This story was written for a fanfic contest on Facebook. The prompt was a picture - which I will try to upload as well. The usual disclaimers apply - all of the characters in this story except for Cassandra belong to the amazing J.K. Rowling. As for Severus... he belongs to his own self, I think. No copyright infringement is intended, and no monetary gain will be had. No warnings apply that I can think of... You'll let me know if I'm wrong, yes?

"Severus, would you join me in my office?"

I wish he wouldn't do that! Snape thought, trying not to betray that the headmaster's head appearing in his fireplace had startled him out of his reading. He laid aside the journal and the article he'd been reading for the third time, trying to figure out why the instructions for the potion the author had proposed seemed off. He couldn't put his finger on it, but well-educated intuition told him something was dangerously not right withthe procedure. No matter. He'd get back to it later.

"Of course, Albus. Shall I step through or arrive the usual way?"

Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, chuckled. "No hurry, my boy. Take your time. I'm sure there are students to terrify in the corridors, and I know how that improves your mood."

Snape kept his face impassive. Truthfully, he did not know whether to smirk or roll his eyes, even inwardly. Yes, students needed to be monitored and reprimanded. Yes, detentions and point deductions were sometimes necessary to rein in adolescent impulsivity and poor judgment, but Snape's overly… stern… demeanor was an act, as Dumbledore well knew – one that kept Snape, the Order, the school, and Harry Potter (Here, Snape did allow himself a sneer.) safe. "I'll be with you shortly," he said. He rose, brushed a hand down his robes to smooth them, and strode from his rooms to answer the Headmaster's summons.

While Snape stepped lightly and elegantly through the halls when students weren't around, as soon as he sensed – by means magical or ordinary – anyone nearby, he strode differently, in a manner that caused his robes to billow around him, making him appear larger than his thin frame, if his students or colleagues – on either side of this damnable war – only knew. That turned out to be barely necessary – his alleged need to berate students was not to be satisfied. Despite the fact that it was Saturday, the only students he encountered were solitary Ravenclaws on their way to the library, judging by their armloads of books, a few Slytherins who nodded at him respectfully, and two Hufflepuffs who were apparently en route to the Quidditch pitch, brooms over their shoulders, and not yet engaged in anything remotely detention-worthy. The other students were, apparently, enjoying the admittedly… pleasant… day. Snape merely passed each student impassively. His presence alone was enough to assure they would check their behavior for at least several minutes.

"Peppermint patties," he uttered, and the gargoyles that guarded the Headmaster's quarters let him onto the spiral stair. He let it take him to Dumbledore's door, knocked and entered without waiting for Dumbledore's "Come!" He was expected.

Dumbledore was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing out over the school grounds. "Have a mint, Severus."

This was a game they played, and had done so for years. Dumbledore was aware that Snape had no tooth for sweets. Snape played his part, though. It was the way the two wizards confirmed their mutual respect and caring.

"I can't abide sweets. They are good for nothing but rotting ones teeth," he observed with a smirk that Dumbledore surely heard in his voice, despite that he'd spoken to his back. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your invitation this afternoon, Albus? I was busy reading."

"Ah! No doubt, about to make yet another discovery of a flawed potion recipe and, once again, save humanity from its own stupidity," Dumbledore said with a twinkle as he turned to face his Potions Master.

"How does he do that?" Snape wondered, for what was surely the thousandth time since he began teaching here at the age of twenty-three. He was absolutely convinced that the Headmaster had enlisted the very walls of the castle itself in spying on students and staff alike. In any case, he seated himself and crossed one elegant leg across the other, carefully arranging his robes so that they did not wrinkle and ruin his… costume. Dumbledore seated himself behind his desk and tented his hands – without taking a peppermint patty for himself, Snape noted. That was… worrying, actually.

"What is it, Albus? Poppy predict imminent dedentia?"

Dumbledore merely smiled. Also worrying. Snape tensed slightly. Something must surely be wrong if Albus couldn't muster up a chuckle at his own expense. Snape picked a bit of lint off his outer robes, and Dumbledore's smile broadened, but he said nothing. Buying time, Snape knew. He quelled his own impatience and narrowed his gaze. He would not let the old man bait him. This, too, was a game they played – in part. It was also Albus being manipulative, he knew. He stifled a head shake, stilled his own hands, and focused on his breathing, on seeing what he might pick up from the man's body language. There was no point in attempting Legilimency. Albus' Occlumancy shield rivaled Voldemort's – and even Snape's own – not to mention that it would be a horrible breach of propriety, let alone friendship.

After several more moments of mutual contemplation, Snape yielded. Damn, he hated to lose! "What is it, Dumbledore? Or did you call me here for meditation practice?" Dumbledore smiled and dipped his chin in acknowledgment of Snape's surrender, then reached for a brass gyroscope he kept on his desk for no purpose that Snape could tell other than amusement. He set it spinning on the desk in front of him, and both men's eyes were drawn to the piece, sunlight from the windows reflecting off of it and a score of other shiny objects, most of which had far greater purpose than this… toy.

"I had a visitor this morning, Severus," Dumbledore said at last. Snape's eyes were fixed on the spinning, whirling object. "She told me an interesting story."

Snape tried to pull his eyes away from the top, but found he… He wasn't sure if he could not, or didn't want to. In any case, his eyes remained fixed on the gyroscope as Dumbledore talked. Time seemed to slow down… or expand… or move in uncertain waves. He wished Dumbledore would get on with it. He had things to do.

"…so I'd like you to allow her a visit," Dumbledore was saying.

