Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune - without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

- Emily Dickinson

Part 1: Snape

"...While you live, Severus, the Elder Wand cannot truly be mine."

"My Lord!"

Snape knew the words were futile, yet he raised his wand in an equally futile defence. His Occluded mantra of Harry, I must find Harry, tell him everything, please god let him be all right! was drowned out by a terrified chant of Fuck he'll kill me I'll die no not now!

"...I must master the wand, Severus. Master the wand, and I master Potter at last." The Elder Wand pointed straight at Snape, and fear froze his mind.

It's over.

Then Harry burst into the room, as sudden and surreal as if Snape's frantic need to find Harry had Summoned Harry to him - and into mortal danger.


The Dark Lord whirled, deflecting Harry's spell from himself toward Snape. The jet of red light sent Snape's wand spinning out of his hand, to clatter on the floor behind him. No! If he thinks I was the wand's master, then now...

At once, the Dark Lord turned his back to Snape, ignoring him completely as his predatory focus switched to Harry. "I was right," he murmured smugly, "but then, I always am. I knew I need not lift a finger to find you. I knew you would come to me."

Just because the Dark Lord thought Snape was beneath his notice, didn't make it true. Behind the Dark Lord's back, Snape silently Summoned his wand and turned it on the sphere shielding Nagini. He started to pick to pieces the protections surrounding the snake, working subtly and stealthily as the Dark Lord held forth. At least his love of the sound of his own voice means he's still belabouring Potter with insults rather than curses.

"Remember that prophecy?" Harry interrupted the Dark Lord. "The one you just couldn't leave alone? The one you couldn't get, no matter how hard you tried? Well, you know what? It reckoned I'm the one who'll stop you." Snape risked a glance away from the sphere. Harry was dirty and dishevelled, but his wand glowed red-gold with banked spellfire and the gaze locked on the Dark Lord was Killing Curse green. Snape tore his own gaze away from that sight and ripped out the last thread from the tangled protection around the snake. The cage opened like an eggshell, tipping the snake out onto the floor with a rustle drowned out by Harry's cry, "You're not killing anyone else!"

"Wrong, Potter," the Dark Lord sneered disdainfully, before the casual mask shattered and he screamed, "AVADA KEDAVRA!"

Snape had no time to spare to watch any duel; he aimed his own wand at Nagini and roared, "SECT..." but at that instant an explosion rocked the Shack, hurling Snape into a wall and bringing down half the upper storey in a jumble of shattered timbers and dust that engulfed the corner of the room where the snake lay. Coughing and wiping dust from his eyes, Snape lurched to his feet and staggered over to a blast-blackened area near the door, sinking to his knees beside a sprawled body.

Voldemort. Snape thought the forbidden name, even as he cast Diagnostic Charms over the body. The corpse. He's dead. He's really dead! Harry's done it! A sudden pang seized him. Harry...

Snape lunged forward, not even bothering to rise to his feet, just hurling himself across the scorched timbers toward the pitiful bundle. Harry's robe. Like Voldemort's robe, and Snape's, it had been charred and torn by the blast, but in this case the damage was worse. Among the robe lay the burned splinters of Harry's wand. But Harry himself was... gone.

Gone. No ashes, no bones. Only the tatters of his outer robe, the shards of his wand. Snape shook his head, trying to clear the ringing of the blast from his ears, the lightheadedness of Voldemort's death. But the shaking only added dizziness. He blinked, scrubbed smoke-induced tears from his eyes. He cast Finite Incantatem, but there was no Disillusionment Charm to dispel. He felt none of that tingling awareness of being watched, which always warned him when Harry was wearing that damn cloak.

There was nothing. Nothing left of Harry at all.

And there was no way that he could have survived such a blast, not when Voldemort himself had been killed.

Snape stayed there, kneeling, his hands knotted in rags. Numb. Until the sound of a muffled sob snapped his head up, sent him striding for the door, wand out and aimed, curses on the tip of his tongue.

A blur of bushy brown, and a glint of a ginger mop further off in the shadows. Those two. Of course. But Snape didn't lower his wand or his guard. He'd underestimated students before in this very Shack, and unlike Voldemort, he learned from his mistakes. When instead of attacking him they gasped out, "Harry! Is he-" Snape wasted no time. A neat wandflick and a wordless Silencio ensured he'd be able to speak without accusations, arguments or curses.

"He's gone," Snape husked. "He killed the Dark Lord, but the Death Eaters are still out there, and there are still prices on your heads. Now, Disillusion yourselves and get out while you still can." When they didn't move at once, Snape searched for the words that would convince them to save themselves, and added, "It's what he would've wanted you to do."

Granger nodded mutely, tear-tracks clear in the dirt on her face.

Snape cut the Silencio, but kept his wand poised. They didn't attack, but when Weasley started to speak, Snape pointed down the tunnel and barked, "GO!" in his old classroom voice. At least that got them moving. He kept watch until the last echoes of their footsteps had faded, and he was left alone.

Then Snape heard the creaking sound of shifting wreckage from the room he'd just left. Heart in his throat, he hurried back inside.

Nagini had crawled out from under the fallen timbers, blood oozing from multiple wounds. But the injuries hadn't quelled her bloodthirstiness. The monstrous jaws gaped, and Nagini engulfed Voldemort's corpse, devouring him from feet to waist in one horrific bite.

Snape bared his own teeth in a snarl of visceral disgust, but even as he lifted his wand to finish the beast, the jaws clamped down on the body - and on the Elder Wand, tangled in the folds of Voldemort's robe.

There was a sickening crunch, but it wasn't the sound of a breaking wand. It was the duller crack of bone: breaking skull, shattering fangs, and the wet sound of tearing flesh. Snape had heard similar sounds, decades ago, in this very place. The massive snake thrashed in agony, and Snape had to leap out of the way of the heavy tail as it lashed out, reducing even more of the room to wreckage. Through the rips and burns in the Dark Lord's robes, Snape could see where the snake's gaping head was melting, its eyes and nose sealing over, its skull flattening and fusing with the pelvis it had devoured, bones and brain absorbed in a ghastly melding, until scales were bonded to pallid flesh. All this passed in what was at once an eyeblink and an eternity, and before Snape lay an atrocity, a ghastly mixture of the darkest wizard on earth and his murderous monster.

The tail's death-throes stilled, and the thing's eyes opened. Slit-pupilled, blood-red, inhuman, insane. Exactly as the Dark Lord's eyes had always been, ever since Wormtail's foray into potion-making three years ago. The lipless mouth opened, baring teeth that now were more like fangs, and the creature drew a deep breath, released it in a triumphant hiss, "Yesss! I live!" Skeletal hands caressed the scaled, serpentine body where his hips used to be. "Oh, my sweet girl," the Dark Lord whispered, "you sacrificed yourself to save me." Taloned fingers slid into the tattered robe, drew the Elder Wand. It was quite unscathed. The Dark Lord brandished the wand aloft, as he gathered his serpentine lower body, reared his human torso up off the floor. "Now that I have killed the Elder Wand's last master, Harry Potter," Snape knew he should be relieved at this reprieve, but he felt only numbness as the Dark Lord's voice rose to an insane crescendo, "I am invincible! I AM THE MASTER OF DEATH!"

Without a backward glance, the monster that was once Tom Riddle slithered away, down the tunnel leading out onto Hogwarts' grounds. Snape was drawn volitionlessly in his wake, like a shadow following a dementor.

All Snape could think was, It's over.

Even before he'd left the tunnel under the now-stilled Whomping Willow, Snape could hear the sounds of battle fading into an appalled silence. As he emerged into the open air he heard gasps and cries of shock, of terror and disgust. Some sounded as though they came from behind Death Eater masks.

Ahead of him, Voldemort reared high on his serpentine tail, his skull-like head towering taller than Hagrid's. His high, cold voice echoed off the distant walls of Hogwarts. "Behold your immortal Lord! Throw down your wands and bow to me, and I may spare your insignificant mortal lives."

There was an uneasy murmur from the distant ranks of Hogwarts' defenders, but it rose soon enough into cries of "Never!" "Wait 'til Harry gets here!" "Harry'll get you!"

"He's dead!" The cry burst from Snape with shocking abruptness. The tightness in his throat made his voice as harsh as a crow's. "The Dark Lord killed him!" Run! Save yourselves, you idiots!

"Harry's NOT dead!" someone yelled from the front line defence: a swarm of students, teachers, Order members, Aurors and house-elves. "Liar!"

Fool! As if to prove Snape's assessment of his intelligence, a young man charged out alone. Rubies shone like blood on the hilt of the sword he brandished.Longbottom! Snape froze, unable to save him, helpless to do more than bear witness. It was Charity Burbage all over again.

"Avada Kedavra," drawled the Dark Lord in bored tones. The Elder Wand vomited green flame like a dragon's jaws. Longbottom crashed to the ground, felled like a tree before the axe, and the sword Snape had fought so hard to protect dropped uselessly into the mud before it even had a chance to touch the Dark Lord.

After night had fallen, and Hogwarts' defences had fallen with it, Snape left the castle and returned to the abandoned battlefield. His black robes made him look like a mourner, or like one more crow among the multitude, as he poked and pried, searching for something. Relics, perhaps. The charred remains of hope, trampled in the dirt.

Snape didn't pause until he was shielded from potential prying eyes by the bitter reek of burning and the Forest's tangled growth. Shrouded in darkness, Snape drew a slow breath of the smoke-sour air, gathering his energies, reaching deep within himself. After the horrors just past, he honestly didn't know if he still had a single truly happy memory left to call upon. His whole life seemed accursed: even the secret of his flight had been stolen by the Dark Lord.

Then a long-buried memory surfaced, of a danger that no-one else, including Dumbledore, had even seen: a danger prevented by Snape's countercurse. Harry was only eleven at the time, still innocent of all that lay ahead, just as Snape himself was still free of the knowledge that the Dark Lord had returned. Snape seized the memory with desperate strength, reaching for the swell of elation he'd felt when Harry landed on the grass of the Quidditch pitch, safe; the quiet pride of knowing he'd saved a life, and successfully upheld his vow to protect Lily's son.

As he raised his wand, he felt like a supplicant, pleading with Fate for more important things than his own life.

His Patronus, when it finally formed from wan silver mist, had dwindled from its former self, as though the well of Snape's happiness had almost run dry. The ghostly shape was small enough now to be a fawn instead of a doe. Survivors, the thought was an instinctive pang as Snape faced the slender, shimmering shape,The Order, anyone on our side. Find them for me! I have to know someone lived!

The Patronus bowed its delicate head and leapt away, taking all the light with it. Snape stumbled out of the Forest, onto what used to be a wide grassy lawn before the front doors, and was now a killing field. Even for a wizard as combat hardened as Snape, the battleground was no easy place to be. Even though the final confrontation was over, the air still crawled with the shadow of curses and the earth was spongy with blood. Reeking corpses sprawled like dolls flung down by a callous god, with only flies and crows for company.

By the corpse of one of his former students, Snape crouched and plunged his hand into thick mud. When his fingers closed on the hilt, he shrank the sword to the size of a toothpick and hid it in his palm before pulling his apparently-empty fist out of the ooze. After he'd gone to such lengths to keep the sword safe and convey it to the right hands, Snape couldn't bear to leave it rusting among the dead.

