Jocelyn's A/N: Here it is, dear readers, my first full contribution to Mum's universe! Like so many of you, Tea & Sympathy inspired me! This is just a one-shot, so I hope you all enjoy it! It was a great stress-reliever to work on it while I was studying for the Bar Exam—you know how I am about Snape-mentors-Harry plots when I'm stressed. Thanks to all who sent support and encouragement for me in my grueling Lawyer Test. I finished yesterday, and now get to wait six weeks to find out whether I passed. Bleh. Reviews would be an excellent distraction, you know!
Coffee and Enmity
Don't hurt him.
The words rang in Snape's ears as he walked to his safe house with Harry Potter slung over his shoulder. He wished it was anyone other than Potter. He wished it was Hermione Granger.
He had not exactly meant that thought the way it sounded in his head, and if he were one of Hermione's little friends, he'd probably have blushed. Instead, he gritted his teeth and carried his burden into the house.
Don't hurt him.
Damn that woman. Why did she make it all so bloody complicated?
But he had given her his word, and he was bitterly aware of the existence of witnesses. That he had been seen was no real matter—they believed him a monster anyway, and so his taking of the boy would come as no surprise. Having discovered Hermione in the act, however, what the Order's response would be was anyone's guess.
She had risked everything on his word. He could not dismiss that.
I love him. Don't you dare hurt him.
Damn Harry Potter! What the hell had he done to deserve Hermione Granger's unswerving devotion? She had nearly hexed Snape's face off when he'd first asked for the boy. Harry Potter was nowhere near Hermione's league in intelligence or good sense.
But he had given her his word. With an aggrieved sigh, he brought Potter into one of the bedrooms and laid him gently enough on the bed. This part wasn't all that difficult; Severus knew it would be when the boy woke that his word to Hermione would truly be tested. He was not looking forward to explaining the situation to Potter.
He settled himself in the study with a book and a small glass of firewhiskey. He had a feeling he'd need it. "Harry's not even awake, and already he's driving you to drink, Severus?"
"Don't put your oar in now, Albus; this will be difficult enough as it is," he replied, without looking up.
"You persuaded Hermione, then?"
"I did, no thanks to you." He scowled at his book, closed it, and looked over his shoulder at the portrait on the wall, the one commissioned in secret to serve much as Phineas Nigellus's portrait at Grimmauld Place did. Originally, when planning Albus's "final great adventure" as the late Headmaster had irritatingly put it, the portrait was intended to be Snape's one and only means of keeping tabs on Order activities.
Bringing Hermione Granger into the fold had been Severus's idea. A rather impulsive one at that; Albus had been displeased at first.
"You know my feelings about risking the safety of students in Order activities, Severus."
"Those feelings haven't stopped you from training Potter up to go head-to-head with the Dark Lord, Albus. Don't be sanctimonious. Granger has more wits about her than half the Order, not to mention a cooler head. I would prefer dealing with her than Murphy the Muddlesome's portrait every time I must enter Hogwarts."
In the end, Albus couldn't deny Hermione's value, and their modified game plan had gone forward. Of course, Draco's arrival at the school made Hermione's role a bit superfluous, but Severus found himself unwilling to bring an end to their partnership. At the time, he had insisted—with some justification, thank god—that despite Draco's greater experience at infiltration, Hermione Granger still exceeded him in basic abilities, to say nothing of Draco's more precarious position among the Order.
And yet, Hermione's stubborn attachment to Potter had nearly ended her work with Severus on repeated occasions after that, damn the headstrong girl! She had refused to admit that she was of more use to the Order working with Severus than that silly, reckless boy, and followed him into dangerous situations time and time again, situations in which she was well out of her depth. For all her considerable gifts, Severus soon realized, Hermione was not at her best in the face of immediate danger. Oh, she knew her spells, to be sure, but what aided her in other situations hampered her in combat—she thought too much. Potter, Weasley, and even Longbottom exceeded her in practice, from what she'd told Severus.
No, Hermione was not some Order grunt to serve as cannon fodder against the Dark Lord. (Severus had a rather dim view of the Auror profession, which placed too much emphasis on combat and not enough on investigation and strategy.) She served the Order and herself far better in a position of stealth and intelligence.
Or are you merely trying to convince yourself of that to ease your own conscience for the predicament you've left her in?
Severus scowled. He nearly refilled his drink, then sighed, and held off. He'd need his wits about him when Potter woke up.
I should have taken her as well. She would have come, had I asked. At the time, to leave her at Hogwarts to invent what story she could and continue her surveillance had seemed logical, but even as he'd taken Potter, Severus had realized Hermione's cover was blown. She might manage to persuade them of some coercion, but she'd have to take care; any hint of what Severus planned might reach the Dark Lord and end the campaign before it began. He had not warned her to say nothing; he knew she knew.
The question remained of what would happen to her now, discovered and in Order hands. Severus found himself unable to dwell on it if he wanted to keep his focus on the task at hand.
Speaking of the task at hand, Albus appeared in one of the portraits. "Harry's waking, Severus."
Instead of going to the bedroom, Severus aimed his wand at the wall and muttered a Transparency Charm. Sure enough, Potter was stirring. His former professor watched with little interest and less concern about how the boy would react to his new circumstances.
It gave him a start, however, to hear the first word out of Potter's mouth.
Shit. That should not have struck him as hard as it did. He needed calm, he needed detachment—from everything. Potter was going to be agitated about Hermione's involvement, and it would need to be explained; there was no avoiding that. All the same, Severus was not looking forward to it.
Once the groggy boy was fully aware, Severus supposed he did have some skills that would be useful in the coming venture; confusion was swiftly replaced with caution, and Potter peered around the room with a bare minimum of actual movement. Had Severus tried to open the door at that point, no doubt the child would appear still unconscious. Good. Perhaps this won't be such a difficult endeavor after all—once I have his cooperation, that is.
Still, it was a comfortable, more-objective train of thought to be on, as Severus watched Potter determine (without obviously looking) that he was alone in the room. The boy then went in search of his wand, without success since it was in Snape's pocket. Severus would return it to him, once there was no danger of immediate hexing. He watched Potter circle the room, trying in vain to open the window, peering at the currently-empty portrait in attempt to guess who its occupant was, even investigating the fireplace Floo. As pleased as Severus was by the boy's caution, they needed to get down to business.
Let's see how he handles this. With a flick of his wand, Severus opened the bedroom door.
Potter threw himself away from it and lobbed first the lamp from the side table, then a pillow at the doorway. Severus found the pillow an odd choice of weapon, until the thing exploded into feathers, which partially obscured the view from the doorway and gave Potter time to dive for the fireplace tools. When the pillow stuffing drifted to the floor, the boy was half-in, half-out the hearth, brandishing a poker at the empty doorway and looking utterly ridiculous. His eyes went huge at the sight of Snape.
"Not bad, Potter," Severus said neutrally.
Apparently realizing that facing Snape off with a fire iron against a wand was pointless, Potter straightened, glaring at him. "What do you want?"
Don't hurt him.
Damn it, woman, shut up! "Sit down."
He should have foreseen Potter's reaction, folding his arms stubbornly and leaning against the doorway. "What do you want?"
"The explanation will take some time, but if you wish to stand, then stand." Green eyes, dark with suspicion, flicked around the room, looking for any potential escape routes, but finding none, Potter looked back at Snape.
Severus met the boy's gaze steadily. "I require your assistance in attacking the last Horcrux." Potter blinked. "It is the Dark Lord's serpent, Nagini. The Order's objective—and Albus Dumbledore's—has been to destroy the Horcruxes before attempting to directly confront the Dark Lord. Until now we have been successful, but Nagini poses a problem."
"'We?'" Potter sneered. "It'd be a lot more convincing that you're still with the Order—and Dumbledore—if you hadn't killed Dumbledore!"
Detachment. "I killed Dumbledore at his own direction." He got a scoff in response. He considered pointing out that Hermione believed it, but decided not to mention her. Potter would bring her up soon enough, and that would be another battle to fight. In any case, the entire reason for this escapade and Hermione's involvement had been the already-acknowledged truth that Potter simply would not accept any offer at explanation, be it from Snape or his friends or anyone else in the Order. It occurred to Severus that were their positions reversed, he himself might not feel any different.
Therefore, it was time to proceed to the point. "Whether you believe me or not is irrelevant, Potter; I am going after the snake, I require your assistance—your ability as a Parselmouth, specifically—and you will be remaining with me until the creature is dead and the Horcrux destroyed. At that point, you will be free to return to the Order and plan the final attack on the Dark Lord with them, or pursue whatever other course of action you think appropriate." Noticing the boy's eyes wandering to the doors and windows again, he added, "But you will not be free to go before that."
Potter looked confused now, no doubt searching for some indication of a sinister motive. Severus leaned back in his chair. "It is as simple as that. You're not going to be harmed."
"I don't believe you."
"Of course you don't."
"What do you really want?"
Severus rolled his eyes. "Potter, I will write it down on parchment for you to carry in your pocket if necessary, but the explanation of what you are doing here will not change. If I meant to harm you or hand you over to the Dark Lord, it would be done already, and you would have far worse things to worry about than assuring yourself of my irredeemable villainy."
"What'd you do to Hermione?" the boy snapped.
