The Death Eaters' lair was louder than James Potter had expected, but he supposed he shouldn't be surprised. Who did they have to fear, if they were discovered here? Any discoverer would only provide more sport for the masked revelers.
The air was hot and fetid, and James didn't want to think about what sort of potions had been brewed here, or what had been in them.
Silently, stealthily, he made his way through the crowd. Voldemort himself sat on a dais, overlooking everything with an unreadable gaze. A masked witch sat at his feet, bathing them in a substance that looked suspiciously like blood. For a moment, James looked directly into the Dark Lord's eyes, daring him to look back through the invisibility cloak. But Voldemort knew nothing of the cloak, and certainly would have thought it nothing but child's play if he had learned of it. It was a blind spot that James could exploit... but not one that could be exploited as much as it needed to be.
There were drunken wizards and witches in dark corners, playing cruel games with one another and with terrified captives that James couldn't rescue, not tonight. Maybe not ever. Many were muggles, and their minds would never recover, not even with the ministry's department of muggle affairs performing expert memory spells. It would be merciful to--
James stopped and breathed deeply, ignoring the stench. It wouldn't do to start thinking like that. He couldn't rescue these people tonight, but they would be rescued, and he was sure that they would prefer it to being dead, no matter how badly the memory charms worked. After tonight, he would organize a group to come here, to release the captives.
But tonight had to come first.
He started to work through the crowd again, going deeper into Voldemort's lair, unseen and silent. He didn't know where he was headed yet, but he knew that it would be deep. Even the Death Eaters would not want to take a chance of this being seen... perhaps many of them didn't even know.
A Death Eater pushed forward through the crowd, and James barely had time to find a clear spot to jump to. The man was small and not terribly graceful, and there was something familiar about him, but James couldn't place it, and warned himself not to try. The masks were disconcerting, and if he started trying to guess what faces were behind them, he would drive himself mad with paranoia.
As soon as the Death Eater passed, James stepped carefully back into his former path. There was no time to waste.
Lily hadn't wanted him to come tonight--with baby Harry to take care of now, she thought he should leave these kinds of dangerous jobs to someone else. Sirius, she'd suggested. Sirius would go.
Well, of course he would have. But Sirius wouldn't have been able to get through this room and all its horrors without trying to right things, and Lily knew it as well as James did. In the end, only Dumbledore had been able to sway her. He'd come to them and held Harry gently in his arms.
"Lily," he'd said, "there is a mother out there whose twin sons are missing. You see your son here, and you know he is safe. But imagine how Molly and Arthur Weasley feel. They have an infant son just Harry's age, and she is carrying another child. They have older children to care for. But these two have been taken, and they can't leave their others to go look. The Dark Mark is still lighting the sky above their home."
"I thought they only sent it up when they killed," James said. "Are you sure the boys are...?"
"Whoever took them left a note for Arthur Weasley, thanking him for his contribution to the Dark Lord's health. They've been taken for a reason, and any potion that involves blood will require it to be freshly spilled."
Dumbledore looked at her solemnly. "With luck, other things will have needed obtaining, and there will be time to get them tonight. But there will certainly not be another night. Lily, be a mother, and imagine how James is needed."
Neither Lily nor James had met the Weasleys (though Arthur's name was known to both of them), but at that moment, they seemed closer than any other human beings. Lily reached across and took Harry from Dumbledore, and curled up at the end of the sofa with him protected in the circle of her arms. "All right."
Dumbledore touched her arm and spoke gently. "I know it isn't a small thing that I ask. I haven't asked for anything since your pregnancy, and I promise not to ask it often. But we are at war, Lily, and if we don't--"
"I said all right, Professor."
"I gave you permission to call me Albus, Lily."
"I'll call you Albus when James comes back."
Dumbledore nodded and stood up. "You must go tonight, James. There can be no delay." With that, he Disapparated, leaving James and Lily alone with Harry.
James leaned over his family, and kissed them both. "I'll save the twins and I'll be back, Lily. I promise. I'll be careful."
She'd held his hand tightly for a moment, then let him go. She didn't watch him leave. She never did--she believed it was bad luck. She wouldn't admit that was the reason, but James knew it.
One of Dumbledore's spies had told him where the Death Eaters were gathered, and James had flown his broomstick to a small hollow a kilometer away, with the cloak on the whole time. He hid the broomstick in the foliage. It wasn't safe to Apparate nearby; they would have protection hexes that would be unlikely to follow the rules of safety set out by the Ministry.
That last kilometer was the longest he'd ever walked, and now, inside, he was certain that the night would never end.
The room suddenly fell silent, and James froze in his place. He could see most of the room, and the cause of the disturbance was obvious.
Voldemort had stood on the dais. He raised one hand, a fist, then extended a long, sharp finger at one of the Death Eaters. The Death Eater went forward toward the dais, his steps slow and measured. Long white-blond hair lay shockingly against his black robes. He knelt before his master. "What is your wish?"
When Voldemort spoke, his voice was high and amused. "I wish a progress report, Lucius. I am not accustomed to waiting so long for our young potions master."
The Death Eater--Lucius--stood and bowed. "As you wish, I will obey. And I will see that the potions master does as well."
Voldemort nodded solemnly then returned to his throne. The revelry began again, as though it had never been interrupted. The Death Eater named Lucius swept grandly through the room, passing not a meter from where James stood. A staircase led down from the end of the hall, and he descended with aplomb.
James followed him.
The staircase twisted several times before reaching a crooked basement passage. Rough wooden doors lined the walls, and James could hear moaning and screaming from within. Lucius didn't pause. He went straight to the end of the passageway, where a door stood open. There, he stopped. "You have tarried long enough, potions master," he said. "The Dark Lord wishes haste."
