A fifteen-year-old boy is no lightweight, even if he is small and undernourished for his age. Snape's sore shoulder was throbbing in counterpoint to his heartbeat by the time they reached the infirmary, but he did not regret his decision to carry Potter himself, without magic. Over the past several weeks, Potter had put Snape's needs (well, Spartacus's needs, anyway, he thought ruefully) ahead of his own, going without food and rest, risking his uncle's wrath by pilfering fruit for Snape when it was being denied to him, even earning himself a cruel beating by attacking his larger, stronger cousin. Snape was glad now to think that, by suffering a little himself, he might be adding to the boy's comfort.

Still, it was with relief that he carefully eased Potter's limp form onto the nearest bed in the empty hospital wing. Carefully he settled the boy on his side while Dumbledore lifted Potter's feet onto the mattress. Then the older wizard, with a wave of his wand, transformed Harry's baggy hand-me-down jeans into pajama bottoms.

"There is no point in putting a jacket on him until Madam Pomfrey has seen to his ribs," Dumbledore said quietly.

For a moment, both men stood silently beside the bed, looking at the sleeping boy's back. Despite Snape's careful attentions, it was still all-too-obvious that the cuts and bruises had been inflicted deliberately.

Finally Snape said out loud what he guessed they were both thinking. "Madam Pomfrey will never believe this was the result of a quidditch accident."

Albus simply stared pensively at Potter's inert form for a moment. When he spoke, he did not respond to the potions master's statement but instead murmured, "How could Vernon Dursley dare to do this to him, after the Order had spoken to him at the train station just over a month ago, and knowing he'd be risking my anger?"

Without thinking, Snape replied, "Potter did invoke your name in an attempt to forestall this beating."

He instantly wished he had bitten his tongue. What had he been thinking? He must be tired indeed to have made such a slip. It was too late to take it back, though – Dumbledore had turned to him, eyebrows raised.

"Indeed? And how did Vernon Dursley respond to that?" The old man's voice merely sounded mildly interested, but Snape was not fooled. He could feel the buildup of energy in the air in the headmaster's general vicinity. It made Snape nervous. He could count on one hand how many times he had ever seen Dumbledore truly angry – angry enough to lose control – and it was not something he was eager to experience again. Snape privately thought that Dumbledore angry made the Dark Lord look like a puffskein.

Snape tried to take a deep, calming breath without being obvious about it. Keeping his eyes on Potter's sleeping form, he said simply, "Dursley indicated to the boy that you were fully aware of his preferred methods of…discipline, for want of a better word." Snape hesitated, then finished in a quieter tone, "He also implied to Potter that you chose him as the boy's guardian for this reason, as you felt he could provide a much-needed…firm hand…in his upbringing."

The silence stretched out so long that Snape finally dared to look up. Dumbledore was standing straight and still, staring fixedly at him. His face was set in harsh lines and his normally warm blue eyes were like frosted steel.

Three of the windows on the north wall of the hospital wing suddenly exploded outwards.

Potter woke with a startled cry and Snape himself could not keep from cowering away from his old mentor. A moment later, Madam Pomfrey came hurrying through the door that led to her office and private chambers beyond.

"Headmaster!" the mediwitch cried. "What on earth–"

"My apologies, Poppy," Dumbledore interrupted her smoothly. His voice and demeanor were calm once again. He raised his wand and waved it at the windows, which repaired themselves instantly. "I had been about to firecall you at your home…I had not realized you were in residence."

Madam Pomfrey blinked at them, then obviously decided not to pursue it. "I just arrived this evening after dinner; I'd planned to spend the night and go over my supplies list for next term. Orders will be due soon, you know." Her gaze shifted to the bed behind Snape and Dumbledore, where Potter was just sitting up.

"How'd I get here?" the boy asked drowsily.

"Never mind that now, Potter," Snape cut in hastily, eyeing Dumbledore, who was smiling slightly. "Madam Pomfrey is here to heal your ribs."

"His ribs?" Snapping immediately into medical mode, Madam Promfrey hurried forward, drawing her wand as she came and performing a swift diagnostic spell. "Merlin, Mr. Potter, what have you been doing now?"

She put a hand on Potter's shoulder, then froze as she caught sight of his back. Now taking both the boy's shoulders, she applied pressure on them until he turned reluctantly away from her, allowing the mediwitch a better view. She caught her breath.

