Occlumency was horribly exhausting. This was the singular thought which consumed Harry's mind as he lay in bed later that night, struggling toward sleep. It was a different sort of exhaustion than he was used to- than the type he normally felt after a long Quidditch practice, or an especially intense day of classes. This was a profound, mental sort of exhaustion. His mind was foggy and spacey, as though stuffed full of cotton, and it was abnormally difficult to focus his thoughts. When he had mentioned this to Snape, the professor informed him the feeling was both expected and temporary, and would lessen with each subsequent Occlumency lesson.

Harry fluffed his pillow under his head and closed his eyes, allowing his fuzzy mind to wander aimlessly. Having someone rifle through his brain had been quite the experience. He understood why it was necessary, but that didn't make it any easier to tolerate. Having no control over his thoughts- having someone literally read his mind- it was more than a bit unsettling.

Snape had only performed two rounds of Legilimency during their lesson. The second round had left Harry markedly less incoherent than the first, but Snape insisted they stop after two attempts. "The mind is a fragile thing. Too much Legilimency at once is ill-advised," had been the professor's firm reasoning.

He had dismissed Harry with instructions to practice meditation during his free time. "Try meditating on various objects. See what allots you the most focus," Snape had advised. "We will test the effectiveness of your Occlumency during our next lesson."

Lying in bed, Harry briefly attempted to meditate, choosing images of a few random objects to focus on in turn. Despite his best efforts, he found his thoughts inevitably begin to wander. It was strangely difficult, trying to focus on solely one thing.

Defeated, Harry sighed and rolled over in bed. He was too exhausted to try and meditate right now. Doing so required a surprising amount of concentration. Resolving to try again come morning, Harry pulled the covers over his head and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

He had Quidditch practice that next evening. The first match of the season was rapidly approaching- less than a week away now. Harry had missed Gryffindor's last practice, having been unconscious in the Hospital Wing at the time. When he showed up to the Quidditch field that evening, Oliver Wood was practically beside himself over it.

"Harry! What do you think you're doing, going around missing practice? We were short a player and couldn't properly scrimmage last week!"

"Er- I'm sorry," Harry apologized, hunching his shoulders in marked discomfort over the upset in Oliver's voice. "I didn't mean to. I was sick."

"Well, I know that!" Oliver snapped, face flushing nearly as red as his robes. "I meant, what are you doing letting yourself get sick? You need to be in prime condition for our match next week! Whatever you've been doing to land yourself in the Hospital Wing lately, stop. Got it?"

"Oy, calm down," Fred interrupted, clasping Oliver firmly on the shoulder. "Relax, Oliver. We've still got another two practices left before the game. Don't get your knickers in such a twist. Besides, it's not Harry's fault he was sick."

Oliver deflated somewhat. "I know that. But we can't afford setbacks if we want any chance at winning. You guys do want to win- right?" He glanced around at his teammates, looking more than a bit frenzied.

They all nodded dutifully. "Sorry, Oliver," Harry apologized again in an attempt to appease the other boy. Harry liked Quidditch as much as the next bloke, but Oliver Wood was scarily obsessive about it sometimes.

Looking chagrined, Oliver sighed. "Me too, Harry. I know it's not your fault. But this is my last year at Hogwarts. It's my very last chance to win the Quidditch cup, you know?"

"We know, Oliver," Katie Bell interrupted, rolling her eyes and snickering quietly under her breath. "You've only mentioned it about fifty times this week alone."

Oliver flushed and abruptly changed the subject. "Alright you lot. Let's get to practicing, then. No use dallying around!"

The team took to the sky. Gripping his broomstick tightly, Harry closed his eyes against the biting rush of wind and inhaled deeply. He always forgot how much he loved flying until he was in the air again. Circling the Quidditch pitch to fly laps with his teammates, Harry smiled softly, feeling truly relaxed for the first time in weeks.

Harry came down late to breakfast the next morning, having slept in after Quidditch practice ran late the night before. "Morning," he addressed Hermione, sinking down in his seat at Gryffindor table and yawning widely.