Damn. Snape took a deep breath. "Nothing." Potter spat denials, and he raised his voice. "Miss Granger made her decision of her own free will, without coercion of any kind, based on her own judgment." Potter gaped. "She heard my explanation unhampered by personal bias, witnessed my continued work on the Order's behalf, and deemed me trustworthy. And she was able to act in the best interests of the Order despite her emotional attachments!"
"That's impossible!" Potter shouted, starting out of the doorway with bared teeth. Severus calmly brandished his wand, and the boy paused, but hissed, "She wouldn't help you. She'd never do that!"
"Do what? Assist me if she believed me trustworthy? Or act without her 'Chosen One's' permission?"
"I'm her friend, and I know her! She wouldn't just believe you, she wouldn't lie to the Order, and she WOULDN'T set me up! You did something to her, I know you did!"
"I did not," Severus replied coolly, which only enraged Potter further.
"I'M NOT HELPING YOU DO A BLOODY THING UNTIL YOU TELL ME WHAT YOU DID TO HER!" Potter screamed, and Severus rose and took aim with his wand.
"I seem to recall informing you that you do not have a choice." With that, tired of dealing with the conceited little brat's suspicions, Severus gave him a light magical shove back into his room and locked the door. Through the still-transparent walls, he saw (and heard) the little brat kicking the door for a few minutes before stomping off to sulk on the bed.
Severus leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. "Don't hurt him"…you would never hold me to that if you had to put up with this, Granger!
"Perhaps I should talk to him, Severus."
He opened his eyes and looked at Albus, leaning against the frame of someone else's portrait. "By all means, try, but I doubt he will consider your words reliable. A sinister plague upon humanity such as myself would certainly create a tainted portrait to speak in my favor."
Albus laughed. "You give yourself too little credit."
"Hardly," he replied. "I believe I may be trusted with the brat as well as Order business. It's Potter who needs convincing beyond all reason."
"I'll do my best," the portrait said, and Severus waved him off.
"Have at it." He cancelled the Transparency Charm and poured himself another drink, then snorted as he heard a crash that was undoubtedly the sound of something being thrown at Dumbledore's portrait. "I believe the appropriate phrase is, 'I told you so.'"
The next morning, Severus put breakfast on the table and opened Potter's door. When the boy peered out, he said, "Eat or go hungry, it is up to you." Potter eyed it. "Or the kitchen is through there, if you prefer to prepare your own."
After a moment's more hesitation, Potter forewent his host's cooking and made his way through the study (keeping an amusing distance from Snape) into the kitchen. Severus had already made certain that any potential serious weapons were out of the Potter's reach, so he didn't concern himself. It did surprise him when the smell of coffee drifted into the room. He'd made himself tea in the morning as usual, but at this moment (probably due to the amount of whiskey he'd drunk the night before) coffee was suddenly an appealing thought.
When he walked into the kitchen, the boy, eating fruit by the sideboard, jumped halfway across the room. "If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so already," Severus pointed out (again), and helped himself to a cup of the brew Potter had made. Not bad, although the silly child's choice of meal amused him. "And if you're hoping to avoid some fiendish attempt at poisoning by refusing to eat any prepared food in the house, you should recall that plenty of Potions within my capacity to make can be absorbed through the skin of whole fruit."
Potter actually paused, staring at him with large eyes, then scowled and defiantly took a bite. "Where's my wand?"
"I have it. And when I am certain you will not immediately curse me, I will return it to you."
"What are you playing at?" Potter burst out.
Snape had to fight the urge to throw up his hands. "I am playing at nothing. I want this thrice-damned war over with and the Dark Lord dead so that I need no longer associate with you ever again!"
"Well, you won't have to associate with me when you're in Azkaban!" Potter sneered.
"If that is the end I meet for my actions, I will accept it, because unlike you, I do not let my own pathetic interests get in the way of the Order's aims," Severus retorted. "And whatever my revulsion at some acts, if they are necessary, I will carry them out, as Hermione Granger did, because you could not be trusted to think beyond your emotions!"
Potter threw a half-eaten apricot at him and missed. "You can pontificate about the Order and Hermione all you want, you bloody bastard, but you've done nothing except keep YOURSELF out of danger since the last war! And no matter how you try to KEEP playing both sides now, it'll NEVER convince anyone that you're anything but a lying, murdering COWARD!"
Before the little brat could draw breath to continue, Snape was across the kitchen and had him slammed back against the wall, one hand wrapped around his throat. Moving his face close to the boy's, Severus whispered, "You had best hope that I am in fact telling the truth, Potter, because if I had as little self control as you, I would give myself the very great pleasure of doing away with you with my bare hands." Potter growled at him and struggled, but Severus pinned him where he was and started to squeeze. He smirked as the boy's eyes betrayed that first flicker of fear…
Don't you dare hurt him, Severus. I love him.
Damn it all to hell. He let go and stepped away. Potter looked away from him, arms folded in a futile effort to hide his shivering, and muttered, "What is it you want?"
He sighed heavily. "I've already told you." Potter shot him a disbelieving glance. "Think what you will, but we depart shortly."
"For where?" the boy demanded.
"Nagini will be in the Dark Lord's headquarters on Dartmoor. I will be able to gain entry for myself openly, and you covertly, at which point I will procure some excuse for the Dark Lord to leave the place. I will rejoin you then, you will call to the serpent, and we will dispatch her."
Potter narrowed his eyes. "They won't leave the place entirely abandoned; how am I supposed to keep anyone from realizing I'm there?"
"His headquarters are the remains of a centuries-old tin mine," Severus explained. "That creature's voice can be heard from nearly anywhere within, and she is frequently talking or hissing. From what I recall of your use of Parseltongue, I doubt the guards will recognize the difference."
"Well…" Potter shrugged and looked at his feet. "If I've got no choice, then let's get it done."
"Very well." Severus motioned him toward the door. The boy preceded him (rather stupidly) which gave Severus the opportunity to point his wand. "Habeo propé!"
"Hey!" Potter whirled around, trying to draw a wand he didn't have, and scrambled away from Snape. Looking himself up and down, he demanded, "What the hell—"
Severus snorted. "I'm not a complete idiot, Potter. That spell will not hurt you, merely ensure that you do not happen to wander out of my reach before we gain our destination." The way the boy growled at him indicated that that was precisely what he'd had planned. "If you intend to defeat the Dark Lord, win victory for the Order, and in the process condemn me to a well-deserved life in Azkaban, I suggest you work on your creativity." Potter commenced sulking. "Now that we have that minor detail attended to, shall we go?"
After a short deliberation, all the while glaring at the floor tiles, the brat turned and stalked toward the door. Severus waited where he was for a moment, then smirked as his unwilling accomplice suddenly found himself unable to actually get to the door. Only then did he go join Potter.
He Apparated Potter Side-along to Dartmoor. "We are still a few miles from the headquarters. I have a Portkey that will remove us back to the safe house in the event of an emergency, but it would be best not to use it if it can be avoided; it would be detected and the intrusion discovered."
Potter frowned at him. "How am I supposed to fight Nagini if I can only go so far from you?"
"I will remove the spell once we have arrived," said Severus. Glancing sideways at the boy, he added, "In the hope that once you observe that I have brought you to the headquarters of the Dark Lord without promptly delivering you into his waiting hands, even one of your stubborn convictions will be unable to deny my aim." The boy shot him a dubious look but kept walking. "And keep your eyes open. There is a greater chance of patrols the closer we are."
Heavy silence descended along with a heavy fog, and Severus noticed Potter looking apprehensively around them. It was cooler here than even the Hogwarts grounds in the highland of Scotland, and the moor was famous for its inhospitable atmosphere. The knowledge that the Dark Lord had made his new home here only added to it. Without meaning to, Severus said quietly, "I assured Miss Granger that I would protect you in this."
The boy glanced sharply at him. "I don't believe for a second that she'd just agree with you without talking to me."
"Perhaps she considers your temporary discomfiture reasonable to endure for the war. Perhaps she does not think your approval is the be-all, end-all of this war effort."
Potter shook his head, turning his gaze forward again as he slogged over the marshy earth. "She wouldn't do that to any one of us, any more than we'd hand her over to Lucius Malfoy. Then, I guess you don't care so much about sacrificing people, do you?"
Severus balled his fist and picked up the pace, glad for the need to concentrate on where he was putting his feet to keep his mind off fantasies of slapping the little upstart into next week.
Don't hurt him.
I am not going to hurt your precious little pet, woman, so stop nagging me!
Damn her. DAMN her!
The boy was watching him, apparently sensing Snape's sudden distress, and more than a bit confused by it. When Severus glared at him, he actually widened the space between them. "How much further?"
"Just under three miles. It is roughly an hour's walk from outside the wards."
Eyeing the scrubby vegetation and rocky tors around them, Potter remarked, "I'm surprised it isn't wider than that; surely you could cover that ground pretty quick if you needed to."
"On ordinary landscape, yes, but not Dartmoor. The wards are positioned so that anyone who does not know the direct route must risk crossing peat marsh no matter which direction they come from. You have not, I suppose, read The Hound of the Baskervilles?"
"Sherlock Holmes, of course I have!" the boy said, looking insulted.
Hermione probably gave it to him. That thought escaped before he could stop it, and he went on, "They are the mires on which the antagonist's gruesome demise is based, and their danger is not exaggerated, particularly after heavy rain."