A low, calm, and familiar voice responded. "The Dark Lord wishes accuracy as well. The blood must be freshly spilled when it is added, and that means that the rest of the potion must already be brewed. It is complex, and requires simmering to blend the ingredients. I will beg forgiveness from the Dark Lord if I am displeasing him, but I do not plan to murder him with an inaccurate potion."
Lucius stood uncertainly at the door, then squared his shoulders. "See to it that you use no more time than is necessary, Snape." He turned as gracefully as he could in the narrow corridor, and went back toward the stairs. James let him pass.
Old bile rose in James's chest. I should have let Sirius feed you to Remus, he thought. I should have let you die rather than come to this.
He made his way to the door, stepping carefully around broken stones and small animal bones. The room beyond was round and dismal. A cauldron hung over a fire that had been built at the center of the room, and the walls were lined with foul-looking jars. And on the floor, beside the cauldron, was a wooden cage, where two red-haired toddlers grasped one another's hands. Incredibly, both were smiling.
Beyond the cauldron, partially screened by steam, stood Severus Snape, unmasked and carrying a long knife in one hand.
Every muscle in Severus Snape's body was wound into a tight coil.
Malfoy would believe him for an hour, perhaps two. On other nights, that might have been enough. He would be able to gather himself and do what needed to be done. But tonight, the longer Snape had been in this room, letting the potion stock boil and simmer needlessly before him, the more he understood one fundamental truth: He was not going to kill the Weasley twins.
He was able to--he had killed in the past--and he could think of no logical reason not to, but all the same, he'd found every possible reason to put off their bleeding, and now that he was out of excuses, he still wasn't doing it. There was no question in his mind, and he didn't recall making a momentous choice. He was simply not going to take the knife to them.
This surprised him.
The potion was his creation and his idea--to cleanse Lord Voldemort of his hated Muggle blood--and he had been enthusiastic about trying it. Root of asphodel, immature mandrake, laceweed, and a group of plant ingredients that had been banned by the Ministry many years ago because they effected permanent changes in the wizards who used them. But he'd realized that the essence would need to come from a pureblood. He hadn't expressed any preference for the age or the family. It didn't matter.
Damn Lucius Malfoy and his petty political maneuvering! Arthur Weasley had opposed him on some puerile bit of ministry business, so Lucius had chosen his twin sons--about whom, Lucius claimed, Arthur spoke ad nauseum during their workdays--for the sacrifice.
Snape wished idly that Malfoy had decided to sacrifice his own precious little brat to the glory of the Dark Lord, which would have the added benefit of allowing the rest of the community a respite from Lucius and Narcissa's incessant fawning.
I wouldn't kill Draco Malfoy, either.
Snape stared dully into the cauldron steam. This was getting progressively more unsettling. He was not a sentimental man, and did not desire to become one. That was for weak men who allowed themselves to be bound by irrational codes of value, men like Arthur Weasley or James Potter or his own father--powerful wizards who had chosen to inflict themselves with this petrificus curse of morality. Snape had rejected this before he'd even arrived at Hogwarts. He had watched his father let his mother die, even though Severus had known where to find a unicorn, and offered to slay it to save her. He had vowed never to bind himself that way, and to make his father pay for that weakness.
That particular mission had been accomplished last month in a blinding flash of light. Snape had given his father time to recognize him, and Siseal Snape had used that time to disown him: "I have no son."
The last words he had heard, in his nonexistent son's voice, were avada kedavra.
But it somehow seemed to slip Snape's mind from time to time. Every time he saw a destitute old man in threadbare robes, he had a moment's thought that it was his father, returning to denounce him again. One such old man had asked him for money--"I have no gold," he'd said, but Snape had heard, "I have no son." He had been positive of what he'd heard until the old man was dead, and suddenly stopped looking familiar.
Snape had no love for families like the Weasleys and no weakness for children--he found both annoyingly pedestrian and uninspired--but the boys who were playing together in their butchers' cage were not going to die at his hands. It was as uncomplicated as that.
Except that it was never going to be uncomplicated. He had unwisely written the potion down for Lord Voldemort's perusal, and the man remembered everything. If Snape refused, he would die in a rush of green light, and another Death Eater would be called upon to bleed the twins and brew the potion. Snape was by far the best potions master among Lord Voldemort's followers, but he was by no means the only one. The boys needed to be removed from this place, and that meant getting through the narrow dungeon hallways and the crowded hall upstairs.
One of the twins stuck out a pink tongue and giggled. His brother slapped at him and made some sort of infant noise that Snape couldn't identify.
Snape bent down beside the cage and looked in at them without any emotion that he could identify, other than a vague annoyance that these two vacant-faced babies were going to cause him to turn his carefully built life upside down.
"Damn Malfoy," he said aloud, switching his knife into his left hand and taking his wand in his right. Couldn't he have just taken Weasley himself, who had long since earned an appointment with the Death Eaters? Why take these boys?
"Am!" one of them repeated.
The other nodded. "Amalfoy."
They laughed again, a grating sound that drove a dagger through Snape's already aching head. He closed his eyes and rubbed them, then pointed his wand at the boys and muttered, "Silentium!"
The twins continued chattering, apparently unperturbed by the fact that no sound was actually escaping their mouths anymore.
Well, that was a relief anyway.
He stood, keeping his gaze fixed on the boys in the cage. There was nothing special about them. Were they worth what he was contemplating?
Their worth is irrelevant. They are merely the line that has been drawn.
Snape was vaguely aware that he was grinding his teeth and grimacing so tightly that his face hurt, the way he used to when his father lectured him, incessantly, every time he'd gotten in trouble at Hogwarts.
