CATEGORY: Slash, with a side of het.
LENGTH: Long. This section 8,700 words.
MAIN CHARACTERS: Severus Snape, James Potter, Lily Evans
WARNINGS: Reference to dub-con and sex between students under the age of 17.
RATING: hard R
SUMMARY: Severus Snape is approached at the beginning of his sixth year with a request for help from an unlikely corner.
DISCLAIMER: The setting and characters are wholly owned by JK Rowling and her designated representatives.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I owe a huge debt to Holly, my beta and moral support. I have C and B to thank for trying to keep me on track, even though I fell far behind. Thanks also to aubrem who dreamt up the snape_the_hbp fest, which gave me a deadline.
There was a certain pleasure, thought Severus Snape, in finishing all of one's schoolwork for the weekend on Friday night, so that one woke up on Saturday morning with no commitments. This year, his sixth at Hogwarts, classes had started on a Thursday, and it hadn't been difficult to finish his Charms essay and Transfiguration work before turning in the previous evening. Now, he had two full empty days ahead of him to spend however he wished.
He put a few books and some parchment into his bag and slipped out of the Slytherin dormitory before anyone else was awake. There would be plenty of time for the necessary appearances later, along with all the posturing and scrambling for status that came with a new year in Slytherin. Evan Rosier was in a strong position, of course, but there had been something of a vacuum in power ever since Rodolphus Lestrange left school a few years back.
Severus shook his head and pushed open the door to the Great Hall. This was not the time for thinking about relative standing in Slytherin, he told himself. This was a time for gathering up a supply of toast and reading Hengist of Woodcroft's first-hand account of the founding of Hogsmeade, which he'd been looking forward to all summer. The Blacks didn't think much of reading for pleasure, and Severus was reluctant to do anything that would endanger his place with them.
He blinked a bit when he stepped outside the castle, squinting at the bright morning sunshine. A few minutes later, he was passing by the cluster of bushes at the edge of the lake, but he didn't spare the spot a second glance. After all, he'd had all summer to bury that particular scene in the unreachable depths of his mind, never to be thought of again if he could help it. He continued to a comfortable-looking stretch of grass farther on, growled at a pair of Ravenclaw second-years, who promptly fled, and spread out a spare cloak on the dewy grass.
An hour later, as Severus was reaching absently into his bag as he read, searching for the last piece of toast, a shadow fell across his book. He looked up.
"What's the matter, Potter," he said, letting his mouth twist sourly as he spoke, "your entourage get tired of kissing your arse?" He turned his attention back to his book, letting one hand drift slowly towards his wand. "Or did they replace you with a cardboard cut-out?"
The figure blocking his light shifted slightly. "Look, Snape," the boy said. "This isn't easy for me, so I'm just going to say it. I want to apologize."
Severus snorted and drew his wand from its pocket.
"Hex me if you want," the other boy said. "I deserve it." He raised his hands, palms out.
Severus took a moment to glance around. "Typical Gryffindor courage," he spat. "Humiliate in public, but apologize in private, is that it? So that no one sees you awkward and embarrassed with your robes around your—" Control, he told himself. He narrowed his eyes at James Potter, who looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"I am sorry," James said.
"I find that difficult to believe." Severus tried to focus on his book again, but the words wouldn't stay still.
The other boy sighed. "I'm not surprised. After everything I've done to you…" James sat down on the grass, a few paces away from Severus. "Look, I'm putting myself at your mercy, here. I was out of line, it went too far that day, and I'm sorry."
Severus eyed him curiously. Five years of torment, and the arrogant prat thought he could wipe it all away with a few words of contrition? There had to be something else going on.
"Tell me the truth, Potter," he said. "Why now?"
James was staring at the lake. "I've been thinking about my future, Snape," he said after a moment. "The kind of man I want to be. The way I want to be seen by others."
So that's it. "You mean Evans," Severus said. He realized the moment the words left his mouth that he'd missed a chance to sound scornful, to say something truly cutting. In the space of a heartbeat, he imagined Potter making full use of the opportunity he'd been handed, with his mocking voice and condescending smile.
But Potter just nodded.
"Wonderful," Severus said. "You feel bad because you want your girlfriend to think highly of you. Well, excuse me for not putting a lot of faith into your apparent remorse." He wondered if this was a good time to make his exit.
"I don’t—" James started angrily, and then took a breath. "Come on, Snape, I'm not doing this for any audience." He gestured around them. "I'm not showing off. I mean it."
Severus glanced around them again. "Ah, your audience," he sneered, "how well I remember. What would they think if they did see you here now? I'm sure Sirius wouldn't approve."
James frowned. "You don't know how difficult Sirius can make your life," he said. "When he starts making fun of you, he doesn't—" He broke off suddenly.
Severus raised an eyebrow.
"Okay, maybe you do know," James conceded. "But you can see why I would want to avoid that if I could. I mean, he gives me enough grief over pining for Lily." He wound his fingers in his hair and tugged, looking despondent.
Severus couldn't help but think that Potter was acting rather strangely. Perhaps the house-elves were adding something to the tea. He considered his options. His self-preservation instinct, finely honed after years of exercise, was currently shouting at him to pick up his parchment and books and go back to the castle. That was certainly the wisest thing he could do. But there was something about the expression on Potter's face that made him pause. The Gryffindor looked almost… vulnerable.
