First of humble and sincere apologies to the huge delay in this chapter. It was completely my own fault - I left with a cliff-hanger and then realised I had no idea where I was placing Harry! I proceeded to spend several weeks mulling this over, trying with various people and failing dismally each time; essentially complete writer's block. It has not gone the way I planned I have to admit, but this is what I have ended up with...hopefully it's enjoyable even if unexpected!

Secondly - thank you so much for all the reviews. They are probably the only reason this chapter got written as there was a huge response to my last chapter and I felt really guilty leaving it hanging! Left to my own devices I would probably have given up...keep 'em coming! I'm really glad my portrayal of Minerva and shifting of the plot is well received and hope that it will continue to be. To guest 'Me' - again, my real apologies - I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm flattered by the fact that you like it so much! And yes, the arm is much better - this delay was due to my own incompetence; thanks for asking though! And yep, congratulations - you caught the hint in Chapter 11, still need to follow that up! (And Karadek - I changed the last line of chapter 19 in accordance with your correction.)

And umm...yeah, I'm rather fond of my cliffhangers - I figure it might just keep you all coming back! I have left this one without a cliffy though just to be nice!

Chapter 20: A Place to Stay

"Bathilda Bagshot," Amelia says finally, having made us wait impatiently first for the answer. She pauses expectantly as if waiting for an eruption.

Instead there is a moment of utter stunned silence as both myself and Severus attempt to process those two words. That certainly was not the answer I was expecting. I realise that my mouth is hanging open in a manner most unbecoming of a female and snap it shut hastily, glancing sideways at Severus half awaiting the cutting remark that is almost certain to come my way. However, Severus is just as shell-shocked as I am and doesn't even appear to notice the brief lapse of manners. Both of us simply stand in my quarters silently staring at Amelia, completely lost for words and unable to find our voices. Finally I manage to formulate a coherent phrase out of the racing, tangled confusion of my thoughts.

"Amelia," my voice seems far too high-pitched even to my own ears, "you are aware that the woman is well over a hundred years old!? She's actually older than Albus!"

My words seem to shake Severus out of his shocked reverie as well and his expression changes from something akin to stunned confusion back to the sneer that is more accustomed to sitting on his features. And in that split second something occurs to me. Something that has absolutely nothing to do with the Potter boy. I very much doubt that more than a handful of people have seen any expression on that man's face that Severus hasn't intentionally placed there for his old purposes. He is known as a cold, guarded man but I suspect it runs far deeper than that. Right from a childhood where of hiding the marks inflicted by his muggle father out of fear and shame, all the way through to his eventual 'career' spying on the world's most feared psychopath for a manipulative megalomaniac with a God complex; Severus has always had to hide behind his masks. In childhood he'd have feared the ridicule of the purebloods because he'd 'allowed' a muggle to hurt him so badly, in adulthood letting those masks slip could have meant his life, or worse, his mind.

But that's three times now that I've seen the real Severus Snape, the man that lies behind the cool tones and the automatic disdain for emotions. That's three times he's let me see the real man behind all the careful masks and facades; the one who can be afraid, uncertain, confused and out-of-his-depth. Four times if you count the explosion in Albus' office, but I suspect that was just sheer rage and impossible to hold back. But Severus is letting his guard down around me in a way I haven't seen before; over the years I've learnt to fence words with the man but there has always been the boundary between us that couldn't be breached. Somehow though, the dynamics of our relationship seem to have changed. Somewhere in the chaos of this year he began to trust me enough to let those masks fall, masks which have been held carefully in place for decades, masks that could be the difference between life and death.

"Not to mention a close childhood friend of Albus," he snarls venomously, his usual demeanour firmly back in place. "You would be placing him right back under the control of the man who left him to rot in the hands of those muggles for heaven's sake."

Amelia just stands and waits calmly, her expression not varying and a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth. When Severus is done she merely raises her eyebrows slightly as if to question whether we are both quite finished yet before clearing her throat carefully.

"You are both of course, completely correct," she starts calmly, looking at both of us in turn with a look in her eyes that stops me from interrupting with any more objections. "However, both of those facts also work to our advantage."

"How is the fact that the guardian of one Harry Potter is sat squarely in Albus Dumbledore's pockets going to work to our advantage in any way, shape or form?" Severus spits out sharply, either missing or more likely completely ignoring the warning glint in the other woman's eyes. "You might as well just return him to the Dursley's tender loving care now for pity's sake. He'd be better off in the custody of the Malfoy's. At least they'd protect him from the old fool until the Dark Lords return so he could have a few years of relative comfort."

