Thanks to all of you who took the time to favorite/review my story!

AN1: 2020-04-27: chapter now betaed by Miette, no plot change but a few scenes developped or adapted for better coherence with the story.
AN2: 2020-12-10: Huge thanks to dstone12 who kindly offered to proofread my story for the mistakes Miette and I don't catch as non-English native speakers.

Severus sat on the floor of his private lab, his safe haven in Hogwarts, arms wrapped around his knees, a few tears slowly dripping down his face. He wiped them angrily. Even his Occlumency was failing him, not allowing him to push his despair back into a tiny corner of his mind to be dealt with later.

He laughed humourlessly.

Occlumency had not prevented him from calling Lily that word. It had not prevented him from making a fool of himself, waiting outside the Gryffindor entrance for hours in the hope she would come out and talk to him. Even after he had pleaded and begged her to forgive him, she had refused, stating their friendship was over. She had told him they had been growing apart anyway, him with his nasty friends who insulted her, her with her perfect little friends who despised Severus…

It was well past curfew but Severus refused to go back to his dormitory. He could not show up there with traces of tears on his face. They would not accept he was so devastated because of her.

Breathing deeply, Severus focused on occluding, trying to reach for the calmness which eluded him.

He had begun teaching himself Occlumency when he realised the headmaster could see into minds.

Severus had once felt headmaster Dumbledore in his mind after a fight with the Marauders in their fourth year. Not really understanding what had happened back then, he had as always turned to books to help him. He had quickly figured out that Dumbledore had used Legilimency on him and that to protect your mind from Legilimency, you needed to use Occlumency.

The first step in learning Occlumency was to structure your mind. To shape it into a safe place. It required you to face your inner mind without lying to yourself if you did not want an unstable and incomplete structure.

Once your "safe place" was properly constructed, the second step was to build protections upon it. Severus had discovered Occlumency was a powerful tool. It could protect your mind against foreign intrusions, but it could also protect it from mind altering spells. Indeed, as the representation of your mind, your safe place was also the place where you organised your memories, where you could access them voluntarily and where you could prevent spells from altering them if you were an adept Occlumens.

As Severus had quickly realised, learning Occlumency meant spending time inside your mind and being honest with yourself. For this reason, all his books recommended that your safe place be a real place where you felt safe and peaceful.

It was no surprise that Severus' mind was his private potion laboratory in Hogwarts. The one privilege Slughorn had granted him starting from third year. He had chosen it for two reasons:

First, this laboratory was the place he felt the safest from everything. The only other place which represented such peace was his and Lily's place in the park where they had spent so much time before Hogwarts. Their friendship had had its rocky moments but she remained his ray of sunshine, and he had almost chosen it as his safe place. In the end, he had decided his mind should be a place of his own, not shared with anyone as that was precisely what he wanted to protect himself from. He had also feared any evolution in his relationship with Lily would affect his safe place and impede his learning.

He snorted softly. Seemed he had been right to be cautious, as always.

The second reason Severus had chosen the lab was that anyone having even only heard of him knew he loved potions. Even if they managed to get past his defences to enter his inner mind, they would not be surprised to see him brew in his potions lab. They would be unsure if they were really in his mind or in one of his memories which could give him the advantage needed to throw them out of his mind.

As it was, his potion lab was a very practical place to defend his mind. He now was good enough to have the fumes of the potions brewing constantly protecting his mind, hiding his very thoughts behind a slight fog he could thicken if needed. The flames under the cauldrons could grow and attack an intruder, the potions ingredients could morph into hideous defences. As a last resort or if taken by surprise, a large pewter cauldron would hit and eject any intruder from Severus' mind.

Severus was still working on other defences, especially on the subtle one consisting in projecting false feelings and memories without a legilimens being able to detect it. Still, in little more than a year, he felt he had made good progress—he now was good enough to prevent Dumbledore from entering his mind, as he had proven after the bittersweet "Shrieking Shack" experience earlier this year.

Severus had also discovered that Occlumency was more than just a defence against others. It helped with feelings, allowing him to reign his temper in and think with a cool head instead—that was something he still had some difficulties achieving as today's disastrous afternoon could attest.

