The halls of Hogwarts were buzzing with gossip. The Gryffindors had gained 90 points overnight, and, more shocking still, Snape had taken points from his own house, and from Draco Malfoy specifically. Everyone was speculating wildly, and the prevalent opinion was that he must be imperiused. Harry knew that was not the case, but he was no less in shock- there was only one explanation for the extra points, and it was practically impossible even if Snape had changed as a result of the ritual. Not only that, but Hermione seemed to have come to a similar conclusion as to the origin of the extra points, and was subjecting him to an uncomfortably severe scrutiny.
Charms was practically a joke- Flitwick was teaching the wordless aquamenti, but no one was listening, and notes, charmed paper air planes, and little crumpled balls of parchment flew about behind his back every time the diminutive teacher turned to the board.
The twins were talking about bringing in a case of butterbeer to celebrate the unlikely occurrence of Snape taking more than five points from Draco Malfoy, and, to Mcgonagall's annoyance, a spontaneous party broke out at lunch. More than one student noticed that while Snape had a rather self-satisfied smirk on his face all through lunch, the snakes were looking unusually subdued, and many of them shot their Head of House poisonous glances when they thought he wasn't looking. Harry was amused to note that Draco had the sort of blank, numb air typically observed in soldiers having completed their first battle.
Defense was the last class of the day, and the Gryffindors were just as nervous as the Slytherins as they flocked to the gloomy DADA classroom, and when Snape entered, they quieted down abruptly and without a reprimand, despite their euphoria.
Snape swept in with his usual sneer, although today it did not quite reach his eyes, and immediately began lecturing on inferi, and how to stop them with fire. About halfway through the class, when they were doing a bit of reading from the textbook, a note popped up on Harry's desk. He quickly unfolded it, and was astonished to see the spidery handwriting that had so often covered his Potions essays in the past.
*I need to talk to you. Do something to get yourself in detention with me. I promise I will not take too many points*
Harry frowned. Hermione hissed at him not to pass notes, and as he crumpled it up, Snape swept over.
"Since some of us are more intent on passing notes than taking them, perhaps a more active demonstration is in order. Potter!"
"Yes sir?" Damn, Snape was just as scary as before the ritual. Was he acting? Harry couldn't tell.
"Up here, now- I want you to demonstrate an 'incendio' for the class."
"Yes sir," Harry got to his feet and walked to the front of the classroom, uncomfortable at all the stares. On Snape's "Well, we do not have all year, Potter," he raised his wand and blasted off a mild iincendio- tilting his wand in such a manner that he "accidentally" set the hem of Snape's robes on fire. Snape's scowl was downright terrifying.
"Glacius!" he snarled, putting out the fire. He then turned back to Harry, who was practically shaking under his ferocious look. "Detention, Potter! Ten points from Gryffindor!"
"I'm sorry, professor," said Harry, actually meaning it.
"Sit down before I take more points," Snape snapped, walking back to the board. "The counter to incendio as has been demonstrated, is glacius, and you should probably write that down, Mr. Potter, so you don't set your teachers on fire in the future."
Hermione's lips twitched, and Harry wondered if she was thinking of their first year, when she had set Snape on fire during the Quiddich game, under the mistaken belief that he was jinxing Harry's broom. Most of the rest of the class were wondering why Snape hadn't taken more points. Several Slytherin pure-bloods were talking in quiet tones about the imperius and Passivity Solution.
After they read to the end of the designated chapter, Snape conjured several targets, and made the class line up, in pairs of Slytherin-Gryffindor, to cast 'incendio' and 'glacius' at them in turns. Ron and Draco had to be broken up after the Slytherin punched Ron's nose.
At the end of class, when the bell chimed, Snape barked "Potter, stay after class!"
Harry, who had been stuffing his books back into his bag, raised his head. "Ok," he said, and then to Hermione and Ron, "You don't have to wait for me."
"Ok, sir, Potter," Snape reprimanded without turning around.
Ron and Hermione reluctantly followed the rest of the class out. As soon as they were out the door, Snape closed it with a flick of his wand, then turned to Harry.
"Adequate, Potter," he said calmly. "A very Slytherin approach. However, I do wish you would spare my robes, considering how many you've already scorched."
"Umm, I didn't actually burn you, did I?"
"I assure you that I would have taken more than ten points for that," Snape was pacing. "Come, no doubt your friends will think that the Slytherin monster has rendered you for potion ingredients if you don't hurry up. We will talk later, preferably somewhere that can be adequately warded against eavesdropping, as some of the things I have to tell you are rather sensitive. My quarters. Tonight."
"Ok, what should I say when my friends ask about detention?"
