"He'll wake soon," Poppy said. They'd gathered in the staffroom, Snape and Poppy and Minerva, with Albus in his office, sending Fawkes to fetch the rest of the Order. Severus was in his favorite armchair – a velvet one of unmistakeably Gryffindor red, McGonagall liked to tease. He didn't quite think of it that way. He'd laid claim to the seat because of its position in the darkest, most remote corner of the room, not for the color, which he personally believed closer to the hue of fresh blood than her house symbol.
Not that such morbid thoughts were helpful. "Of course," Severus almost sneered.
He'd gone quiet after they'd left the hospital wing, his expression suspiciously blank, what remarks he made delivered in a tone so cold it might freeze Hell solid. Embarrassed, Minerva thought, and couldn't quite hide her smile. She'd never seen the young Potions master so demonstrative with anyone, not even Albus, whom he clearly regarded in a parental light. It was the difference, she mused, between having a father you respected and trusted, and having a child of your own. Not that Severus had much experience with family, nor with affection. She bristled as she recalled the frequent bruises Severus had always returned to school with as a child. That had ended when the Slytherin boy had entered his sixth year, she recalled, and two weeks afterward the elder Snape had been found dead in his home, the Dark Mark a brilliant green in the sky above. She'd always wondered if that had been the bribe Snape had demanded for his loyalty to Lord Voldemort – he was savvy enough to have known that his gift with Potions made his allegiance a valuable commodity – but she would never ask.
"Harry never stays in your care for very long, Poppy," said Minerva. Albus's entrance drew the nurse's attention, and McGonagall leaned toward her younger colleague. "Harry won't understand the change," she hissed at him. Severus blinked, surprised, and she went on. "He's already hurting – don't you dare take that cold tone with him when he wakes. He doesn't know you like I do."
"No," Severus agreed, dark eyes gleaming dangerously. "He doesn't. He knows better."
Oh. That was . . interesting. Minerva turned away in time to catch Albus's scolding look. Leave him alone, that look said plainly, and Minerva winced. Okay, she'd misjudged him. Better safe than sorry, though, as the saying went. Severus might take a firmer hand in the rearing of his students, but Minerva took care of her own, too – and Harry was, as usual, a special case. She knew how much living with those . . those Muggles affected him. She saw the same signs in him she'd recognized in Severus two decades before, and this time, she could do something about it. The Dursleys might not be as physical about it as Severus's father had been, but that made the abuse no less damaging, just harder to see.
One by one, the members of the Order entered the room, Floo-ing in from the heavily guarded fireplace in Albus's rooms. Minerva conjured the extra chairs without a word. Pomphrey popped out to check on her patient, and McGonagall smiled at the frustration on Severus's face. He was too well-bred to fidget; what nervous habits his upbringing hadn't trained out of him, Voldemort had. Severus had learned patience in a much harder school than most, but Minerva could feel his frustration, even if she could see no outward signs. The covert nature of Harry's training with the ex-Death Eater forced Severus to stillness when she imagined every instinct demanded that he go to the injured child.
Minerva tapped his arm lightly, and Snape turned on her, jaw clenched, his gaze fierce. "He's my child, too," she whispered. After a moment he nodded, and seemed to relax a little as they waited for Poppy's return.
Minerva felt the sudden tension in the younger man as the school nurse returned with Harry in tow. "Easy, Severus," she muttered, and he growled.
"You think I don't know?" he returned, softly. He nudged her. "Go see how he is," he demanded.
"No need. Poppy will bring him to us first. She has plenty of experience with concerned parents." Minerva couldn't help teasing the otherwise so self-contained man, having found the one weakness he couldn't completely hide.
"Piss off." Severus crossed his arms, settled more comfortably in his chair, and refused to rise to the bait.
"Been taking language lessons from Harry, now?" She smirked. "I haven't heard you ever sound so much like a teenager – even when you were one."
"Se – Professor." Harry corrected himself quickly, and had Minerva grinning like the Chesire Cat.
