Author's Note:

I'm back!

Sorry for the long delay in getting this chapter out. As you know, it's been a rough year for me. The last six months have been taken up primarily with getting settled into our new home (you can read about that on my blog). Additionally, I found this a very, very difficult chapter to write – it's a pivotal "connecting" chapter, the official end of the build up and the beginning of the action. As such, I've started it and restarted it dozens of times over the past several months. I'm not sure how it works even now, but it's done and I'm glad, because now I feel like I can move on to the fun stuff!

A couple of things to keep in mind before you read:

1. Sharp-eyed readers will remember that, in chapter 8, I included foreshadowing indicating that Snape would not see Harry when he next expected to, and that, when he did see him, it would be under different circumstances. Well, in this chapter Harry do see each other briefly. I apologize for the discrepancy, but I forgot I had planned this brief encounter when I wrote chapter 8.

2. You'll notice that some of the writing looks familiar. That's because I've lifted a good deal of text from chapters 6 and 15 of The Half-Blood Prince tweaking it to fit my own evil purposes. No copyright infringement is intended here; I'm not making any money off this. The reason I've done this is because, as you've undoubtedly observed, I've been trying to stick close as close to canon as possible while still creating an alternate universe. This is because there are so many characters and loose ends in the Harry Potter universe, and I want to keep what I like, fitting it in with the story I want to tell both because it works and because it saves me time in trying to cover everything.

3. Finally, this chapter is un-beta-ed. Not because I don't have volunteers, but because I've made you all wait for so long, I didn't want to make you wait any longer. I apologize for any errors and hope you'll point them out to me. In the meantime - the chapter's done, and I'm very glad. Onward and upward!



P.S. For all those who have been asking…never fear, Spartacus WILL reappear! :-)

"It wouldn't work, Albus," Snape said with finality. "It simply wouldn't work."

They were in Dumbledore's office. The headmaster was seated at his desk, leaning back in his chair with his elbows on the chair arms, fingers steepled before him. Snape stood in front of the desk, leaning on hands curled into loose fists against its surface.

Dumbledore merely raised his eyebrows, but Snape thought he detected disappointment. He fought down a rising sense of guilt and failure and went on impatiently.

"Don't look at me like that, Albus. You know full well it would not work."

"I do not know that, Severus," the old man commented mildly. "I do know, however, that you seem to be giving up before you have even begun."

Snape drew himself up angrily. "Headmaster, this isn't an experiment that can be tried, then abandoned if it fails. The mentor/protégé relationship is permanent, as you very well know. Potter and I have far too much history to attempt it. The relationship requires total trust. I have, due to the events of the earlier part of the summer," Snape said stiffly, "learned that the boy can be trusted. He, on the other hand does not trust me, as you know."

"Ah, but Severus, look how far you have both come in such a short time! Harry no longer defies you, and I know he would trust you with his life."

"With his life, Albus. Only with his life." Snape paused, aware of how ludicrous that might sound to anyone else. After all, what trust was greater than this? But to a boy who was not in the habit of valuing his own life, but who did value his friends, Snape knew that the way Potter held himself back from him could be a severe detriment to the success of their becoming mentor and protégé. He did not know how to verbalize this to Dumbledore, however.

As it turned out, he did not need to. The old man sighed, stood up, and began to pace.

"I'm afraid that you may be right, Severus. Recriminations at this late date are, of course, useless, but it is regrettable your relationship with Harry has been so...strained over the years. It took a life-altering event to change your mind about him; I fear it would take a similar upheaval to change his mind about you. That–or time, which we do not have."

The headmaster paused before Fawke's perch and sighed again. For several moments he stood pensively watching his pet. Then he straightened, turned back to Snape and said briskly, "We will put this issue aside, at least for the time being. Now, you said you had something else to report?"

Mutely, Snape handed him the missive he had received Thursday night. Dumbledore read the single line of text three times before handing it back, a grave expression on his lined face.

"Do you think this has to do with the task he charged you with at the last Death Eater gathering?" He asked quietly.

Snape nodded. "I do. I will report to him with the store of potions he requested, but I believe this is about my accompanying Draco Malfoy on his school shopping trip to Diagon Alley."

Dumbledore looked troubled, and Snape could not blame him. Voldemort was careful never to reveal the whole of his plans at once, thereby helping to ensure they remain secret as long as possible.

For the third time, Dumbledore sighed. He suddenly looked older than Snape had ever seen him. "I can only urge you, Severus, to expect the unexpected."

Snape inclined his head.

"I will attempt to be at your disposal when you must carry out this task," Dumbledore went on, turning to face Snape, "but this week I will be somewhat...preoccupied with a task of my own. It cannot wait, though I was rather hoping that you would be at my disposal while I was attempting to complete it."

