A/N: Well… another chapter. Yes. Beta-read by shuichi'sgirl (Katie). A hippogrif-sized thank you!
Bonus question: Who'll figure out Dumbledore's knocking pattern?
Chapter 31: Ecce, Harry!
Knock, scrape, pause, scrape, knock-knock.
"What?" Hermione yelped, startled from sleep by something hot and alive. Fortunately, the curtains around her bed were closed and spelled for privacy, so she didn't wake up Parvati and Lavender. She had reflexively reached for her wand, but upon opening her eyes realised that her late-night visitor brought light with himself, so she had no need for a Lumos charm.
"Fawkes?! What are you doing here?"
She tried to slow her breathing. Had they been discovered? Did Dumbledore know what she had done? Would she be expelled? Or worse? Would they send her to Azkaban?
The bird crooned and sang a few wistful notes. Hermione reached out and petted it in an attempt to console it. She had no idea how to treat an upset bird (only that she should keep out of the reach of its beak). Fawkes let her stroke his feathers for a few moments, and then shifted and slipped something into her lap.
Hermione had no idea where he had hidden it, or how was he able to keep it on himself, but she recognised the object immediately – it was Harry's Invisibility Cloak, neatly folded into a small square.
"Thanks, but…" She had no idea what to do with it. Granted, it would be useful for her visits by Voldemort's, but why had Fawkes brought it to her? And where had he found it?
The phoenix tugged on the corner of the fabric, unfolded it, and stretched it across Hermione's belly.
"I should wear it?" Fawkes chirped. "Now?" Another chirp.
Wide awake since the initial shock, Hermione didn't really mind. Whatever it was he wanted her to do, it must have been important. So she crawled out from under the blanket, stood on her bed, and shrugged into the Cloak.
Fawkes landed on her forearm and then they were gone.
Minerva's chair scraped against the floorboards as she pushed herself away from her desk, and she walked to the door to admit the Headmaster. It was a rare occasion when he visited any of the teachers in their offices, and it filled her with dread. Nowadays all important news was bad news.
Indeed, there he stood, grim and looking every day of his one hundred and fifty years.
"Albus…" she said, and nodded to him in greeting. "Come on in."
She lifted a stack of sixth-years' essays from the armchair to free it, and put them on top of the second-years' latest test that waited to be marked. The Headmaster sank into the upholstery, and wearily surveyed the room.
She conjured a cup of tea and pressed it into the unresisting wizard's hands.
"What happened, Albus?"
"It is my great sorrow that I must tell you… Severus has betrayed us."
Minerva gasped. The boy had had a rough deal, and there was always something sinister – something Dark – about him, but… She didn't want to believe he betrayed them. Albus knew better, though – he always knew better. Minerva blinked away her tears, and covered the single sob that escaped her with a choke that might have passed as a reaction to the surprise.
Albus gravely nodded and set out to explain.
"With the help of Draco Malfoy he kidnapped Harry Potter and turned him over to Tom Riddle. He also knew about the Hogsmeade Crucifixion, but chose not to alert me, claiming that he had the interest of the students on his heart."
Minerva gasped, though not in outrage as the Headmaster likely interpreted it. If Severus failed to report something so crucial, then he most certainly protected someone – whether it were the students, or the mysterious subject of the boy's new-found emotions. About Potter, though…
… she didn't know what to think.
"What will happen to him now?" she asked, rather upset. Albus might have acted as a jolly grandfather with an unhealthy sweet-tooth most of the time, but she had witnessed him lead two wars, and he was razor-sharp steel when the matters became serious. There was nothing she – nothing anyone – could do for Severus now.
"I honestly do not know, Minerva – he fled the castle tonight, before I had the chance to stop him."
Was it wrong of Minerva to feel relief? Did her position as a teacher make her over-protective about her students (which in her head still applied to Severus Snape)? Should she have wished Severus dead?
She knew that all three answers were identical – yes. But it didn't change the fact that she was happy her boy had escaped.
Hermione gasped and stepped from one foot to another and back. The stony floor was cold, at first making her toes ache, and now it only made them numb. She cursed herself for the idiocy of not wearing shoes, but none of that mattered right now, because Fawkes transferred her to a corridor in front of Professor McGonagall's personal quarters and instructed her – as much as a bird with accordingly limited ability of communication could – to listen.
She did listen, and felt guilty and outraged, and sincerely despised Dumbledore for the way he twisted the truth and used people who looked up to him. It was dirty, rotten, and just plain mean. She couldn't grasp, though, why Fawkes wanted her to know about this. Was this shameless deceit enough for the phoenix to go behind his owner's – friend's, whatever – back?
"Did you know about Snape?"
The answer was a negative chirp.
"Did you know he fled?"
This time Fawkes let out a positive croon and cocked his head to the side. Hermione's eyes narrowed.
