THE HEALER'S APPRENTICE

Summary: Two years from now, Voldemort will force Severus Snape to exploit a student in the worst way. But what about her relationship with Severus made her the perfect target? COS era. Prequel to Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant.

Author's Note: Okay, yet again, I'm starting a story before I finish the one I originally began. Yeah I'm a stinker. Sorry! But just as I needed to create For the Price of My Familiar to fill in Severus' background as I see, so I'm now writing The Healer's Apprentice to fill in Ophelia's background. Hence the delay on Chapter 4 of Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant. Still with me? Bless your heart if you are cause I probably would have given up on me long ago. Anyhoo...The Healer's Apprentice tells the story of what happened between Severus and Ophelia when she was 16. No, nothing NC-17 rated so far and I don't plan there to be. I just want to show where they're coming from before we get back to Well Done. I hope – hope – to get the story done in 3-5 chapters and then go back to Well Done. Famous last words. But sorry my muse likes to jerk me around and there you go.

I hope you like this. I hope it provides a clearer idea of the emotional background going into Well Done.

Chapter 1: Sympathetic Character

Arion Winterthaw had had red hair. Would he still be alive if he had been blond or brown-haired, Severus wondered. He might be. Severus could have lived with the hair. After all he spent most of his days surrounded by flame-haired Weasleys. No, it was the hair in combination with the eyes that had done him in. A piercing and entirely too knowing green. Those canny eyes had lit the fuse in Severus and in some way, some way Severus had yet to completely map, he knew that fuse had sparked the chain reaction that had led to the boy's death.

"This has been like a nightmare," sobbed the woman softly as she raised her already wet handkerchief to her eyes. She had her son's hair. Beside her, her brown-haired, green-eyed husband patted her shoulder somberly. They made a pathetic pair. No, not pathetic, Severus amended guiltily. Wretched. Some niggling of conscience forced his eyes to the floor.

His ears caught the rustling of Minerva McGonagall's robes as her hem swished forward into his line of sight. He glanced up. She had knelt down before the bereft parents to take Ariadne Winterthaw's hand in both of her own.

"There, there," she murmured. "We are all so, so sorry…"

Before Severus knew it Minerva had the weeping woman in her arms and was rocking her gently. Bits and pieces of comforting words and phrases reached his ears. "Such a lively boy…so full of life…a pleasure to teach…an irreplaceable loss…We'll all miss him…"

Not all of us, Severus thought coldly.

Severus stared unabashedly now as the Headmaster came from behind his desk to stand before Arion's father and clap a sympathetic hand on the man's shoulder. For a few moments the men kept silent vigil as the women mourned. The Headmaster had already given his condolences. Other than that there was nothing left to say. Because the death had happened off Hogwarts grounds the funeral was held in the boy's home parish. McGonagall had floo'd to the parents' home as soon as she'd gotten the news. She had returned, made the sad announcement to Arion's fellow fifth-year Gryffindors, gathered his things and gone back to the Winterthaw home for the memorial service. All but one of Arion's closest friends had accompanied her.

Eventually, thankfully, the tears wound down and the Winterthaws made leave to go. They waved off Dumbledore's invitation to tea and Minerva's offer to accompany them. The faculty members had done enough, they'd insisted, wearily. They were grateful, but they were ready to leave. Their joint gaze settled briefly on Severus who had said nothing during the entire visit beyond a formal expression of condolences. To his surprise, they looked as relieved to go as he felt. They sent him a small exhausted smile before exiting the office.

As the door closed softly behind them, Severus sighed. Strictly, speaking this meeting had not been necessary, Severus thought. In fact, in the tense period before the Winterthaws had arrived, he had reiterated his earlier assertion that it could possibly prove counter-productive by increasing the parents' pain while implying that Hogwarts somehow had some responsibility in preventing what had happened. But Dumbledore had insisted. The school was already suffering bad press as student injuries mounted in the wake of the Chamber of Secrets opening. More importantly, Arion's death had involved another student. If he let this pass without personally bringing the parents into the embrace of the headmaster and relevant heads of houses, that neglect would be more likely to plant seeds of resentment which of course the school did not need, especially now. The headmaster had argued logically but all the while his eyes had telegraphed more personal emotions as vehemently as McGonagall had expressed them.

