Harry's soles pound hard against the wet, mulchy ground, and Harry feels the slight burn in the back of his throat, the beat of his heart, and the twinge of his thighs and calves as they work. He thinks of Gideon Gibbon – maybe a Death Eater, maybe not – and how cold he is, and yet how charming. He'd been at such ease in the classroom.

And maybe Harry shouldn't have answered so freely. Maybe he should have held back. The way Neville Longbottom had looked at him… Had what he'd said been so bad, been so wrong?

"No morality is universal," Lucius had said, but what the Hell is that supposed to mean? Lucius was a Death Eater himself. What was he meant to know about morality? What is Harry meant to know? He's a murderer. Gritting his teeth, he raises his chin and straightens his back a little, trying his best to improve his stance as the diagrams had displayed. He imagines Lucius in front of him, imagines what he'd say.

"Is this where we are, now? Making imaginary friends of dead men?" Lucius stands in Harry's mind's eye with his arms crossed over his chest, one of his eyebrows artfully raised. These are difficult times, Harry would say, if this was real. Are you gonna begrudge me some imaginary friends? Lucius smiles. Thinking about it makes something twist in his belly, a sudden burst of guilt and stabbing regret. "Oh, stop that," Lucius says. Raising his hand and airily waving it to the side, he says, "There's no point in wailing over it."

Harry slips on a wet patch of dirt, and he curses as he lands hard in the mulch and the wetness, feeling mud cake his thighs and arse, spattering over his arms. He grunts, pulling himself to his feet, and he comes to the bank of the lake, dropping his outer robe to the side and diving into the water.

It's freezing, and he feels it bite against his flesh as he drags his nails over the mud caking his skin, pulling its brown stickiness away from him. His eyes are still sensitive and slightly raw, and Harry comes to the beach once more, taking up his robe and washing it in the water, just enough to pull the mud away from the cloth. Muttering a quiet spell, he sees steam rise from the robe itself, but he doesn't put it on just yet, instead sitting down on a cool stone and feeling the mildness of the sun on his shoulders, letting himself dry out naturally in the sun.

"Y'alright there, Harry?" comes a voice from behind him, and Harry turns to look at Hagrid as he comes over, Fang at his side. The dog dashes forward, pressing his snout against Harry's knees and his hands, and Harry feels himself smile as he drags his fingernails over the dog's fur, feeling him slobber and whine with delight.

"Yeah, Hagrid, I'm fine," Harry says quietly. "Trying to get some exercise, but I slipped in the mud."

"Exercise? What for?"

"Lucius always said—" Something changes in Hagrid's face, a darkening of his features, and Harry feels a burst of guilt in the lower part of his belly, feels himself lean back slightly on the rock. Of course Hagrid wouldn't look favourably on Malfoy Senior – the man had been a monster to people like Hagrid all his life, and yet… "I need to be more physically fit, and stronger. It's about discipline. We're not all as strong as you are, you know, Hagrid?" Hagrid smiles, a little bit weakly, awkwardly. He stands with his hands loosely clasped in front of his belly, and Harry slowly gets to his feet, moving closer with Fang at his side. "I didn't get the chance to say, but I'm sorry about Madame Rosmerta. You knew her really well, right?"

"She was a good lass," Hagrid says quietly, his hands loosely in his pockets, and Harry walks alongside him as they meander in the direction of Hagrid's hut. Harry's wet under robe clings uncomfortably to his skin, but he doesn't pay it any heed, pushing his damp hair back from his face and patting Fang's flank as they move. "Never had a bad word to say about nobody. I remember when she first came to Hogwarts – her and Poppy, you know, they was as thick as thieves. Always playing about together, learning new spells, dancing…" Hagrid's massive hand pats gently (for Hagrid, anyway, it winds Harry slightly) against Harry's shoulders, and he says, "Thank you, Harry. Means a lot."

Harry leans against the fence around Hagrid's yard, looking out over the green shrubs that are sprouting up from the ground – Hagrid's pumpkin plants, preparing to bear fruit for the end of October.

"You ready for the declaration tonight?" Harry asks quietly, and Hagrid sighs, patting back his mane of thick, dark hair. He opens the hut door so that Fang can throw himself up into the house, and he sits heavily down on the stone steps – Harry hears their quiet groan of protest at his weight.

