Taking place some time in Harry's fifth year, after the death of Sirius Black but somewhat before the next round of brown stuff hit the fan.
Harry couldn't sleep. No surprise there, really; he kept seeing black-cloaked figures in gold masks, an exhausted headmaster duelling with the Dark Lord, and the sinking feeling in his core as the last person on earth who understood him fell beyond the veil and out of his reach forever. Just as he would drift off to sleep, the world behind his eyes would explode into noise and ice honed sharper than split glass, and he would start into wakefulness again. Finally, somewhere between midnight and dawn he slipped out of bed and pulled his cloak around his shoulders, stuck his wand in the waistband of his nightclothes, and crept away from the dormitory. He slipped out of the common room and onto the stairs, wandering without any real thought of where to go. Somehow he ended up on the bridge. He always ended up on the bridge.
The night was cold; a har settled over the castle and grounds, wrapping the already magical place in a still more mysterious cloud. The moisture soaked right through the cloak and into Harry's socks. He ignored the numbness in his toes and let himself shiver without really noticing. Who cared about cold? Not him. There were worser things than cold on his mind. Death, for instance. The deaths of his family, close friends... he considered for a moment what he would do if Ron and Hermione were next. Cho. Neville. Luna. Ginny. Fred and George. Without them, what was the point?
An owl swooped over the grounds and up to the open aviary to escape the chill. As he glanced up from the yard, a movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He was not alone on the bridge; a weary old man in a deep blue dressing gown and very thick slippers gazed down at the yard, waiting patiently.
Harry wanted to say something, to greet him, but the only thing that came to mind was a question which would have been ridiculously out of place. What's the point of going on if it means seeing everyone you love die? But it wouldn't do for the question to come out of the air. He was still under the cloak, and for once he got the feeling Dumbledore had no idea he was there-- or if he did, didn't care. So Harry remained silent, and the old wizard remained silent, and they watched the yard together.
The har looked very much like the veil behind the archway. Harry wondered what falling from the bridge might be like. Very much like a Quidditch dive, he supposed, except for the sudden stop at the end. It would be just his luck that someone would be around to magic him back together once he got to the ground, and then where would he be? In decades of counselling, he imagined.
Harry wanted to talk to his godfather. He wondered if dying hurt. He wondered if there was something on the other side of that arch, if Sirius was with his parents and members of the old Order who didn't make it. He wondered if there was a God. He wondered what it was like to spend years in Azkaban... Sirius did that, and for him. Sirius didn't have any family waiting for him, at least not any family that cared. Sirius was a supreme badass, it had to be said, and waited for years for the right moment to escape just to look after his godson and live the life of a fugitive.
Harry wondered if one day he could be as strong a person as Sirius Black. He certainly hoped he would be.
A slight wind stirred his cloak, and he gave a little start as he realized the light was draining away from the sky. His mind whispered to him of dementors, but there was no accompanying feeling of despair nor smell of dead things. A glance at the sky gave the answer; the moon had set beyond the hills and taken with it the weak grey light. He wished he had paid more attention in class, he might have been able to tell what time it was.
The old wizard beside him seemed to know what time it was, and whatever he was waiting for hadn't come. Dumbledore gave a weary sigh, blue eyes shadowed by clear disappointment. He straightened up and shuffled back into the castle, not glancing over at Harry or back down at the yard.
Harry watched him go, but couldn't bring himself to retire just yet. There was so much happening in his mind that he couldn't understand or control, even when it was just him in his mind. Between the nightmares, visions, and occlumency 'lessons,' his mind was a grand parkway plagued with overcrowding on the best of days... It was a five-car pile-up in rush hour traffic on the worst. God, what he wouldn't give for a time machine. Or some fire whisky. He moped about the age requirements for the purchase of alcohol that prevented a young wizard from legally acquiring booze. Maybe he would talk to Fred and George about getting some... but then, maybe not. It would probably give him explosive gas or turn his ears into figs or something equally unpleasant. Best not to risk it. He wondered what mixed drinks might mean in the wizarding world. Perhaps there was a cocktail named after Merlin. Possibly Dumbledore. Hopefully there was a Mad-Eye Moody cocktail, because that man certainly deserved to have a drink named after him.
With those lighter thoughts, he straightened to go. A sharper wind tugged at his cloak, and just as he stood up the har gusted to the east, and his eye was drawn to a black-shrouded figure shuffling unevenly across the yard toward the castle. He stared intently, trying to make out what it was. Its gait was lurching, like a crippled man, but fast, as if running from something. Nothing followed it, at least not so far as Harry could tell. It was making fairly good time, until it suddenly stopped as if grabbed from behind. It fell forward, just close enough that Harry could make it out as human. It struggled to rise from its place on the ground, and he knew if he wanted to intercept this person before he or she entered the school, he would have to hurry.