Courage could be found in the oddest places. Snape found the resolve to go on, as he dug in the mud beside Longbottom's corpse. Longbottom finally found something to fight for, even if he lost on the first try. I've fought for a similarly lost cause for years, yet for whatever reason, I'm still alive, still here. What else can I do, but go on as I have been? It's not as though the Dark Lord will let me retire from his service, so what other choice do I have, but to continue using the skills that have kept me alive all these years? It's that or end up like this foolish Gryffindor: dead, and what's far worse, a failure.

He glanced up at the castle. Only a few fitful sparks burned in the shattered windows; the vast bulk of Hogwarts was dark. It had the abandoned, ominous look of a ruin. He turned away, drawn to a ruin even more desolate. In the Shrieking Shack, amid the charred rags of a robe, he found a broken pair of round-lensed glasses, and an old Snitch, cracked open like a walnut shell.

Moving on sheer instinct, he cast Reparo and Unbreakable Charms on the shattered lenses. Neither Lily nor Dumbledore would've wanted them left here, Snape told himself, though he had no idea why he himself wanted to keep them. He knew damn well he had no futile belief in their Saviour's miraculous return from the dead.They're just pointless reminders of one more pointless death. He held onto them nevertheless, pocketing them with Gryffindor's sword as he left the Shack. He had no reason for taking them. But then, what place does reason have on a day like today? The world's come to an end, and I'm just unlucky enough to live to see it.

He crossed the war-torn grounds and re-entered the castle, shambling with exhaustion or shock, his expression as blank as an Inferius'. He wandered past the entrance to the Great Hall, which resounded with the deafening din of the Death Eaters, celebrating. He paused on the threshold and peered inside in a moment of morbid curiosity: only for an instant, but it was still long enough to be seen.

The Death Eaters descended upon him, with cries of "Snape!" "Where were you?" "Come on, time to party!" A gloved hand closed on his upper arm, tugging at it. He shook off the impertinent touch, but the revellers were insistent. After all, what does it matter? What does anything matter? He followed their urgings and let himself be drawn into the centre of the Hall, where the revellers thronged most thickly. The house banners lining the walls had all been changed to Slytherin green, only now the snake on each banner was vomited from a skull.

A goblet was shoved into Snape's hands. He stared down at the blood-dark wine in disgust, but he knew that it wouldn't do to avoid toasting the victory. He'd just begun the reflexive scans for potions and poisons when the din of celebration died. Snape turned toward the rasp of scales on stone, loud in the sudden hush as the Dark Lord left the High Table and slithered down the centre of the Hall, straight toward Snape. As the towering thing drew nearer, dread prickled Snape's skin. His Mark grew clammy with cold sweat.

The Dark Lord fixed him with a scrutinising stare, as he tapped the Elder Wand ominously against his palm. His forked tongue flickered, like a snake tasting the air. "Severus," he hissed, "you stink of Gryffindor."

Fuck, he knows! No choice... Snape cupped his hands together and unshrunk the sword. "I couldn't leave something so valuable lying around to be stolen." He held it out in offering, the blade lying flat on the palms of his outstretched hands. "A memento of your victory, my Lord."

Voldemort's lipless mouth widened in a smile, baring rows of needle-sharp fangs. "Excellent," he hissed to Snape before breaking eye contact with him, and addressing the Hall as a whole. "Even now, when the rest of you think only of stuffing your bellies, Severus Snape still thinks, and acts, in accordance with my wishes, preserving trophies I wish preserved." Voldemort glided to within arms' distance of Snape, lowering his serpentine body until his human torso was only slightly taller. He took the sword from Snape with one hand, while his other hand slid onto Snape's shoulder. Clawed fingertips moved caressingly on the muscle there, before smoothing up the side of Snape's neck, toying with his hair. "My unselfish Severus," the Dark Lord crooned, in just the same soft voice he'd used when speaking to Nagini, "how fortunate that I was able to spare you."

The skull-like head lifted, and he declared, "Severus Snape is my second-in-command, my most loyal servant. And I reward loyalty." The Dark Lord's hand returned to Snape's shoulder, but this time it was the hand holding the sword. The flat of the blade touched Snape's shoulder as if knighting him, but then the tip slid inside the collar of Snape's shirt. A tug of cloth against his throat, the hiss of parting fibres, and Snape's shirt and robes were sliced cleanly down the back, baring him to the waist as the Dark Lord drew the severed cloth away from his body.

"Kneel," said Lord Voldemort.

Snape sank to his knees on the rags of his robe, locking his muscles down on a shiver, though the air was warm with hundreds of bodies, thousands of candles.

The Dark Lord raised the Sword of Gryffindor high. It glowed as if gathering every tongue of flame in the Hall to itself.

"Behold!" the Dark Lord cried, "I am the Master of Death!" The Dark Lord drew the Elder Wand and touched its tip to the tip of the blade. Then he moved his arms, and the blade flexed, supple as a silver ribbon, curving and bowing; all the defiant, stubborn stiffness of metal gone. "Even the sword of Godric Gryffindor bows before my will, surrenders its deadliest secrets!" He swung his arm, and the blade lashed like a whip. As its metal flexed, it shed a spray of venom; the black fluid hissed as it ate into the Great Hall's stone floor. When the metal was dry once more, the Dark Lord sneered contemptuously at it, then let his forked tongue loll from his fanged mouth. He licked the blade, slow and lascivious, all the way along the engraving of Godric Gryffindor's name. There was no more effect than licking a spoon, as if the sword had never touched a basilisk. The Dark Lord laughed, a high, harsh shriek of insane triumph. "See, this limp, dried up wire is no threat to me!" he cried. "What was once Gryffindor's sword is now my toy, my trophy, to dispose of as I see fit!" He brandished the sword high, and it gave a faint, wild shriek as it sliced through the air.

As Snape knelt before the Dark Lord, he looked up and saw the raised sword arcing above him, poised like a cobra before the strike. In that endless moment of anticipation, he felt nothing. No hope. Then the Dark Lord seized the hilt of the sword in both hands, and plunged its point down with all the monstrous strength of his new body. The tip struck the base of Snape's skull with a sick crunch and slid all the way down his spine, splitting open his flesh as easily as it had sliced his robes. Snape screamed, his body locked in a spasm of in agony, as steel grated against bone, and the whole length of his spine was laid wide open. There was an icy chill, a new weight of cold metal, as the Dark Lord released his grip on the sword, and fresh agony streaked crosswise over Snape's shoulderblades. Power flared, white as the sun, and the agony ebbed, replaced by an eerie ripple of flesh as the wounds that had laid Snape's back open to the bone began to close. Flesh and skin heaved, like the Black Lake stirred by the Squid's writhing coils: and just like that dark water, they sealed themselves, leaving no scars behind.

But it was still clear to all the watching multitudes of Death Eaters what had happened. The Dark Lord had sheathed the Sword of Gryffindor in Snape's living body. The sword lay buried just beneath his now-unwounded skin, the blade lying along his spine, the guards across both shoulders, the hilt lining the back of his neck. Against the sunless pallor of Snape's skin, drawn taut by his thin build, the sword buried in his body was as visible beneath his skin as another Dark Mark.

Snape had collapsed from his former agonised rictus into a huddle. The sword bowed with his bowed back: its ribbonlike flexibility moved it with every panting breath. The Dark Lord reared back, stroking his chin, as he studied the man, with the detached interest of an artist contemplating his latest canvas.

"You were right, Severus," he hissed softly into the silence. "Of course it wouldn't do to risk the theft of something so valuable. So I have entrusted the safekeeping of this priceless magical artefact to you, as a sign of my regard for your loyalty, witnessed by all my Death Eaters." A dry rustle of scales, and the Dark Lord drew the very tip of his tail softly, caressingly, along the raised outline of the blade, before trailing his tailtip under Snape's chin and raising his bowed head.

The red eyes met the black.

"Thank you, my Lord," husked Severus Snape.

Snape staggered back to his rooms, with the sword lining his spine like cold sweat. It didn't hurt, not precisely; it was as flexible as his flesh, moving as he moved. But it was still a violation, hard, cold, alien. His fingers itched to claw it out, his magic struggled to Banish it. Neither could do a damn thing.

Perhaps I should change my middle name, he thought, suddenly lightheaded with weariness, to Damocles. It's not every day I gain a real sword under my skin to match the metaphorical one over my head.

A shiver rippled down his back, as he shoved his hand in his pocket, pulled out the souvenirs the Dark Lord hadn't scented. No wonder, since they had none of the magic of the blade that tingled through his bones.

He simply tucked the broken Snitch away in a junk drawer. After all, there's nothing in such a trivial trinket that could be traced back to Harry. But the glasses are another matter. If they're ever found, I'll just say I wanted them for a trophy of my own.

He'd done his best not to think about them and their owner. He'd managed it, more or less; until now, when he was finally alone, for the first time since the moment hope died. He sank into a chair, exhausted, holding the glasses in his hand. The low firelight glinted fitfully on their smudged lenses.

Ever since he'd seen Lily's green eyes alive again behind these ridiculous glasses, he'd known those eyes were trouble.

Snape stared at the grubby lenses, and then carefully wiped them with his sleeve, as meticulous as if cleaning his laboratory glass. I expected too much from the boy, he thought, Always thinking of him as one or the other of his parents. But Harry turned out to be neither. He was someone James Potter might've resembled, if he hadn't been spoiled rotten. Someone Lily could've been proud of, if she'd lived. Someone I might've taught Occlumency, if I hadn't been so determined to protect my own privacy instead. Someone I almost managed to ...accept, toward the end.

He cleaned the lenses spotless, then stared at them blankly. What's the point? These glasses were never this clean when the brat wore them. I should know, by the million reminders of Lily I managed to glimpse through them.

He clenched his hand into a fist, then abruptly hurled the glasses against the wall.

They fell, but landed undamaged. The Unbreakable Charm he'd cast on them was stronger than his throwing arm. When Snape bent down to pick them up, his hands shook.

I am so sorry! You weren't supposed to die. I was!

His mental cry went unanswered, as always. The only reply he ever heard was the frantic beat of his own heart: alive, alive, alive. Despite everything, he alone was left behind, though no one on earth cared whether he lived or died.

Sleep didn't last. It never did. Time and again, Snape was dragged wearily back to reality, where so many lives hung in the balance. Faster! Faster! Time's running out. No time to sleep. The sword! I must find the sword.

No, it's all wrong! I'm losing my mind! The sword is here, with me, and I'll never lose it again. He winced; his back was stiff and chilled. But no amount of blankets or Warming Charms will help. The invasion will still be there. And I'll still be here with it. Like a scarecrow hanging crucified on a pole, in the middle of an empty field. A battlefield. That battlefield.

There was something in his brain that triggered at the most inopportune times, and turned his thought processes into a whirlwind that refused to be calmed. He felt like an automaton, with spinning gears and heavy clockwork: a pacing, restless machine with a mind that knew no sleep. Even at one in the morning, when he finally collapsed like a fallen tree onto his bed and pulled the woollen blanket over sharp knees and shins whiter than his nightshirt. He twisted and turned in bed, trying to find a way to lie so that nothing was touching his nape, his shoulders, his back. Futile, as futile as the rest of his efforts to prevent icy reminders from disturbing his rest. His spine felt as cold and rigid as a corpse.

The sword. It was a reminder edged into his brain and body, a sharp prickly constant. It would have to be that particular bloody sword, too, wouldn't it? Out of all the swords in the world. Gryffindor's. Kept by Gryffindors for Gryffindors. I'll never be rid of it. Just as I'll never be rid of them. Or the memory of them. Of him.The Gryffindor. The Boy Who Lived. Until he didn't, poor bastard. Poor him. Poor me. Gone, dead, lost. Lost.