Severus squeezed his eyes tightly, hands gripping his knees forcefully as he felt his anger and frustration rise along his sadness and disappointment. Why was he never enough? Why had Lily written off eight years of friendship because of a single word?

Severus felt his breathing slow as a plan began to form in his head. Occlumency helped to push back feelings so they did not affect your judgement, but it could do even more. Using Occlumency, Severus could review memories in his head while distancing himself from them. He should review his entire afternoon. Find out what had rattled Lily so deeply she had deemed it necessary to cut him out of her life.

Breathing more and more deeply, finally quieting now that his mind was focused on a goal, Severus went to his safe place.

Standing in his familiar lab, Severus found himself breathing more easily. Unburdened by his body's response to his distress, tears and heavy stomach a distant sensation, it was easier to shelter himself from his feelings. Easier to be rational and think. Why had he called Lily a "Mudblood" when he almost never used the word? Why had she ended their friendship of many years because of one word said in a moment of anger and humiliation? Lily, who was always so quick to believe in second chances, always ready to see the half-full glass… Why had she let him down without a second thought?

They had both changed since they had begun attending Hogwarts. The changes wrought to the wizarding world during this period had not spared Hogwarts. But could this explain the abrupt end of their friendship?

He needed facts. He needed… to review their years together. To see what he had missed.

Severus walked past the ingredients shelves to the potions shelves. He pressed on one vial and the shelf slid, allowing him to enter a storage room full of potions vials, each representing one memory. Thinking about where he wanted to begin, he let his feet guide him to his first year's shelf. One vial shot up in front of him. He opened it slowly and poured out the silver thread of a memory.

It was the beginning of his first year, Lily was walking to the Gryffindor tables. Severus remembered how it had hurt, knowing he could never get sorted in this house even if his life had depended on it. He watched with a sneer as Potter joined her. At the time, he had not cared but now…

His turn came, and his small younger self disappeared under the talking hat.

"Ah, you're the one the little Evans girl wanted so much to be with, even if it meant not going to the house which would help her reach her full potential."

"She really tried to follow the plan?" asked young Severus, not even surprised that a hat was talking in his head, so relieved he was that Lily had not let him down the moment she was in the magical world.

The hat chuckled.

"Indeed she tried, a fierce temper this one! But you are the one in need of a sorting right now. Let me see. Well, it seems you already know where you're going to be. I'm afraid I can't let you go to Ravenclaw, they would not survive your tongue coupled with your brilliance. Yes, you can only go to..."

" Slytherin!" the hat bellowed.

Severus watched as his smaller self walked to his house table under a thunder of applause. He frowned as he realised that during his first year, every firstie had had the same amount of congratulatory acclamations. On the contrary, at the beginning of his fifth year, the Slytherins had only received their House applause as well as a few from Ravenclaw. Gryffindors had received congratulations from every House except Slytherin. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff had received applause from all the Houses, but nothing as loud and enthusiastic as in his first year. It was only the tip of the iceberg but so revealing of the changes and the fracture the school—and the wizarding world—had gone through in mere five years.

His younger self was tentatively talking with Evan and Jonathan.

He smiled, seeing his friends so young and unguarded. They had been fast friends, even if they did not become close until later, as befit a Slytherin worth his salt. At first, they were drawn together because of their table seating on the sorting night, because they shared a dorm and because they stuck a deal after their first week: Evan Rosier and Jonathan Wilkes, who were both Purebloods and had grown up living in the wizarding world, agreed to teach Severus about wizard politics and pureblood families in exchange of Severus helping them with potions.

The memory changed.

His young self was walking Hogwarts' grounds with Lily, slowly making their way towards Hagrid's hut. Lily had been impressed with Hagrid when he had led them in the boats the night of their sorting and had decided to try and become friends with him. Young Severus had followed reluctantly, the man was huge and did not look quite tame.

Severus smiled sadly. They had not visited Hagrid since fourth year and only because of Lily's insistence. The man had not seemed sure of how to approach Severus since third year and the incident.

The friendship between Lily and him had surprised people because it was a rare occurrence to see a pair of Gryffindor-Slytherin friends. You could find some in larger groups that included Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, but rarely only the two houses. Still, nobody had frowned upon it and Lily and he had happily studied together, with some of their friends sometimes joining them.

