Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling owns all the characters and the HP universe. Which is why she's making money off it and I'm not.

Big thanks to my intrepid beta readers, Narcissus and Nymphica. Don't know what I'd do without you guys.

Harry Potter and the Polka Dot Plague
By Marina Frants


Chapter 1 -- An Inauspicious Arrival

For the first time in four years, Harry Potter felt dejected as he pushed his baggage trolley through the divider between Platforms 9 and 10 in King's Cross Station. Under normal circumstances, he looked forward to the start of school with an enthusiasm rarely found in adolescent boys. School meant an escape from the Dursleys, and even with all the dangers and injuries that tended to plague him every year, Harry had always thought that Hogwarts was still a huge improvement over Privet Drive.

But that had all changed last year, at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. Voldemort was back. Cedric Diggory was dead. And no matter how many people tried to tell him otherwise, Harry knew that it was his fault. If only he hadn't kept Sirius and Professor Lupin from killing Wormtail when they had the chance… if only he hadn't offered to share the Triwizard victory with Cedric… Regrets and recriminations had filled Harry's head all summer. He had spent most of his time in his room, feeling too depressed to face the world beyond his door. Thankfully, the Dursleys had mostly left him alone. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had ceased bullying him ever since Harry had convinced them that the notorious murderer Sirius Black was looking out for his welfare, but they didn't want to be bothered with him, either. So if Harry wanted to sit quietly in his room all day, they were content to let him. Dudley had made himself obnoxious for a while, but Harry couldn't find the energy to care, and eventually his cousin had grown bored with Harry's lack of response and waddled off.

Harry had not left Privet Drive at all until the day before, when he'd gone to Diagon Alley with Ron and Hermione to shop for school supplies. The Grangers had picked him up in their car. Hermione's parents were respectable Muggle dentists, and looked it, so Uncle Vernon had been grudgingly civil to them, even if he did squint his beady little eyes at Hermione as if he expected her to sprout horns and a tail at any moment.

Hermione herself had given Harry a concerned frown as he climbed into the car.

"Are you all right, Harry? You look terribly tired. I hope you haven't been studying too hard."

Coming from Hermione, that was downright hilarious, but Harry was in no mood to laugh. In truth, he hadn't studied at all, even though all his teachers had assigned loads of homework over the summer in order to start getting the Fifth-years ready for their O.W.L.s. He knew he should be worried about all the books left unread and essays left unwritten, but somehow he wasn't.

Ron was even less diplomatic than Hermione. "Blimey, Harry, you look awful! Haven't those Muggles been feeding you all summer?"

"I'm fine," Harry muttered, feeling self-conscious and irritable. The other Weasleys were giving him concerned looks too; Mrs. Weasley, in particular, looked as if she was getting ready to fuss. Harry hated being fussed over. So he summoned up a smile and determined to act cheerful for the rest of the day.

He managed it, but it was very tiring. Even now, after a good night's sleep and a huge breakfast at the Burrow, Harry was still tired. To top it all off, he was starting to feel distinctly queasy. Harry suspected it was the breakfast. He really hadn't felt hungry when he woke up, but Mrs. Weasley had looked so concerned when he tried to refuse her offer of food that he quickly recanted and choked down nearly half the eggs, rolls and sausages she piled on his plate. Now it had all settled into a big greasy lump in the bottom of Harry's stomach, and all he wanted was to curl up in his seat and go to sleep for the duration of the train ride.

It didn't work out that way, of course. They had claimed a compartment to themselves as usual, and Harry had quickly claimed a corner seat for himself, but peace and quiet were not to be had. Fred and George came in twice, and managed to make something explode each time. They also made loud and boisterous fun of Hermione's Prefect badge (she took it with much better humor than Percy had). Draco Malfoy stuck his head in once, flanked by the ever-present Crabbe and Goyle, but left in haste when Hermione told him she'd been reading up on transfiguring people into ferrets. Neville wandered in looking for his toad, Lee Jordan wanted to talk about Gryffindor's chances for the Quidditch Cup without Oliver Wood… and every single person (except Malfoy and his goons, of course) had something to say about how awful Harry looked. It was very irritating.

It was the longest train ride ever. And after that there was the carriage ride, and the walk to the Great Hall, and the endless milling around while waiting for Professor McGonagall to herd the First-Years in for the sorting. After a few minutes, Harry elbowed Hermione in the side.

"Listen, could you tell me the password? I'm going to go up to the dorm and lie down."

"What?" Ron gaped at him. "Are you crazy? You'll miss the Sorting! And the feast!"

"We've missed the Sorting before and nothing terrible happened," Harry pointed out. "And I'm not hungry. I just want a nap."

"Are you sure you're all right?" Hermione was frowning at him again. "Maybe you should go see Madam Pomfrey."

"I'm fine," Harry repeated for the thousandth time that day. "I just need a nap, that's all. Tell Professor McGonagall after she's done with the Sorting, will you? I don't want her thinking I've snuck off to get into trouble."

"I'll come with you," Ron offered, but Harry shook his head.

"No, you stay. Tell me what the Hat sings."

Hermione still looked dubious, but she did tell him the password without further protest. Harry thanked her and elbowed his way out of the room. The paintings in the corridors turned to look at him as he went by, and Harry could've sworn he heard one of them - a portrait of a motherly old witch in a rocking chair - murmur something about him looking unwell. He quickened his pace, but that just tired him out so that he had to stop and catch his breath when he was halfway there.

"Mister Potter." A smooth voice hissed into Harry's ear, causing him to nearly jump out of his skin. He spun around to find his least favorite professor hovering over him like a particularly ill-tempered vulture. "And what might you be doing out here?"

Harry fought down a groan. Of all the people at Hogwarts, Severus Snape was the last one he wanted to see just now. The man seemed to live for the sole purpose of getting Harry into trouble. He had an amazing ability to sneak up on people without their noticing, and to always pop up at the worst possible moment. Harry supposed it was a useful skill for a spy. Snape had spied on the Death Eaters for Dumbledore in the last war, and was apparently doing it again now. If it had been anyone else, Harry would've admired them for it, but no amount of effort was going to make him admire Severus Snape.

He stood up straighter and tried his best to look innocent of any wrongdoing. Somehow, the fact that he actually was innocent for a change didn't make the task any easier.

"Nothing," he managed to say finally. "I'm not doing anything."

"Nothing?" Snape's mouth curled into a familiar sneer. "I find that hard to believe. At the very least, you're breathing and taking up space. And I, for one, would like to know what else you're up to."

"Nothing," Harry repeated doggedly. "I was just going to the dorm to lie down, that's all."

"Indeed." The sneer grew more pronounced. "The Sorting and the feast are not providing sufficient entertainment for famous Potter?"

"No! I mean, that's not why I left." Harry rolled his eyes, though he knew it would only make Snape more annoyed. No matter what he did, the Potions master always managed to interpret it as a sign of arrogance. Harry winced, aware that what he was about to say sounded very much like a lame excuse, but since it happened to be true, he said it anyway. "I'm not feeling well."

Snape took a step toward him, looming more menacingly than ever. "Then why are you sneaking around here instead of going to the infirmary the way sick students are supposed to?"

"I'm not sneaking!" Harry said indignantly. "This is the shortest way to Gryffindor tower. And I don't need to go to the infirmary. I just need to lie down for a bit. Professor McGonagall said it was okay." Well, she didn't really, but he had asked Ron to tell her where he'd gone, and surely she wouldn't mind him having a quick lie-down, would she?

Snape glared at him for a while longer, black eyes glittering in his sallow face. Harry felt as if those eyes were trying to drill right into his skull and search out every little secret he might have hidden. He returned the glare as best he could, and eventually Snape gathered his cloak more tightly around himself and stepped back.

"Very well," he said in a tone that reminded Harry unpleasantly of Draco Malfoy's sarcastic drawl. "I shall walk you to Gryffindor tower. After all, we wouldn't want you to grow disoriented and wander off in the wrong direction, ill as you are."

"That's not necessary," Harry protested, but it was no good. Snape had obviously decided that Harry was up to something, and was determined to stop whatever it was. Harry didn't dare to argue too long. Snape was perfectly capable of taking points from Gryffindor even though the term hadn't officially started yet. In fact, he was probably counting on Harry to lose his temper and give him an excuse. Well, he was going to be disappointed. Harry spun on his heels and walked off down the corridor, Snape trailing just behind him. Harry resolutely ignored him, which actually wasn't very difficult, since Snape made no noise at all as he walked. The only sign of his presence was his huge, inky shadow gliding bat-like along the wall.

They reached the entrance to Gryffindor tower without incident. "Fiddle-dee-dee," Harry muttered, and the Fat Lady slid aside to let him enter.

"You look tired, dear," she told him as he brushed past her. Harry didn't bother replying.

He staggered up the stairs to the Fifth-year dormitory. His trunk was already next to his bed, Hedwig's cage perched on top of it. The owl gave a soft, concerned hoot as Harry sat down on the bed and began to untie his shoes.

"Don't you start," Harry told her. Hedwig blinked at him, silent. "That's better." He tossed his shoes under the bed and lay down. He was asleep in seconds.

Chapter 2 - Skittles

Harry dreamed he was playing Quidditch. This was not especially strange, as Quidditch was his favorite sport in the whole world. But this dream wasn't at all nice; it was terrifying. For one thing, it was nighttime, and only a thin sliver of moon lit the pitch. Harry could barely see the other players as they zoomed around him on their brooms. And there was no crowd to watch the game - all the seats in the stadium were empty. The silence was eerie and disorienting.

A Bludger whooshed past Harry's head, nearly startling him off his broom. He couldn't tell who had hit it toward him, couldn't even tell which players were on which team. How was he supposed to play like this? He needed to see what he was doing.

Somehow, his wand was in his hand. Harry raised it and shouted "Lumos," and a pale white light illuminated the area around him. He saw Ron and Hermione, wearing Quidditch robes in Gryffindor colors, just like his own. Harry looked around for the rest of his team, but none of the other players were wearing scarlet and gold. None of the other players were wearing Quidditch robes at all. Harry looked closer and saw that they were all dressed in black, hooded cloaks, and their faces were hidden behind masks.

Death Eaters! Harry spun his Firebolt in a circle. There were Death Eaters all around the pitch. He shouted at Ron and Hermione to get out of there, but they didn't seem to hear him, or maybe they just wouldn't listen.

A shrill whistle sounded somewhere above, and Harry looked up to see the hovering referee, somehow clearly visible against the night sky. His eyes were glowing red. It was Voldemort. Once again, Harry shouted for his friends to leave, and once again they didn't move.

Voldemort flew closer. His cloak fanned out behind him, filling the whole sky.

"Kill the spares," he said.

"No!" Harry screamed, but there was nothing he could do. All the Death Eaters were raising their wands. They were going to kill Ron and Hermione just for being on his team, they were-

"Harry! Harry, wake up!"

"Huh?" Harry lifted his head from the pillow, blinking woozily. He wasn't playing night-time Quidditch against Death Eaters. He was lying in bed, and Ron was bending over him looking worried. It was morning, but just barely: the sky outside the window had just begun to brighten on the horizon. The other Fifth-year Gryffindors were all sitting up in their beds, looking at Harry with expressions that ranged from concern to curiosity to annoyance at being woken so early.

"Are you all right?" Ron asked. "You were crying out in your sleep."

"Bad dream." Harry shivered at the memory, and had to fight down the crazy urge to yell at Ron to stand away from him. "My head hurts…"

"It's not your scar again, is it?" Ron's eyes widened in alarm.