"You took him away." Croon. "You took him to Vol- to the Dark fortress." Croon. "He knows he shouldn't come back?" Another croon. Hermione nodded and sighed. "I wish I knew what it is you want me to do."
Fawkes chirped and stepped over on her arm. He flashed her back to the dormitory, took the Invisibility Cloak into his talons, and was gone.
"Ahh… I smell a change in this fall-night's airrr…" Lucius Malfoy slurred from beneath his cape. The group of similarly clothed figures around him drank his every word. He surveyed his little following, slightly unhappy that it would be further reduced tonight, but grinning with anticipation. He was reminded of Cousin Bella, who used to feel like this before bloodshed. Well… Azkaban leaves its mark on everyone.
"Rrrememberrr… Do not fight with otherrr Death Eaterrrs…Tonight's objective is to kill the Lorrrd…" It bothered him ever so slightly that, despite attempts, he was still unable to pronounce the disgrace's chosen name aloud with confidence. He opted for the safe 'Lord', and it seemed that, as accustomed as his followers were to calling it by that honorific, none of them noticed.
"Cast Invisibility Spells on yourrrselves. Worrrk togetherrr. Tonight, ourrr forrrce is in ourrr numberrrs."
Adrian watched as the black-caped figures around him disappeared, one by one. Quietly, they trickled into the Audience Hall and set out to its far side entrance to Dark Lord's quarters.
Fools, the lot of them. Most would die tonight, and Lucius would use the rest to fight his opposition within the ranks of the Dark Order. He was better off working for ol' Dumbledore. Snape couldn't have been as clever as he fancied himself, if he gave up such a chance. Adrian saw his teacher's mistakes, and learned from them.
Invisible and unnoticed, he parted from the unit and aimed for the staircase. There was a ticket to his freedom waiting on the second floor.
"Where's Harry…" Draco asked quietly once he calmed down enough to speak.
"I don't know," Severus replied honestly. The brat had just disappeared on them, casting wards around the room that kept them inside as sure as they kept anyone – but perhaps Dumbledore and the Dark Lord – outside. It shouldn't have been possible, but Severus came to accept that despite all his faults, Harry Potter had a penchant for achieving the impossible.
It took a moment for Draco to process his words, but when it was done, Severus knew. The body in his arms stiffened, and a pair of red-rimmed, grey eyes stared up at him in shock and… fear? His heart clenched. After all those years of threatening his peers, intimidating his students and alienating his colleagues with cruelty, he had found a person he didn't want to be afraid of him.
"You…" Draco breathed, quivering.
"I." He couldn't say anything more. His throat was clenched and he stared, and stared, and stared, as though he had never seen this creature before. Draco in his grief was singularly beautiful. Mesmerising.
Severus felt a stab of guilt, but compared to his other impulses it was pitifully weak. He reached up and wiped Draco's last tear with his thumb. He was so, so sorry for whatever he did to this boy that made him so afraid.
"Why do you hate him?" Draco asked, and it was the last question Severus expected. He had no answer to that. Why did he hate Potter? Why did he… have feelings for Draco? Why did he decide to side with the Dark Lord in the end, when Dumbledore gave him a chance to atone for his crimes? Why was he here tonight, holding this wonderful person in his arms, and not dead or rotting in Azkaban as he deserved?
"There is no answer, is there?" Draco said, much calmer than before. He wrenched himself out of Severus's embrace and stood up, with his back turned to the corpse of his mother. He threw his head back and stared at the ceiling. "No answer. No reason. And one innocent's personal Hell. But I have no right to judge you… no right."
He sighed and hung his head down, still not facing either Severus or the reality of Narcissa's death.
"Change, Snape. I did, and for all the bad things that happened, it was worth it. Harry does not deserve the way you treat him. He deserves to be stood on a pedestal and worshipped, but he refused that existence. Give him respect. And I might consider giving respect to you." Draco turned around and Severus saw that this was no child, no crushed boy. This was a strong, determined young man who had his respect, admiration and – ultimately – his heart.
Adrian, as any proactive Slytherin, was proficient when it came to skulking in shadows. He didn't much trust his supposed invisibility – there had to be tens of charms, artifacts and potions that allowed their user to see through it. Otherwise the spell would have been much more popular.
The corridor he walked now was one of the supposedly unused parts of the fortress, and thus so dark that there were no shadows. Or, the other way around – it was one vast shadow, which allowed him to move freely.
Adrian didn't expect to encounter anyone in the middle of this corridor.
When the torches simultaneously flared to life, he froze. The two or three seconds of panic turned out to be too many. In total silence, disturbed only by the sound of his breathing, he felt the tingle of magic as it struck him and his muscles went rigid.
In the first instance he was gobsmacked; then came anger and, eventually, when his brain caught up with the situation, fear. He blinked, trying to dispel the afterimages, but the sudden light had blinded him and prevented him from seeing what he wouldn't be able to defend against anyway…
A green shape with glowing red eyes-
'A demon,' Adrian thought.