Snape's head snapped out of the clouds and he found himself slightly disoriented, as if he had just emerged from a visit to Dumbledore's pensieve. "I beg your pardon?" He'd missed the entire story, apparently, and arrived at its conclusion none the wiser for having been present for… however many minutes he'd been… Bored. Yes. That's what it was. Dumbledore had been droning on for… how long? He looked out the window and was surprised to find that, by the color of the sky, it appeared to be late afternoon – nearly time to get ready for dinner, in fact. What?

Dumbledore smiled at him. "I'm sure you'll find her… compelling," he said. "I told her you would be in touch." The smile disappeared from his face, replaced with what Snape called his "caring and concerned" look.

"And why would I wish to countenance a visit from… this woman?" he asked, automatically covering his confusion. Dumbledore's sad smile made his heart squeeze. Was the old man all right? Beyond his hand, was he well? Not that he would ever be well again, but… Snape's heart ached with the knowledge that, come what may, his time left with his only protector, his mentor, and the only man who had shown a lick of fatherly love toward him was limited, the damned poison from that damned ring inexorably working its dark magic, taking over his body, bit by bit. He did not wait for the man to answer. "I will do as you wish, of course, Albus," he said quietly.

Dumbledore merely nodded, and waved his wand. A bit of parchment floated down to Snape's hand, and he took it without looking at it. "And now," Dumbledore said, his face clearing and a twinkle showing in his eyes again, "if I am not mistaken, it is time for the evening shenanigans to begin. Let us sally forth and discover what our current crop of miscreants has gotten up to while we have been twiddling our thumbs and arguing about dental care."

Snape folded the parchment into an inner pocket, rose, and took Dumbledore's elbow as he stepped off the dais onto the floor of the room, and turned to the door. Dumbledore halted a moment, his hand on Snape's arm. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Severus," he said quietly. This, more than anything that came before, frightened Snape, but he could not let the man see that.

"You know I am here for you, Albus. Whatever you need."

"See to it that you arrange that visit," the old man said. "Promise me you will."

He looked old, Snape realized, alarmed. "I will, Albus. I will take care of it immediately."

"Thank you, my boy. Now – to dinner! I hope there's pudding!"

Smiling for Albus' sake, Snape led the way to the door, down the spiral stair, and through the school to the Great Hall, where, indeed, they were both diverted and amused to have to intervene in no less than five squabbles, two games of exploding snap, and three miscast jinxes before they could ascend to the head table. Dinner passed with only minor issues, and Snape barely needed do more than nod to the prefects of his house to handle his table. The Gryffindor prefects were kept busy, but did, he admitted, an adequate job of keeping order, though one first year managed to disappear under the table for a while, finally emerging at the far end. No telling what that was about. The Hufflepuffs were having some amusing argument, by the looks of things. Half the Ravenclaws had their noses buried in books or hovered over parchments. How they turned in work without getting food stains on it was beyond him, but their parchments were inevitably pristine.

After nodding approval to the Head Boy and Head Girl, whose daily report Minerva had shared with him, he left early, via the faculty entrance at the left rear of the Hall, and made his way down the side corridor, and from there to the dungeons. As there was no one to impress, he stepped lightly down the stairs, and strode swiftly to his door. The portrait of Salazar Slytherin nodded to him from its frame to the right. All was well; there had been no intrusion into his personal space. "Thank you, Sal," he said. "At your service, Potions Master," the dark-haired, sallow-skinned figure murmured. Snape uttered his personal password, and entered his rooms.

Now to see what this was about. He pulled the square of parchment from his pocket and unfolded it with long, tapered fingers, impeccably clean and manicured. Only perfection in personal grooming would assure his potions were not contaminated, and despite the disastrous effect of potion fumes on his hair, and whatever students inevitably said about that, his attention to personal hygiene was as precise as his potion-making. He flattened the square of paper. A name – Cassandra. That was all. What on earth was he supposed to do with that? He sighed and shook his head, biting the inside of his cheek, trying to decide whether to admit to Dumbledore that he hadn't been paying attention – due, no doubt, to some sorcery inherent in that infernal spinning top of his – or to take a risk of getting this wrong. Some days, he wondered if the Headmaster didn't just like toying with his head.

He decided on the risk, scribbled something on the parchment, and set off for the Owlery. Potter was coming down its slimy steps as he was heading up. "Evening, Potter," he said, narrowing his eyes at the boy, automatically suspicious, though he could merely have been Owling a friend… Remus Lupin, perhaps.

"Professor," the boy said, somewhat cautiously.

Snape grimaced. "Perhaps you could wait for me at the bottom of the stairs. I meant to have a word with you."

"Oh – ah… I'm sorry, Sir, but Professor Dumbledore wanted to see me in his office. I have… uh… lessons with him."

Snape pondered the boy, wondering what it was that had him and the Headmaster closeted so many nights this term. "What were you sending out?" he asked, for lack of a better way to detain the boy.

"A letter."

"Of course it was a letter, you thickheaded boy!" He stopped himself with an effort. This was not likely the way to get the boy to confide in him. He grimaced and started again. "Please wait for me at the bottom of the stairs. I won't be but a moment. If the Headmaster gives you any difficulty due to being a few minutes late, tell him I delayed you."

The boy looked at him dubiously, then shrugged. "Whatever."

