Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. I'm just making the puppets dance for me.
A/N Many thanks to Laurenken1 who held my hand through this, my first story. Also to erosforlogos for an excellent beta job. Any remaining mistakes are my own.
Warning: This story will eventually be SS/HP slash. Warnings for character death (not Snape or Harry), some language, sexual situations in later chapters. This story goes AU after OotP. Some details of book six and seven are used in the story, such as Snape's background. Sorry, but I needed Dumbledore alive.
"God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions." -- De Caussade
It seemed to Harry Potter that this moment was coming sooner every night. It began in September. It was June now and it was only getting worse.
He was never in any hurry to get to bed. To him there wasn't enough time in the day for studying or playing exploding snap or getting beaten in chess by Ron. His grades had never been better, come to think of it. Every night he put off the inevitable until even Hermione put her books away and Ron began to give him "aren't you tired yet?" looks.
And so every night it was inescapable. He'd smile at Ron and suggest they turn in just so Ron wouldn't have to. He wasn't sure if Ron even realized that he was staying up for him and not with him. Or that he had been doing so for an entire year and that he was helping him keep this thing, whatever it was, at bay. But he was helping whether he knew it or not and Harry was eternally grateful.
And so every night he treaded familiar steps into his very warm, comfortable bed that had become both his nightly prison and the only place he felt any semblance of sanity.
This time, the anguish hit him as he began to close the curtains around his four poster bed.
It had really begun a few days after Sirius died. After his friends were out of the infirmary and the dust had settled. When was finally able to wrap his mind around that inescapable prophecy.
How many people have their lives planned out for them by fate? Not by parents or preconceived notions or even your own bad choices but fate itself? And no matter what Dumbledore said about Voldemort choosing him, Harry knew instinctively that no man's actions alone had led him to this path. He felt the cold hand of something unavoidable wrap itself around his neck.
Once the reality of it all had set in, he started to realize that what had happened at the Department of Mysteries had been his fault. If he had only remembered that damn mirror, if he had only not been so quick to believe Kretcher, if he had only learned how to properly shield his mind, if he had only realized that there had been an Order member remaining at Hogwarts...
If only, if only, if only, if only...
Although he had blamed Snape at the beginning of all of this, he knew the fault lay totally on his own shoulders. He realized now that he had to stop blaming others and accept responsibility for his own actions. Blaming other people was childish and short sighted and could very well get more people killed. Harry had known Snape was a petty bastard from pretty much the moment he stepped into his first potions lesson. He knew he had been goading Sirius for months about his confinement and that he held absolutely no love for either of them.
He should have known that Sirius would be the first one to jump to his defense. He should have realized that orders or no orders, Sirius would be the one to rush into a fight, wand drawn and throwing curses before he'd even stepped into the room. That he'd be the first one to come to his aid.
These thoughts came to his mind all at once, as he drew the curtains on his bed. Like a sledgehammer, relentlessly hammering the truth into his brain repeatedly.
It's your fault he's dead...
How could it not be when all the pretty evidence slaps him so harshly in the face night after night?
He thinks about throwing up a silencing charm. He had in the beginning, just in case. But fortunately, or unfortunately, he seemed to be even beyond tears. Some nights his body still shuddered as though it had been crying, some shadow of his past naiveté. Truth was, he couldn't remember the last time he had cried.
And so he laid back in his bed and let the images come. He allowed what he kept hidden all day out in the open. His green eyes hardly blinked as they seemed to stare at the curtains surrounding his bed.
It was always the same. Somehow it managed to creep up on him, every single time. How does something continue to surprise you when it happens every night? He would always see Sirius first, falling through the veil with Harry powerless to help him while Remus held him back. Then came the insane cackle of Bellatrix Lestrange. Then the guilt and the pain and oh fuck, the regret. The regret that came to him in those first few moments were enough to strip the voice from his throat. It was like a heavy weight sitting on his chest that made it difficult to draw breath.
Breathing shouldn't be this hard.
Sometimes it occurred to him that he was too young to have this kind of regret. Regret like this is meant for old, tired men who've done horrible things in their lives. Regret was for men like Voldemort, if he even was a man anymore and if he was even capable of human emotion that wasn't hatred or anger.
But then, his mind responded, he was responsible for Sirius' death. And he knew that he wasn't blameless in the death of Cedric Diggory as well. He might be a young man but he already had so many sins to atone for. Circular reasoning visited him night after night and he was never able to get a straight answer.
No, Harry had become a master at hiding those things deep inside of him. He only had his nightly ritual because he knew he'd go right out of his mind if he didn't express all of this in some way. And there was no other way. His friends would think he'd gone mental and he just couldn't trust Dumbledore with something like this. No, after last year his relationship with Dumbledore wasn't what it once was. The idea of trusting the older wizard wasn't even an option these days.