"Severus Snape!" she'd snarled as they'd waited for the Winterthaws to arrive, "I have lost one of my students and it would be unconscionable to simply leave his parents out in the cold as if we could care less –"

"That is not what I meant, Minerva –"

"I don't care what you meant," she barreled on. "We will welcome his parents here, with the fullest sympathy and sorrow of this school."

And both Albus and Minerva had been right, Severus thought darkly. The Winterthaws had been nothing but cordial and grief-stricken. No explicit or implicit threats of filing complaints with the Ministry had been expressed – today. But Severus knew they were by no means out of the woods.

He sighed again as his focus returned to the aftermath of the visit. After the door had closed behind the Winterthaws, the three people left behind had stared at each other and then at nothing for long, awkward minutes. Finally Severus broke the silence. "You handled that very well, headmaster," he began tentatively. "However, might I nevertheless recommend continued caution?"

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows questioningly at his potions master while Minerva glared at him, affronted.

"This was not a strategic maneuver, Severus," she snapped. "Difficult as this may be for you to understand, some of us need to share our pain. It makes us feel better. And it shows basic respect. We owe them that!"

Severus met her gaze squarely although he chose his words cautiously. "I did not mean to imply otherwise, Minerva. However, emotions can change. And while today's meeting went well, I still fear that, once given an opportunity to review the matter, they could still request a Ministry probe." He turned to the headmaster. "The school remains vulnerable, Albus."

Dumbledore turned to sit heavily behind his desk.

Minerva hissed with impatience. "Vulnerable to what? A family's grief? I've known the Winterthaws for over 30 years. I can assure you, they have no interest in hurting the school. They're alumni for goodness' sake!"

"As is Lucius Malfoy," Severus said. "A formal parental complaint added to our current troubles with the Chamber of Secrets would give him enough ammunition to make trouble with the Board of Governors."

Dumbledore remained silent, considering the words of both of his subordinates.

"Not one member of the board would desert Albus," Minerva scoffed. "And how would it look for the school if we shunned the Winterthaws? We will not hang our heads in shame and hide away. My house has nothing to hide, Severus. Can you say the same about yours?"

Severus' tone dropped to his silkiest. "And just what are you insinuating?"

Minerva's gaze turned cold as she strode over to Severus until she and the potions master were nearly nose-to-nose albeit she had to look up to meet the taller man's eyes. "Ophelia was the only one who didn't attend the funeral."

"She asked me, I forbade it," Severus snapped, his eyes flickering briefly to Dumbledore and back again. The Headmaster sat impassively watching the exchange.

"Why?" Minerva countered. "Cosseting your pet again? Thank goodness Draco is finally enrolled! Now that she has to share you maybe she'll finally have to face the consequences of her actions."

Severus opened his mouth to speak but no words came. He exhaled sharply, angrily then stepped back, increasing his distance from her. His shoulders tightened at the gleam of wounded triumph in her eyes but he ignored it. "I am very sorry, Minerva, for your loss," he said quietly. "Truly," he added. "But this was an accident and turning my student into a martyr will not change that."

"Severus is right, Minerva," Dumbledore added gently, finally. "We cannot sacrifice the one for another who is already lost."

At the headmaster's intervention, something in Severus' chest eased even as he felt his throat tighten. For a split second, the image of a dark underground passage gnarled with tree roots stretched out before him. Flickering lights in the distance gave way to a massive growling shadow racing toward him and James Potter's scream of "Run!" He blinked, clearing his inner vision and forcing his attention back to Dumbledore. As the memory faded forcibly into the back of his mind, he heard Sirius' laughter echoing. Is that why you never took me seriously then Albus? Because you thought I was already lost? His shoulders heaved. No, he thought. This time the headmaster hears me. This time it will be different. This time the Slytherin will be absolved.