"You will be cutting iguanas into their component parts for me," Snape replied. "Go on now. Oh, and ten points to Gryffindor for creativity."
Neither of them heard the soft gasp outside the door, as Harry packed up to go.
It in the free period between Magical History and dinner when Hermione finally confronted him. They had been finishing an Herbology essay in the library (well, at least Hermione was; Ron was reading a Quiddich magazine hidden in his textbook, and Harry was staring blankly at a piece of parchment with perhaps a single sentence on it, his quill dripping, worrying about the evening) when Hermione finally threw down a large book she'd been using for extra source material with a huff. Both boys looked up in shock; Madame Pince pursed her lips and shot a glare at all three of them.
"What's wrong, 'Mione?" Harry asked her at last.
"Nothing," she said sharply, scribbling ferociously on her essay. She stewed for another minute, and then finally snapped. "What the heck is going on between you and Snape?" She said, louder than she probably meant to. Heads started to turn in their direction.
"I...uh...what are you talking about?" Harry was avoiding her gaze.
"Yeah, mate, what are you doing going to his quarters tonight?" Ron chipped in.
"What are you doing lying to us?"
Harry glanced around frantically. "Not here, I don't want to be overheard."
Hermione shoved her essay into her folder so fast it rumpled, and then began to pack up all her textbooks and all the extra library books she'd gotten out. "Then we'll go to the Rooms of Requirement. C'mon, Ron." And before either of the boys could say a word, she grabbed Ron by the wrist and Harry by the cloak and marched them to the Rooms.
The Rooms of Requirement were set up like a comfortable sitting room for that particular occasion, complete with a roaring fire, squashy armchairs, and a beautiful varnished coffee table. Harry called Dobby and asked him to bring a tray of cookies, while all the while Hermione wiggled impatiently. At last, when they were all munching on a cookie (or in Ron's case, three) Hermione said: "Alright, Harry, spill."
And Harry did. "I...I don't know where to start."
"The beginning would be great."
"Ok, I guess it started last summer. The Dursleys aren't exactly good grief councillors, and you guys weren't writing much, so I started going through Siri's old journals, in his memory sort of." There was a suspicious glossy quality to Harry's eyes.
"And I found his notes on how to be an animagus."
Hermione jolted upright. "You didn't!"
"I...uh...actually did. I even brewed the animagus meditation potion on the kitchen stove with left over potion supplies when Aunt Petunia was out. I had to wait until Hogwarts to do the final transfiguration, of course, since that requires a wand, but by then I had the meditation down pat. All I had to do was the final wandwork. I just kept thinking Sirius would think it was a good prank."
"So what are you, mate?" asked Ron at the same time that Hermione asked, "What's this got to do with Snape?"
"I'm an Egyptian phnix," Harry admitted, transforming to give them a demonstration. Hermione and Ron were suitably impressed. As well they might be! Harry was all of a foot tall, his wingspan at least a meter, with glossy pale gold flight feathers mixed with others of pure white, soft white down, and a three-foot tail of sky blue and royal purple, the place where his scar had been marked with a golden zig-zag. Green eyes like beads of jade glinted in the firelight.
"Wow. Just wow." Hermione whispered. Ron's mouth resembled a cavern.
Harry flew around a bit and then landed and transformed, long black hair falling into his eyes as he did so. He swiped it away. Why were his friends staring at him? "What?" he asked, wondering if something was on his face.
"Bloody Hell!" Ron burst out. Hermione absently told him to watch his language, still staring at Harry.
"H-Harry?" she said. "What- how?
Harry blinked back at them, then gasped, realizing too late that the animagus transformation had broken the feeble glamour Snape had put on him. "Yeah, it's me," he told them. "I was getting to that."
"You better have a damn good explanation," Ron began. It was a mark of how shocked Hermione was that she did not even think to reprimand him.
"So after I completed the transformation, " Harry went on, "I used to go flying at night in the Rooms of Requirement, 'cause I didn't want to be seen. But for the last couple of days I've been going out into the Forbidden Forest to work on my form in the real world."
Hermione muttered something about crack-brained boys going out to the most dangerous place on the grounds after curfew deserving to lose points, while Ron simply looked at him as if he were mental. Harry pretended to ignore them.
"And anyway, I was out last night when I came across Snape in the Forest, and he was hurt really badly; I think Voldemort wasn't too happy with him, as his anger had been giving me a headache all last evening. So I flashed to the Hospital Wing and grabbed some potions."
"You should have gotten Dumbledore!" Hermione told him. Harry shook his head.
