A Bitter Bargain
He stood with his back pressed against the cracked trunk of a half-rotted tree, the smoldering remains of a pack of cigarettes littering the dirt at his feet. A sudden gust of chilled wind whirred past and made him wish he had remembered the flask of whisky that sat in a desk drawer; it would have provided the extra bit of courage he needed to do what he was about to do. He took one final drag on the last of his cigarettes, inhaling the lovely poison deep into his lungs, and then dropped it to the ground with its brethren. He stepped on the ember as he walked up to the gates of Scelus Sceleris.
They called it New Azkaban. While on the outside it seemed little more than a decrepit building of chipped stone and half-rusted steel, it was the most feared place in the Wizarding World. With the defection and subsequent betrayal of the Dementors, the current Ministry had decided that the only real guard they could depend upon was one they created themselves. One they could control. In this case, it wasn't a magical creature of sinister origin or a team of heavily armed wizards, but something that could not be bargained with, something that could not be enticed with assurances of power or seduced by the promise of eternal glory. In this case, it was the very building itself.
Ron felt it the minute he passed the thick granite doors, felt the magic leave his body and render him powerless, turning his wand into nothing more than a pointed stick and himself into a virtual Squib. The neutralization of his magic made him lightheaded and nauseous; it was a feeling, he knew, that would only get worse the longer he remained, so it was imperative for him to conduct his business quickly and get out before he collapsed.
He stood in the threshold and called out his name and rank, then the name of the prisoner he was there to question. A door materialized on the wall across from him. With a deep breath and one last mournful thought of his forgotten whisky flask, he passed through it and made his way to the lower level that contained the interrogation rooms.
The staircase spiraled down for what felt like miles. He felt his chest constrict with each step he took into the endless darkness. When he finally reached the bottom he found himself at one end of a long dark corridor. The only glimmer of light came out from under a door at the opposite end. He found himself racing toward it.
A tall glass of ice water waited for him inside the small room. He drank it down in one long gulp, grateful for one last bit of relief before the afternoon's festivities were to begin. As uncomfortable as he already was, he was grateful that the prisoner was being brought to him and that he didn't have to retrieve him from the floors below.
The cells that held each prisoner were called the Nusquam, the rooms of nothing. The prisoners were to live out their sentences in a room with no windows or walls, no floor or ceiling, no bed to sleep on and no chair to sit on. It was simply a white expanse of oblivion that went on and on, but took them nowhere. To make it worse, the room suspended sounds and smells, even the prisoners' own; they couldn't hear their own voices or breathing. They were cut off from everything, condemned to live out their lives in nonexistence.
Only at mealtimes would a stool and small table materialize. They had fifteen minutes to eat before it all vanished. A toilet appeared twice a day. They were permitted to shower twice a week. It was just long enough to allow them to remember the comforts they had forfeited when they committed their crimes. It also served to ensure that they never quite got used to their blank surroundings. The lucky ones went insane quickly or died from virtual suffocation. Most languished for years.
Ron sat down on one side of the small table and waited for the prisoner to be brought up, mentally rehearsing the different speeches he had prepared, going over various tactics, trying to figure out which might work best. Before he got very far, the door opened and in walked Severus Snape.
As hard as it was to believe, Snape was thinner, paler than he remembered. His hair was much longer and so greasy it looked like liquid. He had a dark scraggly beard that nearly touched his chest. Snape's eyes blinked a few times as he adjusted to a space with actual furniture and color. He paused and inhaled deeply, seeming to savor every scent of the stale and musty little room. Truth be told, he looked like he might faint for the sensation currently bombarding his senses. Then, quite suddenly, he froze, his attention honed in to the only other person in the room.
"A Weasley," he said, his voice coarse and strained. "Ronald, if I'm not mistaken."
Ron bit back every impulse to pummel his former professor and remind him in vivid detail who he was. "You are not mistaken," he said coldly. "Have a seat."
Snape looked down at his chair. He seemed almost confused, as if he had forgotten how to use the blasted thing. Slowly, he pulled it out and lowered himself until he was comfortably seated. It took a moment for Ron to realize that Snape was trying to make the most of everything he was feeling. Snape had already been there for two, maybe, three years; this was probably the most he'd felt in all that time.
Ron stared at his former professor, trying to figure out the best way to begin. He'd been anticipating this talk for more than a month, and even though he had practiced for this moment over and over again, he still had no idea how to ask what he needed to ask.
"I think I can assume that you didn't have me taken out of my confinement to stare at me from across a table. You obviously want—rather, need—something from me. The situation must be quite dire to force you here."
It had been almost a decade since Ron had sat in a classroom with Severus Snape, and yet the man still managed to make him feel like a child. "You cut right to the chase, don't you Snape? I would think that you'd want to draw out this experience for as long as possible."
He sneered. "I doubt you put that much thought into my welfare, Mr. Weasley."
"You're right, I don't give a damn." Ron sat up straight in his chair. "I'm here to ask about a potion you created."
Snape's expression didn't change or falter in the least. "Go on," he said simply.
Ron paused for a moment and pressed on. "It stays dormant for years after it's been administered, and, when finally triggered, it causes the body to disintegrate from the inside out, resulting in a very slow and very painful death." Ron kept his hands under the table so that Snape could not see how tightly clenched they were.
"Ah yes, the Fervefacio," he said, almost nostalgically. "That was one of mine. Not one of my more well-known potions, but one of the most effective. We used it on those we took captive. Promised them freedom in exchange for information. We were, if nothing else, men of our word. We did let them go. After that …. " His eyes narrowed briefly and then returned to their previous indifferent state. "I gather that now, years after having survived the war, someone has had quite a … surprise?"