The castle seemed to understand where he was going and configured the stairs accordingly. The hall was clear of Filch or passing teachers, and he would have placed money that Hogwarts was keeping at least one or two patrolling staff members busy elsewhere. The castle had been more than helpful and compliant this year, and it was quite more than Harry supposed he deserved. It was grand, living in a building with an opinion.
He took the wee door out to the grounds and looped back toward the entryway. He found an anxious-looking house elf, but she vanished before he could ask. Approaching, he saw a lighter spot on the pavement where the form had fallen. The house elf must have scourgified it. More examination turned up a trail of scourgified clean spots on the flagstones leading into Hogwarts. He followed them in, along the corridors and around corners until he caught up with the house elf again, who hesitated at the top of a long, winding stair. Every other step had the faintest red mark which did not grow fainter or shrink as the steps proceeded down: a track of someone bleeding slowly but steadily. The house elf hopped from one foot to the other and back, clearly agitated; Harry couldn't blame her. He wouldn't want to go down there either. The only things down that stair were the passage to the Slytherin common room and the dungeons. No one liked the dungeons, not even the resident house.
But there was someone in the castle, someone bleeding but alive, and he or she was wandering unchecked. Was this for whom Dumbledore was waiting, was this someone who needed help, or was this an invader of some kind? What kind of person would break into a castle full of witches and wizards, anyway? Only one way to find out, he supposed. Harry squeezed past the house elf and started down the stairs as quietly as he could.
The red marks resolved into a single footprint repeated every other step, then a single footprint with a few drops beside, then a single footstep on every step. He recoiled in slight shock from the wall as he spotted a handprint on the wall, trailing down the last few steps into the dungeon corridor. The tracks smeared a little, becoming more obvious but significantly less intelligible, off to the right and down the corridor. The inky shadows of the dungeons fell across him like a heavy blanket, but he did not dare whisper a spell to light his way. He recalled afternoon television specials about when wild animals attacked, and remembered a specific episode where a harmless-looking meerkat, cornered and injured, removed sizable chunks of a man's face. He doubted he'd be running into meerkats in Hogwarts, but the principle was about the same.
The tracks lead inexorably where he did not want to get caught; the snake's hole. Professor Snape's private quarters and office. Ugh. A quiet, perhaps saner part of him wanted to run to the professor's door, wake him, and have him investigate instead. It would be safer to have an older, more powerful wizard confront potential danger first, right? And it would be well within the professor's job description to handle whatever dangerous person might wander into the castle. But how would Harry explain being out of Gryffindor Tower after curfew?
He cursed his luck as the tracks led right to Professor Snape's door. Could it be some Deatheater come to ask for help or medical attention? What kind of company would such a man have at such a dark hour of the night? Curiosity pressed him forward, toward the open door and the painfully obvious answer: no company at all. The dim light of the room fell across the figure crumpled on the stone floor.
Professor Snape lay prone on the floor of his office, not moving but for his breath.
Harry hesitated. He knew precious little about first aid, and found himself desperately wishing he'd included it in the curriculum for Dumbledore's Army. Perhaps he could send for help? To whom? How? There was a hearth in the room, surely Snape kept a bit of floo powder. He could get Madam Pomfrey or Professor McGonagall, or-- anyone, really. He could send a patronus, but that would alert everyone that something was up. Who really needed to know? Dumbledore said Snape was a spy. Did this mean his cover was blown? Should he tell Dumbledore only?
As he hovered in indecision, the house elf from before caught up to them. She lit the candles in the office and made her way to the hearth, where she summoned another house elf to help her. Together, they took Snape's wrists, pulled him into the room, and closed the door. Harry managed to slip in and tuck himself into a corner, watching intently. The elves seemed to know what to do. They didn't speak to each other but coordinated their efforts. The man elf tugged at Snape's hands cautiously, the woman elf slapped lightly at his ghostly-white face. Slowly, Snape regained consciousness; first he stirred, then opened his eyes and levered himself up on one arm without a sound. The elves pushed him to sit, working quickly to remove his outer cloak.