Potter glanced at the ground under his feet and couldn't restrain a shudder. Severus smirked. He knows the story rather well, then.
When the boy stumbled on the soggy earth a few minutes later with a strangled yelp of alarm, Severus rolled his eyes and went to help him up. "We're on stable earth, Potter, relax—"
A handful of mud struck him full in the face, sending him staggering reflexively back, only to end up with the full weight of the teenager crashing against him and bearing him to the ground. "Potter!"
His only answer was a fist to the jaw and a mad scrabbling struggle, rolling around in the wet grass until his wand was wrenched from his hand and its tip pressed very hard against his throat. Snarling, Severus wiped the filth from his eyes and glared up at the boy. "Where's my wand?" Potter hissed.
Severus eyed him and considered; had the boy looked more triumphant and confident, he might have tried to take him at once, but as it was, he appeared to have sufficiently provoked Potter to a willingness to hex first and ask further questions later.
"Incarcerus." Now Severus swore furiously as ropes bound his arms to his sides while Potter rummaged around in his pocket for the wand. When the boy didn't even smile upon finding it, Severus swore again. "Shut up, or I'll gag you!"
"You're going to get us both killed, you stupid brat!" he snapped. "I've done nothing to harm you!"
Potter looked coldly determined, and Severus would have been gratified by his ability not to be distracted by emotion—if it weren't so inconvenient at the moment. "If there's one thing I learned from seeing you murder Dumbledore, it's not to let my guard down with you for a single ruddy second." He stood up. "Mobilicorpus. We're going back the way we came, then back to Hogwarts, and the Order can deal with you."
"You're condemning Hermione Granger as well, Potter," Severus warned, feeling a twinge of desperation.
"No, I'm not. You're a liar; I don't believe you didn't do something to force her."
"And if it is proven she was not coerced?" Severus challenged him, straining to meet the boy's eyes as he hovered along beside him.
Potter's eyes darkened with uncertainty, then he shook his head. "They'll understand. I understand. You fooled Dumbledore of all people—maybe you managed to fool her too." As though trying to convince himself, he repeated, "I understand. They'll have to. It's not her fault."
"You are right," Severus growled, twisting against the ropes. "It is not her fault. She could not trust you to give her a hearing, and nor could I, therefore we were both forced to this. But the Order is not so understanding towards traitors, Potter, and they'll send her straight to—"
"DON'T CALL HER THAT!" Potter bellowed, dropping Severus to the ground as he lost control of his wand. "Don't you EVER call her that! She DIDN'T mean to do it; you'll NEVER make me believe it, so don't you EVER call her that again!"
"THEY WILL CALL HER THAT!" Severus shouted, sitting up despite his bonds. Potter's wand was shaking as he pointed it. "Deny it if you like, but your word will not save her, you STUPID child! And your TRIUMPH at having brought me to the cruel justice of Azkaban will be sullied by her fate—hex me dead on this spot if you wish, but that will change nothing: she WILL go to prison! No one in the Order aside from her knows that I remain loyal to their cause; for handing their precious 'Chosen One' over to the Dark Lord's supposed servant and Dumbledore's killer, she will go to prison, and she will die there."
"No," Potter whispered, white-faced. "She won't. I…I won't let her."
Severus bared his teeth at the boy. "She handed you to me, Potter, why so concerned for her?"
"She DIDN'T do it on purpose!" Potter cried, sounding more desperate than angry now. "She WOULDN'T turn on us, not ANY of us! She's—she's my friend," he insisted, his voice dropping slightly.
Severus looked straight into the boy's eyes, willing him to listen, for once. "Potter. I have…not…lied to you. My objective is to destroy the last Horcrux in precisely the manner I told you. If we leave now, we lose not only the best possible chance to kill the serpent but my work as a spy AND all proof of Hermione Granger's innocence!"
"They'll listen to me," Potter whispered, frightened now.
"They will not," Severus countered, lowering his voice. "I did nothing to her with magic or Potions or any other coercive means, and all tests will bear it out. She acted of her own free will, and that is all that will matter to them. You stand a far better chance of persuading Nagini to come to you to her doom than you have of persuading the Ministry not to put that young woman in Azkaban for the rest of her life."
Potter gulped, and the wand wavered in his hand, but then noises reached both their ears: noises that were not the mere gurglings and shufflings of the moor. Voices.
Potter froze, and Severus whispered, "Potter! Give me my wand! Quickly!"
Panic and confusion were naked on the boy's face, but then he backed away. "No."
"Damn it, boy, I'm not lying to you about her!" Snape hissed desperately, hearing the voices growing louder, although how close they were, he could not say.
But Potter shook his head, biting his lip, and answered, "You are. I know you are. You have to be."
"No!" Snape almost pleaded, but the boy turned and ran back the way they'd come.
Oh, shit. Shit. SHIT!
Worse, the sound carried as was normal for the moor, and the voices suddenly rose to shouts, now moving unmistakably in their direction. Severus struggled frantically, searching for a stone or twig or something that to free himself before every chance they had was blown to hell. But then there was a cry somewhere in the fog, and yells of excitement answered as the pounding footsteps went past him.
"AAH—what's…oh god!" It was Potter.
"What's this! OY! Look what we 'ave here, gents! Harry bloody Potter himself, landed right in one of our bog 'oles!" Bellows of laughter rang out.
"What say? Shall we let 'im sink?"
As they all began laughing and taunting the stranded Potter, Severus detected no familiar voices among them, no ranking Death Eaters. Patrols, probably, or maybe a minor raiding party.
"Ol' Dartmoor Stables is gonna gulp you down wif the ponies, my son!"
"Bugger off!" Potter shouted. "Oh, g—STOP IT! No—"
Severus gritted his teeth. There weren't many options left. In for a Knut, in for a Galleon… "Help!"
"'Ere! What's that? 'Oo's there?"
"HERE!" Severus bellowed. "Give me a hand, you bloody fools!"
Potter shouted several obscenities at Severus, which actually spurred the Death Eaters to come more quickly to his aid. Two of them emerged out of the haze and reared back in surprise. "Oy! Snape!"
"Get me loose, damn it, and hold onto that brat!" Severus snapped at them. To his intense relief, they appeared to be underlings, and obeyed his order automatically. Once loose, he sprinted through the mist to come upon two more of the Dark Lord's grunts, and Harry Potter up to his chest in the bog. "What the hell are you waiting for? The Dark Lord will have our heads if we lose him!"
"Eh, yeah, sorry, sir! Mobilicorpus!"
Potter snarled and thrashed as he was lifted free. By the look of him, the Death Eaters had lifted him out only to drop him back into the muck in several times. Severus stood coldly as the boy was dropped at his feet. "He had my wand."
"Accio Snape's wand!" The wand flew from the mire into Snape's hand. He cleaned it with distaste and Summoned Potter's own.
"Incredible," he said, looking over his shoulder at the boy. "Two wands and he still can't keep himself out of the swamp." The Death Eaters chortled, and he gestured ahead of them. "Let's move. Our Master is going to be livid as it is that he almost escaped again."
"Yessir!" Severus put a firm hand on the boy's shoulder to keep him from running, and the Death Eaters obediently fell in around them.
But as they turned, Severus sent a flick of wandless magic that knocked the last of the four off his feet—by all appearances merely tripping over himself—right into the bog. "Augh!"
"Oh for the love of—fetch him!" Snape exclaimed in exasperation. The other three hastily obeyed, never seeing Severus shoving Potter's wand into his hand. He ignored the boy's astonished expression and took aim at his former compatriots' backs. "Avada Kedavra." The nearest one bowled over without a sound, pitching into the muck with his comrade, which drove the first unlucky Death Eater under. The other two spun around with startled shouts, but Severus's second Killing Curse had another joining the first two in their filthy grave before he could bring his wand to bear.
Potter cast Stupefy, which would not have done the trick had the last of the group not also fallen straight into the bog, which would shortly have the effect of ending his life as surely as the Killing Curse. The boy actually started forward in some ill-conceived effort to leave the man alive, but Severus stopped him.
Potter turned, and wide, horrified green eyes fixed on him. "We…we can't…"
"No. We can't." Severus looked him up and down, then sighed. To proceed on to headquarters with Potter in this state would not be a good idea. "Let's go." Potter didn't even protest, though he undoubtedly hadn't the faintest idea where they were going (if running straight into the mire hadn't already been an indication.) He tried to look back several times, but Severus pulled him away and kept him firmly facing forward. A glance back at the place had already revealed to Snape that the surface of green sphagnum moss was undisturbed again, with no indication of the four bodies the bog had claimed.
There was no need for Potter to see it, especially since the boy was currently shaking violently beneath Snape's steering hand and could barely seem to walk straight. Damn it, Albus, how do you expect this child to defeat the Dark Lord?
But in this state, Severus had to admit, he could better comprehend Hermione's attitude—at least her protectiveness, if not her love. He said nothing as they went out beyond the wards and Apparated back to the safe house, and neither did Potter.
"Good lord, Harry, Severus, what happened?" Albus's portrait exclaimed as they came in.
"A minor complication: a run-in with a bog followed by an encounter with a patrol squad," Severus said shortly. To Harry, he said, "Go clean yourself up." The boy didn't answer, but was almost trancelike as he walked into his bedroom and closed the door.
Albus pulled a face. "Oh dear. He looks done in, Severus."