Ron clawed his nails into his thigh beneath the table to keep his hands from reaching for Snape's long thin neck. "Someone has, and I'd rather that they not die. Since you were the one who created the thing, I can assume that you know the antidote."
Snape watched him closely. "And why would you assume that?"
Ron leaned in. "Because you are the type to create a deadly poison just so you can be the only person in the world who could cure it."
Snape nodded slowly. "Very astute observation. And quite correct." He paused and studied Ron for a moment. "Who was affected?"
"It doesn't matter," Ron said with a quick shake of his head.
"Oh, but it does." His dead eyes glistened. "Anyone could have come to speak to me, but you chose to do it yourself, and knowing you as I do, that can only mean that someone very close to you is in peril. I can think of nothing else that would knowingly bring you within a hundred miles of me."
"I said it doesn't matter," Ron repeated, the muscles of his face twitching and his hands starting to shake.
"Once again, it does," Snape replied silkily. "What are you offering?"
Ron froze. "Offering?"
Snape's lips curled slightly at the ends. "You don't expect me to just turn over this information without getting anything out of it."
Ron shook his head. "It's too much to hope that you'd do it to clear your conscience?"
"My conscience is clear, Mr. Weasley. I did what I had to do. Whether you believe it, my efforts ended the war, and I don't have to answer to you or anyone else for them."
"Harry Potter ended the war," Ron replied, his teeth bared, "and you killed the only man who could possibly exonerate you. Not your wisest move. Professor."
Snape seemed unaffected by Ron's words. "Your offer, Mr. Weasley?"
"You don't deserve an offer," Ron snapped.
"You are in no position to tell me what I deserve or don't deserve," he spat. "And you have little time. Once the fever hits, Mr. Potter will only have a few weeks before he suffers irreversible damage and barely a month before he dies. The time in between now and then will be worse than a thousand Cruiatus Curses thrown at once, so I suggest you think quickly."
"Who … what did you say?" Ron felt the breath leave his body.
Snape smiled lazily. "I'm no fool. Only the possible death of your beloved Potter could bring you into the bowels of this hell to seek me out. Whether he lives or dies matters little to me; as far as I'm concerned, his work in this world is accomplished. What happens to him now is irrelevant. You, on the other hand, would walk through fire and back again for him … or ask my help, which I'm sure you consider a hundred times worse. Frankly, I think he'd do well to learn a bit of humility, and it would please me to know that I was the one who taught him that."
Ron jumped up and grabbed the front of Snape's dirty prison uniform, twisting it in his hands. "I could just beat the antidote out of you." He twisted the stiff material harder. "There isn't a tribunal in the world that wouldn't sanction it," he snarled.
Snape smiled a crooked smile. "I've been tortured by the best, Mr. Weasley. Men three times as powerful and a hundred times as cruel as you could ever hope to be. There is nothing you could do to me that I haven't already survived, repeatedly. And you forget I've been trapped here for years — I'd welcome pain if it meant I could feel again."
Ron released Snape's shirt and both men sat back down. Ron brought a hand up and ran it over his face. He knew all along it would come to this. He had planned to fight it out a bit longer but the effects of the building were taking a toll on him and he was having trouble thinking clearly. He needed to get out of there and quickly. "I could make this place more … comfortable," he finally said. "I could bring you books to read. Any books you wanted. A bed to sleep on. I'd bring in food that you could actually taste instead of the crud they give you that barely keeps you alive." He looked up. "Think of it, Snape. How long has it been since you bit into a crisp apple or tasted chocolate? Perhaps some slow roasted beef and bread with sweet jam? I could make that happen." Though Snape didn't reply right away Ron did note how his eyes glazed over and his lips twitched at Ron's words.
Snape took a moment before looking up into Ron's waiting face. "That might have sufficed were it some nameless individual, but we are speaking of the great Harry Potter. With that name, the price goes up substantially."
Ron's face turned red-hot and he felt his nails pierce his palms as he tightened them into fists. "I swear I'll kill you," he ground out.
"If you kill me, Potter is dead as well, and I'll be free of this place once and for all." He leaned back in his chair. "You'd be doing me a favor."
Ron sat back as well and dropped his elbows on the arms of his chair. He stared intently at Snape who stood his ground under the scrutiny. Ron took a deep breath. "What is it that you want?"
"Freedom," he said simply.
Ron nearly laughed. "I can't give you your freedom, you know that."
Snape gave him a small malicious smile. "How you achieve it, isn't my concern. Either I'm out of this place or you begin writing a eulogy."
He sat in the chair with the wobbly leg next to the hospital bed, the same one he'd sat in every night for weeks. The healers thought it best to sedate Harry, as the pain was quickly becoming unbearable. Harry, whose pale face was contorted and grimacing even under a powerful sleeping charm, would occasionally moan, though he never stirred. There was no fever yet, but Ron knew it was only a matter of time. If he didn't do something soon, Harry would die.
He couldn't let that happen.
He quickly became aware of the fact the he was in a great deal of pain. His lungs felt tight and he seemed to be struggling to breath. And, for whatever reason, Ron Weasley was hunched over him and blathering on about some nonsense or another.
Severus didn't know where he was or how he had arrived there. One moment he was in the cell of nothingness, reciting long lists of potions ingredients in a feeble attempt to keep his sanity. There was a flash of a bright blue light, then nothing. The next moment he found himself on his back, covered in what he hoped was just mud, staring up at a pale freckled face and a pair of hate-filled blue eyes.