-glid toward him, and then there was only pain and darkness.
Harry trusted Tom to be able to fend off a few rogue Death Eaters that came barging in, tripping over their egos, but that didn't stop him from going downstairs to make sure Lucius didn't get away. Then again, leaving Pucey traipsing across the fort and risking getting attacked from behind was not too feasible, so he decided to take a slightly longer route than the beeline. As much as he disliked the idea of leaving a Confounded Snape, a hysterical Draco and Draco's dead mother alone under a siege (despite the sturdiness of his wards), this was something that had to be done right now.
That was why he stopped on the stairs, leant against the railing, yawned, and waited for the traitor to enter. There were no doors in the corridor, and the artifacts hung on the walls – weapons, magical objects, trophies and torch-holders – conveyed no hiding place. Once Pucey came into sight, there was no way for him to escape.
When the man finally entered, something half-familiar swelled within Harry. This… person… had come to kill (himself, but also) Draco. Harry let go as his protective instincts rung, and allowed Tom-part to completely take over.
Adrian Pucey had walked through the archway invisible, but the spell was dispersed as soon as it touched the atmosphere filled with Harry/Tom's wrath. The torches lit up, and the man squinted, which was his very last action.
Harry/Tom approached him, deciding that it was about the highest time to go and see how Lucius Malfoy had ended. Passing by the petrified Death Eater, he calmly crushed his throat with a careless flick of his wrist.
Strangely, he didn't feel anything.
There were so many things Severus could say – wanted to say. But ultimately most of them fell into the category of statements that would alienate Draco further. He could scorn, insult, and belittle Potter every day… it had long since become natural to him. On the other hand, respect itself was something he was hard-pressed to exhibit. He feared both the Dark Lord and the Headmaster, and, to a much smaller degree, Minerva McGonagall… he hated his father and the Marauders… he cared about Draco's feelings… but Potter was a mere underfed creature that someone found under a rock, pulled out into sunlight, painted with fantastic colours and set on display. There was nothing worth respect there.
"I shall attempt it," he said as diplomatically as he could. Draco snorted, which Severus translated as a comment to his lack of substantial response. There was a long stretch of silence and Severus watched as slowly, gradually the young man's mask crumbled and fell. Cloudy eyes strayed to the still form of the dead woman, before being tightly pressed shut.
Severus stood up and blocked Draco's view in that direction. In the end the blond re-opend his eyes and wearily stared.
"What happened here before you healed my eyes?"
Draco quivered; a pair of crystalline tears escaped from behind the tightly pressed eyelids.
"I saw Mo- Narcissa… There was enough magic to burn us to crisps. And he just… I don't know… he absorbed it. Like…" Draco stretched his arms in front of himself and mimicked the action. His hands were shaking. Severus thrice damned himself, caught the boy's shoulders and pressed him against himself. Draco succumbed to the sobs.
Harry/Tom didn't even stopped to ponder the probability of receiving torture that would send him back into Draco's care as he crossed the Audience Hall and entered the Dark Lord's personal chambers – the password-protected door was open.
Tom never left it open. So Lucius and his sycophants were already inside – and for some incomprehensible reason neglected to leave a guard by the entrance. That they managed to get inside was a small wonder by itself.
Harry/Tom only glanced over the rooms he passed. First was a small hall with stairs that led below, then came a hallway with huge windows that showed a small enclosed peristyle courtyard. Here he had to climb over a small pile of three or four bodies – he wasn't so sure – of former Death Eaters who triggered a trap. Then there was something that looked like a bit of an indoor jungle – for Nagini, no doubt, even though such care from the Dark Lord would surprise anyone else. The room, however, was a dead end, so he had to return to the hallway and try the second door – opposite Nagini's nest.
It used to be a parlour, most likely, but right now it was a mortuary. It shocked Harry/Tom to see that Malfoy had managed to gather almost twenty followers, only from the Inner and Second Circle. His continued existence and presence within the Fourtower Black Fort must have been a powerful argument to sway so many to ally themselves with him… against the Dark Lord. It still was a folly… very obviously.
The unnatural stillness in the room was the worst. Tom should have been there, even if he were there casting a Crucio on Harry… but he should have been there. But nothing broke the silence…
Until Harry noticed the Silencing Ward on what must have been Tom's bedchamber. It was a weird prospect – the Dark Lord sleeping – but, in spite of his many attempts to change it, Tom still remained biologically human.
Harry/Tom pushed the door open.
Lucius Malfoy under a purposeless Invisibility Spell that Harry barely registered knelt on one knee and struck down with a hideous weapon – a piece of metal Harry hesitated to call dagger with all the little catches designed to shred flesh… blood sprayed the blond's pale face and he stood up, brandishing his wand… the Dark Lord sank to the floor with a groan of pain which Harry could feel the faint echo of…
Tom looked up and his eyes met Lucius's. A sneer of derision crossed his face. Lucius mirrored the expression and raised his wand.