Title; Captive Honor

Author; Morgana

Pairing; none, mentoring fic

Rating; R.

Disclaimer; Severus Snape and Harry Potter is (c)copyright of J.K. Rowling. No copyright infringement is intended.

Warning; this story has certain references to what could be considered torture.

Homepage; .

Email address for FB; morganalebeau

Summary; Severus Snape walks a tight rope while acting as Dumbledore's spy and pretending to be the Dark Lord's confidante.

Captive Honor

Madness comes and madness goes
An insane place, with insane moves
Battles without, for battles within
Where evil lives and evil rules
Breaking them up, just breaking them in
Quickest way out, quickest relief wins
Never disclose, never betray
Cease to speak or cease to breathe
And when you kill a man, you're a murderer
Kill many, and you're a conqueror
Kill them all...Ooh...Oh you're a god!

(Megadeth)

"Albus, I urge you to reconsider. You should teach Potter Occlumency yourself. I am a bad choice. That boy doesn't trust me and you know from personal experience what it does to you when your mind is invaded like that." Severus studied the older wizard closely and hoped that Albus would relent, but a part of him wondered if Albus was also doing this in order to punish him for past choices – wrong choices which he had made and that had resulted in two deaths. Severus wanted to stop the boy – at all cost – from finding out the truth. Should Potter be successful in this undertaking there was a fair chance that the youngster would also manage to glance at his memories. Severus knew that.

"Severus, I can't. You must be the one to do it. I regret that I can't offer you a more detailed explanation, but it must be you." Albus wished there was another way, but it was imperative that Severus taught Harry. "I have the utmost faith in you."

Severus growled in response. "I know what I am capable of, and would it be anyone but Potter, I would have expected little difficulty teaching them, but you know that we don't get along. For this to work he has to trust me and that will never happen!"

Albus moved toward the desk, selected a lemon drop that looked especially promising, and popped it into his mouth. "Maybe then you should reconsider the request you made that night. Maybe Harry should know to what extent you went to in order to protect his family. He doesn't know that you still risk your life each day, just in order to keep him alive." Albus had brought up the matter before and had felt irritated because Severus continued to deny him. "That boy should know the truth."

"Never!" Severus hissed the word. "We made a pact back then and you will abide to the rules! No one can know and most certainly not the boy!" He was already angry with Albus for making him teach Potter Occlumency and now the old wizard was bringing up their old argument as well. "No one can know- that was my sole condition and you accepted it!"

Albus sighed and suddenly lost all appetite regarding sweets. He pushed the bowl containing the lemon drops out of reach and then sat down behind his ancient desk, all the while studying the younger wizard. Severus' need to do penance for his part in the Potter murder had always served him well, but lately he wondered if remaining silent was the best for Severus, and Harry, for that matter. Should they remain ignorant of each other's needs and feelings? Maybe it was that particular dilemma which had prompted him to command Severus to teach the boy Occlumency – hoping the experience would bring them closer together.

"I must insist that you carry out my order, Severus." Severus' curt nod told him that he would be obeyed, but Severus would continue to fight him over this and many other issues. "See to it that you start tonight. The Dark Lord is learning too much about us through the boy. Harry must learn to lock him out."

"You *do* realize how powerful a Legilimens the Dark Lord is? You can't expect Potter to build shields in just a matter of hours! It took me months to accomplish that, and even you can't believe the boy is that talented." He hadn't wanted to sound jealous, for he truly didn't feel that way, but Albus was getting under his skin.

"His shields must hold the next time Voldemort looks into his mind." It was important on many accounts.

"I will do my best, though I can't vouch for anything." Severus had the uncanny feeling that trying to teach Potter Occlumency would end in disaster, but he also knew Albus well enough to know the older wizard wouldn't change his mind. "Trust my words, this will end in chaos," he whispered, but still making sure Albus heard. As expected, the older wizard barely reacted. Albus merely nodded and then raised his hand in order to indicate that their conversation had ended. Severus gathered his robes closer around him and slammed the door behind him on his way out. He was therefore still in a foul mood when he grabbed Harry and pulled him along.

/

"Concentrate, Potter!" How many times had he already reminded the boy? Instead, Potter stared at him in shock. He had already penetrated the boy's mind several times and had met with no resistance. "Do you think the Dark Lord will retreat like I did just now? He will pounce on you, tear your mind apart as he sees fit! He will be the master, and you merely his puppet. Control your emotions, Potter! Discipline your mind!" He had known it would never work; Potter didn't trust him and the boy never would!

Harry stared at Snape in utter hatred. Snape had been relentless and Harry had lost all sense of time during the attacks on his mind. How long had they lasted? How long had he already sat here, shaking himself to pieces out of rage and fear? How dare Snape invade his mind like that? How dare he have the audacity to claim that he knew how to block those attacks? Until that very day he had never heard of Occlumency before and yet Snape demanded he mastered it! "Leave me alone!" he screamed, though he knew it was useless. Snape wouldn't stop, and the worst thing was, they were doing this on professor Dumbledore's orders! What had possessed the old wizard to appoint Snape as his teacher? Couldn't professor McGonagall had taught him instead? Why Snape? Why the bully from Hell?

"Potter, begging won't get you anywhere, now concentrate or we will be here all night! Calm your mind! Control your emotions and lock me out!" He hadn't thought it possible, but he pitied the boy. Although Harry was the spitting image of James, the boy didn't deserve any of this. It was necessary of course, he agreed with Albus in that aspect, but he would have handled the situation differently had it been up to him. It didn't matter much to Severus that Potter most certainly hated him even more by now – he had made his peace with being hated, but what did get to him was that he had to hurt the youngster unnecessarily. If only Albus would listen!

"You're worse than Voldemort! I hate you!" Harry's rage and his fear for having his mind invaded again made him lash out. And part of it was true; but he didn't per se hate Snape – he hated the whole way his life had turned out!

Snape called on his discipline in order to keep from lashing out in turn. He was telling the boy to control his emotions, but in the meantime, he had allowed his to wreck havoc. After smoothing the anger from his mind, he directed his wand at Potter and said, "Legilimens!" doing his best not to invade Harry's mind too violently. But he had known this would happen! Had known they would both end up losing their temper!

Snape was back in his mind, seeing things that should have been kept hidden from everyone. Harry gasped and tried to push Snape's presence from his thoughts, but the older wizard was too strong. The assault continued and he grew desperate; how was he supposed to keep Voldemort out if he couldn't even lock out Snape? After what seemed like an eternity, Snape finally withdrew from his mind, leaving him shaken to the core. "I hate you," Harry whispered, needing to say the words. He hated Dumbledore for demanding this of him; Snape for entering his mind so brutally and Voldemort for marking him as his enemy when he had only been a baby. What had he done to deserve this?

Severus drew in a deep breath and succeeded in calming his emotions. Harry was letting him see everything. There wasn't a single memory or thought which Potter had managed to hide from him. He had always known that Petunia was a vengeful woman, but he had hoped that she hadn't taken out her jealousy on the boy. But he suspected that Petunia had never forgiven her sister for being special. When he had told Lily so all those years ago, she had accused him of being mean, but he had always known he had spoken the truth. There was a reason why Harry Potter was an outcast in his own home.

"Enough, please," Harry begged. He didn't think he would survive another invasion. Snape doubtlessly enjoyed seeing him in this much pain, and pleading with his teacher would probably get him nowhere, but he had to try. Maybe Snape would have mercy on him – highly doubtful, but still…

"Yes, enough for tonight. You have a lot of work to do. You need to figure out how to lock me out, Potter, or the Dark Lord will truly use you as he sees fit. Trust me; he won't give you a chance to recover. He will tear your very soul apart and trample on the pieces."

Something in Snape's voice made Harry focus and study the older wizard intently. All this time, Snape had looked angry and frustrated because he couldn't work out how to defend himself against the attacks, but now he thought he heard another emotion as well; pity. He always avoided looking Snape in the eyes, but this time, he sought out the other man's gaze and Harry gasped at seeing the pain in them. Snape had let his guard down, something Harry hadn't thought possible, and for the first time in all those years, Harry wondered. What had happened to Snape to put that anguish in his eyes? And suddenly, Harry wanted to find out. "Legilimens," he called out after having slipped his wand into his hand and pointing it at Snape.

Severus growled in shock, not expecting the attack. He tightened his shields to their maximum and threw Harry out of his mind before the boy saw even a single memory. Damn, that had been close! He should have expected something like that and it served as a warning to never underestimate an opponent again. "Try that again, Potter, and you will regret it until the day you die."

Harry believed Snape; the older wizard could make his life even more miserable than it already was. Quickly, he decided on a different course of action. "You want me fight back, don't you? And when I do, you don't like it?" Maybe attack was the best defense in this case.

"Potter," Severus growled through gritted teeth, still reeling from the impact. Harry's power had taken him aback; he hadn't thought Potter could attain such focus! "I am here to teach you how to defend you – not how to attack the Dark Lord!"

"Why not? I mean, what good does being able to defend myself do if I can't attack?" Harry felt frustrated that Snape had been able to deflect his attack so easily. He had hoped to glance at some of the older wizard's memories, but Snape's mind was tightly sealed off.

Severus prayed for patience and once more cursed Albus for making him do this. "Because if you focus on attack, your mind is wide open and the Dark Lord will read your every thought!"

Harry had the odd feeling that Snape was speaking out of personal experience. The conversation, although carried on in a chilled tone, had settled his nerves somewhat and he managed to calm down. He felt more in control and was determined not to let Snape get under his skin again. "And how do you know that?" The question hung in the room for some time and Snape didn't seem inclined to answer it. Harry realized he had overstepped some sort of boundary.

"Go to your room. Clear your mind before you go to sleep and if you can manage, Potter, meditate!" Severus wondered how much he had let slip; he was quite certain that he had thrown Potter out before he'd had a chance to look at his thoughts, but something in those eyes warned him that the youngster might be on to something. He wanted Potter out of the room so he could compose himself and clear his mind in turn. Being this angry wasn't good.

"But," Harry wasn't sure why he was objecting. He had wanted out all this time, and now that he had been given permission, his curiosity got the better of him.

"I said, get out!" Severus carefully dosed the amount of anger in his voice; it had to be enough to make Potter comply, but not scare him to death. After all, there would be more lessons and the more the boy hated him, the harder it would be to teach him.

Harry shakily got to his feet. He was stunned to realize just how weak the session had left him and he couldn't help but wonder if Snape felt equally weakened. "Sir," he started, but then stopped talking when Snape suddenly started rubbing his lower arm in obvious discomfort.

"Get out!" Severus howled, as he needed to rid himself of Potter's presence. Out of all the possible moments, why did the Dark Lord have to summon him now? His mind was still a mess, his shields weakened, and he highly doubted he would be in control of his thoughts in time to confront Voldemort. He couldn't answer the summons – not yet.

Harry considered offering his support upon seeing Snape stagger on his feet, but then thought better of it. Snape would never allow it, and if he was honest, he didn't feel particularly inclined to help the man who had just tormented him. "Yes, sir," he said instead and stumbled over to the doorway, all the while watching Snape, who was now scratching his arm through the fabric of his sleeve. Serves him right, Harry thought, for making me suffer. Knowing Snape was in pain made him feel better. Harry quickly moved out of the room, rested his back against the cold wall, and fought for composure. I hope Voldemort hurts you like you hurt me!

/

Severus knew that the Dark Lord would make him pay for being late, but had he left right after being summoned, he wouldn't have been able to lock Voldemort out of his mind. The Dark Lord was known for his tendency to search his servants' minds. Severus knew that there was a price to pay when he finally approached his dark master. He went down on his knees, knowing it would be best to throw himself at Voldemort's mercy.

"Severus," Voldemort said, speaking softly, but with a dangerous edge to it. "You are late – inexcusably late. All Death Eaters are required to join me when summoned. It took you over an hour to join me."

At hearing Voldemort's tone, Severus knew he was going to pay dearly for being late. "I am sorry, my Lord, but I couldn't leave Hogwarts right away. Dumbledore would have grown suspicious." He doubted the explanation would help lighten his punishment. Voldemort was incapable of any feelings except for the ecstasy the Dark Lord felt when his victim's agony reached him. Severus often thought that it didn't matter much what a particular victim had done to merit his punishment – he suspected Voldemort would find a reason, no matter what, just to relish the victim's pain. And in this particular case, he was going to be the one in pain.

"Then make it so that you can leave! I am fed up with your excuses," Voldemort hissed. "You serve *me* and you would do well to remember that, Severus."

The silence that suddenly cut through the room alarmed Severus. He didn't fear Voldemort while the Dark Lord was talking; it was when the dark wizard grew quiet that things got uncomfortable. "I will do so the next time, my Lord." He knew better than to ask for forgiveness. Voldemort would only retaliate with more chastisement if he did. "I accept my punishment." Severus had learned a long time ago, that Voldemort liked that reply best. It didn't mean the punishment would be less severe though.

"Yes, you must be punished, Severus. You must remember who your true master is…"

The way Voldemort ended that sentence made Severus tighten his shields to the best of his ability. The Dark Lord had a habit of lowering his voice before attacking. Qualities like that made him valuable as a spy – he was able to read people's moods just by listening or watching them. The full force of Voldemort's anger crashed into him and made him sway on his knees. The Dark Lord threw everything he had at him, trying to get past his shields in order to see for himself if his servant was still loyal. It took Severus every ounce of his strength, but he opened his shields slightly in order to allow Voldemort to look at certain, pre-selected images; images that would hopefully assure the Dark Lord of his loyalty. He had spent half an hour constructing them and now he fed Voldemort images of him teaching a class and then being summoned right in the middle of it. He hoped Voldemort would believe that concern for his students had been the reason why he had been unable to comply right away.

Warm droplets of blood dripped from his nose and fell onto his hand. His heart thundered loud enough for his ears to catch its echo. He had to endure the pain! Voldemort had to believe he was still loyal! It took all of his strength not to pass out, and when Voldemort stopped his probing, he collapsed onto the floor, blood flowing from his ears and eyes as well, leaving him half deaf and momentarily blinded.

"Maybe you had a valid reason to be late," Voldemort drawled, "maybe not."

Severus knew he wouldn't get off that easily. Voldemort had merely started to remind him where his loyalty should lie. The Dark Lord didn't care about students harming themselves in potions class, didn't mind if the children blew up part of the castle, but Severus had to use those things as a means of explaining his actions. Dumbledore would care and so he had to pretend to care as well. He could only hope Voldemort believed him. Severus knew better than to lift his gaze in order to find out Voldemort's plans for him. The Dark Lord wanted to see him cower and so he acted his part.

"Flagrate," Voldemort whispered in his most deadly voice.

As droplets of drying blood still clung to his eyelashes, Severus was unable to see the Dark Lord's exact movements, but when Voldemort's wand touched his throat, he nearly passed out due to the scorching sensation that burned his skin.

/

"Harry, what happened to you? You look a mess!" Ron quickly hurried over to his friend and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Did Snape do that? The bastard!"

Harry wasn't inclined to correct Ron as he felt pretty much the same way about Snape. "I hate him, Ron. I hate him!" Aided by Ron, he sat down and rested his head back against the comfort of the chair. "You're right; he is a total bastard!"

"What did he do?" Hermione joined them and offered Harry the cup of tea, which she had been pouring for herself when her friend had entered the common room, which was, thankfully, empty save for the three of them.

"Snape claims he wants to teach me Occlumency! But he tore himself a way into my mind! At least that is how it felt! I couldn't think straight anymore, Hermione. Everywhere I looked, I saw his face and I *felt* him move through my mind. "Harry shivered; it had been the worst violation in his life. "I promise I will make him pay for what he did!" In his fantasy, he was making Snape cower in fear on the floor, and when the older wizard begged for mercy, Harry felt great pleasure at hurting Snape even more. "He had no reason to do that! Snape went on about Voldemort being even more ruthless, but honestly, I can't imagine that!"

Hermione remained quiet for a moment and carefully considered her reply before saying, "There is no set method to learn Occlumency, Harry. I researched it once and I remember the books pointing out that each wizard needs to find his own means of defense. What Snape did was unforgiving, but I am not sure there is a good way to teach someone Occlumency."

"Don't you defend him!" Ron said in an angry voice. "We know that Snape hates Harry and that he enjoys hurting him."

Ron's words hit a cord with Harry. Now that he thought about it, Snape hadn't looked like he had been enjoying himself, had he? Now that Snape was gone and Harry felt safe with his friends, he was able to examine what had happened more rationally. "He didn't seem to want to teach me. He was reluctant."

"Did you get back at him? Even in the smallest way?" Ron asked hopefully.

"I copied him and tried to direct the spell at him, but he instantly threw me out of his mind. I am no match for him," Harry said, his anger finally lessening.

"Only a person who has mastered Occlumency can teach one," Hermione said thoughtfully. "You don't know for how long Snape has been perfecting those skills." Hermione paused, and then added, "He would need them to be perfect—most certainly as a spy, and you know what Dumbledore keeps telling us; that we should trust professor Snape."

"But Dumbledore never gives us a reason why!" Ron shook his head. "Hermione, Snape is a double-agent. He claims he's working for Dumbledore when in truth he's spying for you know who!"

"His name is Voldemort," Harry remarked in an absentminded way. "You need to get used to calling him that." By not calling Voldemort by his name, Ron was merely increasing the dark wizard's power, at least, that was the way Harry saw it. Harry was about to sip from the tea when a terrible headache made him sway on the chair. It felt like someone had just buried an axe in his skull.

"Harry!" Hermione caught the tea cup and quickly disposed of it. She wrapped her arms around Harry and steadied him, making sure he couldn't fall. "What's wrong?"

"Headache!" Harry folded his arms around his head, but it didn't lessen the sudden pain. He was growing nauseous and could have sworn he tasted blood on his lips, but when he checked, he didn't detect any. "This is Snape's fault!" The constant and brutal probing of his mind must be why he was currently in such pain. "I need to lie down!" His two friends helped him stretch out on the floor and Harry wished the agony would end. The pain eventually forced him into action and he tried to follow Snape's instructions. He managed to clear his mind, push back his anger, and once he had done that, the pain first lessened and then disappeared. Cautiously, he sat up and blinked in surprise. He hadn't thought he could do that!

"We'll get back at Snape for that!" Ron said angrily. "We'll tell Dumbledore and then—" He stopped short when Harry's gaze suddenly cleared. "What?"

"I feel like I am on fire…" Harry realized all of a sudden. It felt like his skin was burning, but the sensation was merely unpleasant and thankfully not painful. "I don't understand any of this."

"Snape has a lot of explaining to do!" Ron jumped to his feet. "I'll go to Dumbledore and he will make Snape put everything right again!"

"Shut up, Ron! Can't you see you're not helping?" Hermione shook her head at Ron's antics. "Harry, can you describe what's happening?"

Harry was still trying to find out himself. It felt like he had managed to get the shields, which Snape had mentioned, in place. He knew – somehow- that the pain was still there, but somewhere at the outskirts of his mind and unable to reach him. The fire continued to rage there as well and he could almost see the flames trying to burn him. "This is…weird," he said eventually. He continued to concentrate until – finally – the sensations stopped. Harry didn't dare lower his shields yet, uncertain if the attack was completely over. But at least the attack had made him raise his shields and lock out the pain. Snape would have been proud of him, he realized, and instantly abhorred the thought. Maybe this was Snape's doing all along and the older wizard had attacked him from a distance, hoping that it would work better than being face to face. "It's over," Harry said, once he felt certain that he was safe once more.

"I still think we should tell Dumbledore!" Ron insisted. "I like him, but he's blind where Snape's concerned!"

"I already know what transpired, mister Weasley," Albus said as he entered the common room. "Harry, my boy, that was unexpected." He offered Harry his hand and pulled the youngster to his feet. "I never thought that it would affect you to such an extent, otherwise I would have intervened myself." He searched Harry's expression and felt reassured knowing the boy believed him. There was no need for Harry to know the truth just yet. "But you did well! You managed to block the attack, and even more, you stayed in control until the end. Severus taught you well!" Ron was about to speak up, but Albus wouldn't have it and raised a hand to silence the boy before Ron could say anything. "Mister Weasley, I realize you dislike professor Snape, but I can assure you that everything he does, he does for Harry's well-being. You can trust professor Snape – unconditionally."

Ron however merely glowered at the old wizard. It was obvious that he didn't believe Dumbledore. He was smart enough though to keep quiet.

Harry sat down on the chair and tried to make sense of what had happened. He remained confused though. "Professor, what *did* happen just now?"

Albus carefully considered what to tell Harry and what to hold back. "Your mind mingled with someone else's. You experienced his pain." That should do the trick.

Harry nodded thoughtfully. "I wish that amount of pain on no one."

"You do not?" Albus thought he remembered differently. "You should get some rest, Harry. Working with professor Snape tired you and deflecting this attack exhausted you further. Remember what professor Snape said, Harry, clear your mind before you go to sleep."

Still lost in thought, Harry nodded again. "I will do my best." Dumbledore turned around and left the common room. Harry finally looked at the retreating wizard. Something Dumbledore had just said, worried him, but he didn't know what exactly what.

/

"I do wonder why they put a challenging class like Potions on a Friday afternoon in our schedule." Hermione sighed, but collected her books nonetheless. "Everyone has run out of concentration and it's no wonder certain students end up unwillingly blowing up the classroom!"

Harry agreed. Potions was definitely a lesson they should have early in the morning and not as their last subject of the day –especially on Fridays! "I don't worry that much about surviving class though. You guys get the evening off. I have to meet Snape again tonight for another lesson." Although what happened last night can hardly be called a lesson, Harry thought.

"How is the headache, mate? Gone?" Ron scanned the corridor, already on the lookout for trouble, which might come in the form of Draco and his minions or Snape himself.

"It's gone, thankfully." Harry rubbed his brow and accidentally brushed his scar. "Meditating did help, Snape was right about that. I still hate it though." He had always found it hard to clear his mind or focus to begin with. They had reached the door to the dungeon and Harry drew in a deep breath, definitely not looking forward to facing Snape again. He was still angry with the man.

They silently made their way inside and headed for their seats. Harry looked the other way, unwilling to make eye contact with his nemesis yet, but then Hermione elbowed him in his side. "What was that for?" he asked, giving her a surprised look.

"Look at professor Snape," Hermione whispered. "He looks even worse than you."

His curiosity roused, Harry peeked at Snape and had to admit that Hermione was right. Snape, who already looked pale most of the time, looked extremely tired. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and he had even donned a heavy woolen scarf as if he was fighting a cold. The Potions Master didn't look up when the rest of the class entered, but continued to grade the papers in front of him. "You're right, Hermione, he looks bad."

"Serves him right!" Ron said smugly.

Harry wasn't so sure about that. Last night had been draining on him, so maybe it had taken its toll on Snape as well. When their teacher did look up, Harry closely studied him; something was different about Snape, but what was it?

"Turn to page 14. I will go easy on you today, not that any of you deserve it, but it is Friday afternoon and I don't want you to set fire to the castle. Do you hear me, Longbottom?" Neville shivered and quickly turned the pages in his book. "Today, I will only require you to create a very simple, very basic headache relieving potion. Make sure you don't waste any ingredients, Weasley. The instructions say to add two leaves of basil, not the whole bush!"

"He says he's going easy on us, but he's still in a foul mood," Ron commented, while glaring at his teacher.

Normally Harry would agree, but he wasn't so sure this time around. Snape didn't look angry – he looked exhausted. Hermione opened his book for him, looked up page 14 and told him to get started, which he did, but he kept one eye on Snape as well.

Severus felt their eyes on him; Potter, Granger, and even Weasley were closely studying him. Well, he should have expected it, but he couldn't be bothered by their scrutiny. His head still throbbed from the Dark Lord's probing and the burn on his throat was still visible, much to his dismay. He had treated it the moment he had returned to his rooms, but an injury like that needed time to heal. So he had donned a scarf, as not even his high-necked shirt managed to hide the injury.

Severus forced himself to stand; he did have to keep an eye on his students, Longbottom especially. Maybe he was a bit too hard on the boy, but he had to make sure that Neville came to no harm.

"He's heading over here," Hermione warned her friends. She cast a quick glance at Harry's potion and was relieved to see it looked alright. Ron's however had turned a ghastly shade of brown, something that shouldn't have happened. She was quite sure Snape would comment on it.

Severus headed for Neville first. Only once he was sure that the boy's potion was coming along fine, he moved on to check on the others. Suddenly, everything happened very quickly – too quickly maybe. Ron's cauldron started to shake, took off into the air, and sucked in the surrounding air –it was about to implode.

"Take cover!" Severus called out, already pointing his wand at the cauldron, but he was tired, and therefore he reacted a second too late. Although he managed to direct the brown, bubbling mass away from his students, part of it headed towards him instead. Biting down a curse, Severus jumped out the way the best he could, but one end of his scarf got hit by the sizzling liquid. The fabric instantly caught fire and Severus froze in memory – only for a moment, but still…

Harry however was already moving forward. He reckoned he would regret his actions later, when Snape started yelling at him for interfering, but that didn't stop him. "Aguamenti!" Water sprayed from his wand and onto the scarf, putting out most of the fire. He heard Snape vaguely cast a spell in order to take care of the remaining threat, but Harry was too busy pulling the scarf away from Snape. He quickly cast it aside and gave Neville a grateful smile when his friend put out the remaining flames. That had been a close call!

Silence descended onto the classroom, as all students held their breath awaiting Snape's lecture.

Severus drew in a deep breath and composed himself. So far today had been a bad day for many reasons. "Class dismissed, except for you, Potter. No one asked you to get involved, now you shall suffer the consequences."

Harry gasped at Snape. He had bloody well saved his teacher from getting burned! His eyes widened upon seeing the angry burn that ran across Snape's throat. But the flames hadn't touched Snape! He had put them out before they'd had a chance to burn their teacher! So where did that burn come from?

While the rest of the class silently left the dungeon, still thanking their good fortune, Hermione and Ron remained standing next to Harry. Severus noticed it and raised an eyebrow at them. "Didn't you hear me? I said, class dismissed."

"But sir!" Hermione took a step closer to Snape. "Harry helped! He didn't do anything wrong!" Then her voice caught, as she also noticed the burn. "Professor, you're hurt."

Severus had to muster every ounce of his discipline to stay in character. In order to give himself a moment to think, he picked up the remnants of his scarf. "Miss Granger, I told you to leave. If you don't want to face detention for the rest of the week, I suggest you collect Mister Weasley and do so!" He was far too tired for this!

Hermione glared at Snape, but then grabbed Ron's hand and pulled him along with her. As far as she was concerned this wasn't the end of it! Instead of closing the door behind her, she merely pushed it partly shut and then gestured for Ron to stand next to her. She put her finger against her lips and hoped Ron would understand. Thankfully he did and remained quiet, being just as curious as she was.

"Mister Potter," Severus said, forcing himself to act his part once more. He sat down on his chair and watched the boy closely. "Your interference was downright scandalous. You could have complicated the matter."

Harry eyed Snape with as much intensity as his teacher was eying him in turn. This time, Harry was determined not to let Snape bully him. "With all due respect, sir, but I made sure you didn't got burned *again*." For once he had carefully picked his words, and he knew they would hit home.

And they did. Severus barely managed to stop himself from touching his throat. He was very much aware of the fact that the burn showed above the collar. "A minor accident which took place yesterday when I was creating a new potion. Nothing to concern you with, Potter."

Harry's thoughts raced. Last night, he had been in pain and Dumbledore had told him it had been someone else's pain he had been experiencing. Could that someone have been Snape? Had their mental exchange earlier that day left some sort of connection in place, something Snape hadn't told him about? But no, he couldn't imagine Snape wanting to be part of such a thing. "That looks like a painful burn, sir." He wasn't giving up yet.

"Since when do you care about my well-being, Potter?" Severus knew he had to end this discussion quickly or else he might lose control over the situation. He was tired, his head ached, his throat burned, and he had to get some rest before trying to teach the boy Occlumency again. That was, if the Dark Lord didn't summon him in-between!

Harry wasn't sure how to answer that question. Maybe honesty would work best. "Last night I was ill. Not because of your lesson, sir," he said quickly, seeing Snape was about to intervene. "But because of what happened after that."

In spite of his fatigue, Snape asked, "Pray tell me, what did happen later that evening?"

"I had this terrible headache, sir. I had to lie down because the world kept spinning and I tasted blood on my lips, which was definitely odd as I wasn't bleeding! And then, I felt on fire, but my shields went up and—"

"Potter, stop babbling and pace yourself! I'm not in the mood for this!" How the hell had Potter come up with that? Severus shivered; the boy had described the pain he had been in when Voldemort had cursed him. "And no lies…"

"He isn't lying!" Ron lost his temper and stormed back into the dungeon. Hermione tried to stop him, but he was already out of her reach. "I don't know what you did to him, but he was in a bad way! His head ached and he couldn't even sit upright!"

"Mister Weasley," Severus said in a clipped voice. "And Miss Granger. Didn't I tell you to leave?"

"You did, but we won't let you call Harry a liar," Hermione said in a calm voice. "He isn't pretending."

Severus was growing tired of the situation. Even if, for some absurd reason, Potter had somehow shared his pain, he wasn't going to discuss it. "The three of you will return to your dormitories, or must I fetch Filch so he can escort you?" The way Ron glared at him would have amused him, hadn't he been so damn exhausted.

"Am I still going to meet with you tonight? For my lesson?" Harry wasn't prepared to let Snape off the hook so easily. Whatever had happened last night, it had happened to Snape, and somehow, he had felt the man's pain. He wanted to know why he had experienced Snape's agony.

"Regrettably," Snape snapped. "Be punctual, Potter." He was letting his frustration get in the way, but he was simply too tired to care.

"I will be there, sir." Harry continued to eye Snape for another minute. It was hard *not* to notice the man's exhaustion, even though Snape tried to hide it. Judging it unwise to provoke Snape further, Harry grabbed Ron and dragged his friend out of the classroom. As expected, Hermione followed suit.

Harry waited until he was certain that he was out of Snape's hearing range and then said, "Did you see it? That burn? He was using the scarf to hide it. If Ron's cauldron hadn't gone mad we would never have noticed!"

"I saw it," Hermione remarked calmly. "And I agree with you; he wanted to hide it from us. I always did wonder why he only wears high-necked shirts. And have you noticed those sleeves of his? They cover most of his hands. I always assumed it was just another one of his peculiarities, but now I am starting to wonder."

Harry nodded; both clothing items could hide a number of injuries. They simply had never considered that possibility before.

"What are you talking about? Harry, he tried to blame you when all you did was save him!"

Hermione sighed. "Ron, you are missing the point."

"Which is?" Ron wondered what the hell was going on and why they looked at him like that.

"Harry said it felt like he was on fire last night, after the headache had subsided," Hermione summarized for her friend. "And today, Snape's sporting a burn on his throat. A rather severe burn, I might add."

"Snape must have been in pain last night, and somehow, maybe because of that Occlumency lesson, I was still connected to him in one way or the other. Maybe that's why I had that experience." Harry shivered. "I do hope it won't happen again. Even if it was Snape who was in pain, I don't want him to suffer through that again." Harry grew quiet then, recalling the spiteful things he had thought right after Snape had let him go. He had actually hoped Voldemort would hurt Snape! Whatever had caused Snape to be in such pain, Harry was determined to find out. He might dislike the man, but no one should have to live through that amount of pain.

/

"You did well with the boy last night," Albus commented as he seated himself on a bench near a window. He sipped from his tea –licorice flavored- and smiled privately. Everything was going according to plan- his plan!

"Don't, Albus. We both know I messed up last night. I let my anger and frustration get the better of me." Severus stood next to the window and looked out over the Forbidden Forest. Albus had told him that Potter had managed to raise some defenses last night, but Severus wasn't convinced they would hold against the Dark Lord. "I don't know what happened, Albus. Potter shouldn't have been able to read my thoughts. We were too far apart for that; there was no eye contact and I didn't instigate the contact. As Potter doesn't know how to set up such a connection either, we can safely assume that something else has happened."

"The boy has a name, Severus. His name is Harry." Albus knew why Severus emotionally distanced himself from the youngster, but he still didn't agree with it. Maybe he was a bit late in trying to remedy it, but that had never stopped him before. Severus dismissed the comment with a flick of hand, but Albus couldn't help but wonder if he was starting to get through to the younger wizard.

"I don't care about the boy," Severus said from between gritted teeth. "He's the spitting image of his father and you know how much I hated James."

"Maybe, but you didn't hate Harry's mother." Albus finished his tea, rose from the bench, and joined Severus in looking out over the grounds. "Try to be a bit more compassionate when you start his next lesson. As you said yourself, there is nothing to be gained by feeding Harry's hatred of you. For this to work you have to allow for it to happen."

"You don't know what you're asking for," Severus whispered; the mere notion of revealing even the tiniest amount of his true emotions terrified him. "It's for the best that he hates me." Albus sighed and Severus hated hearing him do that. "Stop manipulating me, Albus." He was aware of the constant scheming on Albus' part, and most of the time, he allowed it, as Albus' goal was the same as his- the destruction of Voldemort and securing the survival of Harry Potter.

"Harry's here," Albus said the moment the castle let him know the boy had arrived. "You know what you must do, Severus. I have faith in you." Albus briefly patted Severus' shoulder, but carefully avoided any bruises or burns Voldemort had left behind. "Harry, my boy! You're right on time!"

Normally, Harry only had eyes for Dumbledore, but this time his attention immediately shifted to Snape. Therefore, he noticed the way Snape straightened his back, raised his head, and he could literally see the man adopt another expression – a whole different mindset so to speak. "Good evening, sir." Harry smiled at Dumbledore, but kept an eye on Snape as well. "Are you sure this is not too soon? I am not sure professor Snape is sufficiently rested." On his way over here he had carefully considered what to say and he had decided to opt for an aggressive opening, especially since Snape would not expect it.

Albus heard Severus' surprised intake of breath and knew Harry's remark had hit home. Well done, he commented in thought, but he was careful not to voice it. "Professor Snape might be a bit tired, you are right about that, but don't worry. Today's lesson will go much better than the first." Harry nodded and Albus smiled right back at the boy. Yes, he should leave this to Harry. "Try not to set fire to the office, Severus, will you?" He couldn't help making that last remark as he knew about the exploding cauldron. The glare Severus gave him told him not to push his luck and Albus quickly left for safer grounds.

"That wasn't a very nice thing of him to say," Harry started, trying to find out which approach would work best with Snape. "That was Ron's fault, not yours."

Harry's words took Severus aback and he reacted without thinking it over first, something that would have never happened had he been rested. "No, Dumbledore is right – I should have stopped that cauldron from exploding."

Harry cocked his head. "And why didn't you? Because you were tired?" And hurt, he added in thought, but he was careful not to add it, because something told him then he would be crossing a line if he did.

Severus hated admitting it, but it was rather obvious. "Yes, I am tired, is that what you want to hear, Potter?

Recognizing the first signs of growing anger in Snape, Harry quickly changed tactics. "Maybe then we should cut today's lesson short? As I said, I made progress last night. I managed to raise those shields you mentioned. I succeeded in locking out the pain, although I could still tell that this other person was in agony."

"Ah, yes, we should address that," Severus admitted. He still didn't know how it was possible for Potter to have shared his pain, but he had to make sure it didn't happen again. He sank onto Dumbledore's chair and motioned for Potter to join him. "Sit down," he instructed, pointing at another chair.

Harry pulled the other chair close and did as instructed. It was odd; last night Snape had terrified him and now the older wizard didn't scare him one bit. "And now what, sir?" Now that he sat rather close to Snape, he was able to get a good look at the burn, which still was an angry red. It really looked painful.

"I am going to invade your mind again, like last night. I want you to do what you did when you managed to lock out those foreign emotions." He had to find out how such a connection could have come about. He had never heard of it before.

"I will do my best," Harry said and prepared himself for Snape's attack. When the probing started, it didn't hurt like it had during that first lesson. Snape almost seemed gentle, but that made no sense, or did it? Just as gently, Harry raised his shields and expelled Snape from his mind. "Like that?" he asked, hoping he had pleased Snape. The older wizard did look rather stunned.

Albus had been right; Potter had made progress since their lesson. The shields were still rather weak, certainly compared to his or Voldemort's, but it was definitely a promising start. It also provided him with a problem; he didn't want to violate the boy's mind the way he had yesterday, but he had to know what had happened last night and so he found himself in an odd situation. If he truly wanted to find out what had happened yesterday, he had to ask Potter permission to search his mind and he was rather certain the boy would never allow it.

"Sir? Professor Snape? Is anything wrong?" Snape's expression worried him. He expected his teacher to grow enraged, to snarl and sneer at him, but instead all Snape did was stare at him in wonder. "Should I fetch professor Dumbledore?"

"That won't be necessary." It had taken him much too long to compose himself and Potter knew something was wrong. "I am merely surprised that you figured out how to protect yourself. You still have a long way to go, but…" Was he really praising Potter?

Harry realized the same thing. "Thank you, sir! I still don't know how I do it, but I am glad I'm doing it!"

Harry's genuine enthusiasm momentarily took Severus aback, but he forced himself to concentrate. "Potter, I am going to give you a choice here." He noticed the way the boy's shoulders tensed, and could very well imagine the alarm he felt.

"What kind of choice, sir?" He wondered what Snape was up to. Being offered a choice made him expect the worst and by judging the expression on Snape's face something unpleasant was about to happen.

"I need to find out what happened after our lesson. You shouldn't have been able to experience someone's pain and I need to find out why it did happen." He had to very careful as he didn't want to scare Potter –not this time, for he needed the boy to trust him just this one time.

"And what kind of choice are you talking about?" So far, Snape wasn't making any sense.

"I can either force myself a way into your mind or you allow me in and I can be…gentle about finding out." He hoped he had phrased that well. Come on, Potter, trust me, just this once! he thought.

Harry looked at Snape for a long time, trying to figure out what the older wizard was really up to. He would have loved to read Snape's thoughts that very moment, but that meant invading his mind without permission. "You won't look at other memories while you are inside my mind? I do want to keep some things private." The fact that Snape actually sighed in what was obvious relief made him frown. He had thought Snape would prefer to simply take the information from his mind, not even bothering with his consent!

"I will stay clear of other memories," Severus promised, and he berated himself for sounding too eager as he didn't want to worry Potter just yet.

"I reckon I will allow you to search my memories then – those regarding last night." Harry wasn't eager to go through the same experience he'd had yesterday. Snape ripping his mind apart once had been one time too many.

Severus nodded and leaned in closer. He had to be careful now; he had to focus on yesterday and find that certain memory.

Harry almost jumped out of the chair when Snape reached for him and placed the tips of his fingers against either side of his head. He expected Snape to stare him down, but oddly enough the man closed his eyes. Confused Harry waited for whatever was about to happen, but instead of the pain making a return he merely felt Snape brush against his mind. He felt relieved and relaxed, hoping doing so would make it easier for his teacher to find what he was looking for.

Severus carefully sorted through Harry's memories. He had promised not to look at other thoughts and he would keep his word – this time. When he finally happened upon the right memory, he watched the scene unfold. His worries increased when he realized that Harry had indeed felt Voldemort punish him and that puzzled him. He knew about Harry's connection with the Dark Lord and had assumed that, if Harry had indeed watched last night's scene, he would have taken Voldemort's perspective. Why then had he shared Severus' experience? Because the Dark Lord simply had nothing to gain from sharing his ecstasy with Harry- that was why! Voldemort had no reason to show Harry that particular incident. And it confirmed what Albus and he had thought all along; Harry only saw those incidents which the Dark Lord wanted him to see – nothing more.

"Professor Snape?" Harry grew worried at seeing the dark eyes growing glazed. What was Snape doing?

"I am sorry that you had to go through that," Severus whispered eventually, mostly angry with himself for somehow having connected with Potter when he had been tortured. The only excuse he could find was that he hadn't done it on purpose. "I will make sure it won't happen again." He pulled away and established an emotional and physical distance between them after doing so.

How could Snape promise such a thing? Except… Had he been right then? Had he somehow sensed Snape's pain? What had caused his teacher to be in such pain in the first place? "I talked it over with Hermione and Ron, and after seeing that burn, we wondered…" At the last moment, his courage left him.

Severus however had a good idea what Potter had been about to say. "You're wrong," he said at once. He had to stop the youngster from reaching the right conclusion. "I don't know what happened, or whose pain you experienced, but I will make sure it won't happen again."

"But that burn on your throat, sir, it wasn't there last night when we talked. It looks…new, and painful." Harry knew he was walking a fine line but he couldn't stop now. Snape was remarkably mellow and approachable and this might be the only shot he would get. "I owe you an apology," he said, hoping he was making the right decision.

"What for, Potter? For making my life a living hell?" But his heart wasn't in it and it showed in his voice. He hadn't wanted to hurt Potter, and although the words had been spiteful, his voice had portrayed remorse and worry instead.

Harry picked up at it at once. "When I left last night, I wanted you to suffer. I wanted you to hurt…" Now that he had said it, he prepared himself for Snape's undoubtedly angry reply, but nothing like that happened. Snape merely looked at him with tired eyes. "I want to apologize for that. It was uncalled for."

Severus knew he shouldn't reveal that much of himself, but at that moment he didn't care. "I was mean to you… It's only normal for you to hate me. Don't worry about it, Potter."

The bitter laugh that left Snape's lips made Harry shiver. All of a sudden he was seeing a side to Snape he had never known existed. It almost seemed like Snape cared. Harry was still searching for the right words which might make Snape open up further to him, when the older wizard jumped up from his chair and growled in pain. "Professor?" Harry swallowed hard, seeing Snape repeat last night's action; the older wizard was rubbing his arm where the Dark Mark burned his skin. Harry knew it was there, but had never mentioned it to his teacher. That was definitely one subject he was avoiding. "Professor Snape?" He tried to catch the older man's attention once more, but Snape seemed lost in his own world.

"I have to go – now." The Dark Lord wouldn't forgive him a second time if he was late. The punishment which he had received last night wouldn't compare to what Voldemort would do to him if he didn't answer the summons right away this time.

Harry grew worried; much to his surprise. "Is *he* calling you?" He thought it best not to mention Voldemort's name at that point.

"Yes," Severus admitted, lost in thought. "Potter, today's lesson is over." He headed toward the doorway, but before he left, he turned around and looked Harry in the eye. "Keep those shields up till I am back, do you hear me? I will send word the moment you can lower them."

Snape's words confirmed most of Harry's suspicions and strangely enough he worried for Snape. "You don't have to go, sir." Snape then laughed at him in such a bitter and poisonous way that it made his skin crawl.

"You have no idea what you're talking about, boy… Now raise those shields and keep them up!" He had already wasted precious time by instructing Harry and he quickly made his way into the corridor. He headed for the nearest window, opened it, and summoned his magic in order to take him to the Dark Lord's hiding place.

/

Harry felt strangely lost at being left behind in Dumbledore's office. Was he supposed to stay or return to the dormitories? He could really use Dumbledore's advice, but unfortunately the old wizard was nowhere in sight. Harry made his decision and got to his feet. He would rather be in the dormitory having Ron's support than sitting here by himself. It would probably take Snape some time to reach Voldemort so he didn't bother with putting up his shields just yet. He could still do that if needed.

He quickly made his way out of the office and returned to the common room, which proved much too crowded. After spotting Ron in the corner, he gestured for his friend to follow him. Once they were in their bedroom, Harry closed the door behind him. It would probably be smart to raise those shields now, but as he hadn't experienced anything out of the ordinary yet, he didn't think it necessary.

"What happened?" Ron sat at the foot end of the bed and watched Harry lean back against the headboard. "I didn't expect you to be back that quickly!"

"Voldemort summoned Snape – he had to leave." Harry blinked and stopped himself when he realized he was rubbing his lower arm at the exact same spot where Snape carried the Dark Mark. "I am fairly certain it was Snape who was in pain last night. He didn't admit it, but it is obvious if you read between the lines." Ron grinned and was about to say something, when Harry quickly stopped him. "No, Ron, you don't know how it felt. He was in agony. No one deserves that."

"In that case, I don't get it," Ron said as he pulled a pillow toward him and hugged it. "Why would he go back then? Maybe he's into pain?"

Harry glared at his best friend. "Don't be stupid! You saw him! You saw the state he was in!" But Ron had raised a good question; why did Snape go back, knowing what fate probably awaited him? He needed Hermione's wits, but she wasn't allowed into the boys' dormitory and he didn't feel comfortable sneaking out – not when anything bad could happen! "I don't know," he said eventually. "But Dumbledore always tells us to trust Snape – Snape is his spy… Maybe Dumbledore knows the answer." Finding out Snape's reasons for putting himself in danger was one thing, but Harry didn't need to know those answers right now. He only wanted to know Snape was alright.

/

Severus felt relieved at realizing that Voldemort had summoned most of the Death Eaters and not just him. Apparently the Dark Lord wanted to reassure himself of their loyalty. Loyalty; Snape almost gagged at the word. Half of the Death Eaters only obeyed Voldemort because they feared him. Lucius was certainly one of them. Only a few, like Bellatrix, were in it for the sheer pleasure of it – the pleasure of causing pain and draining life from a poor victim's soul.

The meeting ended and Severus was already heading for the exit when Voldemort's deceivingly silken voice called him back.

"Severus, a moment before you go."

Severus had served Voldemort long enough to know that the dark wizard had a reason for stopping him. "My Lord," he said with as much respect as he could manage as he headed back to Voldemort. Each word he spoke reminded him of the punishment he had taken last night as his throat still tightened painfully whenever he spoke. After carefully considering his master's mood, he judged it best to raise his head and look at him. "How can I be of assistance?" The piercing expression in Voldemort's eyes made him hope that Potter had raised his shields as instructed, although he still didn't understand how such a connection could have formed.

"I have been thinking about you, Severus, about your eagerness to serve me, which leaves much to be desired."

Severus tried to hide the alarm he felt at hearing those words. "My Lord, I can assure you that I am most eager." Voldemort's mood shifted ever so slightly and he knew it was imperative that he continued the eye-contact. Should he look away at that point, the Dark Lord would interpret it as betrayal.

"The information you have been supplying me with is insufficient."

"That is because not much has been happening at Hogwarts, but I assure you that I will tell you the moment Dumbledore reveals anything!" He had to appear eager, maybe even a tad insulted at hearing the dark wizard's accusation. Voldemort walked up to him and came to a halt in front of him, their faces only inches apart, and Severus had to force himself to stay in place. "You only need to say the words and I will carry out any command you give." It was a dangerous game he played, but then again, the stakes were incredibly high too.

"Lower you shields."

Severus hoped Potter had raised his defenses as instructed, but there was no way of making sure. "Of course, my Lord." Severus maintained eye-contact; knowing Voldemort would punish him if he looked away and prepared himself for being tested once more.

/

"Ron, I…" Harry tensed as pain suddenly slammed into him. He reacted on instinct and raised his shields, berating himself for not having done so right away.

"Harry? You okay?" Ron moved closer to his friend, who looked frozen all of a sudden. Worried, he placed a hand on Harry's shoulder and started to shake him, hoping to snap him out of it. "Harry!"

Ron's meddling had terrible consequences. Harry lost his concentration and his shields went down. The connection, which Snape had refused to acknowledge, came alive. But to his relief, the pain didn't return. Snape was in agony though, he knew that much, but instead of sharing the older wizard's pain, he shared his eyesight. Voldemort was truly an abhorring sight to behold. There was nothing even remotely human about him anymore. Tom Riddle had descended into darkness and his appearance had changed accordingly.

Snape had to be on the floor, for Voldemort was towering over him. The Dark Lord raised his wand, aimed it at him - no Snape - and opened his mouth. Harry wanted to know what Voldemort had said, but his experience was limited to sight only. His view became distorted because Snape was withering on the floor. Snape's hands, which sometimes moved in front of his face, made it hard for him to see. "He's in pain, Ron… Voldemort's doing it again."

"Should I get someone? McGonagall? Dumbledore? Madam Pomfrey?" Ron was about to panic at seeing the expression on his best friend's face. He wanted to help, but had no idea what to do. "I can get Hermione!" But at the same time, he realized he couldn't leave Harry alone –not like this. "Harry, tell me what to do!"

Harry however barely heard Ron as he tried to focus on Snape. He could literally see the silver thread that connected him to Snape. Should he rip it apart? He wasn't even sure he possessed the power to do so. Just as sudden as it had started, it stopped again. Harry felt the connection tremble and then die. It was over. Whatever had happened, it had caused that link to disappear. Harry drew in a deep breath and then grew aware of Ron who was shaking him once more. "Stop doing that!" Ron shaking him had been the thing to break his concentration in the first place!