If he took the twins away, the Death Eaters would kill him if they caught him. And they would--he had nowhere else to take refuge. Dumbledore's pathetic collection of do-gooders would certainly not want anything to do with him, nor did he want anything to do with them. Hypocrites like Sirius Black and James Potter, whose succession of petty cruelties had apparently never tarnished their haloes, were hardly men whose company he would seek. Sentimental fools like Dumbledore and Weasley bored him.
And the Death Eaters made him ill.
The injustice of it rose up suddenly, painfully, and Snape let out a shout of frustration, swinging the knife clumsily toward the wall.
At the height of its arc, the thin air grabbed his wrist.
James had long since lost the fascination of seeing others when they thought no one was watching--it had always been an uncomfortable fascination, and by his second year of using the cloak, it had largely faded. But standing here in this room, watching Severus Snape--a man he'd dismissed long ago as a lost cause--fighting with the demons in his mind...
It had come back.
He'd initially planned to sneak around Snape, distract or stun him, then transfigure the twins into something smaller and carry them off under the cloak. When Snape had knelt beside the cage, something had changed. Snape had changed.
In their years together at Hogwarts, James had rarely given a second thought to what Snape was about, other than the curses he routinely hurled when the teachers weren't watching. He'd saved him from Remus when Sirius had tried to trick him, but that had been more for their sake than for Snape's. Now, time seemed to fold over on itself, and James saw Severus at Hogwarts, always alone, even when he was with his supposed friends. The boy his mind saw now was the boy in the shadows, the one who always seemed to set himself apart. No one had made any effort to change that. Snape hadn't seemed to want any effort; he preferred his strange invisibility.
But that boy had been there, James was sure of it, and suddenly ashamed of himself for blithely sticking to the snap judgment he'd made during first year, and never growing up enough to try and see things from the other boy's point of view. Snape probably would have rejected it... but why had no one ever tried?
The boy in the shadows had become the man in the cloud of steam, and James could see in his face that something was tearing him in half.
He thought of Lily at home, and Sirius and Remus--what would they do?
The voice of Sirius Black, always half-joking, always just on the safe side of biting, came into his mind immediately: You're worrying about Snape? Severus Snape? He got himself into this and you know it. Whatever's with him now, he can work it out on his own.
Lily's face came to him, but her voice was mute. She simply held Harry close, and he knew... Lily would say to rescue those boys and worry about Snape's torment when he had finished.
And Remus: Snape has his problems, James. We don't know what they are. He's very good at whatever it is he does, and it's a shame he chose the wrong side... but he did choose it. Only he can unchoose it.
Remus, of all of them, had come to sound the most like Dumbledore, and it was his imagined voice that seemed to echo most clearly in James's mind for that reason. At school, James might have run for Dumbledore, but school was over and now Dumbledore had come to him. The lessons were learned, and James was left with the decision of how to act on them.
Snape was on the verge of a choice, and to leave him lost in the mist would be unconscionable.
James saw Snape's arm twitch, then swing in a tight arc, the knife flashing in the firelight.
He didn't think anymore.
He just reached out and caught Snape's arm.
Snape might have screamed, and that would have cost them everything, but in the end, he was too surprised to make a sound. By the time he'd registered that the invisible vise around his wrist felt like a hand, the air was shimmering oddly in front of him. For a moment he expected the ghost of his father to appear and reprimand him.
Then, in a swirl of cloth, James Potter appeared.
The Invisibility Cloak was still draped over his lower arm and hand, and the arm appeared to be amputated. Potter looked at it and raised an eyebrow. "Would you mind dropping the knife, Snape?"
Snape was going to agree, but Potter didn't wait. He just applied pressure to Snape's wrist and twisted it to make the knife fall to the floor, then let go and let the cloak fall away.
"Accio," he said, and the knife flew into his hand.
Anger rose up in Snape, as it always seemed to when he saw Potter or one of his cadre. He would have handed over the knife. He wasn't going to use it anyway. "You're a fool," he said.
"And one who will undoubtedly regret this," Potter said. He went to the cage and opened it with a simple alohamora--turning his back on Snape, a slap in the face--and pulled the Weasley twins out of it. He held them, one in each arm, and returned his attention to Snape. "You have no intention of killing them, do you Severus?"
Snape didn't answer. His private dilemmas were not for Potter's ears, nor those of his snooping compatriots.
"Damn you, there's no time for these childish tempers. These boys are leaving this place tonight, with or without your help."
Snape found his voice. That impatient, miserable, parental scolding tone... how dare Potter speak to him that way? "Why would you imagine I would want to help you?"
"I don't imagine you want to help me, or these boys for that matter. But you're halfway to making a choice, and for some damned reason I care whether or not you actually make it."
Naturally--saving the twins wasn't enough. James Potter, the sanctimonious little would-be hero, would want to see Severus Snape break down and swear allegiance to his little tribe. Only then would he be satisfied.
Snape crossed his arms. "I could kill you where you stand, Potter. I still have my wand. I could kill you and put those brats back where they came from."
"And go back to brooding over them until Voldemort comes down and kills you?"
"Perhaps all I needed was for some fool to come in here and remind me why I chose this in the first place."
Potter straightened his back, adjusting the Weasley twins to balance on his hips. "If that's what you plan to do, Severus, then do it and be done with it. What more excuse do you need than my presence here?"
But Snape didn't reach for his wand, and again realized with a sinking feeling that he wasn't actually planning on doing so. Here was James Potter--James Potter! --helpless to act because he was carrying a silently squalling child in each arm, having foolishly revealed himself before taking action, and Snape was doing nothing, and planned to continue doing nothing.