Minerva turned stricken eyes to Dumbledore. "I'm not trying to martyr anyone, Albus, but he was my godchild and this –"

"Was an accident Minerva, no matter how tragic. No one is at fault."

Minerva choked back a sob and turned away.

Yes, Arion's death had been an accident, Severus thought angrily. But the young Gryffindor himself had been the one to blame.

Of course, most of the student body preferred not to believe that, he knew. Arion Winterthaw had been neither a valedictorian nor a Quidditch star. But he had been a prefect. He had been popular. And he had been a Gryffindor. And of course no Gryffindor could ever be less than perfect. Of course the Slytherin had to be at fault. He felt his molars grinding. Never mind the fact that before this the entire faculty had referred to Ophelia Broomall as "Slytherin in name only"; that all the house heads including the Headmaster had agreed to contribute time to help her pursue a customized advance course of independent study; that Flitwick had made an unseemly fuss over getting more time with her; and that even McGonagall had graciously volunteered to tutor her in Magical Literature. That arrangement was now dissolved per McGonagall's request. Starting next week Severus would add McGonagall's tutoring sessions with Ophelia to his own schedule despite the fact that he was already tutoring her in Philosophy of Magic. No, all of these accomplishments had gone by the wayside in the wake of Arion's death.

And what did they possibly think could make a young girl react so violently that a young boy would wind up dead? Were they thinking at all, he wondered. Apparently, Arion's death had made Ophelia's trauma immaterial. But it was impolitic for him to say so. Minerva had known Arion since he'd been a baby. She had held him at his christening and personally tutored him before he'd enrolled at Hogwarts. She had only visited with the family last summer.

Severus had survived too many skirmishes with the Gryffindors with more than his fair share of losses – as a student and faculty member, a head of house no less – to expect a victory here. A stalemate – one that left his student absolved and untouched by recrimination – would do.

He kept his bitter thoughts to himself as he and Dumbledore waited for Minerva regain her control.

When she finally turned back, moist-eyed composure in place, Dumbledore had turned to Severus. "You may go Severus. Oh and please do remember to bring Ophelia to me tomorrow."

Severus nodded once, suppressing his surprise. He spared a quick, assessing look at McGonagall then exited the office. As the door closed behind him, he paused. He could hear Minerva and Albus' muffled voices. It crossed his mind to cast an eavesdropping charm but decided against it. Besides the fact that Dumbledore's office was surely warded against such petty espionage, he hesitated to magically violate their privacy, McGonagall's current hostility towards him notwithstanding. And yet he could not make himself move. He stayed still, muscles taut, ears straining for…what?

"I don't trust her, Albus. She's lying! Either by commission or omission and Severus is covering for her."

Severus caught his breath. Here it was. Now where was the rest?

"Are you suggesting that Severus Snape would protect a student, any student who might have committed murder?"

Severus breathed shallowly as he strained to hear the reply.

After an achingly drawn out pause it came. "If it was anyone else but her, no. Flitwick had his suspicions but I brushed them aside. Now I wonder …I don't know that I trust him with her anymore, Albus. She just brings up…old memories for him. And he's still a young man. He's been alone for so long…"

Severus paled and his stomach lurched before his mind caught up to the accusation his sixth sense had already grasped.

"Are you saying Severus has been conducting an improper relationship with a student, Minerva?"

"Yes," Minerva said wearily. "And he probably doesn't even realize it."

Severus stepped back from the door, shaken. Humiliation and fear twisted in his gut.

McGonagall was wrong, he thought, grimly. He did know. He'd made the discovery only recently, but he knew. The blinders had fallen from his eyes in the wake of Arion's death. He exhaled shakily. Gods help him, he could not help but wonder if the young lion would still be alive if Severus had realized it sooner. His eyes lingered on the headmaster's door. Self-preservation and common sense told him to stay and hear the conversation through to its conclusion. Conscience and concern for Ophelia – not to mention an equally self-preservationist concern for his own skin – spurred him to go. It did not escape his notice that neither dignity nor honor had factored into his decision.