"Merlin!" Madam Promfrey gasped. "Harry?" She leaned forward, trying to gaze searchingly into his face, but the boy stubbornly avoided her gaze. Bewildered, she turned back to the two older wizards. "Gentlemen…what–?"

Dumbledore took a step forward and looked her straight in the eye. "Harry has had…a slight accident with his broom, Poppy."

"But–"

"Severus and I are taking care of it," Dumbledore added firmly.

Snape watched as the mediwitch stared fixedly at Dumbledore for a moment. A sudden look of understanding came over her face – along with fierce anger. Her face reddened, and she said coolly, "We'll discuss this in greater detail later, I trust, Headmaster."

She fixed Snape with a similar glare (What have I done? the potions master thought, amused), then turned back to Potter with a more solicitous air. "Sit tight, Harry…I'll gather together some remedies and we'll get you fixed up in no time."

As she hurried into her storeroom, muttering distractedly, Dumbledore stepped over to Potter once more, laying a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder.

"My apologies for waking you, Harry. Don't worry…we'll get all this sorted out. In the meantime, allow Madam Pomfrey to look after you, and we'll talk more tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," Potter said, leaning back in the bed.

He winced as the mattress came in contact with this battered back, then seemed surprised at the diminishment of pain. Sitting up and twisting around, he tried to look over his own shoulder at his back, then turned to face the two men again. He met Snape's eyes.

"Sir," Potter began hesitantly. "I…thank you. Thank you very much."

Despite himself, Snape was touched by the sincerity and simple gratitude in the boy's voice. Not trusting himself to speak, he merely inclined his head.

Potter studied him a moment, then sighed a little and looked down at his hands, which were resting in his lap. Suddenly, he seemed to notice something.

"Hang on a minute," the boy said slowly. His eyes narrowed as though he were thinking hard…then he looked up at Snape again, and the potions master was startled to see a look of incredulous indignation on his face.

"You bit me!" Potter said loudly in a thoroughly outraged voice.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Potter!" Madam Pomfrey had appeared in the doorway, a tray loaded with potions and jars in her hands. She looked both astounded and concerned, as though she feared the boy might be delirious. "A teacher would never–"

"Actually bit me!" The boy, looking positively indignant, turned to Dumbledore, whose blue eyes were twinkling again. "Professor–"

Snape, already turning red with embarrassment, cut in heatedly. "It's not as if I could take points, Potter, and considering you were pilfering in my potions stores–"

"Professor Snape!" cried Madam Pomfrey, aghast, and Snape suddenly realized how this must sound to her – after all, she had no idea he was an animagus. He could only imagine the picture that was beginning to form in her head.

Apparently Dumbledore could picture it, too, because his mustache was twitching.

Madam Pomfrey and Potter both stared at Snape, speechless. Suddenly Potter grinned.

"Yeah, well…I had to clean up your newspaper everyday, anyway, so I guess we're even."

Dumbledore laughed outright at this.

Glaring around wildly, Snape spun on his heel and strode out of the hospital wing, trying vainly to clutch the remains of his shattered dignity around him. He didn't have much to work with.

* * *

"Will you enter into my service, Severus Snape? Will you swear eternal loyalty to me and accept me as your lord and master?"

He bowed before the Dark Lord, drowning in a mixture of terror and exhilaration.

"My Lord, I seek only to serve you," he whispered, bending low to kiss the black robes. "I am not worthy…while my mother's blood is pure, my father…"

He faltered a little, then stopped.

"Ah, young Severus," the Dark Lord hissed. "Your mother paid for her folly, and caused you to pay for it, too. A great pity. But we will forget the past, now."

The Dark Lord raised the teen-aged boy to his feet and drew his wand. "Hold out your arm and look at me, Severus."

Tossing his head to try and push his long, tangled black hair out of his eyes, Snape obeyed. The scarlet gaze bore into him, but Snape, a natural occlumens, did not attempt shield himself, instead letting Voldemort plumb his mind, his very soul. In the space of a moment, the Dark Lord had sifted through a thousand memories that Snape never shared with anyone, or even took out to examine for himself if he could avoid it. Images of an abused and lonely life played out before Voldemort's hungry, pseudo-sympathetic stare. As he touched the tip of his wand to Snape's forearm, he lifted one spidery hand to push back a stray lock of the boy's hair. A fierce, burning pain ignited in Snape's arm while a thrill of joy at the calculating caress flitted through his heart.

