Betaed by Lliey Gemini

Revised: 17-12-03

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Chapter 5 - Dignity until the End

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Snape felt he'd never been tormented so hard before, though he was just standing next to Voldemort watching Harry's mostly silent torture for hours. He noticed that the physical abuses were the more difficult to observe impotently, even if he  knew precisely that the curses were much more painful and excruciating. But the mere sight of somebody touching Harry, and harming him with their hands, was achingly unbearable. He'd never felt this way before: his heart was racing, his palm sweating, nausea suffocated his throat and he hurt. Hurt. It was strange, nobody even touched him, and he hurt nevertheless, an absolutely physical pain tormented him.

They forced him to see Avery's 'work' with the razor, the always larger and larger pool of blood under the boy's slightly shivering and totally naked body. Sometimes, Harry opened his eyes, looking for help to his gaze and obviously relieved whenever he could catch his sight.

But somehow, every cut hurt Snape, much more than the hexes,  than the beatings, than the Cruciatus he had received during his own torture sessions, and he felt his heart ripped in two.

"Aaaaaaah!" Harry moaned when Avery cautiously opened the next cut with his fingers. Snape cringed.

"My, my, Severus. Don't you like my little performance! Why? I remember the time when you found pleasure to watch it! I've planned it just for your enjoyment!"

Snape was staring desperately at the boy's face, he didn't want to talk with Voldemort about it, he didn't want to remember past sins, the present situation was painful enough, and most of all, he didn't want to talk to Voldemort or anybody else at all.

"Why do I have the feeling I've already seen a very similar scene? You, staring at a boy cowardly... a boy braver than you ever were... Do you have this déja vu feeling too, Severus?"

Voldemort's words entered his mind, reinforcing his own reflections and tentative thoughts, and Snape had to fight his desperation to not be visible. The damned bastard was right. He was a coward. And Harry's behaviour was really like Quietus's. But he had already noticed it, long ago, in the very beginning of this all...

During the sessions and the conversations in the cell, Harry had acted so similar to Quietus, the only person Snape really appreciated and loved with his whole heart, Quietus, the little and cunning Quietus, the warm and caring Quietus, who stood before the Dark Lord bleeding and tottering but without fear saying 'I will never be yours' and he had been right.

Quietus who died right here, in Nightmare Manor, in the Main Hall after the sixth round and he, Severus was not able to help him...

The day Snape decided to die.

His hatred of Moody, the bloody Auror, was a consequence of it too: in the lonely darkness of Azkaban, where he had to stay for six months, he relived endless times those horrible moments of his life: Quietus's dying, his moaning and jerking and shaking over the immense pain laid on him and finally his brother's lifeless body in the centre of the hall... It was an endless movie in his mind, he could see the whole event from the first moment until the burial in Hogsmeade's cemetery, and he knew that everything had been burned into his eyes, into his mind, pictures, he could never forget, he would never not recall.

Voldemort had seen that show only once. But for him, it was all too familiar. A boy standing in the centre of the hall with dignity, head up, eyes open. Black eyes - and green eyes. Quietus's eyes and Harry's eyes.

Snape didn't notice the tears on his face as he stood straight, with eyes wide open in terror. He felt almost in a trance, Harry's face suddenly transformed into Quietus's and back; he could see the painful gaze, painful, but full of life, acceptation, forgiving. Pain without breaking, power without aggression, death without fear...

"I am really satisfied, my dear professor that you finally enjoy it," he could hear the Greatest Bastard murmured words to his ears and then he noticed his tears too. He didn't wipe them though. It was already too late: Voldemort had noticed his weakness: his feelings towards the boy. Most probably, he betrayed Harry with his behaviour, but he couldn't help it. He tried to give his power to the boy somehow, through their gazes, to support him mentally, he desperately wanted to be in Harry's place to take his pains, to give his life for the boy's... To save him...