Growling, Severus threw off his outer robes and began performing Cleaning Charms on his filthy clothes. "That damned stubborn brat nearly destroyed everything. He ran himself into the bog after disarming me and leaving me bound!"
"But the Death Eaters?"
"Four, a patrol or a small raiding party, from the looks of them. Once they freed me—and Potter—I disposed of them in the bog. Well," Severus snorted. "Potter took one out, although he might have tried to rescue the poor bastard if I hadn't taken him away. Stupid boy."
"Harry's never killed, you know," Albus said, his tone rebuking.
"He has now," Snape couldn't resist pointing out, taking rather fiendish glee in it.
Albus's eyebrows went up, and…
I know full well how it's been with you two ever since you met him, no matter what was at stake, and I'm not bringing him to you for you to treat him that way now after kidnapping him. Don't you dare hurt him, Severus! I love him! Don't you dare!
Severus scowled and turned away. He didn't believe for an instant that portraits could be endowed with Legilimency skills, but still…
"You should check on him. He looks quite shaken," Albus prompted gently.
With an annoyed grumble, Severus stalked into Potter's room. He found the boy sitting on the bathroom floor, knees drawn up to his chest, head resting on his knees despite the muck still covering his clothes. He stopped a sigh. "Did they hurt you?"
"No," Potter mumbled, his eyes dull.
Severus took his arm and pulled. "Get up. Get these filthy things off, give them to me, and bathe yourself—unless you require assistance." That stung the boy awake, and he practically jumped away. "Then come out." Without waiting for discussion, he went back into the bedroom and waited. Moments later, Potter shoved his muddy garments out the bathroom door, and Severus spelled them reasonably clean and left them on the bed.
When Potter came out, Severus had made coffee, and motioned him to the kitchen when the boy glanced that way hopefully. He started his intended umpteenth attempt at explaining the truth of the matter as Potter came back, cup in hand, but frowned. Something was off…Potter was limping.
"I thought you said you weren't hurt!" he snapped, exasperated.
The boy blinked. "What? They didn't—oh, my leg. That wasn't them; I broke it at practice the other day."
Severus motioned him over and attempted a Diagnostic Spell. "Broke it?"
"Shattered is more like it," Albus interjected from a nearby portrait. Potter jumped. "I did pop down to the Hospital Wing as you'll recall, Harry, after Minerva told me you'd been hurt." Severus watched curiously as the boy's mouth opened in surprise, but nothing came out. Albus smiled and added, "And poor Neville and Luna suffered concussions in that same session—Alastor was quite discouraged."
The boy nearly dropped his coffee cup. Severus took it from him and set it on the table as Potter dropped into an armchair. "You know the properties of a true magical portrait, I take it?" he asked quietly. Potter nodded. The portrait Albus could not know of events that had occurred in the Hogwarts hospital wing and the Headmistress's office unless he were in fact a true portrait, in no way spelled or skewed to speak of anything but the late Headmaster's own knowledge.
When Potter looked up again, rather than at Severus, he looked accusingly at the portrait. "He killed you!"
"Only because I asked him to," Albus replied. "Or rather, begged him. I had to plead with him, of course, and even then, for a moment, I feared he would not do it."
"But he was angry…" Potter broke off and looked at Severus, all color draining from his face. "She was…she was crying. She told me…"
"She begged you," Severus said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. "She begged you to trust her, and to believe her. And to trust Dumbledore."
Squeezing his eyes shut, Potter fumbled for his coffee mug and took a rather large swig, grimacing as it burned his mouth. Severus contemplated adding some whiskey to it, but decided against it. The boy needed all his faculties. Another gulp and Potter had calmed somewhat. Without opening his eyes, he muttered, "How soon do we go back after Nagini?"
Albus grinned broadly, and Severus let his breath out. "As soon as you feel able. I will give you a Potion for your leg tonight; that should take care of any residual pain from the Mending. How many bones were broken?"
Potter waved absently in the portrait's direction. "He's got it right: most of 'em. Actually it was the upper leg, hip." He pulled a face and stood up, pacing slowly around the room. "Ginny said she was upset that day, but we thought it was because of what Moody kept saying, that I was at the center."
"I told you, I did nothing to force her. I merely presented the facts to her as I have to you. She was, however, distressed when I first broached the subject the day before I brought you here," Severus admitted.
Potter nodded, avoiding his eyes. "I hurt my leg that morning—day before yesterday, I guess. We all thought she was…" He turned abruptly. "What'll happen to her? Why couldn't she come with us?"
"I considered bringing her as well to make it appear that I had kidnapped both of you," said Severus. "Initially, my intention was for her to remain at the castle as a contact, so that I could keep at least her informed of our progress and your welfare, but…" he was not sure he should admit this part, since Potter had obviously been too distracted to observe at the moment Severus had arrived at the school, but the boy was already sensing something. "She was seen assisting me. Did you not notice several of your friends coming from the castle?"
Obviously not: Potter turned dead white. "Merlin," he whispered. "They saw her…what'll they do?"
"I don't know," Severus confessed. "It is possible they will assume as you have, that she was somehow coerced. However, the evidence will weigh against her once she is examined by Madam Pomfrey, as she most surely will be. Beyond that point, there is no way to know how they will respond."
"Why'd you have to bring her into this?" the boy demanded. "Why not have Malfoy help?"
"Draco's position among the Order is too precarious, Harry," Albus said. "Although we did consider that. Our Hermione proved herself to be very collected even when Severus waylaid her at Grimmauld Place—oh yes, it did happen as she said. I was rather miffed at Severus for insisting on telling anyone his story, but Hermione accomplished far more than a mere painted figure like myself could have, in the end."
"Guess she'd be better suited than Malfoy at that," the boy muttered, and Severus snorted. Then Potter frowned again. "What about him? Will they find out?"
"I doubt it. I did not have time to discuss the possibility of a cover story with Hermione, but she knows the implications and the need for complete silence, as well as ignorance on her own part. I could not even give her the reassurances of what I have told you about the tin mine—it was too dangerous for her to know anything, damn Moody." Now it was Severus's turn to pace. "But as Albus has said, Draco would be under greater suspicion than she; we could tell him nothing of my intention of taking you." He glared at Harry. "Hermione has been entirely alone in this, with none to confide in save myself, and risked a great deal out of trust in me. Whatever my dislikes toward you, I do not intend to take my promise to her lightly."
Potter was staring at him. "You mean Malfoy didn't know anything?"
"I believe I just said that."
"I'm not talking about me, I mean that makes sense, but…all those tips, that stuff she kept figuring out—I mean, she always does that, but…you've been working with her since Grimmauld Place?"
"Of course, Harry," said Albus. "As we've pointed out, her mobility is less limited than mine."
"But Malfoy knew about you, didn't he?"
"He knows I remain loyal to the Order, yes. It was I who brought him to the castle—or at least protected him until he reached it, at his mother's request. Minerva took him in," Severus explained. "I was able to see him when I arrived at the castle to speak to Hermione, but he was not privy to any of our Order work. It was too dangerous. Too many people in the Order remained suspicious, to say nothing of Lucius Malfoy hunting for him."
Now the boy simply looked confused. "Oh. So she was using him as a cover to meet…but that doesn't make sense…" He trailed off and the most peculiar expressions crossed his face, as if he were trying to solve a particularly paradoxical puzzle.
"Harry?" Albus prompted. "What doesn't make sense? It isn't so terribly involved—merely that Hermione has been Severus's contact in the Order and passing along his tips as her own inventions, intelligent young lady that she is."
"But how could you keep it all a secret from Malfoy if he was with you?" Harry asked, ignoring Albus.
"He wasn't," Severus replied, with a shake of his head. Really, the boy is so slow, it's a miracle he can understand half of Hermione's speech. "He was often not in his rooms when we met in that location, and when he was, we sent him away. He understood the reasons, since unlike your average Gryffindor, he does not feel a compulsion to be privy to every conversation that more experienced individuals think better of permitting."
Potter's lip curled, and Severus smirked, expecting an indignant retort about the insult to his House, but to his surprise, the boy's reaction didn't end there. The boy went from unnaturally pale with anxiety to flushed with anger. "Then explain to me," he breathed, green eyes growing dark with suspicion again, "who the hell was she with on Christmas night? And after…all those times…you…"
"What—Harry—" Albus began, than he realized what Potter meant. And just as the boy turned to look at the portrait, Albus was looking at Snape. "Severus?"
Oh. Well. Potter's not quite as dense as I'd thought.
The fact that Potter did not scream and throw things did not bode well. "It was you," he said very softly, not quite looking at Snape. "That night she came back, she was…her clothes all…it wasn't Malfoy, it was you. We beat the living snot out of him because we thought he was taking advantage, and then she…she said she didn't need protecting, she had us convinced finally, even if we didn't like Malfoy messing about with her, but she was okay, she could handle the prat—it was you! You…kissing her, mussing her up…touching…"
"Severus?" the portrait asked again, sounding faintly horrified.
But Snape had no time to answer as he suddenly found himself fending off an absolutely hysterical seventeen-year-old boy, who forewent the wand entirely in favor of simply lunging at Severus, roaring like a wild animal and apparently meaning to rip the larger, older wizard apart with his bare hands.