"Pining?" he said at last, using scorn to disguise his curiosity.
James looked up at him, and Severus noticed for the first time the unaccustomed gauntness of his face. "It's bloody awful," James said. "I couldn't think of anything else but her all summer. Some days I feel like I'm going insane."
Perhaps that would explain your behavior, Severus thought. Have you forgotten how much you hate me?
James was looking at him more intently now. "What?" Severus said, as irritably as he could.
"Look, Snape, maybe…" James cleared his throat. "Maybe you could help me."
"Why in Merlin's name would I want to do that?"
James shrugged. "I haven't figured that part out yet," he admitted. "But look, you're friends with Lily, and everyone says you're—" He stopped suddenly in—was that embarrassment?
This was going to be good. "What was that, Potter?" Severus cupped a hand behind his ear. "I couldn't quite make out that last bit."
James' cheeks had reddened considerably. "Everyone says you're… experienced," he mumbled.
Severus was more curious than ever. His face showed nothing, he knew. "Experienced?"
"Christ, you're not making this easy, are you? Experienced, you know, with girls."
How in the seven bloody hells had he got that reputation?
James sighed. "All I'm asking," he said, "is for a few pointers. You know Lily, she likes you. Maybe, just maybe there's something you can tell me that will make me not quite as hopeless."
She likes me? Personally, Severus found it rather unlikely that Lily would ever even speak to him again, not after… that day. Still, Potter sounded like he believed it, and Severus wasn't above using that belief to find out what Potter's game really was. Then again, maybe he would be better off if he walked away now, while he could still walk.
Severus closed his book and started to put it into his bag, when he felt a hand touch his arm.
"Please," said James. "For Lily's sake." He had that same strange, vulnerable look on his face. Severus was thrown off for a moment by the lack of the old familiar hatred. Where are we if we don't hate each other, Potter?
"Get your filthy hand off of me," he said in his haughtiest voice. James drew back, and Severus dusted off his arm as if he'd been contaminated.
There was too much to think about. First off, there was a very good chance that it was all some monstrous joke being played on him. Second, it was unthinkable for him to actually consider helping this miserable excuse for a wizard—after everything Potter and his thugs had done to him. Still, there could be advantages in having James Potter in his debt. And there was always the possibility that the joke could be turned around somehow, and that Severus Snape would make James Potter the laughingstock of the school.
Perhaps there was a way to play along, just enough to find out a few things. Such as where the rumor about his "experience" had come from, and who "everyone" was who said it. Or perhaps he could use the leverage with Potter to discover what secret the so-called Marauders were hiding—and where Remus Lupin had been disappearing to for the past five years.
He looked over at James—with his guileless face turned hopefully toward Severus—and sighed a bit. "It would have to be entirely on my terms, Potter."
James smiled then, an easy, relieved lifting around the corners of his mouth. "As long as it stays between you and me, I'll agree to whatever you say."
"Oh, believe me, Potter," Severus said dryly. "I have no need to make it public when there are plenty of private ways for you to pay me back." He picked up his bag and walked off to the castle, without a backwards glance.
The more Severus thought about the idea, the more likely it seemed that he was being set up for some particularly intricate prank. It just didn't make any sense for James Potter to come to him—"Snivellus" Snape—for romantic advice. He hadn't yet worked out what the punch line was supposed to be, but if history was any indication, it would probably be something very embarrassing in front of a very large group.
For the rest of the weekend, Severus paid as much surreptitious attention as he could to the sixth-year Gryffindor boys, and a certain red-headed Gryffindor girl. From the former, he was on the lookout for dungbombs, exploding quills, and (from Sirius) flying fists, but from the latter, he was looking for hints. What was it that James found so appealing? She wasn't bad looking, for a girl, Severus conceded, though she was rather too freckly. And she was clever, though in Severus' experience, the clever ones were sometimes more trouble than they were worth.
At lunch on Tuesday, he found his eyes drifting to the Gryffindor table again. Surely they weren't all virgins? Pettigrew was beneath notice, of course: no one outside his friends had ever said two words to the boy. Looking at Sirius Black provoked nothing but pure, unadulterated hatred. Still, girls seemed to find him attractive. Severus wondered why James was unable to get help from him—surely Black was "experienced"? Severus wouldn't put it past him to talk big but deliver little. The thought delighted him.
Remus Lupin, on the other hand, was just the sort Severus could imagine having a few quiet trysts with girls—or boys—and being very discreet about it. It was possible that James just never thought to ask him.
Just then, Remus looked up, and Severus averted his glance quickly. He focused on finishing his lunch before returning to his observations.
James Potter talked loudly, and laughed even louder, but the image he was so obviously trying to project was spoiled by his frequent glances at Lily Evans, to see if she was watching. She wasn't. Severus snorted. Pitiful. Hopeless. He would have to make it clear to Potter that he was not to be held accountable for any results, or lack thereof. He glanced at the object of Potter's affection.
Lily was packing up her things to head off to class—that afternoon was the NEWT level History of Magic class, which Severus was also in. Certainly not my type, Severus thought, watching the redhead talk to a friend. Still, I suppose if James has to find himself a girl, she's not the worst choice for him. He found himself wondering just how "experienced" she was herself.
