Harry Potter and the Chained Souls

By Theowyn

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 26: Clarifying the Solution

Most NEWT level subjects were taken by only a fraction of the sixth and seventh year students. Professors Snape and McGonagall admitted only the top students to their NEWT classes while other subjects were too specialized to attract many of the older students. Defense Against the Dark Arts was a notable exception to this rule. Knight had placed no limitation on admittance to her NEWT classes and virtually every sixth and seventh year student had signed up.

All of them were gathered in the Great Hall Thursday evening as the first NEWT level Defense practicum was about to get underway. The students sat at their house tables, huddled together at the end closest to the front of the hall and there was an unmistakable air of nervous anticipation in the room. Everyone knew that Snape had long coveted the Dark Arts post – and that Dumbledore had steadfastly denied it to him. Consequently, speculation was running high regarding what their Potions Master might have in store for them.

The door opened and Snape swept in, his robes billowing as he strode to the front of the hall and turned to face the students who fell silent, waiting. Snape let the silence linger as he raked each of them with his eyes. At last, when the tension had become almost unbearable, he began to speak in a soft velvet tone that was barely above a whisper, but which nevertheless effortlessly commanded the attention of the assembled students.

"Your training in Defense Against the Dark Arts has suffered from a constant turnover of instructors, most of whom in any case, have been incompetent – or worse." Snape paused to let the weight of that statement sink in then continued.

"I cannot, in the space of four months, remedy all of the gaps in your education. Therefore, I will concentrate on teaching you how to survive the current state of our world. You are all competent duelists, I believe. Some of you are no doubt confident in your ability to defend yourselves against even seasoned opponents. But be aware, even Aurors who spend years mastering advanced dueling skills are still at risk of meeting an enemy who is quicker, better prepared or simply luckier. Even the most experienced witch or wizard can be defeated by a less able opponent if they let their guard down or underestimate their rival." Snape looked at Harry who knew that he was thinking of their duel the previous year.

"More than skill, it is the split-second choices you make when faced with an opponent – particularly one wielding the Dark Arts – that will make the difference between life and death, victory and defeat."

It was the same thing Ryan had told them the year before, Harry realized, though Snape managed to make it sound far more ominous.

"I can teach you how to think like your enemy," Snape continued, "and thereby to anticipate and out maneuver him. For the Dark Arts, while varied and ever-changing, are constant in their nature. They seek power and control. They seek to manipulate, ensnare, seduce; and what they cannot seduce, they destroy. Understand – and this is crucial – it matters not who you are or even where your loyalties lie. The Dark Arts know neither friend nor foe. They grasp at all who come within their reach and they will use your weaknesses against you."

Snape's gaze swept over the students once more. "Pride, vanity, over-eagerness, over-confidence, fear, doubt, hate." Snape's eyes came to rest on Harry. "Even love. All will be used to defeat you and skill with a wand will not save you. Not unless you are able to stay focused on your goal.

Snape turned away, waved his hand and a large white screen appeared. "We will begin this evening, with an essay. You are to consider the following questions."

As Snape spoke, a lengthy list of questions appeared on the screen in Snape's familiar cramped scrawl. Harry read the first few:

1) What role, if any, do you envision yourself playing in the current war?

2) Would you sacrifice a friend if it were the only way to achieve victory for your cause?

3) Would you abandon your cause to save your own life?

4) Would you seek to kill an enemy in battle?

Whispered comments ran through the room as the other students read the questions as well. Harry heard a loud snort from the Slytherin table and glanced over to see Draco Malfoy snickering with Pansy Parkinson.

"The answer to number three is, 'only if you're a Malfoy'," Ron said in a stage whisper loud enough to ensure the Slytherin heard it.

"Number four, too, Weasley," Malfoy shot back.

"Silence!" Snape barked and the room fell quiet once more. "I expect a full and serious examination of these questions. There will be no talking, no discussion. I want complete silence. When you have finished your essay, you may bring it to me and leave. Begin."

For the next hour, the students worked while Snape prowled about the hall, peering at papers. Uncharacteristically, he made no disparaging remarks to anyone. He never once shook his head in disgust or smirked contemptuously at any of the students' work. His face remained impassive, revealing nothing of his thoughts or emotions. Finally, the students began to finish. One by one they handed Snape their essays. Ron was one of the first to hand in his and leave. Ginny finished a few minutes later and left.

Harry watched his classmates leave, but though he had answered every question on the essay, he couldn't quite bring himself to turn it in. Finally, when Hermione and Neville handed in their essays and Harry was the last student left in the hall, Snape looked at him.

"Well, Mr. Potter?"

Harry glared at the man, then rose and handed in his essay without a word.