"I don't think so." The pain was more of a throbbing than a burning, and it was spread out all over his head instead of centering in the middle of his forehead the way he was accustomed to. "I think it's just a normal headache." Now that he was fully awake, Harry was starting to notice just how miserable he felt. It wasn't just his head that hurt - all his joints were achy, too, and his skin felt clammy and horribly itchy. He scratched his stomach with one hand and his shoulder with the other.

"You should go to the Hospital Wing." Neville had climbed out of bed, and was now fidgeting nervously behind Ron. "You look feverish."

"Neville's right." Ron put one hand on Harry's forehead. "You are feverish. Come on." He tugged on Harry's sleeve. "Madam Pomfrey will put you right."

Harry began to protest - it was bad enough he finished every school year in the Hospital Wing, he really didn't want to start there too - when Ron and Neville both gave sudden cries of alarm and jumped back from the bed as if stung. Neville's mouth hung open, and Ron's face had gone very white under the freckles.

"What's wrong?" Harry demanded.

Neville closed his mouth so forcefully that his teeth clicked, and raised one shaky hand to point at Harry's chest. Harry looked down at himself and let out a startled yelp. Ron's tugging had made the top two buttons on his pajama top come undone, revealing a row of brightly colored purple and yellow polka dots decorating Harry's collar bones.

Slowly, feeling very aware that everyone in the room was staring at him now, Harry undid the rest of the buttons and looked. Purple, yellow, turquoise, lime green, orange… his entire torso was covered with polka dots.

"Harry," Ron breathed in a stunned voice. "You've got the Skittles!"

"Come off it!" Seamus Finnigan, who had begun to climb out of bed, suddenly pulled his feet up as if he thought the floor might be tainted. "Nobody gets the Skittles anymore. Besides, he's too old."

"Yeah, well, he's got it anyway." Ron helped Harry button his pajama top back up, then dug under the bed for his shoes. "Come on, now you really have to go."

Harry allowed Ron to pull him to his feet, and immediately regretted it. His stomach lurched, his vision blurred, and the room seemed to tilt from side to side like a fun-house floor. Harry's legs buckled, and he would've fallen if Ron hadn't been there to support him.

"Ugh. When did you grow so damned heavy?" Ron staggered a little, but managed to keep them both upright. "Come on, guys, somebody get his other side."

Nobody moved at first, and Harry got the distinct feeling that none of the other boys wanted to get near him. Then Neville stepped up and draped Harry's free arm around his shoulders.

"Thanks," Ron grunted, and the three of them staggered slowly toward the door.

The common room was empty except for Hermione, who was curled up in a chair by the fireplace with a copy of Acing your O.W.L.s. She clapped the book shut when she saw the boys enter, and hurried over to meet them.

"Harry! What's wrong with him?"

"He's got the Skittles," Ron huffed. "Come on, we have to get him to Madam Pomfrey."

They steered Harry out the door and down the corridor, with Hermione trotting alongside.

"Are you sure about this?" she asked, frowning anxiously. "There hasn't been a Skittles outbreak in Britain for over thirty years."

"Of course I'm sure," Ron snapped. "He's covered with polka dots. Can't mistake it."

Hermione's frown deepened. "Haven't you had your injection, Harry?"

"What injection?" Harry mumbled. It was hard to speak past the aches and the itching and the awful, queasy feeling in his stomach. He scratched at his hip, and Hermione quickly slapped his hand away.

"Don't scratch it, you'll make it worse."

"It can get worse?" Harry shuddered and draped his arm around Neville's shoulders again. "Just what exactly are the Skittles, and how bad do they get?"

"It's a childhood disease that wizards used to get," Hermione explained. "Kind of like the measles. Except nobody ever gets it anymore, because there's a vaccine. Wizard-born babies get their jab before their second birthday, and Muggle-borns have to get it after they're admitted to Hogwarts. My parents had to take me to St. Mungo's for it after I got my letter."

"I never knew about any jabs," Harry said.

"This is very bad." Hermione wrung her hands as she walked. "Most people get the Skittles very young, before their magic really kicks in. Getting it after can be very dangerous, and the older than you are, the worse it is. Fifteen is very old to-"

Just then Neville lost his footing as he tried to avoid the trick step on the staircase they were negotiating. He yelped and let go of Harry in order to catch himself on the banister with both hands. Ron, finding himself suddenly supporting all of Harry's weight, overbalanced, and began to topple forward, taking Harry with him. Hermione tried to catch them, but while she did succeed in grasping the back of Ron's collar as he went by, she wasn't strong enough to stop their momentum. So everyone except Neville went tumbling down the stairs with a great deal of noise.

"I'm sorry!" Neville huffed, running down after them. "Sorry, sorry, sorry… is everyone all right?"

"Depends on what you'd call all right." Ron disentangled himself from Hermione and sat up, rubbing his knee and wincing. "I think all my limbs are still attached. How about you lot?"

"I'm okay." Hermione was nursing a bruised elbow, and her hair was looking very messy, but she didn't appear to be seriously hurt. "Good thing we were near the bottom of the stairs already. Oh, don't sniffle, Neville, there's no harm done. Right, Harry?"

"Uhm… right." Harry felt bruised all over, but nothing seemed to be broken or missing. Still, he felt no desire to move anytime soon. "I think I'll just lie here for a while, though… maybe for a couple of hours."

"I don't think that would be such a good idea." Ron ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand up on end. "Does anyone have their wand? Maybe we can levitate you or something."

"Ron!" Hermione looked scandalized. "Don't you pay any attention in History of Magic?"

"Of course not. You're the only one who ever pays attention in History of Magic. What does it have to do with levitating Harry, anyway?"

"Everything." Hermione rolled her eyes. "Skittles interferes with magic. People who have it mustn't cast spells or have spells cast on them. Professor Binns explained all about it last term, when he talked about the Great Skittles Epidemic of 1693. If you tried to levitate Harry, you'd probably end up turning him into a rabbit, or giving him a third arm, or-"

"Okay, okay, I get the idea." Ron climbed to his feet, using the wall for support. "I guess we're stuck getting him there by brute force."

They encountered no further mishaps on the way. This was fortunate, because Harry grew steadily weaker and more miserable as they went on. By the time they reached the infirmary, his legs would no longer hold him up at all, and he was sure he was going to pass out at any moment.

The normally unflappable Madam Pomfrey looked distinctly flapped when Harry lifted up his pajama top to expose his polka-dotted tummy.

"Oh, my," she breathed. "Skittles. We've never… I don't think we have any… oh, my…" She took a few deep breaths and pulled herself together. "All right, then. No need to panic. Miss Granger, please go and notify Professor McGonagall of Mr. Potter's condition. Mr. Potter, stop scratching, you'll only make it worse. Weasley, Longbottom, help me get him into bed."

Harry had never felt so grateful to be lying down.

Chapter 3 - Snape's Curse

Severus Snape was not having a good morning. He had slept badly, even by his low standards, and awakened with stiff joints and a splitting headache. A dose of Ache-away Potion failed to provide relief, and he was digging through his cabinet in search of something more potent when someone knocked on his door.

"Who's there?" he snarled in a tone that indicated that whoever it was had better have something incredibly urgent to say if they were going to disturb him before breakfast.

"Severus? Open up, it's Poppy."

Damn. It really was urgent, then. Poppy Pomfrey never disturbed his private space unless she needed something for the infirmary, and this early in the term she could not have yet run out of any of the standard remedies. Snape swore under his breath as he hastily pulled his robes on over his nightshirt.

"Enter." It was both an invitation and a code to instruct the Locking Charm on his door to admit a single person.

"I'm sorry to bother you this early." Poppy looked flushed and out of breath, as if she'd run all the way from the infirmary. "But we've had a rather… unexpected problem. Harry Potter has the Skittles."

Snape's breath stuck in his throat, and his hands went clammy. "Wha-" His voice cracked in an extremely embarrassing manner, and he had to turn it into a cough and start again. "Harry Potter has what?"

Poppy gave a nervous laugh. "I know, it is hard to believe, isn't it? I can't imagine how it happened. I know they still get the occasional outbreaks in Asia and on the Continent - they never did get their immunization programs together properly - but Harry says he's been in Little Whinging all summer." She shook her head in puzzlement. "Well, no matter how he got it, we have to deal it with it quickly. At his age, Skittles can be a serious matter. We don't have the cure in stock, naturally."

"Naturally." The potion that cured the Skittles was extremely volatile. It had to be drunk within a few minutes after brewing, or else stored under a strong Preserving Charm; and even then it kept for no more than a week. No medical facility could be expected to stock it, even if anyone had anticipated the need.

It was also hellishly difficult to brew. Snape mentally scrolled through the ingredients list, trying to remember if he had them all on hand. Comfrey, tarragon, mermaid scales, ginseng root, powdered Billywig stings…

"I'll get started right away."

"I'll need the vaccine, too. The Headmaster has requested that all the students receive booster shots, just in case."

Dragonfly eyes, crocus pollen, moonflower petals… "I'll take care of it."

He shooed Poppy out into the corridor, slammed the door behind her, and rushed into the bedroom, where he promptly tripped on the edge of the rug and barely managed to grab the bedpost in time to keep from falling. After that, he forced himself to move more deliberately. Time might be short, but there was no reason to make it even shorter by killing himself through sheer clumsiness.

He opened his wardrobe and shoved the hangers holding his robes aside to reveal a small selection of Muggle clothes. Snape wore them once or twice a year on shopping trips to London. He had discovered some years ago that some potion ingredients were available cheaper, and in purer form, in Muggle pharmacies than in wizarding shops. Now he pulled out each outfit in turn, and methodically turned out all the pockets, swearing with increasing volume and inventiveness as his efforts produced nothing but the occasional bit of fluff.

Finally, just as he was getting ready to give up, a shabby black suit jacket he never wore anymore provided what he needed: a small book of matches with the name of a Muggle pub printed on the cover. Snape tucked it into the cuff of his sleeve and hurried into his work room, pausing only to grab his battered copy of Jeremiah Briggs' Curative Potions from the bookcase.

He placed two cauldrons on his worktable, filled them with distilled water from a gallon jug, and used the matches to start a fire under each one. A copy of last Sunday's Daily Prophet provided both kindling and fuel. Petty as he knew it to be, Snape couldn't help feeling a certain satisfaction at burning an especially smug-looking photo of Cornelius Fudge. It had accompanied an interview in which the Minister had once again denied all possibility of Voldemort's return and described Dumbledore's supporters as "hysterical panic-mongers." The picture squirmed and grimaced quite amusingly as Snape slowly fed it to the flames.

While the water heated, he sat down to review Briggs' instructions for the two potions he was about to make. The ingredients lists made him wince. Skittles affected potions in much the same way it affected other forms of magic, but at least with potions the effects were consistent and predictable. This made it possible for mediwizards to develop a vaccine and a cure, but the results were, to say the least, counterintuitive. Under no other circumstances would Snape ever consider putting mermaid scales and Billywig stings into the same cauldron. Not only was the combination useless for most purposes, it was also highly explosive if not mixed exactly right. Snape read the instructions twice to make sure he had them memorized, and began to gather the ingredients from his cabinet.

His headache intensified as he worked. It felt like a hammer pounding on his skull from the inside. Once, when he stood up too quickly after kneeling to retrieve a jar from the bottom shelf, Snape's vision blacked and his ears began to ring. He had to put the jar down quickly and hold on to the edge of the table until he could see again. It was a curse, he decided. Someone must've cursed him when he was too young to notice, and now he was forever doomed to have his life made miserable by Potters. There was no escaping it.

