Hello, I'm back. Hopefully I will be able to do more regular updates, but no promises!

As always, thanks to my beta Badgerlady!

A fire was burning happily in the grate when he Flooed into his own quarters at Hogwarts—much bigger than was strictly necessary. Severus stepped into the warm room, automatically brushing the ash from his robes and looking about his familiar quarters with relief to be home.

The house-elves had been busy, the stone floor shone and the window looking out onto the lake bottom gleamed. The dim green light danced eerily over draperies and carpets that looked as though they'd been taken out for their first cleaning in over a hundred years. Belying Molly's fear that he wouldn't get anything to eat if she didn't feed him, a tray with a teapot and sandwiches that someone had thoughtfully ordered sat on the table.

This didn't look good. The Old Man must be really up to something.

A note confirming Severus' thought sat next to the teapot:

Severus,

I understand how very difficult things have been for you lately. I can only hope that I can begin to make up for it.

When you've had a chance to refresh yourself, please Floo to my office and we can discuss the most recent developments.

Albus

Severus sighed and brushed his hair back from his face with one hand. The old coot must need some huge favor if he was going out of his way to be that conciliatory.

If he didn't need his job and Dumbledore's support so bloody much…

But, you don't need his help anymore, a voice in his head reminded him.

He made his way to his bedroom to pick out some fresh robes. He was going to pick up the child at half past six and it was nearly three now. He'd have to tell the headmaster to be brief, or they'd both face the wrath of Molly Weasley.

"Snape?"

Severus jumped, whipping out his wand to train it on the source of the voice. He knew precisely whose voice that was. Before he'd even fully focused on the intruder he'd shot off a nonverbal stunner.

The jet of red light went right through the chest of the far-too-solid-looking James Potter.

"Sorry, Snape." The dead man held his hands up at shoulder height with his palms out as if to show that he had no wand. His face was very grave and held no mockery. Indeed, if Severus didn't know better, he'd say James Potter looked actually remorseful. "I'm sorry."

"Get out," Severus hissed. "Get out. Now. Egredere!"

Another jet of light, this one dark purple, passed through the other wizard, whose form shimmered but, although Potter backed up, he didn't leave or disappear. "No." His voice was flat and certain now. "Not until you hear me out."

"I don't care what you've got to say!" Severus snapped. "Get out!" He clenched his fist and sent more jets of light against the apparition, trying various banishments that were equally ineffective.

"Severus," a different voice said from behind him. "Please. Stop."

He stopped. He was frozen and powerless against that voice.

"No." He whispered, shutting his eyes. His wand hand dropped to his side and he hung his head. "Please. Just go away."

"Severus," breathed the voice, his name a benediction. He felt his clothes stir as the woman brushed by him to stand in front of him. Two small hands settled themselves on his shoulders.

For a long moment they stood like that while Severus ran through a series of Occlumency exercises. The other person never moved her hands or stirred. If she were living, Severus would have been close enough to feel her warm breath.

Finally, he felt steady enough to raise his head, meet the woman's dark eyes.

She smiled up at him. He was startled to realize he was taller than she was now. He had gained several inches since his seventeenth year.

"Severus." Again she spoke his name, as though she had no other words in her.

"Mother," he whispered. He kept his back straight and his face impassive. He would not break down in front of Potter, who still stood gawping at them.

Eileen seemed to search Severus' face. She turned to James Potter. "I assume you have somewhere else to be?" she asked him coldly. "I am quite able to fill him in on the particulars without help."

The phantasm seemed to blush. "I...I...ah...Yes. Yes, ma'am." He backed away looking sheepish. "I'll just…" he waved his hand vaguely. "Ah...I'll be around." His expression was that of a schoolboy scolded by a teacher. He faded out.

It occurred to Severus suddenly that James Potter looked very young. Hardly more than one of the teenagers he taught on a daily basis. He realized that he had outlived his rival by more than a decade.

Dismissing that thought, he looked back down at the woman who stood in front of him.

She wore robes of blue trimmed with green, with her black hair loose down her back. She looked younger than Severus remembered her, less careworn.

He was the same age she had been when she had died. She had been married right out of school and he had arrived promptly six months later. So young to have a child and to be disowned by her family.

She stared up at him with a hungry expression, never taking her hands from his shoulders. "You look so tired," she finally ventured, softly, "haven't you been sleeping?"