The Gryffindor common room was buzzing with discussion of Snape's essay when Harry arrived.

"Do you really think a teacher should be asking us if we'd kill someone, though?" Parvati said. "It seems so morbid."

"Well, at least now we know what Snape thinks about in his cozy dungeons in the middle of the night when he can't sleep."

Hermione spoke up. "He's just trying to get us to think about the moral and ethical ramifications of fighting the Dark Arts. Just take the question, 'Would you sacrifice a friend if it were the only way to defeat an enemy?' I could have spent hours writing on that alone."

"What about you, Harry?" Seamus asked. "What did you think of it?"

"I don't think Snape cares a bit about the moral or ethical ramifications of anything. I think he's just trying to prepare us to fight a war." Harry turned away and went up to his dormitory. He lay down on his bed, but a moment later there was a soft knock at his door and Ginny came in.

"Are you all right?" she asked

"Sure, I'm fine. I'm just tired; that's all."

"You shouldn't lie, Harry. You don't do it very well."

Harry sighed and sat up. "I'm all right. It's just that Snape's essay made me think about all of the things I've been trying not to think about: what it's going to take to defeat Voldemort, how many people might die, what I might have to do just to get a shot at defeating him. I know that I'm only going to get one go at him and I can't fail – no matter what it takes; no matter what has to be sacrificed."

Ginny sat down next to Harry and took his hand. "Harry, you can't worry about everyone. Snape said that we have to stay focused on our goals and he's right. You already have enough to worry about just finding a way to defeat Voldemort. The rest of us can take care of ourselves."

Harry squeezed her hand tightly. "I know."

Ginny kissed Harry lightly, then stood up to go. "And Harry, don't worry. You won't fail."


Harry tried to put Snape's essay out of his mind, hoping that the man would move on to more practical topics in their next lesson, but that hope was dashed the following Thursday evening. Snape arrive at the Defense practicum carrying a large stack of papers which were obviously their essays from the previous week. He placed the essays on the corner of the Ravenclaw table and picked up the first one.

"Miss Brown, you haven't the slightest idea of what fighting a war entails. I strongly suggest you avoid any activity that might require you to do so. I will have no further need of your attendance at this practicum. Dismissed."

Lavender's mouth fell open and she stared at Snape, stunned. So did everyone else.

Snape's lip curled disdainfully. "Did I not make myself clear as to the purpose of this class? You are not children. Most of you are already of age and the rest of you will be in a matter of months. I have prepared a syllabus of independent study which, if followed diligently, will ensure your success on your NEWTs, but I will not waste my time spoon feeding it to you – not when there are more important lessons that need to be taught to those willing and able to learn.

"Miss Brown, I assure you that you are not alone in being unsuited to this practicum. The following students are also dismissed." Snape read out a long list of names and then said, "You will pick up a syllabus from the back of the hall as you leave and I will expect your essays on the assigned topic of the week each Monday, beginning this coming week.

"Those of you whose name I did not call, I want all of you seated at the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables here in front of me. Move with alacrity. We do not have all night."

The students looked at each other then stood up. There was a great shuffling of papers and feet as they gathered their things. Well over half of the students trooped out of the hall while the rest found seats at the designated tables. When the last of those dismissed had left the hall and those remaining had settled down once more, Snape addressed his now much smaller class.

"Do not think yourselves fortunate. You will have twice the work of your classmates whom I've just dismissed and many of you are only marginally more astute than they regarding the demands of war."

Snape picked up another essay from the pile in front of him. "Mr. Malfoy, you appear to be ready to stab anyone in the back at the least provocation. Ruthlessness certainly has its place, but it is not always compatible with self-preservation which I should think would be your first goal. A man who will betray anyone for his own profit will find himself alone. And a lone sheep is the first to be picked off by wolves."

Snape handed Malfoy's essay to him and picked up the next two, ignoring the stunned expression on his student's face. "Mr. Weasley, your enthusiasm is typical of Gryffindors who seem always ready to rush in where wiser men fear to tread. Unfortunately, your strategies are more likely to get yourself and your friends killed than your enemies.

"Miss Weasley, while your attitudes are somewhat naïve, you at least appear to have a hope of keeping yourself alive. Perhaps you can aid your brother in that regard as well.

Snape thrust the essays at the Weasleys and continued with the next in the stack. "Mr. Longbottom…"

Neville cringed and bowed his head as Snape called his name.

"Mr. Longbottom, look at me when I speak to you," Snape snapped irritably.

Neville looked up at Snape with wide eyes. Snape stared at him with a cold, unreadable expression for a moment then handed Neville his essay.

"You have a keen awareness of what is at stake in this war and of your own priorities," Snape said quietly. "Now you need to muster the self-confidence to meet the challenge."