The Muggle fires seemed to give off more heat than ordinary wizard flames, and the workroom quickly became unbearably stuffy. Snape opened the tiny window as wide as it would go and splashed cold water on his face from the sink, but neither measure brought much relief. Sweat beaded his face and trickled down his neck. His palms grew slick; he wiped them on a fold of his robes and willed his hands not to shake as he picked up a silver knife and began slicing the ginseng root into neat quarter-inch cubes. Damn you, Potter, why couldn't you have gone to the infirmary last night like a reasonable child?

Slice the ginseng. Count the dragonfly eyes. Weigh the crocus pollen. Feed another sheet of newsprint to the flames. Twenty-seven mermaid scales, added one at a time, three seconds apart. Stir each cauldron, nine times clockwise for the vaccine, twelve times widdershins for the cure… The smoke rising from the simmering potions was awful, thick and bitter. It coated Snape's throat with an oily film and made his stomach churn. He gritted his teeth against the nausea, finished stirring, and moved on to the next step.

Grind the Billywig stings to a fine powder in a silver-lined mortar. Stir in two ounces of squid ink and add to the cauldron, a drop at a time, five seconds apart… Snape braced his left hand on the table to keep himself steady, and raised the pipette over the cauldron with his right. As he began to squeeze out the first drop, his sleeve slipped down to his elbow, revealing a single bright line of polka dots decorating his forearm.

It was not exactly a surprise - Snape had been anticipating the sight with cold dread since the moment Poppy Pomfrey had spoken - but he still couldn't quite stop his hand from clenching in shock, spilling the entire contents of the pipette into the boiling potion in one shot.

He had just enough time to dive behind the cabinet before the cauldron exploded.

Chapter 4 - Quarantine

Harry had been pleasantly surprised at first when Madam Pomfrey put him in a separate room rather than the main ward. It was a very nice room, with a large window, two huge, soft beds, and a plush rug on the floor. There was even a game table that could be set up for wizard chess, 3-D backgammon, and Exploding Snap.

"Now that's what I call proper accommodations!" Ron said enthusiastically as he and Neville hoisted Harry into bed. "Maybe if you're feeling better later today, I'll come by and we'll play a few games."

"You will do nothing of the kind." Madam Pomfrey grabbed Ron by the arm and steered him toward the door, motioning for Neville to follow. "Mister Potter is in quarantine. No students will be allowed to see him until he is no longer contagious." And she ushered them out, ignoring Ron's indignant protests that he and Neville had had their jabs, and besides, everyone in Gryffindor had been exposed already.

After that, life became very dull. Harry felt too tired to play any of the games, even if there had been anyone around to play with, but he was also too achy and feverish to sleep, so there was nothing left for him to do except stare at the ceiling and try not to scratch. The ceiling was enchanted to look like a blue summer sky, with fluffy white clouds and the occasional bird flitting across. Harry tried to amuse himself by finding funny shapes in the clouds, but the attempt only made his head hurt worse.

Professor McGonagall came to see him, looking rumpled and worried, with her hair pinned into an unusually lop-sided bun. She brought his toothbrush, bathrobe, and a spare set of pajamas, promised to arrange extended deadlines on all his homework, and bustled out again. Harry went back to staring at the ceiling until a commotion outside the door attracted his attention.

A number of people were talking excitedly in the next room. Harry couldn't quite hear what they were saying, but he could make out Madam Pomfrey's voice, and Professor Dumbledore's, as well as two others he couldn't recognize. Everyone sounded extremely upset. Harry was just starting to wonder if it was worth the effort to get out of bed and try to see what was happening, when the door flew open. Madam Pomfrey rushed in, followed by Dumbledore, followed by - Harry sat straight up in shock - Crabbe and Goyle, supporting an extremely disheveled Professor Snape between them.

Snape's black hair looked greasier than ever, and his skin was streaked and shiny with sweat. He was wearing his robes over a gray nightshirt, both of which were rather singed, and there were black smudge marks on his face, as if he'd once again stood too close to one of Neville's exploding cauldrons. Crabbe and Goyle dragged him over to the empty bed and lifted him up onto it, grunting in unison. Madam Pomfrey immediately herded them toward the exit, muttering about quarantine again. They went obediently enough at first, then stopped in the doorway and glanced back over their shoulders with identical frowning expressions.

"He'll be all right," Goyle said, "won't he?"

Harry couldn't help but stare. In the four years since he'd first met Crabbe and Goyle, this was the first time he could recall hearing either one of them speak. Usually they just stood around and sniggered while Malfoy did the talking.

"Of course he'll be all right," Madam Pomfrey said firmly. "Now go and tell that to the rest of the Slytherins. And tell them absolutely no visitors, so it's no use anyone trying." She pushed them out the door and hurried out after them.

Snape fell back onto the pillows with a groan. He looked really awful. His nightshirt gaped open at the throat, revealing a dense and extremely colorful pattern of polka dots.

"Potter…" Snape's voice was slurred and his eyes looked dazed when he glared at Harry across the gap between their beds. "Fifty points from Gryffindor."

"There, there, Severus." Dumbledore patted Snape's shoulder sympathetically. "Don't mind Professor Snape, Harry, he's delirious."

A muscle in Snape's jaw twitched. "I am not delirious."

"But of course you are." Dumbledore's face was solemn and sympathetic, but his eyes were twinkling. He rested one hand on Snape's forehead, ignoring the younger man's furious scowl. "You're burning up with fever."

"Headmaster-"

"You're also on sick leave, as of ten minutes ago. And teachers on leave cannot award or deduct house points. It's a school rule."

The twitch in Snape's jaw became more pronounced. "I've never heard of such a rule."

"You've never taken sick leave before. But don't worry, it shouldn't last long. I've owled the Potions Maker at St. Mungo's-"

"Cogsworth?" Snape sounded thoroughly disgusted. "That hack couldn't brew a decent cup of tea."

"-And asked him to prepare a cure as quickly as possible," Dumbledore went on as if Snape hadn't interrupted. "I'm sure both you and Harry will be put right in no time. You'll be back to failing Gryffindors before you know it. In the meantime, I will be personally taking over your classes, while Professor Sinistra will assume your duties as head of Slytherin House."

"Tell her to come and see me," Snape said quickly. Dumbledore patted his shoulder again.

"In good time." He took a step toward Harry's bed, but Snape pushed himself up on one elbow and reached out with an extremely shaky hand to grip his sleeve.

"Tell her to come and see me," he repeated urgently, and broke into a violent and painful-looking coughing fit.

"Of course I'll tell her, Severus." Dumbledore looked genuinely concerned now, not a hint of a twinkle behind his spectacles. "Now please lie down and stop exerting yourself. And don't scratch, you'll only make it worse."

Snape grumbled indistinctly, but allowed himself to be pushed back down onto the pillows. Dumbledore tucked the blanket around him with a fatherly air, then walked over to stand by Harry's bed.

"And how are you feeling?"

The answer to that question was "totally miserable." Being ill was bad enough, but now it looked as if Harry was going to be trapped in a quarantined room with Professor Snape. A very ill and bad-tempered Professor Snape. This was not exactly Harry's worst nightmare, not with Voldemort on the loose somewhere, but it was certainly in the top ten.

Unfortunately, he was stuck with the situation, so there was no point complaining about it. Especially not in front of Snape. Harry forced a smile as he looked up into Dumbledore's blue eyes. "I'm fine, sir. I'm sorry to be so much trouble."

"It's not your fault," Dumbledore said soothingly, ignoring the sarcastic snort from the other bed. "Though I'm very curious to discover how this unexpected outbreak came about. That's for me to worry about, however. Your job is to lie here and rest, and to give as little trouble as possible to Madam Pomfrey - that means you too, Severus. I know what a terrible patient you are."

Snape looked as if he wanted to object to that, but at that moment Madam Pomfrey came in again, carrying two steaming mugs. She handed one to Harry and one to Snape, who sniffed at it suspiciously and frowned.

"Chamomile tea, Poppy?"

"With honey. An old Muggle remedy. I've also sent Hagrid out for something called "ibuprofen". Hermione Granger suggested it might prove helpful while we wait for St. Mungo's to provide the potions. Drink up, both of you."

The tea was strong and very sweet, the honey almost masking the grassy taste of the chamomile. Harry leaned back against the headboard and drank slowly, cradling the mug against his chest in between sips. The hot liquid felt really good going down.

Snape seemed to have trouble holding his mug steady. He slopped some tea down his front, which caused him to hiss in pain and to spit out some words teachers were definitely not supposed to use in front of students. In the end, Madam Pomfrey held the mug herself while Dumbledore supported Snape's head and shoulders above the pillows so that he could drink.

Harry thought about Hermione, and how worried she'd been to discover that Harry had come down with the Skittles at fifteen. "The older you are, the worse it is," she'd said. Snape was more than twice Harry's age - just how serious was this for him? Did people actually die from the Skittles? Madam Pomfrey would know, but Harry could hardly ask her with Snape right there to hear. Maybe he could get a note to Hermione…

The tea settled his stomach a bit and made him feel warm and drowsy. Harry put his empty mug on the bedside table, curled up under the covers, and closed his eyes. The bed was soft, the sheets were linen, and the duvet that covered him smelled faintly of lavender. He could hear Pomfrey and Dumbledore moving about the room, talking to each other in hushed voices, but they seemed very far away, much too far to disturb him. Even with the headache still throbbing behind his temples, it proved surprisingly easy to fall asleep.

Chapter 5 - Too Close for Comfort

Harry woke up to the sound of voices nearby. At first he thought he'd only been asleep for a short time, but when he opened his eyes he could see bright sunlight streaming in through the window. Dumbledore and Pomfrey had gone. Snape, unfortunately, was still there. He was talking to Professor Sinistra, the Astronomy witch, who sat in a low chair next to his bed. She had a leather-bound notebook in her lap and appeared to be taking notes on whatever Snape was saying to her. Harry could see that she had already covered at least one page with her tiny, dense writing. Snape looked even more pale and ragged than when he'd first come in. There was a perfectly straight line of teal and amber dots along his left cheekbone; it had definitely not been there earlier.

"…For the First-year orientation meeting," he was saying in a hoarse whisper, "which is *not* the same as the weekly House meetings - those take place on Sunday evenings. The agendas for the first month are in the green notebook on the desk in my study. You can't possibly miss it, it says 'Meeting Agendas' in big black letters on the cover." His tone made it clear that he was expecting her to miss it anyway.

Professor Sinistra looked annoyed and slightly overwhelmed at the same time. "Severus…"

"I'm not finished yet. The Dueling Club meets on Tuesday nights and-"

"The what? Severus, Hogwarts doesn't have a Dueling Club!"

"Slytherin House does. As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, it meets on Tuesday nights and alternate Saturday mornings. If you don't feel… adequate to running the sessions yourself, get Adrian Pucey or Draco Malfoy to do it for you."

"I'll handle it." Professor Sinistra made another note. Snape started to say something else, but was forestalled by another coughing fit. It went on for a long time, even after Professor Sinistra conjured him a glass of water. "Look, Severus, why don't we finish this at another time? You're not well-"

"Why, thank you for pointing that out, Octavia. I never would've noticed myself." Snape's sneer, while not quite up to his usual standards, was still thoroughly nasty. "The sooner we finish this conversation, the sooner I can pass out in peace, so kindly stop interrupting. Malcolm Baddock's birthday is on the ninth. Pansy Parkinson's is on the twenty-third, but I hope to be out of here by then, so you probably won't have to worry about it."

"Severus-"

"The tutoring assignments must be done by the end of the week. Make sure everyone who signs up gets a tutor. If there aren't enough volunteers, draft somebody. The review sessions for the O.W.Ls are-" Snape coughed again. Professor Sinistra took advantage of the interruption to make her escape, promising to return at another time and ignoring Snape's wheezed protests that he wasn't finished yet.

