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Alchemy

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            As he sulked into the Great Hall, quiet for a few more merciful minutes before the influx of students, Severus stopped dead in his tracks.  Lily.  For a moment, he was transported back twenty years to sitting on the grass outside Hogwarts with her, Lily, studying the different shades of auburn in her hair, the strands of copper, gold, burgundy and mahogany that the sun brought out.

            And then reality came crashing back as the witch turned to laugh at some joke Sprout made.  The cheekbones were too pronounced, the nose too hawkish, the eyes not green.  Even from a third of the way across the Hall he could see her gold irises flashing with humor.  No.  Lily was dead, would always be dead, always out of his reach.  This was just the new Alchemy professor.

            His already sour mood turned to acid and he sulked forward once more, taking care to bypass the small group of professors greeting the witch.  Alchemy was based in a combination of potions and philosophy and taught to sixth and seventh years who passed their OWLS in potions and elected it.  As the head of the Potions department, he had always had to work closely with Corina Vermilia when she was the Alchemy professor, so he would have to greet the new witch eventually, but for now he needed to nurse his twice-damned soul.

             Sinistra was barely veiling a smirk as he sat beside her.  “What’s the matter, Severus?  Not going to greet your new partner in crime?”

            He scowled.  “She appears to be occupied.”

            “I think you just enjoyed a year of having the dungeons to yourself, no other upper-level teachers to contend with.”

            He had enjoyed that.  There hadn’t been enough interest in alchemy last term to justify replacing Vermilia right away, so he had had a whole year of being the only professor in the dungeons teaching sixth and seventh years.  He had not expected to enjoy the change so much after years of working with Vermilia, but it had done wonders for his pride not to have anyone to compete with for prestige in the department or glory in the students’ eyes. 

            Sinistra must have caught some grudging agreement in his expression because she snorted quietly.  “I don’t blame you.  I remember being new to the Astronomy department and wanting to throw myself off the tower teaching first years every night.  Now that I have all the sixth and seventh years, I wouldn’t want to share them.”

            Severus allowed a hiss of displeasure to escape him.  Many of the teachers took offence at his cynicism and pride, but not Sinistra.  She was the same way, to some degree, and talking with her made sitting through dinner surrounded by everyone else’s smothering joy more bearable.  “At least I won’t lose any of them to her.  No one can survive Alchemy without being in Potions too.”

            “True.”  Sinistra offered a warm smile to Sprout and waved to her as she made for her spot on Sinistra’s other side.  “But it does dampen your pride in the difficulty of Potions to have a class so feared to compete with, doesn’t it?  At least I don’t have to worry about the kids who choose Astrology over Astronomy being impressed by themselves for surviving.”

            “Any idiot can survive Astrology,” Severus agreed.  “The only ones who survive Alchemy are the ones who worked hard in Potions, though, and by mid-terms they’ll be thanking me for pushing them.  For affording me that, I can tip my hat to Alchemy.”

            “Did you say ‘Alchemy’?” Sprout asked, scraping her chair in as she sat.  Snape winced.  “The new girl is lovely.  You’ll like her, Severus.  She seems quite clever.”

            “Let us hope she lives up to your assessment.”

            He felt the eyes of ‘the new girl’ flash to him a few times, but he chose not to meet her gaze and the other professors kept her too engaged to break away and greet him herself.  He was being rude, but that had never stopped him before.  In any case, the buzz of incoming students soon chased the remaining professors to their seats.  Barty Crouch was led to the seat on Dumbledore’s left, where he twiddled his thumbs nervously beneath the table.  The powerful, severe man the Death Eaters had once feared had grown no less severe but far less foreboding since his son’s transportation.  Severus knew Azkaban and would be willing to sentence few people to its darkness.  To live with having sent one’s own son there would be enough to make any man doubt himself.

            His eyes flicked forward to the Gryffindor table and watched Potter sit with his annoying friends.  He had gotten so used to watching the boy in the last three years that he no longer needed to use his eyes to know where he was in the room.  He just couldn’t damn well help himself.  In moments like these, where he was close enough to discern the green in those eyes, but far enough not to hear the mischievous words in a voice that had deepened to match James Potter’s, he was Lily’s boy.  Lily’s son, the only piece left of her in this world, a boy that could have been his if he hadn’t been such a proud fool twenty years ago.  Straight-on, the boy resembled his father to an uncanny degree, but side-face like this, all green eyes, fair skin and black hair, he could have been Severus’s as easily as James’s. 

            The sorting was done, the Beauxbatons witches and Durmstrang wizards welcomed, and the Goblet of Fire presented.  Snape hated the sight of the damned thing and thought surely Dumbledore was tempting fate by allowing its presence here.  Children had died in the Tri-Wizard Tournament and after what had happened at the World Cup, tempting the Death Eaters with another high-profile event was far too risky.  He’d heard whispers that Wormtail of all people, the vicious little coward, was at the center of a scheme by Voldemort to bring the Dark Lord back to power.  Between those whispers and this foolish tournament, he expected Potter to be in mortal peril at least once this term, if not more frequently given his penchant for finding trouble. 

            And then there was Mad-Eye’s grand entrance.  Not for the first time, Dumbledore had quietly rejected Severus’s application for the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, this time because he had specifically sought out Mad-Eye as the new instructor.  Severus seethed watching Moody take his seat at Dumbledore’s side, remembering Dumbledore’s assertion that he needed Moody this year with the extra need for security that the tournament would present.  His claim that he could not possibly find a better Potions master than Severus had softened the blow, but not by much, especially since he was still feeling stung by being passed over last year for his old enemy, Remus Lupin.

            The churn of professors turning over had picked up speed in recent years, certainly, and Severus hoped that Moody would be the next to succumb to it.  Not only did he want the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, and badly, but also he wanted to see Mad-Eye fall and to be rid of his spinning eye watching him when he didn’t think he was paying attention.  Severus was always paying attention and he resented the way the old Auror was already watching him.

            Thoughts of turnover reminded Severus of the “new girl” as Sprout had so tactlessly referred to her.  Dumbledore had vouched for her, had even assured Snape that part of his summoning her to this post had been in silent hope that she could be used as a resource in their attempts to uncover Voldemort’s secret plans.  He had not divulged to Severus what made him so sure about this witch, who looked scarcely thirty, but Severus could trust no one in the living world as he could trust Dumbledore.  If she had his seal of approval, he would treat that as enough.  If this Alchemy professor really was as clever as Dumbledore seemed to think, and as trustworthy, perhaps he could pick her brain about potential routes the Dark Lord would use to return to power.  Using the Philosopher’s Stone had been a plot based in alchemy; perhaps this attempt would be too. 

            It was this thought that brought him back to himself enough to take the long way out of the Great Hall after dinner past the new witch.  She stood as he approached and her gold eyes pierced him as he offered his hand.  She shook it with a smile and there was warmth in those eyes, but also a fierce intelligence that reminded him of Lily, but prouder.  “Severus Snape, Potions Master.  I apologize for being unable to properly greet you earlier,” he said.

            “Alexandria Tofani,” she said.  Her voice was cool and crisp, a voice made for a classroom.  She would have no trouble frightening the students.  “I have heard much about you, Professor.  I look forward to working together.”

            “‘Snape’ will do.  We are colleagues and will be working closely together.”

            “‘Tofani’ will do just as well, then,” she said, her smile broadening just slightly.  She released his hand from a surprisingly firm grip and crossed her arms over her robes.  They were black satin overlaid with arcs of golds stitching, appropriate garb for an alchemist.  “I understand my place will be in the dungeons with the Potions department?”

            “Yes.  If you have not been there yet, I would be happy to lead you.”

            “Thank you.  The weather was horrid over the Mediterranean and my travel plans were delayed, so I only just got in before the feast.”

            He started towards the mouth of the Great Hall and Tofani followed him.  “Where do you come from?”

            “I was in Egypt.  I’ve been studying in Alexandria for some years, working on various research projects.”

            He couldn’t help raising an eyebrow, impressed.  They turned the corner and avoided being bowled over by students through force of his reputation, which created a conveniently large bubble of personal space around him that Tofani was enjoying the benefits of.  “May I ask what you worked on?”

            “I spent the last two years on a team going over Nicholas Flamel’s writings and documented experiments.  We were hoping to recreate the Philosopher’s Stone, but to no avail.  The team was growing smaller and smaller and disbanded entirely when I accepted this position,” Tofani said, the regret in her voice palpable.

            “It is better it stays unmade,” Severus said.  The witch’s sadness at the project’s dissolution was the only thing that kept him from making the remark in a biting tone. 

            Tofani’s eyes flashed to him with a dangerous glint.  He had struck a nerve.  “It is better it stays secret.  If Flamel could have convinced the world the Stone had been destroyed without being forced to actually destroy it, that would have been the best outcome, but no one would have believed him.  The Stone had too many positive applications that could have been derived from it with more extensive research on it.  Immortality could have preserved sufferers of terminal illness for a natural life.”

            “But then it would not have been secret anymore,” Severus said carefully.  “The return of the Dark Lord is the greatest threat to our world.”

            “Of course.  My father was a Muggle and my mother a half-blood.  And yet, research on the object itself could have taught us so much.” 

They followed the shifting staircases down below ground and then turned towards the stairwell to the dungeons in quiet.  Severus feared he may have pushed too many buttons with Tofani already, but her softened tone and words about her parents gave him the courage to pause in the quiet dungeon hall, where no portraits or students were listening, and look to her.  “I had wondered if you might be interested in pursuing a research project with me this term,” he said quietly.  Tofani took a half a step closer to him so he could speak more softly as a few Slytherins about made their way to their common room.  Her copper eyebrows had risen with interest.  “It would require the utmost discretion and be strictly between the two of us and Professor Dumbledore.”

Tofani’s golden eyes narrowed.  “I like to think myself among Dumbledore’s closer friends.  You can trust me.”

“You can count yourself there.  Dumbledore would not have given over trust of the alchemy students lightly.  You must have impressed him somehow.”  Tofani blushed and a shriveled-up piece of Severus’s soul softened at the sight.  She was attractive when her claws were retracted.  “The Dark Lord’s followers looked to alchemy once before as an opportunity to bring him back.  I wonder if they may look to it again.”

Tofani frowned deeply.  “What are you asking me for, Snape?”

“I’m asking you to lend your expertise as I research possible routes his followers may attempt to use to bring him back so that such a thing might be averted.  There have been rumors that they will try something again soon.”

Tofani’s eyes went wide and she looked about them before ducking to the edge of the corridor, where he followed her.  “Such a thing is still possible, then?  My colleagues and I had hoped that the fool who tried to steal the Stone was merely a fool.”

“Unfortunately for us all, he was not.”

Her eyes were eagle-like wide like that and, after a long moment, Tofani blinked and smoothed her expression out into coolness.  A few moments later, a trio of Slytherins walked past on the other side of the corridor.  When they had turned a corner and the two of them were alone once more, Tofani nodded severely.  “Then, you have my expertise.  If you want to know if recreating the Stone or its properties is possible, the short answer is ‘no.’”

“I had hoped you might say that,” he said, relieved.  “But these are desperate people.  If there are any other routes they could take, we would do well to find them and debunk them.”

“Very well.  I will begin researching right away.”

“Thank you.”  He led Tofani on to the end of the corridor and gestured to the left.  “Here is your classroom.  Your office and quarters are beyond it.  Your luggage should already be there.  You will also find a cupboard cleared for your use behind that pillar.  If you find yourself in need of anything, I am just here across the hall.”

“Thank you, Snape,” she said.  Then, she turned back to him and shook his hand firmly.  “I look forward to working with you.”

“And I with you.”

And he meant it.

Chapter Text

Severus made a point to avoid Moody in those first weeks.  The ex-auror was a madman at the best of times and an angry madman at the worst.  What’s more, Severus had not forgotten the way Moody had argued so passionately for his conviction at his trial fifteen years ago.  He had escaped with his life only through Dumbledore’s own testimony.  He could to this day feel the spikes in that chair and the chains around him as Mad-Eye demanded a one-way trip to Azkaban for him.  That fear, that shame, that indignation was something that he would never forget the feel of and never forgive.

Moody refused to let him avoid him entirely, though.  He regularly stomped into Severus’s office with a Slytherin in tow to demand retribution for some overblown crime.  His first appearance with a bedraggled Malfoy dragged in by the ear had come just at the start of term.

“Severus Snape, you appear to be doing well,” Moody growled at him, releasing Malfoy and letting him stumble into a nearby desk.

I am doing well on this side of Azkaban’s walls.  “I am fine, Professor.”  His eyes were locked on Malfoy, who was whimpering and flinching in fear every time Moody shifted from foot to stump.  “And, what is this about?”

“This rat tried to curse a student with his back turned.”  Moody’s Scottish accent and mad-dog voice sent the words into the air tripping over one another.  “I was told you were the one to speak to about this.”

Severus hissed in displeasure.  For all their wealth and beauty, the Malfoys were cowards, every one of them.  He wished he could box Malfoy’s ears, but that wouldn’t earn him any favors among his old friends.  Besides, the only way to try and fix what Lucius had broken in this foolish boy was to be approachable.  “Twenty points from Slytherin,” he said with a mild glare at Malfoy.  “I should think your father would have taught you a bit of honor, Draco.”

“Honor?” Moody snarled.  “His father?  Snape, you know the Malfoys haven’t got a shred of it in ‘em.”

“Don’t talk about my father that way!” Malfoy snapped.  When Moody spun on him, though, the boy flinched inward and nearly knocked himself out of his chair.

“That’s enough,” Severus said.  He raised a hand and used it to wave Mad-Eye from the room.  “Thank you, Professor Moody.  I will deal with this.”

Moody growled wordlessly, but retreated, slamming the door behind him.  When he’d gone, Malfoy shot up from his seat and pointed at the closed door.  “He turned me into a ferret!”

“You mean you let him turn you into a ferret because you were too busy firing off curses to watch for teachers.”  Severus barely managed to suppress an eyeroll at the situation.  A ferret.  McGonagall must have given Mad-Eye an earful for that.

“He insulted me!” Malfoy snarled.  “That filthy Mudblood-lover Potter!  He insulted me and my family!”

He should have known it would be Potter Malfoy had tried to curse.  His stomach knotted itself up, but he kept his cold demeanor.  “And rather than handle it properly, you tried to curse him with his back turned and a teacher watching you.  Any other teacher would give you a month of detention for this, Draco.  I trust you’ll take this as a learning experience, though.”

Malfoy deflated.  “Yes, sir.”

“Good.  Now get to class.”

 

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The last thing Severus wanted was another run-in with Moody, but everywhere he went he felt that damned eye tracking him and every week or so, Moody would drag another Slytherin into his office for punishing.  Apparently, he hadn’t been very careful in his efforts to avoid him, because one evening as he and Tofani worked on an alchemical potion together, she said quietly, “He’s creepy, isn’t he?  Moody.”

“He isn’t called “Mad-Eye” for nothing,” Severus agreed, placing his full attention on the boomslang skin he was slicing.

Tofani turned up the burner beneath the glass phial of water she was slowly boiling.  “Mad as a hatter.  Is that why you don’t like him?”

Tofani was more talkative a colleague than he normally chose for himself, but at least she said intelligent things.  She was annoyingly intuitive and this had not been the first time she’d inferred something about Severus he’d have otherwise kept to himself.  Fortunately, so far the things she’d inferred had been mundane.  “More that he doesn’t like me.”

There was a beat of quiet, then Tofani nodded and said, “I see.”  The water came to a full boil and she grasped the phial with a tongs, tipped it over, and poured the water into the potion, which turned a shade of ocean blue.

Severus narrowed his eyes, then slowly laid the strips of boomslang skin into the potion one at a time.  When it was done, he eyed her.  “And what does that mean?”

Tofani cringed, looking down at the recipe they were using.  She bent down to study it closely as she answered, “There is a small chance that I may have applied for your job while you were on trial.”

His pulse raced and he stared at her through slitted eyes.  “You what?”

Tofani shrugged.  “I’d been wanting a position here since I graduated from Hogwarts, so I kept an eye on all the professors in the Potions department, hoping for an opening.  When you were indicted, I decided to make a move.”

“And?”

Tofani placed a hand on her hip and stood up straight to look him in the eye.  He’d expected her to quail; she was admitting to something shameful and he’d used that tone that sent students skittering away.  But no, those golden eyes were fierce as an eagle.  “And Dumbledore said ‘no’, obviously.  He was far too attached to you.  I heard it was his testimony that got you acquitted…is that true?”

“You ask too many questions,” he said darkly.

She raised one copper eyebrow and shrugged again.  “We’re going to spend quite a lot of time working together on something very dangerous.  Why shouldn’t I want to know if I can trust you?”

That gave him pause.  He had given her no reason to trust him, after all, and he had a nasty reputation…one she was apparently well aware of.  “This project is sanctioned by Professor Dumbledore, I can assure you.  I have no intention of using you to bring the Dark Lord back…”

Her eyes flashed.  “And yet you call him ‘Lord.’”

“He is a lord…over all those who are too fearful of him to speak his name.”  Severus stood up to his full height.  “Are you afraid of Lord Voldemort, Tofani?  Or of me?  If you fear either of us, you don’t belong in this room.”

For a heavy moment, Tofani only stared at him.  Then, in a biting tone, she said, “I don’t fear Lord Voldemort, or any man.  All men die, not even alchemy can prevent that.  I don’t know how he can possibly still live on, but I trust Dumbledore and the things he has told me.  I trust his judgment.  So tell me, Snape, can I trust you?”

Severus turned down Tofani’s burner and returned to his side of the table, glaring into the cauldron.  “Dumbledore’s testimony saved me from Azkaban.  Mad-Eye and everyone else would have seen me rot.”

“Then their evidence…”

“Was sound enough,” Severus said shortly.  In his head, he replayed over and over the moment that word, Mudblood, had come tumbling out of his mouth, the look on Lily’s face that told him he had done something unforgivable.  He’d lost his best friend, the woman he loved, had watched her fall for his worst enemy…had held her dead body when he couldn’t save her from a monster he’d helped create.  “I made mistakes and I paid for them, a thousand times over.  Believe me.”

There was a long moment of silence, then Tofani said, “Fine,” and they continued to work.

            They worked well together, once they got used to each other.  Tofani talked about Alexandria when they were potion-making and went into deep meditation when they had to do something alchemical.  “Alchemy is as much about unity of the soul as it is about unity of ingredients,” she insisted.  “Earth, fire, water, air…body and soul…heaven, hell, earth…it’s all connected and it’s in the balance of these things that we find alchemical substances.”  Some of those substances Severus was closely familiar with, or familiar enough.  Salt, mercury, gypsum, calcium, sulfuric acid, arsenic, lime.  Others were more complicated elements outside his own potions cupboard, many of them things Tofani built from scratch the way he built base potions.  Mercury chloride, arsenic trioxide, antimony oxychloride.  They were dangerous compounds and it showed in scars he noticed on Tofani’s hands and forearms, but she handled them carefully and with confidence.

            She wore her red hair back in a braid when she worked, one long plait down to her mid-back.  Lily had never worn braids.  She had worn her hair loose and, when pulling it back was required, it was into a messy ponytail.  Tofani, though, always had her sleek hair back in a braid while she worked and always wore robes that were tightly fitted from her waist up to her shoulders and back down to her wrists.  The robes were feminine, usually black with gold stitching in some pattern or another, but the tightness and the number of buttons resembled his own.  They were potion-making robes.

            She never knocked anything over.  In fact, she was notably graceful and always seemed to know where everything was, a fact he appreciated after spending all day watching students stumble over things they’d placed somewhere foolish or look for things they’d lost under a book.  It was a relief to work with a professional.

            They worked together most nights after dinner when neither of them were supervising detentions.  As a Head of House, Severus was much less likely to be free, but when he was, Tofani would come to his classroom bearing a cauldron full of phials and jars and they would work.  In a few short weeks, they had a list of options to explore and, in a few more weeks, had two of those options knocked out.

            As usual, he had the sixth years learning antidotes and the fourth years learning theory of antidotes. He took no small amount of pleasure in suggesting to the Gryffindors that if they did not properly research their antidotes, one of them may find themselves poisoned by Christmas.  That seemed to shut Potter and his friends right up.

            It was as the fourth years departed from that particular class, Potter and Weasley looking particularly worried, that Tofani entered his classroom, looking as cool as ever.  The students skittered out of her way and she turned to watch the last few escape the room with something like pride.  “I’m beginning to develop a reputation,” she said wistfully.

            “I’ve heard you’ve earned it.  Thirty centimeters on arsenic trioxide?”

            Tofani looked to him with a grin.  “They have to get the substances early or they won’t be able to do anything practical safely.  You almost sound like you admire me.”

            Severus raised an eyebrow and dealt her a look that suggested it unlikely.  She didn’t seem fazed, though.  “How long did it take you to get them to fear you?”

            He couldn’t help the small sigh that escaped him at the thought.  Ages.  “What do you want, Tofani?”

            “You really don’t like Potter, do you?  Or is it Gryffindors in general you don’t like?”

            “I don’t have a problem with Gryffindors.”  Lily was a Gryffindor.

            “So it is Potter.”

            “He’s arrogant.  Always getting into trouble.  Not intelligent, either.  What’s to like?”

            Tofani’s smile turned crooked.  “You really don’t like him.  Professor McGonagall told me he can produce a full-bodied Patronus.  Doesn’t sound so unintelligent to me.”

            Severus gave he a withering look.  “What do you want, Tofani?”

            “I’m running low on gypsum.”

            “Fine.”  He stood and moved around his desk, leading her out into the corridor and to his potions cupboard.  He produced the key and carefully unlocked it.  When she raised an eyebrow at it, he rolled his eyes.  “It’s charmed.  Potter and his friends were stealing from it in their second year to brew Polyjuice Potion.”

            “Not unintelligent at all.”

            “It was Granger that brewed it.  Little know-it-all.”  He handed her a small jar of gypsum and locked the cupboard once more.  “I planned to place a supplies order next week.  Let me know what else you need.”

            “Thank you.”

            She turned and walked back to her classroom.  He watched her and, just before she shut her door, she looked back and caught him.  He looked away sharply and made for his own classroom, his stomach in knots for no reason.

Chapter Text

            October thirty-first came quickly and with it, the Goblet of Fire’s decision.  Severus had spent the final days of October chasing off students who were attempting to create various kinds of aging potions.  Tofani had had little trouble with this as the underage students for the most part didn’t know her and were terrified of her, but she had had some ingredients stolen from her cupboard.  It was now charmed like Severus’s.

            The Goblet of Fire chose its three champions, much to the delight of all the students and staff present.  Cedric Diggory, a silly but not unintelligent Hufflepuff, had been chosen as the Hogwarts champion.  Severus would have preferred to see a Slytherin, but all things considered, it could have been worse.

            But even as Dumbledore showed off the Tri-Wizard Cup, it wasn’t over.  Severus could feel it in the very air within the Great Hall, could feel it prickling along his skin, creeping in the shadows.  He watched the Goblet of Fire, watched as the flames began to leap and dance once more, blue light swirling about the Hall.  In more horror than surprise, he stepped forward and watched as the flames turned red, then burst forth with a fourth charred bit of parchment.  Dumbledore, frowning deeply, caught the parchment.  Before the parchment even found the headmaster’s grasp, Severus knew what it would say and listened without an ounce of surprise as Dumbledore whispered the name, “Harry Potter.”

