by The Velvet Ghost
Chapter One - The Bronze Ivy Hotel
As far as the receptionist at the Bronze Ivy Hotel was concerned, the two people who checked in one late evening in July were nothing more than father and son, here for a few days of sightseeing. There was nothing about them to suggest anything otherwise. As the pale, dark-haired gentleman calmly organised payment, his teenage son browsed through the tourism leaflets and examined his reflection in the thick bronze pillars at the front desk, messing around with locks of shiny black hair, a frown on his pointed face.
They needed a room for a week, in the name of Sebastian Prince and seventeen-year-old son Dravian, which was naturally provided for them. Dinner would be served in the restaurant at seven, they were told, and would they like to purchase a guidebook? Mr Prince gratefully refused - he knew his way around London very well, he said. As they headed towards the staircase and its red velvet runner, the receptionist caught the dark look in the boy's eyes, but he said nothing to her, and so she said nothing to him.
It was about half an hour later that the phone next to reception rang. She answered in a practiced voice, smiling as she did it - her manager said customers could 'hear' the smile.
"Hello, front desk? How may I help you?"
A boy's voice spoke. "Yes, this is... ah, hang on." There was a clunk and silence, as a palm was clasped over the receiver and an unheard conversation took place. After a moment, the boy returned. "Yes, this is Dravian Prince in Room 147. My father and I checked in recently. Would it be possible to have some room service?"
"Of course, Master Prince, what would you like?" She took out a notepad, slid the pen from behind her ear and listened. There was some scuffling going on. Whatever the boy was ordering, it was being dictated by a voice she recognised as belonging to Mr Prince.
"Yes, some assorted sandwiches... nothing with mayonnaise in, please. What, Sev- Father? Oh yes, nothing with lettuce in. We would also like a bottle of... oh, hang on." There was a crackle. Trying to stay smiling, the receptionist heard Dravian Prince distinctly say, "Oh, you order it, you know how to deal with muggles."
Trying to work out if 'muggle' was some new slang term or not, she waited patiently as the boy's father came on the line.
"Do excuse my son," he said sleekly. "I'm afraid he's endured something of a long journey, and his manners are never quite up to scratch when we travel. I'd like a bottle of the 1986 Clerc-Milon, if at all possible, and a small bunch of grapes. In fact, two bunches."
"Certainly Sir," she chimed, still smiling. "It will be up as soon as possible. Is the room to your satisfa-"
Before she had finished speaking, the phone was put down and the dialling tone filled her ear. A little hurt, she replaced the receiver, and up in Room 147 Draco raised an eyebrow.
"Was it me, or did you just hang up on that muggle woman?" he inquired, looking up from the book open in his lap.
Snape did not bother to answer. He moved across the room to the window, and trailed his fingers quietly through the net curtains, peering down onto the busy muggle street below. From the glass, the vague impression of a pale wizard with dark eyes and short black hair glowered back at him. He would never get used to seeing his hair like this. Its comfortable weight was gone from his shoulders, having been roughly hacked off by Draco that morning with a very jagged slicing charm.
It was all a necessary part of the plan. The truth about Albus Dumbledore's death had yet to circulate among the masses, but the Order were most definitely active, and they were searching for Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. False identities were easy to choose. To fit in with their new role as father and son, Draco had agreed to a permanent hair-colouring solution, and was no longer the blonde teenager that the wizarding world was searching so desperately for. While Snape missed the security of longer hair, he knew that a lifetime in Azkaban was not worth the risk.
"Do you think the muggle woman downstairs suspects anything?" said Draco from behind him. "She was giving me a rather suspicious look when we checked in."
"She has the right to suspect whatever she wants," said Snape. He let the net curtains fall into place and turned away from the window. "Provided she does not share her suspicions, we have nothing to worry about."
Draco nodded vaguely. He turned the page in his book, a very well-worn encyclopedia of dangerous magical creatures, and sighed agitatedly. Snape could sympathise with such a feeling. For several weeks now, ever since fleeing the grounds of Hogwarts, he had been restless inside. The world had been jerked out from beneath their feet, replaced with somewhere hostile and alien.
