Disclaimer: All rights belong to JKR.
Author's note: Hugs and countless thanks to two wonderful ladies, potionsmistress27 and Sempra, for their beta-magic. All remaining errors are mine, and mine alone.
Chapter 13 – The Way of the World
The Hogwarts Express clattered evenly over the rails, carrying its passengers further and further away from the Scottish Highlands. Stifling a yawn, Hermione lowered her edition of the Daily Prophet and threw a glance at her wristwatch. They probably had two hours until King's Cross, and finally a tired silence had fallen over the train. Even the steady flow of students passing their compartment had abated entirely.
On the seating bench opposite her, Ginny sat sleeping with her head rested on her brother's shoulder. Ron was dozing as well while Neville had left the compartment in search of Luna some time ago. Only Harry was awake, on the bench to her left, his vacant gaze lingering on the landscape that flew by while his hands loosely held onto a worn photo album resting in his lap, the one Hagrid had gifted him as he had been lying in the Hospital Wing after the encounter with Voldemort in his first year.
Hermione had seen Harry pull it from his bag probably half an hour ago when the conversation in their train compartment had quieted, yet she was sure he still hadn't opened it.
Abandoning the copy of the Prophet entirely, Hermione regarded her best friend, her brows knitting with worry.
He looked so pale, his green eyes red-rimmed and glistening with unshed tears. His grief for Sirius was palpable, though Harry still refused to speak of his godfather.
She had tried repeatedly to talk to him about it, but every attempt had been rebuffed, and she wondered if she had heard him say Sirius' name since the night at the Ministry. She thought not.
"Harry?" she asked quietly.
Her friend winced, the photo album slipping from his lap, but Hermione was quick enough to catch it.
Tired green eyes met hers. "Sorry."
"Don't be. I startled you." She tried a reassuring smile before her gaze drifted to the album in her hands, and she turned to hand it back to Harry.
"Here. I think you were about to look at it."
"Thanks." Harry took the album from Hermione's grasp, his gaze resting on the tome for a moment his hands closed carefully around it.
When he looked up again, there was a lost expression simmering in his green eyes that made her heart feel helpless and sore .
"Care to join me?" Harry asked.
Instinctively, Hermione reached for his wrist and squeezed it gently. "Gladly."
A small smile ghosted over her friend's pale face before he placed the album between them and opened it.
Only then, when she beheld the lone photo on the first page, Hermione truly understood that she wouldn't just be looking at pictures of Harry's parents for the first time, but also see more pictures of Lily.
Professor Snape's Lily, whispered a voice somewhere in the back of mind, but she determinedly tried to silence it whilst turning her attention to the first photo.
It showed a black-haired man with a charming smile–James. He was holding an infant-version of Harry while Lily next to him grasped her son's small hand, caressing it lovingly.
Hermione felt herself involuntarily smile at the small family captured before her and inclined her head slightly to catch Harry's eyes.
He heaved his shoulders with a sigh. "Remus told me it was taken only days before they went into hiding."
Hermione nodded, a cold awareness winding around her chest. This was the last picture of Harry and his parents as a family–alive, together… happy.
Slowly, her gaze drifted back to the photo.
Harry's dad looked far younger than she had expected and strikingly handsome. He was holding his son protectively.
As if he already knew about the things to come… Hermione sighed inwardly.
Even more startling was the realisation the truth of what so many had claimed before: in appearance, her friend was the spitting image of his father but for those bright green eyes.
Harry's mum was even more beautiful, more mature than in the picture Hermione had found in the library. Hermione blinked. It was as though, from the depths of the photo, those familiar green eyes were regarding her.
Merlin, she didn't dare imagine what Professor Snape must feel each time he looked at Harry. To see the woman he loved and the man she had chosen over him united in the boy before him…
Hermione was dimly aware of her right hand straying to her throat as Harry turned to the next page, her throat that felt suddenly so dry and oddly choked.
Lily and James were now younger. They were smiling, dancing in front of a fountain; bright autumn leaves twirled around them, and even now, it was almost tangible how much the two loved each other.
"That one is from their seventh year, a few weeks after they had been named Head girl and Head boy. Well, at least that's what Remus said," Harry explained, his thumb brushing tenderly over the page. "Did you know they both held the positions at the same time?"
"No, I didn't," Hermione heard herself reply, unable to lift her gaze from the scene before her.
"Well, it's rather unusual because they were both in Gryffindor. Must have been real hard on the Slytherins at that time. Imagine the faces of Malfoy and his cohorts if you and Ron became Head students." Harry grinned.
"Hhmm." Hermione nodded absently.