The class was supplemented by a mad passing of notes. Everyone seemed to have something to say to someone else, and the attention of the ghostly professor was on his lecture, so the paper was flying fast and free. In the middle of the paperstorm, Severus penned a short note to Potter: Lesson one. 8:00 tomorrow night, dungeon three.
James shivered as he came down into the empty potions classroom. "Do we have to meet down here?" he said. "It's freezing."
"You're late," Severus said. He was sitting at one of the tables in the front of the room, waiting. "I find the temperature perfectly comfortable. And I can trust Professor Slughorn to be… discreet."
James pulled out a chair and slouched into it. "I want to thank you again—"
"Enough," Severus said. "You've no idea how tiresome you are, Potter." He paused to gauge the effects of this snub. James was looking at him, almost eagerly, with no sign of being insulted. Severus was going to have to watch very, very carefully to detect the trick when it did come.
"First of all, let me ask you a question," Severus went on. "Are you entirely certain that Lily is the one you want to expend so much effort for? She's already turned you down, what is it, three times now? And slapped you twice?"
James winced, but looked undeterred. "I'm sure," he said. "There is no other girl for me."
"No other girl, certainly," Severus said, letting his voice drop to a near whisper. "But no other boy, perhaps?"
James shifted in his chair. "Boy?"
Severus lifted his gaze to the other boy's face and raised one eyebrow.
"No boys at all, of course," James said with a nervous laugh. "Don't be daft."
Potter didn't even seem to consider it a possibility, which was a comforting thought. There went one explanation for the rumors about him the other boy had mentioned. But Potter acted like no one in the school was queer—surely Lupin couldn't be that good at keeping secrets?
"I had to be sure, Potter," he said. "Second, if I do agree to help you, you're going to have to do as I say." He waited for James to nod before continuing.
"Let me make something perfectly clear to you, Potter. It's quite possible that Lily Evans will never have anything to do with you, and in my mind she'd be fully justified if she never even spoke to you again. I'm not guaranteeing anything, as I think you are pretty much hopeless."
Severus couldn't deny that there was something satisfying about saying this to Potter. He had never thought he'd be holding any sort of power over the Gryffindor boy, yet here he was putting him down without fear of retribution. At least, not immediate retribution. It was possible James was just biding his time.
James sighed and leaned his head on his hands. Severus felt a thrill of satisfaction at being the cause of his gloom.
"Well," the boy said after a moment, "I've got to try." He looked up at Severus and grinned a bit, without his normal arrogance. "I'll have help from you, right?"
"I may have agreed to meet with you tonight, but if these sessions are going to continue, I will of course be requiring… compensation in some form."
"Ye-es," James said. "I tried to think of what I might be able to do for you, but I—"
"Couldn't think of anything, I'm not surprised," Severus said, enjoying the brief flash of annoyance on Potter's face at being interrupted. He resolved to do it more often. "Not with that miserable excuse of a brain." He paused to watch Potter's reaction.
To his surprise, James took a deep breath and remained calm. "You must have thought of something, Snape, or you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me. So tell me, already."
Severus allowed a slight twist to his lips. "Very astute," he said. "As it happens, I have not yet decided on the full extent of the payment. The first thing I must insist on is that you not tell anyone that I am helping you."
"Believe me; I'll be protecting my own reputation as much as yours."
"Of course," Severus sneered. "Tell me, Potter, where exactly are we starting from? You've admitted that you're a virgin…" He was pleased to see James' cheeks redden a bit at that. "Have you ever, in fact, been kissed?"
James stared fixedly at the table. "Well," he said after a moment, "I did snog Vera Winkbottle after the Halloween feast two years ago, but it was so bloody awkward… I couldn't face her for weeks."
Severus waited, but apparently that was the extent of James' history. "Yes, well…" he said. "Kissing is awkward. When you remove any feelings and just look at the physical act of two people pressing lips or even tongues together, it's rather disgusting, really."
James smiled at that.
"But you have to get over the awkwardness, so that you don't stumble and act stupidly. It's the same with sex. With practice, the physical movements become smoother, more practiced, and with any luck you avoid tripping all over yourself when you're with someone who really matters." Not that you've ever been with someone who really mattered, have you? Shut up, he told the voice.
"But where am I going to get the practice?" James asked plaintively. "I can't go around snogging other girls, Lily would—"
"I must point out, Potter, that there are other options besides the female students here." He waited until James looked up at him with a suddenly wary expression. "I refer, of course, to professionals. Have you considered a discreet visit to the Gilded Witches?"
James reddened even further. "I can't do that," he said. "I never even thought of it. It's out of the question."
"Very well," Severus said. "Kiss me."
James blinked. "What?"
Severus found himself irritated at having to repeat himself. "Kiss me," he said. "Pretend it's Lily and do your best." He smirked. "I promise not to slap you."
"You're insane!" James yelped and shot out of his chair. Severus held himself still. "Pretend it's—you're mad, you are—what in the name of—Merlin!" He paced in front of the table, where Slughorn stood to magic the day's instructions onto the blackboard.