Snape was brought out of his thoughts. He looked up to see Draco's grey eyes watching him closely, and he had seen that expression before. Ever since he was five years old, Draco Malfoy had been a master of that expression - it said "I want something", whether it was attention or sweets or the answer to a question.
"Why are we here?" said Draco casually.
Snape frowned. "Your memory does give me cause for concern. I told you yesterday, did I not?"
Draco rolled his eyes, snapping his book shut and clambering off his bed. "I know, I know." He drifted over to the wardrobe, and opened it up, revealing an oval-shaped mirror that he began to examine his reflection in. His brow furrowed in a frown. "Can I not even have a hint?"
"No," said Snape. He laid back on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. "You will find out when you need to, and not until. Kindly stop asking me."
"I think I deserve to know," said Draco. "And I wish you would stop treating me like a child. I'm not a student anymore. We're equal."
Snape let out a harsh, humourless laugh. "Comrades in crime, are we?"
"Call it what you like," said Draco. "It's what we are."
Snape said nothing, closing his eyes and reaching up to loosen the neck of his clothing. Wizard's robes in muggle London would attract too much attention, which had led to this new attire - dark trousers, a blood red shirt and a long coat that now hung in the wardrobe. Several years working undercover here for the Dark Lord had given Severus vital knowledge of muggles, knowledge that Draco would be helpless without.
"How long will we be here?" asked Draco, from somewhere beyond Snape's closed eyelids.
"And what will be happening at the end of that week?"
For a moment, Snape paused, thinking. Draco had no idea just how monumental that question was, or how long it would take to give a complete answer.
"It depends," said Snape. It was the easiest answer, and the best that Draco would get.
"Whether I kill you to stop your incessant questions," snapped Snape.
Draco's weight rested on the end of his bed. "That'll be two in a month," the boy said darkly, bitterly.
Snape knew that the comment was half-hearted, thrown by a frustrated teenager that was tired of being so oblivious to the changing world around him. For some reason, it still struck him to the heart like a knife and he snapped, his eyes flying open.
"Sorry, sorry," said Draco, palms held up defensively as Snape rounded on him.
"Stop it," Snape hissed. "How dare you talk about that. How dare you. If you knew just why - "
He saw the anger and frustration flare up in Draco's eyes, as the boy leapt to his feet, fists tight. "Then tell me!" he said angrily. "The only reason I don't know anything is because I'm not being told a thing, just dragged between hotels and told to shut up every five minutes! I want to know what's going on!"
"And be glad of it," snarled Snape. "Six times today alone, I've seriously considered wiping my memory so I don't have to endure thoughts of 'what's going on'. Be grateful that you're alive, and appreciate that you are only alive because of me."
Beaten, Draco fell silent and glowered at the floor with crossed arms. Just as he opened his mouth, perhaps to continue the argument, there was a knock on the door.
Draco went to collect it. He dragged the trolley over, thanked the hotel worker with only a drop of sarcasm in his voice, and she left. The younger wizard set about the grapes gloomily.
"Sorry," he said at last, but for Snape, it had come too late.
He ignored the apology, uncorking the wine and pouring himself a generous glass. Draco helped himself to a glassful as well. Snape did not stop him.
"I'm just... frustrated, that's all," said Draco quietly. He kept his eyes in the dark red liquid now cradled in his palm, rather than look at Snape. "You can understand that."
"I can." Feeling that it was best to reassure Draco, he said, "Trust that I will protect you."
"I do," said Draco.
They met eyes for a second. Draco looked away, helping himself to sandwiches, while Snape continued to watch him in silence. All the deep, haunting thoughts and memories that had been plaguing him for several weeks chose his moment to surface once more, swirling around his brain like a poisoned river, and he was lost in thought.
So much had happened, in so little time. After that terrible night at Hogwarts, he had taken Draco to Spinner's End, attended to his wounds, and three days passed before either of them really spoke. If they did, it was simple things - "Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Don't touch that if you're fond of your arm, it bites."