Draco Malfoy's possible reaction could not have been further from her mind. All she could think about was how another Slytherin had dealt with the presence of the two Gryffindors.
For a moment, she closed her eyes with a slight, pained shake of her head. If seeing Lily and James in the Great Hall at that time had been anything like watching the happy couple in the picture before her, it must have felt unbearable for Professor Snape's younger self.
Harry was about to turn the page when Ron suddenly stirred in his seat across from them with a quiet groan. "Are we there yet?"
Hermione and Harry both looked up, startled.
"Nope. No worries, mate, we'll wake you on time," Harry replied, a little too quickly, as he closed the album in his lap.
"We still have about two hours ahead," Hermione added, throwing Harry a concerned look that he evaded deliberately.
"Two hours? Merlin's pants, don't know why they do not simply find a way to Apparate the whole bloody train," Ron mumbled while he shifted in his seat and placed his head against Ginny's.
Only when she was sure he had drifted off again, Hermione turned to Harry.
Giving her a brief smile, he squeezed her hand lightly. "I think I'll try to get some sleep too."
"You do that. I'll go and stretch my legs for a moment," Hermione said, shifting her hand in his and returning the gesture.
She needed to be alone. Seeing pictures of Harry's parents, seeing how much her friend had already lost, forced her to realize once more what they all stood to lose in the coming confrontation with Voldemort.
Nobody was safe. Not even the ones we love.
"Just keep an eye out for Malfoy, will you?" Harry asked, nodding.
"I promise, and if he tries something, I still know how to punch him, remember?" Hermione said with a wink before she rose from the seat.
"As if I could forget that," Harry said, grinning, before his face turned solemn again. "Oh, and, 'Mione, thank you for… well, you know."
"Anytime," Hermione replied softly before slipping from the compartment.
The corridor was deserted when she walked through the train carriage. The afternoon sun had already begun to descend, immersing the Hogwarts Express in a golden glow. From the glimpses she caught of the compartments she passed, it was obvious, most students were using the final hours of their journey to get some more sleep. Tales had already been told, goodbyes for the summer long been said. The whole train seemed to be taking a short breath before the flurry of their arrival began.
However, Hermione knew better than to allow herself to be fooled by the almost surreal and peaceful quiet. Before their departure from Hogwarts, the Headmaster had informed a Prefect from each House that, for the first time, all four Heads of House as well as several Aurors were travelling on the train with them as a security measure against possible Death Eater or Dementor attacks.
When Hermione reached the end of the carriage, she pressed the handle of the connecting door and entered the next one, feeling far from ready to return to her friends' compartment. It was as deserted as the previous one.
Hermione slipped her hands into the front pockets of her jeans and walked onwards. With some luck the food trolley lady was still around. She wouldn't be averse to some chocolate frogs, right now.
However, by the time Hermione had neared the end of the next carriage, the food trolley lady still had not shown herself. Hermione heaved her shoulders and sighed. Like every year, the fifth and last carriage ahead of her would be crowded with Slytherins. So, this was her inevitable point of return.
She was about to do exactly that when a compartment door was forcefully pushed open directly behind her and low, angry voice echoed from inside.
"–you stole father's place at His side, not me. So spare me your advice, Professor."
Hermione winced and turned just in time to see Draco Malfoy rush from the compartment, flushes of anger bright on his pale cheekbones as he headed towards her.
"Out of my way, Granger," he demanded with a low growl.
Hermione was barely able to step aside in the narrow corridor before Malfoy dashed past her, causing her to stumble against the train wall.
She felt a jolt of pain that briefly knocked the air out of her lungs as her back collided with the solidness behind her.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she leaned her head against the wall and drew a deep breath.
"Bloody idiot!" she cursed quietly.
"Tut-tut, Miss Granger, such rude language from an esteemed Gryffindor Prefect."
Startled, Hermione's eyes flew open at the sound of Professor Snape's cold, mocking voice. He stood, arms crossed over his chest, in front of the compartment Malfoy had just vacated with such haste.
"However, I see being a nuisance is becoming quite a habit of yours."
Hermione blinked, and within the spark of a moment, the words she had just overheard fell into place, like the pieces of a horrible puzzle.
Malfoy had been addressing Professor Snape only moments ago. Her professor had taken Mr Malfoy's position in Voldemort's hierarchy of the Death Eaters, a position that meant more information for the Order… and more risk for him.
"Dear Merlin!" she exclaimed in a whisper, a hand flying to cover her mouth.
"Not quite, Miss Granger," Professor Snape said, smirking. "A word, if I may."
"Of course, sir."
Hermione curled her hands into small fists at her side and lowered her gaze, trying to quell the surge of helpless outrage that rose in her stomach. This wasn't right. He shouldn't have to place himself in an even more tenuous position for their sake.
