Chapter 1: August, 1997

Two months to the day after fleeing Hogwarts in the dead of night, leaving Dumbledore's body at the foot of the Astronomy Tower, Severus Snape returned. The man now hailed by some and reviled by many for murdering Albus Dumbledore stepped through the front gates of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in broad daylight after apparating from a meeting at the Ministry to officially appoint him Headmaster, an appointment which would be kept out of the newspapers until September 1st. He was dressed in black robes much finer than his usual garb and wore a new pair of softly tanned black dragonhide boots. They felt odd on his feet, not yet at home. His hair was tied back at the nape of his neck. He carried nothing but his wand which he held casually yet confidently, at the ready.

While his appointment had not been officially announced, the Dark Lord has already ordered the Board of Governors disbanded and had added two new professors to his staff—Alecto and Amycus Carrow. One would replace him as Dark Arts instructor—no use in pretending there would be any defense involved—and the other would take the late Charity Burbage's classes. He pushed away the image of Charity suspended over the banquet table in the formal dining room at Malfoy Manor and focused instead on the Carrows. Severus doubted either could actually read or write but also knew that this year, that mattered little. Term would begin in three weeks, but, with the exclusion of the Muggle-borns and others of questionable blood purity as well as those who had simply fled, the Hogwarts dorms would be barely half-full.

Severus resolutely did not look at the white marble tomb by the lakeside as he walked purposefully past the Quidditch Pitch and up the hill toward the castle's entrance. But in seeking so deliberately to avoid the tomb, his gaze fell on the stretch of ground where Harry had faced him, where he had disarmed the boy, where he had left him, abandoned him, face in the dirt, begging him not to leave.

He hadn't seen Harry for two months.

It was slowly killing him.

The agony was long, drawn out, deeply rooted and utterly unexpected. It ate at him from the inside out, chewing on his gut, rolling around in his stomach, making him agitated, restless, angry. It was easy to act his part when nothing satisfied him, when there were no letters arriving on homework scrolls, no questions to answer, no stories of Lily to tell. He had gotten rid of Draco quickly, leaving him at Malfoy Manor with his family to face the Dark Lord's wrath, but every time he saw Draco, now forced to serve as menial errand boy to the Dark Lord himself, he was reminded more of what he had left behind.

Mingled with the pressing loss and incessant worry was the rising tide of responsibility for the other thing he had ended that night.

He didn't feel regret for it, not exactly, and not remorse either. Dumbledore had pulled that promise from him months ago—to do the murder himself when the time came, to prevent Draco from becoming a murderer too. If there were any regret at all, it was for not better preparing Harry for the inevitability of their separation, or for not ending Albus' suffering earlier, before it came down to a showdown on the tower, an answer to Albus' silent but resounding, echoing pleas to end it now.

Instead of regret, Severus felt a weighty sense of responsibility for Albus' death and for the avalanche of events that followed it.

That, even though events had played out almost exactly as Albus had wanted them to. He would never have been able to conduct and execute the sequence of events any better had he been left alive with a wand in his hand and all of the invincible power of a mighty puppet-master holding a complex web of strings.

Severus picked up his pace, putting on a mantle of aloof neutrality as he made the final approach to the castle and climbed the stairs. Nothing moved at Hogwarts on this oddly warm, bitterly sunny August day. Hagrid's cabin was quiet—no smoke rose from the chimney, no dog barked a greeting from the garden. The pennants above the great castle doors hardly moved in the still air and not even a ghost of a sound reached his ears from the castle within.

Harry's clock had rested on "Somewhere Safe" all of July but had bounced erratically from "Traveling" to "In Trouble" to "Mortal Peril" to "Somewhere Safe" since then. Severus had been holed up at Spinner's End on August 1st, the day the Ministry fell, deliberately removed from the fray by the Dark Lord, kept safely out of sight until Hogwarts was his. The clock had moved from "In Trouble" to "Mortal Peril" that day and had remained there for several hours before returning to "In Trouble." Severus had known of the planned murder of Scrimgeour. He learned that night that Scrimgeour had revealed the location of Harry Potter before he died and, along with the other senior Death Eaters, had suffered the Dark Lord's rage at their failure at capturing Harry at the ensuing raid on the wedding. He wondered how much Harry had suffered his torture as well.