"I gave you the courtesy of hearing you out, Professor Snape," Amelia states coldly, standing straight-backed and proud as she looks at our Potions Master, refusing to be intimidated. "I would appreciate it if you would show me the same courtesy before leaping to conclusions blindly. It has taken a substantial amount of work to find a suitable placement for the child due to the multiple complicating factors involved in the case, including Mister Potter's fame and the need for discretion. If you have objections with the potential placement, then you will wait until after I have explained the reasoning behind the choice. You will also show me the respect I have earned or you will leave this room. I am no student to be bullied in your classes. Am I understood?"

There's another long awkward silence as the two keep eye contact, I can feel the tension building in the room as neither backs away. But in fairness Amelia has every right to be offended. We both jumped to our own conclusions without even giving her a chance to explain and Severus in particular was outright rude. That's not particularly exceptional given Severus' usual manner, but as Head of Magical Law Enforcement Amelia deserves respect in her own right. Under normal circumstances she may have little authority in Hogwarts but she certainly has more power than us in other respects. Finally, Severus lowers his eyes and steps back slightly; not far but enough to re-establish the power balance in the room. I breathe out a sigh of relief. Having those two powerful figures at loggerheads would not be a pleasurable experience for anyone; we already have enough problems with that gibbon, Fudge. And unfortunately Severus may not have the ear of the Ministry but he is still one of the most powerful wizards I know and has other less desirable contacts that could make life very difficult indeed.

"Right, now that is settled," Amelia continues in a slightly less cold, but still distinctly frosty tone, "as I said earlier, you are both completely correct. Bathilda is indeed one of Albus' oldest friends; she has known him since he was a child and watched him grow up. However this also means she knows him better than anyone still living with the possible exception of his brother, Aberforth."

She raises her eyebrows at both of us as if daring us to interrupt again, but we both stay silent and the other woman nods approvingly. I'm not sure where she's going with this, but it's clear there is some form of plan in the making that we haven't been brought into. It is however a well-known fact that Aberforth and Albus are certainly not on speaking terms anymore since some ruckus at a funeral if I remember rightly. I wonder what that means in relation to Bathilda.

"As you are more than aware there are by and large only two sides in the Wizarding world currently, one side are those who openly followed or tacitly supported He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's plans to preserve the blood purity of existing family's and the complete belief in blood superiority." She glances across to Severus but he doesn't move from his position, arms folded tightly and jaw clenched. "The other side are those who again either actively fought against or worked to the detriment of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in the last war. The problem we are left with is essentially that there are only two leaders and there are very few people left sitting in the middle."

"Albus and the Dark Lord," Severus breathes quietly. "You can't put the Boy-Who-Lived in the hands of a Death Eater or someone who might have potentially supported the Dark Lord as you'd be putting a death sentence on him. But the rest…"

"We went through all the possibilities," Amelia continues, but smiles slightly at Severus to take the sting from her interruption. "Some like the Malfoy's, Nott's, Zabini's and several other prominent pureblood families were removed from the candidate list immediately. They have wealth and influence but there are too many ties to other Death Eaters or uncertain politics and we cannot remove the boy from one abusive household only to throw him into a potentially worse fate."

Or risk having the child saviour of the Wizarding world turn dark I think rather uncharitably. Yes, the Malfoy and the Nott family were deeply enmeshed in the dark side of the war, but the Zabini family were never linked to any form of Death Eater activity. They've always stayed strictly neutral in the politics of the world, but it would not surprise me to find that they hold Dark Objects and don't necessarily stick to the lighter magic's. Some of this is about protecting the child yes, but just as much of it is pandering to the politics of the new society we live in. Prior to the devastation He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named caused, there was a far more tolerant viewing of the Dark Arts, they were even actively taught here at Hogwarts under the view that it was better to educate and regulate rather than ban. But the fear, pain and bloodshed that was caused by the use of Dark Arts in the last war put a stop to that, at least in public.