Snape glared at the boy, but let it drop in favor of being expeditious in sending his own owl, before the Owlery emptied for nightly hunting. "Wait," he reminded the boy, and turned to the tower. He whistled down a soft grey tawny owl, caressed its soft head a moment, and pulled the curled parchment from a pocket. "I'm afraid the address is not terribly specific. I'll have to rely on your ability to read the addressee's magical signature. Can you do that?" The owl hooted softly, nipped his finger, and rubbed its head against his thumb in reassurance. "Thank you," Severus said softly, and tied the scroll to the owl's leg. He fished an owl treat from his pocket, fed the sweet, intelligent beast, looked into its eyes, whispered, "Safe journey," and lifted his arm to send her off. When he turned, Potter was standing at the doorway, looking bewildered. "One gets more out of ones acquaintances if one treats them well, Potter," he said, and without a word, brushed past the boy to head down the stairs, gesturing him to follow.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" Potter asked, scrambling down the stairs after him. Snape hoped the boy wouldn't slip in the muck and careen into him. He did not relish the thought of landing at the bottom of the stairs with Potter smashed into his back. However, they both made it down safely, Potter's clumsy clattering notwithstanding. How the boy could be so utterly, poetically graceful in the air and so utterly, pathetically clumsy on two feet was beyond him.

"What are you and Dumbledore doing?" he asked without preamble.

The boy balked. "I… I'm not sure I'm supposed to tell you. Sir," he added, at Snape's clouded look.

"I am your professor, Potter, and I expect an answer when I ask a question of you."

"I'm sorry, Sir," the boy said more strongly. "I'm sure if you ask the Headmaster, he will tell you what he thinks you should know."

Touché, Snape thought, and eyed the boy speculatively. He was thinking more strategically. Perhaps Dumbledore was spending those evenings beating some critical thinking into the Gryffindor's skull. What am I thinking? They're both Gryffindor. More likely, he's including the boy in some hare-brained, poorly-thought-out scheme or another. But of what? Snape worried.

"I hope you appreciate the honor Dumbledore is paying you – whether he is taking you into his confidence or merely sharing his passion for sweets with you. He… he is a good man, and a great wizard. Don't take that lightly," he said, staring at Potter intently, glad that the darkness occluded the green gleam of those oh-so-Lily eyes. Much easier to talk with Potter – James Bloody Potter's son – when Lily Blessed Evans' eyes weren't staring at him admonishingly.

"I… I don't, Sir."

"See that you don't," he said as they approached the great steps to the main entrance to the castle.

"I won't sir. I promise," the boy said fervently.

Snape shook his head, wondering if the boy had any clue how privileged he was to spend time with the greatest wizard of this age… one of the greatest, wisest wizards of any age, to be honest. "Don't dawdle," he said. "I shall know if you do. Go on, now. You're late."

The boy muttered something about, "… your fault…" and turned to head to the Headmaster's office. So Potter was off for yet another after-dinner rendezvous with Dumbledore. Snape had half a mind to sneak up the stairs after the boy, and use one of the Extendible Ears he'd confiscated after the last Hogsmeade weekend to spy on the master and student, but that would most likely be hopeless. Dumbledore's office was warded against all manner of spying, and the Ears would likely not work… or worse, would be detected. He could just imagine the indignity of Albus finding him eavesdropping at his door. Sighing, he returned to his dungeon, taking up his journal and the puzzle it gave him, neatly diverting his mind, for the time being.

He spent a restless night, beleaguered both by the niggling annoyance of not being able to figure out the problem with the blasted potion in the blasted journal and by his anxiety about Dumbledore's health. He kept playing with the formula for the potion he'd given the Headmaster, to slow the spread of the curse on his hand from the ring the blasted man had tried on, but no matter how he altered the ingredients or the procedure, he could not find a way to at least halt the curse's advance, if not effect a cure. What in the name of Merlin had the man been thinking, not checking for curses before he put on such an obviously antique object? And now he would die of it, when he should have had decades yet – or even centuries, if his friendship with Flamel counted for anything.

Every time he thought of it, Snape was torn between anger and disgust, on the one hand, and grief and fear, on the other, fear and grief ever more prominent. How the bloody hell were they to get rid of Voldemort without Dumbledore to lead the fight? How could they possibly win in the short time they now had, before the Headmaster died of his self-inflicted injury? Why wouldn't Dumbledore share his plan with Snape? Didn't he trust him?

No – whatever else was going on in that manipulative genius' mind, Snape knew he, Severus, had Dumbledore's faith and trust. He could not afford to let himself sink into despair, to let grief take over. Anger was a better stance, and he cultivated it.

And then there was Draco Bloody Malfoy and his less-than-stealthy efforts to do… whatever the hell it was he was plotting… to kill Dumbledore… and the fact that Dumbledore bloody well knew it… and the fact that he had cornered Snape into agreeing to do it instead, if it came down to it, to save Draco's soul. "What about my soul, Dumbledore?" he had asked, and the bloody, conniving arse had manipulated him with his talk of mercy killing. And then, when he'd confronted Dumbledore about his secret meetings with Potter… Well, all right. So the fact that they met wasn't secret. But what they were doing was. In any case, Dumbledore had said, "Come to my office tonight, Severus, and you will not think I do not trust you."

And he'd told him. The bloody prophecy – all of it, what it meant. And he'd completely misread Snape's reaction – as if Snape cared for Potter! Though… he'd been horrified, terrified at what Dumbledore had said, the way he'd interpreted the damned prophecy – as if he knew, curse the man!

He'd stormed from the Headmaster's office, blindly throwing himself down the stairs and through the corridors to his rooms. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, unable to do anything but pace, he'd fled, feeling claustrophobic, frightened, angry… terrified. Nothing he'd ever experienced – not the Cruciatus curse, not even subjecting himself to Voldemort's Legilimens, taking the risk that he would find out about Snape's true loyalties… not even that terrified him as much as Potter's fate… and the fact that he, Snape, might have to be the one to reveal it to him. Curse the man! Curse the boy! Curse Voldemort to hell and back on the back of demons!