The Doctors Granger had disappeared. He had stolen out to London himself to check Miss Granger's whereabouts following the fall of the Ministry. He knew that the raid on Privet Drive on Harry's birthday had turned up nothing and that the Dursleys were not in residence when the wards fell at midnight. Somehow the remnants of the Order of the Phoenix had managed to warn them. Severus was oddly grateful for that, but could not understand, for the life of him, why. He supposed it was because Harry would feel responsible for their deaths too, and he preferred them alive if it alleviated a small part of Harry's mental anguish.

Today, no one challenged him as he entered Hogwarts. He knew Filch was here somewhere at least, and probably Hagrid.

The entrance hall was eerily quiet. He glanced up at the jewel-filled hourglasses that tallied the house points. They had not been cleared yet from the previous school year. It looked to him like Gryffindor might have won the cup, had there been a cup awarded. Only the headmaster could turn the glasses to reset the points for a new year. He wondered at that, but did not attempt it. He had something else to do first.

He quietly made his way up the great marble stairs. His footsteps echoed in the utter silence of the castle, and it sounded as if three men were ascending the stairs, the other two on phantom, parallel stairways. He forced himself not to look behind him or to the side.

He kept walking, face forward, until he reached Albus' office.

His office.

The gargoyle, oddly, asked him to set a password. He cocked his head and stared at it a moment, thinking.

"Bring him home," he said, the words tight, terse. He could change it later, to something innocuous or dark, when it became necessary for others to visit him here.

Up the spiral staircase until he stood briefly before the door. He placed one hand on the ancient wood, the other on the crystal handle, owning the door, feeling its ancient life, then turned the knob, pushed open the door and stepped into the office.

He'd been dreading this moment, though he executed it perfectly. Albus' portrait hung behind the desk, exactly as Albus had said it would, and the subject of the portrait stood upon seeing him.

"Headmaster," it said in greeting. The voice of Albus Dumbledore was recognizable, though it lacked the depth and power it had carried in life. Severus froze for a moment, spinning backward in time, remembering the last words of the great man standing so small before him now. Severus…please…

"Where is he, Albus?" Severus strode over to the portrait, ignoring the office which would, in the coming months, become his island in a tempestuous sea.

Albus did not look one bit put out at playing second fiddle today to Harry Potter. Instead, he seemed rather pleased. How could eyes twinkle like that when they were nothing but memories behind magical paint?

"You do have your clock…?"

"The house elf brought it to me, yes," answered Severus. "It is…vague…" His eyes narrowed, staring at the painted rendering of the old headmaster, taking in the vibrant blue of his eyes, the brilliant turquoise and gold of his star-studded robes. Severus swept his gaze around the room, looking swiftly at the other portraits. All of them—all that were in their frames, at least—were studying him unabashedly. He was accustomed to seeing most of them dozing in their frames in his frequent visits to this very room. Odd.

"Where is he, Albus?" Severus shifted his focus back on the former headmaster and repeated his original question. "He is no longer with Bill Weasley. Grimmauld Place is being watched—there has been no movement there. And he is not at the Burrow either."

"It must be enough for now to know he is safe, Severus," said Dumbledore. "You knew this time would come—when he would have to forge his own way. He is well prepared, Severus. You yourself have seen to this. And he does have his friends—yes?"

Severus nodded shortly and let his gaze move to the window. He looked out over the lake, to the rocky shore where Harry had once stood working out his anger, hurling rocks in the water, not so many long weeks ago. He recalled, then, that he had stood beside Albus watching that scene play out and felt keenly alone in this moment.

"I have verified that the Grangers are gone—their London home and practice are closed up. The Burrow is being watched—Harry and his friends have not been seen there. Miss Weasley is there, however. She has been seen in Diagon Alley as well, accompanying her mother."

"Then all indications point to Harry being in hiding with Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley. Severus, does it matter where he is? Is it not better to know only that he is safe?" Albus' eerily alive animated eyes met Severus' and held them.