"You're back! Mate, you scared me! The way you looked at me, it felt like you weren't here with me!"

"Mister Weasley, would you be as kind as to leave Harry and me alone for a moment?" Albus had watched during the last few seconds and had found it hard not to interfere, but what had happened, had been necessary. Now he had to take the next step in guiding Harry onto the path he had set out for the boy.

"Professor Dumbledore! I'm really glad you're here! Harry—"

But Albus cut him short. "I need a moment alone with Harry."

"Of course, I'll leave!" Ron patted Harry's back, looked at his best friend to make sure he was okay, and only after Harry had nodded at him, did he step out of the bedroom.

"Sir, what happened just now?" Harry watched as Dumbledore sat down next to him.

Albus gathered the boy's hands in his and rubbed them, for they had turned awfully cold. "Why didn't you raise your shields as Severus had told you?"

Harry bit onto his bottom lip. "I was being stubborn. I didn't think it was necessary." That had been a mistake.

"Harry, I know that you dislike Severus and I know that he has given you ample reason to do so, but you can trust him." Albus carefully weighed his next words. "You might not believe me, but there is only one person in this world you can completely rely on. Trust me when I say that Severus has only your best interest in mind. He will never betray you, even if you can't believe that right now."

Harry blinked in surprise. "But I always thought that you—"

Albus however cut him short. "Trust in Severus, Harry." And that was all he was going to say on that particular issue. "Now tell me, what did you see?"

Dumbledore's curiosity struck Harry as odd, maybe even as inappropriate, but he obeyed anyway. "I didn't hear them, sir. I just saw what Snape saw; Voldemort standing over him, muttering words, which I didn't understand."

"Good… Good," Albus felt pleased, maybe he could use Harry's ability to be in touch with Severus *and* Voldemort.

"But sir, professor Snape's hurt!" How could Dumbledore look so pleased?

"Severus will recover – that's only a detail," Albus muttered, being harsh for a reason. As he had hoped, Harry appeared shocked. Maybe it wasn't yet too late for the two of them to connect.

"You won't look after him then? When he returns, he might need help." How could any man, or wizard for that matter, endure that much pain and even worse so, repeatedly?

"I have matters to attend to, Harry, but if you feel inclined to make sure Severus is fine, I won't stop you." The look that Harry gave him was priceless. The boy might not realize it, but he had already started to care for Severus.

"Can I take Ron and Hermione along?" Harry still felt hesitant to face Snape on his own, especially when the older wizard might be in pain. Who knew what Snape would do upon seeing them?

"Yes, you may do so. Do you know the whereabouts of Severus' rooms?"

"They're close to his classroom, aren't they?" Harry didn't look forward to visiting the dungeons again, but as Potions Master, Snape lived in the adjourning quarters. He placed his feet on the floor and took stock of how he felt. Physically he was fine, but emotionally – he had never thought he would ever worry about Snape's well being. "Do you mind if I leave right now? I want to be there when he gets back." And he had to fetch Ron and Hermione as well.

"Yes, you had better be off," Albus commented, sensing Severus' return to Hogwarts. "You want to hurry, boy."

Harry thought he heard a growing urgency in Dumbledore's voice and wasted no more time, racing out of the bedroom. In the corridor, he practically ran into Ron. "Find Hermione, Ron, and meet me at Snape's quarters."

"What?" Ron looked at his friend in shock. "We're not going into the bat's lair, are we? You can't be serious!"

Harry didn't have time to explain and ran down the corridor, luckily for him, Ron followed at once. "Ron, do as you're told, please!" Although Ron didn't seem convinced he nodded, and that was good enough for Harry, who now ran downstairs toward the dungeons.

/

Severus collapsed in the corridor leading to his rooms. He always left one window open, just in case he had to sneak back in. He couldn't apparate like Albus and Voldemort would expect him to travel the way all Death Eaters did. The cold, unyielding stone floor actually felt cool and comfortable against his burning skin. His burn stung and he was still nauseous. The Dark Lord had searched his mind two nights in a row, which normally never happened and Severus wondered what was causing Voldemort's distrust. He knew one thing for certain though- he might not make it a third time.

For now, he needed to get into his rooms, but he lacked the strength to do so. He needed to rest for a moment and then he might be able to drag himself inside. He needed several potions if he wanted his strength back –and he needed to be back on his feet as quickly as possible. He could only hope Voldemort would give him a chance to recover and wouldn't summon him again.

Severus managed to place his hands on the floor and attempted to push himself up, but found he still lacked the necessary strength to do that. He didn't have a choice then – he had to wait until he felt stronger.

"Professor!" Harry knelt at Snape's side and wondered what to do. His first impulse had been to help the older wizard back to his feet, but Snape looked awfully weak and what if they stumbled? It might be best to wait for Ron and Hermione to join them. "Sir, can you hear me?"

For one moment, Severus was under the impression he had become delusional as he heard Potter's voice all of a sudden, but then, hands carefully patted his back. What was that boy doing here? Hadn't he told Potter that he would send word when he could take those shields down?

"You had better not move about yet. When Ron and Hermione get here, we will move you inside. Should I tell them to fetch Madam Pomfrey as well?" Harry desperately wanted to help –to do something! But all he could do right now, was to make sure Snape stayed in place. Since the Potions Master was on his stomach, he couldn't see Snape's face, but the fact that there was blood on the floor made him expect the worst. "What did he do this time? I saw Voldemort tower over you and say something, but I didn't hear what it was."

Damn, he had told the boy to keep those shields in place! Why had Potter lowered them? And even worse, why had he himself somehow reached out to the youngster? For Severus had realized that he was the very source of the link and not Harry. He tried raising himself from the floor again. Harry immediately wrapped his arms around him in order to steady him, and normally Severus wouldn't have allowed it, but had he pushed Potter away that moment, he would have crashed into the stone floor face-first.

Harry worried about the blood. Snape's hands carried traces of it and even the prolonged sleeves had stains on them. Why did it take Ron and Hermione so damn long to get here?

"Harry, what happened?" Hermione was the first to reach them. "What's wrong with the professor?"

"I don't know, but we need to find out. Help me get him to his feet, Ron! Open that door, Hermione; we need to get him inside!"

A part of Severus that was still operating rationally wanted to warn them- he had set certain spells before leaving his quarters, but once the door opened, he realized Albus must have had a hand in this. Harry half pulled, half dragged him to his feet, and then Ron moved over to his other side, grabbing hold of him as well. Under normal circumstances, he would never have allowed it, but he didn't have a choice right now. He grabbed hold of them in turn and tried to put one foot in front of the other. The problem was that he couldn't exactly see where he was going.

Harry looked at Snape in order to find out how the older man was doing, but swallowed hard upon seeing the blood which clung to the eyes, almost gluing them shut. There was more blood though, dripping from Snape's ears and nose. He had never seen anything like it before and wondered if they shouldn't fetch Dumbledore after all.

"Harry…" Ron's features contorted upon seeing the blood as well.

"The bedroom's over there!" Hermione called out and directed them toward it. "I will fetch Madam Pomfrey and –"

"No!" Severus barely managed to raise his head. "Don't…trouble her…" He had all the potions he needed in his private stock.

"But, you…" Hermione clearly didn't agree. "You're bleeding, professor!"

"It will stop…soon." Severus closed his eyes in relief upon feeling the soft mattress beneath him. He had made it to the bed then, granted with help, but he couldn't care less about that.

Harry flinched when Snape started to name the potions Hermione should fetch from his private stock. Snape spoke in an oddly monotone tone and his voice gave way every so often.

"I will fetch them!" Hermione quickly left, heading for the stock room.

That left Harry and Ron alone with Snape. Harry however was determined not to let his old fear get in the way. This might be Snape, but the man obviously needed help. If only Snape had let them fetch Poppy!

"Harry, what do we do now?" Ron felt helpless and he hated feeling like that.

Severus raised his right hand and tore at the buttons of his cloak. He needed to breathe and the restricting fabric made that hard.

Overcoming his hesitance to actually touch Snape, Harry sat down on the bed and took care of undoing the buttons when Snape's blood-crusted fingers failed to get the job done. Harry pushed the heavy, black fabric out of the way and opened the top buttons of the white shirt as well. The burn, still healing, was much bigger than he had originally thought. He was relieved when Hermione returned carrying four vials.

Hermione sat down on the other side of the bed and awaited further instructions, trusting her professor to take the lead once more.

"Give them…to me." But his hand trembled and he barely managed to raise it. Suddenly, he was being moved into a more upright position. He cursed privately, realizing Potter was moving him about.

"Do you need to take them in a particular order?" Hermione, practical as always, looked at the potions in her hands.

"Doesn't matter…" Severus hated the fact that he depended on them and knew exactly whom to 'thank' for meddling. Why could Albus not stop interfering once in a while?

"Use me for support… You can't sit up by yourself yet." Harry had long realized Snape disliked having them there, but he wasn't leaving merely because the older wizard felt uncomfortable. Snape was bleeding and he was going to get help, whether the man wanted it or not!

Severus considered putting a spell on them that wouldn't kill them, but transport them out of his rooms all simultaneously, oh and yes, wipe their memories as well. But even if he had known such a spell, he would never use it. For Albus would make him pay for doing something like that. So in the end, he resigned – for now—and accepted the support Harry offered.

"Let's start with this one," Hermione said and uncapped the first vial. "Strength-Replenishing potion."

Was the damn girl going to do that with all four potions before actually giving them to him? "Hurry up," he told her, but she took her time, and waited for him to catch his breath again, each time he had hurriedly swallowed a potion. Unfortunately it would take time for the potions to unfold their effects. After finishing the last one, he closed his eyes again. Sleep would aid his recovery and he hoped they would let him rest instead of bombard him with questions.

"Professor, how do we stop the bleeding?" Harry was under the impression that the bleeding had lessened, but wasn't sure.

"Will stop… by itself." Severus struggled to stay awake, but knew he wouldn't last much longer. The sleeping potion would see to that. He turned onto his side, pulled his knees to his chest, and curled up. All he needed to do was sleep – then he would recover and hopefully the three of them would be gone by the time he woke up again.

Harry suddenly grew aware of the fact that his right hand was patting Snape's back, while the fingers of his left hand wiped at the blood that stained the man's face. "We can't leave him alone – not when he's like this." He sought out Ron's gaze, knowing his friend felt awkward about being here.

"I am staying too," Ron announced, even though he wasn't happy about it, but he agreed with Harry; they couldn't leave simply leave Snape. Someone had to look after him.

"He forbade us to get Madam Pomfrey, but maybe professor Dumbledore can tell us what to do?" Hermione suggested. She tried not to show it, but seeing her professor in such a state deeply worried her.

"Find Dumbledore then," Harry said after considering the question. "Snape's asleep now and seems to be doing better, but Dumbledore knows what to do for sure."

"Can I come along?" Ron gave Harry an apologetic look. "This is weird, mate, and I promise to return!"

Harry *did* understand. "Sure, you can tag along, but remember, one of you needs to come back." He doubted he could stay awake throughout the night and either Ron or Hermione needed to look after Snape.

"We will be as quick as possible," Hermione promised. She too wanted to help anyway she could.

Harry nodded, knowing he could rely on her. "Get going then!" Ron and Hermione left the room, and once they were gone, Harry made sure Snape was as comfortable as possible. He didn't know what had happened exactly, or even when it had happened, but he wasn't afraid of Severus Snape anymore.

/

"Please, sir, you need to come with us. Professor Snape is in a bad way!" Hermione wondered why Dumbledore seemed reluctant to accompany them. She was wasting time, trying to convince the old wizard to help. If Dumbledore refused she was going to see Madam Pomfrey herself, even if that meant defying her teacher's instructions!

"I doubt that it is necessary for me to check on him, but I will do so. In the meantime please settle down." In spite of his cool demeanor, Albus did worry about Severus. Voldemort seldom tested Severus to such an extent and the Dark Lord had to have a good reason for doing so. Now that he came to think about it, that Malfoy boy had been hanging around recently. He hadn't seen Draco himself, but the castle always informed him of the boy's whereabouts. He would look into that later. "Lead the way then!"

Hermione felt relieved now that Dumbledore had agreed to accompany them and she pulled Ron toward the doorway. Ron gave her a pleading look, but she wasn't going to let him go. They were in this together!

/

"He has been asleep since you left," Harry updated them when they joined him. Like Hermione he was relieved to see Dumbledore there.

Albus sat down and checked the contents of the vials one by one. "Severus knows best which potions to use. You can rest assured that he will be back on his feet by tomorrow evening." Looking at Harry, Dumbledore smiled at seeing the obvious concern. Yes, maybe his plan was working after all. "In the meantime, I suggest you let him sleep."

Harry wondered about Dumbledore's lack of concern. The old wizard simply smiled, while he still worried about Snape!

Dumbledore made his next move in the game he was playing. "You don't need to give me that look, young man. This isn't the first time Severus returned from meeting Voldemort in such a state. And that's why I know he will recover – eventually."

Harry shifted his gaze away from Dumbledore and back to Snape. He had been wondering for how long this had been going on and judging from Dumbledore's words, these hadn't been isolated incidents. "Why is he bleeding, sir? I couldn't find any wounds when I checked." It had taken Harry some time to overcome his initial hesitance, but in the end, his concern had won and he had checked Snape for further injuries.

Albus had hoped Harry would ask him that. "When Severus gave you that first lesson in Occlumency you were in discomfort, true?"

Harry nodded. "It hurt, yes, but even more than the pain I hated feeling him move through my mind like that." Hermione gasped and she placed her hand on his shoulder. Harry looked at her from over his shoulder and whispered a thank you because she was trying to comfort him.

"Severus could have done much worse, but he didn't. What you don't understand –yet- is that he held back. The Dark Lord doesn't, Harry. When he searches Severus' mind for signs of betrayal, he is ruthless. You said it felt like Severus tore your mind apart – imagine that happening again, but then with such a force that it threatens to render you unconscious. The mind can only take so much abuse. The synapses in your brain get literally fried. Blood vessels snap and since the blood needs a way out, it starts to drip from the eyes at first. Then, when the pressure continues to build, the blood forces itself a way out through nose and ears."

Harry felt horrified; Voldemort had done that to Snape? "But…" He wasn't sure what exactly he had wanted to say He simply felt shocked and needed a moment to deal with what he had heard.

"Why does he go back?" Albus asked in Harry's stead and studied Severus, who looked peaceful now that he was asleep. "Because he knows I heavily rely on his information. Without his intelligence, several members of the Phoenix would have been killed by now. Thanks to Severus, I remain one step ahead of Voldemort. Without him… I do not dare think of what might happen." Albus reckoned he had given all three of them ample to think about. He rose from his chair and briefly placed his hand on Severus' brow, absorbing any new information his spy had for him, which wasn't much. But it did tell him that Severus also wondered about Voldemort's sudden suspicions. "Take care of him, Harry," he said as he headed for the door. "Just let him sleep and you will see that he will be back to his charming self by tomorrow."

Ron stared at the retreating wizard and waited for Dumbledore to close the door behind him before saying, "What charming self?"

Harry smiled a little at that. "Maybe Snape has a very good reason to act like that when he's around us."

Hermione nodded as she agreed. "We should take shifts sitting with him, if you don't want to leave him alone, that is."

"I will sit with him first. Maybe the two of you can take over when I get tired? Wake me, should he start talking." For the moment, Snape's sleep seemed peaceful, but Harry suspected that might be an exception. He was no stranger no nightmares himself and might be able to talk Snape out of his, should they appear.

"That's fine, mate." Ron felt relieved that Hermione would keep him company and that he didn't have to sit with Snape on his own.

"We will be back in three hours then." Hermione didn't know why, but she thought it best not to crowd Snape's rooms. "Look after yourself too," she said and squeezed his shoulder.

Harry nodded, but didn't take his eyes off of Snape. He wondered how his teacher would react when he regained consciousness and found him sitting there.

/

It had been a long night, and although Hermione and Ron had taken his place during the night, Harry returned to his teacher's room half an hour ago because he wanted to be there when the older man woke up. Not only because he had that many questions for Snape, but mostly because he needed to know that Snape was doing better. Dumbledore had assured him that Snape would recover, but Harry needed to see that for himself.

"I brought you breakfast and the professor's too, in case he wakes up." Hermione placed the tray on Harry's knees and then studied her teacher in detail. "He looks a bit better, don't you think?"

Harry sipped from his tea and bit into a piece of buttered toast. "He might look better, but that doesn't mean he feels better too."

"Are you still connected to him?" Hermione had wondered about that.

"Not at the moment, at least, not that I am aware of." Harry realized he was hungry and added marmalade to another piece of toast which he then devoured. "Where's Ron? Afraid to return to the dungeon?"

"Professor McGonagall caught him… Ron didn't like it, but he went with her. I do think he will be back the moment he can. He might not like professor Snape, but he won't back out that easily. Do you want me to stay, Harry?" Or did her friend want to talk to Snape in private?

"I'll be fine, Hermione. It's a Hogsmeade weekend and I know you have plans. I don't mind if you take Ron with you, but I'll stay with Snape."

"We will check on you later." Hermione didn't want to leave, but Harry's tone told her that he would be fine. She also suspected he wanted to be alone with Snape the moment their teacher woke up.

"Thanks, Hermione, for everything." Had he ever thanked her before for being such a good friend?

"It's okay, Harry. Bye!" She raised her arm in goodbye and then left the two of them alone.

/

Severus' return to consciousness happened slowly. His head felt heavy and opening his eyes presented him with an almost impossible task. He fought hard and managed to clear his thoughts, only just a little, but it would do. Next, he focused on opening his eyes. He was surprised when he managed to do so with minimal effort; usually the dried blood made that hard. After blinking several times, he focused on his surroundings and was relieved to see he had made it to his bed after all. Careful of any sudden movements, he slowly turned his head to the side and his breath caught upon realizing Potter was watching him. Something – a memory – flickered at the edge of his mind. "What are you doing here?" he sounded just as weak as he felt, damn it!

"I found you in the corridor last night and my friends helped me to get you into your bed. Hermione fetched the potions you needed and you fell asleep after that. Professor Dumbledore visited, but only for a moment. Hermione, Ron and I have been sitting with you since, taking turns." Harry felt immensely relieved at seeing Snape's gaze grow more lucid.

"I didn't ask you what happened, Potter! I asked you why you are here." He should pace himself; this way he would exhaust himself further.

"I'm here because I worry about you," Harry said after thinking it over. He doubted Snape expected an honest answer. "I acted foolishly last night. When you told me to raise my shields, I didn't: only when it was already too late did I raise them – when I felt your… discomfort." Harry decided against saying 'pain' as it might upset Snape. Upset Snape, he wondered? In the past, he had never worried about upsetting the Potions Master.

Severus needed a moment to fully understand what Harry had just said. Had that boy really said he worried about him? He sensed Albus' hand in this, but had no idea what the old wizard planned to achieve by rousing Harry's interest in him. "You need not worry about me, Potter." It was a lame reprimand and he knew it.

"But I do, sir. I can't help it." Harry wondered when Snape would understand that he had witnessed last night's events, for he wasn't sure his teacher fully realized that yet. "Professor Dumbledore explained why you were bleeding; Voldemort invaded your mind." Snape raised a shaky hand to touch his face and Harry knew why the older man suddenly looked surprised. "Hermione cleaned up your face. You had blood everywhere."

That was why he had been able to open his eyes so easily! So Harry, Hermione, and Ron had taken care of him during the night? Why the hell had they done that?

Harry didn't need to be connected to Snape's mind in order to interpret the expression on the other man's face. "We worry, sir, all three of us."

He had to stop this – right now—before this took on a life of its own! "Potter, I want you out of my rooms at once! And don't you think about coming back here!" He disliked lying down for it made him feel vulnerable and tried to elbow himself into an upright sitting position, but his body ached and refused to cooperate.

Snape's words would have made him run in the past, but Harry had learned a thing or two about his teacher since then and so he stayed put. "With all due respect, professor, but you still need help. I'm not going anywhere yet." Harry watched Snape's expression and realized it bordered on anger – but the reason for that anger eluded him. Was it just because the three of them had seen him in a weakened state? Somehow, he found that hard to believe. "Would you like some tea, sir? It's hot and might do you some good."

"I don't want your bloody tea, Potter," Severus sneered at the youngster. He wasn't angry with Harry; he was angry with himself for messing this up. Harry and his friends should never have found out about him! What had Albus been thinking?

"Let me help, sir."

Severus glared at Potter when the youngster tried to help him sit up. "I can do that on my own!"

"I don't think so." He probably shouldn't have said that, but Snape's attitude was getting on his nerves. Once the older wizard rested against the pillows, Harry picked up another cup and poured the still warm drink into the china. Faced with the next problem, namely that Snape's hands still shook even while resting on the mattress, he sat down and placed the cup carefully at Snape's lips. "It should be okay. It has cooled down since Hermione brought it in."

Severus was severely tempted to grab hold of the cup and smash it against the wall, but considering the way his body still trembled, he would probably end up spreading the tea all over himself. With growing unease, he swallowed slowly. Although he relished drinking the tea, he was careful not to show any of his feelings.

"Do you think your stomach can handle toast?" Harry did his best to sound unaffected, but Snape's condition still worried him, especially now that the tremors were worsening again.

Potter's expression suddenly changed and Severus knew why the boy looked at him like that. "It will go away…It's a belated reaction to one of the potions."

Harry blinked as he hadn't expected Snape to bother explaining that to him. "Is it always this bad?" He wasn't sure what had made him say that, except that he really wanted to know.

Severus carefully shrugged. "Normally no, but the Dark Lord was very thorough last night." Voldemort had been looking for something specific, but he had no idea what that could have been. "And it happened two times in a row, which isn't normal either." Just what had made him add that? Why had he volunteered that information?

Harry busied himself putting butter and marmalade on some toast in the hope that not being watched might make Snape relax. Maybe it worked, as Snape kept talking, something Harry hadn't expected.

Severus managed to raise his arm and grabbed the toast, even though his coordination was still off. He wasn't going to let Potter feed him! He could eat himself, damn it! "You should have raised those shields when I left." He bit off a chunk of the toast and munched on it. He was hungry, but hadn't realized that until now.

"I won't make that mistake a second time, sir. Is there anything else I can do in order to help?" Harry had watched Snape closely and was under the impression that the older wizard was growing sleepy again.

"Not really," Severus admitted; he simply couldn't understand why Harry worried about him to such a degree that the boy stayed close. "I will probably fall asleep again shortly… I should do better when I wake up again." Getting a few more hours of undisturbed sleep would do wonders for his health.

"I will make sure that no one disturbs you." Harry placed the tray onto the floor. "I would like to stay – if I may."

Severus wasn't sure that allowing Potter to stay was the smart thing to do, but in the end, he nodded. It was better to have the youngster close, should the connection come alive unexpectedly. After he had rested some more, he would take care of that problem. He had to find a way to undo whatever link had formed between them. Something like that had never happened before –neither with Albus when the older wizard had taught him Occlumency, nor with the Dark Lord when Voldemort had penetrated his mind. It had only happened with Harry, but Severus had no idea why. In the end, his fatigue won and he closed his eyes, going back to sleep again.

/

Hermione and Ron visited before heading for Hogsmeade, but as Snape was still asleep, Harry told them to enjoy the day the best they could. The two of them keeping him company only to watch Snape sleep made little sense to Harry. He remained on his post though.

But even Harry grew bored eventually and started to look at the room he was in, in more detail. He didn't know of any student who had ever been inside Snape's quarters before, and although Ron always referred to the dungeons, as the bat's lair, he didn't think Snape's home gloomy.

Harry started his quest in the living room, which was stocked to the ceiling with numerous books. That didn't surprise him at all, but what did make him halt was the large variety of plants that also occupied the living room. There were several lamps beautifully laid in with colored glass. He would have loved to look through the drawers, but Snape wouldn't have liked that and so refrained from doing so.

The small kitchen was nothing special. His professor seemed to prefer tea to coffee though, as there was a great variety of several blends stocked on the shelves. He moved back into the corridor and opened another door, which gave way to a small, but comfortable bathroom. Harry turned about and realized there was one door he hadn't tried yet. Opening that it, he stepped into Snape's private study. A quick look about told him that the Potions Master had a couple of experiments set up in the corner. As he wasn't particularly interested in them, he ignored them and moved toward the desk instead. It was large and looked old. He had no idea what kind of wood it had been made of, but he guessed it might be oak. Some drawers were locked, others stood half open. There was no parchment or anything in writing on the desk, which kind of surprised him. He was about to turn around and check on his 'patient' when he noticed a small framed photograph standing in the shadow beneath a shelf.

Was it really his mother in that picture? Harry picked up the frame and his confusion grew upon realizing that Snape had wrapped his arms around her and was holding her tightly. Both of them smiled at him. Seeing Snape smile like that stunned him. He had never seen Snape like that – with a genuine smile on his face and eyes that sparkled with joy. He carried the frame over to a lamp to get a better look at it. He reckoned they had been about fourteen, maybe fifteen when the picture had been taken. His mother wore her Gryffindor outfit and Snape sported green for Slytherin.

He just couldn't get over the fact how happy they looked. He had seen other pictures of his mother and she had always smiled in them, so it was Snape's smile that really took him aback. That smile transformed him into someone else—someone Harry felt he didn't know. That picture raised a lot of questions and he wondered if he would ever find the courage to ask Snape about it. He put the picture back where he had found it and looked at it one more time. Had Snape and his mother been friends? Or had they been more than that? But then again, Hermione and he were best friends and he had pictures in which Hermione tried to hug him to death as well, he realized with a grin.

Harry was still pondering the implications of Snape having such a picture in his study when he entered the bedroom and therefore failed to notice that the older man was awake and looking at him.

Severus had felt disorientated when he had woken up. He hadn't expected Potter to still be close, and had actually felt relieved at seeing the empty chair. He really needed to talk some sense into Albus so the Headmaster would stop meddling in his personal life. He felt startled upon seeing Potter enter his bedroom after all. The youngster looked lost in thought and Severus wondered what he was thinking about.

Harry grew aware of Snape's gaze upon him and snapped out of his musings. "You are awake!" He walked over to the bed and sat down on his chair. "It's almost time for dinner. Do you want me to fetch you something?" Those hours of sleep had done the older man lots of good. He looked less pale, and a familiar, alert expression had returned to the dark eyes. However, Harry didn't make the mistake to think that Snape was back to his normal strength and that was why he kept back any questions he had regarding that photograph.

"You should head for the Great Hall, Potter, and eat dinner there." Severus cautiously raised his legs and placed his feet on the floor. Better, he felt better, thankfully. He probably had Harry to thank for that, but he would be damned if he told him that!

Harry eyed Snape closely and was ready to steady him should the older wizard stumble. "I can ask one of the house elves to bring dinner." He wanted to make sure Snape was really doing better and not merely pretending.

Severus however wasn't listening; he was too busy examining his injuries. Thankfully, Voldemort had kept the Cruciatus only short on him. "I will be in the bathroom for the next hour, Potter. No need to stay close." He managed to get to his feet, but quickly reached for the wall in order to steady himself. He ignored the worried looks Harry gave him and gritted his teeth, determined to make it into the bathroom by himself. He would feel better after taking a hot bath.

Harry rose from the chair, but kept his distance as he followed his teacher into the corridor. He stayed near until Snape closed the bathroom door behind him. Harry had noticed the way Snape moved – slowly and careful so he didn't stumble, but at least he was moving again.

Harry contacted the house elves, which were very eager to supply him with everything he needed for dinner. He sat down, once more pondering the meaning of that photograph.

/

Severus felt slightly more himself when he slipped into a clean white shirt and donned his black coat over it. He had rubbed more soothing balm onto his throat and was relieved to see it was starting to work. He had created the balm years ago and had been perfecting it ever since. After pulling the long sleeves of his shirt in place, he raised his gaze and faced himself in the mirror. That hot bath had worked wonders, but had not cured him of his aches completely. He ran a hand through his still moist hair and drew in a deep breath. He hoped Potter had left, because he found it increasingly difficult to keep up his aloof and arrogant manner around the boy, who had surprised him by looking after him.

As he stepped into the corridor, the delicate fragrances of dinner told him that the youngster was still around. Potter hadn't headed for the Great Hall then. Having him roam his home unnerved Severus. He braced himself for another confrontation and stepped into his living room. He found Potter seated at the table, with dinner in front of him, reading a book. What book had he selected from the collection? And should he reprimand him for grabbing it without his permission?

Harry looked up from his reading and smiled happily; Snape looked much improved. Dumbledore had been right then, but that still didn't excuse the Headmaster's lack of concern for his teacher's well being. "I fetched our dinner. I hope you are hungry, professor. I certainly am!"

Severus decided he would rather eat than start another argument and so he sat down, albeit ill at ease. "Why are you still here, Potter?" He ate some of the soup, knowing the food would strengthen him.

"As I said before, sir, you struck me as in need of a helping hand and I happened to be around." Talking to Snape, without being constantly worried what the teacher might do in order to pester him, was a novel, but very welcome experience. Harry was beginning to realize that a lot of Snape's bullying was an act and that he was now actually seeing the man as he really was.

Severus wasn't going to thank Potter though—he wasn't ready for that. "As you can see I have recovered, so there is no reason for you to continue to invade my home." Oh, but going back to snarling at Potter was hard. His heart was no longer in it.

Again, Harry didn't react the way he would have in the past. Instead, he said, "Ron always said that your home would be cold and clammy, like your classroom, but it isn't."

Severus had finished his soup and now tried the meatloaf. "You should never believe anything one of the Weasley boys says, ever." He couldn't believe he was reacting in such a mellow way.

"I must agree with you on that, sir." Harry waited for the older man to start eating and then followed suit. He wasn't sure bringing up Voldemort was the right thing to do, but he couldn't ignore the matter. "Do you think he will summon you again tonight?" Black eyes looked into his and Harry swore he saw traces of pain in them.

"I hope not," Severus replied eventually.

"But should he summon you…"

"Then I must go. You know that, Potter!" Severus prayed though that he would be given a respite. The silence which then grew between them made him nervous. "What?" he snapped as his nerves got the better of him.

Harry was determined not to be bullied again; he knew better now. Snape was all bark, but no bite. "That first evening, Voldemort burned your throat, but last night, he did something else to you. I remember him pointing his wand at you, but I never heard what he said."

"You don't need to know – its better you don't," Severus mumbled, taken aback by the observation. He forced himself to continue eating, though their conversation had made him lose his appetite.

Harry took the hint; apparently discussing the matter was off limits. He might try something else then. "Why do you think the connection appeared again? Why was I able to see through your eyes?"

Severus put down his fork and leaned back in his chair. "I have no idea, Potter. I don't know of any documented cases, and as far as I can tell, it has never happened before." That reminded him though that he still had some work ahead of him. "You need to raise those shields a lot faster in the future."

Harry knew that wasn't the real problem though. He had merely disregarded Snape's instructions, and when he had raised them, it had been too late.

"Let me see what I can do in order to help you with that." Severus knew time was of the essence and that he shouldn't postpone this just because he felt tired. He moved his chair closer and studied his student. "I want you to look at me, Potter, and no matter what happens, keep looking at me, understood?"

Harry nodded, though growing apprehensive. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to enter your mind again, that is, if you will let me." He felt reasonably certain Harry would allow it, and when the boy nodded, Severus continued, "I need to find out just how strong your defenses are and maybe I can help you raise them faster."

"How are you going to do that?" Harry wondered about the fact that the prospect of letting Snape into his mind didn't particularly worry him.

"I will condition your mind to react to a particular word. Whenever you say it, your mind will react and shield itself."

"And when I can't say anything in a particular situation?" Harry liked the idea, but wondered if it wasn't flawed.

"Merely thinking it will do the trick as well."

"And what if I think of it accidentally?"

"Potter," Severus groaned, rather exasperated. "You know when you are in danger and when not. Just because you say the word or think it, it won't trigger your shields."

"Is that the way you learned how to control it yourself?"

"At the very beginning, yes, but that was decades ago." Severus wished Potter would just let him get started. Why did he have so many questions?

"What word did you use, sir? Maybe it will work for me too."

"I greatly doubt it, Potter." There was no reason for Potter to know that he had used 'Lily' back then. "Now be quiet…" He wanted to do this while he still felt rested. "Try to relax and clear your mind… Whatever you do, don't fight me. Contrary to what you think I don't enjoy hurting you."

"I believe you," Harry muttered sincerely. He no longer believed that Snape loved to bully him. "Like this?"

"Yes, like that." Severus examined the structure of Harry's mind. The shields had grown in strength since the last time he had checked them. Each time Potter raised them, they became stronger. "Did you decide on a word yet?" Keying the shields to that word should be easy as Harry was fully cooperating.

Harry was still giving the matter some thought. In the end, deciding on a word was easier than he had thought. "I did, sir."

"What is it?" Severus hoped it wasn't Lily. He wasn't sure he would manage to hide his reaction to hearing it.

"Your first name is Severus, isn't it, sir?" Harry nodded; yes, that would work.

Severus stared at him in surprise. "It is, but why…?"

"I already associate you with these lessons and what word would make more sense than your name?" Harry had expected Snape to be surprised, but to actually see the disbelief in the dark eyes made him frown. "Is anything wrong? Is it because a name won't work? Or don't you want me to use your name like that? Is that it?"

Too many questions… Severus brushed some strands of his hair behind his ear and told himself to focus again. "A name will work." He was still stunned though that Harry wanted to use his for this exercise. "Are you sure about wanting to use that? You might not be able to change it once I link it with your mind." Why had Harry chosen it in the first place? Just because of an association?

"I'm sure, professor." The more he thought about it, the better his choice seemed to fit.

"As you wish, Potter." Severus carefully manipulated the boy's mind in such a way that it would instantly raise the shields in case of danger. "Done," he announced and drew in a series of drew breaths while retreating from the youngster's mind.

"Already? I didn't feel a thing!" Harry felt relieved about that as he clearly remembered the pain he had been in during that first lesson.

"Listen," Severus said slowly, making sure he had Harry's complete attention. "Wizards as powerful as the Dark Lord do not voice the spell. They probably won't point their wand and you and call out Legilimens at you like I do. You might not get that warning. So, when you feel even the slightest invasion of your mind, you need to react. Even if you are not certain what's happening, raise those shields."

Again, Harry had the impression that Snape spoke from personal experience. "Does Voldemort do that to you? Search your mind without warning?"

Severus tensed; his hands became fists and he had to briefly close his eyes. "Stop worrying about me, Potter!" he sneered, hoping to get his point across. "It should not matter to you what happens to me! Can't you get that into your tiny brain?"

Snape's outburst took Harry momentarily aback, but then he glared back at his teacher. "I do care – you are the one who is having trouble accepting that things between us have changed. You can't bully me any longer, it no longer works, sir." They continued to stare at each other until the tension became too much for Harry, and so he added, "And my brain isn't tiny at all!"

Severus couldn't help it; he relaxed. "You could have fooled me, boy. I would say it is extremely miniscule."

Harry wasn't sure how to interpret that reply at first, but then he saw Snape relax. "Ron's might be."

Severus cocked his head and barely managed to stop himself from grinning. "At least we can agree on that." How very odd, that he enjoyed verbally sparring with Harry in that way.

Harry had no reason to hide his mirth and chuckled loudly. Snape wasn't that bad at all. Now that he was getting to know him, he had to admit he was starting to like him.

/

"That's weird," Ron said after checking the bedroom. Harry hadn't been in there either. "Do you reckon he might still be in the dungeon?" he asked Hermione when he joined them again in the common room. "I am sorry, sir, but I really thought I would find him here."

Remus Lupin shrugged once. "My visit is rather unexpected." He had run into Ron and Hermione at the Three Sisters in Hogsmeade and they had spontaneously invited him to join them for the remainder of the evening. "And why would Harry be in the dungeon?"

"It's a long story," Ron said, "And Hermione is better at telling them."

Hermione rolled back her eyes, but then smiled at Remus. "It started when professor Dumbledore asked professor Snape to teach Harry Occlumency," she said and gestured for them to follow her.

"I never knew Severus had mastered that ability," said Remus rather thoughtfully. It would however explain how Severus had been able to spy on Voldemort without the Dark Lord catching on. Severus had just risen higher in his admiration. "Do continue." He was slowly realizing where they were headed.

"The first lesson didn't go well… Harry developed a terrible headache and somehow saw what happened to professor Snape during a Death Eaters' meeting which he had to attend." Hermione wasn't sure she should tell Remus any details. It should be Harry's or Snape's decision to do that. "They have been working on strengthening Harry's Occlumency skills since."

"You left out an awful lot," Ron remarked, giving her an odd look.

"That should be up to Harry or the professor to tell, if they want to," Hermione said, hoping to get her point across.

"And why is Harry with Severus?" Now that they were heading for the potions classroom, Remus was rather certain they were heading for Severus' quarters.

"Professor Snape was injured during his meeting with Voldemort. Harry witnessed it – he saw it in his mind."

Remus blinked in surprise at hearing that. Dumbledore always told them to trust Severus, and he had been trying to do just that, but even he found it hard to put his trust in Snape at times. "So knowing Harry, he had to check on him."

"Of course," Hermione said while nodding. "You know what Harry's like."

Oh, yes he did. "And what did he find?"

"The three of us checked on the professor and he was in a bad way."

Hermione shivered, which wasn't lost on Remus. "That bad?" he asked in surprise.

"Apparently you-know- who doesn't care about who he's hurting as long he can hurt someone!" Ron stated.

Hermione gave Ron a surprised look. "I thought you didn't care about professor Snape."

"Oh, I still don't like him, but it's like Harry said, no one should have to live through that. You should have seen Snape, sir. His eyes dripped blood and so did his ears and—"

"Ron, that's enough. It's up to them whether to tell professor Lupin or not!" Hermione doubted professor Snape would approve of them revealing that much to Remus.

They arrived at the door to the Potions Master's quarters and Remus halted at once, picking up on the magic. "It's warded." He literally smelled the magic in the air which carried Severus' signature.

"Harry? We need to talk to you!" Ron suddenly called out –rather loudly.

Hermione sighed and gave her friend another reprimanding look. "You could have been a bit more subtle!"

Remus however chuckled. "Subtle seldom works with Severus." That observation caused him to remember what their youth had been like – what Snape's adolescence had been like to be more exact. He had never approved of Sirius and James bullying Severus, but he hadn't tried to stop them either. Truth be told, the pestering had been mild at first, but had worsened after Lily had changed sides and had rallied against her former friend.

Suddenly the door opened, and instead of Harry standing there, it was Severus. Remus managed a weak smile upon seeing the disgruntled look on the other man's face. "Surprise?" he tried, going for some light-hearted banter. However, he could tell that Severus didn't think it was a pleasant surprise at all.

"What are you doing here?" Severus glared at Lupin and wondered what the werewolf was doing at his school.

"Visiting Harry, if I may." Remus couldn't blame Severus for still feeling angry about the past, but this was about Harry and not about their former confrontations. Severus wasn't answering him and that made Remus look closer. His eyes widened at seeing the still extensive burn mark that marred Severus' throat. Ron and Hermione had told him that Severus had been injured – was that the wound they had been talking about? Come to think of it, Severus looked ghastly pale and was he really leaning against the wall in search of support? Maybe this was more serious than he had thought!

"Hermione! Ron… Remus!" Harry had stayed behind at Snape's order, since the older wizard had wanted to make sure who was calling on him. Now that Harry saw his friends, he ran toward them and flung himself at Remus in particular. "It's good to see you! I never expected you to visit!" Realizing they were standing partly in the corridor and partly in the hallway, he looked at Snape and asked, "Can he come inside?"

"If he must," Severus drawled, not looking forward to having his home once more invaded.

"Thanks, sir!" Harry grabbed Remus' arm and tried to drag the werewolf along. "We were just having tea and you can help me! I challenged professor Snape to a game of Wizard chess, but I'm losing!"

Remus however shook his head and sought out Severus' gaze instead. "Are you sure I'm welcome? I don't want to intrude." Severus allowing him inside would surprise the hell out of him.

"Since Potter refuses to leave these rooms, the only way for the two of you to talk is when you join us." Severus refused to say the actual words though –not to one of his arch enemies. He would try to behave – for Potter's sake, because the boy had looked after him – but Lupin had better not get used to it.

"Thank you," Remus whispered stunned. When he stepped into the hallway, he was surprised to find Hermione and Ron staying behind. "Aren't you coming?"

"We don't want to crowd him," Hermione said once the Potions Master had moved back into the living room. "And Ron doesn't feel comfortable here to begin with."

Remus nodded. "I understand. Thanks for taking me here." It might be for the best if the two of them went back to their dormitories. Severus didn't do well with crowds, and for his former classmate, four was definitely a crowd! He followed Harry into the living room and was surprised at the cozy feel to it. This wasn't the way he had expected Severus to live.

"Please sit down! Do you want tea?" Harry felt excited; it had been weeks since he had last seen Remus.

Remus looked to Severus first before nodding. "I would love some."

Severus averted his gaze and let Harry take care of 'their' guest. Bah, had it been up to him, he would never have invited the werewolf in. He picked up the book Potter had been reading earlier that evening and pretended being interested in it, although he had already read it several times.

Lupin wished Severus wouldn't do that – demonstratively shut them out by picking up that book. But then again, wasn't Severus' reaction understandable? Severus had never trusted him and had always thought he had eagerly participated in Sirius' and James' antics. He turned toward Harry instead and said, "I never expected to find you here. Ron and Hermione had to show me your whereabouts."

"Trust me, I'm equally surprised."

Harry was all smiles, something that surprised Remus. He had always been under the impression that Harry hated Severus. He would never understand why Severus bullied the boy – not to that extent. He understood that dealing with Harry might be hard on Severus because Harry resembled James very much, but still…

"Professor Snape wasn't feeling well and I offered to help."

Remus noticed the glare Severus shot Harry, who didn't seem impressed though. Interesting.

"That is none of Lupin's business, Potter," Severus said in an icy tone.

Remus felt amused when Harry didn't shrink back from that comment. Instead Harry poured another cup of tea and moved it toward Severus. Remus couldn't help but wonder what had happened between the two of them to bring about the change. The mere fact that Severus allowed Harry into his private space was amazing.

"The two of you were former classmates, weren't you?" Harry realized he finally had a chance to find out more about his parents. Both Snape and Remus had known them.

Severus eyed Lupin wearily. "Unfortunately." Why had Harry brought that up?

"Because there is something I want to ask you about the time you spent at school." Harry hoped the time was right to bring up his mother. He still wanted to know what that picture was doing on Snape's desk. But before he could address that matter, Snape grabbed his arm and hissed angrily.

Harry's heart missed a beat at seeing it, as he knew what it meant. "You can't go – not again!" Snape had barely made it through last night's meeting and if Voldemort wanted to test his spy again, Snape might suffer severe injures – even worse than he had suffered last night.

Remus had no idea what had happened just now and frowned at Harry. "Is anything wrong?"

"You know that I must go, Potter. We discussed the matter." Severus hoped he'd had enough rest and that he would last through the meeting. Hopefully Voldemort had summoned all Death Eaters and not just him –because then he would be in serious trouble. "You know what you have to do. Don't stall, but do it!"

"Remus, you have to stop him. You can't let him leave!" Harry had jumped to his feet and tried to block Snape's path when he headed for the window.

Remus wished he knew what this was about, but no one was telling him. "Harry, calm down. I am sure Severus has perfectly sound reasons for having to go."

"Don't you understand?" Harry yelled at the werewolf. "Voldemort summoned him just now and he barely survived the last two meetings!" Concern washed over him. "I don't want him to go!"

"Get out of my way, Potter." Severus understood Harry's worries, but couldn't allow for them to affect him. "You know what happens when I am late." He hated pointing that out, but he had to get through to Harry. It seemed to work, as Harry moved aside.

Remus' thoughts raced to make sense of what he had just heard. He knew Severus had been a Death Eater – still pretended to be one, as it allowed him close to Voldemort, but he had never seen a summoning before. And what had Harry said? Severus had barely survived the last two meetings? "Severus, maybe you can skip—" He didn't get a chance to finish though.

"Skip? Are you insane? Do you have any idea what happens should I refuse to answer his summons? Idiots, both of you!" He was running out of time; he couldn't afford Voldemort to grow irritated with him. He marched over to the window, opened it, and glared at Harry. "Get those shields up, Potter, and make sure you have left these rooms by the time I get back. And don't forget to take Lupin with you." He had never meant to be harsh, but it had worked in the past and so he hoped that it would work this time as well. "And whatever you do, Potter, don't open your mind –not to me, not to anyone!" And with that, he allowed his magic to change his form. Cloaked in black swirls, he left Hogwarts and headed for the snake's lair.

Remus watched Severus' form change to dark smoke and barely contained the urge to shudder. He had never seen Severus do that before and it sharply reminded him of the fact that the other man was a Death Eater. Harry stared at the window in shock and Remus knew he had to intervene. "Harry, I might have misunderstood; care to enlighten me?"

"It's a long story," Harry said and sat down next to Remus. "Basically I messed up and Snape got injured because of it – twice."

"Why don't you tell me what happened and then I will try to help you clean up that mess you supposedly made." He couldn't help until he knew what had happened and thankfully Harry trusted him enough to tell him.

Five minutes later, Harry had managed to update him and Remus had to admit it was a lot to take in. "No one in the order ever thinks about the risks Severus takes," he said eventually. "Most members despise him and think he's Voldemort's agent and not Dumbledore's."

"I used to believe that too, but it doesn't make sense, Remus. The two meetings, which I witnessed weren't isolated incidents. And Dumbledore said that Snape has been injured in the past. He didn't even worry when I told him that Snape was in a bad way."

"Albus can be rather short-sighted. He's interested in the information Severus can provide and not in his personal well-being." He had noticed that tendency in Albus before. "Harry, shouldn't you raise those shields? Severus said you should, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did, and yesterday, I waited too long. I didn't think it was necessary." He was damned if he was going to make that mistake a second time.

"Then raise them. You want to keep Voldemort out, don't you?" Something still puzzled Remus though. He understood why Albus felt Harry had to learn Occlumency, and Severus teaching Harry was also logical, but this link that had formed was something he couldn't explain. He hadn't heard of anything like it before.

Harry nodded and whispered, "Severus," concentrating and thinking the name as loudly as he could. In the back of his mind, he heard Remus' gasp in surprise at him saying that name. Harry forget to breathe when his defenses slipped into place; it felt like his mind had built a solid wall consisting of brick and mortar – a wall, that shielded him – would keep him from accessing that connection, but it didn't happen that way. Instead his thoughts seemed to take flight, and the next moment, he felt himself manifesting in a dark, cold building. It had happened again! He was inside Snape's mind! "Remus, I don't think this is supposed to happen!"

"What is it?" Remus shifted forward on his chair and looked at Harry in concern.

"My shields are in place, just like Snape said, but… the connection… it's back and I see what Snape's seeing!"

/

Severus manifested outside of the house that Voldemort was currently using for a hide-out. The location had changed, meaning the dark wizard had moved into a new shelter. He would only do so because he believed someone was about to betray him. Severus hoped Voldemort didn't think that someone was him.

As he entered the house and headed for the stairs something unexpected happened. In the back of his mind, someone whispered his name and then the link buzzed with energy. He involuntarily halted, realizing what must have happened. Damn it, why hadn't he thought of it before? Why had he allowed Potter to use his name to key the shields? Instead of weakening the connection his name was feeding it! He should have gone for Lily's name after all.

Professor?

Severus resumed walking. It was imperative his dark master didn't notice any out of character behavior on him. Potter, listen carefully. I am about to meet with the Dark Lord and the last thing I need is you poking around my thoughts, do you hear me? Keep quiet and don't start babbling! If necessary, talk it over with Lupin, but don't contact me again, do you understand?

I do, sir, but I am not sure I can control it to such a degree!

Just do it, Potter! Severus stepped into the hall and found that the rest of the Death Eaters were already present. That was not good for it meant he was the last one to join them. Voldemort might consider him late again. He forced himself to seek out Voldemort's gaze and tried to look composed, although, on the inside he felt Potter's fear tear at him. "My Lord," he said and bowed.

"Severus…" Voldemort rose from his chair and turned toward him.

