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Chapter 3:
Discenda et Culpa
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"What after all, is a halo? It’s only one more thing to keep clean."
--Christopher Fry, "The Lady’s Not For Burning"

Severus pulled a box out of the back of his wardrobe and extracted a double handful of pictures from it. He put it back in its accustomed place, walked into the lounge, and sat down on the leather couch. One by one, he examined the pictures, smiling slightly at the girl with red hair who was waving at him. He stopped when he got to the last one; it had been one of the last days that he'd seen her alive.

He'd warned Dumbledore about the plot concerning the Potters, then he'd gone to warn Lily in person. A scant month later, they were dead, and baby Harry had been placed with Lily's sister. Severus sighed softly. "He'll never go back there, Lils," he promised. "The Aurors came today to make sure of that."

For Lily's sake, as well as the sake of the Order, he and James had called a truce during the last days of the Potter's lives. In public, however, enmity was still the safest stance to take. And he still hadn't liked the man. He smiled a little as he watched a photographic version of baby Harry crawl into his photographic self's lap. Funny, that. As a toddler, Harry had loved his parents, Lupin, Black and his "Unkoh Sebus," but he'd hated Pettigrew. Briefly, Severus wondered if that should have been an indication of who to trust; as much as he detested small children, it was a well-known fact that they tended to be more perceptive at that age than most adults.

Severus sighed again as he ran a gentle figure over the people in the photograph. He didn't remember who had taken it, but himself, Harry, Lily, and James were waving and smiling back at him from the slick surface. Baby Harry was just starting to toddle in the picture, and was still mostly bald. From the picture alone, it wouldn't have been obvious who exactly was the baby's father; the child hadn't looked as much like James then.

"I'm sorry, Lils," he whispered to the picture. "I failed you; I forgot how much your sister hates magic, and I never thought she'd mistreat your son."

He laid his head on the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. In the days following the Dark Lord's fall, he hadn't thought of Lily's child for more than a few minutes; he'd simply been too busy. With his imprisonment and afterwards beginning teaching at Hogwarts, he simply hadn't had the time. And once he'd gotten the breathing space he'd needed, he'd simply assumed that Lily's baby was safe where he was.

Lily had extracted an unbreakable vow from him the last time he'd seen her that he would do his best to protect Harry if the worst happened and she didn't survive. She hadn't asked for perfection, just for him to do his best. In retrospect, he should have checked on the child, but he hadn't thought of it, and as a result, Lily's child had suffered. Silently, he promised her shade that he would make sure that the boy had a chance to be happy, for her sake.

Severus let the pictures drop to his lap. Dumbledore had informed him that Tonks and Shacklebolt had come to take Harry's testimony that afternoon. No matter what happened, Petunia would never get her hands on Lily's boy again. He glanced at the picture of a smiling, happy Lily and promised her that even if he had to take the boy himself, which was the last thing he wanted to do, Harry would be safe and protected.

Severus scowled as he stalked up and down the aisle, glaring indiscriminately at the students and doing his best to ignore Umbridge. For some reason, the foul woman had come to do another 'inspection' of his class. His scowl deepened as he considered the self-styled 'High Inquisitor.'

It was bad enough that she'd been planted by the ministry, but she was also incompetent and had managed to push through measures with that fool, Fudge, that were designed to bring down Hogwarts to her own personal standards of mediocrity. One would think with her raging ambition, she had been Slytherin, but it just wasn't so; the odious woman had been a Hufflepuff, and she'd made Longbottom look competent when it came to brewing potions.

Considering how often the boy's potions failed spectacularly, it took an awful lot to be able to say that about another student. "Hem, hem," she tried to interrupt, but he ignored her in favor of looking into Potter's cauldron.

"It needs to be thicker, Potter," he said quietly. "What neutral substance wouldn't affect the potion and still be able to thicken it?" he asked. After seeing the child's memories, he'd been doing his utmost to tone down his usual sarcastic behavior around Lily's boy; he'd been keeping a careful eye on him since he'd reported the abuse, too.

Harry frowned as Severus again ignored another, "Hem, hem," from Umbridge.

"Tapioca?" he ventured finally.

Severus gave him a sharp nod and moved to the next desk. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Longbottom," he said. The idiot boy was preparing to toss a handful of nettle leaves into his cauldron.

He froze momentarily. "Why, P-p-professor Snape?" he asked nervously.

"You can read, can't you, Longbottom?" Snape asked.

