"All warfare is based on deception. We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors."
--Sun Tzu, The Art of War (fl. 400-320 BC)
Severus knelt and kissed the hem of the Dark Lord's robes. "My Lord," he said, using a slavish, worshipful tone. He hated it. He hated bowing down to a smarmy, psychotic, sociopathic, megalomaniac idiot who was possessed of delusions of grandeur. He was sick of the lies and the deceit that had become his life, but they were also his survival. He dared not drop the masks.
"Severus, my faithful servant," Voldemort said. "What have you to report?"
"Umbridge is doing exactly what she has been paid to do, Master," he said. "The old coot has been driven from the school, Potter and his friends are miserable, and my Slytherins are terrorizing the school."
Voldemort gave him a sharp nod of acknowledgment. "Anything else?"
"Umbridge's incompetence will insure that she doesn't last long," he said. "The other teachers are uncooperative and the students take every opportunity to terrorize her."
"Word has reached me that you no longer insult Potter."
Severus inclined his head. "I was ordered not to, my Lord," he said. "Apparently, Potter has been mistreated by those Muggle relatives of his," he sneered. "Most likely, he's making it up to get more attention." He hated being forced into telling the boy's secrets, but if he were lucky, Tom would believe what he was saying.
Voldemort leaned back in his throne and steepled his long fingers. "Perhaps."
"He is a spoilt, arrogant child with delusions of grandeur who thinks he can defeat you, my Lord," Snape said. A little judicious flattery never hurt.
Voldemort's lips curved into a smile as he probed Severus's thoughts. Severus repressed a shiver for both the smile and the Legilimency. The smile, well, that was enough to send small children running away and screaming in horror. Combined with the violation of the Dark Lord's version of Legilimency, which felt a lot like mind rape, it was enough to make any sane person shudder at the very least.
"Very good, Severus," he said. "But you have yet to find out either what they will do with Potter over the summer, or the contents of the prophecy. Crucio."
Pain. White-hot, blinding pain. It was all Severus was aware of for what seemed like eternity. When he came back to himself, he tried to control the tremors as bowed low and kissed the hem of Voldemort's robes. "You are most generous, my Lord." He murmured before stepping back and blending in with the other Death Eaters.
As soon as they were released, Severus disapparated, reappearing right outside Hogwarts' apparation borders in the Forbidden Forest. Quickly, so as to avoid the centaurs, he left the forest and headed to the castle. Minutes later, he was back in his chambers, downing an anti-cruciatus potion.
When the tremors subsided, Severus locked and warded his rooms, pulled out his scrying bowl, and filled it with water. He put the bowl on a low table, then sat down in his favorite chair. Taking out his wand, he tapped the bowl at each of the four compass points, "Colloquor Albus Dumbledore," he whispered. He leaned over the bowl, watching closely as the Headmaster's image appeared.
"Severus? I thought it was you."
Severus inclined his head. "I was summoned, Headmaster," he said. "The Dark Lord wanted to know why my treatment of the Potter boy has changed."
"And what did you tell him?" Dumbledore asked.
Severus sighed. "I told him that there had been allegations of abuse that were probably unfounded and that I'd been ordered not to insult the whelp."
Dumbledore gave him a slow nod. "Have you learned anything of his plans?"
Severus closed his eyes briefly. "He still wants the prophecy, and Potter told me that he's still having dreams of the corridor in the Department of Mysteries."
"You think that Tom is trying to lure Harry there." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Of course," Severus said. "To keep that from happening, I told Harry that there is a prophecy that the Dark Lord wants and that is why he's been having those dreams."
"Severus!" Dumbledore exclaimed.
Severus crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow. "He and his friends thought it was a weapon," he said mildly. "Knowing how foolishly Gryffindor that child can be, he might have gone there and gotten himself and his friends killed."
"I wanted him to have a normal year for once," Dumbledore began sorrowfully.
"Ahh, yes, a normal year," Severus said thoughtfully. "So far, you've ignored him, he's been publicly branded as a delusional, violent teenager, had a lifetime quidditch ban imposed upon him, had his less-than-adequate home life exposed, been tortured by a ministry-imposed defense teacher--"
"What?" Dumbledore demanded.
"You didn't know?" Severus inquired. "Umbridge has been using a blood quill on the students in her detentions all year. We've been gathering evidence; by next week, we shall have everything we need to put her in Azkaban for quite some time."
Dumbledore shut his eyes and sighed. "I have failed that child more than I thought."