The words echoed in his mind, his persistent ticking thoughts turning groggy, fogging up...

Lost the sword... Had to give it away, gave it to him once, lost under cold water, cold, so cold. He nearly died then, wanted to go to him. Couldn't then. Couldn't now. Lost him, lost everything, lost the sword, had to find it, looked everywhere, god I found it all right, it found me, HE found me. I got it, it got me, I'll never lose it again. I've already lost myself.

He startled, with a physical jolt, as though he'd caught himself on the brink of falling. Without opening his eyes he rolled over, disentangling his arm from the sheets, groping for the potion on the bedside table. Need more Sleeping Draught. There. At last.

In the dead of night, the Dark Mark flayed Snape from a potion-induced stupor into full wakefulness. He righted his disarranged robes and hurried out of his rooms. His footsteps echoed in the silence lingering in every corridor, every empty room. Though the students were gone, habit kept Snape listening for curfew-breakers. Not that he'd expected to find Harry, of course, but in the hush he could almost hear echoes of another vanished voice.

"You are who you are, my boy, because that's who you must be, to be Headmaster of Hogwarts."

"No! Hogwarts already has its Headmaster, it doesn't need another."

"But soon it must have another. Your protection is what it will need to survive, and the castle knows it. You'll see."

The optimistic old sod had been right, after all. The castle wasn't obviously welcoming, but the wards accepted him, the locks opened at his touch. The obedience was so unexpected that Snape had glanced over his shoulder, checking for Dumbledore's ghost hovering behind him, commanding the castle to let him in.

Snape shook his head, dismissing the memories with an effort, hauling his attention back to the here and now. To the silence. The steel-grey moonlight stretched away into darkness before and behind him. The ghosts were gone, but the shadows around Snape were thronged with presences. Every reflection, in every mirror and every tiny leaded windowpane, swarmed with flickering faces, furtive and wan. Portraits. Snape could only guess their original canvases had been destroyed, since they were frantically seeking refuge in any frame they could find.

But Snape had no time to spare for their plight, not now. He hurried past the ripped banners, and the broken display cases now missing all the trophies but the ones engraved with serpents. He picked his way around the shattered gargoyle guardian, and climbed the spiral stairs, now motionless. He'd trudged this way countless times before, sometimes so wounded or exhausted he could barely stand, but never before had the stairs to the Headmaster's office seemed so steep.

The room was walled in flames. In its midst, the Dark Lord reared high on his serpentine lower half. One bony hand flicked the Elder Wand like a conductor's baton, orchestrating the arson. Magical fire leapt from Albus Dumbledore's frame to the others, every one of Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Gryffindor persuasion. Snape could only hope this latest bout of destruction had taken enough of the edge off Voldemort's rage that he wouldn't incinerate Snape on the spot.

When the Dark Lord swivelled to face Snape, his voice was icily calm, in eerie contrast to the fiery wrath surrounding them. "Severus," he hissed past pointed fangs, "at last you deign to join me."

"My Lord." Snape bowed low, feeling the uneasy draw of his flesh, pulled tight over the hard metal lining his spine.

"Had you been here sooner, I would not have been reduced to cleaning the rubbish." The Dark Lord's eyes flickered, red as the flames devouring the empty canvases.

It should have been more difficult to show just the right blend of deference and fear, entirely without hints of guilt or incompetence, but Snape had walked this tightrope for decades. "I deeply regret that I was unable to arrive more quickly."

"So you should! This body, Severus," he scowled at his serpentine lower half, "it was acceptable as battlefield mediwizardry, but it is becoming tiresome. I am the greatest wizard in history, and yet..." his tailtip lashed angrily, "I wish to be fully a wizard again. I wish to trample my enemies underfoot. Do you see the problem?" he inquired softly, venomously.

"Yes, my Lord."

"Yes? Then have you brewed me a cure?"

"No, my Lord. I was unaware you wished it..."

"Of course I wish it!" the Dark Lord raged. "In fact, I wish to hear the first report of your progress toward restoring me to my rightful state by sunset tomorrow!"

"Certainly, my Lord."

"Nice office you have here," Voldemort sneered, holding out his hands as if warming them by the burning frames, "at least, now that I've done some redecorating. Are you in need of refreshments? Tea? Sherbet lemon?" The sibilant voice was noxiously sweet.

"If it pleases my Lord, I'd rather get started immediately."

Voldemort's mocking manner sobered abruptly; he hissed, "Do so," and slithered away in palpable dismissal.

Snape followed the portraits' lead, and fled.

Despite all the ruin aboveground, his dungeons had escaped unscathed. The chill and damp was timeless, the silence and darkness undisturbed by war. The wards to his laboratory hadn't been touched by so much as a rat since he'd raised them before the start of the battle.

Snape had always taken refuge in work. This time's no different, he told himself firmly. One more research project. Just a way to postpone yet another cleanup job.Granted, the project was much more deadly than anything Dumbledore or McGonagall would have allowed within Hogwarts' walls, and the cleanup was hardly anything as innocuous as a student's exploding cauldron, but he took what small comfort he could from the illusion of routine.

First, he had to find out exactly how this new, monstrous incarnation of Voldemort had been created. He began with Nagini, the last Horcrux, mortally wounded in the same blast that had killed Voldemort. Surely that hideous hybrid wasn't the normal result of a Horcrux activation. I can only hope he's maimed his soul so badly in making Horcruxes that he can't make another.

Snape consulted his private library, filled with works far Darker than any the Restricted Section had to offer. He pored over tomes of legends and encyclopaedias of dark creatures, traced the origins of Voldemort's former pet, then cross-referenced every tale and legend of a serpent-monster.

According to the mages of India, the Nagas became immortal when they licked up the spilled Elixir of Life from the grass, but the grass sliced their tongues, which remained forked forever after.

Better hide this. If the Dark Lord ever finds out I've read it, he might see it as an insulting comment on his current predicament, and I'd be dead.

He Summoned book after book, seeing depictions throughout history of serpentine beasts in wizard and Muggle artwork. The turning pages paused at an image of Cambodian temple statues: giant Nagas with seven heads, like serpentine versions of the Hydra. I'll be surprised if this doesn't join the rest of the monsters in my nightmares. Seven faces of Voldemort. Immortal, ever-regenerating. Laughing at me with a Greek Chorus of forked tongues, like a Python Oracle.

Snape rested his heavy head in his hands, pressing his palms against stinging eyes. The tales and illustrations all blurred together. Aesculapius smirked up at him from a curling scroll. A coiling swarm of lamia threatened to escape their pages. Gorgons hissed insults. A Chinese Nuwa stared at him, expression as blank as a skull's. The coiling shape of the human-headed serpent god was too similar to the Mark burned into his flesh.

Each Dark tome, every legend, said that this was the final state, the end of the journey, as terrible and deadly as perfection always was. And perfection couldn't be healed or changed or remade, it could only be left alone or destroyed. Voldemort would have more luck eternally biting his own tail than restoring the shape his human vanity preferred.

At last, Snape heard sounds in the walls - a muffled scrape of scales, a rusted screech and slide in the pipes - which meant the Dark Lord had finally retired into the Chamber of Secrets. Only then did Snape return to the Headmaster's office, to assess the damage.

In the draught from the window, ash drifted on the floor, restless as quicksand. Snape tried to remember the old times. But no phoenix would ever rise from these ashes.

Only Phineas Black's canvas had been spared. That solitary frame - currently empty of its occupant - only emphasised how empty the rest of the office now was. Snape could Scourgify the smoke stains from the walls and ceiling. He could Evanesco the ash. But he couldn't heal all the deeper damage, in the world, and in himself.

Far worse things than empty canvases had been destroyed. Everything Snape had fought for had died in spellfire.

His last hope had burned, and the only thing that had arisen from those ashes had been the Dark Lord.

The knowledge that had been muted by shock hammered at Snape now, pounding in his chest like panic. Nothing I can do, no-one left for me to spy for, we've lost, I'm alone, he's dead and that bastard's alive and now he'll rule the world!

It must've been the anguish that goaded him into digging a miniature portrait out of a hidden pocket. Almost at once the image of his mother stepped aside, and Dumbledore's face peered up at him from the small canvas. Dumbledore's hat was singed, and the ends of his long silver beard were smoking.

"You can't stay here," Snape whispered, barely audible.

Dumbledore nodded mutely, concern clear on the tiny face.

"I failed you," Snape breathed, cupping the miniature in his hands, so that no prying eyes (painted, sculpted or conjured) would see that it wasn't his mother he was talking to.

Dumbledore smiled serenely, blew out the smoking end of his beard and held it like a brush, painting a jagged scar on his forehead with soot, as if to say, 'Don't worry, Harry will fix it.'

Snape shook his head. "I'm sorry," was all he could say aloud. The words were like ashes in his mouth, bitter with futility. No apology, no matter how heartfelt, would rebuild the Order of the Phoenix, or revive their world's last hope.

Nothing would bring back Lily's son.

As he tucked away the miniature, his gaze fell on a broad serpentine track in the ashes, and then that image was lost in the memory of a similar track that Voldemort had left in the dust and ruin of the Shack. In that moment, the commitment crystallised all at once in Snape's heart, like the forging of a sword: red-hot fury transmuted to icy determination, honed and keen for revenge.

Whatever it takes, I will kill you, you murdering fucker.

His head lifted, his shoulders squared; the grim resolve settled in him, until the cold steel of Gryffindor's sword seemed to spread along his bones, hardness and chill permeating his soul, whetting it to a lethal edge. Certainty filled him. I will fulfil this final mission. Soon.

But it won't do to have my plans discovered prematurely. Snape closed his eyes and opened his magical senses, and with hands and wand outstretched, he began combing through the web of protective enchantments layered into the walls of the Headmaster's office, just in case the Dark Lord had left any nasty little surprises.

It was painstaking, intense work, and it lasted until dawn. Lost in his casting, he didn't know that the sun had risen, until he heard sparrows chirping outside the window. He opened his eyes at last, startled by the irrelevant memory of the flock that used to hang about the back alley at Spinner's End. Blinking in the unaccustomed light of dawn, he saw something round like a Snitch zip by the window, followed by a rambunctious flock of sparrows, chirping and screeching among themselves and fluttering scrappy brown wings.

All that noise was far too bothersome to put up with, and he'd finished work here anyway. He had other preparations to make.

He had a poison to invent.

Most days, it seemed the castle had permanently faded into the sickly hues of its remaining banners: the green of lichen and fungus, the grey of cold stone. Or perhaps it wasn't just the castle, perhaps it was the entire world. Among the relentless parade of Snape's nightmares, one had started to recur: that Hogwarts was the only building left standing, in a world annihilated by the Dark Lord. After one too many of these nightmares, Snape arose just before dawn, driven out of his bed and his rooms by the now-overpowering need to see that there was still a world beyond dank stone walls.

When Snape left the castle and strode out onto the grounds, the landscape looked just as Slytherin as the castle, with looming grey clouds shrouding the sunrise, threatening a storm before noon. But despite the leaden skies and the wind combing over the meadow, the Forbidden Forest's outlying stretches still held bright patches. In wide clearings, grass was sprinkled with blossoms alight with colour; unprotected, they faced the danger concealed in gnarled branches, and taunted it in every bright flicker, every sway on the wind. With an effort, Snape set aside his usual wariness, forsaking the shadows in favour of sauntering through those open clearings, for what creature in the Forest was half as dangerous as he? Dandelions studded the grass all around him, little yellow starbursts nodding in the rising wind. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a golden looping blur carried on a stray gust, too fast for any windblown flower. Too fast to be focused on; by the time he tried, whatever-it-was had already gone.