            The unease that had rippled through the room turned to shock and Dumbledore raised his voice, looking about.  “Harry Potter?” 

Severus’s eyes were already on Harry, who listened with bulging green eyes as Dumbledore called his name aloud.  There was fear in the boy’s eyes as he slithered downward in his seat.  He was not James’s boy then, not at all.  There was no arrogance there, no pride in a well-executed prank.  Potter either had not done this himself or had not expected it to work.

            “Harry Potter!” Dumbledore shouted.

            Potter’s friends shoved him from his seat and he moved across the Great Hall to Dumbledore, accepting the bit of parchment as hundreds of eyes looked on.  When he read the confirmation there, his green eyes snapped up to Dumbledore’s in renewed shock and, slowly, he proceeded around the headmaster towards the door the champions had passed through.  As he walked, voices began to whisper, then to speak louder. 

“Cheat!”

            “He’s a cheat!”

            “He’s not even seventeen yet!”

            No.  He’s fourteen, you fools, Severus thought as he locked eyes with Potter.  And if I don’t do something, he’s going to die.

            McGonagall gave Potter a reassuring pat on the shoulder that didn’t match her shaken expression, then the boy was gone.  When Dumbledore had managed to get the chaos in the Great Hall settled and sent the students off to bed, Severus scrambled after him in the direction Potter had gone.  Tofani managed to gain his gaze for a moment, showing him her concern, but he could not spare a second’s thought.  Lily’s boy.  Someone put Lily’s boy’s name in the Goblet…someone wants him dead.

            The other headmasters were on their heels, protesting loudly even as McGonagall, Moody, and Crouch followed.  Karkaroff was complaining that he would have brought more students had he known Hogwarts would be granted two champions.  Severus’s mind leapt to a possibility.  If Potter were disqualified now, he’d be safe.  “It’s no one’s fault but Potter’s, Karkaroff,” he snarled.  “Don’t go blaming Dumbledore for Potter’s determination to break rules.  He’s been crossing lines since he got here…”

            “Thank you, Severus,” Dumbledore said, cutting him off.  In the chamber, Dumbledore stalked to Harry and grabbed him by the shoulders.  “Harry!  Harry, did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?!”

            “No, sir!”

            “Did you ask one of the older students to do it for you?”

            “No, sir!”

            “Are you absolutely sure?”

            “Yes, yes, sir!”

            Severus made a hiss of disbelief, though he found he did believe Potter.  As much as the boy did go looking for trouble, tonight it had found him.

            “But, of course, he is lying!” snarled Madame Maxime.

            “The hell he is!” Moody snapped.  His quickness to defend Potter sent Snape’s eyebrows rising.  “The Goblet of Fire is an exceptionally powerful magical object.  Only an exceptionally powerful Confundus charm could have hoodwinked it.  Magic way beyond the talents of a fourth year.”

            But well within your talents.

            As if echoing Severus’s thoughts, Karkaroff rounded on Moody.  “You seem to have given this a fair bit of thought, Mad-Eye!”

            “It was once my job to think as Dark Wizards do, Karkaroff, perhaps you remember,” Moody growled.

            “That doesn’t help, Alastor!” Dumbledore snapped.  “I leave this to you, Barty.”

            The room fell silent and Severus watched like a man about to be condemned as Crouch mentally wrung his hands.  “The rules are absolute.  The Goblet of Fire constitutes a biding magical contract.”  Crouch turned to them, his eyes wide in horror even as the words came out of his mouth.  “Mr. Potter has no choice.  He is, as of tonight, a Tri-Wizard Champion.”

            As one, they turned to look at Harry, who stood alone in the shadow of the dancing fire, clutching that piece of parchment like he wished it would disappear between his fingers.

 

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            “This can’t go on, Albus.” McGonagall said later in Dumbledore’s office.  “First the Dark Mark, now this?”

            “What would you have me do?” Dumbledore asked wearily, staring down into his Pensieve.

            She held up a hand as if it were obvious.  It wasn’t, though.  Crouch, and the Ministry, were on the Goblet’s side, not Potter’s.  In any case, to disqualify Potter at this stage would brand him with the incident for life.  “Put an end to it!  Don’t let Potter compete!”

            “You heard Barty, the rules are absolute.”

            “Well, to the devil with Barty and his rules.  And since when have you accommodated the Ministry?”

            He’d never accommodated the Ministry, Severus was quite sure, but there was another element to this problem that he had not considered until now.  Severus entwined his fingers carefully, making sure he meant every word as it came out of his mouth.  “Headmaster, I too find it difficult to believe this is a mere coincidence.  However…if we are truly to discover the meaning of these events, I believe we should…for the time being…let them unfold.”

            “What?” McGonagall said in shock, looking to him wildly.  “Do nothing?  Offer him up as bait?  Potter is a boy, not a piece of meat!”

            Dumbledore sighed.  “I agree…with Severus.  Alastor, keep an eye on Harry, would you?”

            Severus listened as Moody stood, his stump thunking on the stone floor.  “I can do that.”

            And I will too.  Always.

 

----------------

 

            When he returned to his classroom, shuffling wearily along the corridors, weighed down but what he’d done, Severus found Tofani waiting for him beside a rapidly boiling red potion.  She turned on him as he entered and spun a complicated design in the air over the cauldron with her wand as she walked away.  “Snape, what the hell was that about?”

            Severus shook his head slowly, slipping around her and to his own cauldrons over the fire.  Tofani moved around him and shut the classroom door behind her, latching it.  He retreated to the large cauldron he had left stirring itself three times clockwise, twice counter-clockwise.  It had darkened from a mint green to a dull lime.  Tofani pursued him and looked into the cauldron briefly, then back to him.  “Snape.  What the hell was that?”

            “Someone’s trying to kill him.  Again.”

            “Are they allowing him to compete?  Surely not…”

            “They are and I argued for it.”

            Tofani’s eyebrows shot up.  “You what?”

            Severus sighed.  His ribs hardly shifted with the exhale and his abdominal muscles strained.  He hated this, but it had to be done.  The boy was constantly in danger and no amount of bubble-wrap would protect him.  The only way to save him was to take out the threat.  “We won’t know who put his name in the Goblet of Fire or why unless we allow him to compete.  He’ll be killed, of course, unless he has some help along the way, but there is no other option.  If he could be allowed to withdraw, the villain would only find some other way to reach him.”

            Tofani hissed.  “This is madness.  What can we do?”

            “Keep working.  This is all tied together somehow and we must untie it.  You keep working on the alchemy and I’ll watch Potter. If we’re clever, we’ll find some link between the two before it is too late.”

Chapter Text

            He could hear the shouting from a corridor away, then twin bangs as two hexes were fired off.  Severus sighed, but decided not to pick up the pace, even as screams began to echo through the dungeons.  Potter and Malfoy at it again…a few days since the Goblet of Fire goes out and things are back to normal.

            “And what is all this noise about?” he asked softly as he approached.

            Despite his quiet voice, the students immediately settled down and parted.  When he was close enough to see the rage on Potter and Malfoy’s faces and the boils on Goyle and growing teeth on Granger, the students began to find their voices again.  He pointed a long finger at Malfoy, silencing the crowd.  “Explain.”

            “Potter attacked me, sir…”

            “We attacked each other at the same time!”

            “…and he hit Goyle…look…”

            Severus took a long look at Goyle’s oozing, fungus-covered face and said, calmly, “Hospital wing, Goyle.”  The burly boy shoved past the other students, stumbling towards the stairs.

            “Malfoy got Hermione!” Weasley shouted.  “Look!”

            Granger was trying to hide her teeth behind her hands, but Weasley forced her to show them.  Severus stared at Granger’s teeth growing past her collar for a moment and, in his head, heard her damned know-it-all voice disparaging his Slytherins, young students with nothing but their ambition or their family’s ambition propelling them forward.  Slytherins who failed became frustrated individuals desperate to make a name for themselves in any way they could.  Just like him. 

In his coldest voice, he said, “I see no difference.”

            Granger whimpered and began to sob as she ran for the stairs.  In the same moment, Weasley and Potter had spun on him and were shouting insults over each other.  Their voices bounced about the stone corridor, but even in the echoes he caught the words ‘jerk’, ‘asshat’, and ‘toad’.  “Let’s see,” he said in his silkiest voice, unable to fully repress the satisfaction he got from this.  “Fifty points from Gryffindor and a detention each for Potter and Weasley.  Now get inside, or it’ll be a week’s worth of detentions.”

            Potter and Weasley both dealt him their best glares, nothing he hadn’t braved before, and led the remaining students into the Potions classroom.  Severus supervised them and caught Tofani watching him from her doorway, a coppery eyebrow raised in distaste.  Severus sneered at her, his temper spiking, then followed the students into his class and slammed the door.  “Antidotes!” he cried.  “You should all have prepared recipes by now.  I want you to brew them carefully, and then, we will be selecting someone on whom to test one….”  His eyes found Potter’s and, in this light, they hardly even looked green.  They were slitted with hate, dark and hard.  His face was curled into an indignant scowl, the same one James Potter would wear on the rare occasion Severus got a good insult off on him before things turned south.  He wasn’t Lily’s boy in that moment.  Oh no, not at all.  He was a reincarnation of James Potter, his nemesis.

            And then there was a knock on the door.

            For a moment, he thought it would be Tofani to scold him for his display of cruelty in the corridor, but no.  It was Creevey, that obnoxious third year who trailed after Potter like a puppy.

            The same way Pettigrew used to trail after James and Sirius.

            “Yes?” he said curtly.

            “Please sir, I’m supposed to take Harry Potter upstairs.”

            He stared down at Creevey until the boy’s smile had faded entirely.  Only then did he respond coldly, “Potter has another hour of Potions to complete.  He will come upstairs when this class is finished.”

            The boy turned pink and began to stutter nervously.  “S-sir…Mr. Bagman wants him.  All the ch-champions have got to go…I think they want to take photographs.”

            Blasted Potter and his damned photographs.  The boy was practically drowning in vanity, why not pile some more fame on?  “Very well, very well,” he snapped at Creevey.  “Potter, leave your things here.  I want you back down here later to test your antidote.”

            “P-please, sir…he’s got to take his th-things with him,” squeaked Creevey.  “A-all the champions…”

            “Very well!  Potter, take your bag and get out of my sight!”

            Potter took his bag and ran for it.  When Creevey was out of the room, Potter shot a final glare at some Slytherins, then slammed the door.  Severus smacked the book on antidotes he’d been fingering down on the table with a smack in retort.  “Antidotes!  Start brewing!”

            The next night was Potter and Weasley’s detention, which was doubly annoying because he had not been able to speak with, much less work with, Tofani in days.  He sentenced Potter and Weasley to a few hours spent pickling rats’ brains while he graded papers at his desk.

            Halfway through the detention, there was a knock at the door that both Potter and Weasley looked up at.  He sneered at them, though, and they quickly got back to work.  Fortunately, they didn’t seem to be on speaking terms because he’d hardly had to supervise them at all that night, a pleasant change of pace.  Severus stalked to the door and opened it to find Tofani standing there with a book pressed to her chest.  Her long red hair was loose and lay like a sheet over her shoulders.  “Tofani.  I have Potter and Weasley in here for detention…”

            “I can see that,” she said with a dark look.  Clearly, she had a problem with how he had handled yesterday’s incident and had not forgotten it.  “I only wanted to tell you that I think I’ve made some progress on our research project.”

            Severus frowned deeply and pushed the door open for her to enter the classroom.  Potter and Weasley looked up again, but Tofani sneered at them in a way that reminded him of himself and they looked back to the rats they were dissecting hurriedly.  Severus led Tofani to his office and shut the door behind them.  “What is it?”

            Tofani looked down at the book in her arms, then, hesitating, offered it to Severus.  The book was of an ancient black leather that frayed at the corners and had split away from the worn spine.  In gold print was the title, Alchemical Spells Passed Down by Salazar Slytherin.

            His eyebrows drew down and he looked to Tofani through narrowed eyes.  There was a time when he would have given an arm or a leg to get ahold of a book like this and even now he found himself holding it reverently.  “Where in the bloody hell did you get this?”

            “Alexandria,” she said uncertainly.  “I’m not proud of it, I haven’t used anything in it, of course, merely studied it as a research tool.”

            Severus raised an eyebrow and very carefully opened the book to the contents.  “What’s there to be ashamed of?  This is an incredibly valuable book.”

            “To a select group of people, yes,” Tofani said through gritted teeth.  “I’ve read through it closely, Snape, it’s all very dark magic, very dark.  The worst things I’ve ever read in my life are in there.”

            Severus scanned the chapter headings and they did sound rather dark.  Mind-Bending.  Animagi.  Soul-Splitting.  Horcruxes.  Death Diversions.  Dark and difficult to the point where one questioned whether such things were possible.  He frowned deeply at it.  “Some of this stretches credulity.”

            “As I said, I’ve never tried to do any of these things, just studied them from a researcher’s perspective.”

            “Why are you bringing it to me?”

            Tofani was staring down at the book looking deeply troubled by it.  Severus closed it and she seemed to relax just slightly.  “I thought it might point us in the right direction.”

            Severus nodded, looking down at the book once more.  His sixteen-year-old self was buried somewhere deep inside him and positively quivering with excitement at the prospect of reading this.  When he looked back up at Tofani, there was a tiny orb of warmth in his chest.  She met his eyes and he gathered the book carefully against his chest.  “I’m honored that you chose to share this with me.  I know the…stigma surrounding it and the risk of it falling into the wrong hands must have been nerve-wracking.  I promise to take good care of it and that when we’re done, it will be back in your library, safe and sound.”

            “Thank you, Snape,” she said gratefully.  “Take a look at it and let me know what you think.  I’m sure you’ll take good care of it.”

            “I’ll see that I do.”

            Tofani left his office then and he watched her on her way out, her heels cracking on the stone floor.  As she passed Potter and Weasley, she stopped and snapped at them, “What are you doing to those rats?  Bludgeoning them?”  The boys jerked to attention in their seats and Severus found himself watching as Tofani approached them looking rather disturbed.  She snatched the scalpel from Weasley’s hand and used it on the rat in the middle of his desk.  Seconds later, she dropped the rat’s brain into the jar of pickling solution and handed the scalpel back to Weasley.  “That is how you dissect a rat skull.  Good lord.”  She moved briskly away to rinse her hands at the tap near the door, then exited without another look back.  Potter and Weasley were staring after her, looking positively terrified.

            “Back to work!” Severus snarled at them, still watching the door through which Tofani had disappeared.

Chapter Text

            Potter managed to survive the first task despite all evidence suggesting he wouldn’t.  Someone, likely Moody, Severus thought from watching everyone’s behavior during the Task, had thought to suggest to Potter that he Summon his broomstick and use his flying skills to his advantage, a strategy that had proved successful.  Potter had captured his golden egg in record time with only a scratch on the shoulder as evidence.

            Severus had always hated broomsticks.  He’d never had the confidence or the balance for them.  He could still remember his first attempts at mounting a broom, falling over again and again while Lily watched, laughing at him as he laughed with her.  Damned James Potter had been a great flyer, of course, one of the things Lily had admired about him.  Severus preferred Apparition, or other means of transportation, and had tried his hand at unaided flying, though he had yet to master that particular magical skill.

            It was in the days after the First Task that he decided to visit the thestrals.  They were magnificent creatures, among the few living things Severus felt he could share some level of understanding with.  They were quiet, intelligent beings that listened because they knew.  That was their magic: they knew death and did not fear it.

            Severus knew death.  He’d seen it up close and personal as a Death Eater, had watched Macnair, Goyle, Bellatrix, and others commit horrific acts of murder and torture.  It wasn’t until after Lily’s death that he could see the thestrals, though, and when he did, he had set out to learn what he could about them.  What mattered most was their most basic property, that they only appeared to those who had witnessed death and understood the significance of it.  Severus had seen it firsthand as a Death Eater and, later, when he’d held Lily’s body in his arms, he’d really understood it.

            The thestrals lived in the Dark Forest not far from where the dragons’ paddock had been, which was what made him think to visit them the Saturday after the First Task.  The wind was wicked, blowing his robes around him like bats’ wings, but it faded as he entered the forest and its protection.  The walk was long, but the fall air was crisp and he didn’t get out enough, as he was often told by Sprout and Sinistra. 

            In a small valley in the forest, the thestrals were quietly nosing through the fallen leaves searching for food.  The younger thestrals were playing in the leaves, stirring them up and running about in them.  As he approached, a few of the grown thestrals looked up at him and one met him partway into the clearing, lowering its great head to him expectantly.  Severus stroked the thestral’s face fondly, its skin cool and leathery under his palms.  The beast watched him with glowing eyes, snuffling in pleasure as he rubbed its concave cheeks and narrow neck.

            “I wouldn’t have thought you a creature type.”

            Severus frowned, his moment of peace shattered.  Slowly, he lowered his hands and turned to see Tofani curled up at the base of a large tree behind him, a book in her lap and a thestral lying in the leaves, apparently asleep with its head on her lower leg.  “Not most creatures, no.  I wouldn’t have thought it of you either.”

            Tofani smiled grimly, her golden eyes cool and closed-off.  “Just thestrals.”

            Severus nodded slowly, them reached up to continue stroking the thestral as he talked to her.  “What are you reading?”

            “Wuthering Heights.  I needed some time off to think of other things.”

            “And on your time off you prefer Heathcliff to alchemy?”

            Tofani snorted.  “It gets lonely up here.  I have to find my romance somewhere.”

            Severus felt his skin grow hot and he turned back to the thestral just in case he flushed.  He tried to avoid any topic that neared romance and, now he thought about it, he certainly didn’t want to discuss it with Tofani.  Another thestral approached him, apparently jealous of his attentions, and he began to give it the same ministrations.

            They talked little more.  Eventually, Tofani set her book aside and instead stroked the snoozing thestral beside her as she watched the others.  Severus sat on a fallen tree nearby and watched them too, petting the ones who came close enough.  One nosed at him and buried its face in his chest, so he cradled its head and stroked its shoulder fondly.  It was difficult to maintain his usual cool expression when he wanted to grimace and potentially even cry, but he did it because Tofani was there.  Visiting the thestrals usually meant a rare occasion when he allowed himself to show some of his grief for Lily, but that would not be the case today.

            “We’re friends, Snape,” Tofani said gently at one point.  Severus looked to her and was surprised to see a single tear on her cheek as she watched him, the slightest grimace in the set of her mouth.  “I know that face is a mask.  It’s just us here.”

            “Old habits die hard,” he said.  He didn’t relax any more than he already had.

            Eventually, they walked back up to the school together.  Neither asked the other who had died or how they’d found the thestrals.  They were silent companions.

 

----------------

 

            The Yule Ball was fast approaching and, with it, Severus’s nerves were fraying.  The students were driving him mad with their inattentiveness and disgusting giggles as they whispered about the ball, who was taking who, what everyone was wearing, what it would be like.  The entire thing was nauseating.  Worse, his Mark was growing more distinct and darker by the day, he was sure, as if Voldemort was physically moving closer.  Karkaroff had tried to corner him several times and Moody was watching him even more closely, but he avoided them both with great care.  In fact, he left the dungeons little in those days unless it was necessary, preferring to hide in his office reading Tofani’s Alchemical Spells.  Sprout and Dumbledore both showed concern at his absences from meals, but he brushed them off.  The last thing he wanted was to rehash his past.

            The book was, quite simply, fascinating.  It was loaded with spells, most incredibly complex and often requiring high levels of alchemical meditation to execute.  Severus had never excelled in alchemy.  If he was to believe Salazar Slytherin’s book, it was because he’d either faced too much trauma or too great an identity crisis and his soul had been damaged by the ordeal.  Evidently, someone without a well-defined soul could not hope to execute proper alchemical spells, which required what he suspected Tofani would call ‘spiritual oneness.’

            In the dead of night, he even tried a few of the spells on objects in his classroom.  His soul was apparently too damaged to even make a show that his wand worked.  In a moment of anxiety, he’d Summoned a book across the room just to make sure it did indeed still work and it did.  The realization that this branch of the Dark Arts was completely out of his reach hurt so deeply that he found himself throwing things about his classroom, breaking things, shattering phials and jars and cylinders.  When it was done, he sat in a pile of broken glass for some time, crying quietly, then magicked everything back into proper order and went to bed.  He suspected Tofani had heard the ruckus because she was unusually quiet and cautious around him in the days following, but she didn’t broach the subject and he was grateful for it.

            On Christmas Day, the castle was positively dripping in Christmas spirit, mostly in the form of everlasting icicles and tinsel.  Ice sculptures and rosebushes decorated the gardens and the Great Hall had been enchanted to resemble an ice palace more closely than Hogwarts. 

            He hated it.

            He hated all the joy and laughter, he hated the romance sparkling in the damned air, he hated the obsession with pretty dress robes and overly loud music.  Mostly, he hated all the students coupling off, dancing together, sneaking into corners and behind statues to snog.  He hated seeing what he could have had with Lily if he hadn’t made so many foolish decisions twenty years ago.

His Head of House duties unfortunately included helping to supervise the ball, so he was skulking around the Great Hall and the nearby branches of the castle looking for rule-breakers.  So far, Potter and Weasley were surprisingly not among them, a fact he was grateful for.  Malfoy too seemed to be busy enjoying himself with Parkinson rather than harassing the other students, so that was no small relief.

As he spun a corner, he very nearly ran into Tofani, who was exiting the Great Hall.  “Snape!” she exclaimed in surprise.  “I was wondering where you were.”

He about died of shock upon seeing her, for she was in gold dress robes with a scoop neckline that showed the rise of her breasts and trailing sleeves that reached her knees.  Her smooth red hair was in a loose bun behind one ear and her golden eyes were ringed by an extra layer of kohl.

His heart was pounding in his chest, his breath falling stagnant in his lungs.  “I don’t dance,” he said, nearly choking on the words.

She smiled and it lit up the corridor like a candle.  “Somehow I knew you’d say that.  I’m heading down to the dungeons.  That was about as much frivolity as I can stand in one evening.”

His scowl returned and he rolled his eyes.  “As a Head of House, I have to be here to supervise.”

Tofani snorted, still smiling, and said conspiratorially, “Well, don’t have too much fun.”

With that, she slipped past him and he turned to watched her disappear down the stairwell to the dungeons, her gown clinging to her, her heels cracking on the stone floor.

“Blast,” he hissed to himself, shaking off the apparition that was Tofani dressed up.  Scowling even deeper now at his foolish reaction to her, he stalked out of the castle and into the cold night, seeking further victims.

“Severus!” a voice hissed at him from behind an ice sculpture of an eagle.

He sighed and shut his eyes.  He knew that voice.  “Igor.  What do you want?”

Karkaroff emerged, looking more than a little rattled and clutching his forearm.  “Severus…I’ve been trying to find a moment to speak with you…the Mark, Severus…it’s getting darker…”

            “I don’t see what there is to fuss about, Igor.”

            “Severus, you cannot pretend this isn’t happening!” Karkaroff hissed anxiously.  “It’s been getting clearer and clearer for months.  I am becoming seriously concerned…”

            “Then flee,” Severus said curtly, breaking out his wand to blast apart a rose bush.  Damned things.  They didn’t even make sense…how could rose bushes live in a stupid winter wonderland?  “Flee…I will make your excuses.  I, however, am remaining at Hogwarts.”  He remembered very well Karkaroff’s naming of names all those years ago and didn’t envy him the position he’d find himself in if the Dark Lord returned to power.  