Severus simply snorted. "The Dark Lord is still trying to get the boy to obtain the prophecy for him," he said shortly. "I have taken measures to insure that this does not happen; as I said before, Potter now knows what the Dark Lord wants, and is working harder at his lessons."
Dumbledore scowled. "You were under orders not to tell him anything."
"Yes," Severus replied. "And, as usual, he and his friends were trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on, which sooner or later would lead them into a trap." He raised his eyebrow. "I do not wish to attend another funeral for one of my students; Mr. Diggory's was bad enough."
The tiny figure of the Headmaster seemed to hesitate before finally giving him a sharp nod. "You seem to understand the boy better than I do right now, Severus," he admitted.
Severus snorted. "Because I'm being forced to spend time with him, whilst you've been studiously ignoring him. I assure you, it won't last." At least he hoped it wouldn't; he didn't want to become part of the Potter fan club. The brat had too many people fawning over him as it was.
"Thank you," Dumbledore said quietly.
Severus inclined his head and ended the spell, slumping tiredly against the soft leather of the chair. A smirk stole over his face as he remembered the shocked look on the Headmaster's face as he'd told the man about Umbridge's detentions. It was a common belief that Albus Dumbledore was infallible and knew everything, and it was always fun to prove that it simply wasn't so.
Severus poked at his scrambled eggs. Normally, he'd be leaving the Great Hall by now, but he'd received word that he should hang around to... watch. He looked at Umbridge out of the corner of his eye and watched as she gulped down some pumpkin juice.
"Hem, hem," Umbridge cleared her throat. Snape watched with hidden amusement as she turned bright blue.
"Hem, hem," she cleared her throat again and chartreuse spots began popping up on top of the blue. As if the blue and bright greenish-yellow weren't bad enough, her skin now clashed horribly with the fuzzy pumpkin-colored sweater and matching headband that she was wearing over her robes.
With stifled amusement, he watched as a look of horror spread over her face and students began laughing at her new appearance. He glanced over at the Gryffindor table and gave the Weasley twins a barely perceptible nod. Fred grinned broadly while George signaled for him to wait a few moments. Idly, he thought that they must have tweaked the formula; he'd never tried to get it to reproduce patterns.
A bang resounded throughout the great hall as the banners were replaced with new ones depicting Umbridge, her skin and hair in the pictures were splashed with too many different patterns and colors to count--she looked more like a layered stack of crazy quilts than a human being. Added to the... colorful picture were sound effects of a toad croaking, whilst the Umbridge picture's tongue lashed out of her mouth to catch a fly and eat it. Each 'ribbit' had a translation scroll out from beneath the picture, saying more and more outlandish things with each successive sound effect.
Umbridge turned red, then purple. The mix of natural colors made an interesting combination with the prank potion ones. "Effingo!" She roared, pointing her wand at the banners, and then clapped her hand over her mouth.
Obediently, the banners duplicated themselves until every available bit of the walls and the ceiling were plastered with them and the toad noises became almost deafening. Umbridge gasped, her mouth hanging open and abruptly sat down, only to stand up again as the tittering became full-out laughter. "Minister Fudge is an idiot!" she proclaimed. "Dumbledore is right, and Voldemort is back!" she said. Abruptly, she sat back down and then cleared her throat. Bright purple stripes added themselves to the chartreuse polka dots on her skin.
Quietly, Severus stood up and made his way out of the great hall. "One hundred points to Gryffindor," he murmured, "for a positively Slytherin use of magic in aiding a professor."
Severus glanced at the clock and leaned back in his desk chair. He'd been marking essays while he waited for Harry to show up—not that he'd really been getting much done. It had been pandemonium all day after the Weasley twins' brilliant escape. Part of him wanted to follow them; to escape for a short while, but he had too many responsibilities to just leave.
He had stepped up Harry's Occlumency lessons to three times a week; the closer it got to the end of the year, the more worried he became. Almost every year since Lily's boy had come to Hogwarts, the Dark Lord... interfered with Harry. That time was fast approaching, and if the child were to survive yet again, Severus needed every possible weapon at his disposal.
The child was improving. While he could not yet block visions from the Dark Lord, Harry was developing shields around his mind which would, in time, become formidable. The door opened slowly and a dark head cautiously peeped in. "Sir?" he said.
"You're late," Severus said without rancor.
"Sorry, sir," Harry said quietly. "It's a madhouse out there."
Severus gestured towards a chair. "Any more visions?" he inquired.
Harry nodded hesitantly. "Yes, sir--I think he's going to try and lure me there." The boy paused for a few moments. "Professor? What if we set a trap or something for him?"