Severus realized he was in trouble that very moment. The chilled quality to Voldemort's voice informed him of his master's displeasure with him. He had to find out what this was really about. Whatever displeased Voldemort had started three days ago and had now reached its peak. Voldemort pointed his wand at him and Severus steeled himself for whatever attack the dark wizard had in mind. Voldemort didn't speak, but Severus felt the dark power nonetheless as it wrapped itself around him, taking control of his body and rendering him helpless.

"On your knees," Voldemort said, his smooth voice sliding through the room.

Severus didn't have a choice in the matter; Voldemort's spell made sure he obeyed and he knelt on the stone floor. As he couldn't speak either, he waited for what was to come. At least Potter remained quiet, which was something to be thankful for.

"Lucius informed me of most unwelcome news," Voldemort said and beckoned Nagini forward.

So Lucius was the reason Voldemort was displeased with him? What could Lucius have possibly told their dark master? Lucius and he hadn't talked for weeks and there was no one else… But of course, Draco! But what could Draco have possibly discovered about him? Nagini disrupted his thoughts as the monster began to wrap itself around him. Severus had seen the snake do it before and prepared for the worst.

"Lucius tells me that you are teaching the boy Occlumency," Voldemort continued, and after hissing at his snake, Nagini started to squeeze.

At first, the pressure was bearable, but when Nagini tightened her hold, Severus found it hard to keep breathing. His chest hurt and his fingers grew numb. She was literally squeezing the life out of him!

"Answer me!"

Voldemort had yelled those words at him, and Severus knew the Dark Lord could easily kill him when he was in such a foul mood. "My Lord," he started, grateful Voldemort had lifted that particular curse. He didn't need to keep him paralyzed, not with Nagini suffocating him slowly. "It is true! Dumbledore asked me to teach the boy…" He had to stop talking, simply because he was running out of breath. Nagini's hold tightened further and he could swear he heard his ribs crack. "And so I complied! But as I only live to serve you…" Again he ran out of breath, and this time he wasn't sure he would be able to inhale again –not with that monster making it impossible!

Then, at the flick of Voldemort's hand, the snake eased up a little, allowing him to draw in breath. He reacted at once. "I am weakening him instead! I would never teach him any defenses against you! I am puncturing his mind, so it will be easier for you to subdue him at the moment of your glory!" And there it was; Potter's gasp at hearing those words. Shielding his thoughts very carefully from Voldemort, he thought, Stop doing that! He needed his wits about him if he wanted to survive!

"Interesting," Voldemort commented and approached Severus. "I wonder though; is this the truth? Or are you telling lies?"

Severus felt him push against his mind and so he opened up slightly, feeding Voldemort moments he could afford to show him. "It's true, my Lord. I would never do anything to work against you! I am your faithful servant, my Lord, and I will do anything I can to further your glory!" Damn, his ribs hurt and the fact that Voldemort was inside his mind made hiding Potter's thoughts even more difficult. There was one moment, when Voldemort pushed him even harder, that he didn't think he could continue to fool him. That he would die at last.

"Nagini…stop."

The two words barely reached Severus who was about to lose consciousness due to the constant pressure. But then the snake released him and slithered back toward her master. Severus swayed and was unable to maintain his upright position. He slid onto the floor and actually relished the sensation of cold stone against his face for it meant he was still alive. Had he managed to convince the Dark Lord?

"Lucius, it seems your son made a mistake in judgment."

Severus tried to listen, but his mind was scattered and he had to get back into control first. Thankfully Potter stayed quiet and so he managed to rebuild most of his defences.

"My Lord, I am quite sure that Draco didn't lie to me!"

"Can it be that you are jealous, Lucius? You never approved of the fact that I favour Severus."

So he was back in favour? Then maybe the pain had been worthwhile! Pushing himself to the limit, he managed to get back onto his feet. He somehow made it to his chair and collapsed on it, all the while clutching his chest, which continued to hurt and his lungs – they burned like hell.

"Next time I summon you, bring your son, Malfoy."

Severus glanced at Lucius and watched all life draw from the man's face. That was the drawback of having a family, Severus mused. It could, and in Lucius' case, would, be used against him.

"Now, the reason why I summoned you is…"

Severus listened, but only partly. He had heard Voldemort explain their plans to him countless times before. There wasn't anything new to it. Shielding himself as heavily as he could, he cautiously reached out. Still there, Potter?

Yes, sir, but keeping quiet as instructed.

Good. Severus eyed Voldemort closely; he would stop talking to Harry the moment the Dark Lord seemed on to him. This meeting won't last much longer. Go home and take Lupin with you, if he's still there.

He is, but sir, wouldn't it be better if we stayed? You are hurt and…

I can manage, Potter, and now, be quiet! Voldemort had stopped talking and was giving them expectant looks. Severus did as he always did; he started to applaud in a subdued way, which he knew, people felt was typical for him. Voldemort looked at him and seemed to swell with pride. Yes, he was in favour once more, but he still had to deal with Draco. That damn boy had almost gotten him killed!

/

Harry leaned back on the couch, feeling shaky and confused. Thankfully Remus was there to help out, and the werewolf sat down next to him, wrapping an arm around him. Harry felt something that resembled safety, but he knew he wouldn't truly feel secure until Snape had returned.

"Severus is very good at manipulation, don't you agree?"

Harry nodded; he knew exactly why Remus had said that. "He twists everything around until it fits his situation. When he said that he was weakening and puncturing my mind instead of strengthening it, I almost believed him."

"Almost?" Remus chuckled softly. "Had I attended that meeting as one of the Death Eaters I would most certainly have believed him."

"It's a dangerous game he plays, isn't it, Remus?" Harry had only started to fully realize that during these last few days. "Each time he heads to one of those meetings he might get killed."

Remus sighed softly. "I can't pretend to know why he does it… I have my suspicions, but I am not sure. I need to talk to him first." Remus observed Harry closely. "Is that link still active? Are you still connected to his mind?"

"Not at the moment." Harry had lowered his shields the moment Severus had left Voldemort's hiding place. "Remus, he's hurt. When Nagini tried to suffocate him, his ribs got injured."

"I can stay, if you think that is wise." Remus had heard the true question in there. "That is, if Severus doesn't throw me out first."

"I don't think he will have the strength for that. He barely recovered from their last meeting." Harry had calmed down and watched as dark swirls of smoke moved into the room. Harry jumped up from the couch and started for the window. He came to a stop though when Snape stumbled into the room. Snape went down on his knees, wrapped his arms around his chest, and tried to breathe shallowly. "Professor?" Harry sat on his heels next to the injured wizard and tried to catch his gaze.

Severus vaguely identified the voice and wondered why it was coming from so close. In the end, he managed to raise his gaze in order to find out. "Potter, what are you still doing here?" He gasped, as he had forgotten not to breathe too deeply. "I told you to get out!"

"Severus, we are here to help." Remus wasn't sure about the best approach, so he stayed in the back for now, but felt Severus should know about his presence.

"And the werewolf too," Severus whispered. "Not even my home is safe from you."

Harry watched as Snape tried to get back to his feet and moved forward when the other man swayed. "What can I do to help?" Snape was heading for the couch and so Harry helped him get there. After helping him sit down, he looked to Remus for guidance.

Remus uncovered his wand and sat down to Severus' other side. "Let me help." He wouldn't do anything without Severus' consent though.

Severus wished the two of them would just go away and leave him be. There was little hope of that though. Glaring at Lupin, he whispered from between clenched teeth, "Do you worst then."

Remus refused to be baited though. Pointing at Severus' chest, he said, "Episkey."

Severus gasped as another wave of pain moved through his ribcage, but tried to hide his discomfort – especially with Lupin being that close. The werewolf probably loved seeing him in pain and he wasn't going to give him that satisfaction!

"Your hands are freezing," Harry remarked rather stunned. He had taken hold of Snape's right hand, trying to offer his support that way, and had startled at the icy feel of it.

Severus quickly pulled his hand away. What was that damn boy thinking, grabbing hold like that? "I want the two of you to leave right now." Because then he could crawl over to his bed, close his eyes, and rest. He refused to show the real extent of his exhaustion in front of Lupin.

"Can't do that, Severus, not with you being in this state." Remus had thought it over before making his statement. He refused to let Harry do this on his own, and while he didn't intend to get that much involved, he did want to offer them both his support. He bore the glare Severus gave him, but also wondered how much was real emotion and how much an act. "Off to bed with you."

Harry had a hard time stopping himself from chuckling. Snape looked angry as hell, but didn't appear like he was going to fight them. "Remus is right, sir. You need to rest – and to be warm."

Severus wondered if he would get away with cursing them, but then decided he didn't need to add Albus' wrath to his current situation. He reluctantly resigned himself to their care and tried to cooperate the best way he could when they headed for his bedroom. Harry watched every step he made, ready to act if necessary. Severus thought the boy's apparent concern was rather overdone, but didn't say so as he did want to lie down and rest.

Upon entering his bedroom, Harry made sure Remus had a steady hold on Severus and then headed for the bed, turning down the covers. Severus growled at what he still thought was just an act, but when Lupin lowered him onto the mattress, he felt thankful nonetheless.

"Why don't you make sure Severus gets comfortable while I have a look at his private potions stock? Surely there is something in there to aid his recovery?"

Severus glowered at the werewolf; he was here, damn it! There was no reason to cut him out of the conversation!

"I will look after him," Harry said in an earnest voice. "See if there's a sleeping potion in there too."

"No sleeping potion," Severus grounded out from between gritted teeth. He had to stay in control, had to be able to wake if necessary. "Strengthening potion, yes, but no sleeping potion!"

Harry rolled back his eyes and smiled when Remus winked at him. He wouldn't put it past his friend to switch the contents of the vials, just to make sure Snape really rested. Harry bent down to help Snape out of his coat when he noticed the yellow slime attached to it. "Nagini..." he whispered, realizing the snake must have left it behind. He never expected Snape to react so fiercely though.

"Where?" At once, his wand was in his hand and he searched his bedroom, wondering how the hell the snake had gotten into Hogwarts.

Harry swallowed nervously, as he had never expected Snape to react like that. "She's not here! I just realized that - the slime on your coat, sir."

"Ah, that." Severus relaxed, but only minutely. He used his wand to remove the snake's traces and then placed it on the nightstand, making sure it stayed within reach. When Harry wanted to undo the buttons, he swept his hands away. "What do you think you are doing?" At the moment, his anger and his frustration at having been forced into this situation kept him alert and awake. In reality he wanted nothing more than to finally lie down and sleep.

"You can't possibly sleep comfortably wearing that." Harry reminded himself that Snape's bark was worse than his bite.

"I can do that myself!" Severus reached for the buttons, but his fingers refused to cooperate. The blood had been drained from them earlier and he wasn't sure he actually still felt them. He was certain the effect would fade in time, but right now it left him rather incapacitated.

"Why can't you use your hands?" Harry had looked on in growing concern.

"It will fade, Potter, don't feel smug about my handicap. Nagini briefly cut off the blood supply to my hands, that's all. No need to gloat!"

Harry stared at Snape in surprise. "Why do you think I am gloating? Do you really think I like seeing you in pain?" Although he, rationally, knew that Snape was probably just acting it still affected him. "I am here because I care about you, not to—"

"Harry, not now." Remus was back and had overheard part of the conversation. Contrary to Harry, he had a good idea why Severus was acting the way he was. He had seen that particular behaviour before, when they had still been students and Sirius and James had gotten away with bullying Severus. "Severus, drink this and then get some sleep."

"I am not taking orders from you, werewolf," Severus snarled, but he still looked at the potions Lupin had put on the nightstand next to him. All correct, all would help him recover; even stimulate the blood flow to his hands. But he would be damned if he took them just because Lupin was saying so!

"Harry, I need to talk to Severus in private. Can you leave us for a moment?" Remus had made his decision; he was going to confront Severus, but not with Harry present. Severus wouldn't want the boy around when discussing his past. Harry didn't look convinced though and Remus nodded encouragingly, hoping Harry would continue to trust him.

"I will check on you later," Harry said, addressing his professor. He kept his gaze trained on Remus though and mouthed, "Go easy on him," before leaving the bedroom.

Severus moved further onto the bed, rested his back against the headboard, and cursed his weakened state. He didn't feel up to facing Lupin just yet. "Get out," he said; trying for the direct approach, though he doubted it would work. He had seldom seen such a determined look on Lupin's face. "Get out, Lupin, before I make you."

Remus studied Severus for a moment before deciding what to do. Then he sat down at the foot end of the bed. "My name is Remus, Severus. And as you can see, I am not going anywhere."

Severus had no idea what Lupin was up to, but he wished the werewolf had picked another time for whatever he had in mind."Spit it out and get it over with. I have more important things to do than sit here and waste my time by talking to you!"

Remus recognized the defence mechanism for what it was, but he wasn't going to allow Severus to chase him away –not this time. "And what important things might that be?" Only belatedly did he realize that he was arguing with a master manipulator who could turn their conversation around any way he wanted.

"I need to report to Albus for one," Severus sneered, although he doubted he could tell Albus anything new. He was sure that if Albus had required information, the wizard would have checked with him already. "Get out," he repeated his former order. "Now."

"No." Remus drew in a deep breath. "Severus, I am sorry for the way we treated you back then. I should have stood up to Sirius and James, but I took the coward's way out." He saw Severus' surprise at hearing that and knew the wizard hadn't expected him to say anything like it. "I apologize for letting them bully you and not stop them. I can only tell you that I was afraid they would start to pick on me if I did. I am a werewolf, Severus. It's not easy making friends with that condition, but no," he said and raised a hand when Severus wanted to interrupt, "It's no excuse and I know it. Hear me out, Severus. This needs to be said." Although Severus had remained quiet during his speech, Remus could tell he was up to something. "There's no excuse for the way we treated you back then and I must admit I never gave it much thought until recently." He paused, trying to find the right words so he could continue.

"What changed?" In spite of his great dislike for the werewolf Severus found himself listening closely.

"Tonks is pregnant," Remus said and grinned in a silly way.

Severus frowned in concern. "This is not a good time to have children. Not a good time either to be raising one."

Remus nodded. "Don't you think I know that? But it happened, Severus, and the child is most welcome… It's a boy."

Again, Severus considered the news. "You will have to use the outmost caution in order to keep them safe."

Remus moved a little closer to Severus. The fact that Severus worried about the baby's well-being told him a lot. He had truly misjudged his former classmate. "I will deal with that when the moment comes, but what I want to say is this… Each man wants a son, or daughter, that doesn't matter, but then I thought about him growing up, maybe even attending Hogwarts, should the school still exist by that time." Severus remained quiet and Remus was sure he was listening very closely. "And what it would be like, if he were bullied like you were. He might tell me about it, if he felt I could help, but what if he kept it all to himself? What I am trying to say is, and I know I am not very good at it, is that I tried to put myself in your shoes, and I didn't like it at all."

His speech left Severus feeling unbalanced; he didn't know what to make of it and Remus noticed. "Severus, I know why you keep everyone at a distance. I know why you sneer at Harry or at me for that matter. I deserve your anger, but Harry doesn't, neither do any of the other students. I never realized how much damage our bullying did. We were kids; we never thought about how much it hurt you."

"Stop this," Severus said slowly. "Stop it right now."

"No, I am going to finish what I started." Remus prepared for whatever fight Severus would put up. "Like Harry said earlier, he's here with you because he cares, and although you will never believe me when I say so, so do I. I know that we will never be friends, but maybe we can be civil to each other?" Remus waited for Severus to speak his mind, but the wizard had grown quiet – eerily quiet. "I fetched those potions because I thought they might help you recover, not to bully you into taking them just because I could. I even left out the sleeping potion as you doubtlessly have noticed; you didn't seem inclined to drink it. I believe you should have some though – you look like death warmed over." Remus held his breath, wondering what was going on in Severus' head. "Aren't you going to say anything?" he challenged, after several minutes had passed by.

"You surprised me," Severus admitted eventually. The child in him, which had been bullied for almost seven years, had always craved to hear those words, but the adult didn't know how to react to them. "Give me those potions then."

Remus breathed a sigh of relief. That had gone better than he could have hoped for. "Which one first?"

"The pain-reliever," Severus said after a moment's thought. Remus already knew that he was in discomfort; hiding that wouldn't serve a purpose. He drank it, slowly, pacing himself. After a minute, it started to unfold its effect and Severus carefully shrugged out of his coat. Remus moved to help and Severus' first reaction was to tell the werewolf off, but then, he accepted the help.

Remus offered him another potion, and after checking its content, he swallowed that one as well. It would strengthen him, but the effect would only be temporary. What his body really needed was rest. Severus shifted on the bed, finally lying down and attaining a more comfortable position as he relaxed.

"I can get you the sleeping potion, Severus. I still think you need it." Remus wasn't sure Severus would accept, but he had to try.

"Fetch it then." Severus had reached a point where he no longer cared. He needed to sleep, to give his body a chance to recover, and if Albus wanted to talk to him in the meantime, he would have to wait.

When Remus returned a moment later, he found Severus already half asleep. He sat down and studied him closely; Severus had always been pale – had always had an unhealthy look over him, but these days, he looked like a mere shadow of himself. "Drink this." Remus guided Severus' fingers around the vial when the wizard reached for it. Harry was right, he noticed, those hands felt dreadfully cold.

Severus managed to drown the potion before finally giving into exhaustion and falling into a deep sleep.

/

"How's he doing?" Harry cornered Remus the moment he returned.

"Asleep. He drank the sleeping potion after all." Remus sat down on the sofa and replayed their conversation in his mind. "He is a far braver man than I thought."

Harry felt oddly proud at hearing that, but then his joy abated. "I made the same mistake and that didn't change until I saw what happened at those meetings. He's doing all this in order to keep me safe from Voldemort."

"That and much more."

Harry looked up in surprise and found Dumbledore standing near the fireplace. "Professor?"

Albus raised a hand and smiled at Harry. "It's good that you know the truth now, Harry. Though I didn't quite expect to see you here, Remus."

Remus rested his head against the comfort of the couch and studied the older wizard carefully. Severus' manipulations were straightforward. Once you knew where his loyalty lay his actions made sense. Dumbledore was different though, Remus mused. He had never been able to tell what Albus' hidden agenda really was. "I am merely visiting."

Dumbledore nodded and then moved toward the doorway. Harry quickly walked up to him and asked, "Where are you going, sir?"

Albus managed to keep the grin from his face. "To question Severus, of course. He may have new information for me." Harry's expression darkened and a protective stance came over the boy, just as he had hoped.

"You can't, sir. Professor Snape is asleep. Remus gave him a sleeping potion."

"I must still wake him, Harry." Albus pushed just a little harder.

"No, sir, you can't! You know the effects of that potion. You will harm him." Harry felt alarmed. Rousing Snape from the state he was in would further deteriorate his health. "I know what took place at that meeting; I can tell you. You don't need to wake him up."

Albus cocked his head as if considering it. In reality he complimented Harry for defending Severus. "Was it Draco then?"

Harry nodded. "Voldemort said that Draco had told his father that professor Snape was teaching me Occlumency. Voldemort didn't like that."

"I suppose he didn't…" Albus let his voice trail off at the end.

"Professor Snape then told Voldemort that he was weakening my mind instead; that he was puncturing it during those lessons so Voldemort would have an advantage over me when the time came."

"Very resourceful, if I may say so. There is a reason why Severus is that good a spy." Albus watched both of them now, curious to see who would react first and what he would say.

"He has to be that good," Remus remarked. "If he slips just once, Voldemort will kill him. He risks his life each time he meets up with him."

"Severus made that decision a long time ago. He knows what price he will pay in the end, and he agreed to that." Albus dropped another piece of the puzzle.

Harry frowned. "Why does he do it?" Why would any man for that matter be willing to risk his life repeatedly?

"I need to leave you now," Albus announced. A quick spell told him that Severus was indeed asleep and that it was a peaceful one at that. Good, maybe the nightmares would leave him alone for a change.

"But you didn't tell me anything," Harry objected. He wanted to know the whole picture and hated being fed scraps.

"Remus has those answers… Maybe if he ponders the matter, he will realize why Severus is so eager to pay that price. But, as I said, I need to leave you now." He walked toward the doorway and used their bewilderment to slip into the corridor.

"What did he mean by that?" Remus asked confused.

But then Harry had an idea. "Maybe I can help! I will be right back!" Harry headed for the bedroom, as he wanted to check on Snape first. He had to know for certain that the wizard was resting peacefully. He opened the bedroom door, took a step inside, and then paused to study the sleeping man. Snape had moved onto his right side. He had wrapped his arms around his chest and had pulled his knees close to his abdomen. Harry caught the shivers that coursed through Snape's body and he quickly covered him with a couple of blankets. At first, he resisted the urge to tuck him in, but then he grinned and proceeded anyway. Once he was certain that Snape was comfortable and sound asleep, he moved out of the room, but kept the door ajar. He wanted to be able to hear any sounds coming from the bedroom. Next he moved to the study. He collected the frame from the desk and returned to the living room.

"Maybe you can start by explaining this to me?" He sat down next to Remus and handed the werewolf the picture. "I found it on his desk the other day. It was hard to spot at first."

Remus took hold of the frame and sighed deeply. "I had forgotten about that." Seeing the picture brought back memories and he understood why that picture puzzled Harry. "He looks different, don't you think? Severus? I can't recall him ever smiling like that."

Harry nodded. "It's like I am looking at a different person. During all the years in which I have known him, I never saw him smile and most certainly not like that. He looks happy—they both do… I don't understand it though. That's my mother, isn't it?"

Remus recalled Albus' words and realized he might have some answers after all, but certainly not all of them. "Your mother and Severus already were best friends when they arrived at Hogwarts – joined at the hip. As far as I can tell, the feeling was mutual – they both cared deeply about each other."

That was not what Harry had expected to hear, but it made sense, considering the picture. "I never knew that! Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"I reckon no one thought it still mattered." Maybe they had been wrong, Remus mused. "They remained best friends even when the sorting hat put her in Gryffindor and Severus in Slytherin. You know that students mostly keep to their own house, but they defied that. When you saw Lily, you could be sure Severus was close too." Remus smiled at the memory. He looked at things in a different way these days. Life had taught him to put things into a different perspective.

"Go on!" Harry shifted nervously next to Remus. He knew so little about his mother and he was desperate to learn more.

"As I said, they were best friends. Your mother always defended Severus when James and Sirius played a prank on him. Your father and godfather were bullies, Harry. I know you don't want to hear it, but it's the truth; they always picked on Severus. Lily would scold them for targeting Severus and she hexed them on more than on one occasion."

"What happened?" Harry grew thoughtful after hearing that. His father had always been his hero, and now he was finding out that James Potter had had his flaws. How had his mother ended up with him then?

"I don't know exactly how it happened." Remus tried to remember – for Harry's sake. "I think Sirius and James were picking on Severus again – it must have happened during the sixth year at Hogwarts… At that time, Severus had befriended Lucius and was known to be sympathetic to the Death Eaters as well. He swallowed their propaganda and started to call everyone who wasn't a half-blood or pure-blood Mudblood. I have no idea why he did it, but he also called your mother that when she tried to stop the bullying. She ended their friendship after that and started to hang out with us instead. Only a few months later, James and Lily fell in love." Now that he thought about it, everything that had happened back then seemed rather childish. "Lily surprised us by dumping Severus like that. I believe she once told me that Severus had tried to apologize to her, but that she had refused to accept it." Remus drew in a deep breath. "That picture must have been taken shortly before their falling out."

Harry remained quiet; he needed a moment to make sense of what he had heard. "So that's why he gets vindictive whenever someone uses that word."

"What do you mean, Harry?"

"Normally he is very protective of his Slytherins, but the one thing he won't tolerate, even from them, is using that word." Harry recalled several occasions during which Snape had lashed out at his own students.

"That makes sense," Remus conceded. "Still, now that I am thinking about it… The way Lily reacted was out of character. They never had any arguments –Severus and your mother. And for something like that to drive them apart..."

"Do you think something else happened then?"

"I have no idea, Harry. There's only one person who can answer that question, but I doubt he ever will. You should put that picture back where you found it. Severus won't like finding out we saw it – or even worse, discussed it."

Harry stroked the protective glass set over the picture with his fingertips. "I always thought I knew Snape… I hated him. He always pestered me, humiliated me, but at the same time, he saved my life when Quirrell tried to kill me during that match. He even tried to protect me from you, when you changed into a werewolf that day. I should have questioned my beliefs back then. He pulled all three of us behind him, forming a barrier should you attack."

"We see what we want to see, Harry. Severus made that very easy by picking on you, but you are right; we tend to disregard the moments he tried to protect you."

Harry cocked his head and looked at Remus. "Will you stay? Or must you go?"

"I have no urgent appointments," Remus said and chuckled. "But I can't stay indefinitely. Tonks wouldn't like that." And when he did get back with her, he had to talk to her about Severus. Someone else inside the order should know the truth about him.

"Thanks, I would like for you to stay – at least until Snape is back on his feet."

"Severus will bounce back, fear not," Remus said, trying to lift Harry's mood. He placed his hand against Harry's cheek and turned the boy's face toward him. "I told Severus that I have a first name, since he keeps calling me Lupin. Now I am telling you that 'Snape' has a first name too, it's Severus. You might not feel comfortable calling him that to his face, but I doubt he will lash out at you if you do. I didn't realize it until today, but he's a very lonely man, Harry."

"I know that—well, at least, since a few days. I will to remember that, Remus."

Remus smiled and ruffled Harry's hair. "Good, now put that picture back where you found it." He watched Harry leave the room and then pondered everything he knew. Albus had been sure that he held all pieces to the puzzle, but why then, did he feel like he was missing several huge chunks of them?

/

Severus woke the next morning because his instincts warned him that he wasn't alone in the room and that he was being watched. He opened his eyes, located his wand, which was once more tucked inside his sleeve, and feeling a bit more reassured, focused on the intruder. "Albus…" He should have known the old wizard would appear sooner or later. "It was Draco. He found out about the Occlumency lessons."

Albus kept his back to Severus. It was easier that way. "Harry already told me." As expected, Severus reacted at once by sitting up and cussing softly. "Don't be angry with him. He didn't want me to wake you and so he supplied me with the information instead."

"You shouldn't use him in that way." The fact that he allowed Albus to use him as he saw fit, didn't mean the old wizard could do the same thing to Harry. "He's troubled enough. You don't want to mess more with his mind than you are already doing."

Keeping his features carefully schooled, Albus finally faced Severus. "Be careful, Severus, you sound like you care for the boy." Severus immediately averted his gaze, but Albus didn't need the eye contact to know that he was right. Severus *did* care about Harry. It came as no surprise that Severus quickly changed their subject.

"Apparently I am back in the Dark Lord's favour. At least he said so. That's worth something." Although the price for that had been high, it had not been *too* high as far as Severus was concerned.

Albus approached the bed and eyed Severus critically. These last few nights had taken a huge toll on the younger wizard. "Are you sure you don't want Harry to know?"

"Know what?" Severus narrowed his eyes and wondered what Albus was up to.

"I once promised never to reveal the best of you, Severus. Are you still sure about that? I wouldn't mind if the boy knew the truth."

"He can't know! He can never know!" Severus sat up, and as he felt strong enough, pushed himself to his feet. He stalked over to Albus and looked him in the eye. "No one can know – and that includes the boy. Harry can never know… You promised."

He promised a lot of things, rather often actually. That didn't mean he kept his word though. "We need to keep an eye on Draco," Albus said, changing their subject again. "We can't allow him to keep spying on you."

"I will take care of it," Severus said. He didn't know yet how, but he would find a way.

"No, leave the Malfoy boy to me."

Severus blinked in surprise. "Are you sure?"

"I am sure," Albus chuckled. "Now, speaking about boys… You do realize Harry's asleep on the sofa in your living room?"

"I told him to go home. Why doesn't he ever do as he is told?" Severus ran a hand through his hair. Although he had rested, he still felt tired, but it was his mind, and not his body, which suffered from exhaustion.

"Because he takes after his mother?" Albus suggested, carefully monitoring Severus' reaction. Mentioning Lily had set off tantrums in the past. Severus did have an awful temper at times.

"Don't!"

Severus' clipped tone told Albus that this was not the right time to address the matter. He did hope however, that such a time would eventually come. "What are you going to do about Harry? And Remus?"

"The werewolf is still here as well?" His tone lacked the venom it had possessed a moment ago, as he recalled what they had talked about last night and the way Remus had apologized for past behaviour. Had he actually accepted that apology? He couldn't quite remember everything he had said -last night was a bit blurry

"Harry likes him and so do I. I have the feeling you might like him too, if you gave Remus a chance to befriend you."

"How many times do I need to tell you that I have no use for friends in my life? Friends and family – those I can do without." He didn't dare let anyone close to him for the Dark Lord would use it against him should Voldemort need some leverage. He led a lonely life by choice.

Albus sighed. For almost twenty years he had tried to get through to Severus, but he had never quite managed it. "Don't terrorize Harry, Severus. You need him to trust you, remember?"

"He can do without lessons. I keyed his defences…" Oh, he still had to fix that. He had to do so as quickly as possible!

"To what word? Yours was Lily if I remember correctly."

"You just had to bring her up again, didn't you?" He knew Albus too well to think it had been a coincidence. Lately Albus seemed to use every opportunity he got to mention her. "But yes, you are right. It was Lily."

"And what word did Harry choose?"

Severus glared at the older wizard. "Like you don't know. Don't pretend ignorance. It doesn't become you."

"He chose your name, didn't he? And not even Snape, but Severus – odd, don't you think? I wonder why he did that."

"Leave me alone, Albus. It's bad enough having two masters pulling my strings. I might be your willing puppet most of the time, but not right now."

Albus knew when to back off. "Take care of the boy's shields, and Severus, he needs more lessons." A crack in the air announced he had left.

Severus felt grateful that Albus had finally left. He needed a break – desperately.

/

Severus wasn't in the habit of locking his bathroom, but this time he cast a spell to make certain that no one walked in on him. First, he removed his clothes and then indulged in a long hot bath. He checked on the burn and decided it was best to treat it one more time. It should fade completely in the course of the day. Good, for he didn't like keeping reminders of Voldemort's interrogating methods. After dressing in clean pants, white shirt, and his favourite black coat, he undid the locking spell and headed for the living room, hoping that Potter and Lupin had disappeared after all. But he didn't get what he had wished for. Both of them were still there, and even worse, they were awake.

"Severus." Remus looked up from the book he had been studying, since there was nothing else to do. He had briefly flirted with the idea of checking on Severus' potions experiments, but then he would have needed to enter the study and since Severus kept that picture there, he had decided against it.

Harry, who had been studying the titles of the books sitting on a shelf, turned around. "Professor, it's good to see you back on your feet."

"You can eat breakfast in here, but then I want you out. You probably have loads of homework to do, Potter." He summoned breakfast and the food appeared on the table. "Eat you fill and then be gone."

"And what about you, Severus? Aren't you hungry?" Remus poured himself coffee, and after catching Harry's look, poured him a cup too.

"Not that it concerns you, but I am not hungry." He had other things on his mind. He had to find a way to tell Harry that he had to change the word he had chosen to raise his shields and why he had to change it. He didn't look forward to having to explain it to the boy.

"Don't you want some tea, sir?" Harry remembered the variety of tea blends he had seen in the kitchen earlier. The house elves had included a pot of tea for breakfast as well.

"If I want something, I will get it myself," Severus remarked in a chilly voice. He had to get back to normal, or whatever he called normal in his life. While Harry and Remus ate breakfast, Severus stalked over to the window and looked at the sky. It was a truly sunny Sunday, and his last chance to get some peace and quiet before teaching started again tomorrow. He hadn't had a chance yet to get the first potions lesson organized for tomorrow.

"Go on," Remus whispered conspiringly. "Take it to him." He had filled a cup with hot tea, had added some sugar, and then handed it to Harry. If he remembered correctly Severus took sugar with this tea.

Severus heard him, but didn't comment. It was one of those rare moments when he would indulge himself by looking at the sun and remember he was actually on the sight of the light and not darkness. Sometimes he forgot.

"Professor?" Harry hoped he was right and that Snape was in a mellow mood. The older wizard certainly looked relaxed, which was a rare sight. He offered him the tea, but wasn't sure Snape would take it.

Repressing a heartfelt sigh, Severus turned to face Harry. The sneer that had already been on his lips, died upon seeing Harry's hopeful expression. Seeing that look made him swallow any ghastly comments he had wanted to make. Instead, he wrapped his fingers around the cup and nodded. He hadn't asked for it, so he wasn't going to say thank you.

Harry however didn't mind; he was relieved Snape had accepted the offered tea. He might be pushing his luck, but he tried anyway, "Maybe you would like some toast too?"

What had happened to putting more emotional distance between them? Severus wondered. This was not the way to do that. But he still followed Harry to the table and sat down, pulling the chair as far away from the table as he could without crashing into the wall. He reached for a slice of toast and nibbled on it. He was actually having breakfast with Potter and Lupin –he was definitely losing his touch!

"Harry asked me to stay a little longer and I said yes." Remus sought out Severus' gaze. "Don't worry, I won't stay… I am sure I can find someone who will put up with me."

He could live with Remus being at Hogwarts – but he couldn't live with this constant invasion of his home. "You can always try the room of requirement," he said coolly.

"Thanks for the advice," Remus replied, refusing to be baited.

"Or you could use my bed."

Severus blinked repeatedly and promptly admonished himself for letting Potter surprise him like that. "What did you say?" He slowly turned his head to glare at Harry.

"I rather hoped that I could stay with you for the next few days." Harry had given the matter ample thought while they had been waiting for Snape to join them. He hadn't told Remus about his plans, as he still wasn't sure how to approach the matter. He caught Remus' amused expression and hoped Snape wasn't looking at Lupin at the same time.

"And why, pray tell me, would you think of such an absurd thing?" What had the boy gotten into his head? Severus couldn't believe Harry had actually suggested staying at his quarters!

"Well," Harry started, trying to think it through before saying anything, "I reckon you will be teaching me Occlumency in the evenings and you might be summoned again… and when that happens, you might need help afterwards."

Severus prayed for patience because the boy was really putting him to the test. "Potter, I don't need your help and when teaching you Occlumency we don't need to do it here!" Although, there was still the matter of changing the key word.

Harry wasn't sure what tactic would work best with Snape. In the end, he simply decided to be honest as he didn't want to play games. "I worry about you, professor. I would feel much better if you allowed me to stay."

Maybe he should throw a tantrum at the boy. Maybe then Potter would want to get out of his sight. But tantrums demanded energy and that was the one thing he still lacked.

Harry was afraid to believe that he had actually managed to sway his teacher, but when Snape remained quiet and then nodded, he realized he had won – to his utter amazement.

"You can stay one more night, but that's it. And it's not because I need your help, Potter," Severus sneered with all the energy he could muster, "but because we do need to look at your shields one more time."

"Of course, sir,"

Potter sounded much too eager for Severus' taste, but he didn't comment on it, especially since Lupin was giving him a funny look. "What?"

"Nothing, Severus, absolutely nothing…"

Severus wished he knew what that had been about; especially when he caught Lupin winking at Potter.

"Sit down and don't get in the way," Severus told Lupin. For some reason the werewolf continued to occupy his living room, even in spite of repeated demands to leave it!

Remus sat near the window and pretended to resume reading when in reality he continued to monitor Severus.

Severus briefly considered removing Lupin from his rooms by force, but then settled for hoping the werewolf would leave once he was done correcting Potter's trigger word.

"Sir?" Harry wondered why Snape kept watching Remus. He knew the two of them didn't get along, but this seemed different.

"Ah, yes." Severus took the seat opposite Potter and began clearing his mind. Once he felt balanced, he said, "You need to change the word that triggers your shields. We will start with that."

"And why is that, sir? I thought it worked!" Harry caught the reluctance in Snape's eyes when he watched him. "Or didn't it?"

"It worked too well." Severus cursed the fact that Lupin heard every word he said. "You can't use it any longer. By using it, you strengthen the link. That's why I felt you in my mind last night. That can't happen again. The Dark Lord might pick up on your presence or you might distract me to such an extent that I betray myself."

"Just out of curiosity," Remus interrupted, as he had fun making Severus nervous. "What again was the word you chose, Harry?"

Severus wanted to stop Harry from answering that question, but the boy was quicker.

"I decided on Severus," Harry said, realizing Remus had remembered and was merely baiting Snape. "Picking that one made sense."

Remus chuckled. "I understand why you picked it."

Severus fought to remain calm, but it was getting harder with every passing second. "Potter, look at me. You need to use something else. Using my name in that way will cause the link to deepen and we don't want that."

Harry didn't want the link to weaken. He wanted to know what was happening to Snape so he could help when the older wizard needed him. Yes, he would go along and change the word, but maybe the old word would continue to work as well? He didn't really mean to trick Snape, but it was hard to convince himself to see things that way. "I don't want to change it."

Alright, it was time to play dirty then. "Potter, do you really want the Dark Lord to curse me because he senses your thoughts upon me? Or even worse, kill me because he suspects something is wrong?"

Remus shook his head in disapproval. That was low, even for Severus.

"Of course not!" Harry fidgeted with the sleeves of his sweater. "But I like being in touch with you like that." Well, that had come out the wrong way. "What I am trying to say is that I want to know if you are safe or if Voldemort is hurting you."

Severus had been afraid that Harry would react like that. Albus was responsible for the mess they found themselves in. Albus had hinted that he wanted the two of them to realize that they didn't hate each other, but instead, cared, and this was typical meddling on Albus' part. "Harry," he said, surprising himself by actually saying the name. Harry was surprised too; the boy's expression told him that. "You mustn't care about my well-being. I am not important. I don't want you to worry about me. There is a reason why I always bully you, can't you guess? I need you to hate me…"

Remus rolled back his eyes. That made no sense whatsoever.

"Don't do that, Lupin," Severus hissed. "You don't know everything."

"Then explain it to us," Remus challenged, putting aside the book and facing Severus. "Why must everyone hate you?"

"Because, you idiot, the Dark Lord would use my friends against me. Think of Lucius and his family. Do you really think Malfoy supports the Dark Lord because he idolizes Voldemort? Of course not! He's scared as hell that the Dark Lord will hurt Narcissa or kill Draco! Having a family, or even friends, will be used against you. Suppose I let you befriend me, Remus, or you, Harry, how long do you think I will last in the Dark Lord's service?"

Harry and Remus exchanged glances. They understood Snape's worries, understood why he was hesitant to allow them close, but still…

"We face that risk each day," Remus said eventually. "I can lose Tonks… I know she can be taken hostage. Voldemort might even torture or kill her, but I can't stop loving her because of it."

"Then you are a fool for endangering her life," Severus hissed.

Remus was about to get to his feet and let Severus *exactly* know what he thought of that sneer when he realized he was being manipulated again. And he had almost taken the bait. "No, I am no idiot… But I do understand why you don't want to run that risk. You are much closer to Voldemort. Should he ever find out that you are Albus' spy, and not his, he will retaliate in a terrible way."

At least Remus understood then. Turning again towards Harry, he said, "Give me a new word, Potter."

Harry felt conflicted; he understood Severus' urge for making the change, but still didn't like it. His first impulse was to use his mother's name, but no, he didn't want to abuse her name that way. "Snitch," he said eventually. "Is that a good word?"

"It will do." Severus felt relieved that the youngster was finally cooperating. "Will you let me into your mind?" He wanted this over and done with.

"Yes, go ahead." Harry realized he trusted Snape – something he had never thought possible. He hardly felt his teacher move through his thoughts in order to make the necessary adjustments.

"Done," Severus whispered, hoping the connection would remain dead the next time Harry raised his shields, but he couldn't be certain of that until they faced a real emergency. The mind worked in mysterious ways and the shields might not react to mere pretence, at least not in Harry's case, who was still new to Occlumency.

"Sir, when I asked you the other day you wouldn't tell me which word you used when you started to learn Occlumency."

"And what makes you think I will tell you now?" He was never going to share that piece of information with Potter!

"Because I don't think I need you to tell me…I believe I know what it was." Snape tensed and Harry drew in a deep breath, as he had no idea how the other wizard would react. "Was it Lily?"

Severus slowly turned to look at Remus, knowing exactly who had provided Harry with that insight. He felt alarmingly calm when he reached for his wand and pointed it at Lupin. "You will pay for that."

Remus had expected Severus to jump to his feet, to pace, yell at him, maybe even physically assault him, but he hadn't thought Severus would react in such a deadly way. Severus' face seemed bereft of emotion, but when Remus looked more closely, he thought tears shimmered in those black eyes. "Severus, don't do that. Lower your wand." He didn't move – he stayed where he was. He didn't go for his wand, knowing that if he did, one of them wouldn't survive the confrontation.

"Professor, don't!" Harry regretted asking that question. Like Remus he had thought that Snape would yell at them, but he had never expected anything like that. The tip of Snape's ebony wand glowed with energy and should it release that force, it would most certainly cause serious injury. Harry moved quickly and went to stand in-between the two men. "Stop it, professor!" The way Snape shook his head, slowly and utterly predatory, made him dread the worst. "Don't do it!"

"Severus…"

Harry looked at Dumbledore, who had, all of a sudden, appeared in the corner of the living room. "Professor, I didn't mean to upset him! He won't lower his wand!" He felt relieved at seeing Dumbledore nod and then advance on Snape.

"Severus, lower that wand or I will do it for you. I won't tolerate murder inside these walls."

Severus suddenly spun around like bitten and hissed at Albus. "Don't you dare bring that up! I paid for my crimes – in full."

"Lower your wand, Severus," Albus repeated. He had seen Severus in that state before and knew how to proceed. Normally, Severus was a calm and analytical man, but sometimes something would trigger his emotions to such an extent that he lost control. It was understandable, Albus reasoned, as Severus had to tightly control his feelings most of the time. When they were offered a way out, everything wanted out.

Remus hoped Albus know how to handle Severus, because the look in those black eyes scared him. He watched closely when Albus wrapped his fingers around Severus' wrist and somehow forced him to release it. Albus caught the wand before it hit the floor and tucked it away between the folds of his robes. "Severus, you need to control your emotions, calm your mind… You need to take control again."

Fascinated, Harry took it all in. It was like watching an Occlumency lesson in reverse. Dumbledore was telling Snape the same things his teacher had told him. Did that mean Dumbledore had taught Snape in the first place? Just to be on the safe side, he moved toward Remus and came to a halt standing next to him. The look Remus gave him told him that the werewolf was equally perplexed.

"Calm your mind, Severus… Sort out your emotions and then let go of them. You know what to do. Rein it all in." Albus saw the first signs of calm when he looked at Severus again. At first he had been tempted to enter Severus' mind, but he had quickly reconsidered. Severus could easily lash out at him and by doing that, the younger wizard would do considerable damage to both of them.

It took Severus a long time to do as instructed. Calming his mind was hard. Letting go of his hatred was even harder, but in the end, he managed, and breathed in deeply, trying to centre himself again.

"That was close," Albus said, addressing Remus and Harry. "Maybe too close. I strongly suggest you don't confront him in that manner again."

"I didn't know! I didn't think it would provoke such a reaction," Harry replied in all honesty. "I was just…curious." Had he known Snape would react like that he wouldn't have mentioned his mother in such a casual way!

"It's not your fault, Harry, not exactly," Albus sighed deeply and then focused on Severus again. "Better?"

"Better," Severus admitted, ashamed of the way he had reacted. He had truly wanted to curse Remus. Harry might have asked about Lily, but Remus was the only one who could have told him.

"I suggest the two of you leave now. I will stay with Severus." Albus needed to protect all three of them. When he had set out on this path, he had known that somewhere along the line Severus might snap.

"Are you sure that is for the best?" Harry wondered if it wouldn't be better if he stayed. Snape's reaction would have scared him in the past, would have intimidated him and made him run, but things between them had changed. Instead of running in fear, he concentrated on his teacher instead.

"Potter…" Severus felt Harry touch his mind and his anger flared all over again. He spun around, ready to throw him out when he saw -–and felt—the boy's concern for him. He had to remind himself that this wasn't Voldemort violating his mind, or Albus testing his defences. This was Harry, and his touch was surprisingly gentle. "Get out of my mind," he said, emphasizing every word.

"Sorry, sir." Harry hadn't realized what he was doing. "I didn't do it on purpose." He tried to retreat from Snape's mind, but somehow he was unable to do so. Snape's mind felt like glue and he couldn't get away from it. "I'm trying!" he said, afraid Snape might overreact again.

Being connected with Harry had the strangest effect on Severus. His remaining anger seemed to evaporate and a remarkable peace settled onto him. "It's alright, Harry. Take the time you need in order to let go." Severus was fully aware of the three pairs of eyes that now fastened on him. He was at a loss to explain himself, but he felt at peace. "I am not angry with you. Take your time." Apparently that was all Harry had needed to hear, as a moment later, the connection faded.

"Severus?" Albus rested a hand on his shoulder and searched his eyes – they looked remarkably calm.

"I am sorry," Severus said, addressing Harry. Apologizing was something he seldom did, but right now, he felt he should. "I was out of line, but I never expected to hear you say that. I had no idea that you…knew." His gaze sought out Remus' next. "You told him," he stated calmly. "It's the only explanation."

Now that Severus seemed back in control, Remus nodded. "Maybe I shouldn't have, but I thought he had the right to know. I had no idea he intended to bring it up in that manner." His gaze shifted to Harry. "You shouldn't have done that. I told you that Severus might not react well if he found out."

"You did tell me that," Harry admitted and bowed his head, feeling a bit ashamed of his actions. "But I can't take it back."

"No, you can't," Severus said sighing. "And maybe we will discuss her in the future, but don't ask that of me right now." He didn't know what exactly Remus had told Harry, and at the moment, he had no desire to find out. It was bad enough Harry knew he had known Lily. "I need to clear my mind," he announced as he headed for the doorway. Hearing Harry's footsteps behind him, he turned and added, "Don't follow me."

Harry found it hard to let Snape walk off like that, but in the end, he allowed it. At the moment, getting the answers he craved didn't seem as important as Snape finding his equilibrium again.

"Albus, what happened just now?" Remus walked toward the older wizard, needing some answers himself. "I know that Severus is perfectly capable of throwing tantrums, but this…" Severus had been ready to kill him, he was sure of it.

Albus drew in a deep breath and then looked at both of them. "You surprised him, which is never a good thing and he didn't know how to react upon finding out you knew about Lily." His gaze now fastened on Harry. "He loved your mother very much, Harry, and when she died it nearly destroyed him." He sat down and wasn't surprised when Harry sat down next to him on the sofa. "Being a spy, Severus needs to be in control of every detail of his behaviour. He can't let his emotions get the better of him. That's why I told him to clear his mind and to let go of his feelings. If he slips, if Voldemort were ever to realize how much Severus cares about you, about Lily, and even about you, Remus, then Voldemort would start to question him. That's why Severus has to rein it all, but he's only able to so a terrible price. Sometimes, like just now, his emotions overwhelm him. It's the first time someone was close when that happened – someone other than I, I must add."

"Has he ever hurt anyone while in that state?" Remus asked tentatively.

"Only himself," Albus revealed in a sad tone. "But that is too private for me to tell. If you need to know you must ask him yourself." Albus patted Harry's shoulder reassuringly and then got to his feet again. "I had better keep an eye on him –from a distance, but still."

"Will he come back here?" Harry was desperate to make things right again. After all, he had brought on that violent reaction.

"Eventually," Albus said. "But I can't tell you when. Remus, you are free to stay in the guest quarters for the time being."

"Thanks, Albus, but I think I shall stay with Harry, at least until Severus returns." It might be best if the two of them talked without his presence frustrating Severus.

"Don't worry too much, Harry. Severus knows he was out of line, and when he returns he will be himself again."

"And that's a good thing?" Remus said, opting for humour. It seemed to work as Albus laughed and Harry smiled.

"Yes, Remus, it is, trust me on that." Albus walked over to the doorway and left the two of them to their own thoughts.

/

Severus roamed the castle for almost an hour before heading outside. The sun had long set and a new moon had risen instead. It was the end of January and it had started to snow, which suited his mood just fine. He wished he had donned his robes over his coat, but he couldn't be bothered transfiguring them. In the end, he simply wrapped his arms around his chest and continued to march on, uncaring of the growing cold.

He headed north and caught sight of Neville Longbottom, sitting on a bench and exposed to the cold, but at least the boy had remembered to put on some warmer clothes. Neville was reading and seemed absorbed by it. His curiosity got the better of him and Severus headed toward him.