And he couldn't. Lily's words were clearly ringing in his ears: 'Swear! Swear on Quietus' name, you monster!' and he had sworn and now, he was just not able to help... 'Say: I will protect him with my life's sake' - and he had sworn for Quietus, because Lily Evans had known that it had been the only oath he would never break...

That oath now seemed to be so far away... and it didn't matter any more. It wasn't important any more. He was suffering because of Harry, just Harry, nobody else. It didn't matter his oath, his dead brother. Only this young, helpless boy standing in his own blood, dying in front of him.

He desperately wanted to save Harry for his sake, not for Lily's or Quietus's. They were dead. The boy was alive. Still.

When Harry finally collapsed, Snape immediately left his place and kneeled next to him screaming in his head as he stared at Harry's body. He wanted to lift him from the floor, but he couldn't find any harmless place on him to grasp, to touch without causing even more pain...

But Voldemort ordered them to leave to their cell, so he lifted Harry carefully into his arms, leaned his head on his shoulders, wrapped him with his own clothes as much as he could and carried him to the cell.

He sat in their familiar corner, still holding the child in his arms, his tears mixed with the boy's blood. He enveloped themselves in his cloak and tried desperately to pray to any god for help. He absentmindedly stroked the boy's hair and repeated at least hundred times, monotonously:

"Everything will be all right, Harry, everything will be all right..."

But he couldn't believe his own words any more. Even if they somehow would manage to survive all these days of torture, the boy would be compelled to live together with all of this, with the memory, and the pain, because there would always be pain: Voldemort's handiwork wasn't fully curable. Nothing would be the same. 'Nevermore. Nevermore' croaked Poe's raven in his mind. If they survived he would have to find a way to get Harry through it, if it was possible at all.

No it wasn't.

He was put under the Cruciatus only a few occasions but it had always been harder to bear with it in the consequent nightmares than awake, , harder – no, not physically but mentally and emotionally: the total defencelessness, humiliation, dread had been much more accentuated in dreams. In these nightmares, he always knew what would happen next, it was inevitable: his nightmares followed closely the burned-in scenes... And during the past 14 years he simply couldn't learn how to escape from them, how to wake up. He always had to relive them in their entirety.

Nightmares... and this was the living nightmare, the Manor of Nightmare. Damn the Great Bastard! And there was no escape. No awakening.

After a while, he felt calmer, and his tears dried up from his face. Harry's bleeding ceased but he felt him shivering because of the loss of blood. Snape lowered his head and bundled them as completely as he could to keep the heat inside.

He was exhausted and deadly tired, but he couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Harry suffering in silence or staring at him hopelessly, and from time to time these pictures were mixed with the scenes of Quietus's sufferings... He wrapped his arms more tightly around the boy, as if he could protect him from the following days' possibly horribly similar events...

His nightmares began now even without sleeping.

Damn it!

Suddenly, he felt a little shifting in his lap.

"Harry?" he whispered quietly.

"It hurts," the child quivered`. "Everything is burning... All my body... skin..."

"Sssssh," he rocked the helpless boy cautiously. "Try to have some rest."

"Professor," he began weakly. "I think I will die... I am sorry..."

"Everything will be all right, Harry. Just have some rest." Snape felt horrified by the boy's words. He repeated the sentence, trying to reassure Harry and himself too. "No, Harry. You won't die. Everything will be all right. Believe me."

"I am sorry..." he could hear the soft mumbling. "I will leave you alone, and I am sorry for that..."

"No, Harry," he began, but he couldn't continue. He felt stifled, there was no air in his lungs to say any more word, but tightened his embrace as if he would be able to protect Harry physically from... No. Harry couldn't die. He HAD to live, to survive.

When the boy's body finally went limp in his arms, he was shocked to death and unable to think for a very long moment. 'No!' he cried soundlessly.

