Severus gritted his teeth and pointed his wand at Dumbledore's wrist, muttering a spell while forcing a thick golden potion down the older man's throat. After a moment or two, Dumbledore's eyes fluttered and opened.

"I should have let you die," Severus said, stepping back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Why did you put on that ring? It carries a cruse; surely you realized that? Why even touch it?" He pointed his wand at the cracked ring on the desk and suddenly it was surrounded by a ball of light. "You have the common sense of my 16 year old, do you know that?"

Dumbledore grimaced. "I… was a fool. Sorely tempted…"

"Sorely nosey," Severus shook his head. "It is a miracle you managed to return here! That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power, to contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being—

"You have done very well, Severus. How long do you think I have?"

Severus glared at the newly reinstated Headmaster. "If you had come to me earlier, instead of, say, trying to ruin my life, I might have been able to buy you more time." He glanced at the ring, now hovering in protective light, and the Sword of Gryffindor that lay beside it, obviously the source of the ring's damage. "It will spread eventually. A year, perhaps."

He snatched the sword off the desk and returned it to its case, then pointed his wand at the glowing sphere. "I'll take it to the vault," he said tiredly, shrinking the ball and dropping it into a velvet bag. "Did you think that breaking the ring would break the curse?"

"Something like that…I was delirious, no doubt…" Albus managed to straighten himself. "Well, really, this makes matters much more straightforward."

"You've never been straightforward in your life, old man," Severus scowled. "I should have let you fade away. Right here."

"Why didn't you?" Albus' blazing blue eyes focused on Severus' dark ones.

Severus scowled. "And take whatever information is in that dottering old head of yours? Supposedly, you are the only wizard the Dark Lord has ever feared. Though since you were circumvented by a student—

"And Lord Voldemort has a plan that would have me taken down by one," Albus said serenely.

Severus shot him a perplexed look.

"I refer to his plan to have the poor Malfoy boy murder me," Dumbledore clarified.

"Shouldn't we focus on the more likely cause of your death?" Snape gestured to the other man's useless hand.

Albus plowed ahead as if he hadn't heard. "The boy is meant to fail, is he not?"

Severus pressed his lips together. "Whether he is meant to do so or not, he will. Draco has much of his father in him, but perhaps not enough for this. Clearly, he doesn't know you very well, or his inclination to kill you might be stronger."

Albus smiled. "You may get your chance, my boy. It seems the natural successor for the job, once Draco fails, is yourself."

"I assure you that the Dark Lord has been slow to share his plans with me as of late," Severus said quietly.

"Your first priority will be to discover what Draco is up to. A frightened teenage boy is a danger to others as well as to himself. Offer him help and guidance, he ought to accept, he likes you—

"Not as much lately," Severus lowered himself into one of the chairs that faced the desk. "He blames my family for his father's fall from grace."

"It is your fault, is it not?" Albus smiled again. "I assume that any chance you had at regaining your post has been shattered?"

"You will have to find yourself another spy," Severus gritted his teeth. "Kindly avoid those who share my genes, please."

"Ultimately," Albus went on, "there is only one thing to be done if we are to save Draco from Lord Voldemort's wrath."

Severus raised his eyebrows, sarcasm dripping from his tongue. "Are you intending to let him kill you?"

"Certainly not. You must kill me."

There was a long silence.

"Would you like me to do it now?" Severus asked sardonically. "Or would you like a few moments to set your affairs in order?"

"Oh, not quite yet," Albus said calmly. "I daresay the moment will present itself in due course. In any event," he held up his withered hand, "if you put it off long enough, the job will be done for you."

"If you don't mind dying," Severus frowned, "why not let Draco do it?"

"That boy's soul is not yet so damaged," said Dumbledore. "I would not have it ripped apart on my account."

Severus scowled, "And yet you have no trepidation with allowing my soul to be damaged. Or my daughter's, for that matter, in your never-ending scheme."

"Elizabeth has a destiny, Severus," Albus said softly. "She must fulfill it. Our world as we know it depends on—

"She is not your plaything, Albus," Severus said firmly.

Albus carefully rose, walking to the window. "I tried desperately to spare you this moment, Severus. All I've done in these last years is to make this easier for you. For the both of you."

"Make what easier, old man?" Severus growled.

"There will be a time, after my death, that you will need to tell your daughter the truth. I hoped that you would be telling her as a teacher, perhaps even as an enemy. It would have been better for both of you."

"What truth?"