"Y-y-yes, Sir," he stuttered nervously.

"Fifteen points from Gryffindor, then," he sneered. "I suggest you read and follow the directions, Mr. Longbottom."

"Y-y-yes, sir," was the soft answer.

"Hem, hem," Umbridge tried again.

"Yes?" he raised an eyebrow.

Before she could ask a question, there was an explosion coming from the front of the room. "Mr. Finnigan!" he frowned at the hapless student. "Granger, take Finnigan to the hospital wing—everybody else clear out." Quickly, he cast a strong venting spell before the fumes could reach the students, then cast another to douse the fires under the cauldrons, and started ushering them out of the room.

"If you'll excuse me, Professor Umbridge," he snarled, "I must find out what that dunderhead did in his attempt to blow up my classroom."

Before Umbridge answered, he turned and started to check on his other students, making sure that nobody else needed to see Poppy. Unfortunately, it looked like Potter had been hit worse than he had initially thought. Perhaps it was unsurprising, considering that Finnigan had been working at the desk in front of the boy. "Mr. Potter, we need to get you to the hospital wing," he said quietly.

Potter nodded jerkily. "It's not bad, Professor," he said. "I've had worse."

That simple statement made Severus scowl. From his secondhand memories of Harry's home life, he knew that the boy had been hurt much worse than the combination of scalds and boils currently covering him. But that didn't mean he had to like it; Hogwarts was supposed to be a safe place for the children, and he would not allow any of them to suffer needlessly.

"Hospital Wing, Potter," he said, gesturing forward. He glanced back at the other children. "You lot are dismissed," he barked. "Now go before I deduct points from both your houses."

The boy's knees started to buckle, so he grabbed the child before he could collapse and hurt himself further. "Can you walk?" he asked gruffly.

Harry studied the ground, took a deep breath, and nodded. "Yes, sir," was the soft response.

Severus released the boy, and waved him forward. "Well?" he asked sarcastically. "Are you waiting for an invitation, Potter?"

Wordlessly, Harry shook his head and headed towards the stairs. Severus started to follow him to make sure that the child didn't collapse in the hallways when a call from Umbridge got his attention. "Professor Snape?" she trilled girlishly.

Snape suppressed the urge to snarl at her. He couldn't afford to be sacked—he needed to stay at Hogwarts so that he could report on the Dark Lord's activities without being detected. "Yes?" he snapped irritably without turning around.

"Are you sure it a wise decision to dismiss your students so early?" she questioned.

Severus turned around, keeping his expression blank. "Did I, or did I not warn the class that we would be brewing a volatile potion, and that if it exploded, there would be toxic fumes?"

"You did," she confirmed.

"Even with the venting spell, it will take some time for the air to clear. As I do not wish to have poisoned children on my hands, class was dismissed. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have injured students to deal with." Severus turned and strode down the hall, attempting to ignore the twittering of Umbridge as she tried to catch up.

He reached Potter just as the boy collapsed again, this time falling forward and hitting his head on the stairs. Severus cursed softly under his breath, conjured a stretcher, and levitated the boy on it.

He hurried to the Hospital Wing, levitating the stretcher behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he kept watch on the child, making sure that he wasn't moving around enough to fall off. Harry always did seem to land himself in the maximum amount of trouble he could possibly find. It simply wouldn't do for the child to be removed from those Muggles' care only to seriously injure himself in a simple accident.

Quickly, he lifted the boy onto the nearest bed and called for Madam Pomfrey.

"What happened?" she asked as she hurried over to examine Potter.

"You've already dealt with Mr. Finnigan?" he asked. At her nod, he continued, "Mr. Potter ended up wearing most of the ruined potion."

Poppy grimaced and, with a flick of her wand, stripped the potion-soaked clothing from Potter and changed him into hospital pajamas. "Do you know why he collapsed?" she asked absently as she collected a burn salve and the remedy for the boils.

"No idea; he said he was fine to walk," was his neutral answer. "Idiot Gryffindor."

"Now Severus--" she stopped and shook her head. Quickly, she magicked the potion into the child, and then began to spread the salve on his burns.

"Poppy," he began softly. "I'm not sure if the Aurors insisted on it yet--but I need you to do a complete medical history on Potter for us." Normally, he would have left such a thing to the child's head of house, but he was pretty sure that, due to having to keep Umbridge from finding out, Minerva hadn't asked--and he had sworn that Lily's boy wouldn't ever return to the Muggles.

"But those are only done in cases of suspected abuse," Poppy protested.