The only one he thought may have an inkling of what Harry was going through was Snape. He'd been on the receiving end of looks that seemed more inquisitive than vindictive lately. It had taken him a few months to notice it. That might have sounded like a long time for someone to notice they were being studied but Snape had been glaring at him for years.
It started early on in the fall, every once in a while at first but more as he began to notice he was being analyzed. Snape would sneak a glance at him during dinner at the Great Hall or he'd feel eyes following him around the dungeon corridor. At first, he was afraid that Snape had noticed something off about him. He'd never been able to block his mind well enough from the man. He was absolutely sure that the Potions Master had seen the grief he hid deep in his mind and he'd be sent to see the Headmaster for his own good. But nothing had come of Snape's curiosity so far.
And now it was the end of the year and Harry took that to mean that the mean old sod just didn't give a damn about whatever he had seen in Harry. This suited him just fine. He didn't need checking up on. Really.
His thoughts of Snape gave him a moment's distraction and he tried to close his eyes to go to sleep. He knew as soon as he fell asleep he would have terrible dreams. But really, the way he existed sometimes felt like he was living a waking nightmare.
Oh, Merlin, what was he going to do when he went to the Dursleys' tomorrow? He'd be alone all day let alone all night. A sense of dread filled his senses.
Well, there was nothing for it. There was no way Dumbledore would let him stay at Hogwarts and he knew he'd have to return to the Dursleys for at least a few weeks. Voldemort had been quiet all year and he knew as well as the Headmaster did that that meant something was coming soon. He wouldn't be allowed to leave the warded house.
He'd have to muddle through it somehow. It was only a few weeks and then he knew he'd be able to stay at the Burrow with Ron. Ron would play Quidditch with him and stay up with him and it'd be like it is now and that was bearable. He could endure this. He had to. As he was reminded night after night, the outcome of this war was in his hands. He needed to endure this, if not for his own sake, then for his friends.
Harry might not have ever mastered Occlumency but he had gotten much better at not allowing his face to show his every thought. He must be succeeding, he thought, because Ron and Hermione were going about their lives like nothing was wrong. And rightly so, Harry thought. There was no way he would burden his friends with this.
With thoughts of his friends on his mind, Harry finally drifted off to sleep.
In the clear light of day, Harry was able to think clearly. Throwing back the bed curtains and letting the daylight in was a relief every morning. Daylight he could handle. People he could handle. All that other was...something else.
Today was the day of the Leaving Feast. He never really looked forward to the end of the year but this year was different. Today had marked an entire year of quiet from Voldemort. No attacks on his dreams, no attempts to breach his mind. The only move that had been made all year was the disappearance of Lucius Malfoy from Azkaban in October. But Snape reported that other than attending the Death Eater meetings, even Malfoy didn't seem to be taking part in anything overly sinister. All had been quiet.
And so Harry went down with his friends to the feast. He was nervous. No, wait, scratch that. Nervous didn't even began to describe the sea of knots that were currently taking up residence in his stomach.
He entered the Great Hall and sat with his two best friends at the Gryffindor table. They were late and had to be informed by Dean Thomas that Ravenclaw had taken the House Cup this year. The competition for the cup had completely slipped Harry's mind. Things like points didn't really seem important to him right now.
Unlike his previous years, Harry was actually doing a good job of not showing his every emotion on his face. Of course, Harry had had plenty of opportunity to practice his "I'm fine" face recently. He unwillingly found himself thinking of Snape. Fools who wear their hearts on their sleeves, he recalled him once saying to him during those disastrous Occlumency lessons last year. He looked up hesitantly in Snape's direction. Sure enough those black eyes were fixed on him as they had been many times over the year. Harry chanced a look for a moment then lowered his eyes to his plate again. He had no desire to get into a staring contest with the most foul tempered professor in the school.
His mind went back to what was bothering him presently. It was June, school was out for the summer and the train was leaving in a few hours. But there had been not a whisper from Voldemort all year. It seemed unnatural. Voldemort had been ruining Harry's end of term in one way or another since his first year here. He knew something was coming, he could feel it and no manner of him being laughed off by his friends was going to defer his being on guard. Constant vigilance, he thought as he made a mental smile and thought of Mad-Eye Moody.
"Oi, Harry, are you going to eat anything, then?" Ron said as he chewed around a chicken bone.
"Ron, please don't talk with your mouth full. You have all the table manners of a stray dog," Hermione snipped at him. Their verbal fencing may have calmed down a bit this year but it didn't take much to have Hermione nagging at Ron full force. Once again, Harry found himself wondering when they were going to finally get together.