"However, the side of the light is no less extreme than the side of the dark," Amelia looks at me closely to see if I am likely to cause any problems. I nod at her to continue. "Albus is effectively just as dangerous as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and has a far larger following. In fact as has been seen so clearly during this last year, most people would follow him blindly without even questioning the reasoning why. He is seen as the Leader of the Light. That left me with a dilemma. I considered the Weasley family considering how close Mister Potter has become to the youngest Weasley boy, but they don't have the financial resources to take in another child and are exceptionally close to Albus and both too trusting to ever believe ill of him. The same is true for the majority of notable families. No matter where we put the boy, there would always be the potential for Albus to manipulate the situation. Nobody would question him."

Again, she's right. No matter where the young Potter is placed there will always be complications. The only exceptions would be to place him with one of the Heads of House, but I can't see that being fair on the boy. It's a strange fact of life that very few of the faculty here at Hogwarts ever marry and have children; the more cynical amongst us would suggest that's because we spend our entire lives around the young wizarding offspring and have more sense than to make the same mistakes. I'm not so sure. I think a large part of it is purely due to how demanding Hogwarts is; we simply don't have time for a family, the school comes first. On top of that, the grief the boy would get if he was suddenly living with his own Head of House would be immense and Severus is bad enough in class without having to deal with a child to care for; children are certainly not his forte. Pomona would just smother the boy and Filius…well, I don't know about Filius.

"Having dismissed the majority of the wizarding families, there were only really two potential options left. Considering the uproar that would be created had we attempted to get Mister Potter adopted into a muggle family, the only sensible option left were those who were close to his parents and therefore had stronger ties to him than to Albus." She looks at us seriously for a moment. "Sirius Black is his named Godfather, but for obvious reasons is not a potential candidate. Remus Lupin was exceptionally close to the Potter's and would fight tooth and nail for the boy, but the issue of his lycanthropy would have made formal adoption exceptionally difficult. The Longbottom family are another family who were exceptionally close to the Potter's, but it would be unfair to expect Augusta to take charge of another child, particularly considering the extent of the abuse…" I breathe a sigh of relief that I don't have to raise an objection there. Considering my recent confrontation with Augusta Longbottom, there would be no possibility of leaving the Potter boy with her even if she did accept. "…Bathilda however doted on Harry as a child and was on very good terms with his parents."

There's a long pregnant pause and I finally realise that Amelia has stopped to allow us to comment on her logic so far. I glance warningly at Severus, the last thing we need to do is offend her again considering it is clear just how much work has gone into attempting to find a suitable placement for Potter.

"But," I start hesitantly, "how is she likely to be any less influenced by Albus than the rest of the Wizarding world? She watched Albus grow up and hails him as a prodigy in all of her writings, it's clear she saw him as her protégé and was deeply proud of what he'd done. Surely she'll be even more likely to defer to the man than others who are less mired in the Dumbledore family history?"

I watch Amelia smile and breathe a sigh of relief that I've clearly approached the issue the correct way. She doesn't mind being disagreed with or even outright challenged about issues, it was the way we challenged her that raised the hackles. We didn't accord her the respect of an equal but instead both acted as if she were a student who had made a particularly foolish or dangerous suggestion in class.

"Before speaking to Bathilda, I'd have been in agreement with you," she concedes, "but it was worth taking the chance considering the past history between her and the Potter family, as well as the fact she has retained many of the ties she had in the past, both to friends and Mister Potter's birthplace. But what is more important is the fact that although she is still deeply impressed by Albus' power and what he has accomplished, she is far more aware than others that his background is not anywhere near as clean as he would perhaps like to portray."

I look at her curiously; Albus doesn't speak a vast amount about his years before Hogwarts unless it is specifically related to his schooling or any papers he wrote. But we all have things we don't wish to speak about, I know that just as well as any other, and so we have given him the privacy he clearly wishes. It has not been our part to pry.

"Those are his secrets to tell," I comment quietly, with a quick glance at Severus who has stayed far too quiet for my liking. "We all have skeletons lingering in closets that we'd prefer weren't brought out for public perusal."

"True indeed," Amelia agrees with a sharp nod. "Well said, Minerva. Suffice it to say that Bathilda was the great aunt of Gellert Grindelwald and there is far more history between those two wizards than is openly known in the public domain. Bathilda respects Albus for his power, his intelligence and his authority but she does not trust him and never will again. That I can promise you."

The message behind her words is clear; Bathilda knows what Albus is capable of, knows that Albus is not infallible and possibly more than that. She knows that behind that incredible brain and benign twinkle there is a man to fear; not because he is violent or actively dangerous but because he sees the rest of us as pawns in whatever grand scheme he has. She will always look for his motivations. And Albus doesn't realise; he will assume she is just an elderly woman who is in awe of him. He will believe himself free to continue his machinations, that Bathilda will follow him without question. It is, in fairness, a genius idea.