The reading material had to be absolutely fascinating, as Neville still hadn't noticed him. Severus was therefore able to look over the boy's shoulder and read along. He felt surprised upon realizing that it was a book about potions. Now why would Longbottom be reading that and did it mean he had to put up extra safety measures in his classroom?

Ah, the boy was reading up on potions designed to cure the effects of the Cruciatus curse. That would end in disappointment for sure. Still in an odd mood, Severus quietly sat down next to Neville and looked at the way the snow gradually started to cover the grounds.

Neville wondered who had joined him, but reckoned it was probably Hermione or Harry as those two were the most likely to seek him out. But as he looked up and found his most hated professor seated next to him his heart started to thunder in a wild rhythm "Sir?" he said awkwardly, wondering what horrible things Snape was up to. There was a reason why his Boggart still had Snape's form. He might have learned how to use a Riddikulus on it, but that didn't mean Snape no longer terrified him.

"There is no cure for what you are looking for, Longbottom." Severus hated taking those precious illusions away from the youngster, but it was better to be honest instead of feeding a non-existing hope.

"And what do you think I am looking for…sir?" He added the last word quickly as he didn't want to anger Snape. He wasn't looking forward to detention with Snape, or more bullying. It briefly crossed his mind to simply get up and walk away, but his grandmother had taught him better manners than that –unfortunately.

Severus turned his head toward Neville and wondered what the hell he was doing here, talking to Longbottom and trying to comfort the boy – in his own, awkward way. "Alice and Frank – your parents, of course."

Neville did jump to his feet that time and stared at Snape in a mixture of disbelief and anger. "You know about them?"

"Of course I do! Sit down boy, and stop giving me that look!"

Neville reacted automatically to Snape's tone and sat down. He hated the way Snape could make him do things against his will. "I never knew that."

"I was part of the first Order of the Phoenix, towards the end of that war mostly. I met your parents on several occasions. They struck me as kind and good people." He hadn't wanted to reveal that much, but he still felt odd. Maybe it would be good to finally get this off his chest. Allowing his emotions to roam free only minutes ago had reminded him that letting go made him feel better.

Neville was confused; he had never seen Snape that mellow and the fact that his professor wasn't yelling at him because of something he had done wrong, unbalanced him even more.

"There is no cure for the Cruciatus curse," Severus said when Neville remained quiet. "To lessen the effects directly after one was subjected to it, yes, but not to treat long-lasting illness because of it."

"And how would you know that?" Neville started to feel angry. How dare Snape tell him that there was no cure? There had to be one, and he, Neville Longbottom, would discover it!

"Because I researched it for almost fifteen years, Longbottom!" Severus still studied the way the snowflakes headed toward the ground. Some went straight down, others spiralled.

"You did what?" Neville looked up and stared at his teacher in wonder. Had he heard correctly?

"The healers at 's often contact me. They require potions or insights I can offer. I also studied your parents' condition and I am sorry to say that is little I can do for them. I developed a potion that enables them to relax their muscles when a fit takes them so they aren't be in pain, but that is it. The Cruciatus is…" He shivered, remembering only too well what it felt like to be under that particular curse. "It destroys your nerve system. We pride ourselves on being wizards, but beneath it, we're still Muggle. Our bodies were never meant to endure such pain."

Neville blinked, only now realizing what Severus had actually told him, namely that, firstly, his professor cared enough about his parents to invent a new pain relieving potion for them and secondly, that he had suffered the Cruciatus curse much like his parents had.

Severus wondered about the boy's silence and carefully glanced at him. He had revealed too much then. "Don't look at me like that. I never suffered that much nerve damage because I was relatively shortly subjected to it, while your parents suffered for hours, maybe even days."

Neville felt speechless, something which he hated. He wanted to ask Snape a lot of questions, but was still too shocked to actually formulate a question.

"I am still working on it," Severus said, grateful that Neville wasn't asking him questions. "I set up the experiment in my study. For a while it looked promising, but then… I am a Potions Master, and let me assure you, they don't hand out titles like that easily, but even I am stuck."

"You are still working on a potion to help my parents?" Neville had a hard time wrapping his mind about the fact that the teacher he hated the most was actually the one trying to help him in a way he had never expected.

"Yes, but as I said, I can't seem to make it work. Either I end up destroying the rest of their nerve system or sending them off deeper into their catatonic state." He had always hoped to find a cure for Alice and Frank, but even he had to admit there were limits to potion making.

Neville's hand shook out of nervousness and he couldn't believe he was actually going to make the suggestion, but he wanted to help so badly that he said, "Maybe you need a second opinion? Someone new to look at it?"

Severus had actually been thinking about those lines for quite some time. "You are probably right, Longbottom."

Neville stared at his teacher with big eyes. Snape actually agreed with him?

"I will transfer my set up to the classroom and leave my notes next to it. You have Potions first thing tomorrow. You are excused from your normal lesson and you may, if that is what you want, study what I did so far."

Neville found it hard to believe that the bully who normally lectured him about every move he made, was now being so helpful. It almost seemed like he was dealing with two different people. "You are professor Snape, are you not?" Oh, he had never meant for that to slip and he steeled himself for the other wizard's reaction, but when it came it wasn't what he had expected.

"Longbottom, I…" Severus wasn't sure what to say. He didn't want to give Neville hope when he was sure their experiment was doomed to fail. "I do care about your parents and if I seem harder on you than on the rest it is because I don't want you to blow yourself up accidentally. I am just trying to keep an eye on you – in my own, imperfect way. Yes, I am aware of that." This conversation was spinning out of control and so he got to his feet again. "Don't blow up my experiment tomorrow, Longbottom, or you will be doing detention until you graduate!"

Neville watched Snape resume his walk and realized he had never known the man at all.

/

Severus didn't feel like heading back to his rooms just yet, having the feeling Harry and Remus would be there, waiting for him. So instead he continued to walk and ended up near the Whomping Willow. He made sure he stayed out of its reach though, as neither of them was particularly fond of the other. He settled down on a large stone in order to watch it. There had been a time when he had hated that tree to such an extent that he had considered setting fire to it. Time however had changed the nature of his feelings and now he was satisfied to merely watch it.

"I had a feeling I might find you here."

Severus wasn't surprised, not really. He had half expected Albus, Harry, or Remus to come looking for him eventually. The fact that it was the werewolf who now sat down next to him was the least frustrating option out of those possibilities. "Ever imagined how it would howl if you set fire to it?"

Remus raised an eyebrow. That had not been the opening he had hoped for. "Not really. It hides the entrance to the Shack and I always needed to be able to go there." He also remembered James and Sirius setting Severus –Snivellus – up. Had it not for James suffering from a guilty conscience, Severus might have died that night. Some of their pranks hadn't been childish at all, but dangerous. "Did I ever thank you for brewing that potion each month? It stopped me from changing into a werewolf."

"I can't recall if you did – it doesn't matter anyway." Severus wondered what it would be like – being forced to change into a werewolf with each full moon. "If you'd like, I can provide you with it once more."

"Thank you," Remus said, truly touched. "I would appreciate that."

Severus merely nodded; he would see to it. He grew increasingly aware of the fact that Remus continued to study him. So in the end, he returned the stare and hissed, "What are you looking at?"

"Someone I thought I knew, but I don't know you at all, do I?" Remus hadn't fully realized that until now. "And I should apologize for telling Harry without your consent – or, at least, your knowledge." He knew he had to be careful, but he also needed to have this conversation for both their sakes.

Severus briefly considered getting up and leaving Remus there, but then realized it wouldn't gain him anything. "The damage has been done," he said eventually. "How much does Potter know?"

"Almost everything," Remus admitted and felt Severus flinch next to him. It was better to get it all out then. "He found the picture on your desk."

He only had to blame himself then. "That was careless." He had never expected Harry roaming his rooms though. Had he known, he would have removed that picture on forehand. "What did you tell him?"

"That Lily and you were best friends. I also told him about the bullying. I am afraid I rather shattered the image Harry had of his father when I told him about that. I didn't go into any details," he added quickly at seeing all colour drain from Severus' face. "Harry knows they bullied you, but no specifics."

"That's something, I guess." How was he ever going to face Potter again? Maybe he could partly wipe the boy's memory? However, he doubted Albus would let him get away with that.

"I also told him why Lily and you grew apart – that you had called her…that name," he said, carefully staying clear of actually repeating what Severus had said that day. "And that she wouldn't accept your apology."

"Anything else you told Potter?"

"Not really – I don't think so." Remus wondered what to say next. "Severus, I would like us to be friends," he said eventually. "Do you think that is possible?"

Severus shrugged. Being bullied for years had left scars and some of them had never fully healed. Each person had a breakpoint and he had reached his when Lily had fallen in love with James. That had been the thing to turn him into a Death Eater. "I don't know – we'll see, I guess.

"That's a remarkable mellow reaction," Remus observed and then plunged ahead, "Especially since you wanted to kill me a short time ago."

"I overreacted. I have been under a lot of pressure lately." Offering an explanation was one thing, an apology another as far as he was concerned. "The last thing I needed was Harry finding out that much about me."

Again Remus carefully considered his next words. Although he would like to address the reasons why Severus continued to risk his life, he knew the other man would shut down the moment he brought it up. Instead, he said, "Harry likes you," Remus chuckled. "You do realize that he went from hating you to worrying about you within days?"

"More is the pity. I liked it better when he still hated me."

Remus stared at Severus in shock. "You can't be serious!" He didn't believe Severus – not at all.

"It would make things less complicated," Severus admitted. "And this link: I can't explain it, but I must find a way to destroy it. Having him in my mind like that is unsettling." Though the last time Harry had touched his mind it had calmed him down.

Remus however managed to read between the lines. Severus was a lonely man and yes, such a link would unsettle him, but it also meant he wasn't alone anymore. "Are you going to talk to Harry? Without ripping his head off?"

Severus chuckled softly. "You have no idea how many times I have come close to doing just that. Instead, I could only give him detention. That boy has the tendency to roam the castle at night and to get himself in trouble."

"He kept you busy," Remus realized. "You watched his every step so you could keep him safe, didn't you?"

"Him and those friends of his, Granger and Weasley." The three of them had often given him nightmares as he had imagined the trouble they could get themselves into. He cocked his head and watched the Whomping Willow lash out at a bird that had dared to land on a branch. "That is a truly vicious tree."

"Actually it reminds me of you," Remus said, hoping he wasn't going to endanger the brittle friendship between them.

"It does? Pray, explain that to me," Severus said, slowly, dangerously.

But Remus ignored the change in tone. "All that tree does is keep everyone at a distance. When someone, or something like that bird, comes to close, it lashes out and pushes it away. Does that remind you of someone?"

Severus had to admit Remus had made a valid observation. It even amused him to a degree. He hated that accursed tree, so did that mean that he hated himself? Probably.

"Harry's waiting for you. He wants to talk. I told him to be careful and to let you decide what to address and what to avoid." Remus got to his feet and stretched. "Don't stay out here for too long. It's getting colder and the snowfall heavier."

Severus ignored that piece of advice. He would damn well sit there for as long as he liked!

/

Harry had been about to accept that Snape wasn't going to return to his rooms that night, when he heard noise in the hallway. Sitting up straight, he eyed the door closely. When Snape finally appeared and headed for the chair next to the fireplace, he felt relieved. "I wasn't sure you still wanted to talk to me," he admitted.

Severus sat down and watched the flames for some time. "I don't mind talking to you, Potter, but much depends on the subject."

Harry heard the warning in there and heeded it. "What *are* you comfortable with to discuss?"

"Remus told me you practically know everything now, so what is there left to discuss?"

"You talked to Remus then? And he's still alive?"

Severus couldn't help but chuckle lightly at that. "Yes, he is, pity, isn't it?"

Harry however paid more attention to Snape's expression than to what he had actually said, having learned those two didn't necessary meant the same thing. "I am sorry for springing that on you –about my mother, I mean." He had made the first move and now it was up to Snape to tell him where to take it.

"I must admit I had thought you would find out early on—ever since you started to get closer to Lupin and Black."

"We never discussed you – or my mother," Harry admitted. "And with Sirius… it's hard to get him to talk about anything he wants to avoid."

"I don't want to talk about him," Severus said and gritted his teeth. Sirius had been the biggest bully of them all.

"How did you and my mother meet?" Harry hoped that they moved to safer grounds by him asking that.

"Your aunt Petunia was being her spiteful self," Severus started, deeming himself able to tell Harry that much. "She was picking on your mother and Lily ran. I happened to be close and…" He closed his eyes, trying to fight off the emotional effect remembering that memory had on him. "I didn't have any friends when I was young and Lily seemed to genuinely like me."

"Why didn't you have any friends?" Harry was genuinely interested in finding out, knowing only too well what it was like to grow up alone.

"A lot of it had to do with my parents. My father was a volatile drunk and most of the town people avoided him. My mother… She had given up on life, it seemed. Probably because he beat the will to live out of her every other day." What was he doing telling Potter all that? He had never told anyone, not even Albus, even though the wizard had often tried to make him confide in him.

"I am sorry to hear that." He had never liked living with his family, but neither uncle Vernon nor aunt Petunia had ever laid a finger on him. Dudley was a different matter and didn't count. Harry knew that a lot of boys their ago ended up fighting one way or the other. "What happened to your parents? Are they still alive?"

Severus raised a hand and effectively ended that line of questioning. "We are done discussing my family."

Harry wondered about that. He really wanted to know if Snape's parents were still alive. Since discussing Lily and Snape's family were off limits, there wasn't a lot left to discuss, was there? Harry didn't think it safe to mention the bullying either, suspecting that was another touchy subject. Was there a safe topic to discuss then? Maybe not at the moment, but that didn't mean he couldn't do something about the silence between them. "Would you like to play some Wizard chess? I will probably lose, but…" It would allow him to spend more time with Snape. To his surprise, the tension that had make Snape sit in that rigid way left the older wizard and he relaxed. "I can make tea, if you'd like some." Harry didn't like tea that much, but he would drink it if it helped Snape unwind.

"Tea would be nice," Severus admitted. He still felt chilly from the time he spent outside. He shouldn't be doing this; shouldn't allow Harry to get to know him, but a part of him longed for some company.

/

"Why do you keep watching me like that?" Severus told another piece to move forward on the chess board and then sipped his tea – Lady Grey, he noticed.

Harry knew it had been only a matter of time before Snape would ask him that. "Do you think Voldemort will summon you tonight?" He hoped not. He actually enjoyed playing chess with Snape, still surprised at the lack of condescending remarks the wizard had made so far, especially considering how bad he was currently playing.

Severus put down the tea and tentatively made eye contact. "I hope not. I was under the impression I was back in favour the last time we talked. If that is the case, he will be less likely to summon me, as he has no reason to doubt my loyalty."

"How do you do it?" Harry hoped Snape would be inclined to explain. "You also teach during the week."

Severus shrugged and carefully monitored Harry's next move on the board – the boy was practically handing him the victory and he wondered if he was doing it on purpose – letting him win. But no, Harry was really bad at Wizard chess, that much *was* true. "I don't have a choice, do I? I just take it one day at a time." The more extensive planning he had always left to Albus. He merely carried out the older wizard's instructions.

"Tomorrow's first lesson is Potions; am I trouble? I didn't study and didn't get any of the homework done." He was really curious to find out Snape's answer.

"Maybe I will go easy on you this time," Severus remarked, lured into an unfamiliar sense of calm because of Harry's presence. He couldn't remember the last time he had spent an evening like that; enjoying tea, playing Wizard chess, and *not* having to be on guard. He had better not get used to it, because something like that never lasted.

/

"Harry, mate, we missed you!" Ron shook his head in surprise at seeing Harry's grin. "Don't tell me you are still hanging out with Snape!"

"He's not that bad once you get to know him," Harry said, defending his teacher. Looking at Hermione, he added, "He slaughtered me at Wizard chess though. I don't think anyone is as good as he is." They had played three games and each time, Snape had won. "Ron, maybe you should challenge him. I would like to know how long you'd last – or the two of you together!"

Harry felt merry when they made their way back to the dungeons. He had only gone to the dormitory to change his clothes and pick up his things for today's lessons. He had spent the night on the sofa in Snape's living room, which had been amazingly comfortable.

"Harry, you sound like you like him!" Hermione wasn't sure what to make of that. First Harry had disappeared on them and now he was praising Snape.

"I know – it sounds weird, but it's the truth." When they entered the classroom, he realized that Snape was already there, seated at his desk, carefully writing something down. A number of students were already uncovering their books and getting started. Neville however wasn't one of them. "What's up with him?" Harry asked and pointed out Neville to his friends.

"I have no idea," Hermione admitted. After checking on her professor, who still seemed absorbed in his notes, she pulled Harry and Ron along. "Neville, what are you doing?" That wasn't Neville's workspace and the set up he was looking at seemed terribly complex.

"Snape gave me a special project," Neville explained after a moment's thought. "I'm to work on this for the time being."

"And this is?" Ron stared at the various vials, the bubbling stuff, and failed to make any sense of it.

"Just something he wants me to work on," Neville said, being vague on purpose. He was still stunned that Snape had kept his word. When he had entered the dungeon that morning, Snape had pointed him toward the corner. When he had seen the experiment already set up there, he had felt flabbergasted. He had never expected Snape to do that for him.

"Do you need our help? He isn't going to give you detention when you fail at figuring it out, is he, mate?" Because Ron didn't think that fair. Neville wasn't good at Potions at all.

"No, nothing like that," Neville said while trying to decipher Snape's notes. Snape really had an awful handwriting. "Hermione, do you know what this says?"

"Add five minims of Lemongrass oil." Hermione frowned in surprise when she caught sight of the rest of the notes. "What *are* you brewing, Neville? This is very advanced potion making, something…" She looked at her professor and found him staring back at them. "That is professor's Snape's handwriting." She would have recognized the cramped writing anywhere!

"It's something I want to work on," Neville said, remaining vague. "Thanks, Hermione."

Hermione recognized the dismissal and returned to her own workspace, followed suit by Ron and Harry.

"What was that about?" Harry whispered curiously.

"If I am not mistaken he is working on a very complicated potion – one that is partly a muscle relaxant, but also triggers the nerve system. And that handwriting is professor Snape's."

"Why would the bat entrust something like to Neville? Does he really want him to blow up the dungeon?"

Harry however differed in opinion. He knew about Neville's parents and guessed that Snape was working with the healers at St. Mungo's to find a cure. The thing he didn't understand though was why Neville was also working on it.

/

Towards the end of the lesson most students had cleaned their workspace and were leaving the dungeon. Neville however was still trying to grasp what Snape had done so far. It was immensely complex and he wasn't sure he would be able to help at all.

Harry had watched his friend closely and wondered what Snape hoped to achieve by confusing Neville to such a degree. He waited until all other students had left and only the four of them remained. After gesturing to Ron and Hermione to stay where they were, he walked up to Snape's desk. "Sir?" Snape's black hair obscured his face so he couldn't tell what mood their teacher was in. He simply hoped for the best.

Severus put down his quill, placed his hands on top of each other, and raised his head in order to look at Harry. "Mister Potter."

Harry tensed at first, but then watched Snape's eyes, which told him it was just an act. "I was wondering why you assigned Neville that project. He looks out of his league. Is that why you are doing it? Do you want to…?" He didn't finish his sentence, knowing Snape would understand what he was getting at.

"Embarrass him? Belittle him? Show him how little he knows about potion making?" Severus finished instead, having caught on. "No, mister Longbottom asked to be involved in that project. I am not forcing him into it."

"I didn't think you were." He had just wanted Snape to confirm it. "Can you tell us what he is doing?" He had noticed Hermione and Ron had joined him, even though he had asked them not to as it might make Snape less inclined to answer his questions.

"Mister Longbottom, do you want to explain to your friends what your project is about?" Severus called out and was amused to see the three of them looking stunned.

Neville didn't particularly appreciate having his attention disturbed that way. "Later, sir?"

"You have heard what Mister Longbottom has to say about that. Now, if there is nothing else you need to know I suggest you head for your next lesson." Severus fought hard to keep a smile from his face. It did amuse him to see them stunned like that. His amusement however didn't last for long, as a scorching pain emanated from the Dark Mark, telling him he was being summoned. Thankfully this was his only class today and he had been summoned at the end of it and thankfully not at the beginning.

"Professor?"

Severus was amazed to hear that tremors shook Harry's voice. "I need to go." Best to keep this rational and to stay away from reacting emotionally.

"You…" Harry's first impulse was to ask Snape to stay, but he knew that would be folly. Snape had to answer the summons. "Do I need to…?"

"Yes, Potter, you know what to do and don't reach out to me – no matter what happens. Do you understand?" Hopefully he was getting through to the boy.

"I will carry out your instructions, " Harry said quickly. "Be careful though."

Severus nodded absentmindedly as he headed for the doorway.

Once Snape was out of sight, Harry started to worry. He knew Snape was going to face Voldemort again and there was no way of knowing how that meeting would end.

"What's up with him all of a sudden?" Snape's sudden departure left even Neville wondering as he joined his friends. "I thought…"

"What?" Harry tried to focus on Neville in the hope it would help him stop worrying about Snape.

"He said he would go over his notes with me in case I had questions about the potion."

Hermione realized her chance and asked, "What potion, Neville?"

Neville wasn't paying attention to what he was saying, since he still wondered about Snape's behaviour. "Snape has been working on a potion that might help my parents. He allowed me to help. It happened yesterday," Neville continued, now that he had let it slip, there was no real reason to avoid talking about it. "We talked. He sat down next to me and told me he knew my parents and that he respected them. Then he said he was working on a remedy; I never realized he knew about my parents, but then again, it makes sense, doesn't it? I know he makes potions which the healers at St Mungo's use." Neville frowned. "But what really surprised me was that he seemed to care about my parents' fate."

'Trust me, Neville, I know how you feel. I know exactly how you feel," Harry commented. He had to raise those shields soon, but he would rather not do so here. "I'll be back, I promise," he said, leaving them stunned when he raced toward the doorway. "I just need to ask Remus something. Don't worry!" He would feel a lot safer with Remus watching over him until Snape returned.

/

"Harry, what are you doing here?" Remus walked toward the boy, put an arm around him, and guided him toward the couch in the corner of the guest room he currently occupied.

"Voldemort summoned him again." Harry knew he should raise those shields and that he had already stalled too long. "Can I stay with you until he returns?"

"But of course! Harry, have you raised those shields yet? Severus told you to do so, didn't he?"

"I will do that now." Harry closed his eyes and whispered, "Severus," too late remembering that the word had been changed. But it still triggered the shields and they instantly moved into place. "I messed up," he realized upon sensing the return of the link which he shared with his teacher. "I shouldn't have said that." But it was too late now.

/

Severus heard the echo of his name whispered into his mind and knew Harry had said his name instead of using the new word he had chosen. But how was it possible that his name still triggered those shields? He had woven the new word into Harry's thoughts and the shields shouldn't have reacted to the old one. This was not the time to worry about it though. He was about to enter the main hall and he sensed the tendrils of the Dark Lord's mind already reaching for him. He answered by allowing Voldemort glimpses of teaching class that morning, even feeding him an image of Harry. Voldemort seemed pleased and retreated, which was a relief.

Severus headed for the large table in the middle of the room and grew alarmed upon realizing that only Lucius had been summoned besides him. It was just the three of them; not even Nagini was in sight – that only happened when the snake was feeding elsewhere.

"My Lord," Severus bowed deeply, then straightened and awaited his orders. Voldemort had something in mind, he was sure of that, and it wouldn't be pleasant. Either Lucius or he would be at the receiving end of whatever punishment Voldemort had thought of.

"My most faithful servant," Voldemort hissed, looking at Severus.

Severus nodded once, realizing he had just been paid a compliment. "Master." Voldemort seemed pleased, but Severus only grew even more worried. What was this about?

"As you already know," Voldemort started in that familiar tone of his, "Lucius' offspring, Draco, has tried to discredit you, Severus. Draco spread rumours, which resulted in me disciplining you under false assumptions."

Severus didn't believe for one moment that Voldemort felt remorse about having punished him – not one second. "I know that, my Lord."

"Therefore Draco needs to be punished. I do not like it when someone schemes against you, Severus."

Severus had to tightly control the urge to shiver when the Dark Lord stroked his cheek. He hated being touched in that way, but told himself to accept the caress. "Yes, my Lord." In the back of his mind, he felt Harry's presence, but thankfully the boy kept quiet.

"Lucius here has begged me," Voldemort said, clearly enjoying himself, "to be allowed to be punished in Draco's stead. I accepted."

So that was why he was here. Severus had to stop himself from feeling nauseous, knowing exactly what would happen next. "As you wish, my Lord." In the depths of his mind, he felt Harry's presence stir, but he prayed the boy wouldn't get involved.

"You will punish him in order to make up for mistakenly being punished in his stead. Do whatever you like to him, Severus, but make sure it hurts!"

Severus hated himself for having to act the part Voldemort expected him to play. He rather absorbed any punishment himself than having to torment Lucius. He was grateful that it wouldn't be Draco he would be cursing. That boy's eyes grew more haunted with every passing day. "What would please you most, my Lord?"

"Put the Cruciatus on him, Severus…"

Severus felt sickened to the stomach, but made sure his real emotions didn't show – neither on his face, nor in his thoughts. He could feel Harry trying to contact him, but he pushed the boy away. He couldn't allow himself to be distracted. "I shall do as pleases you, my Lord." He uncovered his wand and pointed it at Lucius, who looked utterly defeated. Severus had noticed, throughout the years, how much Lucius' health had deteriorated and he knew exactly who was to blame for that. And now Voldemort was forcing his hand once more. "Crucio," he said, trying to sound resolved, though when he actually cursed Lucius he tried to hold back as much as he could without drawing Voldemort's suspicion.

Severus watched Lucius collapse and convulse on the floor and wished their roles were reversed. Cursing someone, actually causing them pain, felt far worse than being in agony himself. Glancing at Voldemort, he saw the ecstasy on the wizard's face, and had it been up to the Dark Lord, Lucius had been cursed to the full extent of the Dark Lord's power, but as it was Severus cursing him, he stopped after what he deemed was acceptable to Voldemort. Lowering his wand, he forced himself to appear smug, when in reality his own actions disgusted him. "Did that please you, my Lord?" He hoped Voldemort would say yes, because he wasn't sure he could continue cursing Lucius.

"It will do, for now." Voldemort made his way over to Lucius and glared in disdain and the still convulsing wizard. "Remember to teach your spawn respect, Lucius. Draco can't spread lies in that way."

Severus fought for composure. If only he could destroy Voldemort right now – for once and for all. But he was forced to play along and wondered what price he would pay for playing his part in the end. Voldemort stalked off, calling Nagini's name and the two of them remained behind. Severus walked over to Lucius and quickly cast a spell to determine the amount of damage he had done. He was relieved to find it relatively minor. Either Lucius' pain threshold was appallingly low, or he had caught on and played along.

When the convulsions finally stopped, Lucius managed to sit upright and to look at Severus. "Thank you," he whispered, barely audible. "I know what you did…"

Lucius had played along then. "I don't know what you are talking about." His secret was safe: Lucius wouldn't betray him to Voldemort again.

/

Harry didn't know which emotion prevailed. They ranged from pity to disgust, changed from understanding to anger the next. If he already felt like that from merely watching that scene, what would Snape be going through? He also knew he wasn't the right person to confront Snape with what had just happened. But Remus might be. "Talk to him, please!"

Remus wasn't sure he should. He understood why Severus had cursed Lucius, but he still felt affected because of it. Maybe it had been due to the way Harry had told him what was happening. The boy had bordered on full-blown panic when it became apparent that Severus had really put the Cruciatus on Lucius. Thankfully Harry had calmed once Severus had left the Dark Lord's lair, but Remus thought he still saw horror in the boy's eyes.

"Remus, he didn't want to curse Malfoy! I saw his thoughts – I felt his self-hatred. You need to talk to him – now." The truth was he worried that Snape might do something stupid.

Remus sighed; he couldn't really turn Harry down as he too felt it was necessary to talk to Severus. "Do you know his whereabouts?" Harry chuckled, and Remus felt relieved that he was still able to do so upon uncovering the Marauders' map. Just seeing it brought back a lot of memories –not all of them any longer pleasant after his talk with Severus earlier that day.

Harry opened the map and searched for Snape's name in it. "There he is – near the Whomping Willow!"

"I will talk to him," Remus promised, wondering why Severus had chosen to go there of all possible places. "Do me a favour and seek out Ron and Hermione? You shouldn't be alone – not after witnessing what you just did."

Harry nodded and got to his feet. They left the guest quarters and while Harry headed for the Gryffindor common room, Remus headed outside once more.

/

Remus found Severus in the same spot as earlier that day, but this time, the dark expression in those black eyes made him approach with extreme caution. He considered letting his wand slide into his hand, but then reconsidered. Severus would probably know he had done so and might act on it. He didn't want to give him a reason to attack him needlessly.

"May I sit down?" He wasn't sure Severus would allow it, or even talk to him. But when the nod came, he quickly sat down, although keeping some distance between them.

"Harry told you what happened."

It was a statement, not a question, and so Remus nodded. Severus had spoken in an inert way, as if his mind was a million miles away—and maybe it was. "He did. He used your name to raise his shields – by mistake. When he realized what he had done, it was too late."

"He shouldn't have seen that!" Severus drew his robes closer and wrapped his arms around his chest. "I never wanted him to see any of it."

Remus understood only too well. "Harry saw you curse Lucius."

"I would have preferred for the Dark Lord to curse me instead," Severus hissed as his self-hatred got the better of him. "You don't know how it feels when you have to inflict that amount of pain on someone when you don't want to do it. You don't know what it does to the soul… Although I wonder if I still have one!" Severus laughed in a bitter way. "If I do, it must be pitch black!"

Remus wasn't sure what to say next. What would offer Severus comfort? What would help him cope? Did he even want that kind of advice? "You are a brave man, Severus," he started and glared at Severus when the man tried to stop him. "No, listen to me. I couldn't do what you do and that's not because I am a better person than you, Severus! I couldn't do it because I lack the courage. I couldn't walk up to Voldemort like that. I couldn't pretend to such a degree. I couldn't go to such lengths just to protect Harry and to ensure Voldemort's demise. But you do just that, and yes, the price is high, but you are willing to pay it. Tell me, Severus, how many lives have you saved because you spy on Voldemort? Except for Harry's, that is."

"I wouldn't know," Severus looked at the Whomping Willow. "I merely tell Albus whatever I find out."

"Then let me tell you this; you saved a lot of lives. The Order already had to change their hideaway three times because Voldemort found out about it. The warnings we received came from you, did they not?"

Severus shrugged. "Probably."

The emotionless way in which Severus acted worried Remus more than when he had seen that murderous expression in the other man's eyes earlier. He actually preferred too much emotion to the detached way Severus looked right now. "Without your warnings, many of the Order would be dead right now. You need to remember that you do a lot of good, Severus. Yes, there is darkness and you venture into it whenever you are summoned, but don't forget there is light too."

Remus felt frustrated because he was still not reaching Severus. Maybe a different approach was required. "Albus said that when your emotions get the better of you, you tend to lash out – like you did when Harry brought up Lily." Severus tensed, but it was real emotion he saw in the black eyes this time. Encouraged, he continued, "Albus also mentioned that the only person you had ever hurt while in that state was yourself. What did he mean by that?" He prayed that Severus would allow him in for only then could he try to truly help him fight the darkness that so obviously clawed at him.

"That is none of your business." But his anger was growing. How dare Remus ask him something personal like that?

"Severus, I am trying to help!" Remus then remained quiet, allowing Severus to make up his mind in peace and give him as much time as he needed in order to do so.

"You are not telling Potter!" Severus needed to talk about it; a part of him realized that, and Albus had never figured out how to help him deal with it. Maybe Remus could?

"I promise I will remain quiet – you can trust me on this." He didn't make promises lightly and he would keep this one.

Severus drew in a deep breath. "Have you ever tried cursing yourself?"

Remus' eyes widened. What had Severus said? "Cursing yourself? No, of course not, why would…" And suddenly he fully understood what Severus was trying to tell him. "You didn't…" He stared at Severus with something akin to horror in his eyes.

"You wanted to know," Severus said as he kept his gaze carefully averted.

"In Merlin's name, what did you do?" Remus had a hard time accepting this.

"What do you think?" Severus jumped to his feet and started to pace. "I pointed my wand at myself and tried to put the Cruciatus on myself!"

"What made you do that?" Remus remained where he was and didn't move closer to Severus.

"I wanted to punish myself for… The Dark Lord had forced me to…" He looked away; he couldn't tell Remus.

"What did he do?" Remus knew he had to see this through. He couldn't let Severus back out.

"The Snatchers had caught a young witch – Muggleborn – and the Dark Lord… You know what he is like… Goes on about Mudbloods," he hissed the word, "And tries to eradicate them, which makes no sense at all, since he isn't pure blood himself."

"Severus, don't try to distract me. It won't work. What happened?" Remus had to get to the bottom of it – he owed Severus that much.

"He 'let' everyone take turns cursing her… You should have seen Bellatrix; she went mad when it was her turn. I still feel sick to the stomach when I think about it." His hands turned into fists and his fingernails dug into his flesh. "Then it was my turn. I tried to minimize the impact of my curse, like I did with Lucius, but she was too weak and she died."

Remus suspected this might be one of the lesser issues that plagued Severus, but he allowed it. A part of him was grateful that he hadn't been told something much worse. "But cursing yourself isn't the answer! What happened when you tried that?"

"My wand refused to function properly and exploded… I only carried away a few burns – unfortunately." Severus stared into the distance. "Maybe I should just walk up to that Whomping Willow and let it end it. Maybe it would have been best if James hadn't saved me back then."

Remus had had enough. He got to his feet and marched over to Severus. He placed his hands on Severus' shoulders and squeezed – maybe a bit harder than necessary, but it served its purpose, namely to make Severus look at him. "If you do that, where leaves that Harry? Who will protect him then?"

"He has you and Albus, Granger, Weasley, McGonagall… I can continue if you like."

"Nonsense! Severus, if you desert the boy now…" He hesitated as he didn't want to manipulate Severus too, but maybe it was the only way. "Voldemort will be able to do as he pleases. There will be no one to stop him. Albus always gets the credit, yes, and all of us praise him for fighting Voldemort, but the truth is that Albus is nothing without your help. Severus, Harry needs you – hell, *we* need you! Even Tonks, though she doesn't realize it. Severus, you know that she is pregnant. When you warned us that the hideout was no longer safe, I told her to move, which she did. The next day, Death Eaters tore the place down. Without you, Tonks would have died! You can't stop now!"

"Have you taken lessons with Albus?" Severus shrugged off Remus' grip. "Don't worry, I won't commit suicide, although I have tried – and failed."

Remus stared at Severus; he couldn't believe the things he was hearing! Where had Albus been when that had happened? The old wizard should have made sure Severus had never tried!

"I will finish this," Severus continued and a deadly hate coloured his voice, "because I want Voldemort gone from this world. I want him dead—and for that, I will sell my soul – I already did."

Remus stalked after Severus, grabbed him by the shoulders, and looked him in the eye. He didn't say anything; he just looked at him and breathed deeply—slowly—in what hopefully was a calming way.

At first, Severus didn't know what to make of that particular action, but then his breathing mimicked that of Remus and he began to calm down. He maintained eye contact, even though he found it hard. Once he felt calmer, he wondered what to do next.

"Severus, you are not alone – remember that. You have friends." Remus was relieved the tactic worked. It was something an elder werewolf had once done to him, and back then, it had worked too.

In an uncharacteristic show of emotions, Severus placed his hand briefly on Remus', but then quickly pulled away and broke all physical contact. He didn't know what Remus had done just now, but it had helped. He felt a lot calmer, less angry, and back in control. "Thank you."

"You are welcome. Now shall we head home? Harry's probably climbing the walls wondering what's taking us. He worries about you, Severus."

"I reckon I need to talk to him, and don't worry, I am done throwing tantrums - for now." Albus always called them that. "I reined it back in."

Remus nodded, but knew that the dam wouldn't hold forever.

/

Severus followed Remus to the Gryffindor common room, but once there, Hermione and Ron told him that Harry had headed for his rooms instead. Severus wasn't sure how he felt about that, but headed towards the dungeon anyway. On his way to his rooms, he realized that light shone from the classroom. Who was still in there and why? On tiptoes, he sneaked towards the door, opened it, and chided himself for not having seen the obvious. "Mister Longbottom, my classroom is off limits during the evenings."

Neville looked at Snape from over his shoulder. "I am sorry, sir, but I was just beginning to understand what you had done."

"Took you that long?" Severus however made sure he didn't sound vicious. "What gave you such a hard time? He walked over to his student and checked on the experiment. So far, everything looked like it always did.

"Your handwriting, sir," Neville said and cringed. "I can barely read it."

Severus fought the urge to laugh at that, but he stopped himself as he didn't want to worry Neville. "If I recall correctly, yours leaves a lot to be desired too." He was surprised to see Neville smile weakly at him. "I will give you thirty minutes, Longbottom, and then I want you out of here." Not because he didn't want the young man working on the potion, but because Neville also needed to eat and rest.

He closed the door behind him and then headed for his rooms once more. Running into Neville had brightened his mood a little bit. It was good to see the young man trying so hard to understand how such a potion would work. He placed his hand on the door, and it opened at his touch. Yes, Harry was already inside; in the living room, if he wasn't mistaken, and waiting for him.

He felt a tad hesitant when he opened the door, but relaxed at seeing Harry sitting at the table with tea, scones, and his chess board, already set for a new game. Maybe, just maybe he could do this.

"Professor Snape, I trust you don't mind beating me at chess again?"

Severus relaxed some more and headed for his chair. He sat down and studied Harry. He would let the boy set the pace then. "What tea blend did you use?" His nose already told him the answer though.

"Lady Grey – that is your favourite, isn't it?"

Harry really was a quick study. "That is correct." He felt grateful that Harry was giving him a chance to get comfortable first. He poured himself some tea and was relieved when his hands didn't shake. After sipping carefully, he told the first chess piece to move. "I suspect you have questions."

"Several," Harry admitted as he considered his next move and his first question. "Is Remus alright?" He knew the two of them didn't get along and he had been worried Snape might have taken out his anger on the werewolf.

"I can assure you that mister Lupin is in a perfectly fine condition." Looking at the scones, he realized that he was hungry, but he didn't want to eat anything yet. First, he wanted to give Harry his full attention. "Any other questions?"

"How is Lucius Malfoy doing?"

Severus hadn't expected that question. "I trust he is recovering. Both of us have suffered worse." He sipped again and waited, trying to be patient.

"You didn't want to curse him, did you?"

"No, but sometimes I need to act in character. The Dark Lord would distrust me if I didn't act as expected. It's your turn to make a move," he reminded Harry.

Harry ordered a piece forward, but didn't really think about what he was doing. The chess game wasn't important – their conversation however was. "Voldemort scares him, doesn't he?"

"Lucius? Yes, when Lucius realized the truth about the Dark Lord, it was already too late. Both of us were in too deep. Had we been able to get out, we would have, but Voldemort would have killed us –and Lucius' family too. He does love his wife and son."

Harry considered everything very carefully. "The both of you wanted out?"

Severus nodded. "I was blind at first. I believed everything the Death Eaters said, and it wasn't until after I took the Mark that I realized the truth. The same goes for Lucius. We were reckless and eager to belong. It drove us straight into the Dark Lord's arms." This conversation wasn't going as he had thought it would – thankfully. This way, he could open up just a little – since there was no pressure.

Harry considered asking about Severus' fall out with Lily, but then decided against it. He could tell the peaceful atmosphere was finally allowing Severus to unwind… Severus, no longer Snape?

Severus' stomach growled, reminding him that the last thing he had eaten had been a slice of toast at breakfast. Harry must have heard, because he pushed the plate containing the scones towards him. "Thank you," he found himself saying, realizing he was thanking Harry for other things as well besides the food.

"You are welcome, sir." While Severus busied himself eating scones, Harry stared at the chess board and realized he was going to lose again.

/

"Professor, where are you going?" Harry looked up from the chess board. They were playing their third game and so far, he had lost every time.

"Just checking on something; I will be right back."

Harry however sneaked after Severus, wondering what was going on. Severus looked over his shoulder and saw him follow suit, but didn't comment, so, feeling encouraged, Harry walked faster. Severus was moving toward the classroom, which wasn't dark, as it should be. "Professor?"

"I knew it!" Severus slammed open the door and the crash woke Neville who had fallen asleep at his workspace. "Longbottom, dinner, bed, sleep! Now!"

Neville nearly fell onto the floor, but managed to grab hold of the table at the last moment. "Professor Snape… Sir!"

Harry chuckled, which –unfortunately – ruined the effect Severus had wanted to achieve. "Get out now." Watching Neville practically flee the room made him chuckle too. Looking at Harry, who was equally amused, he added, "You do realize that I am merely trying to help?"

"I do, sir. I do." Harry however couldn't help chuckling. He shouldn't, recalling the stricken look on Neville's face, but his friend's reaction had been funny.

Severus cleaned up the workspace Neville had so quickly abandoned and then turned to Harry. "You should be heading back to the dormitory. It's a school day tomorrow, and no, you can't stay with me." He didn't need to read Harry's thoughts in order to see that question in his eyes. "Granger and Weasley will want to know you are well and don't forget about Remus either."

Severus was right, but Harry didn't like it. "Can I come back tomorrow evening?"

"Maybe, we will see. Now get going." Severus wondered what James and Lily would say if they knew he was growing attached to their son.

/

Remus was talking to Hermione and Ron when Harry joined them. He watched the youngster closely and was relieved to see a smile on Harry's face. "Everything went well?"

"I don't know what you did, but everything went fine." Harry grinned at seeing Ron's stunned expression. "Really, he isn't that bad once you get to know him."

"I have a hard time believing that, mate."

Remus rested a hand on Ron's shoulder and waited for him to look at him. "I know you don't like Severus, but Harry's right. Severus isn't a bad person."

"And he's lonely." Harry wished he hadn't said that one moment after speaking the words, but by then it was too late. He ignored Ron's stunned look and asked Remus instead, "Do you know anything about his family? His parents? I wonder if anyone's still alive."

"I have no idea," Remus had to admit. "It never came up, but I do remember that Severus always stayed at Hogwarts during holidays. I am not sure he even went home each summer."

"Sounds familiar," Hermione remarked while looking at Harry. "Sounds like he might not have a nice home."

"You are right." Harry tried to remember what Severus had told him. "Apparently his father was an aggressive drunk and his mother had resigned herself to that situation."

"His mother's family is pure blood, I know that much," Remus offered. "I can't recall when it came up, but I seem to remember she belonged to an important family. It was actually Lucius who mentioned it. Severus didn't like it at all."

"I don't know that much about pure blood families held in high prestige," Hermione admitted, disliking that fact and instantly deciding to read up on them.

"Neville is pure blood. Do you think he knows?" Ron suggested. "Actually, Neville headed straight for bed earlier, come to think of it. He had an odd look on his face."

"Last night, Neville was working late on that project and professor Snape had to kick him out – that might have had something to do with Neville being tired," Harry explained.

"I must admit that I am surprised to find you here, Harry," Remus said with a smile on his face. "I thought you would have preferred the sofa in Severus' living room."

The look Ron gave him made Harry cringe and chuckle at the same time. "Ron, you need to challenge professor Snape to Wizard chess! I have the feeling you might appreciate him more after that. He will beat you though – he will utterly crush you!" The plan worked; Ron glared at him and Harry had the sneaky suspicion Ron might challenge Severus just to prove him wrong.

/

Later that night, when Ron was already asleep, Harry tried to clear his mind, like he had been instructed, but for some reason he failed to do so. Instead, something that Remus had said continued to nag at him. Remus had said he had been surprised to see him in the common room and that he thought he would have preferred to stay with the Potions Master instead. Now why would Remus think that?

You think too loudly, Potter. Do you think you can turn down the volume so I can get some sleep?

Harry forgot to breathe at first, and then realized drawing in air was necessary. Alert, he sat up in bed. Professor? It had sounded like Severus when he had heard that voice in his mind.

It is bad enough that you insist on maintaining this link. It is even worse that you invade my sleep.

But how could that be? I don't understand!

I will try to remove this link once and for all tomorrow. Meet me after dinner in my rooms.

Harry wasn't sure he wanted the link removed though. Can't we keep it?

Keep it? Potter, I am trying to get some sleep here!

He heard the man's exhaustion in his thoughts, almost felt it. It was true; Severus did need rest. What do I do then?

Go to sleep, Potter. Count sheep, clouds, broomsticks, whatever makes you sleep.

I have never been good at counting sheep, sir.

Then count snitches for all I care!

Harry grinned, lay down again, and pressed deeper into the mattress. He did feel sleepy all of a sudden. Counting snitches might work.

Why aren't you asleep yet?

Goodnight, professor.

Night, Potter and do stop thinking!

Harry moved onto his side, pulled a spare pillow close to his chest, and wrapped his arms around it. He didn't know why, but he was quite certain that he wasn't going to have any nightmares that night.

/

"I can't, Harry. You can't expect me to…" Ron gulped and shook his head. "You can't be serious about me challenging him to Wizard chess!" Harry had brought up the matter during breakfast. Ron however didn't particularly like challenging Snape to anything at all!

"Ron, maybe he will even welcome the challenge. You know how bad I am at Wizard chess and you did win that game when we went after the Philosopher's Stone." Harry eyed his professor closely and found he wasn't scared at all when those dark eyes met his. Especially after hearing Snape's voice in his mind late last night. Snape hadn't sounded angry at all – a bit tired perhaps, but that was understandable. "I can ask him instead if you are too chicken to do it." He knew how to play Ron, and Hermione knew that in turn. So when he caught her grin, he knew she was on to him.

"I am not chicken!" Ron announced firmly. "But I am not doing it right here." They were in the Great Hall and the whole staff was still present, as were most students.

"We don't have Potions today, so you had better do it soon. We might not see him during the rest of the day." He had to wait until Friday for his next class. Harry had never thought it possible, but he actually regretted that. Instead they had Charms and Transfiguration today. He had finished breakfast and was still eying Snape, when he realized Dumbledore was staring at him in turn. A mischievous gleam glittered in the ancient eyes and it caught his attention; he wondered why Dumbledore was so pleased!

Snape suddenly got to his feet and Harry elbowed Ron in the stomach. "That's your chance. He's leaving!"

Ron wondered if there was a way to stop Harry from pestering him. Knowing Harry though, it wouldn't stop until he asked Snape about the game. "Are you serious, mate? It's Snape we're talking about."

Harry was about to reply, when Hermione beat him to it. "Ron, haven't you realized yet that most of his behaviour is an act? Look at his eyes – they tell the truth."

Ron wasn't sure Hermione was right, but then again, she was the smart one. He sought out Snape's eyes and forced himself to search them. Hermione might be right; he didn't see any hatred in them. "I can't believe I'm doing this!" But he was going to challenge Snape to Wizard chess just to prove to Harry that he wasn't scared. He wasn't chicken! Ron waited until Snape stepped out of the Great Hall and then hurried after his teacher. "Sir? Professor Snape?"

Behind his back, Harry grinned at Hermione, who smiled right back at him. He had to see this! They moved close enough to overhear what was being said and Harry caught Snape's raised eyebrow, which showed surprise at being addressed so unexpectedly.

"Mister Weasley," Severus said in his familiar drawl. "It's merely morning. Do you really have to ruin the rest of my day?" Ron looked shocked, which was exactly the reaction he had hoped for. Harry however, Severus saw, continued to grin at him. Damn, that boy was on to him!

"No, sir, I…" Ron stammered and was about to turn around and flee Snape's presence, when someone blocked his path. "Harry!" Why was his friend doing this to him?

"Ask him," Harry said and stood his ground. "You're not going to give him detention for just asking, are you, sir?"

The look Harry gave him, made Severus realize that he was no longer able to intimidate the boy. Harry saw right through it. "Much depends on the question Mister Weasley has for me."

Ron swallowed hard and glared at Harry and Hermione when they pushed him toward Snape. Why were they doing this to him?

"Mister Weasley, I do not have all day." Severus wondered what was going on. Ron had never addressed him in that matter before – the boy always did his best to avoid him. Maybe it was because the three of them had found him in that corridor that night—maybe it had changed their perception of him.

"I was wondering… I wanted to ask…" Ron was about to chicken out when he caught Harry mouth the word at him. He wouldn't have that! "I want to challenge you to Wizard chess!"