That was not to say Lily and he and Lily had not been watched the first month, mostly because of concerned parties for his safety if you could believe it. Remembering his first night in Slytherin, Severus let the memory unfold in his mind.

Lucius Malfoy, the then-seventh year Slytherin prefect, had led the first years into the common room after the feast. Most of them were tired after their busy day but it was Slytherin tradition to welcome and warn its newest additions on their first night.

Lucius ordered them to sit but not too comfortably as they needed to stay awake.

"Welcome to the Noble House of Slytherin!" began Lucius. "We will be your family for the next seven years. Our Head of House is Professor Horace Slughorn, the potions professor."

Lucius paused, making sure the eleven year olds were all paying attention.

"First, let me tell you about Salazar Slytherin, our founder. His story will help you understand the rules I will tell you afterwards."

Severus smiled. Lucius was a very good orator as well as a compelling storyteller. Combined with the majestic surroundings of the common room and its intimate lighting, the first years were hanging onto his every word.

"Salazar Slytherin was one of the four founders of Hogwarts with Godric Gryffindor, Helena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff. He had masteries in Potions, Arithmancy and the Dark Arts, as well as in the Healing Arts. He was one of the first known parseltongues, meaning he could understand and talk to snakes. We think it is one of the reasons he chose one as his school crest, as well as appreciating their utility in potions. Contrary to what some say, he did not hate Muggles, but he was wary of them. You must keep in mind that in Slytherin's time, Muggles were not as advanced as Wizards as they had not yet learned to compensate for their lack of magic. As such, their hygiene and medicine were close to non-existent, which led to several great pandemics and millions of deaths. Most of them were also illiterate, superstitious and afraid of magic. For these reasons, Salazar advocated against contacts between Muggles and Wizards. He became more insistent on this subject when several years after the creation of our school, Muggles began burning those they suspected of witchery, as they called it. Many Muggleborns died in these times, often murdered by their own family at their first accidental magic because they were believed to have been cursed by the Devil. Slytherin's own wife was murdered by Muggles who had seen her heal a child with magic. After her death, Salazar asked for Muggleborns to be taken from their family and adopted by a magical family as soon as their names appeared in Hogwarts' registering book."

Lucius paused.

"As some of you may not be aware, Hogwarts' registering book was created by Helena Ravenclaw. The name of every British magical child appears in it when his magic first becomes active. The year of his eleventh birthday, his name is transferred to the inscription book if he is deemed powerful enough. Hogwarts is the only English school for those with a powerful magical core. Several other smaller schools exist for those who would exhaust their magical core after only a few spells. These schools teach mostly magical theory as well as how to limit the strain on their students' magical core when they cast a spell."

Severus remembered being surprised about this information, but in retrospect he should have guessed Hogwarts could not be the only magical school in England. However, it disturbed him to think one could have less magic than Crabb and Goyle, two of Lucius' associates that had barely graduated from Hogwarts. But weak in power did not mean as stupid as these two were. In Severus' third year, a new broom called the Comet 31 had come out. It was a big commercial success and he had learned from Jonathan that it had been conceived by one of these smaller schools' alumni.

He had not had much time to think about the other schools that night as Lucius had captivated him with the story of Salazar Slytherin. The founder of his House who had understood why Muggles could not be trusted with magical children.

Lucius exaggerated a sigh.

"Sadly, none of the others agreed with Salazar. Godric Gryffindor, in particular, was firmly against his proposal because he believed family was sacred. Slytherin and Gryffindor had been friends since their youth despite numerous differences in opinion, but this time it was too much for Salazar. They had a big row. Some even say they fought each other with magic over the Muggleborns' situation. In the end, Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff sided with Gryffindor and Salazar retired to his home, abandoning the school he had co-created."

Lucius paused and let his eyes roam over the attentive first years, stopping on a few of them including young Severus.

Severus now knew Lucius had been making the count of the non-Purebloods among the first years and gauging their reactions to his tale.

"Now, Slytherin did not completely abandon his little snakes who needed his guidance more than ever. He gave them rules to protect them, rules which have endured until today."