Ron yanked Snape up from the ground with a violent jerk. "Did you hear me?"
"I heard," he replied gruffly, "But as was the case so many times in the past, I haven't the foggiest idea of what you're talking about."
Ron quickly released him and wiped his hand on his robes as if it were covered in diseased feces. "You're dead. You died last night in your cell."
Severus's head was slowly beginning to clear up, but it didn't mean things were making sense. "Repeating your nonsense doesn't make it any clearer."
Ron began to walk quickly. As he did, Severus felt a tug in his abdomen and was compelled to follow, pulled along as if he were wearing a leash and Weasley was yanking the other end. He struggled to pull away but try as he might, he could not be more than few yards from Weasley.
"What in blazes have you done to me?" Severus snarled.
Ron kept walking pulling Severus along with him. "I killed you last night."
"Stop walking!" Severus found himself shouting.
"There isn't much time."
"There's time enough to tell me what's going on."
Without turning around look at him, Ron answered. "I got into the building last night under the pretense of another meeting. I went the lower levels where you were held and I hit you with a modified Adava Kedavra."
Upon hearing this Severus tried to stop walking but stumbled forward as he was forced to keep up with Ron. "What do you mean 'a modified Adava Kedavra'? You can't modify that curse."
At this Ron did stop, and he swirled to stare Snape down. "The Ministry can be clever when it needs to be," he said, his voice colder than Severus ever remembered hearing it.
"What are you saying?"
Ron simply sighed and pressed on. "A select few of us were permitted to use a specially modified killing curse. It places the recipient in a suspended death. It virtually kills …unless I decide to revive you in 48 hours. It gives us time to make sure we've killed the right people, gone through the proper channels. The problem was 48 hours really wasn't enough time to go through any channels, but, since it isn't technically a killing curse, we never had to worry about being punished for it. Saved the problem of pesky trials."
"So it allowed you to kill indiscriminately."
"Basically." He turned and continued walking. For whatever reason, Snape felt compelled to follow him.
"Leave it to the Ministry to forgo things like judicial review when it doesn't suit them," he muttered. They had been known to do without nuisances like trials, but giving people the power to kill without consequences …"Who was granted this power?" he asked the rushing Weasley.
"There were only three of us."
Snape felt no need to ask who those three were. "So you killed me. And no one did anything about it? No one bothered to ask why?"
Ron kept walking without saying a word though Snape thought he saw his shoulders tense up. "How did you get me out of the building?" he asked.
"The building has a mechanism built into it. Once it senses that a prisoner has died, it expels the body to the outside grounds, leaving a room free for the next prisoner."
Things suddenly became clear. "It buried me."
"Yes. I dug up half the cemetery to find your body as it doesn't bother with things like headstones. Is that enough of an answer for you?"
Not by half. "Why can't we be more than a few yards apart?"
"Call it an insurance policy."
Severus didn't like the sound of that. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Ron laughed cruelly. If Severus hadn't heard it he wouldn't have thought Weasley capable of it. "Do you think me stupid enough to release you without any assurances that you'd do what I need done?" Ron replied. "I've invoked the Inservio Appono."
Severus felt the blood drain from his face. "The Servant's Bond. You've placed me under the bloody Servant's Bond. How could you do that without my permission?"
Ron turned to him and smiled. "You were dead. No permission was needed to bind myself to a corpse. Interesting loophole, isn't it?"
"So, I'm your servant. Condemned to do your bidding and follow you where ever you go until … "
"Until you die," Ron finished for him. "The nice thing about this particular bond is that, as my servant, you can't kill or aid in killing me because then you would die as well."
Snape was stunned. It was clever and diabolical and so unlike a Weasley. "There are ways around that particular bond."
"I know. I have thought this through, you know. But kill yourself and you'll never be free."
"Free," he scoffed. "You think this is free?"
The smile quickly left his face he turned away from Severus. "Once you cure Harry, I'll release you."
"You'd have to kill me."
"I can do that and bring you back without the Ministry blinking an eye, remember. Once dead the bond is broken. Once you are revived you are free to go."
Snape had to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that the boy had thought this through. Perhaps there was a reason he was put in charge of a thousand soldiers. "You expect me to trust that you'll revive me. "
Ron squared his shoulders but still refused to look at him. "Unlike the others you've dealt with, I am a man of my word."
Oddly, Snape didn't doubt him.
Severus seemed satisfied after that exchange, and was quiet for the rest of the day's journey.
They had to make most of the journey by foot. Snape didn't have a wand and the Ministry had banned portkeys many years before. Ron wouldn't risk making an illegal one. The best he could do was Apparate Snape over shorter, unmonitored, distances and walk the rest. They moved without rest the entire day, pausing very briefly to eat some of the food Ron had brought along and drink some water.
"We'll need to set up a camp for the night," he said well after the sun had set. "We'll rest until sunup and set out again as soon as possible.
Snape didn't say a word until they reached a spot Ron deemed reasonable for spending the night. He started a small fire that quickly warmed their weary bones as they ate bread and cheese and some dried fruit. Ron pulled a flask from his pack. "Here," he said to Severus, who looked up slowly. "Something a bit stronger than water tonight."
Snape gave him a quizzical look and slowly reached for the bottle. He removed the cap and gave a quick sniff before he took a long swallow. Ron could almost see the amber liquid travel down his throat and watched as the tension in Snape's shoulders seem to ebb away.
"Not bad, eh?" he said with a small smile.