"I'm just concerned about Harry, that's all," Ron swallowed a bit of food and sloshed pumpkin juice down his throat. "Really, mate, you've hardly eaten everything. You're not still nervous about You-Know-Who being all quiet like this year are you?"
"Voldemort, and no, I'm fine. Just not as ravenous as you, apparently." With that, Harry smiled at his friend, served himself some Shepherd's Pie and dug in. He really had no desire to hear Hermione once again tell him that just because Voldemort attacked at this time every year didn't automatically mean he'd do so this year. Really, it could all be a coincidence and Pettigrew in third year really didn't count, now did he?
No, Harry had had quite enough of that, thank you very much.
Hermione gave him a quizzical look but must have seen nothing in his expression that betrayed him and went back to her vegetables.
Harry glanced up at the head table. He had spoken to Dumbledore previously about the lack of action this year. The Headmaster knew that it was worrying him and had tried his best to assure Harry that quiet didn't necessarily spell out doom. Dumbledore tried to reassure him and had even confided in him that Professor Snape had no new intelligence from his work as a spy. Whatever Voldemort was working on wasn't coming to fruition any time soon and the Headmaster wanted Harry to enjoy this time as much as he could.
The elderly wizard had been glancing around the room in a good natured way while sipping his soup. His eyes just then stopped at Harry's and he winked. Harry guessed that the Headmaster would want to speak with him soon. He gave a small nod before turning his eyes back to his meal.
At the head table, Headmaster Dumbledore was standing up from his seat. He quickly murmured something in Professor McGonagall's ear and made his way to the side door passing Severus Snape on the way. "Severus," the Headmaster addressed the Potions Master, "I wonder if I might have a word with you after you've finished your meal."
Recognizing an order when he heard one, Snape answered in the affirmative, "Of course, Headmaster." Thinly veiled order or not, he would not turn the old Headmaster's invitation down. Harry Potter wasn't the only one on edge about the lack of activity from Voldemort's camp.
Snape made a point to have a few more bites of his meal. He didn't want to make it so obvious that he was meeting with the Headmaster. A look down at his young Slytherin charges and he was instantly reminded of the fine line he walked at all times.
Children of his fellow Death Easters were sitting down and eating like they had not a care in the world but Snape wasn't fooled for a moment. Something had to happen soon. It wasn't like the Dark Lord to be quiet for so long. Snape worried that he wasn't as close to the inner circle as he thought.
Snape's attention drifted towards Draco Malfoy, whose eyes were never far from Snape these days. Draco seemed to have developed a crush on his Potions Master and had been flaunting himself in any way he could. Snape inwardly sneered at the wink Draco gave him from his seat but outwardly acknowledged Draco with an almost invisible nod of his head.
Draco Malfoy was the one he had to be the most cautious around. Lucius had long made it known in the Dark Lord's Inner Circle that he did not trust Snape. He was constantly questioning any information Snape brought and made it even harder to dance the dance he had to perform in front of the Dark Lord. Malfoy had grown closer to the Dark Lord since his escape from Azkaban and he used that advantage to whisper in his ear about Snape's supposed disloyalty.
And he knew now that this Malfoy had been assigned to keep an eye on him. The fact that he had developed some school boy crush on him only made matters more awkward for Snape.
Of course, it really was par for course of his life. Really, he shouldn't have been so surprised.
Snape dabbed his mouth with his napkin and rose from the table, black robes billowing as he turned to leave out the faculty entrance and walk up to the Headmaster's office.
Ascending the stairs, he began mentally cataloging what this meeting would entail. He had voiced his suspicions about an attack on the Hogwarts Express to the Headmaster last week. By then it had become obvious that the Dark Lord was not going to call him. Dumbledore just sat back in his chair, stroked his beard and said that Severus was right to be cautious and he would make preparations.
Snape approached the gargoyle and rolled his eyes at the password, 'acid pops,' and rode the stairway up to the Headmaster's office.
Dumbledore was already seated behind his desk, bogged down in what he could only guess was an amalgam of Order information and school paperwork. He noticed the ever present chessboard with its pieces that rarely ever seemed to move. Snape had noticed that around this time last year, a knight had been cut down. He didn't want to think about which piece he was. He absentmindedly noticed Fawkes hanging onto his perch for dear life. Burning day must not have been far off then.
"Come in, Severus. Tea? Lemon drop?" Dumbledore offered from his seat, though he knew Snape had just had a full meal complete with tea in the Great Hall.