"If there comes a time when Lord Voldemort stops sending his snake forth to do his bidding, but keeps it safe beside him under magical protection, then you must tell her."

"Tell. Her. What?"

Dumbledore took a deep breath. "Tell her that on the night Lord Voldemort tried to kill her, when Lily cast her own life between them as a shield, the Killing Curse rebounded upon Lord Voldemort, A fragment of Voldemort lives inside Elizabeth, and it is that which gives her the power of speech with snakes, and a connection with Lord Voldemort's mind that she has never understood. And while that fragment of soul, unmissed by Voldemort, remains attached to and protected by your daughter, Lord Voldemort cannot die."

Severus froze, his body barely remembering to breathe. "You have kept her alive so that she can die at the right moment?" He rasped, certain that he was finally having the heart attack he'd feared over the years. His mind spun. Albus was wrong, he had to be.

"Voldemort himself must do it," Albus went on.

"You've used her," Severus stood. "Used us!"

"I tried to spare you this pain, Severus. But you believed you knew better—

"I do know better!" Severus snapped. "Why would you tell me this?"

"Who would you have me tell?" Albus said rationally. "Who would you rather have saddled with this task? Remus Lupin, perhaps? He already believes that his soul is, at the very least, tainted. Sirius Black—

"Enough," Severus spun, robes billowing, and headed for the door.

"Where are you going, Severus?"

Snape turned at the door and glared at the older wizard. "Since it seems that you are overly concerned that all of us die at exactly the right moment," his glare deepened, "I'd hate to send you off prematurely."

*S*S*

"What is this?" Elizabeth held up the medallion Severus had just placed in her hand.

"It's what Muggles would call a panic button," Severus said calmly, closing the top of her trunk and sending it to Hogwarts. "Magical, of course. Hold that when you are in trouble, and it will cause a deafening sound as to summon all the Order members to your side."

Elizabeth laughed and dropped the necklace on the bed. "I don't think so."

"It isn't a gift," Severus said firmly, scooping up the chain and depositing it around her neck in one motion. "It's a contingency. If you want to live in the Tower this year, you'll wear this at all times. Understood?"

Elizabeth made a face. "Can we just go?"

Severus snorted, "I'm not the one that took three hours to pack a trunk." He put his hands on her shoulders and frowned. "You've gotten taller again."

"Sorry," Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "I'm sure the weight of your overprotectiveness this year will shrink me a little bit."

Severus raised his eyes skyward and pushed her gently toward the door. "Go fetch your posse, please."

Elizabeth laughed. "Dad, don't talk like that."

"Pardon me? Did I misuse 'posse'? I'm not entirely sure of the etymology—

"Dad!" Elizabeth shrieked and covered her ears. "Don't be weird!"

Severus smirked. "I am leaving this house in three minutes."

Elizabeth thundered down the stairs to the kitchen, where Remus was reading the Daily Prophet. "Dad says we're leaving in three minutes."

"Mmm," Remus responded around his coffee.

"Anything good?" Elizabeth snatched the paper out of his hand.

"Elizabeth—

HOGWARTS: SAFE?

As the Wizarding community gets ready to send its children back to school this September, some parents are wondering if Hogwarts is the safest place to send underaged witches and wizards. Previously seen as one of the safest places in the Wizarding world, Hogwarts security has come under fire recently.

"The leadership is unstable," Bertha Blokins, mother of a second year student told the Daily Prophet. "Dumbledore just disappeared last year, leaving that Umbridge woman in charge."

"Dumbledore has hired Death Eaters in the past, who's to say that he won't again?" James Colter, recent Hogwarts graduate, said.

He's referring, of course, to Severus Snape, reformed Death Eater, and father of Elizabeth Evans, the Hogwarts student who has spent the last year trying to convince us that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned.

It seems, at least from the rumors, that Evans may be right. Eyewitness accounts from the forest near Hogwarts puts He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in a magical match with Albus Dumbledore.

But is your child safe in a school that houses witches and wizards so high on the Death Eater "to-kill" list?

Newly appointed Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, spoke today of the tough new measures taken by his Ministry to ensure the safety of students returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this autumn.

Elizabeth tossed the paper onto the table. "So… it's going to be all year, isn't it?"

"What?" Remus asked, putting his coffee mug in the sink.

"'Your father is a Death Eater. Stay away from her, people die because of her…"

"No one dies because of you," Remus said quietly.

Elizabeth looked at him, and the world paused, hovering for just a moment. "Not yet."

"Elizabeth," Remus circled the counter.