Snape gave him a small nod as he handed the flask back. Neither said much else. It soon became obvious that neither was going to sleep for a while. Ron was too anxious to even attempt it, but he wondered why Snape, who looked like he was ready to collapse, didn't either. "I won't kill you in your sleep, you know. You could knock off for a bit."
Snape turned his gaze from the fire to Ron. "No, you wouldn't kill me while I sleep. You kill with the blessing of the Ministry, so why bother to wait?"
"Does that bother you so much?" he asked, thinking it was a silly thing to comment on, considering it was the reason Snape was out of that place.
"Why doesn't it bother you?" Snape replied. "Why doesn't it seem to phase you that you were given a license to kill anyone whom you deemed unworthy of living and that you still have this privilege, years after the war was won?"
"There is still a need," Ron answered simply. "As long as dark wizards exist there will always be a need. And not that it's any of your business, but I have never abused the power, and neither has Harry. Hermione never used it at all."
"You don't call what you did abusing it? You don't call using it to set me free after you're done with me abusing it?"
"I call it the only way I could save Harry. And it would only be an abuse if I didn't revive you, if I went back on my promise and just let you die. And even then the word abuse would be a subjective one."
"You can try to rationalize it all you want, Weasley. You have used this power to your advantage. It will only get easier to do after this first time — if this truly is the first time. The next time I doubt your intentions will be so noble."
Snape, it seemed, had had enough conversation. He turned his back on Ron and stretched out on the hard earth. Ron watched him try to get comfortable, to no avail. He took out his wand and silently transfigured the rock under Severus' head into a pillow and a cluster of dried leaves at his feet into a blanket. Snape reached out and grabbed the blanket and swung it over his body.
Ron could have sworn he heard a faint "thank you" seconds before Snape's breathing slowed into the rhythmic patterns of sleep.
He thought he felt bits of sand and dust brush against his face, but he was far too tired to move. It wasn't until a knut-sized rock hit his forehead that he opened his eyes. Snape, who lay a few feet away, was thrashing about, his convulsing body kicking up clouds of dirt and dust and, apparently, rock.
Ron rubbed his eyes and moved closer to see what the hell was going on. Snape had his eyes closed and his mouth open. It looked like he was screaming, crying out over whatever he was dreaming — but he didn't make a sound.
"Hey," he rasped as he shook Snape by the shoulder. "Hey, wake up. Wake Up!"
Snape jerked awake, his body instantly going still when he saw Ron looming over him.
"Is there a reason you're so close to me, Weasley? Touching me in the middle of the night? Is there some payment you seek other than your friends life?"
Ron pulled back, hissing as if he'd been burned. "You were screaming."
"I was what?" Snape sat up on his elbows.
"You were screaming. Or not screaming, actually," he corrected. "You were flipping about and screaming, but no sound was coming out."
Snape just watched him, scrutinizing him for a moment. "I see," he said finally. "Well, it's over, so we can both go back to sleep." He turned away and settled back down.
"I've seen that before," Ron said, his voice barely above a whisper. Though Snape didn't move, Ron was sure he was listening. "After we've rescued prisoners who'd been held by … who'd been held captive. They'd scream for hours but no sound … . nothing came out." Snape remained still, not acknowledging that anyone was speaking.
After a few moments more, Ron turned away and went back to the spot where he'd previously been sleeping. He had seen it before. More times than he'd care to admit. The stricken, contorted faces of those whose cries for help would never be heard. It was the girl, Ellie, if he recalled correctly, who said Voldemort had grown tired of hearing her scream, so he had taken away her ability to do so. They could still talk, as long as it was kept at a normal volume. It was a special souvenir he gave to his … how had she put it … his most favored victims. The ones he went to over and over again. She had been daughter to a prominent Auror who captured or killed a quarter of Voldemort's minions, and a half-blood to boot.
Several questions plagued Ron's brain as he watched the sunrise. Why had Snape been given the same treatment as young Ellie? Why had Voldemort treated him, his most loyal supporter, as he did his enemies? And what kind of dream could make a monster scream?
Snape got up, though Ron doubted he'd gone back to sleep either. After they finished the last of the food that Ron had brought, they set out, traveling quickly and silently for half the day. Though he never voiced his thoughts, Ron found his head still full of questions. None that he thought Snape would answer, but ones he wanted answers to nonetheless.
It was just past three when they reached his flat.
"You can shower in the bathrooms at the far end of the hall," he said. "My bedroom is on the right. You'll find clothes in the dresser drawers."
Snape watched him for a moment, his eyes narrowed.
Ron didn't much care for the scrutiny. "I assume you're familiar enough with the Servant's Bond to know that while in my house you can move around as you like." Snape still said nothing. "What?" Ron asked through a clenched jaw.
"I'm just wondering why you didn't take me straight to Potter."
Ron gave him the same look he was sure Snape had given his less talented students a million times in his teaching career. "Do you really expect me to take a supposedly dead man through the halls of St. Mungo's? You'll create the antidote here and I'll make sure Harry gets it."
Snape returned the look with a much more polished flair. "I need to see what state he's in before I can make the antidote."
"Can't I tell just you?"
Ah, there was that famous look. "You won't know what to look for."
Ron sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "Fine. Go shower and change. I'll think of something."
Almost an hour later, Snape emerged freshly showered, shaved, with much shorter hair and looking much more like he had when he taught at Hogwarts. He was also wearing one of Ron's best robes.
"You'd have to pick that one," he muttered.
"It brings out my eyes," Snape deadpanned.