Severus contemplated the idea for a few minutes. Perhaps it could work; if nothing else, they could prove to the general public that the Dark Lord had returned. Finally, he gave the boy a brief nod. "I will discuss it with the Headmaster," he offered.
"Thank you, sir," Harry said.
Severus picked up a stack of parchment and handed it to the boy. He'd been considering doing something like this for a while now; not only would it satisfy Minerva, but it would also annoy Umbridge. Putting up with the boy for two more years in classes would be worth it, he hoped. Also, keeping him in potions would make it easier to keep an eye on Harry so that he could protect the boy better. "This should help you prepare for OWLs," he observed.
Harry took the parchment and gave him a puzzled look. "Sir?" he ventured.
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"Why are you being nice to me? And why are you helping me? I mean, you hate me."
Severus smirked. "I rather thought that you didn't need more insults and pressure at the moment. As for the rest, let's just say that I'm keeping a very old promise."
"To who?" Harry looked curious.
Severus crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. "I was not aware that you'd become an owl, Mr. Potter," he observed.
"That's more normal," the child muttered.
"Now." Severus leaned forward and fixed an intent gaze on the boy. "We have some things to learn before you can go back to your common room."
Harry stuffed the parchment into his bag, then straightened up to look at him. "Yes, sir," he said as he pulled out his wand.
"So far we have concentrated on direct attack," Severus began. "But the Dark Lord's methods have changed lately, so tonight, we shall work on something more... subtle as well."
Potter gave him a sharp nod. "I'm ready, Professor," he said.
Severus drew his wand. "Legilimens," he said, putting as much force behind it as he deemed safe. Blackness. He was surrounded entirely by darkness. He peered around, attempting to figure out where he was, but he couldn't see a thing. Finally, he could see some slotted light coming from one end of the black space.
As he approached it, he was thrown out of Harry's head. He favored the boy with a rare smile. "Very good, Mr. Potter. Now where was I?"
Harry frowned slightly. "I shut you in my cupboard and took the light away," he said slowly. "It's safe in there, a little cramped, but safe. If I can get trapped, so can you."
Severus nodded. "We shall have to work on the next stage," he observed. "But before that, you need to learn to recognize and counter a more subtle approach. Blocking the dreams that the Dark Lord sends you would be a very good idea."
"Yes, sir," Harry said.
Briefly, Severus wondered if Harry's lack of cheekiness was really a good thing. Ever since his life with the Dursleys had been discovered, the child had been more subdued than was normal. While it was a nice change, part of him hoped that they'd see a reemergence of the cheeky, impudent brat that he'd grown accustomed to dealing with. He wasn't sure how to relate to this new version of Harry Potter.
"Legilimens," he murmured. This time, he kept his touch light, trying to slide in under Potter's Occlumency shields. It didn't take long for him to succeed. Deftly, he began looking for happy memories, trying to find something that wouldn't be traumatic for Harry to relive; he'd had enough of watching bad memories.
Harry's first time on a broom caught his eye. He watched as Harry flew around the towers of the castle, trying to get Longbottom's Rememberall back from Malfoy. Inwardly, Severus sighed as the boy caught the device at the bottom of a fifty-foot dive. If only he'd been in Slytherin...
He reached the end of that memory and searched for another. He stopped as he caught sight of Black asking the boy to live with him. Severus shook his head. Lily's child had been desperate for a parental figure to love him. He filed the thought away; whoever took Harry in would need to know that.
The next memory that caught his eye was Harry's first Christmas at Hogwarts. He frowned a little when he felt the child's amazement that there were actually gifts for him. With an almost-audible snap, he was back in the cupboard, then thrown out of Harry's mind.
Severus gave the boy a sharp nod. "Good," he praised. "But you must learn to recognize an intrusion sooner and throw me out more quickly."
Harry nodded, then reached up and rubbed his scar. "Yes, sir," he said.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Potter?" Severus asked.
Harry looked down at the floor. "My scar hurts," he admitted. "It always hurts after Occlumency lessons."
Severus sighed, walked over to his potions cupboard, and started rummaging around inside. He pulled out a pot of salve, and then gave it to the child. "Here," he said. "Rub some of this into your scar after lessons. I want you to come to me before you sit OWLs, I'll see what I can do to reinforce your shields."
Harry took the salve and gave him a shy smile. "Thank you, sir," he said.
Severus inclined his head. "Now, once more--legilimens." As he infiltrated the boy's mind once more, he hoped that it would be enough to keep the psychopath out of Lily's child's head. Merlin only knew Harry had enough on his plate with the Umbitch after his blood.