Snape picked up the next essay as Neville sagged in relief. "Miss Lovegood –"

"Yes, Professor?"

Snape scowled at Luna for interrupting him, but Luna seemed completely unperturbed. She gazed attentively at Snape with a serene smile.

Snape handed the girl's essay to her. "You have a unique perspective, Miss Lovegood."

"Thank you, sir."

Snape pulled the next essay from the pile and Harry knew immediately that it must be Hermione's since it was three times as long as any of the others.

"Miss Granger," Snape said slowly as he flipped through the pages of her essay. "I thought my instructions were clear, but obviously they failed to penetrate that overstuffed brain of yours. Do you realize that you failed to answer even one of these questions?"

"What?" Hermione blurted out shrilly. "That's not true! I clearly stated what the best course of action would be in every case."

"Indeed you did. But I didn't ask what the best course of action would be. I asked what you would do. Those questions are not one and the same, nor will the answers be. Redo this and hand it back to me on Monday. But let me caution you. War is not an academic exercise and you will not find these answers in a philosophy book. They must come from within you."

Snape continued through the stack of essays, critiquing each one. Finally he reached the end of the pile and picked up the last essay. He looked at Harry who met his eyes unflinchingly.

"Well, Mr. Potter," Snape said softly. "It would seem your reputation for being the best Defense student in this school is not unwarranted. While you are predictably too noble for your own good, you nevertheless have a fairly mature understanding of the demands of war."

"I ought to have," Harry said.

Snape handed Harry his essay then turned back to address the entire class. "All of you are to review the comments I have made on your essays and to think seriously about the priorities you have indicated in them. Throughout the course of this practicum we will be discussing the strategies you may employ in varying situations to achieve your ends, as well as their consequences.

"However, do not be surprised if over the course of the next weeks you discover that you have misjudged yourself. By the end of the term many of you will likely find that your answers to these questions are markedly different. That is as it should be because it will mean that you have actually thought about what you are and are not capable of. The better you understand this, the better prepared you will be to face your enemies.

"That will be all for this evening. Pick up your syllabus on your way out and I will expect your essays comparing the merits of the most common shield charms on Monday."

The students rose and began to file out of the hall, however Harry hung back.

"Do you have a question, Mr. Potter?"

"Yes, sir. Is this all we're going to do for the rest of the term or are you actually going to teach us something?"

Snape arched an eyebrow at Harry. "I am teaching you something, Potter. You're simply too dull to realize it."

"Do you really believe I haven't already thought about all this," Harry said, brandishing his essay at Snape.

"I'm certain you haven't. In fact I would wager you do everything in your power to avoid thinking about it."

"That's not true!" Harry said indignantly, though he knew Snape wasn't far off the mark.

"Isn't it?" Snape folded his arms and regarded Harry with an imperious look. "Tell me then, Potter, what is your plan for defeating the Dark Lord?"

"You know the plan. I'm supposed to fight him in his mind. That's why I keep meeting with you and Dumbledore."

"Whatever utility our sessions ever had has long since passed. I suspect the same is true of your lessons with Dumbledore. All they are serving to do is to distract you from the practical problems involved in facing the Dark Lord.

"You say that you plan to fight him in his mind. That's fair enough as far as it goes, but how do you propose to enter his mind? Do you intend to do it in your sleep? If not, then you will have to face him physically. Where do you plan to meet him that he will not be surrounded by his Death Eaters? And once alone, how will you dissuade him from killing you long enough for you to make the mental contact required?

"Even assuming you get that far, delving into his mind will leave you insensible to your surroundings and utterly vulnerable to attack. How will you ward against that? It will likely require the entire Order and every other ally who can be pressed into service to hold off the Dark Lord's servants long enough to buy you the time you will require to wage the mental battle you propose. And all of this will require planning that you have not begun to consider. Am I right?"

Harry stared at Snape. Of course he was right. Harry hadn't considered any of the logistics of facing Voldemort. "I was hoping someone else might plan that part of it. Or don't you think I have enough to worry about as it is?"

"What I think is that you need to at least be aware of what plans are being made on your behalf. If Dumbledore has not already apprised you of that, you might consider asking."

"I will. Trust me."

Harry left the Great Hall and headed back to Gryffindor Tower only to find a lively discussion in progress concerning Snape's practicum. The students who had been dismissed listened with rapt attention to a recounting of what they'd missed and enthusiastically joined in the ensuing debates. Harry went up to bed, but the topic was still on everyone's mind at breakfast the next morning, the conversation egged on by headlines in both the Quibbler and the Daily Prophet that Knight had killed another Death Eater.