Snape waited for Dumbledore to elaborate, frowning slightly when the old man refrained from doing so. Voldemort was not the only one who did not reveal the entirety of his plans at once, he thought ironically.

"And in the meantime," Dumbledore paused delicately, "regarding Harry...?"

Snape sighed wearily, drawing his hand over his eyes.

"It wouldn't work, Albus," he repeated. "It just...wouldn't work."

"It wouldn't work, Hermione," Harry said exasperatedly for the tenth time. "I'm telling you, it just wouldn't work!"

"But Harry, it's such an amazing opportunity!" Hermione was nothing if not relentless where learning was concerned.

"Hermione, will you give it a rest? Of course Harry would be nutters to magically bind himself to that greasy git for the rest of his life! He's had it in for Harry since first year," Ron punctuated this statement with a loud slurp as he polished off the peanut butter-and-strawberry ice cream (pronounced "revolting" by Hermione) he had bought at the small cafe near the apothecary's. Ron had roundly abused the treat for not coming from the now-boarded up ice cream place belonging to the missing Florean Fortescue, but that had not stopped him from demolishing it in under a minute.

It had been almost a week since Harry had arrived at the Burrow. Leaving Bill at home with Fleur, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had brought Ron, Harry, Hermione and Ginny to Diagon Alley to shop for their school supplies. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had gone to Flourish and Botts with Ginny to fetch everyone's school books, while Harry, Ron and Hermione, shadowed by Hagrid in the role of proud protector, headed over to Madame Malkin's for new robes. On the way, the three discussed their O.W.L. results with Hagrid – Harry and Ron lamenting their failure to achieve an "O" in potions, which would keep them out of Snape's N.E.W.T. class and subsequently Auror training. When Hagrid's attention was temporarily diverted to the large window of a an exotic pet shop in which a litter of what looked suspiciously like purple skunks with acid spray, Harry took the opportunity to tell Ron and Hermione about Dumbledore's proposal.

Ron had been properly horrified, but Harry was surprised (though perhaps he shouldn't have been) when Hermione enthusiastically approved the plan.

"Just think, Harry," she gushed. "Professor Snape is a really brilliant wizard, so skilled in potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts, you'd learn loads! And if you were his protégé and he was sworn to protect you, he might even let you into his potions class..."

Ron wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Come off it, Hermione! We're talking about a mentor-protégé charm! Harry would be bound to that barking bat forever, don't you get it? Unless he wants to lose his magic, that is…"

Harry sighed. He was already sorry he'd told them.

Dumbledore had made it clear on the night before Harry had arrived at the Burrow that he felt Harry would do well to confide his troubles - all of his troubles - to his friends. Over the past week he had told them bit by bit about the Prophecy, about Snape picking him up from Little Whinging, about the private lessons with both Snape and Dumbledore, and now about Dumbledore's suggestion that Snape be his mentor. It was a lot to take in.

The one thing he had not yet been able to bring himself to tell them about was the Dursleys. Ron and Hermione knew the Dursleys did not love Harry or treat him well, but they did not know about Uncle Vernon's...well..."punishments," for want of a better word. Harry knew in theory that he need not be ashamed before his friends, that they would never blame him. In practice…that was something else.

Besides…he truly didn't want to think about it.

While in the wizarding world, his true home, Harry avoided thinking about the Dursleys altogether. The thought of his friends' reactions - Hermione's tears, Ron's swearing - left Harry feeling cold. And it wouldn't end there - the rest of the Weasleys would be sure to find out, and Harry could only imagine Mrs. Weasley's certain tearful outburst, Mr. Weasley's quiet anger, the twins' murderous, mutinous plans for revenge. And Ginny. The thought of Ginny learning about it all made Harry wince.

Then there was the rest of the Order - somehow the news would spread, Harry was sure, and there would be pitying looks and an overabundance of kindness and promises of retribution. He would no longer be treated normally, the thing he desired above all else. And if the Daily Prophet were ever to get a hold of such a story...!

No. As much as he knew it would hurt them to learn he had not confided in them, Harry shrank from telling Ron and Hermione about what went on at the Dursleys', at least for now.

"Look," Harry said wearily as they drew near to Madame Malkin's, "I've pretty much ruled it out for now. I just don't see it happening. Snape may be on our side" – he said this grudgingly – "and I trust him with Order business, but I don't trust him the way Dumbledore says I'd need to, that's all there is to it. That's not something that can be…forced. Quiet," he ordered as Hagrid drew new again, cutting Hermione off even as she opened her mouth to protest. "We'll talk about it later, OK?"

"Migh' be a bit of a squeeze in there with all of us," said Hagrid, stopping outside Madam Malkin's and bending down to peer through the window. "I'll stand guard outside, all right?" So Harry, Ron, and Hermione entered the little shop together. It appeared, at first glance, to be empty, but no sooner had the door swung shut behind them than they heard a familiar voice issuing from behind a rack of dress robes in spangled green and blue.