"I don't know what it'll change, if I'm honest, Harry," Hagrid says resignedly. "Other than everything, o'course." Harry nods, hanging his robe against the fence, and he pulls himself up onto the wood frame, settling down to sit in place. "Depends on if You-Know-Who, if he… If he does anything."

He'll do something. Harry is certain of that – even if Voldemort doesn't appear in public anywhere, there'll be some kind of response to the state of things, some kind of explosion or big event… Or maybe there won't be. Maybe Voldemort will let the dread build, let people really grow to live in fear as the Ministry of Magic confirms he's a threat, without confirming it himself.

"You want a cuppa tea there, Harry?"

"Yeah, Hagrid," Harry murmurs. "Yeah, I'd love that, thanks."

ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ

It is toward the end of dinner that the owl comes into the room. Beating its mighty, broad wings, it comes forward and drops its pink envelope into Albus' hand. Harry is not the only person anxiously looking up toward the staff table as Albus' ancient blue eyes survey the text, his expression unchanging. As the finished dessert plates vanish, leaving people with just their drinks and a few hangers-on who eat more slowly than the others, an uncomfortably tense silence begins to gather in the air, charging it like air pressure builds up before a storm.

With an apparent moment of hesitant reluctance, Albus stands from his place at the table, holding the pink parchment in his left hand as he moves toward his mahogany lectern. Harry's gaze flits to Snape, whose hands are loosely interlinked in front of him; to Pomfrey, who is nervously tapping her carefully-maintained fingernails against the wood of the table; to McGonagall, whose thin lips are drawn into a tight, taut line.

"Here, children, I bring to you this missive from the Ministry of Magic," Albus says, his voice carrying around the room and cutting through the desperate tension, the uncertainty.

"From the desk of the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge. It is with great regret that I should send out this message, but needs must. I hereby declare that unless He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the known dark wizard responsible for the many deaths in the First Wizarding War, turns in his wand and his surrender to this office before midnight this evening, the Ministry of Magic will enter a State of Emergency.

"Failing special allowance from the Department of Magical Transportation, international Floos will hereby be suspended. Failing special allowance from the Department of Magical Transportation, international Apparition and Portkey usage will hereby be suspended. Failing special allowance from the Department of Magical Transportation, magical transport by boat, horse or fast-train will hereby be suspended. The sport known as Muggle-baiting – punishable by a minimum of one year in the prison Azkaban, will hereby be punished by a minimum of ten years. Assaults, battery or public breaches of the peace intended to incite fear that are linked to the terrorist group known as the "Death Eaters" will carry the punishment of the Dementor's Kiss."

Gasps sound through the room, and even Harry leans forward in his seat, surprised. Albus continues.

"Any individual found to be carrying the tattoo known as the Dark Mark on his left arm, diagrammed here as a snake through a skull, will be given the penalty of the Dementor's Kiss. Any individual found to cast the spell that creates an insignia of the Dark Mark in the sky or on the ground will be given the Dementor's Kiss. Any individual whose behaviours have been noted as suspicious, perhaps in connection with the terrorist group known as the "Death Eaters," will be remanded in custody of the state, under threat of the Dementor's Kiss. At borders and checks throughout the country, citizens must submit to having their left arms checked for this mark, and to have their possessions searched; checks may also be instituted at random on wizarding streets or in wizarding establishments. Any citizen that resists these checks will be remanded in the custody of the state.

"To He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, know this. We, the magical peoples of Britain, made up of England, Wales and Scotland, as well as surrounding islands, will not bow to your secondary attempt at a reign of terror. The magical peoples of Britain are strong, and just, and noble, and we shall defy you at every turn. You would do well to place yourself under our remand before midnight tonight, or face the full weight of the British magical state upon your shoulders. Your followers will be sent to the Kiss, your properties will be destroyed, and we shall see you put to death at the will of the British people.

"To the citizens of magical Britain, fear not. We shall not bend, we shall not break, and we shall not weaken in the face of this adversity. The Dark Lord was defeated once, and so he shall be defeated a second time, and dashed in ashes to the annals of history.

"Yours, in loyal service to you, my citizens,
Cornelius Fudge,
Minister for Magic."

The silence in the room is so thick that one could cut it with a knife. Harry sits in his place at the dinner table, his chin pressed against his hands, and he stares into the ether as he thinks through the speech he's just heard, the statement Fudge had released, in absolute shock. Around him, the other Slytherins are equally still and quiet, their eyes wide, their lips parted; even Crabbe and Goyle have an active light of comprehension and horror in their eyes, and cannot quite slip into their usual, gormless state.

