Outside of the ruins of the Potter's home stood Albus Dumbledore. And, there wasn't a twinkle to be seen in his ice cold eyes.
His wand clutched in his hand, Severus shouted, "Tell me what I ate for breakfast."
The figure of Dumbledore smiled briefly, but no mirth softened his steely gaze. "Come, my boy. You'll have to do better than that. It would be easy enough to guess you ate alone this morning if you ate at all. Ask me something only I would know."
The gentle yet stinging rebuke convinced the spy like nothing else that the Headmaster stood before him. However, he asked another question for form's sake. "What do you see in the mirror of Erised?"
The mighty wizard froze, his gray robes rippling in the breeze the only evidence that he hadn't been petrified. Severus realized his mistake at once. They'd never discussed the subject, although after Aberforth's revelations, the Potions Master thought he understood Dumbledore's most desperate desire all too well.
"Funnily enough, Miss Potter once asked me the same question. I think it best that I tell you what I told her. I see myself holding a warm pair of socks."
"He did." Rose whispered in confirmation, but she didn't move. That was fine with Snape. He still didn't know what his mentor might do. It would be easier to defend himself from an Obliviation if Rose stood safely behind him.
"Put down your wand, Severus. Return with Miss Potter to the castle and we shall talk."
The old man sounded weary and a trifle impatient. Such a tone in the usually placid wizard indicated that he was angry and upset. Still, the weekend spent resting had given Severus ample time to think. He was done with obeying Dumbledore's every command.
"Actually, Headmaster, Rose and I were about to Apparate to the Leaky Cauldron."
Again, Dumbledore paused. Severus thought he heard a tiny squeak of terror from Rose, but he didn't dare look. If Albus intended to try anything, it would be now. Seconds passed and nothing happened. Then, the Headmaster nodded gravely, his keen blue eyes boring into Snape's black ones.
"Very well. I shall await your return."
With that, he Disapparated, leaving the Potions Master and his ward alone once again outside the remains of the Potters' home. Snape could hardly believe that Dumbledore had given in so easily, but Rose didn't give him a chance for introspection. Moving to face him, she showered him with questions.
"Are you in trouble? He can't sack you, can he? I mean, you're my guardian, so you can take me where you wish, right? Why didn't anyone mention Godric's Hollow before? Why am I always the last one to know about my life? I swear Hermione knows more about me than I do. Dad?"
"What have I said about swearing?"
"Not to do it."
"Then don't. Now, give me your hand. With the Headmaster waiting, it would be unwise to dawdle."
She groaned and rolled her eyes at his stern response as she clasped his hand. Once they had Apparated to Diagon Alley, she was too focused on keeping upright to realize that he hadn't answered a single one of her questions. Their arrival quickly turned into a public spectacle. Witches and wizards who should have known better stopped to stare as they walked towards the Leaky Cauldron. While no one dared say anything, the unnatural silence unnerved Rose. She fretfully twisted her bracelet as she did her best to ignore the glares and curious glances. By the time they arrived at the pub, she looked to the ground as she walked, her shoulders hunched.
For his part, the Potions Master glowered at anyone foolish enough to make eye contact. By the time they arrived at their destination, he was in such a mood that the toothless innkeeper took one look at him and led the pair down the hall to the Leaky Cauldron's private parlor. Appearing extremely ill at ease, he took their order and left.
Rose stared at the empty fireplace. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." After a second, she bitterly added, "Personally, I'd rather the sticks. This is going to be second year all over again, isn't, Dad? Only this time, I've dragged you into it."
Damn, but he felt old—and completely inadequate. "Words only hurt if you let them, Rose. You must learn to ignore the opinions of such ignorant fools."
Her lips twitched. "Like you did? Your death glare should be made the fourth Unforgiveable, you know. I'm surprised a few wizards at the bar didn't go up in flames."
In spite of himself, he smirked at the compliment. "I'll have you know I have spent many years perfecting that glare."
"On terrified first years, no doubt." Her grin quickly faded. "It will be alright, won't it?"
"Alright is a rather vague term. But, yes, I believe so."
The pair lapsed into a weary silence until Tom returned with lunch. Digging into the roast beef, Rose ate with enthusiasm and soon began to chatter about what she might purchase at Quality Quidditch Supplies. As much as Severus found the sport tedious, even he appreciated discussing a subject that had nothing to do with the Daily Prophet, Rose's parentage or Lily's supposed infidelity.