"Good morning." Hermione took a tidy sip of juice. "You missed the announcement. Professor McGonagall just went around and informed everyone that Defense classes are to be cancelled today. And that Professor Snape will be taking over class for the rest of this week and most of the next."

Harry's eyebrows shot up past his forehead. "What? How come?"

"What does that matter?" Ron groaned from across the table. "It's bad enough having Snape teach Potions, let alone Defense! And we have an exam next week! If Snape writes the bloody thing, I'll fail for sure!"

"She didn't say why," Hermione answered Harry's question, pointedly ignoring Ron's grousing. "But Professor Lupin's not at the head table this morning. Perhaps he's sick? Though it would be strange if that were the case. He would have to be quite ill to miss that many classes."

Harry glanced up at the front of the Great Hall. Sure enough, Lupin's usual chair between Hooch and Mcgonagall was noticeably vacant.

"Dunno," he murmured, serving himself a hearty pile of eggs and sausage. "But you're right. It is strange."

Hermione hummed in agreement. "Plus, Madame Pomfrey's at breakfast this morning. She generally takes her meals in the Hospital Wing when she has patients. You would think if Lupin were that ill, she'd be busy tending to him, wouldn't you?"

Merlin. Harry forgot how frighteningly clever Hermione was at times. "Yeah," he agreed softly. "Hope he's alright." And really, he did. Harry had grown rather fond of Lupin in the short time he'd known the professor.

Hermione smiled tightly. "Maybe it's nothing. Perhaps he just had some work to catch up on, or a conference to attend."

Across the table, Ron interrupted their musings. "Blimey, don't look so dismal," he informed his friends with a deep frown. "I'm sure Lupin's fine. Can we focus more on the fact that Snape is teaching Defense for the next week? I know you like him well enough, Harry, but you have to admit that he's a ruddy awful professor."

Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah, I guess," he agreed hesitantly. "Maybe it won't be so bad, though." After all, Snape seemed to be a surprisingly decent teacher when he put his mind to it; at least when it came to matters such as Occlumency.

Ignoring Ron's continued complaining, Harry lost himself in thought. Maybe the reason behind Lupin's absence was something innocent. However, there was something deeply concerning about the way Lupin looked at times. The professor always seemed so terribly exhausted, with dark circles lining his eyes and a pale, sickly complexion. Plus, Harry didn't think Lupin would let Snape take over his classes for any old reason.

No. Something about the situation definitely didn't sit right with Harry, and much as he tried, he couldn't shake his feeling of unease.

That evening, Harry was set to have his second Occlumency lesson with Snape.

He had spent nearly all his free time the past few days trying to practice meditation, but he hadn't had very much success in finding imagery that worked for him. No matter what object he chose to meditate on, he was never able to keep his thoughts focused for very long. He tried concentrating until his head ached and throbbed from the effort, but it was no use. Clearly, he was pants at Occlumency.

"Perhaps we need to attempt a different visualization technique," was Snape's wry response when Harry informed him of this.

"Yeah, maybe," Harry agreed with a shrug. "Dunno if it'll help anything. I think I'm just rubbish at this meditation business."

Snape made a noncommittal noise. "As with anything else, success will come with time and practice."

"I guess." Harry sighed and glanced up at the professor. The man sat watching him with an unreadable expression. "You really think I can learn this?" he asked after a long moment of silence, voicing the question aloud almost unconsciously.

"Yes." Snape did not hesitate before responding. "With commitment and dedication, and a great deal more patience than you are generally apt to demonstrating."

Harry flushed. "Well, glad you think so at least," he murmured.

Snape inclined his head in acknowledgement. "In any case, if you are not finding success through meditating on tangible objects, we should attempt a different form of imagery."

"Ok," Harry agreed easily. "Uh, what should I try, then?"

Snape raised a single eyebrow. "What are your thoughts on the matter?"

"I don't know," Harry admitted with a frown. Really, he was completely in the dark when it came to Occlumency. He had no idea what sort of imagery would work best for him.