"I could never commit murder," Neville said. "I don't think I could kill anyone at all."

"I'd rather kill an enemy than let a friend die," Seamus said.

"But would you murder an enemy?" Ginny asked.

"If he's dead either way, what difference does it make?" Dean said.

"It makes a difference because it's all about what each of us will and won't do," Ginny said.

Hermione was chewing her lip and looked unusually strained. "I don't think that I could do it. I don't think that I could kill anyone or sacrifice another person's life even if it were the only way to win the war. Objectively, I know I ought to be able to do it and that only more people would die in the long run if I didn't. But I just can't imagine…"

Ron reached out and took Hermione's hand. "It's all right, Hermione. I really don't think most of us will ever have to make that kind of choice anyway."

Harry looked away and stabbed viciously at his black pudding. Ron was right. Most of them would never have to kill or make a decision that resulted in someone else's death. But Harry had already done both and couldn't help thinking about when he might have to do so again.


Harry arrived at Dumbledore's office at his usual time on Sunday evening. As always, tea was waiting and Dumbledore poured Harry a cup as they sat down by the fire.

"You seem troubled this evening, Harry," Dumbledore commented as he sipped his tea. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Harry answered automatically. "Actually, yes," he amended, setting his tea down. "I think I've learnt everything I'm going to learn about dueling in the mind, so I was wondering what the next step is? I mean at some point, I have to face Voldemort and I'm still not really clear on what the plan is for doing that."

"Ah. You have been taking Professor Snape's advice to your Defense class to heart, I see," Dumbledore said.

"He happens to be right. We all need to think about what's coming and to plan for it."

Harry waited expectantly, but Dumbledore said nothing. He simply sipped his tea.

"You are making some sort of plan for me to face Voldemort, aren't you, sir?" Harry persisted.

"I wouldn't precisely call it a plan, no. It is more of a goal at present."

Harry gritted his teeth and tried to keep his voice level. "Is there going to be a plan at some point or am I supposed to just make it up as I go along?"

Dumbledore ignored Harry's cheek. "When the time comes, there will be a plan, I assure you."

"But you don't know when that might be?"

"Harry, Voldemort is not an enemy whom you can march out to face in battle. He is elusive, cunning and will only come to you of his own volition when he believes that he has the upper hand. You cannot force him to meet you and it is imperative that he not realize that you wish to face him. Your only hope of success is to catch him unawares when his guard is down. Consequently, we must wait for an opportunity to present itself – a chance, preferably of his own making – for you to face him when he believes himself to be in control. Surely you can appreciate that it is impossible to plan for such an eventuality. We must simply be ready to seize the day when the moment comes."

"That is why you must put all of your efforts into honing your skills in navigating the mind. It is what makes your sessions with me and, most particularly, with Professor Snape, vitally important."

"What about the fact that Voldemort is immortal?" Harry asked. "You said that you'd tell me how he managed that."

"I said that I would tell you when the time was right, but that time has not yet come. For now, you must concentrate on your lessons."

It was clear that Dumbledore considered the subject closed, so Harry bit back any further questions and reached out to the man's mind.


An hour later as Harry headed back to Gryffindor Tower, he had to admit that he felt far less anxious than he had when he'd first gone to see Dumbledore. Fighting a horde of Acromantulas had a way of taking one's mind off other worries and he felt sure that he would be able to handle anything Voldemort might throw at him in a mental duel.

Still, the issue of Voldemort's immortality nagged at him, particularly since Dumbledore insisted on evading the subject, and Harry was still troubled by it the next day. Even after spending most of the morning working on Snape's Defense essay and the afternoon up to his elbows in Hippogriff manure in Herbology, he still couldn't shake the sense of foreboding he felt. Finally, he confided his frustration to Ron, Ginny and Hermione over dinner.

"Maybe Dumbledore's right, though, Harry," Hermione said, pushing her peas aimlessly around her plate as she considered the problem. "Maybe knowing how Voldemort became immortal just isn't that important. It probably doesn't affect your strategy, so Dumbledore doesn't want you to be distracted by it."

"I'd be a lot less distracted if he'd just tell me," Harry pointed out. "Besides, I know there's something important he's not letting on about. I can feel it and I need to know what it is before I have to fight Voldemort."

"Well, if Dumbledore won't tell you, we know where we can find out," Ron said. "All of Riddle's research is in that bloody cottage in Wales."

Harry shook his head. He remembered what had almost happened to Snape the last time he'd snuck off on his own. "I promised Dumbledore that I wouldn't go after it. I can't break my word to him again."

"Maybe not, but I didn't make any promise to him."

Harry, Hermione and Ginny stared at Ron in surprise.

"Ron, you can't go back there, alone!" Hermione said sounding utterly horrified.