She never spared a glance for the small group of first and second year Hufflepuffs that had stepped from their compartments to see what the flurry in the corridor was about when she approached him.
Professor Snape stepped aside, allowing her to enter the compartment, before sending the students back into their own with a harsh remark and closing the door behind him.
Hermione watched him wave his wand briefly along the door in what she suspected was a Muffliato charm, at least, to protect them from being overheard by any passers-by. When he finally turned, his dark eyes sharpened on her, cold and adamant, matching the sudden hardness in his jaw.
"You are probably already aware why I wanted to talk to you, Miss Granger," he sneered, "given Mr. Malfoy's rather foolish decision to break my Muffliato at such an unfortunate point in our discussion."
"So, is it true, then, what Draco said?" Hermione demanded, the words spilling from her lips in an enraged rush. "You took his father's place with Voldemort?"
Professor Snape flinched nearly imperceptibly before his features tightened, and his mouth twisted into a cruel snarl. "Of course, it is true. Tell me, Miss Granger, do you think allowing someone else to claim Lucius Malfoy's place would help the Order at all?"
"No, of course not," Hermione countered.
"Then spare me your Gryffindor-worthy display of self-righteous indignation for choosing not to make that mistake, Miss Granger. There is no place for childish sensibilities in this war."
The words were intended to hurt, and they did. Lashing out like a whip, they left a sore spot somewhere within Hermione's chest.
"I am not questioning your decision, sir. I–" She shook her head, casting her gaze down and away because it was difficult to focus when he was looking at her with such a scornful coldness. "It's the risk you are taking, Professor. The Headmaster told me your position has already become more perilous since the attack at the Ministry, and now, you are placing yourself even closer to...to him."
She hadn't intended for her voice to crack over the last word, and she hated how young and foolish it made her sound.
She paused briefly to force her voice back under control before raising her eyes to him. "Therefore, I can hardly find it a childish sentiment that I worry about you, sir."
There was a long, unbearable moment of silence, once the words has passed her lips, but Professor Snape didn't evade her gaze, and Hermione felt her heart clench with a sharp ache when she saw how his throat jerked under a hard swallow.
"Miss Granger," he said at length, his voice thick, and somewhere beneath the sound of her name lay something defenceless.
"The risk–my risk–should be of no concern to you," he demanded softly, taking a step closer to her.
How can it be not when I saw you at Grimmauld Place, Hermione thought, looking up into his carefully guarded face.
"There are few of us who are not less safe these days, Miss Granger. It's something you cannot change. It's simply the way of the world, and I can only ask you, like I seem to do quite often as of late, to keep the information you have just learned to yourself."
"Certainly, Professor, that goes without saying," Hermione replied quickly, but her mind spun with uncounted objections she realized she had no right to voice.
"Thank you, Miss Granger," he said before adding a moment later, "Was there somebody else out there who could have heard Mr. Malfoy's illustrious proof of wisdom, somebody of whom I might not be aware yet?"
"No, sir. And I only overheard Draco because I was standing almost next to your compartment door when it was opened."
"I see." Her professor pinched the bridge of his nose. "That would be all, then, Miss Granger."
"Professor." Hermione gave him a brief nod, and he stepped aside to allow her to pass.
Her hand had already closed around the handle of the compartment door when she threw another glance over her shoulder and found him still looking at her. The moment their eyes met, they both knew her unspoken request.
"I assure you, Miss Granger, I shall continue to exercise utmost caution," he said, the inkling of a smile playing around his mouth. "But I ask that you do me the same courtesy by ignoring any Gryffindor tendencies and that you especially refrain from remaining outside after nightfall."
"I shall try, sir," she replied, a little shyly, giving him a small smile of her own before she broke away from his gaze to open the door.
There was a brief tickling of magic on her skin when the Muffliato charm broke and she slipped outside. It didn't take long for her to arrive back at her own compartment door, and Hermione shook her head with sad amusement at the sight in front of her. Once again, her friends were peacefully asleep while she was not; even Harry had finally managed to drift off into a soft slumber.
Settling herself on the train bench, Hermione tipped her head back against the fabric of the seat, emitting a soft sigh when her eyes fell shut. And while the Hogwarts Express continued to clatter over the rails, she drifted into a shadowland where faceless ghosts whispered, chiding her for questioning the way of the world.
The train had entered King's Cross Station minutes ago, but the corridor outside his compartment still swelled with students eager to leave the carriages.