The right to free travel – suspended. And there's one line, one line that clings thick to the sides of Harry's skull even as it bounces around his head – Any individual whose behaviours have been noted as suspicious

That could mean anyone, doing anything. That gives the Aurors free reign to remand almost anybody in custody… And what then?

"Jesus Christ," whispers Tracey Davies.

"And then some," Draco whispers back.

Looking up to the podium, Harry can see Albus' conflicted expression, see the sad way he looks out over the crowd of terrified children and teenagers, everybody utterly silent, and most of all Harry feels for the First Years, some of them just months into the wizarding world as a whole, and to see it like this… It's more than a shame. It's a damned tragedy.

And who has caused this, but Voldemort himself?

"You are dismissed," Albus says, waving one hand. "Each of you may return to your dormitories." Harry stands up, calling for the First Years to follow him and to step into an orderly line, and he leads them out before the rest of the Slytherins can follow suit, bringing them down the stairs and toward the Slytherin common room. Normally, First Years are brightly chattering after dinner is through, asking one another questions or posing questions to the Prefects beside them… But not now. All these children have grown up in the wizarding world, and every single one of them looks frightened and uncertain. Harry glances to the back of the group, where Theo Nott is herding the children from the other side, despite the lack of a badge shining on his breast.

"Pro—" Harry stops for just a second, feeling the words like dust in his mouth, and he wonders for a second if Snape had chosen them just to scorn him. "Pro patria mori." The stone doors grind open, and the children file into the room, leaving Harry and Theo standing cold in the corridor, waiting for the rest of the Slytherin table to follow them down. The movement of the students had been sluggish and uncertain, and it had been plain to Harry that most of them had been unwilling to leave the bright warmth of the Great Hall in exchange for the damp, foreboding cold of the dungeons, where anything could be lurking in the shadows.

Theo's hand touches Harry's shoulder, and it is all Harry can do not to flinch as he looks at the other boy. For just a second, he has a vision of Theodore in twenty, thirty years from now, as a rabbi or a teacher himself, and yet when he looks at Theo now, all he sees is a boy. A quiet, serious boy, but a boy nonetheless.

Theodore's expression is grim, but set. "I'll look after the children tonight. I think…" He trails off, momentarily, staring into the ether. "War stories. I don't care for them, but best that we put thoughts of victory in their minds. I find myself uneasy. Even in response to a threat such as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named… I wouldn't be surprised if we see a draft in the coming years."

"It won't last years," Harry promises, putting his hand over Theo's own and feeling the chill of the other boy's skin, feeling the slight sheen of sweat that has gathered on the back of his hand. "Theo, look at me…" Theo's eyes are shining, and if they weren't so determined, maybe Harry would be able to make out the fear in them. "By next September, he'll be dead. I promise you."

"We oughtn't make promises we can't keep, Harry," Theo murmurs.

"I'm not," Harry says. "I'll kill him – I'll kill them all. And those kids are going to be safe, you hear me?" Theodore looks at him, his eyes uncertain behind the glass of his spectacles, and then he gives a very slow nod.

"I'm a man of faith, Harry," Theo murmurs. "My faith can extend to you." Theo slowly moves away, stepping into the doorway, and Harry looks as the other Fifth Years begin to come down toward the common room, leading the younger students with the Seventh Years bringing up the rear.

"I'm heading to Snape's office," Harry murmurs in Draco's ear, and Draco gives a slow nod of his head.

"Alright," he murmurs. "Will you be long?"

"No more than an hour," Harry replies, and he slips off down the corridor, moving through the darkened halls with no difficulty at all. Five years in this castle, particularly with the aid of the Marauder's Map, has left him comfortable in its winding halls, and he takes a few lesser used corridors to bring him to Snape's office, the door of which is slightly ajar.

Snape is leaning against his desk, and he is slowly patting the thick, white fur of a great beast of a cat Harry has often seen in the dungeons, but has never been able to find out the name or the owner of.

"You're kidding," he says softly. "That thing is yours?"

"Her name is Fantôme," Snape murmurs. "Are you ready to begin?" Harry nods his head. "Close the door."

ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ

As the children stand to filter out of the room, Severus remains seated. All of the staff do, each one of them sitting very still in their seats – even Filch isn't throwing himself into his usual, desperate rush to leave the company of the other staffs, and instead slumps in his seat, staring at his own filthy hands.