He turned and descended the spiral staircase.

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As he moved his thoughts spun as tightly as the curve of the stairs.

This would be the end of him, he knew.

Voldemort be damned! Albus would kill him. There were few unforgivable sins with the old man. This was one of them.

Severus had committed so many sins in his life he'd thought himself beyond this. At least he thought he knew his own pattern. As it had never included preying upon his female students, he had never believed himself to be vulnerable to committing it.

As the gargoyle guarding the empty passageway to Dumbledore's office slid back into place, his footsteps abruptly stopped. His shoulders sagged. Damn Minerva's acuity! And Flitwick's! How could they possibly have seen what he hadn't until only a fortnight ago? He pressed his fingers to his eyes. It hurt to have a lie exposed when he hadn't even realized he had been lying to himself. He sagged against the nearest wall.

So. Minerva's accusation, while factually wrong, was essentially true.

It was not right. He knew it. The wrongness of it had engulfed him from the first moment he'd awakened to its reality. For the past 10 days, he'd felt the fact of it coating his skin, seeping through his pores to infect his blood. He'd felt it hovering in the air around him like an infernal halo, convicting him in the eyes of those perceptive enough to see. And no one had ever claimed Dumbledore's perception to be weak.

Frantically, he ransacked his memories of his interactions with Ophelia, mentally interrogating himself for any impropriety, any violation, or any misconstrued comment. Even taking into account that his perceptions had apparently not been all that reliable, unless someone could prove he had been obliviated recently, his memory absolved him. He could not recall awareness of any physical or verbal, overt or covert intent to seduce her. He'd laid no hand on her. He'd spoken no innuendos to her. He hadn't coerced her.

He could think of nothing.

Nothing? Something inside him echoed. Nothing at all?

No, nothing, he thought angrily, not knowing with whom or what he was arguing.

But memory isn't all that matters. He flinched at the unbidden thought – because he knew it was true. It was, in fact, one of the first lessons of Occlumency. He knew memory was not the only thing that mattered in a mind.

He had not been blind. He couldn't help but see that, gods, she had blossomed this year. The gauche, distracted little girl had disappeared completely. The swan had emerged, he thought, wincing internally at his own cliché.

For the briefest second, the image of her in her first year with her sooty untrimmed tresses and overlarge blue eyes as she perched under the Sorting Hat came back to him. She had been mis-sorted from the first. He wasn't the only faculty member who'd decided that. Prof. Flitwick had agreed with him. She should have gone to Ravenclaw. Instead, she had come to him to be shepherded through his treacherous house of snakes. He shuddered. He never wanted to remember the hell of her first year ever again. For the first time since becoming a head of house, he'd feared for the life of one of his charges. And not simply because of student harassment. Thankfully, they had overcome that hurdle by his managing to put the fear of Merlin into his little snakes along the way. But he should have seen it as a warning. Maybe if he had, none of this would have happened. He wouldn't have had to take over her tutoring from McGonagall. And McGonagall wouldn't have had to attend a funeral.

It had been during their first tutoring session after the accident that he'd realized it. What was supposed to have been an academic discussion had degenerated into a dance of denial.

They had retreated to the old Physicians' Tower, seated themselves within the sun-drenched salon, sipped tea, reviewed her essays and pretended that neither of them had blood on their hands.

It hadn't worked.

She had withdrawn into nearly mute misery. He had allowed his eyes to betray him.

Yes, she had changed this year. The awkward phases of adolescence had finally settled into a rather touching form of grace. She had become uncomfortably pretty. Beautiful was not a word he felt safe using. She had too much of Bellatrix's wild dark allure. He supposed that was a result of the purebloods' generations of inbreeding. Over time, pockets of them came to resemble each other even when they weren't, strictly speaking, related. To the best of his knowledge the Broomalls had no blood connection to the Blacks but he wouldn't be surprised if one were found eventually. For the sake of his own self-preservation he hadn't bothered to look.