"Why not? I'm a pure-blood. Lawrence's Dementors won't hurt me and Lawrence is certainly no threat."

"You don't know for certain that those Dementors won't attack you and there's no telling what else might be lurking about. Besides, there's loads of research. Even if you knew what to look for, it would take days to go through it all."

"But I wouldn't have to go through it. I could just shove it all in a bag and bring it back to the Shrieking Shack for you to sort."

"It's still too dangerous," Hermione said emphatically.

"I don't think we need to go that far, at least not yet," Harry said before Ron and Hermione could get into a full-blown row.

Ron shook his head impatiently. "But if Dumbledore won't tell you –"

"I'm sure he will eventually," Hermione interrupted.

"What if he doesn't actually know, though?" Ginny said quietly. "What if he doesn't really know for sure what Voldemort did to become immortal or even exactly how you can defeat him, Harry?"

"You think he's lying to me?" Harry asked in disbelief.

"No! That's not what I mean. I just think he might be going on intuition more than actual knowledge."

"More like an educated guess," Hermione said, nodding slowly. "That's possible. It would certainly explain why he hasn't been very forthcoming with you, Harry."

Harry frowned. Dumbledore was a great believer in following one's instincts, Harry knew, but still. "I'd like to think he's going on something a bit more concrete than intuition and guesswork."

"Then I think it's time we found out for ourselves," Ron said. "I can be in Wales and back in under an hour, Harry."

Harry bit his lip. He desperately wanted to know what secrets Riddle's research held, but he couldn't break his word to Dumbledore and he wasn't going to lie to himself and pretend that sending Ron instead wouldn't be going against the old wizard's orders. "I can't let you do it, Ron. If anything happened and Voldemort found out, it could be a disaster."

"Then what do you plan to do? You said yourself that you have to know what you're up against before you face Voldemort. How long are you going to wait for Dumbledore to tell you? And what happens if he never quite gets around to it? Are you going to go gaze into one of Trelawney's crystal balls and hope 'The Sight' shows you the answer?"

"Wait a minute," Harry said. "That's it!"

Ron looked at Harry incredulously. "I was joking! Trelawney's a fraud. You know that."

"Not Trelawney," Harry said, shaking his head impatiently as he jumped up from the table. "Come on. I have an idea."

Harry quickly led Ron, Hermione and Ginny back to Gryffindor Tower and up to his dormitory. He went straight to his trunk, found his dress robes and pulled a small crystal vial from one of the pockets.

"What's that," Ginny asked.

"Clarifying Solution," Harry said, holding up the vial to examine it.

Hermione gasped. "Clarifying Solution?" She came forward to look more closely at the vial. "Where did you get that?"

"I brewed it with Snape during the summer."

"What's Clarifying Solution?" Ginny asked. "I don't think we've covered that in Potions yet."

Predictably, Hermione knew the answer, although Ron looked puzzled. "It's brewed for a specific individual by adding several drops of blood to a base solution. When the person the solution was brewed for drinks it, they receive a momentary flash of insight; an instant of clarity when the answer to their greatest need is revealed."

"You mean this potion could tell you what you need to know to defeat Voldemort?" Ron asked, sounding genuinely impressed.

"It could certainly help," Harry answered.

"I don't know, Harry," Hermione said worriedly. "You have to be careful with that. People who have taken it often get disturbing results."

"Hermione, I can't think of anything more disturbing than having to try to kill the most powerful evil wizard in the world who also happens to be immortal," Harry said. "Besides, what could possibly be more important to me than finding out how to defeat Voldemort?"

Harry unstoppered the vial and swallowed its contents. The effect was remarkable. He felt an intense euphoria and with it came a sudden, clear realization. Of course! How could he not have remembered?

The moment passed as quickly as it had come and the euphoria vanished. Harry frowned slightly.

"Well," Hermione asked. "Did it work?"

"I – I'm not sure," Harry said uncertainly.

"What did you find out?" Ron asked.

Harry looked at the expectant expressions on his friends' faces and felt chagrinned. "I realized where I read about Stinging Tentaculas."

The others stared at him in silence.

"Are you sure you brewed that right?" Ron asked.

"Of course I am!" Harry said indignantly, turning to pace across the room.

"All right. You don't have to get upset."

Harry took a deep breath and turned back to look at Ron. "I'm sorry. I just thought this would tell me something useful." Harry glared at the empty crystal vial in his hand as though it had betrayed him.

"Where did you read about the Stinging Tentaculas?" Ginny asked.

Harry waved dismissively at his trunk. "In one of my mother's letters. There were loads of them among the stuff my aunt sent me. I only got to read a few on the Hogwarts Express."

"Show us."