When the last Hufflepuff slowly shuffles from the room, some ten minutes later, Severus draws his thumb over his own thin, lower lip, and looks at the others. Every single member of staff is silent, staring into space or looking desperately at one another, none of them certain what to say, what they can do.

"That was unexpected," Filius says, finally. His squeaky voice is grave. "I know people in the Wizengamot – this, these measures… They aren't what was discussed." Severus presses his lips together, feeling the thin lips thin even further, and he adjusts the set of his cuffs beneath his robes. Even Gibbon looks alarmed, his watery eyes wide, and Severus slowly inhales.

"Any gathering place, that missive said," Poppy says, leaning forward. Albus catches her eye, and gives a grave nod of his head.

"Of course, there would be no reason at all for the Ministry of Magic to believe we had Death Eaters amidst our students or staff," Albus murmurs, and Severus keeps his expression completely neutral, feeling some of the other staff turn to glance at him. "And I should want to protect the privacy of those within Hogwarts…"

"We aren't outside the law, Albus," Severus says, his tone steady. "To resist Aurors would only compound the issue."

"And what would you suggest, Severus?" Minerva demands, her voice quavering. "To allow the Aurors to line the children up in rows, examining their arms in turn?"

"We have no reason to believe it will come to that," Severus says, his tone delicate. "To utilise their powers of interrogation in the street will display the Ministry's power, will show that they do not fear another rise of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but to utilise them here? It would open them up to much criticism, to strike fear into the hearts of children."

"And what of the older students?" Pomona asks softly. "What if— If You-Know-Who were to use these policies to his advantage – to recruit Sixth and Seventh Years…" Severus feels a cool weight within himself as he thinks of the first time he was courted as one of the Dark Lord's Death Eaters – he didn't take the Mark until he was nineteen, but certainly, he had been seventeen when first the suggestion had been floated toward him by Lucius, and some of his classmates were undoubtedly recruited whilst they were as yet at Hogwarts. He thinks of Maxie Caine, and he slowly inhales.

"Let us see how these new policies will unfold," Albus murmurs, his expression a mask of quiet concern. Severus stands from the table, and Minerva reaches for his arm.

"You're going? You don't wish to speak further?"

"I have an appointment," Severus murmurs quietly. "A meeting with a student. My apologies – perhaps we ought put this on the agenda for the next staff meeting, tomorrow night?" There are murmurs of agreement around the table, quiet and reserved, and Severus walks ahead of the others that move to leave, feeling the weight of his own robes feel heavy upon his shoulders. Tabling the matter for later won't fix anything. Hogwarts is still part of the Ministry of Magic's purview, still bound by British law, and yet… Severus knows that if he thinks too much on the issue at hand, for now, that a migraine will make itself known within his skull, and so he pushes it aside.

He is grateful when Fantôme rushes to meet him, and he begins to draw his fingers slowly through the thick, white cloud of her lovely fur, feeling the warmth of her body. Her gaze is grave, and while Severus could not possibly know what exactly she knows and how deep that knowledge is, it is plain that on some level, she is aware that something has happened.

There will be no leaving the castle now. Severus will have to make his appearances in some areas, just to assail suspicion, but there is certainly no way that he can take casual jaunts to Diagon Alley or to Hogsmeade, not when there is the possibility of having his sleeve ripped up…

This is why the Dark Marks had never been common knowledge. They were secret, they were intended to reveal one Death Eater to another, and Severus knows from a thousand attempts that the Mark cannot be hidden, once it brands the flesh. There is no glamour, no charm, that can hide it – Severus has even tried to paint over it with Muggle lipstick and foundation, a trick he had a Gryffindor girl show Lily when she had been considering a tattoo, but the Dark Mark coils and wriggles out from beneath such attempts to paint over it.

It is alive, in a way.

"You're kidding," Potter says from the doorway, and Severus blinks, surprised at the answer to his own internal statement, but Potter's eyes, their green colour bared once more now that the tint in his glasses is gone, are focused upon Fantôme, and not on Severus himself. "That thing is yours?"

"Her name is Fantôme," Severus says softly, gesturing for Potter to close the door. "Are you ready to begin?"

"With that new Ministry order…" Potter says, pushing the door closed, and locking it with a muttered word – that will be where they shall start, Severus things. Silent casting is vital. "Professor, that's— It's fascism."