"How much does she know about Potter?" Severus asks, far more politely than his previous tone.

"Currently very little," Amelia answers and I can clearly see the relief in his dark eyes. "She has fostered other children from abusive families before, although not in recent years, so it wasn't too unusual that I came to speak to her. She is aware that there is significant abuse, although not the full extent of it, and she is aware that the secrecy is because we cannot afford this going to the Daily Prophet without significant planning. On that basis she does not know the identity of Mister Potter. I thought that was the wisest course of action, at least until I had spoken to both of you."

"Is she going to be capable of looking after an eleven year old boy at her age?" I repeat my concern from the start of this conversation.

"There may be some issues," Amelia concedes after a brief pause, "but Bathilda still has close ties with several families with similarly aged children and there has house elves who can do most of the running around. This will also be a temporary fostering to begin with so if there are any issues which can't be overcome they can be addressed quickly."

"Would it be possible for us to visit Bathilda?" I would like to see for myself that the boy will be going somewhere I can trust that he will be well cared for otherwise it might well come down to taking him on myself, reservations or not. "We can introduce Mister Potter to her if we consider the placement to be suitable based on first hand evidence then."

"Of course," Amelia says briskly, "that would be expected. Mister Potter is currently a ward of Hogwarts and cannot be removed from that guardianship without the four House Seals or the School Seal unless there is evidence that the guardianship is harmful to the child concerned."

Amelia certainly knows more about this than I do, although that I suppose is to be expected. It is exceptionally rare that one of my cubs has to be removed from their family even temporarily, on the few occasions we have had to take action it has usually been due to family illness or tragedy rather than neglect and abuse. The last war saw a significant increase in orphans but most cases were handled within the family like the case of Miss Bones and Mister Longbottom respectively. Severus has more cases where action has to be taken, but even then the complete removal of a child from their family is still exceptionally rare, particularly considering how reliant the pureblood families are on their heirs. We had a case with a young Ravenclaw muggleborn being taken out of an extremely violent household a couple of years ago, but that was largely handled by Filius and Albus.

The sound of my floo alarm ringing with the Ministry tone sends me striding across the floor to accept the incoming visitor, but I just about catch Severus' murmur that if Bathilda has cats then he'll be damned if the boy was to be cared by for another demented cat lady. I smile grimly, clearly Arabella Figg's incompetence hasn't been lost on him either.

A couple of seconds later a rather dishevelled Auror flies out of my floo followed by a St. Mungo's medic and it is impossible to miss the look of sheer relief on both of their faces when they spot Amelia. She on the other hand looks distinctly disgruntled to be so rudely interrupted, but quickly masks it with her usual professional mask.

"Auror Stonewall, report," she snaps out briskly.

"It's the prisoner, Madam Bones," the man says with a noticeable edge of panic to his voice that from the sharp looks Amelia and Severus send his way, wasn't lost on them either. The man in front of us isn't a seasoned Auror like Alastor Moody but he's no green recruit either. "There's something wrong."

The medic takes a step forward, clearly taking over.

"We'd appreciate it if you would be able to come with us, Madam Bones. We have discovered a significant…", he glances at myself and Severus uncomfortably, "…complication that needs to be addressed as soon as possible."

"Whatever you have to say can be reported in front of Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape," Amelia reassures the man curtly. "They were the ones who alerted the ministry that we were required and are to be trusted implicitly. What kind of complication? Is the prisoner going to be fit for trial?"

"Well," he hesitates as if unsure how to approach the issue, "there appears to be a case of long-term possession involved by an extremely dark entity. We believe that if we attempt to remove the entity then we may well kill…"

"Don't remove it!" Severus snaps fiercely, and I am probably the only one in the room to note the sudden panic in his dark eyes. "Bind it, restrain it, contain it, but whatever you do don't remove it!"

"But if the man is possessed then…" the medic starts, clearly insulted by Severus' tone.

"Whatever else you dunderheads want to do with that insult to the wizarding race, I could not give a flobberworms mucus," Severus interrupts in a snarl, stepping forward forcibly causing the other man to back up several paces. "But do not remove it! Get back in that floo and make sure they don't even try to remove it!" After several seconds where no-one moved, Severus gave a low, deep growl from the back of his throat and pushed the medic in the direction of the floo forcibly. "Well, what the hell are you waiting for man!? Are you hard of hearing or just exceptionally slow witted!?"