On the third night, things had changed. Snape still remembered the conversation so clearly, as if it was taking place right now in this hotel room.
Draco had found the books under Snape's bed. Snape was surprised it had taken him all of three days to find them, considering Draco Malfoy's usual fascination for forbidden things. Since discovering them late evening, Draco had dragged the battered trunk downstairs and began to work his way through, savouring unlimited access to books that even the Restricted Section at Hogwarts would not allow.
"How on earth did you get all of these, Severus?" he sighed, as he found yet another diagram of somebody being dissected.
"Ask my mother," said Snape. He settled back into his armchair, tilting the wine glass to his lips and taking a quiet sip. "I hope you aren't taking ideas from those. Even the Dark Lord considers some of those books a trifle violent."
The comment was meant as a light joke, and he wondered if Draco would inquire when they would be visiting the Dark Lord to receive the honour for killing Dumbledore. Surely, the boy was eager for the glory. For this reason, Snape expected a laugh, an amused comment, some kind of appreciation...
But not the awkward silence he received.
He glanced up, one eyebrow raised, and saw Draco closing the book that was open in his lap. There was something hollow and empty in his eyes, something tired, that Severus had never seen on somebody so young.
"Draco?" he said quietly, frowning.
The blonde teenager shifted uncomfortably, putting the book back in the box and the silence lengthened. Severus waited. Dull spots of sickly colour had touched Draco's cheeks, and as he turned to glance over one shoulder, Severus found himself shocked by the anguish in the boy's eyes.
"Can we talk?" Draco asked.
Severus blinked. He put down his wine glass, and said, "Well... yes. Of course." Nobody had ever asked him to talk before, let alone somebody younger than him, a student. Ex-student. "Why?"
"About... about him," said Draco.
Somehow, Severus had a feeling he'd been waiting for this. Some tiny part of him had been almost hoping.
"The Dark Lord?"
"Don't call him that," the boy said suddenly, and there was a flicker of fear in his voice. "You always call him that. Like you... like you respect him."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "As we are supposed to."
"Oh come on," Draco snapped. "I'm not stupid. I have more brains than Longbottom and Potter." Shifting to turn and look up at Severus, cross-legged in front of the fire, Draco's eyes were desperate and silent. "Look... Severus. I... I see it in your face sometimes. For about a year."
"You see what, precisely?"
"You're not... you're not faithful to him, are you? You're not loyal. Or, some part of you doesn't want to be. Some bit of you... doubts him. Doubts yourself."
Severus turned his eyes away. Damn, was the only word that flittered through his head. He knew it was nothing to be worried about, and that the Dark Lord would not have seen the same things, but he had not expected the Unbreakable Vow to go this far. Draco was now resistant to Severus's Occlumency. He could see through it. That Vow had caused so many problems, one after the other, and now he realised that one of his worries was coming true.
Narcissa had known. She had done her research. The second question she posed to Severus on that night, "Will you, to the best of your ability, protect him from harm?", was phrased so skillfully that Severus could do nothing but admire Narcissa's brilliance. She had successfully manipulated Snape into taking another Vow, something far deeper, far stronger than a simple promise to guide and protect, and he had been blissfully unaware of it at the time. She had bonded Draco to Snape, just like the fiery snakes that had bonded their hands, for life if not eternity. He had not promised to protect until Draco's mission was fulfilled... he had promised to protect, with no time limit, no end.
A Vow like that produced a tighter bond between wizards. So tight, it seemed, that Draco's mind was being drawn closer to Snape's, and the veil of lies was no longer working.
"Draco, this is... dangerous territory," he managed at last. "I would like to end this conversation now."
"I want to leave," Draco blurted out.
Severus felt the hair prickle on the back of his neck, as the silence lengthened and Draco stared up into his face, pleading, desperate, praying that he had not mistaken the signs. Severus tried to keep his face blank. Once more, Narcissa's promise became Severus's downfall.
"So do you," said Draco. His voice shook. "You're not loyal. You... you doubt him, like me. You're afraid."
"I am not afraid," snapped Snape, but the moment he said it, he saw a flash in Draco's eyes. The boy knew he was lying.