"Yes," Severus agrees. "You seem surprised."

"I always thought it started little by little," Potter says, slowly shaking his head. "Not all at once. And forgive me, but… Well. Fudge doesn't strike me as a dictator."

"Fudge will be dead before the week is out," Severus murmurs. "His death was writ in stone as soon as he put his name to a threat against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Mark my words, Potter: it is not Fudge that spearheads this proclamation. It will be another member of the Wizengamot, someone with a lot of power. The next Minister for Magic, I would wager, will be an ex-Auror themselves."

"Eleanor Guinan?" Potter suggests, and Severus gives a slow nod of his head, considering it. Guinan is a hard woman, strict and focused upon her work, and she is already in a position of command – Severus wouldn't be surprised if she were in the running for Minister for Magic.

"A natural choice," Severus murmurs. "But no, we'll see somebody older, somebody who fought in the First War. I would place my money on Rufus Scrimageour, were I a betting man." Potter nods his head, raising his chin and stiffening his jaw, and for just a second, he is the very image of his father. Shorter, but with the same determination in his eyes, the same grim understanding of the war at hand— Severus pushes down the revulsion that burns in his chest. "We will start with non-verbal magic. Something you ought master as soon as possible."

"Non-verbal…" Potter repeats. "One of the Death Eaters commented on it. That I couldn't cast non-verbally."

"You have willpower," Severus reminds him, gesturing for Fantôme to leave them be, and she ignores him, settling down on Severus' desk with her four paws neatly tucked beneath her body, as if she is but a freshly-baked loaf of bread. Severus resists the urge to roll his eyes as he moves away from her. "Non-verbal magic is about the intent of a spell, and you, Potter, have intent in spades."

"Peter Pettigrew could cast non-verbally," Potter says. "Couldn't he?"

"A curious example," Severus murmurs, arching an eyebrow as he goes to one of his cupboards, drawing a single owl feather from a jar. "But yes, so he could. He had to. He used to stammer quite awfully as a boy, and any attempt at saying an incantation aloud would spell doom for all in his vicinity. Muggles would have diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder, I should expect."

"What did wizards diagnose him with?" Potter asks.

"Cowardice." Potter's expression darkens for a moment, and he looks at the feather as Severus sets it down upon the ground before him. "This world is magical, Potter, not perfect."

"You'd never think it, to talk to any of the Purebloods," Potter mutters, and Severus doesn't believe he imagines the slight bitterness in his tone. There, then – he is nothing like his father. "They think the magical world is nothing short of perfect, when everywhere you look, there's holes in logic, there's… It makes no sense, anything we do. And they never seem to think about it."

"They don't know any better," Severus murmurs. "In my time at Hogwarts, I must have had a half-dozen screaming matches with Lucius on the very subject, triggered by everything from our trade policy to the fact that wizards don't wear trousers."

"I can't imagine you screaming," Potter murmurs. He is looking at Severus with a strange warmth in his eyes – something almost like affection – and it makes Severus stiffen in discomfort. "Or him." Grief shines in his eyes alongside the warmth, and Severus feels his own grief coiled within him like some great snake… But for once, it is almost comfortable to talk.

"Mostly it was me screaming," Severus admits. "Lucius would ordinarily remain calm and collected, and distinctly sarcastic." Potter laughs.

"Sounds like me and you." Severus' lips part, and he looks down at the young man, feeling his lungs like weights in his chest, feeling the oddity it is to breathe. Potter seems to realise what he's said, and he looks down to the feather, setting his jaw and furrowing his brows. "Okay, take me through his. Do I just say the incantation in my head, or—"

"No," Severus murmurs, leaning back against the desk. "I'll assign you some reading, but in the mean time… Perform the spell as you ordinarily would. I want you to consider the way that it feels, the spell itself – try to be aware of the magic as it is channelled through your wand, the way that this specific energy feels." Potter stares at him as if Severus is speaking in the tongue of the Sumerians. "Just do it," Severus presses, crossing his arms tightly over his chest, and Potter looks to the feather.

Slowly, deliberately, he swishes and flicks the length of holly in his hands, and he says, "Wingardium leviosa!" The feather slowly rises into the air, and Severus can see the pinched look upon Potter's face, as if he is struggling to swallow something especially bitter.

"Are you alright?" Severus asks, dispassionately.