Harry felt a momentary pang for the Slytherins, having to go through seven years of school with Severus Snape micromanaging every aspect of their lives. Weekly House meetings and mandatory tutoring - it was enough to make anybody go evil.

Once they were alone, Snape seemed to notice for the first time that Harry was awake.

"Potter," he muttered darkly. "This is all your fault, of course."

"My fault?" Ill as he was, Harry found he still had the energy to feel outraged. "What, you think I got ill on purpose?"

Snape stared at him with an expression of pure loathing that would've been quite menacing if not for the polka dots. "If you had gone to the infirmary as soon as you felt ill, like a sensible child, Madam Pomfrey would've come to me last night. I could've brewed a cure for us both before I became incapacitated. Now we'll be stuck here for days while that twit Cogsworth tries to work out how to boil water."

"I didn't know!" Harry protested. "I thought I just had a cold or something."

"'I didn't know!'" Snape mimicked in a gross exaggeration of Harry's tone. "Handy excuse, that. If you had given the matter a few moments' intelligent thought-but no, I suppose that's too much to expect."

Harry couldn't see how any amount of intelligent thought could've told him he had the Skittles when he hadn't even heard of the Skittles until this morning; but he couldn't see any point in arguing about it, either. Snape was not going to listen to anything he said. Besides, much as he hated to admit it, Harry was starting to feel a bit guilty. Both Ron and Hermione had tried to get him to go to the infirmary the night before, and he hadn't listened. Now it looked as if Snape might actually die just from bumping into Harry in the hallway, which, Harry had to admit, was really rotten luck.

Against his will, Harry found himself remembering the dead, empty-eyed face of Cedric Diggory. Cedric, too, had died simply from standing next to Harry at the wrong time. Harry couldn't have predicted it any more than he could've predicted getting the Skittles, but that didn't make Cedric any less dead, did it?

Harry's indignation evaporated; suddenly he found he couldn't quite look Snape in the eye.

"I'm sorry," he muttered sullenly and rolled over to face the wall.

Much to Harry's relief, Snape had nothing else to say, and they sank into an uncompanionable silence broken only by periodic coughing fits from Snape's side of the room. Harry's own chest was beginning to ache when he breathed, and he suspected it wouldn't be too long before he started hacking too. Maybe then they could compete to see who'd bring up a lung first.

Staring at the wall was not an especially exciting pastime, and Harry was just starting to doze off when Madam Pomfrey came in again.

"Visitors," she announced just as Hagrid followed her in. The room suddenly began to feel very crowded.

"Hallo, Harry!" Hagrid boomed. "Hallo, Professor. I've just come back with yer Muggle medicine, and thought I'd deliver it in person. Figured yeh could use a bit of company to cheer yeh up." He held up a large plastic bottle. It looked small as a thimble in his hand. "Look at all them little baby animals on the label - ain't they cute?"

Harry duly admired the baby animals until Madam Pomfrey took possession of the bottle.

"This is not the brand Miss Granger recommended," she said sternly.

Hagrid stared down on the floor and shuffled his feet. "The lady at the shop said it was the same stuff, only made 'specially for children," he muttered. "And the other didn't have the baby animals."

"Hmph." Madam Pomfrey turned the bottle over in her hand to peer at the back of the label. "I suppose we'll have to make do."

Snape did not look at all pleased to be fed a spoonful of gooey pink syrup, but Madam Pomfrey glared at him until he gave in and took it. Hagrid grinned broadly as he watched Harry accept his own dose.

"So did that help?" he asked before Harry was even finished swallowing.

"Can't say yet, Hagrid. Muggle medicine takes a little time to work."

"Ah." Hagrid looked disappointed at not having delivered an instant miracle. "I'll wait a bit, then."

Nice as it was to see a friendly face, Harry couldn't help but feel a bit worried. "Are you sure it's okay for you to be here, Hagrid? I don't want you to get sick, too."

"Nothin' to worry about," Hagrid said cheerfully. "I had the Skittles when I was three years old, see? And since there's no gettin' 'em more than once, I'm safe as houses."

"You can't stay long, though," Madam Pomfrey warned. "Mister Potter and Professor Snape need their rest."

Hagrid ended up staying about fifteen minutes, during which he regaled Harry with his plans to introduce a Quintaped to the Fifth-year Care of Magical Creatures class. By the time he left, Harry felt much cheerier, and his headache was nearly gone - apparently the Muggle medicine was doing its job. Snape, queried by Madam Pomfrey, grudgingly admitted that he felt better too, though it did nothing to improve his disposition.

Professor McGonagall visited again after lunch, looking much less rumpled this time.

"I understand you're both well enough to read now," she said, "so I thought I'd bring you something to help pass the time."

She handed Harry a magazine. He took it automatically, and blinked at the bubbling cauldron on the cover. "Academic Alchemy Quarterly?"

"Oops. Sorry, that's for Severus." McGonagall grabbed the magazine from him and passed it to Snape, then presented Harry with an issue of Quidditch Illustrated.

Time passed much more quickly now that he had something cool to read. Before long, Harry was captivated by an in-depth article on upcoming new broom designs. The Nimbus company was coming out with a new limited-edition racing broom that looked as if it would give even Harry's Firebolt a run for its money. He got so engrossed by watching the QI test flier do loop-de-loops and hairpin turns in the illustrations that he managed to completely tune out the fact that he wasn't alone, until a peculiar noise on Snape's side of the room attracted his attention.

"Professor?"

Snape had dropped his magazine on the floor, and was thrashing around on the bed, clawing at his chest. His eyes bulged, and his face was turning a frightening shade of blue. He made strangled sounds in his throat, as if he was trying to breathe and not getting any air.

"Professor!" Harry sat up and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. "Are you all right?" Stupid question. "Help! Madam Pomfrey! Help!"

He ran to the door and stuck his head out, still shouting. The infirmary appeared to be empty, and for a horrible moment Harry thought nobody would come, but then Madam Pomfrey came running out of the dispensary.

"What is it, Harry? Are you all right?"

"It's not me, it's Professor Snape. I think he's not breathing." Harry pulled the door open wider, and jumped aside just in time to keep from being run over as Madam Pomfrey rushed into the room.

She took one look at Snape and pulled her wand out. "Ventrilocutio!" she snapped, then pressed the end of the wand against her throat and began to say something, rapidly and urgently, but without any sound coming out of her mouth. Harry thought he saw her lips form the words "Headmaster" and "Severus," but he couldn't be sure.

"Harry." Madam Pomfrey had lowered her wand and was speaking normally again. "There's a Muggle way to help a person breathe, isn't there? I remember reading something-"

"There is, but…" Harry gulped. "I don't know how to do it. Hermione might."

"No time." Madam Pomfrey looked down at Snape, whose thrashing was getting noticeably weaker. "No time," she repeated, and raised her wand, looking desperate."Respiratio! Aerotrada! Resuscita!"

Harry didn't know what any of these spells were meant to do, but he was fairly sure they weren't supposed to turn Snape's hair purple, float him two inches above the bed, or make a flock of dragonflies fly out of his left ear, which is what they actually accomplished. None of it did Snape any visible good.

Harry found that he was shivering. The room hadn't seemed cold before, but it was freezing now. He hugged himself and rubbed his arms as he tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. It was actually happening, he realized. Professor Snape was going to die right there and then, and he, Harry, had caused it, and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all-

The door flew open with a bang, and Dumbledore rushed in, his robes billowing out behind him like purple sails. His face was very pale, and he was clutching a small glass bottle in one hand.

"Help me, Poppy," he ordered. "We must make him drink this."

In the end, it took all three of them working together: Dumbledore lifted Snape into a sitting position, and Harry held his head still while Madam Pomfrey poured the potion into his mouth. Much of it dribbled right back out again, but at least a little must've gone down because after a few seconds Snape shuddered, coughed, and began breathing in loud, painful gasps. Dumbledore grinned broadly, Madam Pomfrey looked as if she was trying hard not to cry, and Harry felt as if he, too, was breathing easily for the first time in a while. He almost burst out laughing when Snape growled, "Stop crowding me, dammit!" and began pushing them away.

"It's good to see you back to normal, Severus," Dumbledore said cheerfully. He pulled another bottle from his pocket and held it out to Harry. "You should have some too, Mister Potter. Better safe than sorry."

The potion tasted slimy and bitter, and smelled like sour milk, but Harry felt better as soon as he drank it: cooler and less achy and, blessedly, less itchy.

"Thanks," he said. "Is that the cure from St. Mungo's?"

"No." Snape snatched the empty bottle from Harry's hand and sniffed at it, nostrils twitching. "That's a gem-polishing potion!" he announced, looking outraged. "It's not meant for human consumption!"

"Not under normal circumstances, no." Dumbledore continued grinning. "But in Skittles patients, it acts to reduce the symptoms. Hermione Granger unearthed this useful bit of trivia in the library. I took the liberty of awarding twenty points to Gryffindor on your behalf."

Snape looked thoroughly disgusted, either at the smell of the potion or at the thought of Gryffindor getting points in his name; Harry wasn't sure.

"I don't recall having any gem-polishing potion in stock."

"You didn't," Dumbledore said. "I had to make it myself. It was an interesting challenge; I don't think I've brewed a potion in over a century. My skills may be rusty, but my timing, it appears, is impeccable."

Snape scowled and took another sniff at the bottle. "You used too much tarantula blood," he grumbled. Harry was very glad he hadn't known that before he drank the stuff.

Dumbledore left a short while later, promising to supply more gem-polishing potion at the earliest opportunity. Madam Pomfrey stayed a few moments longer to make sure Snape was really all right ("I'm fine, Poppy, now please stop this infernal hovering!"), then she too left them alone. Harry tried to go back to his magazine, but found that he couldn't concentrate. After reading the same paragraph five times over without taking in a single word, he decided it was no use. He had to ask, no matter how nasty Snape was going to be about it.

"Professor, will you be all right now?"

Snape's reaction was true to form: his upper lip curled till it nearly touched his nose, and his eyes went hard and cold. "Don't insult my intelligence by pretending you care, Potter."

"I don't care," Harry said irritably. "I just don't want you to die, that's all."

"Oh, really?" Snape's voice was like acid. "That makes you unique among the Gryffindors, I imagine. Not to mention unique among the Potters."

"That's not true and you know it." Harry knew he really should drop the conversation and simply ignore Snape as much as he could, but he was angry now. He had tried to be nice; Snape had no call to be nasty, or to drag Harry's father into it. Harry smacked his pillow in frustration and sat up so that he could glare at Snape from a better height.

"My parents' murderer is out there walking around," he said in a tight voice, "and so's the man who betrayed them to be murdered. I know the difference between hating somebody so much you wish them dead, and hating somebody just enough to wish they'd shut up and leave you alone. I reckon my father knew it too, or he wouldn't have saved your life. I think you're horrible, but I don't. want. you. dead."

Snape didn't reply right away. His face had gone very pale as he listened to Harry speak; the polka dots on his cheek looked so bright by contrast, they almost seemed to be glowing.

"I congratulate you on your discernment, Potter," he said through clenched teeth. "Since you've become such an expert on the nuances of hatred, I hope you take it the right way when I say I wish you would shut up and leave me alone."

"Fine." Harry snatched up his copy of QI and turned to the wall. He didn't want to talk to Snape anymore, or even look at him. It wasn't worth the aggravation. Just because they were stuck in a room together didn't mean they had to socialize, and if Snape was determined to be such a nasty, bloody-minded, insufferable git-

Something scrunched in Harry's hands. He looked down to discover that he had unwittingly clenched his fingers around his open magazine, and the pages he'd been reading were now wrinkly and stained with sweat. Harry suppressed a sigh as he attempted, none-too-successfully, to smooth them out.