"Harry," Severus said easily; in the whirlwind of voices around them as the Order members queried Dumbledore, no one could hear them. He rose, and pushed Harry down into the chair he'd occupied, hunkering down in front of him. "Drop the shields," he commanded, meeting Harry's eyes.
"Harry," Snape said warningly, and the boy rolled his eyes and subsided.
"Fine. Cranky old bat," he complained.
"Don't talk about your Head of House that way, Potter," Snape said absently.
Minerva watched with interest. Snape was clearly attached to the boy, but Harry's willingness to drop his mental shielding and allow Severus to perform Legilimency on him spoke volumes. She couldn't imagine that amount of trust . . . and yet, what had she done, each time she met Severus's gaze, but trust that he wouldn't take advantage of the moment to skim through her thoughts?
"I guess now would be the time to warn you that I'm a fairly accomplished Legilimens too," said Harry. He smiled at her look of surprise. "No, I wasn't doing it now."
"Your face is likely easier to read than your mind," Snape commented, rising to his feet and conjuring another chair for himself.
"If I might have everyone's attention?" Dumbledore stood at the front of the room, a phoenix on his shoulder and worry in his eyes. He cared so much about Harry, Minerva knew – viewed young Potter as more of a grandson than a student. And if the Weasleys were not recovered alive, Harry would never forgive any of them – least of all himself. It would destroy him, and that was something they could not, even from just a purely tactical standpoint, afford.
"Four members of the Gryffindor Quidditch team were killed today by Death Eaters. The youngest Weasleys – Ron and Ginevra – have been taken from the castle grounds, presumably to Lord Voldemort."
Silence descended, broken only by Molly Weasley's sobs. Arthur was silent, his eyes huge as his face rapidly lost all colour, and the helpless desperation in his expression spoke louder than his wife's tears.
"We have employed . . an unusual method of tracking the Death Eaters responsible. Severus could well have been seen aiding Hogwarts forces this afternoon, and so I have deemed it too dangerous for him to seek information through his usual channels."
"I don't care!"
"Molly, please, Albus is doing all he can . . ." Arthur tried, soothingly.
"Let that . . that Death Eater go back where he belongs!" Molly marched across the room toward Severus, who slunk lower in his seat in misery. Minerva knew how hard he'd pleaded to be allowed to at least fire-call a few of his old "friends." Albus had denied him, and Severus had obeyed, for Harry's sake.
"Leave him alone!" Harry leapt to his feet, stepping in front of Severus in a manner that was clearly protective. Severus tried to push him out of the way, but Molly's focus had already shifted to the boy.
"How could you let this happen? Ron was your best friend! We treated you like family!"
Harry froze; Minerva saw the shudder that racked his newly healed body. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Weasley," he whispered, and his voice was hoarse. "I tried . . ."
"Back off, Weasley!" Severus drew his wand, leveled it at the Weasley matriarch. "You stay the hell away from him."
"What business is it of yours?" Molly demanded. She was hysterical, Minerva noted dully. Everyone in the room seemed stunned into silence by the uncharacteristic attack, particularly once Molly turned her fury on Harry.
"He nearly died today! He'd have fought to the death for them, and he damn near did! He killed people, Molly." Severus's voice dropped to a more normal level. "Death Eaters, yes, but people just the same. Not with magic, not with a neat, clean Avada Kedavra, but in his Animagus form – the only weapon he had left when they outnumbered him twenty to one and took his wand. He's sixteen years old."
"Severus, Molly, that is enough." Albus had found his voice again.
"He collapsed at my feet, Molly." Severus was on his feet now, in Molly's face. "He's here not because he didn't want to go after them, but because he nearly bled to death, and couldn't."
"Sev, stop it!" Harry's voice came out halfway between command and plea.
"Well, now I know how to quiet a room," Albus said after a moment, his tone deliberately light. Severus obediently put up his wand and sat back down, still glaring fiercely at Molly Weasley, who couldn't stop staring at Harry, right along with the rest of the room.
"Harry?" Remus Lupin crossed the room to stand beside the young Gryffindor. "I am so sorry for what you had to do to protect yourself, but you did only what you must to try to defend your friends. None of us want to make you re-live that attack. But we need you to tell us what happened."