He turned away and left the last clearing behind, treading the crisp and curling carpet of last year's fallen leaves, making his way toward a deep and shadowed ravine filled with cobwebbed, stunted trees. It was there, at the base of a fallen log: a Convallaria majalis that had lost its blossom long before. Its berries had survived untouched, too toxic to eat. Some were shrivelled up with last year's stewed poisons, others were ripe with this year's fresh ones. Snape Accioed them, letting them fall one by one into a phial.

As he studied them, a slight, grim smile bared his teeth. Poetic justice, that a lily will help me kill her murderer. And her son's.

At that moment, a silvery gleam kindled in the gloom: the spark grew until Snape's Patronus stood before him, back from its mission. Its shape was still shrunken, smaller than any doe, but nevertheless Snape's heart leapt as he faced it and thought, Who survived? When his Patronus simply shook its head, Snape's heart sank in him, like poor Regulus, dragged down to death. No-one? The Patronus hurried to respond, bombarding Snape with images of it searching without finding, being Banished time and again, before it could identify its banishers. Snape dismissed the Patronus, not daring to keep it any longer. As its last gleam faded, his brow was creased in deep thought. Who Banished my Patronus? They might have been Order members, distrustful of the Patronus because they knew it was mine. Or they might have been Death Eaters, distrustful of any Patronus at all. He heaved a gusty, irritated sigh, knowing that not only was he cut off from any allies, he couldn't even know if any allies still lived.

I'll just have to go on alone. As he started to trudge back up out of the dark ravine, Snape reminded himself, At least I'm used to it by now.

After he left the ravine behind and started to pick his way through the clearings above, for an instant he thought he saw the same small blur of gold again among the grass, like a Snitch straying from the pitch. Like the golden pommel of a sword. Snape rubbed the new lump at the base of his skull.

By the time Snape re-entered the castle, it was breakfast time. He hadn't bothered to eat yesterday, nor the day before, come to think of it, and the scent of food from the Hall woke a beast of hunger that clawed at his gut.

The four long student tables were deserted, of course: the school wouldn't reopen until September, if then. The repairs to the castle would take easily that long, though Snape knew the damage could have been even more extensive, if the Dark Lord's reappearance in his monstrous new form - and the news of Harry's death - hadn't demoralised the defenders into flight. Though the deserted castle, and hence the Ministry, had fallen easily into the Death Eaters' hands, none of the leaders of the defences had yet been caught. At least, not as far as Snape knew.

Snape took his seat in the chair to the immediate right of the thronelike Headmaster's chair, which the Dark Lord had previously reshaped to accommodate his new body. That chair was empty at the moment, but all the others were already full. The next academic year would be a very different regime, even from the previous year. Most of the old familiar faces had fled: McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout, Hooch, Hagrid, Pomfrey. In McGonagall's seat, Umbridge simpered at him. She'd already seen to it that Trelawney was not only sacked but escorted off the grounds. Snape hadn't seen Umbridge's qualifications to teach Transfiguration, but he rather doubted such things mattered much to the Dark Lord, who'd been only too pleased to grant Bellatrix's wish to take over Divination (which would surely involve reading fewer teacups and more entrails).

Naturally, the rest of the vacant seats had also been filled by Death Eaters: Mulciber with his fondness for Imperius had been given Charms, Rowle had been given Herbology, Dolohov had Ancient Runes, and the Lestrange brothers had Arithmancy and Astronomy. Quidditch, of course, had been cancelled, but Macnair was looking forward with particular glee to Culling of Magical Creatures. Among all the new faces, Slughorn was the only Professor left who had been appointed by Dumbledore, apart from Snape himself. The Dark Lord wasn't displeased with the Carrows, so Snape knew they'd continue with Dark Arts and Muggle Studies, and Binns carried on regardless, as detached from current events as ever. He'd probably go on holding classes after the castle itself had weathered into dust.

There was even a new chair, down at one end of the table. Snape stroked his prominent Adam's apple, adding a touch of wandless, wordless Sonorus to his voice, before growling, "And what are you doing here, Greyback?" Cur, the disdain in his voice added, almost as clearly as if he'd said the word aloud.

"Grrroundskeeper," the beast had the gall to growl back, baring yellow fangs in something that even a blind man wouldn't mistake for a smile. "I asked the Dark Lord last night."

"And just as well he did, after all," Macnair added with an expansive wave of a freshly-sharpened table knife, "I'll be a Professor full-time. I'll have my hands full with my animals - two-legged and four - I won't have time to be keepin' any grounds."

Snape fixed the two of them with an icy stare, until Macnair's easy bravado wilted and the mongrel was cowering in his chair. With the Sword of Gryffindor's ancient, warlike energies literally backing up his own magic, Snape found it easier than ever to intimidate the other Death Eaters. "I do hope the two of you do well at your new jobs," he drawled. "I'm sure the Dark Lord would be ...disappointed in you, if I was forced to report poor performance at the end of term."

He turned away from them then, and cast the usual Detection Charms on the breakfast that had appeared on the table before him. Only when it proved harmless did he start to eat.

Owls swooped down silently, delivering free copies of the Daily Prophet to every place at the High Table. Snape opened his and set it hovering before him at a convenient reading height as he ate. It went without saying that there wasn't a Quibbler in sight; Xenophilius Lovegood had gone missing before the end of the war.

The Prophet's full of the usual, Snape thought as he flipped pages listlessly. Lies, damned lies, and propaganda. How surprising, for a rag in the Death Eaters' pockets.


An entirely NEW CADRE OF PROFESSORS have been appointed to the Faculty of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. All of Wizarding BRITAIN will BENEFIT from Our Lord's commitment to humanitarian rehabilitation of this former hotbed of dissident activity. All appointees are HEROES of the previous war and loyal veterans of Our Lord's Inner Circle, and all are dedicated to their new career, welcoming the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to new generations of PURE-BLOOD students.

Rita Skeeter, Correspondent.

He looked for articles on the Snatchers, news of Undesirables caught by the Trace, but there was no mention of new captures, no word of dissident activity. No hint of a Resistance. I suppose no news is probably good news: at least they're not gloating about triumphs. On the other hand, they could be keeping all captives under wraps, to minimise public reaction, rescue attempts. It's maddening! He closed the paper with a rustle. There's no way I can get unbiased news, not without drawing suspicion. I can't possibly leave Hogwarts, not now this lot have all settled in already. No telling what lovely little surprises they'll mine the place with, if I'm not here to keep them all in line.

A distant sibilance warned him: the distinctive rasp of scales on stone. As one, everyone in the Great Hall rose to their feet in salute as the Dark Lord entered, gliding down the length of the Hall and circling the High Table, to take his seat in the chair that used to be Snape's.

Breakfast appeared on the table in front of the Dark Lord, beside Snape's plate. It was a bowl of toads. The researcher part of Snape's mind, which was seldom completely silent, observed the species and noted this confirmation that fresh bufotoxins were ineffective on a combined human-serpentine metabolism. The human part of him found the spectacle of Voldemort devouring his breakfast, warts and all, to be an extremely effective appetite suppressant. He joined the rest of the table (with the exception of Greyback, who devoured his own plate of raw meat with his own breed of messy gusto) in ignoring the remainder of his own meal, and watching the Dark Lord with what was hopefully a correctly admiring expression.

When the Dark Lord had finished breaking his fast, he announced, "I have been giving the upcoming academic year a good deal of thought. Now that I have selected a full complement of staff," he paused to accept hasty words of thanks from his new appointees, "I have turned my attention to September's opening ceremonies. Since obviously it is unthinkable to allow the future of Wizarding Britain to follow the whim of a piece of demented haberdashery, I shall dispense with the Sorting Ceremony. Instead," he hissed, baring his fangs in a smug smirk, "I shall extend, to the entire student body, the honour of bearing my Mark."

Of course, Snape applauded with the rest, added his voice to the murmurs of approval. But chills raced down his spine, and for once he was sure they were not caused by the sword. I wonder how many I can expel for troublemaking or insufficiently pure blood, before the opening ceremony begins.

"Naturally," the Dark Lord continued, "I shall leave the logistics in the Headmaster's capable hands."

"You are very kind, my Lord."

The pallid face turned toward Snape, and the chill voice lowered to a whispering sibilance, "What of your latest project, Severus?" At the same time, a mad red gaze crossed Snape's, and the thought was thrust into Snape's mind with an icicle-sharp stab, Reveal anything about the nature of that project, and you shall suffer!

Snape pressed his thin lips together and nodded, in response to both the spoken and unspoken messages. "I've had some preliminary success with my research, and I should be able to start brewing soon."

"When will it be ready?"

"It will take time to track down the ingredients, and the brew will be a multi-stage one, with a complex sequence of sublimations. But I'm highly confident in..."

The Dark Lord cut him short. "You're always 'highly confident' in your potions skills. Make sure they don't fail you this time."

"My Lord, I will need space where I can work completely uninterrupted. An environment with stable ambient temperature, low light, high humidity. The Slytherin dungeons and the laboratories there would be ideal."

An impatient wave of one clawed hand. "Take the labs, take the dungeons, have them all to yourself, whatever you need."

There were gasps of shock, especially from the Carrows, who had long had their rooms in the Slytherin dungeons.

The Dark Lord rounded on them at once. "This project is my second-in-command's top priority. If any of you hinder his work in any way, you will pay."

A deathly silence fell.

The Dark Lord nodded in satisfaction at the terror in the air, then turned back to Snape. "See to it that you're finished swiftly. I expect substantial progress in a month, my hardworking friend."

"As my Lord desires. I'll hurry along the..."

"A month, Severus," the Dark Lord interrupted again, "no longer."

"A month, my Lord."

After breakfast, Snape went straight from the Great Hall to the Headmaster's... to his office. Cleaning away every last trace of smoke and flame, repairing destroyed artefacts, furnishings, books, was the closest thing he had to relaxation. The time spent could be justified as work, but unlike research or brewing, it was mindless work. It let him shore up the barriers, of Occlumency and of acting, that were keeping his true self hidden. It gave him time to think.

His first bout of cleaning had left the walls and ceiling spotless, and now he'd just finished cleaning the windows and hanging new curtains. He eyed them and nodded, before turning to the pile of charred fabric in the corner that was all that was left of the old curtains. He raised his wand to Evanesco the lot, but at that moment the blackened pile shook and shifted.

"ACHOO!" Ash exploded, and a crumpled cone of grubby fabric emerged from the pile. The Sorting Hat sidled out from under the heap of burned curtains. Its stitch-seamed 'face' was streaked with soot, and the tip of its cone twitched jerkily, like an irritated cat's tailtip. "Severus. About time! How good are you with Fabric Repair Charms? I appear to be in need of... ah-CHOO!" the hat's tip scrunched into an abrupt zigzag, " need of mending. Severe need."

No doubt the Dark Lord thinks the Hat burned with everything else, Snape realised. Now how the hell do I hide the thing where he'll never find it? Snape's gaze fell on the sole remaining painting on the wall. His eyes narrowed as he studied the silent, empty canvas. "Headmaster Black," Snape said in matter-of-fact tones, "I know you're in there."

There was a "Hmph," and the clatter of a knocked-over vase from the left corner of the frame, then Phineas Black sauntered into view from the opposite direction, wearing his best butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth expression. "What can I do for you, Severus?"