It was going to be a very long quarantine.

Chapter 6 - Explanations

Sunrise found Severus Snape wide awake and in a foul mood. Dumbledore's gem-polishing potion had relieved some of his physical misery, keeping the aches and the itching just this side of bearable, but it would take something a great deal stronger to relieve the aggravation of sharing a room with Harry Potter. The Draught of Living Death, perhaps; or a really good single malt. Since neither was forthcoming, he was left to lie awake most of the night listening to the boy wheeze like a boiling kettle every time he inhaled. A couple of times, the wheezing became so labored that Snape had considered calling for Poppy, but each time Potter had rolled over and breathed more easily again. He seemed to be resting easily now, which left Snape with nothing to do except stare at the sickeningly cheerful ceiling and think unpleasant thoughts.

To die of the Skittles, after everything he had survived in the course of a misspent life, would be the final insult. Yet it had almost happened the day before. Could still happen, unless Cogsworth grew a brain in a hurry. And he wasn't the only one in danger - the Boy Who Lived currently stood a good chance of becoming the Boy Who Didn't Live Long Enough. Voldemort might actually win this time around because Harry bloody Potter didn't have his bloody injection.

The thought was too disgusting to contemplate, so Snape perversely contemplated it for several minutes before dragging his thoughts around to the more immediate problem of his Slytherins, entrusted to the dubious competence of Octavia Sinistra. Not the substitute he would've chosen, by any means, but she was the only other Slytherin on the staff, so he was stuck with her. Snape could only hope she'd manage to tear herself away from her telescope and her star charts long enough to follow his instructions.

He could not afford to leave his house unprotected, not this of all years. Voldemort was still keeping a low profile, but the Death Eaters were out in force, recruiting new blood. And the Slytherins were oh-so-ripe to be recruited. So much was against them: history, tradition, expectation, peer pressure, family ties… and he was somehow supposed to counter it all with dueling lessons and O.W.L. reviews and yearly second-place finishes in the House Cup? It was laughable. But it still had to be done, and done right, which meant it had to be done by him, dammit, not some idiot stargazer who should've been in Ravenclaw.

Four of the Slytherins who'd graduated the year before had followed in their parents' footsteps over the summer, receiving their Dark Marks at a solstice ceremony at Malfoy Manor. Snape had been there, masked and silent, watching in impotent rage as teenagers he'd attempted to guide for seven years stepped up, one after another, to demonstrate the failure of his guidance. Afterwards, he had returned to Hogwarts and duly reported the new recruits' names to Dumbledore, who had thankfully refrained from offering comfort. And then he had retreated to his rooms and got thoroughly and unhelpfully drunk for two days.

He'd tried to look at the bright side, to think of all the former students who hadn't been there that night because, presumably, something he'd done or said had reached them over the years. But this was not a situation where partial success was acceptable.

Damn. This was almost as depressing as thinking about Potter. And speaking of Potter - what the hell was that noise? Snape sat up, shaking his hair out of his eyes.

Potter had kicked his covers to the floor and was tossing restlessly in his sleep, muttering indistinctly under his breath.

"Cedric… I won't… No… I WON'T!" The sudden shout made Snape jump, but Potter remained fast asleep. "No," he moaned again, and then, in a voice that made him sound about ten years younger, "Mum? Dad?"

There was a jug of water on the bedside table. Snape reached over and knocked it off. It had an Unbreakable Charm on it, of course, but it still made a satisfying racket as it hit the floor, splattering water and Stay-Froz cubes all over the rug. Potter's eyes snapped open, and he lifted his head.

"Wha-where-Professor Snape?"

Snape produced his best sneer, uncomfortably aware that the effect was probably being ruined by polka dots.

"You were expecting someone else, Potter?"

"No, I-" Potter absentmindedly scratched his left shoulder, caught himself, and stopped. "What happened?" He gestured toward the spillage on the floor.

"I must've knocked it off in my sleep," Snape told him.

"Oh." Potter stared at the mess for a while, blinking rather stupidly, then swung his legs off the bed and stood.

"What are you doing?" Snape demanded.

"It needs to be cleaned up." Potter swayed a little and had to grab the bedpost to stay upright. "I can get a towel from the bathroom." Apparently the fever had fried what little brains he had started out with. He took a hesitant step without letting go of the post. His legs looked wobbly, and sweat was beading on his upper lip.

"Don't be an imbecile, Potter. Get back into bed. Madam Pomfrey will be here any moment, and she's perfectly capable of cleaning this up with a spell."

As if on cue, Poppy bustled in, looking very disapproving and demanding to know what the noise was about.

"The water jug fell over," Potter explained. Poppy glared at him.

"That's no reason for you to be on your feet. Get back into bed immediately."

"I was just trying to help," Potter muttered, but he lay down again with no further protests. Poppy fussed over him in a sickening manner, tucking the duvet around his legs and fluffing his pillows. Once the patient was settled to her satisfaction, she dried the rug with a flick of her wand and set the now-empty jug back on the table.

"Since you're both awake, I suppose you can have breakfast now."

Breakfast was weak tea and porridge, along with more of that ridiculous Muggle potion Hagrid had procured. Snape made himself eat it all, knowing he needed to keep his strength up. Potter poked at his bowl listlessly, making no move to actually eat any of the contents.

"Finish it, Potter," Snape growled.

"I'm not hungry."

"Finish it, or it's ten points from Gryffindor."

"You can't take points. Dumbledore said-"

"Professor Dumbledore, Potter. And I won't be on sick leave forever." It'll only seem that long.

The look of outrage on Potter's face was so satisfying, it almost made Snape forget the itching for a moment. "You're going to take points later for stuff I do now?"

"I'm keeping a tally, Potter." Snape smiled viciously. "And you know what a long memory I have."

Potter opened his mouth to argue, then snapped it shut again with a visible effort. Pity, that; judging from the look on his face, whatever he had to say would've been worth at least fifty points. Still, the threat must've had the desired effect, since he choked down every last bit of porridge, swallowing each mouthful with a deeply martyred air.

Dumbledore came by later in the morning to deliver more potion. He did not leave after Snape and Potter had taken their doses, but conjured up a tall stool and perched on it, hands folded in his lap.

"I have been doing some investigating," he announced, "trying to discover how the two of you managed to end up in this condition. Harry, it appears, has been the victim of a bureaucratic… what do the Muggles call it? A bureaucratic snafu." Dumbledore pronounced the ridiculous word with great relish, laugh lines crinkling around his eyes. Then he looked down at Potter, and his face grew serious again. "Under normal circumstances, James and Lily would've taken you to St. Mungo's for your shots sometime before your second birthday. Unfortunately, the circumstances were anything but normal. They never got a chance. And because you're not Muggle-born, it apparently never occurred to anyone at the Ministry of Wizarding Health to contact the Dursleys about it."

"It wouldn't have mattered." Potter shrugged. "Uncle Vernon would never have taken me to a wizard hospital. He would've probably just taken it as an excuse not to let me go to Hogwarts at all."

"I'm sure we could've made arrangements," Dumbledore said firmly, "if I had thought of it. I *should've* thought of it, instead of relying on the Ministry. I'm very sorry, Harry."

"It's not your fault," Potter said quickly. Dumbledore shook his head.

"I'm the Headmaster. It's my duty to protect the health of all my students. And my teachers." Dumbledore added the last in a pointed tone that made Snape want to hide under the covers. "Severus."

"Headmaster?"

"I was somewhat surprised to discover that you have a legitimate vaccination certificate on file with the Ministry. At least, I assume it's legitimate - it appears to be written in Norwegian."

"It is," Snape muttered. Dumbledore just kept gazing at him with placid, eternally-patient eyes until he forced himself to clarify. "Written in Norwegian, I mean."

"I see. Would you care to explain?"

Snape looked across the room at Potter, who was taking in the conversation with undisguised curiosity. "I would rather not discuss my private affairs in front of a student, Sir."

"Very well." Dumbledore pulled a wand from the sleeve of his sky-blue robes. "Excuse us, Harry." He gestured, and the air behind him shimmered. Snape recognized the glow of the Sound-proofing Charm, separating himself and the Headmaster from Potter. "Go on, Severus."

There was no help for it; he'd have to cough up the whole story. Snape licked his suddenly dry lips. "You know my mother was doing a research fellowship at Durmstrang the year I was born." Dumbledore nodded. "They had no compulsory vaccination program at the time. Mother never bothered. When we left Durmstrang four years later, she got a forged certificate so that we could re-enter England."

"A forgery." Dumbledore sighed. "Why didn't she just take you to a local hospital and get a real certificate?"

"I don't know," Snape said peevishly, "why don't you dig her up and ask?" It was a stupid question, really. Dumbledore knew perfectly well that there was no telling why Galina Snape had ever done anything. Hell, half the time Galina herself hadn't known.

If Dumbledore was offended by Snape's outburst, he gave no sign of it. "And when did you find out about all this?"

"When I was eleven. I got acceptance letters from both Hogwarts and Durmstrang, and was trying to choose. There had been a Skittles epidemic in Northern Europe the year before. Mother advised me to pay a visit to St. Mungo's if I decided to go to Durmstrang. In the end, I picked Hogwarts, so the point became moot." Snape aimed a resentful glare at Potter, who was still watching them curiously through the Sound-proofing Charm. "At least, I thought it was moot. Obviously I was wrong."

"Obviously." Dumbledore's voice was dry. "Are there any other… irregularities in your paperwork I should be aware of?"

Snape stared down at his hands. "No, Sir."

"Good." Dumbledore climbed off his stool and stood at the side of the bed, looking down at Snape with a stern expression. "I will smooth this over, Severus, because you're needed here, but I don't appreciate having to do it. I'm in a difficult situation this year, as you very well know, and it doesn't help when I have to spend a large portion of my time explaining to the Ministry why I haven't dismissed my Potions Master."

"I'm sorry." Snape continued to stare at his hands. There was a polka dot on each knuckle. Red, powder-blue, magenta, yellow, purple, lime-green, orange, turquoise… There was an old witches' tale that if you had more than six colors of Skittles, it meant you were dying. Like most such tales, it wasn't true; but at the moment Snape almost wished it were.

"Severus." Dumbledore's voice softened slightly. "Why didn't you just tell me all this when you first took the job? We could've taken sorted it out right then and there. I wouldn't have held it against you."

"I know. Considering all the other things you hadn't held against me…" Snape attempted a smile, but it felt more like a wince. "To be honest, it never entered my mind at the time. I had so many big secrets to keep, and this one was so little by comparison… I just…"

"You forgot."

"I forgot. I remembered later, of course, and knew I should tell you, but… I didn't. I'm sorry."

"Yes, I do believe you are." Dumbledore smiled a little, and Snape felt as if a two-ton weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "And I suppose your current situation is punishment enough." He squeezed Snape's shoulder affectionately. "Get well, Severus. We need you."

"Thank you, Sir."

Dumbledore dispelled the Sound-proofing Charm with another wave of his wand and took a step toward the door before stopping suddenly. "Wait. I almost forgot. Now what did I do with…" He dug into a pocket, and took out a box of Chocolate Frogs. "That's not it." Another pocket produced a roll of Spellotape. "No, that's not it either. I know I have them here somewhere…" He continued digging, piling a rapidly growing collection of items on the table: a Revealer, a packet of Stink Pellets, a Put-Outer, a pack of Exploding Snap cards, a rainbow-colored crystal, a box of Sugar Quills… "Aha! Here they are! One for each of you." He placed one small, brightly-colored item on Harry's bed, and one on Snape's. Snape leaned forward for a closer look, then jerked back as Dumbledore said "Finite Incantatum"

There was a loud pop as the item in Snape's lap abruptly expanded to ten times its size, revealing itself to be a large box wrapped in shiny green and silver paper. Potter, meanwhile, found himself holding an overflowing gift basket with a crimson and gold bow tied to the handle.

