A/N: Had this sitting on my hard drive for awhile. Re-reading HBP again made me want to publish it finally. All characters belong to J.K. Rowling

Draco Malfoy was trembling so hard that Snape knew with that remarkably calm part of his mind that had taken over ever since he came upon the Headmaster collapsed on the tower, that the boy would splinch himself if he attempted to Apparate. So he grabbed hold of the boy's arm, even as he heard Potter screaming behind him, turned into nothingness, and for once relished the painful pressure of Apparation. An instant later they were outside the gates of Malfoy Manor.

Draco had enough presence of mind to mutter the password, and the gates opened silently for them, the two stone gargoyles atop the gates glaring at them and flexing their stone fingers menacingly. Snape had to drag the boy through, though he regained some of his footing as they walked nearer to the palatial house. Draco glanced over at Snape who doggedly ignored him.

"Sir, you're bleeding," Draco said in a shaking voice. Snape looked down with surprise at his arm, noticing for the first time the large gash that had ripped through his sleeve and skin. He remembered then, the hippogriff that had come to Potter's aid, who had reared up, blocking Lily's eyes from his view and scratching him deeply. Pain started throbbing the length of his arm as adrenaline faded and he absently wrapped his tattered sleeve around it, wondering why he simply did not fix it with a wave of his wand.

"It is nothing," he said in a flat voice and kept walking.

Narcissa must have been watching from a window for she came hurtling down the path from the house when they were barely ten steps inside the gates, dressing gown flying and her white-blond hair in disarray. She clutched Draco to her, running her hands over his head and face as if to make sure he was all there.

Draco swallowed hard against his mother's shoulder, face averted from Snape's view.

"Severus, is... is he—?" She looked up at Snape, not finishing the sentence.

"I must go," Snape said, suddenly loathing the sight of them. "I will return shortly for Draco. We have, at most, a half hour before the Dark Lord will require a report from us—that was the agreed-upon time."

Draco paled and seemed to shrink closer to his mother. Snape turned his back on them and walked until out of the gates, ignoring Narcissa's plaintive questions. He Apparated again to Spinner's End, and stood for a moment out of sight in the alley across from his house, muttering spells under his breath. Had his security been breached by the Order yet? No, the warding and sensor spells were intact. The chaos at Hogwarts would hold them off but not for long. Pain stabbed again, and he stumbled across the street and into his house. He tapped the lamp with his wand and the dim light allowed him to make his way to his armchair. Sitting down he let his head sink into his shaking hands and tried to center himself. It would not do for the Dark Lord to see him so rattled.

Calm, he repeated to himself, calm, but with a subtle touch of triumph. The Dark Lord would expect to see nothing less from the murderer of Albus Dumbledore.

His hands shook even harder.

In the quiet, Snape gradually became aware that he was not alone. A presence, like a subtle scent or hint of a sound... He snatched at his wand and whirled, a hex ready on the tip of his tongue. A moment later his wand drooped as he saw the intruder. Fawkes the phoenix sat perched in the back of the settee, his magnificent flame-colored feathers dimmed somehow, as if he sat in shadow. He stared at Snape, who stared back.

"What do you want?" he asked warily. Time enough spent in Dumbledore's office had convinced him that the bird was intelligent but how intelligent he wasn't sure. Phoenixes were odd creatures, and he had never heard of one tamed before, aside from Fawkes. As far as he knew they had never been known to attack humans without provocation, but would that change? Did Fawkes know what had happened on the tower? What Snape had done to his master?

Blood dripped to the floor from Snape's arm and Fawkes gave a soft, mournful warble, which seemed to settle in Snape's stomach like a stone.

"I didn't want to," he snarled, as if the bird had made an audible accusation. "His foolish plans and the Unbreakable Vow that I—" He stopped abruptly.

"What's done is done," he said after a moment, averting his eyes from the phoenix's unblinking gaze. "He went... well, perhaps not exactly in the way he envisioned, but in the way he proposed."

Fawkes chirruped again, and Snape found his hands again trembling uncontrollably. He looked at his bleeding forearm and tried to steady his wand against the cut. But the spell wouldn't come. His pale lips formed the complicated words, but the power simply was not there.

He sat for a moment, hunched over his bleeding arm and was startled to feel a warm weight descend next to him on the chair. Looking up through a curtain of greasy hair, he saw that Fawkes was beside him now, and the large, intelligent eyes were brimming with tears.

Snape snatched his wounded arm away. "No." He couldn't say why he refused the phoenix's healing tears, couldn't begin to voice the complex emotion that made him want to double over in agony. Perhaps it was simply that if he had the pain on his arm to focus on, he wouldn't have to think about the pain of seeing those calm blue eyes fade into darkness...

... the body of Albus Dumbledore seemed to rise up and fall back, and its eyes were empty, still staring at Snape...

"Coward!" screamed the Potter boy, his vibrant green eyes staring at Snape with a hatred so intense...

"NO!" Snape bolted from the chair, but his legs would not support him and he sat down gracelessly on the floor, legs splayed out like a flattened spider's.

Fawkes warbled again and this time the note was different. It seemed to drop a pearl of hope into his blackened heart and sat there, gleaming and pure, unsullied even by his own darkness. But the note was also questioning and needed an answer. Wordlessly, he held out his bloodied arm and Fawkes hopped forward, tilting his head so that a few pearly tears dropped right onto the cut.

Snape automatically examined his arm when the tears had stopped falling. The skin was clean and unbroken, not even a scar remained. Perhaps not a visible scar remained, but it was still there, and would be there until Snape finished what he had vowed to see through. Dumbledore was counting on him, and—though he didn't know it—so was Harry.