Snape sat in the chair directly in front of the large desk. "No, thank you, Headmaster. I've just eaten. Perhaps we can cease the usual banter that goes along with these meetings? Or is that small miracle asking for too much?"
The Headmaster chuckled and said, "Why, Severus I'm sure I don't know what you mean. I do enjoy these little chats of ours. Chocolate biscuit?"
Snape closed his eyes and counted to ten.
"No, Headmaster, thank you. I assume you've summoned me here for a reason and aren't just trying to destroy me by putting me in a diabetic coma."
"Yes, about the students, Severus," the Headmaster didn't miss a beat, even in the face of Snape's sarcasm, "I am concerned with how quiet Voldemort has been this year. I see no reason why we shouldn't make an effort to protect the students going home on the train. One in particular. I'd like you to make the journey with him."
Snape quirked an eyebrow and sneered at that. "Surely there is someone else who can watch the boy. I did not sign up for the Potter guard and I'll not act the boy's servant."
"Severus, it wouldn't be like that as you well know. He needs an escort, however, to his relatives' home in Surrey. The blood wards protect him while he's at home but not on the trip there. I wouldn't ask this of you, Severus, if I didn't believe the threat was real."
So the boy was being returned to that hellish place, Snape thought. What information he had gained from those Occlumency lessons last year had told him all he needed to know about the boy's treatment in that house. With all that Snape had seen in the boy this past year it couldn't be good for him to have to face that again.
"Headmaster, I fail to see how he could be safe at that house. We both know what those muggles are like and with the boy coming of age in little over a month, I fail to see why he has to go back there in the first place."
"Why, Severus I didn't know you cared for the boy. What a delightful turn of events," the Headmaster smiled and his eyes twinkled.
Snape sneered at this, "I assure you my loathing of Potter continues to know no bounds. The boy is as lazy as he is dim-witted. In fact, I'm sure if one were so inclined, one could occupy his mind for hours with shiny objects."
"Now, Severus, you know his marks have gone up this year. What with Sirius' death..."
Finally, we get the to heart of it, Snape thought. "Ah, yes the death of that rabid mutt of a godfather did hit him particularly hard. But if you ask me, Albus, and I notice that you hadn't, Potter hasn't been the same since he pulled the Diggory boy's body out of that maze two years ago. It seems rather pointless to give the boy a guard only to have him trod back into that prison where you know he's being abused, one way or another," Severus paused here for emphasis that he really did not need.
"What you really need to look out for, Albus, is his mental health. He's acting far too healthy for a boy who's suffered what he has suffered through."
Dumbledore had to stop a small smile from creeping onto his face. His stoic Potions Master was finally showing a little sympathy for the boy he had hated so much. "I find your concern for Harry wonderful, Severus, but I assure you I've spoken to the boy and he seems to be in good spirits. A little nervous perhaps but that's understandable with the times we're living in."
Snape blinked. He couldn't understand how the most powerful wizard of his time as well as an accomplished Legilimens did not know what was transpiring under his own nose. What he had observed all year from the boy could not go unsaid. To anyone watching, Potter's behavior had changed greatly this past year. Gone was the arrogant, reckless child Snape had always seen. Potter seem to walk around with the weight of the world on his shoulders these days. Dumbledore had to be made to understand the fine line he walked with his charge.
"Understand this. I am a spy, Albus, I am your spy. And my clandestine services do not begin and end around Voldemort's makeshift throne room. I notice things, Headmaster. That boy is not well. The closest thing he had to a father figure, much as I am loathe to admit that Black could mentor a toad, has been dead a year and the boy blames himself. If you don't do something to help that boy soon, your finely sharpened weapon that you've forged so skillfully is going to crack right down the middle. Potter is not as well as he makes himself seem."
Dumbledore frowned at that last. He trusted Severus Snape with a great many things. Snape was seldom wrong in his observations. Perhaps he should have a more in depth talk with Harry. It couldn't hurt and he did enjoy talking to the boy. Delightful child that he was.
Once again he was reminded of how much was invested in Harry. The prophecy had said that the boy would have the power the Dark Lord knows not. Dumbledore again thought how that power was love. Harry had such a capacity to love.
"I will talk with Harry, Severus. It is possible that I may have missed something in all my dealings with him."
"Yes, it's so difficult for the Puppetmaster to keep in touch with the puppet. So easy for the strings to get tangled after all," Snape said not too kindly.
"Severus! That was uncalled for."
"Perhaps but no less true. I'll take your Golden Boy down to the train and I'll escort him back to that prison he calls a home but I will not smile while I do so, nor do I approve."
"That is your own prerogative, Severus. I'm glad to see you're taking an interest in the boy at last."