The statement was so incongruously prosaic than he started to laugh: a harsh, bitter sound. "No, Mother," he ground out, when he got the better of himself, "I haven't slept well since the headmaster and my Head of House told me that you'd murdered yourself!" He swung away from her, laughing mirthlessly again. "Or perhaps since Father told me that he'd found you stone dead in the living room by your own hand and that the Ministry had been there to tell him that they were taking what little magical inheritance we were due. Given that you didn't care much for my welfare then, I fail to see how my physical health can possibly interest you." He crossed his arms against his chest and looked steadfastly away from her.

"I'm sorry." She spoke softly into the silence, crossing the room on feet that didn't quite touch the ground, he noticed. "I…" She stopped, looked down. "I thought you'd find the key I left you."

The money she'd carefully hidden so that she might leave him without guilt.

"How could you?" he rasped, looking at her, finally.

"I...I don't know," she admitted. "I had planned to merely leave Toby. The war was...frightening me. People...pure-bloods had been killed for marrying Muggles. Their children…" she shuddered. "Their children were being targeted. I thought you and I should get right out of the country before things got very bad."

Severus had heard rumors of such atrocities, but he had assumed his place in Slytherin was protection enough.

She was going on, "After my father died, I took the money out of his vault and sent it to Switzerland in dribs and drabs so that the Ministry wouldn't be alerted to large amounts leaving the country. The goblins told me that was safest." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Abraxas Malfoy started talking to me again, after Father died. He invited me to tea that week. He wanted to see how you and I were getting on. He was very impressed with you, you know." Eileen smiled wistfully. "I hoped perhaps his connections could get you an apprenticeship on the Continent. Do you know, Abraxas and I were engaged at one point? He broke it off when he met Clotho. But he was always good to me; even after I married Toby, he used to send me owls."

Yes, so good to her that he walked the other way when he saw her with her half-blood spawn in public.

Eileen's gaze became sharper, more present. "I went to see Abraxas and then...well...I'm not sure what happened. It just seemed like everything came crashing down on my head. The idea of just not being…" She sighed. "It made so much sense. You would have my father's money. Your father would find a wife who could make him happy. You would finally be free of my stupidity." Her eyes filled with tears and she sniffed.

Meanwhile, the hair on the back of Severus' neck went up. "This only happened after you saw Abraxas?" he asked in a low voice, her story striking an uneasy note.

She blinked. "I...yes. Well, no. I mean…" She stopped to gather her thoughts. "I'd thought about it before, of course. But not like this. It just seemed to make sense. I took the box to Mrs. Cook and I…" She paused, wrinkling her eyebrows in thought. "I found that potion in my hand and, well…" She looked away.

Severus blinked, his thoughts suddenly racing. "You killed yourself with Glove Cleaner." It was a highly restricted and complicated poison. Untraceable, save if the container was found in the victim's hand, as it was with Eileen. They called it Glove Cleaner because it was said to have been invented by a man who'd first invented an irreversible love potion. He had wanted to get rid of the wife whom he'd married for money. The love potion formula had been long since lost, but the poison still could be found in certain dark grimoires. "Where did you get it?"

She shrugged, looked away. In a small voice she said, as if to herself, "That's the thing. I don't know."

"Are you saying that Abraxas..?" Severus demanded, his heart speeding up.

She shook her head and then spoke as though addressing a child. "I wasn't in an Imperius dream where throwing myself from a window seemed like a good idea and I just forgot to catch myself. Imperius can't be used to make someone kill themselves. I mean...not with that as the express intent." Her dark eyes were still cast down to the floor. "I just realized suddenly that everyone would be better off without me. I knew in my heart that I was the reason everyone's life was so…" She stopped with a sound like a sob, then she swallowed, continuing with an obvious effort. "Imperius doesn't work like that."

"Not normally, no." Severus said, "But in someone who is already struggling…" He stopped, thinking through this new piece of information. "Someone who is already somewhat… off balance...can be compelled to commit acts of outright suicide." One of the problems with Eileen's suicide was that, from her note, she had clearly understood that she was doing. "They only need the right push and to be given the means…" Certainly Imperius could cause someone to take a dangerous potion home with them.

"I'll have to speak to the solicitor," he said slowly. "Perhaps there is a record of your meeting with Abraxas Malfoy?"

Eileen shrugged and gave him a little smile. "I owled some things to Switzerland before I...well, before... You might find something there. Just a few notes I wanted to make certain you or Toby didn't read." Shifting uncomfortably, she said, "There's some letters to Abraxas."