Ron almost laughed but thought better of it. "I've made some arrangements," he said. "We will have a twenty-minute window while the healers are changing shifts where we go in, you give Harry a once over, and then we leave. Will that be enough time?"
Snape thought for a moment. "Has the fever set in yet?"
"Then it should suffice. Where will we get supplies? I certainly can't go, and you've set it up so that you can't go far without me."
Ron waved him off. "I have a source ready to take care of that."
"You've made arrangements and you have sources. Tell me, Weasley, how many people are involved in this ploy?"
"Enough," was all he said. He quickly placed a Disillusionment Charm on Snape and they headed out to see Harry.
Snape wasted no time when they finally got to Harry's room. While Ron stood guard at the door, Snape pulled back the blankets that covered Harry and began to examine him. Harry was paler and thinner than he remembered. His body was bent at the joints, twisted at the ankles, knees, wrists, fingers, and neck so that it seemed as if some bizarre form of rigor mortis had set in. Ron turned away.
After Snape had finished poking and prodding Harry, they headed back to Ron's flat. Ron waited for a list of things that Snape would need to get his work done, then passed the list to Ginny, who was waiting to gather the supplies.
"And now?" Severus asked after Ron sent Ginny away.
Ron looked at him but didn't say a word. It had taken far too long to set up, but everything was underway. The plan, as ill-conceived as it was, was put into motion. And there was no way to stop it.
Ron walked past Snape and went to his bathroom. He locked the door, collapsed on the floor, and retched.
Ron sat perched on a stool, a vigilant gargoyle, standing guard while Snape worked. He didn't say a word as he carefully cataloged every ingredient Snape used. It was a complicated potion using, by Ron's last count, sixty different ingredients. Far more than any other potion he'd ever seen. "Does it take long to brew?" he asked.
"Only a few days. It's not the length of time that makes this a tricky potion, it's the constant attention it needs." Snape used his teacher voice, Ron noted. The one that clearly said, "Watch carefully, little boy, and you might leave a bit less stupid than you came."
"And the number of ingredients," Ron added. "Staggering. It's nearly twice as much as the Wolfsbane potion." Ron peered over the edge of the simmering caldron. "Why did you add both shredded celandine stem and diced?"
Snape gave him an odd look from the corner of his eyes. "The shredded stems absorbs immediately into the potion base while the diced will slowly dissolve over time. It gives the mixture a longer shelf life, should we need to administer several doses."
"And why the dried Larkspur root? I've always thought the fresh root was the best."
Snape shot him another suspicious look. "The fresh root has too much water and can dilute this potion's strength."
Ron tilted his head as he examined the potion further. "So why not use vervain? It has the same properties as — "
"When did you become such an authority on potions?" He didn't sound angry or annoyed, just curious and, perhaps, a bit surprised.
Ron shrugged. "When I no longer had a teacher more interested in punishing me than teaching me, I reckon."
Snape scowled. "I am an excellent Potions Master. You were fortunate to have had the privilege to learn from me."
The haughty tone irked Ron to no end. "Perhaps, if you didn't hate me so much — "
"I didn't hate you." Snape stated plainly with no attempt at any further explanation.
"Only Harry," Ron interjected, not quite ready to let the matter drop. "You hated Harry from before you even knew him. And my being his best friend didn't exactly put me in the running for student of the month, now did it?"
"My actions toward Potter — "
"Harry," Ron snapped. "And let's not discuss your actions toward him, shall we? It's hard enough to do this without surrendering to the urge to shred you up and place you in that cauldron with your roots and stems. You're the one who's lucky to have had the privilege of teaching him. It's more than you deserve, you treacherous coward."
To his surprise Snape was quiet, but Ron had the suspicion that it only meant Snape was preparing his assault.
"How long has it been, Mr. Weasley?" Snape asked coolly.
Ron had no idea what he was talking about, but he knew he wouldn't like it. "How long has what been?"
Snape's coal black eyes dug into Ron's. "How long have you loved him?"
"What the hell are you on about?"
His smile curled and twisted. "Oh, come now. Do you really think I don't know? Do you really think there is a person who's ever met you who didn't know? Who couldn't read it on your face whenever you looked at him?"
Ron felt his ears burn as they hadn't since he was a child. "You know nothing," he growled through gritted teeth.
"I know that you wouldn't go though this for anyone else. Not even Ms. Granger."
"I was wrong," Ron snorted. "You know less than nothing."
Snape smirked. "Oh, I know you'd die for her, or any of your friends, for that matter. Good little Gryffindor that you are. But what you did to get me out, risking your job and possibly your life in aiding a conviction felon, and such an infamous one at that. Involving your sister and putting her in danger as well. No, Mr. Weasley, that takes more misguided loyalty than even you are capable of. Approaching me at all was the clear sign of a man desperate to save someone he loved."
Ron's hands balled into fists at his side. "What do you know of love? I'm surprised you can even say the word without bursting into flame."
"You are so easy to read it's pathetic," Snape laughed. "Mr. Potter isn't even aware of your feelings, is he? Because he's in love with your sister. Probably doesn't even know you're a pouf? If he did, well, who knows how he'd take it. Let alone the fact that you're in love with him. He might never be able to look at you again. Tell me, Weasley, late at night, when no one is looking and you touch yourself while you think of him. Do you have visions running off with him and living of a little cottage in the country? Do you dream of him?"
Ron's rage got the better of him. "What do you dream about, Snape?'
Snape narrowed his eyes and closed his mouth.
"What's got you twisting and screaming every night? Is it all the people you've killed? Do you see their faces? Do you hear their pleas for mercy? Do they haunt you? All the children you've orphaned? All the woman made widows? Dean? Flitwick? Dumbledore?"