Harry looked at Ginny in surprise, but she was obviously serious, so he set aside the vial and went to scrounge through his trunk once more. He pulled out the old battered box of his mother's things, fished the loose letters out of it and flipped through them.

"Here it is." He began to read it aloud as the others gathered around to peer at it over his shoulder.

Evans,

I found the book I was telling you about and I was right. The venom of the Stinging Tentacula is one of the few poisons that can't be treated with a Bezoar though the book doesn't say why. Maybe because it's an odd sort of half-plant, half creature. It's really nasty too – much more dangerous than its cousin the Venomous Tentacula. I've got a book on exotic plants and animals that tells all about it. The poison will kill you, of course, but that's not nearly the worst of it. It embeds tiny spores under the skin when it attacks and these grow amazingly fast. If they aren't destroyed, they'll sprout into new plants, breaking through the skin in a matter of minutes. The plants will continue to grow, feeding off their victim. I can't imagine a worse way to die.

SS

"Well, that's a cheerful letter," Ron said.

"Harry, are you all right?" Ginny asked.

Harry didn't answer. He was still staring at the letter.

"Maybe you shouldn't have read that," Hermione said. "After what you went through – Harry, what are you doing?"

Harry had tossed aside his mother's letter and begun to rummage through his trunk again. He pulled out a small stack of papers, flipped through them and selected one. Then he picked up his mother's letter once more and held the two sheets of paper side by side.

"I don't believe it."

"What's wrong?" Hermione asked.

"It's from Snape."

"What?" Ginny said.

"My mum's letter – Snape's the one who wrote it!"

"You're having us on," Ron said.

"I'm serious. Look. This is one of the letters Snape sent me during Christmas when I was at the Burrow. The handwriting's the same as in my mum's letter. And look at the signatures. They're identical!"

They were. Both letters were signed with a perfunctory, 'SS' in the same distinctive cramped hand. In fact, it was the signature that had caught Harry's attention in his mother's letter and made him realize who had sent it.

"You know, come to think of it, it does sound like the sort of letter Snape would write," Ron said.

"But what was he doing writing to my mum?"

"Well, it says right here that he found some book they'd been discussing," Hermione pointed out.

Ron nodded. "They must have been arguing over it and Snape wanted to write to your mum and show off that he'd been right."

"But if that's true," Hermione said slowly. "If that's all it was, then why did the Clarifying Solution determine that it was the most important thing for Harry to know about?"

They all looked at each other, then as one, they turned to look at the stacks of unread letters lying in the box.

Feeling an inexplicable dread, Harry laid aside the letters he was holding and pulled the others from the box. He tossed a stack to each of his friends and took one himself. "Let's have a look."

They began searching through the letters and it wasn't long before Ginny spoke up. "Got one. This looks like multiple notes, all written on one page." She read it out loud.

Is there anything you don't know about the Dark Arts? – LE

No. – SS

Modest too, I see.

Don't ask, if you don't want to know.

Ron shook his head. "Was he ever not an arrogant berk?"

"Here's another one," Hermione said a few moments later.

Evans,

Thanks again for asking me to visit. I'm glad to hear that nosy sister of yours had a nightmare. Serves her right for eavesdropping on us! We should have slipped her a potion to turn her hair green. But I guess you'd get in trouble for that. It might be worth it though. Hmm, maybe something not so obvious, like a potion to give her acne. I'll have to think about that.

SS

"And here's the follow up to it. It looks like this one was from your mother, Harry, and Snape just added a note at the bottom."

Severus,

That recipe for the acne potion worked brilliantly! Petunia's in her room sobbing right now because she's going to a dance tomorrow and now has a pimple on the end of her nose. Silly if you ask me, but I suppose I'll give her the antidote tonight.

Lily

"At the end, Snape just wrote, 'Gryffindors!!'"

They continued in this way for over half an hour. Most of the letters were quick notes though some stretched to several pages as Snape delved into a discussion of some potion or spell that had captivated his interest. Harry could almost hear the enthusiasm in the boy's voice and once or twice had to fight the urge to smile.

As the letters progressed from one summer to the next they became more sophisticated. Quips and childish pranks gave way to more thoughtful musings.

One in particular gave Harry pause:

These fools that Dumbledore keeps hiring to teach us Defense are a disgrace! I knew twice as much as that idiot, Garret, in my first year. We need someone who knows what he's talking about and isn't afraid to teach us the worst. After all, if we don't know what the Dark Arts are, then I can't see how we'll ever learn to defend against them.

SS

They were nearly through the last of the stacks when Hermione said, "Here's another."