He blew apart two more rose bushes.  Half a moment later, a girl squealed and a pair of students scurried from behind one of the exploded bushes.  “Ten points from Ravenclaw, Fawcett!  And ten points from Hufflepuff too, Stebbins!”  He looked up to find that Potter and Weasley had appeared on the path ahead.  He scowled and snarled at them, “And what are you two doing here?”

            “We’re walking,” Weasley said curtly.  “Not against the law is it?”

            “Keep walking, then!” he snapped at them.  They did, thankfully, and he skulked back towards the castle with Karkaroff trailing in his wake.  “I won’t say anymore about it, Igor.  My place is here.  Yours is with your champion if you’re not too frightened to remain.”

            “Severus…”

            “Make your decision, Karkaroff!” Severus snapped at him.  “And leave me out of it.”

            Karkaroff allowed him to outpace him and, his mood incredibly foul now, Severus returned to the castle.  Inside, the Weird Sisters were playing some stupid song that the students were jumping and gyrating to.  In the shadows, he could see McGonagall, Filch, and Sinistra looking on with obvious displeasure.  They seemed to have the Hall covered, a massive relief, so he escaped up the marble staircase to check the other wings of the castle for misbehavers.

            Before the night was out, he split apart four more pairs of students he caught snogging and worse.  He found a Durmstrang boy and a Beauxbatons girl in a particularly compromising situation in the Astronomy Tower and shooed them back to their respective beds, vowing to tell their headmaster and headmistress, as well as Professor Sinistra if they didn’t step to.  They ran, buttoning their robes as they did, nearly tripping over themselves in their hurry.  The whole ordeal was nauseating.

            At midnight, he made his way back to the dungeons for a well-earned sleep.  As he locked his doors and began to disrobe, though, his mind wandered back to Tofani and the way she’d looked tonight.  The golden satin had looked almost liquid, like it could slip from her shoulders at any moment, revealing more of the soft-looking, pale skin he’d seen of her upper chest.  He imagined that the flowing sleeves would mean the robes would slip right off her arms, maybe pool around her hips for a moment, but ultimately drop right to the floor.

            He caught himself standing there half-dressed wondering what exactly she had under those robes and actually shuddered in shock at himself.  Tofani was his colleague, a woman, yes, even a beautiful woman, but one with whom he currently shared a platonic relationship, one that had to remain platonic.  In any case, he hadn’t honestly been enamored by a woman since Lily died.  He’d been too busy torturing himself with guilt and loneliness to give the opposite sex much thought, unless, of course, he was thinking of her.

            But now…

            Now he was wondering if Tofani’s red hair was as soft as it looked, as sleek as water.  She must have had to work hard to get it to stay in that bun with how slippery it appeared.  I was wondering where you were.  A not-so-small part of him for a moment wanted to believe she’d gone to such efforts hoping he’d notice, that her laughter at his comment about not dancing was laughter at herself for having hoped he would dance with her.

            What in the hell was he thinking?

            He wasn’t thinking.  That was the answer, he wasn’t thinking at all.  His brain had turned to mush from all his frustration about the ball.  That had to be the explanation.

            Nonetheless, he took himself in hand that night, thinking of slick red hair between his fingers, skin like porcelain naked beneath him, skin so soft it all but melted beneath his lips.  He normally thought of Lily, he always thought of Lily, but as he came, he was imagining those golden eyes, sharp with intelligence, liquid with desire, and that smile like a candle in his dark, dark world.

            Afterward, he magicked himself clean and sat on his bed staring into the flickering fireplace, feeling ashamed and disgusted with himself.  He had not meant to do it, had not intended to, but he had just gotten off thinking of his closest colleague, a woman he had to work with every day, a woman who trusted him and respected him as a friend and peer.

            In a moment, though, he was thinking of the way her hair wound around itself in her braid, the way she looked as she leaned down to sniff an ingredient, to breathe in a potion.  He remembered the blissful look on her face as she meditated over a bubbling potion, breathing in the fumes, so still the air grew heavy around her and clung to her.  When she worked, she looked so peaceful and complete.  She looked like the way he felt as he read Salazar Slytherin’s book: at home.  He wondered if that was the expression her face relaxed into as she lay in bed after a good fuck, if her golden eyes turned to Felix Felicis as she opened them, drowsy and satisfied, and looked over at him….

            At him? 

            “Fucking hell,” he hissed to himself under his breath.  A thought crossed his mind and he stood abruptly, reaching for the bottle of whisky on his mantle which normally went untouched.  He didn’t bother with a glass; he’d be measuring his fill by how completely he could forget that imagined look in her eyes, by how utterly he could smother his desire, which was already straining against his trousers despite what he’d done only minutes prior.  He uncapped the bottle and tipped it back, drinking deeply and quickly to get as much in him as possible before the burn hit.  When it did, he gave himself a reprieve and coughed heavily.  He didn’t have a taste for alcohol.  It had always reminded him of his father and the way he’d shout at Severus and his mother when he got drunk.  But he kept whisky on hand for those nights when he missed Lily too terribly and needed to punish himself a bit before he could sleep.

            Tonight, he’d earned a bit of punishment.

            He tipped the bottle back again and when he lowered it and looked into the fire, his head swam.  With shaking hands, he capped the bottle and set it on the bedside table, very nearly knocking it over in the process.  He drank too little to hold his liquor well, which was convenient because when he drank he really didn’t want to hold his liquor well.  As the room began to spin, he let himself slump backward onto the bed and struggled to pull his legs up and under the covers.

            He shut his eyes and found golden orbs staring back at him.  Abruptly, he opened them again and reached for the whisky, mumbling to himself again, “Fucking hell.”

            We’re friends, Snape.

            I was wondering where you were.

            So tell me, Snape, can I trust you?

            Before long, he was too drunk to know up from down.  He managed to cap the whisky, but let the bottle drop to the mattress beside him rather than try to stand it on the bedside table again.      Golden satin washing over ivory skin like Liquid Luck…red hair, copper, auburn, mahogany, garnet slipping free of pins and falling over elegant collarbones and smooth shoulders…irises like a golden ring around dark pupils blown wide with desire….

            He took himself in hand a second time, too drunk to care about what he was doing and how wrong it was.  He shut his eyes and felt smooth legs bent around his hips, delicate hands with scars from burns and acid on his chest moving slowly over his skin, warmth and wetness wrapped tight around him, the curves inside her rubbing slowly as she moved up and down him.  He saw her hair falling over one naked shoulder, that conspiratorial smile she’d given him like they had a secret just the two of them, her golden eyes swimming with happiness and lust, her pink lips parting as she came close to her release.

            He came hard and fell faster, dropping instantly into a heavy, black sleep.

Chapter Text

            Fortunately for Severus, Boxing Day meant no classes and minimal expectations, because he was more hungover than he’d ever been in his life.  He spent the morning nursing a migraine and vomiting until he gave up and tried a hangover potion he’d perfected years ago and kept on hand for such circumstances as these.  Fortunately, a large dose of the potion did the trick.  Unfortunately, it also left him free to remember last night, none of which he had managed to forget.

            “Fucking hell,” he groaned to himself as he lay buried in his covers, staring at the embers in his burned-out fire.

            How was he supposed to work with her knowing that he wanted her?  How was he supposed to act professionally when he’d probably blush every time he looked at her? 

            No.  He could do this.  If he’d managed to lie to Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters for so long, he could hide his attraction to Tofani.  He spent what felt like little time and what ended up being much time in occlumentic meditation, emptying his mind and rearranging his thoughts to suit his very necessary cold exterior.  He could not want Tofani, so he wouldn’t.  It was an insult to Lily’s memory, an insult to Tofani’s honor, and a massive inconvenience when as colleagues he was required to maintain a platonic relationship with her.

            So, he compartmentalized and, when he was sufficiently composed, emerged from his quarters in time for a late lunch.

            He spent every evening that week presiding over detentions that students had earned during the Yule Ball, but the lack of classes meant that he had plenty of freedom during the day which Tofani monopolized.  As soon as the twenty-seventh of December, he was testing his Occlumency by spending the day brewing with Tofani, watching as she flicked her braid back over her shoulder, reaching across her for a jar of toad’s eggs.  Most painful was when she perched on a desk and folded her legs beneath her robes, her hands laid loose upon her knees, and slipped into deep alchemical meditation.  Just as he’d remembered that night, her face went slack, then softened into perfect bliss, easy contentment, as if she were sleeping and experiencing a pleasant dream.  He felt himself begin to harden and moved around the table to preside over a bubbling potion where she couldn’t see him if she did open her eyes.

            He did it, though.  Tofani didn’t seem to perceive any difference in the way he treated her and certainly didn’t say anything about it.  He maintained his aloofness, maintained his coldness and hostility towards the students, maintained his distant companionship with his colleagues, whom he now joined for every meal once again.  When he met with Dumbledore in his office in early January, the older wizard commented that he knew Severus was hiding something and he would be honored to act as a confidant, but Severus could not bear the thought of revealing something so shameful.

            And so, life went on.  He struggled to make the fourth years learn basic antidotes and supervised the sixth years learning complex ones.  He met with Dumbledore regularly, talked with Sinistra snidely about the other staff and the students over their dinner, ignored Sprout’s half-hearted remonstrations of such behavior.  Mad-Eye searched his office, which was enough to send him into a blind rage when he found out, but there was no sign anything had been disturbed, so he could claim no harm done.  He and Tofani spent every third evening or so together, brewing or researching or meditating.  Severus got in the habit of pretending to do alchemical meditating of his own while Tofani did, though he knew he’d never be able to find success in the practice.  Instead, he did his occlumentic meditating, compartmentalizing and filling his mind with perfectly mundane, acceptable things to replace any feelings he had for Tofani.

            One evening, he was engrossed in Alchemical Spells when Tofani began to murmur something in her trance.  He paid no attention to it at first, too obsessed with a powerful hex he was trying to comprehend, but when she moaned softly as though in pain, he broke free and looked up, frowning.

            Her face was still as clear as a rippleless lake, her hands slack, palm-up on her knees as she balanced effortlessly on the desk.  It took him a moment to realize that she wasn’t on the desk, though.

            She was levitating, roughly three inches above the desk.

            His eyes went wide with shock and he stared at her in wonder.  She moaned softly again and he watched as her eyes twitched beneath her lids, her dark eyelashes fluttering.

            Was she asleep?  Was that possible?  And how was she levitating when she was clearly in no state to do any magic other than her meditation?

            She wasn’t in control of her own magic.  That was the only explanation.  She was so deep in her trance that she had let go of the reins on her own magic, allowing herself to levitate.

            This was dangerous.  Very dangerous.

            She moaned again, this time louder and longer.  A part of him stirred at the sound, wondering if that was the sound she made as she was pleasured, but it also could have been pain and he didn’t want that for her.

            Could he wake her, though?  Or would that be too harsh and thus damaging to her subconscious?  She had always insisted on being left in perfect peace when she was meditating, warning him not to make any loud noises, speak, or touch her.

            That was when an idea occurred to him, something almost as dangerous as waking her.

            He could use Legilimency.

            He would have to be very cautious about it, to just barely reach into her subconscious enough to see inside her trance and pull her out a little way.  It would be delicate work, far more difficult than anything he’d as yet attempted as a Legilimens, but his own pride in his abilities egged him on to try it.  Besides, his curiosity was piqued and he wanted very much to know what she saw when she was in these trances.

            He shut his eyes, relaxing into his chair, then slowly reached out with his mind towards Tofani, feeling her there as a warm light guiding his subconscious.  He felt his mind reach just a bit farther and then he was inside her.

            She lay naked on a bed sprawled across gold satin sheets, her hair spread out beneath her in a pool, her face screwed up in blissful agony as she moaned.  She writhed slowly and her hands moved down her body and between her legs to tangle in black hair, the hair of a man with his mouth on her.

            Was this a memory?  A fantasy?  It sure as hell wasn’t what he’d been expecting and he was instantly rock-hard because of it and horribly ashamed, but he couldn’t look away.  Her breasts were larger than he’d imagined, perfectly round globes that jiggled just a bit as she moved beneath the man, grinding slowly against his face.  His hands found her hips and stilled her, pinning her down, and the touch caused her to throw her head back, moaning loudly.

Bloody hell, this would ruin him.

When she came, it was with a scream.  Then, her face relaxed into that smooth expression she got in her trances and she smiled slowly.  The man picked his head up enough to kiss slowly up her body to her neck.  As he laid a kiss at the base of her throat, Tofani pushed his long, black hair out of his eyes, revealing pale skin, a hooked nose, and dark eyes as she moaned his name.  “Severus…”

It was him.  It was Severus who had been pleasuring her, he who she was fantasizing about, who had made her scream like that.

He was in such shock that he fell out of her mind and hurtled back into himself, opening his eyes and staring into space without seeing.

“I knew you were an Occlumens, but I didn’t expect a Legilimens too.”

His eyes snapped to Tofani.  She was no longer levitating and her gold eyes were open, though her eyelids were heavy and she still wore that drowsy, crooked smile she’d worn inside her head.  He opened his mouth to speak, but tripped right over his tongue.  “Tofani…I…”

“You wanted to see what happens when I go into a trance,” she said calmly.  He couldn’t believe how calm she was when he felt like he wanted to crawl out of his skin.  “It’s understandable.  That isn’t where I normally go…I went too far in and my Occlumency slipped.”

“You’re an Occlumens?” he choked out.

“Of course,” she said, her voice as cool as ever.  “Not a very good Legilimens, I’m afraid, but good enough to know you’re an Occlumens too.  I suspect you’re far better at it than me.  I only just realized it a few weeks ago when we were with the thestrals.”

            He shut his eyes hard, trying to wipe the image of her naked body writhing on that bed from his mind so he could focus on this conversation.  “I’m sorry…I didn’t expect…well…”

            Her satisfied smile widened just a bit.  “You didn’t expect to see yourself with me?  I can imagine not.  I think I’ve done a reasonably good job of hiding my feelings from you.  Obviously, there’s no point now.  My cover is blown, so to say.”

            Severus swallowed hard.  “Yes, I’d say so.”

            Tofani’s smile began to fade and her brow creased.  “You look like you’re about to vomit.  Are you that upset with me?  I never intended to act on it or even let you know.  I know my place.”

            Severus cringed and shook his head.  “I’m not angry with you, Tofani.  I know you can’t help what you feel and you have every right to the sanctity of your own mind.  I shouldn’t have pried.”

            Tofani frowned and she stood up from her position on the desk.  She seemed unsteady, he noticed, and he wondered if it was an effect of meditating so deeply, having her legs crossed that way for so long, or having come so hard inside her mind.  She approached and he stiffened as she leaned against his desk, less than arm’s length away.  “Snape.  Talk to me.  You’re making me very nervous.”  She blushed and looked down at her robes.  “And more than a little self-conscious.”

            He cringed inwardly at the discomfort she was in, which must be worlds worse than what he was experiencing.  After all, she hadn’t had a front row seat watching him get off with her.  “Well, if it’s…if it’s me seeing…you that you’re worried over…you have nothing to be self-conscious about.”

            He dared to meet her gaze and she stared at him, her eyes having gone liquid.  A blush rose in her cheeks, making her look young, vulnerable, and so pretty it hurt.  She looked down again.  “Thank you.  I’m flattered.  I’m more concerned that you saw yourself, though.”

            “I know.”  He twined his fingers together and squeezed so hard his knuckles whitened as he looked down at them.  “I’m sorry, Tofani, but you know that can never happen.  We’d both be sacked.”

            “I know that,” she said softly.  “That’s why I never intended to let you know.”

            He nodded slowly.  The moment hung heavy in the air like a sword over their heads.  Then, Severus said gently, “Keep your thoughts to yourself.  I promise not to intrude again.”

            Tofani was silent and he looked up in time to watch her nod her head stiffly.  She turned on her heel and collected her cauldron and books.  As she tossed her books and a few phials of ingredients into her empty cauldron, Severus found the courage to ask her, “What are you doing?”

            “I’m going to go take a cold shower and hopefully not die of embarrassment,” she said matter-of-factly.  Then, she met his eyes, her gaze like a wall of gold, and grimaced.  “I’d still like to work together and I hope this doesn’t prevent that, but I’m going to need a few days of space.”

            “Of course,” he croaked.

            Tofani nodded stiffly once more, then carried her cauldron to the door and exited the room.  When she’d gone, Severus buried his face in his hands and grimaced, wishing he could somehow undo the last ten minutes.  “Fucking hell.”

 

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            ‘A few days’ slowly stretched into two weeks.  As February apporached, Severus began to worry about Tofani and about his role in what had happened between them.  One evening, he could bear it no more and crossed the dungeon corridor to her door, knocking lightly.  “Come in,” she said, her voice cool and level.

            He entered the classroom and found himself surrounded by cauldrons brewing quietly, golden devices spinning and twisting in the dim light from the fireplace, and eccentric alchemy prints pasted on the walls.  A painting of As Above, So Below stared eerily at him from over her desk.  No wonder her students were terrified of her.

            Tofani appeared at the door of her office and froze upon seeing him.  She was dressed in a black potions frock that was buttoned up to her throat and down her wrists and dragonhide gloves were on her hands.  Her hair was back in a sleek braid and she appeared to be sweating just enough that her pale skin shone in the dim light.  “Snape,” she said softly.  “Come in.  I was just brewing.”

            “Brewing something dangerous by the looks of it,” he said just as softly as he followed her into her office.  In a small golden cauldron over a low flame, an electric green potion simmered, occasionally emitting sparks of green light.  “What is that?” he asked, partly in awe and partly in horror.

            “Time’s Kiss,” she answered, her attention going quickly back to her potion.  “It’s an alchemical acid.  Eats away just like any other acid does, but it also eats at bits of soul corresponding to the physical damage it does.  I probably won’t be successful, it’s an incredibly difficult potion, but time will tell.”

            “What the hell are you doing brewing something so dangerous on your own?” he hissed, suddenly angry at her for reasons he could not name or comprehend.  All he knew was that she was being reckless and he really didn’t like how close her face was to the sparking potion.

            Tofani raised her eyebrows and stared at him for a moment in surprise.  “Your sixth years brew Draught of Living Death.  I can handle this.”

            “They don’t brew it successfully,” he hissed, staring down into the cauldron.  Tofani flouted his concern and added a milliliter of fish oil to the potion, which caused a loud crack of a spark to whizz past her face.  She didn’t blink, but he about came unglued.  His hands were twitching at his sides and he could feel his blood hammering through his veins.  “This is obviously a very dangerous acid if nothing else, not something you should be handling without someone else there in case you hurt yourself.”

            Her copper eyebrows rose further and she put her fists on her hips.  “And when was the last time you brewed with an assistant, Snape?  Have you ever?  I haven’t.”

            “With an assistant, never.  With a colleague, yes,” he said pointedly.

            She glared at him.  “I brew when I’m upset.  It helps distract me and rebuild my confidence.  So, unless you have some magical way to make me feel better, leave me be.”

            His mind rolled into the gutter thinking of ways he could make her feel better, but he quickly drowned those thoughts and refocused.  “I’ve heard most women go for ice cream, not acid,” Severus said dryly.

            Tofani snorted, returning to Time’s Kiss.  “Yes, and what gave you the impression that I am anything like ‘most women’, Snape?”

            “Nothing,” he said, his voice coming out far softer than he’d intended.  “I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose.”

            She snorted again, drew out her wand, and charmed a gold spoon to begin slowly stirring the acid.  Without thinking, he reached across the void between them and took her hand in his, inside wishing that she wasn’t wearing gloves so he could feel her skin.  “You are not most women, Tofani,” he said gently.  “You are much, much more.”

            Tofani’s eyes swam with liquid gold, then she smiled ever so slightly and squeezed his hand.  “Thank you, Snape.”  After a moment, she swallowed hard and released his hand, looking down.  “It really doesn’t help much, though.”

            “What would?”

            She sighed mournfully.  “A Time-Turner.  I can’t believe I was so foolish.”

            He wanted to soothe her, to say that she was too hard on herself, that she wasn’t the only one who felt as she did.  He couldn’t say that, though, not without making things worse.  Instead, he nodded to the potion.  “Does that need attending?”

            “Not anymore.  It will stir itself for the next two hours.  Why?”

            “Come to my office.”

            She followed him to his office, stripping off her dragonhide gloves as they went, and he left her as he went to his quarters for the whisky and two glasses.  When he returned and she saw what he had brought with him, Tofani smiled crookedly.  “I didn’t take you for a fire whisky man, Snape,” she said.

            He poured into the two glasses, offered one to her, then took his own.  “Only when I’m feeling guilty.”  Severus held up his glass and Tofani met the toast.

            They both drank.  Unsurprisingly, Tofani could clearly drink him under the table if she wanted to based on the way she tipped her whisky back.  Tofani leaned one hand on his desk and stared into her whisky as she asked, “And what would the Potions Master have to feel guilty about?”

            “Plenty,” he said grimly.  Tofani met his gaze and held it as they each took another drink.  Severus matched her long sip and managed not to cough or cringe, but knew he’d be regretting it if he tried it again.

            Tofani gazed down into her whisky once more, then said softly, “My parents died when I was fifteen.  They picked me up from King’s Cross for Christmas break and we were driving home…the weather was a nightmare.  So much snow you could hardly see and the roads were thick with slush like paste.  We crashed…there was another car, but the driver was okay.  I spent Christmas week in the hospital.  My parents, though….”  Tofani took a stiff drink of the whisky, her jaw as hard as stone and her eyes like gold blades.  “I was trapped in the car with them for three hours before they could cut me out.  My mother died on impact, but my father…he choked on his own blood while I watched, pinned in the backseat.”

            Severus shut his eyes, picturing all too easily a young Alexandria Tofani pinned in a wreckage, sobbing as she tried to reach her dying parents.  “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice rough with regret.  He watched her take another drink, nearly through her glass already, and took another one himself in an ill-advised attempt to keep pace with her.

            “Spending Christmas here with all that nonsense about the Yule Ball…I didn’t know whether to be grateful for the distraction or livid with the disturbance.  Half a lifetime ago I spent Christmas in the hospital, planning my parents’ funeral.  Now…” she broke off and finished her glass, setting it down heavily on his desk between them.  “I liked you from the beginning.  From right off, I could see all the layers you have in your skin and I like that about you.  And the more I got to know you, the more I liked you.  At the ball, I thought I’d doll up and try to get a reaction out of you, just to see where it would go.”  The very corner of her mouth turned up in a shadow of a smile.  “And the look on your face…just for an instant, mind, I didn’t break through for long…but for that instant, I felt like the Sun in the sky.”  Her smile widened just a bit and the faintest blush colored her cheeks.  “I spent that night not thinking of my dead parents or of Voldemort, or of anything else…just you.  Just the way you looked at me in that one instant and wondering what it would be like if it lasted for more than an instant.”  She met his gaze then, her golden eyes swimming with unshed tears.  “I thought I could keep it to myself.  Just a secret to get me through all those quiet nights.  God, I was wrong.”