Snape once again damned all Gryffindors and their oversimplification of complex situations. "I'm not a fool, Albus, nor am I so blinded by hate that I can't see the truth. The boy's fate is directly related to my own. It's been that way since...always. I merely question the morality of raising a boy for one sole purpose. What's to happen to the weapon once its done its job?"
"Harry is not a weapon, Severus. He's a boy and he'll grow up to fulfill his destiny and live whatever life he wants afterward. Really, Severus, this is unlike you. Where is all this coming from?"
"At the risk of sounding like a cliche, things are too quiet, Albus. Something is going to happen soon. I simply want us all to be prepared, most especially the boy you've placed all our hopes upon."
The Headmaster considered this, "I do appreciate that, Severus and I do appreciate your concern for what goes on in Harry's house. I assure you, the abuse is more a form of neglect. They don't actually abuse him."
"Ah, now neglect is not a form of abuse? Pity, I must have missed that meeting. You can lie to yourself all you'd like about the boy, Albus. Merlin knows I have no experience in having to make decisions that effect other people's lives," Snape sneered, "but do not lie to me. I think that after all we've been through I deserve a bit more than that," and with that Snape stood up and turned on his heel to leave the room, leaving Dumbledore speechless.
Dumbledore steepled his fingers and rested his chin on his hands. If he started to think on all that Harry had been through at his hand, he would start to question every decision he had made in that boy's life. He had not enjoyed sending Harry to the Dursleys. He knew what life awaited him there, but he had no choice. The blood wards...
Yes, the blood wards. There was no way he could be harmed while he dwelled in the house that kept his mother's blood. That's why he had to stay there, Dumbledore repeated to himself as he had a countless number of times since Harry Potter had come back to Hogwarts.
He absentmindedly ran his eyes over the chessboard. The day Harry Potter came to Hogwarts was the day he had switched his own position on that chessboard. He was no longer the King that all the other pieces protected. That suited him just fine.
He was interrupted from his musings by a knock on the door. Harry Potter walked through into the office, "Professor McGonagall said you wished to see me, Headmaster."
"Yes, Harry, please come in. Tea? Lemon drop?"
"No, thank you. Did something happen, Headmaster?" Harry seemed to shuffle his feet as he walked over to the chair that Snape had just vacated. "Did Snape find something out about Voldemort?"
"Professor Snape, Harry, and no, we haven't received any word since we last spoke. No, I called you up here to tell you that we're going to be very cautious with the students returning on the train this year. Professor Snape will personally escort you to Hogsmeade and then to your relatives' house."
Harry's face fell a little at that. "Professor Snape?" A sense of dread came over Harry. "Sir, do you think that's wise? I mean, we don't get along very well, do we?"
"Perhaps that's been true in the past, Harry. But I think in dark times like these allies are made. What is that old adage about war making strange bedfellows...er... no, not that one perhaps but I believe that if you make an effort to make peace with Professor Snape, things will be better between the two of you. Have a little faith, Harry."
"Faith doesn't really enter into it, sir. He hates me. He hated me first for being my father's son and then because of that incident last year... well now he hates me for me."
"Trust me, Harry. Try to make a peace with Professor Snape and I'm sure things will get better. But for now, tell me, how are you?"
The question threw Harry for a loop for a moment and he responded with the standard, "Fine, Headmaster, thank you. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm well, my boy, but tell me, how are you feeling really? I know that things have been very stressful for you and what with all the events of the past year..."
Harry knew what he was about now. The Headmaster was trying to make sure he wasn't going to crack under the pressure. How nice of him to finally ask, right as he was about to get on a train and leave for two months.
"Really, Headmaster, I'm doing fine. It was kind of hard last year, what with...everything, but I think I've got a handle on it now. My grades went up this year and I think I'll do well on my NEWTs, so..."
"Splendid, my boy. Glad to hear you're doing well."
He really hadn't given the man more than a few reassurances and yet that was enough to placate the Headmaster. He didn't say he was shouting with joy from the rooftops. Shouldn't it be more difficult to lie to the most powerful wizard of the age?
Well, maybe if he doesn't really want to hear the truth, it's not exactly lying, he told himself. As soon as he thought it, he immediately knew it was true.
Harry stood up, thanked the Headmaster and went down to the door. He had a limited amount of time now to gather his things and get himself to the front gates where he was sure to meet up with Snape.
"Potter! Stop your dawdling, boy, we don't have all day!" Snape bellowed from the carriage he had reserved for Harry and presumably his two friends.
Sure enough, Harry, Hermione and Ron startled at the sound of their professor yelling and made a mad dash for the thestral drawn carriage.