It took some time for him to realise that the boy was only unconscious, not dead. His miscellaneous feelings tormented him, and felt sick and dizzy. But he didn't dare to move, to put the boy off from his lap, his hands. His newly found feelings warmed his heart, the strong wish to protect, to care for Harry was unthinkably powerful.

In the beginning of their captivity, he had sworn to himself he wouldn't hurt the boy any more. Now, he could feel that it wasn't enough. Sitting in the corner with the boy in his lap, he made another oath, a stronger one this time: he would care for the boy until his or Harry's death. He would help him in every possible way he could. He would try to be there for him. Until the end of their days. Amen.

An evil voice snickered in his head. 'You are so sentimental, Severus. Perhaps you are getting old. Or do you think that it is going to be an oath easy to maintain? The boy will die in some hours anyway, won't he?' He had to fight with his old reflexes that wanted him to return his normal mood of sarcasm and indifference. 'NO!' he silenced the inward thoughts. What was the meaning to be indifferent in the face of death? The boy deserved more than his indifference, cruelty, sarcasm and hatred. He was suffering all of them during the last years. NOW he had to give Harry the choice to take some comfort, care... love?

Oh, the last sounded perfectly ridiculous. He and love! He didn't know how to love someone. He couldn't love Quietus either. If he had known... Perhaps Quietus would have been alive now.

If he'd known how to love he wouldn't have been here. He wouldn't have become a Death Eater. He would have chosen Ravenclaw as the Sorting Hat had advised. He would have worked for the Ministry or Albus from the first moment... Perhaps he would have had a family too... children...

The mere thought shocked him. Had he really missed so much? Had he really wanted to become the person he was now? A loner, hating and hated bastard, the follower of a monster, a professional tormentor, a murderer of innocent people?

It was true he'd never wanted to live an average life, to have a typical way of living but... Wasn't it a little bit exaggerated? The life he finally lived until now was typical too, in a very perverse sense after all...

No. He would never be able to get enough penitence for what he'd done. Not in this hell either. He would never be forgiven.

These thoughts tormented him. Had Voldemort intended to achieve this by putting them together? Had the bastard suspected what would happen? That he would break him by his own feelings, his own self-loathing, own guilt?

He lifted up his head when he heard the door creaking angrily as it swung open. Avery stepped in.

"What do you want?" Snape barked with full hatred. "He is nearly dead. If you plan to continue your session I have to warn you he won't feel it."

Avery shrugged with an evil grin on his face. Times like this Snape had the feeling that the man wasn't normal. But strangely, his craziness seemed to overcome him only when it was needed.

"I am here to prolong his suffering, Severus," he showed two little bottles to the Potions Master and waved them in front of his face. "Do you know them I think?" he asked in feigned curiosity.

Snape knew them, of course. An Anti-Bleeding and a Strengthening Fusion. He had brewed those potions, like all the others they used in Voldemort's service. But he didn't know what Harry's real interest was: to receive the healing potions or to die.

But he desperately wanted Harry to live. He wanted to care for him, to comfort him, simply to be. And he wanted the boy to forgive him, at least Harry; he was still alive unlike so many others he would have owed more than an apology...

"Give them to me," he said finally to the waiting Death Eater.

"No. I will give them to him. I don't trust you, Severus."

Two other Death Eaters came in.

"Lay the boy on the floor."

He didn't want to obey but just as he opened his mouth to protest Avery snapped annoyed.

"If you don't obey, I'll throw Cruciatus on both of you."

Snape shuddered to this thought and placed the boy to the floor carefully.

"Move aside!"

As he lifted his leg to step away, he suddenly heard a whispered 'Crucio' and in the next moment he found himself jerking on the floor. It was a very long Cruciatus, it lasted until Avery made the boy to swallow the content of the small vials. After their leaving, Snape wasn't able to move for long minutes. His head was aching, his eyes burning, his muscles spasm. Finally, he forced his body to creep to Harry.