Snape folded his arms in front of him and leaned back in his seat, gazing through the compartment window. The platform was flurrying with students, their families and friends. Everything appeared to be the same merry gathering at the end of every school year. However, on closer inspection, many faces on the platform threw suspicious glances around them while others were marked with a kind of strained relief; and the embraces parents gave their children seemed a little tighter and to last a little longer than usual.
Beneath the surface, the Dark Lord's terror was already brewing its infectious mixture of agitation and fear.
Somewhere, slightly apart from the crowd, Snape recognised the lone figure of Narcissa Malfoy.
Lucius' wife was apparently waiting for their son, and like always, her appearance seemed to consist of nothing but cool elegance; however, this time, there was a strange stiffness visible in her posture, the tell-tale mark of apprehension.
So, she knows already, Snape thought, frowning.
The Dark Lord had only informed him of his plan for the boy in the wee hours of this morning. A scheme created as nothing more than a slow and nefarious punishment for Lucius's failure. Once his son failed their dark master, Snape knew, it would fall to him to face the task of killing Albus Dumbledore.
In the end, there was nothing truly surprising about it. He had always suspected it would come down to this one day, and he had never nurtured any false illusions about the consequences should the Dark Lord ever give him the order.
After all, he was expandable for the sake of their cause while the old man would never be.
However, before that final moment was upon him, he had to find a way to remove the Damocles' sword the Dark Lord had placed above Draco's head. Though, right now, he hadn't the faintest idea how to accomplish the goal. The old man had been far too absorbed in his examination of an old ring to give the problem enough consideration during his report this morning.
Slumping forward, Snape rested his elbows on his knees and rubbed his temples. He would have to think on the matter again before the next Order meeting at the Burrow the day after tomorrow.
Until then, until he had not agreed with the old man on a plan how to proceed with this new complication, he could not risk speaking to the boy again. Draco's earlier outburst would have done considerable damage to his position at Hogwarts and within in the Order had it been Potter or one of those foolish Aurors who had overheard the boy.
But instead, as if Fate were laughing in his face, he had found Miss Granger standing in that corridor, and the only price he had had to pay for Draco's indiscretion was having that peculiar something within his chest stirred and twisted by the girl's foolish declaration.
She worried about him. What a ridiculous and extraordinary thing to say.
Snape snorted quietly to himself, but his gaze drifted almost involuntarily over the platform in search of her.
The girl was standing, once again smiling, among a knot of people close to his compartment window. The small group consisted of Potter, Weasley and his family, the werewolf, Tonks, Moody and a couple in Muggle clothing that Snape didn't recognise.
They both had to be in their mid-fifties, and the man, the girl's father most certainly, wore a pair of neat, round glasses which gave him, with his lean figure and the thick white hair, an even more distinguished appearance. He laid an arm protectively around the girl's shoulders, one she repeatedly tried to brush off, while he listened to Arthur. The woman, undeniably the girl's mother from the look of her large, expressive eyes and the chin-length, curly brown hair, was laughing with the werewolf about something.
Both Grangers had apparently accepted her daughter's adopted world, but it was still a world they could know so little about and that now posed a direct threat to the girl's life. Would they consider keeping her from returning to Hogwarts once they learned from the Weasleys or from the girl herself about the Dark Lord's return? Even though he did not believe they would ever be able to keep the girl from anything she wanted to do, he, at least, wouldn't blame them if they tried.
If they tried to keep her safe…
Snape was lost in his observations when a crisp knock behind him interrupted his thoughts.
He spun to find Minerva McGonagall standing in the doorway, gazing at him over her square glasses, in a very distinct impression of the old man.
"I meant to say my good bye, Severus."
Snape rose from his seat. "Of course."
McGonagall gave him a curt nod and was already turning to leave when she paused mid-step and looked at him again.
Snape lifted an eyebrow in query.
"Severus, I... Poppy told me what you did... for Miss Granger… for me. It's really appreciated."
He gave her a curt nod, cursing inwardly when he saw his hand waving in an awkward gesture. "Don't mention it. As long as I don't have rumours spreading that I might award points to Gryffindor during the next term as well."
The snort of amusement that followed his remark still seemed to echo through the air long after McGonagall had left and Snape was alone in his compartment again.
When he turned back to the window, the small gathering outside had already dissolved, the number of students lingering on the platform steadily diminishing.
It was time.
He cast a silent Disillusionment charm on the compartment door and grasped a flask of Polyjuice Potion from the travelling bag he had brought with him.
He downed the liquid and placed the empty flask back before transfiguring the bag into a maroon-coloured briefcase. With another wave of his wand, he turned his black frock coat into a greyish tweed suit.