Evans,

I'm actually glad to be living in the Muggle world. Who wants to be in the middle of a war? I've been reading the Daily Prophet, too and things just get worse every day…

Hermione hesitated, biting her lip as she scanned the rest of the letter.

"Go on," Harry urged her. "Read the rest of it."

Hermione cast an apologetic look at Harry and continued.

I know you think it would be noble to try and save the world once we're out of Hogwarts, but I've heard my housemates whispering. I know what You-Know-Who is capable of better than you do and believe me, Lily, you don't want to cross him and his Death Eaters. Stay out of this fight. You'd only end up getting killed and no good would come of that.

SS

"That's the last one," Hermione whispered.

Harry looked at the pile of letters they'd collected. There had to be two score of them. Silently, he gathered them together into a neat stack and looked at the clock. "It was already past time for him to meet with Snape, but he didn't particularly care that the man was going to be angry with him. "I'll be back in a while."

Harry left his dormitory and headed for the dungeons and with each step he could feel his anger growing. He'd called her 'Lily'. He'd been to her house and joked with her about how awful Petunia was. They'd been friends, yet not once had Snape even hinted at it to Harry. The man had an endless list of grievances against James Potter that he had never hesitated to throw in Harry's face. But apparently it was too much to ask that he spare a word of kindness for the girl who had been his childhood friend?

Harry arrived at Snape's office, and rapped sharply on the door then stalked into the room without waiting for a reply. Snape was seated at his desk and looked up to sneer at Harry.

"Nice of you to show up, Potter. Since I'm doing you a considerable favor by allowing these sessions to continue, one would think that you might at least be on time. But then, you've never been overly burdened by respect or gratitude for others."

Harry ignored Snape's criticism and thrust the stack of letters he was holding at him. "Would you care to explain these?"

Snape frowned, obviously perplexed. "What?"

"These!" Harry said, waving the letters at Snape then throwing them down on the desk. He unfolded the top one and held it up. "Go on, read it."

Snape tore his astounded gaze away from Harry and looked at the letter. His expression changed from affronted bewilderment to one of disbelief. He took the letter from Harry and gently ran his fingertips over the page.

"Where did you get this?" Snape asked in an almost reverent whisper.

"They were in my mother's personal effects. My aunt sent them to me." Harry waited, but Snape said nothing. He continued to stare at the letter and seemed to have forgotten that Harry was even there. "Professor!"

Snape glanced up irritably. "What?"

"Why did you write to my mother?"

"I should think that would be none of your business. However, surely you've read these. They're the unassuming discourse of a child. What, precisely, is beyond your understanding?"

"I understand them perfectly. What I don't understand is how you and my mum became such great friends."

Harry was sure that Snape flinched at that, but his voice betrayed no discomfort as he spoke.

"Your mother and I were far and away the top Potions students in our year. We were usually partnered in class and discovered that we only lived a few miles apart. Consequently, we decided to keep in touch over the summer holidays to further our academic pursuits."

Harry stared stonily at Snape. "You were twelve. Even you weren't 'furthering academic pursuits' at that age and I'm pretty sure my mum wasn't. You were friends."

"We were acquaintances and I fail to see what crime you think I've committed. Would you begrudge a child the opportunity to correspond with his classmate?"

"Of course not! I just don't understand why you're sitting here trying to pretend that you barely knew her? You're right; I have read those letters and they weren't written by 'acquaintances' who were only interested in making top marks at school. You wrote to her every week for four summers! You went to visit her."

Snape slammed the letter down on his desk and stood up. "That was over twenty years ago! What does it matter?"

"It matters because everyone's always ready to talk about my dad, but no one's ever told me a word about my mum. I hardly know anything about her at all. My aunt refused to even say her name!"

"Petunia," Snape spat. "That –" He stopped abruptly, but not soon enough.

"Oh, that's right, you know my aunt, too, don't you?" Harry said sarcastically. "Gave her a bad case of acne once, wasn't it?"

Snape sighed. "As you pointed out, Potter, I visited your mother at her home. It's unlikely I would have been fortunate enough to avoid her sister, especially as the wretched girl was constantly spying on us. The potion I concocted for your mother to give her was just desserts, believe me."

"You don't have to convince me of that, Professor, and I'm not asking you to justify anything. I just don't understand why you never told me you were friends."

The flinch was unmistakable this time. "Potter, if you want to know about your mother then ask Lupin. They were friends. I am not the person you should be having this conversation with."

"Well, the Clarifying Solution I brewed over summer disagreed with you."

"What?"

"I took it an hour ago and this is where it led me."

Snape closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Potter, I told you to be careful with that!"

"I thought I was being careful. I expected it to help me figure out how to defeat Voldemort, but apparently it's more important for me to understand why you and my mum were friends."