He could feel the scent of the potions in the air, and he felt confirmed: that one of them was the strengthening draught, and the other a more specialised potion for cases of severe blood loss like this. Suddenly, he felt very pleased with himself for being so accurate. They would have never found these potions in a mess, but in his office, everything was indexed and put in a straight order.

Next to the boy, he found the remainders of his clothes too, Avery apparently brought them to the boy, but the pieces weren't only ridiculous, bloody rags, nothing more. Yes, lifting up a piece of a something that had once been a piece of clothe, he remembered Avery's excruciatingly slow moves as he undressed Harry with the razor cutting the boy several times purposely during this "introduction." His stomach churned for the mere thought. He sighed and sat down lifting Harry again to his lap.

After a while he fell asleep.

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Harry woke with a start. He felt a strange move around his chest, as if somebody had tightened a grasp around him and a hand grabbed his arm.

"Wait... Quietus... wait!" he heard.

As Harry opened his eyes he could see Snape's face lingering in front of his own, frowning in an apparently horrid dream. In the next instant, he realised that the reason he could see his professor's face properly was that he was lying on his lap, nestled to his chest and his arms were embracing him. Embracing? No, it's better to say that pressing him as if the man wanted to protect him, or to stop him.

It was REALLY a strange situation. It was clearly embarrassing.

But in the same time, it was so comforting and so... different from the previous days' brutality, quite the opposite of them. It was something good he'd never felt before, something like if he were a little child his parent's arms.

His skin was still burning, and when he stirred he could remember immediately every cut of the day before, feeling each of them throbbing sharply. The sudden pain hit him with an unexpected force, and he jerked. The jerking was painful again. For an instant, Harry was gasping for breath and he clutched the professor's robes closing his eyes.

"Are you awake?" he heard a whispered question. Harry just nodded fighting against the pain. "Do you feel better?" he heard Snape's concerned voice.

After he could breathe again he responded.

"A little bit, sir. But..." he didn't know what to say. "It hurts a lot. The cuts..." He felt Snape shuddering.

"Yes, I can imagine, Harry. I had to watch the whole procedure of yours. Try to stay calm. It will help. They gave you some healing potions. You'll feel better."

Harry closed his eyes in thought. After a while he opened his mouth.

"I..." he spoke up, but in the end, he didn't finish the sentence.

"Yes?"

"I thought I would die, sir. I wanted to. I tried to fight against it but... I was weak."

"No," Snape answered abruptly. "You were not weak. You were strong, extremely strong. Stronger than anybody I'd ever seen before."

"But... I couldn't feel the pain as a sign of my power or a remainder. I... just wanted it to be finished. If you hadn't been there, I'd have surely failed."

"Harry, you endured. You held the pain with dignity. You were brave and strong."

"But I wanted to die."

"That's not a sign of your weakness. It's a natural reaction from the torture."

"You said that I mustn't give up. I mustn't trade my soul."

"Potter," Snape sighed a little bit annoyed. "The natural wish to have the pain be ended is not the same as to trade your soul. You betray yourself when you are prompt to do anything against your will just to let the torture be finished. But... it's very hard to explain the difference."

"I see," Harry smiled weakly. Then he added. "But I think I understand what you mean."

Harry realised that his eyes were still closed. He opened them cautiously and studied the man's face in the flickering torchlight. He felt his mouth extremely dry as he tried to swallow.

"Sir, I am thirsty," he whispered.

"I'll bring you water," Snape offered, but Harry shook his head.

"No, I think it would be good to stretch myself a little bit. And I have to use the loo anyway."

"Well, then..." Harry could see Snape's embarrassed expression. "But you are naked, Harry. And I think your clothes are... er… not suitable for wearing any more."

Harry shut his eyes and furrowed his head to Snape's shoulder. The mention of his nakedness didn't embarrass him, but it recalled Avery's image with the razor in his hand in his mind, and his helplessness and panic, he had felt looking at the man, because he hadn't known what to wait. And the first cuts, the first bites of the razor, the first slashes. He was shaking in aftershock.