            Severus’s eyes fell shut and he interjected softly, “Tofani….”  She quieted and he threw back the last of his whisky.  Damn him, then.  He grimaced, torn between wanting to soothe her with the truth and wanting to protect them both with a lie.  Eventually, he ended up with a different truth.  “I’m not worth wanting anyway.  We can work together as colleagues, friends if you like.  I’m not worth you hurting over, though.”

            He felt her eyes boring through him, but he refused to meet that gaze.  So softly he only just heard, she whispered, “What did you do, Severus?”

            Severus gritted his teeth and a part of him wanted to lash out her for daring to ask, but he didn’t.  Instead, very quietly, he answered, “Something terrible.  Something I’ll regret every day as long as I live.”

            She said nothing, just stood there for a long time until he at last met her gaze.  He had a moment in which he could see the intent in her eyes, but he just stood there and let his eyes fall shut once more.  Then, her lips were on his, her mouth soft and warm, her skin satin-soft as her nose brushed his.  Her hand found the side of his neck, her thumb tracing the line of his jaw as she kissed him soft and slow, telling him wordlessly that he was worth wanting.  He found himself kissing her back, his head swimming with the alcohol and with the effects of her kiss, leaving him unsteady on his feet.  Her lips parted and he tasted her tongue, sharp and bright with whisky.

            Tofani pulled away from the kiss slowly, kissing his lips slower and softer as she leaned away.  Then he was looking into her molten gold eyes and her black pupils blown wide.  Her lips were just barely swollen from kissing as she dealt him that conspiratorial smile.  “Thank you for the whisky, Snape.  I think we can be colleagues now.”

            He blinked hard, but it didn’t slow the way the room was spinning.  “I’d like that.”

            “As would I.  Until tomorrow.”  She took one last long look at him, then turned on her heel and left the office, shutting the door behind her.

            Severus shut his eyes and hissed to himself, “Fuck.”  He was rock-hard, pissed as a newt, and had in that kiss revealed to Tofani that she wasn’t the only one who wanted something more out of their relationship.  “Fuck.

Chapter Text

            After that kiss with Tofani, Severus resolved that he was done with alcohol until further notice.  He had not found a better way to punish himself yet, but sleeping draughts cleared his mind of Lily and Tofani when he most needed them to, so that would have to do for now.

            Fortunately, it seemed that with the kiss behind them, he and Tofani could be colleagues after all.  The next day, Tofani seemed to be back to her usual self, if not a bit cheerier.  She did not mention the kiss, or anything they had discussed while drinking the previous night.  Her eyes occasionally sparked mischievously, as if her mind had wandered back to those thoughts, but, true to form, she never spoke of them or acted on them.

            Which was good, because Severus was having a hard enough time forgetting his attraction to her without her encouragement.

            She smelled of jasmine and honey.  He noticed it when she reached across him for the basil and her braid nearly hit his shoulder.  If she noticed the effect it had on him, she thankfully didn’t let on, but it certainly made working with her for another hour that evening difficult.  He had not expected her to smell so sweet, but he immediately associated the honey component of her scent with those honey-colored eyes.

            He poured Tofani a cup of tea and one for himself, then returned to where she was sprawled across an armchair in her office, her nose buried in Blood Bonds and Alchemical Blood Magic.  Her gold eyes flashed to the cup and she accepted it, then her eyes dropped again just as quickly.  “Thank you, Snape,” she said quietly.

            “Hmm,” he grunted in response, returning to his own armchair.  When they’d started divulging deeper into their research, Tofani had suggested they start meeting here and had duplicated her armchair for him.  It was certainly more comfortable than his potions classroom and the alchemical diagrams on the walls added a heady sort of mystique to the room that he was coming accustomed to and liking.  He sipped his tea and watched Tofani do the same from over the top of Alchemical Spells Passed Down by Salazar Slytherin.  Despite being reclined with her legs crossed over one arm of the chair, a book in one hand, Tofani balanced her tea cup gracefully.  There was something to that degree of poise that he thought more closely belonged in a high society ballroom than in an alchemy laboratory.  He could guess how she became enthralled in alchemy; her story perhaps wasn’t so different than his in that she had discovered potion-making at school and fell in love with it.  Where she’d come from before that, though, and how she had ultimately ended up back at Hogwarts was a mystery.  She wasn’t a pureblood, not even a halfblood as she’d told him once, so he knew she didn’t come from the wealthy elite of the wizarding world.  Her parents had driven her to and from King’s Cross themselves, though, which suggested they weren’t wealthy enough to afford a chauffer or other such servant who could be bid to fetch her.  That or they were just very close and missed their daughter too much to send someone else.  From the pang of pain in her voice whenever she mentioned her parents, he was sure they had been very close, so perhaps the latter option was the truth.

            He envied her relationship with her parents, even if it had been cut short.  Eileen and Tobias Snape had spent more time shouting than talking and had been more likely to throw objects at one another than to kiss.  As for him, he was always the boy who took up space in their tiny house on Spinner’s End, never something valued.  Calling what he had with his parents a relationship at all was laughable.  A not-so-small part of him thought that the words were true that it was better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.  After all, he would not have forfeited his love for Lily for anything, even knowing how much pain it caused him to this day.  Perhaps pain and all, Tofani was better off than he was.

            Tofani’s copper eyebrows creased downward and she let her book fall closed.  She took a contemplative sip of tea, then said, “What if we’re going about this the wrong way?”

            “How so?”

            “Perhaps the real question is how Voldemort lives on at all, not how he could be restored to his full being.  What caused him to fail the night and why wasn’t he killed in the process?”

            Severus pursed his lips thoughtfully.  “It’s an interesting question.  Many have pondered it and some have thought he was simply too powerful to die or that he had some magic which made him immortal.”

            Tofani tapped one finger on the cover of her book.  “There’s something at the edge of my mind, but I can’t seem to bring it forward.”  Her golden eyes leapt to Alchemical Spells in his hands.  “Leave that book with me.  I think it might be hiding in those pages.”

            He did leave it, but was admittedly sad to part with the treasure, even having read it through twice.  The Dark Arts were dark and mysterious, as were all things that he chose to bury himself in, and he admired them greatly.  He loathed to think of having to part from the book entirely someday. 

 

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            Severus found himself becoming more irritable as the days drug on.  The Second Task was approaching and everyone was gushing about it while he could only simmer to himself and think of how idiotic and dangerous it could be given that the first task had involved dragons.  He decided to attempt to uncover some information about the task and see if he could feed it through to Potter himself to keep the boy alive.  He would have to be cautious, as always, but this balancing act had been his life for so long now it was all part of the charade.

            To add to his irritability, Valentine’s Day was also approaching and with it, more silliness among the dunderheads he called students.  Contraband love potions were being brewed and distributed throughout the castle and he and Tofani regularly found the charms on their store cupboards broken and contents removed, often contents that most idiots would know didn’t belong in a love potion.  The boomslang skin was especially concerning and he was reminded of Potter and his friends brewing Polyjuice Potion years ago.  He hoped no one was brewing it again, especially Potter, and resolved to uncover the truth.

            One night, he awoke to the sound of breaking glass and rushed out of bed in nothing but his nightshirt and pants to hunt down the culprit.  Wand in hand, he crept through the potions classroom and to the cupboard, only to find the door open, broken jars of precious ingredients on the floor, and empty shelves where other ingredients had been pilfered.  He scowled as anger rippled through his veins and spun to peer through the corridor for the thief.  There was no sign, but they couldn’t have gotten far.

            He had just started towards the stairs to the entrance hall when an awful wailing pierced the air.  Severus covered his ears and raced towards the source of the sound, where he discovered an exultant Filch closing the golden egg of one of the champions.  “PEEVES!  You’ve been stealing!”  Filch scurried to the passage behind the nearest tapestry, Mrs. Norris close behind, and Severus followed in a hurry.  “Hiding are you?  I’m coming to get you, Peeves!  You’ve gone and stolen a Triwizard clue, Peeves….  Dumbledore’ll have you out of here for this, you filthy, pilfering poltergeist!”

            “Filch!” Snape snarled at the caretaker, holding back the tapestry as he cast a silent Lumos and looked up at the man’s hideous face.  “What is going on?”

            “It’s Peeves, Professor.  He threw this egg down the stairs.”

            “Peeves?  But Peeves couldn’t get into my storeroom.”

            “The egg was in your storeroom, Professor?”

            “No, of course not!  Someone broke into my private stores and stole precious ingredients.  And when I heard this racket I thought perhaps the thief had come this way,” he snarled, peering up into the dark passageway.  “I want you to come and help me search for the intruder, Filch.”

            “But, Professor…Peeves….  The thing is, Professor, the headmaster’ll have to listen to me this time.  Peeves has been stealing from a student, it might be my chance to get him out of the castle once and for all.”

            “Filch!” he snapped, his temper boiling over.  “I don’t give a damn about that wretched poltergeist, it’s my office that’s…”

            Clunk.  Clunk.  Clunk.

            As if this night couldn’t get any worse.

            “Pajama party, is it?” growled Mad-Eye.

            “Professor Snape and I heard noises, Professor,” Filch said, his eyes still darting up the hidden stairwell, hungry to chase after Peeves.  “Peeves the Poltergeist, throwing things around as usual…and then Professor Snape discovered that someone had broken into his off…”

            “Shut up!” he hissed, his eyes on Moody, that sneak who himself had broken into his office not so long ago to “search it for dark artifacts.”

            “Reckon they were after potion ingredients, eh?” Moody said.  “Not hiding anything else in your office, are you?”

            The vein in his temple began to pulse and his skin flushed hot as he rounded on Mad-Eye.  How dare he?  “You know I’m hiding nothing, Moody,” he said coldly.  “As you’ve searched my office thoroughly yourself.”

            Moody’s scarred face twisted into a smile.  “Auror’s privilege, Snape.  Dumbledore told me to keep an eye…”

            Dumbledore.  Dumbledore who had blackmailed him into perpetual servitude, Dumbledore who had failed to save Lily, Dumbledore who trusted him implicitly due to his longtime service, his forfeiture of his life to the Light to atone for his sins.  “Dumbledore happens to trust me,” he hissed through gritted teeth.  “I refuse to believe he gave you orders to search my office.”

            “’Course Dumbledore trusts you.  He’s a trusting man, isn’t he?  Believes in second chances.  But me…I say there are spots that don’t come off.  Spots that never come off, know what I mean?”

            He clutched his left forearm as the Mark pulsed, as if it could sense his outrage.  “How dare you?” he snarled.

            Moody chuckled.  “Go back to bed, Snape.”

            “You have no right to send me anywhere!  I have just as much right to prowl the corridors of this school at night as you do.”

            “Prowl away…you’ve dropped something by the way.”

            Snape’s eyes alighted on the parchment on the stairs.  Potter’s trick parchment.  It was the very same sheaf of parchment which had offended him a year ago on a night not unlike this.  “Potter’s parchment, Potter’s egg…Potter is here, in his Invisibility Cloak!” Severus howled, immediately reaching out to search blindly for the boy.  Walking around the school after hours with madmen like Karkaroff and Moody on the loose?  Did the boy have a death wish?  He’d have the idiot in detention for a month so he could keep a proper eye on him and get him back in line.

            “Snape, there’s nothing there!” Moody said grouchily.  “I’ll be sure and tell the headmaster how quickly your mind went to Harry Potter, though.  Accio Parchment!”

            The parchment whooshed into Moody’s outstretched hand and Severus turned on him, his arms still outstretched.  What was the madman on about now?  Dare he think he, Severus, would harm Potter?  “Meaning what?”

            “Meaning that Dumbledore is very interested in who’s got it out for the boy.  As am I…very interested.”

            Severus took a deep, occlumentic breath and slowly dropped his arms.  Potter was there somewhere in the shadows, he could feel him, but clearly Moody wasn’t going to let this go.  He forced his mind to clear, then said calmly, “I merely thought that if Potter was wandering around after hours again…it’s an unfortunate habit of his…he should be stopped.  For his own safety.”

            “I see.  Got Potter’s best interests at heart, have you?”

            Lily’s boy.  With her eyes…Lily….  Pain and guilt rippled through him, smothering all his anger.  Oh, Lily.  “I think I’ll return to bed.”

            “Best idea you’ve had all night.”

            Severus scowled and pushed past Moody, swooping down the hall and back to his dungeons.  At the base of the dungeon stairwell in the shadows, he very nearly ran into Tofani, who stood there in a black nightgown, her wand drawn and her gold eyes glimmering in the dim light.  “Tofani,” he said in surprise.

            “Snape.  I heard the ruckus, what is going on?”

            “Potter is out of bed again,” he said, a trickle of anger returning to him.  “Out sneaking about like his arrogant father like he owns the damn castle.  One of these nights he’ll be hexed into oblivion.”

            Tofani sighed and raised an eyebrow.  “Where is he, then?”

            “I could not catch him.  Damned Mad-Eye accosted me.”  He gritted his teeth and looked back over his shoulder, watching for the Auror, then back to Tofani.  “Someone was just in my private stores again.  I nearly caught them…I suspect it was Potter again.”

            Tofani rolled her eyes.  “And I suspect that when it rains Potter is to blame.”

            Severus narrowed his eyes at her, his temper flaring.  “The boy is going to get himself killed by all the trouble he stirs up.  He is constantly stepping out of line and someday, someone is going to have him out for it.”

            “Someone like you?” Tofani raised both copper eyebrows.  “There’s protective, Snape, and there’s vengeance masked as protectiveness.  What did the boy ever do to you?”

            “He’s lazy, arrogant, can’t keep out of trouble to save his own skin…the boy is his father in every cell…”

            The witch frowned deeply and lowered her wand.  “You knew his father.  Is that what all this is about?  James Potter?”

            Severus scowled and spun around Tofani, his nerves threadbare.  If he let her talk down to him a moment longer, he might do something he’d regret.  “Enough.  I’m going to bed.”

            He heard Tofani sigh, but shut his door and bolted it behind him.  Before he returned to bed, he took an extra dose of his specialty sleeping draught to clear his head of Lily, Tofani, and all his bitterness.

 

-------------

 

            “I want that madman out of here!” Severus snapped at Dumbledore, who merely stood there smiling that benign smile, his blue eyes twinkling.

            “Come now, Severus, you can’t expect me to replace Alastor mid-term.  He’s only here for the one year.  I’m sure you can endure each other’s company a few months longer.”

            “He raided my office, Albus!  He seeks out opportunities to insult me and undermine me…”

            “That is what Mad-Eye does!” Albus said, smiling still.  “That is why I asked him here, Severus, for his vigilance in these troubled times.  Surely you can appreciate that.  After all, it was you who was so up in arms about the dangers of the tournament.”

            “With good reason!  And that’s the other thing.  How can you continue to allow Potter to risk himself?  Last night I nearly caught him again, prowling the corridors in the dead of night…I’m convinced he broke into my private stores again to brew more Polyjuice Potion.”

            “Polyjuice Potion?  Really, Severus…”

            “He’s done it before and we both know how he prides himself on flouting the rules.”

            “As do I,” Albus said with a small smirk.

            Severus scowled at the older man.  “Rules exist for a reason.  We don’t allow students out of bed after hours for a reason.  We don’t allow students under seventeen to enter the Triwizard tournament for a reason.  We don’t allow them to arrogantly strut about the castle as if they own it…”

            Albus tilted his head and Severus cut himself off.  “Is that what this is truly about?  The boy reminds you of James?”

            “He is the spitting image of his father and the reincarnation of his pride and disregard for rules.  Is it any wonder that Malfoy is constantly trying to curse him?  The boy is a menace!”

            “He’s not James, Severus,” Albus said significantly.  “He is every bit as much Lily as he is James.  You know this.”

            Lily.  “Don’t speak that name in my presence, Albus,” Severus growled at him, turning away so his cloak snapped.

            Albus sighed deeply, but was quiet for a blissful moment.  Then, he said, “I agree that the boy’s safety is paramount.  That is why I have entrusted you of all people with watching him, Severus.”

            He could only sigh and bury his face in one hand.

            “How are things with Alexandria?”

            Severus stiffened at the name.  “Fine,” he bit out.  “We are making progress on our research.  Tofani suspects that the way in which the Dark Lord survives may be the key to how he could be brought back.”

            “A fine hypothesis.  Not what I meant, though.”

            “We have spoken of this.  She is intelligent, easy to work with.  What more could I ask for?”

            “What more, indeed,” Albus said slyly.

            Severus wheeled on him once more, his eyes slitted.  “And just what are you suggesting?”

            “I have only observed that you and Alexandria seem to have grown close.  I only thought that there may be something more beneath the surface…”

            “You forget yourself, Sir,” Severus said coldly.  “My soul belongs to the Light, not to any living woman or anyone else.”

            Albus sighed softly, eyeing him like he might eye a student he was fond of and seeking to advise.  “Your soul may belong to the Light, Severus, but you forget that what makes the Light different from the Dark is that the Light is willing to share your soul.  Consider that you need not be lonely forever…you need not punish yourself forever.”

            Severus shut his eyes hard and bowed his head to hide his face.  Lily…  “If that’s all, Professor?”

            Albus sighed once more.  “Very well.  That is all.”

            Severus stalked from the room without another word.

Chapter Text

            It was the week of the second task when Severus finally uncovered that the task would take place in the Black Lake.  He spent as much time researching options for breathing underwater as he did researching Voldemort’s restoration in those days and, ultimately, determined that Potter was incapable of most ways of surviving underwater.  A bubble charm or human transfiguration were out of the question for most sixth years, much less a fourth year.  If the boy were remotely talented in potions he could have imagined brews that would have allowed the boy to accomplish the task.  Certainly, gillyweed could do the trick.  Would Potter make use of it, though?  Unlikely.  The boy would surely drown without help.

            When, the night before the task, Potter was still burying himself in books in the library, Severus went to his storeroom for the gillyweed, determined to find a way to get Potter to think to take it.  When he looked for the gillyweed, though, he found one of the jars already missing.  Either one of the other champions had thought to steal the gillyweed, or someone was already helping Potter with it.

            As a preventative measure, he took the remaining gillyweed with him the next morning, only to overhear Potter discussing gillyweed’s properties with Longbottom.  Evidently, someone had given Potter the gillyweed, perhaps that dunderhead Longbottom himself, and, true to form, the boy passed the task with flying colors and zero useful preparation.

            In one breath, he was both relieved and sick to his stomach with frustration.  James would be so damn proud.

            That night he was in a venomous mood as Tofani researched in his office chair and he brewed, partly as an experiment and partly to soothe his furious soul.  Tofani kept shooting glances at him, but he refused to return them, only acknowledging her when she refilled their teacups. 

            It was half past ten when Tofani said slowly, “There is no known way to restore a body to life once it’s been killed, but Voldemort isn’t exactly dead and buried, is he?”

            Severus frowned, pulling himself free of his potion’s fumes regretfully.  “No.  We know that he is alive in some form, just not a human one.”

            “So his soul lives, if you can call it that.”

            “Yes.”

            She reached out to flip Salazar Slytherin’s book open where he could see it.  When he saw the chapter heading, his frown deepened and he moved around his desk to Tofani’s side.  Soul-Splitting.

            Tofani spoke in a low voice, part whisper, part shadow.  “What if the reason he was defeated at Godric’s Hollow was that a shard of his soul split away, making him unable to resume his human form?  Then the solution to restoring him to life would be to repair that piece of his soul.”

            Severus scanned the opening to the chapter.  Alchemy was as much about philosophy as potion-making and this chapter was based in the field of alchemy interested in the unity, or in this case disunity, of the soul.  Trauma and identity crises, according to the book, were responsible for rending the soul and making the practice of alchemy and other magics impossible.  Furthermore, there were old types of magic, magic Salazar Slytherin had recorded, that could cause a splitting of the soul.  Horcruxes, for instance, were outlined the book in gruesome detail and would have been within Voldemort’s means to create.

            “What is it you think happened to him?” Severus asked grimly.

            Tofani flipped the pages deeper into the chapter, then pointed to a passage with the heading Soul Shattering by Sacrifice.  “I think Lily Potter tried to place love-based magical wards on Harry to protect him from Voldemort.  Maybe some of those wards are still in place, I don’t know.  But when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, she made one last attempt at saving her son: sacrificing herself.”

            Severus wasn’t breathing.  He was staring down at an ink-drawn image in the book of a beautiful woman screaming and clutching her own heart, which had been torn from her chest.  “You think she used some kind of self-sacrificing spell to try and kill Voldemort?” he asked hoarsely.

            “Maybe,” Tofani said, crossing her arms over her chest.  “This is old magic, magic that has not been taught for perhaps a thousand years.  If she stumbled on something, or tried to make it up herself on the spot, she might have done this not knowing that it might not kill Voldemort…instead, it might shatter his soul, allowing him to live on with only some pieces intact while other shards were cast away.”

            “So, to restore him to human form, one would need to refuse the pieces of his soul.  How?”

            “Blood magic, I would think.  Combining pieces of what made him human with his broken form.”

            “What blood?  He’s just a bit of broken soul.”  Tofani shut her eyes for a moment, then opened them, looking pained.  Severus’s stomach sank.  “Potter’s blood.”

            “He was in the room when Voldemort’s soul split,” she explained softly.  “He was the impetus for Voldemort’s soul shattering.  If You-Know-Who had not attacked Harry, he could have walked away whole, even after Lily Potter was dead.”

            Lily, what did you do?  Did you throw yourself in front of him to save your son?  Did you know that what you’d given up would mean Voldemort’s doom?  Did you know it would be only temporary?  “You think they will attempt to use Potter’s blood to bring back Voldemort.”

            Tofani nodded slowly, her golden eyes wide.  “And I think it could work.  It’s much more complicated than that, of course, this is purely theoretical, but Voldemort was able to do magic of astronomical power and he’s had thirteen years to think about ways to bring himself back.  He needs the boy, though.  He is the only living piece of Voldemort…if they’re going to try to use blood magic to refuse Voldemort’s soul, Harry’s is the blood they need.”

            “Assuming, of course, that this is what happened when Voldemort cursed Potter.”

            “Yes, assuming.  We can never know what actually occurred that night, though.”

            Severus frowned, remembering the way Lily was slumped at the base of Potter’s crib, as if she’d stood there between the boy and Voldemort in her last moments.  Lily had been a remarkably gifted witch.  What if she had done something that had split Voldemort’s soul?  “Lily certainly had the power to do something like this and had an interest in old magic.  This isn’t that far out of her element.  It’s entirely possible that she did this, whether by accident or on purpose, I could not say.”

            “You knew her?” Tofani asked softly.

            He cleared his mind of the sound of her laughter tinkling in his ears like a bell.  “Once.”

            Tofani nodded and looked back down at the book.  If she saw something in him which betrayed his feelings, she did not acknowledge it.  “So, what do we do?”

            “We keep researching.  We still need to know if there is another route which they may choose and we still need to know the specifics of how one would refuse a broken soul.”

            Tofani nodded again, but seemed lost in another world.  Hesitantly, she flipped to the chapter headed Horcruxes.  “Snape…what if…?”

            “I know,” he said grimly, the word searing itself onto his retinas.  “It’s entirely possible.  My intelligence makes no suggestion as to whether it has been done.”  He hesitated, thinking of his old friends.  Thinking of Lucius.  “There are ways I could find out.”

            Tofani looked to him sharply, then her eyes darted to his concealed forearm.  Reflexively, he clutched the pulsing tattoo with his other hand and felt the air shift in the room when Tofani’s breath hitched.  “Snape…” she murmured, choking on the name.