"You're not—you can't possibly be serious, can you?" James said at last, pausing to look at Severus' impassive features. "Now, really, Snivellus—"
At that, Severus could no longer contain himself. "I would suggest, Potter, that you watch what you say," he snapped. "You have ruled out other options, and you have agreed to do whatever I say. Consider this proof that you're serious and also an incentive not to tell anyone that I am helping you!" He looked around. "If your friends aren't hiding, watching, then kiss me." He leaned back in his chair again, striving for calm. "It will give me something to hold over you."
James shoved a hand through his hair. "All right," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Christ."
He stood looking at Severus for a moment, and then swooped in and planted a chaste peck on Severus' right cheek before immediately taking three large steps away from him, making a show of wiping his mouth.
"Tut, tut, Potter," Severus said, as silkily as he could. "Lily would hardly be impressed by such a kiss, would she? On the lips, and like you mean it, this time."
James stared at him. For a moment, he seemed to be warring mentally with himself, and then he stepped closer to Severus and closed his eyes.
Severus knew better than to close his eyes around James Potter, thanks to a certain incident with exploding flatware in second year. He watched James instead as the boy leaned forward, lips puckered grotesquely.
"For God's sake, Potter, take your glasses off," he said crossly.
James' eyes flew open. "What?"
Severus couldn't take it any more. "Are you always this dense?" He stood up quickly, forcing James to take a step back to avoid collision, and drew himself up. "It's no wonder Lily hasn't ever wanted anything to do with you," he said coldly. "You are completely inept, and you have the charm of a wildebeest."
James' eyes burned, and Severus was pleased to note that the boy's breathing grew more fierce, but he kept control of himself. Not bad.
"Look," started James.
"No, you look," Severus overrode him. "I told you that in order for me to help you, you were going to have to do exactly as I said. You've now shown me that you are, in fact, unwilling to make good on that promise. I suggest you find someone else to advise you." He crossed his arms deliberately, arranging the folds of his sleeves.
"Wait, Snape—" James lifted a hand as if to catch Severus' arm, but apparently thought better of it. "There isn't anyone else. Please. I'm desperate." He gave Severus a rueful grin. "I'd hardly be considering kissing you on the mouth if I wasn't, would I?"
Severus considered. "You have yet to convince me that it is worth my time."
James paced for a moment. "Tell me what you want, Snape."
"I want…" What did he want? "To start with, I want you and your bunch of thugs to leave me alone."
"Done," James said immediately.
Well, that was easy. Either Potter really was desperate, or he had no intention of keeping his word. Severus frowned. The boy was too calm—Severus preferred him when he was thrown off guard.
"Potter, what makes you so sure I wasn't interested in going after Lily myself?"
To his horror, James started to laugh. Severus felt like he'd been submerged in icy water. He reached for his wand.
"You?" James managed at last. "Come on, Snape, be serious."
Severus gripped his wand and considered hexing the boy's bollocks off. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and stalked out of the room.
He had let the door to the dungeon fall quietly shut behind him. Never let it be said that Severus Snape was the kind of man to slam doors. He was halfway to the Slytherin common room before he allowed himself to think about the mess he'd made of things.
Damn that ridiculous Potter! he thought, furious at himself more than at the Gryffindor he'd left sitting in the potions classroom. Somehow he'd managed to make himself into the butt of the joke without much help from Potter. He should have kept his mouth shut. He should never have agreed to meet in the first place. He should have thrown a curse at Potter from twenty paces that first day, rather than let him approach close enough to even speak. And he should never, ever have allowed the conversation to fall on Lily at all.
As if Lily would have anything to do with you after your clever little insult last spring.
She'll probably ask Slughorn to change partners in tomorrow's lesson, the voice continued, unrelenting. Just so she can avoid any contact with you whatsoever.
If I don't answer you, will you go away? he asked the voice.
She'll probably ask to partner with James. He's in NEWT potions, isn't he?
Severus paused for a moment to put his hand on the wall and lean on it for support. Why, he asked himself not for the first time, did he ever say anything harsh to the one person who'd tried to defend him?
She never liked you anyway. She just felt sorry for you.
He wanted to tell the voice it wasn't true.
The Slytherin common room reflected the nature of the students that lived there, or so Severus had always thought. There were several small fireplaces, spaced around the walls with groups of chairs so that students could have secretive discussions. A few alcoves set into the wall allowed for even more private assignations. It gave the appearance of an uncrowded room, even when most of Slytherin was present.
Severus swept down the stairs and through the room, intent on getting to the sixth-year dorm so that he could close himself off from the world in his own bed and try to forget that tonight ever happened.
Conversations stopped and voices hushed as he passed. He decided to forego his usual glares in exchange for ignoring the other students.
He was almost to the corridor leading down to the boys' dorms when a voice called out to him.
"Snape! There you are," a tallish boy in tailored robes said, catching up with him. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
"Rosier," Severus said, wary.
"Headed down to the dorm?" Rosier said.
No, you prat, I've discovered a secret passage to Dumbledore's secret cache of sweets. Severus kept his face still and inclined his head in a nod.
"Good, I'll go with you," Rosier said, and moved forward into the corridor. After the briefest hesitation, Severus followed.