Once he had paid the bill, they decided that ice cream came before shopping. London was not nearly as warm or sunny as Godric's Hollow had been, but Fortescue's still packed a crowded. Florean took their order without comment, and the Potions Master feared for a moment that the good-natured wizard believed the hogwash in the newspaper. He was soon proven wrong when the middle-aged man joined them outside as Rose scraped the last of the chocolate sauce from the bottom of her bowl.
"How are my two favorite truants today?"
"Sadly out of ice cream," Rose answered with a cheeky grin.
He smiled at her obvious ploy and gestured to his shop. "Luckily, there's a remedy for that, Miss Potter. Order another sundae while I speak to Professor Snape. Tell Lucretia it's on the house."
Without looking for permission, Rose jumped up and scooted into the ice cream shop with a belated, "Thanks!" As soon as she left, the wizard's sunny smile disappeared.
"How is she holding up?"
"Better than I'd expected. We visited Godric's Hollow this morning."
Florean nodded sagely. "I imagine that would put a few things in perspective. How is Albus taking it?"
Severus didn't speak right away, which the other wizard took as answer enough. "That bad, eh? I wouldn't worry. He's no stranger to scandal himself."
Snape intended to ask the shopkeeper exactly what he had meant by his statement, but Rose returned as quickly as she had left, without ice cream. Her cheeks were tinged red and her lips had compressed into a scowl.
"I changed my mind."
Before he could reprimand the teen for her rudeness, Rose seemed to recall the presence of the older wizard. "Sorry, Mr. Fortescue. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"That's quite alright, Miss Potter. I shouldn't leave Lucretia alone for long. It's rather busy today."
"Yeah, it is," she instantly agreed, the scowl returning to her face.
The older man didn't pry. Instead, he bid them both a good day and returned to his shop. Watching the frown on his ward's face deepen as her gaze lingered on the ice cream shop, Severus wondered what dunderhead had been rude enough to say something directly to her. Who was he kidding? Rose was right. Words did have the power to hurt.
"Do you intend to tell me what was said, or shall I simply assume you are practicing your own death glare?"
Ripping her eyes away from Fortescue's, she did the one thing that annoyed him most of all—she shrugged. "Doesn't matter, does it? I can't stop people from saying what they like."
"No," he heavily agreed. "You cannot. Now, do you wish to crawl back to the relative safety of Hogwarts where you can sulk in your room? Or would you prefer to visit the Quidditch shop?"
Immediately, she turned her glare on him, and he had the overwhelming desire to laugh. At that moment, she looked every inch a Snape, Potter's chin notwithstanding. Refuting the article would prove next to impossible.
Thankfully, Rose did not see his struggle with semi-hysterical mirth. And, his snide questions did just what he'd hoped they'd do. She stalked towards Quality Quiddith Supplies, determined to show him that the Daily Prophet's lies wouldn't send her running to her room.
The jaunt to the Quidditch shop was as tedious as he had feared. He did, however, glean some gift ideas from her long perusal of the store shelves. Rose bought a few practice Snitches with some pocket money he had given her before lunch. No one took much notice of her, but she was careful to keep her scar covered with her fringe and her face down. Severus didn't blame the teen. He had received more than one disbelieving stare, although most had dismissed him after taking a long look at his entirely Muggle clothing. He supposed most Death Eaters wouldn't be caught dead in such dress.
After Apparating outside the Hogwarts gates and escorting Rose to her Common Room, Severus returned to his own quarters to change. It was one thing to wander around Diagon Alley wearing nothing but black trousers and a white shirt, quite another to face Albus in such simple attire. Although loath to admit it, he used his black robes as his personal shield. It was so easy to slip into the persona of Severus Snape, greasy git of the dungeons when wearing such severe garb. Perhaps in such a state, the Headmaster's condemnation wouldn't hurt quite so much.
Walking into the Headmaster's office, Severus stiffened his shoulders as Rose's frantic questions earlier in the day came back to haunt him. Technically, he could be sacked for what he had done, but he doubted Albus would make such a risky move. Legally, he was Rose's guardian. If he chose to withdraw her from Hogwarts the old man couldn't stop him, Unbreakable Vow or no.
Standing in front of the Headmaster's desk, he folded his hands and waited for Albus to acknowledge him. He waited silently for another ten minutes, well aware that the pointed snubbing was part of his punishment. Finally, the old codger put down his pen and looked up.
"Ah, Severus. How good of you to come. I take it the fare at the Leaky Cauldron was to your liking?"
He ground his teeth, hating the anticipation of the impending lecture. On a dangerous whim, he grinned cheekily at the Headmaster. "Actually, Albus, the peppermint ice cream at Fortescue's has been the highlight of my day. Perhaps you should request the recipe for the house-elves."