"Please," whispered Draco. "I... I don't want to go back. I don't want to be... to be... I don't want things to be like this." He crawled across the rug, and clutched Severus's trouser leg in his hands, staring up, breathless with anxiety. "When I... when I saw Dumbledore... when you - "
"That's enough," said Snape, so firmly that Draco stopped talking. He gathered his thoughts for a moment, staring into Draco's eyes. How much should he tell the boy? How much was safe? "Draco... there are events you are unaware of, situations that - "
"Don't take me back to him," Draco begged. "Don't... please, I'll do anything, I'll... please..."
He continued to plead, and he was shaking now, as every fear seemed to race to the surface and struggle to get out first. Allowed to escape, his doubts were escalating rapidly, and Severus knew it.
"Draco," he said. The boy fell silent, though still shook. Quietly, Snape gripped Draco's shoulders and left his armchair, kneeling in front of the boy and remembering another Malfoy he had knelt before, just a year ago. "Draco. Listen to me. If you're sure, if you're entirely certain, if there is not one bit of your being that remains loyal to the Dark Lord - "
"Loyal to... loyal to Voldemort, then..." He looked down. This situation was so familiar. Would it end up the same way? "Then it might be possible for me to help you."
Draco's breath caught in his throat. "Yes, Severus, please... please..."
Snape swallowed. He could only pray that he was making the right decision, not another terrible one, not another choice he would regret. Dumbledore had died due to the Vow. Yet the reason he made the Vow was far more intricate than loyalty to Narcissa, or keeping up his appearance before the Dark Lord. Draco had no idea. The boy was a keystone in the bridge that was Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, but was so clueless, so naive, so unaware...
"It could take weeks before I am ready to explain," said Snape hurriedly. "Though I give you my word, I will, when the time is right. We need to leave this place before dawn."
Draco was nodding, frantic but shaking with gratitude.
"The next month will be hectic. It will not be pleasant. If the Dark- oh, for Merlin's sake- Voldemort realises that both you and I have abandoned him, Death Eaters will be sent to hunt for us. Not only that, but the Order of the Phoenix will be just as eager to lay their hands on me at this moment in time."
"The Order of what?"
"Later. For now, pack everything you own. I expect you standing by the front door, wand in hand, when I return. Do you understand?"
Momentary hesitation flickered in Draco's eyes, and he opened his mouth, but Snape shushed him.
"No. No more discussion. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Draco quietly.
A month passed, of journeying from hotel to hotel, all the way to London without travelling more than a few miles each day. Finally, in Room 147 of the Bronze Ivy Hotel, Severus had reached their final destination - as ominous as it sounded, this room could well be the last place they could savour freedom. If all went well tonight, then tomorrow morning would be Severus's own personal judgement day. Should he be trusted, forgiven, believed, then the future was bright.
And if not...
Draco looked up, catching the momentary shudder that passed down Severus's body.
"What was that?" he asked, holding a half-eaten sandwich with the gherkin picked out.
"The Dark Mark," lied Snape. He turned his eyes away from Draco. "Eat your gherkin. Did Lucius never explain to you the benefits of vegetables?"
Draco was suspicious. As he shifted to try and see Snape's eyes, that vital indication of whether he was lying or being truthful, Snape got off the bed and picked up his wand.
"I need to attend to something," he said, over the question Draco started to ask. "I would very much appreciate if you do not listen in."
"What are you going to do?" said Draco, as Snape headed towards the bathroom. His nose wrinkled. "Gross, Severus, why would I want to listen in on you?"
"I thought that toilet humour ended when the toddler stage did," said Snape coldly. "For your information, I need to contact somebody and need privacy. If I come out and find your ear pressed against the door, I shall wipe your memory and you would therefore be wasting your time anyway."
"Who are you contacting?" said Draco, kneeling up on the bed. He was ignored. "Severus! Who are you contacting?"
The bathroom door slammed shut. Annoyed, Draco fell back on the bed and peeled open another sandwich, removing the gherkin and hiding it under Severus's pillow.