He paced the corridors of the school at night, pounding away between the Slytherin dorms and Draco Bloody Malfoy and Gryffindor Tower, where Harry Bleeding Potter slept, unaware of his doom. When McGonagall caught him stalking around the castle on nights it was not his turn to patrol, he claimed to have been returning from meetings – with Voldemort, though she would know that to be a lie, as Dumbledore informed her whenever Snape was called by the burning in his arm – or with Dumbledore. Once she'd caught him in the lie, he changed tactics, accosting her with, "Why, Minerva… out for a bit of catnip, are we?" whenever they met. But his worry and fear and building grief for what was to be, and what couldn't be stopped, kept him from sleeping, regardless how much Dreamless Sleep he dared consume.

He didn't know what terrified him more – that he would have to kill Dumbledore to save him from torture; that whatever the plan, Voldemort would win; or that he would have to tell Potter that… he must die. Gods! How fair was that? Not to Snape – though that was horror enough for any man's soul – but to Potter? If he let himself think about it, he could feel tears forming. He would not – could not – allow that. But the tears fell in his soul… and those, he did not seem to be able to prevent. He thought his soul and his heart were dying slowly, infected by the poison in Dumbledore's hand, the poison in the Dark Mark on his own arm, the poison in the prophecy that sealed Potter's fate – at least, the way Dumbledore interpreted it.

His exhaustion and fear fed his anger, though he managed to maintain his careful, distant friendship – if it could be called that – with Minerva, and his gentle care of the dying Headmaster, whose increasingly frequent absences made his nerves stand on end. Anything could be happening – anything. And Voldemort's increasingly frequent calls did nothing to quell Snape's rising panic and sense of despair.

Nothing. There was nothing… not a damned thing… that he could do to hold back the inevitable. Dumbledore would die. Draco would be turned to the dark side. Potter would have to confront the insane Dark Lord… and in the process, he would die, despite Snape's efforts to protect him, to protect Lily's son. And given Snape's increasingly frantic inability to influence any of this, Voldemort would win. He tried not to live in terror. Hopeless. But there was nothing for it but to continue, to try to find something… some way to affect the outcome. Not for himself – no doubt he'd perish, one way or another. He'd throw himself at the Dark Lord himself, if it came to it, if that could save… anyone. But for others – for the wizarding world, for his colleagues and the Order and the school… and for Harry Bloody Potter.

Every damned time the dark mark on his left arm burned, he tossed a note for Dumbledore into the floo in his quarters, to let him know he'd be absent. Every time, they were both aware he might not come back. Every time, some witch or wizard or Mudbl – Muggle… died, after being tortured by Voldemort, or by his minions. Every time, Snape forced himself to watch, impassively… to witness… to remember. And still, he could do nothing. It was killing him, slow torture worse than the three-fold Cruciatus that had driven the Longbottoms permanently insane.

Potter was subdued the morning after his meeting with the Headmaster, his head hung over his breakfast, barely responding to his friends – Granger and the youngest Weasley boy. Not even his girlfriend – And what did her older brother think of that? Snape wondered – could raise him from his lethargy. When Albus entered, Snape saw the boy flick a glance at the head table and then away, as if embarrassed or ashamed. Shape looked sideways at the headmaster, curious as to whether he might pry an explanation out of the man. His question died on his lips.

Dumbledore looked ill – grey, weak, discouraged, exhausted… No doubt the man had been apparating – he had that look about him, and cold swirled around him with every move of his robes. What in the name of Merlin and all that was holy did the man think he was doing, traveling in his condition? Had he gotten any sleep? This was ridiculous, and Snape resolved to tell him so. He pressed on Sprout, who had a free morning on Tuesdays, to cover his first year potions classes for him, and dogged Albus' steps to the entrance to the Headmaster's quarters.

Dumbledore gave no sign he was aware of pursuit – Not that Snape deliberately stepped silently. It was just habit. – until he reached his door. Then he turned and said, "Ah. Severus! I should have known. Come in, my friend, come in." He made it as far as the steps leading to the dais on which his desk sat, but could not muster the strength to lift his foot to the first stair, wavering and reaching out a hand. Alarmed, Snape moved to support him, and when Dumbledore leaned back against him, he swept the old man into his arms and carried him to the large four-poster in his sleeping room. He laid him gently down on the scarlet coverlet, but scowled down at him.

"What were you thinking, Albus?" He snarled at the man in his anxiety. "Shall I write your eulogy now, or do you want a couple more days to do yourself in completely?" he hissed. "At the rate you're going, neither I nor Draco will be in danger of losing our souls. Why don't you just throw yourself off the Astronomy Tower and be done with it?"

Something flashed in Dumbledore's eyes at that, but then it was gone, leaving only a very ill, very tired-looking wizard. Snape shook his head, mixed fear and anger making him short with the man. "Accio potion," he snapped, and a vial flew from a drawer into his hand. He helped Albus to sit up long enough to drink it down, then lowered him gently to his back.

"You should return to your classroom," Dumbledore rasped out.

"I'll not leave you, Albus," Snape replied firmly, exasperated. Carefully, he folded back the sleeve covering Dumbledore's blackened hand, and stifled a gasp. The curse was progressing more rapidly. It had spread past the man's elbow. Soon, Snape knew, it would threaten the Headmaster's heart. It was only a matter of time… very little time, now. He turned away to hide his reaction, pretending to fumble with putting the cork back into the narrow neck of the vial. He felt a hand on his back, and forced himself to turn around, but could not hide the tears in his eyes.

"Ah, my friend," Dumbledore said, patting his arm. "I am not afraid of death."

Snape gazed into the Headmaster's eyes and saw the truth of that there. He was not afraid of death either – not for himself. But he feared for Albus… and Potter, if he were to be honest with himself… and for a world without either of them, likely the best hope – the only hope – the world had to rid itself of the insane Dark Lord before he dragged them over the brink of destruction along with himself. "Albus…" he began, but the man merely patted his hand and said, "Shh, my boy. All will be well." Snape sent up a silent prayer to whatever oversaw creation and justice and all of humanity that it would be so.