"Enough!" Snape snapped as he threw a glass vial onto the floor, shattering it and spilling its contents on his robes. "You've just lost your only chance at saving your love," he snarled. "Good luck finding a replacement."
Ron bolted toward the door to block his escape. He took out his wand and pointed it at Snape. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
Snape walked over to Ron and leaned forward so the wand's tip pressed against his neck. "Go ahead and use it. Seal Potter's fate once and for all."
"I'd kill you and no one would care," Ron snarled.
"I told you once before I'd welcome death."
"Not with freedom within your grasp." Snape froze at Ron's words. "It's just outside that door. Waiting for you. You've come too far to let it slip away now. We both know that." Ron took a few deep breaths and calmed himself. For Harry. "Let's, both of us, calm down and get back to the business at hand. I want Harry better and you want out of here. All you have to do is finish and it's done. Don't throw it away now."
Snape stood silent for several minutes before finally turning around and going back to his work. Ron was careful not to say anything else for the rest of the day.
It was four days later when the potion was finally finished. Snape and Ron would leave for the hospital at dawn.
Snape went off to sleep while Ron wore a track in his parlor rug as he walked in circles. All the details had been arranged. They would have a couple of undisturbed hours, but it should be more than enough. According to Snape, Harry wasn't that far along. Half of the potion now and half in a month's time should do it.
Suddenly, there was a hard sickening thud that seemed to come from Snape's room. Ron sprinted down the hall and opened the door to the bedroom to find Snape on the ground. This happened every night, but never like this. Snape's body convulsed so badly that Ron could hear bone crack against the hard floor.
Ron grabbed the twitching shoulders firmly. "Wake up!" he yelled. "Snape. Snape!"
Snape didn't snap out of it this time. He kept twisting and jerking in Ron's hand. "Severus!" he yelled in a panic stricken voice.
With a jolt, his eyes opened. In an instant, he pulled away from Ron and backed up to the wall where he sat huddled.
"What is it?" Ron asked, his concern plain on his face. "What do you see that does that to you?"
Snape said nothing, nor did he turn away. He simply sat with his back pressed against the wall and two thin, glistening lines running from his eyes down his cheek. Ron watched as Snape shed his silent tears. Not knowing what else to do, he sat next to him and waited until the sun came up.
The corridors were eerily quiet. Usually there were nurses and healers running about, checking their clipboards and pushing around carts full of potions, but at this hour the halls were empty. The guard who normally stood outside Harry's door was gone, just as he was supposed to be, and Ron and Snape entered undetected.
The potion had to be delivered in small amounts, no bigger than a thimbleful at a time. It took twenty doses before Harry's joints unclenched and he rested comfortably. Another thirty before his breathing eased. Another dozen and he looked as though he was simply sleeping.
They slipped out just minutes before the guard came back on duty.
Later that morning, the hospital would be bustling with activity, nurses and healers with their clipboards and carts walking from room to room to room. Nurse Dodd, who had taken the early shift that morning because Nurse Allenbeck was on holiday, would enter that poor Harry Potter's room to check on his non-progress, only to find him sitting up and blinking confusedly at her. She would scream and drop her clipboard. Then all hell would break loose.
There would be a special edition of the Daily Prophet that day proclaiming that St. Mungo's had seen its most spectacular recovery in its 900-year history, and the Boy Who Lived would live again.
Snape was silent through it all. He hadn't said a word since the night before. Although he didn't understand why, Ron found he felt sorry for Snape. It wasn't the fits Snape suffered every night, or even the tears, though he had to admit that the image would be nearly impossible to forget. He had felt sorry for Snape ever since he first saw him in that prison. He tried to fight it, but it resurfaced every time he looked at the broken man, as he began to understand what it truly meant to be alone and unwanted.
The time had come to end this. Ron was a man of his word, and he saw no reason to prolong the inevitable. He could administer the final doses himself; there was no reason to keep Snape around another month. He had made a deal with the devil, and now it was time to pay.
"You won't feel anything," he promised. "I'll need to keep you under for 24 hours to make sure the bond is broken, then I'll revive you. I've arranged for safe passage out of Britain. I can get you as far as Greece, but after that, you're on your own. I've … I've also arranged for some money to get you started. It isn't much, but … ."
"Don't," Snape said weakly, speaking for the first time in nearly eighteen hours.
"Don't what?" Ron asked. "The money? I said it isn't much, just enough to get you …"
"Don't … don't revive me."
Ron opened his mouth but no sound came out. He had no idea what to say. After several long minutes, he found his voice. "What do you mean, don't revive you?"
"Which word didn't you comprehend?"
"Now is not the time to be sarcastic."
"No, it isn't," he laughed mirthlessly. "Now is the time for you to put an end to this farce."
"I told you I'd revive you, and I will."
Snape looked at him, his eyes as dead as when Ron had first seen him in the prison what seemed like ages ago. "I've no doubt that you will keep your word, Mr. Weasley. I'm asking that you don't ."
"What the …Why?"
He gave a long, low sigh. "I've had enough."
Ron couldn't comprehend what he was hearing. Snape couldn't mean … ."But freedom. Your freedom is just outside the door!"
"Freedom is a subjective thing, Mr. Weasley. Truth be told I haven't had freedom since I was sixteen. It lasted one month if I recall properly, between the time my father died and the moment I took the Mark. And living, if that's what you can call it, hardly seems worth the effort anymore."