Finally, Severus conceded with a nod. "It is better," he admitted, his voice betraying the bitterness he felt at that admission. He turned away, shoulders tense, eyes scanning the shelves, the walls, the cabinets of this office, his office, then swiveled back, angry again. "But it is killing me, Albus. It is eating away at me…devouring me from the inside. This…need…" His voice faltered, died. He turned away again, exasperated, not knowing how to express this foreign feeling, this all consuming worry mixed with heart-wrenching fear.

"I cannot take that away from you, Severus, nor would I want to," came Albus' somewhat one-dimensional voice from behind him. "I have long understood that Harry's capacity for this—for love—would set him apart from Voldemort and give him the crucial edge that he needs. What I did not understand, perhaps not until this very moment, is that he would change you, too, and find in you not only an ally in this effort, a champion if you will, but a mentor and a father as well. Sadly, Severus, I have never been a father and can understand the feeling only… academically."

Severus turned and stared at Albus' portrait as it spoke, only half listening, the feeling in his stomach warring between empty and too full, his heart clenching as he suddenly understood what it would feel like to have this new piece of his life removed. It would be like a bird floundering with an injured wing as it attempted to land in a high tree, crashing through the branches in near free-fall, unable to gain purchase, to right itself.

"You are his champion, Severus," continued Albus, his papery voice soft as he sat back down in the painted chair behind his painted desk—Severus' chair now, Severus' desk. "Hogwarts is his goal. It will happen here; it must happen here—for Hogwarts is the center of it all. Tom will expect Harry to come to Hogwarts and Harry will be drawn here. He will return here to face Tom, and you, Severus, you must protect Hogwarts. It is your kingdom now, your island. You must protect its resources—the students under your care—by making it appear impenetrable from the outside while at the same time finding its Achilles heel, the weak spot Harry can exploit when the time comes."

"You ask too much of me," said Severus. His voice had a note of resignation in it, and of desperation. "You know what Hogwarts is to the Dark Lord. It is more important to him than the Ministry itself. He will not allow…"

"He will when his attention is focused elsewhere," interrupted the portrait. "And while Harry and his friends are out there, on this quest, Tom's eye will be turned outward as well."

"It is Harry's quest now, then," commented Severus. The words of the old tune ran through his head, no longer a private game between himself and the headmaster. Cervante's words from Don Quixote's mouth. To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause…

"He is willing, Severus," portrait Albus said, very quietly.

"It is supposed to be me!" exclaimed Severus, pounding his fist on the desk between himself and the portrait. "Me that is torn and covered in scars. Not him." He sank into one of the two chairs behind him, the visitor's chairs facing the headmaster's desk. "Not him. Not Harry."

"Severus…"

"Harry cannot come here," said Severus, standing again, walking purposefully around the desk and standing, impenetrable himself, before the imposing portrait.

"Harry must come here," countered Albus, his crinkly portrait eyes and papery portrait voice softening as he regarded the man before him. "Harry will come here, Severus. When he has completed his task. When he knows the time is right. And you must be the sentinel on the bridge until that time. You must watch the ocean water beating the rocks below you and the wind rushing above you. You must watch the gulls that fly overhead and the fish that swim below and the land creatures that attempt to swim the gap."

"Is that all?" quipped Severus. He placed one hand on each side of the portrait, against the smooth stone wall, facing Albus eye to eye.

"No," answered Albus. He sighed and stretched out a hand, ineffectively seeking to give comfort to the hopeless. "You must also do it in such a way that Voldemort believes you to be the gatekeeper of an impregnable, sealed fortress while Harry, in turn, knows you hold the keys to the kingdom."

Severus stared at Albus for a long time before nodding once then spinning on the polished stones of the tower floor on the heel of his new dragonhide boots and silently leaving the office through the door behind the desk that led to the Headmaster's personal study on the tower floor above. He heard the headmaster's oddly flat voice singing as the door began to close behind him, but he did not go back.

"To run where the brave dare not go…"

/

On August 22nd, the new Headmaster met with the Heads of House.

Separately.