What devil's spell was this?
The seconds spun out and the cauldron steam drifted.
Potter spoke first, and his voice was softer than it had been, almost understanding. Snape hated him for that. "Severus, listen to me. The twins are going back to their parents either way. We both know I can get past you if I need to. But I'm giving you a chance. Make your choice, Severus. Whatever it's going to be."
Snape frowned. "Wouldn't it be somewhat easier for you to go by yourself? Hide the children under that cloak and leave?"
"It's not that easy." Potter set the boys down on a countertop. "It's crowded up there, and the cloak doesn't do anything about people who run into you. It would be easier with two people, one getting everyone out of the way... distracting them, so there's a path."
"You're joking. You expect me to go up there and interrupt them for you?"
"I was actually thinking I would do the interruption."
"Why would you do such a thing?"
"To give you a way back in."
"You're in the center, here, Severus. If you choose to, you could help us more than anyone I can imagine. If they catch me, they will assume that I came in with someone else, and you chased whoever it was out of the lair while the rest were occupied with me. You come back, having failed--"
"--and Lord Voldemort performs the cruciatus curse on me."
Potter nodded slowly. "It's possible."
"Would you be able to withstand it?"
"How I hate you."
"I didn't mean it like that." He took a few deep breaths. "I suppose I did, but I mean... if you choose to simply stay with Dumbledore, then bringing the boys back would still be enough. If you feel you can't--"
"Potter, even if you believe I would help you with these two brats, what on Earth would make you think I would commit suicide for your cause? That I would even desire to do so, regardless of what I can or cannot withstand?"
"You're right. I got carried away, imagining that you might behave like a responsible adult." Before Snape could respond, Potter shook his head sharply. "Nevertheless, I do believe you intend to help me get the boys out of here. I believe you were contemplating your options in that regard before I arrived."
"And if you're right?"
"Then why not leave the door open, in case you do choose to go through it?"
Snape looked at the knife, which Potter had set down on the counter beside the twins. He looked at the cauldron with its foul brew. He listened to the revelry upstairs, the screams of the tortured muggles.
All the power of the magical world opened to them, unfettered, he thought. And this is what they choose to do with it--make sport of petty cruelties done to non-entities.
"Dumbledore is at Hogwarts?"
Potter's eyes looked surprised behind his glasses, as though he hadn't expected this all along. "Yes," he said. "Dumbledore is waiting there with the family."
"And how do you propose I enter the grounds? Simply stride in under the cloak?"
"You could Apparate into Hogsmeade and use the passage under the Shack."
Snape didn't know how to respond. It brought back memories of that night, so long ago, when he'd found a full-grown werewolf waiting for him at the Shrieking Shack... or would have. He quickly calculated the time since the last full moon--three weeks--and realized that Potter wasn't trying to trap him again, but--
"Very well. The passage under the Shrieking Shack."
"Good. You take the Cloak. It's probably best if you wear it all the way. Leave it with Dumbledore if you find you can't get it back to me."
"And what," Snape asked, "do you anticipate that I will say to the headmaster?"
"I have no idea. I don't want to know. It's not my business."
He held out the Invisibility Cloak.
Snape stared at it. In later years, he realized that it couldn't have been a truly long moment, not then. Potter's face never changed, the extended arm never faltered, there was no interruption from upstairs.
But for Snape, time seemed to sharpen, to draw slow-running blood from the line that was cutting his past from his future. Like all moments of agony, it was etched into his memory in frozen seconds.
The he reached out, not letting his eyes move from James Potter's face, and took the Cloak.
James knew it was ungenerous, but the moment Snape's hand touched the Invisibility Cloak, he wanted to pull it back. It had been his father's, and his father's before him, back into the misty days where its origins were lost. Dad said it had been a gift from Merlin himself to an ancestor, but that was probably one part garbled family memory and four parts pure poppycock.
But if it was a gift--from Merlin or from some other powerful wizard--then it was a gift that had been given in order to be used, and there was no better use for it than the one it would have tonight.
James let go of it.
Once it was securely in Snape's hands, a kind of energy seemed to go with it. Snape began to pace. "You should take my robes," he said, shucking off the black outer robes he had been wearing. "Pull the hood up, and wear the mask." He took two heavy potions texts off a table near the cauldron, and tossed them into sacks. (James realized with a turn of the stomach that the Weasley boys had been brought here in these sacks.) "Carry these. They'll change your balance and make it look like you're carrying the twins. Go toward the front of the room. I'll carry the boys under the cloak along the back wall."
James was already putting on the black robes, and nodded absently, picking up the books as soon as the hood was up. He thought they might actually weigh more than the boys. "The mask?" he asked, temporarily shifting both bags to one hand.
Snape handed it to him. "It is fitted to my face and will likely be loose on you. Don't move too sharply."
James set the books down and adjusted the mask on his face. It bumped strangely against his glasses, and stunk of the potions Snape had been brewing. "You should transfigure the twins," he said. "Make them smaller, easier to move."
Snape looked at the children. "No," he said. "I haven't practiced transfiguration for some time, and the complications of human transfiguration... I will carry them as they are."
"If that's what you think is best."
Snape glared at him, and James was surprised to see pure loathing in his eyes. It wasn't an act--he was going to help, he might even join Dumbledore... but he would always loathe James for seeing this. It made no sense.
"Are you ready?" James asked.
Snape nodded, and draped himself in the Invisibility Cloak. He disappeared from the neck down, then his arms appeared through the opening in the front. (James had done this many times, but rarely watched it from the outside, and it did look odd.) He gathered the boys into the crooks of his arms.