The medics face contorts slightly and he raises his wand slightly. I refrain from rolling my eyes in exasperation and step in between the two men before things can turn nasty and St. Mungo's are looking for a replacement medic.

"What my colleague means to say is that it would be extremely beneficial to the entire Wizarding world if you could stop any process of removing the entity until we are completely certain of its safety," I intercept calmly. "As quickly as possible please, Madam Bones will follow you through shortly."

He doesn't look particularly mollified by my words, but few who have been subjected to one of Severus' rants do. He tends to have that impression... The medic does lower his wand though and moves towards the floo, which in the circumstances is the most important factor. We hear a clear call of 'St. Mungo's, Ward 4' before he vanishes, quickly followed by the Auror after a sharp glance from Amelia his way.

I look back at Severus, fully intending to berate him for his previous outburst. However much as I can agree with his comments, his attitude was not helpful in the slightest. As soon as I see him though, my intentions turn to ash in my mouth. Severus is usually pale but is now almost milk white and the slight tremors passing through his body as he stares blankly at the floo scare me more than I thought possible. This is yet another new side that I have never seen of Severus. Moving swiftly, I grab one of his elbows and summon a chair from the side of the room. Despite my slight guidance the man falls more than sits down, clutching his head in shaking hands. Kneeling beside him, I glance up briefly to find Amelia's worried gaze looking down at us, catching my eye she mouths the words 'Poppy Pomfrey?' but I shake my head briskly.

"That possession is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Amelia," I say far more calmly than I actually feel. "While he's attached to Quirinus and bound, we're safe. If they remove it…" I falter, unsure of what to say next.

"If they remove it, the Dark Lord will return," Severus interrupts without looking up, but his usual smooth drawl is nowhere to be seen. He sounds almost shaky, something I never thought I'd see in the cool and composed Slytherin Head who always has a sharp comeback regardless of the circumstances. "It might not be this year, or next year or even in five years' time. But the Dark Lord will return."

It's only seeing him like this that I truly understand just how much he fears He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and how desperate he is to prevent his return. We all are, but only now do I really realise just how much more Severus has to lose than the rest of us. We will all have to fight yes, but Severus will be thrust back into the role as spy because of a decision he made as a teenager, a decision he has regretted for so many years now. Never fully trusted by the side he risks his life daily for and never able to pull down the masks he holds so well. I dread to think of what atrocities he has seen and even taken part in, how much blood is on his hands or how much guilt he feels. I don't think I would be able to bear it. In fact, I am certain I would not be able to bear it.

"You're serious, aren't you?" Amelia asks in a whisper. "What the prisoner said wasn't just madness talking? You're absolutely serious? He will come back?"

I'd been so focussed on Severus that I had almost forgotten that Amelia lost almost all of her family in the last war, the fear in her voice reminds me. She only has Susan left, everything else was wiped out. No wonder she's so frightened.

"I'm sorry, Amelia," I say with real compassion in my tone, even as I glance to Severus in concern. "We're serious. The threat to the Philosopher's Stone was real and if you can't keep that entity bound we will have another Wizarding War on our hands. And this time we don't have a defenceless baby to protect us. This time…we will lose."

I have to give the woman credit, she collects herself remarkably quickly and strides purposefully to the floo. She's still far paler than usual, but determination shines brightly in her eyes when she turns back to us.

"Well then, I will have to ensure that doesn't happen then, won't I?" She comments in a no-nonsense tone. "Until we can discover how to fully destroy this…thing, it will stay exactly where it is."

Once she's gone I focus fully on the man in front of me.

"Severus, is there anything I can do?"

There's no response from the still shuddering form on the chair and I put a hand gently on his shoulder, unsure of how else to respond.

"Minerva, I can't do it again." His voice is that of a broken child at the complete end of his limits and I instinctively tighten my hold on his shoulder slightly, trying to pass along what little reassurance I can. He doesn't pull away. "I can't do it again. I just can't."

I don't know what to say. What is there to say? What words of comfort can I give that won't sound demeaning or patronising? What is there to say to such a reticent, guarded man who is breaking in front of me?

He looks up at me and I'm horrified to see unshed tears gleaming softly in his eyes which look almost desperate. The strain shows clearly in his pale, angular face. He isn't just scared. He's terrified.

"Please. Don't make me. I can't."