Severus inclined his head. "Yes," was his simple answer.

She closed her eyes for a few moments and sighed. "He's always so thin at the beginning of term," she murmured. "I'll see that Albus gets it," she promised.

"Good," he answered. Without another word, Severus turned and strode out of the Hospital Wing, then headed towards the dungeons. He had things to do before his next class.

Severus stared at his student, a scowl firmly in place. The boy was strangely docile, for him. He knew that sooner or later the storm would break, and he wasn't looking forward to the fallout. Potter had certainly inherited his mother's temper! "Let's see how much of that book you absorbed. Legilimens," he whispered.

The boy's shields were even weaker than before, so he extracted himself quickly. "Mr. Potter," he began, exasperated, "What exactly is wrong? You're getting worse, not better at this!" Severus made a conscious decision to not belittle the child, at least in private--he decided that to continue to insult Potter would do more harm than good to an already damaged boy.

Harry seemed to consider the matter for a few minutes before answering. "I-I-I don't know," he answered finally. "I know I need to, but I don't want to cut off my only source of information, either; nobody will tell me anything."

Severus crossed his arms over his chest and thought for a few minutes. "Tell me about what you've been seeing in your dreams, Mr. Potter," he said.

Potter frowned. "Why should I?" he demanded. "You went and told about what you saw in my head! Why should I tell you anything?"

Severus sighed. "I had to; it's my duty as your teacher. And I promise that unless it's vital to the war or the security of the students and the school, I won't tell."

"I've been having these dreams of a corridor in the Department of the Mysteries," Potter said quietly. "I think there's a weapon there that Voldemort wants."

"What did I tell you about using that name?" Severus demanded.

Potter flinched. “Sorry,” he said. "But the corridor--I don't know what the weapon is, but he wants it! And I know that members of the Order have been guarding it, and that's where Mr. Weasley was when the snake attacked him."

"You and your friends are too clever by half," Severus said dryly, making it sound more of an insult than a compliment. He and the rest of the Order were not supposed to tell the Boy-Who-Lived anything that was going on. He weighed the options; if he wasn't told, chances were he'd go off half-cocked and get himself and his friends killed. And while he didn't know the whole truth, chances were that the child would be the one to get rid of the Dark Lord permanently, because he was one of the few to defy him repeatedly and live.

Deciding on the lesser of two evils, Severus spoke. "If I tell you a little of what's going on," he began quietly, after casting silencing, locking, and warding spells on the door, "will you concentrate on you lessons and blocking Him out?"

"Will you keep me informed?" Potter asked.

Severus inclined his head. "As much as I am able," he said. "If I tell you, you are not to repeat it. You're fifteen, Potter--still a child! And the Headmaster wishes you to enjoy what childhood you have left." He wasn't sure he agreed with that, but Albus was the head of the Order, and the wisest wizard of the age. He owed him obedience and respect.

Potter gave him a sour look. "My childhood effectively ended when Tom," he stressed the name, "killed my parents. You know that."

Severus gave the boy a measuring look. What he saw surprised even him--instead of a normal teenager, he simply saw a very old child. It was true, he reflected, after seeing Potter's memories, he couldn't deny that Lily's boy had neither a real childhood, nor been a child in a very long time. "The Dark Lord," he began after another moment of contemplation, "is not after a weapon. He is after a prophesy," he said. "And it involves you. I don't know what it says, so don't ask me, but I do know that you and he are the only ones who can retrieve it."

"So he's trying to make me go get it for him," Potter stated.

"Yes," was the simple answer. "And unless you learn to clear your mind and practice Occlumency, he will continue to break into it and try to control you. Now do you understand why this is important?"

"Yes."

"Will you?" he demanded. The stupid Gryffindor had to learn! If he didn't, all their lives would be forfeit. Severus, for one, didn't intend to die. His preferred method of dying was to simply slip away at a very old age in his sleep. Hopefully, with Voldemort already long dead.

"Yes, sir," was the reply. "But how? I haven't the slightest idea how to clear my mind, and the book wasn't really all that clear on it, either!" Potter gave him an angry glare.

Severus sighed and began to explain. Sometimes, he wished he hadn't made that damnfool vow to Lily, because it involved protecting the boy from his own idiocy. He suspected it would get worse; after all, there was a chance that the incompetent boob of a minister would try for guardianship of the boy so that he could have him committed to suppress the news of the Dark Lord's return even more. And if that happened, Merlin help them all.