"I don't feel anything," Potter says. "It's just… It's just magic, it all feels the same." Severus stares at him, arching an eyebrow. "Don't look at me like that. It's like— I get what you're saying, but it's like you're glaring at me for not being able to tell one shade of blue from another one, and I'm only seeing in black and white."

"Come here," Severus instructs, and Potter does, letting the feather drop slowly to the ground. Fantôme takes the opportunity as it is offered, and leaps from the desk to bat it about the floor. Severus drags up the cuff of his right robe sleeve, bearing his bare arm to the air. Potter stares down at it, at the expanse of sallow, scarred skin, and Severus says, "Grasp my forearm."

"Why?"

"Because I told you to." Potter hesitates, but then draws up his own robe sleeve – not so stupid as he looks – and obeys. Potter's flesh is warm to the touch, and Severus can feel the steady beat of his heart beneath the surface, feel the blood slowly moving in his veins. Severus is aware of how much the boy is growing into a man – his arms, mercifully, are not so skinny as once they were, when he was still resting at the leisure of his aunt and uncle. Severus' own arms, of course, are thin beneath the muscle of them, and Potter's hand could almost close about Severus' wrist— "I'm going to use Legilimency to show you what I mean," Severus says quietly. "I will form a momentary mental link between us, so that you can see through my eyes, feel as I feel, and I will levitate the feather."

"Will it hurt?" Potter asks, his green eyes full of innocence. Severus stares at him.

"What? Why would it hurt?"

"I don't know, it sounds weird, it sounds like something that could hurt."

"It's not going to hurt," Severus snaps, and Potter laughs, his innocence fading, and Severus feels a flush of burning blood make itself known in his cheeks – the boy had deceived him. Severus smacks him upside the head with his free hand, but Potter only laughs harder, his grip momentarily loosening on Severus' arm. "Do not joke with me. We are not friends."

"We're allies," Potter says placatingly. "Yes, I know, I know." His eyes defocus for just a moment, staring into the middle distance, and then he looks directly at Severus, his grip tightening on Severus' arm. "Okay, I've relaxed my shields a little… Go."

ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ

Snape smells better than one would think. Underneath the chemical tint of the potions he works on, which have a bitter tang that reminds Harry of the dentist, there is the rich scent of dark coffee, bitter and all-encompassing, and the scent of ink.

It's weird, to be so close to him, to be touching him – Snape has always come across as the least human of the staff at Hogwarts, the least physically there. Sometimes, even Professor Binns seems more grounded in the physical realm than Snape himself, who can move without making a sound, who always exudes a dangerous energy. And here Harry is, holding tight to his arm and feeling how cold Snape is. Merlin, the guy must have the circulation of a dead snake.

"Ready?" Snape asks, quietly, and Harry nods his head. "Legilimens."

It's a weird sensation.

Suddenly, it's like the two of them are underwater, the world around them seeming thick and liquid-heavy, his vision swimming, and Harry coughs, feeling like he can't breathe, but the discomfort passes. He is aware of Snape's fingers, scarred and long and bony, gripping against the meat of his forearm, and he is aware of the way he grips at Snape's own arm, how cool he is to the touch—

"Wingardium leviosa," Snape says, and Harry sees the shift of his wand from the corner of his eye, sees Fantôme sailing through the air like a cloud, away from the point of Snape's wand: closing his eyes to distract himself from the sight, he feels the way energy coils in the air at the base of Snape's wrist, and it's—

"Oh, shit," Harry says, and it really is like seeing the world in colour for the first time. He feels the charm, feels its sweet, airy coil against Snape's palm, feels its easy, featherlight nature, and he feels the spell itself, as if an invisible finger is pushing the feather up and into the air, like a teacher helping a ballerina hold a pose.

"You see?" Snape murmurs, his voice low and sonorous, and Harry shivers.

"Yeah, yeah, I see." All at once, the water vision fades away, and Severus breaks the contact, drawing his sleeve back down his arm. Harry sways a little on his feet, but he grabs hold of the sensation of the charm, and he turns to the feather. "Wingardium leviosa," he says, and this time… Yeah. Yeah, he almost feels it, the way that the charm feels, but—

"It will get easier," Snape murmurs quietly. "To be aware of magic as an entity is a difficult thing, but I felt it would be the easiest mechanism for you to comprehend non-verbal magic. Want to try it?"

Harry nods, and he lets the feather slowly move to the ground.