"He was at the ministry. I wouldn't be able to to reach him without either asking a teacher if I could use their private floo or flashing, and in either case I'd have to explain how I am an illegal phnix animagus and where I found Snape. What do you think the Minister for Magic would say to that?"
Hermione sighed. "I see your point, but it wasn't really thought out. You could have gotten Madame Pomphrey; her Healer's Oath would keep her from telling anyone your secret."
"She was out buying extra skêle-gro."
"And you didn't wait? It's really dangerous to try to heal severe wounds if you're not a healer."
"I couldn't wait, Snape was dying!"
Ron muttered something about the greasy git deserving it, and Hermione smacked him, rather hard. "Oh! But what if someone saw you?" she asked abruptly.
"There was a girl in the Hospital Wing, but she was asleep when I came in. I had to obliviate her when I left, though."
"You could have just left the Hospital Wing and then transformed." That was Ron. "You could have messed up her brain."
"I wasn't thinking! I didn't have time for that!" Harry protested.
"How bad was it?" asked Ron curiously. "It must have been really bad for you to be worried about Snape."
"He had a bunch of little burns and cuts and he was shaking from crucitus damage." Harry replied. "And he had a big gash in his stomach. I think Bellatrix had a go at him."
Ron shuddered. Hermione, however, was looking thoughtful. "You used phnix tears, didn't you," she said finally. "No potion could fix that, and Snape looked fine today."
"Phnix tears?" Ron asked.
"They have healing powers," Hermione told him. "Cuthburt O'brandy has a whole treatise on phnix magic. I would recommend it, but I know you don't read."
"Hey!" Ron protested. "I read Quiddich Through the Ages..."
Hermione sighed. "So did you use phnix tears?" she asked.
"Well, yes and no." Harry replied.
Hermione frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I tried to use phnix tears, but some of the damage was too bad, so I set him on fire. Phnix fire," he hastily added as Hermione blanched and Ron muttered something that might have been "way to go!" "The fire literally just burned away all his injuries. Healed everything. It also burned away his Dark Mark for some reason."
Hermione looked thoughtful. "Huh. I think I read about something like that somewhere."
Ron muttered "Of course."
"Huh," Hermione said again. Then her hand suddenly flew to her mouth. "Was Snape the only one on fire? Your scar is gone, and if what I think happened..." She trailed off.
"No, I was burning too. I think. My scar was killing me, so I wasn't really that lucid."
"Oh my God, Harry!" Hermione burst out. "You did the Rite of Flamma Aeterna?! On Snape?!"
"I guess. Apparently everyone knows about it except me."
"I didn't," Ron told him.
Hermione was very pale. "I...I have to go get my copy of Oldest Rituals."
The book popped up on the coffee table next to the half-empty tray of cookies. Hermione giggled almost histarically. "I forgot we're in the Rooms of Requirement." She was all business the next minute, flipping through her book. "Fama Nobis, Felis Naturale, oh, here we are!"
" Flamma Aeterna," she read, " is an involuntary ritual of intent. First documented by Pliny in 49 AD, the ritual occurs when a phnix, of it's own free will and agency, induces an early Burning Day over the corpse or dying body of a virtuous man, to heal or resurrect them. While it is not known exactly how it works, Morgana LeFay speculated that the ritual calls upon Old Magic to judge the man, as if the man is wholly evil or corrupted, both he and the phnix will literally burn up from within.
"This speculation is corroborated by the story of Dr. Dee, who had a pet phnix who was very loyal to him, even as he decended into the path of Dark Arts. One day, he remorselessly killed his wife's father, for his inheritance. His brother-in-law, enraged, slipped a little aconite into his wine. The phnix burned over him, but (as the story goes) he was too much enthralled by the dark arts, and as he had incurred the injury by killing killed a man without remorse, both he and the phnix died at once.
"Another story tells of a dark lord who imperiused a phnix to burn over his dying son. It did, but, needless to say, neither the phnix nor the men lived.
"The effects of this ritual are not well documented, but Merlin writes that the ritual 'Heels Wunds both ove the Bodey and the Minde, and clenses the Sole, for the Pow'r of the Fyre-bird is antithetic to Evil.' Other, more modern sources, mention that one's patronus may be inordinately strong as a result of the ritual, and may even change shape. Judah DeMothe writes that the exchange of power between phnix and man may even create a latent mind link."
They all sat silently together for a long time after Hermione finished. Finally Ron said what they were all thinking. "You could have died! For Snape!"
At half past eight, Harry hesitantly knocked on Snape's office door.
Harry did. Snape inclined his head, set down his quill so that the red ink wouldn't drip on an already liberally reddened essay. Then he drew his wand and muttered "muffliatus", following it with a few auror-leval privacy charms. Another flick, and a box full of iguana carcasses floated across to one of the stained tables, along with a few knives, as well as another box filled with dismembered ones. Snape smiled faintly.