He had intended to use that session to extract from her her own version of the events leading up to Arion's death. She had blurted out a brief account, fragmented by delayed hysteria at St. Mungo's. Once back at Hogwarts, she had relayed a similarly brief, albeit more coherent version to Dumbledore. But he had wanted more information. As her head of house, he'd wanted to find out just how much damage had been done and what special needs he might have to address. He had given her time for the funeral to pass and for her to settle down before he'd intended to broach the subject.

But they never got that far.

In retrospect, he supposed it had been rather hypocritical of him. There were too many facts about him, too many foul memories that he'd rather not expose to the light of day. His habitually chilly demeanor made that quite clear. So why he'd expected her – or indeed anyone – to expose their memories to him, he didn't really know.

At the time, he'd impatiently told himself that she had no reason to distrust him. After all, he had stood between her and his snakes. He had persuaded the Headmaster to allow her to pursue a course of independent study starting in her fourth year rather than the customary sixth. He had even eschewed informing Dumbledore of one of her more eccentric first year mishaps. She was his after all. Never mind that she had unsettled his other Slytherins from the first year of her misguided placement in his house. He was her head of house. She was in his care, under his purview, and he would honor that commitment. No matter what it was costing him.

But she had sat before him, her hand clenched so tightly around her quill that he had expected the shaft to snap at any moment. And the hand that had rested on the blank parchment before her had seemed poised to crush the sheet at the slightest provocation. What was wrong with her? He'd thought testily. She had no reason to be so tense with him.

He now knew that to be a lie.

He'd told himself that finally making use of the tower room Dumbledore had granted him years ago was an attempt to facilitate her ability to concentrate and not a ploy to keep her away from Flitwick's continual attempts to claim more than his previously allotted time with her.

Another lie.

He'd told himself that habitually sharing tea during their session was merely an attempt to reduce the pressure on one of his most gifted students and not an excuse to relish the sight of genuine sunlight kissing her skin.

He knew he would burn for that lie.

And then their eyes had met and he knew she'd spotted the lies.

Abruptly, he hissed, sucking the air through his teeth as if in pain.

In two seconds, his weakness had broken the trust between them. And now, now when he would need it to defend both of them, it wasn't there.

No, his behavior and speech had not been improper. But his feelings had been. They still were.

His rational mind wanted to dismiss that fact as inconsequential.

Unfortunately, the dead body of Arion Winterthaw had made that impossible.

He dropped his hands and raised his head. He had no time for this self-indulgence.

One could only be prosecuted for one's actions not one's feelings. But he had gotten that boy killed. That had not been his intent. Oh he had wanted to hurt him, hurt him badly. And he'd used Ophelia as the weapon. It had been so easy to do. All it had taken was a few jabs in the right spot, several judicious pushes on the right buttons and the boy's Gryffindor arrogance had capsized him.

Literally.

They had found Ophelia drenched and shivering on the rocks. Arion had been found underneath them, wedged in, covered by the waves. Albus had summoned him to his office and then released him to portkey to the Winterthaws' vacation home to retrieve his student. Minerva was already there. The Muggle paramedics had been called by bystanders but were quickly dispatched by the Ministry's medics. He had accompanied Ophelia to St. Mungo's from whence he'd alerted her guardian, the director of the St. Cerridwen Home for Children. At least his student was alive. Minerva had accompanied a corpse.

Deliberately, he placed a bare palm against the cool stone wall. The corridor was empty but he heard a murmur of student voices in the distance. He straightened. Schooling his features into their usual sneering disdain, he began walking. He had to get to the dungeons. He had to find Ophelia and prepare her to face the headmaster – and perhaps, in the process, protect himself.