The eleven year olds fretted a little and Lucius gave them a reassuring smile.

"One, we are a family. As such, we stand united in front of adversity no matter the dissensions that may exist inside the family. It means we keep our problems with each other inside the common room. It means we help each other when attacked by strangers."

Young Severus had loved that rule. He had thought this one rule was worth being separated from Lily.

Severus shook his head to himself. He had been naive at the time, thinking every Slytherin would rally to help him if he ever was in a fight. The reality was more pragmatic. Slytherins did not attack each other outside their common room and they exchanged information on Gryffindors' next prank for favours. However, other than Evan and Jonathan, they did not actively act to protect Severus from the Marauders. Slytherins had decided they were Severus' problem and that if he was not good enough to take care of them, he did not deserve his slytherin colours. Taking care of them included using favours to enrol other Slytherins' help, but Severus had no love for the favours' game when it went beyond academic support. The bigger favour you ask for, the bigger you had to give back in return.

Still, in his opinion, that rule was better than what the other Houses had.

"Two, be wary of Muggles. I know a few of you are Muggleborns, or even Half-bloods. Knowing what happened to some of my ancestors as well as to several Muggleborns in the upper years, I encourage you to be careful when you go back home. Some muggle parents have been known to react badly to talks of ghosts and moving stairs."

Lucius let his words sink in before speaking again.

"I also advise you to keep in mind that your family may love you enough to accept you despite your magic but might not be as tolerant with your wizard friends."

This second rule had cemented young Severus' faith into his House. He knew far too well to avoid his father as much as he could. And while Lily's family loved her and was very proud of her magic, they had not been so welcoming of Severus and remained cautiously polite with him. Of course, it might have more to do with his social standing than with him being a Wizard.

Severus shook his head to himself. How could Lily be so blind and not see how much Slytherin House cared for its students? Far more than the Headmaster did.

He remembered how hopeful he had been when during one of their later lessons, Evan explained to him that the wizarding world was very harsh on child abusers because most families only managed to bear one or two children. Child murderers and abusers of children received the most severe penalty existing in the wizarding world, meaning the kiss of a Dementor that left their body bereft of their soul, to slowly rot away. It was said the Dementors tortured the souls they absorbed until their own death. No one knew how to kill a Dementor, and no one knew how long they lived, apart from the fact that the ministry replaced only a few of them every ten years as one day they disappeared without a trace. No one knew for sure their disappearance really meant their death so it promised to be an almost eternal torment. Severus was not sure he liked the idea of eternal torment as punishment but he had to admit it was an efficient deterrent for those who were tempted. In addition, any wizard witnessing a child being abused or worse was allowed to use any means, even Unforgivables, to apprehend the perpetrator. Each unforgivable violated a person in a way, the Imperius Curse which controlled the person it was used on, the Cruciatus Curse or Crucio which made you feel excruciating pain worse than anything possible, and the Avada Kedavra Curse that killed painlessly without leaving a trace. Yes, young Severus had quickly realised Wizards protected their children fiercely. Unfortunately, it did not apply to muggle parents who depended on the muggle law. Severus had asked Evan about Half-bloods and been disappointed. Those living in a wizarding area depended on the wizarding law, those living among Muggles depended on the muggle law.

I am always so lucky, thought Severus wryly.

"Three", said Lucius, "you will always conduct yourself with the proper decorum of a well-born wizard. Those who did not understand what the previous words entailed must find someone to teach them how to behave."

Severus smiled. That rule had forced him to ask Evan for help. He had waited a week to see which of his peers seemed both the more knowledgeable and the less likely to refuse his request. He had been self-conscious, having never asked for help before, and almost turned tail to search for a book on proper wizard behaviour. Thankfully Evan had not let him run away and had taken advantage of his poor attempt to propose him a deal: lessons on wizard behaviour and politics against Potions tutoring. Evan had been the one to add Jonathan to the deal, and none of them had regretted it. Severus was very grateful for this rule as he had learned a lot—he sometimes ranted silently against Mother for not having taught him the importance of etiquette and relationships between Wizards that was essential to his survival and ascension in this world—but also because of the two friends he had made thanks to it.