He fell in step with Rosier, considering the possible reasons the Slytherin prefect might have for wanting to talk with him. It's the ones you think you know that you need to be most careful of, he reminded himself. Control now more than ever.
After a few more steps, Rosier broke the silence.
"There's to be a meeting. First weekend in Hogsmeade. Same place."
Severus flicked his eyes to Rosier's face for an instant, and then back to the passage ahead. "Rodolphus?" he said, keeping his voice low.
Rosier adjusted one of his sleeves. "Yes," he said, "Rodolphus, and also that Malfoy fellow. He's going to marry Narcissa, you know."
Severus hadn't known. He took it in without comment.
"We're supposed to bring a few of the younger students," Rosier went on. "I want your help in picking one or two."
Severus sighed inwardly, letting nothing show on his face. He despised dealing with children, but his year would be graduating soon, and he knew they needed someone at the school they could trust.
They reached the sixth year dorm, and out of longstanding habit Severus waited while Rosier poked his head in.
"Clear," the boy said with a small, almost shy smile.
"Rosier, I'm going to bed," Severus said.
"That's exactly what I had in mind."
Damn fool. "Later," he said. "Tonight I have to think. Go find Avery." He couldn't quite keep his voice neutral on that last part. Severus still hadn't forgiven him for leaving his notes on new spells out where someone from Gryffindor could find it.
Rosier looked at him curiously. "All right, Severus," he said. "Later. But you will think about candidates, won't you? I want us all together on this one."
Severus scowled. "There aren't any prizes among the younger students in our house," he said. "If you must take someone, pick someone who will be easily intimidated and who will keep their mouth shut, because none of them are going to be of any actual use to us at all." He pushed past Rosier into the dorm room.
Rosier lingered in the doorway. "All right, Snape." He sounded amused. Damn him.
Severus prepared for bed in a hurry, not bothering to wash. He closed his curtains and settled into the darkness of his own thoughts before anyone else could interrupt him.
The biggest shock was that Ciss was going to marry that Malfoy after all. It surprised Severus that he'd had to hear about it in such a roundabout way. Surely plans had been underway over the summer? Narcissa could have mentioned it to him at any time. He supposed that the real blood-relations got to know everything first, and this was just another in a long line of signs that he was being distanced from the Black family.
Severus frowned at that, but couldn't argue the point with himself.
Lucius Malfoy had been after Ciss for as long as Severus could remember, but he had never heard her say she returned his feelings. Not that Severus believed there were real feelings there—Malfoy seemed to think marriage was his ticket into the circle. After all, wasn't that how Bella had first wormed her way into Rodolphus' confidence, through his bed? Ciss had followed Bella, like she always did, and now Malfoy was following Ciss, probably hoping to be a part of the power that Rodolphus held.
Marriage wasn't the only way in, of course. Some, like Rodolphus, got in on the merits of their family connections, and some, like Severus himself, were sought after based on their skills. Still, if he hadn't been living with the Black sisters, he doubted anyone would have known of his skills enough to pursue him.
The Blacks may have been relatively recent additions to the Dark Lord's circle of influence, but the Malfoys had never been in at all. Until now, Severus supposed. Now that Lucius was going to be part of the family.
A family that you are certainly not a part of, a voice told him.
No, he agreed, but I was, once.
Never. You were useful, and that was all. None of them ever… cared for you.
Severus rubbed his eyes and turned over in his bed. He knew he should be grateful that there had been anyone at all willing to take in a half-blood freak like him, aged eight with nowhere to turn. Cygnus Black hadn't been thrilled about the idea at first, but went along with his wife when she decided they would keep the boy. Severus didn't know what Druella had seen in him at the time, but he was more than willing to learn everything she had to teach him. He had no previous conceptions about the Dark Arts, instead seeing everything as a means to an end. At first he only wanted to be ready to confront his father, in case the man ever came to finish what he'd started that rainy April night. But soon he was learning the Dark Arts for their own sake. And when he'd arrived at Hogwarts, he was already talented, and he was genuinely happy to be sorted into Slytherin along with all three of his adopted sisters, Bellatrix, Andromeda, and Narcissa.
They had seemed pleased, too, all of them indulgent of their "baby brother." They slipped him sweets and let him hang around them, because he knew how to be quiet. But all of them were a good deal older than he was, and Bellatrix had a boyfriend, and that boyfriend took an interest in Severus, as well. At least Rodolphus had waited until Severus was thirteen before inducting him into that part of the association. And really, what choice had he had?
The part of Severus that thought it was all a joke, that Bella would come in and tell them to knock it off, died when Rodolphus' hand first slipped into his pants. He wondered now, as he had for several years, if Bella had known. She couldn't have, surely. A woman as strong and demanding as Bella wouldn't have stood for her future husband playing around with second-year boys, no matter how many curses they knew.
After that, Hogwarts became Severus' refuge and the Black home his torment, instead of the other way around. Whenever Rodolphus came to pay a call on Bella, Severus would find Narcissa and Andromeda and press his company upon them. The girls had indulged him, letting him listen to their discussions about boys and clothes, about holidays in Italy and literature. Andy had always been more interested in books, but Narcissa had a gift for the fine art of manipulating the opposite sex, and Severus had learned a lot from both of them.