"Get in, you three. I'll not tolerate any of the senseless drivel that usually passes for conversation from the three of you so if you desire to remain hex-free on this little trip you'll keep your mouths shut," Snape snapped as they all got in the carriage.
"Yes, Professor," the three of them muttered. Ron gave Harry a meaningful look of dread and rolled his eyes.
Which was a very stupid thing to do, really.
"Anything to say, Mr. Weasley? Tell me, do you reserve your most choice pearls of wisdom for when you are departing the school and not in residence? If so, please enlighten me, I do love to be entertained."
"No, sir, sorry, sir," Ron said in tone that said he really wasn't sorry. Hermione gave Ron a sharp jab of her elbow and a dirty look. At least the professor couldn't take points or give detention but Ron had no desire to see the end of the foul tempered Potions Master's wand.
"Good," Snape said as the carriage got underway. Snape lowered his voice when he spoke, "Now there's another reason why I want you to remain quiet on this trip other than the personal advantage of not having to listen to an insolent brat, his moronic best friend and an insufferable know-it-all."
The three of them grimaced at his descriptions of them but remained quiet. "The reason I'm escorting Potter to his home is that the Headmaster, as well as myself, believe the Dark Lord may be planning an attack on the train while the students are boarding. I need you to keep your mouths shut and your eyes open. If hearing a crack of apparition can give us just a moment of warning, that may be what we need to gain the advantage in an attack. I want your wands out and a hex on the tips of your tongues. Am I making myself clear?"
All previous sentiment of hatred for their professor swept away, the three friends nodded their heads and answered, "Yes, Professor." A look of kinship between them acknowledged that Snape wasn't their loathed professor right now. Right now he was an Order member and the one giving them direct orders on what was about to transpire. The events of last year had helped them mature enough to know that they couldn't go off and play the heroes anymore. Time for playing was over and they had to take what was happening around them seriously.
Harry knew this to be true above everyone else. As much as he was loathe to admit it, even to himself, he was glad it was Snape that was escorting him. A brief look around earlier had revealed Moody and Tonks and a few other Order members but he was glad that he had the resident Dark Arts expert of Hogwarts next to him. If the last year taught him anything, it was that he had to trust Snape or people died. As much as he might have hated the ugly bastard, he was a loyal ugly bastard and wanted Voldemort dead as much as Harry did.
They made the trip in silence, as Snape had ordered, and disembarked from the carriage at Hogsmeade Station. Hagrid was busy escorting the first years onto the train. The younger years were behind them and Harry, Ron and Hermione seemed to be at the end of the line.
Snape got out of the carriage last and cast his eyes about sharply but without moving his head, "Keep your eyes open, you three. Potter, stay close to me. I want to get you on that train as soon as possible."
Harry frowned at that. Wouldn't that put the other students trying to board the train in danger? He was about to open his mouth for the first time since he boarded the carriage when suddenly the unmistakable sound of apparition was heard.
Snape stepped in front of Harry immediately and scanned the area. Harry could hear Ron tell Hermione to get behind him while Hermione yelled at Hagrid to get the first years on the train immediately. Moody and the other Order members all had their wands out and like Snape, their eyes were roaming the station.
Then several things happened all at once. Several other cracks of apparition were heard, enough to alert Hagrid and the other students who recognized the sounds for what it was. The students who made up Dumbledore's Army seemed to realize what it meant.
Then suddenly, a laugh that had haunted Harry's waking nightmares flooded Harry's senses. The shrill cackle of Bellatrix Lestrange seemed to fill the silence of Hogsmeade Station.
Hagrid roared at the students to board the train as quickly as possible. He used his body as a shield to get the younger years on board but it wasn't necessary. No one had fired a shot. Harry couldn't even see them.
But he could hear her. He had to quickly calm himself down from the fury he felt at hearing her laugh. He relaxed his fist as he held his wand in a death grip. He knew that if he didn't gain control of his emotions, he'd be blind with rage and he doubted she was the only Death Eater present.
He was proven correct rather quickly after that when Lucius Malfoy, Macnair, Dolohov, Travers and five other Death Eaters he did not know walked onto the Hogsmeade Station platform to join her.
Strolled would describe it better. They seemed to not have a care in the world.
Lucius stepped forward rather quickly, "Moody, how lovely to see you this afternoon. Tell me, how are you enjoying your time with your remaining body parts?"
Moody threw a binding spell at one of the Death Eaters, which he deflected.
Malfoy threw up his hands, "Now, now. Let's play nicely. We only want one thing and once we get it, you're all free to go on your way. We wouldn't dream of injuring the defenseless children on this train. Our Lord has no desire to destroy the pure and half-bloods. We come here in good faith, so let's just put our wands away, shall we?" Lucius seemed to purr even while looking down a senior auror.