"Yesssssss," the Dark Lord whispered, watching as Tobias Snape backhanded his small son in the teenager's mind. "I can be your father, Severus…I can be your father in a way our own father never could be."

Snape jerked awake, his heart pounding. Shivering, he sat up, pushed the hair back from his eyes and reached for his wand. "Lumos."

In the soft light of the wand, he glanced at the water clock on his bedroom mantel: 3:38 a.m.

Damn…what made me dream of that? He shuddered, pressing his thumbs to his eyelids.

The memory of the day he had accepted the Dark Mark always made him cringe, and not just as a reformed Death Eater. What made his insides twist was the way Voldemort had played him so expertly: a potentially powerful wizard, an abused young boy with no friends, a sullen teen who judged all muggles by his nearest role model – his own vicious, pathetic father. Oh, what an easy mark he had been! The Dark Lord, of course, loved no one but himself and did not relish touching anyone; two facts that in retrospect somehow made that careful gesture – the two unnaturally long forefingers lightly brushing the hair away from the young Snape's brow – all the worse in its cold calculation. No doubt he had laughed inside at this foolish teen, seeing through all this pitiful motivations: a desire for power so he would no longer be weak, and a pathetic need for a surrogate father. The thought that he, Snape, could have possibly believed, even subconsciously, that Voldemort could fulfill this role–

Snape threw back the covers and moved restlessly into his sitting room, settling in his customary chair by the fireplace. He supposed it was his sojourn into Potter's home life that had evoked this unpleasant dream.

Dreams.

Potter often had bad dreams, as Snape had seen for himself. What if he experienced one now in the hospital wing, with no one near to reassure him if he woke in the unfamiliar place?

At that thought, Snape rose and hurried back into his bedroom to put on his robes.

* * *

The hospital wing looked deserted, but Snape smiled slightly when he saw the squashy purple armchair at Potter's bedside. Obviously, Dumbledore had been here earlier, doing precisely what Snape himself had come to do now. Snape availed himself of the chair and sat regarding the boy before him.

Potter lay on his side facing the chair. Snape was gratified to see that he appeared to be sleeping deeply and restfully: the blankets and sheets were not mussed as they would have been had he been tossing about in the throes of a nightmare. He lay with his head on his arm, and his face, while still bearing the traces of tears, appeared more relaxed and youthful than Snape had ever seen it. Obviously his cry with Albus earlier in the evening had done him a great deal of good.

Even with the green eyes closed, Snape could see Lily more than ever in Potter's face. Without his glasses her high cheekbones, tapered jaw and clear, pale complexion were more obvious.

Where do we go from here? Snape wondered.

He sighed a little and rose. This was too great a question to ponder just now. The boy was sleeping comfortably and he himself needed more rest. There would be time to think on these things tomorrow.

Perhaps it was the rustle of robes as he rose from his chair, but as he turned to go Potter stirred and woke. Without raising his head from this arm, he blinked up at Snape.

The potions master froze as the boy's green eyes found his black ones. He did not know how to explain his presence here, at this hour. But while he was searching frantically for something to say, Potter suddenly smiled at him – an amazingly sweet and gentle smile that took Snape's breath away and made the poor excuse he was formulating die before it reached his lips.

Because it had never before been directed at him, he had not known that, in addition to her eyes, Harry Potter had also inherited his mother's smile.

"Hey, Spartacus," Potter whispered, and closed his eyes once more. He slid back into sleep as easily as a breaching dolphin returns to the sea.

Snape stared down at him for a long moment, then slowly resumed his seat.

* * *

A little over an hour later, Poppy Pomfrey, who did not allow herself to sleep deeply when she had a patient, entered the silent hospital wing to check on her young charge. Satisfied that he was comfortable, she tucked the blankets more closely around him and departed again for her own room.

The hospital wing was warded to alert her to intruders – usually students sneaking in to visit friends after hours. Having received no such warnings, she did not bother to examine the shadowy corners of the high-ceiled ward.

She therefore never noticed the sleeping bat hanging, suspended, from the rafters directly above Harry Potter's bed.