Grasping the briefcase, Snape threw a glance at his hand. Gone were his long, spidery fingers. The hand in front of him was now more muscular and smaller than his own, and even the skin held a light tan: the hand of a nameless Muggle: plain-faced, brown-haired and middle-aged.
Pedestrian in every way. Snape shook his head briefly and left the compartment.
Stepping off the Hogwarts Express, he pulled a small, black book out of the inside pocket of his jacket and activated the Portus charm Shacklebolt had reluctantly agreed to place for him upon the object. The book glowed briefly, and the Potions master vanished momentarily from Platform 9 ¾.
When his feet touched the ground again, the earth felt strangely cold beneath the soles of his boots. The rough North Sea blew harsh and unforgiving into his face as he turned to the small path leading to the gates of Azkaban prison.
The singular tower stood tall in the storm, dark and unmoveable, while the wind howled around him, like the pleas of the uncounted souls lost within these walls.
It took nearly a quarter of an hour for him to arrive at the massive, tree-high doors of the entrance, and he drew a deep breath before he grasped the door handle and knocked. More minutes ticked by before the narrow and barred viewing panel in front of him was torn open.
"State your name and business," a high voice demanded from inside.
"Nathaniel Savage, member of the Ministry Auror Office. I'm here to see Prisoner No. 537."
Snape held out the official visitor's permit with his alias on it. After tonight, he would owe not only one but two favours to Shacklebolt.
A wand was stuck through the iron bars, and Snape moved the parchment close to it. There was a brief golden glow, and the wand vanished again, the lid in the door slamming shut. Snape held his breath briefly until the gates of Azkaban opened for him with a low, tormented moan.
He entered and was greeted by a short and round wizard, whose shock of dark hair stood out in all directions. He had to belong to the group of low-ranking Ministry employees Fudge had sent in a near panic to guard Azkaban after the Dementors had joined the Dark Lord.
The small man looked him up and down with a pair of grey, puckish eyes. "It's quite late for a visit, Mr. Savage. I dare assume your business is of some urgency?"
"My business is of no concern to you. But you seem to have the advantage of me, Mister…?" Snape said, lifting a brown eyebrow imperiously.
The short wizard paled visibly. "Ah, certainly. Where are my manners? My name is Bilmey, Alfred Bilmey."
"Well, Mr. Bimley, now that we have established as much, I would request that you take me to see Prisoner No. 537. As you mentioned, it is already quite late, and I have other matters to attend tonight."
"Of course. Please, do follow me, Mr. Savage."
Snape walked behind the gnome-like Mr. Bimley through one of the narrow hallways of the tower. When they passed the first prison cells, he shivered involuntarily. Even though the Dementors had left the island days ago, it still felt as if their evil spirit lingered in the air, eating at the souls of the prisoners of Azkaban.
Somewhere in his mind, a thought whispered and wondered how Black had managed to survive in a place like this for over twelve years, but Snape brushed it away, scowling at himself in annoyance.
Several minutes later, and on the fifth floor, Bimley finally stopped in front of a worn, wooden door and announced, "Here we are, Mr. Savage. Here we are."
Snape merely nodded, his voice suddenly refusing to obey his command, while he waited for Bimley to finger the keys from his belt.
"Malfoy!" Bimley shouted when he had chosen a key and placed it into the lock. "You have a visitor from the Ministry."
Then the small wizard turned to Snape. "Take as much time as you need, Mr. Savage. I'll wait for you outside to take you back."
Snape gave another silent nod before stepped into the prison cell.
The room was dim, and his eyes needed several seconds to adjust to the wan light. The air felt cold and moist on his skin. A chill seeped into his very bones.
Beneath the sole window, on a Spartan cot with a chain around his hands and feet, sat Lucius Malfoy, clad in a shabby convict uniform, striped in black and white. He was bent forward with his elbows resting on his knees, his vacant gaze half hidden by matted blond hair. There appeared to be nothing left but a shadow of the wizard's former proud self, and Snape felt himself swallow against the putrid taste of pity that suddenly filled his mouth. Pity was the last thing the man in front of him needed right now.
"Whoever you are, you are wasting your time," Malfoy said in a hollow voice, not once raising his eyes to his visitor. "I told Scrimgeour already, I have nothing to say."
Snape briefly turned back to the closed door with Bimley waiting behind it and cast a non-verbal Muffliato.
"Well, that's reassuring to know, Lucius," he said with a feeble attempt at his usual smirk, knowing that Malfoy would recognize his voice immediately, "because I don't think Ivy would have appreciated the Ministry's sudden attention once you'd explained to Scrimegour how you ensured the Dark Lord's faith in me."