"Nothing comes to mind? Nothing at all? Sometimes, raw instinct can be the best guide."

"No. Sorry," Harry apologized, stomach clenching horribly. Merlin, he really was terrible at this. "I have no idea."

"Hmm." Snape frowned, looking pensive. "Perhaps your imagery needs to be more conceptual. It is possible that your mind may fixate more easily on theoretical imagery as opposed to corporal. The technique is less common, but can allot success to some who have difficulty with tactile meditation."

Harry stared. "Um, what?"

Snape glanced over, as though remembering Harry was still sitting there. "Thus far, you have only tried visualizing actual, real objects," the professor explained more slowly. "You may have success with more… abstract imagery. Colors, feelings, experiences, and other similar intangibles."

Harry's brow furrowed in confusion. "I really don't get any of this, Professor," he admitted in a small voice. "None of this makes any sense to me."

Snape regarded him with hooded eyes. "Yes. I do believe I am beginning to understand that."

All at once, Harry felt horribly miserable. Looking away, he bit his lip and stared fixedly at a wall in the corner of the room. Really, this was all bloody pointless. He had absolutely no chance of learning Occlumency. This was all just a gigantic waste of time and energy.

Snape seemed to sense his upset. "Harry," he commanded firmly. "Look at me."

Cautiously, Harry glanced over at his professor. The man regarded him with a wholly serious expression.

"This is far from a hopeless endeavour," Snape informed him after a moment of prolonged silence. "We have scarcely begun our lessons. When you first learned the Patronus charm, you were unable to cast anything at all. Do you recall?"

Harry shrugged, staring resolutely at his feet. "Yeah."

"And now, you are nearly able to produce a fully corporeal Patronus. That progress did not occur overnight. Occlumency is similar in that regard. Learning it will take time."

"That's different, though." Harry drug his shoe back and forth against the stone floor, feeling terribly sorry for himself. "I'm good at Defense. I'm rubbish at this mind magic stuff."

"Defense may come more easily to you," Snape conceded. "But do you really intend to give up on Occlumency so quickly? I did not take you for a quitter, Mr. Potter."

"I'm not," Harry disagreed heatedly, raising his head to look at the professor.

"Then prove it." Snape stared unblinkingly. His eyes gleamed intensely, as though daring Harry to argue.

Harry grit his teeth. Occlumency just seemed so impossible. He didn't understand anything. And then, there was the fact that it seemed to be his last hope toward helping his nightmares. And that Snape refused to let him practice his Patronus until he learned it. The threat of failure loomed over Harry like a dark, ominous cloud. It was difficult not to feel hopeless.

But Snape was right. He was no quitter.

"Fine." Harry clenched his fists tightly. "I will."

Snape gave a sharp nod of approval. "Then I expect no more of this sort of nonsense. I need your full efforts and attention if we are to have success. None of this wallowing, childish self-pity. If you act as such, you are destined to fail before you even begin to try. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir," Harry muttered, staring fixedly at his lap.

"Then let us begin. We have wasted enough time today."

Harry nodded slowly, feeling about as small as a mouse.

Snape gave a pained sort of sigh. "Very well. If you truly have no inclination toward any specific imagery, let us attempt another common technique."

"Ok," Harry agreed quietly. "What's that?"

"Elemental imagery."

Harry frowned. The term sounded vaguely familiar. He had a feeling he must have briefly read about it in the Occlumency book. "Elemental… like, earth, or water, or that sort of thing?"

"Precisely," Snape replied briskly. "Using elements of nature as a focal object for meditation has been utilized by wizards since the beginnings of time. Nature and magic are closely rooted, in many regards. This technique is documented in some of the oldest texts concerning Occlumency."

"Oh," Harry said simply, still feeling rather unenthused. "Um, sure. I guess we can try that."

Snape paused, seemingly considering something. "My own chosen imagery for mind anchorage is of the elemental type," the professor spoke after a long moment. "Therefore, I may be able to offer more applicable advice regarding this technique."

That caught Harry's attention. "What imagery do you use, sir?" he asked, interest suddenly piqued.