            He didn’t look at her, couldn’t bear to.  This woman respected him, believed him worth wanting and caring for.  He didn’t want to see the disappointment in her eyes that he’d seen in Lily’s all those years ago.  Mudblood.  Lily….  “I told you,” he said coldly, pushing his Occlumency to take over.  “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve paid for them.  Now, those mistakes afford me an opportunity.”

            She tilted her head warily, as if staring down a dangerous snake.  “If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, it’s a very dangerous opportunity.”

            Severus nodded slowly, contemplating the incredible risks associated with returning to the Death Eaters after all these years purely with the intention of spying on them.  “Yes.  But it may be the only way to find out what we need to know to destroy him.”

            Tofani’s narrow fingers wrapped around his forearm, gripping tightly over his Mark.  He jerked in shock and met her golden eyes in time to see her jaw turn to iron.  “Snape, there are other ways.  Talk to Dumbledore.  There must be something he can do.”

            Severus nodded, though he doubted her words.  Dumbledore would love to see him return to spying on the Death Eaters, he had no doubt.

            Warmth began to seep from her hand through his robes, soothing the aching Mark.  Slowly, he looked down at her hand in barely concealed wonder.  Tofani jerked her hand away, saying awkwardly, “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have done that.  It was out of line.”

            Severus met her gaze again and allowed her to see a fraction of what he was feeling.  When she did, she stilled.  “It was, but so few people would have done it.”  He choked on his words, then adjusted the sleeve of his robe, straightening it, and continued.  “I’m not proud of it…it’s disgusting is what it is.  No one else has dared lay a hand on it before.”

            Tofani’s brow creased and she took a step towards him.  Then, tentatively, she reached out and laid her hand on his forearm again, gentler this time.  “I believe you when you say you’ve atoned for your sins, and if you’re willing to risk your life and more by spying on Death Eaters, then that’s enough for me.  It should be enough for anyone, but I expect you’re right that it’s not.”

            “It’s not,” he confirmed.

            Her thumb gently stroked his arm, right over the skull, though she couldn’t know that.  The Mark felt as though it were trying to cringe away from her touch, but it of course couldn’t escape her warmth.  Again, he saw her as a candle in the otherwise shadowy darkness of his world.  “I expect you don’t want to talk about it, but if you ever do, I’ll listen,” she said softly.  “I’ve made mistakes too and I won’t fault you for yours.”  She bowed her head and released him, bending to pick up Alchemical Spells and return to her seat.  He stood there reeling, his mind spinning impossibly fast, trying to unravel what she’d said and determine if she truly meant it.  He even reached into her mind, though he’d promised he wouldn’t, and found only quiet sincerity there.  She meant it.  She really meant it.

            How many times had he disparaged himself for his sins, beaten himself up over wanting to believe someone would ever understand, wanting to believe that there would ever be anything deeper in his life than his desire to protect Potter, Lily’s boy?  For how long had he punished himself for wanting to believe that someone would ever forgive him as Lily couldn’t?  But then, Lily had been perfect, had never made any mistake great enough to know what it was to desire retribution, to long for atonement. 

            Tofani, he realized as he watched her curl into his chair with the book on her lap, wasn’t perfect and he liked her all the more for it.

 

-------------------

 

            Predictably, Dumbledore thought it was a smashing idea for Severus to infiltrate the Death Eaters once more, starting with reaching out to his once-close friend, Lucius Malfoy.  Severus spent several days drafting and redrafting a letter which he at last sent by owl to Lucius.  The letter detailed Draco’s successes and struggles in school, including his difficulties with Potter, and discussed a potion Severus was working on having patented.  He asked after Lucius and Narcissa and alluded to how long it had been since they had talked in person.  Drops from the sea that was his loneliness were woven into the words, allowing Lucius to infer that Severus’s life had grown rather quiet and that he was seeking stronger ties with old friends.  Such a thing was, of course, false.  It had been a long time since Severus had truly needed others.  Lucius, though, would remember the younger boy who had been so desperate to please when they were in school together.  That boy was nothing but a ghost now, but Severus called upon him anyway.

            The letter was answered within days via owl, the response emotional by Lucius’s standards.

My dear Severus,

            Narcissa and I have often spoken of how we have missed your presence and would be glad to see you again as well.  Perhaps we could meet in Hogsmeade on an upcoming weekend to talk?  I would love to hear more about your potion and how I may perhaps ease the patent process at the Ministry.  Regardless, you are always welcome at Malfoy Manor and Narcissa insists you make an appearance at the masque she is holding in March.  It is on the seventeenth…I hope your schedule will permit it.

            Thank you for your news of Draco.  We don’t hear from him often enough, no more than every other week.  I did not realize he was struggling in Charms and thank you also for your assistance to him with his other classes.  I will make a point to send him a Charms book the Prophet reviewed last week which I believe may prove helpful.

            It distresses me to hear of how strong his feelings about Potter and his ridiculous friends truly are.  Of course, Potter is a detestable boy and the Weasleys are blood traitors, the lot of them, but to jeopardize his friendships and his schooling over such people is foolish.  Mudbloods and blood traitors are not worth so much time and thought as you describe he has given them.  I will advise him on this in my next letter and respectfully ask that you continue to intervene on his behalf.  He is young, after all.  I remember when I was his age and I was always grateful to those who assisted me.

            Do let me know about Hogsmeade and respond to the invitation I have enclosed regarding Narcissa’s ball.  She insists you ought to bring a guest, though I warned her you prefer to go stag at these events.  Perhaps that new professor you mentioned in your October letter, Tofani, wasn’t it?  Such an ambitious woman would fit in well with our crowd.

Your dear friend,

Lucius

            Severus folded the letter back up and tucked it into his robe before Sinistra got too curious and started reading over his shoulder.  In his peripheral vision, he could see she was still focused on her soft-boiled egg, but one could never be too careful.  He removed the invitation to the masque from its secondary envelope and eyed it with disdain.  He hated these pureblood events, but they had been mandatory in the old days and it looked like an opportunity to speak to his old friends which could not be passed up.  If the Death Eaters still met, he was not on the invitation list.  But this was the sort of event which would draw them out and loosen their tongues a bit.  He expected they would still be talking about the World Cup and suspected this might be a good in to several useful conversations. 

            “And who would invite you to a masque, Severus?” Sinistra asked slyly.

            Severus tucked the invitation away, his dark eyes narrowing as he peered at the witch.  “A friend who expects me to decline.”

            The corner of Sinistra’s burgundy-painted lips curled upward.  “And?  Will you decline?”

            He sighed wearily and pushed back his chair.  “If only I could.”

            That night, he flicked the invitation at Tofani when she entered his office.  She caught it and eyed it suspiciously.  “What is this?”

            “An invitation to a masked ball, unfortunately,” he said grimly.  “Lucius Malfoy has invited me and it would be an excellent opportunity to rekindle old friendships.”

            Tofani raised her eyebrows at him, then set down her book and peered at the invitation in a new light.  “This is one of those ridiculous upper-crust pureblood events.”

            “It is.”

            “It says you’re expected to bring a guest.”

            “I trust you’ve been practicing your Occlumency?”

            She looked up to him in renewed surprise and pointed to the invitation.  “You’re asking me to go with you?  To something this important when I’m only a half-blood?”

            “I’m a half-blood as well and it meant little to them,” Severus said.  “What matters most is where your loyalties are…or where they think they are.”

            Tofani narrowed her eyes.  “Is this your idea?”

            “Not exactly, but it does afford us a unique opportunity.  Lucius suggested I invite you.”

            “Does he want you to recruit me?”

            “Not necessarily, though a part of him may hope that I might.  Lucius values ambition and somehow he’s gotten the impression that you have quite a bit of it.”

            Tofani’s lips curled in a half-smile.  “I suppose I’m flattered to have gained his attention.  I’ll go with you…though I won’t pretend not to be nervous about it.”

            Severus snorted and took back the invitation, thinking of Tofani’s pride, which rivalled his.  She’d been known to grant detentions to students who so much as snickered at her, though she didn’t show herself to be deflated by their whispered jibes.  She’d also been known to purposely preen a bit when the male students ogled her, often causing them to trip, gape, or say stupid things.  Just the other day, Severus had watched her flick her hair at a Durmstrang boy, causing him to drop and trip over his books, and she had smirked as she walked away without helping him.  “And when have you ever been nervous about anything?” he asked dryly.

            Tofani smirked, but a blush broke out on her cheeks.  “I’ll admit, it’s only happened a few times.”

            He let the conversation drop, though he had a suspicion from the way she blushed that one of those times had been when he’d broken her meditation.  The image came back to him in brutal clarity.  Tofani stretched out on gold sheets, her naked skin pale and smooth in warm light, her hair wild around her, her gold eyes shut tight in ecstasy.  And him, Severus, with his mouth on her, his fingers teasing beneath copper curls, his black eyes locked on her face as he pleasured her.  He remembered the way she’d squirmed as he pinned down her hip with one hand, the way her lips had parted at she came close….

            He abruptly put the brakes on that thought and blinked, whirling to clear his mind as he retreated to his desk.  He refused to look at Tofani, though he could feel her eyes on him.  “Snape,” she said softly.  “Have I said something?”

            “No, I am only bothered by the invitation,” he lied.  “I hate these garish parties.”

            Tofani grinned and stepped up to the desk, laying the invitation beside the letter from Lucius.  “I know and I love how much you hate them.  I look forward to sharing your pain.”

            Severus glared at her, but a glance that caused students’ blood to curdle only made her grin wider.  She backed off his desk and retreated to the nearby table where she’d deposited her book and gold cauldron.  It was an alchemical potion book, one of her favorites, he’d come to know, and he watched silently as she flipped to a recipe and began to prepare her ingredients, completely unbothered by his staring.

            He hid behind his desk pretending to be conducting research.  In reality, he was clearing his head over and over, trying to black out questions of whether Tofani would wear her gold robes to the masque, questions of whether she still thought of him, questions of what she would taste like.  He buried his nose in the book and let his black hair fall forward to shield his eyes from her as he cleared his mind over and over again.

Chapter Text

            Just over a week later, Severus set foot in the Three Broomsticks for the first time in many years and found his silver-haired friend in a narrow booth.  He wound his way through the noisy crowd and sat across from Lucius, who had already procured them a pair of fire whiskys.  The older man’s eyes lit up and he reached across the table to clasp Severus’s hand.  “Severus!  How good to see you!”

            “And you, Lucius.”  Severus granted his friend a small smile, which he was surprised to recognize as real.  Whatever he was and wasn’t, Lucius had always been a friend to him and he had missed him in recent months.  His duties at the school rarely allowed for time away from Hogwarts during term and this year, with his research with Tofani, he’d had even less time than usual.  “You spoke little of yourself in your letter.  How are you?”

            “Never better,” Lucius said with a secretive smile.  “I don’t suppose you had the chance to attend the World Cup, Severus?”

            Severus forced a similarly secretive smile and said, “You know that had I the chance, I would have been honored to join you, Lucius.  I understand it was a sight to see?”

            “Oh yes.”  Lucius’s smile twitched and his eyes flicked around the room in the space of a moment.  “Though I, of course, worried for Draco’s safety with what occurred afterward.  Terrible embarrassment to the Ministry, as well, of course.  Barty worked so hard negotiating the security for the event.”

            “Of course.  I hear he has been most stressed by the Tournament as well.”

            “He’s taken ill…hasn’t been seen by anyone at the Ministry in months,” Lucius said, more comfortably now.  “He has that Weasley boy chasing his errands for him, putting out fires, but he’s barely scraping by.  The whole department will go under soon between the Tournament and what happened to Jorkins.”

            Severus frowned deeply, recognizing the name of the missing witch.  “Do you know what happened to Jorkins?  Last I heard she was still missing.”

            “She is,” Lucius said stiffly, taking a sip of his fire whisky.  “I expect she’ll be found soon enough, though.”

            Severus nodded, though the answer did not put him at ease.  The Daily Prophet had scarcely let up about Bertha Jorkins’ disappearance in Albania and it hadn’t been lost on Severus that Voldemort may be involved.  Lucius clearly knew more than he was letting on, which suggested that Bertha had, indeed, run afoul of Voldemort or the Death Eaters.  Severus took a cautious sip of the fire whisky, then said, “One can only hope.”

            “Of course.”  Lucius smiled so stiffly, his face all but cracked.  He was anxious, perhaps worried for his family from what he’d mentioned about Draco.  Voldemort’s return did not necessarily bode well even for his most faithful, who, in Lucius’s case, were completely different people now than they had been fourteen years ago.  That Lucius had been obsessed with Voldemort, with power, with money, had been consumed by ambition and pureblood supremacy.  Lucius still had an immense amount of pride, including pride in his bloodline, but his priority had shifted as Draco grew up.  Now, Lucius’s world revolved around his son, as did Narcissa’s, and the fact that they had this in common made them a close couple.  Voldemort was no longer a path to power, but a risk to their son, who already had a bright future ahead of him.

            “You spoke of a potion you are having patented?” Lucius said, changing the subject.

            “Yes.  A sedative for which the dose would affect only the duration of the effects, not the severity.”

            Lucius pursed his lips.  “Impressive.  How did you do it?”

            His pulse began to race a bit at the prospect of discussing his potion.  “I created a potion which would be absorbed by the body only a drop at a time instead of all at once, a delayed release.  The second drop can’t be absorbed until the first drop is beginning to drain.”

            “Can the process be applied to other medications?”

            “Absolutely.  Poppy is already using it at the school for sedatives and pain relievers as well.”

            “Clever,” Lucius said, his voice warm with appreciation. 

A warm ball glowed inside Severus’s chest and grew.  “Thank you.”

“I will do what I can at the Ministry to get the patent process sped along for you.  That is, of course, if you will be attending Narcissa’s ball.”

Severus sighed wearily.  “I responded that I would.”

“I don’t think she’ll believe you until she sees the whites of your eyes…and those of your date.”  Lucius’s smile went crooked and, in a moment, they were young again, talking of women they were chasing or bedding.  “Severus…who is she?  The alchemist?”

            “Yes, Alexandria Tofani.  She has become a good friend of mine.”  He was surprised to find how much he meant those words.  In a moment, he was transported back to standing in the thestrals’ clearing as she watched him with a tear on her cheek.  We’re friends, Snape.

            “I am so glad to hear,” Lucius said, his eyes sparkling and a smirk in the set of his mouth.  “It’s about time you let yourself make new friends.”

            “Yes, well, it has been a long time since I had a new peer of respectable intelligence,” Severus said wryly.  “Every year there’s a new Defense professor, but each one is worse than the last.”

            Lucius scowled.  “Mad-Eye.  That lunatic has no business in a school and I told Dumbledore as much.  Told the Minister too, but it was out of his hands by then.  Madness, I tell you.”

            “The man ransacked my office,” Severus hissed, allowing his outrage at the event to seep through.  “He claimed to be looking for Dark artifacts.”

            “How dare he?!  He didn’t take anything from you, did he?”

            “No, of course not.  I had my valuables charmed or otherwise hidden where even that eye of his would not see,” Severus said darkly.

            “Good.” Lucius said severely.  “Artifacts of the Dark Lord are more precious than any other object.  We are trusted to protect them with our lives.”

            “Of course,” Severus said, just as seriously.  He didn’t know what objects Lucius had been entrusted with, but Severus had never been asked to guard an object with his life.  “Believe me, Lucius, the Dark Lord’s artifacts are perfectly safe with me.”

            “I don’t doubt it.  You only scared me for a moment with your talk of Mad-Eye.  One never knows with him.”

            The conversation progressed to more mundane things and Lucius eventually stopped looked over his shoulders, but Severus did not forget the way he’d reacted to the talk of “Dark artifacts.”

            That night, he stood in Dumbledore’s office with Tofani and rehashed the conversation, watching as Albus listened carefully, made him repeat the tale, then extracted the memory and placed it in the Pensieve.  “We can have no doubt then.  He made others.”

            “Others?” Tofani asked.

            Dumbledore gestured to Tom Riddle’s diary and the sword of Godric Gryffindor in the case near his desk.  “That diary was a Horcrux once.  Tom Riddle bound a piece of his sixteen-year-old soul in it and, apparently, left it with Lucius Malfoy to guard and return to Hogwarts when the time was right.  Harry Potter destroyed it with a basilisk fang in the Chamber of Secrets two years ago.”

            “Did the boy know what it was?”

            “What it was called or how it was made?  No, of course not.  But I think he knew very well that Voldemort’s soul was living inside it.  That’s why he destroyed it, though I am impressed at the irony in the world which would give a snake the power to destroy Horcruxes.”  Dumbledore paced around the office as Severus and Tofani watched him.  Tofani’s arms were crossed over her chest, her golden eyes directed into open space as she thought slowly and methodically.  “Tell me again about the process, Alexandria.”

            “One would need to have the object chosen and marked by blood magic first,” Tofani said, her voice low and shadowed.  “Then, one would split their soul while directing their soul into the object.  It would take a very powerful magical being with a very strong sense of self to be able to accomplish it.”

            “And the splitting of the soul?”

            “There are different ways to accomplish it, but Voldemort would see murder as the easiest route.  He would require no assistant, only the life of another, the killing of whom would shatter his soul, allowing a shard to escape.”

            Dumbledore nodded slowly, then turned on his heel and began pacing the other direction.  “We know the diary was a Horcrux.  And now we know that Lucius Malfoy knows there are others.  Whether he understands exactly what they are, we cannot know.  But he does know their value to Voldemort and that tells us a great deal.”

            “How do we know how many there are?  How do we know what they are?” Tofani asked.

            “We don’t.”  Severus answered, his eyes locked with Dumbledore’s blue orbs behind his half-moon spectacles.  “But we may be able to determine where they are.”

            “How?”

            “By thinking about where Voldemort would hide them.  He entrusted one to Lucius.  There are few Death Eaters he trusted more than him, but the others present possible hosts.  And there may be other places he could have hidden them, places of significance to him.”

            Dumbledore nodded.  “Precisely.  I need you to attend that ball, Severus, and I need you to determine who among the Death Eaters could have been entrusted with such an object….”

            “And who could have possibly held onto it,” Severus finished.  At Tofani’s look, he explained, “During the War and after Voldemort’s fall, many suspected Death Eaters were jailed and had their property searched thoroughly.  It’s possible that there is a Horcrux in a Gringotts vault, of course, but we know that Voldemort knows it is possible to break into Gringotts.  He himself orchestrated a burglary three years ago.  That narrows things down quite a bit…in fact, I don’t know that there is anyone Voldemort trusted as much as Lucius who has retained their property.”

            “If there is anyone, we will know soon enough.  They would not miss this masque,” Dumbledore said.  His eyes shot to Tofani.  “You will be in attendance as well?”

            “Yes, Sir,” Tofani said.  “Malfoy suggested me as Snape’s date.”

            “An ironic opportunity,” Dumbledore said with a smile.  Severus didn’t like the way he was looking at Tofani, the way he might look at a particularly valuable chess piece.  “I trust you will make an excellent team.”

            He felt Tofani’s golden eyes on him and met them with all his occlumentic shields up.  “I expect we will,” she said.  With no more, Tofani led the way to the door and, as they exited, Severus caught Dumbledore staring after them, his ice-blue eyes glittering.  In the instant before the door shut, Severus watched Dumbledore raise his wand to his temple and begin to extract a memory.

 

-------------------

 

            As the masque drew nearer, Severus and Tofani spent their time frantically researching horcruxes, the dangers of handling them, and theories for how to destroy them.  Severus worried that they were off-track from their goal of foiling the Death Eaters’ plans to bring Voldemort back, but they needed to know how to respond to any information about the horcruxes which they discovered at the masque.  Tofani had a theory that her potion, Time’s Kiss, could eat away a horcrux like any acid, but it required three months and a very dedicated hand to brew properly.  She had started over on her brew, taking more care with it, but had had to destroy it again when a student asked what it was and she began to worry that someone could stumble upon it in its volatile half-brewed state.  After all, they knew very well that neither of their offices or their storerooms were safe from intruders.  Instead, Tofani resolved to make another attempt at Time’s Kiss over the summer, when she could trust that the potion would remain undisturbed.

            For the masque, Severus unearthed the black dress robes he’d bought as a young Death Eater for such occasions.  They were musty and he expected they would fit him poorly after all these years, but he aired them out and tried them on anyway.  To his surprise, time had not brought with it much change to his weight and the robes fit much the same as he remembered them.  Apparently, loneliness and self-loathing were as good a diet as any for hanging onto one’s twenty-year-old physique.

            He and Tofani had agreed to be ready to depart the school by eight with the intention of arriving at the party late enough that most everyone would already be there.  At ten minutes to eight, Severus knocked on the door to Tofani’s classroom, already gritting his teeth and shuffling his feet over what he expected to be a horribly painful evening.  “Enter,” Tofani called from beyond the door.

            He entered the classroom and shut the door behind him.  “Are you ready?”

            “Nearly.”  Tofani leaned around the doorway to her office and her chambers beyond, her arms stretched awkwardly behind her back.  “Would you mind giving me a hand?”

            Severus raised an eyebrow and trudged to the office.  Tofani was in sleek black dress robes with overlaying gold lace in patterns along her waist and bust, the neckline cut low and her hair in a swoop over one shoulder as she reached behind herself.  As he approached, Tofani hissed in annoyance and turned her back to him, revealing the gold lace that arced across her otherwise bare back and met in half a dozen tiny clasps, clearly the source of her trouble.  Hot blood raced through his veins, pounding in his ears as he reached out and did up the clasps, his hands still only due to a liberal dose of occlumency.  “I half-expected your gold robes,” he said quietly, doing the final clasp.

            As he backed away, Tofani rolled her shoulders and adjusted her hair, which was pinned in such a way as to fall over one shoulder and leave her back exposed.  “Yes, well, I thought I’d fit in a bit better with the black.”

            He couldn’t help raising an eyebrow as his eyes followed the gold lace and black satin along her curves.  The dress hugged her perfectly, highlighting every curve without looking too tight to easily slip off.  “I think you’ll stand out anyway.”

            Tofani met his eyes in surprise and must have seen something slip through his occlumency because she blushed and just barely smiled.  After a moment’s hesitation, she stretched out a hand to him, which he took, guiding her down the three steps from her office to her classroom.  “From what you’ve told me, everyone will be so shocked that you brought a date they’ll be staring at me anyway.”

            “Possibly.”

            Tofani threw on a black traveling cloak, and then they were off, walking quietly out of the castle and down the road to the apparition point at the edge of the school grounds.  Once there, his heart began to race again and he offered an arm to Tofani.  She took it as if they were entering a gala together, smirking at him, and then he apparated them.

            They snapped into being at the gates of Malfoy Manor.  The night was dark and lit by stars, the glow of candlelight seeping through every window of the manor and onto the lawn.  No one was outside, but plenty of voices and music could be heard coming from inside the house.  Severus led Tofani up the drive, listening to her breathing begin to speed as they did.  He was nervous too, perhaps more so than she, but he buried it beneath everything else and asked softly, “Now, where is the alchemist who terrified my students into properly dissecting rat brains?”

            Tofani grinned and barely restrained a laugh.  “I didn’t know you saw that.  I couldn’t bear to watch…they were brutalizing the damned things.”

