to her how intimidating he had become – fully grown.

But was that the only reason he'd cut her off? Had he perhaps silenced her for another reason – a witness? Harry in particular! Had Snape not wanted Harry to know he'd once been friends? with Harry's mother?

"Hmm…" Harry hummed quietly; it was certainly food for thought.

He couldn't be certain that any of his deductions held merit, having made them from a single overheard, incomplete, hasty comment; but did he have the courage to confirm them? Did Harry have the balls to ask Professor Snape outright how and when had he first met Harry's mother and her sister?

That was the question!