"Finally, the fourth rule. The first, second and third years are not to be involved in political games and alliances. If an older year tries to, you must go to a prefect immediately."

This rule had not made sense to Severus at the time. Now he knew it was Slytherin's way of protecting its children until they had enough grasp of politics to defend themselves.

Severus smiled as the scene faded on his younger self valiantly fighting a yawn, another memory immediately taking its place.

Eleven year old Severus was scrupulously if doubtfully following his Potions book's recipe during his first Potions lesson. It was really weird and uncomfortable for him who had always built his potion recipes from scratch. What was more infuriating was that he was certain this recipe could be greatly improved by tweaking a few instructions here and there. Even more maddening, he knew with deep certainty that his recipe from home with different ingredients would work even better and take less time to brew. But he had decided to try a common recipe once to see how it would turn out, and he was sticking to his decision even if it was painful.

In the end, Slughorn claimed that his potion was perfect, as well as Lily's, but Severus was determined to never again follow anyone else's recipe without studying it and improving it beforehand. Indeed, the simple burn-healing salve they had made was slightly off-colour compared to the one he regularly made at home and he knew his own was the right one, even if the professor was too colour-blind or losing his eyesight to realise it.

From then on, Severus either took his home recipe if he had already brewed the potion or created a new one before comparing it with the Potions book. He sometimes had to make adjustments because his own recipe used ingredients that were not in the textbook and Slughorn would certainly not allow him to use them. He did manage some improvements by switching the orders the ingredients were added in, putting a different quantity of ingredients than instructed or simply stirring clockwise instead of anticlockwise.

Slughorn never noticed and Severus made a game with Lily to see which recipe would take the least time to make and obtain the better potion. Severus always got top marks but so did Lily who was clearly Slughorn's favourite student. It did not matter to the younger Severus as long as his grade was Outstanding. Potions were the subject he loved, but he also was among the top students for every subject except Transfiguration.

Severus smiled, remembering the first time Lucius had graciously taken the time to tutor him after several failed sessions from Jonathan.

It was about two months into the year, and eleven year old Severus was desperately trying to practice turning his matchstick into a needle. Severus was behind all his classmates in Transfiguration, on the verge of failing. His class practicals were disastrous; his essays barely got A's. Transfiguration had already been his hardest subject back home. The Princes were notorious for not excelling in Transfiguration and Mother was no exception. She had barely passed her OWL. From his experiences these past months, Severus had definitely inherited the Princes' difficulties with the subject.

Severus watched Lucius observe his younger self from his armchair. After several minutes, Lucius got up and approached the table where a forlorn Severus was reading his book instructions for the umpteenth time.

"Having some difficulty?"

First year Severus flinched a little, berating himself for not having heard the prefect coming. He looked up to the older student to see a genuinely interested look. He had not been aware at the time that his unusual way of preparing for Potions classes and its results had been noticed and given him a reputation among his year which had reached Lucius' ears. The prefect had been curious to see what an alleged genius could struggle with.

Seeing his last chance to potentially avoid a disaster and finally manage what all his classmates had for several weeks, Severus began talking rapidly and desperately.

"Well, I can't seem to make sense of the transfiguration instructions to change this stick into a needle. The best I have ever managed is a grey stick. It's just that... I don't understand how those rules make the stick into a needle, and I never manage what I don't understand. Already at home, I only made it through Mother's basic books and I never had the chance to practice and even then I don't think I understood everything. And… I don't want to use too much magic and exhaust my core, but there are so many variables to take into account to calculate the amount of magic necessary to make one transfiguration work and I don't think all of them are in our book… Plus how do I make sure that when I cast my transfiguration spell, it will go the way my equation described it, and not another one which would require more magic than I can give?"

Severus stopped, miserably looking at the older student with almost pleading eyes.

It was such a pitiful sight Lucius seated himself.

"Come on, tell me exactly what you do not understand."

They spent two hours together. To Lucius' amazement, he had to go as far as fourth year theory to answer Severus' questions. The root of the problem was, as Severus had said, that he could not do something he did not understand. That was a handicap in a matter as complex as Transfiguration where the fundamental rules were introduced progressively during the seven years curriculum, simplified in the first years then with added subtleties from fourth to seventh year.