By the time a response came, he'd forgotten about the scrap of Dumbledore's parchment he had sent off to the witch – he assumed it was a witch – Cassandra. The owl dropped the note at his table the next morning the Headmaster was absent, diverting Snape's attention from the fact. The tawny landed on his shoulder and nibbled at his ear affectionately. He rubbed a finger along its head, and gave it a bit of bacon. When the owl flew to the rafter to nibble his treat, Snape unfolded the reply, which carried the faintest hint of lavender scent, not at all unpleasant. The handwriting was elegant, flowing, and small, but not cramped. Tiny runes surrounded the message and tingled under Snape's fingers, protecting the sender and recipient. He wondered why she felt that necessary. The response was simple: "At your convenience, Professor. Perhaps Tuesday evening… in the Astronomy Tower." He sent back a simple confirmation.

Albus was gone again Monday evening. Minerva presided over dinner in the Great Hall, and she exchanged a worried look with him. Snape shook his head. The man was too ill to travel like this, blast it! Was it the Ministry who kept him traveling? He doubted it. Dumbledore's faith in the Ministry was non-existent, and Snape didn't blame him. Scrimgeur was barely better than Fudge, though problematic in vastly different ways, manipulative, scheming, after bloody Potter to serve as some symbol of hope, despite the fact that the Ministry did nothing to stand in Voldemort's way.

In the morning, Albus was back, and if he looked tired, it was no more so than what was typical for him these days. Snape put a hand on the man's arm at the head table, and Dumbledore patted it and smiled at him reassuringly. Snape breathed a sigh of relief, but resolved to visit Dumbledore in his quarters as soon as his classes permitted – before lunch, if possible, to assess his hand and arm, and to check that he was taking the potion. He knew he would find himself lecturing the man about taking care of himself, about not taking foolish risks. He knew Dumbledore would give him empty promises and lie about the extent of his pain, then divert the conversation to exhort him to be careful when next the Dark Lord called. There was no other way for them to express their feelings.

Tuesday night, just before full dark at ten o'clock, found Snape making his way through the silent corridors to the Astronomy Tower to await his visitor. Had it been anyone other than Dumbledore who encouraged the visit, he would have found a way to refuse, but Dumbledore seldom had frivolous reasons for things he asked Snape to do, if his reasons were not always clear.

He mounted the stairs and pushed open the door to the ramparts. A quick circuit around the steeple showed that he was alone, but the woman was not yet late. He stood behind the crenellated parapet, looking out over the grounds. Here and there, elongated squares of light proved students or faculty were awake. Hagrid's cabin cast a flickering glow behind flowered curtains that occasionally drifted from the windows as the light breeze blew. It was the full moon, and the lake to his left glittered. He wondered how Lupin was faring – wondered how he fared at all, without his friends to keep him company during his monthly torture. Snape shifted uncomfortably, his conscience only partly mollified by the Wolfsbane he continued to brew and send off to the man, monthly. It was not as effective as it would be if he could drink it fresh from the cauldron. No doubt the man suffered. Your fault, his conscience chastised him.

He turned his back on the moon and moved to the other side of the tower, where he could stand in the shadow of its spire. Coward, his conscience said. He shook it off, and turned his eyes to the clear, starry sky, seeking out the summer constellations, and located Pegasus, the winged horse.

The sound of soft footsteps announced his visitor. Despite his dark clothing and his… He wasn't hiding in the shadows. It was prudent, that's all, to watch an unknown approach. Despite the fact that his robes and coloring allowed him to fade into the shadows, she walked unerringly toward him, and he wondered if she had a keener-than-normal sense of magic, if she could follow his signature. The ability was rare. Even Voldemort did not possess it, though Dumbledore did, and to a lesser extent, so did Snape. The shadows worked to occlude her from him as well as they hid him – at least the details of her.

"Professor Snape," she said in a quiet, clear voice, pitched as if to fit with the night and the stars. Her voice came from a place that told him she was tall – nearly as tall as his six feet, two inches. Against his will, he found that he liked that – her voice and her height. "Probably as ugly as a troll," he thought in self-defense. She gave a low laugh.

Moving out of the shadow, away from him, she stepped to the wall and looked out over its edge. At this side, all she would see was the castle itself, and beyond it, the courtyard and the mountains. She was tall, he saw with satisfaction. Tall and lithe and her robes, slit at the shoulder to cool her in the summer heat, somehow did not hide the fact that she had a perfect figure. They had a soft sheen that might have been pretentious on some, but suited her pale skin and the dark brown hair she wore piled in soft curls atop her head. Strands of it had worked loose, and fell to her shoulders. He had a sudden desire to see her face… to touch her skin, to see if it was as soft as it looked. His fingers itched with the need to hold himself back from that impulse. What would it be like, he wondered, to hold her in his arms. He suspected it would feel… right.

She stood in silence, her back to him, for several minutes, as if she was aware of his assessment, and was giving him time for it, and time to contain himself. "It's a beautiful night," she said at last. He wished she would say more. He could listen to her voice all day… all night. He was surer than ever that her face must be that of a hag. No one could be blessed with beauty to match that voice… those shoulders.

"It is, indeed," he murmured from the shadows.

"Won't you join me in the moonlight, Professor?"

A shiver ran through him, but throwing caution to the wind, despite the folly of standing at the topmost point of the castle with an unknown witch, he allowed himself to step from the shadows to her side. He could hardly help himself. He felt compelled, bewitched… called. And so he went, accepting his fate – for that's what it felt like.