"The cloak will keep itself shut," James said. "As long as it isn't deliberately pulled. I'm not sure what the magic is, but it does hold."
"Very well." He glowered. "I will need assistance with the hood."
James pulled the hood over Snape's head, then stepped back from the empty spot where he knew Snape was standing. "I'll go up now. When you hear the shouting start, move."
"Obviously," the thin air said.
James looked at the place he was fairly sure Snape's face occupied. "You're doing the right thing, Severus. You won't be sorry."
"Don't fancy that you've saved my soul, Potter."
"I don't. All I did was offer you a way to save it yourself."
There was no answer, and James didn't really expect one.
"All right, then," he said. "I'm going."
He picked up the sacks with the books in them and started out into the corridor, trying to think of the best distraction he could manage. A moan from one of the side rooms distracted him... then answered the question.
Not down here. The hall was too narrow for Snape to escape if there were commotion here. But upstairs... upstairs, he could do what he had wanted to do in the first place.
He ran for the crooked stairs, Snape's robes tearing behind him like a bat's wings, the mask knocking against his glasses with every step. As he moved, he let maneuvered his wand into his hand, holding it against the heavy sack, pointed outward. As soon as he reached the main room and its never-ending party, he pointed the wand at the nearest captive muggle and cried, at the top of his voice, "Liberare!"
The ropes binding the man's wrist didn't simply fall away. They snapped back like whips, striking the Death Eaters who were torturing him. They drew back in surprise, then the yelling started.
James dove into the center of the crowd, loudly calling out the release spell and making as big a ruckus as he could. The muggles at first looked at him with dazed eyes and did nothing, but as more were freed, they began to realize that there was a mutiny going on. One of them kicked her captor in the chest while James happened to be looking her way.
The Death Eater she'd kicked pointed his wand at her, and she fell to the ground shrieking. James did finite incantatem, but had no time to check her progress. The Death Eaters, at first confused by the activity, seemed to have finally picked up on its source. They turned away from their captives and began to chase him.
He leapt up onto the dais, thinking vaguely that he might take a shot at Voldemort himself, as long as he was being idiotically reckless, but the Dark Lord was gone, disappeared into whatever hole he hid in when danger came. Spells flew at him, and now he only had time to dodge them. He hoped the muggles would be able to escape on their own.
A spell came at his head and he ducked and rolled down to the filthy floor. Snape's mask fell from his face.
Had it been long enough? Had Snape managed to get to the door?
As if in answer, a rack standing beside the door was deliberately tipped over, and James saw a footprint land in the mud outside. Then a throng of escaped and frightened muggles trampled over it and ran screaming into the night.
He got up. With the mask gone, there was no hiding, not for long, not even in the deeply hooded cloak.
"It's Potter!" someone shouted--the blonde one, James thought. The one who had gone down to threaten Snape in the first place. "He's got the Weasley brats!"
It was time to go.
He used a repelling charm to push away the Death Eaters immediately in front of him, but that didn't last long. Wands were being drawn. He ran, pushing them aside, diving under spells and rolling away from them, making his way toward the door. He considered dropping the sacks with the books in them, but they would catch in the cloak and slow him down if he did, so he simply ran with them.
Just before he got to the door, the small Death Eater he'd seen earlier appeared out of nowhere. Without thinking about it, James raised the book in his left arm and swiped it savagely at the man. He went down in with a high pitched howl of shame and humiliation.
Then there was the clean night air.
James let the wind tear back the hood of the cloak, and ran as fast as he could into the shadows of midnight on the moors. The Death Eaters were coming, but he could feel himself gaining ground on them.
He'd made it.
He didn't slow down with this realization--that would certainly have undone him--but instead put on a burst of speed beyond what he'd thought possible, dropping into the hollow where he'd hidden his broomstick. "Accio Silver Arrow!" he yelled, and it flew to him, hovering beside him like the loyal friend it had always been. He could see the figures of the Death Eaters coming toward him now, but they were too far away. He shifted both sacks into one hand and jumped onto the broom, holding the handle with the other.
He sped into the darkness, rising above the spells that were thrown at him, and headed for home.
Snape's mind rushed with disconnected thoughts as he stood beside the door, but he managed to keep a rational thought: Let the distraction continue. Let the motion pass me.
The muggles poured out of the door, screaming into the night. Leave it to Potter to find a way to commit mass heroism while taking none of the responsibility for the action--these people would be taken for mad and locked away if they spoke of what had happened here, and they would have to speak. How could they not speak?
One of the twins shifted in his arm, and put a small, warm hand on his neck. It felt... strange. Snape had experienced more than enough strangeness tonight, but he could do nothing about that alien hand on his neck, patting in an absurdly comforting way.
A familiar way, he realized, though he had never experienced it from this perspective. As a small child, before Mother's death and everything that came with it, Severus Snape had once delighted in being carried under his father's cloak, and had been fascinated by the prickly hairs that were often under his father's chin. He would touch and pat them just as the Weasley boy was doing now.
The last wave of muggles was retreating into the darkness, and Death Eaters were streaming out--somehow, Snape had missed Potter's grand exit. They were chasing him and firing spells from which only Potter's unfailing dumb luck saved him. The grounds were as clear as they were going to get.
He started to move, but was stopped cold by the sound of Lord Voldemort's voice in the door right beside him. From the corner of his eye, he could see two shadows--one was the Dark Lord, the other was a considerably shorter figure. Snape guessed it was the little man whose real name was unknown to him (the Death Eaters had very strict rules of socialization, and the man called Wormtail was not in Snape's approved circle).
"It was Potter, was it not, Wormtail?" the Dark Lord asked.