That was it? Severus felt relieved as he had prepared for the worst, whichever that might have been. "And why would I want to waste my time in that way?" This time, Harry did give him a disapproving look, but Severus focused on Ron and never noticed.

"Because Harry is a lousy player and I can do much better. I will beat you!" Ron gulped again; what had made him say that? He quickly covered his mouth with his hand, but it was too late. He had already said the words.

Severus arched an eyebrow. "And what makes you think so, Mister Weasley?" He had to admit that the boy's courage impressed him. He had always wondered if there wasn't more to Ron Weasley.

"I won the game when we went after that stone! I'm a decent player and Harry's been pestering me. I doubt he will stop until you say yes." Ron knew that there was only one way to walk away from this with his head held high—and that was to make Snape accept the challenge.

Severus considered his options; he knew he shouldn't accept. It would only encourage the three of them to frequent his rooms more often. The sensible thing to do would be to deny them, but… He longed for company and found it increasingly difficult to deny himself the contact. "Nine – my quarters, and do be punctual, Mister Weasley." He knew better though that to expect Ron to visit him alone.

/

Harry found it hard to get through the day without thinking about the way his life was changing. During his afternoon break, he went in search of Remus and found him – of all possible places! – in the library, sitting next to Hermione. "What are you doing in here?" he asked Remus. Hermione spent most of her time here, but he had never seen Remus in the library before.

"We are researching pure blood families," Remus replied. "You seemed eager to find out more about Severus' family and I must admit to being curious myself."

"I offered to help." Hermione smiled; she had been the one to find the book they had needed. "Look here," she said and pointed at a paragraph.

"Eileen Prince," Harry read out loud. Apparently the Princes were a pure blood family, held in high esteem, but were almost extinguished. Eileen was possibly the only relative still alive in that family tree. "Shouldn't it have Snape's name as well?"

"I wondered about that too," Remus said. "But it says here that her family disowned her because she married a Muggle. Maybe they never recognized Severus as part of the family."

"They are very rich." Hermione had been researching for only one hour, and realized she might still find some answers. "Harry, what are you doing here, by the way? You don't visit the library often either."

"I was looking for Remus. Can I talk to you?" Harry needed to get some things off his chest and maybe Remus could help him solve a problem.

"Of course! Where do you want to go?" Remus followed Harry into the corridor and they walked until they happened upon an empty room.

Harry sat down on the windowsill and wondered how to best address the matter. Remus sat down next to him and Harry felt his friend's wondering gaze upon him. "Last night something happened…"

"What happened? Did you have another vision?" Remus hoped Severus hadn't been called to yet another meeting, but Harry seemed too calm for that. It had to be something else.

"I couldn't sleep so I was tossing and turning… And then, all of a sudden, I heard his voice in my head, telling me to finally go to sleep because I was thinking too loudly!" Harry chuckled at the memory. "It didn't even startle me, the link still being there, I mean."

Remus wondered why Harry looked so pleased because of that. "I never experienced a link like that, but it sounds odd to me. I am not sure I would want someone in my mind." Hopefully that would encourage Harry to elaborate.

"I never thought I would like it either, but I do," Harry hesitated, but then added, "I have always felt alone. First, when I was living with my family and later, here as well. Hermione and Ron are great friends and I know I can always count on them, but there is still this distance between us. With professor Snape…" How was he going to explain this? He wasn't even sure what he wanted to say. "It feels good to be connected to someone."

Remus thought he understood. "Even when that someone is Severus?"

"He's not that bad! I am actually beginning to like him." Harry bit onto his bottom lip. "The way he acts in public is much different from the way I remember him! During Potions lessons I was always scared of what he might do – in what way would he humiliate me? But I no longer feel like that, and Remus, his sneers?" He waited for Remus to nod and then continued, "They lost their sting."

Remus wondered what Sirius would have thought had his friend still been alive. Sirius had always hated Severus and wouldn't have react well upon finding out that Harry had taken a liking to Snape. But he wasn't going to bring Sirius up, as Harry gave him another pleading look. The boy definitely wanted something from him. "You can tell me, Harry. Whatever it is."

"I don't want Snape to remove the link. I want to keep it!"

Harry's sudden outburst surprised Remus. "But why?"

"Because I need to know what's happening with him, Remus. He attends those Death Eaters' meetings and he spies on Voldemort… Someone should know what's happening in case he gets hurt again; you know that he will never come to us should he need help."

That much was true, Remus had to admit Harry was right in that regard. "What do you want me to do then?"

"Talk to him. Convince him to leave the link in place. I don't want him to remove it and he said he was going to destroy it today." Harry wasn't sure he had the courage to fight Snape over it, but maybe he wouldn't have to do so, should Remus help him. "Can you talk to him for me?"

Remus sighed deeply and frowned. "Harry, I doubt Severus will listen to me. We manage to be civil to each other. We reached some sort of truce yesterday, but I am not sure how long that will last." Harry continued to look at him though and in the end he relented. "I will try, Harry, but I can't make any promises."

"That's fine! I know you can't make me promises, but it means a lot to me that you will try."

Harry might look happy, but Remus definitely felt miserable. Severus was going to throw another temper tantrum; he was certain of that.

/

Severus looked up from grading when the door to his classroom opened unexpectedly. He half expected it to be Potter, but tensed upon seeing Lupin. Now what did that werewolf want this time? And why would he bother coming down here? He put down his quill, straightened his back, and gave him the haughtiest look he was capable of, hoping he was still able to intimidate Lupin. He wasn't sure it was working though; Lupin looked uncomfortable, but he had the uncanny feeling that it wasn't due to being glared at. "What do you want?" he asked, emphasizing each word.

Remus couldn't quite remember when he had been in here for the last time – as a student, that was. He had never been good at potion making and being back here brought back memories of failure. Severus however had excelled at potion making, even as a first year. Sirius had been jealous too, now that he thought about it. Severus had always gotten the highest grades and Sirius had seldom succeeded at brewing anything successively. "Brings back memories," he remarked, judging it best to find out first what kind of mood Severus was in. "This was always your favourite playground… Never mine."

Remus had managed to surprise him. "I doubt you came all the way down here to reminiscence on the past." He certainly didn't hope so!

"Not really, Harry asked me to talk to you." Severus was seated behind his desk, making it appear like he was looking down on him, and Remus cringed.

"Mister Potter?" Severus leaned back against his chair and eyed Lupin closely. He already suspected what Lupin wanted to discuss – the link, but he wasn't going to help his old nemesis.

"It's about that connection the two of you seem to have – that link," Remus said, hoping Severus would at least hear him out.

"What about it?" Severus picked up his quill again and dipped it in his favourite ink. He liked writing the old-fashioned way.

"Harry doesn't want you to destroy it. He asked me to convince you to keep it." Remus noticed the way Severus' hand remained poised above the ink pot. "It's the first time he doesn't feel all alone. Hermione and Ron are his friends, yes, but apparently this is different. He doesn't want to give it up." Then Severus dipped the quill in the ink and pressed the tip onto the parchment. "Severus, are you even listening?" He had expected Severus to interrupt him, lecture him, maybe even yell at him, but instead, the other man continued to write like nothing had happened. It was an act, Remus suddenly realized; Severus was gathering his thoughts and trying to come up with a reply.

Severus needed a moment to process that. He hadn't really expected that. Why would Harry want the link to remain in place? It was impossible though. Putting down the quill again, he finally made eye contact with Lupin. Apparently he did still posses the power to intimidate him. "Lupin –" he started.

"It's Remus, Severus!"

Severus fought for patience. "Lupin," he said demonstratively. "Letting the link remain in place would be madness. Having his mind connected to mine in such a way is dangerous for both of us. The Dark Lord might realize his presence when reading my mind and Harry… I don't want him to know what happens at those Death Eaters' meetings. He is still a child, Lupin, and no child should bear witness to such horror. I will not have it. I will not permit it. The link must be destroyed." It was the only way.

It made sense – Remus knew Severus was right, but Snape's reasoning was about logic and rationality while Harry's plea had been about emotions. "Are you sure about that? I know Harry hopes for a different answer."

"Lupin, use your mind! I know there must be some working cells in that eroded brain of yours!" Severus was growing frustrated and so he lashed out, hoping to end the conversation that way.

Remus was about to lash out in Severus at turn, but then reconsidered. Severus was too damn good at playing him! "I am not going to explain it to Harry – since you are set on doing this, you tell him!"

Did Lupin really think that would pose a problem? "I shall, do not worry about that! And then I shall destroy this damned link. It should never have formed in the first place!"

Remus blinked; he hadn't thought about that earlier, but now that he did, he wondered; why had that link appeared to begin with?

/

When Harry made his way to Snape's quarters around eight, he felt nervous. Remus had told him that he had been unable to change Severus' opinion and that his teacher was still determined to remove the link. Harry knew he wouldn't oppose Snape directly – he did realize that the older wizard had both their well-being in mind, and the truth was he didn't want to endanger Snape's life.

When Remus had reminded him of the fact that Voldemort might find traces of his thoughts in Snape's mind, Harry had realized he had to give in. "Professor?" The door opened and Harry cautiously entered. As there was light coming from the living room, he headed towards it. He stepped inside and found Snape seated at the table, hands wrapped around a cup of tea and frowning. "Is anything wrong?" He hoped Snape hadn't been summoned.

"Sit down," Severus said softly. He had spent most of his evening trying to understand why Harry would want to keep the link. He understood that it might offer the youngster some comfort, but he found it hard to believe that Harry felt comfortable being connected to him in that way. "Remus has been to see me earlier today. Apparently you don't want me to do away with the link."

Harry nodded and felt encouraged now that Snape had brought up the matter himself. "I don't want you to remove it. I want to keep it."

Severus put down his tea cup, leaned back against his chair, and continued to study Harry. He felt Harry's thoughts in the back of his mind, but refrained from reading them – he didn't want to infringe on the boy's privacy, especially since he was convinced that Harry had no idea his thoughts were that visible. "It can't allow it…" Seeing Harry's crestfallen look, he added, "I am sorry." He really was –for he was growing used to the link as well, and like Harry, it offered him comfort when he needed it. He couldn't tell the boy that though. Then Harry would never agree to destroy it.

Harry knew he had to accept that decision. "Will you remove it right now?"

"I had better." Severus tried to calm himself. He tried to concentrate on reaching out, though quickly realizing there was no reason to do so – the link was already alive. He had to destroy it and quickly at that. It was still gaining in strength! "Do not fight me. You might experience some discomfort, but there should be no pain." He couldn't be sure though, as he had never attempted anything like it before. He worked on dismantling the connection, and when he retreated from Harry's mind minutes later, he wasn't completely sure he had been successful. They would find out for sure the next time Harry had to raise his defences.

"Is it… gone?" Harry dreaded hearing the answer.

"I believe so. I can't be sure though. Since nothing like this ever happened before, I am not sure how to dismantle such a link." Even in the unlikely case the link was still there, he hoped he would be able to shut it down before it intensified. He didn't want anyone to be forced into witnessing what happened during those meetings.

"Uh, professor?"

"That's Ron!" A quick look at the clock above the fire place told Harry that it was nine already. "He's nervous, you know," he entrusted to Snape.

Severus could very well imagine that. During the last few years he had tried hard to make them fear, and even hate, him. Apparently his efforts hadn't been in vain. He got to his feet, walked over to the door, and opened it. He had expected Hermione to come along, knowing Ron wouldn't have dared coming here on his own. "So you *are* intend on wasting my time," he sneered and stepped aside to let them enter.

Ron wanted to turn around and run back to their common room, but Hermione gave him a shove and so he ended up in the hallway after all. He felt relieved at seeing Harry walk toward him. It was good to see his friend! "Are you sure we should do this?" he whispered, hoping Harry would tell him to leave right away, but Harry gestured toward the living room instead. He still knew the way around from that first time he had been in here when Snape had been injured. Ron cringed at the memory and then relaxed; remembering Snape wasn't the devil in person. He had been bleeding and hurt – Snape was human and not a monster.

Severus couldn't help it. Ron was actually screaming his thoughts at him, but he tried his hardest to ignore them. At his command, the chess board appeared on the table and the pieces moved to their places. "Sit down," he told them, and then summoned tea to his rooms. He sat down, poured four cups, and gestured for them to have some, if they wanted that. "So you believe you can beat me at Wizard chess, Mister Weasley?" Oh, he did enjoy making Ron squirm. Hermione however seemed unaffected – such a pity.

"I… I wouldn't dare to…" Ron was getting cold feet and actually wondered if he could play lousy on purpose, so he would be guaranteed to lose. He wasn't sure he wanted to be around Snape should the older wizard lose the game.

"I do hope you will do your best to win, Mister Weasley. I dislike being allowed to win." Severus arched an eyebrow when he addressed Ron. "I do expect you to try to defeat me."

Ron exchanged a quick look with Harry. His palms felt sweaty, and although he knew that Snape wasn't the monster he had always thought him to be, he still felt queasy.

/

"I don't get it…I thought I… You… How did you do that?" Ron stared at the board in shock. He had been so sure he would win! He'd had Snape cornered, and then, suddenly the older wizard had turned it all around. Ron had lost – spectacularly. He continued to stare at Snape, studied the board, and then said, "I admit it – you beat me fair and square." He had never played a game like that before and he had loved every minute of it. Snape's moves had confused him during the game, but he had thought he had stayed on top of it, but then his hopes had come crashing down.

Severus smiled; Ron had surprised him. The boy had played well. "Do not fret, Mister Weasley. It was a good strategy, though not the best. And I must point out to you that I am much more experienced at playing Wizard chess. After all, you have merely just started out."

Ron nodded; everything Snape said was true, but still, he could only hope to achieve such a degree of mastering the game in the future. "Maybe," He couldn't believe he was actually going to say it, but then plunged ahead, "maybe you would like to play another game – some time?" He would study Snape's strategy and was determined to learn from him!

"Another night, Mister Weasley. It has grown late and you should return to your dormitories – all three of you." He wouldn't have minded had they stayed, since he had enjoyed the evening, but it was a school day tomorrow.

"Come on, Ron. The professor is right – it's almost midnight." Hermione had been surprised to find that time had passed so quickly. She had enjoyed the evening and her teacher's mellow mood had set her mind at ease. Harry had been right along; professor Snape was quite likable, once you looked past the usual sneers. She pulled Ron with her, and wondered why Harry wasn't joining them, but then she realized he might want a moment alone with Snape.

"Professor?" Harry got to his feet and watched Severus closely. His face looked relaxed and the expression in the normally so viciously glaring eyes welcoming. His teacher might never admit it, but Severus had had enjoyed their company. "Do you think it's safe for me to go to sleep? Or should I raise my shields?"

Severus heard the question behind the question. "I don't believe the Dark Lord will summon me tonight, but remember what I told you. If you sense anything wrong – even when you can't identify the source – raise them."

Harry nodded. "I will remember that. Goodnight, sir."

"Goodnight, Harry." Harry however remained in place, showing no signs of leaving yet. The boy was stalling and Severus knew it.

"I will try not to think so loudly tonight." Harry smiled at recalling Severus pointing that out to him.

"Go to bed and count snitches," Severus said, surprising himself as he recognized the caring tone to his voice. Realizing he cared actually scared him – scared him to hell. He shouldn't allow himself to care for Harry to such a degree. It would get them both killed. He needed to talk to Albus about that –maybe the old wizard knew a way out.

/

Albus wasn't surprised to see Severus march into his office after midnight. He had been expecting Severus to visit for some time now. It surprised him that it had taken the younger wizard that long to seek him out. That was actually a good thing – that it had taken Severus so long, for the link had deepened during that time. "Severus, it's rather late," he pointed out. "Can't this wait?" But he knew it couldn't.

"Albus!" Severus collapsed onto the chair in front of Albus' desk. "This can't continue!"

Albus knew what was to come, but pretended ignorance. "What?"

"I can't do this anymore. The Potter boy—"

"Harry," Albus said, interrupting him. "His name is Harry." Severus glared at him, but he ignored that too. "I take it you mean the link that binds the two of you?"

Severus sighed and rested his head against the comfort of his chair, only to stare at the grinning face of Phineas Nigellus Black, probably the last painting he wanted to lay eyes on. He promptly looked at Albus instead and therefore caught the smug expression on the wizard's face before Albus managed to hide it from him. He had seen it though; why was Albus so pleased? Had he missed something?

"It's quite a unique situation you find yourself in, Severus. I asked the other Headmasters and Headmistresses, but not one of them ever heard of a link formed during Occlumency lessons."

"That is correct."

Severus looked at the paintings in order to find out who had spoken. Armando Dippet nodded repeatedly – it had been Dumbledore's predecessor then.

"I never heard of anything like it before and I taught dozens of students!" Dippet added firmly. "Newton, did anything like that ever happen during your time as Headmaster?"

Severus groaned; did the portraits really have to get involved and why wasn't Albus telling them to shut up?

Newton Scamander arched an eyebrow. "I never was an Occlumens myself. I never mastered that craft, but I can't say I ever heard of it… Ambrose, you excelled at Occlumency, can you tell us more?"

"Albus, please stop them!" He had heard many of these discussions before and knew that if the portraits weren't stopped, they would continue like this through the night.

Albus considered allowing the discussion to linger on, but then took pity on Severus. "My friends," he addressed the portraits. "Silence please. We shall discuss the matter another time, I promise," he added, although he had no intention of doing so. Thankfully the portraits seemed to believe him and grew silent. "Severus, why are you here?" It was time to get to the heart of the matter.

"I tried to destroy the link earlier tonight." Was it just his imagination or had Albus hissed? No, he must have imagined it, because when he looked at Albus again, the Headmaster looked composed. "But I am not sure I succeeded. I fear more drastic steps are necessary."

Albus didn't like where this was going and knew he had to intervene. "What kind of drastic steps, Severus?"

"I want your permission to erase certain memories from Harry's mind." He had thought about it after the boy had left; this would be in Harry's best interest.

"What memories?" No, he didn't like this one bit and Albus sensed that the other Headmasters and Headmistresses didn't approve as well. After all, they had plotted for quite some time and to have Severus act against it was unwelcome.

"I want to erase his memories of me. To be more exact, I want him to forget that we like each other. I need to go back to that evening when it all started and then I will have to erase part of Weasley's and Granger's memories too. It was the three of them who found me that night."

Albus pondered the matter, wondering what to do. He might be able to detour from his original plan, allowing Severus to do this, and still attain his goal in the end. Yes, he might be able to do that. "And erase Remus' memories too?"

"It would eventually come down to that, yes." He had already shared more with Lupin than he felt comfortable with. Erasing Lupin's memories was a bonus. It surprised him that Albus hadn't refused him right away. Albus actually seemed to be considering his proposal, which made Severus suspicious.

"How do you plan to do that? Remus won't let you obliviate his mind like that. You can't walk up to him, point your wand at him, and erase his memories."

"I know that!" Severus jumped up from his chair and paced the office. Fawkes gave him a curious look, but then went to sleep again. One of the portraits however, Vindictus Veridian, scowled at him. He did his best to ignore the former Headmaster and colleague Potioneer, who had disliked him right from the start. At his first visit to the office, Vindictus had sneered at him in a way that had reminded Severus too much of the way he acted himself – kindred spirits perhaps, but with a great dislike for each other.

Albus nodded; yes, this would work. "Do you want me to do it?"

Severus swirled around and stared at Albus in surprise. "What?"

"Do you want me to erase their memories? I doubt Remus will let you obliviate him and Harry…I can imagine you might find it hard to manipulate his mind in that way. I also offer to take care of Miss Granger and Mister Weasley. Would that appease you?"

Severus narrowed his eyes and tried to make sense of what he had just heard. Why was Albus so eager to comply? What hidden agenda did the other wizard have? For Severus knew there had to be one! "Why?" But he stopped himself from finishing that thought as he didn't want to raise Albus' suspicions. Albus was right though –he would prefer not to meddle with Harry's mind himself—especially should the link have somehow survived.

"I assure you that I only have Harry's best interest in mind, Severus. I wouldn't do this if I didn't think he would benefit from it."

That was the typical way Albus avoided really answering questions and Severus was very much aware of it. "You will remove all memories in question?"

"Yes, I will," Albus said, having no problems to do so. Severus continued to study him and Albus tried to look most cooperative. He would remove those memories, but since Severus hadn't asked him to destroy them, he would store them instead.

/

Remus was restless. The full moon was only a few nights away and the magic already stirred in his blood. And so he found himself on his way to Severus' quarters. He was walking down the corridor leading to the dungeon when Severus suddenly appeared to his right. "Severus!"

Hearing his name made Severus look up and when he caught sight of Remus, he instantly understood why the werewolf was there. "Come with me." He led Remus into his rooms and then into his study. "Sit," he said and headed for the cabinet that held some of his private stock. He removed a flask, poured the content into a cup, and then handed it to Remus. "Drink slowly."

Remus nodded; he knew that, but still Severus reminded him of it time and time again. He took his time sipping the potion, and once he was done, he handed Severs the empty cup. "Thank you."

"What do you prefer? Coming here each night or do you wish for me to come to your rooms?" Severus eyed Remus closely. He might be able to surprise the werewolf and erase his memories himself, but then again, Albus had said he would do it.

"I will be leaving tomorrow evening. Tonks sent an owl and wants to see me."

Severus hoped Albus would move quickly then, but then again, the Headmaster knew everything that happened within Hogwarts' walls. Albus had once explained it to him – briefly, but to the point. Hogwarts' magic was all enveloping and the Headmaster was a part of it. "I will ready the potions for travel then. And you may call on me for more when you used them up."

"Severus…" Remus waited for the other man to look at him before he continued. "Did you do it? Destroy the link?"

"I certainly hope so." It irked him that he couldn't be sure.

Remus hoped Harry had found a way to deal with the disappointment the boy must feel. "I am sorry to hear it." He pushed himself to his feet again – he always felt weak after drinking that potion.

"Sit down, Lupin. I have no desire to pick you up from the floor." Severus shook his head, wondering why Lupin always made the same mistake.

"Since you're asking so nicely." Remus said down again and agreed with Harry's observation earlier that day; Severus might sneer all he wanted, but the snarls had lost their sting. Severus was busying himself filling up flasks, and Remus was growing desperate for the lingering silence to end. "Tonks is three months pregnant. It's starting to show."

Severus sighed as he wondered why Remus had felt it necessary to reveal that to him. "You should move her to a safe location and make sure she stays hidden until this is over." Severus blinked; had he really said that?

"You know what she's like. She won't do it," Remus said and felt stunned that Severus would show his concern so openly. Since Severus had his back towards him, he couldn't see the man's face and suspected Severus might be doing it on purpose. "We're going to call him Ted – Teddy."

"What an eloquent name." Severus tried his best to sound vicious but knew he failed miserably.

"Well, I don't think Severus Lupin would sound much better." Remus chuckled, just knowing he would shock Severus by saying that.

"Please do not call your child that!" Severus shivered. Severus and Lupin were two names that should never be joined in the same person. He turned around and eyed Remus closely. "You should be able to make it back to your room now. Do you require… assistance?" Bah, why had he offered?

"I think I can make it, but thanks anyways." Remus tried getting to his feet and realized he felt better. Severus was good at potion making – thankfully. "Severus, I want to thank you for this," he said, raising the case slightly.

Severus settled for a nod and then turned around, pretending to be busy sorting out more vials.

Remus, recognizing the gesture for what it was, felt a pang of guilt, realizing Severus had seldom been shown any gratitude. He made a promise then – should he ever come across any bullies, he would help the victim. He should have helped Severus, but since he couldn't change the past, he would keep an eye on the present and future.

/

"Severus, join me." Albus gestured for the younger wizard to fall into pace with him. "I gathered all four of them in my office. I thought you might want to be present when I erase those memories."

Severus nodded. "I would appreciate that very much." That way, he could be sure everything was done properly.

"Are you sure you want to go through with this? They won't visit you anymore. No more evenings playing Wizard chess with Harry or young Weasley, who is a good player, don't you think?"

"He is," Severus had to admit, but was hesitant to add more. Yes, his evenings would be lonely once more, but that was a price he was willing to pay – had to pay for he couldn't allow his emotions to distract him – to make him weak with worry for them. The only way he could continue being Albus' spy was without attachments. He couldn't allow himself to care for any of them. That would get easier when they went back to hating him. "Maybe you should erase some of my memories as well. Should the Dark Lord happen to see—" But he didn't get a chance to finish.

"No, I refuse!" Albus quickly composed himself again though. He had to be careful—Severus was smart and might realize something was wrong otherwise. "No, don't deny yourself that. Those memories will console you in dangerous times."

Since obliviating himself wasn't an option – his wand would probably act up again – Severus had to relent.

/

In the end, Severus remained in shadows, while Albus entered his office and snuck up on his guests. Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Remus never realized what happened when Albus pointed the Elder wand at them. Severus watched, feeling saddened and fighting a growing sense of guilt, when Albus searched their minds and then released them from his spell.

For one long moment, the four of them merely stared at each other, but then they started talking again like nothing had happened – nothing at all. Severus felt sick to the stomach for doing this, but this was for the best. It was just another sacrifice he had to make.

/

Severus' conscience kept him awake that night, but he consoled himself with the fact that he had done the right thing. In the end, he left his bed, went into his study, and picked up the framed photograph. He stared at it for a long time, remembering happier times. If only he had made different choices back then. If only he hadn't pushed Lily away – if only she had accepted his apology! But what good did wishing do him? None.

He was the reason why Lily was dead and why James had died defending his wife. He had found James on the staircase and had known the man had tried to stop Voldemort from making his way upstairs. James had failed though, and for a long he had been angry with him for that. But then he had admitted the truth to himself; no one would have been able to stop Voldemort. Had he been in James' place, he would have failed to stop the Dark Lord as well.

That Harry had survived was a miracle in its own right. Severus would never forget forcing himself to finally let go of Lily because Harry wouldn't stop crying. He had picked up the baby and had tried to soothe him, and Harry had calmed down – had actually fallen asleep in his arms. That had been the moment when he had promised himself to keep the child safe – even if doing so would cost him his life.

During these last few days, he had been privileged – he'd had the chance to get to know Harry. He had learned much about the boy and his friends as well. He would cherish those memories forever. Albus was right; he needed them in order to sustain him in the future.

Severus put the picture back in its place and tried to make peace with his past, but failed, like so many times before. He had felt dead on the inside for years. Voldemort would eventually find out he was Albus' spy and then Dark Lord would kill him. It was inevitable. That was one thing he found easy to accept – going to his death willingly as he had nothing left to live for.

/

The next morning, Severus donned his teaching robes, and cast a last, disapproving look in the mirror. His reflection assured him that he was still able to act the part. He locked away his feelings and threw away the key, knowing he could never open that door again. He had to survive – he always did. Quality of life didn't matter, as he didn't deserve any.

Severus lowered his head briefly, sorted out his remaining thoughts until he had gained a calm state of mind. Control your emotions and discipline the mind had become his dogma once more.

/

As he walked into the Great Hall for breakfast, he looked at Albus first, and found the old wizard at the teachers' table, already enjoying breakfast. He put off looking at Harry as long as he could, but once he had sat down and reached for his cup of Lady Grey, his gaze wandered off to the Gryffindor table, and there he was – Harry Potter. The boy must have felt his gaze and looked up.

Only yesterday Harry had smiled at him, had looked at him with a caring and cheerful expression. Today was different – everything had changed. The smouldering look in Harry's eyes, which resembled Lily's so much, possessed the same quality it had had for years. Harry Potter loathed the very sight of him. It hurt having that glare directed at him. Severus was surprised at how much it actually hurt.

"Are you satisfied now, Severus? Now that everything is back to the way it was?"

Albus' voice sounded chilling and Severus knew the old wizard blamed him for the things that had happened. "Satisfied? It was necessary, Albus, and you know it. Don't play games with me – not today. I am not in the mood for it."

"As you wish. You can come to my office this evening, that is, if you aren't summoned." Albus reckoned it might be best to distract Severus for the time being. He was quite content with the way everything had turned out. Severus allowing him to tamper with Harry's memories had been the break he had needed. Severus didn't know it, but Albus' plan was proceeding nicely.

Severus looked at Harry when the boy got up and started for the doorway, immediately followed by Ron and Hermione. Hermione didn't look at him at all and Severus had no problems reading the loathing in Ron's eyes. "The spell worked."

"Oh, yes. Harry is back to believing you were only born to bully him and make his life miserable. Mister Weasley is back to calling you the bat, or even less flattering, the greasy git."

Severus shook his head. "They never come up with anything original, do they?" But he only said it in order to hide the fact that being called that did have an impact on him. He had never wanted his students to fear or hate him, but he had to maintain the persona.

/

The icy hatred that had once lingered between him and Harry was back with a vengeance. He acted the part, bullying Harry whenever he could, making sure the boy away. It still hurt though, especially since he knew he would be returning to empty rooms that night. There would be no one having tea or playing Wizard chess with him, but that was the choice he had made.

/

Attention please – skipping ahead, as I need to bridge the former part with the next one which is set during the Deathly Hallows. And I will be following the movies here-not the books.

/

Harry supported Dumbledore when they returned to the Astronomy Tower. Drinking the poison in order to get to the Horcrux had left Dumbledore weak and Harry quickly lowered the wizard onto the steps. "We need to get you to the hospital wing, to Madam Pomfrey!" He couldn't help Dumbledore himself – he needed professional help.

While Albus sat down, the Headmaster of Hogwarts used the castle's magic to find out who was close. Yes, everything was going according to plan. Good. "No," he said, stopping Harry. "Severus, Severus is who I need. Wake him, tell him what happened. Speak to no one else. Severus, Harry." But the castle was already reaching out in order to locate the Potions Master and was quick to report back to the Headmaster. Severus Snape was awake and already on his way. Good, he would arrive in time then. So much depended on Severus arriving at the right moment!

Albus heard footsteps and knew Draco was approaching before he actually saw the boy. "Harry, hide yourself below." He had to get the boy out of the way and into safety. He would have preferred it if Harry hadn't had to watch the scene unfold, but the boy would never be able to leave the Astronomy Tower in time. "Stay there and don't be seen by anyone without my permission." He had to make sure Harry didn't get involved, for that would ruin his plan. "Whatever happens it is imperative you stay below." He could only hope that Harry would obey him; he saw doubt in the boy's eyes. "Harry, do as I say." He hoped the boy trusted him to obey—still trusted him enough to do that. "Trust me," he added, and felt relieved when Harry slightly nodded at him. "Trust me."

Harry still trusted Dumbledore, but leaving the old wizard behind seemed wrong. And yet, he obeyed, reminding himself that Dumbledore had never let him down before. After moving downstairs, he watched Draco ascend the stairs. In a way he felt relieved that it was only Draco. Dumbledore could handle Draco Malfoy; Dumbledore was in no immediate danger.

"Good evening, Draco." Albus knew he had to be careful. The boy could snap any given moment and he couldn't afford to die before Severus had arrived. He had to buy Severus time. "What brings you here on this fine spring evening?" He was good at confusing people, so maybe he could confuse Draco too.

"Who else is here? I heard you talking." Draco felt nervous – incredibly nervous. He was pointing his wand at Dumbledore, and even though he didn't want to admit it, he still thought of the wizard as his Headmaster and he didn't want to hurt him – not really.

"I have been talking loud to myself and I've been extraordinarily useful," Albus said quickly, trying to distract the clearly troubled youngster. As long as Harry stayed hidden he could continue with his plan. "Draco, you are no assassin." He had to stall, had to make sure he was still alive when Severus got there.

"How do you know what I am? I have done things that would shock you!" Why was Dumbledore moving about? And why were they still talking, and most of all, why couldn't he do it? Why couldn't he kill his Headmaster?

"Like cursing Katie Bell and hoping she would bring that cursed necklace to me? And replacing one bottle of mead with poison?" Maybe the time had come to confront Draco with his pitiful attempts to kill him. "Forgive me, Draco, but I can't help feeling these actions have been so weak that your heart can't really have been in it."

"Trust me, I was chosen!" He pulled at his sleeve and revealed the Dark Mark which the Dark Lord had burned into his flesh, forgetting that he was no longer pointing his wand at Dumbledore.

"I shall make it easy for you," Albus mumbled, realizing he might not be able to save Draco after all. He judged the moment right to move onto the next step of his plan – being disarmed – especially since Hogwarts was letting him know that more visitors were on the way.

"Expelliarmus," Draco called out, realizing the mistake he had made and pointed his wand at the Headmaster once more. Disarming Dumbledore was much easier than he had thought. He had been convinced that Dumbledore would put up a fight. Instead, the Headmaster was giving in, making it easy for him – too easy?

"Very good, very good," Albus mumbled. Draco's action to disarm him had just been what he had hoped for. "You're not alone…"

At hearing that, Harry woke from the shock he had been in and looked about. Dumbledore was right – Draco wasn't alone – more Death Eaters were on their way and he couldn't do a thing! He couldn't help because he had promised Dumbledore to stay down there! Why had he done that? And why did he have to feel honour bound to keep his word?

"There are others…" They would make a good audience. Hopefully Voldemort would never doubt Severus again, especially with the rapidly approaching Death Eaters as witnesses. It was a perfect plane indeed. His death was a minor drawback, but he would still be able to influence others once his portrait had appeared in the study. "How?" he asked, pretending to play along, although the answer was already known to him. Nothing ever happened at Hogwarts without him knowing about it.

"The Vanishing Cabinet in the Room of Requirement," Draco said, wishing Dumbledore would stop moving closer. He had disarmed the Headmaster and he wasn't sure he could attack Dumbledore when he was defenceless. "I have been mending it."

"Let me guess," Albus said, recalling upon old information Hogwarts had once provided him with. "It has a sister – a twin." Did Draco really think he didn't know about it?

"Borgin and Burkes… They form a passage." Dumbledore no longer posed a threat, so he could tell him the truth.

"Ingenious…" Albus said, still playing along, even adding the right amount of surprise to his voice. "Draco, years ago I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices. Please let me help you." Maybe he could still convince Draco to come over to the side of the light. He had failed Tom Riddle back then, and even Severus Snape, but maybe he could still help Draco.

"I don't want your help!" But he did – he really did, he was just too damn afraid to accept it. "Don't you understand?" His emotions were getting the better of him and he wasn't sure how much more he could take. "I have to do this! I have to kill you!" He didn't want to do it – didn't want to kill his Headmaster, but… "Or he is going to kill me!" And he wanted to live… He was too young to die!

Albus knew Draco's chance had passed by the moment the others joined them. He had to proceed with extreme caution from that point on. He had known Draco would never kill him, but Bellatrix was a different matter.

"Well, look what we have here," Bellatrix said, obviously pleased.

Albus monitored her closely and tried to judge the state she was in. Bellatrix' behaviour was hard to predict, but he reckoned she wanted Draco to kill him, as she knew it would plunge the boy's soul into darkness. Voldemort would praise her for accomplishing that.

"Well done, Draco," she whispered, savouring his pained expression.

Albus ignored Bellatrix' companions and decided to focus on her. She was in control – she would set the pace of their conversation. "Good evening, Bellatrix. I think introductions are in order, don't you think?

"I would love to Albus, but I am afraid we don't have time for that." Turning to Draco, she hissed, "Do it!" Killing Dumbledore would make sure Draco's soul belonged to the Dark forever.

"He doesn't have the stomach for it, just like his father," Fenrir Greyback sneered. "Let me finish him in my own way."

Harry was growing desperate. He had waited too long and now he couldn't interfere anymore, not with that lot up there. What could he do in order to help Dumbledore? Nothing, he realized in dread. He had promised the old wizard to stay put.

"No," Bellatrix called out. "The Dark Lord is clear the boy's to do it." Fenrir's soul was already pitch-black, but there was still some light to Draco's and they had to extinguish it.

Harry suddenly felt a presence. He suppressed a shiver and then slowly turned around in order to find who was watching him. It was Snape of course. It couldn't have been Minerva McGonagall, or even professor Flitwick to find him! Instead it had to be his nemesis – the one person he didn't trust, even though Dumbledore seemed to trust Snape. Snape pointed his wand at him and Harry realized he was trapped – there was no way out. He pointed his wand at Snape as well, although knowing it was pointless.

"Do it! Go on, Draco! Now!"

Her voice, laced with madness, barely registered with Harry, as he felt entranced watching Snape signalling him to remain quiet. Could he trust the Potions Master? Dumbledore seemed to trust him, but… Something – he didn't know what it was, twitched in the back of his mind, and suddenly, he found himself lowering his wand. He didn't trust Snape, so why would he… Or did he trust him? Somehow, something was telling him to put his trust in the teacher whom he had hated for years.

Severus could only hope that Harry would trust him. Throughout the last few months, they had returned to their game of throwing icy glares at each other and his continued pestering of the boy had made sure Harry kept his distance. Albus had kept his word –something Severus was grateful for, but it had also manoeuvred him back into being the hated one. He had made that choice himself though, he reminded himself. He had no one to blame for except himself. He had asked Albus to erase Harry's memories.

When Harry finally lowered his wand, Severus released the breath he had been holding. He hadn't been sure Harry would trust him – he hadn't expected it. Severus moved toward the stairs, climbed them, and tried to clear his mind. He couldn't deal with any emotions right now, for what he was about to do would damn his soul forever. He still didn't think Albus had the right to ask him, but in the end, he had relented. His soul was lost anyway, so what did one more death matter?

"No," he said with as much calm as he could master, as he showed himself. Instantly their gazes moved towards him. He saw the horror in Draco's eyes. No matter how much Draco thought himself to be a Death Eater, the boy had no idea whom he was dealing with. There was still innocence to Draco, which Severus hoped to save. In Bellatrix' eyes though he only encountered madness. Out of all Death Eaters, he hated her the most.

He noticed Draco's relief at seeing him, though the boy might not realize he actually felt reassured at all. Albus gave him a look that spoke of relief as well as understanding and hope – hope that he would carry out his part of Albus' ingenious, but insane plan. And he still felt Harry's eyes upon him. Damn Albus for engineering this in such a way that the boy had to watch. He had never wanted Harry to witness this.

Harry stared at Snape and Dumbledore in shock. What was going to happen? Was Snape Voldemort's or did his loyalty still belong to Albus? He hoped Dumbledore had been right to put his trust in Snape; he really hoped that, but he was afraid – he was so very afraid that Snape had betrayed the Headmaster!

"Severus," Albus said softly. And finally his plan was coming together. He knew what was going to happen – knew that Severus wasn't going to deny him. This had to be done and Severus had to be the one to do it. Briefly, he felt a stinging sense of guilt at realizing that Harry was watching all this. That had definitely not been part of the plan. He had never wanted for Harry to find out who would kill him, but so be it. Some parts of the plan had always been out of his control. "Please," he said upon finding Severus still hesitant. He could only hope that Severus would find the strength to kill him. Hopefully knowing that he was already a dead man would help Severus make up his mind. The curse would kill him in a very painful way eventually.

Severus knew that by killing Albus, he would also kill a part of his soul, but then he remembered Albus' pleas. The old wizard had told him it would be a benign act, and not murder at all, that he preferred an instant, painless death to slowly dying because of the curse. Severus looked into Albus' eyes, saw the mute plea in them, and pointed his wand at his old friend and mentor. "Avada Kedrava!" At the same time, he sent Albus one last thought. Please forgive me.

Albus however was no more capable of absolving Severus. The Killing curse hit him, as Severus hadn't held back – had put every ounce of his will into the curse.

Harry stared at the scene in shock and watched Dumbledore stagger and then fall. No, this couldn't be happening! Dumbledore couldn't be dead! Dumbledore couldn't leave him behind like that! He couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe Dumbledore was gone! And Snape had killed him! So Snape had been a traitor all along, just as he had thought! He was going to kill him in turn! He was going to kill Snape just like that traitor had killed Dumbledore!

Severus shivered when Harry's thoughts reached him. He had known the boy would loathe the sight of him and would try to kill him, should Harry ever get that chance. You should shield your mind – I taught you better than that. But he kept those thoughts private – couldn't allow Harry to pick up on them. He grabbed hold of Draco, who looked terrified at having watched Dumbledore's murder; Severus did feel sorry for him. Too many innocents were being dragged into this filthy war. They had tried to protect Harry, as well as Draco, but so far they had failed at protecting both of them.

Harry quickly moved back into the shadows when the Death Eaters ran down the stairs, Bellatrix leading the way, and Snape being the last, pushed Draco forward. For one insane moment Harry considered killing Snape right there and then, but the moment came and went away. Why couldn't he point his wand at Snape and kill him? Why had he wanted to trust Snape in the first place? Why had this tiny voice in the back of his mind said he could trust Snape? Why had he let Snape kill Dumbledore?

Harry shook himself from the paralyses he found himself in and ran after them, intent on making Snape pay for killing Dumbledore. He followed them as they moved deeper into the Forbidden Forest, and with a sinking sensation to his stomach, he realized where Bellatrix was leading them – to Hagrid's hut!

"Juhu," Bellatrix called out in sheer madness.

"Snape, he trusted you!" He had finally caught up with them and the mad desire to avenge Dumbledore pushed him forward. He didn't care about Bellatrix at that moment – didn't care she had killed Sirius. All he could think of was killing Snape—getting even with the traitor.

Severus quickly turned about, shocked to find that Harry had followed him. But then again, what did he expect the boy to do? Harry had just witnessed him killing Dumbledore – and Harry didn't know Albus had organized his death that way – neither could he tell Harry that. Damn, he had to find a way to deal with Harry which didn't involve getting the boy killed. Suddenly an explosion rocked the air behind him and Severus looked over his shoulder. Bellatrix, the lunatic, had set fire to Hagrid's hut, curse her. But he couldn't let it distract him. He had to keep his attention focused on Harry.

Draco stared at him in fright and that jolted Severus back into action. "Go on," he called out, making sure at least Malfoy wouldn't get caught up in his argument with Harry.

"Incarcerous," Harry called out, wanting to immobilize Snape. The anger he felt at seeing the traitor from so close made him mad with rage.

Severus easily deflected the spell, but then wondered what to do. He had never expected Harry to come after him and felt at a loss, something he didn't like at all. He didn't want to hurt the youngster, but Harry might force his hand. He had to act his part, had to make sure Bellatrix continued to believe he was loyal to her precious Dark Lord.

"Fight back, you coward, fight back!" Why wasn't Snape cursing him? Why wasn't he fighting him? Why was Snape staring at him like that? For one second, Harry hesitated, and promptly Bellatrix blasted him off his feet. He stumbled to the ground as pain shot through his body. Now Snape could finish the job – easily.

Severus tensed upon seeing Harry thrown to the ground and he quickly spun around, knowing there was only one thing that would stop Bellatrix from releasing her insane rage. "No! He belongs to the Dark Lord!" Not even Bellatrix would dare anger Voldemort by harming the boy! He wasn't sure what he would do though if Bellatrix, in all her insanity, would ignore him and launched another attack. Severus wasn't sure he would be able to stand by and let her curse Harry. But intervening meant giving himself away and Albus had been very insistent about the rest of his plan. Thankfully she backed down and Severus looked away from her and toward Harry. Was the boy alright? Or had Bellatrix managed to wound him?

He felt relieved at seeing Harry fight his way back to his feet. The boy was alright. This was it then – walking away now, turning his back on Harry and Hogwarts, everything Albus and he had ever believed in, would condemn him to the dark side. There would be no turning back – no redemption –not for him.

Harry managed to get back to his feet and stared at Snape in disbelief. The traitor was actually walking away! How dare Snape deny him like that? Mad with rage, loss, and emotional pain, he raised his wand and called out, "Sectumsempra!" It was the worst curse he could think of – he wanted Snape to suffer before the traitor died. He didn't want Snape to have a swift and painful death!

Severus spun around at hearing the curse – a curse he had invented when he had been young, and he retaliated. Measuring the flare with precision, he blasted Harry off his feet. He made sure though that his spell wouldn't cause any serious harm. He had to incapacitate Harry though for the time being as he couldn't allow the youngster to continue fighting him. He had to do something – now. Stalking toward the boy, and doing his best to look as intimidating as possible, he towered over him.

"You dare use my own spells against me, Potter?"Albus had told him some time ago that Harry had found his old potions book, but even without the old wizard telling him so, he had realized Harry had found it when the boy had used that curse on Draco. He wished he had never invented it, for it was an awful curse which eventually killed, much like the Killing curse; the only difference being the fact that the victim bled to death and experienced terrible pain before finally passing away.

"Yes, I am the Half Blood Prince," he said, uncaring Harry knew how spiteful he had been during his youth. He'd had good reasons to be like that back then, mostly thanks to Sirius and James. The hatred in Harry's eyes told him that they had reached the point of no return and so he kicked Harry's wand out of the way. Harry wouldn't follow him –not this time.

Walking away was one of the hardest things Severus had ever done. Severus wanted nothing more than to make everything right again. He wanted to comfort the boy – wanted to explain what was happening and why Albus had had to die, but that door had closed for all eternity. From now on he would walk alone – all alone.

Harry stared after Snape with an amount of hatred he hadn't known he was capable of. Severus Snape, Potions Master, Teacher, and Dumbledore's supposed spy had betrayed them – all of them. I hate you, Snape, and one day, I will kill you.

Severus was shaken to the core when he received that thought loud and clear. That shouldn't be possible. This couldn't be happening! His shields were up—they were up constantly these days and there was no way Harry could have penetrated his defences. But then…how? And then it hit him – the link. Somehow it had survived. For some reason it was still there – it lingered beneath the surface, but still connecting them. He marched on though, as he couldn't turn back –not now, not ever again.

But why was the link still there? He had been certain he had destroyed it that evening and he hadn't received any explicit thoughts from Harry –not that loud and clear - until now. Realizing that pondering the matter would put him in danger, he tightened his shields further. He didn't want Voldemort to accidentally glance at his thoughts. Stalking after Bellatrix, his heart grew heavier with each step he took. He had been happy at Hogwarts – as happy as he could be, and now that life had come to an end. From that moment on, he would be moving towards his death.

/

Harry knelt next to Dumbledore's remains and felt dead inside. He had always thought of Dumbledore as his mentor, had seen him as the grandfather he had never had, and now, Albus Dumbledore was dead. Snape had killed him, and one day, Harry promised himself, Snape would pay for that.

/

The Last Will and Testament of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

"To Ronald Bilius Weasley, I leave my Deluminator, in the hope that he will remember me when he uses itThat is a valuable object. It may even be unique. Certainly it is of Dumbledore's own design. Why would he have left you an item so rare? Dumbledore must have taught thousands of students, yet the only ones he remembered in his will are you three. Why is that? To what use did he think you would put to the Deluminator, Mr. Weasley?" Rufus Scrimgeour had spent days examining the item and yet he had found nothing out of the ordinary about it. Yet, he had known Albus Dumbledore and knew the old wizard must have had a reason to leave it to that boy.

Ron looked at the artefact, unsure himself why Dumbledore had left it to him. "Put out lights, I suppose. What else could I do with it?" Using it, the lights illuminating the kitchen and living room disappeared into the Deluminator. Clicking it again sent the lights right back and Ron had to admit his gift was pretty cool.

Realizing questioning Ron further wouldn't get him anyway, Scrimgeour continued and picked up the next item the Headmaster had left one of his students. He had examined that one too, and had found nothing wrong with it, and yet it irked him that Dumbledore had left certain items to his students, when all other possessions had gone to Hogwarts. "To Miss Hermione Jean Granger, I leave my copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, in the hope that she will find it entertaining and instructive… Why do you think Dumbledore left you that book, Miss Granger?"

"He… He knew I liked books," Hermione said. It was the most obvious explanation she could come up with. She looked at the book in surprise. She had never read it herself, but judging from Ron's reaction, her friend knew it well. What was she to do with it?

Then Scrimgeour addressed the item that made the least sense to him. "To Harry James Potter, I leave the Snitch he caught in his first Quidditch match at Hogwarts, as a reminder of the rewards of perseverance and skill… I noticed that your birthday cake is in the shape of a Snitch. Why is that?"

Harry was about to reply, but Hermione beat him to it.

"Oh, it can't be a reference to the fact Harry's a great Seeker, that's way too obvious. There must be a secret message from Dumbledore hidden in the icing!"

Scrimgeour's first reaction was to roll back his eyes, but he suppressed that urge. "To Harry James Potter, I also leave the Sword of Gryffindor, though technically speaking it's not Dumbledore's to give away."