Snape regarded him solemnly. "Fire," he replied shortly.

Fire. Somehow, that seemed fitting.

"Ok." Harry nodded decisively, feeling newly invigorated. "Let's try it. Do you think I should try fire too, Professor? Or should I picture something else?"

Snape continued to stare, his expression impassive. "We may as well attempt with fire. Unless another idea comes to mind?"

Harry shook his head.

"Very well." Snape suddenly produced his wand from somewhere within his robes. The sight of the familiar, dark wood had Harry's stomach instantly churning with anxiety. He'd almost forgotten how much he hated this part of the lesson.

"This should not be nearly as unsettling as the last time," Snape informed him matter of factly, clearly sensing Harry's unease. "Remember what I told you. Your mind will become more accustomed to Legilimency with each encounter. This may feel slightly uncomfortable, but not to nearly the degree it did during our last lesson."

That set his mind a bit more at ease. Forcing his body to relax back in his chair, Harry gave the professor a tight nod.

"Close your eyes," Snape instructed firmly. "And picture fire in your mind. As detailed an image as you can manage."

With a shuddering exhale, Harry clamped his eyes shut and did as the professor instructed.

"Focus on the image of burning flames. Try to imagine the sensation that fire may offer. Focus on the feeling of heat, specifically. Use that sensation to help ground your thoughts and your focus."

Harry tried his best to comply with these instructions.

"Feel the sensation of heat; of complete burning. Allow it to consume your body. Consume your thoughts and your being. Focus on the heat, and the flames, and let it burn away everything else."

Harry breathed slowly, in and out, again and again, picturing his imagined flames. Focusing on the feeling of heat. Trying hard to think of that and nothing else.

He remained focused in his meditation, even as he felt a familiar wand-tip press against his forehead.


He sits hunched in an armchair in the common room. His Charms textbook lays open on his lap. His mind wanders, tired and unfocused, as he reads the same line of text about Summoning Spells repeatedly-

The summer sun beats down on him. His face and bare arms burn and itch from the unforgiving heat. His shirt clings to his sweaty back as he bends down, pulling weed after weed from the dark earth of the garden, bare hands calloused and cracking-

Ron's freckled face beams at him from his bed in the Gryffindor dormitory. Harry giggles uncontrollably- a whole-hearted belly laugh that makes his gut ache. Merlin, it's a good thing Hermione wasn't here to hear that joke. Ron's language is absolutely foul sometimes-

Thirty six. Thirty seven. Thirty eight wooden boards make up the ceiling of the cupboard. Same number as yesterday. Harry rolls over on his cot and begins to count the boards on the far wall. The Counting Game is one of the few ways to pass the time in here. One. Two. Three. Four-

The man's face is a bright, angry red color. He screams loudly- shouting loathsome insults and blatant threats, his face mere inches from Harry's. His breath is foul, and spittle flies from his open mouth. Harry shrinks back against the wall, heart pounding in his chest, feeling wholly terrified and absolutely helpless-

Harry inhaled sharply as he fought his way from the depths of his memories. Panting heavily, he opened his eyes, scrambling to find purchase in his chair as he sat suddenly upright, adrenaline coursing through his veins-

"Calm yourself."

"What?" Harry managed to gasp, heart pounding so loudly he could hear it in his ears. He shuddered involuntarily as a chill worked its way through his body. Breathing seemed more difficult than normal; as though some vise were slowly gripping his lungs. Panicked, he tried to stand upright, but a pair of firm hands on his shoulders halted his progress.

"No- sit down, you foolish child!"

Struggling to focus his vision, Harry only now noticed Snape standing directly in front of him. The professor was forcibly holding his body down in his chair, eyes wide with something akin to alarm.

"What-" Harry spoke again, voice cutting off as he struggled to catch his breath. "What happened?" he finally managed to voice aloud. His heart still thudded in his chest, but breathing was coming easier now, thank Merlin.