"Azkaban finally destroy what was left of your mind, eh, Malfoy? The only reason you're not dead is because you're acting like a coward and attacking in front of children. I thought you'd sunk low before..."
While Moody was busy distracting the Death Eaters, Snape was trying to inch Harry towards the train without being seen. Harry could feel Ron and Hermione directly behind him and he grabbed Hermione's hand, a tangible reassurance that his friends were alright.
"Oh, now where's the traitor going with little baby Potter? Are you trying to get him on the train, traitor? It's him we want, so hand him over before we start to make nice with all the little ones," Bellatrix's foul voice made itself known again.
Snape looked over towards the Death Eaters and raised his wand. He had to think quickly. The fact that he had not been informed of this attack meant that he had either been discovered as a double agent or that he was being tested by the Dark Lord. Quickly, he made to answer the deranged woman's taunt.
"Back down, Bellatrix. You're outnumbered and Dumbledore will be hear momentarily. This isn't going to end well."
"Not going to end well for you at least, Severus," Malfoy drawled. "Give us the boy and everyone else goes free. It's very fair. Only one little runt of a half blood, that's all we want. Really, you can't like him that much."
Snape was still shielding Harry with his body. He knew this stalemate wouldn't last long. Already he could see the Death Eaters had their wands pointed at Tonks and Moody while Lucius had his wand pointed directly at Snape.
Hagrid had been loading the children onto the train the entire time the banter was being played out and now only the upper years remained. He started to shepherd the fifth years onto the train but some of them refused to budge.
A brief look around the station on Snape's part told him that Draco Malfoy was already safely aboard the train, avoiding taking sides.
How very aristocratic of him.
"See now, Severus," Malfoy the elder said, "most of the students are already on the train. We've kept our word and allowed them to get on. No one needs to get hurt here. Now give us, Potter," Malfoy seemed to stalk forward, his robes almost swaying around him. "I won't ask again, Severus."
Harry was enraged. There were still many students standing around the Hogwarts Express and Order Members standing to protect them. If anyone was killed, it would be his fault. He knew he couldn't handle being responsible for another death. His green eyes were glaring daggers at Malfoy and if looks could kill, the man would be dead on his feet. Harry started to try to move around Snape.
But Snape didn't budge. Instead he looked quickly towards Hogwarts, hoping that Dumbledore's numerous eyes and ears in Hogsmeade had already altered him to what was transpiring. Then with a slight nod to Mad-Eye Moody and Tonks he set in motion what was to happen next.
The next thing that was heard was Bellatrix insane cackle at the top of her voice as the curses started flying.
Moody, Tonks and the other Order members were firing curses as quickly as they could give them voice. Red and green streaks flew through the air.
The Death Eaters spread out. They were organized. Some of them were firing curses and deflecting the hexes coming from the Order while Lucius and Bellatrix were giving all their attention to Snape and Harry. Hagrid was dragging the remaining students onto the train.
"Impedimenta," Malfoy aimed a curse at Harry, which Snape easily shielded.
"Stop this nonsense, Severus. We aren't going to kill the boy. The Dark Lord wants him alive." Malfoy continued to try to reason with Snape as if anything he was saying made sense.
Of course the Dark Lord wanted Potter alive. He wanted him alive and in good condition so he could torture and kill him himself. What was Lucius playing at?
Lucius blocked the Petrificus Totalus that Hermione fired at him and the Expelliarmus fired by Ron.
"My Lord did not give me orders regarding the mudblood and the blood traitor, so I suggest you have them step aside, Severus."
Bellatrix screeched, "Do the little ones want to have a nice play again? Didn't have enough last time?" And with Bellatrix shouted, "Crucio," and Hermione went down, writhing on the ground.
"Hermione!" Ron shouted, and aimed his wand at Bellatrix and fired off every curse he could think of.
Harry attempted to get out from behind Snape to get in the fight but Snape was much stronger than he looked. He had Harry curled behind his body and was somehow still moving his feet quickly enough to dodge Malfoy's curses.
Bellatrix ended the curse and Snape took the opportunity to cast a silent Impedimenta, taking her out of the fight for the moment.
Now it was just him and Malfoy. The other Death Eaters were still fighting the other members of the Order.
"There's no one watching now, Severus. You can take just one step back and let me take the boy. You can swear that I took you down, protecting your other young...charges," the last he sneered as he took in the sight of Ron trying to help a shaking Hermione off of the floor.
Snape refused to take part in this ridiculous banter that the other Death Eaters seemed to revel in. His mind was completely focused on getting Harry out of this situation alive.