Minerva reached over to run her palm comfortingly down the boy's arm, offering him her silent support. On his other side, she could see that Severus was doing the same. From across the room Albus gave her a questioning glance, and she shook her head. Remus would do a better job of coaxing information out of Potter, and likely be gentler about it. Harry's erratic relationship with the Hogwarts Headmaster made Albus a less than desirable interrogator.
"Severus . . ah, Professor Snape, has been giving me Defense lessons for most of the year, but your knew that." Harry cleared his throat. "I finished my Animagus training maybe a month ago. I'm a thestral."
"An . . unusual form."
"Apt, I thought. And deadly . . . I hadn't realized how much. I guess I always thought of them as horses, not as . . hunters." And he shivered. "I liked to fly with the flock Hagrid keeps on the grounds, for the carriages. Ginny saw a few of the thestrals at the edge of the Forest today – she knows I like them, but not why – and I went over to pet them for a few minutes. I saw the lights . . thought it was Ginny, pranking Ron again. And then I saw the green flash, and I knew.
"I don't remember running to them. I should have taken the time to plan, but I didn't realize it would be . . so bad, so fast. I'd been with them, not five minutes before. There were Death Eaters all over the Pitch . . . I tripped over one of our Chasers, the youngest one . . she's our Reserve, playing because Tara is out with an injury. She was dead – I can't remember her name."
"Monaghey. Megan Monaghey," the Gryffindor Head of House offered, and Harry nodded jerkily.
"Death Eaters summoned my wand before I could think of what to do. I heard Ginny scream, and I thought it was all over, that quick . . . . I managed to change forms, the transformation's still a little rough, and I went for them. I killed the first one, ripped out his throat . . . trampled a couple others to death. I couldn't find Ron or Ginny or anyone, and I panicked. I think I screamed . . ."
"It's going to be okay, Harry," Remus said gently, but even he didn't look as though he believed his own words.
"The other thestrals came . . . they were helping me, chasing down the Death Eaters. Killing them." Harry swallowed hard. He didn't realize his fists were clenched until Severus reached forward, silently trying to coax his fingers to uncurl. There were little crescent-moon cuts on his palms, and Snape wiped away the few drops of blood without comment.
"I didn't see the professors out there until Severus stopped me from slaughtering Malfoy. I never thanked you for that," he added, turning to the Potions master.
"You would have stopped," Snape said confidently.
"Lucius was trying to surrender," Harry explained. "Asking Sev to protect him. I stopped, called the other thestrals off. I guess Malfoy realized Severus was a traitor to Voldemort, because he attacked us. I killed him. Have you ever seen what a thestral's hooves can do to a human skull?"
"Oh, Harry-pup, I wish I'd been there for you."
"Me, too," Harry whispered. "I collapsed after that . . I'd been stabbed, or so Madame Pomphrey tells me. I used Legilimency to ask Shadow – the thestral stallion – to follow the Death Eaters, to find Ron and Ginny, and then I passed out."
"Potter dropped his Occlumency shields, showed me what he'd tried with the animals," Snape added. "As far as I could tell, they understood what he was asking them to do perfectly well, and more – they were both able and willing to help him. Several of them took up the search after I assured them that we would look after Harry."
"You're trusting a flock of thestrals to find my children?" Molly looked disturbed by the notion, though her gaze, when it rested on Harry, had softened considerably, and she was even looking more charitably disposed toward Severus.
"They got us to the Department of Mysteries last year," Harry said abruptly. "A fool's errand, I know, but they got us there, faster than any broom."
"I have every faith in your and Severus's assessment of the thestrals' ability. Therefore, I should think the immediate need is for a plan of attack once we find Ron and Ginevra," Albus said, very calmly.
The rest of the Order immediately launched into a flurry of noise and movement as they discussed and dismissed various battle tactics. Harry sat quietly, still tired from his ordeal, wishing uselessly that he had Ron's gift for strategy, or Ginny's courage, or Hermione's brain . . wait. "Hermione."
"What?" Severus sat beside him still; McGonagall was talking to Dumbledore.