Harry blinked in surprise. The Sword of Gryffindor? "Do you know where it is then?"

"It vanished some time ago… And as I said, According to reliable historical sources, the sword may present itself to any worthy Gryffindor. That does not make it the exclusive property of Mr. Potter, whatever Dumbledore may have decided. Why do you think-?"

How was he supposed to know? He had never quite managed to understand any of Dumbledore's plans and so he said, "Dumbledore wanted to give me the sword? Maybe he thought it would look nice on my wall." Hopefully that would shut up the Minster of Magic. He didn't like Rufus Scrimgeour one bit. "Is that it?" All three of them stared at their gifts and wondered what Dumbledore was trying to tell them. All three of them were certain there were hidden messages in them.

"Actually, there is more." Scrimgeour had been sorely tempted to examine the next items at well, but some semblance of decency had stopped him. Some things shouldn't be tempered with.

"There's more?" Ron's eyes widened upon seeing the five flasks which Scrimgeour placed on the table in-between them.

Harry thought the content of those vials looked a lot like memories – they resembled the vials he had seen at Dumbledore's office. One of them though looked different – it resembled liquid gold. "What's that?" He didn't know why, but all of a sudden shivers ran down his spine.

"It might be best if I allow Dumbledore to tell you." He released the Will, which floated toward the three students. A moment later, Dumbledore's voice echoed through the room. Harry felt upset at hearing a voice he had thought he would never hear again, but it was Dumbledore speaking—there was no mistaken it. Hermione reached for his hand first and then she curled her fingers around Ron's limb as well, solidifying the friendship between the three of them. Hearing Dumbledore's voice upset her too.

"My dearest boy… My dearest Harry. It saddens me that you are hearing this for it means I died before returning these to you. Harry, Miss Granger, Mister Weasley, these are yours. They belong to you. These flasks hold memories which I removed in the past. At times, I wished I hadn't done so, but at that time I had pressing reasons to remove them. I feel they should return to their rightful owners though. One of the flasks belongs to Remus Lupin and please see to it that his memories are returned to him as well. You won't be able to restore your memory right away. The moment the memories change colour and turn red is when you should restore your memory. The flasks won't open until that moment."

Harry accepted the flask containing his memories from Scrimgeour and eyed it suspiciously. He had never known Dumbledore had done anything like that. Scrimgeour handed him a second flask as well; it had Remus' name etched onto the glass.

"Please forgive an old man for meddling, but I was, and still am, convinced that doing so what in the best interest of all parties involved," Albus' will said.

Harry had long realized Dumbledore's schemes and his plans within plans, but he had never expected anything like this to happen. He put the flasks away and waited for the Minster of Magic to get up and leave, but Scrimgeour stayed in place. Was there still more to come?

Hermione studied the vial containing her memories and exchanged a look with Ron. How could they be sure they were genuine memories and hadn't been tampered with by Scrimgeour or another party?

"I can assure you that they do belong to you. We made sure by casting a spell on them, but we didn't look at the memories themselves." Scrimgeour had only one more thing to do and then he could finally leave. "This last flask," Scrimgeour said and picked up the last one, "will go into Miss Granger's care, but it is for the three of you to decide when to use it." He handed her the flask.

"What is it?" Hermione frowned; she didn't like being clueless.

"I will let Albus explain that one too." Scrimgeour nodded at the will, which still floated above the table and Dumbledore started to speak once more.

"The content of this last flask is quite unique. As far as I know this potion is almost one of its kind. It was brewed only once before, many years ago – and all other attempts at creating it failed –until recently. Treat it carefully, for it is precious. This flask holds Life itself. This potion will bring back a person from death. Administered within five minutes of the person's death, it will restore life without any disruptive side effects. Use it later than that and it won't work at all."

Harry studied the swirling gold inside the vial. He had never heard of a potion like that before!

"It is for the three of you to decide when to use it, as it can only be used once. The dying person must drink all of it, so you can't save more than one person from death. Be wise when deciding whom to give it to. Remember that certain deaths are necessary, but that others are rather pointless or come too early. I trust the three of you to know when to use it and whose life to save."

Harry cringed; why couldn't Dumbledore simply give them the name of the person the old wizard wanted saved? It was rather obvious that Dumbledore had someone specific in mind.

The Will floated back to the Minster of Magic, who carefully tucked it away. "That was it then. I will be on my way." He had hoped to find out what all that had been about, but it was obvious that the three students were clueless as well. He wouldn't gather new information here.

Harry watched Scrimgeour leave the living room and then looked at his friends. "Do you have any idea what this is about?"

Hermione shook her head and held the flash slightly to one side. She watched the swirls move up and down. "I have no idea, Harry."

"If that potion is really unique," Ron said and frowned, "Who do you think made it?"

"It would take a really gifted Potions Master to…" Hermione's voice trailed off and she looked at Ron in surprise.

"Snape?" Ron questioned, sneering the name in obvious disgust.

Hermione nodded. "He's the only one I believe capable of brewing it."

"Dumbledore should have taken it after the Killing Curse hit him!" Harry jumped to his feet and paced the living area. "He had this potion in his possession and didn't use it? Why?" Why hadn't Dumbledore saved himself? Why would the wizard want them to save someone else instead?

"Can we be sure that potion is what Scrimgeour says it is? What if Snape messed with it?" Ron shook his head. "We can't trust professor Dumbledore on his word that this is the legendary "Breath of Life"." It had taken him a moment to remember what that potion had been called in his potions book.

"Yes, that's it… Breath of Life." Why hadn't she thought of it? "I remember what our potions book said; namely that it was impossible to brew and it had only been done once by one of Hogwarts' former Headmasters. His name was Vindictus Veridian if I am not mistaken. It was used to save a student's life a long time ago."

"Never heard of the guy." Ron was watching his memories as well. "I am not sure we should ever commit them to our memory. Who knows who tampered with them."

"I don't like Scrimgeour," Harry said, "But I don't think he would tamper with something like memories. Examine them, yes. Watch them, no."

"So you think they are ours?" Hermione wasn't sure she agreed with Harry.

"I *know* these are mine. I can sense it." Harry nodded. "Don't ask me why, or how, but something tells me they are mine."

"I wonder what memories professor Dumbledore removed from our minds and why did he had to remove them from all three of us?" Ron felt frustrated that he had to wait in order to find out what those memories were about!

"Four of us actually… The fourth flask belongs to Remus, remember?" Harry pointed out to them. "Guys, when was the last time we saw Remus?"

Hermione tried to remember, but then realized she found it hard – almost impossible. "During an order meeting?"

"The last time he was at Hogwarts was when he was our Defence against the Dark Arts teacher…" Ron said, thinking aloud. "After that, we only saw him during order's meetings, yes."

Something nagged at Harry, but he couldn't say what it was. "It's like there's something I should be able to remember, but I can't… It's not about memories, but more about feelings."

"I reckon we will find out when the time is right." Hermione put her two flasks into her bag, knowing they were safe in there. "Do you want me to keep yours too?" she asked them.

Harry handed his and Remus' flask to her and nodded. He would probably end up losing them and he chuckled when Ron handed her his too. An unsettling feeling continued to nag at him, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was.

/

Please notice- Set during the beginning of The Deathly Hallows part 2

/

Severus sat in the Headmaster's office at Albus' desk and stared into the distance, not wanting to see anything, not wanting to hear anything and most desperately of all, not wanting to feel anything.

It was beyond him why Hogwarts accepted him as Headmaster. When the Dark Lord had told him to impose a reign of terror on the school, Severus had obeyed as he always did, and had returned to what he considered home, with Alecto and Amycus Carrow in tow. Actually, he considered himself lucky, since the Dark Lord had seen it fit to send only two Death Eaters to oversee the school. Things could have been a lot worse, Severus reminded himself.

"Severus, you can't give up now," Albus said firmly, addressing Severus from his portrait. "You must endure!"

Endure… Severus sighed. How much more could he endure? How much longer? "They are cursing the students, Albus, even the first years." And even worse, the Dark Lord expected him to curse them too. "I can't continue like this… I can't!" During the nights on which he managed to fall asleep nightmares haunted him. He had carefully picked the students he had been forced to curse. He had selected the strongest, those who could bear the curse without carrying away lasting injuries. The Carrows weren't like that though – they revelled in hurting even the youngest children. "I don't understand what good this does!"

"Severus, you knew what would happen once you accepted being a part of this plan. You need to persevere!" Albus worried about Severus. Although Voldemort's evil hadn't touched Severus, a different kind of darkness was reaching for the younger wizard. Self-hatred, guilt, and an overwhelming sense of despair threatened to drown Severus. Albus knew that being forced to curse the students was damaging Severus' soul and he could only hope that the younger wizard's focus would return. Severus always acted the part in public, but here at the office, where he felt safe, he lacked the energy to maintain the pretence.

"Hogwarts accepted you as its Headmaster," Phineas reminded Severus in a firm tone, but without its usual vindictiveness. "You must remember your real agenda. You are here to make sure the students are safe – relatively safe – I grant you that, but with you gone, the Carrows would rule supreme and trust me, they would love to kill the Mudbloods!"

"Don't you say that word ever again!" Severus hissed with some of his old vigour. "Don't you dare!"

"Ah, there is still some fight left to him after all," Dilys Derwent commented from inside her painting. "As much as I hate agreeing with Black, he is right. Your presence prevents the Carrows from murdering the students. You can't give up now!"

Severus wished they would just shut up. He tried to cover his ears with his hands, which was an utterly useless gesture as the former Headmasters and Headmistresses could speak directly to his mind, if they desired so.

"And remember, Severus, not even Voldemort knows you are Headmaster in every sense of the word." Albus knew it was an advantage, one he planned to use to its full advantage in the near future.

"What good does it do me?" Severus rested his arms on the desk in front of him. He wished Fawkes was still around to keep him company, but the phoenix had left when Albus had died. "I feel their pain each time one of those damned Carrows curses them, I…" Hogwarts would relay the student's pain to him, letting him know what has happening. It had helped him stop the torture a few times, but lately the Carrows did as they pleased and seldom obeyed his orders where students were concerned. Only yesterday, he had stopped them from cursing Neville. The Carrows had almost attacked him instead, but they had stopped short at the last moment.

Neville, who had lost consciousness at that point, had never seen him chase the Carrows away. Neither did the young man know that it was Severus who had taken him to the Hospital Wing so Madam Pomfrey could take care of the after effects of the Cruciatus curse. Neville Longbottom's parents were still at 's and would never recover from having been subjected to that curse for days. If there was anything he could do in order to make sure Neville didn't suffer the same fate, he would. Severus had made himself that promise.

"Any news of Harry's whereabouts?" Severus asked Albus in order to distract himself from the suffering he was forced to watch day and night. It was inevitable that Harry and his friends would come to Hogwarts and he actually longed for that day, because it meant more Horcruxes would be destroyed and Voldemort's demise would finally approach.

"He is on his way, Severus." Albus had set other paintings, positioned outside of Hogwarts, to spy on Harry and his friends. "It won't be long now. That is why you need to remain strong."

Severus' hands opened and closed spasmodically. He was fighting his emotions, the pain, and the pleas that inhabited Hogwarts' walls these days. He truly wished that Hogwarts hadn't accepted him as its Headmaster, but only resigning or dying would release him from his duties and he couldn't do either – yet.

"You must remember why you are doing this, Snape," Phineas said, speaking once more. "Voldemort is evil and must be destroyed."

"That's not why he is doing this," Armando Dippet pointed out. "He's doing it for the boy."

He had the power to shut them up, but truth be told, he preferred them pestering him to the silent despair that would occupy the office otherwise.

"Remember those evenings when Harry came down to your rooms, Severus. Remember playing Wizard chess with him and Ron Weasley. Remember Remus talking you out of that tantrum." Albus hoped there was enough light left inside Severus' soul for him to remember those things. The growing darkness might make it hard for Severus to recall those things though. "Remember how Harry took care of you when you were injured."

Severus closed his eyes. "Albus, stop it. You are making it worse." He didn't want to remember those things. Didn't want to experience those feelings. He opened his eyes, alarmed all of a sudden. "They are doing it again! They put someone under the Cruciatus curse!" He rose from his chair, located the Carrows, and apparated.

"Do you think he will snap, Dumbledore?" Phineas sounded worried.

"He won't! He is stronger than you think. The situation frustrates him though. He is helpless – he can't do anything right now. Yes, he can stop Alecto from cursing that student, but Severus wants to stop Voldemort instead. Having to wait for what he knows is to come drains him."

"We will do our best to support him, Albus, you know that," Dilys said. She hadn't been surprised when Hogwarts had accepted Snape as its new Headmaster. "He's brave, that one."

"And utterly stupid!" Phineas sneered. "Though I must grudgingly admit I respect him for what he's doing."

"True words indeed," Albus remarked thoughtfully. He understood Severus' frustrations though. Severus could destroy the Carrows within a heartbeat, but the fact that he had to play his part made that impossible. Instead, he had to curse the students himself and could do nothing but wait.

/

Knowing he had to act his part, Severus marched into the room. In the corner Alecto Carrow stood, wand raised and cursing a student. A dark anger erupted from Severus' stomach upon realizing she was cursing Neville again. Damn that witch! "Make sure he survives. I want to curse him too." He felt sick to the stomach for merely saying the words, but knew from previous encounters that it was the only thing which would make Alecto leave. "Leave us… Give him to me instead." Alecto lowered her wand, lifted the curse, and gave him an expectant look. Severus knew she reported to Voldemort on a daily bases and he had to give her something good to report. "Crucio," he said, pointing his wand at Neville, but keeping himself back as much as he dared. He couldn't allow for Alecto to grow suspicious.

His actions apparently satisfied her and Alecto turned around, leaving the room. Severus immediately lifted the curse, waited for her footfalls to disappear, and then cast a spell onto the door, locking it as he didn't want any intruders to walk in on him. He moved forward, knelt next to Neville, and turned the young man towards him. Severus reached into the folds of his robes, uncovered a flask, and poured its content into Neville's mouth.

"Swallow!" he commanded, though he doubted Neville could hear him. Much to his relief, the young man swallowed most of the potion. Severus wished he could do more, but at least that potion would make sure Neville recovered more quickly and would not carry away grave injuries.

He sat down on the floor, watched Neville closely, and noticed the way the tremors weakened. Good, the potion was working then. Severus placed his hand on Neville's brow and entered the young man's mind. He pointedly ignored any thoughts Neville had involving him as he didn't want to be reminded of Neville's hatred of him. Instead, he created a false memory so Neville would only remember Snape cursing him long after Alecto had left. That way, both of them were safe from Voldemort's suspicions. He remained in place until he was sure that Neville would wake up within the next five minutes and then got to his feet. He wished he could do more for Neville, but he would rouse the Carrows' suspicion if he did.

He roamed the castle for a while, even visited his old classroom. He no longer taught Potions as Voldemort had ordered against it. He decided not to return to his old rooms, knowing only haunted memories inhabited them today. Instead, he headed for the Astronomy Tower. He stood there for a long time, wondering when Harry Potter would finally return to Hogwarts. He knew it would be the end of him – he would be forced into flight first and death later, but he didn't fear that. He actually looked forward to it. To him, Death was an old friend and he would welcome him gladly.

"Professor Snape?"

Severus spun around, wand at the ready, but then lowered it upon seeing Luna Lovegood standing near. He hadn't noticed her before and she could have stayed hidden, but she hadn't. Why was she showing herself? It was past curfew, and had one of the Carrows found her, she would be withering in pain right now. "You shouldn't be here, Miss Lovegood." He never knew what to make of the girl – she confused him.

"I was merely sitting up here –thinking." Luna said softly while studying Snape. When she looked at him, she didn't see the monster most of the students and staff saw. When she looked at him, she saw his pain. "The setting sun resembles a ball of fire, doesn't it?"

Severus drew in a deep breath, slid his hands into his pockets, and nodded. "More like blood…" And he knew blood would be shed shortly. Harry was on his way to Hogwarts, which meant he had to take that next step shortly – the last step – once word reached him that Harry had been seen in Hogsmeade.

"Yes, blood shall be shed," she said as she approached him. She wanted to reach out to him, comfort his tormented soul, but knew it wasn't her place to do so. "Will you walk me back to the dormitories, sir? I shall not be safe without you. Alecto Carrow patrols the corridors." She didn't fear Snape like the others did. She wanted to trust him and she made her decision to do so that moment.

Severus looked at the sunset once more, hoping that he wouldn't have to watch many more of them. He was tired – so damn tired.

"Sir?" Luna carefully placed her hand on his arm and wasn't surprised when he allowed it. "Will you protect me?"

Severus looked at her and realized she trusted him to get her back to her dormitory safely. Such an odd girl, but then again, she was very much her father's daughter. "I will walk you back."

Luna smiled warmly at him and then followed him down the stairs. She then fell into pace next to him and continued to smile. She had been right all along.

/

At last, Hogwarts was quiet. Even the Carrows had gone to sleep. Severus however remained awake. Harry's return to Hogsmeade wouldn't take much longer.

"Severus? You can confide in me," Albus offered, vexed that the painting limited his personal space in such a way.

Severus looked up at the portrait and shifted on his chair. He had never wanted to be Headmaster, had never wanted to occupy this chair, sit behind this desk, or be in touch with Hogwarts' magic the way he was. He didn't deserve any of those privileges. "What is there to say, Albus?"

"Do you want to go through the plan one more time?" Albus offered, eager to distract Severus.

"I know the plan by heart, Albus, no more – please." But there was one thing he did want to ask Albus. "Tell me again, why am I doing this?"

"Because we need to stop Voldemort. We need to destroy him. You play a very important part in this, Severus. Without you, Harry will fail to destroy Voldemort." Albus wished there were other ways to attain their goal, but this was the only plan which would work. He had explored other futures, but in those Voldemort had won. This was the only way.

"I found Miss Lovegood on the Astronomy Tower earlier tonight. She is a very odd girl," Severus said in an effort to distract himself.

"Odd? Or likable, Severus?" Eoessa Sakndenberg asked from inside her painting.

Severus gave her an exasperated look. "Both probably." There was nothing to gain by denying it. "She asked me to see her safely to her dormitory."

"Which you then did," Eoessa said rather smugly.

"You need to be careful though!" Phineas said and shook his head at the former Headmistress' words. "The Carrows can't grow suspicious."

"The Carrows are asleep," Armando Dippet pointed out to Phineas.

"Please be quiet – just for once," Severus begged them.

"We only want to help," Albus said, reminding Severus why they were there. "We are bound to advise and support the current Headmaster." Albus then froze inside his painting, feeling his sister's presence. "Ariana…"

Severus had felt her presence at well. "Her painting has appeared in the Room of Requirement." Which could only mean one thing; Harry Potter had returned.

"You know what to do, Severus – gather the students. Do it in the Great Hall."

Severus nodded. It was finally happening then. The long wait was coming to an end.

/

In awe, Harry watched the painting open to reveal a dishevelled looking Neville. "Neville," he called out and quickly embraced his old friend. He cringed though, seeing the exhausted look on him. In spite of everything, it was good to see him though!

"Follow me," Neville said as he started the way back into the castle. "We should be safe in here, but you never know. The Carrows might be close."

Harry had heard about the reign of terror inside Hogwarts' walls. It made him even more determined to do away with Snape – the traitor and murderer – for once and for all. "How bad is it – really?"

Neville looked at them from over his shoulder. "Hogwarts has changed, Harry. Instead of doing detentions the students are being cursed, and when they refuse to practice any curses on each other, the Carrows curse them instead… Or Snape," he hissed angrily, recalling only too well what had happened only yesterday. Snape had kept him under the Cruciatus curse for hours!

As they followed Neville into the castle, all three of them felt the chilling sensation that lingered there these days. "I will make Snape pay," Harry promised fervently. "Neville, I promise you that Snape will pay for everything he did. He will pay for killing Dumbledore and he will pay for hurting my friends."

Neville nodded. He hoped Harry would get a chance to get even with Snape. "Here we are," he announced as he made his way into the Room of Requirement.

"Harry!"

Harry looked up at hearing Ginny's voice. Seamus was there as well, Luna too, and all wanted to hug him. He allowed it, needing to know they were alive and well. Exchanging a smile with Ginny, he was happy to find her well. "It's good to see you, all of you," he announced.

"What's the plan, Harry?" Seamus asked in a hopeful voice. "How are we going to do this?"

Ah yes, he hadn't come up with a plan – not yet, not exactly, but he would try to explain everything to them. It was important they found the remaining Horcruxes.

/

"Severus, this is it." Albus watched Severus closely, not liking the other wizard's pallor, but he knew Severus wouldn't let him down. "You know what to do. Don't waste too much time."

Severus shook his head slightly at being told that. Albus had no idea how hard the next hour would be on him. "I will do my best." The students had gathered in the Great Hall and Harry was among them. The castle had already relayed that information to him. He turned around, straightened his robes, checked on his wand, and marched toward the doorway without looking back.

/

It was time for the last act – the grand finale and he was going to make his demise memorable. It was so very easy to read their minds without them even suspecting it. As he made his way up to the front of the Great Hall, his mind recognized Harry's at once and he fought hard to keep that damned link from re-establishing itself. Not now – not ever!

Turning about, Severus watched his students closely. He made sure not to look into Harry's direction, as he didn't trust himself. He would stare at the boy, he knew it. Although, boy? Harry was no longer a child. Harry had had to grow up and he had lived up to that challenge.

The Carrows stood behind him, gloating already, probably hoping they would get to put a number of students under the Cruciatus curse tonight. Not if he could help it though.

"Many of you are surely wondering why I have summoned you at this hour." He spoke in a clipped tone, emphasizing each word and realizing he had to maintain his façade until the end. He couldn't allow Harry to know— or even suspect - the truth. For the Dark Lord still used the young man to gather information. Harry had to believe him guilty – had to think he was as evil as the Carrows were for Voldemort had to believe it. And so, the act was necessary. "It's come to my attention that, earlier this evening, Harry Potter was sighted in Hogsmeade."

Severus told himself to focus, told himself not to grow distracted because the remaining members of the Order were now marching toward the Hall. He knew he had to face them one last time.

"Now," he said, focusing on the task at hand once more. "Should anyone, student or staff, attempt to aid Mister Potter, they will be punished in a manner consistent with the severity of their transgression." Severus sensed the Order's approach, felt Harry tense at his words, and yet, he managed to continue anyway for this had to be done. "Furthermore, any person to have found knowledge of these events who fails to come forward will be treated as equally guilty." Severus found it increasingly hard to concentrate on his words. The Order had almost reached the doorway and Harry's anger kept growing. He wasn't surprised to find that hatred made Harry's thoughts shake with rage.

"Now then," Severus forced himself on, urged on by the invisible support the former Headmasters and Headmistresses of Hogwarts supplied him with. Their presence was welcome though – just this once. "If anyone in here, has any knowledge of Mister Potter's movements this evening I invite them to step forward – now." This was it; the point of no return. He forced himself to look at his students instead of at Harry who was close –so very close, and about to act.

Footfalls echoed through the ancient Great Hall when Harry finally made his decision to confront his nemesis. His rage had gotten the better of him and his anger needed out. It needed out now! Harry stared Snape in the eyes and wished he could kill him right there and then, but the Order wanted to take Snape alive because of the information the spy could supply them with. Glaring at Snape, he barely managed to control his rage. "It seems that in spite of your exhaustive defensive strategies, you still have a bit of security problem, Headmaster." Addressing him in that way was his way of insulting Snape. How dare Snape… How dare he think he could take the place of the grandest wizard who had ever lived?

Severus still felt shocked at being confronted like that. He had known it would happen, but nothing could have prepared him for the impact Harry's emotions and thoughts had on him. The link tried to stir again, eager to re-establish their connection, but he battered away at it until it grew weak again. Harry had grown – body and soul. Severus barely paid attention to the members of the Order as they marched in. He only had eyes for Harry, and by looking at the young man, he remembered why he was doing this – Voldemort had to die, and maybe, maybe Harry would find a way to survive.

"I am afraid it is quite extensive," Harry said, enjoying every second of their triumph over the hated traitor. The look on Snape's face was priceless; now that the spy realized he had been found out.

Severus glanced briefly at Remus Lupin and remembered a time when they had been friends—it seemed like that had happened in another lifetime. So be it – if that was the end, he would retreat causing as little damage as possible.

"How dare you stand where he stood!" Harry's rage exploded and he aimed it at the man he hated the most – Snape.

Severus allowed it; as far as he was concerned Harry had every right to be angry with him. Harry didn't know the truth and he prayed the young man never would.

"Tell them how it happened that night!" Harry continued to yell at Snape, wanting to kill the traitor so badly. He wanted Snape to suffer like Dumbledore had suffered!

Tell them? Severus briefly wondered what would happen if he did tell them the truth. Tell students, staff, and the Order how Albus had demanded he killed him so the Dark Lord would trust him completely. But they would never believe him. They would accuse him of lies, for the Albus Dumbledore they knew would never have orchestrated his own death.

"Tell them how you looked him in the eye – a man who trusted you – and killed him!" Had Harry not be that angry, he might have wondered why Snape was just staring at him instead of attacking him, but all he cared about, was offering his pain, his rage, a way out. "Tell them!" he yelled, wanting to hear that murderer admit his crime!

Severus knew he had to act before Harry would actually try to kill him. He couldn't allow for that to happen. He didn't want Harry's soul to carry that burden and the young man's thoughts told him that Harry was only seconds away from drawing his wand and cursing him. So Severus drew his wand first. Minerva moved in-between them, which only surprised him for a second. After all, she had always greatly cared about Harry. Momentarily, his resolve faltered. He didn't want to fight Minerva either – didn't want to hurt her. Making his decision for once and for all, he raised his wand and by doing so, doomed his soul for all eternity.

He could kill her, but chose not to. She would never know the truth, would never know how much it hurt to see her actually attack him. He had to flee, had to leave, so he could carry out the rest of Albus' plan. He deflected Minerva's attacks, but never attacked her in turn. Instead, he fled the Great Hall, shattering the window as he did. As he moved away from the Hall, he heard her scream at him.

"Coward!"

That hurt more than anything – it sent a knife through his heart, but he forced himself to focus. Control your emotions – discipline the mind. He forced himself to do just that.

Coward, coward, coward… Her scream echoed in his mind and he had to tell himself he wasn't a coward at all. He couldn't blame Minerva for thinking that though. Returning to the Headmaster's office only took him seconds and he manifested behind the desk, allowing himself to collapse onto the chair.

"Severus…Minerva doesn't know the truth – remember that," Albus offered his distraught friend. He realized how hard that confrontation had been on Severus. Such courage, such valour… Severus however wouldn't believe him if he told him that.

"Give me one moment, Albus – one moment!" Severus practically hissed the words at the portrait. He needed that moment to compose himself. Albus thankfully remained quiet, but then the silence started to get on his nerves and he looked up at the paintings. All Headmasters and Headmistresses stood at attention and looked at him in such a way that he started to choke up. "Stop it."

"How can we, Headmaster?" Everard only felt compassion when he looked at the young wizard. "What you did demanded courage and… My boy, you have earned the respect of every Headmaster and Headmistress in here."

Severus looked at Everard, one of the most celebrated Heads Hogwarts had ever known and knew the compliment he had been paid. The Dark Lord interrupted his musings then, invading the minds of everyone present at Hogwarts including his. Severus had expected Voldemort to retaliate the moment the Dark Lord thought Hogwarts lost to him. "Staff, nor students will ever deliver Harry into the Dark Lord's hands," he said, "They would rather die than handing him to Voldemort." He remembered the way they had stayed quiet when he had threatened them earlier that evening. Looking at Albus, he saw him nod. "We have work to do," he said, "we need to prepare Hogwarts for the upcoming attack."

"Don't linger here too long though, Severus. Voldemort will want you at his side during the battle."

Severus nodded and hated Albus for reminding him. Albus could have waited. He wanted to savour these last few seconds of having their company. Although he had detested their meddling in the past, the portraits now offered him comfort. For the first time ever he felt like he belonged. "I need you to contact all remaining paintings in Hogwarts, tell them to prepare." A second later, the office began to grow crowded as the ghosts appeared to receive their orders. Severus told them to look after the students mostly, since the ghosts couldn't do much to begin with.

Then he sat down behind his desk and gripped the armrest hard. There was one more thing to do before he left the office. Reaching out, he tightened his connection with Hogwarts itself. Instead of limiting himself to his form, his mind now raced through the castle, seeing students and staff prepare for the upcoming attack. The protective spells his staff was casting were rather weak and he strengthened them, pouring his own magic as well as the castle's into the protective shield that now surrounded Hogwarts. He tightened the structure, empowered it with his own spells, and then withdrew.

Severus opened his eyes and looked at the opposite wall. Most portraits were empty, as Headmasters and Headmistresses alike were doing their best to protect the castle and its inhabitants. Only Albus had remained which came as no surprise.

"You must go, Severus… I am sorry for the way this will end." Albus truly felt sorry for the pain he had put Severus through, but he hadn't lost hope that there would be salvation for Severus in the end. That was out of his control though; that was for Harry to decide. "I wish I could have been a better friend – a better mentor. Know that I am grateful you ended my life. As I said before, it was an act of mercy to stop my suffering. You are not a murderer, Severus. I want you to know that."

Severus rose from behind the desk, nodded once, and also wished things had ended differently – wished Lily and James had never been killed in the first place. "This is farewell, old friend."

Albus smiled at Severus. Maybe it was –he hoped not though. "I hope you will find peace at last, Severus, my friend."

Severus nodded once more, drew in a deep breath, and looked around the office. He would miss it – even in spite of the misery that had marked his short reign as Headmaster; he had felt at home here. "Farewell, Albus…"

"Goodbye, Severus…. Goodbye."

Severus disapparated one more inside Hogwarts walls, and that act reminded him of the fact that the castle still thought of him as its Headmaster. It shouldn't – it really shouldn't.

/

Disguised in black smoke, Severus moved through the castle. Voldemort had arrived and was laying siege to the castle. Hogwarts prepared itself for battle, but Severus knew they were doomed to lose the fight. Only Voldemort's death itself would free them of the Dark Lord's reign.

When the attack started, Severus tried to keep on top of everything. Hogwarts informed him that Ron and Hermione had entered the secret chamber and had managed to destroy another Horcrux using the Basilisk's tooth. Harry had located the lost diadem of Ravenclaw, but Draco was meddling again. Severus was about to head to the Room of Requirement when Ron discovered the brooms and they managed to find their way out of the fire – even saving their attackers' lives as well. Seeing Draco run, didn't surprise him. Draco was scared; knowing failure might get his mother or father killed.

Severus however felt himself drawn higher and higher – toward the passage Remus and Tonks were defending. The attack was heaviest on that side and Severus reckoned he might be able to repay another debt by watching their backs. Stepping into the corridor behind the two of them, he hid in shadows and watched Voldemort's troops advance on the castle. Death Eaters cut through the air, flying in on broomsticks or moving the way he did, hiding in black smoke. He watched as Remus and Tonks reached out to each other, twining their fingers and holding hands. For one brief moment, he felt envious of what they had – love.

As his senses were focused on the two of them, he also noticed the Death Eater, wand raised high and catapulting himself towards the two of them. Severus reacted at once, never giving it a second thought and called out "Avada Kedrava," targeting the Death Eater with his wand. The Killing curse hit the Death Eater at once, and he started his long descend toward the earth.

"What?" Remus spun around, realizing only too well that the caster of that spell had not only saved his, but Tonks' life as well. He couldn't believe his eyes when he saw Snape standing there, wand raised, but not cursing them. And then it hit him – Snape had cursed the Death Eater instead.

"Watch each other's backs," Severus hissed. "I won't be around much longer!" Making good use of their bewilderment, he chose to cloak himself in dark smoke and vanished.

Remus sought out Tonks' eyes and saw disbelief in them too. "Did that really happen? Did Snape actually…?"

"Save us?" Tonks finished for her husband. "It looks like it, doesn't it?"

Remus didn't know what to make of that. Why would Albus' murderer, Voldemort's spy, and the most despised Headmaster Hogwarts had ever known save their lives?

/

Severus cursed the link the moment Harry destroyed the diadem. It reached out to him, tried to connect with him, but he managed to push it away. He had always wondered if he had been able to destroy it; now he knew he had failed. One of the castle's ghosts roamed nearby and Severus used its sight to see what was happening. He felt shocked upon realizing that Harry was actually reaching out to Voldemort in order to find out the wizard's whereabouts. Harry probably didn't realize that Voldemort would sense the manipulation. He really should have taught Harry better – he was to blame for this – no one else.

"I know where he is…"

Harry's words sent shivers up his spine. Harry was going after Voldemort, which had been Albus' plan all along, but the youngster lacked certain information and Severus was the only one who could supply Harry with it. But Severus knew he couldn't show himself. He couldn't walk up to Harry and explain Albus' scheme to him. Harry would curse him on sight. He had to find a different way.

"Harry!"

Severus abandoned caution and moved closer, closely keeping to the shadows, as he needed to hide since Lupin and Tonks came running towards Harry.

"We are on our way to the other side of the castle – the defences were breached over there," Remus explained. He took comfort in the fact that the three students were still alive, even though looking a bit battered.

Harry was about to reply, when Hermione suddenly yelped and he focused on her instead. "What is it?" Harry turned toward her, obviously concerned about her. Severus considered leaving them that very moment, since they were distracted and wouldn't notice his departure, but then again, he was curious. What had made her react like that?

"It's my bag…" Hermione frowned, reached inside and retrieved a flask. "I completely forgot about these!"

About what? Severus wondered and he wished he could move closer in order to find out, but he couldn't risk it. He caught sight of a flask and identified the content as memories at once. But whose memories were inside that flask?

"It has your name on it, Remus." Hermione handed Remus the flask with memories.

"What is that?" Tonks questioned, looking stunned.

"I would like to know that too," Remus asked Hermione.

Hermione shrugged, and looked to Harry to find if he wanted to tell them, but then Harry nodded at her and so Hermione said, "Professor Dumbledore asked us to make sure you got this. Apparently the flask contains memories – your memories, which professor Dumbledore removed from your mind at one time."

Severus froze in horror. As far as he knew Albus had only tampered with Remus' memories once, and that had been at his request. Did you go behind my back, Albus? Did you retrieve those memories instead of destroying them? Did you really cast the Obliviate curse? Or didn't you? What if Albus had played him? Severus growled softly, and disapparated – as he couldn't bear to find out the truth. There was one more debt he wanted to pay before going to his death.

/

Remus continued to stare at the swirling content. "What did you say just now?" They didn't have time for this, but he sensed that this was important too. Why else would the flask have drawn their attention to it? He sensed Albus' hand in this.

"As far as we can tell the emotions are genuine," Harry said, addressing his friend and former teacher. "Dumbledore wants us to restore our memory when the time is right. His Will said that the flask itself would tell us when to place those memories back into our mind." Upon seeing Remus' sceptic look, he explained, "The three of us also received a bottle with our name on it."

Remus knew he didn't have the time to think this through. They were under attack and they had to get moving. "I always trusted Albus…. I don't have anything to lose at the moment." Remus removed the lid and used his wand to deposit the memories into his head. The moment they slid into place, he froze in shock. The memories moved through his mind and tried to find the exact place where they belonged; they already felt familiar. Yes, these were his memories. He recognized them now that they had been returned to him. He grabbed hold of Tonks' arm and she steadied him when everything came rushing back to him.

Severus – returning from a Death Eaters' meeting –hurt so badly that he needed help – help which Harry, Hermione and Ron provided him with – the mask, slipping and then falling away to reveal the man behind the vicious Potions' Master – the caring, almost loving expression whenever Severus looked at Harry – sitting next to Severus near the Whomping Willow and snapping the other man out of his rage – Severus providing him with a fair amount of his potion… It was almost too much to take in and he swayed.

"Remus!" Harry called out in alarm. Had it been a trap after all? But why would Dumbledore leave them something that would hurt them? It made no sense – they were on the same side!

"I am fine, Harry. I am fine…" Remus drew in a deep breath and the vertigo that had assaulted him left now that the memories settled back into his mind. Everything made sense now – Snape watching their back and saving their lives a moment ago. Remus grabbed hold of Harry's shoulders and stared into the boy's eyes. "These are my memories, don't worry. I am not hurt, merely overwhelmed. I can't believe that I forgot these things!" But then he remembered that the three of them still had to view their memories. "Hermione, what about the flasks holding your memories?"

Hermione retrieved them from her bag, but they hadn't changed colour and when she tried to remove the lid, it wouldn't budge. "Apparently it's only you who is supposed to put them back." She wondered why that was.

Remus only had seconds to make up his mind. "Harry, listen to me - very closely."

Harry wondered what had gotten into Remus, but then nodded, giving his former teacher his full attention. "I am listening."

Remus knew he had to be careful phrasing this. "I know that you hate Severus…" He paused for a second, realizing how easily it was to go back to calling the man that. "But I am telling you now that there is more to him that you think. I never thought I would say this, but you can trust him."

"Trust Snape? You're insane, mate," Ron sneered. What had gotten into Remus all of a sudden?

"Ron's right – Snape's a traitor and even worse, a murderer. He killed professor Dumbledore!" Harry exclaimed.

Even Tonks was giving him odd looks, but Remus didn't waver. "Severus cares, Harry. He cares about what happens to you – all of us, for that matter." If only they knew the same things he did! "Everything will come back once you can access your memories again. Harry, trust me on this… I have a good reason to plead on Severus' behalf." Harry however didn't seem convinced, and Remus wished there was more time to explain everything, but another attack rocked Hogwarts' foundations. Tonks was already pulling him along, but before he started running, he called out, "Put your trust in Severus, Harry – just do it!"

"Never," Harry said determinedly and shook his head.

Hermione was still staring at their flasks and then remembered there was another. She uncovered it and gasped, "The Breath of Life… I had forgotten about that one."

Harry blinked. "Hermione, we need to get going. Voldemort is at the Shack. If we don't move now, we might be too late."

Hermione nibbled on her bottom lip, frowned, and then put the flasks away. "Let's go then!"

/

Severus owned one of the Weasley twins a debt, and although it was only a minor one, he intended to repay it in full. Some time ago he had accidentally cursed George Weasley, who had lost his ear because of it. The curse had never meant to hit George, but since it had happened, there was nothing he could do to change it.

Sweeping over the battle grounds, still in his disguise as a Death Eater, he tried to do as much damage as he could to Voldemort's forces. He froze in midflight upon seeing a Death Eater raising his wand at Fred, or was it George? He had never been able to tell the blasted twins apart.

"Ava—" The Death Eater never knew what hit him. One moment he was about to curse one of the Weasleys, and the next, he fell to the ground, having been cursed himself.

Severus allowed himself one second to check on the Weasley who was still crouched against the wall. He manifested long enough to grab the wand, which had fallen and pressed it into the redhead's hand with the intention of wrapping his fingers around it. At that moment, the young wizard raised his gaze and locked with his, gasping in shock.

"Fred!"

Severus looked over his shoulder and found the other twin running towards them. He took a step away from Fred, but the redhead grabbed his hand instead. He managed to shake it off, hissed at him, and quickly turned himself into smoke.

"Avada—"

"George, no! Don't!" Fred's head still reeled after realizing what had just happened.

"Are you..?" George knelt next to his twin and checked him over. Finding no life threatening injuries he allowed himself to relax. "What happened? Why did you stop me from killing Snape? He was about to curse you!"

"No, he wasn't…" Using George for leverage, Fred managed to get back to his feet. "He appeared out of nowhere and cursed that Death Eater over there."

George looked to the right and found the dead Death Eater—wand still aimed at Fred. He frowned. "Are you trying to tell me that Snape attacked one of his own?"

Fred nodded. "It seems absurd, I know that, but he saved my life just now. That bastard," and he pointed at the dead Death Eater, "was already uttering the Killing curse when Snape suddenly appeared and cursed him instead."

George was still trying to wrap his mind around that. Snape had saved his twin, he believed that now, but the question was – why?

/

Severus moved toward the Shack with a heavy heart. He knew he was going toward his doom – his death. He should be running, should be putting up a fight, but instead, he went willingly. His suffering would finally come to an end.

"Severus," Voldemort drawled and beckoned Severus closer. "We need to talk."

"Yes, my Lord," Severus said and when he closed the door behind him, he also closed the final chapter to his life.

/

Harry, Ron, and Hermione made their way to the Shack. They practically ran all the day down there and when they arrived, they found they weren't alone.

Harry didn't need to look inside to know Snape was in there too. He heard his voice loud and clear. He wanted to focus on what they were saying when Hermione moved unexpectedly. "Look out!" he whispered, hoping neither Voldemort nor Snape had heard.

"I can't help it! Look!" Hermione had quickly removed three flasks from her bag as they had been burning her skin through the fabric of the pouch.

Harry cringed; this was bad timing. Voldemort and Snape – his two enemies were only feet away, so they had to remain quiet and hidden. "We can't do this now!"

"Looks like we have to," Hermione whispered thoughtfully. "They won't let me put them back into my bag again." No matter what she tried, the flasks remained stuck to her hand. "Here," she said and shoved them into Ron's and Harry's hands. "We had better do this now!" She didn't like the timing either, but Voldemort and Snape were still talking, which meant the three of them were safe for the moment.

Harry stared at the flask in dismay, but –somehow- he knew that Hermione was right; they were supposed to do this *now*. Using his wand, he transferred his memories from the flask into his head and watched Ron and Hermione do the same thing. Suddenly his head spun and he remembered Remus looking bewildered as well.

Snape –his throat burned and trembling – finding him collapsed in the corridor and the three of them taking care of him – Snape, gently entering his mind and building shields in order to keep out Voldemort – games of Wizard chess, scones and tea – Lady Grey - Snape injured again—choosing Severus' name as the word to trigger his shields with – finding that picture –finding out about Severus and Lily –realizing how much Severus cared for him and then…

Harry looked at his friends and knew they had seen memories similar to his. "I…" He didn't know what to say. Like Remus, he knew that the memories were genuine, that they had once been a part of his mind. They stared at each other for a long moment and then three of them nodded. They would discuss this later.

Suddenly something heavy crashed against the window and Harry watched Snape slide down onto the floor. Horrified, he stared at the blood that was beginning to leak from beneath the window and onto the earth. What had happened? Why hadn't he paid attention?

/

Although he had been expecting Voldemort to kill him, the attack itself still came as a surprise. Blood sprung from his throat and he collapsed onto the floor. Pain caused his hands to turn into fists, but he didn't fight back, reminding himself that this was what he deserved. He found it hard to breathe and knew Voldemort had cut an artery.

"Nagini… kill!"

The command should have warned Severus of what was to come, but he was still stunned. Blood flowed down his black robes and he was going into shock. There was no way to defend himself, so when Nagini threw herself at him and buried her fangs into his flesh, he simply absolved the punishment, hoping the venom would take away the sting of the pain that moved through him. He lost count of the times she bit him. He was only aware of being pounded at and the warm blood which made its way down his chest.

Voldemort hissed again and turned around; Nagini followed her master. A sense of gratitude took Severus then, knowing it was over – finally. The pain was excruciating; he had thought that being under the Cruciatus curse was painful, but it didn't compare to this. Every inch of his skin burned due to the poison, and at the same time, an icy cold seeped into his body. If this was death, it was nothing like he had expected it to be.

Suddenly the door opened and footsteps sounded next to him. Had Voldemort returned to finish what he had started? But when he managed to turn his head slightly, he realized he had been wrong. It was Harry. The moment they made eye contact, the link returned to life, and even though he tried to fight it, he failed, as he lacked the strength to do so. Tears slid down his face and he managed to raise a trembling hand, pointing weakly at his face. "Take them, take them, please…" He had never thought he would see Harry again and to see the youngster at his side overwhelmed him.

"Give me something; a flask, anything!" Harry tried to stop the blood pouring from a wound on Snape's throat, but wondered if it would help. There was blood everywhere, even pooling beneath Snape.

Hermione's fingers trembled when she reached inside her bag. Instead of removing just one flask, out came two. One was empty, the other filled with the breath of Life. She stared at the latter, and then quickly handed Harry the empty flask.

Harry forced himself to focus, catching the tears, which he now realized contained memories which Snape wanted him to see. Suddenly he grew aware of another presence in his mind, and with the return of Snape's thoughts, the link opened both ways, allowing both of them to connect again.

"Take them to the pensieve," Severus whispered. Even while dying, he still had Harry's well-being at heart. The youngster had to know about Albus' scheming; had to know what was expected of him so he could make a decision – a well-informed one. "Look at me," he pleaded, knowing the eye contact would allow him to see even more of Harry's thoughts and when he looked at them, he was stunned to find all memories restored. Albus had outsmarted him after all, but little good would it do Albus.

Harry stared at Severus, once more remembering the way he had started to care about the older wizard back then. Why had Albus removed those memories from his mind? Why?

"You have your mother's eyes…" Severus felt at peace – at last. He had done everything within his power to protect Lily's son – now he could let go. Death was beckoning him and Severus went willingly.

A moment later, Voldemort's voice swept through them, taunting Harry once more – challenging him to finally show himself and to fight his own battle. The three of them gritted their teeth and felt relieved once the evil presence retreated. Looking at Severus, Harry wished there was a way to right this terrible wrong.

"Harry!" Hermione knelt next to Harry and pressed the flask holding the breath of Life into his hand. "Use it! Do it!"

Harry stared at the flask like he had never seen it before. Quickly he looked at Ron. Did his friend agree?

"Go ahead, mate… This feels right." Ron didn't need to give the matter much thought. The moment he had recalled utterly losing at Wizard chess and with that, losing his fear of the greasy git, convinced him that this was the right thing to do. "Give it to him."

"We must be quick!" Hermione had moved closer to her professor and checked for any signs of life. "He's dead!" She parted his mouth and Harry started pouring the potion. Now they had to wait and could only hope it worked.

"He brew this himself," Harry remarked stunned. "Did Dumbledore know…?" Did he want to finish that sentence? Being honest with himself he had to admit that Dumbledore had probably known this would happen. Hermione helped him to pull Severus away from the window and then settled the older man in-between them.

"Is it working? It must work! He made it himself!" Ron hadn't believed it possible, but he actually worried about Snape. He knew it had everything to do with his memory being intact again. Somehow they had automatically reverted to caring about Snape, the way they had cared about him back then.

Harry continued to stare at Severus, and for the first time in his life, he actually prayed. Suddenly a golden glow shimmered from beneath Severus' skin and tremors shook his body. Harry and Hermione held on tight, and a moment later, the tremors subsided.

"It's working, isn't it?" Ron sat on his heels next to Hermione, and like his friends, he watched Snape closely for any sign of life. Another shudder moved through Snape's body and suddenly the dark eyes opened. A pain filled scream cut through the Shack as the injured wizard tried to draw in breath.

"It worked," Harry said, feeling utterly relieved. "He's alive." Only yesterday, he wouldn't have believed the person telling him he would want Snape to live. "We need to get him back to the castle." That was where the last Horcrux – Nagini- was and he was determined to finish this.

"We can't possibly move him," Hermione said. "He's still very weak. That potion didn't heal him; it merely brought him back from the dead."

Ron shivered; back from the dead. That sounded horrible. "Maybe if we all help then…" But he grew quiet upon seeing Snape's gaze grow more focused. "Professor?"

Harry didn't have to look at Snape in order to know that the man was in excruciating agony. Although the pain itself never reached him, he felt an echo of it through the link. Dark eyes finally met his and Harry told himself that Severus Snape cared for him – he didn't have to be afraid, not anymore. "Severus?" he whispered in the end, hoping that hearing his name would snap Snape out of the stupor he was in. "We need to get back to the castle. Can you walk? We will help – all three of us."

Severus was stunned to find himself alive. One moment he had been dead and Albus had welcomed him, asking him to walk with him, and the next, he had been back in the Shack. And with that, the pain returned. His whole body ached, but he had learned a long time ago to endure that kind of discomfort. What he failed to control were his emotions though – especially when Harry called him by his first name.

"Severus," Harry said again, the link telling him that it was the name itself which was making his former teacher focus. "We are going to pull you to your feet. Don't worry, we will be careful."

What was that youngster talking about? Dragging him back to the castle? Why would Harry need to go back to the castle? The pensieve of course! Damn, he had almost forgotten! "Take…my hand," he whispered, still feeling awfully weak. But as this wasn't over yet, he had to continue to help Harry.

Harry frowned, but then did as he was told. He wrapped his fingers around Severus' blood covered hand. "And now what?"