"Get-well presents from your respective houses," Dumbledore said, beaming. "I will leave you to enjoy them." He gathered his belongings from the table and shoved them haphazardly back into his pockets. "Good-bye, Harry. Severus." And he swept out, munching happily on a Chocolate Frog.

Chapter 7 - Slytherins Bearing Gifts

Potter's gift basket proved to contain another stack of Quidditch magazines, a get-well card that spouted indecent limericks in Lee Jordan's voice when opened, and enough sweets to rot the teeth of a small country. Potter made appreciative noises over the magazines, blushed furiously over the card and stuck it under the pillow, dug a bag of Every Flavor Beans from the pile of sweets, and began to sort through them looking for the edible ones. Snape observed all this activity absent-mindedly from the corner of his eye as he unwrapped his own box and lifted the lid. Inside were three smaller packages, all wrapped in silver tissue paper, and a card in a green envelope, addressed "To Professor Snape from his Slytherins."

The card was plain cream-colored parchment, blessedly free of sound effects. When Snape opened it, it wished him a speedy recovery in glowing green calligraphy, followed by a list of signatures scrolling gracefully from left to right. As an experiment, Snape closed the card, waited a few seconds, and opened it again. The scrolling picked up exactly where it had left off when he closed it. Snape nodded, feeling pleased. Someone had done a fine job. Draco Malfoy, probably - he'd had plenty of practice with enchanted text the year before, making all those "Potter Stinks" badges. Knowing Draco, he'd probably worked out a way to get it counted as homework. Snape put the card on the bedside table and peeled the tissue paper from the largest of the gift packages.

It proved to contain a black cashmere dressing gown, embroidered with Snape's initials over the Slytherin crest on the breast pocket. An obscenely expensive gift, even if every student in the House had chipped in. Snape suspected the Malfoy touch again - it would've taken Lucius' level of influence to get that kind of work done in less than twenty-four hours. A very Slytherin gift, chosen as much to showcase the giver's generosity (and wealth, and status) as to benefit the receiver. Snape smiled appreciatively as he put it on. The wool was so soft that even the drape of the collar over his Skittle-marked neck felt good; the itch seemed to retreat in embarrassment before the presence of such luxury. The sleeves were a bit long, though. Snape folded back the cuffs and unwrapped the two smaller packages: a lidded ceramic mug enchanted against spills and breakage, and a truly hideous pair of hand-knitted green-and-silver striped socks.

Well, that answered the question of what Millicent Bulstrode did on her summer holiday. Snape held up the socks and scowled. The previous three years, Millicent had supplied him with a scarf, a hat and a vest. Snape had expended a great deal of time and energy developing a charm to make the damn things invisible to everyone but their maker, so that he could wear them in Millicent's presence without making a public spectacle of himself. Charms were not his speciality, and the whole process had been remarkably annoying. At least socks could be concealed under boots, though the misshapen toes and lumpy heels did not promise great comfort.

A soft sputtering noise attracted Snape's attention, and he looked up to see Potter staring at him, eyes wide and incredulous behind his glasses. A copy of Ball and Broom lay forgotten in his lap.

"What?" Snape demanded. Potter just sat and blinked at him. His lips were pressed tightly together, as if he was trying hard not to laugh.

"Who made you those?" he choked out after a while.

"Millicent Bulstrode. Not that it's any of your business."

If Potter's eyes bulged any further, they'd pop out of his head. "Millicent Bulstrode can knit.?!"

The honest answer to that question was "No," but Potter's smirk was really offensive, and Snape found himself feeling suddenly, unaccountably defensive on Millicent's behalf.

"I congratulate you on your grasp of the obvious," he sneered, and put the socks on. They were just as uncomfortable as he'd expected. Scratchy, too. And his feet now looked like two giant fuzzy caterpillars. Snape pulled the covers over them, snatched up his copy of AAQ, and forced himself to focus on an article about the effects of the lunar cycle on the alchemical properties of ginseng root.

Potter returned to his own reading, and for a few minutes, the only sound in the room was the occasional rustle of a page being turned. Then, inexplicably, Potter decided to speak.

"My friend Dobby - he's a house elf - gave me a pair of socks last Christmas. One is red with Snitches on it, and one is green with broomsticks. I wear them sometimes."

Skittles must cause insanity in the later stages, Snape realized. That was the only possible explanation for Potter's sudden desire to converse with him. Since it seemed to be a harmless, non-violent sort of lunacy, he resolved to ignore it.

He got through two more pages before Potter tried again.

"Professor? Would you like a Chocolate Frog?"

That clinched it. The boy was unquestionably insane.

"Is there something you want from me, Mister Potter?"

"No!" Potter looked deeply offended, as if wanting anything from another person was a great crime. "I just thought… since we're stuck here together, maybe we should try being a bit nicer to each other."

"Whatever happened to wishing I'd shut up and leave you alone?"

"Nothing." Potter's cheeks went a faint shade of pink. "I just thought it was pretty decent of you to wear Millicent's socks, that's all."

I guard the boy's life, and he looks at me as if I'm something he scraped from the bottom of a cauldron. I wear a pair of socks, and he decides I'm "decent." Gryffindors.

"I'm overwhelmed by your approval, Mr. Potter. I'll treasure this moment forever."

"Fine. Be that way."


The worst thing about being ill, Snape decided, was the enforced idleness. He could cope with his feverish, aching body and eternally itching skin; but the knowledge that someone else was teaching his classes and someone else was running his house while he was stuck in bed counting clouds on the ceiling made him want to cast an Unforgivable on somebody.

Potter made no further attempts at conversation, but he managed to make a nuisance of himself nevertheless. Snape kept a mental tally of points to be deducted from Gryffindor at the earliest opportunity. He even worked out a system: five points for every loudly rustling sweet wrapper, five for every popped chewing gum bubble, ten for that slurping sound the brat made when he drank pumpkin juice through a straw - it had to be on purpose; no one could come up with something that annoying by accident - and two points apiece for random noises.

It was a blessed relief to see Dumbledore sweep into the room again an hour after dinner, an even greater relief to see that he was smiling broadly.

"Good news! I have received an owl from St. Mungo's. Dr. Cogsworth has succeeded in brewing the cure for you."

Potter whooped and applauded. Snape mentally ticked off another two points.

"Given the delicate nature of the potion," Dumbledore continued, "we've decided it would be best for you to go to St. Mungo's to take it. I have prepared a Portkey to take you there and back." He held up a large silver soup ladle. "The staff at St. Mungo's have been warned to expect you, so you may go whenever you're ready."

"Now." Potter climbed out of bed and shoved his feet into slippers. "I want to go now." For once, Snape could only agree.

Dumbledore put the Portkey on the table and stepped back with a little bow. Harry held his hand out toward it.

"Ready, Professor?"

Snape put on his own slippers and stood. "Ready." They took hold of the ladle.

The world dissolved into a dizzying swirl of colors. Snape closed his eyes and waited for the sharp jerk of spatial displacement, but seconds ticked by and it didn't come. Something's wrong. The Portkey vibrated wildly in Snape's hand. He felt his body being tugged in one direction, and then in another, as if invisible giants were using him for a game of tug-of-war. It hurt, and he cried out into the swirling emptiness, but couldn't hear his own voice.

And then, finally, it ended. For a moment, Snape felt himself floating weightlessly in mid-air, then his feet hit the ground hard, jarring his whole body. Something crunched dryly beneath the soles of his slippers, as if he'd landed on a pile of crumpled old parchment. Snape caught his balance and stood blinking until his vision cleared.

Trees. Black, towering trees silhouetted against the night sky. The crunching sound under Snape's feet had come from leaves, not parchment. They were standing at the edge of a small circular clearing in a dark forest. The air was cold and still, not a breath of wind to disturb the branches overhead. The silence made the skin on the back of Snape's neck crawl.

"Uhm…Professor?" Potter's voice was a few notes higher than usual. In the light of the half-moon, his face was a pale, indistinct oval with a pair of reflected gleams marking his glasses. Snape couldn't make out his expression, but he could tell that the boy was still holding on to the ladle and that his hand was shaking badly. "I don't think this is where we're supposed to be."

Chapter 8 - The Chase

"I don't think this is where we're supposed to be." Harry had never been to St. Mungo's, but he was reasonably sure this wasn't it. "What happened?"

"The Portkey must've malfunctioned." Snape's voice was calm. He pulled the ladle from Harry's grip and held it close to his face, as if expecting it to provide an answer somehow. It was too dark to see his face clearly, but Harry could just imagine him scowling critically, as he always did when examining a Gryffindor's work.

"It couldn't have," Harry blurted. "I mean-Professor Dumbledore made it. Unless… maybe it's the Skittles?"

"No. It's not a spell cast by us, or on us, so it should've worked normally. Something must've interfered with it. But how-" Snape's posture grew suddenly rigid. He sucked in a sharp breath, then spat out a string of words Harry never expected to hear from a teacher. At the same time, he removed his dressing gown and threw it to the ground, kicking it away as if it was something disgusting. "Lucius. I should've known."

Harry was starting to get a horrible cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. Lucius Malfoy was a Death Eater. If he had arranged this detour… This was a trap, a trap set by Voldemort and sprung with a Portkey, just like the last time, just like when Cedric-

"Potter." Snape was reaching for him. "Come on, boy, we need to get-"

"No!" Harry backpedaled away, barely avoiding a fall as his foot caught on a protruding tree root. "Don't! Stay away from me!"

Snape froze in mid-reach, and Harry saw his out-stretched hand clench into a fist. It looked very white in the moonlight. "Damn it, Potter, do you seriously still think, after all this time, that I-" He broke off, breathing heavily.

Harry didn't know what Snape was talking about, and he didn't care. All he knew was that he had to get away. He had to put as much distance as possible between himself and Snape before Voldemort decided to kill the spare. Harry turned and ran, ignoring Snape's angry shouts behind him.

His body wasted no time in reminding him that he was in no condition to be sprinting through forests in the middle of the night. After only a few steps, his sides started to cramp and his heart pounded painfully in his chest. Harry bit his lip and kept going, telling himself that Snape was even worse off and therefore would, hopefully, be going even slower. All he had to do was get far enough away.

It was like running through a nightmare. The forest seemed like a living, hostile entity working to stop him. Stones and roots sprang up to trip him; branches snagged at his pajamas and scratched at his face. Harry held up his hands to protect his eyes and kept running, though he fell several times and once banged his knee painfully against a sharp rock.

Someone shouted ahead of him. Light flared. Harry stumbled to a halt and saw a masked Death Eater standing in a gap between two fir trees, wand upraised. The Death Eater shouted a spell, and a small rock floated up from the ground and launched itself at Harry's face. He felt it part his hair as he ducked.

The Death Eater moved toward him, so Harry turned and ran back in the direction he had come from, zigzagging from side to side to make himself into a more difficult target as more rocks flew at him. He tried to tell himself that it was just like dodging Bludgers, but Quidditch games did not take place in pitch dark, on treacherous ground amidst looming black trees.