"Severus," he murmured. "As all I know of you is your first name…" and that you are beautiful, his mind added – "… it seems only polite that you should address me by mine." She laughed again, and he hoped that he could amuse her, and give her laughter, and bring her joy… and he did not know why he should feel that way.

She turned to him and he was… stunned. She was… flawless… beyond beautiful… perfect. Her forehead was high and clear, her cheekbones delicate, the shape of her mouth… the curve of her pink lips… perfect… her eyes a clear, clear blue that somehow made her robes more resplendent. His gaze drifted to her collarbone above the low scooped neck of her robes, and the dips and hollows of pearly skin there made him want to bury his lips against her neck and cover her in kisses. He held his breath.

She smiled at him, and he realized she was examining him in much the same way. He felt suddenly anxious, uncouth, clumsy, and self-consciously aware of his sallow, pale skin, his hooked nose, and his lank, greasy hair, all the more so for having spent the day over a cauldron of Wolfsbane, and another cauldron of an experimental potion, trying to find a cure for the curse that blackened Albus' hand and arm.

Her eyes, however, were warm, and a soft, secret smile curved her lips as she met his eyes. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Severus Snape," she said, and he had the curious impression that she actually meant it.

"And you… Cassandra," he murmured. With an effort, he pulled himself together, pulled his mind out of delicious images, pulled his sight away from the depths of her eyes, and rested them instead, more safely, on her cheeks. They were lightly dusted with freckles, he saw, and pink in the glow of the moonlight where it shone on her left side.

"Dumbledore asked me to invite you here. Might I ask… to what do I owe the pleasure?" And he meant it. If she never said another word, if she turned and left now and he never saw her again, these few minutes, the glorious sight of her, would gladden his heart the rest of his days.

She looked down and then back over the castle, and he got the impression she was… sad, perhaps, though… not quite. She turned back and he saw something like compassion in her eyes, confusing him. She gestured back toward the door that had let them onto the battlements. "I wonder… could we go in?"

"You're not cold?"

"No." She turned her eyes to his. "We need a warded space." She gestured around them. "This is too hard for me to ward." She dimpled and he found that utterly charming and fascinating. "Or you, I imagine, powerful as you are."

She thinks I'm powerful. Why did that make his chest swell with pride and joy? Why should that matter? He felt the urge to protect her – not that she looked like a woman who needed or wanted protection. Still… to know that she sensed him as powerful…

He turned and put his arm behind her as if creating a shield, and waved toward the door with his other hand. "After you, my lady," he said, and it did not even feel awkward to address her as such.

The chamber at the top of the Astronomy Tower filled with soft light at his murmur. It reflected from the facets of the leaded glass windows that encircled the room. He saw her smile before she turned toward him, and this time it was impish, conspiratorial, intelligent. He liked her. She winked at him and raised her arms overhead, to join her hands over her wand. He matched her move, his hands joined over his own bit of ebony magic. Her eyes held that mischievous smile as they spoke the spell together, casting a full warding – a bubble that encased them above and below, north, south, east and west. Their magic met in the middle with a flare of light, and together they dropped their arms and stared at each other.

Cassandra recovered first, dimpling at him again, something unsaid in her eyes. For a moment, it occurred to him to wonder if she intended to challenge him to a duel, but it was not that kind of challenge on her face.

"Let's have it," he said finally, his voice taut. "What is it that you wanted to discuss that requires a full ward?"

She looked at him for several long moments. "You," she said. He looked his question. "I'm a Seer," she said, and his heart sank. The only Seers he knew were Sibyll Trelawney, with her odd mannerisms and the true prophecies that dribbled out of her, unnoticed and unheeded, whenever she prattled on in idle conversation or murmured to herself in a sherry-laced haze, in pathetic contrast to the utter bilge she spewed whenever she tried to consciously invoke her… curse – he could hardly call it a gift, and Firenze, who, while not insane, was obscure and unhelpful at the best of times. He eyed Cassandra with suspicion.

"I'm not interested," he said curtly.

She merely smiled at him and moved away to his side of the ward. When she reached the thin blue curtain of energy, she ran her fingers along it softly, as if she were playing a harp, and he felt it play along his arms, his neck, felt it as her fingers running through his hair, soothing him while it set his blood coursing through him like fire.

He tried again. "I have no interest in prophecy."

She smiled again, shook her head softly, and searched his face. "Allow me to tell you a story, then," she said.

He hesitated, then nodded and waved his hand toward a low stone bench. "Would you care to sit?"

In answer, she merely turned to pace his side of the ward, passing behind him so closely he felt the warmth of her against his back, felt pulled in her direction, as if gravity compelled him to fall into her. He turned and paced the circle at her side, his hands clasped lightly over his wand at his back.

"Two months ago, I was at my mother's place by the sea. It's a bit of wild coast. The waves pound against the cliffs and shoot their spume meters into the air. The coast is riddled with caves carved out by the pounding of the water. Some would think it cruel in its rawness, but the rhythm of it is soothing, if one is not afraid. Jagged rocks, some quite large, jut out from the ocean floor and are washed over by the high tide, and revealed in black danger when the tide is low, but they are always slick, always jagged, always a risk. You are so close to death that survival seems miraculous… and utterly improbable. Yet, you survive, if you dare."

He could see it so clearly he wondered if she were opening her mind to him, and he tried to pull back, fearing to broach that territory without her explicit consent, but she held him fast, bound to her mind despite the lack of eye contact. They continued to pace their ward, cutting a circle that flared behind them, if he had turned to see. But he did not.