He swept through the corridors, cutting through the stream of moving students like a shark slicing through the waves. If he considered the matter rationally, Severus knew there was no guarantee that the outcome would have been different. He had never liked that Gryffindor boy, true. It wasn't just the youth's self-satisfied confidence. It wasn't just his underhandedness. That was a trait the boy shared with his own dear little Slytherins, although his snakes, ironically enough, were more honest about it. They didn't employ a sunny façade as decoy while lunging for what they wanted. No, what he'd hated was what the boy had lunged for, that he'd dared. Which, in retrospect, was foolish on his part. Gryffindors took on dares like lions lunging for red meat.

Lithe and athletic with unsettlingly green eyes and an open-hearted smile that Severus knew belied his natural cunning, Arion Winterthaw had been among the more popular members of Gryffindor. He had been tall and rangy and he'd sat next to Ophelia in one of Severus' potions classes. Six weeks into term, Winterthaw had maneuvered her fellow Slytherin Marius Bentlow out of the seat next to her and himself into it. He'd become her de facto cauldron partner. She'd been unable to shake him since.

Severus had found the sight of the two heads – one lustrous black, the other flaming red – bent together over one cauldron as disorienting as if he were looking into a Muggle fun house mirror. Even now it stirred painful rumblings in his chest as it deepened the scowl on his face. Oblivious to his notice, a second-year Hufflepuff practically squeaked at the sight of him as he stalked down the corridor. Like antelope catching a panther's scent, a clutch of Gryffindors all looked up on high alert until he passed. Even the portraits flinched. Only the Slytherins bothered to politely greet him even as they kept wary eyes on him. None of them registered with him.

He was intent on finding Arion's erstwhile target.

After Arion had maneuvered himself into Ophelia's life, Severus could practically have drawn her illustrations of what he'd known was coming next. That was why he'd forbidden her permission to accompany Arion on his weekend exeat home. It was to have been a party combining Arion's birthday with a celebration of Perdita Moorland and Jason Silverwood's engagement. Perdita, a Hufflepuff, was Ophelia's friend. Jason, another Gryffindor, was Arion's. Winterthaw had issued the invitation a month before but Ophelia had only told Severus the day before.

He gritted his teeth in recollection. Foolish, foolish girl! He thought bitterly. Not only had she fallen for this boy's juvenile ploy she'd maneuvered Severus into being unable to protect her from him. The day before, she'd already given him her essays, including her usual one for extra credit. She'd sorted, separated and neatly laid out the ingredients he'd need to brew additions to the school's stores of Calming Draught, Dreamless Sleep and Pain Relief potions. All of her other instructors, including Prof. McGonagall, had happily excused her (without, he noted, seeing fit to alert Severus) and the note from her guardian was already on record. She didn't play or care for Quidditch so she had neither athletic nor social obligations to account for. Prof. Snape had been the sole remaining obstacle to her plans and he knew it. If he had refused her permission to attend a perfectly normal, parent-supervised weekend with a student in good standing, he would have had to explain why.

Of course that point was now moot, Severus thought.

McGonagall already knew why. And apparently Flitwick had suspected for some time. Would that they had let him in on the secret.

He was not deceived by Albus' innocuous reminder to bring him Ophelia tomorrow. Between the crisis with the Chamber of Secrets and Minerva's distress at losing Arion, not to mention the entire faculty's efforts to manage a skittish student population and their frantic parents, Ophelia had been lost in the shuffle. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the Headmaster had questioned her briefly, while she was still in the infirmary, and then left her alone. Severus always knew that Dumbledore would seek a more thorough discussion with her if only for formality's sake and when the Headmaster's request came, Severus had insisted that he be allowed to sit in. Now, however, Minerva's accusation had changed everything. Albus would use this interview to determine the truth of the matter for himself.

The headmaster would question Ophelia and himself, separately and together. Nor was Severus under any illusion that Albus would stop only at verbal interrogation. He had every reason to expect the headmaster would legilimize Ophelia and himself. Moreover, Dumbledore was an experienced enough legilimens to know that there was more to a mind than just memory. Severus could decide to block the headmaster's access to his feelings but that would resolve nothing. In fact, it would probably only force Albus to take stronger measures.