A stone struck his shoulder. Another smacked into his back. Harry fell to his knees and scrambled up again, just in time to see two more Death Eaters coming toward him from the left. They all obviously knew about the Skittles, because none of them tried to cast a spell directly on him. Instead they waved their wands, and the trees around Harry came to life, reaching for him with branches that suddenly resembled writhing, clawed tentacles.

It was like being caught in a forest full of Whomping Willows. The branches struck like whips, ripping right through the thin fabric of Harry's pajamas and lacerating his skin. Harry yelled and threw himself to the ground, landing with a hard thud that knocked the breath from his lungs. He could hear the loud, angry rustling as the trees flailed at the air above him. It took him a few moments to realize that they couldn't touch him as long as he lay flat. Harry stayed put long enough to catch his breath, then began to crawl on his stomach, lifting his head just high enough to keep his mouth from filling with dirt as he wriggled along the ground.

Angry yells behind him indicated that the attacking trees were hindering his pursuers at least as much as him. There was a great deal of crashing and swearing. Then a loud, angry voice Harry recognized as Lucius Malfoy's cried "Finite Incantatum!" and the flailing overhead stopped abruptly. Harry scrambled to his feet and took off running again, but he only made it a couple of paces before the ground suddenly dropped out from under him.

Harry flung his arms out in front of him as he fell. For a second, his hands found nothing but air; then his palms slammed into solid ground with a force that jarred all the way to his shoulders, and he was rolling, rolling, head over heels down a steep slope.

He didn't stop until he smashed into a tree at the bottom. There was a fiery, throbbing pain in his right knee and a sharp, stabbing pain in his ribs. More than anything, Harry wanted to just lie there and whimper, but he could hear footsteps crunching through the undergrowth toward him from more than one direction, and he knew he had to keep moving. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Harry braced his hands against the tree trunk and began to haul himself up.

He'd just made it to his feet, and was still gripping the trunk to steady himself, when a very large Death Eater in disheveled robes appeared from behind a nearby tree. He looked like one of the pair who'd sent the trees after him, though Harry couldn't be sure. At the same time, another figure staggered from the shadows, coughing and gasping for breath.

A lot of things happened very quickly then. The Death Eater raised his wand. A rock the size of a Bludger rose from the ground and zoomed toward Harry The staggering man lurched forward, shouting "Potter!" in a harsh voice that was barely recognizable as Professor Snape's. He knocked into Harry, toppling him over sideways. They both slammed against the tree, and the rock that had been headed for Harry's face slammed into the side of Snape's head with a horrible wet crunch. Snape fell without a sound, landing in a motionless heap at Harry's feet.

"No!" Harry yelled. He took a couple of staggering steps, and fell as his right leg collapsed under him. Somewhere nearby, Lucius Malfoy was shouting, "Goyle, you idiot, you're not supposed to *kill* the boy!" but Harry couldn't bring himself to worry about it. All he could think was, it had happened again. He'd tried so hard, and it had happened anyway…

A hand grabbed his collar and pulled him roughly to his feet.

"I have him, Lucius!"

"Good. Bring him here, then."

The Death Eater - either Goyle or Crabbe, the fathers were as interchangeable as the sons, especially in their masks - dragged Harry through a gap between some trees and into a clearing. It was the same spot he and Snape had landed in earlier; Harry realized he must've run in a circle earlier. Two other Death Eaters waited there. Harry assumed that the one who was smaller than a mountain had to be Lucius Malfoy.

"Excellent, Goyle. Keep a good grip now, this boy has an annoying habit of getting away at the last moment." Malfoy dug inside his robes and brought out something that glittered in the moonlight. He held it up in front of his face, and Harry saw that it was a faceted crystal sphere. Malfoy passed his wand over it, and the crystal began to glow with a pale green light.

"My Lord." Malfoy's normally arrogant, drawling voice sounded hushed and respectful now. "Please attend your humble servant. I have a gift for you."

The crystal's glow intensified. Something flickered inside it, and Harry thought he could see twin sparks of red amidst the green, like a pair of eyes.

"Lucius." The voice that hissed from within the crystal was unmistakably Voldemort's. "I hope you have a good reason to disturb me. I have more important things to do with my time than listen to your toadying."

"Please, my Lord. I would never have contacted you uninvited if it weren't important. Look. Lumos!" Lucius raised his glowing wand with one hand, and swung his hand around so that the eyes within the crystal were facing Harry. "I have captured Harry Potter for you. Alive, so you may have the pleasure of killing him yourself."

"Ahhh… You have done well, Lucius." For a moment, the red eyes grew so bright they almost drowned out the green light surrounding them. Then all the light in the crystal faded. A moment later, Voldemort himself stood in the clearing, draped in flowing robes that rustled against the dead leaves at his feet.

Harry made a renewed effort to break free. His pajama top ripped, and for a moment he actually thought he'd make it, but then Goyle shifted his vise-like grip from Harry's collar to his shoulder and pushed, driving Harry to his knees. Harry bit back a cry and made himself look up as Voldemort approached him.

"Harry Potter." Voldemort reached out with one skeletal gray hand and twined his fingers in Harry's hair. "I have been- what's this?" He released his grip abruptly and rocked back a step, hissing with anger.

"What is it, my Lord?" Malfoy stepped forward, but Voldemort paid him no mind. He was staring at Harry's bare shoulder where it poked out through the rip in his pajamas.

"Lucius, you FOOL!" Voldemort's voice rose to an enraged shriek on the last word. He took another stumbling step backwards away from Harry, and Disapparated.

There was a brief, stunned silence. Harry had no idea what had just happened, and while it was hard to judge the reactions of people dressed in full-face masks and hooded robes, he thought the Death Eaters around him were equally confused.

"What happened?" Goyle grunted finally.

"I don't know." Lucius Malfoy sounded stunned. "He just left. Something must've-"

A glowing bolt of magic struck him in the chest and sent him reeling backwards. Another bolt struck Goyle; he let go of Harry's shoulder and staggered back, howling in pain or alarm.

A bright light blossomed in the air above the clearing, illuminating it as clearly as daylight. Harry looked in the direction the bolts had come from and saw Professor Dumbledore standing at the edge of the tree line, flanked by McGonagall and Flitwick. All three teachers had their wands out and were looking extremely grim. There was an eruption of panicked shouts around the clearing, cutting off abruptly as all three Death Eaters Disapparated.

"Harry!" McGonagall ran toward him. "Are you all right? Did they hurt you?"

"I'm okay." Harry struggled to his feet, gripping McGonagall's arm for support. "But Professor Snape… they hit him… I think he might be dead." Just saying the words made his chest hurt.

Flitwick and McGonagall both gasped. Dumbledore stepped forward quickly, and put one hand on Harry's shoulder. His grip was surprisingly strong, and his eyes were bright and urgent.

"Where is he, Harry? Show us."

"This way."

With Dumbledore and McGonagall supporting him and Flitwick trailing behind, Harry limped back toward the tree where Goyle had caught him. Snape was still there, face down on the ground, his nightshirt tangled around his legs. One side of his face was shiny with blood; the edge of his collar was soaked with it, and so was his hair. Harry felt sick, and leaned more heavily on Dumbledore's arm.

"Severus!" Professor Flitwick squatted at Snape's side. "Oh, my…" He gently lifted Snape's head from the ground, and used the hem of his robe to try to staunch the bleeding. "He's still breathing, but he needs medical attention immediately."

"Can you Apparate with him?" McGonagall asked. Flitwick nodded. "Good. Albus and I will take Harry."

"Hold on to me, Harry," Dumbledore told him. "Don't let go until I say so."

Harry buried his fingers in a fold of Dumbledore's sleeve, closed his eyes, and waited to Apparate.

Chapter 9 - St. Mungo's

St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies was, Harry discovered, very much like a Muggle hospital, only without the fluorescent lighting. The same beige paint, the same endless corridors, the same harried receptionists who wanted you to fill out forms. Harry was deeply grateful for the presence of Professor McGonagall, who was brisk and efficient and willing to fill out forms on his behalf. It took only a few minutes for Harry to get settled into a comfortable bed in a private room, where a friendly-looking witch in white robes gave him a cup of horribly bitter green potion and a chocolate frog to eat afterwards.

"There you go," the witch said cheerfully. "That should take care of the Skittles in no time. If you like, you can watch them go."

Harry pulled up his hospital gown and watched the polka dots on his stomach blink out one by one. It was a wonderful sight, and the relief from the itching was more wonderful still. Once all the dots were gone, another witch came in to cast healing spells on Harry's knee and ribs.

"You'll be back to normal by morning," she reassured him. "Get some sleep now, it'll do you good."

"What about Professor Snape?" Harry fretted. "Will he be all right too?"

"I'm sure he'll be fine," McGonagall said briskly, but Harry couldn't tell if she really meant it, or was just being comforting.

Harry thought he'd be too tense to sleep, but something in the potion must've relaxed him, because he drifted off surprisingly quickly and slept without dreaming. When he woke, it was morning, and Professor McGonagall's place by his bedside had been taken over by Dumbledore, who was drinking hot cocoa from a cup the size of a soup bowl. He smiled broadly when he saw that Harry was awake.

"Ah! Good morning, Harry! How do you feel?"

"Much better." Harry sat up, and wriggled his leg. Nothing hurt. "How is Professor Snape?"

"He, too, is much better," Dumbledore said, and Harry felt a great wave of relief wash over him. Dumbledore, unlike McGonagall, would never tell a comforting lie. "He has a concussion and a rather nasty skull fracture, and he'd lost a great deal of blood, but the Emergency Wizards at St. Mungo's have always been first-rate, and I must say they really lived up to their reputation last night. "You should both be able to go back to Hogwarts with me by the end of the day."

"Oh." Harry stared intently at the blue blanket covering his lap. "That's… good." He tried to sound enthusiastic, but didn't think he'd succeeded. He didn't need to turn and look in order to know that Dumbledore was gazing at him with those concerned, penetrating eyes.

"What's wrong, Harry?"

"I…" Harry gulped and forced himself to look up and look Dumbledore in the face. "Sir, I think maybe it would be best if I didn't go back to Hogwarts."

"Not go back?" Dumbledore lowered his head to gaze at Harry over the rims of his glasses, which slipped down to the tip of his long nose. "Whatever gave you that notion?"

Harry felt himself blushing. He'd spoken without really thinking things through, and now it was really difficult to find the right words to explain. "Cedric is dead," he said finally, "just because he was around when Voldemort wanted me. And Professor Snape nearly died twice - first from the Skittles, then last night. If I go back to school… well, I don't suppose I'll get any more horrible contagious diseases, but Voldemort will keep coming, won't he? Ron's been hurt once already, and…" Harry shivered, remembering his dream from two nights before. "I don't want anyone else to die because of me."

"I see. Would you go back to the Dursleys, then?"

"Uhm. No." Not even Voldemort could make Harry want to live with the Dursleys all year. Besides, awful as they were, he didn't want them to get killed, either. "I just thought I'd go somewhere… I don't know… somewhere where there's no one around to be hurt."

"Somewhere without people, then." Dumbledore nodded sagely. "A remote mountain cave, perhaps? I believe Sirius Black could recommend a couple."

Harry bit his lip. "I'm not trying to be funny, Sir."

"I understand." Dumbledore leaned forward. There was kindness in his eyes, but no laughter at all now. "You want to protect the people you care about. It's a noble enough impulse. But the people you care about have set themselves in opposition to Voldemort, for reasons of their own. We're at war, Harry. A strange and secret kind of war, with no clear battle lines and no easy way of telling who's fighting on which side, but a war nonetheless. That means everyone is at risk. I wish I could change that, but I can't, and neither can you. All you can do is give your best. And your best, I can assure you, is not running away to live in a cave. Now, there will be no more talk of you leaving Hogwarts, is that understood?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good." Dumbledore picked up his cup again and took another sip of cocoa. "I'm glad we've got that settled."