For an instant, Dumbledore's eyes lost their bland stare, and he witnessed the icy rage he had sensed in Godric's Hollow. Then, in the space of a blink, the mask of congeniality returned.
"It must be extraordinary indeed to receive such praise from you. Perhaps I should request the recipe if only to keep you from tearing about the countryside with Rose Potter. There are rules and procedures which must be followed for a teacher to take a student off the grounds."
"I'd trust you to remember that I am not merely Rose's professor, but her guardian. Taking her off the grounds—"
"Is still not allowed without several forms signed in triplicate, guardian or no!" he thundered. "What in Merlin's name were you thinking, my boy? Do you realize the commotion you caused? Minerva was worried sick! We'd been searching for you for hours! I was just about to get the Ministry involved! Imagine my surprise when the wards I'd placed around Godric's Hollow informed me of her presence."
Taking a long, slow breath, Dumbledore pressed his fingers together before regaining his composure. "Under any other circumstances, I would applaud your compassion. I'm certain that Rose has suffered greatly from the insidious lies perpetrated by Rita Skeeter. Might I remind you, however, that Voldemort grows stronger with each passing day. What if he had laid a trap for her there? Even one such as he recognizes the temptation to revisit the past. You would have been helpless to—"
It was his turn to thunder. "I am not helpless! And the Dark Lord is little more than a shade at this point! He is dependent on that rat Pettigrew to maintain his tenuous hold on life."
Reining in his temper, he sat wearily across from his mentor. "I admit that taking Rose to Godric's Hollow was a decision made in haste, but it was not a hasty decision. I considered the possibility that the house might have been a trap. However, I concluded that it was far more likely to be so in the future. She deserved to see, Albus. She needed to understand the sacrifice Lily and James made for her. She needed to see her parents' graves."
Inexplicably, the Headmaster sagged, briefly resting his head in his hands. "Oh, my boy. My poor boy. What am I to do with you?"
His reaction stunned the younger wizard, who for once didn't attempt to hide behind his stern façade. "I don't understand."
Blue eyes met black. Snape had never witnessed the torment in his mentor's expression as he did at that moment.
"And, I hope you never do. Severus, I beg you trust me on this. I know that you do not approve of Rose's participation in the TriWizard Tournament, but it is imperative she enter. I simply need more time. My research is not yet complete. There are actions which must be taken before Rose has any chance of defeating Voldemort. I fear once he regains power it will be too late."
"Too late for what?" he demanded, shaken by the old man's sudden change in mood. "What actions must be taken? She must kill or be killed. As much as I despise that part of the prophecy, it is rather straightforward."
The images of the former Headmasters hovered anxiously in their portraits as Dumbledore grew broodingly silent. The younger wizard didn't move lest he influence Albus' somber reflection. Long after Snape believed the Headmaster had chosen not to respond, he posed a chilling question.
"What do you know of Horcruxes?"
He stared at Fawkes' perch, certain he had not heard correctly. When it finally registered in his numb brain that Dumbledore had asked exactly what he'd feared, he quickly put the pieces together.
"That is how the Dark Lord has survived all these years? He has hidden a piece of his soul?"
"Ah, so you are familiar with the term. Excellent, then I do not have to waste my breath with unnecessary explanation."
Clamping his mouth shut, Severus bit back an expletive. How dare Albus speak so calmly, his eyes back to their infuriating twinkle? "Do not try my patience, old man. This isn't an academic exercise, but Rose's life."
The twinkle disappeared. "I am only too well aware of that, Severus."
He clutched the arm of the chair. "Then tell me you have discovered the vessel which holds the Horcrux. I assure you; I can find a way to destroy it."
He thought he heard one of the portraits snigger in the background. He ignored it until Dumbledore sternly addressed it. "That is quite enough, Phineas."
Phineas Nigellus Black didn't seem at all intimidated by the powerful wizard's admonishment. Perhaps portraits had no sense of self-preservation, or perhaps this particular portrait mirrored his namesake's personality better than most. According to accounts written by his contemporaries, the Slytherin had been exceedingly blunt, bordering on cruel.
"You might as well tell him, Dumbledore. He already suspects that you aren't as wise and all-knowing as you pretend to be."
"Might I remind you, Phineas, that you could just as easily hang in Mr. Filch's office as mine."