"No, I'm fine," Elizabeth shook off the hand the arm that tried to circle her shoulders. "Tell Dad I went to find Casper, okay?"

"Sure," Remus nodded, leaning against the counter, watching her disappear out the back door.

"Ready to go?" Severus strode into the kitchen. "Where's Elizabeth?"

Remus grimaced. "It's… a cold moment."

Severus sighed. "It started as such a good day," he crossed to the window and looked out into the garden. "I'll be glad to get back to school," he said quietly. "The security here is making me nervous. Every Death Eater in the circle knows where I live."

"We could have gone to the Burrow."

"Perhaps we should have…" Severus shook his head. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. What is she doing out there?"

"Pretending to look for her cat."

"The cat I gave to Ginny Weasley a year ago?"

"The very same," Remus smiled. "I think she needs to talk to someone, Sev."

"She won't talk about it," Severus shrugged, a gesture that seemed strange in his buttoned-up jacket and robes. "Maybe we handled it wrong."

"Do you wish we wouldn't have hidden it? Or do you wish we were still hiding it?"

"I don't know," Severus sighed. "I suppose I wish it hadn't happened at all."

*S*S*

Sirius was not dead. But he'd suffered severe injuries in the battle in the Forbidden Forest. Everyone had avoided talking about it for days after the battle. It was the unspoken rule. Don't tell Elizabeth. But it couldn't last forever.

"We're just not sure," Severus said quietly, after breaking the news, "if Sirius is going to wake up."

Elizabeth felt like she was listening through a tunnel. There was a roaring in her ears. Sirius? Why was Severus calling him Sirius? He never referred to him by his first name. Black. Mutt. Your dogfather.

It appeared that Sirius' presence had kept the Dark magic in the house quiet. His indisposal, and subsequent removal to a secluded area in the Hogwarts hospital wing, seemed to make Headquarters angry. So they'd gone back to Spinner's End. And Elizabeth tried to live.

It was another thing that was her fault. Another person hurt because of who she was. Another example of what could happen to others she loved.

Severus wandered out into the garden, walking silently until he was standing beside his dark-haired teenager. "A sickle for your thoughts."

Elizabeth glanced over at him. "In America, they'd bring only a penny."

"Not in Wizarding America," Severus said lightly, putting his arm around her shoulders. "Anyway, I'm willing to be overcharged."

Elizabeth looked up at him. "You've seen Casablanca?"

"You forget I was raised Muggle," Severus smiled softly. "So?"

"Can we go?"

Severus started to press for something else, but changed his mind. "Sure. But hatchling—

"We're going to be late," Elizabeth interrupted and went back into the house.

Severus sighed, and followed, sure that it was going to be a long year.

*S*S*

"You can't be the Defense teacher," Elizabeth said, closing the door to their chambers behind her after the feast.

"Good evening to you as well," Severus said, looking up from the newspaper he was reading. "Nice feast, was it not? One of the most successful of the past years, I believe."

"Dad!"

Severus smirked, "What, precisely, is your objection to my taking this post? I've been your Defense professor for years."

"Yeah, except the position of 'my dad' isn't cursed."

Severus frowned as if considering the point. "I'm not sure that it's a curse, more of a hazard. However, one I'm willing to brave."

"Dad, every Defense teacher has left after a year. Quirrell actually died!"

"Oh, you mean the Defense position is cursed, I see."

"Dad! Be serious!"

"Elizabeth," Severus shook his head, "you know how long I've wanted this job."

"Yeah," Elizabeth shrugged. "But… I only pass Potions because you're the teacher—

"What makes you think that you passed Potions?" Severus raised an eyebrow.

"Did you get my O.W.L.s?"

"More than a week ago," Severus nodded.

"You didn't tell me?"

"You were… distracted," Severus said quietly. "The news would keep."

"You don't tell me anything," Elizabeth grumbled.

"Well, you're so easy to talk to," Severus rolled his eyes and stood, walking to his desk and pulling the O.W.L. letter from the drawer and handing it to her.

"You opened it?"

Severus raised his eyes to the ceiling again. "Must we go through this every term? It is addressed me."

Elizabeth pulled the parchment out of the envelope and unfolded it.

ORDINARY WIZARDING LEVEL RESULTS

Elizabeth Rose Evans has achieved:

Astronomy A

Care of Magical Creatures E

Charms E

Defense Against the Dark Arts O

Divination P

Herbology E

History of Magic D

Potions E

Transfiguration E

Elizabeth blew air out of her mouth and tentatively looked up at Severus. "So…"

Severus went back to his chair and carefully folded his newspaper. "Well, you're certainly dropping Divination. I've never liked that you were in that useless class."