"Sir?"

"Yes?"

"I blew Professor Snape's cover, didn't I? Malfoy and the others all saw him trying to protect me."

"That's not something you need to worry about, Harry. Severus did what was necessary, even if he did do it in an… unfortunately dramatic manner. Losing a cover is an inconvenience, not a tragedy."

Harry was not at all sure Snape would see it that way. Then again, Snape's cover wasn't really his main concern. "Do you think I'd be allowed to go see him for a couple of minutes? There's something I need to tell him."

If Dumbledore felt any surprise at hearing such a request from Harry Potter, he gave no sign of it. "Well, you're both supposed to be resting, but I'm sure a short visit will do no harm. Assuming, of course, that he's awake and willing to see you. I'll see what I can arrange."

"Thanks," Harry said. The thought of trying to converse with Snape, who was sure to be in an extra-bad mood after having his head bashed with a rock, did not fill him with warm and happy feelings. But when he thought about his behavior in the forest - and, more to the point, Snape's reaction to it - he knew he owed him an explanation.

Dumbledore left, returning a few minutes later with a set of clean clothes and shoes for Harry to wear.

"Professor Snape says you may come and see him; his room is next door. Try not to tire him out. I think he's still a little concussed."

Harry got dressed (it was a great relief to be out of the drafty and too-short hospital gown), walked out into the corridor, and knocked on the door next to his. After a couple of seconds, he heard Snape calling, "Get in here, Potter" in a distinctly uninviting tone. Harry gulped as he pushed open the door.

Snape was sitting up in bed, propped against a small mountain of pillows. His head was tightly bandaged, with bits of greasy black hair peeking out from under the gauze on one side. He looked very pale, but his black eyes glittered with their usual sharp dislike as he watched Harry walk across the room. It was almost comforting, really.

"Hello, Professor."

"What do you want, Potter?"

No small talk, then. That was probably a good thing. Harry took a deep breath. "Last night, in the forest, when I ran away from you… I just want you to know I didn't think you were in on the trap. I knew you were trying to help."

"Of course." Snape's voice was flat. "So you screamed, 'Get away from me!' and ran as fast as you could in the opposite direction. A perfectly natural reaction, I'm sure, to someone who's trying to protect you."

"I'm sorry. I-" Harry broke off. He had almost said, "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," but it occurred to him that saying something like that to Snape was a good way to get himself poisoned in his next Potions class. "I was thinking about Cedric."

Snape frowned. "What does Diggory have to do with it?"

"It was too similar." Harry was starting to feel queasy again, almost as if the Skittles were coming back. He hadn't talked about Cedric's death since he had told the whole story to Dumbledore and Sirius the night it happened, and Snape was hardly his first choice of someone to open up to. But having come this far, he felt he had no choice but to finish. "There was a Portkey, and it turned out to be a trap for me. Cedric was killed just 'cause he was with me. Then last night, it happened again, and I knew Voldemort would kill you when he showed up. Especially if you tried to help me. I thought, if I kept away from you, maybe you'd be safe."

"How incredibly Gryffindor of you." Snape rolled his eyes. "And I don't suppose that it ever occurred to you to think, in the middle of all that displaced nobility, that I was holding the Portkey that would've instantly taken us both to safety if you'd just stayed around long enough to use it?"

Harry blinked. Stared. Blinked again. Snape's mouth twisted into the familiar, thin-lipped scowl Harry normally associated with botched potions and unwritten essays. For the first time ever, Harry actually felt as if he deserved to be looked at this way.

"I didn't think about the Portkey," he muttered.

"Obviously."

"I shouldn't have run. It was stupid."

"Once again, your talent for stating the obvious astounds me."

Harry sighed. There was no point in trying to explain; he'd probably just get insulted some more. Snape was clearly not in the mood to accept excuses or apologies. Leaving seemed like the best option, and Harry had just started to edge toward the door, when Snape suddenly spoke again.

"Professor Dumbledore tells me you've been prattling some nonsense about not wanting to come back to Hogwarts."

"He what?" Harry was appalled. He hadn't expected Dumbledore to repeat that particular bit of conversation to anyone, let alone to Snape. What could he have possibly been thinking?

Maybe he'd been trying to cheer Snape up. If anything could help Severus Snape get over a concussion, the thought of Harry Potter leaving Hogwarts was probably it. Except he wasn't really leaving, it was just a stupid thought, so why would Dumbledore…

"Listen up, Potter, because I'm only going to say this once." Snape's voice was a low, angry growl. "What happened to Diggory was Voldemort's fault. The proper way to deal with things that are someone else's fault is to get revenge. What happened to me was your own bloody fault. The proper way to deal with things that are your own bloody fault is to learn how not to make the same mistake twice, and make what amends you can. Under no circumstances is whining and running away to be considered an acceptable option. Do you understand?"

"I think so."

"Good. I know that it usually takes at least five repetitions to get anything through that thick Gryffindor skull of yours, but I don't have the energy right now. Get out of here and let me get some rest."

Harry was happy enough to obey, but something made him pause with his hand on the door handle. "You know, Professor, I think that was the nicest lecture you ever gave me."

"Scram, Potter."

"About the making amends part…"

"I'm sure I'll think of something by the time your next detention rolls around. Are you going or not?"

"I'm going." Harry ducked out into the corridor and shut the door behind him.

Chapter 10 - Back to school

"All right, you said you would explain when we got back, and we're back, so please explain now. Sir." Severus Snape rested his teacup on his knee and glared across the table at Albus Dumbledore, who was placidly buttering a scone. "How did you know where to find Potter and me? How did you even know we needed to be found?"

They were having tea in the Headmaster's office, with Dumbledore swaying gently in a high-backed rocking chair next to the fireplace and Snape drowning in an overstuffed recliner across from him. The window was open to admit a warm late-summer breeze and an occasional, disgustingly cheerful trill of birdsong. Behind Dumbledore's chair, Fawkes squatted on his perch, looking like an oversized plucked chicken. The bird's expression was sour, and it kept plucking at its few remaining tail feathers as if it just couldn't wait to finish molting and end its miserable existence. Snape knew exactly how it felt. His life as a spy was over; he was suspended in limbo now, waiting to begin another existence as… he had no idea what. Dumbledore had promised there would still be a use for him in the war, but had given no specifics as of yet. In the meantime, though, he was still a teacher, and Head of Slytherin House.

There was no more need for pretense. He could guide the children openly now, without worrying that one of them might repeat his words to a Death Eater parent. With his cover blown to smithereens, Snape could finally do his official job the way it needed to be done.

Dumbledore finally got the scone buttered to his satisfaction. He topped it off with a spoonful of gooseberry jam, took a bite, and chewed contentedly for a while before addressing Snape's question.

"It was the most curious thing, really. After you and Mr. Potter left for St. Mungo's, I returned to my office only to find a delegation of rather agitated Slytherins waiting outside my door. You really must try some of this jam, Severus. The house-elves have truly outdone themselves this time."

"No, thank you." Snape mentally debated the pros and cons of leaping across the room and strangling Albus Dumbledore with his own beard. The short-term satisfaction, he decided, would not outweigh the long-term frustration of not getting to hear the rest of the story. So he merely took another sip of tea and muttered, "Please continue" through painfully clenched teeth.

"It seems," Dumbledore went on, "that the Malfoy family has been indiscreet. Lucius allowed Draco to overhear his plan to capture Mr. Potter as a surprise gift for Voldemort, and Draco bragged about it in the Slytherin common room."

Snape bit back a curse. "The boy is an idiot."

"Or simply overconfident. He expected his housemates to approve of the plan, because of the harm it would do to Mr. Potter. He did not consider the danger to you. But the other Slytherins did. They found it unacceptable."

A drop of tea splashed onto Snape's leg, making him aware that his hand was shaking. He put the cup down on the table (the teapot promptly waddled up to refill it) and folded his hands in his lap, lacing the fingers together.

"They came to warn you so that you could help me?"

"Nine of them. I haven't had so many Slytherins in my office at once since the great N.E.W.T.s cheating scandal of 1972. I could give you a list of names…"

"Don't." Snape shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I have to treat them all the same anyway - those who went to you, and those who heard and did nothing."

"And young Mr. Malfoy?"

"Him too." Snape sighed. "The boy is a spoiled brat, and a danger to himself and others, but he doesn't deserve to end up as Voldemort's lackey just for being what Lucius made him."

Dumbledore watched him thoughtfully as he scooped butter and jam onto another scone.

"You can't save everyone, Severus. Especially not those who think they don't need saving."

Snape winced. "I can't afford to write anyone off, either."

"I understand."

For a few minutes they sat in silence, just a pair of colleagues comfortably drinking tea in a sunlit room. Between the warmth, the food, and the insidious softness of the chair, Snape found himself perilously close to nodding off into his cup. He shook off the stupor with an effort, and dredged up the next question he'd been meaning to ask.

"Have you had a chance to examine that bloody robe yet?"

"Oh, yes. You were right, you know. Lucius did arrange to have it made when Draco told him the Slytherins were putting together a get-well gift for you. He anticipated that we would need to get you and Mr. Potter to St. Mungo's as soon a possible once the cure was ready, and that meant a Portkey."

"He would." Snape sighed. "Lucius always was always clever, I have to give him that."

Dumbledore nodded. "And exceptionally good at Charms, too. I remember it from his school days. The one he put on the robe, for instance - I've never seen one like it before. It activated when you touched a Portkey, and attempted to replace the Portkey's navigational spell with one of it's own, while at the same time alerting Lucius."

"Attempted?"

"Yes." Dumbledore looked rather pleased with himself. "I believe the spell was intended to place you and Harry inside Malfoy Manor. But either it didn't work quite as intended or - and perhaps I flatter myself - my navigation spells are not so easily overpowered. You landed about two miles south of where you were supposed to."

"I wondered why he and his thugs weren't there waiting for us." Snape smirked. "Lucius was also always a little too conceited for his own good." And apparently his son got the conceit without the brains. Snape's smirk turned into a grin as he recalled that circumstances no longer required him to mince words with Draco Malfoy. "He always thinks he's got it all covered. And he always ends up making a mistake."

Dumbledore's face crinkled in quiet merriment. "In this case," he said, "I suspect his biggest mistake had nothing to do with misjudging the navigation spell."


"Damn you, Wormtail, what's taking so long?"

"I'm sorry, My Lord!" The small man whimpered as he dropped the last mermaid scale into the boiling cauldron in front of him. "But this is a very delicate preparation. It simply cannot be rushed." He stirred the concoction with a trembling silver hand, throwing occasional furtive glances over his shoulder at the far side of the room, where Lord Voldemort slouched in a reclining chair. The Dark Lord was draped in a thick hooded cloak that covered him from head to toe, shadowing his face and concealing every inch of his body except for his toes and fingertips. The red eyes that glowed beneath the shadow of the hood looked particularly furious.

"I don't want excuses, Wormtail. I want results! Remember, I do not require magic in order to rip your worthless life from your sniveling little body."

"Please, My Lord," Wormtail sobbed, "it will not take much longer. But the potion is at a delicate stage. I must work without distractions, or it will spoil." He unstoppered a jar and began spooning Billywig stings into a mortar.

"Very well, then. Go on." Voldemort slouched lower in his chair. A fold of his cloak slid aside to reveal a scaly gray knee marked with brightly colored polka dots. He hissed angrily and raked his nails across the spotted skin.

"Don't scratch it, My Lord," Wormtail whimpered from behind the cauldron. "You'll only make it worse."

The End

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