Pointing his wand at the feather, he concentrates on the way his wand swishes and flicks through the air, trying to take hold of that sensation – airy, graceful – and thinks hard, Wingardium Leviosa! The feather is still for a second, but then is nudged awkwardly from the ground. It only lasts for a moment, but Harry exhales in relief, feeling himself grin.

"Okay, you have to admit," Harry says. "For a Fifth Year, first try at non-verbal magic, and I—"

"I will be impressed when you defeat the Dark Lord," Snape says primly. "And not before."

"I've already done that," Harry points out, and Snape scoffs.

"If he gets back up, Potter, it doesn't count." For a second, Harry stares at the other man, and then Snape's lip – almost imperceptibly – gives a twitch of good humour. Harry grins.

"Thank you," he says, genuinely. "For this. I know it must be… Hard. To have to think about me and about what Dumbledore needs at once— but it means a lot." Snape draws himself up to his full – though not prodigious – height, and he shifts the way his robes settle on his body. He's uncomfortable, Harry realises, with being thanked – but then, what isn't Snape uncomfortable with?

"Try again," Snape instructs.

ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ

"Hey," Draco says as Harry steps into their dormitory. "What did he say?"

"Not much," Harry says, shrugging his shoulders, and he kicks his boots off. Draco is already in bed, curled comfortably under his covers in a pair of blue pyjamas, and although the candles are still lit, Harry can see that Draco is just on the cusp of falling to sleep, his eyes half-closing. "We started non-verbal magic."

"Really?" Draco asks, his enthusiasm coming through despite his obvious fatigue. Harry blows out two out of three of the candles, and he moves forward, hovering at the side of Draco's bed for a second. Draco is smiling faintly, his eyes glinting from the candle on his bedside table. "You know, Harry, if you survive to your OWLs, you'll definitely get Os if you do everything non-verbally." Harry laughs, quietly, and he blows out the candle.

Sliding into his own bed, he lies on his side, and he feels the strange ache in his arm, from doing new magic – always a pleasant ache, always something that makes him feel like he's really making progress.

Really, seeing magic like this… It isn't so different to learning the Patronus Charm.

He is still smiling in satisfaction as he feels himself drift off to sleep.

ϟ ~ THE LERNAEAN HYDRA ~ ϟ

"Severus, before you go in," Bartemius murmurs, and Severus exhales as Barty crowds him back against the wall, his hands on either side of Severus' face. He glances to the corridor, feeling himself stiffen, but Gibbon has already made his way into the hall, and Severus sets his jaw.

"You are too bold," Severus whispers, curling his lip. "Were you a Gryffindor?"

"I merely wanted to say," Barty murmurs, his breath devastatingly hot against Severus' lips, and Severus despises himself for the way he wants to surge into it, for the way he wants to catch Barty's mouth in his own. How many times has he dreamt of him, in the past days? Every morning, he wakes with the shadow of Crouch looming over him, until Severus is free and away from his bed, and can occupy his mind with work instead. Stupid. Stupid. For years, he has comfortably rested in his celibacy, and Crouch has shattered his turn away from sexual appetites like glass, and to what end? That Maxie Caine might submit a press report without Barty touching him? "I'm ready when you are."

Severus forces himself to chuckle, darkly. "Wait until the meeting is over, Barty," he advises, and he ducks under the other man's head, slipping into the hall.

The Dark Lord's gaze rests on Severus for just a moment, and he smiles, the expression showing a parody of warmth. His hair is growing back, Severus sees, coming thick from his scalp where for so long it was bald and slightly scaly…

"Having a tete-a-tete of your own, were you, Severus, Bartemius?" the Dark Lord asks, his voice an amused purr, and Severus delicately coughs against his wrist.

"Remarkable indeed, my lord, that a man should require assistance on the finer points of brewing at his age," Severus replies archly, and a few of the Death Eaters titter as Barty laughs, the sound intentionally ugly. When he shows his teeth, however, his face is nothing but handsome – darkly handsome, but handsome nonetheless.

"Severus thinks much of his ego, my lord," Barty says, sliding back into a seat. "He should proclaim himself a master, but will balk at a student." More laughter, but no more than Severus had garnered: the two of them have equal status amidst the Inner Circle, and are certainly high in the Dark Lord's estimations – high enough that their bickering only makes his inhuman lips quirk into a smirk instead of a snarl.

"Come come, children," he says snidely. "To business."

And Merlin, Severus thinks. What business it is.