Snape's arms tightened again around him, and the man began to rock him, slowly, back and forth and back and forth, like parents comfort a little baby, until he calmed down again. But Snape didn't release him immediately, he held him for some more minutes, and Harry felt as if he was in a dream, and he didn't want to wake up.

But the thirst didn't let him. When he tried to swallow the bitter saliva in his mouth, he just gagged his throat was so dry.

"You can let me go. I have to drink," Harry murmured softly and the professor nodded and cautiously released him. Even if he felt dizzy and weak, Harry stood up and tottered to the heap of his one-time clothes.

"Sir, I think 'not suitable' is an understatement," he sounded amused and grinned as he lifted something that was a tee-shirt in its youth. Decades ago, perhaps. It was dirty, bloody and was ripped into stripes by the razor.And his slacks... were no longer wearable. Harry sighed as he tried to dress nevertheless. He didn't dare look at his body, knowing all too well that the slashes on his skin followed perfectly the stripes' patterns, but after he had put them on, the 'clothes' began to irritate his burning cuts. Finally, he couldn't help but measure himself and he had to confess that his sight was much worse than he had expected.

"Harry..."

He turned to Snape. The man was so kind to him now. The way he had held him, rocked him… Harry felt his heart warming towards the monster of the dungeons. And even now, the professor was concerned about him, because he was handing Harry a piece of his robes.

"What...?" he asked in slight confusion.

"My sweatshirt... short of..." the Potions Master grinned. The grin was definitely awkward on his face. "Or it was that... some days ago."

Harry furrowed his brows.

"But... you need it too, sir."

"Take it, Harry. You need it more."

They were staring at each other for a long time.

"I can't," Harry finally said. "It's yours. But thanks nevertheless."

"You're mental, Potter. Take it or I will resort to violence to dress you," he sneered in mock anger. Harry rolled his eyes, but accepted it, and with a swift movement he put it on.

The sweatshirt was warm and still soft, but too big, like Dudley's handovers. Despite his pains Harry had to laugh as he finally measured himself again.

"I seem ridiculous," he said. Yes, he was. Snape's sweatshirt was long almost to his knees; the sleeves were nearly two times longer than his arms, so he had to roll them up. Under the sweater the long strips of his slacks floated around his legs... All in all he looked worse than Ron in the last Yule Ball in his dress robes. He had to snicker. "And I have no shoes."

"Nor have I," Snape nodded. "I don't even remember wearing shoes since we got here."

Harry nodded, and finally headed to do that he had wanted for quite a long, and drank. The jar was only half-full, so he sipped only a few draughts, but Snape barked at him.

"Drink more!"

"I have to spare the water," Harry protested.

"Not now. You need liquid in your organs to recuperate."

Harry didn't argue, but drank some more. Some minutes later he returned  to the corner Snape sat. He was not sure what he should do, so he lowered himself  next to his professor.

"Come nearer, Harry. You'll be cold," Snape said in an unexpectedly kind voice, but Harry didn't dare to move. He heard the professor sighing as the man shifted and slipped closer to him and pulled the cloak around them as he had done the day before. "We have no proper clothes. If we don't intend to get a cold to add some more to our problems, we have to get warm somehow. Is that clear?"

Harry just nodded, but he felt much better when an arm sneaked around his shoulders. It was again... as he would be a child and the professor the parent. He shut his eyes and leaned into the offered warmth.

Snape was a little surprised when the boy cuddled to him.

"Are you all right?" he asked cautiously.

"I don't think I'll ever be all right again," Harry said and yawned. A moment later he added "I mean even if I survive this somehow, I guess I would never be able to... to get through of all of it. It's just too much… but now, I am all right. You are so... nice with me now. And this is so strange but good... something like belonging..." he mumbled embarrassed.

Snape shifted in fluster and couldn't answer anything.