Horace was the easiest, and the first. He had been virtually bullied into staying on another year by the "new" Ministry. He understood Slytherin tactics, and he understood Severus Snape. In Horace's mind, Severus was one of Voldemort's right-hand men, someone not to be trifled with. Slytherin House would be the fullest of the houses this year; Slytherin students would be the most compliant. Both the Head Boy and Head Girl would be Slytherins—Zabini and Parkinson. Horace was spineless, and relatively harmless. Horace would toe the line because what motivated Horace above all else was self-preservation.

Then Pomona. They had been colleagues for years, and had enjoyed a peaceful, reciprocal relationship due to the inter-connectivity of their disciplines. She, too, had laid down the "retirement" card and had been "encouraged" by the Ministry to stay on at Hogwarts. He took a hard line with her though he did not expect blatant resistance from her or from any of the Hufflepuffs. His voice slid out of him like an oiled weapon, low and dangerous. He spouted the packaged phrases he had been given—"the original intent of the four founders" and "the same foundation, with a new interpretation." When Pomona Sprout left the new headmaster's office, she believed Severus Snape was Voldemort's figurehead and was not her friend.

He had been closer to Filius; he had played chess with him occasionally and had shared a drink or two over the years. Filius had not approached the Ministry about retirement as Horace and Pomona had. He was staying, Severus understood, for the same reasons Minerva was—to protect his students. There would be plenty of Ravenclaws remaining at Hogwarts. The conversation with Filius followed the same vein as Pomona's had. But Filius, unlike Pomona, looked Severus in the eye when he spoke and though he did not question Severus, or his motivations, there was something in his eye that disquieted Severus, perhaps only a vague notion, an attitude of doubt, but Severus decided to watch it carefully and to watch himself especially closely when around Filius Flitwick.

Finally it was time for Minerva.

She was last by design. His superiors believed she would be the one he would have to come down on hardest but still they wanted her at Hogwarts, a symbol for all that nothing had changed, not really. The Gryffindors would be hard hit by the "drop" in enrollment, and, he knew, by the absence of Harry, Hermione and Ron. They would be the most defiant, the most rebellious, subject to the most punishments and detentions. He had been instructed to take a "zero tolerance" approach with discipline this year and the Carrows were already devising new methods of which he was sure Filch would approve.

Minerva was also last by choice. She already knew his secrets and his true loyalties. He could cover his "Hogwarts" material with her in a quarter hour. The rest of the time would be spent in other…pursuits.

She came to the door not ten minutes after Filius had departed, rapping sharply then letting herself in, sitting primly in the chair before his desk, staring silently at him with piercing cool eyes. He stood and extracted his wand, waved it to produce an incredibly strong Muffliato then walked over to the door and tapped it lightly, producing another non-verbal spell to lock the door and ward it. He took several steps toward her, then stopped, checked himself, managed to speak in a strong voice that ultimately betrayed him, cracking on the last word he uttered.

"Where is my son?"

He knew, by her reaction, that she had doubted him. He did not care. He had doubted himself at times. The hard look on her tired face melted away. The face before him was still old, and tired, but softer, careworn, the Minerva he had grown to regard as nearly family this past year.

"He is at Grimmauld Place," she replied, watching him carefully. "Remus saw him there not two weeks ago."

Relief washed over Severus' face, but a relief that was short-lived. "Grimmauld Place is being watched round the clock, Minerva!" he protested. "There are at least two guards, front and back, twenty-four hours a day!"

"They are aware of the guard, Severus." She reached into a robe pocket and pulled out a copy of The Daily Prophet. "You saw this today?" He shook his head. "Miss Granger is now on the wanted list. I rather think she'll become 'Undesirable Number 2' very soon."

He glanced at the article she indicated, scanning the list of names. Names of students who would not be attending Hogwarts this year. Hermione Granger was indeed on the list. He shook his head.

"The wedding," he said, changing the subject. "Scrimgeor revealed Harry's location before he was killed but they did not find him. Was Harry there?"