Snape did not reply. The professor stared at him with nearly frightful intensity, his lips set in a thin, firm line. His hands tightened minutely on Harry's shoulders. "You fought your way out of my Legilimency," Snape spoke quietly after a long moment.

"What?" Harry asked again, feeling terribly disoriented as he struggled to gather his thoughts. "You mean, the meditation worked?"

Snape seemed to realize that he was still gripping Harry by the shoulders. Abruptly, the man released his arms and took a cautious step backwards. "No," the professor spoke carefully, eyes never leaving Harry's face. "No. It did not. I still saw your memories."

Harry sunk back in his seat. Now that the adrenaline rush had left his body, his limbs felt strangely boneless and rubbery. "Why do I feel so awful?" he asked, rubbing his forehead with a shaky hand. "I thought you said it would be better this time."

The professor continued to hover nearby, watching Harry with hawk-like intensity. "It should have been, had I simply released you from the spell. But you fought your way out of the Legilimency before I was able to."

"I did?" Harry blinked dumbly. "I don't remember doing that. I didn't even know I could do that."

Snape gave a tight nod. "It is a more advanced Occlumency technique. Something I had not anticipated teaching you at this time." The professor paused for a long moment and took a seat in his chair, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. "However," Snape continued, keeping his voice carefully controlled. "If a memory is… distressing enough, the mind can sometimes be triggered to fight its way from Legilimency involuntarily."

Harry frowned. Distressing memory? What did Snape mean?

And then, Harry's memories finally caught up with him. He felt his stomach drop somewhere past his knees as he remembered the last memory he'd seen during his attempt at Occlumency-

Oh. Uncle Vernon.

All at once, Harry's heart started hammering in his chest again. His palms grew sweaty and he felt the blood rush from his face. Harry glanced hurriedly at Snape. The professor continued to stare unabashedly, his gaze steadfast and piercing-

Oh. And Snape had seen.

Trying to school his features into something more neutral, Harry took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Merlin, this was about the last thing he needed right now. Snape witnessing all of his horribly embarrassing childhood memories. This was exactly why he'd been reluctant to let Snape in his mind in the first place. It wasn't like he had anything truly terrible to hide, but even so- having the professor see his Uncle screaming like that- shouting Freak and all those other godawful names... it was enough to make Harry feel physically nauseous. It was absolutely mortifying. He didn't want anyone knowing about those sort of things, least of all Snape.

Across from him, the professor continued to stare, eyes unwavering.

"What was that last memory, Potter?"

Of course Snape wouldn't just let the matter drop. Reluctantly, Harry raised his head and met Snape's stony eyes. "Nothing, sir."

"Who was that man?"

Harry clenched his hands into fists and bit his tongue, struggling to maintain an impassive face. "My Uncle, sir," he replied shortly when the professor continued to stare pointedly.

Snape hummed, arms tightening minutely across his chest. "And your... Uncle. Is he always so... uncouth?"

Harry merely shrugged, the gesture rigid.

Snape's eyes narrowed dangerously.

Shite. Wrong answer.

"No, sir," Harry hastily insisted, trying hard to keep his voice light and nonchalant. "No. I don't remember what that memory was about. I probably did something wrong and Uncle Vernon was just a bit upset about it."

Snape frowned deeply, looking terribly grave. Before the professor could comment, Harry continued, trying desperately to change the subject.

"Um, should we try again? I think it was easier to meditate that time. Maybe this elemental stuff is working for me after all."

Snape's dark eyes flickered to meet his own. "No," the professor replied after a long moment, voice strained. "No. I do believe that is enough for today. It would be unwise to perform further Legilimency with your mind in such an… unsettled state."

Harry flushed in embarrassment.

The duo sat in uncomfortable silence. Snape's brow furrowed deeply, and he opened his mouth as though to speak-

"Uh, I should get going," Harry blurted out, rising ungraciously from his seat. "It's almost curfew. And I still have homework to finish."

"Hmm," Snape breathed. For a second, Harry was certain the professor would argue, but the man merely pursed his mouth and gave a curt nod.

Harry nearly sighed aloud in relief. Quickly gathering his things, he avoided looking Snape in the face as he hurried toward the office door.