He might well have done, if Severus hadn't had the reach of him and then some, but the boy was so enraged that neither Albus's shouts nor anything his intended victim said would discourage him, and Severus wound up with a hand firmly planted on the boy's head, keeping him at arm's length as he swung like a maniac.
"YOU BLOODY, FILTHY, SICK, TWISTED BASTARD, WHY'D I LISTEN TO YOU? WHY? WHAT'D YOU DO TO HER, YOU SICK PERVERT!" Potter screamed. "I KNEW IT! I KNEW YOU'D DONE SOMETHING TO HER SOMEHOW, I JUST DIDN'T THINK EVEN YOU'D SINK TO—YOU BASTARD! You…you, 'presented the facts'—you liar! You DAMNED LIAR! YOU BLOODY, SICK BASTARD, I'LL KILL YOU! YOU TOUCHED HER, YOU USED HER, YOU MADE HER, MOLESTED HER—"
That did it. Severus grabbed Potter by the scruff of the neck and threw the boy into the wall, managing to knock the wind out of him. "QUIET!" he roared.
Potter would have probably kept screaming if he'd been able to breathe, but he slid to the floor, wheezing and glaring daggers at Snape.
"Severus, what have you done—"
"Shut up, Albus! I will NOT hear such disgusting assumptions from your lips again, Potter, or I will forget my promise to her!" The boy bared his teeth, but Severus had his wand out, so he said nothing. "You may brand me whatever version of scum and villainy you wish, you naïve infant, but you will NOT speak with such dismissal of Hermione!" Potter blinked. Severus hauled him to his feet and kept his wand trained on him. "You. You pathetic little upstart, the wizarding world's little hero, Hermione Granger is worth fifty of you. You have not one inkling of her intelligence, her resolve, her courage and devotion to the Order of the Phoenix, and yet you presume to stand here and claim that she is incapable of protecting herself from ill use! Your ignorance is stunning to me and insulting to her."
"You touched her!"
Snape slapped him. "Severus!" Albus exclaimed.
Severus turned sharply and pointed his wand at the portrait. "Out. Potter and I are having a private conversation." Albus hesitated, and Severus roared, "OUT!" The portrait went. He turned back to the boy. "What Hermione Granger chooses to do, for the Order or for herself, is entirely her business, little boy, and neither you nor any other of your ignorant, misguidedly-chivalrous little friends have any right to dictate or judge her affairs." Shaking, Potter tried to pull away, but Severus shoved him back against the wall. "She is far better equipped than you to determine what is best for herself or the Order, far exceeds you in maturity and rationality and concern for those around her. A concern, I might add, that she has shown for you in word and deed time and time again, which is why it disgusts me infinitely that you refuse to in any way repay her for it."
The boy had stopped fighting and now looked horrified. Severus went on coldly, "Face reality, Potter. There is a war on, and the time is fast drawing near where we must win it! If we do not, then every member of the Order of the Phoenix will die, including every one of your supposedly-beloved friends, including Hermione Granger, who has now sacrificed her freedom, her position in the Order, a good deal of self-respect, AND most likely her friendship with you, which she apparently prizes infinitely more than you do. She has given you EVERYTHING, you stupid, selfish brat, for this chance to win the war, and if we fail tomorrow to destroy Nagini, or after to destroy the Dark Lord, she will die, either wasted away in Azkaban or at the hands of Death Eaters like Lucius Malfoy—oh yes," he affirmed, seeing Potter blanch. "That attack in the Forest was no sham, nor any act of barbarism on my part—Lucius was there, and he did assault her. I reached him before he could do her any serious injury, thank god, but that is but a primer to what that courageous woman will suffer if you…do…not…GROW…UP!" he roared, shaking the boy with every word.
Don't hurt him.
Aware that his fury on Hermione's behalf for what that girl had gone through for the sake of this stupid child was close to leading him to breaking his word (again), he hauled a no-longer-protesting Potter to his bedroom door and shoved it open. Jerking the boy toward him by the front of his shirt, he added, "Grow up and try to prove yourself worthy of Hermione's sacrifice." He shoved Potter hard into the bedroom, slammed the door, and whirled away from it.
"Leave me alone, Albus," he spat.
He pulled his wand out again without looking at the portrait. "I will incinerate every painting in this room if you speak again. Now, get…out." When he looked over his shoulder, perfectly prepared to carry out the threat, the portrait was empty. Then he stalked over to the sideboard and yanked out the firewhiskey.
Well into his second glass, he'd calmed enough to think rationally again, and winced inwardly. As satisfying as it had been to unload his thoughts onto Potter, he knew Hermione would be appalled. She had never asked him to be her advocate, and he rather doubted she would want him to where Potter was concerned.
Hell, if there was any chance of salvaging their friendship, I have probably destroyed it. Not that he himself cared for any loss of Potter's, except for the knowledge of Hermione's grief. She did not care if one she loved was altogether unworthy of it.
Of course not. If she cared about worthiness, she would not have had me. That thought wriggled its way into his mind, and he growled under his breath and muttered a Transparency Charm at Potter's bedroom wall. He half-expected to find the entire room wrecked by a tantrum, although he'd been too preoccupied with his own feelings to hear anything until now.
To his surprise, Potter had barely moved from the spot where he'd fallen when Severus had thrown him through the door. Severus was half-out of his seat in alarm before he realized that the boy was sitting at the base of a portrait—Albus's portrait, the one that was actually set in the safe house. They'd intended for the boy to have that room, thinking Albus could keep an eye on him, and in the end, it seemed to be serving its purpose.
Albus was kneeling in the lower corner of the portrait at the moment, talking to Potter, whose forehead was resting against the frame. "Harry, please, don't take on so."
Severus could see the boy trembling. "What have I done?"
"It's not your fault—"
"He's right. I'd never have listened, no matter what. I've never listened to her or anybody else, I was always so sure I knew…"
"You've been very brave."
"I've been very stupid, you mean," Potter growled, slamming his fist into the wall. "Stop trying to make me feel better, I've got no right…what'll happen to her? What'll happen to the others…they don't know where I am or what's happened and she'll get all the blame…or Malfoy will, but he didn't…" A convulsive shudder caught him. "It's my fault," he breathed. "They were just doing…she was just…doing what she had to do. For the Order, the war…all of us. She was so scared, and I didn't even notice until Ginny told me…"
Severus did not want to hear anymore. He went to bed.
When he woke the next morning, he sighed. Time to return to dealing with the war, and the boy. He went to Potter's door and knocked twice before opening. The boy stirred, but would not look at him. Quietly, Severus told him, "Get up, Potter. You should eat."
Potter shook his head. "I'm not hungry…"
"I said, get up," he repeated, without rancor, but also without leaving room for argument. The boy flinched, but got to his feet. As he preceded Severus from the room, Severus noticed that he was still limping. "Is your leg painful?"
"'s not bad."
"Go sit." He prepared a simple meal in the kitchen and gathered some Strengthening Potion along with a mild painkiller. Potter was downright meek as he ate what Snape gave him.
Severus was already nursing another drink when the boy quietly asked, "What will happen to her?"
He took a long swallow before answering. "I don't know."
Potter looked at him with wide, fearful eyes. "What'll they do to her?"
"I told you, I don't know."
The boy looked to Albus's portrait, but he said, "Minerva has not returned to her office since you left Hogwarts, and the portraits are forbidden to enter the Hospital Wing—even mine. I have been checking regularly for Severus, but no one will speak of her, even to me."
Potter closed his eyes and looked away. "We have to go back. Now, we should go back right now. We can still explain…"
"No, we must deal with Nagini first."
"Recall, if you will, my point about keeping your emotions in check," Snape said shortly. "As soon as our…affiliation is revealed, even if it does succeed in clearing her name, which it may well not," Harry looked horrified, "my position as a spy will be lost, and any chance of gaining entry to the Dark Lord's headquarters. He knows Nagini is the last Horcrux, and he knows you will be searching for her. It is likely that news of your disappearance has not even left Hogwarts yet, and that works to our advantage. We must proceed as planned."
"But when we're done," Potter murmured, as if trying to divorce himself from any possibility but this. "We can go back, right? And we can explain…they'll listen, they'll have to."
Why should they? YOU wouldn't. But he caught himself.
Don't hurt him.
He could bluntly inform the boy that it was entirely possible that Hermione's fate was sealed no matter what they said when they returned—IF they returned. If Harry died, either against Nagini or against the Dark Lord, she would almost certainly be condemned for her part in it, as indirect and necessary as it had been. The Order of the Phoenix had been struggling with treason and espionage since before Harry Potter or Hermione Granger were born—they would not be softened even by a bond as apparently strong as the Golden Trio's. All the respect Hermione had earned over the years would count for naught if Harry did not return safely, and even then, it would be lost in the eyes of many of the Order.
Still, she'd probably get more mercy than he himself would receive. But that at least was fitting.
But to say it, true as it was, would hurt Potter, and that Hermione did not want. She coddled him so. Perhaps that was why he remained so hopelessly immature.
I love him.
Yes, yes, I know.
Just then a stab of searing pain in his left arm drove all maudlin musings from his head. He'd trained himself long ago not to cry out when it happened, but Potter saw him flinch. "What…"
Gritting his teeth, Severus rubbed his burning Mark, and the boy jumped up. "Leave off, there's nothing you can do."
"Yes, there is," Potter said as he stood up. Severus stared at him. "Take me with you."