As expected, his answer caused a pair of tired eyes to snap up, a flash of life suddenly inhabiting the gray while the blond wizard regarded his visitor suspiciously. After a long moment, his delicate brows furrowed in disbelief. "Severus?"
A brief nod from Snape caused Malfoy to rise abruptly from the cot. He threw a quick glance towards the door, hissing in a low voice, "What the hell are you doing here? It's far too dangerous. If you were discovered–"
"I won't be," Snape declared with more confidence than he had allowed himself to feel so far. "And, surely, you are not going to blame an old friend for trying to ensure you survive your stay in at least an acceptable condition?"
Malfoy gave a dry chuckle, obviously realizing that they had had the exchange before, even though their positions had been reversed at that time.
"It would seem, I cannot. Although I am not sure how you will achieve this goal, my friend, given current circumstances."
"I have my means," Snape assured as he approached Malfoy, closing the distance between them with two steps. He opened his briefcase and removed a wooden box about the size of a cigar case, holding it out to the blond wizard.
Malfoy took the box and opened it tentatively, revealing two rows of more than twenty small glass tubes.
"They contain potions you might find useful," explained Snape when Malfoy pulled one of the tubes from the box and threw him a questioning glance.
"The ones with the blue stoppers contain Dreamless Sleep, the violet ones Calming Draught and the green ones Strengthening Solution. You should always take the latter after you have need of one of the red ones. It's a very recent creation of mine. It will hopefully lessen the pain you experience with each Summoning you are unable to answer." Snape gave Malfoy a knowing look. "You are certainly aware there will be more in the future?"
"Unfortunately, I am. Thank you, Severus."
Snape cast his eyes away, busying himself by closing the briefcase. "Think nothing of it. Narcissa shall give me notice when you're running out of one of them."
Snape looked up and found the other wizard gazing at him with a sudden pained expression. "You know of Draco's task?"
It wasn't truly a question, and Snape knew Malfoy would not want to hear vain reassurances from him. "I do."
Malfoy nodded, and Snape saw how the blond wizard's grasp on the small box tightened. "I have advised my wife to turn to you for help."
"I thought you would."
"Severus, you–you have to protect my son," Malfoy said, his voice faltering with a father's desperation. "I know our loyalties might not lie–"
Swiftly, Snape held up a hand, causing Malfoy to pause mid-sentence. "I will protect him, Lucius. However, it won't be easy. The Dark Lord will watch my steps in the matter very closely, and Draco is more than a little angry with me." Snape lifted a brown eyebrow pointedly. "Your son believes I usurped his father's position."
For a fleeting moment, something close to a proud smile played around Malfoy's mouth. "It'll pass."
"Give him time. He is still so young, Severus."
And so are the foolish girl and Potter… Snape closed his eyes briefly, drawing a breathe. "I know."
He could see Malfoy wanted to say more, but in that moment, Snape felt the two-way mirror in his pocket flare.
"Excuse me," he said quickly, turning away.
He hauled the magical item out of his jacket, and the reflection that appeared seconds later in the mirror sent a jolt of fear to his stomach.
"Albus?" The old man looked deathly pale, his eyes blood-shot and sunken deep into their sockets.
"Cursed. Need your help."
"I am on my way," Snape replied in a voice he didn't recognize as his own, so thick and rough with anxiety.
He shoved the mirror back into his pocket, and his legs were already carrying him towards the door when he threw a final glance at Malfoy.
"Go, Severus!" the blond wizard urged, still standing in front of his cot. "You have done your part here."
Snape gave a curt nod and vanished through the door.
It took several minutes, which stretched like an eternity, and a few vague excuses to Bimley about an emergency at the Ministry before he found himself outside the gates of Azkaban again.
Surrounded by nothing but the rough North Sea wind, he activated his Portkey back to Hogwarts, hoping against hope that he would reach Dumbledore in time.
The Headmaster's chamber was deathly silent.
Snape brushed a hand helplessly over his face and turned his gaze from Dumbledore's still form, lying on the bed in front of him. Why had the old fool tried to break the ring's curse on his own? Why?
He had barely managed to contain the unknown spell at all. He still had no idea what kind of dark curse he was dealing with. All he knew was that its containment alone had taken thrice the dose of the concoction he had needed to save the foolish girl. Yet unlike with her, this hard won victory would be short-lived.
The Potions master slumped forward in the armchair he had occupied for hours now and shook his head, a suffocating pain spreading behind his chest. For the first time since he had received Dumbledore's mirror-call, his mind seemed able to grasp the unchangeable finality of the situation.
The old man was dying. Slowly but truly dying. There was no magic in the world to change that. And the only thing he was left with was to buy the Headmaster some more time, maybe a few months at best.