"Come, Potter." Snape led him to a portrait of Salazar Slytherin in the back of the room, then on its demand of "Password" calmly told it "Lilypad." The portrait swung inwards, and Harry followed the professor into his private quarters.
Contrary to popular speculation, his rooms were not furnished in black and green. There was a black table, but the rest of the furniture was mahogany brown, and the walls and cushions were warm shades of maroon, grey, and ochre.
"Do my rooms pass the inspection?"
Harry whirled around. Snape was watching him, smirking, and Harry blushed. Snape's smirk relaxed into a tiny smile.
The professor swept a heap of exams from the coffee table, then conjured a tea tray and biscuits. "I would light the fire, but the floo connection could be problematic," he said, casting a warming charm.
"Um, it's fine, sir," replied Harry, who was just beginning to realize how surreal this situation was. If, a year ago, anyone had told him he would be having tea and biscuits with the Dungeon Bat in his own private quarters, he would have had whoever it was committed to St. Mungo's.
The two of them sat down across from each other, and Harry waited for Snape to start, clasping his hands around his tea cup and staring into it to avoid the awkward silence. It seemed that Snape didn't know what to say either. At last, when the already awkward silence was threatening to be unbearable, Harry decided to ask something that had been bothering him all day.
"Um, professor, you mentioned my mum this morning..."
Snape started, almost spilling tea in his lap. Evidently whatever he'd been expecting Harry to say, this wasn't it.
"...and I was wondering how well you knew her."
Snape said nothing for about three minutes solid. Harry was starting to worry that he'd said something wrong- after all, he barely knew the man. "I'm sorry," Harry said finally. "It was a presumptuous question."
Snape sighed. "No. You...have a right to know." A pause. "We were friends before Hogwarts. I would venture to say she was my only friend. But I...well, Slytherin is not the most welcoming of houses, especially to muggleborns. And I...did things to fit in, because a Slytherin half-blood who doesn't try to fit in would often end up 'committing suicide', while the teachers looked on. She...didn't know the half of it. I didn't want to worry her, and so all she saw was that I was practicing Dark Arts, and we had a lot of fights because of it.
"And then there were the Mauraders. I won't lie and say I didn't do my best to give as well as I got, but there were simply more of them." He closed his eyes briefly. "And then, in my fifth year, well...I was humiliated, I was tired, the girl I'd fancied had just seen me in an uncompromising situation. And I snapped. I didn't mean any of it, but that...well, that was the last straw for her. I...tried to make it up. Obviously, I couldn't. His voice took on a remotely angry tone. "That was, in the end, why I took the Mark."
Silence. Harry didn't know what to say. He was astonished, to say the least; Snape had fancied his mother? and he was also rather sorry for him. He'd never actually really thought about what had made Snape the greasy bastard who he'd grown up to be. All the same, Snape probably wouldn't take well to sympathy. And...he wanted to know more about his mother. "What was she like?" He asked finally.
"She was...beautiful." Snape's voice cracked. "Always the top of her class, into every extracurricular except for Quiddich- she always said it was stupid and dangerous, mostly because she got vertigo when she flew. Had a fiery temper, too...much like yours. No doubt she would get on very well with Granger." His back straightened. "But I am afraid that I didn't call you here to talk about her." 'and I am not going to tell you anything else private' was underlying his words, and Harry decided to respect that, even though he could sit for hours listening to stories about his mum. After all, Snape had shared a lot more than he had to, and Harry was extremely grateful.
"So, um, what is it? Does it have to do with the ritual?"
"In a way." Snape took a fortifying sip of tea. "Has Dumbledore told you about the existence of...horcruxes?" He spit out that last word with all of the venom normally reserved for the Mauraders, or for Gilderoy Lockhart.
"Horcruxes?" Harry had never even heard the term before. "What is a horcrux?"
Snape took a careful bite of his scone before he responded, as though buying time to think. "A horcrux is the darkest possible magic, worse than even the unforgivables. It is created by, well, there's no good way to phrase it; it's simply a ritual murder. In the right circumstances, a horcrux affords a kind of limited immortality."
Harry stared at him. He was beginning to have an idea of what Snape was trying to say, but it took a few minutes to put it into words. "Oh shit! You're saying Voldemort made one of those things, right? Is that why he didn't die the last time?"
The Potions Professor winced. "Multiple. That is why he's no longer sane; a horcrux requires not only murder, but also the literal separation of one's soul into fragments, which are then embedded in objects. That's why it's Dark, and why there are no books in the Hogwarts library that detail the ritual. I believe he made seven total."