"Mr. Potter."

Harry froze, hand hovering over the doorknob. Swallowing against a lump in his throat, he reluctantly turned back around. Snape had risen from his chair. Looking uncharacteristically tense, the professor crossed his arms over his chest and studied Harry searchingly.

"...I will have to cancel our Occlumency lessons next week," Snape spoke stiffly. "And regret that I will have to continue to do so for one week each month."

"Er- ok," Harry agreed hesitantly. "Every month? How come?"

"While teaching both Potions and Defense classes, my course load will be too full to accommodate additional lessons."

Harry frowned. "You mean, you're taking over Lupin's classes for more than just next week?"

Snape froze, his expression frigid. "Yes. I will be teaching Defense periodically throughout the school year."

The professor offered no further explanation. Harry shifted his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot, feeling rather like a specimen on display as Snape continued to stare brazenly.

"That's fine," Harry replied awkwardly. And he meant it. As much as he wanted to learn Occlumency, all he wanted in the moment was to be well and rid of Snape and his prying questions.

"See you, Professor." With that, Harry turned and fled before Snape could speak again. The back of his neck prickled uncomfortably as he strode down the hallway, and he was certain that Snape continue to watch him until he finally rounded the corner at the end of the corridor.

Something wasn't right.

Mind reeling, Snape gripped the edge of his desk to ground himself. Mindlessly, he spelled his office door shut with a flick of his wand.

No. Something wasn't right at all.

For the boy to be able to break out of Legilimency was deeply concerning in and of itself. Harry had no formal training in that sort of Occlumency. That he had been able to fight his way from Legilimency suggested that something in his memories had deeply unsettled his unconscious.

And Snape knew what it was. He had witnessed the memory firsthand. That man- Harry's Uncle- swearing and screaming those unfathomable words. Looming over the boy, looking positively psychotic. He had seen Harry cringe and cower- had felt his absolute terror and panic-

Snape swallowed thickly. His mind raced over the possible implications of that singularly disturbing memory. He felt equal parts relief and regret over not having seen the memory's conclusion.

He knew the boy lived with his Muggle relatives. Petunia, and her louse of a husband. He had never met the man, but knew Petunia well enough from their brief, childhood interactions. He couldn't imagine that unpleasant, haughty girl had ended up with anyone with a better character than herself.

But even so- Harry was their nephew. Savior of the wizarding world. He was supposed to be pampered, overindulged and loved. This wasn't right at all. Snape dared not even think the word that kept turning itself over and over, almost tauntingly, in the deepest corners of his mind. Abuse-

He shook his head harshly. No. He mustn't let his suspicions run awry. Perhaps the memory was a one-time occurrence. An extraordinary circumstance when Harry's Uncle had lost his temper. After all, a glimpse of one memory was not solid proof of anything.

But suddenly, Snape remembered something else. Another lesson- weeks earlier. When he and Harry had been working on the Patronus charm. When they discussed choosing happy memories. A strange, offhand comment, which he hadn't thought anything of at the time-

I don't have many happy childhood memories.

Snape shuddered involuntarily at the recollection. No. There was no denying it. Something was definitely amiss.

Sinking down in a chair, Snape allowed his mind to wander, his thoughts teeming with suspicion and misgiving. He was a difficult man to unsettle, and seldom did he find himself quite so disturbed as he felt in that moment.

A/N: Ahh, thank you so much for your lovely comments, guys! You are all so wonderful, and I so appreciate your support!

I apologize for the delay on this chapter. I was out of town the past few weeks visiting family and attending a wedding, so I haven't had the chance to do as much writing as I'd like recently. I've also been updating my other HP WIP, if anyone cares to check it out! ;)

I hope you all enjoyed this chapter! As always, comments are greatly appreciated! In particular, I very much appreciate everyone who has taken the time to tell me that the pace of this story feels realistic. I'm a sucker for a realistic, slow-build, but I always worry that I'm taking things too slow, so your comments greatly reassure me that I'm not ;)