"I thought we had discussed dealing with Potter. Are you or are you not going to deliver him to me?"
"I am, Master."
"And yet, he shunted you aside easily, if indeed the action was against your will. I question your loyalty to me, Wormtail. I expect Potter from you. And I expect him soon. You don't imagine you would be so high in my councils without that promise, do you?"
"Very well. Seek him out. Find him. Bring him to me, along with that brat of his."
Snape fought to keep from making a sound, and succeeded... but barely. So Potter was being personally hunted... that made this little foray into heroism even more insane.
The shadows disappeared, and the lawn was clear. Snape made his way, as carefully as he could, past the spells that prevented Apparition.
He Apparated directly inside the Shrieking Shack, not wanting to risk a locked door.
The muscles of his arms were in agony, burning like he'd poured acid into his veins. The twins had continued to squirm the whole way out of the Death Eaters' lair, and holding them still and under the cloak had become increasingly uncomfortable.
As soon as his vision cleared from the trip, Snape shrugged off the cloak and set them down with distaste on a torn-up armchair. They goggled up at him expectantly.
He did a painkilling charm on his shoulders and biceps, and looked down at their foolish, vapid faces. For these mindless creatures who lived only to make noise and waste products, he had turned his back on his entire life.
And for some damnable reason, he had no intention of turning back.
He waved his wand with a disgusted flick of the wrist. "Oh, all right," he muttered. "Finite Incantatem." The gurgling sounds of the twins' private conversation resumed as though there had been no interruption. They turned back to each other and began to make faces, apparently deciding (correctly) that the adult in the room was not going to entertain them.
Just take them to Dumbledore and have done with it.
Snape closed his eyes, wishing it could be that easy. So sorry, headmaster, all a mistake, look I brought these two back. I don't suppose you have a job for me and a place to hide from the men I counted as my friends until two hours ago? Oh, and that minor matter of patricide--that can be set aside, can it not?
No. The more likely outcome, once the twins were back with their parents, was an arrest and a speedy trip to Azkaban, courtesy of that madman Crouch at the Ministry, and perhaps an interrogation by the equally mad Alastair Moody.
But if he went back to Voldemort now, even with the ridiculous story Potter had suggested, he would undoubtedly be subjected to the cruciatus curse... at best. And he wouldn't have even accomplished the task for which he had risked it.
"Damn Malfoy," he said again, not really aware that he meant to say it. Damn Malfoy a thousand times for his petty grudges and cruel jokes. If he had simply brought any other wizard... any wizard who could have been defeated in a fair fight...
Snape enchanted the ragged cushion of the armchair, and levitated the twins ahead of him as he left the Shack.
The tunnel--not a short one to begin with--seemed much longer this time, an endless purgatory of dank walls that still smelled of the passage of beasts. The chattering of the twins bounced around in the dark, amplifying itself and drilling into Snape's already aching head. By the time they finally reached the base of the Whomping Willow, his vision had become glassy and sharp with the pain behind his skull. He reached carefully through the aperture and touched the knot on the trunk that stopped the violent motion of the branches.
He pulled the cloak back on, then plucked the babies from the cushion, which he allowed to drop onto the floor without comment.
Hogwarts was silent in the faint moonlight, the shadows of the towers gliding gently over the neatly kept grounds. Snape made his way to the main door of the castle. It was unlocked, as it always had been under Dumbledore. Voldemort had wanted to exploit this somehow, merely to ridicule Dumbledore's naiveté, but Snape had thought it a rather stupid idea even at the time. A man who leaves a door deliberately unlocked was not one who would be shocked at the idea of people coming through it.
The headmaster's door was already open, the staircase revolving inside of it. Snape stepped onto the first riser and let it carry him up. He had been called to this office during his tenure as a student, and he knew the way.
The first thing he saw when the stairs let him into the main room was a red-headed baby, chewing contentedly on a chess piece (which was complaining vociferously about the indignity, but no one was listening). The baby didn't look up at him, of course; he was still wearing the Cloak. But the twins saw him and made sounds that roughly resembled a cheer of sorts--rah, rah, and all that.
The only adults in the room--a red-headed couple--were sitting on the far side of the office, talking to each other and giving each other some sort of comfort. They didn't hear. Two boys were keeping themselves busy with a quiet board game of some sort, and a third, barely older than the twins Snape was carrying, was perusing Dumbledore's collection of esoteric texts with a serious expression on his face. All were redheads, all had uncontrolled spills of freckles. And the woman seemed to be about halfway to another one, undoubtedly a copy of the rest.
Snape shook his head. He hadn't seen the Weasleys before now, but he knew them at a glance. Too little money and too many children, Malfoy had said. Someone should let them know what causes that.
The serious looking boy tired of his research at the bookshelves, and went over to his parents. Without asking, he crawled into his father's lap, and clung to his father's robe. The man Snape took to be Arthur Weasley held him in the crook of one arm, pressing an absent kiss on his cheek.
You're not my son. My son is dead. Leave my house.
Snape looked away from Arthur Weasley--pathetic, sad little man--and across the office. A small door to the side, not far from where the baby was playing, was ajar, and he could see faint candlelight. Dumbledore's private room.
He stepped over the youngest Weasley--apparently, Malfoy had decided an infant wouldn't have enough blood for the potion, or certainly he would have brought this one instead--and went inside.
He shut the door behind him without removing the Invisibility Cloak.
Dumbledore rose from the small table at which he had been eating a light supper. "James?"
Without speaking, Snape went forward. He reached through the opening of the cloak and set the twins down on the table.
Then he let the cloak fall around him, wondering how long it would take Dumbledore to summon the Aurors from here.