"Who is Quietus?" Harry asked softly after a while.

"How do you know...?" Snape's voice was sharp for a moment, but he immediately regretted the tone. Harry's reaction was fast.

"Sorry, sir," he lowered his head and moved away.

"You don't have to apologise, Harry," Snape tightened his embrace for an instant reassuring and retaining Harry in the same time. "I was just a little bit... surprised that you know about him."

"Your nightmares..." Harry breathed. "And yesterday when you woke up you called me that name. Did you mix me up with him?"

Suddenly, Snape remembered the caress... the kindness of the boy, who had touched him, the meanest professor of the school, the man who had treated Harry like shit for years, the murderer... Was it THAT kindness, which caused the change of his feelings from tolerating the boy to caring for him? It seemed that every good thing in his life was somehow related to Quietus...

"Quietus was my brother," he answered quietly. "And you remind me of him sometimes," he added after a second.

"Has he... died?" Harry asked as silently as he could. Snape just nodded. "How...?"

"Voldemort killed him," Harry could see the professor's teeth clenched. Snape closed his eyes and took some deep breath to calm himself down. "He killed him here, in Nightmare Manor in the Main Hall after six rounds of torture because he refused to join him, and my father had decided to force him. Finally, he defied Voldemort, and he killed him."

Again, the pictures appeared in front of his eyes like they had done since Azkaban. Quietus dying... the funeral... He absentmindedly tightened his embrace around Harry... around Quietus... for a moment, he really believed that he was sitting next to his brother. As he realised that it was Harry he was holding, he tried to release him embarrassed, but then he felt a pair of arms wrapping around his chest comforting him. This manifestation of care hushed his embarrassment,  and for long minutes, they were just sitting and holding each other in silence.

"You are as brave as him..." he muttered silently. "As you endured the tortures, the pain, as you faced death with dignity... you are just like him."

Harry couldn't say anything. It seemed that every topic would end with the death of somebody related somehow to his Potions Master... His lover, and now, his brother... Just like he'd said. 'But if we decide to go on this talking about the past, we will meet more death than you can imagine.' Perhaps this was the reason of the Potions Master's cold and sarcastic behaviour... the losses he had in his life...

"Professor?" he asked suddenly.

"Hm-mm?" Snape hummed absentmindedly.

"Why is dignity so important? If I have to die is it not the same?"

"Well... er... from a strictly materialistic point of view perhaps," Snape answered perplexed.

"You mean Dumbledore's words?"

"Which words?" the professor asked curiously.

"'To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.' He told me after my adventures with Quirrell."

"No. I didn't want to talk about some kind of afterlife. I don't know what to believe about it. It's something different..." he sighed. "I think I learnt it from Quietus. We all are going to die sooner or later. We can never be sure when. So we have to live our lives so that we would never regret to..."

"Did you regret your life, sir?" Harry wasn't sure if it was a wise question, perhaps not, but it was already out. He prepared for a sharp rejection, but Snape just jerked.

"Many times, yes. I regret many things. But that's another story. I don't regret my lost dignity, because I was never forced to lose it. I regret other things."

"Oh... But if I am completely sure that I would die why couldn't I just give up?"

"Harry, listen," Snape sighed deeply. "It's very hard to explain. I try to give you an example, but that won't be the perfect answer to your question. I'm afraid that perfect answer doesn't actually exist. Right?"

"Right, sir," the boy responded meekly.

"I said that Voldemort killed my brother." Harry nodded. "I had to participate in that torture from the very first moment. Like your case..." Harry could again feel the shivering of the professor's body. "I was one of his tormentors, though I loved him more than anybody else in my life. Or it's better to say: he was the only one I really cared about and loved. And then again, I was one of those, who made him suffer. He endured with dignity and THEN I understood how misled my life was. His death showed me something about life I'd never known. The light. The meaning. To being human."

"I think I understand, sir," Harry answered almost inaudibly softly.