"What—don't be ridiculous!"
"It's the perfect chance, isn't it? You'll have reason to be at his headquarters, you can get him away long enough for me to deal with Nagini!"
"Potter," Severus seized his shoulders. This time, the boy didn't flinch. "You will NOT go after that serpent alone. You will wait until I am with you."
"Fine," he replied, and reached for the two Potions Severus had given him, but paused. "Are these okay to take now?"
"The Painkilling Potion will make you drowsy." Severus was impressed Potter had thought of side effects at all.
The boy pulled a face, but downed the Strengthening Potion. The leg obviously still pained him as he tested it, but all he asked was, "It'll work okay, though?"
"It should. The Mending was done correctly, and there were no new injuries when I checked it."
Harry shrugged. "Let's go, then."
Severus eyed him for a long moment, then handed him his wand. "Keep your mind clear." He went to the small laboratory in the basement to collect some Potions he was supposed to have been brewing for his Master, as well as his robe and mask. Harry gazed at it when he came back, fully aware of what it meant, but did not recoil even when Severus took his arm. "Wait where I leave you, stay low, and for god's sake, keep quiet."
The boy nodded. "I'm ready."
They arrived directly in one of the dank mine tunnels this time, but Potter had the good sense not to remark on it. Severus strode a few paces, then motioned silently to a small space that contained storage materials. It was pitch black and stunk still worse than the main shaft, but Potter slipped inside without hesitating and melted into the darkness.
"Do not move until I return," was all Severus told him, and then he walked away and left Harry there.
Only because the Dark Lord had just summoned them was Severus not questioned for having bypassed the main entrance. At least it was a mass summoning; he nodded to Lucius, to Bellatrix, and several of the other senior Death Eaters as they filed into the Dark Lord's chamber.
"Ah, welcome, my friends," the Dark Lord said briskly. "I have a job for all of you." That he did not order the door closed was a good sign; he generally preferred to discipline the higher-ups in private, unless he meant to execute someone in which case the entire force would have been called in to see the show. "I have received intelligence that a search is being initiated by the Order of the Phoenix—for Harry Potter."
Avery actually whistled. Severus looked at Lucius, who was not exactly pleased; he still hoped to capture Potter in exchange for his son's life. One of the more bizarre twists over the years that Severus had served the Dark Lord was the realization that Lucius Malfoy actually loved Draco. Had Narcissa told him that when she'd come to him over a year before begging for help, that Lucius thought of the boy as anything more than a walking family name, he would have laughed aloud. But Lucius was growing increasingly unstable in his desperation, but the fact that it was motivated for once in his life by concern for someone else made Severus feel rather sorry for him. The man was going to meet a gruesome end soon when the Dark Lord wearied of his failures, probably without ever seeing his child again.
Severus had long ago mastered the art of musing very deep in his mind, without any great emotion, of observing and even commenting to himself of what he saw without giving the Dark Lord any foothold into his thoughts.
They were all being questioned as to whether they had heard of this. Severus escaped that snare easily; he was supposed to have been at home brewing some new poisons (speaking of gruesome ends) for the past four days. That he had three of the five to show for his efforts rendered him free of any great scrutiny.
If I wanted to truly live dangerously, I would think that he's getting sloppy and overconfident, forgetting to always watch his back. Constant vigilance, as it were.
"Wormtail, I want you to get to Hogwarts immediately. Find out if he's there. If he is not, get word immediately to our agents in Hogsmeade. In the mean time, we shall proceed as if we know he is outside the school. If he is, and the Ministry or the Order finds him before we do, I shall be most displeased," the Dark Lord went on.
It wasn't difficult to join the collective shiver that passed through the group. If there was one emotion that one could always safely feel in the Dark Lord's presence, it was fear. He expected that.
They were all expected to weigh in, so Severus treaded carefully into the dangerous moment. "Do you desire me to join the search, Master, or continue with the two remaining potions assigned me?" he murmured.
The Dark Lord's slit-nostrils flared as his gaze wandered on to the rest of the group. Too distracted to be concerned with potions, but not wishing to let it show. "How long do you anticipate to their completion?"
"Forty-eight hours at the maximum, my lord, probably less."
"Finish them, then relieve Bella from her team. She shall return here for the initiation in three days." Severus and Bella bowed, both relieved to have received only work assignments. The Dark Lord's lip curled, and everyone held their breath. "As for you, Lucius, I am quite distressed to learn that yet another of our patrol groups has vanished." Red eyes wandered over his quivering followers. "The rest of you may go. As it was Lucius's watch, he shall…account for it to me."
They filed out and closed the door behind them on the sound of Lucius Malfoy's screams. Bella shook her head. "He's going to get himself killed!"
"What's this about a patrol missing?"
Bella snorted. "Four of the grunts, probably lost in the bogs. The Dark Lord seems to think it's a good method of weeding, but those of us on watch still have to explain it when it happens." She giggled, "Poor bastard. You've two new toys for our lord to make?"
"The brewing goes well." Severus half-bowed to her. "While I'm here, I suppose I should avail myself of supplies. I will see you in two days' time."
"I'll be sweeping Surrey and Godric's Hollow," she informed him, and swept off to the main exits.
Now alone with his thoughts despite the bustle of the main shaft, he was suddenly aware of a soft hissing overlaying the footsteps and hushed voices. He stiffened; that boy had better not be…there was no way to tell, and he did not recall having seen the serpent in the Dark Lord's chamber.
But did they dare move on her while the Dark Lord himself was still in the mines?
No, that would invite disaster. They might manage to kill the snake, but the Dark Lord would sense it and reach them before they could escape. They could not risk that sort of confrontation between the Dark Lord and Harry here, on the Dark Lord's territory, surrounded by his followers and his magic.
Severus strode purposefully into one of the drier chambers that housed all the rare and dangerous Potions ingredients they had amassed. Keeping the front of his mind focused on considering the implication of using this venom or that egg for the poisonous effect his Master wanted, he concerned the deeper parts of his mind with how to get his Master out for sufficient time.
The news of a Potter sighting might well get his attention.
But getting Potter out and then back in would be risky, not to mention inefficient. The boy was already here and reasonably safe in this stinking, wet warren for the moment. As appropriate as it seemed for a dark sorcerer, it was damned inconvenient with so many dark nooks and crannies, constantly leaking peaty water—if someone did manage to get in, as Harry had done, they might well go undiscovered for some time.
Furthermore, how much longer can the boy manage to sit still?
Contacting him without a firm plan would be dangerous as well, but better to reassure him AND reinforce the need to stay put. Perhaps he might borrow a few strands of hair and Polyjuice himself into Potter to attract the Dark Lord? But once the seed had been planted, Severus would need to move fast to get back to Harry, kill the snake, and get them both out of there before the Dark Lord realized he'd been had.
No Polyjuice then. Too much time-as-Potter involved.
Perhaps Potter himself could suggest something.
He nearly laughed out loud. Or perhaps…if he couldn't masquerade with Potter's face, he could still create the impression of Potter's presence at another location.
He walked more quickly back to the side shaft where Harry was hiding. When he reached the storage space, he saw nothing but darkness, which set his heart pounding for a moment until he lit his wand and Potter's face popped out from behind a pile of rubbish. He let his breath out in a rush and slipped into the room, dimming his wand. Potter's eyebrows went up.
"I trust that wasn't you I heard?" he muttered at the boy.
Harry shook his head, looking disconcerted. "She's singing," he whispered.
Severus snorted under his breath. "I didn't know serpents did that."
"I didn't know he did that! Wasn't just her!"
He could have done without that revelation. "Give me your wand." Potter frowned, but obeyed. "He is aware of his growing vulnerability, however he tries to conceal it from us; he will not venture out without reason. Word has reached him that you may be missing. One of his searchers will be checking the Ministry looking for your wand signature to try to pinpoint your recent locations."
"But I'm seventeen; they're not supposed to monitor our wands after we come of age."
Severus smirked at him. "Learn a reality of power, Potter: because they are not supposed to does not mean that they don't. I have no doubt your wand remains monitored—by the Dark Lord's agents within the Ministry if not by the Minister's people themselves."
Harry nodded, no longer doubtful, and accepted Snape's wand. "This may take some time, but wait for me, do you understand? Do not use the wand unless your life is threatened. The Apparition point is to the left of this chamber, five paces down. If you're found, get out. Return to the house if you can, Hogwarts if you are cut off. The house is warded to let you in, but if my cover is blown, they may find it." The boy's calm pleased him. With that, he rose and went to go.
"Good luck, sir," was whispered behind him.
He walked out the front entrance with a bag full of supplies and received hardly a question. For all the Dark Lord's anxiety about the Horcruxes, the security was becoming quite lax at his headquarters. So much the better.
How did that Muggle book go? "At the moment of his greatest confidence, the traitor strikes."
Yes, he had read a few Muggle books—novels, even. Hermione would be pleased. Or perhaps not, since Severus was quoting one of the villains.
Despite his warning to Potter about the dangers on the moor—which the boy had then discovered firsthand—he made the walk from the old tin mine to the edge of the wards in record time. From there, he decided to push his timing and went in search of some of the Death Eaters who'd been sent to look for Potter. Hunting the hunters, as it were. In fact, it struck him in a rush of rather twisted mischief how he might kill a rat and a snake with one wand, for that matter, and he went to Hogsmeade. As he'd hoped, Wormtail was there alone.