Severus nodded. He'd need a plausible way to bring the meeting to the attention of the Ministry without divulging that he was dabbling in Necromancy. Whatever evidence he produced needed to be very concrete.

"You have a son, Severus," his mother said suddenly.

"Yes," he replied, heavily. He wasn't sure how she would take the whole mess, but apparently she had already been told.

"I'm sorry. I was not a good mother to you," she said softly. "I hope you can be better than I."

"Mother," Severus did not want to be audience one of her self castigating soliloquies, "you were fine."

She held up a hand, suddenly looking very ghostlike indeed. "No, love. No lies between us now. I failed you." Her eyes were swimming. "You're right, I have no right to judge your life. But I needed you to know that I'm sorry."

To that he could say nothing. He wasn't sure even how he felt about Eileen standing here, apologizing, but something shifted within him. He swallowed hard against the lump in his throat, opting to say nothing rather than indulge in histrionics.

She smiled again as if in understanding and then spoke more urgently. "We needed to talk to you before Dumbledore did," she said. "Everything's changed. You and the child will be in horrible danger. The Dark Lord's servant is returning to him...The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant's aid."

"Black?" demanded Severus.

"Not Black," Eileen told him impatiently. "Black was innocent. He was a reckless fool, but he was innocent of this crime, at least. The traitor was Peter Pettigrew."

"Lilly said that," Severus said slowly. "But what…?"

A knock at the door interrupted them. "Wait a moment," Severus called.

Eileen shook her head. "I better go. But listen to me. Sirius Black has been protecting the boy since term began. Don't let your old rivalries…"

"Rivalries?" Severus hissed, appalled. "He tried to kill me when I was sixteen!"

Eileen looked stricken. "I know. I should have done more but right now he can help you with Harry." She was wringing her hands and looking at the door. "I have to go."

"Severus? It's Minerva," called the person on the other side of the door.

Eileen faded away to mist. Severus shook his head sharply, vowing to continue that conversation later.

"A moment," he said again, irritably. He'd been hoping for time to shower, but instead he opted for a quick cleaning charm and a glance in the mirror. He wasn't nearly as disheveled as he would be after spending all day in the lab, so he supposed he was just fine for meeting with the headmaster.

He opened the door to his colleague. "Minerva?" he gasped. She looked almost as ghostly as his mother had. Where her hair had sported a white stripe, it was now entirely stark and snowy. She was thinner than ever and she seemed nearly transparent.

But she smiled at him as she never had before, her entire face lighting up.

"Severus!" she said warmly, striding into the room and shutting the door behind her. Before he knew what she was about, she had her arms around him in a hug of greeting.

He stood there stupidly, his arms dangling at his sides, until she let go of him. She backed up to look at his face, her eyes going somber as she took in his confusion.

She let go of him with a strangely regretful little smile. "Poppy told me you and Harry had been sent away alone, without even a house-elf to help you. I'm so sorry, dear. I feel terrible that no one told me. I certainly would have insisted that Albus send someone."

Damn these women.

Severus closed his eyes, employing all his self control. It would do no good to shout at Minerva and he was too tired to throw a tantrum, anyway. After a deep breath he opened his eyes and said in his iciest voice, "I fail to see how that's any of your business, madam."

The woman flinched at his tone, then lifted her chin. She was as tall as he and she gave him that forbidding look that never failed to make him feel as if he was still fifteen years old. He thought she was going to retort angrily but instead she said, "I wanted to thank you for your help with Miss Weasley, Severus." Her voice was much more formal now, but it still contained that confusing note of warmth he had never heard directed towards him before.

"Whatever." The word was Harry's but it fell from Severus' lips before he had time to think of it.

She suddenly sagged, as though exhaustion had caught up with her. "May I sit?" she asked, looking unsteady on her feet.

Severus lifted his wand and summoned two chairs from the sitting room. She collapsed into one and he settled into the other one.

Minerva had not failed to notice that she had still been invited no further into his home than the foyer. Her only comment was the wounded look in her eyes.

A few of Toby's choicer epithets crossed Severus mind. How dare she act so surprised that he wasn't immediately fawning at her insincere apologies?

"Severus, Dumbledore wants to speak with you because he's found Sirius Black," she said after a moment. "Under rather mysterious circumstances, too. I wanted to go with you, in case...well...just in case."