"Knowing you, I believe you," Snape smiled. "But let me finish the story."

Harry nodded again.

"After the fourth or fifth round I couldn't cause more pain to Quietus. I was just standing there unable to move. My father threw the Cruciatus to me. And they killed him. I took his body and Apparated to Hogwarts. I went to Dumbledore's office and I made an oath to him on Quietus' name to fight against Voldemort as long as he would be defeated."

"Did Dumbledore know your brother? How?" Harry asked curiously.

"He attended Hogwarts too. He was a prefect and in his last year he was the Head Boy too. Everybody knew and loved him."

"I see..." Harry was perplexed.

Snape didn't want to continue the conversation about Quietus, so he decided to change topic.

"If you want some more examples to your question about the meaning of dignity in dying you may think of your mother and father," he said softly. "They didn't know that their resistance would save you. They just died as they lived."

Harry shivered all over and Snape asked anxiously.

"Are you okay, Harry?"

"Yes, but it's so... so strange..." Harry murmured lost in thoughts.

"What?"

"From your examples one could conclude that the death of this sort gives... life... Dignity causes life... Or so..."

Snape's eyes widened as he looked at the boy. Harry was not only as clever as he'd suspected after their talks before. He was wise, like an old man with dozens of experiences. Well, perhaps the boy was not old, but he HAD enough experiences as it seemed.

They were sitting in the semi-dark corner wordlessly. Harry fell asleep soon and Snape again lifted the lightly shaking boy into his lap. He didn't know precisely why he did this. He just... did. It seemed the right thing to do. It was something he'd never experienced before, but he decided he liked it. The professor leaned his head against the wall and stared at the nearby torch with an unfocused gaze for a long time, and wondered again about his past, his lost opportunities and his seemingly non-existing future. Love, caring, family... words, things that would never come true. Still, Harry was alive; he could feel something like that.

Yes. These were indeed happy days in front of the gate of Hell. But they were not in Hell. Not while they were able to share humanity, dignity, care, hope, dreams...

Strange thoughts for a mean git Potions Master, he thought sarcastically. But not so strange for someone condemned to death.

They were 'dead men' walking towards their place of execution with slow steps, and their feelings were likely as any other men's sharing this fate.

He was aware that his feelings were probably the consequence of their present psychical and mental situation. But did it matter, really? Even in everyday life, happiness or sadness were only consequences of various inner and outer events too...

Lost in his thoughts, Snape finally followed Harry to sleep.

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As the car stopped in front of the Burrow, its door swung open and Hermione stormed out.

"Ron!" she shrieked seeing her friend's face. She ran to the red-haired boy and jumped to his neck. "Ron," she repeated more quietly and began to sob in her friend's embrace.

Ron felt quite embarrassed by Hermione's affection display but he didn't want to hurt the grieving girl by pushing her away. He sighed and murmured some reassuring words into her ears.

Some moments later, Mrs. Weasley saved her son from the girl's hug as she embraced her shortly and waved her hand towards the door inviting Hermione's family inside.

They were already in the kitchen sitting by the table, but nobody was brave enough to have broken the silence. Finally, Hermione's father spoke up.

"We heard some really disturbing news from Hermione just after the term's end," he began with a sigh. "And yesterday she got her newspaper, which said that her friend, Harry was possibly lost. She said that he is surely kidnapped and she wanted to come and talk to you. And," for an instant, he looked perplexed "Joan and I would like to hear something more about all this. More, because it seems a beginning of a war to me."

"It is," Mrs. Weasley assured him firmly. "Or it will be in no time."

Hermione's father nodded.

"I suspected."

After a long break, Hermione turned to Ron.

"Do you know something more about Harry? Your father? Dumbledore? Anybody?"

Ron shook his head desperately.

"Nothing. But we could wait for dad; he, perhaps, will have some news when he gets back."

"Ron's father works for the Ministry of Magic," Hermione explained to his mother. "And what about You-Know-Who? Does Fudge still ignore the fact of his return?"