Had Dumbledore just threatened a portrait? Snape couldn't quite comprehend the obvious hostility the two shared. He couldn't dispute the result, however. Black disappeared in a huff. Returning his attention to the wizard seated across from him, he asked the obvious question. The Headmaster reluctantly reached into his desk drawer to pull out a small black book with a gaping hole in the middle.
"Riddle's diary," Snape supplied. "Are you suggesting it contained a Horcrux?"
"It is not a suggestion, my boy, but a simple fact. Rose explained that the young Tom Riddle fed off Ginerva Weasley's life force. The weaker she became, the more solid he appeared. Riddle bragged that as soon as she died, he would live. How else do you explain such a thing?"
Snape thought of all the Dark objects and spells he knew, which took several minutes. Finally, he conceded defeat. "Clearly, I cannot. I would then argue that having no corporeal form, the Dark Lord should have perished once the Horcrux had been destroyed."
"And, yet, we have evidence to the contrary."
Damn the insufferable old coot! How long had he known? Since the end of Rose's second year? Was that why he had been so insistent upon returning Rose to Privet Drive? As dispassionately as he could, Severus countered, "Then, we must conclude he created more than one."
"And therein lies the conundrum, Severus. I know for a fact that Voldemort liked to keep trophies, even as a young child. His interest in the Founders has at times bordered on obsession. As you know, he was employed for a short time at Borgin and Burkes, where I suspect he abused his position to acquire two ancient artifacts, Slytherin's locket and Hufflepuff's cup. It is likely that he created Horcruxes with both, but even I cannot guess at the exact number he has made."
His thoughts flew to Rose, and a dread chill settled in his heart. He could shape her into the most powerful witch of her age or any other, and still the bastard would survive. She would be forced to live in a constant state of near paranoia as she waited for Voldemort's next attack. If the Horcruxes were not found and destroyed, she would never know her dream of a normal life.
"It is hopeless, then."
"Not quite." The Headmaster peered at him benevolently, his blue eyes sparkling over his half-moon spectacles. "I cannot guess at the exact number, but I believe there is someone who can."
Severus asked whom simply to keep the waiting to the minimum. He hated when the old man turned coy. Pleased that he played along, Dumbledore's smile widened.
"Horace Slughorn. And, I have you to thank for bringing him back to Hogwarts. He is to be Pansy Parkinson's Potions tutor."
He sneered in disbelief. "You're more likely to get gold from a goblin."
"Undoubtedly. Which is why I have no intention of asking. You will."
That settled it. The bearded old man sitting in front of him had finally gone insane.
"He wants you to do what? Merlin, Snape, has he gone completely mad? This is Slughorn we're talking about. I'd have a better chance of getting an answer to that question than you do. He despised you. In fact, I'd have a much better chance. Let me do it."
Deep in the Forbidden Forest, long shadows hid Sirius Black's face, but Snape could almost hear his look of incredulity. For once he didn't take offense. Severus had excelled in Potions in spite of his former professor rather than because of him. Too poor to interest the man for his family connections, his carefully concealed talent had been ignored until Slughorn had received his O.W.L. results. By then, the resentful young Slytherin had wanted nothing to do with the wizard, and had told him so in rather harsh terms.
"Who said I had any intention of asking? Albus interrogated each of Riddle's former teachers. Horace Slughorn was the only one to suggest the Dark Lord expressed any interest in Horcruxes. He claims, however, to have warned him off the subject. Asking again will only make that idiot more defensive."
Severus glowered, but the relative darkness rather spoiled the effect. "I am astounded yet again by your obtuseness, Black. Asking politely is not the only method of interrogation at my disposal. Rest assured, I will discover any secrets the insufferable boor is hiding and leave it at that."
"I believe you," he chuckled dryly. "In fact, I'll help you hold him down while you pour the Veritaserum down his throat. Better yet, I'll give him a bottle of Ogden's finest and spike it myself. Ol' Sluggy's always been partial me."
"And, isn't that a lovely image?"
Sirius barked with laughter, which only irritated the other wizard. At times, he found Black's sense of humor tedious. With his head pounding from Minerva's dressing down, he detested it. Subconsciously, he chose the one topic he knew the other man wouldn't find at all funny.
"It isn't Slughorn I'm worried about at the moment." He pulled out Lupin's missive and thrust it into Black's hands. "It's that despicable wolf. What right does he have to judge Rose? If he ever owls her again, I shall hunt him down and chop his body into little bits."
Casting Lumos, Sirius quickly scanned the letter. When he finally spoke, there was no hint of frivolity in his voice. "I'm certain Remus didn't intend to sound this harsh, Severus. Although, I can certainly see why it would have upset Rose."