            Severus chuckled before he realized what he was doing.  By then, it was impossible to deny that the small laugh had been real…and that he couldn’t remember the last there had been of its kind.  Fortunately, it seemed he had said what he needed to.  When the doors of Malfoy Manor opened for them of their own accord, Tofani’s shoulders were back and her chin up, looking regal and dangerous.  She put on a gold lace mask and he put on the black one he’d come up with and they entered.

            As they entered the ballroom, where a string quartet was playing rather boisterously and where the partygoers gathered beneath majestic chandeliers hanging from nothing, they were greeted by stares and whispers.  Severus ignored them all and was impressed when Tofani did too.  He walked them over to the Malfoys, who were near the center of the room and impossible to miss with their white-blond hair.  As they approached, the whispers reached Lucius and he spun to greet them with a smile.  He wore a silver mask not entirely unlike his Death Eater mask.  “Severus!” he said warmly.  “So glad you could make it.”  Narcissa stepped forward And Severus removed his mask to allow her to kiss him on the cheek.  “I did tell you, Narcissa, Severus keeps his word.”  Lucius’s green eyes flashed to Tofani and his grin widened.  Tofani offered him her hand and he took it and kissed it.  “And you must be Alexandria Tofani.  We’ve heard good things about your work at Hogwarts.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Malfoy,” Tofani said, smiling.  Something in Severus’s gut twisted and he found he was glad when Tofani brought her hand back to her side.  “It is an honor to be here.”

            “Any friend of Severus’s is welcome here,” Narcissa said, her eyes sparking with mirth.  “And it’s Lucius and Narcissa.  I understand you’re an alchemist?”

            “Yes.  I’ve brewed and studied here in Britain, in Russia, and in Egypt.  When Dumbledore asked me to return to Hogwarts, though, I was ecstatic.  It has been so long and I missed the place terribly.”

            Narcissa’s smile warmed.  “Hogwarts is such a lovely place.  You must be a…Ravenclaw?  Or Slytherin?”

            “Ravenclaw,” Tofani said.  “By the time I graduated, I was regularly told that I ought to be a Slytherin with all my ambition.  But when I was sorted, I was a nervous girl, always with my nose in a book.”

            “It’s funny how people change, isn’t it?” Narcissa mused, her eyes sharpening.

            “It is.”

            “You must meet everyone.  Severus, won’t you introduce her?”

            Severus sighed and raised an eyebrow at Narcissa.  “I expect it isn’t optional.”

            “It isn’t.”  Narcissa smiled at them both and squeezed Tofani’s hand once more.  “Lovely to meet you, Alexandria.”

            “And you, Narcissa.”

            They mingled and Severus introduced Tofani to some of his former friends, most of whom seemed eager enough to be friends once more.  Some of the people Severus least wanted to see were not in attendance.  The Lestranges, Fenrir Greyback, and others were freezing in Azkaban cells, a good place for them in Severus’s opinion, and that cowardly bastard Pettigrew had fled.  But he introduced Tofani to his old friends Avery and Mulciber, who welcomed him warmly back to the fold and flirted with Tofani.  They also spoke to Yaxley, Dolohov, and Rowle, each of whom looked upon Severus and Tofani with initial suspicion that turned to friendship after Severus’s carefully-laid words.  It had been a long time since he had seen these people, yes, but he knew them and he knew how to play them.  He had been one of them not so long ago.  Avery and Mulciber had been his closest friends after his friendship with Lily shattered and had been what kept him from cutting his wrists in those days.

            Every one of them parted with useful information willingly.  Every one.

            Avery, Mulciber, Yaxley, Dolohov, Rowle, Macnair, Crabbe, and Goyle all to some degree admitted to being among the Death Eaters who terrorized the World Cup.  Crabbe and Goyle foolishly crowed about their involvement, proud to have been counted worthy of an invitation, and were wearing their Death Eater masks.  Selwyn, Travers, and Nott had not been explicitly invited and thus not attended, but insisted that they wished they could have seen the flames.  Everyone he mentioned Mad-Eye to talked at length of their disdain for the auror, some lamenting Rosier’s death at his hands.  Yaxley and Dolohov both expressed concern about whether Dark objects had been stolen when Severus’s office was searched and he assured them that he kept his prized possessions well hidden.  At this, Dolohov had smiled lecherously at Tofani and said, “Indeed you do.  If not for this masque, Severus, how long would you have hidden this treasure from us?”

            “Quite some time, I expect,” Tofani had said with a mischievous smile.  “Like Severus, I enjoy keeping an air of mystery about myself.  I hate for anyone to know me too well.”

            Dolohov had roared with laughter at this.

            Several of the Death Eaters admitted to abandoning Dark artifacts to avoid capture by the Ministry, Yaxley, Dolohov, and Macnair among them.  Rowle and Mulciber lamented the loss of small Dark trinkets.  None seemed bothered enough by these losses or by the idea of losses to warrant concern about Horcruxes.  In Severus’s opinion, none of them had a clue what kind of valuable objects were out there.

            Late that night, they left the Malfoys’ arm in arm, waving warm farewells to the drunk Avery and Mulciber.  When they apparated to the edge of Hogwarts’ grounds, Severus released Tofani and began to walk up the long drive, sighing.  “None of them has a Horcrux.  None of them even knows they exist.”

            “Maybe they were entrusted with one without being told what it was,” Tofani suggested, walking along at the edge of his peripheral vision.

            “No.  It would be too risky…the Dark Lord would have warned them of the consequences of failing to protect it.”  He looked up at the dark castle backlit by the stars and a sliver of a moon.  Light still poured from the Headmaster’s windows, but most of the castle was shrouded in darkness.  The castle looked different with thoughts of his school days so close at hand.  Normally he had little difficulty suppressing those memories, but in the course of talking to all his former friends they had moved to the forefront.

            “It’s not always beautiful, is it?” Tofani said softly.

            Severus frowned deeply, disturbed by her insight.  He must have let his occlumency slip.  “What makes you say that?”

            “The memories…they’re not all good, are they?  Late at night like this when it’s all dark, those are the memories that come to mind.”

            He looked to Tofani, expecting her to be staring at him like she sometimes did, but she wasn’t.  She was looking up at the castle, up the spires at the tops of the towers.  “What memories come to you?  I don’t expect they’re as shameful as mine.”

            Tofani laughed once bitterly.  “Maybe, maybe not.”  She pointed up at the Astronomy Tower.  “In my fourth year, a boy led me up to the Astronomy Tower at night to snog.  He stole my bra and carried it around in his robes for days, bragging about it to anyone who would listen.  Professor Slughorn eventually caught him, but not soon enough.  I was already ‘Tofani the Twat.’”  Severus’s eyebrows shot up and he looked to Tofani, stopping frozen in the drive.  Tofani stopped too, her mouth tightening.  “People can be so cruel.”

            Snivelly, Snivelly, Snivelly….  Who wants to see me take off Snivelly’s trousers?

            Severus shut his eyes against the onslaught of memories.  “Yes.  Yes, they can.”

            There was a heavy pause, then Tofani said, “Snape.  Where are you?”

            Snivelly, Snivelly, Snivelly….  “Do you know the Levicorpus jinx?”

            “Yes.”

            “That’s where I am.”

            For a long time, they stood in silence, the cool night air whispering around them.  Then, Tofani said, “Let’s get inside.”

            They walked the rest of the way up to the school and into the dungeons without looking at one another or speaking.  When they reached the dark dungeon corridor, Severus made for his door, but Tofani cleared her throat.  “Snape…would you…?”

            He turned to look at her and found her with her arms behind her back again.  He nodded shortly and she led the way into her classroom.  She shut the door behind them and took off her traveling cloak, then turned her back to him.  The room was lit only by the glow of low-burning fires beneath cauldrons and the light flickered like shards of sunlight across her back.  Severus began undoing the tiny clasps of her dress with shaking hands, trying not to touch her.  When he reached the last clasp, though, the back of her dress fell open to her waist and it was only the angularity of her shoulders which kept the dress robes from slipping off altogether.  Reflexively, he caught a bit of lace in one hand and pressed it to her bare back.  Her skin was warm to the touch and satin-smooth, free of any blemish.  Static ran along his nerve endings from his fingertips through his arm and down his spine.  Touching her, just barely touching her like that, felt so good it hurt.

            “Snape?” Tofani asked softly, her golden eyes looking at him over her shoulder.  “Are you okay?”

            “Fine,” he said coldly, dropping his hand.  Tofani turned slowly and he saw that her arms were crossed over her chest, holding the dress robes firmly in place.  “Thank you for your assistance this evening.”

            Tofani raised one copper eyebrow and nodded down at her dress.  “Thank you for yours.  This can be a real bitch to get on and off.”

            Severus scoffed at that and Tofani smiled.  He made to step around her, but at the last moment, Tofani reached out and laid one hand in the center of his chest, stopping him.  “Wait,” she said.  For a moment, they just stood there like that, her warmth radiating from her hand to his chest and along his arteries through his stiff, cold body.  He found his gaze drawn to her eyes like Liquid Luck, then to her burgundy lips, his mind replaying the way she’d kissed him that night.  Then, she kissed him, her lips on his warm and molten.  She moved faster and more insistently than that first time, needier, like she was hungry for him, kissing hard and fast, opening up to him wantonly, her tongue seducing his.

            And he wanted her too, needed her too, like he hadn’t needed anyone in years.

            He kissed her back, their mouths molding together, his hands finding the sides of her face and trailing over soft skin to hair as smooth as water.  As he ran his hands through her hair, he heard the tinkle of her pins hitting the floor, then he was cradling her head in his hands, her hair loose around his fingers.  Tofani sighed against his lips and one of her hands stroked from his temple to his jawline, the other latching onto his shoulder.  She teased the very tip of his tongue with the tip of hers and his lungs tripped over each other.  Then, his hand slid down the back of her neck, between her shoulder blades, and along her spine to her lower back, pressing her body against his.  She was soft curves in some places and hard angles in others, an odd puzzle piece it would be hard to find a good fit for.  He liked the way she fit against him, though, liked the way she hooked her ankle around his calf, her knee digging into the side of his thigh as she stumbled.  He liked the way she arched her back into him when he pinned her against the closed door and pressed her soft breasts to his chest, liked the way she slid her leg up his, opening her hips against him so his hardness settled between her legs. 

            Their breaths were coming hard and fast between kisses and, her voice high and thin, Tofani murmured to him, “You’re not going to steal my bra, are you?”

            He kissed her until she arched her body against him again, then he said, “You’re not wearing one.”

            “Mmm…you sure about that?”

            He knew what she was getting at and he normally would have been outraged by her leading behavior, but he was drunk on her, as drunk as he’d been that night with the whisky, and he ran his hand up her spine, around her body, and over her breast, cradling and squeezing her as she gasped.  Her lips parted and he kissed the corner of her mouth as he ran his thumb over her very erect nipple.  “You could have worn a backless bra of some kind, but no.  All that confidence begs for chances to show off.”

            “I wasn’t trying to show off,” she whimpered.  He traced a slow circle around her breast with his thumb and she squirmed against him.  “Maybe I was showing off a little, but it wasn’t meant for everyone.”

            “Was it meant for me?”

            As her answer, she kissed him forcefully, her mouth taking him deeper and harder, her teeth grazing his lower lip.  When she sucked on his lower lip, he about came undone and staggered out of reach for another kiss.  “Tofani,” he said hoarsely.

            “Alex,” she said immediately, her eyes opening drowsily.  Her pupils were blown wide, black surrounded by glimmering gold rings.  “It’s Alex when we’re like this.”

            “Alex,” he repeated.  When he spoke his next words, it was a fight to get them all out in the proper order.  “We shouldn’t do this.  It’s entirely inappropriate.”

            One corner of her mouth tilted up in that mischievous smile.  “So?”

            “So, there are rules about this.  We could be sacked and the farther we go, the harder it’s going to be to work together like normal colleagues.”

            Alex scoffed.  “Severus, we haven’t worked together like ‘normal colleagues’ in ages.”

            “Maybe it hasn’t felt like it, but to all appearances we have and appearances do matter.  We have roles to play.”

            Alex appeared to turn this over in her head for a moment, then probed, “Do we have to play those roles constantly?  Or just when there’s a risk someone could see us?”

            Severus raised an eyebrow at her sternly and moved his hands down to her waist.  “There is always a risk that someone could see us.”

            “Not always.”  She reached behind her and latched the classroom door.  “No one’s going to wander in here at midnight, Severus.  It’s just you and me.” 

            He wanted her.  He wanted her like he hadn’t wanted anything in ten years.  But there were so many reasons why this was a bad idea, so many reasons why it would inevitably go wrong.  They could be sacked.  They could be caught and lose their reputations.  They could hurt each other.  They could find themselves unable to work together professionally.  They could put their research at risk and the fate of the world if Voldemort returned.  He was still in love with Lily, might always be in love with Lily, and Alex deserved better than to be used.  He could not give her what she really wanted, might never be able to give her what she really wanted.

            He reached out and unlatched the door.

            “I want you…more than you know.  But that doesn’t make this right.”

            Alex shut her eyes in disappointment and nodded stiffly.  “You’re right.”

            His stomach was tying itself in knots at the sight of her hurting, so he leaned in to kiss her once on the lips.  She met the gentle kiss gratefully and let him pull away without complaint.  “Goodnight, Alex.”

            “Goodnight, Severus,” she said weakly.

            He took his hands off her and she stepped aside, holding the door for him as he left the room, left her.  Every step felt like torture, felt like he was ripping himself apart on the inside.  It felt the way it had when Lily walked away from him all those years ago, except that this time, he was the one walking away.  He almost turned back, wanted to so badly.  But, he made it to his classroom and, without looking back, shut the door behind him.

Chapter Text

            Severus tried to avoid Tofani in the days after the masque and, for the most part, was successful.  He skipped a few meals when he didn’t think he could bear seeing her and avoided her gaze when he could stand to share a room with her.  They did not meet again to work on their research in the weeks following the masque, a mercy for which he was grateful.  Dumbledore picked up on his increased strain immediately, but, true to form, he refused to tell the headmaster of his feelings or Tofani’s, only saying that the masque and the people he’d spoken to at it had shaken him.

            Despite his ability to avoid seeing or speaking with Tofani, though, his thoughts never strayed far from her.  He couldn’t stop seeing her golden eyes looking at him when he shut his own, couldn’t stop hearing in his head the way his first name had sounded rolling off her tongue.  Severus.  He hated the way he’d left things, but he couldn’t see any alternative.  What she wanted from him…what he wanted from her…was simply impossible.  It would never last and would end in far worse pain than it had started in.  It would be far better for them both if he kept his distance and refused to allow the relationship to proceed further.  They were colleagues and they would stay that way, nothing more.

            Since the masque, he was back in the loop with the Death Eaters, regularly hearing from Lucius by owl, as well as Avery and Mulciber.  The torrent of emotions he felt every time he opened a letter was strange and unnamable.  All he knew for certain was that it was disorienting and for that reason disturbing.

            There was never talk of evil schemes or plots for the Dark Lord’s restoration.  For the most part, the letters were, in fact, innocent.  That made it all the harder for him to compartmentalize, to remember that these people were not his true friends anymore, but his enemies, that he was using them and would have to eventually be willing to either turn them over to the Ministry or kill them if Voldemort returned.

            One night, he sat in his classroom marking papers, dimly aware that Avery’s latest letter staring at him from the corner of the desk was impacting his mood and, therefore, the grades he was handing out.  Avery wanted to get a pint at the Hog’s Head sometime and Severus couldn’t decide if he could bear to spend a few hours in the Death Eater’s presence, if he had room for a fake friendship in his strange life.

            It was as he was awarding Weasley a T that a knock resounded on the door.  He glanced at his desk clock, which told the time as half past nine, and raised an eyebrow.  “Enter.”

            The door creaked open and Tofani entered the room, shutting the door once more behind her and bolting it.  Severus’s stomach twisted and he brought up his occlumentic walls.  Tofani’s gold eyes reflected the flickering candlelight in the dim room and seemed to shimmer.  Otherwise, her face was utterly still, a perfect occlumentic mask.  “We should talk,” she said.

            “About what?” he asked coolly.

            She raised a copper eyebrow at him and stepped up to the desk, leaning one hip against the corner.  “You know exactly what.  I’m sick of you avoiding me.  Our working relationship and our friendship are too important to let this childishness get in the way of them.”

            His blood began to simmer under his skin and his eyes hardened like obsidian.  “Childishness?”

            “Yes,” Tofani said coldly.  “You’re being childish.  If you don’t want a romantic relationship with me, fine.  We should go back to the way things were and move on.  If you do, then we should stop being fools and find a way to make it work.  Either way, skipping meals to avoid me is not the answer, nor is forfeiting our research time.”

            Severus glared at her.  She could be so impertinent.  “It’s not that simple and you know it.”

            “It is that simple!” she snapped.  “If I can have the professionalism to work with you after you’ve seen me fantasizing being fucked by you, surely you can handle a kiss.”

            “It was not just a kiss,” he said with narrowed eyes.  He remembered very well the way the bare skin of her back felt under his palm, the way her knee dug into his thigh and her ankle into his calf, the way her nipple hardened under his touch.  He’d done everything in his power short of drinking to try and wipe away the memory to no avail.  The drinking he hadn’t tried out of fear that it would make things worse as it had in the past.

            “Are we going to argue semantics now?” Tofani asked drily.

            “It seems a preferable direction to take this conversation than where it had been headed.”

            Tofani looked at him darkly and, each word placed very deliberately, said, “You’re not a coward, Snape.  Don’t act like one.”

            For a moment, he felt his insides expanding with hot air and thought he might explode at her, but then, staring into her honey-colored eyes, the air rushed out of him and he shook his head.  “I’m giving myself a hard enough time.  I don’t need remonstrations from you too.”

            Tofani frowned deeply and followed his eyes to Avery’s letter.  Then, she looked back to him and moved around the desk to sit on it, so close their knees almost touched.  “Severus,” she said softly.  “Stop punishing yourself.”

            His shoulders felt like lead.  He sank forward and laid his head in his hands.  Lily.  “You don’t know what I’ve done.  Don’t try to absolve me.”

            Her fingers slid slowly into his hair, cradling the back of his head.  Then, she slid off the desk and knelt in front of him.  “Severus.  Talk to me.  Was it something you did as a Death Eater?  Someone you hurt?”

            He hated that she saw through him so easily when his walls were so impenetrable to everyone else.  At the same time, though, it felt oddly freeing to be open with her.  “I provided the Dark Lord with information that got someone killed.  Someone I cared for very much.”

            “Someone you loved.”

            He nodded once stiffly, unable to lie right now.  Not like this.  Not to her. 

            Alex pried one of his hands from his face and kissed his palm.  “You provided information.  You didn’t knowingly betray her.  You didn’t curse her.  You did something you thought would keep you safe and in favor.”

            In a moment, he remembered how it had felt holding Lily’s dead body in his arms, how he couldn’t even hear Harry’s cries over his own misery.  He would never forget that wrenching agony, never forget having his heart ripped out and crushed.  “I tried to protect her.  Once I knew he was after them, I begged Dumbledore to keep them safe, but they were betrayed.”

            “But not by you.”  He shuddered, the only response he could manage.  Alex gripped his hand tightly in hers and kissed his knuckles, then he felt her eyes on him.  “Severus, you have to forgive yourself.  You can’t live like this.”  When he didn’t respond, she reached up and wrenched his other hand away.  “Look at me!”  He did.  He wasn’t capable of disobeying in that moment.  Her eyes were golden fire, fierce and insistent, burning with emotion.  “That was over a decade ago.  You have to forgive yourself and move on.  What’s the point in living if you’re only going to punish yourself forever?”

            “Atonement,” he answered.

            “Atonement shouldn’t mean forfeiting your happiness.”  She bit her lip, then said gently, “I can see you’re in pain.  Let me help you.”

            Severus sighed wearily.  “How can you help me?”

            Alex stared up at him for a long time, her eyes softening to Liquid Luck.  Then, she kissed him, so soft and slow it made him dizzy.  He didn’t remember shutting his eyes, didn’t remember finding her shoulders with his hands.  He was too wrapped up in her fingers in his hair, her mouth on his, soothing his soul.  When he came to his senses, he pulled away and whispered, “Alex, don’t.  I’m not worth it.”

            “Yes, you are.”  And she kissed him again, harder this time, insisting through touch that he was worth something, that he was worth wanting.  She tugged on his hair, pulling him down into her, and he found himself gripping her shoulders, drawing her up to meet him.  She tasted of black tea and smelled of jasmine and honey and he felt drunk breathing her in.  The kiss intensified and her hands found his thighs, sending a jolt up his spine.  She climbed up him and, without breaking the kiss, straddled him and laid her arms over his shoulders.  His hands slid down her sides to her lower back, holding her close as she sighed against his mouth.  It felt so good to feel her wanting him and he remembered the way she’d wantonly wrapped her leg around him the last time they’d kissed.  He pressed one palm down on the base of her spine, bringing her down on him where he was already embarrassingly hard.  Ever confident, though, Alex moaned softly and took to grinding her body up and down him so slowly it hurt.  Then, her hands left him and her hips rolled clockwise over and over as she reached behind her.  There was the sound of a zipper and then her robes slid from her shoulders and pooled around her waist, her breasts spilling from a black satin bra.  His hands found her before he could think about it, before she even got her wrists free of the tight cuffs of her sleeves.  She was soft and warm and filled his hands so perfectly.  She shivered under his touch and the kiss grew needier.

            He began to realize that this wasn’t going to stop, that he didn’t want it to stop and neither did she.  A traitorous thought of how wrong this was entered his mind again and he pulled free enough to mumble, “Alex.  This isn’t fair to you.”

            Alex was breathing hard and leaned her forehead against his, nuzzling him as she whispered, “Because you still love her?  That’s fine.”

            He frowned deeply.  Fine?  What was fine about that?  “What do you mean?”

            Alex kissed him softly, then answered with her lips brushing his.  “You don’t have to love me.  We’re hurting, both of us, and we care for one another.  That’s all it has to be.  We’re just taking care of one another.”

            “Are you sure about that?”

            “All I want right now is to feel cared for.  I haven’t been cared for in a long time and I suspect you haven’t either.  I don’t expect you to let go of her if you’re not ready.  I just hope you have a little room for me.” 

He looked up into her eyes, molten gold around wide, dark pupils.  She meant it.  She wasn’t going to push him about Lily, she just wanted him as he was.  And, as he processed that, he realized that he did have room for Alex in his heart.  Plenty of room, in fact.  “I do care for you and I do have room for you, Alex.”

The corner of her mouth curved up in a smile.  “That’s all I want.”  Then, she shut her eyes and kissed him again.

It wasn’t long before he tightened his arms around her and carried her, still wrapped around him, through his office and to his chamber.  The room was cold, the fire having burned low, but he hardly noticed and Alex didn’t seem to either.  He laid her on the bed and pulled her robes off, casting them onto the floor and leaving her lying there, her chest heaving, in just her bra, knickers, stockings and heels.  He knelt over her and bent her leg up to kiss her knee.  Alex sighed and sat up to reach the many buttons of his shirt, undoing them deftly one by one.  Severus laid a long kiss on her lower thigh, then another and another, moving up her leg.  Alex’s hands began to shake, but she managed to get the last of his buttons undone.  Before she could pull off his shirt, though, he traced a half-circle beneath her breast and pushed her back on the bed.  He shrugged off his shirt, her molten eyes on him, and undid his cuffs.  When the shirt was gone, he stroked her cheek with his left hand, making sure her eyes noted the Dark Mark on his forearm.  “Last chance to walk away,” he said, his voice husky with how bad he didn’t want her to walk away.