"If you must," he said slowly, wondering what her game was.

"That's a wonderful idea, Professor!" Potter's ghost was back, grinning like a schoolboy.

It was clear that Minerva could see the man just as clearly as Severus could,

"James," she said wearily, "I don't think you're welcome here. And given how very much you owe Severus, I would suggest you go out of your way to make his life less difficult." She glared at the young man. "Given the tales I've heard lately, I also suggest you keep out of my way for a while. If you keep it up, I swear I'll assign you a long-overdue detention," she finished in full professorial mode.

"Ah. Yes, ma'am," James Potter muttered. Apparently he hadn't expected that kind of greeting from his old Head of House. "But I need to tell you before the Old Man does. Sirius is innocent. Dumbledore's got his name cleared. They're in Dumbledore's office, waiting to talk about Harry."

"What!?" Severus shot to his feet.

Minerva put a hand on Severus' arm. "I was afraid it was something like this, with the build-up Albus is giving this meeting," she sighed. "He was dropping hints...that perhaps Black wasn't in league with You Know Who, after all."

"You must be ecstatic," Severus snarled, shaking off her hand. He began pacing, wondering what this turn of events meant. How Albus managed to get one of his favored students off of a sentence in Azkaban.

"I must admit…" She paused as if having a hard time putting her thoughts together. "I would be far more animated about this if I wasn't so bloody tired."

She sighed and closed her eyes, appearing to doze. After a moment she opened them with an effort and seemed to shake herself. "Sorry, dear. Where was I?" She sounded for all the world like Trelawny, before getting her bearings and going on in a much more focused tone. "Severus, Sirius will want Harry. That is, if they really have cleared his name. He's Harry's godfather."

His heart contracted painfully. Of course, that's what would happen. Obviously, the bloody man would demand his rights. Just as obviously, Albus would support him.

Severus nearly retorted that Black could bloody well have Harry and good riddance. He had no illusion as to how the rest of the Wizarding world would react to Sirius Black with his name cleared. Chances were, the Wizengamot would agree with Albus and move heaven and earth to grant Black's petition. He'd have to confess everything and it would be all over the papers. Fighting Black for the child would only bring Severus more misery.

But the memory of the boy's eyes when he asked Severus to keep him haunted him. No matter how Harry's feelings would inevitably change, Severus couldn't find it in himself to abandon the child a second time.

Eventually Harry would tire of being the ward of the resident dungeon bat, but Molly and Arthur were willing and a much more appropriate placement. Until then, he had given his sworn word to the boy. If the Ministry wanted the boy, they could go over his dead body.

Minerva's voice was very quiet, as if fearing being overheard. "If it does turn out that Black is innocent, I wonder what Azkaban will have left of Sirius' mind?" she whispered. "He was always reckless. And they say that Azkaban left him quite mad. I fear what it would do to Harry, left alone with him."

It would be well to get the assistant headmistress' support for the plan he'd worked out with the Weasleys. "Minerva…" he began, slowly, "Molly and I were speaking. She feels that we can explain our blood tie through our Muggle heritage. She says that Harry is hungry for security and that being open about my place in his life would be beneficial." Molly had come up with the second cousin story that morning. "What do you think?"

"It would prevent Albus from meddling." Minerva nodded crisply. "No one will look further than the surface."

"Mm." The man nodded, thinking.

"I think you are the best person to be Harry's guardian, in any case." Minerva said decisively.

Severus sat down again, staring at the woman. "You...you do?" He had expected her to jump to her former student's side immediately. She had isolated herself in her study for weeks after Black had been sent to Azkaban. He had only just moved into the castle himself, but it had been evident that Minerva's seclusion had been very worrying to the other staff. Severus remembered several conversations where some of the others had remarked that Black's betrayal had hit her harder than Potter's death.

She smiled at him, lopsidedly. "Yes, Severus. Before Miss Weasley's misadventure, I admit to having my reservations about your role in Harry's life, but since then…" she spread her hands in a gesture of submission, "I have seen my error. In particular, I have had some interesting intelligence from both the living and the dead." Her expression changed to one of grim determination. "Let me say again that I am very sorr…"

"It's fine." Severus cut her off shortly, feeling that if he had to hear another apology, he might scream.

She smiled more sincerely. "You know, your son is very like you." She shook her head, chuckling a little. "It's so obvious when you know."