"Look after this." Snape picked up the Hat and threw it at the portrait, and while the Hat was in midair Snape drew his wand and cast the same charm Dumbledore had once used to hide the Philosopher's Stone in the Mirror of Erised. The Hat hit the portrait's painted surface and fell into it, like a stone into a pond, flattening instantly into two dimensions.

Phineas hadn't expected to be hit in the head by the Sorting Hat, any more than the Hat had expected to become a portrait of itself. Both of them gasped with shock, before spluttering in outrage, "You can't do this, Snape!" "His canvas is not a proper match to mine!"

Snape put on his best pointedly patient drawl. "Do you both want to stay in one piece?" A pair of painted stares glared at him. "Then you," Snape glared at Phineas, "will hide that out of sight of any frame, and you," he switched the glare to the Hat, "will wait until you're retrieved, and in the meantime you'll shut up!"

"Well I never!" cried the Hat. Its voice subsided into grumblings as it wriggled about and made itself at home on Phineas' head.

Phineas tugged at the Hat, which refused to budge. Its stubbornness left him looking absolutely livid, and more than a bit frazzled. "Get off me, you mouldy excuse for a..."

"Just hide it!" Snape interrupted Phineas before he could explode. "Leave it wherever you go when you're out of view of your frames."

"Wait!" cried the Hat. "I am an historical artefact of the school! I am not to leave Hogwarts' grounds! Besides, I require an acoustically suitable environment for my work on next year's song. And there will be a song, Sorting or not!"

"You dimwitted dust-catcher! You will follow the direct orders of Hogwarts' Headmaster, or you'll be ashes the instant the Dark Lord sees you!"

A flock of sparrows scattered from the windowsill with agitated chirps, as if scared off by the mere mention of Voldemort.

The Hat was a lot less impressed. "Don't give yourself airs with me, boy," it grumbled, "I've still got dandruff on my brim from when I sorted you!"

"With the amount of black in my wardrobe," Snape sneered, "if I had dandruff it'd be obvious!"

The Hat scoffed, "This was before you started slathering on protective potions and Incendioing your nail and hair clippings, you paranoid sod."

"That 'paranoia'," Snape snarled, "has saved my life more than once." Something buzzed in Snape's ears, quiet but intense. It must've been the sound of his annoyance, escalating.

"Then you have me to thank for it!" cried the Hat. "Why, if I hadn't put you in Slytherin..."

Cold stabbed along Snape's spine at the memory of how many horrendous things wouldn't have happened to him if he hadn't been dumped in Slytherin. He growled, low and dangerous, "Just. Don't."

Phineas froze. If the Hat didn't recognise that note in Snape's voice, he did. "All right, all right," Phineas said hastily, "I'll keep it hidden away." Still wearing the Hat, he walked out of sight past the edge of the frame, but just before his footsteps faded into silence, his distant voice called, "You'll owe me for this, Snape!"

Snape snorted dryly, and nodded to himself. Can't blame him. If I was forced to babysit that motheaten moron, I'd want something in return too. Absently, he waved away a particularly large moth by his ear. He turned toward the movement he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. A yellow blur looped and spun dizzyingly around him, like a moth round a candle, but faster than any moth. Oddly, it made no attempt to attack, but what was even more strange was that his wards had let it in. Apparently the thing was less harmful than a wasp.

Snape first tried to grab it, then drew his wand and cast Petrificus. Repeatedly. It darted around the streaks of his spellfire as if he were a clumsy firstie, and not the deadliest duellist short of the Dark Lord. The annoyance he'd felt with the Hat swelled again, fuelled by frustration and the thing's maddening buzz, until at last he cast a positive barrage of Petrificus with one hand, while swatting at it with his other hand. He was startled when at last a swat connected.

The buzzing stopped and the thing flew in a downward arc and landed on his desk. Now that it was still for the first time, Snape could see a ruffled ball of golden fuzz, a walnut-sized body round and fluffy as an Engorgioed bumblebee. An insect? The fuzzball possessed no visible legs. He leaned closer and peered at it. The pointed thing he'd taken for a stinger turned out to be a beak. Must be a bird. Dead? he thought with an odd pang.

It twitched. Toothpick-thin legs extended and waved wildly in midair. Wings unfolded, stabilising the bird as it wriggled to right itself. With a final flutter-hop it bounced upright, shook its head, and fluffed out its feathers.

Snape glared at life's latest prank.

It glared right back, and added a defiant "Chirp!"

Clearly it hasn't got a scrap of sense; it must've squeezed between the window and the frame, just to get inside. Well, it can bloody well go back outside, and right now.

Snape took down the necessary wards and swung the window wide; he even threw in an ironic 'you're free to go' wave. The bird merely glanced at the window, then hopped up to perch on the feathered tip of the quill Snape had left stuck in his inkpot.

"Stay then!" Snape barked, stalking away from the window and flicking a Sticking Charm at the inkpot's base before it could tip over. "Find your own way out, but until then keep out of my way." He wasn't about to get sidetracked from far more important things by a bird.

He returned to what he was doing before the Hat had so rudely interrupted him. He Evanescoed the ruined curtains and started to painstakingly repair smoke and heat damage on the cupboards and bookshelves. All the while, the feathered interloper explored the Headmaster's office, poking into every tiny nook and cranny, never actually in Snape's way but never quite out of sight. When he was cleaning the potions cabinet, the bird darted inside, peering out at the world through the lenses of Snape's potion bottles: its round golden body distorted into this shape and that hue by the mirrormaze glass of flasks and jars. When Snape moved on to the bookcase, the bird took to burrowing into rolled up scrolls, then scrabbling with feet and wings in an effort to fit between two books. "Good luck," Snape sneered under his breath, "I couldn't fit any other grimoires on that shelf." The words, spoken after a long silence, startled the bird; it gave an "Eep!" and left the bookcase in a blur of speed.

Snape didn't let himself turn to watch it leave. Which of course it was always going to do, first chance it got. Why would a wild thing hang around me? Not that I give a damn, of course. I've got work to do. If he was scowling as he turned back to the now-empty bookcase, it wasn't as though there was anyone - or even any creature - there to see.

Besides, the fact that any sort of bird was unwelcome in his office was made plain by many things: such as Fawkes' long-abandoned perch, which he'd kept purely for a cloak hanger, certainly not as a memento of the old man.

When Snape straightened up at last, having finished the bookcase's lowest shelf, the sight that met his eyes startled a snort out of him. The round bumblebee of a bird - barely a hundredth of Fawkes' adult size, though just as gaudily golden in plumage - sat right in the middle of Fawkes' perch. The pipsqueak looked absurdly proud of itself, preening. As Snape watched, it took off and zipped across to the empty bowl at the end of the perch, and settled into that. What had been a dainty seed cup for Fawkes was as big as a nest for this bird.

In the midst of an office that had just survived the fire, Snape couldn't help thinking of a miniature Fawkes, risen from the ashes of burned portraits. For the first time since ...everything, he felt a similarly tiny lightening of his spirits. Then, an idea struck him.

Why not? It's an old tradition for Headmasters to own familiars, a lot older than Dumbledore. The bird's already made itself at home. When it looks like it wants to go, I can always let it out. Until then, I suppose I can find somewhere else to hang my cloak.

Later that the afternoon Snape surfaced from his work and took the first bite of toast from a long-cold brunch tray. He peeled the shell off a hardboiled egg, and glared at the teacup until its contents began to steam again. With luck, he'd have a quiet, Dark Lord-free evening.

SPLAT! Chunks of egg and yolk exploded off his plate. "Cheep?" asked the bird, perching calmly amid the chaos of its own making. Stray specks of egg white covered the daft little sod from head to toe; the bird looked like an oversized yolk, sitting there on the plate.

"Still here?" Snape resisted the urge to add salt and pepper, and stab the little menace with his fork. Instead, he used a spoon to scoop the bird out of the mess.

"Chirp!" the intruder complained at the rough treatment.

"You know, I have this recipe for stuffed quail I've always wanted to try." Snape gave a predatory smile revealing every crooked tooth, as the bird gave an "Eek!" and snapped its beak. "For such a little thing, you're awfully impertinent."

The bird bounced down onto the table, shook out its feathers and groomed itself, though a bit of eggshell still capped it like a hatchling. As Snape reached to remove the shell, the bird pecked his finger.

Snape whipped his hand back. "Any more of that and I'll hex you, you ungrateful twit!" he barked, trying not to think about how successful his last attempt at hexing wasn't.

The bird gave an apologetic "Chirr", which seemed genuine, and gave Snape's finger a much gentler nibble.

Dumbledore would've adored this little pest. He always had a thing for ruffled, good for nothing strays, such as all of Gryffindor House. They would've suited each other perfectly.

He hmphed and offered his left hand for the bird to perch on, as he Banished the rest of the egg off the (apparently quite empty) head. He lifted the tiny bird closer, his eyes narrowing as he peered. "You're mad to hang about here, you know." The wild creatures, and even the centaurs, had withdrawn deep into the Forbidden Forest after the Dark Lord took over the castle.

The bird responded with a contented "Meep".

"Thought so," grumbled Snape, and reached for his fork with his right hand.



Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Subphylum: Vertebrata Class: Aves Order: Apodiformes Family: Alatidae Subfamily: Alatinae Genus: Alatus Species: Aureus

Biology The Golden Snidget (Alatus aureus) is most closely related to the Hummingbirds (Family Trochilidae), and has a similar extremely high metabolism, and omni-directional hovering flight. However the Golden Snidget is set apart from the Hummingbird species in its own Family (Alatidae), due to the unique hydrogen-filled buoyancy sacs over its flight muscles. These sacs give the Golden Snidget its distinctive spherical body shape. The hydrogen filling the sacs lowers the Golden Snidget's total weight to less than 0.5 grammes (c.f. the Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae, the smallest bird known to Muggles, which weighs approximately 1.8 grammes). Sexes in the Golden Snidget are similar in both size and general appearance, with an iridescent golden body approximately three centimetres in diameter, the long, slim beak typical of nectar-feeders, and scarlet eyes. The only visible difference between the sexes is in the colour of the primaries, which are silver in males and the same gold as the body in females. The tail is vestigial, with all midair maneuvring accomplished via the wings. Airspeed has been recorded in excess of 350 kilometres per hour in level flight, making the Golden Snidget the fastest creature known.

Social Value The Golden Snidget has been valued by the wizarding communities of Northern Europe from time immemorial. Unfortunately for the creature itself, until relatively recently that esteem was usually expressed by attempts to either hunt it, or to capture it in early games of Quidditch. Given the fragility of the bird and the greedy determination of the captors, the results were usually fatal. Fortunately, thanks to the ruling of Elfrida Clagg (who followed the courageous example of Modesty Rabknott, the wizarding world's first conservationist), Golden Snidgets have been a protected species since 1350. Thanks also to the inventiveness of Bowman Wright, creator of the snitch, modern sports enthusiasts need have no deaths of innocent creatures on their conscience. Indeed, it is remarkable how innocuous Golden Snidgets are: they kill no other creature, not so much as a gnat, their nests are small and undestructive, and no part of their bodies is of any use in noxious Potions or Dark Arts. Small wonder that in these more enlightened times, the Golden Snidget - and its recovery from the very brink of extinction - has become a symbol for hope throughout the entire wizarding world.

Page 79 of Endangered Magical Creatures and Plants of Northern Europe confirmed that the little invader was a Golden Snidget: male judging by the wings, protected since 1350, and quite useless for potions ingredients.