Harry felt sick. "You're saying he cut his soul into seven pieces."
"Eight, actually, as one resides in his resurrected body." Snape set down the scone he'd been holding for the past minutes, evidently having no desire to finish it.
"So how the Hell do I fight him if he's immortal?"
"Language, Potter," Snape told him, although he did not seem to blame him. "I said limited immortality. If you destroy a man's body, the soul will live on, either to be a ghost or to cross over. Whereas if you destroy a horcrux, the soul will also die, as it is separated from it's rightful place, and grows weaker over time."
"How do you destroy them, then? What do they look like?"
"You have already destroyed two, I believe, unknowingly. The headmaster has gotten ahold of a third, but there was a curse embedded in the ring; it is what ruined his hand. I...he is dying. I don't know anything else to do; I have slowed the decay, but the curse is a particularly nasty one invented by the Dark Lord himself, and there isn't a cure."
"I already destroyed two?! When was that? And what do you mean there's no cure- you mean Dumbledore is going to die?!"
"I...I bought him as much time as I could." Snape's voice was very low. "The original plan was that he would, well, stage his death, in a manner calculated to plant me in the Dark Lord's innermost circle, so that I could murder the Dark Lord when he least expected it." His face twisted. "Simply put, I was to kill Dumbledore before he died, and use that to 'prove my loyalty'."
Harry was appalled. "You WHAT?!"
"I did not say I made the plan, or that I wanted it. But I owe my freedom, my position, and my life to Dumbledore, and I had to listen to him. But...but that is not the worst of it. I was under unbreakable vow not to talk about any of this, until they were broken by Flamma Aeterna, and most of all not to tell anyone what I am about to tell you next." He sighed, idly stirring tea long gone cold, in a complex rhythm that Harry recognized vaguely as the stirring pattern for a calming draught, as though by the motion he could infuse the tea with the draught in question.
"I...never wanted to tell you any of this, first because until now you wouldn't have believed me, and second because it is...well...not something that a child ought to hear. But it's clear Dumbledore means to take it to his grave, and you need to know." He sighed. "And...war is no time for preserving innocence." He closed his eyes. "Dumbledore's plan had, well, more to it. When the Dark Lord went hunting down you and your parents, he had already made five horcruxes. As a result, his soul was very unstable, and when the killing curse rebounded, it broke off a fragment of his soul, which promptly attached itself to you, as you were the only creature in the house left alive.
"I don't believe that it was strong enough to harm or possess you," Snape continued, voice shaking, as Harry listened in horror. "But, as long as it was there, Voldemort could return. So Dumbledore decided that the best way would be to sacrifice you."
"The bloody bastard didn't consider a healer, a goblin cursebreaker even! Bloody conniving bastard decided that it would forfill the prophecy if you died for the Greater Good of the Wizarding world!" Snape's voice rose in anger. "Then he could sit back on his arse and destroy the rest at his leasure." Snape deflated abruptly with a gusty sigh. "He's not all bad, I suppose, but the bloody idealist only ever sees the big picture. And with that lofty knowledge, he does not hesitate to play chess with men's lives."
Harry had been simply staring at him for the last few sentences. Finally, the dam broke. "I have one of those things in me? WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME?!"
"No one but Albus Bloody Dumbledore and myself knew, and I could not say anything. And I suppose he was just taking his own sweet time. Although, if it is any reassurance, there is no doubt that the horcrux is now gone. The phnix ritual would have destroyed it."
"So I won't have visions anymore?"
"Very likely not."
"Wait...does that mean I'm not a parcelmouth anymore?" Harry wondered. "Dumbledore said that Voldemort transferred the power to me."
"I don't know." Snape frowned. "Parceltongue isn't actually Dark, except by association, so there's a chance that you will keep it. We will have to test that later."
Harry gazed off into the distance, thinking. "Hold on, I just thought of something. Now that I don't have lt in my head, does that mean maybe I could get occlumency to work?"
Snape stared at him. "That is actually quite a good point. Probably, yes. If you had been trying to contain an internal threat, you'd have been totally unable to block a direct external attack. And...admittedly, I can see now how poorly I went about teaching you. With your condition, and my method, it's amazing you managed to block me at all. I...did I ever explain exactly what I meant by 'Clear your mind'?"
"I'll take it that I didn't explain well enough." Snape rubbed the bridge of his nose, thinking. "You need to imagine something peaceful or meditative, something that pushes everything else to the corners of your mind. Think of clouds moving overhead, or waves on the seaside. Shall we," he hesitated, "Would you like to attempt occlumency again?"