Severus just asked too many questions that could not be answered with the simplified version. Adding to this the fact that he had never seen something transfigured before coming to Hogwarts, unconsciously making it more difficult for him to believe it was possible; that he was all too aware of the risks and consequences of improperly casting a transfiguration spell by using too much magic; and that he was as far from a natural as possible, it was no wonder Severus struggled.

Naturals had an affinity for their subject. Unconsciously, they sensed the magic that came into play during the transformation and knew when it was working as it should, and when it was not. Lucius had tried to make parallels between Potions and Transfiguration and discovered with amazement that Severus was not only gifted at Potions but a natural at it.

"When you transfigure something, you need to recall the rules that apply to what you want to achieve in order to guide your magic along the transfiguration process and not try to force it to do something it cannot. It is in part the same as with potions. You know the reactions between ingredients and from it you deduce their order and your stirring to guide your potion into completion," said Lucius to his attentive pupil.

Young Severus frowned.

"But in potion making, if you are attentive enough, you usually sense when you need to stop stirring. And before adding an ingredient, you hold it above your cauldron to sense if it will unbalance the potion."

Lucius gaped at him.

"Severus, the vast majority of people do not sense this, they only follow potions recipes and rules. While your magic must guide the process of transfiguration, it becomes instinctual once you have mastered the concept. It means once you have managed to transform a matchstick into a needle enough times, you do not need to consciously guide your magic anymore because it remembers the path it should take. On the contrary, most Wizards do not sense their magic work in potions, it remains unconscious and they only rely on the established rules. I know it is very difficult to awaken your magical sense of potions, it is taught during Potions apprenticeship but few manage it. It is what makes the difference between the different Potions makers. You might achieve Potions Master grade I if you are already so advanced."

Severus had been surprised and elated. In potion making, you had the Potioneers, working at home like his Mother or owning a shop like Apothecaries, for common potions. Then you had Potions Masters grade III for the more difficult potions. The Potions Masters grade II were mostly researchers that improved known recipes but sometimes brewed difficult potions too. Potions Masters grade I were the ones who truly invented world changing potions. They were rare and according to Lucius, magical sensing of potion was mandatory for grade I and II.

After this revelation, young Severus had with difficulty pushed his joy aside to continue the study session. Lucius had explained that Potter was probably a natural in Transfiguration as Severus had seen him manage any kind of transfiguration on his first try. It meant he did not have to think about guiding his magic as it did what he needed it to do unconsciously. Lucius had told him that their year was very impressive as he had only known two naturals, one in Charms, the other in Herbology, in his seven years at Hogwarts.

As for Severus, it would take a long time and intense study to at least reach his peers level in Transfiguration. Lucius explained that he would have to study transfiguration concepts from fourth year and above to understand the various kinds of transfiguration he would need to learn from first to third years. Indeed, Professor McGonagall introduced simple transfiguration of every possible kind in the first three years. She deepened their understanding of theory in fourth and fifth years, and for those taking the NEWTS, she had them working from the concepts and rules to create their own transfigurations. If Severus was studious, he would have a very hard time getting passing grades the first three years, but should improve impressively in the years above as he would already understand the more complex theory.

Lucius advised him to spend less time on subjects he breezed through and gave him titles of books he could find in the library that would help him. He insisted on the fact that Severus should not discourage himself as his efforts would not show immediately and not be impressive at first. He also told him not to hesitate to solicit him if the books were not enough.

At the end of the session, Severus had thanked his prefect profusely and from then on, Lucius had taken the role of mentor for the young boy, always making time for him when asked. To the delight of Severus, he even spent a few evenings playing chess with Severus or teaching him gobstones on his own initiative.

It was Severus' best year ever. He was among the top students for every subject except, obviously, Transfiguration and he firmly decided to buy more books that Lucius had recommended on the subject during summer to improve. Even more important, he now had three friends and a mentor.

Yes, thought the older Severus bitterly, it had been his best year ever. He had found a home in Hogwarts as well as new friends, and Lily had been by his side as she had promised. He could hardly remember how happy and innocent he had still been, despite his home life.

Leaving the first year shelves, he went to the second year where a vial presented itself, ready to be seen.