Suddenly, he shivered. Instinctively, he wrapped his robe more tightly around him.

Veritaserum had nasty side effects and Severus required a much larger dose than most. It could take days for the vertigo to completely subside. But that was minor. What he dreaded most was the weeks of having his emotions blasted from their vault and simmering, raw and unadulterated, just beneath the surface. The last time he'd been dosed it had been nearly a month before he could make it through a week without reducing a student or teacher or both to tears. Dumbledore had finally ordered him to Madame Pomfrey for a daily dose of Calming Draught until the side effects faded. He'd never told the headmaster about the sleepwalking or, more correctly, sleep-apparating. Once he'd come to in the middle of his sitting room in his house on Spinner's End. The drapes were on fire. He'd simply been standing there watching them burn. On another occasion he'd woken up on a broom – whose he'd never discovered – flying loops over London for no discernible reason. The third time, he'd regained consciousness standing behind a woman in a half-zipped dress. He was fully clothed, in a bedroom and had had to check the bed to see whether he should be zipping the dress up or down. The bed looked liked it'd been through a war; he'd zipped the dress up. She'd had red hair.

The worst part was…these were all things he'd wanted to do. They were idle thoughts that had crossed his mind, anarchic impulses that he'd ruled out for obvious reasons. But in the wake of the veritaserum, he'd lost his ability to restrain himself. Occlumency had not helped. He'd finally settled on a combo of the Sleeping Draught spiked with just a touch of Living Death. It had worked. He'd kept taking the concoction until two weeks after Pomfrey had released him from his daily dose of Calming Draught. To his relief, he hadn't relapsed.

It wasn't worth his sanity to give Dumbledore any reason to give him another dose. He would have to prepare himself to allow the headmaster free and open access to his memories and his emotions.

The problem was he had lied. Unconsciously, perhaps, but he had done it. Since being struck by the internal revelation of his own feelings toward his student, Severus knew he had lied exquisitely, brazenly. Worse, Minerva's accusation had shown he hadn't just lied; he'd deluded himself. He had hidden truth from himself without realizing it for reasons he did not yet understand. Whatever the motive was, if he didn't get control of it, wrestle it back into the dark, forgotten corner of his mind from which it had crawled, it would be the end of him. If Severus should have a failure of sanity and actually act on those feelings, Dumbledore would kill him himself, or worse, send him to Azkaban.

He could feel the guilt now crouching in his mind, huddling in the darker corners, waiting to be discovered. Occlumency could mask it but using Occlumency in this context would only encourage Albus to turn to the veritaserum and Severus was back where he started.

Memory would absolve him if emotion would not – assuming the headmaster believed his intentions were only ever honorable – and, he again reminded himself, one could not be prosecuted for an emotion, only an action. Nevertheless, he didn't relish the prospect.

For himself, or Ophelia.

He would have to prepare her. There was not enough time and he had never taught her Occlumency. She was not a good subject. And she was still shaken by Arion's death. But he had little choice. Before Minerva's interference, this would simply have been a bit of hand holding over tea. Now he had to prepare her for a psychic invasion, no matter how gently done, which could aversely affect his own future. By rights, someone else should be prepping her. He had too much personally at stake to be able to treat her fairly and impartially. But there was no one else who could prepare her. No one else on the staff had the expertise. Moreover, he didn't trust anyone else – and not just because his own fortunes were on the line. For the same reason he had defended Ophelia against Minerva's insinuations he refused to put her in the hands of anyone else. Besides, Albus had not explicitly or implicitly instructed Severus to stay away from her before tomorrow. To a Slytherin, that was the same as a permission slip. He would be a fool to let her meet with Dumbledore untutored. Now he simply had to retrieve her.

After all the truth had yet to become flesh. And until it did – if it did, pray gods it never did – then he was safe. He was as safe as any man on a tight rope could be.

He swept down the dungeon steps.