Suddenly, it came to him. Out of an afternoon tea in the garden, a long time ago, he remembered Ciss telling them how she had stalked out of an argument and forced her would-be suitor to come begging after her. What had she called it? The storm… and the chase, that was it. Perhaps there was a way to salvage the lessons with Potter after all. It would be nice to be in control of something for a change.
Severus woke late, dressed in a hurry, and headed to his first class without stopping in the Great Hall for breakfast. He'd been looking forward to NEWT-level Potions ever since his test results had arrived. He had managed to convince himself that it didn't matter in the slightest who Slughorn paired him with, whether or not it was that Muggle Evans.
A small crowd was gathered near the door to dungeon four. Severus stopped a few paces short and looked the group over. He'd forgotten that this being NEWT-level Potions, all four houses were put into a single class. In that case, it was likely that Slughorn would be assembling all the workgroups from scratch, instead of just using last year's. He wondered who he would be partnered with.
There were only two Slytherins besides himself present, Rosier and the girl Fontaine. A fair few Ravenclaws were there, Evans and one other Gryffindor girl, and -- bloody hell -- all four of the Gryffindor boys. Severus supposed being paired with Remus Lupin wouldn't be that bad, but any of the other three and he would have to slit his own throat.
The door opened then, and Professor Slughorn's voice called out from the room. "Come in, students, come in now." Severus hung back until the others had all gone in before slipping through the door, as unnoticed as possible.
They were all accustomed by now to Slughorn's habit of assigning seats on the first day of class, and so they stood waiting in the aisle for him to start. Severus sniffed—there was an odd scent to the air, like cinnamon mixed with a thick, earthy scent, like newly-turned soil. An odd combination, in any case. He frowned, trying to identify what potion it was.
Slughorn smiled genially up at the group of students. "Good morning, everyone," he said. "Welcome to sixth-year Potions. We have a lot to cover this year, but as I'm sure you all remember, first we have to get our seating arrangements sorted out." He drew a folded piece of parchment from his robes and pointed his wand at a front table.
"Fontaine and Rosier, you're up here," he said, and their names appeared in gold scrollwork in the air over the table. He turned to the next table. "Evans and Snape, at this one. Potter, you and Pettigrew—Mr. Pettigrew, are you listening?—here." He went on, but Severus had stopped listening. Three words crashed through his brain, drowning out the professor: Evans and Snape, Evans and Snape...
I swear, thought Severus as he picked his way down the steps, if I am ever given the chance, I will never, ever assign seating.
After introducing the class to NEWT level methodology, which Severus found he didn't agree with at all, Slughorn set them the task of brewing Draught of Living Death. Severus did his best to ignore Evans as he got out his textbook and the leather case with his personal tools. She seemed intent on ignoring him right back, until they both reached for the bowl of valerian roots at the same time. Severus drew his hand back like he'd been bitten.
"Sorry," Lily murmured.
Severus didn't say anything.
After a moment, Lily sighed and turned to face him, though she kept her eyes down. "I am sorry," she said.
If anyone should be apologizing after—after the last time they spoke, Severus was pretty sure it was supposed to be him.
"For what?" he asked.
She gestured, taking in the cauldrons in front of them and the rest of the classroom, apparently indicating Potions in general. "I'll ask Slughorn to switch me with someone, so that you don't have to be partners with a… well…" She chewed at a fingernail. Severus stared at her hands. "With me," she finished, and looked up at him.
He met her gaze. Lily's eyes were always bright, but he didn't remember them being this damn intense. Severus was suddenly aware of James Potter watching them from the next table over.
"Don't be ridiculous," Severus heard himself say. Be polite. "If we have to work with partners, we may as well have the best two students in the class together." Was that polite enough? Too direct? He'd been aiming for a compliment. Perhaps he would botch the whole thing after all. He wondered why his mouth felt suddenly dry. Why wasn't she saying anything?
"Thank you, Severus," Lily said at last. She picked up her knife and went back to chopping her roots.
Was it enough? Why were girls so damn difficult to interpret? He needed more than just a silent neutrality; he needed something to make Potter take notice. She likes you, you know, he heard James say again.
He cleared his throat, and Lily looked at him, eyes bright and curious and utterly, utterly impossible to read.
"I…" For a brief instant, his throat seized up. Years of keeping every fact of his past private, of keeping information under his control, threatened to prevent him from saying another word. Then he saw James again, laughing at something Peter said, glancing over to see if Lily noticed. Severus' resolve hardened.
"I've never told anyone this," he said, and it was true. Those who knew hadn't needed him to tell them. "My mother was the last of the Prince family, an old line of pureblooded wizards." He put a tinge of bitterness on the word "pureblooded," intending to gain her sympathy, but he surprised himself with his sincerity. "But she married a Muggle—my father."
He risked a glance at Lily's face.
"So… you're a half-blood?"
He tried not to wince. After all, both of her parents were Muggles. "Yes," he said, "the last of the Prince family is a half-blood."
She smiled a bit then, but not in the cruel way he'd feared. "The half-blood Prince," she said. And when she turned back to her potion ingredients, the smile stayed on her face, and James Potter, scowling, noticed from the next table over.