Alex’s eyes hardened and she turned her head to kiss his wrist just below the Mark.  “Not a chance.”

That meant more than words could say.  He leaned down and kissed her, his hips settling between her thighs.  She moaned softly and arched her back, pressing her body into his.  He got lost in kissing her, in drowning himself in her, and before he knew it, the rest of their clothes were gone and there was nothing between them but heat.  He slid inside her and her lips parted in an ‘O’, her fingertips digging into his back.  She was so warm and wet and it had been so many years that he almost came right there and had to stop inside her and find his center again.  “Severus,” Alex moaned, her voice low and breathy, a bedroom voice that all but killed him.  Then, he was kissing her again and moving inside her, rolling his hips to feel every inch of her as he rocked in and out.  As he rolled his hips again, Alex whimpered and tightened her hold on him, pressing him down into her harder and deeper.  He took the encouragement and got lost in the rhythm, lost in her warmth and in her limbs tangled up with his.

            When he came, she was right behind him, gasping and moaning, her fingernails digging into his back.  Afterward, they laid together under the covers, his body curled around hers, his arms locked around her chest and her hands clasped over his Mark, and they watched the embers of the fire burn down to nothing.  He couldn’t remember ever feeling so warm and molten inside, so peaceful. 

            “Do you feel better?” Alex asked him softly.

            “Much.”

Chapter Text

At some point during the night, Alex had slipped out of his chambers and returned to her own.  She didn’t wake him, but had left her knickers hanging on the doorknob, which was enough to drive him half-mad with wanting her again.

To Severus’s surprise, when they met in her office that night to conduct their research, Tofani acted no differently than she had on previous evenings, save for a wide smirk when he tried to return her knickers.  “You left something in my chambers,” he said, his voice tight with awkwardness.

Tofani smiled like the cat with the canary and her eyes turned to Liquid Luck.  “I know.  Consider them something to remember me by.”

He rolled his eyes and stuffed the knickers back deep into his pocket, refusing to let her see how pleased the statement made him.

Tofani already had a kettle on the fire and poured a pot of tea, then settled back into her chair to wait for it to brew.  As he approached, she slid Alchemical Spells Passed Down by Salazar Slytherin across the desk to him and watched him reach for it with a perfect occlumentic mask.  “I don’t believe you’ve memorized this yet.”

Severus sighed and accepted the book, sinking down into the waiting armchair.  “How is it that you know me so well?  I don’t think even Albus reads me as you do.”

She smiled conspiratorially.  “Don’t worry.  Your secrets are safe with me.  Just don’t go turning yourself into an animagus without telling me.”

“I wouldn’t even know what to turn myself into.  I like being human just fine.”

Frowning in contemplation, she seemed to search her mind for a moment, then said, “I think I’d like to be a leopard.  My Patronus is a leopard.”

Confident, powerful, clever Alexandria Tofani?  Definitely a leopard.  “I can see that.”

She nodded to herself, as if deciding then and there that if she were to become an animagus, it would be as a leopard.  Then, she stood to pour the tea and hand him a cup.

They spent the evening in companionable quiet, him reading and her meditating.  When she took a break after over an hour of deep meditation, shaking her head as if to clear it, he found the courage to ask her what she’d been thinking of.

“Our research, of course,” she said.  “One of the skills I’ve learned is to comb through my memories and search them.  It’s a little bit like using a card catalog, flipping through images until I’ve found the one I want.  I was using it to review what I’ve been reading.”

He raised his eyebrows, impressed.  “And you say you’re not a very good Legilimens.  That’s exactly what legilimency is, you know.”

She frowned.  “Really?  Then I’ve been doing it wrong.  No wonder I’m no good at it.”

It occurred to him that he could teach her if he didn’t mind her being inside his head.  It would be a very useful skill for her to have if she was going to continue working with him against the Death Eaters and the Dark Lord, and thus it would to his advantage for her to know.  Assuming, of course, he could get over the invasion of his privacy.  He sighed in defeat and said, “Give it a go.”

Tofani raised both eyebrows at him and stood there for a moment in shock.  “Are you sure about that?”

“Not at all, but it would be a useful skill for you to possess and it would make me feel less guilty about invading your mind.”

She blushed and hesitated, then nodded.  He stiffened in his chair, carefully placing his occlumentic walls as barriers where he didn’t want her to enter, then nodded to her.  She drew her wand, pointed at him, and said the incantation, “Legilimens.”

She wasn’t very good at it.  Where he could enter minds without an incantation, without the subject feeling it unless he wanted them to, this felt like a scalpel slicing through his skull.  He felt his thoughts rushing around him like waves as she searched them, and his occlumentic walls quivering beneath her prodding.  Her mouth on his, her body wrapped around him….the smell of a potion he’d been brewing this morning wafting around his face….a leopard with golden eyes like Liquid Luck….Harry Potter glaring at him across the Potions classroom this afternoon….James Potter laughing as he threw a Jelly-Legs Jinx at him that sent him tumbling to the stone floor….

He gave her a hard shove then and came back to himself to watch her stumble back into her chair, her eyes wide with shock.  “I’m sorry,” she said softly.  “I broke your walls.”

He had underestimated her.  He resisted groaning to himself at his foolishness and said stiffly, “It would seem your legilimency skills are perfectly adequate.”

She nodded once absently, then said, “Liquid Luck.  That’s awfully poetic.”

He felt a flush creep up his neck and into his face.  “Yes, well, Albus would claim that I’m a romantic at heart.”

Tofani smiled.  “I bet you hate that.”

“I do.”

            Her smile faded and any hope he’d had that she’d let go of what she’d seen faded.  “So, you did know James Potter.”

            He shut his eyes and said in his coldest voice, “Obviously.”

            “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t pry.”

            “It’s my own damn fault for giving you license to my mind.”

            “Still,” she said softly, her face having gone pensive and dark.  “I shouldn’t have seen that.  I was a few years younger, but I still heard stories and saw things when I was a student here.  I’m sorry he was hard on you…clearly it left scars.”

            “It did,” he said stiffly.  “It was their foolishness that pushed me into the ‘wrong crowd.’  I did and said things I didn’t mean just to scare them off, just to get a shred of respect from the people in my House.”  He sighed deeply and rubbed his temple where a headache was beginning.  Tofani had really done a number on him.  “I threw away my best friend saying things I didn’t mean.  I destroyed everything I cared about.”

            Tofani nodded, then moved to the fireplace and stared down into it.  The flames jumped and leapt in her golden eyes, making them look molten.  “I nearly killed a boy once.”  Severus dropped his hand immediately and stared at her.  Tofani sighed and brushed her hair back over her shoulder with a shaking hand.  “My seventh year.  I didn’t have any real friends back then, just shallow friendships with people I couldn’t really talk to.  So, I spent a lot of time in the Potions laboratory or in the library.  I studied alchemy, potion-making, and spell creation.  I created new potions and new spells.  Some of them I understood, some I really didn’t, as I came to realize.  One night, I was coming back to Ravenclaw Tower late from the library and a boy found me…the same one that stole my bra fourth year.”

            Severus stood then, going to her side.  Her gaze didn’t stray from the flames, though, not even when he held her hand in his.  “He dragged me behind a statue and had me up against the wall.  I can still feel his hands on me, can still feel him inside me.”  She shuddered and Severus’s hand tightened around hers.  His insides felt like they were ripping each other apart and he wanted this boy dead, whoever he was.  He wanted to throttle him.  “I was good at wandless spells.  I practiced Accio wandless until I could summon anything.  I’d never summoned anything silently, though, and he had his hand on my mouth to keep me from screaming.  But I couldn’t fight him off, and I couldn’t scream, and my wand was on the floor in the middle of the corridor.  So, I let him have his way and I put everything I had into summoning my wand.  And I did it.”  She shivered and Severus slowly moved so he was behind her with his arms wrapped loosely around her.  He leaned his head on hers and could feel that all her muscles were made of iron.  “Urocorpus,” she whispered, and a chill went through him.  “That’s what I called it.  It means to burn a body.  When I got my wand, I bit his hand to get my mouth free and that’s the spell I uttered.  There were others I could have used, plenty of them, but all I could think of right then was how much I hated that boy, how unclean and damaged he made me feel, how much I wanted him to burn for doing that to me.  So I burned him.”

            He laid a hand over hers and she gripped it with bone-crushing strength, as if she were afraid this was the last time he’d hold her hand.  “You said you almost killed him.”

            “I made up a countercurse.  Aqueocorpus.  It drenched him in water and put the flames out.  He spent days in St. Mungo’s, though, and the scars were permanent.  It was an alchemical spell, you see.”

            “You made up a countercurse on the spot?”

            She nodded stiffly, still staring into the flames.  “For a second, I watched him burn and listened to him scream, but then I couldn’t anymore.  I couldn’t watch him die.  I knew it would have to be another alchemical spell, something elemental, and water was the obvious solution, so that’s what I did.”

            He spent days in St. Mungo’s, though, and the scars were permanent.  Good.  He was glad of that.  Gently, he tightened his hold on her and laid a kiss on her cheek.  “You’re an amazing witch, you know.”

            “I don’t feel amazing,” she said shakily.  “I feel like a murderer.”

            “You didn’t kill him, though.”

            “Dumbledore nearly had me expelled,” she hissed, her bitterness oozing from every pore.  “I had to beg him to keep my place here.”

            “That boy raped you, Alex,” he said coldly, his voice quivering with sudden rage at Dumbledore.

            Alex shrugged stiffly.  “Yes.  And I used dark alchemy to stop him.  No charges were pressed against either of us as an arrangement we made.  The boy was expelled…he wasn’t willing to beg for his place here.  I was.  Magic was my life.  Education was my life.  I had no family, no friends, only my mind.  So, I promised Dumbledore that whatever he wanted from me, he could have.”

            “That’s why he trusts you.”

            “Yes.  Because I made that promise and I’ve kept it.  I never practiced dark alchemy again, I never wrote a spell again, and when he asked me back to Hogwarts telling me that I would have a special project while I worked here, I came.”

            “That’s why you accepted my proposal, even though you didn’t trust me.  Because Dumbledore asked you to.”

            “Yes.”

            He sighed, thinking of what the world had done to them, thinking of how much he hated Dumbledore’s more manipulative tendencies.  “I’m sorry, Alex.”  For a moment, they just stood there, him holding her as she stared into the fire, seeing that boy burning.  Then, he kissed her cheek again and whispered, “Let me take care of you.”

            She looked to him in surprise, then nodded.  He kissed her, soft and slow at first, then parted her lips with his tongue and seduced her.  She sighed and turned in his arms to face him, to let him kiss her deeper.  He cradled her in her arms and gently stroked her back as her muscles began to melt from the stone they’d been.  She started out so stiff and uncertain and a few minutes in, she broke away to tell him why.  “I’ve never told anyone that before.  I didn’t think anyone would understand.”

            “I do,” he whispered, thinking of the Mark on his arm, thinking of sectumsempra.  “Believe me, I do.”  Then, he kissed her again and she relaxed in his arms, laying her hands on his chest and sliding one up to hook behind his neck and tangle in his hair.  He was reminded of breaking into her meditation, of her hands in his hair as he pleasured her with his mouth, of the way she moaned as he pinned her down and took her.  “Let’s go to your chambers,” he said between kisses.

            She nodded and led him through, locking doors behind them.  Her bedroom was dim, lit by a low-burning fire and candles in sconces on the walls.  Her bed was unmade, the sheets gold as he’d seen in her mind.  She sat on the edge of the bed and he bent to kiss her again, gently nudging her back to lie down.  She did and he followed her, drowning her in kisses as they fell.  He didn’t know then if he loved her, but he knew he cared for her enough to want her to feel loved, so he put all of himself into kissing her and caressing her, urging her on until she was sighing and moaning under him, until he was helping her unbutton her robes and shimmy out of them, until he was kissing down her beautiful body, over her hip, down her leg to her knee.  She was beautiful, shockingly so, and he wondered not for the first time why she hadn’t found a James to love her in Alexandria or Russia, why she wanted him of all people.  Then, she tangled one hand in his hair and sighed his name, “Severus,” in that low bedroom voice.  He kissed his way back up her thigh, then whispered against her skin, “I seem to recall a fantasy of yours.”

            “Mmm…” she moaned.  “Do you?”

            “Mmhmm.”  He kissed back down to her knee as he pulled off her high-heeled shoes, then her stockings, and finally her knickers.  She was already wet and smelled of sex and honey, sweet and heady and intoxicating.  He kissed back up her thigh, then laid a kiss on her copper curls as she sighed, her hand pressing down on his head, urging him.  He teased her with his tongue, wishing he had more experience with this, but she moaned and gasped the way she had in her mind and his confidence grew.  He slipped his tongue inside her, tasting her, and she gasped his name, “Severus….”

            He kissed her again and again, drinking her in, sucking and licking until she was writhing under him, moaning and begging him for more.  He pinned her down with one hand on her hip, as he’d done in her fantasy and the pitch of her cries rose as moans turned to whimpers.  He loved the sounds she made, the way she uttered them with abandon, without shame.  He slid a finger inside her as he teased her with his tongue and she cried out.  She was so close, he could feel it.  He moved inside her, in and out, as he kissed and teased her until she shattered, her back arching under him, her hands pulling on his hair, his name on her lips.  He didn’t let up through it, dragging it out as he reveled in feeling her come, as he memorized the way she felt and sounded, the way she tasted.  When it was done, he released her and she laid there limp, a slow, sleepy smile stretching across her face.  As he stared down at her, he unbuttoned his robes and shucked them off, loving that look on her face.  “Feeling better?”

            “Much,” she moaned.  Her eyes slid open and she stared up at him, her pupils wide, her irises molten like Liquid Luck.  Her gaze wandered over him as he stripped and she asked, “What else are you going to do to me?”

            He leaned down and unclasped her bra, tossing it in the general direction of the rest of her clothes.  She whimpered as her kissed her breasts, murmuring into her skin, “What do you want?”

            “More,” she whimpered as he drew one nipple into his mouth.  “More of that.  God….”

            He did, kissing and teasing her until he couldn’t bear it anymore, until he needed her too badly.  Then, he slid inside her, making her gasp and moan again.  She pressed one leg tight against his, the other bent up against his ribs, and he couldn’t help a groan at the angle she created with her body, the way she tightened around him.  She laid one hand on the small of his back and pressed down hard, urging him on until he was rocking and undulating deep inside her, kissing her neck, her chest, her breasts.  She was terribly needy and he loved that, loved how she made no secret of how badly she wanted him and how thoroughly he was satisfying her.  When she came again, shuddering and struggling to breathe, he was close behind her, fighting for air just as much.

            Alex fell limp underneath him, her leg sliding down his body as her muscles gave out.  He kissed her soft and slow on the lips, marveling at how much she loved this, and how much he did too.  She was full of life and raw desire and easy to want, easy to worship. 

            “Severus…” she moaned between kisses.

            “Yes?”

            “I can’t go again, I can’t bear it, but please, don’t stop kissing me.”

            “Whatever you want.”

Chapter Text

            Severus began to find it hard to focus when Tofani was in the room.  It didn’t seem to matter if they were sitting several places apart in the Great Hall or alone together in one of their offices.  His mind was constantly rolling into the gutter, thinking of the nights they’d spent together.  He was becoming addicted to her, like a drug.  He could hardly get her out of his head when he was a corridor away from her and trying to teach, much less when she was within sight, her black and gold robes clinging to her, her silken red hair falling over one shoulder, her golden eyes twinkling as she smirked at him, as she so often did lately.

            She knew it too.  He could tell.  She had always had a knack for seeing right through him, occlumency be damned, and this was no different.  She regularly caught him with his eyes on her and would smirk at him like she knew exactly what he was imagining.

            And on the rare occasion he was able to cage his thoughts and feelings when they were together?  He’d look up from a potion to grab the armadillo bile and find her biting her lip staring at him.  When such things happened, he would have to fight to contain a blush, but Tofani would just smirk at him or blow him a kiss and go on as if it were nothing.  It was maddening.

            And Albus knew, of that he was sure.  The last time he and Albus had had tea, the headmaster had been unable to stop staring at him with those twinkling blue eyes throughout the hour they spent talking.  It didn’t seem to matter what they spoke of, whatever it was Albus found opportunities to smile knowingly at him.  When Albus asked after Tofani, he knew the cat was out of the bag, so to say.  The older wizard smiled broadly, his eyes sparkling innocently, as he asked, “And, Severus, how is the lovely Alexandria?”

            “Fine,” he said, hoping to discourage this line of questioning.  “We’ve been looking further into soul-fusing magic.  We suspect an alchemical potion may do the trick, a combination of the necessary elements of the individual soul’s previous state of being.  The potion would, no doubt, be specific to the person, but we are working to develop a base potion to determine how difficult such a thing would be and if it is possible.”

            Albus nodded slowly.  “I see.  You look tired, Severus.  I worry that with all this time you and Alexandria spend together, you are not getting enough sleep.”

            He had, in fact, not slept at all the night before.  Dawn had been breaking when he shooed Alex out of his chambers, having just finished the night’s fourth session of lovemaking.  “I admit myself to be short on sleep, but our work is far too important to neglect, especially with the final task looming.”

            “You still believe the boy to be in danger?”         

            “The boy is in a constant state of danger,” he said drily.  “The boy is in danger when he walks down a flight of stairs, when he waves his wand, when he enters my classroom.  He is a walking magnet for danger.”

            “As you say.”

            “Mark my words, Albus.  This tournament was designed to end with the boy in the Dark Lord’s hands.  I don’t know how, but I know this to be true.”

            The final task came faster than he had hoped.  It took a great deal of self-control, but he managed to, for the most part, insist that he and Alex only spend two or so nights a week in the bedroom.  Their work and the little sleep they got in the midst of it had become too pressing and she begrudgingly agreed.

            One night a few days before the final task, they were brewing together, still tweaking their recipe for a base potion to refuse a split soul.  “I’m telling you,” Tofani insisted, “We need more boomslang skin.  It needs more body.”

            “If this were the real thing, there would be a body in it,” Severus said drily.

            “Not a very fleshy body,” she said uncertainly.  “I really think the base should more closely resemble the ratios of Polyjuice Potion.”

            “If you’re right, we don’t have time to find out whether this is even possible.  The potion would have had to mature for weeks if we were truly using Polyjuice Potion as a model.”

            Tofani frowned deeply and put a hand to her chin, her eyes glassing over.  “Yes.  It would have had to mature for weeks.  Most alchemical potions do, certainly one meant to produce flesh.  We should be looking into ideal conditions for this potion to mature.  We could narrow down where it is being produced.”

            “By how much?  There must be a thousand laboratories in Britain that are suitable.”

            “No, not at all,” she said thoughtfully.  After a moment, she laid down her gold spoon and began ticking items off on her fingers.  “It would have to be somewhere it wouldn’t be disturbed, but still somewhere a very advanced laboratory could be established.  Somewhere private and large, with easy access to ingredients.  Somewhere unlikely to attract Ministry attention.  Maybe a small Muggle town?  Or in the country.”

            “It would also be somewhere of significance to Voldemort if he is presiding over the potion’s making.  He would not be hiding somewhere that meant nothing to him or where he didn’t feel utterly secure.”

            Tofani nodded slowly.  “We should be looking at the Death Eaters’ homes for possible options.”

            “How long do you think the potion would have had to mature?  The Malfoys just had that masque…it would’ve been too risky to have the party if the potion were in the house.”

            “I think that likely rules them out, which is unfortunate because otherwise they would have been our best bet.”

            “Hmm…Yaxley has done well for himself.  I’ve never been to his home, but I would guess it to be suitably sized and private.”

            Tofani frowned suddenly.  “You said many of the Death Eaters had their property seized.  How many of them are still wealthy enough to be able to afford an advanced laboratory?”

            “More than you would think.  A lot of them come from old pureblood families, families with money.  Not all of them, of course, and you’re right that some of them lost it all in court fees and fines.  But it’s more than you could easily weed through.”

            She nodded and looked down into the bubbling potion.  It was beginning to smell foul, but he wasn’t sure if that meant it was getting closer to where it should be or not.  “We’ll keep working on this, then,” Tofani finally said, the dejection clear in her voice.  The final task was only a matter of days away and they still had not managed to debunk all of their theories on bringing the Dark Lord back.  Severus wanted to believe that their failures were also evidence that the Death Eaters most likely failed too, but he had never been an optimist.

            In fact, as he sank down into one of Tofani’s armchairs and watched Tofani add more boomslang skin to the potion, he began to despair.  They were out of time and out of ideas.  They didn’t know where this potion was being brewed, they didn’t know who was brewing it, and they didn’t know how Voldemort planned to get Harry’s blood.  They had failed.  And if they had failed, and if the Dark Lord was to return soon, the world was about to change very dramatically.

            “Alex,” he said softly.

            Alex immediately stiffened and spun to face him.  He never called her ‘Alex’ when it was professional.  If they were out of the bedroom, it was ‘Tofani.’  When she saw the look on his face, though, her brow creased and she dropped to her knees before him, taking his hands firmly in hers.  “We’re going to figure this out,” she insisted, her gold eyes burning.  “We still have a few days…”

            “Shh,” he murmured.  Alex quieted and Severus dropped his gaze to their hands.  “If the Dark Lord returns, I will have to go to him.”

            “Severus, no…”

            “I will have to return to his side and convince him that I have been his faithful servant.  If I don’t, I will be hunted and killed.”

            Alex’s eyes filled with tears and her hands tightened on his.  “No.  He’ll kill you or worse.”

            “He may.  I am sure I won’t walk away entirely unscathed,” he said bitterly.

            “Then don’t go!” she cried.  “We can run!  We’re both powerful, we could fight them off for years…”

            He shook his head and she quieted immediately.  “I’m not a coward, Alex, and you wouldn’t want me to be.”

            “I would if it meant saving your life,” she said weakly.

            Severus met her gaze and found her eyes swimming with unshed tears.  “You know that’s not me.  I have work to do, and I have to do it.”

            “Dumbledore…”

            “This isn’t just about Dumbledore.  This is about Harry.  It’s about Lily.  It’s about the world as we know it.”

            “Lily,” she said quietly.  “Harry’s mother?”

            He shut his eyes and nodded stiffly.  Alex only squeezed his hand.  At last, he said softly, “When the time comes, I will have to go to him.  If all goes as I hope it will, I’ll be back to you in a matter of hours, days at the most.  If all is well, but I can’t leave, I’ll send you a Patronus to let you know I’m fine.”

            “Severus, he’ll torture you…”

            He leaned down and kissed her firmly on the lips, quieting her, but also taking comfort from the press of her lips on his, from the warmth of her and the smell of honey and jasmine that wafted from her hair.  When he released her, he whispered, “I don’t have a choice, darling.”

            Alex shut her eyes tight and tears leaked from her dark lashes, falling over her cheeks.  He brushed them away with his thumbs, then kissed her cheekbones, her forehead, her lips.  “Are we done brewing for the night?”