Dumbledore smiled. "Ah. I see there was a change in plan."
Snape was dumbstruck. There wasn't even a hint of surprise in Dumbledore's voice, even though he had obviously been expecting James Potter, and at any rate would have no reason to believe that Severus Snape, of all people, would be standing in this room tonight.
Dumbledore made a great show of pretending nothing was amiss. He picked up the Weasley twins. "I'll get these boys back to their parents, and then I believe we should have a long conversation, Severus."
"Yes, sir," Snape managed as Dumbledore passed him.
A moment later, an inarticulate cry of joy arose, and Snape pressed his fingers against his eyes to counter the stab of pain in his head. The grieving mother was now weeping copiously (and loudly). Snape caught a few, Thank heavens! and My boys!, but mostly she seemed to be wailing. If her husband was talking, his voice was drowned out by the noise.
The older boys apparently figured out what was going on, and one or the other of them gave a great whoop. Snape caught a bit of motion near the door as the other big boy came over and picked up the baby. "C'mere, Ron!" he said. "The twins're back!"
The baby gurgled.
One big happy family, Snape thought dully, feeling ill. How perfectly vulgar.
Another round of grateful sobs came from the matriarch of the brood.
"Now, there, Molly, Arthur," Dumbledore said, his voice rising above theirs. Snape peeked around the edge of the door. Dumbledore was summoning the children's cloaks, which were flying to their rightful owners. "All is well. The twins are safe. And I must speak to the young man who brought them back to you."
"I want to thank him," the man, Arthur, said. His wife was putting on her cloak, and he was holding the twins in his arms as she did so. "He's done an incredibly kind and brave thing, for strangers..." He kissed the toddlers' heads. Snape thought the man might actually be weeping.
Dumbledore glanced at the door, and Snape waved his hand sharply. The last thing in the world he wanted was to talk to Arthur Weasley.
"I don't think our young hero is in a mood to be thanked," Dumbledore said.
"If you're sure... If you think..." Weasley seemed to be at a loss for words, stumbling from one to another. Then he gathered himself and said, "Please tell him that if there is anything I can do for him... Obviously, nothing could repay what he's done, but if there is anything he needs from me, he shouldn't hesitate to ask."
Snape doubted that Arthur Weasley had anything he might need.
"I'll pass your gratitude along, Arthur." Dumbledore opened a dish of candy and floated it to each of the boys who could actually move of his own accord, and each took a handful.
Arthur handed one of the twins to Molly, and took the other himself. "Bill," he said to the biggest boy, "you carry Ron, all right? Mum and I would like to hold the twins for a bit."
"Sure," the tall boy said. "We're just fine, right Ron?" He bounced the baby a few times and was rewarded by a high-pitched giggle that could, under the right circumstances, shatter glass.
Snape felt something stinging at the corners of his eyes, something burning and shameful. He slipped further into the office, away from Dumbledore's gaze.
He suddenly hated the Weasleys, everything about them. He could see the shadow of the oldest boy and the baby, blurred now, surrounded by prisms of candlelight. The boy lifted his brother into the air and swung him once, getting another laugh in return. The mother scolded him for rough-housing with the baby. The other brothers made some sort of joke among themselves and there was more laughing...
Snape's hands were shaking, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
He hated them, hated them. One curse could...
He opened his eyes, feeling someone watching him.
The small, serious-looking boy was standing at the door, looking at him solemnly. He held out a dirty rag of a handkerchief. "Sniff?" he asked.
Snape didn't answer him.
Dumbledore came over and scooped him. "Now, there, Percy. It's time for you to go with your family."
"That man's crying," the boy whispered, pointing at Snape. "Does he have a hurt?"
Snape felt the blood rise up in his face. To be seen like this by Dumbledore was bad enough. But a four-year-old child condescending to him...
Snape reached for the cloak and pulled it over himself before the rest of the brood could come over to have a look.
The boy's eyes went round. "He vanish-ed!" he said, pronouncing the "-ed" like a bad actor reciting medieval poetry.
Dumbledore took the child away. "Arthur, Molly, I know it's been a trying day, and I hate to rush you out. We really must discuss this at a later time--I'll need to know everything you know. But it's imperative that I talk to the man who brought your boys back, and we'll need privacy."
This time, the Weasleys apparently understood. After an interminable amount of time spent organizing the children, they were able to herd them down the revolving staircase rather quickly.
The door to Dumbledore's private room opened wider. "Come out, Severus. You'll be more comfortable near the fireplace."
Snape stood. He brushed by Dumbledore on the way out, and briefly considered just running for the stairs. The cloak would keep him hidden, and he owed Potter nothing--he could simply keep it. Go where he needed to go, and remain invisible.
Invisible seemed like a good thing to be.
He sat down in a large, comfortable chair near the fireplace, and leaned forward, head in hands.
Dumbledore sat down beside him. "Take off the cloak, Severus," he said. "You did a brave thing tonight, and you have no need to hide your face."
Snape didn't move for a moment, then realized the cloak was pointless. He removed it slowly and folded it over the arm of the chair. "Potter said to leave it with you. He wants it back, obviously."
"Yes, handy things, Invisibility Cloaks. And it must have been a wrench for James to lend this particular one to you. It has personal significance to him, and he will appreciate its safe return."
Snape sniffed. He didn't care whether or not Potter appreciated it. It was simply something he had agreed to do. "They're hunting him, you know," he said. "Voldemort has one of his lieutenants specifically dedicated to tracking Potter for reasons I don't entirely understand. And that lieutenant has been given a reprimand and a mandate to find him soon. If he's not in deep hiding, he should go there."