More's the pity. Snape re-shelved the book with a sigh, and left the Library to the spiders and the dust.

Back in Snape's lab, the Snidget hovered, his gaze fixed on an open flask of rose nectar on Snape's workbench.

"Any closer, and into the pot you go," Snape grumbled, resuming his brewing. As if the bird knew that he was useless in the pot, he continued to hover. A little later, when Snape reached for the flask of nectar, he noticed that its contents had diminished. The amount was almost imperceptible, even for his experienced eye, but still, it was less than before.

The bird still hovered right where he had been and not a bit closer. Snape pretended to work, and watched the bird discreetly. Even though he expected a ruse he was still astonished to see a flash of movement and a tongue longer than that tiny body flick out and into the flask. Snape turned his head and the tongue retracted in a flash. Snape could've sworn he actually heard a slurp. Blasted bird's guzzling my nectar! So that's where he gets the energy to hover like that!

Meanwhile the Snidget twirled, not even worried about being caught anymore, and took another long sip of nectar.

"Greedy little sod!"

Snape's scolding was met with a half-abashed bob in that otherwise-steady hover, and a cheeky "Peep".

Snape rolled his eyes and muttered, "At least it confirms that the book was right about what you eat."

The bird dipped down out of his hover, settled on the workbench and defiantly cleaned his beak on the side of a mostly-empty jar of dragonfly wings, tipping the jar over and sending a few wings fluttering out onto the bench. He pecked at the glass with his long beak, and lost interest, taking off again in a rush and making a beeline for the nectar flask.

Snape arched his eyebrow and laid one hand over the mouth of the flask. "Do you actually think you deserve more, you messy little menace?" He waved his free hand, Summoning the scattered dragonfly wings, sending them spiralling back into the jar.

Unfortunately the fluttering of the dragonfly wings kindled the gleam of the chase in the Snidget's beady eyes. With a war-like "CHIRP!" he dove after the dragonfly wings as they flickered into the jar. The trouble was, that last drink of nectar had been a bit too much after all, and he never quite made it through the jar's mouth. He wiggled and "EEK!"ed and bicycled tiny legs, trying to get un-stuck, but only managed to impersonate a fluffy, feathered stopper.

"I should leave you in there 'til you lose weight, you flying Puffskein!" With a put-upon sigh, Snape cast Engorgio on the mouth of the jar and tipped the Snidget-stopper out into the palm of his hand.

The Snidget flew out like a cork out of a champagne bottle, feathers ruffled and wings twitching. He plopped down onto Snape's palm as if it were his own nest, beady eyes glittering up as he gave a triumphant trill, proud of being the only bird in the world with a moustache, even if it was only a dragonfly wing stuck on with nectar.

He looks like Slughorn, holding court on the sofa in the teachers' lounge. A low, closemouthed chuckle slightly shook the curled cup of Snape's palm, as he lifted his hand up, extending the other hand to delicately pluck away the rakish-looking stray dragonfly wing. "Your fashion sense leaves much to be desired. As does your common sense."

The Snidget puffed out his already spherical chest, as if Snape had paid him a huge compliment.

One of the few luxuries Snape allowed himself was an afternoon bath. It took more time than a shower, so he was often forced to skip it, but he found that a hot soak was conducive to thought.

He'd just inched down into the steaming water when his spine crawled, the sword's magic tingling through him. He was still wondering if it was just a reaction to the heat when the pipes rumbled, and then the Dark Lord's bald head appeared in the ceiling ventilation duct. Snape fought the missish urge to cover himself, and thanked his usually-eclipsed lucky stars that he hadn't been engaged in any activity more interesting to watch than scrubbing his hair. He bowed his head, murmured "My Lord," and wiped soapsuds out of his eyes.

"Severus." The Dark Lord sounded suspicious, but then the paranoid bastard usually did. "I was on my after-lunch stroll through the dungeon pipes just now, and I distinctly heard you talking."

"I often talk to myself when I'm concentrating particularly intensely."

"Research leaves no time for idle chatter," Voldemort complained. "Dolohov would've had it done by now." The Dark Lord's face was more skull-like than ever, like the Dark Mark. His fleshless upper lip twitched, revealing fangs gleaming with venom. His scaly shoulders were spindly enough to fit behind his overly large skull; now he could slide into spaces only a serpent could go. "I expect results by the end of next week." A forked tongue flickered, tasting the scents in the air, as a scarlet stare lingered on Snape's body, stripped naked and entirely defenceless.

It seemed an age before the Dark Lord finally retracted his head from the ventilation duct and slid further along the shaft. Nagini's scaly body poured endlessly past the duct's opening before at last the tailtip flicked by, leaving only the dank smell of disturbed mould and, at the edge of hearing, the squeak of a desperate rat, followed by the crunch of jaws.

Just as well that rat was around to distract him. I came far too close to getting killed in the Shack, and he's only grown more erratic, more insane since. But I can't afford to die, not now, not when I'm so close! I'm running out of time. I have to finish! A lethal toxin is child's play, the hard part's inventing one that will pass as a 'cure'.

Snape sat in the bottom of the bath, trying to concentrate on his thoughts rather than on the way he was shivering. His body curled in on itself, just as it had when it was sliced apart, to serve Voldemort's whim as a living sheath for his enemy's relic. The soap-grey water around him lost its warmth with unnatural speed, almost as if it picked up the chill from the steel lining his spine. It lived within him always, that hardness, that cold. A constant reminder of the ways he was violated and used.

But also a reminder of his mission. He stood, letting the water trickle down his body, taking dirt and weariness and fear with it. As he pulled on a robe and strode out, heading for the lab and another stint of work, his back was sword-straight and his head was high.

Late that night, Snape watched the tiny bird settling down among the ornate carvings of his bed's headboard, as if a cup formed by the coils of an ebony snake was a perfectly comfortable nest. Perhaps Snape was finally starting to feel the effects of the Sleeping Draught he'd taken earlier. Making him feel less like he was walking on a sword's edge, living under a sword's edge. Making everything quiet and still and sort of all right.

In the deep underground hush he called out softly, "Featherbrain?"

The Snidget glanced at Snape, without moving a bit from his comfortable ruffle of yellow fluff amid the carved coils.

How quickly his mood changes once I'm not holding anything bright or sweet. Predictable. "Featherbrain!" he repeated louder.

The Snidget promptly shut his eyes and huddled lower.

"Too bad," Snape hmphed. "The name fits. That's what I'll call you from now on."

The bird didn't react at all.

"Don't think I'm not used to being ignored," Snape continued, aware that he was babbling, but not particularly caring, right at that moment. I'll just reduce the dosage for my improved version of the draught. "I've taught dunderheads how to avoid cauldron explosions for longer than you've been alive!"

A slight shift of feathers, and one eye flickered at him.

"Yes, a dunderhead is much worse than a featherbrain," Snape declared. "Count yourself lucky."


Apparently he's decided to join in on the conversation, or vocalisation of course, in his case. "At least your brain only has feathers. You don't want to know what was used as a neural substitute in theirs, you really don't."

The chirruping went on longer this time: a liquid, laughing note. Snape huffed his own dry laugh.

In the quiet that followed, Snape found himself admitting wryly, if only to himself, "I always thought, if I was ever talking to someone in my bed, it'd be someone quite different."

Beady eyes blinked wide and the feathered brat gave a questioning trill.

Snape allowed a rueful grin onto his face. "And under quite different circumstances than having my 'conversational partner' nesting over my head."

The bird put his head under his wing. Snape took the hint.

Something squeaked by Snape's ear. As if that wasn't bad enough, a moment later something tweaked his eyebrow. Snape swatted at the elusive invader, heard the hum of fast wings, and felt the air disturbed by their beating brush lightly against his face. He cracked one eyelid almost audibly open. Beady eyes met him with an equally dissatisfied glare. Snape dragged his gaze over to the clock on his bedside table. It was pointing to a spot on the dial that had read 'Dawn' when he bought the clock, but which soon afterwards changed itself to 'Too Bloody Early'.

He sighed, stretched his stiff back, and closed his eyes. He'd almost managed to drift off again when he heard a strange noise, as if something was nibbling at his pillow. Snape whipped his wand out from under said pillow as he opened his eyes, and found himself nose to beak with a feathered interloper.

"Argh, soddingmpht..." Snape stuck his head under the pillow. Foof! White feathers, far too large to belong to the Snidget, spouted into the air. "Gerroffoutofit. Lemmesleeepyabarstid."

A mocking trill replied.

Snape turned his head toward the noise, and frowned when his pillow exhaled another puff of goose down. One corner of the pillowcase was torn, and white goose feathers were sticking out of it. Snape sat up with a scowl, but the rascal darted off under Snape's blanket, stirring a couple of loose feathers and sending them flying. In the deep hush of the dungeons, Snape could just hear the quietest possible rustlerustle before a tiny head peeked out from under the edge of the blanket and a curious glance darted toward the pillow again. Slowly, Snape leaned closer, and informed him, "There are no Snidgettes in there, Featherbrain."

The Snidget gave a call that sounded a lot like a wolf-whistle, and ogled a goose feather twice as long as himself. He hopped forward, clearly prepared to duel everything that stood between him and those feathers. Even Snape.

Snape shoved the bedhead out of his face, along with the stray feathers. "Impossible fluffball. Pick on something your own size."

The Snidget darted, carrying off one downy white feather to the top of the headboard. He ruffled his own feathers and settled in, perching on top of his loot, beady eyes a-glistening, looking ready to protect his new nest until his last breath.

Snape hmphed. "Very well, keep it. As long as you stop excavating my blasted pillow while I'm trying to use it!" He rose stiffly to his feet and combed his hair in a few hasty rakes of his fingers, trying to get the worst of the fluff out. "Keep this up," he grumbled, "and you can try pecking your way out of a preserving jar!"

The Snidget trilled another long, laughing note and landed with a bounce on the pillow, stirring whirlwinds of white feathers all around, then zoomed off again to chase after them every which way.

Snape rolled his eyes and let out a longsuffering sigh. "Featherbrain! Those aren't toys, or food! Or something to mate with!"

The Snidget paid him no mind, twirling in the down-filled air and letting loose with a long, piercing mating call.

Snape clapped his hands to his ears. "It's a wonder I'm not stone bloody deaf, you minuscule maniac!" How the hell does so much racket come from something this small? Abruptly running out of patience, he snapped, "Silencio, dammit!"

The little sod zipped clean out of the path the spell, without even a hitch in those wild, zooming arcs of flight.

Snape's regard for his own dignity prevented a second attempt. Familiars! He shook his head in self-mocking amusement. I never thought I'd live to see the day when I even vaguely understood the way Filch caters to that damn cat of his. Which reminds me: I know Filch took Mrs. Norris with him to the Hufflepuff dorms, but I'd better check the dungeons for any stray cats. I'm not about to have my first familiar end up as catfood. Not so soon after I found him.

"Here, Featherbrain, sit out of the way." The harsh words were belied by the warmth lurking deep in Snape's voice, the tiniest possible quirk to the corner of his mouth. Snape lifted his hand to the crown of his head and tilted it, in an attempt to encourage the little ball of feathers and impudence to perch up there, at a safe distance from the lit cauldrons on his workbench, and the sharp tools and volatile ingredients that filled the rest of the laboratory.