Immediately Harry saw the source of the blood; his frock coat was torn in many places, front, back, and sleeves; every one of those long tears matched a bloody mess of torn skin. None of the lacerations were particularly deep, but neither were they shallow. The wounds weren't meant to cause him to bleed to death, only to cause pain. The man elf tugged the coat off, then the white shirt and undershirt, leaving the bloodied clothes hanging at the waist. The woman elf disappeared into a cupboard, returning with an armful of potions, a folded cloth, and a bowl of hot water.
Snape let them work, staring blankly ahead and not seeming to know where he was. He trembled a little from time to time and whispered. When the woman elf offered him a tiny glass bottle with a handwritten label, he did not respond. She tugged at his wrist and placed the potion in his hand, but he did not grasp it. She exchanged a worried glance with the other elf, who was busy washing away the blood and applying a clotting agent. He tilted his head toward the hearth, and she nodded. Placing the collection of potions within Snape's reach, she scurried over to the fire and tossed some powder onto the coals. The fire sputtered, then flared slightly. After a moment, the fire resolved itself into an image of Dumbledore's head.
Harry could have fainted with relief; the headmaster would know what to do for sure.
The woman elf didn't say anything, but simply shook her head and wrung her hands. The headmaster gave a half-smile, troubled but reassuring, and disappeared from the fire. She turned back to exchange another look with the other elf, who dropped the used cloth into the red-tinted water, then moved to stand before Snape. He lifted the potion back into Snape's hand and closed the professor's hand around it forcibly, but as he released the bottle so did Snape, and it rolled away from them with a harsh clatter of glass on stone. The sound seemed to trigger something in Snape's mind; he rolled his head forward until his chin was nearly on his chest and began to tremble slightly but silently. Black, lifeless hair blocked Harry's view. The woman elf draped his outer cloak around his shoulders and fretted.
The door to the office opened. Dumbledore stepped in and quickly closed the door behind him. He crossed the room silently and knelt beside Snape, laying a hand on the back of the man's neck. Snape reacted violently, throwing his head back and arching his spine in what should have been a gut-wrenching scream; but even as he clawed at the stone of the floor, even as he seized and struggled against what was not there, he was utterly, horribly silent. Slowly the fit subsided, leaving him breathing hard and shaking. He raised his eyes and looked around wearily, then swallowed once and nodded.
With the help of the elves and the headmaster, he worked his way through the row of potions. First, a calming draught, which seemed hardly to work. Next, one to heal his flesh, one to mend bones, and one to regenerate blood. One to force out toxins, and here they paused as Snape retched into the wastepaper basket. One for nausea seemed logical next. Then, a potion to kill pain, the scent so strong Harry felt a little light-headed even from across the room.
Tension seemed to drain out of the professor, leaving him hunched and taking deep, grateful breaths of the cold dungeon air. He met Dumbledore's gaze again, and they seemed to converse without speaking. To the headmaster's question, which surely was the same as Harry's, Snape shook his head almost triumphantly. The headmaster gave him a half smile and stood up, then made his way to the door to go.
Harry frowned. They hadn't even spoken. The professor was still sitting in a hunched pile on the floor. Why was the headmaster leaving?
The woman elf offered Snape one last potion, Dreamless Sleep, but everything stopped when Snape inhaled harshly. Dumbledore stopped short and Harry turned back to Snape. Every ounce of tension returned to the professor's frame; he wrapped his right hand over his left forearm and gripped tightly as the Mark writhed on his flesh. He looked up at the headmaster, expression openly desperate, black eyes begging.
Whatever he asked for, Dumbledore could not or did not grant. Instead, the headmaster watched coldly as Snape put his arms through his shirt, traded his torn coat for one the elves brought him, then gripped the edge of his desk and hauled himself painfully to his feet. He took his cloak from the worried elves, tucked his wand up a sleeve, then began forward with a heavy limp.
The headmaster turned and walked away without him.
As soon as the door closed, Snape changed directions. He pulled open the side cabinet and began removing memories in silver streams as quickly as he could, dumping them into his pensieve. That done, he closed the cabinet and limped out of the office. The house elves cleaned the mess and took his battered coat to be repaired, extinguished the candles, and left Harry alone in the dark.
The room was cold, dim, and lifeless, just like when he used to visit for occlumency lessons. Just as before, he was in another wizard's territory, surrounded by another wizard's talent, and in the cabinet sat a big shimmering bowl of another wizard's pain. This time, he was certain he had no interest in the pensieve. And now he was extremely glad he never successfully countered legilimens.
What's the point of going on if it means seeing everyone you love die?
It hung in his mind, but he dared not ask it aloud and risk disturbing the shadows.
Harry wondered if one day he could be as strong a person as Severus Snape. He certainly hoped he would never have to be.