"... not a child, in case you haven't noticed, sir. I am perfectly capable of doing my shopping alone." There was a clucking noise and a voice Harry recognized as that of Madam Malkin, the owner, said, "Now, dear, the professor's quite right, none of us is supposed to go wandering around on our own anymore, it's nothing to do with being a child —" "Watch where you're sticking that pin, will you!" A teenage boy with a pale, pointed face and white-blond hair appeared from behind the rack, wearing a handsome set of dark green robes that glittered with pins around the hem and the edges of the sleeves. He strode to the mirror and examined himself; it was a few moments before he noticed Harry, Ron, and Hermione reflected over his shoulder.

His light gray eyes narrowed.

"If you're wondering what the smell is, Professor, a Mudblood just walked in," said Draco Malfoy.

"I don't think there's any need for language like that!" said Madam Malkin, scurrying out from behind the clothes rack holding a tape measure and a wand. "And I don't want wands drawn in my shop either!" she added hastily, for a glance toward the door had shown her Harry and Ron both standing there with their wands out and pointing at Malfoy.

Hermione, who was standing slightly behind them, whispered, "No, don't, honestly, it's not worth it."

"Yeah, like you'd dare do magic out of school," sneered Malfoy. "Who blacked your eye, Granger. I want to send them flowers."

"That's quite enough!" said Madam Malkin sharply, looking over her shoulder for support. "Professor...please..."

Severus Snape strolled out from behind the clothes rack, looking sardonic as ever.

"Put those away," he said coldly to Harry and Ron, "unless you want to spend the first month of your sixth year in detention…always assuming the headmaster shields you from expulsion, of course," he finished with a sneer.

Until this moment, Harry had not realized how much Snape had eased up on him since they had returned to Hogwart's together from his relatives' house. Gone was sarcastic, but grave wizard who had carefully instructed Harry in Occlumency, and in his place was the malicious, sneering Snape Harry had known from first year on. There was no sign at all in the fathomless black eyes that anything more had ever passed between them. With a sick, numb feeling in his stomach, Harry felt as though the past six weeks might never have happened.

"Still think it's a good idea now, Hermione?" Ron muttered, but he backed down at once.

Eyes never leaving Snape's, Harry slowly put his wand away. His fingers were shaking, and there was a ringing in his ears.

"Come on," Hermione hissed. She tugged on his sleeve. "Let's do our shopping and get out of here."

"Smart choice, Granger," Malfoy smirked. The eyes of both Slytherins glittered maliciously as Madame Malkin shooed Harry, Ron and Hermione into the next room, then hurried back to finish Draco's fitting. She seemed anxious to get them all out of her shop as soon as possible.

Harry was so shaken by the unexpected encounter with Snape that he missed the appraising, yet somehow anxious look Draco was giving him.

For the next ten minutes, Harry and Ron busied themselves with trying on school robes while Hermione sorted through a rack of delicate dress robes. When Madame Malkin, who had apparently finished with Draco in the next room and was now pinning up Ron's hem, left the room to fetch her magical tape measure, Harry drifted to the curtained doorway, attracted by low, hissing voices from the front of the shop.

He peeked through the curtain. Snape and Malfoy, standing at the counter, appeared to be arguing.

"Listen to me," said Snape, his voice so low now that Harry had to part the curtain still more in order to hear. "I am trying to help you. I swore to your mother I would protect you. I made the Unbreakable Vow, Draco —"

"Looks like you'll have to break it, then, because I don't need your protection! It's my job, he gave it to me and I'm doing it, I've got a plan and it's going to work, you'll see!"

"What is your plan? If you tell me what you are trying to do, I can assist you ..."

"I have all the assistance I need, thanks, I'm not alone!"

"If you are placing your reliance on assistants like Crabbe and Goyle —"

"They're not the only ones, I've got other people on my side, better people!"

"Then why not confide in me, and I can —"

"I know what you're up to! You want to steal my glory!"

There was another pause, then Snape said coldly, "You are speaking like a child. I quite understand that your father's capture and imprisonment has upset you, but —"

Harry had barely a second's warning; he heard Malfoy's footsteps on the other side of the curtain and jerked his ear away before Malfoy swept by and out of the shop, slamming the door behind him so that the glass rattled in the frame. Snape quickly tossed several galleons on the counter, grabbed the brown paper parcel out of Madame Malkin's startled hands, and hurried after him, his expression tight.

Harry remained frozen on the other side of the curtain, mind and heart racing.

Later, in Fred's and George's shop, Harry repeated to Ron what he had heard while Fred and George helped Hermione heal the bruise made by their punching telescope.