The featherbrain in question hopped up, fluffed his feathers and began to groom himself earnestly, occasionally tucking bits of down here and there into Snape's hairline, each time with a triumphant trill as if to say, 'Who's the featherbrain now?' When the meddlesome midget finished grooming himself, he moved onto Snape's hair. Or perhaps he saw that hair as a built-in slippery slide. He tugged at Snape's hair, yanking and hopping on top of especially stubborn strands, prodding and pushing the rest into order. The problem was, to his bird brain 'perfectly ordered' apparently meant a bird's nest.

Snape twitched slightly at the tickle-flit-scritch-ruffle-fluff sensation of a busily grooming birdlet on a head that certainly hadn't been touched voluntarily by anyone else before. But his hands didn't pause in their movements, deft and rapid as Snidgets in their way as they darted here and there, grinding, chopping, slicing, stirring.

Hours later, Snape surfaced abruptly from the absorption of brewing when he caught sight of his own reflection in a jar. Ridiculous! He made a grab for the little monster, but the bird just darted out of the way, before coming right back to perch on his head again. He glared at his reflection, but the little sod just gave him a determined look, as if to say, 'Grooming's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it!'

Snape snarled, "Luckily for you, I have much bigger fish to fry." It's not as though I can't set it all to rights with a few spells. After I've finished here. With one last 'you'll keep' glower, he went back to work, casting Cleaning Charms on the countertop, the bowls and mortars and pestles, and humming counter-curses to dispel the lingering Dark after-effects of blood on his knives.

The conflict of a moment ago was already forgotten, judging by the way the bird was singing his own version of counter-curses after Snape.

Snape looked up, startled. The Snidget's echo of his own countercurse chimed into the tune, harmonising with it until his Dark Mark ached in reaction to an unexpectedly strong discharge of Light Magic. I wonder... Snape hummed, slowly and clearly, the brief melody underlying a simple Healing Charm. Then he picked up a freshly-cleaned scalpel, and quite deliberately drew it across the pad of his thumb. A line of red bloomed. He waited, eyes rolling up in an instinctive, futile attempt to look expectantly at the top of his own head.

Not that he had long to wait. Almost at once, the Snidget left Snape's head in a yellow flash-and-hop onto Snape's index finger, the one next to the freshly cut thumb. Carefully the bird leaned over to peer at the cut, then at Snape. A stern beady-eyed glare and an angry "Chirp!" followed.

Snape gave a slight huff of rueful amusement at the scolding. The Snidget ruffled his feathers in a war-like stance at the scalpel and only when he made sure that the sharp blade was out of reach did he whistle along with the Healing Charm: high-pitched and quick, eyeing the cut all the while. The addition of the bird's high, rapid trill to his own deep chant made Snape's whole hand tingle. The cut was healed, as expected, but that wasn't all. In fact... he raised his hand and stared, startled, at the smooth skin: free of torn cuticles, and the tiny scars of old cuts, and all the potions-stains he could have sworn were permanent. He felt his eyebrows climb as he stared from his hand to the bird.

The Snidget pecked lightly at the thumb where the cut had been, with a 'that's that!' glare, but then his bristle-feathered annoyance seemed to deflate. He did a double-take at the thumb, then at the silent Snape, and trilled again just in case, hopping from one bony finger to another as if they were piano keys.

"Well, that was completely out of tune," Snape declared archly. He cleared his throat and hummed the healing chant again. "Hear that? Now what you were singing was more of an anti-Levicorpus chant."

Feathers ruffled, with a wild warble, the Snidget hopped onto Snape's thumb, and then to each of his fingers in turn, singing one note per finger. The song raised a shivery resonance from the sword along his spine. The last note rang into silence, and the bird looked up at Snape with an inquiring "Chirrup?"

"Hmph. Well, I suppose you know how to count to five, but I'm afraid you're still singing 'Li-be-ra-corp-us'..."

The realisation of what he'd done hit Snape, just in time to save him from being hit by something even more painful. He cupped a hand protectively around the Snidget and sidestepped smartly, only just avoiding a short sharp shower of dragon bones. He'd broken the Levicorpus that had kept the dragon skeleton hovering near the ceiling of his lab for over a year (ever since he'd commandeered it from the Dark Arts classroom).

The last echoes of the crash faded, and the hollow of Snape's palm tickled as the Snidget ruffled his feathers and gave a trill like a ripple of laughter.

The adrenalin rush of their narrow escape left Snape panting out a rare and breathless laugh of his own. He held the ball of golden feathers up to his face. "What are you laughing at, you little menace? It's not every day I bring the house down quite that hard!"

The bird cheeped innocently and smoothed down his wing feathers with an 'Oh, that was nothing' nonchalance, before giving a meaningful glance at the nectar flask on the top shelf.

Snape followed the direction of that tiny turned head, and shrugged, eyeing his thoroughly healed hand. "Well, I suppose I'd better not let you starve, no matter how much you deserve to. Accio nectar!" The hand not occupied with the far more important job of a Snidget perch unstoppered the flask. "To the new singing sensation, a libation from your Secret Admirer," he smirked, tilting the open flask's neck toward the bird, ceremonially offering the nectar. "Celestina Warbeck, eat your heart out!"

Where does he fit all that impishness? Snape wondered, watching the Snidget flick out that seemingly-endless length of straw-like tongue and slurp away blissfully at the clear fluid. "I suppose that answers that," Snape snorted dryly. "You fit it in the same place you fit that tongue, and all my nectar. Wherever the hell that may be!" Bottomless pit!

The Snidget meeped agreeably, before flitting back on top of Snape's head and resuming his grooming. It wasn't long before he took it into his tiny feathered head to slide down the greasy slope of Snape's hair.

With a darting movement as deft as the Snidget, Snape caught the falling bird before he could land in a boiling cauldron or any of the other dangers of his workbench. "No ruining my work with your suicide missions!" With an affection underlying the teasing as certain and steady as the pulse in his hand cradling the Snidget, he lifted the bird back up to the top of his head: a safer nest than his workbench or anywhere else in his laboratory would have been.

The Snidget hopped once, twice, twisted and turned a few strands, and chirped, proud as a child playing 'king of the castle'. He didn't stop there though. Instead of Snape's hair this time he slid down Snape's forehead, and with a hop and a kick at the tip of Snape's nose, he bounced trilling into the air.

Snape gave a strangled splutter at the tickle of feathers sliding down his own beak. "I'm not a bloody ski-jump," he groused, though the outrage wasn't entirely genuine.

After he'd finished work that day, Snape headed into the bathroom, intent on a quick wash to get the worst of the lab off his skin before bed. He stared at his reflection and heaved a huge sigh, muttering under his breath as he combed his hair out of a quite literal bird's nest, to the sound of his mirror snickering as loudly as it dared. Bloody feathered pest gets away with far too much! Snape put down the comb and stared into the mirror, checking his straggling locks for stray bits of yellow down. Not that I'm an oil painting, regardless. He turned his head, scrutinising the lank strands. Though there's probably enough oil for a painting. He shook his head, shrugging as his temper cooled. Compared with the horrors of the world outside Snape's chambers, spoiling a scrap of a bird didn't seem too terribly bad.

Even when the brat ignored a branch Summoned specifically from the forest, in favour of making Snape his customary perch. The Snidget would land with a bounce on top of Snape's head at the most random moments, proudly holding strands of hair like reins in his tiny claws, as if trying to ride Snape around his rooms.

Even when the pest made a sudden beeline for Snape's shoulder, a mess of ticklish feathers and scratchy claws zooming past his ear and chin and wiggling between his neck and collar. The little sod would even tug insistently at the trailing ends of Snape's hair, trying to arrange it like a curtain all around him.

It's pathetic, Snape thought, the way I put up with this. Am I that starved for companionship? He gave a bitter, brittle bark of a laugh. Bloody stupid question, he sneered at himself, of course I am. It's not as though I'll ever have any chance now before I die, one way or another.

Before Snape began a particularly dangerous stage of the brewing process, he locked the Snidget out of the laboratory and out of harm's way. But even through the Bubble-Head Charm Snape cast on himself, he could hear indignant squeaks and attacks on the door, like darts getting stuck in the wood.

"Oh, all right," he muttered. "Stubborn sod." He set a Stasis Charm over the boiling cauldron and opened the lab door. He cast another Bubble-Head Charm around the victoriously chirping imp, and added his strongest Shield, just in case the unthinkable happened and something exploded. Can't be too sure.

At least, once the little miscreant had successfully broken in, he seemed content to perch on the farthest corner of the workbench and watch. Beady eyes alight with excitement followed Snape's every move. But the bird kept quiet and out of the way, so much so that Snape's concentration returned soon enough to the deadly and delicate work still before him.

Only fools expected the Dark Lord to keep his word. Therefore, Snape wasn't really surprised when the question came, a week before the deadline fell due.

It was in the Great Hall, of course, and at dinner, when all of the Death Eater staff were present to watch. The dessert course - a dish of sugared fairies, in the Dark Lord's case - had barely been cleared when the moment arrived. The Dark Lord's serpentine body curved as he turned to face Snape. "Well, Severus?" he inquired casually. "Where is the result of your latest project?" He extended a hand toward Snape, palm up, as if he expected Snape to have a phial up his sleeve, for just such an occasion.

Snape husked past the tightness of fear in his throat, "It isn't finished yet, my Lord."

"Really? How very unwise," the Dark Lord hissed. "It's only fair, Severus: if I have to suffer, so should you." Voldemort stared hungrily at Snape's neck, then leaned close, drawing venom-wet fangs over Snape's throat without quite breaking in the skin. "I should kill you with one bite, since it's because of your incompetence that I still have these fangs." Snape felt a forked tongue flicker against his throat, tasting his sweat. After an icy pause, Voldemort drew back, removing the immediate threat of savage death. "But then I'd have to tolerate the stink of your potions, and the taste... Ugh! Do you bathe in acromantula bile?"

Snape tried to focus. He shook his head, but unfortunately that wasn't the only part of him that shook. A few shivers had slipped past his control. Shivers that Voldemort was bound to notice, and misinterpret.

Voldemort trailed a talon down the front of Snape's robes, the sharp point threatening to slice the fabric, just as the Sword of Gryffindor had sliced another of his robes. "Tsk. Such a disgrace." The Dark Lord arched a hairless eyebrow. "Still concealing my Mark. Are you ashamed of it, Severus?"

"Never, my Lord." Snape shrugged out of his robes and rolled up his shirt's left sleeve. No matter how I answer, he'll put more marks on me. Well, what the hell do more scars matter?

A slit-pupilled stare swept over him as the Dark Lord circled, a serpent stalking his next prey. He stopped behind Snape.

Snape braced himself for pain.

A clawed finger traced a line from the crook of his arm down to the Mark. "Kneel."

Snape fell to his knees at once, with the grace of decades of practice. He looked up through hanging strands of hair, welcoming even that slight barrier between his mind and the Dark Lord's Legilimency. "How may I please you, my Lord?" Snape murmured, deliberately pitching his voice low, submissive: anything to get this over with as fast as possible.

"Better." Fingers trailed up behind his ear to grasp a handful of greasy strands. "Severus Snape." The hiss was almost gentle. "So compliant, so predictably willing to please. It makes me wonder whether there's anything in you at all besides blind servitude." The cruel grasp tightened, yanked Snape's head back. A gaze red as murder stabbed into Snape's mind, violating it, tearing through his darkest secrets in search of any wavering of faith, any hint of sedition, treachery, dissent. Abruptly, the wrenching grip on Snape's hair released, and Voldemort wiped his hand disdainfully on Snape's shoulder before shoving him away and turning to address the Death Eaters. "All of you, watch him. Learn from him. Follow his example."