Months the old man would need to prepare the Order, the school, the Boy. Merlin, he would have to prepare the whole of bloody Wizarding Britain to fight the looming war without him, without the wizard who had defeated Grindelwald… without the only one whom the Dark Lord ever feared.
It was unthinkable. The Order–they had prepared for everything, but not for this. Not for Dumbeldore… Dead… Gone.
There was no plan.
And now, it was too late. Even until the inevitable happened, the restrictions the continued presence of the curse would inflict upon the old man's magical and physical strength, once he regained consciousness, would be considerable. Something that would have been too dangerous to discuss outside the safety of the Headmaster's office but, with the old man's addition of an insane scheme to make use of his eminent demise, was now impossible to discuss with anyone.
Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. It was a serious mistake not to inform at least select members of the Order. They needed to be prepared. The Dark Lord would not waste a second in taking both the school and the Ministry once the old man was gone.
He simply had to make Dumbledore see the flaw in his plan. The old man might not be willing to accept that the task he had delegated to him was too much to ask of anybody, but he had to understand that the far-reaching dangers of the scheme would outweigh the supposed benefits. It wasn't necessary for him to rise higher in the Dark Lord's favour in order to protect Potter, and they would find a different way to spare Draco's soul—
…and with his, mine. Snape exhaled a shaky breath and leaned his temple against the backrest, allowing his burning eyes to drift shut for a moment.
However, in the darkened silence of the Headmaster's room, it didn't take long before his exhausted body succumbed completely to the lure of blissful the end, he couldn't tell if it was hours or mere minutes later when he startled awake at the sound of a house-elf Disapparating.
The only difference in the room, when his gaze searched his surroundings, was the sight of a pair of calm blue eyes regarding him thoughtfully. The old man sat upright in his bed, propped up against several pillows, still wearing the cobalt-colored robe from the previous morning.
"You needn't have stayed, Severus," Dumbledore said with a smile, the kind one would give an obstinate child.
"Well, obviously, I did." Snape straightened himself, kneading his stiff neck with one hand as he tried to shake off the remains of his drowsiness. "I dare assume you are feeling better?"
"Like a house-elf after receiving his first pair of socks."
"I see," Snape replied while his gaze strayed to the tray Dobby had placed on the tea table. "Speaking of elves, the nuisance you have chosen to employ has apparently brought you some cold broth. It would be advisable that you drink some before you take another dose of the potion."
Snape took the small soup bowl from the tray and held it out for Dumbledore, waiting for the Headmaster to take it with his uninjured left hand.
"Thank you, Severus. Although, I dare say I would prefer a chocolate frog right now."
Snape gave a quiet snort and was about to lean back in the armchair when he saw how the Headmaster lifted the piece of china to his mouth with trembling, unsteady hands. For a moment, Snape froze, a stab of dread thrusting through the pit of his stomach
"You needn't look so shocked, Severus," Dumbledore said with mild amusement, catching the Potions master's gaze over the rim of the soup bowl. "I'm merely dying."
"Oh, of course," Snape said, rolling his eyes. "Would it be more agreeable with you, Albus, if I try to keep such foolish notions for the truly horrific events? Gryffindor winning the House Cup for example?"
"Yes, indeed, that might prove to be acceptable, Severus," the old man agreed, chuckling softly.
Snape hid his own smile behind a twist of his lips before he lowered his gaze discreetly towards the floor, allowing the Headmaster the privacy to drink from the bowl of broth unobserved.
After a few moments, Snape heard the china being placed on what had to be the Headmaster's bedside table and looked up.
"Well, that was beneficial, indeed." Dumbledore dabbed his mouth with a bright blue handkerchief and took the potion bottles Snape proffered him.
When he had taken the draughts, the Headmaster turned carefully to sit on the edge of the bed before he rose. Clasping his hands behind back, he began to walk slowly through the room.
"It is obvious," Dumbledore said at length, "I cannot ignore that my new situation will mean some readjustments, Severus."
Readjustments. Snape snorted inwardly at the old man's deliberate understatement of the gravity of the situation while he waited for him to elaborate on the point.
"In the months to come, it will be of outmost importance that I economise my time and strength," the Headmaster continued. "Therefore, it is necessary that I delegate some tasks under the pretence of other duties. I will consult with Kingsley and Minerva about it some time today. And surely you agree, Severus, that we limit nightly reports to events of urgency. Everything else can be discussed in the morning. And of course, I can't join you for a detailed evaluation of your Summons any longer."
"However," the old man went on, and Snape arched an eyebrow in query. "In every good Quidditch team, it takes the eyes of two Beaters to keep the other team members safe from the Bludgers. Therefore, I think it vital that somebody else takes my place to assist you in the matter."