This was Severus Snape the cruel. Severus Snape the killer. Severus Snape the hated. In Ron's mind, no version of Severus Snape would say those words. Last night, Ron thought suddenly. Something broke him last night. "What do you dream of?" he asked.
Snape merely shook his head. "You said it yourself. The orphans. The widows. Their faces. Their pleas for mercy. Night after night." He seemed to lose his strength and sank into a nearby chair. "Every night. Haunted by the memories of their few moments on this earth before … " He trailed off, lost in thought.
"How many?" Ron asked after a few minutes passed. He found he suddenly needed to know.
"How many?" Snape looked up slowly.
"How many have you killed?"
Snape shook his head more vigorously and looked as if he were about to laugh. "One," he answered simply.
"One?" Ron was obviously incredulous.
"I saw many deaths, Mr. Weasley, but by my wand, there was only one."
Ron blinked rapidly, unable to absorb what he was hearing. "But you were a Death Eater for most of your life."
"I am by no means an innocent," Snape began. "I was a potions maker. I was a tool to be used. And a fool for allowing it." He seemed to sink further into his chair. "I did try. I created an antidote for every poison I created. I administered them when I could, sent anonymous owls when I couldn't, and prayed for mercy the rest of time. My only saving grace was that I was allowed to remain in the background, ever the good spy."
"Do you expect me to believe that you only ever made potions and spied for him?"
"As difficult as this may be for you to comprehend, it really matters little what you think. I know. I remember. But where I was doesn't excuse what I was or what I saw. Though I might not have uttered the curses, or administered the poisons, I allowed it to occur. And even now, years later, my work is still doing damage."
"That's it then," Ron asked. "Finding out that your stuff was still out there, causing damage, brought about these nightmares."
"The nightmares were always there. I grew used to them. But now. Now … "
His voice trailed off again and Ron watched him as he traveled back to some place in time. He gotten the answers he'd wanted. Some of them, at least. "Why were your screams silenced?"
Snape only sighed. "I think you know the answer to that, Mr. Weasley, whether you'll allow yourself to believe it or not."
"I don't …" He couldn't seem to find the words. "I can't … "
"Don't believe … can't believe. Why? Because it would mean that everything was not as you thought it to be? Things are very seldom what they appear to be, Mr. Weasley. As much as we like to think we understand the ways of the world, the truth is, we are usually wrong about everything."
The silence stretched between for what felt like hours before Ron managed to say something. "Dumbledore ..." he began but stopped when he saw Snape wince in the way others did when they heard the name Voldemort. Seeing his reaction made Ron wince as well. Perhaps he did have all the answers he needed. Or perhaps there were some answers he had never been meant to know. He could hold onto his childhood hatred of the man or accept the fact that there were things going on that he could never fathom. "I can't fight your demons," he said quietly. "But I can't kill you either."
"Now who's a coward?" Snape didn't sound angry as much as defeated, and Ron wondered which was worse.
"Look, we made a bargain, and you kept up your end and I will keep up mine. I meant it when I said I have never abused the power I was given, whatever the original intent of it was. I don't plan on starting now. You are going to go to sleep and you will wake up in Greece. You'll be in a small but comfortable room in an inn not far from the Mediterranean. What you do while you are there is your own business. You can go drown yourself if you feel so inclined. But I would think after being tossed around so much for a couple of decades you might like a chance at deciding where your life takes you for once."
"Is that your sage advice?" Snape groused.
"No, my sage advice is to stop being an arse. But as seeing that will likely never happen, then my advice is to make it right."
At first, it looked like he was going to utter another of his acerbic remarks, but he stopped. "They're dead. How exactly am I supposed to make it right?"
"You're a clever fellow. I'm sure you'll think of something."
Snape face softened at that. The lines around his began to smooth out. His eyes seemed more thoughtful than dead. "I suppose I am," he mumbled. He paused and turned his eyes directly to Ron. "Am I to assume that we will never meet again?"
"As long as you keep your nose out of trouble, probably not. But don't think that will mean I won't be keeping my eye on you."
"You underestimate my ability to remain hidden," Snape said with just the slightest bit of a smile.
Ron smiled broadly. "You underestimate exactly how well-connected I am."
Snape gave him a small nod. "Fair enough."
It was an odd exchange, but, for the first time since this all started, Ron felt at peace with his actions. "Are you ready?" he asked.
Snape sighed. "About as ready as I'll ever be."
"All right then. Good luck … Severus."
"Thank you … Ron."
He thought perhaps they should shake hands or something, but he pulled back. Instead he touched the tip of his wand to his forehead and gave his former professor a short salute. In return, Snape offered a small bow. They stared at each other one moment longer before Ron raised his wand and the room filled with a bright blue light.
Ron's boots echoed loudly on the stone stairs as he made his way up the back entrance of St. Mungo's. The entry was normally reserved for the delivering of supplies and equipment, but Ron found it useful for avoiding the crowds that seemed to congregate at the hospital these days.
This was the third time he had attempted to see Harry in the past week. He had tried to visit the first day that Harry had regained consciousness, but the hospital was overrun with reporters and well-wishers. His mind had still been reeling with all that had happened, and he didn't feel he could handle the crowds. He had also had to make sure Snape was taken care of, which exhausted the last bits of energy he had left.
A few days later, he tried again but only made it as far as the grounds just below Harry's window. He found himself sitting under a tree with a cigarette and a flask trying to figure out how to tell Harry what he had done. The extents he had been forced to go to, to save Harry's life. He didn't think Harry would ever forgive him.