"Fudge is an idiot," Ron murmured under his breath, and to Hermione's great amazement, Mrs. Weasley didn't correct his son.

"Fudge didn't confirm Dumbledore's announcement, but the most part of the wizarding world still knows about it."

"Yeah, the Ending Feast..." Hermione whispered.

"The Ministry didn't want to do anything, although they reorganised and widened the Auror-training courses. Percy decided to become an Auror because his new boss didn't tolerate his passionate attitude to his work."

"Oh," Hermione smiled slightly. "It means that a normal person is the successor of Crouch."

"No, he is not normal. He just cannot stand Percy. These two things are not synonymous," Ron answered and Mrs Weasley sighed deeply.

"Ron. I asked you to watch your mouth."

"But mum, dad said this to you and you did agree with him!" he yelled surprised.

Despite the general sadness, Hermione's parents smiled and Mrs. Weasley blushed.

"Ronald!" she didn't said anything else, but his son shut up his mouth and leaned forward his chair.

"The situation in the wizarding world is not too bad yet," Mrs. Weasley turned to her Muggle guests. "You-Know-Who is probably rearranging his powers and rebuilding his system before he begins something more serious. So it seems, we have time if we want to do something, but the ministry didn't believe the story of Harry," she stopped and glanced at the couple as if to see if they knew of the Triwizard Tournament's events.

"Hermione told us almost everything about it," Mrs. Granger nodded approvingly, waiting for the continuation.

"Well. So time is against us now. We are almost totally impotent, because of the Ministry's denial."

"About this... You-Know-Who," Hermione's father sighed again. "Will it have consequences for the muggle world too?"

Mrs. Weasley lowered her head.

"I'm afraid there will be serious consequences. But not just for the muggle word. The muggleborn wizards will be in the greatest and constant danger in the future. The ones like your daughter..."

Uncomfortable silence fell to the kitchen.

"But Hogwarts is a safe place, mum," Ron said finally. "Hermione won't be hurt there! She is in greater danger at home."

"Yes, that's true," Mrs. Weasley nodded and lifted her gaze to Hermione's parents. "But this summer will be... uneventful, we hope."

"How can we say this?" Hermione yelled abruptly. "Harry's kidnapped! You-Know-Who is already moving!"

"Hermione, Harry is kidnapped because he fled away from home. You-Know-Who was not powerful enough to break the protection walls of his house. And don't forget that Harry was always the first and constant target of him, I don't know why," Ron placed an arm on Hermione's shoulder reassuringly. "And I hope, I believe, that Harry will return."

Hermione shook her head.

"Look, Ron. If he kidnapped Harry, he has already killed him. I am sure."

"You are wrong. If he had already killed Harry, we would have known. He would use his death to intimidate the wizarding world..."

"But this is a bloody nonsense!" the girl cried again. "If it was You-Know-Who who kidnapped him, he wouldn't have waited for so long. No."

"Or," everybody turned his head to Mrs. Weasley who began to speak nearly inaudible "He wants to break him. To show the whole world that Harry is not the hero we believe him to be."

"To break him?" Hermione's father asked. "What does it mean? Certainly not physical abuse..."

"Not ONLY physical abuse, Mr. Granger," the deep sadness in Mrs. Weasley's voice was unmistakable. "And if I am right, as I think, like Arthur, he would surely break. You-Know-Who has time to reach his aim."

"It's unbelievable, Mrs. Weasley. We are living in the 20th century for God's sake!"

"It was this century that produced the greatest massacre of innocent people. Both in the Wizarding and Muggle word, if I'm not mistaken," she answered sternly, and the Grangers lowered their gazes.

"Er... right..." Mr. Granger whispered. "But... What could we do against all of this?"

Mrs. Weasley leaned her face to her hands.

"Nothing," she mumbled. "We can just pray for him to return alive."

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