"Images form in the spray, in the whitecaps, sometimes." She smiled at him gently. "I'm sorry – I'm a Seer. I cannot help but See." He saw the truth of that on her face and nodded, assenting this time, at least partly to keep her at his side. "I Saw an image – a young boy, leading two small children down the cliff, out to a rock. Despite the danger, despite the sea spray all around them, their footing was sure, and their clothing dry. Then they flung themselves into the sea."

She flushed. "I admit I nearly flung myself in after them." He went to grab at her wrist as if to stop her, but she turned away and stopped in front of him, so close he could see her breast rise and fall with each breath she took. "I realized it was a Seeing in time, of course, and stopped myself." She laughed. "Else I would not be here. When they returned to the rock –"

Snape's puzzlement must have shown on his face. "Yes – they returned after a while. They returned to the rock, and then by some means I could not discern, to the cliff face. By the time they reached the top, where I waited, the smaller children clung to each other in terror, but the one boy… the look on his face chilled me to the bone, and I knew I was looking upon evil."

Snape narrowed his eyes, a suspicion growing in his mind. "You Saw Tom Riddle," he said.

She kept her eyes on him and nodded. He frowned, thinking. "I'm sorry, I… I thank you for telling me this, but I don't –"

She put up a hand to interrupt him. "I brought that story to Dumbledore. I trusted no one else. I'm sorry – I didn't know you. But…" Here, she hesitated and bit her lower lip, and he found himself jealous of that… wanted to take that lip for his own and sooth away the hurt she'd caused herself. "I had another Seeing while I was here – a tall, dark-haired man of good heart…"

Snape's heart pounded in his chest. "Please don't," he whispered. "Please… I… I don't fare well with prophecy."

"Dumbledore asked me to tell you," she said softly, pleadingly. "Please."

"Whatever you saw," he said hoarsely, "whether good or ill… I don't want to know. I can only ruin it. Nothing good comes from knowing the future… and…" He did not say what he already knew – that he was doomed, no matter which way this war turned out… that he was damned by a prophecy stolen better than eighteen years earlier, and the choices he had made at the time.

She stepped closer to him, and her scent was intoxicating. Only with difficulty did he refrain from putting his arms around her and pulling her to him, to crush her lips under his. "Severus," she said, and he nearly melted at her feet… wanted to do so. "Let me tell you," she begged him. "Dumbledore wanted me to do so. I… I can Obliviate you afterward, if you wish. I give you my word – I will do as you ask, after I tell you."

She looked up at him with eyes suddenly liquid with unshed tears, and he found he could not refuse her. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but her gaze held him. He inhaled and gave a cautious nod. "I will allow it – on the condition that if I so choose, you will Obliviate me afterward." She smiled her approval, and he found he was glad he had pleased her.

She reached up and held his face with her hands. They burned on his skin, and he felt the pulse of her heart as if it was his own, wanted to melt into it, and into her hands. "Look at me," she commanded, and he fell into her eyes…

… to a kaleidoscope of images: Draco Malfoy, his wand wavering before it dropped. Potter chasing after him – after Snape –down the hill to the main entrance of the castle, yelling "Expelliarmus!" and being chased in turn, by Bellatrix Lestrange, fire exploding around them. The Great Hall silent and sullen. Minerva's face filled with hate. The Astronomy Tower and Fenrir Greyback. A green flash of light. Charity Burbage, her face filled with fear, saying, "Severus – please!" Arthur Weasley… Potter again… Malfoy Manor… the Sword of Godric Gryffindor and a silver doe… long, dirty, white fingers caressing a wand – Dumbledore's wand. Dumbledore himself, falling… falling… falling… "Severus… please!"

He gasped and nearly fell backward, would have fallen, were it not for the arms that held him up. "NO!" he cried, and was not surprised to find tears streaming down his face. "No! Why? Why did you show me this?" Anguish tore sobs from him.

"Because there is something else you should know," she said.

"I don't want to! I don't want to! Oh, gods! Why are you doing this to me?"

"Severus," she said, and her voice was as gentle as a mother's to a hurt child. "Look at me."

He did, his eyes filled with tears. "Why?" he whispered.

"Look again," she said.

And he saw Hogwarts destroyed and then whole; Minerva embattled and then in the Headmaster's chair; students laying dead and the Sorting Hat atop unfamiliar faces; the Weasleys weeping, and then Ron and Hermione Granger embracing under a canopy covered with flowers… and more images, too rapid for him to make out, of death followed by life, of loss followed by joy.

"We win," he whispered, stunned and amazed when the visions finally faded. He turned to look at her, his eyes still tear-filled, but with joy and relief this time.

"You win," she said softly.

He hesitated, and reading him correctly, she said, "I may answer one question. Just one. Ask me anything. Anything."

He knew what she expected him to say, but… He smiled and shook his head. That was not what he needed to know. He turned to look at her, and his tears overflowed before he even asked. "Does… does Potter… live?" He had to know.

She smiled at him. "Not many men would care about another's fate over their own, Severus Snape." Her smile turned sad. "Nor may I tell you another's fate other than your own."

He nodded in understanding and looked down at his hands clasped tightly over his wand. A tear slipped off his chin and onto his hands, and he did not bother to wipe it away. Then her hand covered his and he looked up into her eyes again. She moved into him, and he found his arms around her, found himself shaking with sobs he had never allowed himself, even as a child. She held him until his sobs abated, but when he would have let go, she held him more tightly, and turned her head until her lips were at his ear.

"Not all sacrifices go unrewarded, my love," she said, and she let her lips trail down his jaw to his lips and kissed him, gently at first, then more intimately, and he found himself in her mind once more.