Severus took a spare bit of parchment and wrote, "The storm and the chase, Potter. You have failed your first lesson. Tuesday at 8pm, same place." He folded it quickly before Lily could see, and waved it a bit at Potter. He set it on the corner of the table and went back to work, crushing the sopophorous beans with the blunt edge of his knife.
After a moment, James got up to get something from the cabinet, and picked up the note on his way by. No one seemed to notice. Severus could almost have laughed—almost.
"This is odd," Lily said suddenly, and pointed at the directions in the book. "The book says to continue stirring counterclockwise, but remember what we figured out last year about extended stirring?" She looked up at Severus. "I wonder if it holds true for infusions that include valerian."
Severus looked at his own copy. "Shall we experiment, then?" he said. "I'll add a clockwise stir after every eighth counterclockwise, and you do it after every seven. We'll compare at the end." He made a note in his book.
Severus managed to avoid being alone with Rosier for the rest of that week. Others proved harder to avoid, especially favored youngest sons who were used to getting what they wanted.
"For the last time, Black, you'll find out when you get there. Now stop pestering me." Severus was picking at his dinner, trying not to think too much about his meeting with Potter in the dungeons later that evening.
Across the table from him, Regulus Black crossed his arms and pouted. "I don't see why you can't tell me a little bit about this 'meeting,'" he said. "Can't you even give me a hint?"
Severus glared at him.
"Maybe if you asked him nicely. He'd probably let you tell me what to be ready for, at least."
Severus sighed, letting his frustration show in a rare lapse of control. "That just shows how much you know about it," he said. "You don't ask for favors from people like Rodolphus Lestrange. He's in control of the information. When he wants you to know something, you'll know it, and not before."
"I bet you don't even know why he wants me there, Severus," Regulus whispered. "Afraid of being pushed aside, maybe? He is married to my cousin, after all, and no real relation of y—"
Severus slammed his fist onto the table, stopping Regulus mid-sentence. He forced his face to remain calm.
"One of these days, Black," he said, "you will come to understand that in this particular circle, status has nothing to do with who you're related to, and everything to do with your ability and loyalty. Perhaps an object lesson is in order." Severus glanced around, but no one seemed to be paying them any attention.
Regulus' face had paled. Pleased, Severus took a moment to smooth his robes before continuing in a low voice.
"It is true that your relation to Bellatrix is the only reason your name was even brought up. I, on the other hand, have been a participating member of the group for several years. I could be persuaded to speak in your favor… if you prove yourself eager enough." He held Regulus' gaze for a long moment, until the younger boy dropped his eyes and nodded.
"Then meet me on the third level of the dungeons at eleven o'clock tonight." He stood up and swept around the table, leaning down to whisper one more thing into Regulus' ear. "Don't worry—I'll be gentle."
The lower halls of the dungeons were deserted. Severus sat in dungeon three at a quarter to eight, still fuming about that prat Regulus Black. He knew he was too early, but right then he'd rather wait on Potter in solitude than risk running into someone from his House.
Damn that fool Black, he thought angrily, and damn Rosier too for ever telling him anything in the first place. If Severus had had his way, no one would have known they were being tapped until the morning of the Hogsmeade trip, and even then a simple "You're coming with us" would have sufficed. No one in Slytherin would have argued with Avery and Wilkes there to enforce the command.
He drummed his fingers on the desk. He frowned at his fingers. The drumming stopped.
He would never admit it to another living soul, but Black's jibe had struck a little too close to home. Regulus was Bella's cousin, and so was Rosier on her mother's side. Severus was as good as no relation at all, despite the fact that he had shared a roof with the Black sisters for years. But never as family.
Still, it had been enough to get him introduced to Rodolphus.
The door burst open, and Severus spun around. An irritated thought flitted across his mind: why hadn't he put himself facing the door this time? Perhaps he was losing his touch.
Potter stood in the doorway, looking surprised. "Snape!"
Severus snorted. "Who did you expect, Salazar Slytherin?"
"No, I—it's just, I was hoping to get here early." James stepped lightly down the steps to stand by Severus' table. "After last time, you know." He kicked at the table, not looking at Snape.
"Well, perhaps there is hope for you yet, Potter. Sit down."
James collapsed into a chair at a table beside Severus'. He seemed relieved Severus hadn't said anything else about last time. "Do you really think there's hope?" he asked.
"If Lily Evans had any sense at all, I would say no." Severus paused, watching as Potter's face fell. He still didn't look well. "But," he allowed, "girls are seldom known for their rationality. You have a lot to learn."
Suddenly James slid off his chair and onto his knees in front of Severus, hands clasped in supplication. "Teach me," he said. "I'm ready to learn, I'll do what you say, and we won't bother you any more, I promise—"
Severus pulled away in distaste. "For God's sake, Potter, get a grip!" He glared until the boy got off his knees and returned sheepishly to his chair.
"Sorry," James said. "I just…" He fingered the note Severus had written in class. "Can you tell me what you meant by 'the storm and the chase'?"
Severus leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "The thing you need to remember, Potter, is that girls are inherently very manipulative creatures. The storm and the chase is one specific move. When a girl walks away, say in the middle of an argument, the boy is expected to follow her. She storms, he chases. It's a way of testing him."