"Confringo," Snape sent a blast towards Malfoy which he blocked and sent toward a pillar, which sent the roof of a nearby building crumbling to the ground.
"Gods, Severus, what happened to you? You used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that."
"Sectumsempra," Snape aimed again for Malfoy and managed to make a slice across his jaw.
While Malfoy was cupping his face to access the damage, Snape turned minutely to his students and ordered, "Now's your chance, run for the train, all of you." He pushed Harry and grabbed at Hermione's blouse to move the still injured witch faster.
Harry hesitated for a split second. What happened next seemed to transpire in slow motion. Before he could even put one foot in front of the other a green light appeared at the corner of his eye, heading right for him. Snape must have seen it too because his eyes, which had been looking directly at Harry, widened. He did not hesitate to throw himself over Harry, shielding him and sending them both crashing onto the ground.
The green light was above Harry and for a split second he thought it had hit the train and dissipated. Then he felt a body fall on top of him and heard Hermione scream.
Snape was up and on his feet before Harry could register what had just happened. The Potions Master was firing off spells Harry had never even heard of, trying to bring down Malfoy, when finally Mad-Eye rushed over, bloodied and exhausted looking to help Snape.
"Well, it wasn't who I was aiming for but one less blood traitor is no great loss, now is it?" Malfoy said as he took in the sight of the body draped over Harry. "This isn't over, Severus. I can't imagine how you'll manage to slither your way out of this one. Very soon, you'll wish that curse had hit you after all. You won't survive his wrath for long," and with that Malfoy quickly picked up Bellatrix's unconscious body and disapparated.
Only when the cracks of disapparation were heard did Harry attempt to get up, but something was on top of him. He angled his head so that he could look to see what heavy thing was crushing him, though a part of him already knew.
There in his view, he saw Hermione shaking and crying and holding the head of Ron Weasley in her arms. His blue eyes were open and lifeless and his body was like dead weight on top of Harry.
There were no words, no feelings of shock, disbelief, sorrow or anger as his eyes took in Ron's body. He felt absolutely nothing as he saw the remains of his best friend. His heart felt like a dead thing in his chest and the feeling of not being able to breathe was back.
Harry's mind simply couldn't take in what he was seeing. His heart couldn't register what had just happened.
This must be one of his waking nightmares. It had to be. All the principle players were here. Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix's insane cackle. Even the people who only popped up occasionally were present: Moody, Snape, Ron and Hermione. He just needed to pull back the curtains and all of this could be over.
Ron couldn't be dead. Ron was going home on the train. He'd be at the Burrow all summer and he'd send Harry mail with that twittering little featherball of an owl of his and he was going to grow up some day and get the nerve to ask Hermione out on a date. He was not going to die at a train station at seventeen at the hand of Lucius Malfoy.
Snape viewed the damage of the platform, his greasy hair plastered against his pale face. Two Death Eaters were bound by Order Members and Hestia Jones lay lifeless on the floor. When he turned to look at Potter and his friends he already knew what he would see.
It still didn't prepare him for the sight of it.
Hermione Granger was screaming Weasley's name at the top of her lungs and grasping at his head as if he could still feel it.
Potter was just sitting there, his best friend's body still partially covering his own. Potter just sat there with a blank look on his face, staring at the lifeless body of his best friend. Watching his other best friend break down right in front of him.
There was a crack of apparition and suddenly the man they had all been waiting for appeared.
Snape turned from the horrible scene to look directly into those blue wrinkled eyes. There was no twinkle present in them now.
Dumbledore's eyes looked directly at Severus then at the scene in front of him. Snape saw the shock of recognition as the Headmaster registered the Weasley boy's body.
At some point, the youngest Weasley girl had made her way over to the scene to see what had happened. She didn't even seem to be crying, it was more like an awful shudder was running through her body as she took in the sight of her brother.
Potter just continued to sit there. As if his best friend wasn't lying lifeless in front of him and his friends weren't gnashing their teeth over his body.
While Hagrid and Order members tended to the children and Dumbledore summoned aurors from the Ministry, Snape watched as the last shreds of Harry Potter's innocence slipped away from him. He could almost see the light in his eyes as a tangible thing as it was going out.
It occurred to him that of all the atrocities he had witnessed in his life, this might be the most horrible thing he had ever seen come to pass. Not the crying of the girls, for he had seen women weep for their men time and time again. But the silence, the shock and the dead weight of disbelief that was written all over Potter's face and in his eyes.
And he knew in that moment what it would have been like to witness Sirius Black's death at the hands of the Dementors. Nothing was worse than bearing witness as a soul died.