"You… too,." Severus whispered, addressing Hermione and Ron. He expected them to turn away in disgust, but instead their expressions held concern. Had Albus handed them their memories back too? But why would Albus do such a thing? A wave of pain made him briefly close his eyes and he fought it back. He had to focus now – pain didn't matter. He had to return them to the castle so Harry could use the pensieve.

The three of them gripped his hand and that what Severus had been waiting for. Calling on Hogwarts' magic, he disapparated out of the Shack. He should probably pay attention to where he was taking them, but truth be told, the pain made it hard to focus. He tried for the office, but instead, they ended up somewhere else.

Harry blinked upon finding himself in the ruined Great Hall. Students, staff, and the remaining members of the Order instantly looked at them. Kingsley and McGonagall came running towards them, wands drawn and aimed at Severus. "No!" Harry called out, got to his feet, and stopped them. "Don't curse him!"

Kingsley didn't know what to make of that reaction. "But Harry, he's a traitor and murderer, you said that yourself!"

Yes, he had, but things had changed. "He never betrayed us, didn't you, Severus?" He knelt next to the barely conscious man and noticed that the cut along Severus' throat was bleeding more profusely.

Severus wasn't going to answer that. Why should he? No one was going to believe him anyway. Harry should have left him dead instead of using the breath of Life to bring him back – oh yes, he knew what had happened. He had brewed that potion himself and knew what it tasted like.

"Severus!"

He flinched at hearing someone call his name through the Great Hall – or what was still left of the once impressive building. Remus Lupin. The werewolf had survived the attack then. He could only hope Tonks had made it out alive as well. Severus found it increasingly hard to breathe; blood obstructed his windpipe and was causing him to suffocate. He thrashed on the floor.

"Quickly, get Madam Pomfrey!" Harry gathered Severus' hand in his and squeezed it in an attempt to offer comfort. "Do something!" he yelled when all seemed frozen in shock.

It was Remus who made a move eventually. He was by no way a healer, but he did know some spells that might help save Severus' life.

Harry moved out of the way and Hermione promptly wrapped an arm around him. Something cold and sharp pressed into his palm, and when he opened his hand, he remembered the flask containing Severus' memories. He recalled the urgency to those dark eyes earlier and knew he couldn't stall. "Look after him for me, Hermione. Make sure no one hurts him."

"I promise," she said and lightly squeezed his shoulder. She also felt protective of her professor now that she remembered certain events.

Harry stepped away from her and headed for the Headmaster's office.

Remus watched Harry walk away from them, but didn't have the time to find out what was going on. Severus was rapidly losing blood which the other man couldn't afford to lose. "Get Poppy – now," he told Ron, who instantly ran off in search of the healer.

"Lupin, you will only save him so he can be sent to Azkaban," Minerva pointed out. Although she hated Snape for what he had done to her students, she felt it might be more merciful to let Snape die.

Tonks knelt next to Remus, aiding him in his efforts to save Severus' life. Remus wasn't ready yet to give up and doubled his efforts to stop Severus from suffocating. "Poppy, damn it, where the hell are you?"

"I have been busy!" she exclaimed when she joined them. Seeing Snape was her newest patient, she briefly considered withholding her help, but then reminded herself that she had vowed to help all who needed her – even a Headmaster who had cursed his students. Gritting her teeth, she knelt next to Remus and Tonks and did her best to save Snape's life.

/

Harry felt apprehensive upon entering the Headmaster's office. He found it odd that Severus had never changed Albus' password, but then again, most things had turned out odd lately. He retrieved the pensieve and poured the memories into it. After taking a deep breath, he forced himself to watch them.

Lily and Petunia – a boy sitting near a tree – Lily and Severus looking at the sky — his mother being sorted into Gryffindor – James and Sirius bullying Severus – trusting the wrong person – all three of them – Severus' desperate answer 'anything' – his parents dead – Severus vowing to keep him safe at a terrible cost – no one can know – Albus trying on the ring – Severus trying to contain the curse – and their terrible plan – you must be the one to kill me — the despair in Severus' eyes – killing Albus like the Headmaster had wanted and then falling into darkness – being forced the curse the students, but at the same time trying to save them – tampering with Neville's memories – and then hearing that he had to die – the boy must die – seeing Severus' lost expression – Severus regretting not having seen through Albus' plans – this last attempt to tell him – everything.

When Harry pulled away, he felt shocked to the core. He stumbled and had to sit down. He couldn't believe half the things he had seen, and yet, he knew they were true. Albus had raised him so he could die at the proper time. Severus had had a terrible lost expression on his face when he had found out that little detail, which Albus had kept from him for so long. And then Severus' patronus – the doe. The same doe that had led him to Godric's sword. His head spun; Severus had helped him in so many ways and he had never realized it.

Although there had been one moment when he had started to see the truth and that realization had prompted Severus to ask Dumbledore to obliviate their minds. But Dumbledore had cheated – again – and instead of erasing those memories Albus had caught them and confined them to those flasks so they could be returned at the proper moment. Plans within plans – Harry told himself that he should have known there might be more to Severus than met the eye, but they had stopped him from finding out and the reason for Severus to act in that way had been concern.

Harry knew what he had to do – he had to go to the Forbidden Forest to die. Like Severus had accepted his death in that Shack, he had to accept his as well. In the end, it was easier than he had thought.

/

Neville stalked toward Snape, wand at the ready. His hatred, his terrible wrath needed a way out. He didn't understand why they were tending to the monster instead of killing him and that was a wrong he intended to right. Snape had to die, but before he would show mercy, he wanted Snape to suffer like he had. "Crucio!" Neville yelled and threw the curse at Snape with all his remaining power.

Remus had been busy bandaging the worst bite wounds and was knocked down when the curse hit Severus. Shocked, he looked over his shoulder and felt even more stunned when he saw Neville standing there. "Stop it, you are killing him!" Poppy, Tonks, and he had worked hard to keep Severus alive and he wasn't going to let Neville kill him now. "Minerva, stop him!" Neville didn't seem to register his presence though, as the young man was solely focused on Severus. Remus was about to intervene himself – though he would rather not leave Severus' side – when Minerva finally acted.

"Mister Longbottom, stop cursing him immediately!" Minerva understood why Neville was lashing out. Neville had probably been cursed the most by Snape.

Neville stared at his Head of House in disbelief. "How can you say that? He killed Dumbledore! He cursed us! Repeatedly! He terrorized the students!"

Remus called over Poppy again; Severus still trashed on the floor and several wounds threatened to open again. Thankfully the cut on his throat seemed unaffected and remained close. "Fight, Severus, fight, damn it!" Slowly, after what seemed long minutes, Severus relaxed. The tremors stopped and Remus sighed in relief. "Poppy, how much damage did Neville do?"

Neville continued to stare at his former teacher in disbelief. "He's a murderer, Remus! You shouldn't be helping him!" He started for Snape once more, but suddenly Sir Nicholas appeared, side by side with the Bloody Baron. Neville stared at them in shock as more ghosts gathered in the Hall – standing exactly in - between Snape and him. He knew he could walk through them – they couldn't stop him, but merely seeing them halted him in his tracks. Even Rowena Ravenclaw joined them and the group of ghosts stood their ground, forming a protective circle around Snape. "What the hell are you doing?" Neville couldn't control himself any longer. His rage needed out.

"You will not attack your Headmaster, Mister Longbottom," Sir Nicholas said earnestly. "If you try to curse him again, you will force us into action for we won't allow it."

Poppy, Remus, Tonks, Minerva, Kingsley, and even Ron and Hermione who had just entered the Hall froze at hearing those words – or to be more exact, they froze because of the tone which Sir Nicholas had used. They had never heard him speak in such a menacing and serious way before.

"Headmaster?" Neville spat the word in disgust. "He cursed us! He cursed me for hours!"

"Silence!"

All present froze at hearing the booming voice. At first, they couldn't identify its source, but then Remus noticed that one of the largest paintings was occupied again, but this time, two former Headmasters had appeared in it instead of its original inhabitants. "Albus?"

Neville trembled at hearing that name and followed the direction of Remus' stare. Ron and Hermione walked up to their friend and she rested a hand on his arm, trying to calm him down. Instead of looking at her though, Neville stared at the painting.

"Mister Longbottom, control yourself! It was your actions that forced Everard and myself to come here. Don't you think we have more important things to do than subdue your temper tantrum?" Albus shook his head. With Harry entering the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort one last time, they had found themselves distracted when Neville had attacked Severus. "Severus Snape is your Headmaster, foolish boy! Ghosts, house elves and all former Heads of Hogwarts are honour bound to protect him, and even if such a vow didn't bind us, we would stop you anyway!" He paused as his temper was getting the better of him too.

Everard had noticed it and took over. "Your memories have been tampered with, Neville. They are not showing you the truth. Until your memories have been corrected, you should be suspicious of them!"

Neville swallowed hard; the fact that Everard, one of the most renowned Heads of Hogwarts, felt it necessary to address him made him feel humble and ashamed.

"Minerva," Albus said, now that he had calmed down. "I want you to go into my former office. You will find the pensieve out on my desk with memories inside. I want you, Kingsley, Miss Granger and Mister Weasley to watch them – now!" Addressing Remus, he added, "Make sure Severus survives. I worked hard on giving him this chance and I won't have him die after all!"

Remus nodded; he would do his best.

"Now we have other things to do!" Everard stated in a clear voice. "The last stage of this fight is about to begin and I won't allow more of this childish behaviour, Mister Longbottom. Professor McGonagall, proceed to the office…" When he had been Head, discipline had been better! Instead of merely staring at him, his staff would already be carrying out his commands. "Sir Nicholas, keep an eye on our Headmaster, will you?"

The ghost nodded. "I would be honoured to."

Minerva didn't want to leave the Hall, not with so many wounded needing care, but she couldn't deny the order she had been given. She inclined her head at Kingsley and her two students and led them to the Headmaster's office.

Remus blinked when the two Headmasters left the painting again. Nothing like that had ever happened before – two Heads had left the office in order to address them! Severus suddenly shifted beneath his hands and Remus remembered why he was there in the first place. "Poppy…" Hopefully the healer had good news for him, but when he looked at her, she seemed worried.

"The curse weakened him further." She wasn't sure she could help Snape. She was running low on potions and her Hospital Wing was a mess. She couldn't treat her patients the way they ought to be treated in order for them to recover! She could do so little for them!

"Severus?" Remus watched as Severus' eyelids fluttered. Hopefully Severus wasn't waking up. It would be best if the wizard remained unconscious, especially considering the severity of his injuries!

But Severus was waking up. In the depths of his mind he had registered Albus' and Everard's presence and it urged him to find out what had happened. Pain welcomed him to awareness and he gasped at realizing how badly he was hurt. Although he had learned to lock out pain, the agony was almost too much to bear. Looking about, he found himself in what remained of the Great Hall. Immediately Hogwarts reached out to him, informing him of the damage Voldemort had done. He wasn't up to carrying out his duties, not really, but he had no choice and so he issued all necessary commands so Hogwarts could start rebuilding itself. It would be a long and slow process, but Hogwarts' magic was still strong. Start on the Hospital Wing, he instructed, knowing there had to be a large amount of wounded students, maybe even fatalities!

Remus looked up at hearing some strange noise. Suddenly bricks started to fly, glass returned to the windows, and bit by bit, the rumble on the floor started to vanish. Hogwarts was apparently mending itself and it had happened right after Severus had regained consciousness. "You are still Headmaster here." Remus hadn't fully realized that until now. Hearing Neville gasp and then approach, told him the student had realized the same thing.

"Hogwarts still accepts you as its Headmaster," Neville stammered in disbelief. "After everything you did!"

Severus was tired – so very tired and his body hurt so much. Why had Harry saved him? Why hadn't he let him die? It had been his destiny to die – he knew that. "Hogwarts… accepts me… because I did… those things… Someone…had to do… it," he managed, but he doubted anyone would truly understand. Or wanted to understand. Looking Neville in the eye was hard on him. "Without my presence here… The Dark Lord would have… The Carrows would have…" It was to no avail, he simply was too weak to finish any sentences. His head lolled to the side and he was forced to look at Tonks instead. She was a mother now, he recalled, and he was relieved that Remus and she had made it. That little boy deserved to have his parents with him. "Kill me; please… Let me go…please…"

Tonks had never expected Snape to beg her to kill him and she quickly made eye contact with her husband. She didn't know how to react!

"Severus, Albus and Everard appeared when Neville tried to do just that and they stopped him. So, that might tell you that you are supposed to live and not to die!" Remus smiled at seeing the play of emotions on Severus' face. He couldn't remember ever having seen Severus looking that shocked.

"They did what? The… fools…" They shouldn't have interfered! They should have let Neville kill him! That would have solved so many problems!

"Madam Pomfrey! The Hospital Wing! It's… repairing himself!" One of the students came to a halt close to the healer. "We can move the wounded there!"

Poppy found it hard to believe she could be that lucky. Then she recalled that the castle had started repairing itself the moment Snape had woken. "Are you doing this?" she questioned him.

"Doing… what?" Why couldn't they simply kill him? Why did they have to continue to pester him?

"Repairing the castle," Poppy clarified. "The Hospital Wing to be exact."

Severus would have settled for merely nodding, but his throat hurt too much for that. "You need to… be able to… treat the wounded… Will take time… repairing…" He grew quiet again, simply lacking the energy to continue talking. He concentrated on the link as he wanted to know what had happened to Harry, but Harry must have sealed their connection as he couldn't touch the youngster's mind. He could tell Harry was still alive though. He'd had enough time to watch Severus' memories and to make up his mind. I wish you the best of luck, he sent down the link, although he wasn't sure Harry could hear him.

"We will move you to the Hospital Wing," Poppy decided, but she froze when Snape glared at her.

"Others…first…" He refused to take up a bed. The students came first.

"You stubborn man!"

Severus could have done without Minerva screaming at him - again. He still remembered the last time she had yelled at him. He closed his eyes, intent on shutting her out and focusing on Hogwarts instead.

"Severus Snape, look at me, damn it!"

Startled at hearing her actually cuss, he opened his eyes and stared at her. He couldn't remember seeing Minerva that angry before – not even during his reign of terror at Hogwarts. "What do you… want?" He found it hard to identify the emotion in her eyes. At first he had thought it was rage, but now he wasn't so sure anymore.

Minerva drew in a deep breath and knelt next to Severus, absentmindedly wondering why the injured man still rested on the cold stone floor. Remus should have had enough sense to move him or at least put a blanket beneath him. "Albus told me to watch your memories in the pensieve."

Her words startled him. "Albus had no right to…" But Albus had never listened to him before. Albus had always had his own hidden agenda. "Who else?" he questioned, knowing Albus might have told others to watch them too.

"Kingsley, Miss Granger, and Mister Weasley."

It was worse than he had thought then. Albus, you shouldn't have done that. He knew Hogwarts would carry his message to the former Headmaster. You didn't have the right to make that decision! But Albus remained quiet, just as Severus had expected. "Someone… needed… to do what was necessary."

Minerva knew that now – knew that everything Severus had done had been done for a reason. Severus had spent half of his life keeping Harry safe and ensuring Voldemort's downfall. He had led a lonely life and Minerva knew she wouldn't have been able to do the things Severus had done. "We will move you to the Hospital Wing and you will allow Poppy to care for you," she told him sternly. Severus might still be Headmaster, but he was also wounded and she took charge as acting Headmistress. She had been the one to hold that post before the Carrows had relieved her.

"We shall stay with him," Remus offered after exchanging a look with Tonks.

"Excellent, mister Lupin. I entrust our Headmaster to you and your wife then!" She slowly got to her feet. "You should move him – that cold floor will only weaken him further."

Severus closed his eyes when hands started to pull him to his feet. Remus and Tonks were careful and stayed clear of the worst wounds, but Severus still was in agony. He fought to stay awake though.

"Can we help?"

Severus didn't bother opening his eyes; he knew that voice. So Fred Weasley had found him? That meant George would be close too. But he couldn't be bothered to find out. In the end, his body shut down and Severus slipped back into unconsciousness.

Ron was surprised to see his brothers head for Snape. Fred and George had never been fond of their old Potions Master, so what had changed? For him personally, a lot had, after seeing Snape's memories. He felt deeply sorry for the other man and hoped he would make a complete recovery – Snape deserved that. Arthur and Molly hurried after their twins and came to stand next to them, joining them in watching Snape. Ron moved closer too, as he was eager to find out what had happened.

"Actually, yes, you can help," Remus said and beckoned Tonks to make way for Fred – or was it George? "We are moving him to the Hospital Wing."

Fred moved closer, wrapped an arm around Snape, and made sure he had a tight hold on the other wizard. As they made their way to the Hospital Wing, the rest of the Weasley clan followed.

"Care to tell me what this is about?" Remus didn't know what to make of their presence. He welcomed the help, but their worry still struck him as odd.

"He saved my life during the battle," Fred explained. "He hit a Death Eater, who was about to curse me, with the Killing Curse instead. Hadn't it been for Snape, I would be dead."

Remus believed the redhead. Severus had saved him and Tonks as well. It explained why Fred wanted to help and he reckoned the rest of the Weasleys felt indebted as well.

"He saved your life?" Ron stared at Fred, suddenly realizing he could have lost his brother in the attack.

"Yes, he did, mate." Fred nodded."Snape surprised the hell out of me when he appeared like that. I thought he was going to curse me, but instead, he helped."

They had reached the Hospital Wing and Remus was stunned to find that most of the damage had been repaired. Even the beds were back in place. Other injured were also finding their way here, but Remus quickly decided on the bed which was closest to them and together with Fred, he lowered Severus onto it. Looking at the injured man, he found that several wounds had opened again. "Poppy, I need some help in here!"

Madam Pomfrey appeared and promptly shooed Remus and the Weasleys away. Only Tonks was allowed to stay in order to help. Remus knew better than to fight the healer and was about to return to the Great Hall, when one of the paintings in the Great Stairway shuddered and then came alive. Next to him, Arthur gasped in surprise at finding himself eye to eye with Albus Dumbledore.

"Ah, Remus, you are hard to find! I need you to fetch Mister Longbottom and head for my former office. I need you and Mister Longbottom to see the memories in there. Then, you need to undo the changes Severus made to the young man's memory. I need Neville sharp and in control of his emotions as his part in this play hasn't ended yet. Don't stare at me, Remus, get going!"

The next moment, Albus vanished and the painting was empty again. "I hate it when he does that," Remus remarked to no one in particular. It seemed he had to find Neville and make sure his memory was restored.

"We will help you look for him," Arthur said at once. "Come on, boys, spread out and find him!"

/

Neville was sitting next to Luna in the Great Hall when George found him. At once, he called out, "Remus, over here!" Neville looked up, feeling irritated. "Leave me alone!"

"Sorry, can't do that, Neville. I am following Dumbledore's orders. You are to come with me. Apparently we need to go to the Headmaster's office."

"I don't want to see Snape ever again!" Neville stubbornly stared into the distance. Ruin and wreckage was all he saw.

"Neville," Remus said as he bent down and placed a hand on the young man's shoulder. "Severus is at the Hospital Wing. The Headmaster's office is empty." That seemed to sway Neville and the young man slowly got to his feet. Remus offered Neville a soft smile. He had known Neville when he had been a child and now that boy had become a man. "Come with me." Neville fell into step with him, and when they reached the entrance to the office, the statue moved out of its own accord. Remus peeked at Neville. "Have you ever been down here before?"

Neville shook his head and took in his surroundings. Harry had told him what the Headmaster's office looked like, but he had never seen it before. It looked even more impressive than he thought.

"Come closer… The pensieve is over there… And hurry, will you?"

Neville blinked. "Who?" He looked at the wall and realized one portrait was watching him closely – that of Phineas Nigellus Black. That realization made him nervous.

"Don't waste my time, boy. Remus, the pensieve, now!"

Neville exchanged a look with Remus. "I am glad it is only him in here." Neville shivered. "Consider what it would be like if the other former Heads were around too."

"Severus calls it mayhem, but then again, he has been under some pressure lately. Now get moving." Phineas was growing irritated and damned Albus for giving him this task. It was time Severus woke and took charge of the situation! He hated it when Albus bossed him around!

Remus failed to hide a smile. He could very well imagine Severus trying to shut Phineas up. He noticed the pensieve and in it were Severus' swirling memories. "Neville, have you ever done this before?

Neville shook his head. "I know what a pensieve is, but I have never seen one before—until now. What's that? In it?"

"Memories, you foolish boy! Now put your face in it and let's get this over with," Phineas Black sneered. They were wasting time.

"Whose memories?" Neville turned toward the portrait.

"Well, Severus', of course! He left them for Harry to view, but it seems Dumbledore wants you to see them too," Black explained.

Neville hesitated; he had no desire to view Snape's memories, but then Remus took hold of his hand and squeezed.

"We will do this together… Yes?" Remus offered. Once he knew what to look for he could restore Neville's memory.

Neville still hesitated, but realized this was important enough for former Heads to meddle. So he nodded and slowly lowered his face into the memories. Remus followed his example and allowed Severus' memories to wash over them.

Phineas kept an eye on the two of them, but also reached out to find out how the current Headmaster was doing. Severus was still unconscious and Black hoped Snape would wake up shortly. Hogwarts needed its Headmaster alert. When Neville and Remus withdrew from the pensieve, he saw the changed expression on the student's face. Neville looked shaken to the core, while Remus seemed calm and controlled.

Neville stumbled and leaned against the desk for support. He was trying hard to reconcile his own memories with the ones he had seen in the pensieve. Had he misjudged the man?

Remus' head spun after witnessing everything Severus had been through and realized he finally held all pieces to the puzzle the Potions Master had presented throughout the years. He felt sorry for everything Severus had had to endure.

"Help me understand," Neville pleaded. "Is it true that he never wanted to curse any of the students? He looked toward Remus for an answer, but when it came, it was Dumbledore who supplied it.

"My dear boy, Severus tried to protect you the best he could, but he had to act his part."

Neville, and Remus as well, stared at the portrait of their former Headmaster.

"Trust me when I say he suffered along with you. He never wanted to inflict any pain on you, and each time the Carrows cursed you and your fellow students, Severus tried to stop them. At times, he was forced to curse the students too, but he picked those students carefully. He could have selected first years instead." Albus stopped talking to let them grasp the full extent of his words.

Neville swallowed nervously. "Is it true that he felt… our pain?"

Albus nodded. "I am going to let you in on a secret, Neville, and you too, Remus. Hogwarts is an entity in itself— very powerful and always alert. The moment Hogwarts accepts a Headmaster, a connection is formed. They become part of each other. That is why the Headmaster can apparate within these walls… Hogwarts views him as a part of itself. It supplies the Headmaster with all information he needs – it also tells him when a student is lost, in pain, or in danger."

"That's why you always knew who was close!" Remus had always wondered about that.

"That's only one of many privileges," Albus admitted. "Hogwarts understood why Severus acted that way – it allied itself with him in order to protect the students – plus, it admires Severus' courage."

"You make it sound like Hogwarts is alive," Remus said puzzled.

"Oh, but it is alive, Remus. Hogwarts is very much alive! It's a thinking and evolving entity, and right now, it's doing everything it can to serve its Headmaster in whatever way possible. Severus asked it to repair the Hospital Wing and so it set out to do that." Albus found he was actually enjoying himself explaining it to them and therefore ignored the displeased growl coming from Phineas. "How do you think it is possible for us to communicate with you? We became a part of Hogwarts the moment it accepted us as Head."

Neville still had a hard time accepting everything and Albus noticed that. "Remus, you need to undo the changes Severus made to Neville's memory." After having seen Remus nod, he addressed Neville again. "At that time it was important you believed Severus tortured you. You must know that the Carrows scanned your thoughts regularly and had they encountered any proof of Severus caring for you, they would have reported that to the Dark Lord. I don't need to explain to you what repercussions Severus would have faced in such a case?" Neville had grown pale during his little speech, which told Albus the young man understood. "Voldemort would have killed Severus. Had that happened, Hogwarts would have lost its Headmaster and would have become paralyzed. The Carrows could have done as they had pleased and there would have been no one to spy on Voldemort."

Remus cocked his head. "Albus…"

"Of course! Don't be stupid, Remus! Of course we discussed his actions. Not just me, but all Heads were involved! We planned every move very carefully." Albus grew saddened then. "We helped him pick the strongest students so that when he had to curse them, Severus would do little damage…" Albus' voice grew softer then, "It damaged Severus' soul though."

Neville made up his mind and walked up to Remus. He looked his former teacher in the eye and said, "Do it." He wanted his memories back— his real memories.

Remus cast a quick look at Albus, caught him nod, and then drew in a deep sigh. He was no expert at this. They should have picked Tonks instead. "I will try…"

Ten minutes later, he retreated from Neville's mind. In the end, it had been relatively easy to find the memories which had been tampered with. It had taken him a few minutes to find out how to restore them, but that too proved easy since he knew what he was looking for. He took a step away from Neville and watched the young man blink in wonder.

Neville trembled when all memories moved into their rightful place, finally offering him the truth – and the truth was not what he had thought it was. The truth was that Snape had tried to stop the Carrows several times. Severus had acted like he had wanted to curse him in person, but when he did, the pain had always lessened, and the moment the Carrows had left, Snape had hurried to check on him. Snape had given him a strengthening potion on several occasions. One series of memories shook him up rather hard. Once more remembering the talk they'd had when they had been sitting on that bench and Snape had watched it snow. Then, setting up the experiment in the classroom and giving him access to his private notes.

"He removed that experiment when he returned with the Carrows," and Neville understood why. Had the Carrows found out what Snape had been working on, and that Neville had helped him, they would have reported it to the Dark Lord. Neville closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath which would hopefully calm him down. Snape had gone to great lengths to hide all signs of betrayal.

"Neville? You look like you are about to keel over," Remus said concerned. "Maybe you should sit down."

"No," Neville said, finding his resolve again. "I don't want to sit down!" What he really wanted was to get some revenge – he wanted Voldemort, and Nagini in particular to pay for causing such pain. He shivered, remembering the snake had bitten Snape in order to kill him. That snake was his to kill!

/

Harry knew that with each step which took him deeper into the Forbidden Forest, he took one step closer to his death. Although his mother had reminded him that he carried his loved ones in his heart, and that he wasn't alone, that thought didn't offer him as much comfort as he had hoped it would. The truth was that he wasn't thinking of his parents or Sirius anymore. In the back of his mind another presence begged to be acknowledged. Severus was reaching out to him, but Harry kept the connection sealed off. Until now, he had never fully understood the dangers that came with caring too much, by allowing himself to be distracted. He no longer blamed Severus for asking Albus to erase their memoires. He finally understood that such focus demanded solitude. However, he did find a measure of comfort in knowing that Severus was thinking of him.

Walking up to Voldemort was easier than he had thought. He barely listened to what the Dark Lord had to say. Instead, he remembered how brave Severus had been when he had walked toward his death. Severus had known he would die when entering that Shack and he hadn't wavered. Severus had stood his ground and had let death take him. Hopefully he would find the courage to go to his death equally dignified. When the Killing curse hit him Harry collapsed onto the moist forest ground.

/

Severus thrashed on the bed and Tonks immediately moved closer. "Poppy!" she called out, but the healer was nowhere in sight—too many wounded students needed her attention. Tonks realized it was up to her to find out what was wrong and how to calm Snape. She edged away from the bed when Snape suddenly sat upright and stared at the wall with a look in his eyes which actually scared her. It was totally empty – blank. Although she had never liked Snape, she knew she had to do something.

In the end, she caught one of his trembling hands in hers and stroked the skin in what was hopefully a soothing motion. Maybe the physical contact would snap Snape out of it. When it didn't, Tonks moved closer still and sat down on the bed. Wondering how to address him, she cringed, and then said, "Severus!" She had heard Remus call him that and Snape back then, he had responded to his name.

Severus shook violently and then bowed his head in defeat. "Everything… for nothing… All is lost." He fell back onto the mattress and stared at the ceiling.

"Severus? What happened?" His pained tone worried her and she tried to catch his gaze in an attempt to do away with the distraught expression in those black eyes.

"He is dead, Tonks… Harry is dead." He turned his head slightly, ignoring the pain the movement brought with it. "Voldemort killed him."

Tonks stared at him in shock. "You had a bad dream – a nightmare. You can't possibly know what happened! Or can you?"

Severus closed his eyes. He was aware of her holding his hand, but he couldn't be bothered pulling away. All was lost. Nothing mattered anymore. Lily's son – the only proof that she had ever lived- was dead. "Voldemort killed him."

"How can you be so damn sure?" When he looked at her again, she flinched at seeing the anguish in his eyes.

"Harry and I share a link… It was never meant to come into existence… But it happened years ago." Severus wondered what to do next. Now that Harry was dead, he was at a loss. He had always hoped that Harry would find a way out – that the boy would survive. "The Dark Lord will come back here in order to gloat," he said, finding it hard to think rationally. "You need to leave, Tonks… You need to run."

"I am not running!" she stated firmly. She had never known he cared that much about Harry!

"Teddy needs you alive, Tonks… not dead."

His words cut through her very soul. She would never live to see Teddy grown up then. But at least her son knew she loved him! "I never knew you worried about Teddy." She hadn't even fully realized he knew about her son. Remus had never told her that he had mentioned Teddy to Snape.

"You don't know much about me to begin with," Severus whispered, growing fatigued once more. The pain that coursed through his body was already pulling him under. "Tonks, leave… Flee this place… Your son needs his mother!"

Tonks watched Snape slip back into unconsciousness. She was really going to have a talk with her husband, providing they survived.

/

Harry knew Dumbledore was right; he had to return. He wasn't finished yet. Voldemort was still alive and that damned snake of his –the last Horcrux- had to die as well. Not just because it was a Horcrux, but mostly because of what it had done to Severus. And so he decided to board the train and to return to the land of the living.

/

Harry felt grateful that Narcissa Malfoy hadn't betrayed him to Voldemort. She desperately wanted to ensure Draco's safety and was willing to play along in order to get her son back. The fact that she loved Draco definitely worked to Harry's advantage. Pretending to be dead was difficult for him. Hagrid's tears tasted salty when they dripped onto his face. Hagrid, I am sorry… I never meant to hurt you. But he couldn't reveal himself yet.

When he suddenly heard Neville's voice, Harry realized they had returned to Hogwarts, just as he had hoped. His friends would aid him in this last battle and he wouldn't have to fight it alone.

"You are wrong! Harry's heart did beat for us! For all of us! And it's not over!"

That was the moment he had been waiting for! Sliding from Hagrid's arms, Harry landed on the ground and raised his wand in order to attack Voldemort. "Confringo!" he called out and aimed the attack at the snake. He had to get back to his friends, had to make his last stand side by side with them! He blinked though, wondering if he was hallucination. Had Neville really pulled the Sword of Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat? Yes, he had!

Harry fought his way over to his friends and called out, "We have to kill the snake!"

Neville reacted at once— that snake was his! But when he moved forward a blast hit him and knocked him off his feet.

/

"Severus, no! You can't leave the bed!" Tonks was growing desperate. A moment ago, Severus had been asleep, and now the wizard was trying to climb out of bed. Severus still lacked the necessary strength though, and she barely managed to stop him from falling onto the floor. Where was Remus when she needed him?

"You don't understand!" He was panting hard, already breathless after moving about for only a minute. "He's back!"

"Who's back?" She wished he would stop confusing her.

"Harry!"

Tonks' eyes widened. "I thought you said he had died!"

"Yes, but he's back… Albus is still meddling, even from beyond the veil!" Severus desperately tried to get to his feet, but his head kept spinning and something warm was starting to flow down his chest.

"Stop moving, damn it! You're bleeding again!" She pressed a cloth against the wound and called for Poppy. This time the healer did appear, and Tonks had never felt more relieved as when Poppy took charge, actually casting a spell to make Severus go to sleep again.

"What happened? Oh my, he's bleeding again! Not good – not good," she muttered.

Tonks let Poppy handle Severus and collapsed onto her chair. She hoped her husband would show up soon, because she simply didn't know how to handle Severus!

/

When Neville regained consciousness, he still felt disorientated, but at the same time, he knew what he had to do. He had to kill that accursed snake!

/

Ron and Hermione ran down the stairs with Nagini at their heels. They tried casting spells in order to stop the monster, but nothing worked. They knew they couldn't outrun the monster much longer! Nagini would kill them!

Neville stepped forward and cut off Nagini's head with one smooth stroke. The Sword in his hands seemed to vibrate with life and he could swear he heard it sing in victory. Dark smoke escaped from the monster's body and in those dark swirls, he thought he saw the faces of her victims. "Done," he announced proudly. He had accomplished his personal mission.

/

Severus stirred in his sleep when the snake died. Poppy's spell had made him go to sleep, but his subconscious stirred and he deepened the connection with Hogwarts, allowing his mind to travel when his body couldn't. It was Neville Longbottom who had killed the damn snake and Severus sensed the young man's pride at having severed her head from her body. Thank you, Neville… You did well. Your parents would have been proud of you… I certainly am. He kept his thoughts to himself though, not wanting to upset Neville.

"Severus? Severus!"

Was that Remus' voice he heard? Poppy lifted the spell and Severus managed to claw his way back to awareness. Yes, it had been Remus after all. The werewolf, Tonks, and Poppy looked at him in concern, though he had no idea why.

"We need to stop the bleeding! Make sure he doesn't move! I don't want to put him under a spell again," Poppy announced.

Blood dripped from the bite marks Nagini had left behind and Severus realized it was some sort of after effect of her death – she was trying to pull him with her in death.

/

Harry knew he finally stood a chance now that Nagini was dead. Counting on the Elderwand to protest serving Voldemort, he doubled his efforts. Feeling empowered, he watched the Elderwand fly towards him and he caught it – easily - as he was the wand's rightful owner. He savoured seeing the shock in Voldemort's eyes, and when the dark wizard realized that he had been defeated, Harry allowed himself to relax. He watched closely as Tom Riddle started to dissolve – losing bits and pieces of himself until there was nothing left of him.

He had won. He had defeated Voldemort and there was no way Tom Riddle would ever set foot on this earth again. It was over. The nightmare had come to an end!

/

Harry saw Neville first. His friend was still holding onto the Sword of Gryffindor and he called out in relief upon seeing him. "He's dead, Neville! It's over!" He grabbed Neville's shoulders, as he needed the contact and smiled at his friend. "We did it, Neville! You killed the snake and I took care of Voldemort! We make a good team!"

The next moment he barely managed to stay on his feet as Ron and Hermione wrapped him up in an embrace. "Yes, it is good to be back!" he called out. Only recently, he had thought he would never see them again. "I am fine! I really am," he repeated when Hermione continued to check him over, patting his back and giving him calculated looks.

"Mister Potter! It is good to have you back!" Minerva walked up to her student and smiled at him. "You did a good job."

"I had help!" Harry said and looked at his friends. "I couldn't have done this without you!" It was the truth—they had pulled him through. Arthur and Molly joined them too, and Harry patiently endured the tight hug she gave him. "I am fine," he repeated, hoping it would calm her down. Then Ginny walked up to him, wrapped him up in her arms, and kissed him. Harry actually blushed, realizing Fred, George, Bill, and even Ron were looking at him. Arthur chuckled and that broke the tension. Relieved, Harry offered a weak smile and Ginny kissed him again. Harry then sobered. "Where's Severus?"

Minerva rested her hand on his shoulder before answering him. "Poppy moved him to the Hospital Wing. The last time she contacted me, she said his life was still in danger."

Harry's heart beat a faster rhythm at hearing that. "I need to see him."

"I will take you there," Minerva offered. She felt grateful that the two of them would have a chance to talk. Even if Severus died due to his injuries, they would have closure.

"I will see you later, Ginny." Harry pressed a kiss onto her hand. He had to focus when speaking to Severus and she would distract him.

"Can I come along, Harry? I need to talk to him too." Neville desperately needed to talk to the man now that he knew the truth about Snape.

Harry considered Neville's request and then nodded. Yes, Neville and Severus had unfinished business too.

/

Harry was grateful to see Remus and Tonks sitting with Severus. He wasn't sure it was possible, but Severus looked even worse than when they had returned to the castle. "What happened?" Harry moved closer to the bed and cringed at seeing the fresh bloodstains on the bandages.

"When Nagini died," Remus started, equally relieved at seeing Harry alive and well, "his wounds opened again."

Neville flinched; he had been the one to kill the snake. "I am sorry for that."

Remus however, quickly intervened. "You didn't know that would happen and Neville, killing Nagini had to be done." Making an educated guess, he added, "I can't imagine Severus blaming you for that."

"Has he been conscious at all?" Harry gripped the foot end of the bed and wished Severus would wake up that moment.

"Yes," Tonks supplied. "Twice actually." She wasn't sure she should tell Harry though. "The first time was when you died."

Harry gasped. "He sensed that? But I kept the link shut!" He had done his best to make sure none of his emotions reached Severus!

"He did," Tonks assured Harry. "And then he woke again when you came back to us."

Harry felt relieved at hearing that. He had been afraid Severus was still under the impression that Voldemort had killed him.

"He tried to get out of bed, but he was too weak for that. When the snake died, his wounds started to bleed again and Poppy had to intervene." Tonks also recalled how Severus had begged her to leave Hogwarts and to join Teddy instead. These last few hours, which she had spent sitting with Severus, had taught her a great deal about the man. Severus shivered, and she tucked the blanket closer around him. The next moment, Severus' eyes opened, and as he was looking at her, she offered him a smile. "You have visitors," she announced, hoping he was strong enough for this.

Severus knew who was in the room with him. Hogwarts had whispered the names to him. Carefully, as the skin on his throat was rather tight, he managed to turn his head so he could look at Harry and Neville. He had expected Harry to seek him out, but not Neville – not after all the things he had done to the young man. Therefore, he kept his gaze trained on Harry and stayed clear of Neville. "You won," he managed in a raspy voice.

"We won," Harry said, correcting him at once. "I couldn't have done it on my own." Harry walked closer to the bed until he stood only a few inches away. He had been glad when Poppy had told him that Severus was out of the woods, but he realized it would take Severus a long time to fully recover from the ordeal he had been through. He understood the older wizard so much better after viewing those memories. I will return them to you, he promised, sending the words down the link they shared. Severus' eyes widened, and Harry sensed the wizard's surprise at the connection being open again.

Thank you, Severus replied, though he wasn't sure it still mattered. He had a different question though, but his instincts told him he couldn't ask Harry that – not yet – maybe never. Why had Harry chosen to save him? To give him the breath of Life? He should have saved someone else instead. His life wasn't worth saving!

Harry couldn't ignore Severus' troubled thoughts when the link offered him a peek at them. Harry sat down on the side of the bed and simply looked at Severus for a long moment. For the first time, he saw Severus the way he really was; there was no act, no pretence, and no arrogance. And what he saw surprised him. It made him reach for Severus' hand and gently gather it in his. His hand was relatively small compared to Severus' and that observation made him chuckle.

Severus stared at Harry, still trying to understand why the youngster would take his hand in his. Harry's thoughts didn't make much sense either, and realizing he had been peeking, he withdrew.

"No," Harry said upon sensing the retreat. "You don't have to leave. I told you before that I am fine with this link."

Severus wanted to object, but Harry's thoughts told him the same thing. The youngster didn't mind being connected with him in that way. Why, was still beyond him though.

"When Dumbledore left us the flask containing the breath of Life, he also said that we would know when to use it. It wasn't just my decision that you should drink it. Hermione, Ron, and I agreed on that. The three of us wanted you to live." Harry smiled upon seeing Severus' stunned expression. "Dumbledore said that some deaths were necessary and yours was, as it provided me with your memories, but he also said that some deaths were pointless… Yours was anything but pointless. I know that you wanted to atone for things that happened in the past." And then, a startling realization hit him. "And you did. You died for your mistakes. Maybe you had to die in order to start anew. You paid for everything in full. Severus, you died. Now you need to let go of that guilt."

"You have no idea what you are talking about," Severus managed, although Harry's words made him uneasy. "I delivered part of that prophecy to Voldemort. I am the reason he killed your parents."

Harry drew in a deep breath and hoped the others would back him up if necessary. "Voldemort is dead, Severus. Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord, no matter what you call him, is gone… That part of your past is done with!"

Remus, having noticed Severus' unease, wondered if he should offer his opinion too. In the end, he did. "Harry's right, Severus. You died… Voldemort is gone – that past is gone. It is time to start all over again."

Severus however slowly shook his head and ignored the stinging pain that shot through his throat. "I did more than that… I cursed the students here… I hurt them and—"

Neville had been quiet up until that point, but now he spoke up. "And you tampered with my memories so it would seem you had done your worst. Remus explained to me why you did it, and rationally speaking, I understand. But emotionally… You made me hate you."

"You hated me from the start, Mister Longbottom," Severus pointed out to him. His eyes slipped shut every so often and it was getting harder to concentrate on their conversation.

"We should let him rest," Tonks said. "He's still very weak."

"In a moment," Neville said in a firm voice. "But first, I want you to listen to me." He moved over to Snape's other side and made sure the wizard was looking at him and not at Harry before he continued. "You made sure I hated you. You made sure Harry hated you right from the start! I am right and you know it!"

"It was easier that way." Severus hadn't wanted to admit that, but this fatigue was making it hard to think straight.

"On us, not on you." Neville weighed his next words carefully. "Remus restored my memories. You also hid the fact from me that we talked that winter day. Remember that one? You told me you were still working on a cure for my parents. The next day you had moved your experiment into the classroom and I was trying hard to decipher your handwriting." Seeing a smile form on Severus' face surprised him, but he welcomed it. "Why did you hide that memory too?"

"I couldn't take the risk…" Severus closed his eyes, losing the fight to stay awake. "Had the Dark Lord seen…"

Neville didn't need to hear the rest. He knew what Severus had wanted to say. Now that his memory had been restored a lot about Snape finally made sense. "Can I sit with him for a while? I am sure you are tired and want some rest," he said, addressing Remus and Tonks.

Tonks gave him a grateful nod. "Thanks, Neville, I would like that very much. I am tired…" Others had fought all day, but she had merely sat with Severus. Still, she felt more exhausted than Remus looked. The two of them walked toward the doorway, and after a moment's thought, Harry joined them.

"Keep an eye on him," Harry said, realizing Neville needed a moment alone with Severus. He had a good idea what his friend was going through. He had experienced that same rollercoaster ride of emotions when the three of them had discovered Severus in that corridor after he had been cursed by Voldemort. Apparently, it was now Neville's turn to learn that Severus wasn't the evil persona he had portrayed.

/

Headmaster…

Hogwarts stirred in his mind and Severus forced himself to wake up and pay attention. Hopefully nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Headmaster, strangers have arrived and are headed here. The new Minister of Magic and several Aurors are on their way to see you.

That was out of the ordinary and rather bad news, he was afraid. Ever since finding himself alive instead of dead, he had wondered when they would show up and take him to Azkaban, for there was no doubt in his mind that they would put him on trial and then punish him for his crimes. The fact that he was still bedridden vexed him, but he rather faced them lying down on the bed then collapsed on the floor. He wouldn't run – Hogwarts was actually suggesting he hid himself! – but he ignored that. In his current state he wouldn't last long in Azkaban at any rate!

"You can't go in there! I don't care who you are!"

Brave Poppy! The fact that she was trying to stop them earned her even more respect in his eyes. She shouldn't endanger herself though. Suddenly the door opened and several people entered the room. He kept his eyes shut, trying to gather his courage – or what was left of it – and then opened them. He blinked a second time; surprised to see Kingsley, Arthur Weasley, Tonks, and an auror he didn't know stand next to his bed. He would have preferred being taken away by strangers instead.

"Severus Snape," Kingsley said. "Are you Headmaster of Hogwarts?"

At hearing that question, Severus felt Hogwarts itself grow angry. He tightened his control- it wouldn't do if the castle decided to drop some stones or fling bricks at them. "I am." Next to him, someone stirred. He hadn't realized that Neville was still there. The young man had apparently fallen asleep on the chair next to him. He hoped Neville wouldn't wake up. "I reckon you are here to take me to Azkaban and to try me for my crimes?" It was best to make it easy on them. He lacked the strength to fight his arrest and the anger that reached him through his connection with Hogwarts started to worry him. He had never realized that Hogwarts could react that emotionally. "I will come along willingly… I am not sure I can walk though."

The quicker he left, the less time Hogwarts had to come up with something like a real plan. He pushed back the covers and flinched when cold air swept over his still sore skin. He hadn't realized Nagini had bit him that often. She had even burrowed her fangs in the Dark Mark, which had become unrecognizable because of it. Severus noticed Kingsley step up to the bed; was the wizard worried he might try to escape after all? The fool! Just look at the condition he was in!

"No, you are not taking him!"

Severus looked up in surprise. Neville had practically screamed those words at Kingsley. "Calm yourself, Mister Longbottom," he said in what hopefully resembled his best drawling teacher's tone. "They have every right to take me and I do not intend to fight them over it." Worried, Severus noticed the way Neville's fingers closed over the hilt of Godric's Sword. It surprised him that the Sword chose to stay.

"I said no. You are not taking him to Azkaban!" Neville had gotten to his feet and was about to raise his sword in order to defend Snape. It was all instincts on his part. He hadn't given the matter any thought. His honour demanded he defended the wounded wizard who had sacrificed so much in order to make sure Harry could destroy Voldemort. "Professor Snape stays where he is!"

Severus felt deeply touched at hearing the concern in Neville's voice. There was anger too, but it was out of concern that Neville was defending him. For the first time in years, he wasn't sure how to proceed. Neville's state of mind was fragile and he didn't want the young man to act rashly. Maybe it would be best to send for Poppy so she could calm him down and then talk Neville into leaving the room.

"Neville! Calm down!" Arthur was the first to shake off his stupor. "We are not here to take Severus to Azkaban!"

"You are not?" Neville questioned suspiciously. It was rather obvious that he didn't believe them and he kept his sword raised in warning.

Severus felt equally mystified. Why else would they be here, if not to take him to Azkaban? Or maybe it was just a ploy to ensure Neville settled down? But Arthur Weasley didn't strike him as a man who would tell lies just in order to calm down Neville.

"We are here to relay a message from the Wizengamot," Kingsley said, hoping he was getting through to Neville. He knew the things the young man had gone through. He also knew what Neville was capable of, especially after hearing how Neville had killed Nagini, but seeing Neville actually come to Severus' defence still surprised him. But then he reminded himself that Remus had restored Neville's memory. That might explain it.

"What kind of message?" Severus rested his back against the pillows upon realizing he might not have to leave the bed after all. Kingsley then shot him a strange look and Severus could have sworn he saw embarrassment in those eyes.

"Albus told me to view your memories, Severus."

Ah, that explained the awkwardness Kingsley currently displayed. Had he been conscious at the time, Severus would have forbidden it and Albus had known it. That was why the wizard had moved that quickly. "That cannot have been a pleasant experience," he drawled.

"No, it wasn't, but for a different reason than you probably think, Severus."

Severus frowned upon realizing that Kingsley had called him that twice already. What had happened to being called Snape instead?

"I shared my findings with the Wizengamot, and let me assure you, they did want to arrest you the moment they found out you had survived!" Kingsley had come to Severus' defence then, telling them what had really happened. The Wizengamot had been sceptic at first, but then Remus had stepped forward and had confirmed Kingsley's claims.

"I can't blame them," Severus commented in a clipped voice. This conversation tired him. "Why are you here, Kingsley?" He wanted this over with. "And Mister Longbottom, you are still pointing that sword at the new Minister of Magic. I suggest you lower it."

"How did you know..?" As far as Kingsley could tell, there was no way Severus could know about his promotion.

"I have my ways," Severus said, not wanting to disclose the truth about Hogwarts to Kingsley. "Longbottom, lower the bloody sword!" he stated again, this time louder. It amused him when Neville actually gave him a hesitant look. "I said, lower it!"

"Yes, Headmaster," Neville said through gritted teeth.

Severus suppressed a flinch at being called that. "Minister, say what you need to say and when it doesn't involve me going to Azkaban, leave me alone." He wasn't in the mood to be played with.

Kingsley actually cheered up at hearing the familiar sneer. "The Wizengamot has decided against charging you. There will be quite an extensive investigation of your involvement in this war, but you are no longer considered a threat."

Severus blinked at hearing that. He hadn't expected it. No matter how much he hated knowing others had viewed his memories, it seemed to spare him from being incarcerated in Azkaban. He did hate the prison and shivered at remembering having been imprisoned there before.