Snape was pushed off balance and almost fell sprawling; he scrambled gracelessly before he recovered and rose to his feet. He allowed a bit of tension onto his face: it would not do to seem too skilled at controlling his reactions.

Voldemort turned back to Snape, raking him with a contemptuous stare. "Are you still here?" he hissed. "I could have sworn you had a potion to brew."

"As my Lord wishes." He Summoned his robe. It slipped onto his scrawny body as easily as it had slipped off. With a final bow he strode swiftly away, past the dais and toward the doors leading out of the Hall.

He almost made it before the Cruciatus hit.

Afterwards, as he staggered back to his rooms, Alecto shouldered past him on a stairway, still annoyed that she and all the other Death Eaters had been exiled to the aboveground parts of the castle while Snape had the whole dungeons to himself. Such were the perks of being the Dark Lord's current favourite.

He just managed to keep himself together until he made it back to his laboratory, slamming the door after him. He turned and slumped against the closed door, one palm pressed to the age-blackened wood and the other palm to the cold stone of the wall. He gathered his faltering strength and concentrated, until his wards webbed the surrounding space - wood and stone, doors and walls, ceiling and floor - sealing out eavesdroppers. Now that the Dark Lord had taken up residence in the Chamber of Secrets, the walls truly had ears, so if Snape wanted privacy he had to leave no stone unturned and no wall unwarded.

When Snape's rooms were cocooned in as many safeguards as he could manage, he hauled himself away from the support of the wall and shambled toward the cabinet where he kept a stock of pre-brewed potions for just such occasions. In a couple of practised gulps he downed healing potions tailored specifically for the neural and muscular damage caused by Cruciatus.

He dropped his weary body into the closest chair, the one at his writing desk, and let his face fall into his hands. Slowly he rubbed his forehead, fending off an impending headache, the cost of maintaining a cobweb-thin Legilimentic link for hours over distance. Only then did he finally reach out and feel along that thread.

The surface of the Dark Lord's mind was usually calm, but there was always a buried part of him that regarded Snape with mingled revulsion and curiosity. Occasionally there was lust, a longing to skin Snape alive and bottle him: blood, soul, and memories drained and stored in Snape's own phials. So far, the outer layer of the Dark Lord's mind had restrained that urge; so far, it was still just a fantasy.

So far, the Dark Lord suspected nothing.

Snape dropped the link, and shook his head, gazing around himself with a hollow-eyed, haunted stare, desperate for anything to distract him from the sickening memory of all the atrocities the Dark Lord would dearly love to commit on him. Snape had spent many such nights in the Dark Lord's presence, and afterwards in his mind. Back when Snape still had enough hope to continue spying. Back when he still had someone to spy for.

Back when Harry was still alive.

"Chirp!" The Snidget darted down out of nowhere, landing on the blotter in front of Snape and preening himself in an energetic flurry of golden fluff. As abruptly as all the wiggling and scruffling had started, it stopped. Then the bird bounced eagerly on wide-spread feet and peered up, bright-eyed, at Snape: as if to say, 'Whatyou need is a bit of extra fluff and a really good grooming!'

Snape leaned back from the desk. "Try it, and you'll be brewed and bottled by breakfast," he grumbled. But it seemed the bird was just enough of a birdbrain not to pay attention to Snape's warnings. He opened his wings, but Snape just managed to get in with a grab before the bird could take off. Snape's hand closed around a palmful of ticklish fluff, muffing the resulting squeaks. The beak slid between Snape's fingers and the tiny, scruffy head followed, giving Snape a glare and a 'let me out' "EEK!"

Having made his point, Snape uncurled his fingers from around the ball of golden fluff. His other hand lifted, fingertips trying to stroke disarranged feathers back into order, with a delicacy of touch in complete contradiction to his words.

The Snidget tilted his head, all ruffled feathers and indignation. He glared up with beady eyes, spread his wings and shook out his feathers, ruining Snape's careful handiwork. The next time Snape's finger approached, the bird sidestepped and hopped up, capturing it with his tiny claws and perching proudly, one curled feather sticking out on top of his head. He trilled victoriously.

Snape snorted dryly, compressing his lips into an 'I'm really not smiling' twist. "Well, I suppose it beats picking my proboscis for a perching place." He looked around, adding, "I really ought to find you something else to occupy yourself."

Snape Summoned the nectar flask and gave the Snidget the sort of smile that should've had canary feathers sticking out of it.

The Snidget chirped back with all the audacity of the canary that got away, and zoomed at the flask with such urgency it was a wonder his beak didn't end up stuck through the glass like a nail.

Besides one-sided conversations with the Snidget, Snape found himself handling Harry's glasses more than necessary for an object he wanted to hide. At random times the urge struck him to check the lenses and make sure they remained pristinely clean for use. Polishing glasses was an unobtrusive, practical habit, or at least it would've been if their wearer wasn't already dead.

Snape had never been prone to useless habits. Perhaps this one was the only visible hint of a deathwish he'd otherwise managed to master. Since he never took the glasses out of his well-warded rooms, the actual danger of discovery was minimal. After all I've been through, I suppose I can keep one relatively harmless mental quirk. And he wanted to keep this one. Polishing the lenses gave him peace, an odd sort of silent content. Perhaps the act itself had a tranquilising effect, like handling worry beads; it wouldn't be the looking through the lenses, nor imagining green eyes looking back.

Those eyes - only imaginary, now and forever more - were the only eyes he allowed himself to look into without raising Occlumentic barriers first. Staring into the empty lenses felt like gazing into diviners' crystals. Staring into the abyss, with his mind wide open. In the deepest, secret core of his mind, where no intrusion of Voldemort or Dumbledore had ever touched, he held long conversations - on vengeance, on purpose, on life - with people long gone and gone days ago, still missed, still remembered.

It felt like staring Death in the face, only Snape wondered which side of the glass Death really was. Past those looking glasses, those Mirrors of Erised, where Lily's eyes still lived, the voices he conversed with felt more alive than he was.

Sometimes he'd simply look into the gleaming depths and release the endless tangle of useless "What if"s from his mind, letting them fall away, as if into still, clear lakes. Other times, he'd hold entire conversations in a single stare, thoughtful and silent: conversations with himself as much as the ghosts of the past.

What if I'm wrong? What if I'm missing vital information? I could get into contact with the Resistance, warn them, so they could take down the Death Eaters while they're distracted with the Dark Lord's death. But how could I find them without raising suspicions? I can't risk trying. I have to act now, before that monster ruins any more of the world. Before he finds a way to create another Horcrux.

What if I fail? I can't afford to! If I fail, he'll be unstoppable! What if I'm not ready?

I can do this. I have to do this.

I must.

If he left the glasses on the desk, the Snidget would try to fly through the lenses, almost knocking the glasses off the table. But this time the Snidget stopped attacking the glass and instead perched on the nose piece, looking up at him.

Snape narrowed his eyes. "What is it, Featherbrain?"

The Snidget hopped down and peered at Snape through a single lens. The lens magnified the bird's tiny eye into a green speck. The eye closed, as if winking at Snape, and he found himself studying the bird intently.

Didn't that book say Snidgets have red eyes?

The Snidget pecked the lens, then zoomed off after dust motes. Snape watched the movement with a distant, abstracted stare. His hands picked up the glasses of their own accord, cleaning the lenses on his sleeve, as if leaving them polished and bright was vitally important.

Oh, stop being so bloody pathetic. The boy is dead! Get used to it!

Oblivious to Snape's mood, the bird darted about his quarters, chasing moths off the walls, apparently for the sheer fun of outpacing them: all scruffy feathers and jubilant cries, fearless as a Seeker.

But what if he isn't dead?

He is! Of course he bloody is!

...But what if?

The Snidget settled down again on the table next to Harry's glasses. Snape drew his wand, and aimed it at the bird with grim precision. Either this works, or I've gone completely fucking nuts.

"Animagum restituo!"

Nothing. Absolutely nothing changed. The Snidget squeaked in alarm at the pointed wand, and took off in a blur of speed. Snape fought down the urge to hurl his wand against the wall, and settled for jabbing it back into his sleeve.

I'm mad! I must be mad. What, did I think I was in some sort of fucking fairytale, where beasts are just transfigured princes, and monsters can be tamed by pulling thorns from their paws, and good always triumphs and the hero's never ever KILLED? No, I can't be distracted by stupid wishes, I must keep my focus to the end!

There are no what ifs. I know that, I've always known it. There never were any. I've never had a hope. There's nothing else left for me now, but to kill Voldemort, and be killed. No point in waiting 'til I've invented an undetectable poison. No point in making plans, trying to live. I'll just get the drop on him, cast the Killing Curse, and who cares if the others curse me to bits afterwards? Tomorrow. It all ends then.

"Come on, Featherbrain," he sighed, suddenly overwhelmingly weary, "let's go to sleep." One last time. I'll need all my wits about me tomorrow.

The Snidget settled on Snape's shoulder and began his nightly routine of wiping his beak on Snape's collar.

I'll let him out into the Forest tomorrow morning. Will he miss me, I wonder? Or does he miss his freedom more?

The Snidget tweaked Snape's earlobe, and gave a soft tweet.

I've never had the chance to say last farewells. Not to Lily. Not to Harry. So what's the point of saying them now? Especially when saying good night feels much more pleasant. For once, I may as well let myself pretend that this is just another night. Another night of getting ready to sleep. Of my familiar, nesting over my bed as usual. Snape lifted his head, half-expecting something - a sign, a voice, something - to stop him. But it was just the Snidget, who tilted his head and chirped quietly, as if to say, 'Don't worry so much, it'll all work out.'

'That's all you know,' Snape didn't say. Instead, he husked, "C'mere," and patted the fabric over his chest.

It was as if that was exactly what the bird was waiting for. He bounced down from the headboard in a flash and settled in the middle of Snape's chest, as though he'd been nesting there all along. Snape's heartbeat thudded so loud and strong that the bird tapped back a reply, pecking at the buttons on his nightshirt with a heartbeat ta-tap. Then, with a final rustle, the Snidget settled down, an almost weightless bundle of feathers and trust. Just as well I don't toss and turn in my sleep, Snape thought, though he cast his strongest Cushioning Charm around the bird, just in case.

Despite all Snape's pretence that this was just another night and not his last night alive, his heart hammered against the cage of his ribs; his chest felt as though it was about to break open like an eggshell. He stayed still, calming his anxious breathing, until his pounding heartbeat grew quieter, slower, until at last he felt the sleep that had already claimed the bird stealing over him.

"Pity you aren't human," Snape murmured as his eyes drifted shut. "You'd do a far better job of it than any of those animals upstairs."

Snape hadn't thought he'd be able to sleep at all. But sleep he did, deep and peaceful, and he dreamed of warmth. Not the usual, solitary warmth of a fire or blankets or Warming Charms. The warmth of arms, wrapped around him, holding him close. The warmth of a man's body, sprawled over his own. The warmth of hair, soft as featherdown, tickling his nose. He stirred in his sleep, basking in the warmth, the sense of closeness and peace.

Or at least he tried to stir, but he couldn't move. Something was weighing him down. His eyes snapped wide, and he stared down in absolute shock at a tousle-haired head he'd never thought he'd see again in life.

"Harry!" he gasped, scrambling backward to sit up in bed.

The body sprawled atop him jolted roughly, and Harry shrieked.