            Alex nodded and, with a wave of her wand, the smoking contents of her gold cauldron vanished.  She kissed him, then, and whispered against his lips, “If you think there’s so little time, I know how I want to spend tonight.”

            He sighed and nodded his consent, standing and drawing her to her feet as well.  He kissed her long and deep, his tongue finding hers and dancing with it as she sighed.  She broke away and tugged on his hand, pulling him with her to her chambers, locking doors behind them with a flick of her wand.

            As they kissed, as they undid buttons and tugged off one another’s clothes, Severus marveled to himself at how deeply he cared for this woman.  He adored her and didn’t want to leave her, didn’t want to risk his life out of fear of leaving her alone.  Was that what love was?  He didn’t know.  He knew that he cared very deeply for this woman, knew that he needed her companionship, needed her intelligence and her wit, needed her courage and confidence, needed her love when the night grew dark.  Did he love her?  Could he love her?  He needed to know, and he needed to know before the Dark Lord returned, before he had to risk everything.  With that in mind, he whispered to her, “I want you to keep your eyes open this time.”

            Alex swallowed hard, as if the idea made her nervous, but nodded.  He kissed her again and again to get her to relax, to get both of them to relax, then laid he down on the bed and followed her.  Her skin was so damn soft and he reveled in her touch, in the way her smooth legs felt tangling in his, in the soft pressure of her breasts into his chest.  With a gentle hand, he tugged her hair out of her braid and ran his fingers through it, laying it loose upon the gold satin sheets.  Then, he started, his eyes open and locked on hers as her hands gripped his shoulders and her lips parted in bliss.  She had gorgeous eyes, alchemist’s eyes, liquid gold.  They were a trait he could associate with no one else, with nothing else, something that was uniquely Alex Tofani, the fierce witch he worked and fought with, the beautiful enchantress who fucked him when the world got too dark to stand.  As he moved inside her, as their breaths found a common rhythm, as he felt her heart racing beneath his own, he contemplated everything that was Alex Tofani.

            Warmth swelled inside his chest.  He felt both pride and a desire to impress, felt challenged and rewarded, felt his loyalty earned and repaid.  He felt the desire to care for her, to make her happy, to make her feel good and whole, felt the goodness and wholeness she gave him.

            Alex tangled her legs in his, gripped his shoulders, then rolled them, sending his head spinning.  When she was on top, she threw her hair back over her shoulders and, staring down at him with burning golden eyes, she rolled her hips slowly first one way, then another, moving around him, squeezing and twisting until he was gripping her by the hips, urging her on, begging her to fuck him harder, faster.  She did, laying her potion-scarred hands on his chest as she moved, rocking on and off of him, rolling her hips around him so his eyes rolled back.  He quickly refocused on her, though, holding her gaze as she smiled.  He tightened his hold on her, taking some control back as he pulled her harder onto him with each thrust, causing her lips to part as she struggled for air.  When he brought one hand down to where their bodies joined, teasing her with his fingertips, she cried out and her eyes snapped shut.  He sat up then, still helping her move on top of him with one hand as he teased her with the other.  He kissed her lips hard, demanding her attention, then whispered against her skin, “Look at me.”

            She did, her pupils blown wide with desire, black surrounded by rings of gold.  Her hands found his shoulders and gripped him hard as she moved faster on him, bringing herself down harder on him, moved by desperation. 

As they finished, together for the first time, Severus still didn’t know.  Could he love Alex?  Maybe.  He didn’t know that.

            He did know that if he ever loved again, it would be her, unquestionably.  If Severus Snape’s frozen heart still beat, it would beat for her.

Chapter Text

            He’d been praying for Potter to come out of that maze in one piece when the Mark on his arm burned, wrenching at his muscles insistently.

            No.

            He gave Dumbledore a meaningful look, then escaped the crowd at the mouth of the maze, running into the forest and to the edge of the grounds, where he could pass through the wards and disapparate.

            The Dark Lord was back.

Severus apparated into a graveyard at the foot of what he recognized to be Riddle Manor, where many Death Eater meetings had been held in the old days.  He immediately fell to his knees, unexpectedly becoming filled with loathing and the thought that Tofani would have never bowed to anyone, no matter the reason.  He knew what was expected, though, and crawled forward with his old comrades to the feet of the thing standing in the graveyard, the pale figure in black robes with those horrible red eyes, the one who had called them.  He bent and kissed the robes of Lord Voldemort, then crawled away and stood, walking swiftly.  He stopped at his place in the circle beside Lucius.  Even cloaked in his hood and silver mask, he felt naked and vulnerable, exposed like an open wound.  Through his mask, he stared across the circle at Harry bound to Tom Riddle’s gravestone, fighting, blood running down his arm, bruises mottling his face and hands.  Harry….  Before his thoughts could proceed, though, he veiled himself in occlumency, clearing his head and filling it with awe at Voldemort’s return, filling it with questions he truly desired the answer of as to how it was done.  For the Dark Lord would be eagerly searching all their minds and would not rest until he was satisfied at knowing where everyone’s allegiances lied.  After all, he had spent the last thirteen years at Dumbledore’s side.  He would have to do quite a lot to prove himself.

            “Welcome, Death Eaters,” Voldemort said in that awful, thin voice.  He was less human than he had been, his skin grayish-white, his nose flattened like a snake, his eyes fully red with slitted black pupils.  His soul was in tatters and his body showed it.  “Thirteen years…thirteen years since last we met.  Yet you answer my call as though it were yesterday.  We are still united under the Dark Mark, then!  Or are we?”

            Here it was, the remonstrance that Severus had been expecting for thirteen years, the other shoe dropping at last.  The Dark Lord had returned, as Severus had expected he would since Dumbledore warned him of his own suspicions thirteen years ago, and he wanted blood from all those he believed had deserted him.  In other words, all those who had not died or been imprisoned.  The entire circle shuddered and Severus was not immune.  He schooled his mind carefully, showing fear of injury, fear of torture, but not why.  No.  He had to convince the Dark Lord that he had been loyal, that he had been using his position all these years to collect information for him.

            “I see you all whole and healthy, with your powers intact…such prompt appearances…and I ask myself…why did this band of wizards never come to the aid of their master, to whom they had sworn eternal loyalty?  It is a disappointment to me…I confess myself disappointed….”

            Just then, Avery flung himself at Voldemort’s feet begging forgiveness, something Severus knew was not coming.  He cringed inwardly at his old friend’s cowardice and foolishness, then watched as Voldemort Crucio’d him, tortured him into submission, into a pile of sobbing and screaming meat and bones on the graveyard floor.

            That will be me soon.

            “Get up, Avery,” that hateful voice said softly.  “Stand up.  I do not forgive.  I do not forget.  Thirteen long years…I want thirteen years’ repayment before I forgive you.”  He then turned to the quivering, bleeding mess that Severus realized was that coward, Wormtail.  Hate boiled in his veins, horrible, vengeful hate.  The Dark Lord admitted some of Wormtail’s debt forgiven and granted him a magical hand to replace the one that he must have sacrificed to bring Voldemort back.  Tofani did say the potion needed more body.  He crushed the traitorous thought and replaced it with hate for Wormtail, which would not come as a surprise to Voldemort, who would think him jealous.

            Wormtail moved around the circle, addressing first Lucius, then the absent Lestranges, then Macnair, Crabbe, Goyle, Nott, and at last a great empty space, where six had once stood, the last of which Voldemort named as his most faithful servant, who had already returned to his service.  This one, Severus didn’t doubt, was the one who had orchestrated this all, who had put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire, who had turned the Tri-Wizard Cup into a portkey to bring him here.

            “He is at Hogwarts, that faithful servant, and it is through his efforts that our young friend arrived here tonight.”  Severus’s eyes flashed to Harry, still struggling against the gravestone, his green eyes locked on Voldemort with fear and loathing in them.  “Yes…Harry Potter has kindly joined us for my rebirthing party.  One might go so far as to call him my guest of honor.”

            “Master,” Lucius whispered fearfully.  “We crave to know…we beg you to tell us…how you have achieved this…this miracle…how you managed to return to us….”

            Severus very much wanted to know this too, though it was utterly beside the point now.  He had failed.

            “Ah, what a story it is, Lucius, and it begins and ends with my young friend here.  You know, of course, that they have called this boy my downfall.”  Voldemort moved slowly towards Harry, like a snake stalking prey.  “You all know that on the night I lost my powers and my body, I tried to kill him.  His mother died in an attempt to save him…”  Lily.  “And unwittingly provided him with a protection I admit I had not foreseen….  I could not touch the boy.  His mother left upon him the traces of her sacrifice….  This is old magic, I should have remembered it, I was foolish to overlook it…but no matter.  I can touch him now.”  And he laid a finger on Harry’s forehead, causing the boy to cry out in pain and…nothing more to happen, save for Voldemort’s laughter.

            “I miscalculated, my friends, I admit it.  My curse was deflected by the foolish woman’s sacrifice and rebounded upon myself.  Ah, pain beyond pain, my friends; nothing could have prepared me for it.  I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit…less than the meanest ghost…but still, I was alive.  What I was, even I do not know…I, who have gone further than anybody on the path that leads to immortality.  You know my goal…to conquer death.  And now, I was tested, and it appeared that one or more of my experiments had worked…for I had not been killed, though the curse should have done it.”  The Horcruxes, no doubt.  “Nevertheless, I was as powerless as the meanest creature alive, and without the means to help myself.  I settled in a faraway place, in a forest, and I waited.  Surely, one of my faithful Death Eaters would try and find me…one of them would come and perform the magic I could not, to restore me to a body, but I waited in vain….”

            Voldemort then went on to describe his possession of that fool, Quirrell, Wormtail’s return to him, the capture and torture of Bertha Jorkins, and Wormtail’s success at returning Voldemort to something resembling a physical form.

            “There was no hope of stealing the Sorcerer’s Stone anymore.  There were powerful alchemists trying to recreate the Stone to no avail, utterly failing at every turn.  But I was willing to embrace mortal life again before chasing immortality.  I set my sights lower…I would settle for my old body back again, and my old strength….I knew that to achieve this…it is an old piece of dark magic, the potion that revived me tonight…I would need three powerful ingredients.  Well, one of them was already at hand, wasn’t it Wormtail?  Flesh given by a servant….  My father’s bone, naturally, meant that we would have to come here, where he was buried.  But the blood of a foe…I wanted Harry Potter’s blood.  I wanted the blood of the one who had stripped me of my power thirteen years ago…for the lingering protection that his mother gave him would then reside in my veins too.”

            The monster then described the wards Dumbledore had used to protect Harry all these years and his plan to place a loyal servant at Hogwarts to put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire, then ensure that the boy won the tournament, that he was the first to touch the Cup, turned into a portkey.

            “And here he is,” Voldemort said triumphantly.  “The boy you all believed had been my downfall.”  The creature turned on Harry, wand raised, and it was all Severus could do to remain still, to not react as Voldemort cried, “Crucio!

            The boy writhed in agony, screaming as the Death Eaters laughed, as Severus stared in utter horror.  Harry…no….  This boy, James’s boy that he had hated all these years, Lily’s boy that he had protected all these years, this boy was in horrible, horrible pain, and he would die before the night was out.

            I failed you, Lily.  I failed you again.

            Wormtail offered the boy his wand at Voldemort’s bidding and the Dark Lord forced him to rise and bow before they dueled.  Severus watched, feeling ill with fear and hate, as the Dark Lord tortured the boy again, as he fell and was pushed back to Voldemort by the laughing Death Eaters at the other side of the circle.  Severus wasn’t sure what he would have done had Harry fallen at his feet.  Would he have had the will to continue to play his part and send the boy back to Voldemort’s waiting curse?  Would he have had a different strength of will and come to the boy’s defenses?  He didn’t know.

            “A little break,” said Voldemort, lifting the curse for a moment.  “A little pause….  That hurt, didn’t it, Harry?  You don’t want me to do that again, do you?”

            He was casting Imperio on the boy, torturing his mind into submission, and Severus cringed watching.  But Harry didn’t bow, he didn’t speak.  He could see the boy twitching, fighting Voldemort’s mind inside his own, then he cried out, “I won’t!”

            The laughter stopped abruptly and a warmth bubbled up inside Severus that he recognized as pride.  He carefully stifled it as the Dark Lord stalked towards Harry in fury, screaming and sending another curse at him as the boy leapt behind a gravestone to dodge it.  Voldemort mocked him, taunting him to force him out as the Death Eaters laughed once more, but then the boy leapt out, crying “Expelliarmus!” the disarming spell Severus had taught him a thousand years ago.  In the same moment, Voldemort cast Avada Kedavra at the boy, making Severus want to cry out, but the spells met in the air, colliding in a blast of gold light.  The light held between the two wands, glowing like a rope tied between them.  Gold light burst forth in tendrils from it, arcing upward and creating a dome above the duelists as the Death Eaters stared in wonder.

            Prioi Incantatem.  The meeting of two brother wand cores.

            Severus hurried forward to the edge of the dome with the other Death Eaters, who were begging the Dark Lord for instruction, trying to see through the wall of magic.  Severus had eyes only for Harry, who was holding onto his wand with both hands, fighting to control it, fighting to force the magic back towards Voldemort.  Grey ghost-like shapes crawled from the end of Voldemort’s wand…Wormtail’s hand...the form of Cedric Diggory…the form of an old man…and then, before Severus’s eyes, James Potter, his old nemesis, stepped forth, followed by Lily.

            His heart stopped in his chest.

            Lily hurried to her son’s side, her hair floating about her, whispering in his ear, urging him on.

            And he felt the strangest thing, something he had not at all expected.

            He felt desperation for the boy to succeed, for him to escape, for him to even defeat Voldemort, and he felt kinship with Lily for helping him to do so.

            But no more.

            He felt no desire for her, no burning need to see her or feel her or speak with her.  His eyes were still on Harry, on this boy he had protected for so long.

            The golden rope of magic shattered and Harry scrambled backwards as the shades swarmed Voldemort, as the Death Eaters stumbled backward, knocked asunder by the magic.  Severus stumbled, but kept his footing, watching as Harry ran to Diggory’s body, as Voldemort chased him and raised his wand, as Harry Summoned the Cup and vanished into the portkey.

            Voldemort screamed in fury, lashing out with bolts of green light in all directions.  Death Eaters fell left and right and then Severus himself was hit, falling to the earth in such pain that he did not even feel the ground rise up to meet him.  He only felt the white-hot agony of the Cruciatus curse burning through his veins, scorching his every cell, twisting his muscles and searing his nerves, stabbing into his very bones as he writhed and screamed.

            When it passed, he was half delirious, but struggled as quickly as he could to his feet.  Harry had escaped…but someone was still at Hogwarts, waiting in case anything went wrong, waiting for the boy to return.

            Voldemort stood in the center of a field of cowering Death Eaters.  Severus fell once more to his knees and crawled forward to the Dark Lord’s feet.  He could feel those red eyes on him and filled his mind with the information he had been preparing for thirteen years, Dumbledore’s patterns and habits, his suspicions about the Dark Lord’s whereabouts, his theories as to Bertha Jorkins’s disappearance, his conversation with Karkaroff where he had reprimanded the older man for his cowardice, his insistence at never naming a single Death Eater, though he knew them all, his knowledge of the Order of the Phoenix’s members, their identities, their most recent addresses, everything, his loathing for James’s son, his attention to everything the boy did, everywhere he went, everyone he spent time with, everything about him since the moment he had passed through the doors of Hogwarts.  “My lord,” he said, prostrating himself before Voldemort as he felt the wizard clawing through his mind, reading all this information and processing it.  “I have been faithful to you all these years.  I have held my post as your spy all these thirteen years, gathering information for when I knew you would one day return and need it.  Let me go to Hogwarts.  Let me try to get to the boy before Dumbledore does.”

            “Go!” Voldemort commanded.  “But return to me at once, Severus, with or without the boy.  If you manage to apprehend him, bring him alive.”

            “Of course, my lord,” he said in relief, disapparating immediately.

            He landed at the edge of Hogwarts’s grounds in the Forbidden Forest, as close to the maze as he could apparate.  His entire body ached and shuddered with tremors in the aftershock of the Curciatus, but he had no time to tend to himself.  He ran through the wards and to the mouth of the maze, where a crowd of panicked onlookers had gathered.  His eyes scanned the crowd, searching, searching, for Harry, then for Dumbledore.  Failing that, he scanned the minds of the crowd, looking for images of Harry.  He’d been here a moment prior, clutching Diggory’s body, but he had vanished.

            “Severus!”

            His eyes snapped to Dumbledore and to McGonagall, who were hurrying towards the school.  Severus ran to catch up and took his place at Dumbledore’s right-hand side.  “I had not expected you so soon, my boy,” Dumbledore said.

            “I convinced him to let me seek Harry,” he answered.  “The Death Eater is still here.”

            “Do you know who he is?”

            “No.  I suspect he may be using Polyjuice Potion to impersonate someone,” Severus said, suddenly sure of this.  If it truly was a Death Eater who had done this, and he knew it wasn’t himself or Karkaroff, then the Death Eater must have been in disguise all this time.  “He may have been in disguise all year, Professor.”

            “I suspect you’re right, Severus.”  They were now climbing the stairs inside the castle at a brisk march.  “I spotted Moody leaving the crowd with Harry.  I fear he may be the victim of this imposter.”

            “Mad-Eye?” Severus asked in surprise.  If the Death Eater was posing as Mad-Eye, he had done a remarkable job.

            “So I fear.”

            They climbed the steps to Moody’s office, bursting through the door with a powerful “Stupefy!” from Dumbledore.

            The spell sent Moody, or the man impersonating him, falling backward into the wall, then crumpling to the floor in an unconscious heap.  Dumbledore went to his side at once, checking that he was certainly unconscious.  Severus’s eyes strayed to the Foe Glass with their faces in it, then locked on Harry, who was quivering on a stool nearby, blood still streaming from his arm, pain and fear on his tear-streaked face.  Severus longed to go to the boy, to ensure he was not seriously hurt and to protect him, but he knew he could not.  He had to return to the Dark Lord tonight, and that meant his memories would be searched thoroughly.  In his place, McGonagall hurried forward, taking the boy by the hand, saying something about bringing him to the hospital wing.  Dumbledore immediately objected, insisting that he needed to understand what had happened.  The man sent Severus for his Veritaserum and a house elf called Winky.  When he returned, he stopped dead in the doorway, struck with shock at the sight before him.  “Crouch!” he exclaimed in surprise.  “Barty Crouch!”

            The boy, a man now, lay before Dumbledore in a heap, his blond hair greying and askew, his form skeletal under Moody’s large robes.  Severus offered Dumbledore the Veritaserum and Dumbledore administered it, then revived Crouch, whose eyes darted madly about the room, focusing most intently upon Harry and Severus, both of whom he clearly despised.  The man described in great detail his escape from Azkaban, his imprisonment by his father, his escape from there with Voldemort’s help, the plot to get Harry into and through the Tri-Wizard Tournament, the murder of Barty Crouch, Sr., and his adoration for Voldemort, whom he had helped to restore to power.

            Dumbledore turned to Severus and bid him retrieve Madam Pomfrey, then Cornelius Fudge.  He did as he was told, sending Madam Pomfrey to Moody’s office, then hurrying to the grounds to seek out Fudge.  He needed to get things settled here and quickly so that he could return to the Dark Lord.

            He had just exited the castle when a hand clutched his wrist and jerked him around the corner.  He stumbled into the castle wall and found Tofani’s golden eyes inches before his.  “Severus,” she gasped, and, without a moment’s thought, he claimed her mouth with his, stealing one last kiss, drinking in this brief respite from the hell this night was and would continue to be.  When he knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer, he broke the kiss and whispered in a mad rush, “Alex.  The Dark Lord has returned.”

            “What?” she said, her face shattered in fear.  It was an expression he scarcely recognized on her.

            “Please listen, I don’t have much time.  I need to retrieve Fudge and make sure everything is settled, then I must return to him.”

            “Return…” she broke off and her eyes filled with tears, then she was kissing him again, desperately, forcefully, putting every bit of herself into it.  He knew then the truth, that he loved this woman, that he no longer loved Lily, but that he loved Alex and needed her, needed to return to her at any cost.

            He broke the kiss at once and murmured against her lips, “I love you, Alex, and I will return to you if I can, I swear it.” 

He made to move away, but she tightened her hold on him.  “Severus, wait!” she gasped, then kissed him one last time.  “I love you.”

Then, she released him.  With one last look into her alchemist’s eyes, with one last caress of her cheek, he was gone.

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            He found Fudge, brought him to Moody’s office and watched in horror as Fudge’s bodyguard, a dementor, no less, swooped in and kissed Crouch before it could be stopped.  He stared in shock and disgust, in fear at the fate he had narrowly avoided all those years ago as Minera cast a Patronus and drove the beast off.  Then, he was dragging a stunned Fudge to the hospital wing and Dumbledore as fast as he could.

            Seeing Harry in one piece was such a relief it nearly bowled him over, but he buried his feelings beneath thoughts of the Dark Lord’s looming disappointment, thoughts of the Cruciatus curse and of that last kiss with Alex, likely the last he’d ever have.  Seeing Black again filled him with rage and hate for his old enemy and he chafed at seeing him so near to Harry, bringing comfort to the boy he had failed after Severus had protected him in Black’s stead all these years.  But then, Dumbledore turned to him with a sad gleam in his eye and said, “Severus…you know what I must ask you to do.  If you are ready…if you are prepared…”

            Severus thought once more of that last stolen moment, of tasting Alex’s soul in that kiss, of her whispered words, “I love you.”  At last, he shut down his mind and said coolly, “I am.”

            “Then good luck,” Dumbledore said softly.  Was that worry in the old man’s eyes?  Surely not.  He had never worried for Severus before.

            With nothing more, Severus took a final look at Harry, then swept from the room.

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            The Death Eaters and their leader had moved into Riddle Manor by the time Severus returned.  He found them in the great hall there, Voldemort seated in an armchair with Nagini draped over his left arm, her eyes on Severus as he entered the room.  Truthfully, all eyes were on him, even the eyes of those who were lying on the ground, barely conscious after their punishment.  He stepped forward without a second glance at them, refusing to acknowledge his fear.  He strode to the Dark Lord’s feet, bowed deeply, and prostrated himself before him.  “My lord,” he said repentantly, “I have failed you.”

            “Yes, Severus, you have,” Voldemort said coldly.  Then, he cried out, “Crucio!”

            The pain was worse than that blast in the graveyard, the curse directed at him and him alone as he writhed on the ground.  He might have been screaming, but he was too focused on the pain to know, too wrapped up in excruciating agony to know his own name, much less anything else.  His memories left him, his senses left him, everything left him except the pain arcing along his nerves, burning them as it went.

            It seemed to last hours, and knowing the Dark Lord, it may have.  Blackness overtook him at last, and he woke to find the Dark Lord standing over him, his red eyes glaring down at him.  “Fortunately for you, Severus,” he said in that soft voice, “I have need of you yet.  I will not kill you, not tonight.  You must return to Dumbledore and continue your spying for me, continue to provide me with my only source of inside information.  But not yet.  No, first you must atone for your failures.  Crucio!”

            The pain enveloped him, bringing him from the brink of darkness into horrible wakefulness, then thrusting him back under.