Seeing Severus moving furtively through the trees, the rat came to meet him and shifted back to human form. "Severus? Something wrong?" Pettigrew asked curiously.
"No, Wormtail, merely trying out this new wand of mine." Before Wormtail could so much as squeal, Severus had it aimed directly between his eyes. "Avada Kedavra."
Observing the carcass behind him as he hurried away, he muttered, "Sorry about the wand, Potter." The boy would have some explaining to do over how the Killing Curse ended up on his wand—then again, maybe not, since he was expected to kill the Dark Lord. Granted, Potter himself might not be particularly happy about that fact, judging by his reaction to causing that patrolwizard's death yesterday in the bog, but that didn't stop Severus from offing two of the Dark Lord's agents in the village before Apparating out.
No doubt the hue and cry from the discovery of Wormtail's body and the two other Death Eaters would catch the Dark Lord's interest even before it was learned that they'd been killed by Potter. The boy will seem to be growing bolder.
Severus was half-sorry that he was not going to be present to see the look on the Dark Lord's face at learning that Harry bloody Potter was taking out Death Eaters left and right.
His self-entertainment came to an abrupt end, however, when he Apparated back to Dartmoor and found that the wards were down. Completely down—anyone could Apparate into the mine if they knew how to find it. As if the place was being evacuated—as if the secrecy of the location had already been breached…or an intruder discovered…
Harry? Oh bugger…
So he Apparated directly inside, landing in what felt like a hornet's nest. Fortunately, it was all Death Eaters, but they were running every which way, chattering at the tops of their lungs. "What the hell is happening?" Severus bellowed at no one in particular.
"Potter took out Wormtail, Jones, and Peterson! Right there in Hogsmeade!" someone shouted. "Boy's gone renegade from the Order even!"
"Has the Dark Lord been told?" Severus asked.
"He's gone already, to get the brat before the Ministry snatches him back!"
Assuming Harry was still there, and Nagini. There was too much noise to tell if the snake was still in the mine, but Potter's safety was the more pressing concern.
That worry was ended when he dove into the storage room and nearly got his own wand shoved up his nose. "Oh, sorry—what'd you do? The place is a madhouse?"
Severus handed back his wand. "I'm afraid I've sullied it somewhat; the news that Harry Potter's wand has dispatched three Death Eaters was enough to get the Dark Lord out." Potter went pale. "We don't have time to mince about, Potter. Is the snake still here?"
Swallowing hard, the boy answered, "I think so."
"Call her. Hurry. So many teams have gone out that the wards have been dropped."
"I know, I felt it." Potter turned around and hissed out into the tunnel, his tongue and teeth forming the strangest sounds Severus had heard from a human. For a few moments, Severus could discern nothing from the ruckus in the main shaft, but then, Potter's call was answered.
Hurry, boy! He had to restrain himself from growling as the serpentine conversation went on, but although Potter didn't stop hissing, he suddenly tugged on Snape's arm, motioning to the entrance. Severus took that to mean she was close. He readied his own wand.
When the serpent slid into the chamber and discovered Potter, she reared up, hissing at him, either aware of who he was or threatened by the stranger, but Severus didn't wait. He knew the Dark Lord could possess her and didn't want to run the risk of him doing so now, where he could kill Potter from a distance. He was already aiming with his wand by the time she noticed him.
His Slashing Hex did not completely sever her head from her body—but Potter's finished the job. However, she still managed to lunge for him even as Potter's curse killed her and one of her fangs gashed open his right arm.
Acidic venom burned in his flesh, and he choked on a scream.
"Snape!" he heard Potter shout, and then a third curse severed the serpent's head cleanly from her body. Severus shouted when the creature's death throes nearly landed the carcass on Potter, fearing the Horcrux, but no embedded curse erupted forth. Albus had said it was difficult to implant such a jinx in a living thing.
But pain was roaring up his arm, into his neck, and down his chest, and he felt himself sinking to his knees. In desperation, he flung himself in the boy's direction and felt Potter catch him, then gripped the Portkey that sent them whirling away.
They landed on the steps of the safe house, and Severus was already losing all feeling in his hand. His breath hissed through his teeth, rather like Harry's Parseltongue, he thought dazedly, as all thought was drawn helplessly to the agony roaring outward from the injury. He was only half aware of his good arm being thrown over someone's shoulders and being half-dragged inside.
"Professor Dumbledore!" Potter shouted at the portrait. "Nagini got Snape! What do I give him?"
"The laboratory, the basement steps on your left, Harry! Quickly, I'll meet you there!"
Severus was left alone, trying to concentrate on something, anything, but the pain from his bleeding wrist, but he could not even sit up. He had been cursed with Unforgivables at the Dark Lord's feet countless times, writhing in misery in front of the man he was forced to call Master, but never had he felt so helpless as he did at this point. Rather than on the whims of a power-deranged maniac, his life hung in the hands of one decidedly-unprepared teenaged boy.
Potter was a child, a child compared to Severus, to Dumbledore, to Hermione Granger. Why was he the one upon whose shoulders Snape's fate rested—all their fates rested? It really wasn't fair to any of them to have a silly, overemotional, immature boy responsible for all their lives. To say nothing of how unfair it was to the boy.
Don't hurt him.
I haven't hurt him, Hermione. At least I tried not to. But it could not be helped at times.
I love him.
I know. You have appalling taste, in friends and in men.
Are you so sure or are you saying that to excuse yourself for kissing me?
I was glad of any excuse to kiss you. But Potter was wrong to think you incapable of choosing me for yourself, however poor your taste.
I'm an adult.
I'm an adult.
I've been one longer than you. Grant me the privilege of being fearful for you. Neither you nor your beloved Harry can fathom the Order's viciousness towards its own, if it believes itself betrayed.
I'm an adult, Severus.
I know, I know. And it was your choice. But it was also mine.
I'm not afraid.
That's a lie. You have always been afraid. Only fools are unafraid.
Don't hurt him.
He has to learn to fear sometime, Hermione. Fear will save him. Fear has saved me. It's a safe emotion, sometimes the only one.
I'm not like them. I'm not that strong.
I would not have wanted you if you were like them.
But you used me.
It's true. You would not have been useful to me if you were like them.
That's not fair.
We're at war, woman, nothing about it is fair.
I trusted you.
You can still trust me, Hermione.
You're a liar.
I love him.
Yes, I know you bloody love HIM, woman, everyone loves HIM!
Don't hurt him.
Someone was shaking him. "HEY! Dammit, Snape, open your mouth!" Startled, he obeyed, and something foul-tasting was forced into it. He grunted in protest. "Don't bloody complain to me, you're the one who brewed that damned stuff, not to mention stored where it's bloody near impossible to find!"
"Severus? Severus, can you hear me?"
He coughed. The nearer of the two voices sounded calmer. "Here, take some more." Another mouthful of sourness went down, and then he was suddenly aware of his hand and fingers tingling, and something wrapping around his wrist. "Seems to be working; his hand's moving again. God, there's so much blood…"
"It's very lucky you were here, Harry. He might have bled to death."
"I didn't see how bad it was at first—lucky she wasn't cursed."
Severus blinked, and a hazy figure came into focus above him. Messy black hair, a face flushed with exertion and worry, and anxious green eyes trying to look in several directions at once: "Potter?" he rasped.
"Sorry to disappoint you," the cheeky brat remarked and continued bandaging Snape's forearm tightly. "I gave you a double-dose of the anti-venom, but you need Blood Replenisher."
"Have it," Severus grunted.
"I know, I found it. Here." So Severus got another potion poured down his throat, but by the time Potter had finished his arm, he felt able to move on his own.
Sitting up, he looked the boy over. "Were you injured?"
Harry shook his head. "Once you're better, we should get back to Hogwarts and tell the Order." And find Hermione, was his obvious unspoken thought, but Severus quite agreed.
Rising, he found himself steady and had the dignity of getting to his own room and cleaning up without Potter's assistance. When he came back out, he smelled coffee. "You hardly need more coffee, Potter. You should get some rest.." That didn't stop him from getting a cup of his own, however.
"I can sleep at Hogwarts tonight," the boy said stubbornly.
"Harry…you may get less sleep there than you hope, after this. The Ministry will also believe you've gone vigilante against Death Eaters." Harry looked up at that, and Severus indicated his wand.
The boy pulled it out of his pocket and examined it. "Knew it'd have to get the Killing Curse on it sooner or later. If I didn't want to end up dead, that is."
A strange twinge struck Severus then, some feeling he could not quite describe, as he considered again how absurdly young Potter was, more emotional and less mature than Hermione, and how long the child had been living with the awareness of the prophecy. It felt like some odd combination of pity and admiration for the whelp.
No doubt it was the aftereffect of venom and blood loss.
"I want to go back," Harry repeated. "I have to find out where she is. It's my fault—"
"—You said it before and you meant it! You were also right, so don't try to deny it now." The boy gulped half his cup of coffee in one go. He shot Severus a bleak look. "I wouldn't have listened, especially not if I'd found out about…you and her. I'd have let the war get lost before I admitted I was wrong about you. You were right to come for me, and she was right to help. They have to understand that; I'll make them!"
So you do understand at last. That's something. If we're fortunate, the Order won't consider it mere blind loyalty and will give some weight to your words.