Snape turned away, a pained expression on his face. But Harry wasn't about to back down. "Can't you tell me anything?" he said quietly. "You knew her. I never did."

Snape closed his eyes, then opened them once more and turned back to look at Harry. "We were friends because your mother was friends with nearly all of our classmates. She was bright, popular, outgoing. She was kind to everyone." Snape looked away. "Even me. She was the only real friend I ever had."

"The letters stopped after fourth year. What happened?"

Snape shook his head in disgust. "I took up with a group of my fellow housemates who were less than sympathetic towards Muggle-borns."

"The future Death Eaters," Harry surmised. "But why? You're a half-blood. I know you didn't care about pure-blood politics. Why would you become friends with them?"

Snape's mouth twisted into a bitter sneer. "Do you really want to know? I'll give you one guess."

Harry felt a dread suspicion and his heart sank. "Because of my father?"

"For protection from your father, yes. My first few years at Hogwarts, I could hold my own against him and his friends. I knew far more curses than they did. But neither your father nor Black was stupid. By fourth year, they could beat me in a fight. By fifth year, I'd started creating my own spells to use against them, just to keep up. I wrote them in my Potions text which I always had with me, but that little sneak, Pettigrew, spotted my notes and told his friends.

"One Saturday after lunch when I was on my way to the library, he, your father and Black were waiting for me in a deserted corridor." Snape snorted in disgust at the memory. "They didn't even hex me. They just grabbed me, took my books and my wand and locked me in a broom cupboard. They set a silencing charm so no one would hear me calling for help and left me there. They didn't come back to let me out until the next morning."

Harry gaped. "That's not possible. You couldn't have been missing for that long. Someone would have noticed and told the teachers."

"I was in that cupboard for over nineteen hours, Potter and no, no one noticed that I was absent for dinner or gave a thought to the fact that my bed hadn't been slept in. Don't you understand? No one missed me because no one cared."

Harry stared at Snape. As it happened, he did understand what it was like to be beneath notice. As a child, he'd been studiously ignored by his aunt and uncle who were always happy to pretend that he didn't exist. All that had changed when he'd come to Hogwarts, but he wondered now what his life would have been like if it hadn't – what Snape's life must have been like.

"Of course, your father thought it was a great joke," Snape continued, bitterly. "He laughed and said that I was lucky, that I didn't need an Invisibility Cloak to sneak around school because I was already invisible as far as everyone else was concerned. He and his friends didn't even get detention for what they'd done, because naturally, no one knew and if I'd reported them it would have been my word against theirs.

"But worst of all was the smirk on your father's face when he handed my Potions text back to me. It told me he'd had more than enough time to learn my spells. If I'd had any doubt at all, it was dispelled the very next day, when he used my Levicorpus charm on a first year boy, who had run into him in the hallway. There he stood, in the spotlight as always, taking credit for my work while everyone praised his cleverness.

"But I'd learnt a valuable lesson from my long, uncomfortable imprisonment in that cupboard. I realized I needed someone to watch my back the way your father's friends watched his. Once I'd come to this decision, my course of action was obvious. There were certain Slytherins who had made it clear to me that they admired my extensive knowledge of the Dark Arts and would welcome me into their ranks. They made no secret of their pure-blood prejudice, but neither did they flaunt it at the time and I didn't think it would be an issue. Needless to say, I was wrong.

"At first, I tried to maintain ties to the group as well as my friendship with your mother, but both sides gave me grief for my divided loyalties. I didn't want to have to give up either. Lily had earned my loyalty and respect, but while I wouldn't have called any of my Slytherin cohorts 'friends', when I was with them, your father never dared hex me or even insult me.

"Finally, it all came to a head on the afternoon after our Defense OWL. I'm sure I don't need to remind you of that."

"No," Harry whispered.

"I chose my path that day and your mother and I never spoke outside of class afterward. Two years later, my comrades and I became Death Eaters."

Harry stared at Snape unable to think of anything to say. He felt sick.

"Now, Mr. Potter," Snape said. "If you have no further need to pry into my past, I have things to do."

Harry nodded and left the office without a word. As he walked, he tried to tell himself that it had been Snape's own fault. He'd made the choice to befriend the pure-blood fanatics in Slytherin. He'd made the decision to become a Death Eater. Yet although Snape had chosen his path, Harry couldn't pretend that his own father hadn't chased him down it. If it was a choice between being constantly outnumbered by a group of bullies and turning to the nastiest elements in Slytherin for protection, could he really blame Snape for having chosen the latter? Worst of all though, Harry understood perfectly why Snape hated James Potter and he wondered if his father had ever realized that his relentless bullying had made Snape the very thing he'd believed him to be: a Death Eater.

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