"Lupin is a coward. I tire of you pretending he's anything else. Though, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Once a Marauder always a Marauder, eh, Black?"
Instead of answering, the annoying mutt paced between two trees, his head bent in thought. Sneering, Snape wondered how long it would take him to come up with a suitably sarcastic reply.
"Severus . . . ." Far from derisive, Black sounded unusually tentative. "It's not a question of choosing you over him. Remus hasn't seen what . . . . Fuck, this is coming out all wrong."
"Get to the point, mutt."
Black let out a loud huff of air through his nose. "I don't know how to say this without being indelicate, but, Rose considers you to be her father, and anyone with eyes can understand why. If there happens to be more truth to that than you would care to admit, I would never presume to judge."
Much later, after he had calmed enough to reflect rationally on Black's speech, Severus would be humbled by the man's willing acceptance of such a situation, mistaken though he was. In the heat of the moment, however, only one thought drove him.
"How dare you even suggest that Lily was unfaithful to her marriage vows! She would never have done such a thing!"
Rather than patiently enduring his chastisement, Black grew inexplicably angry. "Why? Because it might knock her off that pedestal where you keep her memory? Well, let me tell you something, Snape; she wasn't perfect, far from it! Lily was quick to anger and slow to forgive. James idolized her, but even I knew they had married too young. She used to fly into jealous rages whenever his work took him away overnight. Once, she accused him of sleeping with Amelia Bones! She had matured by the time Rose was born, but when she found out she was pregnant, she slapped James so hard it sent his glasses flying. She accused him of Confunding her when she performed the Contraceptive Charm. So, excuse me for entertaining the idea that she might have decided to renew her relationship with you at some point. She and James fought constantly until Rose came along. The only thing Lily enjoyed more than fighting with him was the sex that followed when they patched things up."
Severus wanted nothing more than to blast such words from the insufferable mutt's mouth, but he didn't think Rose would forgive him for killing her godfather. Instead, he ignored the outrageous lies along with the accuser. Turning sharply on his heel, he swept out of the Forbidden Forest, his black robes billowing behind like a trail of angry smoke.
Extremely out of sorts, Severus skipped dinner in favor of brewing Potions. He made enough Burn Healing Paste to coat the entire school. It didn't improve his mood. Lily wouldn't have acted that way, not to Potter, not when she'd spent all of seventh year fawning all over him like . . . like many of the immature, insecure teens he taught every year. Lily wasn't . . . he didn't want to think about it. He wouldn't think about it.
Rose didn't come by his quarters like he had expected her to that evening. After suffering through several hours of anxiety, he checked on her whereabouts with the Marauders' Map. It showed her in the Gryffindor Common Room along with Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, and the Weasley twins. Since he couldn't think of a safer place for her, he pushed his worry to the side.
For the sake of thoroughness, he checked to make sure the blasted mutt had returned to the castle. Black's name appeared next to Draco's in the boy's dormitory. On impulse, he searched for Parkinson's name and found her alone in the Slytherin Common Room. Not for the first time, he wished the map would show a visual image of the witch or wizard in question, but he finally put it down once he convinced himself that no stranger lurked in the hallways.
He reluctantly went to bed near midnight. If only he could brew a potion that would allow him to forego sleep safely. There was so much to do, so much to think about, and he truly feared that they lived on borrowed time. Even so, he was snoring within minutes only to be woken up several hours later by the sound of fists pounding on his door.
A pajama clad Rose stood in the open doorway. Barefoot, glasses askew, her hair a fright, she threw herself into his arms.
"He was so angry! He told Pettigrew that it all made sense. That you wouldn't have asked for the life of a mudblood otherwise. He believes it, Dad. He believes it. Voldemort's going to kill you!"
It was too much. The irony of the situation briefly overtook him. He threw back his head and laughed.
Author's Notes - Well, I can only hope the chapter was worth the wait. The balance of power between Dumbledore and Snape will continue to play a large role in this story, although I'd give Severus the upper hand for the moment. He's finally gotten a confession of sorts from the Headmaster, although it's tempered by the realization that Dumbledore withheld his suspicions for so long.
And, no, I'm not trying to make Lily look bad. Most couples marrying at such a young age are going to have their share of problems. As Sirius stated, she had matured greatly by the time Rose was born. (Plus, he considered James a brother and would be more likely to see any conflict from his perspective.) Severus does tend to idolize her, though, so any negative comment about her is likely to set him off.
Thanks so much for your patience! Reviews are greatly appreciated and will be answered in a more timely manner from now on.