"I would prefer not to—"
"This is not about your preferences, Severus, it is about necessity," Dumbledore thundered, a cold determination lying within his voice. The Headmaster's bedroom fell silent for a long moment afterwards.
"Although," the old man said eventually, his tone had already gentled again, "I do hope that you might not be completely averse to my decision to ask Miss Granger to assume the task."
"No! Absolutely not." Snape was already out of the armchair before the words had made their way past the sudden, peculiar tightening in his throat. He turned away from the curious gaze of the old man and approached the sole window of the room before he added with more calm than he was believed to possess, "I refuse to work with Miss Granger on this matter."
"You refuse, Severus? Well, that's surprising. Didn't you say yourself that the girl is sensible enough to handle such difficult information? We both know that Miss Granger has proven herself more than once to be very perceptive. She not only sees more than her peers, but she is also able to draw the necessary conclusions from her observations. She will be of tremendous help to you, Severus."
Snape folded his fingers tightly against his palms, and for a moment there was nothing in him but emptiness and the feeling of red-hot despair that wrenched through his stomach when he faced the Headmaster again.
"Albus, you… you know what happens during those Summons," he said haltingly, his voice dark and rough. "You cannot be in earnest about allowing a student–any student–to see such atrocities. Let Lupin do it. Even Moody. They are both more than capable of handling the things they'll see."
Dumbledore regarded him for a moment before he turned away and walked towards one of the bedroom windows.
Snape shook his head in silent denial, bracing himself for the sharp rebuke that was as sure to come as Potter's next detention. Only his heart wouldn't cease to beat loud and hard and helpless against his ribcage at the thought of the girl delving into the darkness that ruled his life.
To think that those hazel eyes would see him… kneeling in front of the Dark Lord …doing the madman's bidding. Whatever it may be.
How would she look at him once she had seen what it entailed to be the Dark Lord's follower?
She would not, not with that trust, that caring tenderness bright in those damnable eyes of hers.
Not ever again.
And the old man knew this would happen.
By assigning the task to Miss Granger, by placing it in the girl's capable hands, Dumbledore was ensuring the girl would see him as the creature of the underworld he was. What did the old man care for any possible regard she held, and would lose, for him?
It meant nothing on the chessboard of the far greater game.
It shouldn't matter if he lost it.
But it did. Because, in those moments, when she looked at him like that, as if he were not a Death Eater, not a spy or a traitor or her heartless bastard of a Potions master but simply someone worthy of her trust and concern, it felt as if he wasn't lost.
"Well, I agree, Severus," the Headmaster said at length, interrupting Snape's thoughts. "Alastor and Remus would be more than able to handle the task. However, as you know, they are already stretched thin by their obligations for the Order. And as for Miss Granger, I fear, she, Harry and the young Mr. Weasley will soon have to face far worse."
"What Potter and his friends will or will not have to face is still a matter unknown to us both," Snape said, his voice hard and clipped. "Unless you have recently developed the gift of foresight, Albus."
"Very well, Severus." Dumbledore sighed like a deeply tired man. "I see it's rather unlikely that we'll agree on the point. So why don't we ask Miss Granger and allow her to make the choice herself?"
"She is a Gryffindor," Snape sneered, knowing he was fighting a hopeless battle. "What do you think she will do, Albus?"
"Nothing less than what is right to protect the ones she loves."
A cold, cheerless laugh made its way out of Snape. "Ah, yes, that's probably the kindest way of saying that she will foolishly decide to carry any burden for the treacherous illusion that it will keep safe the ones she loves."
"That might be something the two of you to have in common, Severus, don't you think?"
Snape stared, frozen, at Dumbledore. His chest hurt. There was suddenly no more air in his lungs, and he couldn't breathe because the old man's words twisted like the proverbial knife within his ribcage.
He was still struggling for air – for his voice – when a lynx Patronus leapt through the wall, immersing the room in a soft, silvery glow as it settled quietly next to Dumbledore's bed.
When the lynx opened his mouth, Shacklebolt's deep, calm voice resonated around them.
"Scrimegour has endorsed the public's demand for Fudge's resignation, calling on the Wizengamot to constitute an inter-departmental committee. They are preparing to hold an investigation into the Minister's administration in the last year. You will be named as one of the main witnesses to the hearings in the next week, Albus. And, Albus… Tom has killed Amelia."
Snape turned to Dumbledore while Shaklebolt's voice faded from the room, shaking his head briefly, signalling he had no knowledge about the murder of Amelia Bones. The old man was stroking his beard with his uninjured hand thoughtfully.
"It's the end, Severus. It's beginning."
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