"There was warning," she answered, keeping her eye on Severus' strained face and accepting the sudden change of subject. "From Kingsley—but only a minute or so. Harry was there—under polyjuice. He, Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger all disappeared—apparently apparated straight out to Grimmauld Place."

"You speak to the Weasleys?" he asked. "To Arthur and Molly?" He waited for her nod. "I would like news then, of anything you hear, as soon as you hear it."

"Severus, of course," answered Minerva, smiling a curious half-smile. "The problem is…the children simply aren't communicating with them. It's too dangerous. We only know what we do because Remus dared to go over there. And quite a tongue lashing he got as well…from your son, mind you."

Severus raised his eyebrows. "From Harry? That is not like him…"

Minerva sighed. "Apparently, Remus wanted to join them—to help them out. He claimed that marrying Tonks had been a mistake. Harry sent him packing—told him to go back to his wife. He felt quite strongly about Remus abandoning his family. Remus is quite remorseful now, but it has apparently put a wedge between them." She paused, adding. "Tonks is pregnant; Remus proposed abandoning both of them.'

"Harry would feel strongly about that," said Severus, tiredly rubbing his eyes. "You haven't spoken with him, then? Or seen him?" He looked up, hopeful.

"I saw him once in July, Severus. At Shell Cottage. He and Bill spent a month there together before the wedding." She paused, considering her next words. "He misses you, Severus. But he is resigned to this quest of his and does not want to put you in any danger." She paused again. "He is growing up, Severus. Those last days here in June—they were hard on him. Hard on us all. The Order is split—some are of the belief that you are the vilest of Death Eaters; others trust in you as Dumbledore did and will closely watch how this year plays out at Hogwarts. But all are lying low…"

"As they should," interrupted Severus. He approached Minerva and paused before her. She remained seated, looking upward at him and he realized how imposing he must seem, how odd he must look to her with his new robes and boots and tied-back, groomed hair. He sighed and, in a move so unlike him that he wondered at what he was becoming, crouched on the floor beside her, took her wrinkled hands in his own. "As you should, too. You must toe the line, Minerva, as difficult as this year will prove to be. And your Gryffindors, too. I will do what I can, but I cannot appear in any way, shape or form to be anything but what I am supposed to be—a Death Eater, the Dark Lord's chosen replacement for Albus. The children must believe it, and they will not if you do not."

"Those that return," she sighed. "I am not expecting many."

"Half," he replied. "At best." He paused, then continued, his voice carefully even. "There is something you should know, Minerva. Charity Burbage is dead."

Minerva pressed her lips together. She and Charity had been friends. She gripped Severus' hands, her voice shaking just a bit as she answered. "I assume, then, that Muggle Studies is off the new curriculum?"

Severus stood, gently dropping her hands. "No. It will be taught—unfortunately. By Alecto Carrow."

"Alecto Carrow!" Minerva got to her feet at once, defiant. "Severus—she is a known killer of Muggles! How could you, Severus?"

"Welcome to the new Hogwarts, Minerva," said Severus resignedly as he sat down behind his desk. He dropped his head into his hands then and Minerva stood and walked around the desk to stand behind him, glancing at Albus' portrait as she passed, but not stopping to greet him. She squeezed Severus' shoulder once, very tightly, then rubbed the hard knot between his shoulders but did not say another word.

/

On August 31st, the Ministry's guard on Grimmauld Place was tripled. Severus privately scoffed. Did anyone really believe that Harry Potter and his friends would come out of hiding to board the Hogwarts Express and try to carry on with a seventh year at Hogwarts?

As the day drew down into evening, Severus himself was called out to stand guard duty.

He apparated directly into the derelict square in front of Numbers 11 and 13 and pretended he could not see #12 as plain as day before his face, pretended instead to be looking at that faint line of demarcation between #11 and #13 where #12 did not quite exist.

He had expected to be called in here, before the end. He'd come here just after Albus died, at the behest of the Dark Lord, and had returned the news to him that the house was under a new Fidelius charm. That of course, was untrue. The house was under the same Fidelius charm as always but with Albus dead, each person under the original Fidelius was a secret keeper himself or herself. Including Severus. Had he been inclined, he could have opened up the house to every single Death Eater and to Voldemort himself. He had not been so inclined. Still, someone undoubtedly thought that he could be of more help than the other Ministry lackeys and assorted Death Eaters sent to grab Harry Potter should he step out onto the street dragging his Hogwarts trunk behind him on the morning of September 1st.