"So Snape was offering to help him? He was definitely offering to help him?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "He said he'd promised Malfoy's mother to protect him, that he'd made an Unbreakable Oath or something —"

"An Unbreakable Vow." said Ron, looking stunned. "Nah, he can't have…are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure," said Harry. "Why, what does it mean?"

"Well, you can't break an Unbreakable Vow."

"I'd worked that much out for myself, funnily enough. What happens if you break it, then?"

"You die," said Ron simply. "Fred and George tried to get me to make one when I was about five. I nearly did, too, I was holding hands with Fred and everything when Dad found us. He went mental," said Ron, with a reminiscent gleam in his eyes. "Only time I've ever seen Dad as angry as Mum, Fred reckons his left buttock has never been the same since."

"Yeah, well, passing over Fred's left buttock —"

"I beg your pardon?" said Fred's voice as the twins, followed by a now fully healed Hermione, appeared around a display of Decoy Detonators.

"That's three Galleons, nine Sickles, and a Knut," said George, examining the many boxes in Ron's arms. "Cough up."

"I'm your brother!"

"And that's our stuff you're nicking. Three Galleons, nine Sickles. I'll knock off the Knut."

"But I haven't got three Galleons, nine Sickles!"

"You'd better put it back then, and mind you put it on the right shelves." Ron dropped several boxes, swore, and made a rude hand gesture at George that was unfortunately spotted by Mrs. Weasley, who, followed by Ginny, had chosen that moment to appear.

"If I see you do that again I'll jinx your fingers together," she said sharply.

"Mum, can I have a Pygmy Puff?" said Ginny at once.

"A what?" said Mrs. Weasley warily.

"Look, they're so sweet..."

Mrs. Weasley moved aside to look at the Pygmy Puffs, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione momentarily had an unimpeded view out of the window. Draco Malfoy was hurrying up the street alone. As he passed Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, he glanced over his shoulder. For a moment, Harry thought Malfoy had glimpsed him within the shop, but he gave no sign of it, and Harry thought he must be mistaken.

Seconds later, Malfoy moved beyond the scope of the window and they lost sight of him.

"Wonder where Snape is," said Harry, frowning.

"Given him the slip by the looks of it," said Ron.

"Why, though?" said Hermione.

Harry said nothing; he was thinking too hard. Judging by what he'd overheard in Madame Malkin's shop, Snape would not have let Malfoy out of his sight willingly; Malfoy must have made a real effort to sneak off.

Harry, knowing and loathing Malfoy, was sure the reason could not be innocent.

He glanced around. Mrs. Weasley and Ginny were bending over the Pygmy Puffs. Mr. Weasley was delightedly examining a pack of Muggle marked playing cards. Fred and George were both helping customers. On the other side of the glass, Hagrid was standing with his back to them, looking up and down the street.

"Get around here, quick," said Harry, ducking behind a display of stink bombs near the front door. Damn, I wish I hadn't left my cloak at Hogwarts!

"Oh — I don't know, Harry," said Hermione, looking uncertainly toward Mrs. Weasley.

"Come on!" hissed Ron.

She hesitated for a second longer, then dove behind the display with Harry and Ron.

Nobody had noticed them; they were all too interested in Fred and George's products.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione slipped through the door as quickly as they could, but by the time they gained the street, Malfoy had disappeared just as successfully as they had.

"He was going in that direction," murmured Harry as quietly as possible, so that the humming Hagrid would not hear them. "C'mon."

They scurried along, peering left and right, through shop windows and doors, until Hermione pointed ahead.

"That's him, isn't it?" she whispered. "Turning left?" "

Big surprise," whispered Ron.

For Malfoy had glanced around, then slid into Knockturn Alley and out of sight.

"Quick, or we'll lose him," said Harry, speeding up, yet hanging back enough to ensure that they would not (he hoped) be seen. He did not know why, but he felt an almost desperate desire to learn what Malfoy was up to…and, by extension, Snape.

Why was Snape protecting Malfoy, when he had given Dumbledore to understand that it was his job to protect Harry? Harry told himself it was not jealousy – it was not! – that had brought on the sick, hurt feeling he'd experienced in Madame Malkin's shop. It was that he needed to know – to really know – if he could indeed trust Snape.

How tailing Malfoy would accomplish that he did not ask himself.

"Careful, he'll hear us!" said Hermione anxiously, as Ron, intent on keeping up with Harry, stumbled into a crate outside a darkened shop.

"You're right about that, mudblood!"

The rough voice came from immediately to their right as three figures emerged from the doorway of the empty shop - almost as though they had been waiting for them. Harry, Ron and Hermione spun around to find themselves facing, to their horror, McNair, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Fenrir Greyback.

Greyback grinned. "Well, well, well…look what we've found!"