"But—when you did it—"
"It's all about power, Potter. The person who gets chased after has the upper hand in the relationship, even a platonic one." Severus' voice turned hard. "So if you want me to help you, you're going to have to swallow your pride and accept me as the one calling all the shots."
James nodded, looking thoughtful.
Severus resumed his explanation. "Clever girls will be careful how they use the storm and the chase, starting off small when they're sure they're going to be followed. It's a risk from her point of view—but if it backfires, she can just break it off and start over with someone else."
"I dunno, Snape. Lily would never try to manipulate someone like that."
"Oh, not everyone does it on purpose," Severus said. "But even if they don't mean to test you, it works out the same in practice. If the object of your affection stalks away in anger, you must go after her if you want to keep her."
For a moment, James was silent, playing with a loose thread on his jumper. "I always heard, if you love something, let it go," he said. "Then, if it comes back to you—"
Severus interrupted with a snort. "Rubbish," he said. "Sentimental tripe. The truth of the matter is that people want to feel that they matter, that someone cares about them. Walking away is a way of asking 'Do you care?' whether intentionally or not. The trick for you, being the supplicant in your budding relationship, is to make sure that the other person is the one getting his needs met and his insecurities soothed. Then he will enjoy your company and want to keep you around."
"What?" Severus looked around at James.
"Then 'she' will enjoy my company," said James, looking at him curiously.
"Yes, of course," Severus said impatiently. "The point is the same—if you care enough, you will stop what you're doing and follow."
James was still looking at him oddly. Severus waited him out, knowing that protesting anything at this point was as good as a confession.
"Maybe that was my mistake that day—well, one of my mistakes," James said at last. "Lily got angry and walked off, and I was too focused on what I was doing to stop and go after her."
"I doubt the rest of your gang would have looked kindly on that."
James smiled wryly. "No, I don't suppose they would have. That doesn't make it any better, though." He blew out a breath. "All right, I guess Lily does it too, even if it's not on purpose."
Severus nodded in satisfaction. "And I bet she's not the only person you know who does it. Tell me, Potter, when Lupin runs off to wherever he goes, which of you 'marauders' is the first to follow?"
"It's not like that, Snape."
"Oh? Then what is it like? I'd like to know."
"It's none of your business," James mumbled.
"And yet you think this pathetic obsession with Evans is? You made it my business, Potter."
"Just drop it, will you? This—" James waved a hand between them, "has nothing to do with Remus."
Severus was relentless. "It's Black, isn't it? Lupin runs off, Black follows, and they're off to bugger each other senseless—"
"That's enough!" James took a steadying breath. "Leave. Remus. Out of it."
Severus knew when to back down. He could always bring it up again later. One way or another, he was going to find out where Remus Lupin disappeared to every few weeks. The best explanation he'd come up with so far was romantic trysts—maybe not with Sirius Black, but with someone. It was too intriguing a mystery for Severus to leave alone.
Time to remind Potter who was in charge here. Severus folded his hands on the desk in front of him and schooled his voice into a lecturing tone. "Of course, the way you go after the girl depends on the manner in which she storms off. The simplest case is she's upset, and you have to go and apologize for whatever stupid thing you've done and beg her forgiveness." Severus wondered if Lupin regularly pretended to pick a fight so that he could storm out angrily. He didn't really think Lupin was that good of an actor.
He didn't bring it up the rest of the lesson.
Later that night, with Regulus kneeling in front of him in a dark alcove off the common room, Severus found himself distracted by thoughts of James Potter on his knees earlier that night. He wound a hand impatiently in Regulus' dark hair and tugged.
"Get on with it," he muttered.
Regulus started to slide his mouth off of Severus' cock. Severus grabbed his head then and looked the boy in the eye. "I don't care what you have to say, and neither will Rodolphus, so you might as well get on with it." He closed his eyes and leaned back against the cold stone, trying to relax.
It wasn't Regulus' fault that Severus was only half-hard. Regulus was eager enough, but not skilled, and Severus flinched when he thought of Rodolphus indoctrinating the boy, making him pay for each youthful misstep. It was distracting to worry about teaching Regulus the way Rodolphus liked his blowjobs. When Regulus' teeth scraped on sensitive skin, Severus pinched Regulus' earlobe the way his own was pinched, once.
If he ever got the chance, Severus thought, he would savor the opportunity to be gentle with a lover. It didn't seem likely he would get the chance.
"All right," he snapped, shoving Regulus away. "Enough."
Regulus stared up at him, wide-eyed. "But you didn't—"
"No," Severus said, a bit too harshly. He sighed. "It's not your fault. Talk to Rosier," he said. "He's better at this than I am." At Regulus' worried expression, he added, "I'll tell him it's all right."
Regulus nodded, looking relieved, and slipped away. Severus took down the Muffliato and leaned his head back against the wall.
Surely he would not always be breaking in new pupils for Rodolphus, of all people. It occurred to him then to wonder if Rodolphus was only breaking them all in for the Dark Lord himself. It didn't seem like much of a promotion over what Severus was doing now.
He looked down the dark path of his future, and there was no bright spot, no hope of ever doing things just because he wanted to, the way he wanted to. His whole life appeared laid out, forever under the rule of a more powerful wizard, dancing to someone else's tune. Severus just wanted to sit this one out.
To be continued.