Suddenly the door opened and Minerva marched inside. "Kingsley, what is the meaning of this? I told you that Severus is in no condition to have visitors!"

Severus relaxed when he realized he was safe once more. No Azkaban for him this time. Instead, he could stay at Hogwarts for now and recover.

"I just thought you wanted to know, Severus," Kingsley said. He might have made a mistake in judgment. He had been so eager to tell Severus the good news that he had forgotten how weak the other man still was. He had also been foolish to disregard the way his visit might be interpreted. "I am sorry if I made the wrong impression," he offered. "I didn't mean to scare or worry anyone."

Severus recognized the apology for what it was and nodded. He wished they would go away though – all of them, as he needed to rest.

"Out! Out with all of you!" Poppy announced as she sailed into the room, already shoving them outside.

"Poppy, can I have a moment with Severus?" Tonks wanted to ask Severus something. Poppy considered her request and then nodded.

"Mister Longbottom, out with you too!" Minerva said. The pallor on Neville's face worried her. That young man needed food and rest and he wouldn't get that while keeping watch in here!

"But…" Neville didn't want to leave Snape. Not yet.

"Mister Longbottom," Severus said, addressing the young man. "Listen to your Head of House." He could tell Neville wanted to object and so he added, "Please, Neville." He knew best what would work with the distressed student. And so Neville nodded, just as he had expected, and followed Minerva out of the room. That left him alone with Tonks, another undesirable situation, but one he might easier deal with. "What is it, Nymphadora?" He used her name on purpose, hoping it would make her angry, so she would turn around and march out of the room. His plan didn't work though, as she sat down on a chair next to the bed instead.

Tonks refrained from correcting Severus. Remus and she had discussed Severus in detail and he had warned her not to allow Severus to sidetrack her. It was a good thing that she knew what she wanted to say. "Remus and I want to ask you something."

Severus startled at the serious note to her voice. Had some disaster struck? He hoped not. Maybe Remus needed more of his potion? "I will supply more, Tonks, It's not a problem. Tell Remus that the potion will be delivered to him within the next few days."

"Thank you," Tonks said in surprise. "But I wanted to ask you something quite different." Remus had told her that there was a side to Severus she hadn't seen yet and she believed him. All it took was some getting used to.

"What else can there be?" Severus frowned and wished he would feel more alert. He was still recovering – unfortunately – and didn't feel up to more games.

"You know about Teddy, don't you?" she started, carefully watching him.

"Remus mentioned him." Actually he had also gathered more information on their son and found that the boy lived with his grandmother, Andromeda, and was well taken care of. "I hope that he is well?" He knew Teddy had inherited Tonks' gifts and not Remus'. The boy wasn't a werewolf.

He surprised her again by worrying about her son. "Teddy's fine. He's living with my mother as we didn't want to drag him into the war." A war which was over and had been won. Severus had greatly contributed to that victory, she reminded herself. Severus' eyes started to close and she knew she had to be quick if she wanted to ask him. "Remus and I talked last night. Because of the war we didn't get around to finding Teddy a godfather. We first thought of Harry." She wanted to continue, but when Severus spoke, she paused.

"Harry is an excellent choice." Was she keeping him awake for that? She shouldn't be in need of his reassurance. "He will do well." And now, he hoped she would leave him alone so he could sleep.

"I said, at first we thought of Harry." Tonks was actually beginning to enjoy herself. Severus seemed to grow alert again, but she knew it wouldn't last. "Then we decided on someone else."

Severus just wished she would finally speak her mind. "I am sure that whoever you pick as Teddy's godfather will do a good job." Hopefully that would settle her mind and make her leave.

Tonks chuckled. "It is good to hear you agree! I believe that you will do a great job, Severus. You will make a good godfather." She watched him closely, eager to see the expression in his eyes when he realized what she had just said.

Severus stared at her in shock. She couldn't have said what he thought she had said!

"Yes, we want you to be Teddy's godfather. I do hope you will accept." She smiled warmly at him. "Remus is with Teddy right now, but we will visit shortly so you can meet your godson."

No one had asked him such a thing before and why would they? But now that Tonks was asking him to be her son's godfather, he felt at a loss. "Tonks, I am flattered, but…"

Tonks frowned and moved closer in an attempt to read Severus' expression. "Did I really hear you say 'but'?" She had expected him to be happy – not to look like he was about to be send to Azkaban after all.

"You should ask Harry instead. He will make a good godfather… I won't."

Tonks nodded, finally understanding what was going on in his head. "I understand that you are nervous, but Severus, we want you – not Harry."

Severus swallowed nervously. "You shouldn't do that to your son."

Tonks prayed for patience. She knew what Severus had been through as Remus had told her about Severus' memories. In the past, Severus had always avoided growing attached to anyone. It was time to change that though. "Severus, we want you as Teddy's godfather," she repeated, "because we know he will be safe with you should anything happen to Remus or me. You will protect him. You shall love him. You care about Harry, and Neville as well, don't deny it! I saw your concern when he wanted to attack Kingsley!" Tonks smiled at recalling Neville openly confronting them. "Neville might not realize it yet, but he cares about you too. I know it is a big mess, but everything will sort itself out. Promise me that you will give my request some thought and don't say no until you have met Teddy." She counted on her son to work some magic where Severus was concerned.

"I will consider it," Severus whispered in defeat. He knew Tonks would put up a fight over this. He still thought they were making a mistake by asking him, but for the moment, she wouldn't accept him denying her.

"That's great! I will tell Remus what you said and we will let you know when we will visit! I expect you to be busy rebuilding Hogwarts! But that doesn't mean it will take us years to visit!" Tonks thought that giving Severus a few weeks to recover would do. She planned to return here within a month's time with Remus and Teddy in tow.

/

Night had already fallen when Severus woke up again. The window showed a starlit sky and he couldn't remember the stars ever shining more brightly. Maybe even the heavens felt relieved now that Voldemort was gone. Severus shifted on the bed and quickly realized he would be in serious pain if he continued to move about. Even though he hated being confined to bed, he would have to stay put if he wanted to recover from his injuries.

It was odd; he had wanted to give up not so long ago, and now he found himself wondering if he shouldn't concentrate on going on living instead. Although Voldemort was gone, Hogwarts needed rebuilding, Harry might want him about and then there was Tonks, asking him to be Teddy's godfather. That was something he had never expected to happen. And there was someone else as well he had to look after – someone he owed a debt he might never be able to repay.

Neville Longbottom. Now there was a young man who truly confused him. Severus had manipulated him on more than occasion, had tampered with his memories, had cursed him, and yet, Neville had defended him against Kingsley earlier that day. Why though? He couldn't figure it out for the life of him. Neville ought to hate him, but the young man worried about him instead.

"Why are you awake, Severus?" Poppy stood in the doorway and watched her patient with concern. "You should try to sleep instead." She briefly considering casting a spell, or giving him a sleeping potion, but she didn't want him to feel coerced. Severus Snape had earned the freedom to make his own decisions.

"Poppy…" Severus managed to elbow himself into an upright position and shifted the pillows so he could rest against them.

Poppy made her way into the room and sat down on the chair next to him. He looked marginally better, for which she felt grateful. She hadn't been sure she would be able to keep him alive at one point. Nagini's poison would linger in his system for weeks, but eventually lose its sting. The cut that marred his throat was also beginning to heal. She didn't dare think about the emotional scars Severus had carried away from this war. She waved her wand and summoned some tea. Seeing the look he gave her, she smiled. "Just tea. Lady Grey, which is your favourite, if I remember correctly; it's not drugged."

Severus decided to take a risk and to believe her as he did crave something warm. She poured him a cup, and although his hands still shook, his left hand definitely trembled the most, he managed to sip. The tea warmed him from the inside and he relaxed. "How's Harry?"

"Harry's doing fine. The Weasleys have taken him under their wings. I saw him holding hands with Ginny earlier."

Severus nodded; he knew that their friendship had deepened into love and he was happy for them both. He didn't have to worry about Harry – not anymore. Harry had found his place in life. "And what about Mister Longbottom?" He recognized the old mechanics which moved into place one more; he was emotionally distancing himself from the young man.

Poppy noticed it as well. "Minerva made him eat dinner and then walked him to the dormitory. Neville was asleep before his head made contact with his pillow. He has been sleeping ever since. That young man surprised me, Severus. He rose to the occasion."

Severus nodded as he agreed. "Without Mister Longbottom the Dark Lord might have won after all. If it hadn't been for him drawing Godric's Sword from the Sorting Hat and killing…her…" Thinking about Nagini brought back most unpleasant memories and speaking her name was still hard on him.

Poppy noticed that too. She couldn't blame him for growing upset. She understood his reaction, as she was the one still treating those horrible snake bites. Those would definitely leave scares as Nagini's fangs had deeply penetrated the flesh. "Do you feel up to eating a light meal? It is imperative that you get your strength back."

"If that means being allowed to leave the Hospital Wing shortly, I will eat." He wanted out of here, knowing damn well he was taking up time and space while injured students also needed her attention.

Poppy sighed; she doubted he realized it, but his emotions were all over his face. It was like he had forgotten how to hide them. "I will bring you some soup and bread. Try to keep it down, will you?" Poppy got to her feet, but looked at him again before leaving the room. She could tell he was struggling to come to terms with everything that had happened. She could only hope he would find a way to start all over again.

/

When Neville woke up, he found he wasn't alone in the dormitory. Ron and Harry occupied the other beds and the two of them were talking softly, probably afraid they might wake him. Neville raised an arm, wiped the last remnants of sleep from his eyes, and sat up.

"Neville!" Harry made his way over to his friend and sat down at his foot end, followed suit by Ron, who also made himself comfortable. "You can go back to sleep. I hope we didn't wake you."

"No, I feel fine." He was done sleeping. He wanted to be awake and find out what had happened in the meantime. "Anything new?"

"Not really, mate," Ron supplied. "Everyone is working on getting rid of the mess Voldemort and his minions made. Some students are still at the Hospital Wing."

Neville didn't want to find out, not really, but he still asked, "How many casualties?" He knew students had died; he had seen them being carried into the Great Hall only to see them being covered with a blanket.

"Fifty-one," Harry said, cringing as he did. He still wondered if he would have been able to save some had he faced Voldemort when the dark wizard had first shown up at the gates. He would always blame himself for not doing so in the first place. Voldemort had been right in that aspect; he had allowed his friends to die for him.

"That's fifty-one too many," Neville said with pain in his heart. He needed time to work through that, and for now, chose to focus on something else; giving into his sorrow would incapacitate him – he just knew that. "How's professor Snape?"

Harry smiled at hearing Neville inquire about Severus. "Madam Pomfrey says he has been sleeping a lot. He managed to eat some soup last night, which she thinks is an improvement. She won't let him leave the Hospital Wing though."

Neville nodded. He understood why Snape would want out of there. "Did you hear about Kingsley marching in?"

"And you threatening him should they take Severus to Azkaban! Yes, I did." Harry had been surprised, but not *that* surprised. He suspected that Neville had overreacted due to emotional exhaustion. That, and the fact that Severus had turned out to be one of the good guys after all. Knowing Neville the way he did, Harry figured his friend might feel guilty for misjudging Severus. "I am going to check on him in a bit. Want to tag along?"

"Yes, I do… If you don't mind? Just let me change into clean clothes, I stink!"

/

Severus would have been bored out of his mind if it hadn't been for the ever present pain that swept through his body. His left arm ached the most, closely followed by his throat and neck. Nagini had buried her fangs in the crook of his neck and any sudden movements made him gasp in pain. It was best to move as little as possible and give his body a chance to heal. He did want out of there as quickly as possible though. He might have the strength to disapparate, but he also knew that Poppy would come hunting for him in order to drag him back to her domain. He would rather spare himself the humiliation.

Hogwarts kept updating him. His heart had felt heavy ever since finding out how many students had died during the Dark Lord's attack. He would make sure their names would never be forgotten – that was the least he could do as he had failed to keep them safe. Fifty-one lives had been demanded – fifty-one students would never grow up, would never marry, would never have children. Rationally he knew Voldemort was to blame for that, but he couldn't help feeling guilty too.

"Severus?" Harry had grown used to calling him that and no longer shied away from speaking the name.

For Neville that was different though and he didn't step into the room until the older wizard had nodded at them, letting them know they were welcome.

"What are you doing here?" Severus frowned slightly at seeing them standing in the doorway. "I thought the Weasleys would keep you busy – Ginny especially." Severus enjoyed the fact that he could still embarrass Harry, who promptly blushed. Looking at Neville was harder as he didn't know how to act around him.

"I managed to escape," Harry said smiling. "But I am sure they are already looking for me. I love them, but…" Sometimes he just wanted his freedom. "How are you doing? You look better." Severus looked more alert and a little bit of colour had returned to his face.

"It will take time, I am afraid, and Poppy refuses to let me out of here yet. She says I can leave once I am able to make it to the bathroom and back to my bed without help."

"That's a very reasonable condition, don't you think?" Harry still couldn't get over the fact how mellow and approachable Severus really was. "You are a good actor, I will give you that. You fooled me completely. I really thought you hated me."

Severus carefully shrugged. "As I said, it made things easier." Cautiously he glanced at Neville, who just stood there and stared at him. "Mister Longbottom, I trust you are fed and rested?" He didn't know what was going on with his student, but something in Neville's eyes worried him.

"I am fine," Neville said when Snape's voice pulled him from his thoughts. Everything he had been through was finally hitting him.

"Harry, would you mind giving me a moment alone with your friend?" Severus suspected Neville was having a hard time dealing with what had happened and maybe he could talk the young man through it. He also thought Neville would confide in him more easily if it was just the two of them.

Harry nodded as some of Severus' worries seeped down their link. "I promised to spend time with Ginny anyway, but I will be back."

Severus nodded, but kept his attention trained on Neville. After Harry had exited the room, Severus raised an arm – rather shakily, damn it, and gestured for Neville to sit down. He had the feeling this would take some time. "Sit down before you keel over, Mister Longbottom."

Neville wondered why he was shaking himself to pieces and quickly did as he was told.

He should call Poppy and let her deal with it. After all, this was the healer's field of expertise and not his. Although, was that true? Neville wasn't physically injured; it was his soul that needed mending. "The tremors will go away, Mister Longbottom. You need a little time to deal with everything that happened lately." Muggles would say Neville was experiencing post traumatic stress disorder. Severus merely called it anxiety.

"How do you know it will go away?" Neville composed himself, but wasn't sure how long his calm would last.

"Because I have experienced the same thing, Mister Longbottom." Severus was about to add more when the young man cringed. "What is it?"

"Will you please stop calling me that? My name is Neville." Each time Snape called him Mister Longbottom he flashed back to being cursed by the man.

"I apologize, Neville," Severus said, regretting causing his student even more distress. Maybe emotionally distancing himself wasn't an option this time around. The last thing Neville needed was a cold and clinical teacher. He knew what Neville needed, but actually taking that step frightened him. He had been out of touch with his feelings for a long time. "You need to be among friends, Neville. Don't shut them out; that won't work. Trust me; I learned that the hard way."

Focusing on Snape, Neville asked, "Did you have anyone to turn to when you needed support?"

"When I had to curse you and your friends?" Neville flinched again, but Severus knew it was important he spoke the words. He had never thought he would ever tell a living soul, but since Neville had asked… "You have been in the Headmaster's office, haven't you?"

"Yes, in order to use the pensieve, which holds… your… memories." Neville cringed at having to remind Snape of that.

Severus raised a hand and dismissed the young man's worries. "Did you notice the large number of paintings in the Headmaster's office?"

"I did – vaguely." He hadn't paid much attention to them. Most of them had been empty any way.

"Former Heads of Hogwarts are honour bound to advice Hogwarts' current Headmaster. I was never alone in that office. At times, some of them would drive me mad, Phineas especially, but they presented me with company. I am not sure I could have acted my part without them supporting me and reminding me that everything served a greater purpose. Cursing you and the other students was…" Severus briefly closed his eyes and prayed for strength, "was one of the hardest things I ever did."

Neville believed him – he saw the truth in Snape's eyes when the other man opened them again. "You said it was one of the hardest things you ever did," he whispered, wondering if he was crossing a line when he spoke again. "How about dying?"

Severus drew in a shallow breath, not daring to breathe too deeply yet. "That was one of the easiest things I ever did, Neville."

Neville nodded in understanding. "Because you wanted to die."

"I made many mistakes in my life, Neville, and I always knew there was a price to pay. I welcomed death that night. If it hadn't been for Harry and his friends…" He failed to end that sentence. "Truth be told, I wish they hadn't brought me back to life." He shouldn't burden Neville with this, but he needed to get this off his chest too.

Neville thought he had misheard. Had Snape really confirmed that he had wanted to die? "But wouldn't you prefer to live? How can anyone choose death over life?"

"You are still young, Neville." But even in spite of his tender age, Neville had suffered much, he reminded himself. Bah, he needed out of the Hospital Wing. These surroundings started to affect him. He raised his arm and said, "Give me your hand." He wasn't sure Neville trusted him enough to comply and so he waited, ready for rejection should Neville choose to retreat.

Neville was curious and that urged him to give in. Snape's fingers were cold when they wrapped around his hand, but then his surroundings vanished. A moment later, they apparated and Neville wondered where Snape had taken them. Awed, he looked about. "Your office!" He had only been here once before and back then, he hadn't really had the time to take it all in. The portraits now contained most of the former Heads. Only one or two paintings were still empty. Neville looked about – truly looked – and promptly fell in love with the place. He gasped at seeing the large book collection and then noticed all kinds of strange objects.

Severus knew he shouldn't have done that. He was still too weak to apparate and to take Neville along with him. He slowly moved over to the desk and sat down, only then realizing the pensieve floated to his right. He should restore his memory before Albus told other people to watch his memories as well. "You wanted to know about the portraits," Severus said once he had caught his breath.

Neville looked up and stared at Dumbledore, who smiled back at him. He also recognized Everard higher up on the wall. And he knew that one as well; it was Phineas Nigellus Black. They all watched him closely.

"Hello, Neville. That's quite a surprise!" Albus started and smiled at seeing his student's wonder. "You possess the heart of a true Gryffindor, my boy, otherwise you wouldn't have been able to draw that sword out of the Sorting Hat. Both items have a will of their own as you may realize."

"Good evening, professor Dumbledore," Neville said, still feeling awed that he was allowed in the office. In a way, this was rather absurd, considering Dumbledore was dead!

"Good thing you killed that snake, Longbottom! I do hate snakes!" Ambrose commented.

Neville blushed slightly at being praised. "I am glad I could be of assistance."

"Snakes are vile," Newton agreed, "Though, personally I think spiders are worse."

Walter Aragon nodded from inside his painting. "I detest spiders as well, but we are talking about Nagini here – a monster of a snake."

"Please control yourselves… You are giving me a headache." Severus suddenly longed for the quiet of the Hospital Wing. Neville however chuckled and that sound caught Severus' attention. "Do you think this is funny? Just wait until they start bickering!"

Neville however heard the chuckle to Snape's voice. "I understand what you tried to tell me earlier." And he felt grateful that Snape had had their support.

"Speaking of bickering," Severus said, addressing Everard as he was one of the most reasonable former Heads. "Maybe you can come up with a new Head for Hogwarts, preferably one the board of governors will approve of."

At that, Neville stared at him in surprise. "What?"

"I can't stay on as Headmaster, surely you understand that? My name taints Hogwarts' history and it should be removed as quickly as possible." Severus had no intention of staying at Hogwarts. Students and staff alike would always remember his reign of terror. He summoned a pot of tea, as he needed to drink something hot. He was starting to feel cold now that he was out of bed. Maybe he should don warmer robes, but he couldn't be bothered. He started pouring himself a cup, but found his hands shook too badly. He put down the pot and waited for the tremors to go away again. He knew better than to think the tremors would disappear completely. He had suffered too much damage throughout the years, and Neville cursing him immediately after he had returned from the dead hadn't helped either. The tremors would always remind him of what he had done – of how much pain he had caused his students.

Neville made his way over to the desk and poured Snape his tea. "Here you are, professor."

Severus wrapped his fingers around the cup and sipped. He no longer felt deserving of that title. "My name is Severus, Neville."

Neville bit onto his bottom lip and then nodded. He had asked Snape, no Severus, to stop calling him Mister Longbottom. He could do the same for the older wizard. "I think resigning would be a mistake."

Severus was about to object when the portraits started talking again.

"I agree with the Gryffindor," Everard said. "Hogwarts accepted you as its Headmaster for a reason. Do you really think it would have done so had you been unworthy?"

"You did what you had to do in order to bring down Tom Riddle," Dilys commented. "Acting your part was hard and demanded sacrifices. We know that."

"You know it," Severus said, growing fed up with them. "But how do I explain that to the students I cursed? There is no other way. I don't want to be Headmaster, Dilys. Just sitting here brings back memories." And it brought back pain – mostly the pain he had sensed when the Carrows had cursed his students.

Neville wasn't sure it was his place to offer advice and was hesitant to get involved.

"Speak up, my boy, speak up!" Albus said in an effort to encourage Neville.

"Did you tamper with just my memories? Or did you falsify the memories of other students too in order to make Voldemort believe you were cursing them that badly?" It was something he had wondered about since finding out that his memories had been altered. He could easily name ten more students who hated Severus with a vengeance because he had cursed them.

"I might have been forced to do that to other students too," Severus admitted quietly. "I still cursed them though. It was expected of me. Had I not done so, the Dark Lord would have removed me from Hogwarts and then the Carrows would have taken charge!"

Neville came to a halt in front of the desk and waited until Severus looked at him. "You need to restore their memories, sir."

"Do you really think they will allow me into their mind again? If you do, you are a fool!" Severus tensed when Hogwarts told him that Poppy was on her way to see him. She had noticed he was missing then!

"Then ask someone else to do it. Aberforth, Tonks, Remus, Kingsley, Mister Weasley…" A number of people could do it. "Just give me the names of the students living with false memories."

He owed it to his students to make sure their memories were restored, Severus knew that. Parchment appeared and a quill wrote down the names as he thought of them. Neville caught the parchment and looked at the names. Most of them belonged to his best friends.

"I picked the strongest students on purpose. I knew which could deal with being under the Cruciatus curse… I never kept them under it for more than a minute, even though if you ask them, they will say I went at it for at least an hour. Ask Aberforth to restore their memories. Out of the ones you mentioned he is the best choice."

Poppy stood for the Gargoyle and called out the password, but was dismayed to find it no longer worked. She should have known he would try something like that. "Severus!"

Her voice travelled down the staircase and made Severus flinch momentarily.

"Is that Madam Pomfrey?" Neville wasn't sure he had heard correctly.

"She wants me to return to my bed." Which was probably the best thing as he was growing increasingly colder and more tired as well. "I changed the password though."

Neville wasn't surprised; he was beginning to understand the way Severus' mind worked. "You should let her in."

"In a moment," Severus knew he would lose that fight at any rate. Summoning the pensieve closer to him, he used his wand to transfer his memories back into his mind. The moment they settled back in, feelings of sorrow and remorse swept through him, once more reliving the way he had betrayed Lily and James.

Neville grew nervous upon seeing tears flow down Severus' face. He had viewed those memories as well and knew what they were about. This had to be hard on Severus. "Is there anything I can do to help?" he offered. When Severus' swimming eyes fastened on him, he wished he could comfort the other man.

"No, Neville, you can't. It's something I have to live with." He wiped at his eyes, rather embarrassed that he was crying in front of his student and tried to compose himself.

"Severus! Severus Snape!"

He had forgotten about Poppy, damn it. He issued the command and the statue moved aside, allowing the healer to enter. He briefly considered disapparating, but quickly dismissed the idea as he was still too weak for that.

"Severus!" Poppy rushed over to him and cast a quick spell in order to assess the amount of damage which had been done. She was relieved to find it only minor. Severus was tired, but that was to be expected. "I told you not to leave your bed!"

"I am sorry, Poppy," Severus admitted. "But it was slowly driving me insane." Although he dreaded going back to his sick room, he knew he needed supervision. Poppy had every right to be angry with him and to demand he returned.

Poppy however realized that being confined to that room might be the thing to setback her patient's recovery. As she looked about, she noticed the rather comfortable bedroom to her right. This office came with all kind of extras, she guessed and maybe… "I will allow you to stay here, Severus, but there will be conditions!"

Severus looked at her in surprise. Had she really said he didn't have to return to the Hospital Wing? Could he really be so lucky? "What conditions?"

"I will check on you in the morning and evening. Furthermore I won't allow you to stay here by yourself. If you can find someone to keep an eye on you, I will allow you to stay here."

"I will help," Neville said at once. "And I am sure Harry, Ron, Hermione, and others will want to help as well." The rest of the Weasleys would want in too.

"I might prefer the solitude of my sick room after all." That had not been what he'd had in mind. He just wanted to be on his own.

"You do need to make up your mind, Snape!" Vindictus Veridian sneered.

"See, Poppy? I am not alone. They keep watching me." Would that work with the healer?

"Forget about it, Severus. I want a living person in here!"

Severus flinched and he hoped the portraits wouldn't start harassing her. Some former Heads had never quite accepted being dead. Thankfully they stayed quiet.

"I will set up a schedule. If I find enough people willing to look after you, you can stay here. Neville, will you keep an eye on him in the meantime?"

"Gladly." Neville was grateful he was getting another chance to talk to Severus.

/

Aberforth looked at the list which Poppy had handed him. Neville had asked her to deliver it to the wizard and after doing so, the healer had left.

"What's that?" George tried to sneak a look, but Aberforth was shielding the content, probably just to annoy him.

Aberforth sighed and then shook his head. There were fourteen names on there; which meant he had several days of work ahead of him. "Apparently Severus felt it necessary to tamper with students' memories. I have the feeling Voldemort regularly checked on them to see if Severus was really cursing them. Severus changed their memories in such a way that the students think they have been cursed for hours. He asks me to undo those manipulations."

"He did that?" George whistled. "He must have really been scared that Voldemort found out about him."

Aberforth however disagreed. "You might not believe this, but he did this in the students' best interest. As long as they believed Severus was the monster they thought him to be, they were safe. Severus could continue manipulating Voldemort and protect them at the same time. Had Severus been found out, the students on this list would be dead now."

"It really was a dangerous game he played, wasn't it?" Fred asked as he joined them.

"Very dangerous," Aberforth confirmed. "All our lives were at danger at one time or the other, but Severus constantly ran the risk of being found out." He got to his feet and drew in a deep breath. He had better get started. Seamus Finnigan was the first name on a long list.

/

Neville had sat down on a comfortable chair and was now busy listening to the portraits who were trying to make Severus see things their way. He wasn't sure it was working though. Poppy will have a fit, should she ever learn Severus isn't resting as instructed.

"Snape, it won't work," Phineas said, being in a particularly foul mood since Severus refused to agree with him. "Even if you resign, and the board of governors accepts, you still need to convince Hogwarts to let you go and to accept the new Head."

Everard also got involved and added, "I seldom agree with Black, you know that, but he is right. Hogwarts is extremely fond of you! It won't let you resign!"

"Just remember the times you tried to lock Hogwarts out," Albus stated. "It wouldn't let you."

Severus massaged his temples; their constant pestering was giving him a headache."You can't tell me that Hogwarts won't accept Minerva as Headmistress!" he called out, growing desperate.

"Hogwarts would accept her if you were dead! But you are not and Hogwarts made it rather clear that it wants you as Head and not her!" Ambrose shook his head. "Severus, don't you dare kill yourself just in order to make that happen!" He had gotten to know Severus very well during this last year and knew he had to say the words.

At hearing that, Neville jumped to his feet in alarm. "Is he right? Would you do that? Kill yourself?"

Severus closed his eyes; his headache continued to grow worse. "It won't work – I tried it… Even my wand wouldn't obey my commands!"

Neville felt shocked. "You tried to kill yourself?"

Severus groaned. "I need to lie down… My head is killing me." He should go back to his sick room instead of staying in his office. Things were quiet at the Hospital Wing!

"Let me help – please!" Neville rushed over to Severus' side when the older man swayed dangerously.

Although he loathed needing support, Severus knew he had to accept it, or else he wouldn't make it to the bedroom. So he nodded and grabbed Neville's shoulder for support.

Neville lowered the other wizard onto the bed and then wondered what to do. In the end, he simply unbuttoned Severus' coat and slid it down his shoulders. He left the shirt and pants in place, but did remove the shoes. Severus lay down, turned onto his side, and closed his eyes, uncaring if Neville saw his exhaustion.

Neville then proceeded to cover him with blankets and stood back, making sure Severus was comfortable.

"It's Prince…"

Neville moved closer so he could hear what Severus was saying. "What did you say?"

"The new password to the office… It's Prince." He reckoned Neville needed to know in order to let Poppy in or whoever turned up to relieve Neville from his duties.

"Why prince?" Neville wondered about the relevance of the word. Severus must have chosen it for a reason.

"My mother's name… Eileen Prince…" Fatigue got the better of him and he fell asleep.

"Prince?" Neville frowned. He had heard of them – they were a pureblood family held in high esteem. He had just never known Severus was related to them.

/

Severus woke to soft murmurs. He didn't know how long he had slept, but he felt fairly rested and so he elbowed himself into an upright position. He pushed the blankets out of the way, placed his feet on the floor, and managed to stand. He still felt a tad lightheaded, but that was to be expected.

Although he was still in some discomfort, the overall pain had gone. In order to make sure he wouldn't accidentally stumble, he placed his hand against the wall and slowly made his way back into the office.

"Severus! Are you sure you should be up?" Minerva stopped talking to Albus' portrait and watched Severus with concern instead.

"I suffered worse," Severus muttered and sank down onto the chair behind the desk. He looked at the tray holding breakfast and realized he had slept through most of yesterday and last night. He sipped from the tea and managed to eat a few bites of toast. Minerva stood in front of his desk and kept watching him. Why was she looking at him like that?

"I talked to Albus while you were sleeping and to the other Heads as well. They told me how hard the past year was on you." Minerva tried to find the right words, but wasn't sure there were any right words for what she wanted to say. "They told me about the way you suffered along with our students. They seemed afraid for your sanity on more than one occasion."

Severus shrugged carefully. "I was following Albus' orders. I always tried to keep that mind."

"I regret burdening you in such a way," Albus said. "But as I told Minerva just now, there was no other way."

Minerva transfigured a chair and sat down. She felt nervous and sitting down might help settle her nerves. "I always thought the worst of you," she admitted eventually. "I believed you had changed sides and served Voldemort. I never considered the possibility that this was part of Albus' plan." The truth was that she had never considered Albus capable of actually allowing the students to get hurt while pursuing Voldemort's demise. And Albus had hurt Severus too. She realized that now, looking at him and seeing the haunted expression in his eyes. Being forced into cursing his students had damaged Severus.

Severus had no desire to carry on discussing the matter and changed their subject. "Minerva, have you ever considered becoming Headmistress?" He still hadn't given up on his plan to step down.

"I am content to be Acting Headmistress if necessary," she stated. "But only when the situation calls for it."

"You might need to reconsider, Minerva, for I plan to resign." He forced down one last bite of toast and then pushed the food away from him. He couldn't manage more than that. He returned to sipping his tea and finally made eye-contact.

"The portraits mentioned that you wanted to resign."

"I believe it is for the best. I can't possibly return to… the Great Hall and…" Memories came rushing back to him and showed him fleeing the Great Hall with Minerva calling him a coward. "I can't look the students in the eye, Minerva. They know what I did."

"And what did you do?" Albus questioned, moving to the front of the painting.

"Yes," Minerva said and nodded. "What did you do?" Albus and she had been discussing Severus' plans to resign, but his arrival had stopped them short.

"I terrorized the students, and you know it, Minerva!" He was growing tired of having to explain himself. The sooner he found a successor, the better.

"And what about the rest?" Minerva finally realized what direction to take their conversation in.

"The rest?" Severus blinked. "I cursed them… I allowed the Carrows to curse them!"

"Why did you allow it?" Minerva was convinced she was going to win this argument as long as she kept her wits about her.

"What do you mean? You know why I did it… I had to fool the Dark Lord into believing I was faithful to him." Why wouldn't she let it rest?

"And why did you have to mislead Voldemort, Severus?" Minerva started to feel victorious. There was no way out for him, no matter what way he would twist her words.

"Because I was trying to buy Harry time, of course. He was still searching for the Horcruxes and the Dark Lord had to believe I would apprehend Harry the moment he entered Hogwarts. It was obvious Harry that would come here eventually as he needed to destroy the lost diadem."

Minerva nodded. Everything made perfect sense now that Severus was explaining it to her – even things she had wondered about. Severus had been waiting for Harry to get here – had been buying him time as much as he could. "And why did you have to buy Harry time, Severus?"

Severus sighed. "Because he needed to be in the right place at the right time!" Albus had always kept repeating that.

"I ask you again, Severus, why do you want to resign? Because you did everything within your power to protect Harry and set up Voldemort for his death?" He had made many sacrifices and somewhere down the line Severus had begun to believe he was evil too- at least, that was what Minerva suspected had happened. "Severus, you did what you had to do. Now that the truth is out everyone will understand why those things happened at Hogwarts." She had to make him see the truth. "Hadn't you acted your part, hadn't you cursed our students, Harry might have run into dozens of Death Eaters and he would never have been able to destroy the Horcruxes and thus Voldemort." She watched him closely and knew she hadn't managed to convince him completely, but it was a start. "Severus, I refuse to become Headmistress. Hogwarts has the best Headmaster it can wish for."

"Hear, hear…" several of the former Heads muttered upon hearing her words.

"Listen to her," Everard said earnestly. "And stop blaming yourself for having been forced into that situation."

"That's easier said than done," Severus whispered. How was he going to live with what he had done? How was he ever going to face his students? Especially the ones he had been forced to curse? Or the rest of the faculty for that matter?

Footsteps coming from the staircase caught his attention and he looked up in order to find out who was joining them. He saw Harry first and then cringed at seeing Seamus Finnegan as well. He had hoped to avoid Seamus for a long time. Seeing him enter his office was the last thing he had wanted to see.

"Severus, remember to rest, will you? Poppy will have my hide if I don't remind you of that." Minerva rose from her chair, which promptly vanished. "I will be back tomorrow." She climbed the stair case, smiled at her students and then left.

Severus wished he had donned his coat and his robes. He felt oddly vulnerable sitting there, knowing several bites showed from beneath the shirt. It was too late now – acting now would tell them he felt exposed. So he forced himself to act the part once more.

"Go on," Harry said and shoved Seamus closer to the desk. He knew this wasn't easy on his friend, but he felt grateful nonetheless that Seamus wanted to do this. He suspected it would do Severus and Seamus a world of good.

Severus was about to address Seamus, going back to his old way of addressing him as Mister Finnigan, when Seamus took him by surprise.

"Aberforth fixed my memories," Seamus started, finally speaking the words out loud which he had been rehearsing for hours now – even since finding out the truth. He found it hard to read Snape's expression, but it closely resembled the confusion he had felt lately. "I never realized what you did," Seamus paused and gathered his thoughts. "I always thought you cursed me for hours, but when I realized the truth, I… I am still angry at you, but at the same time, I understand why you did that. Your hand was forced too – by… Voldemort." Even though the dark wizard was gone, he found it hard to say the name.

Severus hated the way he had started to tremble. He grabbed the armrests and hoped none of his students noticed his anxiety. The truth was that Seamus' words shook him to the core.

"Aberforth also restored the memories of the other students involved and we talked. Actually we talked the whole night about what happened," Seamus explained.

Severus wasn't sure he wanted to hear more. Why had he let the former Heads persuade him that he had to remain Headmaster for now? He should have resigned yesterday – but the truth was, this was home.

"We want you to know that we understand why you did it. We also know things could have been much worse." Seamus wasn't sure how to continue. Maybe he should repeat what Luna had said at the end of their meeting. "We forgive you…"

Severus stared at Seamus in disbelief. This had to be a dream. He was still asleep then.

"And we would like to invite you to dinner in the Great Hall. We are still restoring it, but except for a draft, it is suitable to have meals there. We would appreciate it if you joined us."

Severus started to shake his head and was about to call Seamus a fool for forgiving him – it was a dream after all – when Albus beat him to it.

"Severus accepts, of course!" Albus said cheerfully. "Thank you for coming down here, Seamus!"

The look Albus then gave him made Severus doubt this was a dream after all. Albus did look and sound a lot like his manipulative self. "Mister Finnigan," he said eventually and cringed at hearing the way his voice trembled, "I don't intend to put the students through that experience. They are better off without me." He would avoid the Great Hall, and the rest of the castle for that matter until he had found a successor which Hogwarts would accept. "Several of your fellow students have been traumatized and I do not wish to worsen their condition by showing myself in the Great Hall." Seamus then stared at him in such an intense way that Severus wondered if the young man had heard him.

"That is not acceptable, Headmaster!"

Severus flinched at hearing Seamus call him that. "Don't you understand, Seamus? I can't cause the students more pain. Don't ask that of me."

Seamus' expression, as well as his tone, softened. Doing this wasn't easy on him either, but he gathered it was up to him to draw Severus from his hiding place. "As I said, staying clear of the Hall is not acceptable. You are Headmaster here, sir, and therefore your presence is required – demanded even."

For one second Severus shivered, imaging the students trying to get into his office in order to fetch him. He stared at Harry then, suspecting the youngster had sent him that image via the link. That sneaky, little…

"Dinner will be served in twenty minutes, sir. I strongly urge you to join us." Seamus wasn't sure what he would do if Severus continued to hide. Maybe they would indeed fetch him.

"I can't make any promises, Mister Finnigan." Severus wasn't sure he could do such a thing. He had hurt them too much in order to be forgiven and to be accepted in their midst.

"I shall fetch you, sir, should you be late," Seamus said, making up his mind. "And I shall bring reinforcements if necessary."

"That one lacks respect!" Phineas commented, but he couldn't keep a chuckle from his voice.

"Oh, be quiet, Phineas," Everard commented. "The boy's right!"

"It looks like even the former Heads agree with me," Seamus said, hardly believing his luck – the portraits were actually backing him up! "We won't eat dinner until you are present as well, sir." Seamus then inclined his head in goodbye and climbed the stairs to the corridor. Doing that had taken a lot out of him, but he had done the right thing – he knew that now.

/

Severus was finally alone – or as alone as he ever was inside the office. He felt their gazes upon him. They were waiting for him to make up his mind. He wondered how much longer they would be able to stay quiet.

"Damn it, Snape! Say something!"

He had known Black would be the one to snap first. Severus looked up from where he was sitting and realized he had never seen Phineas looking so agitated before.

"Get going! They are waiting for you, staff and students alike!" Black sneered. "It is too bad I am confined to this painting, otherwise I would drag you down to the Great Hall personally!"

Severus actually believed him. "I am not sure I can do this," he admitted shakily.

"Then get someone to support you if you are too weak to apparate, you fool!"

"Watch your mouth," Severus snarled right back at him. "Don't call me a fool!"

"I will you call you that as long as you continue to act in that manner!"

Severus pushed himself to his feet and walked over to Black's painting. He considered turning it around, but knew he would pay for that later. Black didn't like being ignored. "That's not what I meant… I am not sure I can face them, Phineas."

At hearing the softer tone, Phineas calmed down. "You won't find out until you have tried, Snape. And they want you there. You should know that. Even Hogwarts is telling you to go."

That was true – Hogwarts had been whispering to him in his mind, pleading with him to finally take his rightful place. "Everything would have been easier if you had let me resign," he said, addressing Hogwarts and the former Heads simultaneously. "You are making a mistake – all of you."

"No, we are not," Albus stated resolved. "Now get ready for dinner."

Severus sighed and gave in. He was doomed either way.

/

Severus decided against apparating, as he didn't wish to weaken himself unnecessarily. Dressed in his familiar white shirt, buttoned up cloak and pants, he decided against slipping into his teaching robes. They reminded him too much of the past. Slowly, still trying to stall, he made his way upstairs. When the Gargoyle moved out of the way, he was surprised to see Neville standing there.

Neville nodded at Severus. He was relieved the older wizard had chosen to join them in the Hall. When he had talked to Seamus and Harry earlier, they hadn't been sure they had managed to convince Severus to do so. "I thought you might like some company." He had put himself in Severus' shoes and had quickly realized that walking to the Great Hall all by himself would have been nerve-wrecking. He would have preferred company and that was why he was there – to offer Severus his support, should the other man want that.

"Thank you, Neville." Severus swayed and grabbed Neville's shoulder in order to support himself.

"That's fine," Neville said, upon seeing Severus' uncertainty. "I don't mind."

Slowly they made their way down the corridor and toward the Great Hall. Severus had faced situations which scared him before, but he had never been this afraid. He was sure the students would reject him – demonstratively turn their backs on him. Neville surprised him when the young man briefly rested a hand on his, squeezing it for comfort. Emotions made him it hard for him to breathe and tears stung his eyes, but he fought them back. He refused to cry in front of anyone.

They had reached the entrance to the Great Hall and Neville halted. "Do you want me to stay with you? Or would you rather walk on your own?" He would respect whatever decision Severus made.

Severus didn't want to expose Neville to the hatred which would surely be aimed at him, but he wasn't sure he could make it on his own either. He removed his hand from Neville's shoulder and drew in a deep breath. "I rather face Voldemort or die again," he whispered, "Than having to do this."

Neville then knew that he couldn't let Severus do this on his own. He waited for the older wizard to start walking, and when he did, Neville fell into step next to him.

Neville's action surprised Severus, but he managed to hide his relief. Walking slowly, and carefully putting one foot in front of the other, he entered the Hall. The students closest to him stopped talking and looked at him. Severus almost fled and apparated out of the Hall, but Neville's hand suddenly came to rest on his shoulder and that made Severus continue walking. The silence was getting to him, and he wished they would start speaking again. But they remained quiet.

He had finally reached the head table and stared at the only empty chair there. It was Albus' chair as far as he was concerned and it would always be Albus', nothing would ever change that.

"You can do this… Go on," Neville whispered encouragingly and then stepped away from Severus. He prayed the other man wouldn't falter. He wanted Severus to succeed.

Severus hesitated. That chair wasn't his. He didn't have the right to occupy it. After all the things he had done, after all the pain he had inflicted on his students, he simply couldn't sit down and take charge.

Headmaster… Welcome… We have been waiting for you…

He swallowed nervously at hearing Hogwarts whisper into his mind.

Please take your place, Headmaster. The students are hungry and dinner won't start until you have taken your place among them.

Hogwarts didn't really fight fair, did it?

You are Headmaster here. No one else will hold that office as long as you shall live. You earned that right, Headmaster. You belong here. You are a part of Hogwarts. This is… home.

That was the truth, yes. Hogwarts was home. Severus had always felt at home here, but to be welcomed home after everything he had done…

"Headmaster?"

He blinked as he had expected Hogwarts to continue to whisper to him, but it was Minerva who had addressed him – not Hogwarts. His hands shook when he gripped the armrest and he had to force himself to sit down. Once he was seated, a heavy burden was lifted from his shoulders. If this was the way everyone wanted it to be, he didn't stand a chance. The murmurs started up again as the students resumed their conversations, for which Severus felt incredibly thankful. He could deal with this as long as he wasn't the focus of everyone's attention.

"Severus? Dinner? If you'd please?" Minerva gave him a warm smile. She knew how hard this was on him and she could only hope that he would accept the situation in the end.

Severus nodded, summoned dinner and watched students attack the food. He looked at the Gryffindor table and watched Harry, who was still holding hands with Ginny. He didn't seem to mind being limited to the use of one hand while eating though. His gaze drifted to Ron and Hermione, who were actually smiling smugly at him— the brats!

Slowly, Severus started to feel more at ease and when he located Arthur, Molly, Fred and George as well, he relaxed. He had friends here. Allowing his gaze to drift down the long table, he encountered Neville as well. The young man was grinning at Luna and it didn't take much to realize those two were in love as well. Severus had to admit they completed each other in an odd way. Luna smiled at him and he recalled their conversation up on the Astrology Tower. He reckoned she had been on to him – even back then.

"Don't forget to eat, Severus. You are still recovering," Poppy whispered from one end of the table.

He nodded absentmindedly, but made no effort to start eating. He was amazed to realize that the students weren't glaring at him in hatred. Whenever he caught someone's gaze – by accident mostly – they smiled at him, still a tad uncertain, but it was more than he had dared to hope for.

"Do you believe me now?" Minerva asked, "Do you finally believe we want you here?"

"I am starting to believe it." It would take time though to fully accept they wanted him to remain on as Headmaster.

/

Two weeks later

Poppy had finally given him a clean bill of health and Severus vowed to never set foot into the Hospital Wing ever again – not if he could prevent it! These last two weeks had been one big surprise to him. He had never expected the students to reach out to him, but they had started asking him questions regarding their homework, the repairs, and they had wanted to know when he would take up teaching again. He was ashamed to admit he had been speechless on more than one occasion.

Walking those corridors had been torture for him a month ago, but now he was starting to feel safe again. The fact that Harry, Neville, and Luna spent most evenings in his office had helped too. He had begun to let his guard down and little by little he had truly let them in.

He walked by the great staircase and looked up at the memorial he had created in order to remember those who had fallen during the last war. On it were the fifty-one names of the fallen students, but also the names of the members of the Order of the Phoenix who had died fighting Voldemort.

"Sir, you have visitors!" Seamus had caught up with him. "They are on their way to your office!"

Did he dare ask who was visiting him? "Mister Finnigan, the names please."

"Remus and Tonks, sir." Seamus said cheerfully.

Severus frowned in thought. Why would those two come back here now that the war was over? He apparated and looked over his office. Everything was in its place and most of the portraits were asleep. He doubted it would remain that way though.

Sensing his visitors had arrived, he ordered the statue to allow them entry. He walked up to the pensieve and recalled a time when his memories had inhabited it. Lost in thought, he failed to notice his visitors' arrival.

"Severus!" Remus was happy to see Severus back on his feet. He still looked too pale, but had already gained some weight back. He grinned, curious to see the expression in those black eyes when Severus would realize their reason for visiting.

Severus immediately looked at Remus at hearing the werewolf's voice. He was about to welcome them to Hogwarts, when he grew lost for words. So that was why they had come here. He had all forgotten about Teddy.

"We thought the time was right for you to finally meet your godson!" Tonks said and winked at Severus. "He's only thirteen months old, Severus, so be careful when you…"

When he what? Severus tensed when she placed the baby into his arms. What the hell did she think she was doing? He was going to drop the infant!

"Tonks, I think we managed the impossible –we rendered Severus speechless!" Remus smiled, having a fairly good idea what Severus was feeling. He had reacted the same way when Tonks had introduced him to his son. He too had been worried he might drop the baby on his head!

Severus could only stare at the baby. "Tonks, no… Don't do this to me." He had accepted long ago that he would never have a family of his own. It wasn't his destiny to be a husband or father and now they were changing that by placing a child into his arms.

Tonks shook her head. "You are doing a great job, Severus. You are supporting his head the way you should." In a way it pained her that he had had to give up so much because of the war. She wanted him to have this – she wanted him to be a part of a family. "Can you look Teddy in the eye and maintain you don't want to be his godfather? Can you?" She had long read the answer in his eyes though. Severus wouldn't refuse them.

Damn her for doing this! "Tonks, you don't understand…" But Teddy opened his eyes and they changed color at once, becoming as dark as his own. The child was truly his mother's son.

"I know you want this, Severus. Stop fighting it and say yes!" Like his wife, Remus was fairly sure Severus would accept Teddy as his godson.

Severus sighed deeply; he had lost the argument the moment Teddy had looked at him. Now the little rascal was trying to wrap his fingers around his thumb. He found it hard to tear his gaze away from the baby, but in the end, he did, and looked at Remus and Tonks instead. "Are you certain you want me to do this?"

"We do," Tonks said, answering for both of them. "Teddy will be in the best hands should anything happen to us. We know you will do anything within your power to keep him safe."

Severus nodded rather shakily. "In that case, I accept." Teddy had finally managed to get a tight hold on his thumb and was smiling at him. "Looks like you are stuck with me as your godfather, Teddy."

Remus and Tonks exchanged a look at hearing the loving tone to Severus' voice. Yes, they had made the right decision and they were glad they could do this for Severus.

Severus had never believed he was capable of such feelings, but when he looked at the boy, he realized he did want this. "I will protect you," he vowed. And he would keep his word – for as long as he would live.

The end