Elizabeth looked apprehensive. "And History…"

"Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," Severus said firmly. "I never expect to see a failing grade on a report headed by your name again, am I understood?"

Elizabeth grimaced. "Yes, sir."

"However," Severus' expression softened, "7 O.W.L.s is certainly nothing to sneeze at. You might want to consider a new relationship. Perhaps with a boy on your academic level."

"Fred isn't stupid," Elizabeth defended. "He just didn't care about school that much."

"Lovely, I'm sure," Severus shook his head.

The floo roared to life, and Remus stepped out. "Ready?"

Elizabeth looked at him. "For what?"

"I believe I promised you a dinner after your exams were over," Remus said, grinning.

"Months ago," Elizabeth looked at him oddly.

"Come along, get your coat."

"It's September…" Elizabeth said, narrowing her eyes.

Remus looked at Severus, who turned to Elizabeth. "Go, have fun." He handed her two galleons. "Buy something you don't need."

Elizabeth pocketed the money; not at all sure what was going on, but certain that she was being sent away.

*S*S*

"I'd like a word with you, Draco," Severus stood at the doorway of the Slytherin common room as students rushed about, moving in.

"Yes, sir. Only the first years—

"Are certainly capable of unpacking their own trunks. And if they are not, they should certainly become so immediately if they hope to survive in this school. Follow me."

Draco ducked his head a bit and followed the older wizard out the door and into his office. Snape strode to his desk, casting a silencing charm with a quick jab of his wand. "Close the door and sit, Draco."

Draco closed the door, but remained standing. "I'm busy."

"Yes, preterm is always a busy period for students," Severus said dryly. "Sit down."

"What do you want?"

"I'd like you to mind your tongue when you speak to me, certainly." Severus glared at the young man until he sank into one of the chairs in front of the desk. "Secondly, I had a bit of an interesting letter from your mother."

"She's gone round the bend," Draco said quickly. "Being separated from Father, you know. Not that you would understand."

Snape cleared his throat. "I was pleased to notice your absence that night."

"The night you sent my father to prison?"

"The night your father joined an attack on my daughter?" Severus raised an eyebrow. "Surely your soul isn't so far gone that you condone an attack on a child?"

"She stands in the way of the cause," Draco said quietly. "But she doesn't have to." He looked at Severus earnestly. "Join us. Be forgiven. Come back to the side that will rule over all—

Severus held up a hand. "Enough. I'm weary of living a double life. You've always known how I felt about you taking the Mark. I've made myself quite clear. That fact alone should make you understand how futile this line of conversation is. My concern now is protecting you as effectively as I can."

"I don't need your help."

"Forgive me," Severus inclined his head in a mock bow. "I merely assumed, due to the fact that you are sixteen years old, and have merely dabbled in failed pranks over the years, you might be ill-equipped to handle murder."

"Keep you voice—

"Don't presume to tell me where to keep my voice," Snape snapped. "I've made an Unbreakable Vow, Draco—

"My mother shouldn't have asked you to do that," Draco growled. "It's none of your business!"

Severus raised an eyebrow. "You fear my interference? What makes you think I would stand in your way, Draco?"

"My mother made you promise to stop me—

"First of all, I never said the Vow was made to your mother. Second, I said before that my aim was to protect you. Having you fail in a mission given to you by a sadistic murder is not protecting you. Unless, in my absence, the Dark Lord has taken to giving time outs for disobeying him?"

"Severus—

"Restriction, perhaps? Taking away your broom?"

"Severus

Snape held up his hand, "No, no, wait. Extra chores?"

Draco made a disgusted noise in his throat and stood. "I'm glad you find the situation so amusing—

"He's going to kill you, you idiotic child—

"I am not a child!" Draco shouted.

"You are certainly acting like one," Severus snapped. "You cannot possibly be naïve enough to believe that you will succeed. I did not invest years in such an imbecile."

"Invested years?" Draco spat. "Don't pretend that you raised me. Don't pretend that when I needed you, you were anything other than an actor, playing a part. You used me, just like everyone has. But this is mine! It's my job, he gave it to me and I'm doing it. I've got a plan and it's going to work. I don't need your protection!" He turned and stormed to the door, wrenching it open.

"Draco Malfoy, come back here immediately."

Draco glared at his professor. "Put me in detention. Better yet, report me to Dumbledore." He stepped through the door and slammed it shut behind him.