He did not voice any more doubts aloud. That would only hurt him.
"We will go, then."
Harry shot him a grateful glass, downed the last off his coffee, and picked up his empty cup and Snape's. "I just hope Ron and the others are still there; they'll understa—AH!" The two coffee cups went crashing to the floor as Potter rocked backwards with a cry of pain.
Severus sprang to his feet. "What?" he shouted, but the boy was in no condition to answer. His body convulsed even as Snape tried to grab him, then Harry went completely rigid, his eyes green eyes huge and wild with terror, faint whimpers of pain or fear coming from him, and then the green of his eyes became red, and Severus nearly dropped him.
"Harry!" Albus's portrait cried as the creature that both was and wasn't Potter bared its teeth and screamed at Severus, a violent, hissing shriek of all-consuming fury. Severus recoiled, but Harry, whatever part of him was left inside that thing, either did not or could not move.
"SSSEVERUSSS! TRAITOR!" the creature shrieked at him, and simultaneously, Snape's Dark Mark stabbed with pain, doubling him over and leaving him clutching at his arm helplessly, wishing he could rip it out. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?"
"What I always planned to do," he growled, clawing at his burning Mark. "My sole purpose for existing has been your destruction."
The thing that had been a seventeen-year-old boy moments before started towards him, hissing malevolently, as Severus searched desperately for some means of stopping it. "Then carry it out, traitor! Destroy me now! Are you afraid of letting the boy go?"
He grabbed his wand.
"SEVERUS, NO!" Albus's portrait cried.
Severus aimed at the creature. "I'll do what I must!"
"It won't work!" Albus shouted. "He only wants you to kill Harry!"
"Listen to him, you fool! He'll sacrifice your life to save the boy! You can end it here!"
"When has Voldemort ever told you the truth, Severus?" the late Headmaster, his friend, called out to him.
Severus wavered. "Why would you risk yourself by taunting me?"
"Because like Dumbledore, you are too weak, you fool, you traitorous coward!" Severus snarled and raised his wand again. "I have presented him and now you with the perfect moment to destroy me, at only the cost of one brat's existence, to see what pathetic wizards you each are! Not a one of you can bear to make sacrifices!"
"I've sacrificed," he breathed.
"Please, Severus, don't do it! You will only be killing Harry!"
"He'd say anything to save the boy!"
Severus glanced at Albus. "I have let nothing prevent his destruction. Not even my feelings for you." Not even Hermione. "He must be stopped."
"It doesn't have to cost Harry's life, Severus!"
"A life for a life, Severus! Kill the boy, and you have my life as well!"
Don't hurt him.
I love him. Don't you DARE hurt him!
"He's lying to you!"
Severus shook them all off his mind and pointed his wand straight at Potter's scar. "Legilimens!"
He saw the Dark Lord screaming in fury as the loss of the last Horcrux struck him…he saw Hermione weeping as she put Harry's wand in Snape's hand…he saw Harry, some years younger, trapped before in the coils of this creature with red eyes, terrified, blinded and dying, wanting to escape, anything, even death, to see Sirius—and the coils loosened…
He burst back to reality, tossed the wand aside, and launched himself at the boy, bearing the skinny body to the floor. The hybrid creature writhed and shrieked, but the Dark Lord was hampered by the limits of Harry's strength, and Severus pinned him down easily.
"YOU CANNOT STOP ME FROM TAKING HIM!"
"I think I can. I stopped you before when I realized what you meant to do with the prophecy. You could not kill this boy then and you will not kill him now."
The creature screamed a denial, but Severus grabbed his face. "Harry, listen to me! I know you hear me—you must close your mind! Push him out! Remember your godfather…" it screamed louder, as if in pain. "We are returning to the Order. We will free her if we are forced to break into Azkaban. We will find her. She loves you; she told me. She did what she did because she loves you and desires your freedom from this thing."
The monster in his grip arched Harry's entire body and screamed wildly once more, then the red eyes flashed out of existence, and it was only Harry on the floor, shivering and ice cold under his hands. "He's com-ing—"
"He's gone. You're safe," Severus told him, wrapping the boy in his own cloak.
"Oh dear, that was far worse than last time," Albus was saying as Severus helped he trembling boy to his room.
Harry surprised him by struggling, mumbling protests, "He's coming, they're going after…"
"Enough, Potter. Albus will determine the situation at Hogwarts, and if I know the Dark Lord, he'll spend a few hours hexing his followers and ranting before taking decisive action. I cannot return you to the Order in this condition." God knows what they'll assume I've inflicted on you.
Harry mumbled something unintelligible about Hermione, but was out before Severus could get any clarification.
When he left the boy's bedside, Albus was watching him. "So she loves him, does she?"
Severus snorted. "Not that way."
Albus departed for Hogwarts, and Severus took the opportunity to get some sleep as well, though he cast a spell on Potter to alert him if the boy woke. The possession by the Dark Lord had been horrific enough to witness; he found it sickening to wonder what it was like to experience. The respect for Harry Potter that he'd tried very hard to deny over the past few days was growing.
He was jolted awake when Albus popped into a portrait on his own bedroom wall. "Severus! Voldemort is massing the Death Eaters in Little Hangleton now! The Order's already gone!"
Severus swore furiously and dove from bed, running full-tilt to Harry's room. "Harry!" he shook the startled boy awake. "It's happening! He moved faster than I expected!"
Harry sat up in alarm. "Where?"
"Little Hangleton—the Order's already going."
"Oh bugger…" Harry nearly tripped them both up jumping out of bed and running for the door, slipping his wand into his sleeve. As they paused, he asked anxiously, "What about Hermione?"
Severus closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them, Harry's eyes were understanding. "There is no time. We can best serve her by finishing this. When it is over, we will find her."
"I…" Harry dropped his gaze. "I don't want her paying for my mistakes."
Severus nodded. "Nor mine. And she won't."
"She'll know, right? She'll know we're okay?" Harry persisted anxiously.
Severus paused. "Come with me." He led the way out of the house to a greenhouse down the path. "An owl will not be suited for this, if the Order has incarcerated her in any way." Glancing sideways, he saw the boy turn pale. "She is young enough and close enough to you that she may be spared any serious harm while your whereabouts are still unknown. Many of the Order may share your previous belief in her coercion."
From the way he avoided Snape's eyes, it was clear that Harry still considered himself responsible for her being in that circumstance at all. The noise from the greenhouse distracted the boy when they reached it. "What…"
The low buzzing from the building suggested the presence of bees, which had been Snape's assumption when he had first visited the place. So it was no surprise that Potter stayed well back and looked alarmed when Severus simply threw both of the greenhouse doors open.
First there was only buzzing from within, then a massive blur of movement rushed out, and the sun flashed on hundreds, perhaps thousands of points of brilliant, iridescent color. It was as though a cloud of cut gemstones had burst into the air.
Harry gasped aloud and rocked back on his heels as the hummingbirds circled around him, sunlight sparkling over tiny creatures of every jewel-like color in existence. Severus stifled a laugh as several of the little birds came to hover directly in front of the boy's face, investigating him. Their squeaked conversation and buzzing wings filled the air around the house, and Severus explained to the astonished Harry, "Patroni are the Order's preferred method of communication, but when the recipient's location is unknown, Dumbledore's little friends here can cover more ground in less time."
"You've used them with her before," Harry observed. "She said there were hummingbirds in the greenhouses at Hogwarts." He pulled a face. "She was taking me to see them when you showed up."
"I thought at the time it would be a secure area. They do, however, frequent that area, as that is their former residence. Albus bequeathed them to me; thought they'd be useful, it seems."
Severus took a tiny role of parchment and spelled a message to it:
Death Eaters massing in Little Hangleton. We are going directly there.
The last Horcrux is destroyed. Harry is safe.
With a quick Protean Charm, the little parchment carried by all the hummingbirds now bore the same message. He raised his voice to the birds and ordered, "Find Hermione Granger." Wings buzzed in answer as the little jewels zipped off in all directions. "That is all we can do for now."
Harry slipped a few steps back up the path and gathered what appeared to be a coil of dark, heavy rope. Severus stared at him. "What the devil did you bring the snake for?"
"When you were bitten, I thought I might need the fangs or something. For anti-venom." The boy shrugged. "Now I think she might make a good calling card."
Severus couldn't deny the appeal in adding to the Dark Lord's fury; the less stable and cautious he was, the better for the Order. However, he did remark, "If you wanted her fangs, perhaps you should have brought her head as well."
Potter blinked, looked at the carcass, then blushed. Severus shook his head.
He went to take Harry's arm, but Harry stepped away, and it occurred to Severus that Harry Potter had been to Little Hangleton before. He knew the way.
They Disapparated together, and reappeared together on the edge of the cemetery, where smoke, dirt, and fear choked the air, and two armies had already gathered for an encounter that would decide the fate of all of them. They walked towards it together. There was no more time for regrets, no more time for worrying. No time left for anything else.
It was time to finish it.
Severus looked sideways once at Harry, and the boy looked back, although it startled Severus to observe that Harry Potter didn't seem quite so much a boy anymore. His green eyes were clear and hard with determination, focused on the task. He seemed to have made the transition from adolescent to adult in just the past two days as Severus watched.
He couldn't help wondering if Hermione would notice.
Don't hurt him.
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