"Has anyone even told Hermione?"
"No. She would only try to concoct a hair-brained scheme more suited to you, and one adolescent is enough to worry over in a battle."
"I didn't think I'd get to go. At least, openly."
"I assume even Albus knows better than to try to leave you behind. You'd only follow, probably saving a few of our lives in the process, and we'd never live down the shame of being rescued by a boy still in school."
A tap at the door drew their attention, and Poppy stepped inside, followed by a trio of thestrals. "Came in through my Hospital Wing!" she said, indignantly. Despite the dire situation, Harry couldn't stop himself from smiling at the absurdity of it. "Keep your pets out of my infirmary, Mr. Potter! And close the balcony doors next time, Severus!"
"Right, Poppy. Of course." Severus waved the nurse away, and with a sound of displeasure she disappeared down the hallway.
The thestrals slipped across the room to Harry, their hooves making surprisingly little noise on the stone floor. The foremost horse lowered its head to lock eyes with the boy, and after a moment Harry sat back with a sigh of relief.
"They've found them," he said, and Remus let out a little laugh.
"We keep underestimating you, don't we, Harry?" The werewolf glanced at Snape, who gave him a look that said, "I told you so," as clearly as any spoken words. "You don't have to look so smug," Lupin muttered. Severus only smirked.
"Does everyone have their brooms, then?" Dumbledore inquired.
"That won't work," Harry interrupted. "The thestrals can outfly my Firebolt, and their stamina far outreaches ours. I don't know how far it is; they don't have a clearly defined concept of distance. We can't risk having some of the less-skilled fliers fall out before we get there."
"What does a boy know about it?" a voice grumbled from the back of the room.
"About Voldemort? A helluva lot more than whoever said that," Harry snapped. "About the thestrals? I am one, which I doubt anybody else here can claim."
"I agree with Potter." Alastor Moody stomped his way to the front of the group. "How are you proposing we get there, Potter?" the old auror asked, that eerie blue eye steadily fixed on Harry.
"We ride, Moody." Harry shrugged. "Just, ah, not a broom." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the winged horses by way of explanation. "And, just aside from their speed . . . they would be formidable weapons against the Death Eaters. I think I proved that today."
"Will they fight for us?" Albus asked. "Even without you?"
"For Severus, yes." Harry wasn't going to revert to the formal 'Professor Snape,' not now, when he needed support the most. "Possibly for you. After that, I don't know. Not that it should matter. I'll be with them, and we already know they'll follow my lead."
"Harry . . . I'm afraid I cannot permit you to come this time." Dumbledore raised a hand to forestall Harry's protests. "You are exhausted, and Poppy's recommended at least two days of bed rest before any activity."
"I've worked with worse injuries than this!" Harry inwardly cringed at the implications of what he'd just admitted, but he couldn't think of anything to say that would sufficiently cover the slip.
"Let 'im go, Dumbledore," Moody advised. "He'll be safe enough in the air, so long as he doesn't try straight out dueling Death Eaters. Safer with us than without, at any rate."
"He goes, Albus," Severus said flatly. "Don't forget – I trained him. I was a member of the Dark Lord's inner circle during his first reign, and everything I can do, Harry can as well. Probably better," he added, not without a degree of aggravation.
"You have faith in his abilities, Severus?" Albus looked disturbed by Snape's easy reference to his less-legit Death Eater days.
"I believe he could duel any witch or wizard in the Dark Lord's ranks, and win. He's an asset, Albus, not a liability. It's time you recognized that."
Albus hesitated. "As you will," he said after a pause, turning away. " But we need to do this, and quickly."
"I'll gather the rest of the flock," Harry volunteered, vaulting onto Shadow's back and glancing askance at Severus.
"Right," the Potions master sighed. He flicked his wand at the enormous windows, and the glass simply vanished. With a wave of thanks, Harry urged the thestrals through the gap, and disappeared from sight.
"That boy will be the death of us," Minerva pronounced.
"Too bloody true," Snape answered, and followed the rest of the Order downstairs to wait for Harry's return.