"Thank you for that information, Severus. I'll see to it that James and Lily are taken to safety. I don't suppose you know the name of the man charged with finding them?"
Snape shook his head. "No idea."
"I killed my father."
The sentence came out flat and uninflected, as though he had said it aloud a hundred times, though it was the first time the statement had ever passed his lips.
I killed my father.
Those simple, direct, irrefutable syllables could never be called back, and Dumbledore didn't answer them. He just let them hang in the air like a malign spell.
I killed my father.
Snape felt his muscles quivering madly, then his eyes went white-hot, and tears spilled down his cheeks in torrents.
He hated crying, hated Dumbledore for seeing him cry, hated Potter most of all for sending him here to this room and this spell. He raised his hands to his face and savagely swiped at the tears, but they only flowed harder. His father's eyes rose in his mind, accusing, disowning, hating him for all he'd become.
Some thick, tepid bile was rising up with the tears--a vast, sweeping shame. It rushed toward his heart like a powerful potion trying to get into his bloodstream. He was sure it would kill him when it reached its goal, but then it reached his heart, and it didn't kill him, and he wished it would, because it flooded him--flooded his chest, his neck, his aching head, his burning eyes, even his arms and legs, which he drew helplessly inward, curling into the chair like an infant having a tantrum.
When he spoke again, his voice wasn't his own. It was strained and strangled and high-pitched. "I killed my father, oh please help me, I killed my father..."
Stop it! Stop shaming yourself! Stop this behavior; do you think childish tears erase the monster you are?
But he couldn't seem to stop. His body and his heart seemed to have left the control of his mind, and he watched in a detached fashion as he slipped out of the chair and fell to his knees between Dumbledore and the fire, his hair hanging toward the floor in greasy clumps. He grabbed at the hem of Dumbledore's robe. "Help me," he said again. "Please..."
Dumbledore reached down gently and pulled Snape's hand away from his robes, then knelt across from him. "You have helped yourself, Severus. I can't make the pain or the memory go away... but I can help you find your soul again."
Snape's mind made a tentative connection back to his raging body, established a small colony of control. He couldn't make himself rise from the floor, but he was able to steady his voice. "Why? Why would you help me? I told you, I--"
"I know. And it is not a minor matter. But neither is turning away from the power you turned from tonight. You've taken the first step back into the light, and I'm going to catch you and keep you here. Every mind reclaimed is victory."
"I don't know that mine is worth much."
"You are of infinite worth. As were the boys you rescued tonight. As was your father. As are all human beings." He smiled. "I imagine you have some urge to reject that as a mindless platitude--it was always your way--but I urge you not to do so."
"What do I do now?" Snape asked. "Where do I go? Do I turn myself in to the Aurors?"
"You have turned yourself in to me," Dumbledore said. "And I don't want to see you in Azkaban, not now. You've turned back and taken your first step along the path. Are you willing to go further?"
Snape thought about what Potter had asked him, back at the lair--Can you withstand it?
He thought Dumbledore was asking the same thing, and he still didn't know the answer. Could he go back? Could he actually, actively help the men he had counted as his enemies since childhood? And bear not only Voldemort's punishment, but the continued revulsion of those whose lives had always been in the light?
And for what? To help mindless, dull men with no ambition? To rescue babies and kittens from trees? Why?
But that answer came easily now, the only why there had ever been: because if he did not do so, his father's voice would haunt him into insanity.
"It's not your father speaking," Dumbledore said quietly. "It is part of yourself, and you will never escape it."
Snape nodded. "I know. And I will... I will do what I believe you are asking. Though Voldemort may not believe in me."
"He will. At least for awhile." Dumbledore stood and picked up the cloak. "I will keep this and return it to James; its part in your tale is through. But you must remain invisible to most of those for whom I am asking you to fight."
Snape found that his face still wasn't entirely in his control. He felt a bitter smile. "Oh, that," he said. "I've always been invisible to them. They never cared to see me."
Without another word, he left Dumbledore's office, and lost himself in the shadows outside.
Lily was waiting in the parlor, her face drawn and pale. Harry was asleep in a crib beside the end table. James stopped outside the door to look in at them, warm in the light. His family--the point of all of it.
Lily looked up and saw him at the door. Her eyes widened and she bolted up from the love seat and across the room. The door flew open and then her arms were around him and she was covering his face with kisses. "James... I've been so worried... I..." She drew back and her eyes widened. "Where is your cloak?"
"I found an unexpected partner," James said, guiding her inside and shutting the door against the night. It was only the beginning of October, but the chill seemed to be settling in for autumn. He kissed her. "Why so worried, Lily? This is nothing I haven't done before. With a few exceptions" (like, say, charging into a room full of Death Eaters with a loose mask, he thought) "it's nothing you haven't done before."
"You haven't since Harry was born." She slipped her arms around his waist and looked up at him, those extraordinary green eyes solemn and serious. "You did more than you needed to tonight, didn't you?"
James considered lying to her--why worry her unnecessarily?--but in the end, he found he couldn't. "Yes."
She nodded, as though she had expected nothing else, which of course, she hadn't. Then she did something which surprised James greatly. She stood on her toes and kissed him softly. "You're right, James," she said. "You're right, and I was wrong earlier, when I fought you and Dumbledore. I'm frightened. But the only way to get through this is to fight. I let myself forget that. I won't do so again."
"Harry needs us, too."
"It's Harry we're fighting for."
A muffled sound from the crib interrupted them--Harry was an oddly polite baby, always seeming to clear his throat before he cried--and Lily smiled and pulled away to tend him.
James stood there and loved them for a moment, then went to the door and pulled the curtains shut over its inset window, hiding his family from the prying eyes of the night.