And this time, the image was clear – Platform 9 ¾, the crimson Hogwarts Express blowing a cloud of steam that obscured all but one small boy, clinging to the hand of his father, their backs to him as they walked toward the train. The boy stopped and tugged on his father's hand, and the man bent down to let the boy whisper in his ear. Then he stopped and crouched down, turning the boy to him – dark, mussed hair and brilliant green eyes… and no scar on his forehead. The two wizards were deep in conversation, oblivious to those around them. Snape willed them to move closer.

"But Dad, what if…" younger wizard pleaded.

His father stopped him with a hand over his heart. "Albus Severus Potter," he said, "you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin… and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."

With that, Cassandra broke the kiss, though she held onto Snape, to assure his balance.

the bravest man I ever knew…

Albus Severus Potter…

Snape closed his eyes, and fought to breathe. "Thank Merlin!" he gasped, and pulled his hands from Cassandra's to cover his face, his shoulders shaking with sobs all over again, his knees weak with relief.

Cassandra put her arms around him again, and covered his face and his hands with little kisses until he found himself back here – back in the moment, with this wonderful woman, atop the Astronomy Tower, inside the warding. He knew, now, why it was necessary.

And that brought him back to it. He should not know this. He could not know this. To walk into the next Death Eater meeting with the surety of Voldemort's defeat blazing in his mind… He'd be dead before he sat down, and while that hardly signified, the fact that Voldemort would know would matter. And… knowing they would win, would he, Snape, have the driving, aching need to do whatever it took – anything… even give his life, if that's what it took, or would he shrug at the challenge and back off, in the blind belief that all would be well. No. He could not allow himself this. He let it sink into him for long minutes, before he gathered his courage and turned to Cassandra.

She knew his decision before he stated it. "Remember this, then," she said, and took his face in her hands again, and kissed him – a long, slow, lingering kiss. He knew when she raised her arm, wand gently caressing his temple, and murmured against his lips, "Obliviate!" and their ward fell around them.

He stumbled. There must have been some irregularity in the stone, unseen in the moonlight.

"Steady, there, Severus," the witch said, and let go of his arm. She turned away and he thought her shoulders shook a little.

"Are you sure you're not cold?" he asked in concern. She shook her head in negation. After a moment, he said, "Dumbledore asked me to invite you here… Might I ask… to what do I owe this pleasure?" And he meant it. If she never said another word, if she turned and left now and he never saw her again, these few minutes, the glorious sight of her, would gladden his heart the rest of his days.

She dimpled at him and he found that utterly charming. "I'm a Seer," she began, and his heart sank.

"I'm sorry… I… I don't care much for prophecy."

"Are you sure? Dumbledore thought you might want to know…"

He hesitated. "Prophecy… tends to affect our choices. I appreciate the time you took to come meet me, but I'm afraid I really would rather not know."

"Oh, but you really should…" she urged.

"No," he said firmly. "I really should not."

She smiled up at him, her eyes twinkling in the moonlight, and her cheeks flushing as she moved closer to him. She reached up and tucked a strand of his hair behind his ear, and trailed her hand down his cheek to his lips, her fingers leaving hot trails on his skin.

"You're a brave man, Severus Snape. Not many men would give up the chance to know their fate."

He laughed into her fingers, and said, "I know my fate – and that is enough for any man."

She nodded. "The bravest man I ever knew," she said, and leaned in to kiss him on the lips, pulling away before he could get over his shock and do something about it.

"I'm sorry it was a wasted trip… Cassandra."

Her laugh fell around them like small bells. "Oh, don't worry about that. I'll just stop in and see my aunt."

"Your aunt?"

"You know her – Sibyll Trelawney."

He lifted his chin in comprehension and stifled a snort. Cassandra grinned and leaned into him conspiratorially. "Not all of us Seers are quite so… barmy," she whispered.

"Or so inebriated," he shot back.

"That, too," she agreed with a laugh.

He realized she was still standing quite close, and was somehow not surprised when her lips found his again. This time, he did succeed in capturing them for more than a moment, and then she pulled away to whisper in his ear, "Remember."

"Always," he assured her, and knew it was also goodbye. She squeezed his hand and turned to head down the stairs, not once looking back. He did not follow.

After a moment, he moved out the door to the battlements again, looking over the school. Hogwarts. It was his home more than Spinner's End had ever been, and he loved every inch of her. And he loved her headmaster, and his dungeon classroom, and his potions lab in his quarters… and he loved her faculty, if he were honest with himself. He snorted. Even Sybill Trelawney, Cassandra's aunt. And… the students… and – Merlin help him! – even Harry Precious Potter.

Voldemort could never know this – that his chief lieutenant, his right hand man, his trusted spy… loved. Dumbledore – his mentor, his friend, dying of dark magic, the school and her faculty and students ever at risk, the brash, breathtaking courage of ever member of the Order… the brash, unknowing courage of the Boy Who Lived – doomed to die to save the Wizarding world and then some.

But not if he could help it. Not if he could find… something… a cure for the poison infecting Albus's arm… some way to pull the Dark Lord's attention from the school… some way to shield the rest of the Order… No one else would die, if Severus Snape could help it. And… some way to rescue Harry Bloody Potter… Harry Blessed Potter… Harry – the Chosen One and Lily's son, and the boy who, even now, might be learning his fate from Dumbledore… but not if Severus Snape could help it.

"All will be well," Dumbledore had told him – after he'd seen the Seer, Snape realized. What had he allowed the witch to tell him?

All will be well… as if he knew. Therefore… there must be a way. Snape turned from where he leaned on the parapet, sought the winged horse Pegasus again. There might yet be a way to cheat death… for Potter… for Dumbledore…

And sending a prayer up to the heavens that it be so, he turned to go back to his dungeon, and his cauldrons, and the journal article that had plagued him, the answer to the puzzle of it suddenly clear in his mind, and hope, long forgotten, burning in his heart once more.