This time he made it as far as the outside of Harry's door. He stood there, shaking, and wondered for the hundredth time exactly how he was supposed to bring it all up and how he was to convince Harry that in a couple of weeks he had to take the second part of the antidote made by the man Harry despised above all others. He nearly turned around and left when the door to Harry's room opened and out walked Ginny.
She paused when she saw him there, an odd, sad look in her eyes. After a moment she closed the door behind her and walked to her brother. She placed her small hand on his shoulder and a small kiss on his cheek. "It will be all right," she whispered just before she passed into the darkened hall behind him.
Somehow he doubted it would ever be all right again. With a deep breath and a heavy heart he crossed the threshold and entered the room.
Harry was sitting up in his bed, his eyes honed in on his hands. He was pale and thin but alive, and Ron found that it was enough. What ever else happened now, it would be enough that his friend, his … Harry was alive.
"About bloody time," Harry said without looking up. "Did you forget how to get here?"
"I had to … take care of a few things," he replied, his mouth suddenly dry.
Harry only nodded; he was still studying his hands.
"How're you feeling?"
Harry shrugged. "Fine, I suppose. A bit disoriented. I had only just remembered I was in the hospital and why, when the legions of healers and hawkers burst through the door. It was all a bit … much."
Ron nodded. "I know. That was why I didn't come sooner."
"You should have." Harry finally looked up and Ron felt his stomach drop. Those eyes. He never thought he'd see them again.
"I tried to," Ron replied. "But things were …. very complicated for a while and … I'm sorry. I should have been here no matter what else was going on. "
Harry nodded and looked away. "What else was going on?" he asked softly.
And here it was. The opening to the conversation he knew he could not avoid. "I don't know where to begin." He looked around the room helplessly, as if some random piece of furniture could save him, spare him this conversation.
"I heard Snape died in prison," Harry said suddenly and Ron felt his knees buckle.
"Wha — what?"
"I've been reading over the papers to see what I missed while I was knocked out, and I read an article on how he died in prison, suddenly and without warning. It also said how someone had dug up half the cemetery trying to find the body. They weren't sure if he succeeded or not, but whoever it was seemed to really want to get a hold of the body. "
Ron looked at Harry in amazement. "You know … don't you?" He ran his hands over his face. "I should have known you'd figure it out."
"What I didn't know Ginny filled in. She also figured that was probably why you hadn't come around yet. You were trying to figure out how to tell me."
Ron sank into the chair by the bed. "I'm sorry Harry. I'm truly sorry. If I knew of any other way. If anyone else could have — "
"But no one less could have," Harry interrupted and the two sat in silence for a while. "What was he like?" Harry asked. "Still a horse's arse?"
Ron gave a weak smile. "Pretty much." Ron wanted to tell Harry everything, everything he had come to learn about Snape over the past few weeks, but he didn't have the heart to do so. Ron knew it was hard enough for Harry to accept that Snape had saved his life and was now a free man because of it, but to learn that perhaps his well-practiced hatred was possibly misguided would be too much. "I'm so sorry — " Ron began.
"You said that already," Harry said. "And you needn't say it again."
Ron thought he might break. "I — "
"I know." Harry looked back down at his hands. "You did what you had to do. It's no less … it's no less than what I would have done for you."
Ron stared at Harry for a moment, allowing his words to sink in — it's no less than what I would have done for you. Ron couldn't help but think of the words of another he had heard not too long ago:Approaching me at all was the clear sign of a man desperate to save someone he loved. Ron felt his heart about to burst. It couldn't mean what he thought … what he hoped it would.
But then Harry looked up. His eyes — those eye — bright and hopeful and so very alive. Ron watched as if he was floating above the room, outside of his own body. He saw his hand move to Harry's face and cup the unshaven chin. He saw his own lips press against Harry's and saw Harry's arms reach up and his fingers weave through ginger hair.
And he was whole again.
What was once broken was whole again and perhaps things were going to be alright after all.
A heavy weight on his chest told him it was time to wake up. "All right, Snuffles, I got the message. I'm getting up. "He heard the sounds of laughter coming from the kitchen. He might have been annoyed if he hadn't also caught the scent of bacon coming from the same direction.
"There are easier, less hairy, ways of getting me out of bed," he murmured silkily into Harry's ear as he came up behind him and kissed his cheek.
"They're not as funny, though,' Harry replied.
Ron growled and bit Harry's ear in response.
They sat down to breakfast, Harry feeding the dog scraps of bacon and Ron reading the morning edition of The Prophet. "There's an interesting story on page four," Harry remarked, giving Ron a pointed look. Ron turned to page four to see a big picture of their friend, Neville, with …
"Is that his mother?" Ron gasped in astonishment.
"It is," Harry answered. "Apparently someone finally figured out how to treat victims of severe spell damage. Advanced Potion Therapy, they're calling it." He gave Ron another pointed look.
"You think it's the same potion maker who modified the Wolfsbane so that werewolves could control their transformations?" Ron asked.
Harry shrugged. "They both have different names and come from different corners of the planet, but both seem to be reclusive and won't allow interviews or photographs."
"I see," said Ron, putting the paper down. He looked down at his plate and the one remaining strip of bacon that sat atop it, then to the large slobbering dog that was eyeing it hopefully.
Later that day, when Harry was taking the dog for a run, Ron would clip this article and place it with the others. His friend had been rather busy this past year. For now, Ron was content to sit in his home, with his love, and not think about the past, but look ahead to the future. With that in mind, Ron threw his last piece of bacon to the large slobbering dog.
Harry looked alarmed. "Did you just share your food?"
Ron smiled. "Stranger things have been known to happen."