Severus hunched over under a borrowed anonymous brown cloak, anxious to not be recognized by anyone on the inside looking out, but equally anxious to get a glimpse of Harry or one of his friends.

What the hell?

The door to Grimmauld place had just opened, seemingly on its own, then closed again. He thought he'd seen something else—a flicker of cloth perhaps, or the white sole of a trainer.

It was enough to confirm that the house was still being used; that in all likelihood Harry was the one using it. That he was inside now, at this very moment, returned from some errand, perhaps. He knew that Harry would have to apparate precisely onto the narrow stair to stay within the boundary of the Fidelius charm and avoid being seen and was inordinately happy that he'd practiced precisely this type of apparition with Harry over Easter break.

The fact that he'd seen only a flicker of…something…told him that Harry was taking the added precaution of using his invisibility cloak as well.

Movement at the house again caught his eye—this time his attention was drawn up to the heavy drapes over the front parlor windows. What? A house elf? He was careful to not show any reaction whatsoever to the wizened little face that had appeared just over the window sill, peaking out between the curtains. That face had to belong to Kreacher. That rat bastard of an elf could not be up to any good. A moment later, though, a second face joined the first and his heart gave a sudden jolt and he leaned forward, unable to stop the reflexive movement. Harry froze, clearly watching him, so he forced himself to look to the side then casually turn to look behind him before once again staring at the house, as nonchalantly as was possible given the erratic beat of his heart. Harry's face was unmistakable, messy hair and glasses and all. His expression was indiscernible—perhaps puzzled, perhaps contemplative. His head was just above the elf's—clearly, they had achieved some sort of truce—and he looked out the window long moments, scanning up and down the street then focusing again on the obvious group of six robed figures in the dusty little square. Finally, as if he had seen enough, he let the curtain drop back in place. He and the elf disappeared at the same time.

Severus looked down, his hood draping the sides of his face, his heart clenching inside him, an invisible fist gripping his heart so hard, so tightly, that for a moment he had trouble breathing. He swallowed a nearly audible sigh of relief

It had been two months and twenty days since he'd seen Harry last.

Harry was seventeen now.

He needed a haircut—and a shave.

He was safe. He was alive. That was enough—at least for now.

Severus looked up at the house again but no one appeared in the windows, or anywhere else, while he remained on patrol. As it darkened, a window on the second floor then one on the third glowed with a faint light, as if, perhaps, a single candle was lit in each, set back far from the window itself. By eleven o'clock, these glows, too, disappeared.

Severus apparated back to the gates of Hogwarts just after midnight and began the long walk up to the castle.

It was September 1st, the start of term. His appointment as Headmaster would be announced in The Daily Prophet today. The Hogwarts Express would arrive in the early evening. The children would be subdued. The sorting would be over quickly—there would be only twenty-two students sorted that year. He would give a brief speech of warning and instruction rather than welcome and introduction. His voice would be cold and firm. There would be no second guessing Headmaster Snape. It would be clear that he was there, at Hogwarts, at the behest of the Ministry and that the Ministry was now controlled by the Dark Lord. The students, with the exception of most of the Slytherins, would hate and resent him, would reject him were they able or empowered. He had murdered their beloved headmaster, after all, had left him lying dead at the foot of the Astronomy Tower while he fled the castle in the company of Death Eaters.

Headmaster Snape would be busy from here forward. Life would afford him few chances to try to get a glimpse of Harry.

He laughed, out loud, right there on the moonlit path as he trudged onward. As if getting a glimpse of Harry's face was difficult these days with those "Undesirable #1" posters everywhere. A Ministry lackey had visited Hogwarts that very day and had posted at least fifty of them in the castle. The Ministry had absolutely no idea what innovative students with unlimited ink could do to a poster.

He wondered when he'd next hear news of Harry.

He wouldn't have long to wait.